The myth of Ammit – the devourer of the dead in ancient Egyptian religion

With the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lioness or leopard, and the lower body and hind legs of a hippopotamus, Ammit was indeed one of the fiercest and most feared creatures in ancient Egyptian religion. It was believed that she stood next to the scale of truth in the hall of judgement waiting to devour the souls of the dead that don’t make it past judgment.

Ammit’s origin story was of an immense importance to the ancient Egyptians. The thought of having a terrifying creature as Ammit who exacts divine retribution or justice on evil people was one that helped control the behavior and actions of Egyptians.

The article below transports you into a rich and captivating origin story of Ammit in ancient Egypt. It also explores the power, abilities and significance of this underworld creature of the Egyptian pantheon.

Ammut

In ancient Egyptian religion and mythology, Ammit is believed to be an underworld demoness who devours souls, i.e. souls that are deemed by the gods as impure, unkind and unworthy. Those souls don’t make it into the afterlife; instead they perish forever after they are eaten by Ammit.

Depiction and symbols

Depiction of Ammit

Ancient Egyptians often showed Ammit as a female creature with the head of a crocodile, the hindquarters of a hippopotamus, and the forequarters of a lion.

The Hall of Two Truths – the Hall of Judgment

Ancient Egyptians believed that when one dies, the soul of the dead makes its way to underworld, where it would be judged by a panel of gods that include Osiris, the Lord of the Afterlife, Nephthys and Isis. The soul is ushered into the Hall of Truths, also known as the Hall of Ma’at, where it will be judged. The Egyptians had a name for this process – the Judgment of Osiris.

In the Hall of Two Truths, the deceased person’s heart is placed on the scale of truth and weighed against the feather of Ma’at. It must be noted that this process takes place in the presence of gods like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of funerals and embalming, and the ibis-headed Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. The latter deity, Thoth, is the one who records the judgment pronounced by the panel of judges.

If the deceased person’s heart comes out lighter than Ma’at’s feather, he or she is ushered into the afterlife (Aaru), where they would spend an eternity with the god Osiris. It means that the dead person was good and honest in his lifetime.

However, if the heart is heavier than the feather, the underworld creature Ammit immediately consumes the heart. Such a person is believed to have being impure, unkind and evil during his/her lifetime. Once the heart is eaten by Ammit, the soul ceases to exist. Ammit therefore played a very important role in the judgment process of the soul in the dead. It is also for this reason she was sometimes known as the “Devourer of bad souls”.

A heart that does not balance in the scale of truth (i.e. the scale of Ma’at) was instantly gulped up by the fierce creature Ammit. It means the soul went extinct forever. Image: Ammit and Anubis at the scale of truth (Ma’at) during the Weighing of the Heart

Read more: Everything you need to know about the soul in ancient Egyptian religion and mythology

Ammit and Ma’at

Ammit is often associated with Egyptian deities like Ma’at, the winged goddess of justice, law, truth and order. The two deities were responsible for keeping the world balanced.

The Egyptians believed that breaking Ma’at’s principles during one’s lifetime jeopardized the person’s chances of entering into the afterlife. What this means is that Ammit would then devour that soul in the underworld.

“Eater of hearts”

The ancient Egyptian attributed a number of epithets to Ammit. In some accounts, she was known as the “Punisher of evil”, “Great of Death” and the “Enforcer of good”. She’s also been called the “Devourer of bad souls” or the “Eater of the dead” or the “Eater of hearts”.

The “devourer” Ammit and Ib (the heart)

To the ancient Egyptians, the heart was an extremely important in the individual’s spiritual journey in the afterlife. Known as ib, the heart is believed to have developed from one drop of blood from the mother’s heart during conception. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of human emotions, dreams, will and aspirations. This made it a very vital component of the soul in ancient Egyptian religion.

Egyptians believed that after someone dies, the individual has to prove his or her worthiness to a panel of judges in the underworld. With that said, the Egyptians deemed it necessary to properly preserve the heart of the dead.

Was Ammit worshiped by the ancient Egyptians?

Although some scholars like to see Ammit as a goddess; the ancient Egyptians did not really see her as such. She was in fact a demoness creature of the underworld, a powerful one for that matter. She was the stuffs of nightmares – the things that Egyptians feared the most. Therefore, Ammit was not worshiped. So far there hasn’t been any archaeological evidence to show that Ammit was worshiped, neither has there been any unearthing of an ancient Egyptian shrine or temple devoted to the worship of Ammit.

Process taken in the judgment of the soul in ancient Egypt

Ammit

This detail scene from the Papyrus of Hunefer (ca. 1375 B.C.) shows Hunefer’s heart being weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by the jackal-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. Image: Judgment scene from the Book of the Dead

According to the judgment scene from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the dead person goes through three main stages in the underworld. They are as follows:

  • The jackal-headed god Anubis takes the dead person to the judgment hall (i.e. the Hall of Two Truths), where the dead stands before the 42 divine judges.
  • In the hall, and before a panel of judges, the dead person’s heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at. Ammit (or Ammut) waits for the judgment, which when passed is recorded by the Ibis-headed god Thoth.
  • If the dead person’s heart balances with or is lighter than the feather, the person is presented by the falcon-headed god Horus to Osiris, the lord of the underworld.

More facts

In the underworld, no one was above the law. Be it grand vizier of the land or the lowliest of class, every deceased person had to submit to the laws of Ma’at.

Much of what we know about Ammit comes from the depictions in the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text.

Ancient Egyptians depicted Ammit as a combination of a crocodile, a lion and a hippopotamus because those three animals were the biggest man-eaters in ancient Egypt. The River Nile abounds with them, particularly Nile crocodiles and hippopotamus.

Ammit’s association with the underworld makes her the class of funerary deities in ancient Egyptian religion. Other Egyptian funerary deities include Anubis and Osiris.

Ammit was often positioned close to the scales of truth (also known as the scales of justice) in the Underworld (Duat). She would then wait impatiently for Anubis to cast the heavy hearts to her, at which point she would swallow the heart.

The Egyptians believed that a person dies for the second time when Ammit swallows the heart.

In some versions of the story, the impure soul or unworthy soul does not completely vanish from existence; instead that soul is believed to be relegated to a state of restlessness forever.

There have been some accounts that claim that Ammit stands guard at the entrance to a fiery pit or lake of fire, where the impure souls or unworthy hearts are cast into. In this regard, she can be regarded as some kind of hellhound.

Read More: The Ennead of Heliopolis of ancient Egypt

Importance of Ammit

In ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, Ammit is in charge of devouring the souls of the dead that don’t make it past judgment. She is a creature who is not necessary evil; instead she is the one who enforces good and keeps the cosmos balance and orderly.

Ancient Egyptians did not see Ammit as an evil creature, far from that; instead she was regarded as the one who punishes sinners and maintains order. As a matter of fact, Egyptians believed that she could ward of evil and malicious creatures.

Bibliography

  • Brier, Bob, and A. Hoyt Hobbs (2009). Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile. New York: Sterling
  • Hart, George (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Second Edition. Routledge

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