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The Egyptian Book of the Dead: A Road Map through Hell

Updated on October 30, 2014
Egyptian Book of the Dead
Egyptian Book of the Dead | Source
Pyramid Texts
Pyramid Texts | Source
Coffin Texts
Coffin Texts

Pyramid and Coffin Texts

For the Egyptians, the journey between a person's death and the afterlife was treacherous and often presented a second, everlasting death. Unlike most pagan or Christian religions, a person did not just appear at the designated place for judgment after their death. They had to travel through levels of nasty insects, deadly animals and locked doors than could only be opened by knowing the proper thing to say.

Originally, the directions for traveling this underworld realm, known as the Duat, were written on the walls of the tomb of the deceased. These paintings or carvings were known as Pyramid Texts and date back to the Old Kingdom, 2686 to 2181 BC or the Third through the Sixth dynasties. During the First Intermediate Period, 2181 to 2055 BC or the Seventh and Eighth dynasties, the inside and/or outside of the sarcophagus, or coffin, was now the location of the underworld road map. These were known as the Coffin Texts.

Book of Coming Forth by Day
Book of Coming Forth by Day | Source

The amount of work involved in creating pyramid and/or coffin texts prohibited the use by anyone but the royal family of Egypt. With the beginning of the New Kingdom, 1550 BC, however, artists started creating a "book" of directions needed by the dead, by writing the instructions, also called spells, on papyrus scrolls. While the scrolls were still expensive, they were far more affordable than the previous guides and could, therefore, be purchased by other aristocratic families. This meant that people other than the pharaoh and his immediate family could reach the heavenly afterlife known as the Field of Reeds. These scrolls, known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, were placed in the sarcophagus or close by in the tomb, for use in the difficult journey to judgment.

Horus, Osiris and Ra
Horus, Osiris and Ra
Ra and the pharaoh on Ra's nightly ride to defeat Apophis
Ra and the pharaoh on Ra's nightly ride to defeat Apophis | Source

Pharaoh's Journey Through the Underworld

In Egyptian religion, the pharaoh, who was originally the only mortal to traverse the Duat, was considered the eye of the god Horus during his rule. Horus was the god of the sky, war and the pharaoh of the upper world gods. To become pharaoh of the mortal people, a new pharaoh would become one with Horus. Upon his death, the mortal pharaoh would become one with Osiris, pharaoh of the afterlife, but first he would have to assist Ra, god of the sun, on his nightly journey through the Duat to defeat the destruction god, Apophis, which Ra did every night when the sun went down. In order to reach Ra and his barque, sun boat, the pharaoh need to make his way through the dangerous Duat, and therefore the guide was created.

Contents of the Book

By the time the Book of the Dead came along, spells for passage through the Duat had grown to include 200 different spells, far too many to include in one single book. Preparation of the book, therefore, became a cafeteria plan, if you will, that allowed the owner of the book to pick and choose spells they thought would be the most useful. The spells were organized by purpose as follows:

  • Spells 1-16 covered placement of the mummy in the tomb, travel through the Duat and the rejoining of the ba, or soul, and mortal body, or ha
  • Spells 17-63 covered the story of the gods and creation and the rebirth of the dead with the rising of the morning sun
  • Spells 64-129 covered the trip across the sky with Ra on the sun barque and the difficult travel through the Duat at night to slay Apophis then stand before Osiris for judgment
  • Spells 130-200 covered life as a god in the Field of Reeds and the preparation and provisions needed for an eternal life of bliss

Ba in its usual bird form
Ba in its usual bird form | Source
Four Sons of Horus - canopic jars
Four Sons of Horus - canopic jars | Source

Spells 1-30

Clearly some of the spells are quite necessary. These include directions for preparation of the body. Egyptians perfected the practice of mummification, as they believed that the body, or ha as the Egyptians called it, was needed in the afterlife. Unlike other religions, the soul, or ba, was only separated from the mortal ha for a short period of time. If the ha was not properly prepared, the ba would have no vessel in which to spend eternity.

Certain internal organs were considered vital and were, therefore, well preserved in canopic jars known as the Four Sons of Horus. The jars were for the liver, lungs, large intestines and stomach. Each body part had a specific jar with its own god and protector goddess.

  • Imsety with a human head, protected the liver and was protected by Isis
  • Duamutef with a jackal head, protected the stomach and was protected by Neith
  • Hapi with a baboon head, protected the lungs and was protected by Nephthys
  • Qebehsenuef had a hawk head, like his father. He protected the large intestines and was protected by Serket

Heart Scarab with spell 30
Heart Scarab with spell 30
Book of the Dead, part of spell 17
Book of the Dead, part of spell 17 | Source

You might think the most vital organ was the brain, but was, in fact, pulled out through the nose and thrown away. The heart was keeper of knowledge and all of the secrets of the person in life. It would be the heart that determined your fate during judgment, so it had to be protected at all costs. The heart was left inside the body, but it was protected by its own sacred scarab. The scarab was a symbol or Ra, and, therefore, it was not just a dung beetle to the Egyptians.

This section also contains the story of the creation of the world. The thing to remember is that different cities in Egypt had different versions of creation. The Heliopolis version relates the story of Atum as the creator and father of Shu, god of the winds, and his sister/wife Tefnut, goddess of moister. Other versions of the myth placed Ra in this position. Spell 17 tells the story of Atum and the creation of the world, and while I could see saving a little money by not including this story, it was frequently included in copies of the Book of the Dead.

Spells 31-52

As stated before, the trip through the Duat was a dangerous placed filled with animals like crocodiles and snakes that could end the deceased's trip rather quickly. It was also important to ward off things like putrefaction or even walking upside-down. Apparently, someone thought it possible.

One example is spell 33. It states, "O rerek-snake, take yourself off, for Geb protects me, get up, for you have eaten a mouse, which Ra detests, and you have chewed the bones of a putrid cat." - Book of the Dead

Looks like eating the bones of a putrid cat is a big no-no in the Duat. Geb is the god of the earth.

These spells would ensure that the dead could survive the dangers of the Duat and, therefore, would have been considered vital for everyone's copy of the book.

Opening of the Mouth ceremony
Opening of the Mouth ceremony | Source

Spells 54-63

It seems impossible to believe, but there are eleven spells dedicated to the actual reincarnation of the combined ba and ha. These all pertain to enabling the dead to breathe air and drink water and are tied to the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

A tightly wrapped mummy would not be able to breathe or take in food and water. By using a knife, called a netjeri blade, the mouth could be opened allowing the ha to once again live now that it was rejoined with the ba.

Spells 87 and 88
Spells 87 and 88 | Source
Set with Ra battling Apophis
Set with Ra battling Apophis | Source

Spells 64-112

Once the ba and ka are reunited and the deceased has been revived, they are ready for their twenty-four hour trip with Ra on the sun barque. The first part of the journey takes place across the sky. Spells 64-89 deal with coming forth by day. The pharaoh was required to assist Ra on his travel across the sky, which was actually the easier part of his duties. As darkness falls, Ra descends into the Duat to face the demon snake Apophis. Apophis has a plan to swallow the sun and thereby force the world back into chaos. Ra, the newly deceased pharaoh and some of the other gods like Set and Sobek, must defeat Apophis every night and allow the sun to rise anew each morning. This part of the journey is covered in spells 98-112. By assisting Ra on this dangerous mission, the pharaoh would be absolved of any wrongdoing he/or she, in the case of pharaohs like Hatshepsut, had done in their lives. It is a good thing the Ptolemies were Greek, or they would have needed several nights to absolve themselves.

Weighing of the Heart
Weighing of the Heart | Source
Anubis and Ammit
Anubis and Ammit

Spells 125-126

Once Apophis has been defeated, which he always is, the deceased is ready to appear before Osiris, the god of the Underworld. In what has become the most recognized section of the Book of the Dead, Anubis, god of funerals and embalming, must lead the dead before Osiris for the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. During the process, Anubis will take the heart and place it on one side of scales to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. The feather belongs to Ma'at, the goddess of truth and order. The catch is that the heart cannot weigh any more or less than the feather, as the deceased is required to live a balanced life. If the heart is equal to Ma'at's feather, the deceased is allowed to enter the Field of Reeds, Egypt's version of Heaven. If the heart weighs more or less, it will be given to Ammit the Devourer to eat. Once the heart has been eaten, the dead will never be able to live.

half of the Negative Confessions from the Papyrus of Ani
half of the Negative Confessions from the Papyrus of Ani | Source

In addition to the weighing process, the dead are required to recite Forty-two Declarations of Purity, also known as the negative confessions. Similar to the laws in the Code of Hammurabi or the Ten Commandments of Moses, the declarations are a list of misdeeds that the dead is attesting they have not done in their lifetime. Like the overall spells to be included in the Book of the Dead, there were more than forty-two possible choices to confession you have not done. Some of the standard choices are:

  • I have not committed sin
  • I have not stolen
  • I have not slain men and women (which is why pharaohs had others do their dirty work)
  • I have not uttered lies
  • I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men
  • I have made none to weep (I am assuming "in joy" does not count)
  • I have not been an eavesdropper
  • I am not a stirrer up of strife
  • I have not multiplied my words in speaking (no making a short story long I suppose)
  • I have never raised my voice

Personally, I could not attest to some of these, and I doubt many pharaohs could either, but helping Ra defeat Apophis probably makes up for a lot.

Guardians of Obstacles in the Book of the Dead
Guardians of Obstacles in the Book of the Dead | Source

Spells 127-150

To the ancient Egyptians, names were sacred, and knowing a name was the key to controlling that being. The next set of spells allowed the deceased to ward off many of the demons and doorkeepers stationed at various gates, caverns and mounds throughout the Duat by speaking their names.

Spell 148 also provides an eternity of food and drink for the deceased by providing the names of the cows associated with the sacred bull. Some names of his female friends include; Silent One who dwells in her palace, She whose name has power in her craft and my personal favorite, The Much Beloved, red of hair.

Spells 151-189

Many of the remaining spells provide protection from unique risks that the dead may encounter in the Duat. These include being captured in a net, having your corpse rot and even eating feces and drinking urine, which must look way more enticing in the afterlife.

Some of the spells are not so much spells, but descriptions of amulets that can be used to ward off evil creatures or problems.

There are also a select number of hymns to individual gods used to garner favor should you need it, and oh yes, a spell that allows you to make your sins invisible to the gods so you can lie without having a heavy heart. That spell would be a must.

The other various spells were rare.

The god Horus leading Ani through the Duat
The god Horus leading Ani through the Duat | Source


If you were important enough or wealthy enough to afford a copy of the book, you were all set to traverse the Duat and reach judgment with Lord Osiris. This begs the question of what happened to those who could not afford a copy. Did they just cease to exist? Did they enter the Duat without protection only to be swallowed up by the first swarm of scarabs? There is also the problem of not being wealthy enough for good mummification or a burial place protected from the jackals. There was a lot to consider when planning for your own death and that of your loved ones. Far more was at stake than believing in the gods and living a moral life, which for the average Egyptian would have been far easier. No matter how tight your budget, you did not want to die without your afterlife insurance. It was far easier to be an ancient Greek, where a good life, a decent burial and a couple of gold coins was all you needed.

While many copies of the Book of the Dead have been found, very few ever made it to the hands of Egyptologists in one piece. That made the discovery of the famous Papyrus of Ani one of the greatest ancient discoveries of all time. It is a beautiful copy full of rich colors and stunning artwork. It was created during the Nineteenth dynasty, that of Pharaoh Ramesses the Great. It was prepared for a man named Ani, a royal scribe who lived in Thebes, modern day Luxor, and it is believed that his copy of the Book of the Dead probably cost him half a year's salary. It was for both Ani and his wife, but even for two, this was a hefty price to pay, on the other hand, the alternative would be a scary proposition.


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    • profile image

      Kevin Goodwin 

      4 years ago

      Really well written and I thought Dante made the afterlife a grim and desperate place to be. Nice job.


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