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As quoted from Disinformation and written by our very own Sammy R. LaPoint.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed a particularly interesting premise in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974. The book proposes that civilization is driven by a symbolic defense mechanism created by the awareness of our mortality, which acts as an intellectual and emotional response to our survival mechanism. In other words, people attempt to outlive their own lives by doing or becoming a part of something that will symbolically transcend their own death. It reminds me of the eerie quote at the beginning of the movie Troy.
“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?” — Odysseus in the movie script of Troy
Becker suggests that there exists a fundamental duality between a symbolic world of human-defined meaning and the perceived physical world of objects. He refers to this attempt to transcend our own mortality as an “immortality project,” in which people essentially fight their inevitable death by symbolically escaping it. He states that this is most often achieved through acts of heroism that perceivably allow us to become a part of something eternal; something that won’t decay like our bodies.
I found this concept of an immortality project very interesting but wondered if there were any conclusive examples. Perhaps, a significant object or structure that not only created developments in civilization but was specifically created to immortalize someone. It dawned on me many years later that the greatest example of this is the Great Pyramids. The pyramids were not only developed by a religious philosophy of an afterlife and hope for immortality but were used to immortalize the pharaoh it was constructed for. In fact, the whole evolution of pyramid building in ancient Egypt perfectly matches the immortality project concept proposed by Becker. To understand, you have to take a brief look at the physical and philosophical evolution of ancient Egyptian pyramids.
The dead were buried in very basic and shallow burial pits for thousands of years in Predynastic Egypt, but this wasn’t adequate considering the religious philosophy of the ancient Egyptians. Their belief in the afterlife or hope for immortality created a necessity to preserve the human body. So, what you see is a very long evolutionary process that extends from basic burial pits to mastabas, step pyramids, and finally to the “true” pyramids that we commonly recognize. In fact, mastaba means “house of eternity” or “eternal house.” So, underpinning the entire burial process is the religious philosophy of an afterlife and each pharaoh’s hope to immortalize himself in stone. In a way, immortality was achieved considering the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only intact ‘wonder’ of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The pyramids of ancient Egypt are a prime example of Becker’s immortality project, in which societal and architectural developments that were vital in the creation of civilization were sparked by a symbolic escape from our own mortality. In fact, the successful utilization of stone building is often accredited to Imhotep, the designer of the pharaoh Sneferu’s pyramid at Djoser, and he is often considered the first architect and engineer. His designs were crucial in developing the pyramids, but consider for a moment, why? This was all done to essentially preserve the pharaoh’s path into the afterlife and to immortalize him. As Becker describes, that’s precisely how this symbolic defense influenced various aspects of civilization.
This whole concept isn’t only limited to architectural developments. The economy itself was influenced by the belief in the afterlife or hope for immortality. For example, gold was viewed as a durable or “immortal” substance, which is why it was buried with ancient Egyptian pharaohs. It wasn’t merely a pompous display of wealth but was to be taken with them into the afterlife for all eternity. These examples give Becker’s theory credence.
In the wake of our own inevitable death, we seek to immortalize ourselves, thus informing the development of civilization.
“Why do you weep? Did you think I was immortal?” — last words of King Louis XIV
Sammy R. LaPoint © 2015
(The History of Ancient Egypt – Ph.D. Bob Brier)
(The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker)
(The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt – Ian Shaw.)
(Egyptian Mythology – Geraldine Pinch.)
(The Pyramids Of Egypt – Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards.)
(The Pyramids – Ahmed Fakhry.)
(The Ideology of the Superstructure of the Mastaba-Tomb in Egypt – Alexander Badaway.)
(The Complete Pyramids – Mark Lehner.)
(Gold in Antiquity – Mark Cartwright.)