Egyptian Book of the Dead

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Egyptian Book of the Dead

There is probably no text in the popular imagination more closely associated with the ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death than the work popularly known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, also referred to as The Book of Coming Forth by Day. This work received its name from the fact that many of the earliest specimens to reach Renaissance Europecenturies before Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1824had been found next to mummies in burials, a practice that also gave rise to the misconception that the Book of the Dead was an authoritative scripture equivalent to the Bible. However, the actual Egyptian title, The Chapters of Going Forth by Day, offers a more accurate picture of purpose and orientation of this composition. The Book was essentially a collection of prayers and magical speeches primarily intended to enable a deceased person to overcome the trials and dangers of the next world and emerge safely from the tomb in a spiritualized form. Although there is no one ancient Egyptian work that contains the complete range of Egyptian postmortem beliefs, let alone the totality of their complex and constantly changing religious ideas, the Book does offer the modern reader insights into the wide range of ancient Egyptian concepts involving both the afterlife and the afterworldit is not, however, in any sense an Egyptian Bible.

The Book of the Dead assumed many forms. It occurs primarily on papyri, but it is found as well on tomb walls, coffins, scarabs, funerary stelae, and other objects. Perhaps the best-known Book is the famous papyrus that was inscribed for a certain Ani, "the Accounts-Scribe of the Divine Offerings of all the Gods," and his wife Tutu. This profusely and beautifully illustrated scroll was made during the early Ramesside period (c. 1300 B.C.E.) in Ani's home town, the southern religious capital at Thebes, modern Luxor. It was purchased there by its curator, E. A. Wallis Budge, in 1888 for the British Museum where it is displayed today. Extending more than seventy-five feet, it is one of the best examples of the Book papyri of the New Kingdom and Ramesside periods. Ironically, for all its splendor, this scroll was actually a template papyrus roughly akin to a modern preprinted lease or standard will, with Ani's name and titles being inserted into the appropriate blank spaces at the last minute. Ani, or his survivors, purchased what was deemed appropriate (and what they could afford) from a funerary workshop for his safe journey into the next world; then the sheets with those relevant spells were pasted together to form the final product.

The Book of the Dead represents the acme of the illustrated book in ancient Egypt. The text itself represents a continuation of an ancient tradition of afterworld guides that began with the royal Pyramid Texts in the Old Kingdom and continued with the more "democratized" Coffin Texts for wealthy individuals of the Middle Kingdom. These, in turn, provided the material on which many chapters of the Book of the Dead were based. This pattern of rewriting old religious texts and adopting them to new beliefs was to continue after the Book throughout pharaonic history. At no time did any group of texts become canonical in the sense of having a definitive text or a fixed sequence and number of chapters. The first spells that can be definitely associated with the Book of the Dead began appearing in the late Middle Kingdom, but it was not really until the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1500 B.C.E.) that this new work became the standard afterlife text for the Egyptian elite. In order to enhance its appeal to the conservative religious sense of Egyptians, the Book of the Dead preserves many archaisms in script, vocabulary, and dialect. The main innovations of the Book of the Dead were that nearly every spell was accompanied by a vignettean illustrationand that the work, designed for the relatively cheap medium of papyrus, was affordable for a much wider audience of Egyptians.

Probably only a miniscule percentage of Egyptians had the means to include a Book papyrus among their burial equipment. In fact, because the Book describes a lavish funeral, an elaborate, well-outfitted tomb, and other expensive burial equipment, some scholars have surmised that these scrolls were partially intended to provide by magic various things that the average Egyptian official could not afford.

All Egyptian religious texts such as the Book were fundamentally collections compiled from several different sources or local traditions, so that the final versions often contained contradictory concepts and statements, occasionally within the same spell or sentence. Consequently, for modern readers, many of whom have been influenced by the uncompromising strictures of monotheism, reading the Book often evokes confusion, even shock. In the profoundly polytheistic environment of Egyptian religion, however, there was never was a need to reconcile differences or to compel uniformity; one should more properly speak of Egyptian religions in the plural rather than the singular. Yet, despite this seeming lack of consistency, the fundamental concepts concerning life after death remained essentially stable.

Above all, the Egyptians had an essentially optimistic conception of the afterlife. For them death may have been inevitable, but it was survivable. However, unlike the modern view of death as the great leveler that reduces all humanity to the same status before the deity, a profound class-consciousness permeated the Egyptian view of the next world. Earthly status was transferable into the world beyond. The chief objective of their vast mortuary culture was not only to ensure survival after death but to preserve one's earthly station, presumably as a member of the elite. Therein lay the elaborate nature of Egyptian tombs and burials, which were intended to provide the deceased with a comfortable material existence in the next world, an existence that would in part be an idyllic version of earthly life, an Egyptian Elysian Fields. Egypt, the land of the living, was well ordered and governed under the principle of Ma'at, that is, roughly (rightful) order or universal guidance. Maat prevailed in the coherent, cosmic universe.

Consequently, travel through the world beyond the grave meant that the deceased would have to confront irrational, chaotic forces. The Book of the Dead joins together two views of the afterlife a chthonic underworld where Osiris, a deity who had died and been resurrected, presided and a stellar-solar realm where the blessed dead eventually hoped for an eternal celestial existence in the company of the sun god Ra. Once one entered the next world in the West or traveled with the god Ra below the horizon into the netherworld, one encountered the forces of primordial chaos and irrationality prevailed. Magical spells such as those in the Book of the Dead were considered the appropriate means for protecting the traveling soul against these dangers.

The key afterlife trial that everyone faced took the form of a judgment of one's soul on a set of scales like those the Egyptians used in their earthly existence. After the deceased had ritualistically denied a list of forty-two misdeeds, the so-called negative confessionhis or her heart was put on one scale-pan, while a feather symbolizing the principle of Ma'at was placed on the other. According to this beautiful metaphor, one's heart had to be as light as a feather in relation to sin. Thereafter, one was deemed "true-of-voice" and worthy of an eternal existence. Despite this, dangers remained. The chief purpose of the Book of the Dead was to guide the deceased through those afterlife perils; one might draw an analogy with a traveler's guide to a foreign land. The Book provides for many eventualities yet not all of these would arise, nor was it expected that the various dangers would occur according to the sequence in which they appear on any given scroll.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Charon and the River Styx; Mummification


Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.

Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Von Dassow, Eva, ed. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1994.