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The Book of the Dead is not a book per se , but rather, a corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary texts from the New Kingdom . Each ‘book’ is unique, as it contains its own combination of spells. In total, about 200 spells are known, and these may be divided into several themes.
In general, the spells are meant to aid the recently deceased in their journey through the underworld, which is perilous, and full of obstacles. Many of the spells have their origin in the earlier Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts , which shows the continuity, as well as changes in the beliefs held by the ancient Egyptians regarding the afterlife. Although it is commonly called the Book of the Dead , its original name in ancient Egyptian is transliterated as rw nw prt m hrw , which may be translated as Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light .
Origin of the Book of the Dead
It is unclear as to when the Book of the Dead was first produced. Nevertheless, the earliest known example of this work was found on the sarcophagus of Mentuhotep, a 13th dynasty queen. Due to the presence of new spells, scholars have considered the Mentuhotep’s sarcophagus as the earliest example of the Book of the Dead that we have at present. The 13th dynasty is often considered to be part of the Middle Kingdom (though some consider it to be part of the Second Intermediate Period), during which two collections of funerary texts , the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts , were being used.
The Pyramid Texts are the older of the two and were ‘written’ during the time of the Old Kingdom . Like the Book of the Dead , the Pyramid Texts are also a collection of spells. These spells were found to have been carved onto the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara (hence the name of the work), which were constructed during the 5th and 6th dynasties. Unlike the later Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead , the Pyramid Texts do not contain any illustrations.
During the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts were reserved for the pharaoh, and this is reflected in the spells found in this work. These spells deal mainly with the protection of the pharaoh’s physical remains, the reanimation of his body after death, and his ascension to the heavens, the three primary concerns of the Old Kingdom pharaohs regarding their afterlife.
The ultimate goal of the pharaoh was to become the sun or the new Osiris, but this journey of transformation was full of perils. Therefore, the Pyramid Texts contains spells that could be used to call upon the gods for their aid in the afterlife, a feature found in later funerary texts as well. Interestingly, if the gods refused to comply, the Pyramid Texts provides spells that the deceased pharaoh could use to threaten them.
The mystical Spell 17, from the Papyrus of Ani. The vignette at the top illustrates, from left to right, the god Heh as a representation of the sea; a gateway to the realm of Osiris; the Eye of Horus; the celestial cow Mehet-Weret; and a human head rising from a coffin, guarded by the four sons of Horus. (The Land / )
During the First Intermediate Period, the ancient Egyptians began writing spells on coffins . It was, however, only during the Middle Kingdom that it became widespread. Currently, the work known as the Coffin Texts consists of around 1,185 spells, most of which are found to have been written on coffins, hence its name.
Other places where the spells are found to have been written on include tomb walls , papyri, and stelae. The Coffin Texts reflect a change in the beliefs that the ancient Egyptians had about the afterlife. Prior to this, the afterlife seems to have been the exclusive domain of the pharaoh, since the Pyramid Texts were only found in their funerary monuments.
The Coffin Texts show that any ordinary Egyptian who could afford a coffin now had access to the afterlife as well, hence the so-called ‘democratization of the afterlife’. Although some of the material from the Pyramid Texts continued to be used, it is clear that many new spells were added as well.
These new spells were concerned with the everyday desires of the common man, and is further evidence that by this time, commoners were also given a shot at the afterlife. Unlike the Pyramid Texts , which emphasizes the pharaoh’s ascent into the heavens, the Coffin Texts focus on the journey of the deceased to Duat, the ancient Egyptian version of the underworld, which is ruled by the god Osiris. Thus, the spells of the Coffin Texts are aimed at protecting the deceased during his/her journey in the underworld, and to help him/her pass the judgment of Osiris.
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Middle Kingdom sarcophagus with Coffin Texts and a map of the underworld painted on its panels. (Jon Bodsworth / Copyrighted free use )
The Book of the Dead’s Use Becomes Widespread
As mentioned earlier, the earliest known example of the Book of the Dead is found on the sarcophagus of Queen Mentuhotep. It was, however, only during the 17th dynasty that the Book of the Dead became more widespread. By this time, it was used not only by members of the royal family, but also by courtiers and other officials.
Although the spells were typically inscribed on the linen bandages used to wrap the mummies at this point of time, they have also been found occasionally written on coffins and papyri. The development of the Book of the Dead continued during the New Kingdom. In addition, the spells were now more commonly written on papyri, and the text is often accompanied by beautiful illustrations.
One of the most famous examples of a Book of the Dead from this period is the Papyrus of Ani , which is today displayed in the British Museum in London. The Papyrus of Ani consists of six distinct pieces of papyri and has a total length of 78 feet (23.7 meters).
Like many other examples of the Book of the Dead from the New Kingdom, the Papyrus of Ani was written in cursive hieroglyphs. Almost all of the spells on this papyrus are accompanied by an illustration, making it a beautiful work of art.
In the succeeding period, i.e. the Third Intermediate Period, the hieratic script began to be used as well. This was a cheaper version that more people could afford. The reduced cost meant that the text lacked illustrations, apart from a single one at the beginning of the work.
Part of the Book of the Dead of Pinedjem II. The text is hieratic, except for hieroglyphics in the vignette. (Captmondo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Finally, it was during the 25th and 26th dynasties (the end of the Third Intermediate Period and the beginning of the Late Period) that the Book of the Dead was standardized. Thus, for the first time, the Book of the Dead obtained a coherent structure and was split into chapters. This version of the text is known as the ‘Saite Edition’ (named after the 26th or Saite dynasty), which distinguishes it from the earlier ‘Theban Edition’.
It is unclear, however, if this standardized version was the norm, since very few manuscripts can be dated with absolute certainty to the 26th dynasty. At present, there are perhaps less than 20 known copies of the Book of the Dead from this period. As a comparison, about 400-500 manuscripts from the later Ptolemaic Period are known.
The Spells of the Book of the Dead
Although the spells from the Book of the Dead were already known to scholars prior to the 19th century, it was only in 1842 that the first collection of the texts were published by Karl Richard Lepsius , a German Egyptologist. It was Lepsius who coined the modern name of this text. Incidentally, the Arabs too referred to this funerary text as the Book of the Dead , alluding to the fact that they were often found accompanying mummies.
Karl Richard Lepsius, first translator of a complete Book of the Dead manuscript. (Andro96~commonswiki)
Apart from publishing the text, Lepsius also carefully ordered the spells, and assigned a chapter number to each of them, and this system is still in use today. Although there is no canonical Book of the Dead , and the spells contain variations, Lepsius’ system has provided it with some sense of order and allowed later scholars to view it as a coherent piece of work.
For his work, Lepsius referred to a Book of the Dead from the Ptolemaic Period. The text was written on papyrus and belonged to a man by the name of Iufankh. Today, the artifact is housed in Turin’s Egyptian Museum.
Lepsius numbered the spells in Iufankh’s Book of the Dead from 1 to 165, and these were later divided into five segments. It may be mentioned that there were spells used during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period that were no longer used during the Late Period, and therefore were not included in Lepsius’ work. Therefore, another Egyptologist, Edouard Naville (one of Lepsius’ students), began to assign number to these other spells, starting with the number 166.
His work was continued by Wallis Budge , who brought the number of spells to a total of 190. Since then, several new chapters have been identified and more numbers proposed. Nevertheless, scholars are cautious about adding new chapters, since it is unknown if they were considered by the ancient Egyptians as part of the Book of the Dead or another funerary text.
Although it was Lepsius who numbered the spells in the Book of the Dead , it was only much later that its internal structure was established. Although scholars have not yet fully understood the principles employed by the ancient Egyptians in the composition of individual Books of the Dead , the standardized version published by Lepsius has been divided into four main sections. This division, which attempts to decipher the logic behind the text’s sequence, was made by Paul Barguet in 1967.
Barguet divided the text into the following headings: ‘Proceeding to the burial-place’ (Chapters 1 – 16); ‘Regeneration’ (Chapters 17 – 63); ‘Transfiguration – including taking various forms; and the Judgment of the Dead’ (Chapters 64 – 129); ‘The Underworld’ (Chapters 130 – 162); and a supplementary ‘Additional formulae’ (Chapters 163 – 165).
An example of a spell from each of the four sections is as follows: ‘Formula for going out by day and living after death’ (Chapter 2); ‘Formula for opening the mouth of a man in the underworld’ (Chapter 23); ‘Formula for taking the form of Ptah, eating bread, drinking beer, excreting from the anus’ (Chapter 82); and ‘Formula for preventing the body from perishing’ (Chapter 154).
Two 'gate spells'. On the top register, Ani and his wife face the 'seven gates of the House of Osiris'. Below, they encounter 10 of the 21 'mysterious portals of the House of Osiris in the Field of Reeds'. All are guarded by unpleasant protectors. From the Book of the Dead. (The Land / )
Needless to say, the ancient Egyptians believed that the journey through the underworld was a perilous one, and the deceased needed all the help they could get in order to arrive in paradise, as reflected in the spells found in the Book of the Dead . The climax of the journey, however, was the judgment of the deceased. The chief judge, of course, was Osiris, the ruler of the underworld.
In addition, there were also 42 gods who assisted Osiris in his judgment of the deceased. The spells required by the deceased for passing the final judgment in the underworld can be found in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead .
According to Lepsius’ arrangement, Chapter 125 is known as ‘The book of entering the broad hall of the Two Goddesses Right’. This chapter is known also as the ‘Negative Confessions’, as the deceased is supposed to demonstrate his/her innocence by listing all the evil things that he/she did not do during his/her lifetime. The ‘Negative Confessions’ is fascinating not only as a funerary spell, but also as a window into ancient Egyptian morality.
The list of offences gives us some insight into what was regarded as proper and improper behavior in ancient Egypt. Chapter 125 begins with a declaration of innocence before Osiris. The deceased is then required to address each of the 42 gods accompanying Osiris.
In this spell, the names of the deities are not revealed. Instead, only their epithet and place of origin are given. Some examples of these gods are “An-hetep-f, who comest forth from Sau”, “Sekhriu, who comest forth from Uten”, and “Neheb-nefert, who comest forth from thy cavern”.
In addition to addressing the 42 gods individually, the deceased is required to declare his/her innocence once more by confessing to each of them an offence that he/she had not committed. The confessions include “I am not a man of deceit”, “I have not debauched the wife of any man”, and “I have not blasphemed”.
Having made his/her confessions before the gods, the final test for the deceased is the ‘weighing of the heart’, during which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If the heart and the feather were of equal weight, the deceased was allowed to enter paradise. On the other hand, if the heart was heavier than the feather, it was fed to the monster Ammit, and the deceased would die a second (and permanent) death.
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The ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ritual, shown in the Book of the Dead. (Alonso de Mendoza / )
In order to prevent the heart from telling on the deceased, the ancient Egyptians had recourse. The spell in Chapter 30, is known as the ‘Formula for preventing the heart of a man being kept away from him in the underworld’. This spell was so important that it is often carved onto amulets in the shape of scarabs and placed on a mummy’s chest before it was wrapped.
A vignette in The Papyrus of Ani, from Spell 30B: ‘Spell For Not Letting Ani's Heart Create Opposition Against Him’, in the gods' domain. (FinnBjo~commonswiki / )
Book Of The Dead: The Ultimate Guide To Egyptian Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians believed that after death they would embark on a journey to the underworld where, on board of Ra&rsquos solar boat, they would overcome many difficulties and misadventures until reaching the Egyptian underworld. Here, Osiris, the god of the dead, would await to pass the final judgment and decide the destiny of their souls.
If they had been pure and good during their lives, the transformation of their physical bodies would be complete, and they would join Osiris in eternity. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or Egyptian Book of Spells as it&rsquos also known, was a series of funeral texts consisting of a number of magic spells written on a scroll during the New Kingdom. The pharaoh, the royal family, and the nobility used this ancient book to assist a dead person's journey through the Duat, or underworld.
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Ani’s Book of the Dead, found in his tomb in Thebes, is lauded for its vivid illustrations and colorful vignettes. Sir Wallis Budge purchased the papyrus in 1888 for the British Museum’s collection and divided the 78-foot scroll into 37 sheets for easier reading. You can read Budge’s translation of the Papyrus of Ani here.
Though the name is a bit confusing, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is not a bound book but rather a collection of funerary texts written on papyrus scroll. The scrolls were individualized based on people’s wealth and personal preferences. Though the most expensive ones included customized texts and images, people could also purchase cheaper pre-made Books and scribes would only write the name in. Explore this website to learn about how the funerary texts evolved to be accessible to everyone, not just the royals. A Book of the Dead was crucial for any Ancient Egyptian trying to reach the afterlife. They contained spells to use in the Underworld - view the formulas and enchantments from Iufankh’s Book of the Dead here - and Negative Confessions for the Hall of Ma’at (view the 42 Negative Confessions from the Papyrus of Ani here). Books of the Dead also feature pictures of the deceased person in different scenes, foretelling success in these areas. The journey from death to the afterlife is long and complex, leaving a multitude of avenues to explore.
Mummification alone took seventy days. Embalmer-priests did everything from washing the body with wine to tossing out “useless” organs (such as the brain) to adorning the corpse with jewelry. Only the heart was left in the body, but the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were preserved in canopic jars and placed in the tomb. Still curious? Watch Len Bloch’s excellent TED-Ed video to learn about how the Ancient Egyptians protected the mummies from decomposition. You can also read Aliki’s book Mummies Made in Egypt for the specific steps of the mummification process.
While mummification was the first challenge of the body, the Underworld was the first challenge of the spirit. A particularly thorny obstacle was Apep (also known as Apophis), the snake god of destruction and evil. Apep’s body is so lengthy that hieroglyphic artwork shows it wound into loops or coils. Check out this website for more information about Apep and the dangers he posed.
In the Hall of Ma’at, a person’s character determines his or her worthiness to enter the afterlife. You can read Chapter 125 from the Papyrus of Ani which lists the names of each of the Assessor Gods and the corresponding Negative Confessions. Following the Negative Confessions was the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, and the heart was weighed against a special feather called the Feather of Truth. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of sacred writings and wisdom, recorded the results of each judgment.
The afterlife itself was a heavenly place identical to the world of living people. Read this article about the Ancient Egyptians’ joy of living and the quality of the afterlife in their eyes.
Contains the Book of the Dead
The book acted as a ritual formula for performing magical and religious practices. The book holds about 192 spell that serves many purposes, one of the most famous spells in the book was the famous spell 125 “The Weighing of the Heart” which the judgment of the soul happens in the afterlife in the Hall of Truth in front of the King of The underworld “Osiris” where the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat to decided whether he would enter the fields of Reed or vanish from existence. Because of Osiris Popularity and his important role in eternal judgment, more & more people desired the book to win the graces of the ruler of the underworld. The book contains many magical techniques for creating magical amulets. It also contained many definitions and illustrations about the mummification process, the Ka (life-force), Heka (magic), transformation, the afterlife, and the judicial process.
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The Book of the Dead: A “Magic Guide” to the Egyptian Underworld
The Book of the Dead is not a book per se, but rather a corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary texts from the New Kingdom. Each “book” is unique in that it contains its own combination of spells.
In total, about 200 spells are known, and these can be divided into various themes. In general, spells were meant to assist the recently deceased on their journey through the underworld, which is dangerous and full of obstacles.
Many of the spells originate from the earliest Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, which show continuity as well as changes in ancient Egyptians’ beliefs regarding the afterlife.
Although it is commonly called the Book of the Dead, its original name in ancient Egypt is transcribed as rw nw prt m hrw, which can be translated as Book to come forth by day or Book to emerge forth into light.
It is unclear when the Book of the Dead was first produced. However, the first known example of this work was found in the sarcophagus of Mentuhotep, a queen of the thirteenth dynasty.
Due to the presence of new spells, scholars have considered Mentuhotep’s sarcophagus as the first example of the Book of the Dead that we currently have.
During the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts were reserved for Pharaoh, and this is reflected in the spells found in this work.
These spells are primarily about protecting the pharaoh’s physical remains, reviving his body after death, and ascending to heaven, the three main concerns of the pharaohs of the Ancient Kingdom regarding their afterlife.
Pharaoh’s ultimate goal was to become the sun or the new Osiris, but this journey of transformation was fraught with danger.
Therefore, the Pyramid Texts contain spells that could be used to ask for help from the gods in the afterlife, a feature that is also found in later funeral texts.
Interestingly, if the gods refused to comply, the Pyramid Texts provide spells that the deceased pharaoh could use to threaten them.
One of the most famous examples of a Book of the Dead from this period is the Ani Papyrus, which is now on display in the British Museum in London. Ani’s papyrus consists of six distinct pieces of papyrus and has a total length of 78 feet (23.7 meters).
Like many other examples from the New Kingdom Book of the Dead, the Ani Papyrus was written in cursive hieroglyphs. Almost all the spells on this papyrus are accompanied by an illustration, making it a beautiful work of art.
It goes without saying that the ancient Egyptians believed that traveling through the underworld was dangerous, and the deceased needed all the help they could get to get to paradise, as reflected in the spells found in the Book of the Dead.
The climax of the trip, however, was the deceased’s judgment. The chief judge, of course, was Osiris, the ruler of the underworld.
In addition, there were also 42 gods who assisted Osiris in his judgment of the deceased. The spells required by the deceased to pass the final judgment in the underworld can be found in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead.
The deceased must declare his innocence once again by confessing to each of them a crime that he has not committed. Confessions include “I am not a man of deception,” “I have not depraved any man’s wife,” and “I have not blasphemed.”
After having made their confessions before the gods, the final test for the deceased is the “weighing of the heart”, during which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice.
If the heart and the pen had the same weight, the deceased was allowed to enter paradise. On the other hand, if the heart was heavier than the feather, the monster Ammit was fed, and the deceased would die a second (and permanent) death.
To prevent the heart from counting the deceased, the ancient Egyptians had to resort. The Chapter 30 spell is known as the “Formula to prevent a man’s heart from staying away from him in the underworld.”
This spell was so important that it is often carved into beetle-shaped amulets and placed in a mummy’s chest before wrapping it.
Facts About The Book of The Dead
- The Book of the Dead is a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary texts rather than an actual book
- It was created around the beginning of Egypt’s New Kingdom
- Written by a succession of priests over approximately 1,000 years, the text was actively used up to around 50 BCE
- One of a series of sacred manuals serving the needs of the spirits of the elite deceased during their journey through the afterlife
- Its text holds magical spells and incantations, mystical formulas, prayers and hymns
- Its collection of spells was intended to assist a newly departed soul to navigate the perils of the afterlife
- The Book of the Dead was never standardized into a single, consistent edition. No two books were the same as each was written specifically for an individual
- Roughly 200 copies are known to currently survive from different periods spanning ancient Egypt‘s culture
- One of its most important sections describes the ‘weighing of the heart’ rite, where the newly departed soul was weighed against Ma’at‘s feather of truth to judge the deceased’s behaviour during his or her lifetime.
A Rich Funerary Tradition
The Book of the Dead continued a long Egyptian tradition of funerary texts, which encompass the preceding Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts. These tracts were initially painted onto tomb walls and funerary objects rather than papyrus. A number of the book’s spells can be dated to the 3rd millennium BCE. Other spells were later compositions and date to the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period (c. 11th to 7th centuries BCE). Many of the spells drawn from the Book of the Dead were inscribed on sarcophagi and painted on tomb walls, while the book itself was usually positioned either in the deceased’s burial chamber or their sarcophagus.
The text’s original Egyptian title, “rw nw prt m hrw” translates roughly as the Book of Coming Forth by Day. Two alternative translations are Spells for Going Forth by Day and the Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. Nineteenth-century Western scholars gave the text its present title.
The Myth of the Ancient Egyptian Bible
When Egyptologists first translated the Book of the Dead it caught fire in the popular imagination. Many considered it to be the Bible of the Ancient Egyptians. However, while both works share some surface similarities of being archaic collections of works written by different hands during differing time periods and later brought together, the Book of the Dead was not ancient Egyptian’s holy book.
The Book of the Dead was never systematized and categorised into a single, unified edition. No two books were precisely the same. Rather, they were written specifically for an individual. The deceased needed substantial wealth to be able to afford to commission a personalised instruction manual of the spells needed to aid them on their precarious journey through the afterlife.
The Egyptian Concept Of The Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians viewed the afterlife as an extension of their earthly life. After successfully passing through judgment by weighing their hearts against the feather of truth within the Hall of Truth, the departed soul entered an existence, which perfectly reflected the departed’s earthly life. Once judged in the Hall of Truth, the soul passed on, eventually crossing the Lily Lake to reside in the Field of Reeds. Here the soul would discover all the pleasures it had enjoyed during its life and was free to enjoy this paradise’s pleasures for all eternally.
However, for the soul to attain that heavenly paradise, it needed to understand what path to take, what words to utter in response to questions at specific times during its journey and how to address the gods. Essentially the Book of the Dead was a departed soul’s comportment guide to the underworld.
History And Origins
The Egyptian Book of the Dead took form from concepts portrayed in inscriptions and tomb paintings dating to Egypt’s Third Dynasty (c. 2670 – 2613 BCE). By the time of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty (c. 1991 – 1802 BCE) these spells, together with their companion illustrations, had been transcribed onto papyrus. These written texts were placed in the sarcophagus along with the deceased.
By 1600 BCE the collection of spells were now structured into chapters. Around the New Kingdom (c. 1570 – 1069 BCE), the book had become exceedingly popular amongst the wealthy classes. Expert scribes would be engaged to draft individually customized books of spells for a client or their family. The scribe would anticipate the journey the deceased could anticipate facing after their death by understanding what type of life the person had experienced while alive.
Before the New Kingdom, only royalty and the elites could afford a copy of The Book of the Dead. The rising popularity of myth of Osiris during the New Kingdom encouraged the belief that the collection of spells was essential due to Osiris’ role in judging the soul in the Hall of Truth. As increasing numbers of people clamoured for their personal copy of the Book of the Dead, scribes met that surging demand with the result that the book was widely commoditized.
Personalised copies were replaced by “packages” for potential clients to select from. The number of spells contained in their book was governed by their budget. This production system endured through to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (c. 323 – 30 BCE). During this time, the Book of the Dead varied widely in size and form until c. 650 BCE. Around this time, the scribes fixed it at 190 common spells. The one spell, which almost every known copy of the Book of the Dead contains, however, appears to be Spell 125.
Perhaps the most frequently encountered spell of the many incantations found in the Book of the Dead is Spell 125. This spell recounts how Osiris and the other gods in the Hall of Truth judge the deceased’s heart. Unless the soul passed this critical test they could not enter paradise. In this ceremony, the heart was weighed against the feather of truth. So, understanding what form the ceremony took and the words required when the soul was before Osiris, Anubis, Thoth and the Forty-Two Judges was believed to be the most critical information the soul could arrive in the Hall armed with.
An introduction to the soul commences Spell 125. “What should be said when arriving at this Hall of Justice, purging [soul’s name] of all the evil which he has done and beholding the faces of the gods.” Following this preamble, the deceased recites the Negative Confession. Osiris, Anubis and Thoth and the Forty-Two Judges then questioned the soul. Precise information was needed to justify one’s life to the gods. A supplicant soul had to be able to recite the gods’ names and their responsibilities. The soul also needed to be able to recite the name of each door leading off the room together with the name of the very floor the soul walked across. As the soul responded to each god and afterlife object with the right reply, the soul would be acknowledged with, “You know us pass by us” and thus the soul’s journey continued on.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the scribe who inscribed the spell praised his skill in having done his job well and reassures the reader. In writing each of the spells, the scribe was believed to have become part of the underworld. This assured him of a propitious greeting in the afterlife upon his own death and a safe passage onto to the Egyptian Field of Reeds.
For an Egyptian, even a pharaoh, this process was fraught with danger. If a soul responded correctly to all the questions, possessed a heart lighter than the feather of truth, and acted kindly towards the sullen Divine Ferryman whose task it was to row each soul across the Lily Lake, the soul found itself in the Field of Reeds.
Navigating The Afterlife
The journey between the soul’s entry to the Hall of Truth and the following boat ride to the Field of Reeds was fraught with possible errors. The Book of the Dead contained spells to help the soul deal with these challenges. However, it was never guaranteed to ensure the soul survived the underworld’s every twist and turn.
In some periods during Egypt’s long sweep of history, the Book of the Dead was merely tweaked. In other periods, the afterlife was believed to be a treacherous passage towards a fleeting paradise and significant changes were made to its text. Similarly for epochs saw the path to paradise as being a straightforward journey once the soul had been judged by Osiris and the other gods, while, at other times, demons could suddenly pop into existence to beguile or assault their victims, while crocodiles could manifest themselves to foil the soul on its journey.
Hence, the soul depended on spells to outlast these dangers in order to finally reach the promised Field of Reeds. Spells commonly included in surviving editions of the text are “For Not Dying Again In The Realm Of The Dead”, “For Repelling A Crocodile Which Comes To Take Away”, “For Not Being Eaten By A Snake In The Realm Of The Dead”, “For Being Transformed Into A Divine Falcon”, ” For Being Transformed Into A Phoenix” “For Driving Off A Snake”, “For Being Transformed Into A Lotus.” These transformation spells were only effective in the afterlife and never on Earth. Claims the Book of the Dead was a sorcerers’ text is incorrect and unfounded.
Comparisons With The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is also frequently compared to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. However, again the books serve different purposes. The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s formal title is “Great Liberation Through Hearing.” The Tibetan book collates a series of texts to be read aloud to someone whose life is ebbing or who died recently. It advises the soul what is happening to it.
Where both ancient texts intersect is that they are both intended to provide comfort to the soul, guide the soul out of its body and assist it on its journey to the afterlife.
This Tibetan concept of the cosmos and their belief system are totally different to those of the ancient Egyptians. However, the key difference between the two texts is The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was written to be read aloud by those still living to the deceased, whereas the Book of the Dead is a spell book intended for the dead to personally repeat as they journey through the afterlife. Both books represent complex cultural artefacts intended to ensure death is a more tractable state.
The spells collected in the Book of the Dead, regardless which epoch the spells were authored or collated in, promised the soul continuity in their experience after death. As was the case in life, trials and tribulations would lie ahead, complete with pitfalls to dodge, unexpected challenges to face and perilous territory to be crossed. Along the way, there would be allies and friends to curry favour with, but ultimately the soul could look forward to a reward for leading a life of virtue and piety.
For those loved ones the soul left behind, these spells were written so the living could read them, remember their departed, think of them on their journey through the afterlife and be reassured they had navigated their path safely through many twists and turns before ultimately reaching their eternal paradise awaiting them at the Field of Reeds.
Reflecting On The Past
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a remarkable collection of ancient spells. It reflects both the complex imagining which typifies the Egyptian afterlife and the commercial responses by craftsmen to surging demand, even in ancient times!
Header image courtesy: British Museum free image service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Book of the Dead: A Practical Guide for the Recently Deceased
Egypt has a rich literary history. The Ancient Egyptian ‘guides for the recently deceased’, or books of the dead as they’re widely known, offer fascinating insights into the nation’s spiritual heritage. Jamie Moore unpacks the history and contents of the most famous Book of the Dead, unveiling its dark mysteries, supernatural qualities and practical tips for a fruitful afterlife.
Death has hung over the history of human civilization like a demonic bat, wheezing inexorable extinction into the lives of every mortal, sentient being. The fact of death has terrified humans for millennia and has been tackled in a multitude of ways throughout history, many which have been enshrined in a variety of religious doctrines. With extensive beliefs concerning the underworld and afterlife, Ancient Egyptian civilization was no exception. A common misconception of the Egyptian Book of the Dead is that it is a definitive volume of Ancient Egyptian religious doctrine and dogma, a text analogous to the Bible or the Quran. However, although spiritual and moral guidance is implicit in much of what is written, a more accurate way of conceiving of the work is as a comprehensive practical guide for the recently deceased, delineating how they might navigate their way through all manner of terrifying and seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the underworld to reach to a kind of heaven. Even this latter definition is reductive, and in many ways misleading, owing to the variety of different manifestations the book existed in over the course of Ancient Egyptian history. Nevertheless, as will be explored, similarities can be drawn between much of what is written in the book and later religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran it is for this reason that the text is considered to augment understandings of subsequent religion and culture.
Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge was an English Egyptologist, Orientalist and philologist employed at the British Museum. Amongst the myriad antiquities Budge procured throughout his career was his acquisition of the Papyrus of Ani, a manifestation of the Book of the Dead. This version of the text, found in Thebe, contained a number of the chapters that are found in the full version of the text. This was by no means the oldest version of the book we have knowledge of, with other excerpts found inscribed in tombs instated more than 3000 years before Christ. The first funerary manuscripts we know of are the Pyramid Texts, the first of which were sequestered away in the heart of the Pyramid of King Unas of the 5th dynasty dated approximately 2400 BC – a period known as the Old Kingdom. The text was inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers as opposed to being an actual book at this stage. Only royalty would have been entitled to a Pyramid text thus enabling only them to ethereally perambulate through the afterlife and ascend to the heavens in the sky to become deities themselves, snuggling in amongst the gods, and being united with their divine primogenitor, the god Ra. This rigid exclusivity eventually crumbled towards the end of the period of the Old Kingdom when other wealthy Egyptians of high status, like government officials, were able to purchase a path to the afterlife. In her book, entitled, Utterances Going Forth, Sue D’Auria aptly describes this change as the ‘democratization of the afterlife’. These have been dubbed the Coffin Texts owing to the fact that they were most commonly written on the inside of the stone coffins of the deceased.
The text in its most famously recognized form developed after these first two versions, incorporating much of the content as well as more recent additions. The 19th dynasty saw the widespread introduction of papyrus scrolls – a paper-like material derived from the pith of the papyrus plant – on which the text was inscribed this would be placed in the tomb of the deceased. The Papyrus of Ani was a version of the text recorded in this format. Each individual script had to be penned and illustrated by a team of scribes and artists, and often aspects of the story were forgotten or overlooked. Because, by this stage, the scrolls were produced with a view to their sale, quite often spaces would be left in the text where the name of the purchaser could be inserted to personalize the text to them. These spaces can be seen in some of the texts that have been recovered.
As these texts were made for sale, a number of copies exist, all different depending on the period they were made in, and the scribes that produced it. Often the text would be produced by a team of scribes and artists because of the gargantuan undertaking the penning of said book consists of. In 2011, researchers at the Brooklyn Museum translated into English a particularly atypical version of the text that was inscribed on both sides. Carbon dating places the age of the text to somewhere between 1620BC and 1430 BC. This unusual copy of the Book of the Dead can be viewed in the mummy chamber of the museum. The Papyrus of Ani mentioned earlier can still be viewed in the British Museum.
The purpose of the Book of the Dead is better understood via the Doctrine of Eternal Life. An important caveat regarding the study and analysis of Ancient Egyptian religion is that it is difficult to expound their ideas and beliefs definitively, as they evolved over the course of the civilization’s maturation and there are discrepancies between individual interpretations, even those temporally contiguous. Nevertheless, a general overview of some of the central tenets the Book of the Text might help with its elucidation. One belief that transcended all of the metamorphoses of Egyptian religion is that at some point following death the soul or some other article of an individual would return to life. It was for this very reason that Egyptians were so fastidious when it came to the preservation and burial of the dead. Depending on the period, this would have involved a combination of embalming the corpse and placing the body in a tomb in which articles such as a Book of the Dead would be inscribed or placed, so as to aid the deceased in their battle to attain the ‘heavenly life of the blessed’. In addition, priests and members of the deceased’s family would declaim prayers and short litanies at the burial. All of these rituals were symbolic of the transcendent state the person was about to enter in, their transition from the physical state, referred to as khat, to component parts of this whole, which were variously described as making their own voyage through the underworld. In the introduction to The Papyrus of Ani, Wallis Budge details these parts, the first of being the heart or ka, for the sustenance of which an abundance of food was left in the tomb. Next is the soul or ba, which paradoxically is corporeal as it is an intrinsic part of the physical body of the man. Other aspects are the shadow or khaibit, the intelligence or khu, the form or physical mummification of the body called the sekhem, and finally the ren or name of the man.
According to some ancient texts the heaven that the dead strove to ascend to was in the sky and had to be reached by clambering up a ladder, while others claimed it was through a gap in the mountains of Abydos yet the ultimate destination was a region of the Tuat or the underworld (Budge 1895). Here the individual was deified and enjoyed an immortality of abundant food and drink, a veritable paradise for the wearied but successful pilgrim of the afterlife. Written in the Book of the Dead is an account of some of the beneficent delights one can expect in this heavenly realm.
‘O ye judges, ye have taken Unas unto yourselves, let him eat that which ye eat, let him drink that which ye drink, let him live upon that which ye live upon, let your seat be his seat, let his power be your power, let the boat wherein he shall sail be your boat, let him net birds in Aaru, let him possess running streams in Sekhet-Hetep, and may he obtain his meat and his drink from you, O ye gods. May the water of Unas be of the wine which is of Ra, may he revolve in the sky like Ra, and may he pass over the sky like Thoth.’ (Recueil de Travaux, t. iv., p. 69 (ll. 572-75).)
The Book of the Dead contains a multitude of magical spells that its owner could use to aid them in their quest to the afterlife. This journey was fraught with all manners of danger posed by an assortment of grotesque creatures and other supernatural obstructions, and this book was considered as an essential item for triumphing over these and thus achieving success. Far from being considered as anti-religious or witchcraft, the use of magic was as legitimate as praying in Ancient Egypt as ‘the concept of magic (heka) was also intimately linked with the spoken and written word’ (Budge 1895). Similarly, knowing the name of some unknown entity was believed to empower the knower, giving them dominion over the named for this reason the Egyptian Book of the Dead contained many names of the evils one was likely to encounter after death. As mentioned, only the later versions of the texts contained a coherent structure, split into chapters. For example in the Saite version the structure can be divided into four parts: the first 16 chapters deal with entering of the tomb, the descent into the underworld, and the body reacquiring the ability to move and speak. The second section, chapters 17 to 63, delineates the myths concerning the gods and places the dead pass through. The individual is then bequeathed life again so they might be born again with the morning sun. The next section, chapters 64 to 129, describes the journey across the sky in the sun ark, and then in the twilight hours, the deceased descends into the underworld to be judged by the god Osiris. So long as the individual passes this judgement, they move on to section four – chapters 130 to 189 – where they assume their position as a god amongst gods.
There are obvious comparisons between the contents of the Book of the Dead and religious texts such as the Bible for example, belief in a life after death. Some of the most striking comparisons can be made in famed ‘weighing of the heart’ episode depicted in Spell 125. The deceased is confronted by the god Anubis and asked to swear that they have not committed any of the ’42 sins’ by reciting scripture called ‘Negative Confessions’. The resemblance between many of these sins and the Ten Commandments is striking. For example, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ from the Bible is analogous to sin four, ‘I have not slain men and women’ and sin fourteen, ‘I have not attacked any man’. Comparisons can be made for almost every single one of the 42 sins. The heart of the deceased is then weighed against the god Maat, represented by the feather of an ostrich, and should there be an imbalance the heart of the dead will be devoured by Ammit, part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus, and they will not find a place with Osiris in the afterlife. In fact, the entire journey the deceased make with its risk of failure and eternal damnation, or second death – the failure to reach the afterlife – can be likened to judgement in purgatory in the Christian faith. Many more likenesses can be made between the Book of the Dead and later religious texts one of the reasons it is considered so important.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead holds significance as the first known major religious text concerning beliefs about the afterlife. Whilst the doctrine and beliefs have long since been supplanted, one can inform and frame contemporary understandings of death and the afterlife by enveloping oneself, mummy-like, in the entrancing papyrus pages of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
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Sinuhe lives out his life in Egypt and is buried in a tomb for the elite class. Today, scholars are still not sure whether or not Sinuhe is a real individual. The tale was to represent the adventures of the courier Sinuhe copied from the inscriptions from his tomb.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
- Author : E. A. Wallis Budge
- Publisher : Barnes & Noble
- Release Date : 2005
- Genre: History
- Pages : 379
- ISBN 10 : PSU:000056789706
A book of rituals that offers modern readers imaginative insights into the universal human condition and the desire for a blissful afterlife. It is written by unknown Egyptian priests over a period of nearly 1000 years.
Contains the Book of the Dead
The book acted as a ritual formula for performing magical and religious practices. The book holds about 192 spell that serves many purposes, one of the most famous spells in the book was the famous spell 125 &ldquoThe Weighing of the Heart&rdquo which the judgment of the soul happens in the afterlife in the Hall of Truth in front of the King of The underworld &ldquoOsiris&rdquo where the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat to decided whether he would enter the fields of Reed or vanish from existence. Because of Osiris Popularity and his important the eternal judgment, more & more people desired the book to win the graces of the ruler of the underworld. The book contains many magical techniques for creating magical amulets. It also contained many definitions and illustrations about the mummification process, the Ka (life-force), Heka (magic), transformation, the afterlife, and the judgment process.
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