There were a lot of beliefs in ancient Egypt and most of them revolved around life, death and the afterlife. And thanks to the historians and archeologists, who have shed their blood and sweat to unravel these mysteries, we are now able to understand the mindset and viewpoints of ancient Egyptians.
Book of the Dead spell 17 from the Papyrus of Ani (1275 BC)
Book of the Dead
Book of the Dead is, without a doubt, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest relics. It was one of the earliest literary works to elaborately illustrate the nation’s funerary traditions, the concept of life, death and the afterlife. But the practice of funerary writing in Egypt dates back to the Old Kingdom, in the 24th century B.C.
The first kinds of obituary writing in Egypt were Pyramid Texts, which were inscribed on the walls of burial chamber in pyramids. Pyramid texts, which included several figures representing humans and animals, were purposed to protect and help dead kings pass on to the afterlife safely. And the first of this kind of writing was used in the pyramid of King Unas, during the 24th century B.C.
Then during the reign of the Middle Kingdom, Pyramid texts evolved to what is called Coffin Texts. The contents of the Coffin Text had much similarity to that of the Pyramid Text. But there certainly were obvious discrepancies; one was that this new form of funerary text was inscribed on the interiors of a coffin, sometimes on Papyri or the walls of a tomb, but mostly on the surface of coffins; secondly, unlike the Pyramid Texts, which were used only by the royals and the elite; the Coffin Text was available for the commoners as well.
Then with the rise of the New kingdom around 1550 B.C., Egyptian writing and funerary tradition underwent yet another telling evolution, which was marked by the surfacing of the ‘Book of the Dead.’
The Book of the Dead which is read as ‘Reu nu pert emhru’ in Egyptian, and means ‘The Chapters of coming forth by day’ or ‘Book of emerging forth into the Light’ is an entity that highlighted the period of the New Kingdom. It was during this time that it developed and gained widespread recognition. Historians say that it existed until the 1st century B.C.
The Book of the Dead is a funerary scripture aimed at facilitating an easy and safe navigation through the Duat (the Underworld) for the dead. It was also believed that this entity would enable the deceased to get help and protection from the Gods during this challenging journey.
It is basically a collection of spells, some were new but most of them were collected from the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts. It was written on a papyrus commissioned by the individual before death or by a relative. The quality of the papyri and the texts differed tremendously, and it all depended upon the individual’s financial standing.
Papyri were very expensive during that period and only the royals or the elite were able to afford it. There was even a point where archeologists discovered a Book of the Dead written on a second-hand papyrus.
The Book of the Dead, at certain occasions, would be written on linen shrouds, which would be used to wrap the dead bodies.
As earlier stated, the Book of the Dead is a compilation of magical spells written over the course of about one thousand years. The spells were written in the form of cursive hieroglyphs which were arranged in columns and separated by a black line. Each text, inscribed by a black or red ink, is accompanied by a certain kind of illustration.
There was a great amount of variety in the type of vignettes utilized in the Book of the Dead; some were extravagant, colorful, rich and large, whereas others were very simple and small, as in line drawings.
Often times, the illustrations included the image of the deceased’s wife; but drawing of vicious lions, crocodiles, snakes, beetles and hippopotamus were also quite common.
Each Book of the Dead was unique and different. There was no order or pattern in the way the chapters of the Book of the Dead were arranged. The illustrations, the texts, the spells were all developed in a way that’s to satisfy the preference of the deceased or their relatives.
So far about 192 spells used in ancient Egypt and in the Book of the Dead are known. But there isn’t a single Book of the Dead that contains all these spells, and if there is, it hasn’t yet been found then.
The greatest and most explicit relic of this funerary tradition that has survived for this long and still is in a good condition is The Papyrus of Ani – a legacy of ancient Egypt and one that is currently situated in The British Museum, London.
A close-up of the Papyrus of Ani, showing the cursive hieroglyphs of the text
Here are some of the translated spells historians and archeologists have managed to unravel.
“O you Soul [ba], greatly majestic, behold, I have come that I may see you; I open the Netherworld that I may see my father Osiris and drive away darkness, for I am beloved of him. I have come that I may see my father Osiris and that I may cut out the heart of Seth who has harmed my father Osiris. I have opened up every path which isin the sky and on earth, for I am the well-beloved son of my father Osiris. I am noble, I am a spirit [akh], I am equipped; O all you gods and all you spirits [akhu], prepare a path for me.”
— Spell 9 from the Papyrus of Ani
“All the evil which was on me has been removed.
What does that mean? It means that I was cleansed on the day of my birth in the two great and noble marshes which are in Heracleopolis on the day when the common folk make offerings to the Great God who is therein.
What are they? 'Eternity' is the name of one; 'sea' is the name of the other. They are the Lake of Natron and the Lake of Maat.
Otherwise said: ‘Eternity governs' is the name of one; 'Sea' is the name of the other.’
Otherwise said: ‘Seed of Eternity' is the name of one; 'sea' is the name of the other. As for that Great God who is therein, he is Ra himself’”
— Spell 17 from the Papyrus of Ani
If challenged by questions in the afterlife, this was used to demonstrate one’s acquaintance with religion and its secrets.
“I have put my name in the Upper Egyptian shrine, I [have] made my name to be remembered in the Lower Egyptian shrine, on this night of counting the years and of numbering the months.”
—Spell 25 from Book of the Dead.
It was used to help the deceased remember their names after death.
No amount of fame or fortune can equate the worth of life; it is a priceless entity that could never be sold or exchanged. But life for ancient Egyptians was just a segment, a very small part of the eternal journey that awaited them after death.
Bunsen, the historian, argues that ancient Egyptians believed that human life, its goal and purpose, was to simply serve as a phase of life through which one could acquire eternal happiness offered in life after death.
But to accomplish a harmonious eternal journey one must live a good and just life here on earth.
Death in Egyptian mythology doesn’t quite necessarily mean the end. It is viewed as the moment when the soul parts from the body and is brought before Osiris in the “Hall of Truth” for the final judgment. The god Anubis is said to be the one who escorts the soul to Osiris.
However, before the soul stands to face Osiris and the final judgment, he or she must first pass through a series of gates and caverns that are infiltrated and guarded by mystical creatures that are vicious and will do whatever is possible to stop the passer-by. And to pacify these ferocious beings the deceased would use the spells in his or her Book of the Dead.
“Get back! Retreat! Get back, you dangerous one! Do not come against me, do not live by my magic; may I not have to tell this name of yours to the Great God who sent you; 'Messenger' is the name of one, and Bedty is the name of the other. The crocodile speaks: 'Your face belongs to righteousness. The sky encloses the stars, magic encloses its settlements, and my mouth encloses the magic which is in it. My teeth are a knife, my tusks are the Viper Mountain. The deceased replied: 'O you with a spine who would work your mouth against this magic of mine, no crocodile which lives by magic shall take it away”
—Spell 31 used to stop the attack of crocodiles
And if the deceased manages to circumvent all the obstacles and passes through all the challenges, then he/she will be escorted to the Hall of Truth.
In the Hall of Truth, the deceased would then be asked to swear that he/she did not commit the forty-two sins, which are also known as the “Negative Confession.”
Here are some of the sins on the list:
1. I have not committed sin.
2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
3. I have not stolen.
4. I have not slain men and women.
5. I have not stolen grain.
6. I have not purloined offerings.
7. I have not stolen the property of the gods.
8. I have not uttered lies.
9. I have not carried away food.
10. I have not uttered curses.
11. I have not committed adultery.
12. I have made none to weep.
After reciting the Negative Confession before the forty-two judges, the heart, which is seen as the base of intelligence and memory, would then be put on a golden scale against the white feather of Maat or Ma'at and get weighed.
The deceased would be considered as someone who has lived a life free of sins and will be granted entrance to the afterlife, if the heart weighs lighter than the feather. But if the heart weighs heavier than the feather, then the soul of the deceased would be thrown to the Underworld where the merciless monster, Ammut, would devour it.
To avoid such calamity, ancient Egyptians would always take measures to protect and give the much needed strength to the deceased’s heart. There were two common ways they would execute this ritual and one was done through magical spells like the kind depicted in Spell 125 or Spell 30B which reads,
“O my heart of my mother! O my heart of my mother! O my heart of my different forms! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance, for you are my ka which was in my body, the protector who made my members hale. Go forth to the happy place where to we speed, do not make my name stink to the Entourage who make men. Do not tell lies about me in the present of the god. It is indeed well that you should hear!”
— Spell 30B
The other method ancient Egyptians commonly used for the protection of the deceased’s heart was the burying of the body with heart shaped scarabs.
In Egyptian mythology the afterlife is a place of eternal bliss; the anxiously awaited paradise where only the gods and the pure would be able to live in. The illustration of the afterlife in Egyptian mythology is quite diverse, but most commonly it is imagined to be a rich and green place, where there were plenty waterways, crops, people, oxen and so forth.
The afterlife is often referred to as the ‘Field of Reeds’ in the Book of the Dead; it’s represented as a place that has much similarity to that of life on earth.
In the afterlife it is believed that the deceased will be able to join the Great Ennead (a group of gods) and his or her parents. It was also stated in various scriptures that once the deceased passes the judgment and enters the afterlife, he or she will not only join Osiris and all the other supreme Gods, but will also possess some kind of a divine power as well. This belief is illustrated by the way each Book of the Dead starts out as "The Osiris - [Name of the deceased].”
The Book of the Dead clearly depicts the marvelous aspects of the afterlife, but it also states that it was mandatory for the deceased to take part in a number of laborious chores. For this reason, the burial mounds would often have several statuettes with spells written on them; these objects were called Shabti or Ushebti.