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Duat: Egyptian Underworld and Realm of the Dead

The Egyptians were firm believers in the afterlife, and many aspects of their culture were centered around the concepts of immortality, death, and the afterlife. The Duat was the realm of the dead of Ancient Egypt, where deceased people would go to continue their existence. However, the journey to (and through) the land of the dead was complex, involving encounters with different monsters and deities, and a judgement of their worthiness.

What Was the Duat?

Hieroglyph representing Duat.

The Duat was the land of the dead in Ancient Egypt, the place where the deceased travelled to after death. However, the Duat was not the only, nor the final, step in the afterlife for the Egyptians.

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In hieroglyphs, the Duat is represented as a five-point star inside of a circle. It is a dual symbol, as the circle stands for the sun, while the stars (Sebaw, in Egyptian) are only seen at night. This is why the concept of Duat is of a place where there is no day or night, although in the Book of the Dead the time is still calculated in days.

The stories about the Duat appear in funerary texts, including the Book of the Dead and the Pyramid texts. In each one of these representations, the Duat is shown with different features. In this sense, the Duat did not have a unified version throughout the history of Ancient Egypt.

The Geography of the Duat

The Duat had many geographical features that simulated the landscape of Ancient Egypt. There were islands, rivers, caves, mountains, fields, and more. Apart from these, there were also mystical features such as a lake of flames, magic trees, and walls of iron. The Egyptians believed that the souls had to navigate through this complicated landscape to become an Akh, a blessed spirit of the afterlife. 

In some myths, this path also had gates protected by hideous creatures. Many dangers threatened the journey of the deceased, including spirits, mythological animals, and demons of the underworld. Those souls who managed to pass arrived at the weighing of their souls.

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The Weighing of the Heart

Anubis judges the dead
Anubis is weighing the heart against the feather of truth, while Osiris presides.

The Duat had primordial importance in Ancient Egypt since it was the place where the souls received judgment. The Egyptians lived under the concept of maat, or truth and justice. This idea derived from the goddess of justice and truth also called Maat. In the Duat, the jackal headed god Anubis was in charge of weighing the heart of the deceased against the feather of Maat. The Egyptians believed that the heart, or jb, was the dwelling of the soul.

If the deceased had lived a just life, there would not be a problem for them to go to the afterlife. However, if the heart was heavier than the feather, the devourer of souls, a hybrid monster named Ammit, would consume the soul of the deceased, which would be cast into eternal darkness. The person could no longer live in the underworld nor go to the precious field of the afterlife, known as Aaru. It simply ceased to exist.

The Duat and the Deities

The Duat had connections with several deities who were associated with death and the underworld. Osiris was the first mummy of Ancient Egypt and was the god of the dead. In the Osiris myth, after Isis was unable to bring him back to life, Osiris left for the underworld, and the Duat became the dwelling of this mighty god. The underworld is also known as the Kingdom of Osiris.

Other deities such as Anubis, Horus, Hathor, and Maat also lived in the underworld, along with a myriad of creatures and demons. Some myths propose that the different beings of the underworld were not evil but were simply under the control of these deities. 

The Duat and Ra

Afu Ra the ram-headed form of Ra when traveling the Duat on the subterrestrial Nile
Afu Ra, the ram-headed form of Ra, when traveling the Duat on the subterrestrial Nile. PD.

Apart from these gods and goddesses who dwelt in the underworld, the god Ra had associations with the Duat. Ra was the sun god who journeyed behind the horizon every day at sunset. After his daily symbolical death, Ra sailed his solar barque through the underworld to be reborn the following day.

During his journey through the Duat, Ra had to fight the monster serpent Apophis, also known as Apep. This hideous monster represented the primordial chaos and the challenges the sun had to overcome to rise the following morning. In the myths, Ra had many defenders helping him in this disastrous fight. The most important of these, especially in late myths, was Seth, who was otherwise known as a trickster god and a deity of chaos.

When Ra traveled through the Duat, his light shed upon the land and gave life to the dead. During his passing, all spirits rose and enjoyed their reanimation for many hours. Once Ra left the underworld, they went back to sleep until the following night. 

Significance of the Duat

Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead. See it here.

The Duat was a necessary place for several deities in Ancient Egypt. The passing of Ra through the Duat was one of the central myths of their culture.

The concept of the Duat and the Weighing of the Heart influenced how the Egyptians lived their lives. To ascend to the paradise of the afterlife, the Egyptians had to observe the precepts of maat, as it was against this concept that they would be judged in the Duat.

The Duat might have also influenced the tombs and the burial rites of the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians believed that the tomb served as a gate to the Duat for the dead. When the just and honest souls of the Duat wanted to return to the world, they could use their tombs as a passage. For that, a well-established tomb was necessary for the souls to travel back and forth from the Duat.

The mummies themselves were also links between the two worlds, and a ceremony called the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ was held periodically where the mummy was taken out of the tomb so its soul could speak to the living from the Duat.

In Brief

Due to the absolute belief of the Egyptians in the afterlife, the Duat was a place of incomparable importance. It was associated with many deities and may have influenced the underworlds of other cultures and religions. The idea of the Duat influenced how the Egyptians lived their life and how they spent eternity.

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Affiliate Disclosures
Sebastian Francisco Maydana
Sebastian Francisco Maydana

I'm a PhD candidate in History, with a specialization in ancient Egyptian history. My main field of interest is Egyptian art and religion, especially during the Predynastic period. I also write film reviews and narrative, and have a passion for sailing.