You want to know everything about sarcophagi from the different eras of humanity? Learn more about the famous Egyptian pharoahs' sarcophagi? Learn how sarcophagi are objects that allowed the pharaohs of Egypt to reach the Afterlife?

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Our team has been working on this topic! Here is an article in which you will discover all the mysteries of the funerary objects that sarcophagi were.

Sarcophagi are protective vats in the shape of funerary boats whose purpose is to honor a deceased important person. Nowadays, the best known sarcophagi are the Egyptian sarcophagi, the last resting place of the pharaohs of Upper and Lower Egypt.

In this article, we will discover together:

  • The definition and history of sarcophagi
  • The specificities of the sarcophagi of pharaohs
  • The Egyptian myth of the "first sarcophagus" of the god Osiris
  • The Greek, Roman, Christian and medieval sarcophagi

After reading this article, you will all know about the mysteries of the funerary vats whose name comes from the Greek name of "sarkophágos", "the flesh devourer".

Let's get started without further ado!

1) Definition, history and etymology of sarcophagus

A) Definition of "sarcophagus"

A sarcophagus is a protective vat that holds the body or mummy of a deceased important person.

Outdoor sarcophagi are mostly made of stone (marble and granite) and almost always contain another, more finely decorated wooden sarcophagus.

B) History

The Egyptians were not alone in creating sarcophagi for the dead. They were also found among the Romans, Christians, Etruscans and medieval peoples.

However, whatever the civilization, the function of sarcophagi is always to allow a deceased person to reach the Afterlife of his religion more easily. Moreover, in all the civilizations mentioned above, sarcophagi are always decorated with representations of the deceased interacting or living with the god(s) he believes in.

In addition, the sarcophagi are sometimes endowed with large representations of myths and legends of the dead's religion. For example, below, you can see:

  • The wooden sarcophagus of pharaoh Tutankhamun representing him (first image below).
  • The pink granite sarcophagus of pharaoh Rameses III depicts scenes from Egyptian mythology (second image below).

The sarcophagus of pharaoh Tutankhamun (1327 BC)

Sarcophagus of Akhenaten's son


The sarcophagus of pharaoh Ramses III (1153 BC)

Sarcophagus of the son of Sety the 1st

C) Sarcophagus' etymology

The ancient Greek word "σαρκο φάγος", "sarkophágos" meant "flesh eater" ("σαρκο" pronounced "sarx" means "the flesh" while "φαγεῖν" pronounced "phagein" means "eat").

The term flesh-eater is used because sarcophagi are the last resting place of the body. It is inside them that the body disappears little by little over the centuries.

Nowadays, we also called "sarcophagus" the dismantling area of nuclear power plants and of dangerous buildings. The most famous of these containment chambers is the "Chernobyl sarcophagus" built after the Ukrainian nuclear disaster of 1986.

2) Egyptian sarcophagi

Having defined what a sarcophagus was, let us turn our attention to the best known form that sarcophagi have taken through time: the sarcophagi of the Egyptian pharaohs, or "neb ânkh" in ancient Egyptian.

In this second part, we will discover together the role of the pharaohs' sarcophagi. We will also see the specificities of the mummies of Egypt's sarcophagi and the legend of the first sarcophagus: that of the god Osiris.

A) Sarcophagi of pharaohs

It is important to understand that not all ancient Egyptians were entitled to a sarcophagus. Indeed, making a sarcophagus was very expensive because it required a great deal of work on its wooden (or stone) structure in addition to the work involved in its decoration.

Thus, only the wealthy could afford a sarcophagus. In addition, only the pharaoh and his entourage could afford sarcophagi richly decorated with gilding and precious stones.

The purpose of an Egyptian sarcophagus is to facilitate travel to the Afterlife by preserving the appearance of a deceased person's physical body for as long as possible.

To further extend the preservation of his body, the pharaohs had other means at their disposal. The immense wealth that pharaohs accumulated through taxes or war treasures enabled them to build tombs specifically to protect their sarcophagi.

To help you learn more about the context in which the pharaohs' sarcophagi were found, here is a presentation of the three principal buildings containing them.

I) The pyramids

Counter-intuitively, pyramids are built in the shape of "inverted square funnels". Their role (in the access of the pharaohs to the Afterlife) is to allow the souls of the pharaohs to be exactly redirected to the top of the pyramid through the inclined walls of pyramids.

The souls of the pharaohs will then be able to ascend more easily to the heavens, where they will take their places beside the gods of Egypt to reign with them.

II) The mastabas

The mastabas are buildings with a visible part (the chapel) and an underground part (the vault).

In the mastaba's chapel, there is a statue of the pharaoh praying to honor the gods of Egypt. This prayer allows the soul in the vault to be better received by the gods who will facilitate its accession to the Afterlife.

Mastaba of an Egyptian king

III) The hypogeas

Hypogeas look a lot like mastabas. However, unlike mastabas, hypogeums are only underground constructions (the chapel is also underground).

Hypogeums have a huge advantage over mastabas: they are much less noticeable than mastabas (which protects them from grave robbers).

To give you an example of the efficiency of hypogeums, the hypogeum of Tutankhamun (built in 1327) was only found in 1922 by British archaeologists!

Hypogeum of an Egyptian King

B) The Egyptian mummies

The mummification of bodies was intended to preserve the body of a deceased as well as possible. The body being better preserved, the soul of the deceased had much more time to find the Afterlife and to present itself to the god of death, Osiris, who would welcome it into his heavenly kingdom of the Blessed.

Thus, in order for the degradation of the body to become extremely slow, the embalmers had to begin a long mummification ritual consisting of 5 steps.

Step 1: washing the skin

Washing the skin of an Egyptian corpseWhen a death occurs, the embalmers are contacted by the family of the deceased. They quickly arrive at the deceased's home and take his body to their mummification workshop.

We can also point out that the chief embalmer almost always wears a jackal mask. This mask marks a respect for the god of the dead and of embalming: the jackal-headed god Anubis.

In this first step, the embalmers wash the body of the deceased with water of the Nile, the sacred river of the ancient Egyptians. The skin of the deceased is then cleared with wine (which eliminates the bacteria present on the skin).

Step 2: removal of internal organs

Removal of organs from an Egyptian bodyThe internal organs (lungs, stomach, liver and intestines) must be removed to prevent the proliferation of bacteria that could accelerate the body's decomposition.

These different organs are placed in vases with animal heads called "canopic vases" (one with the head of a jackal, one with the head of a hawk, one with the head of a baboon and one with the head of a human being). According to the traditions of the ancient Egyptians, the organs had to be preserved in canopic jars so that the deceased could be sure of finding a healthy body in the Afterlife.

Surprisingly, after an Egyptian's death, his brain is considered "no longer relevant" because it no longer allows the Egyptian to communicate with the earthly world. Thus, the brain is crushed with the aid of a long hook able to pass through the nose. After being crushed, the brain becomes liquid and flows out through the nostrils. Unlike other organs, the brain is discarded and not preserved in a canopic vase.

Unlike the brain, the heart is left inside the chest of the deceased. Indeed, the heart is considered the residence of the soul and serves as a bridge between the earthly world and the Afterlife.

Step 3: drying out

Drying out in the old empireTo completely eliminate moisture, the body is covered with natron. Natron is a salt-like rock with the property of absorbing water.

The body is left like this for 40 days. The body is then completely dried out.

Step 4: beautification

Embellishment of the deceased in accordance with Egyptian deitiesIn order for the soul to be presentable before the gods, it is important that the mortal body is presentable as well. For this, the body is first perfumed with frankincense and myrrh.

When it arrives here, the body of the deceased is too hollow and slightly collapses in places where organs have been removed and put into the canopic vases. To prevent these collapses, the parts of the interior of the body that previously contained the brain, intestines, liver, stomach and lungs are filled with sand of Egyptian desert.

Step 5: strip wrapping

Cataract mummificationThe best known stage of mummification is obviously the wrapping of the body with strips.

During this step, thin strips are wrapped around the body of the deceased, starting with the head. The strips are then bound together with heated resin. Protective amulets and other blessed symbols related to Egyptian beliefs are also placed under the strips.

With this last phase, the dead is protected from evil spirits that could disrupt his access to the Afterlife. Once the mummification ritual is complete, the deceased can then return to his bed of eternal rest: his sarcophagus.

C) The Osiris' sarcophagus

According to the myths of the ancient Egyptians, the first sarcophagus is the one in which the god Osiris was enclosed by his brother, the god Set. This story is found in the myth known as the "myth of Osiris".

At the beginning of the Osiris myth, Osiris is named pharaoh by the god of gods, Ra, who seeks a stable and balanced leader for humanity.

So, Osiris settles on Earth with Isis (his wife and sister) to begin his reign. Very quickly, Osiris is loved by men for his righteousness and kindness. Osiris succeeds in growing humanity and leading it to peace and ease.

This success will however trigger a great jealousy in his brother Set who will decide to seize power.

For this reason, Set organizes a large party to which he invites Osiris and all his relatives. During this party, Set brings a large chest richly decorated with jewels. Set then declares that in honor of Osiris, he invites all the guests to participate in a small contest. Set proposes to offer the chest to anyone who would be able to enter it.

The guests immediately do so and try in turn. Yet, no one succeeds in getting into the chest so that it can be closed completely.

Indeed, none of the guests succeed in getting into the chest for a very simple reason: it was built exactly to accommodate only Osiris. Just when it is Osiris' turn, he enters the chest in its entirety. Nevertheless, as soon as Osiris enters the chest, Set and some of his accomplices throw themselves on the chest, weld the locks of the chest and flee with it.

Set and his accomplices then proceed to the bank of the Nile and throw the chest (still containing Osiris within it) into the great river of Egypt.

Osiris dies by drowning and Set replaces Osiris on the throne of Egypt (until he himself is dethroned by Osiris' son, Horus).

Thus, this chest becomes the first sarcophagus in Egypt. Indeed, by definition, it is more than a chest because it contains the corpse of a living being: it is now a sarcophagus!

Following this myth, the first of the gods to find death, Osiris, becomes the god of death. He now welcomes the souls of the dead into his underground kingdom alongside his jackal-headed son: the god of the dead and embalming Anubis.

3) Non-Egyptian sarcophagi

Arrived here, you already know a lot about Egyptian sarcophagi. However, Egyptian civilization is not the only one to have given birth to funerary sarcophagi.

In this last part, we will discover together Greek, Roman, Etruscan and medieval sarcophagi.

A) Among the Greeks

Greek notables used "sarkophágos" for their funeral ceremonies. Most of these sarcophagi were made of terracotta, granite or marble.

They were decorated with large scenes from Greek mythology. Today, we find many Greek sarcophagi decorated with the heads of Zeus, Medusa or Athena.

The most famous of the Greek sarcophagi is the sarcophagus of Heracles. This sarcophagus built in 200 AD is also called the "sarcophagus of Hercules" (the romanized name of the Greek demigod Heracles). It represents several of the Twelve Labours of Heracles (see image below).

Sarcophage d'Hercule

B) Among the Etruscans

The Etruscans were the ancient inhabitants of the center of the Italian peninsula from the 11th century BC until the Romans took Velzna, their capital, in -264.

The Etruscans used to create both:

  • Burial sarcophagi (i.e. a classic form of buried sarcophagus).
  • Cinerary sarcophagi containing the ashes of the deceased (i.e. small sarcophagi).

Etruscan sarcophagi have the particularity of being surmounted by a complete statue of the deceased in a banqueting position (see image below). Indeed, these sarcophagi always represent the deceased taking part in an eternal joyful banquet at the side of the gods called the "banquet of the Blessed".

Archeological Etruscan sarcophagus

C) Romans sarcophagi

Roman notables liked to be represented alongside their gods to ensure their well-being in their later life. For example, in the image below, you can see a music competition between the satyr Marsyias and the god and light and art Apollo (Louvre museum).

Sarcophage et offrandes romainsFrom the edict of tolerance under Emperor Gallien in the year 260, the great Roman families converted to Christianity because of the pressure of an increasingly uniformly Christian people. Thus, after this time, the sarcophagi of the new Roman Christians (the early Christians) are decorated with large scenes from the Bible.

D) Medieval period

In the Middle Ages, it was customary to bury the dead in a wooden coffin called "beer".

From the 8th century onwards, kings and princes of kingdoms began to choose stone sarcophagi. A little later, all the wealthy adopted these stone coffins which were supposed to allow a better preservation of the body of the deceased.

Religious sarcophagus far from Egyptian history

In memory of the Egyptian sarcophagus!

This article on sarcophagi being finished you know everything about Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan and even medieval sarcophagi!

If ancient Egyptian traditions are something you like to talk about, you have a great story. When you get here, if you want to go deeper into the ancient kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt, why not take a look at our Egyptian rings and signet rings?

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