Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.
Imagine Dying in Ancient Egypt
Imagine you lived in ancient Egypt, in a world of Pharaohs and gods. In that place and time, the afterlife was a topic of great concern. It would be for you as well. One of your biggest concerns about life after death would be the fate of your soul. Would you climb the ladder to heaven, held by the god Shu? Would you be doomed to suffer eternally as a wandering spirit in a land of demons, existing as just a remnant of your soul? You would be concerned about your judgment before the god Osiris, the weighing of your deeds, and a creature waiting to devour you. This creature is Ammit, the Devourer of the Dead.
Judgment After Death
The ancient Egyptians believed that when a person died, their soul would travel to the Hall of Two Truths where it would be judged. While Osiris presided over the events, 42 gods sat in judgment, each reading off the soul's denial for each type of sin. After the reading of denials, the dead person's heart would be set on a scale and weighed against a divine feather representing Ma'at, the Egyptian goddess of truth.
How to Die Again in Ancient Egypt
If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul was declared pure enough for heaven. If the heart was heavier, the personal was condemned. Their heart and the attached part of their soul were fed to Ammit who sat waiting at the base of the scales for any tasty morsels. Depictions of Ammit show her to have the head of a crocodile, the front legs and torso of a lion, and the back legs and rear end of a hippopotamus. Sounds like a pretty terrifying monster!
Ammit, Devourer of the Dead
While Ammit is sometimes classified among the ancient Egyptian gods, she is more accurately assigned the role of a demon or as a sinister goddess of the Underworld. She is patron of death and execution. Ammit devoured the Ba, the physical manifestation of the soul that could wander but also was required to climb the ladder to heaven and retain immortality. The other part of the soul was the Ka, the life-force of the soul. When combined, they produced the divine spark of life. The idea of having one's Ba devoured by a monster, leaving them a fragment of a soul, horrified many Egyptians.
Ammit's Name and Hieroglyphics
Like many ancient Egyptian gods, Ammit went by different names or different variations on her name which spell it as Ammut, Ahemait, Amam, and Am-mit. We are unsure of the pronunciation because of the lack of vowel between the two letters M and the T. Thus, there are only four symbols in Ammit's name instead of five like we use in English. The image below details the hieroglyphs making her name.
The first symbol is a bent arm. The two owls in the middle each represent the letter M. Finally, the semicircle is actually a bun of bread representing the letter T. The ancient Egyptians also used a single symbol to represent names, especially names of gods. For Ammit, that symbol is an owl, like the ones in her name. The owl represented death in the ancient Egyptian writing systems.
How Do We Know About Ammit?
Speaking of writing systems and written records, everything we know about Ammit comes from a very limited number of sources. The most informative source is the Egyptian Book of the Dead while the various Coffin Texts, located on the coffins and sarcophagi in ancient tombs, depict Ammit in the illustrations. While each text and illustration tells a slightly different tale, they are all fairly consistent on Ammit's task, her monstrosity, and her appearance. Very little else is found about her throughout Egyptian writing and mythology.
While little is known of Ammit outside writings in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and illustrations in various Coffin Texts, what we do know paints a terrifying picture, both visually and emotionally. When the ancient Egyptian dead went before Osiris in the Hall of Two Truths, they saw the monstrous Ammit waiting to devour the Ba part of their soul, permanently severing it from the Ka part of their soul. However, before Ammit was allowed to eat them, the dead person had to be judged by the 42 god-judges who recited a list of denials against particular sins. Then, the heart where the Ba resided was weighed against the feather of Ma'at to see if they were innocent enough for heaven. If the heart weighed more than the feather, however, it was polluted with sin and tossed to Ammit to devour. What a horrible fate and a terrifying image to see oneself doomed as a creature with the head of a crocodile, forelegs and chest of a lion, and the hind legs and rump of a hippopotamus happily gulping one's soul.
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