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Getting from Here to There

Sailing Into the Afterlife
Egypt, <i>Model Boat</i>, 2133-1786 B.C., polychromed wood
zoom Egypt, Model Boat, 2133-1786 B.C., polychromed wood


How do you get from one life to the next? For the ancient Egyptians, the answer was a model boat like this one.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the spirit, or ka, lived on after death. Elaborate tombs were made for the dead, to ensure that they would have an enjoyable afterlife. Food, clothing, furniture, tools, and other necessities were placed inside the tomb. When real objects weren’t available, models or paintings substituted for them.

Model boats, manned by servant oarsmen, were placed in tombs to magically transport the deceased’s spirit. The first journey was to the city of Abydos, where the spirit could enter the passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead. There, Osiris (god of the underworld) and nine other judges decided whether the spirit could join them in the afterlife. Upon entering the afterlife, the spirit could travel freely up and down the Nile River in the model boat. Often, two boats were placed in a tomb, one with a mast (for sailing south, against the current) and one with only oarsmen (for rowing north, with the current). Since this boat has a mast, it must have sailed south.

The model is similar to the real boats that were used on the Nile. Its hull (framework) is deeply curved so that the bow (front) and stern (back) rise high above the waterline. Boats like this were easy to beach and didn’t need a deep harbor. Riverboats had a vital role in Egyptian commerce. They transported people and goods and were also used for fishing and for netting wild fowl.

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1. The Nile River flows the entire length of Egypt.
2. Egyptian mummy cases and coffins were covered with images and symbols to help the ka in its passage to the afterworld. Symbolic pictures of Osiris, god of the underworld, appear in several places on Lady Teshat’s mummy case.
3. The figures of the oarsmen are fairly realistic and show how ancient Egyptian men dressed. All these men wear black helmet-shaped wigs. You can still see the black eyeliner that men commonly wore.


October 2006