The Book of the Dead: A Practical Guide for the Recently Deceased

Photo of James Moore
14 December 2016

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.

Pyramid of Unas of the Vth dynasty in Saqqara | © Hajor/WikiCommons

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.

Cursive hieroglyphics from the Papyrus of Ani | © Flembles/WikiCommons

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 heart of the deceased is weighed against Maat | © FinnBjo/WikiCommons

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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