Egyptian canopic jars (made to store human viscera for use in the afterlife)

What’s Next? Death and the Afterlife in the Ancient World

Instructor: Türkan Pilavci
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Reflecting on death and grief, we sometimes wonder what comes next—and devise ways to cope. Ancient peoples were no different. Across the Mesopotamian and broader Mediterranean world, death was deemed a rite of passage—a transmigration to an afterlife—to be marked by rituals, spells, and intricate visual and structural artifacts. Different cultures developed different practices. Many built tombs as residences for the hereafter. Some developed ways to preserve dead bodies. Some made maps that charted the dark waters en route to the afterlife (as the ancient Egyptians did with their Book of the Dead). Corpses were sometimes offered bread and water, as nourishment for the soul’s descent. Many were buried with their household goods, to project status in the afterlife. To explore ancient material cultures of death and afterlife is to reveal both striking parallels to modern practices and anxieties and alien divergences. But, how did death figure in the civilizational structures and lifeways of the ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean world? How did it fit within, extend, and trouble systems of class, economy, state, warfare, gender, and family and domesticity? In what ways was the afterlife a projection of the ideas, hopes, and fears that  ancient peoples held for themselves and their communities? What can ancient ideas of death and the afterlife tell us about various ancient cosmogonies and theogonies, of the order of the universe and the relation of humanity to god(s) and nature? And, what light can the study of death and the afterlife in the ancient world shed on contemporary ideas and practices surrounding death, and on the continuities and differences in core civilizational experience across time and place?

In this course, we will explore the complex belief systems of Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean world in an attempt to make sense of their approach to death and the afterlife. Reading from primary materials, such as prayer texts, magic spells and ritual incantations, we will attempt to see how the afterlife was conceptualized and constructed. Looking at visual arts, especially representations of offerings to the deceased, to be preserved for eternity, we will deconstruct what was socially, politically, and individually significant across the ancient world. We will investigate ancient material funerary culture, from death masks to luxury objects, asking: What can funerary goods and structures, the assemblages and excesses of wealth, tell us about social hierarchy and religious and secular belief systems? We will also examine archaeological sites with funerary and sepulchral contexts and trace changes in archaeological attitudes and theorizing about ancient practices. How was ancient death culture interpreted in the colonial period, and why was it such a fixation for early archaeologists? And throughout, we will ponder the treatment of death within civilization and the former’s elemental role in constructing and expressing social norms and values. Readings will be drawn from works by Salima Ikram, Andrew R. George, Irene J. Winter, Muzahim Mahmoud Hussein, and Dina Katz , among others.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 15 — December 13, 2023
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 22nd.


Registration Open

SKU: NOV23-NY-THE-AFTERLIFE Categories: , Tags: , ,