Surely one of the most evocative titles ascribed to an ancient text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text. Created sometime around the beginning of Egypt’s New Kingdom the text was in active use to around 50 BCE.
Written by a succession of priests over a period of approximately 1,000 years the Book of the Dead was one of a series of sacred manuals serving the needs of the spirits of the elite dead to flourish in the afterlife. The text is not a book, as we understand it today. Rather, it is a collection of spells intended to assist a newly departed soul to navigate the perils the Egyptians associated with their Duat or afterlife.
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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.
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