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The Book of the Dead is the name now given to sheets of papyrus covered with magical texts and accompanying illustrations called vignettes which the ancient Egyptians placed with their dead in order to help them pass through the dangers of the Underworld and attain an afterlife of bliss in the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian heaven. Some of the texts and vignettes are also found on the walls of tombs and on coffins or written on linen or vellum rather than on papyrus. The very rare examples of Books of the Dead written on leather (for example BM10281) were probably master copies, used by scribes who were commissioned to reproduce their contents.
The term Book of the Dead was chosen by modern Egyptologists because the texts on funerary papyri are divided into individual spells, or chapters, nearly two hundred in number, although no one papyrus contains all of them. These chapters formed a repertoire from which selection was made. If the prospective owner of a Book of the Dead was wealthy and his death not untimely he would commission an expert scribe to write the text for him and it would consist of his own personal choice of chapters. An expert draughtsman scribe would be employed to provide the illustrative vignettes. Others, less fortunate, had to make do with a ready written text in which spaces had been left for the insertion of the name and titles of the buyer. In one instance, in a funerary papyrus of Ptolemaic date (about 200 BC) written in the hieratic script (BM10098), instead of leaving a space for the prospective owner's name the scribe has written on each occasion in demotic, the script in current use for everyday documents, the word men meaning'so-and-so'. Presumably the papyrus had never been bought.
The earliest Book of the Dead papyri date to the mid-fifteenth century BC, but the ritual utterances and incantations they contain have a history which can be traced back more than a thousand years earlier. Some of the spells in the Book of the Dead originated in the Pyramid Texts which first appeared carved in hieroglyphs on the walls of the burial chamber and anteroom of the pyramid of King Wenis, last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, about 2345 BC. Although this is their first written appearance it is clear from their content that many of these utterances had been in existence for centuries. One Pyramid Text (Spell 662) tells the dead king to cast the sand from his face, a clear allusion to burial in the desert sand which was especially common during the Predynastic Period, before 3100 BC. Another utterance (Spell 355) says that bricks have been removed from the great tomb, a reference to mud-brick mastaba tombs of the type discarded by royalty since the early Third Dynasty, about 2680 BC. Some of the Pyramid Text utterances are hymns and addresses to various gods or magical recitations to assure the royal resurrection and protection from malign influences. Others are concerned with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony which was performed on the mummy and tomb statues during the funeral rites and with the Offering Ritual which was carried out after the burial.
The Pyramid Texts also reflect a belief in an astral afterlife among the circumpolar stars which predates the ideas of the pyramid-builders who believed in a solar afterlife spent in the company of the sun-god. The tone of the Pyramid Texts is often threatening: the king almost bullies the gods into allowing him to enter heaven. There is little evidence that he expected to become one of their number automatically. It is possibly of significance that none of the kings of the Fourth Dynasty or the other kings of the Fifth Dynasty felt the need to have these texts carved within their tombs. The rulers who could command the building of the pyramids at Giza and sun-temples at Abu Gurab presumably had no doubt of their entry into heaven to join their fellow gods. Once they had made their appearance, the Pyramid Texts continued to be carved inside the pyramids of kings and queens of the Sixth Dynasty and early First Intermediate Period for another two hundred years.
The Middle Kingdom (about 2040-1786 BC) was a time when funerary beliefs and practices were democratised, when a guaranteed afterlife, which before had been restricted to royalty and great noblemen, became open to all who could afford to acquire the relevant equipment. Now to the Utterances of the Pyramid Texts were added many more spells, and this new repertoire was written not in hieroglyphs but in the cursive script called hieratic, in closely crowded vertical columns within the wooden coffins of commoners. Because of their new location the spells are now known as Coffin Texts, and it is they which are the direct predecessors of the texts written in Book of the Dead papyri of the New Kingdom and later.
A new development in the Coffin Texts is that the sun-god is no longer supreme: Osiris is the king under whom the blessed dead hope to spend eternity, the god with whom the dead became assimilated as 'the Osiris so-and-so'. Indeed, from now on the term 'the Osiris so-and-so' means little more than 'the late' or 'the deceased'. This new importance of Osiris in the afterlife is best illustrated by his assumption of the role of judge of the dead. During the Old Kingdom (about 2686-2181 BC) when only the great nobility, apart from the king, were assured of an afterlife, living one's earthly life according to a strict moral code was considered sufficient to secure eternal bliss. But the breakdown of order during the political troubles of the First Intermediate Period, which led to tomb-robbery and the desecration of cemeteries, shattered this belief. So, in an attempt to deter such wrong-doing, the idea was encouraged that judgement would be passed on the dead for the actions they had committed on earth. At first it was an anonymous Great God who passed sentence, but once Osiris became preeminent as god of the dead during the Middle Kingdom, it was only natural that he should be the god before whom the trial took place. Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is entirely devoted to the judgement of the dead and the various vignettes depicting the Weighing of the Heart, by which it was ascertained whether the deceased was worthy to enter the kingdom of Osiris, are among some of the best-known scenes from funerary papyri.
Another new concept appearing in the Coffin Texts is a belief in an afterlife spent in the Field of Reeds where agricultural tasks would have to be carried out by the deceased for all eternity. Since Egypt was an agricultural community with an annual need for ploughing, sowing, harvestng, maintenance of irrigation works and remarking of boundaries after the inundation, the Other World was envisaged as an identical environment requiring the same hard labour. Hence the shabti-formula makes its first appearance, a spell to relieve the dead of all hard work in the afterlife by providing a magical substitute worker, a shabti figurine. One of the very first noted occurrences of the shabti-formula (Spell 472) is inside the outer wooden coffin from el-Bersha of a physician called Gua (BM 30839). From the New Kingdom onwards shabtis inscribed with Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead and carrying agricultural implements becom one of the commonest elements of Egyptian funerary equipment. The Field of Reeds with its waterways, islands and divine inhabitants, and the ploughing, sowing and reaping required of the dead, is regularly depicted in the vignette of Chapter 110 of the Book of the Dead.
Thus the chapters of the Book of the Dead papyri of the New Kingdom and later incorporate at least three quite separate traditions: there are traces of the earliest beliefs in an astral afterlife, spells in which the sun-god with his associated gods is supreme, and others in which Osiris is all-important. The Egyptians saw no incongruity in such a situation. In Egyptian religion old beliefs were rarely discarded, new ideas and concepts were merely tacked on, even when in direct contradiction to existing views. That is why the Egyptians could believe in an afterlife in which the deceased would spend eternity in the company of the circumpolar stars as an akh, at the same time as being restricted to the burial chamber and offering chapel of the tomb as a ka, but also visiting the world of the living, inhabiting the Elysian Fields and travelling across the sky and through the Underworld with the sun-god as a ba. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Egyptians themselves called the text of funerary papyri the Book of Coming Forth by Day, for it concerned to so great an extent the freedom granted to the spirit forms which survived death to come and go as they pleased in the afterlife.
Some of the earliest Book of the Dead papyri, such those of Nu (BM 10477), Userhat (BM 10009), Kha (Turin Museum) and Yuya (Cairo Museum) contain a surprisingly small number of chapters and are further distinguished by having few vignettes. During the course of the New Kingdom, however, the repertoire of chapters grew steadily and vignettes became more prominent. Indeed, during the Third Intermediate Period (about 1085-715 BC) many funerary papyri consisted of almost nothing but illustrations. Moreover, there are some chapters which always existed only in vignette form, for example Chapters 16 and 143. Illustrations are usually restricted to a narrow frieze above the text except for occasional examples which run the whole height of the papyrus. When the text is written in horizontal lines rather than in vertical columns full-height vignettes ar usually evenly spaced between sections of text. In funerary papyri of the Late Period (after about 600 BC) small vignettes are frequently set in the midst of the text itself. Books of the Dead with large sections of text, not necessarily accurately copied, must always have cost more than those in which vignettes predominated.
During the New Kingdom there was still little attempt to regularise the order in which selected chapters appeared. Often, too, variants of the same chapter appeared in different parts of the same papyrus. In other instances chapters were cut off in the middle of the text purely because the scribe had run out of space. Some papyri give proof that the text and illustrations were produced separately without regard to each other, for chapters and their vignettes do not coincide. In spite of this lack of order certain spells are found in every extant Book of the Dead papyrus: Chapter 1, which concerns the Coming Forth by Day after Burial, Chapter 17, which concerns the Coming Forth by Day Triumphant over all enemies, and Chapter 64, which concerns the Coming Forth by Day in various Transformations. Funerary papyri of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and later (after about 600 BC) are characterised not only by a new style of vignette with subdued use of colour but by a regularising of the order of chapters and a fixing of their total number at 192. This unchanging text of Late Period funerary papyri is sometimes known as the Saite Recension to distinguish it from the more arbitrary contents of earlier Books of the Dead, which are said to embody the Theban Recension.
Some of the oldest chapters of the Book of the Dead can actually be traced back to the original Utterances in the Pyramid Texts, but without exception they have survived in so corrupt a form as to be virtually unintelligible. Chapters 174, 177 and 178 are examples of such survivals. Other spells also appear to be ancient, but examination often proves that they are relatively recent in composition. One of the most important spells con cerned with the heart was Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead, which was always to be inscribed 'on a scarab made from nephrite [a green stone], mounted in fine gold, with a silver suspension ring and placed at the throat of the deceased'. The spell was reputed to be very old, having been found 'in Hermopolis, under the feet of the Majesty of this god [that is, beneath a statue of the god Thoth]. It was written on a block of Upper Egyptian mineral in the writing of the god himself and was discovered in the time of the Majesty of the vindicated King of Upper and Lower Egypt Menkaure. It was the king's son Hordedef who found it while he was going around making an inspection of the temples.' Menkaure or Mycerinus, as Classical authors called him, was a pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty who built the smallest of the three pyramids at Giza. Hordedef himself was revered throughout the pharaonic period for his reputation as a wise man, so any spell connected with him would be bound to have extra potency. Yet one of the earliest heart scarabs is that belonging to King Sobkemsaf II of the Seventeenth Dynasty, who reigned about 1590 BC, nine centuries after Mycerinus. It looks suspiciously as though a false pedigree was created for Chapter 30B to make it look older than it really was: the spell was almost certainly only composed a very short time before it was first inscribed on a heart scarab. Hordedef was also linked with Chapter 137A concerning the four torches which would give light to the deceased. This spell was reputed to have been found by the prince 'written in the god's own hand in a secret chest in the temple of Wenut [a hare goddess]' at Hermopolis.
According to one version, the all-important Chapter 64 was found 'in the foundations of the One-who-is-in-the-Henu-bark [that is, beneath the temple of the funerary god Sokaris] by a Supervisor of Wall-builders in the time of the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Semty, vindicated'. Semty or Khasty, the name cannot be read with certainty, is better known as Den, fifth king of the First Dynasty, who ruled about 2875 BC. Since writing only makes its appearance in Egypt with the beginning of the First Dynasty some two hundred years earlier the spell could scarcely claim to be more ancient. But it cannot be without significance that it appears to have no antecedent in the Pyramid Texts. So, like Chapters 30B and 137A, Chapter 64 was probably composed far more recently than would first appear to be the case. This would certainly help to explain the number of variant forms of this chapter: because it was a recent composition, the definitive version of the text had not yet been decided.
On the other hand, some of the versions of chapters which were incorporated into the repertoire at quite a late stage made no attempt to hide their recent composition. Some copies of Chapter 166 concerning the spell for the headrest state that the text was found 'at the neck of the mummy of King Usermaatre [that is, Ramesses II or Ramesses iii] in the necropolis'. Some versions of Chapter 167 concerning the bringing of the udjat-eye relate how the text was found by prince Khaemwese, son of King Ramesses II, in the cemetery at Saqqara or else was composed by Amenhotep son of Hapu, Chief of building works under King Amenophis III. Significantly for the potency of this spell, both Khaemwese and Amenhotep son of Hapu were revered by the Egyptians for their wisdom.
At first Book of the Dead texts were written in a form of semi-cursive hieroglyphs known as linear hieroglyphs or Book of the Dead hieroglyphs. However, unlike hieratic (the cursive script which developed from hieroglyphs but whose signs soon became quite distinct from the original hieroglyphic signs on which they were based), the script employed in funerary papyri always remained visibly hieroglyphic. During the New Kingdom chapters were invariably written in vertical columns but they were often to be read in the opposite or retrograde direction to normal practice.
Although vignettes were frequently highly coloured only black ink was used for the text, except for the title of each spell or particularly important sections which were normally written in red to make them stand out. Because of their colouring these passages are usually known as rubrics. In rare instances yellow rather than red was used (see, for example, BM 9968). Funerary papyri of the Third Intermediate Period and later (after about 1085 BC) were often written in hieratic rather than in linear hieroglyphs and in that case the text was written in horizontal lines arranged in pages not in columns. Sometimes parts of a papyrus were written in hieratic and other parts in linear hieroglyphs. During the Graeco-Roman Period (after 305 BC), when hieratic survived only as the script of funerary papyri, a few Books of the Dead were written in demotic, the third script employed by the Egyptians which by then was in current use for documents of a nonfunerary nature. Mention has already been made of the hieratic Book of the Dead of the Ptolemaic Period (BM 10098) in which the prospective owner is designated only as 'so-and-so' but written in demotic, a script with which the scribe was obviously better acquainted.
A Book of the Dead papyrus could be as long or as short as required. The Greenfield Papyrus (BM 10554) which is 41 metres in length, is one of the longest known. For practical purposes the height of any papyrus, funerary or otherwise, was rarely greater than 48 centimetres. On the other hand, some funerary papyri of the Third Intermediate Period are very narrow indeed.
Funerary papyri might be rolled up, tied with a strip of linen and sealed with a piece of stamped mud. They would then be placed on or in the coffin or inside a wooden statuette of the funerary god Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris or even inside the hollowed-out plinth on which the statuette stood. The papyrus of Anhai (BM 10472) was found inside just such a figure. Some papyri were inserted among the folds of the bandages which enveloped the mummy, either over the chest, beneath the arms or between the legs.
From the New Kingdom onwards a Book of the Dead papyrus became an essential part of the funerary equipment and every Egyptian who could afford to acquire a copy was buried with it close at hand for use in the afterlife. That is why so many and varied examples have survived and why so much has been learned about the text which has been called erroneously but very evocatively the Bible of Ancient Egypt.
Carol A. R. Andrews
Department of Egyptian Antiquities
Worship of Osiris Wennefer, the Great God who dwells in the Thinite nome, King of Eternity, Lord of Everlasting, who passes millions of years in his lifetime first-born son of Nut, begotten of Geb, Heir, Lord of the Wereret-crown, whose White Crown is tall, Sovereign of gods and men. He has taken the crook and the flail and the office of his forefathers. May your heart which is in the desert land be glad, for your son Horus is firm on your throne, while you have appeared as Lord of Busiris, as the Ruler who is in Abydos. The Two Lands flourish in vindication because of you in the presence of the Lord of All. All that exists is ushered in to him in his name of 'Face to whom men are ushered'; the Two Lands are marshalled for him as leader in this his name of Sokar; his might is far-reaching, one greatly feared in ths hs name of Osiris; he passes over the length of eternity in his name of Wennefer.
Hail to you, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Ruler of Rulers, who took possession of the Two Lands even in the womb of Nut; he rules the plains of the Silent Land, even he the golden of body, blue of head, on whose arms is turquoise. O Pillar of Myriads, broad of breast, kindly of countenance, who is in the Sacred Land: May you grant power in the sky, might on earth and vindication in the realm of the dead, a journeying downstream to Busiris as a living soul and a journeying upstream to Abydos as a heron; to go in and out without hindrance at all the gates of the Netherworld. May there be given to me bread from the House of Cool Water and a table of offerings from Heliopolis, my toes being firm-planted in the Field of Rushes. May the barley and emmer which are in it belong to the ka of the Osiris N.