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Beliefs in the ancient world

While the structure of the interior is less complex the decorations and the gifts make up for it. The tomb of Agamemnon is filled with treasures for the deceased to take into the after life. According to the archaeologist Schliemann, who found the tomb, ‘the bodies were literally covered with gold and jewels’. These ranged from hairpins and necklaces, so Agamemnon would look at his best for the afterlife, to expensive fashioned and very ornamental weapons, used to defend the dead from threats in the shadow world. The Egyptians were also buried with jewellery and weapons to prepare themselves for the afterlife. Another similarity between the two types of tomb is that of a face mask being used to cover the dead. However in Agamemnon’s tomb a breastplate was also found. These coverings were also used to protect the king after death.

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The influence from Crete is apparent in Agamemnon’s tomb. This is seen in the metal cups found which had a pattern of ‘sacral knots’, which is like a looped knot with frayed ends, also imported pottery was found. This shows that the Mycenaeans were open to influence about death and afterlife beliefs. This is like the Roman tomb which is greatly influenced by Christianity. However there was also a lot of local art within the tomb in the form of gold ornaments with lions in combat and chariot hunting.

Beliefs in the ancient world

The Egyptians had a very complex system of belief. They, like the Romans and the Greeks believed in the soul, however they believed that the soul was made up of three parts. These were the ka, ba and the akh. The ka was the person’s life force and after death it lived in the pyramid and was kept happy through offerings and model servants. The ba was the personality; this would change shape and leave the tomb. The akh went to join the stars of Osiris. The akh was the part of the soul that was most like the soul of the Greeks and Romans. Once the person had died, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the underworld, would weigh the person’s heart against the feather of truth, if the scales balanced then the person would go and join Osiris, if the heart tipped the scales then the person would be thrown to the Devourer.

This is like the Roman belief of the Elysian Fields and Tartarus, which gets mentioned in the Aeneid and again in book twelve of the Odyssey, where Odysseus meets with the fallen after Troy including Agamemnon. The major difference is that the Egyptians believed that in order to go to the after life the body had to survive. This is why the statue mentioned earlier was important, in case the body did accidentally decay or get damaged.

The closest thing to this idea of the body surviving in the ancient Greek and Roman world is that of prestige, and after you’re dead the importance of having your name remembered. Hence why all rich people made busts of themselves and plaques of all their titles. An example of this is seen in Dinner with Trimalchio, as Trimalchio delights in telling his guests of his funerary arrangements, including having a big statue of himself, and his wife, placed at his grave. The Greeks believed in the soul in the form of the psyche, that the spirit of the dead left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. Just like the Egyptians, the Greeks had weapons and gifts to take with them, so they may look their best in the afterlife. Also offerings or libations were made at the tombs usually by female relatives of the deceased.

They also celebrated the dead through funeral games. This is seen in the Iliad after the death of Patroclus, where there is a selection of sporting events such as chariot racing, boxing and a foot race. A similarity between the Greeks and the Romans is their belief in the ferryman; this is seen through evidence of Roman burials having a gold coin put in their mouth or over their eyes, as a fee to go across the river Styx. The Greeks also believe that if the deceased are not buried properly then the ferryman, or Charon, will not ferry them across the water to the underworld and they will remain in limbo. This idea is seen in the Iliad as Patroclus appears to Achilles in a dream begging him to bury his body ‘”You sleep, Achilles, and have forgotten me… Bury me with all speed that I may pass the gates of Hades; the ghosts, vain shadows of men that can labour no more, drive me away from them; they will not yet suffer me to join those that are beyond the river, and I wander all desolate by the wide gates of the house of Hades’.

Roman belief was a mixture of their own beliefs mixed in with influences from both the Greek and Egyptian world. Such as the use of highly structured tombs to show off wealth, depending on how rich the deceased were. Influence came from Egypt in the form of the embalming of the dead with gypsum plaster, thus preserving the body. Unlike the other civilisations the Romans were very wary of the dead and many Romans felt that the dead, living in their tombs, could influence the fortunes of the living in vague, undefined ways. An example of the superstitious nature of the Romans, and their belief in the supernatural, is seen in the Satyricon by Petronius, especially during the dinner with Trimalchio, when the guests take it in turns to tell ghost stories, including one about a werewolf. Also there is archaeological evidence of the dead being weighted down and bodies being decapitated for the purpose of preventing them from haunting the world of the living.

A comparison to today’s beliefs and rites

It is clear that the Greeks, Egyptians, and the Romans especially, had an influence on today’s society. Today many still believe in the soul which travels to either heaven or hell, the equivalent of the Elysian Fields and Tartarus, and the idea of joining Osiris and the devourer, in Egyptian beliefs. Another similarity between today and the Egyptian beliefs is the idea of your soul, or heart, being weighed to see whether you are worthy enough to join the gods. However unlike the Egyptians, Catholics believe in Purgatory, a place of limbo before you are deemed virtuous enough to go to heaven.

This idea of limbo is seen in the Greek world, as if you aren’t buried properly, then the ferryman wouldn’t take the dead to the underworld, and they would remain on the banks of the Styx. The Romans came up with the idea of tombstones, so that their name and deeds would be remembered, a tradition carried on today. Sometimes, although not often, in the Roman world, the deceased seemed to have been granted a sort of “hero” status, almost being treated like a god after death. The deceased would occupy a temple where the public could enter; this acted as the forerunner to the tradition of Christians visiting martyr’s tombs and the idea of sacred relics. The Roman belief of being wary of the dead also survives today and we too are cautious about the powers of the dead and the supernatural. A difference is that in today’s age we no longer bury people with items to take to the afterlife, yet the belief of looking your best for the next world still remains popular.

In terms of today’s actual tombs, it is very similar to the idea of sarcophagi, however unlike the ancient world, today cremation is popular. The tombs themselves are not as sophisticated as those in the ancient world, and they are not as cared for and treated with as much respect. Overall it is the ancient world that has influenced our beliefs in life after death, more that the actual method of burial.


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