Today is the fortieth day after my Mom passed away. Previously there used to be a fairly large religious ceremony denoting the fortieth day of passing, but a few years back the Coptic Church banned this as being an ancient Egyptian custom that has no basis in religion.
The number of customs that have filtered through from the ancients to be practiced to this day is amazing. This fortieth day of mourning is supposed to denote the time it took to mummify the body, and after that period the body is buried on the West Bank of the Nile denoting that the soul has now moved from birth (the east and the rising sun) to the west into death and the setting sun.
But the afterlife was a very strong aspect of ancient Egyptian beliefs, and has very strongly filtered through religions. Though the view of the afterlife in ancient Egypt emphasized the use of the body again, hence the mummification, yet in Christianity the emphasis is on the eternal survival of the soul.
Another ritual inherited from our ancients, and still practiced during funerals, especially in Upper Egypt is that of the professional mourners. Alway women, they lead the mourning process by lamenting the loss of the deceased and thus egging on the mourners to a more extreme demonstration of grief. To this day the funeral procession is practiced here in Egypt with as many people participating, denoting the popularity of the deceased. It has no longer become a religious custom as it is practiced by both Christians and Moslems.
Another ancient Egyptian custom that was practiced in mourning in Egypt up to the middle of the last century, still in Upper Egypt, was that of piling mud on the head, face and hands of the mourners, denoting extreme grief. This was also accompanied by other rituals but, I am not sure about their originating in ancient Egypt. Some of these being the custom of turning all pictures and mirrors to face the wall, turning the carpets to face the floor, shrouding all the furniture in black and sitting on the floor instead of on the chairs. Certain foods were prepared for the traditional three full days of mourning, as the whole family, from all over Egypt, congregated at and lived in the house of the deceased for the duration. The food should not have anything colored with tomatoes.
The wearing of black in deep mourning, again by the womenfolk of the deceased is again an ancient Egyptian custom that has carried over to modern Egypt. Although now in the Islamic customs there is an attempt at leaving off the deep black clothes after three days, yet it has not filtered through very much. In Christianity in Egypt, it is now left up to each individual mourner to set the time of shedding the appearance and garb of mourning, depending on their process of grief and when they get through with it.
Another tradition is that of the three days. I cannot find where it came from. If it is ancient Egypt or whether this has developed with later religions. In the Coptic Church in Egypt there is a traditional set of prayers for the third day, whereby these prayers are supposed to dismiss the spirit of grief, give solace to the living and bid farewell to the soul of the departed. The number three has many religious symbols in both religions in Egypt, that is why it probably has certain roots in ancient culture.
Finally, a purely ancient Egyptian ritual that has carried through till today and is practiced, not as a religious ritual, but as a national holiday by all Egyptians, of both religions, is the celebration called Sham el Nessim, the “Breathing of the Breeze”, denoting the beginning of Spring. This always falls on the Monday following Easter Sunday as celebrated by the Coptic Church, as Coptic dates are very closely linked to the ancient Egyptian calendar set as per the agricultural cycle.
Some of the traditions in the celebration of this holiday are still practiced to this day. Very early rising of the whole family and the spending of the full day in the open air. The food usually has to include eggs, onions and specially cured fish. It is a day of loud music, children and grown-ups playing sports and games in the open air, as well as wearing brightly colored clothes. The sucking of sugar cane and the nibbling on homos are again traditional. One of the popular pastimes, besides spending the day in public gardens, is a ride in a felucca on the river Nile. People go back home with the setting sun after an exhausting day of fun.
It is amazing how much of ancient Egypt still lives on in our traditions and even in our everyday life.
12 April 2014