The Egyptian Book of the Dead (with video)

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According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, following death, every Egyptian faced the ultimate judgment during which his or her heart was put on one side of a scale while a feather symbolizing the principle of Ma’at (truth, balance, and order) was placed o

According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, following death, every Egyptian faced the ultimate judgment during which his or her heart was put on one side of a scale while a feather symbolizing the principle of Ma’at (truth, balance, and order) was placed on the other.  One’s heart had to be as light as a feather in relation to sin to be allowed to pass through to the afterlife

Once having passed this trial, however, one was deemed “true-of-voice" and worthy of eternal existence.  Even so, it was thought that the soul would face many dangers on its journey to the afterlife

Upon entering the world in the West or traveling with Ra below the horizon into the netherworld, one encountered the forces of primordial chaos where "irrationality" prevailed.  To guide the deceased through this chaos, the Book of the Dead provided secret navigational  rituals for many of the eventualities they‘d face. 

But, the Book was not designed to address all the perils and ordeals that might arise on this journey, nor did it suggest that the various dangers it explained would occur according to the sequence in which they appeared on the Book of the Dead scrolls themselves.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, also referred to as The Book of Coming Forth by Day, is the most popularly known text associated with the ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death.   Receiving its name from the fact that many of the earliest texts to reach Renaissance Europe had been found accompanying mummies in burials, the misconception grew that the Book of the Dead was canonical Egyptian scripture equivalent to the Hebrew Bible.  The actual Egyptian title, however, The Chapters of Going Forth by Day, provides a more accurate perspective as to this text’s true purpose.

Often compared to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is now understood that the Egyptian Book of the Dead was essentially a collection of prayers and magical incantations intended to enable the deceased 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 text that contains the complete range of Egyptian mortuary beliefs, nor is the Book in any sense an Egyptian Bible, it does provide not only the magical perspective Egyptians are thought to have adopted as they prepared for death, but insight for the modern reader as to the wide range of ancient Egyptian concepts involving both the afterlife and the afterworld.

The Book of the Dead appeared in many forms.  While it occurs primarily on papyri, it is also found on tomb walls, coffins, scarabs, funerary stelae, and numerous other objects as well.  Perhaps the best known Book is the famous papyrus that was inscribed for a man named Ani, “the Accounts-Scribe of the Divine Offerings of all the Gods,” and his wife Tutu. This incredibly beautiful illustrated scroll was made during the early Ramesside period (1300 BCE) in Thebes (modern Luxor), the southern religious capital, which was apparently Ani’s home town.  Purchased by curator E. A. Wallis Budge in 1888 for the British Museum, it extends more than seventy-five feet in length, and is one of the best examples of the Book papyri of the New Kingdom and Ramesside periods.

As scholars subsequently discovered, for all its remarkable detailing, the Ani scroll was actually a pre-made template papyrus, comparable to ready-made leases or deeds of today, whereby Ani's name and titles were simply inserted into the appropriate blank spaces at the time of death.  Apparently, Ani had purchased from a funerary workshop what was deemed appropriate preparation for his safe journey into the next world (or perhaps what he could afford), with the relevant spells and prayers ultimately pasted together to form the final product, which is now on display in the British Museum.

The Book of the Dead represents the epitome of the illustrated Book of ancient Egyptian times. 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 older sources provided the literal text 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 even after the Book, throughout pharaonic history.  But at no time did any one text or group of texts become the definitive version with a fixed format and number of chapters.

Like all Egyptian religious texts, the Book was essentially various collections of texts compiled from several different sources or local traditions, so that the final versions often contained concepts and statements contradictory to a given region or belief system, sometimes even within the same spell or sentence.  Consequently, reading the Book often evokes confusion, even surprise that such an essential text would be so fraught with inconsistencies.  But because of the ever-evolving polytheistic environment of ancient Egyptian religion, there was never a need to reconcile these differences or resolve to uniformity as Egyptian religion was actually a group of many converging regional belief systems that changes at power shifted and new ideas were introduced.  Even so, the fundamental concepts concerning life after death remained essentially stable throughout Egypt.

The first spells that can be directly associated with the Book of the Dead appear in the late Middle Kingdom (2040--1640 BCE), but it was not until the Eighteenth Dynasty (1500 BCE) that this new work became the standard afterlife text for Egyptian elite.  In order to enhance its appeal to the conservative religious sensibilities of Egyptians of the time, the Book of the Dead preserved many archaisms in script, vocabulary, and dialect, the main innovations being that nearly every spell was accompanied by an illustration, and that the work was made affordable to a much wider audience of Egyptians by using relatively cheap quality papyrus.   (In essence, it became commercialized.)

Historians today assume that only a small percentage of Egyptians actually had the financial means to include the Book of the Dead among their burial goods.  In fact, because the Book describes a lavish funeral, as well an elaborate, well-equipped tomb and other expensive burial items, some scholars have surmised that these scrolls were partially intended to provide “by magic” various objects that the average Egyptian official could not afford in the mundane world.

Footage of the Book from the British Museum

One thing that is immediately apparent by reading the Book of the Dead is that the ancient Egyptians had an essentially optimistic conception of the afterlife.  Unlike the modern view of death, that of the great leveler that reduces all humanity to the same status when standing before the supreme creator, a profound class-consciousness pervaded the Egyptian perspective, with earthly status transferable into the world beyond.  Thus, the chief objective of their vast preparation (aided my the Book) was not only to ensure survival after death, but to preserve one’s earthly station--which was supremely essential to a member of Egypt’s elite.  Therein lies the reason for the elaborate nature of Egyptian tombs and burial chambers, 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.


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