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What is the Book Of The Dead?

Updated on December 26, 2016

The Book of the Dead is collection of magic spells, written on papyrus, usually illustrated with vignettes, and buried with the dead in ancient Egypt. Knowledge of these spells was considered essential for happiness after death, although the idea began to creep in that this might be obtained as a reward for a good life. Thus as Osiris had been tried and declared 'true of voice', so when a dead man aspired to life after death he was thought to be judged by Osiris who was the ruler of the dead. Most Books of the Dead contain the vignette depicting the heart of the deceased being weighed against Truth, Thoth recording the results and a monster waiting to devour the untrue heart.

Origin and Development

The earliest examples of the Book of die Dead are from the 18th dynasty (1570-1304 B.C.). However, some sections are found in the earliest known Egyptian funerary texts. These are the so-called Pyramid Texts, which adorn the walls of the inner chambers of certain 5th, 6th, and 8th dynasty rulers. The Pyramid Texts insured the survival only of the pharaoh whose name they contained and certain of his subjects over whom he would rule in the Hereafter. Royal relatives and courtiers who were granted the favor of burial in tombs surrounding the pyramids may have been fortunate enough to enter the realms of the blessed through the agency of the king.

Until the very end of the Old Kingdom (2664-2155 B.C.) we know nothing of a liturgy to insure the ordinary Egyptian a life beyond the grave. That it was hoped he would survive is suggested by the fact that from the earliest times he was carefully buried in as substantial a grave as his wealth could provide and that his body was furnished with ornaments, weapons, food and beverages, clothing, and cosmetics. Moreover, during the Old Kingdom the process of mummification was developed to improve the preservation of the body itself.

Our first hint of funerary texts for commoners is provided by coffins of the late 6th dynasty (2341-2181 B.C.) on which are found selections from the Pyramid Texts and other incantations to help the dead enter the Beyond. These so-called Coffin Texts continued in use until after the Middle Kingdom (2052-1786 B.C.). When coffins became mummy-shaped at the beginning of the 18th dynasty, it was found more convenlent to set the incantations on papyrus, and the Book of the Dead proper began to develop. Copies are known from all subsequent periods of Egyptian history, the latest being Roman in date.


The texts of the Book of the Dead are generally arranged in vertical columns and most often are written in simplified linear hieroglyphs or in old-fashioned hieratic script. A few late examples exist with the text in horizontal lines and in contemporary script. Plain black ink was sometimes used, but often the titles of spells and important words were written in red. Illustrations could be few or many, in simple black line or beautifully drawn and lavishly colored.

In the 18th and 19th dynasty examples of the Book of the Dead, the number and order of spells vary enormously, apparently according to the desire of the person who commissioned the copy. By the Ptolemaic period (322-30 B.C.) the number and order of spells were standardized, and it was in the publication of a papyrus of this period that consecutive numbers were first applied to the spells. The numbering was continued as further spells were published, and more than 200 are now known, although no single papyrus contains all of these.

Egyptian Concepts of Life after Death

The glimpses of the Hereafter provided by ancient Egyptian funerary literature give a complex and somewhat confusing impression. A New Kingdom (1554-1075 B.C.) book (the Book of What Is in the Netherworld) describes the Hereafter as a subterranean region completely devoid of light during the day. It is divided into 12 regions, each called a "cavern" and ruled by a god whose subjects are "spirits." A great river like the Nile connects the many sections. Along this river, during the night, comes the boat of the sun god, who brings light and joy to the dwellers in the underground regions.

The illustration for Chapter 110 of the Book of the Dead shows the realm of Osiris, which was believed to be the sixth division of the Netherworld. It was an agricultural country with fields intersected by canals. In one part were several islands, and it was on one of these that Osiris held court. If the deceased could prove his worthiness to dwell there during a trial in the "Hall of the Two Truths," he was ferried over the waters and allowed to pursue a peaceful existence of plowing, reaping, threshing, or having these things done for him by servants who were bound to do his work at his request.

Content of Selected Spells

After death the Egyptian hoped either to be free to return to earth during the day or to be accepted as one of the blessed in the realm of Osiris. In the Book of the Dead such diverse elements as hymns and magic formulas, litanies and incantations, prayers, and words of power are all clearly intended to help overcome the obstacles to this aim. For example, Spell Ib gives the body power to enter the Hereafter immediately after burial: "As for one who knows this roll on earth or puts it in writing on his coffin, he goes forth by day in any form he wishes and enters his place again unhindered. There are given to him bread and beer and a chunk of meat from the altar of Re. He arrives at the Field of Rushes, and barley and wheat are given to him there. So he shall be thriving as he was on earth."

Spells 2-4 give the deceased power to revisit the earth, join the gods, and travel in the sky. Spell 6 binds the funerary statuette on which it was painted or carved to "volunteer" to perform any labors required of its master or mistress in the Hereafter. Spells 21-23 secured the help of several gods in "opening the mouth" of the deceased, enabling him to perform such necessary functions as breathing and eating. Spell 25 restored the deceased's memory, 42 put every part of the body under the protection of a particular god and goddess, 43 protected the body from decapitation, 44 prevented the deceased from dying a second time, and 130-31 enabled him to use the boats of sunrise and sunset.

Spell 154 contains an address to Osiris by the deceased that says in part: "I continue to exist, I continue to exist, alive, alive, enduring, enduring. I awake in peace, untroubled. I shall not perish younder... My skull shall not suffer, my ear shall not become deaf, my head shall not leave my neck, my tongue shall not be taken, my hair shall not be cut off, my eyebrows shall not fall out. No harm shall happen to my corpse. It shall not pass away, it shall not perish, from this land forever, and ever."

The best known chapter of the Book of the Dead is Number 125, which contains the episode of judgment. In the accompanying vignette, Osiris is enthroned, usually on the left, and facing four minor deities and a crocodile-headed hippopotamus, whose duty it is to devour the dead who are found unworthy. In the center is a great balance with the heart of the deceased in one pan, the feather representing truth in the other. The gods Horus and Anubis check the balance; Thoth records the result. To the right the deceased is received by Maat, the goddess of truth; 42 deities sit in judgment around the hall.

The deceased must make his own defense. First he addresses Osiris in words that are part hymn, part spell. Then he recites a general "declaration of innocence" in which he denies all sorts of evildoing and breaches of ritual custom. ' I have not oppressed dependents." "I have not slandered a servant to his superior." "I have not caused anyone to go hungry." "I have not caused anyone to weep." "I have not diminished the food offerings in the temples; . . . I have not taken the cakes set aside for the blessed." "I am pure." Next he addresses each of the 42 judges and denies one fault to each. Moreover—and this is how he really triumphs-he speaks their secret names and places of origin, thus claiming power over them. Finally the dead man addresses his heart, imploring it not to bear witness against him. If the heart confirms his innocence (and in the vignettes the balance is always even), the deceased is pronounced "true of voice." Horus then leads the deceased before Osiris, who will assign him his proper place in the realm of the blessed.


To judge from the spells in the Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptian conceived of life in the Hereafter, once attained, as a peaceful existence under the rulership of the god Osiris patterned after his life on earth and allowing him, on occasion, to return to earth or to accompany the sun god in the sky. In order to attain this happy existence, it was necessary that he have lived a reasonably decent life on earth (or know the litany declaring he had), that his body be complete and ritually pure, and that he be equipped with spells to overcome the perils separating him from the Hall of the Two Truths, where he faced judgment. At the judgment, he needed powerful magic in the form of knowledge of the secret names and places of origin of Osiris and the 42 judging deities, for with this knowledge he could coerce their decision in his favor. To ensure that the funerary priests would recite the necessary liturgy and that he himself might not forget the needed spells, the Egyptian who could afford it arranged to have a selection of them buried with him. Found in thousands of coffins, these have become known as the "Book of the Dead".


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