Book of the Dead, an Introduction

The Book of the Dead

An Introduction

by Marie Parsons

The Book of the Dead is the name given by Egyptologists to a group of mortuary spells written on sheets of papyrus covered with magical texts and accompanying illustrations called vignettes. These were placed with the dead in order to help them pass through the dangers of the underworld and attain an afterlife of bliss in the Field of Reeds. 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 texts are divided into individual spells or chapters, nearly two hundred in total, though no one papyrus contains them all. Specific chapters could be selected out of the total repertoire. If the prospective owner of a Book was wealthy and his death not untimely, he might commission a scribe to write the text for him, based upon his personal choice of spells. Other less wealthy clients had to make do with a ready written text, a template, in which spaces had been left for the insertion of the name and titles of the buyer.

These spells were influenced by and developed after the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts. The spells were originally designated by the Egyptians as the Book of the Coming Forth by Day, expressing the freedom granted to the spirit forms to come and go as they pleased in the afterlife. The Spells in this Book, like the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts (which were named those by Egyptologists), primarily served to provision and protect the deceased. It is concerned with descriptions. and with practical help and magical assistance for the hereafter.

Early examples of spells from the Book of the Dead are found on mummy cloths and coffins of the New Kingdom, as were used commonly by officials beginning with the reign of Tuthmosis III, and then they appear on papyri. By the reign of Merneptah the spells appear on the walls of certain tomb chambers, beginning with Spell 125, the Judgment of the Dead. The spells also appeared continuously through the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period.

Some spells such as #148 and 110 appear on temple walls, the latter at Medinet Habu. The chapters such as spells 26-30, and occasionally spell 6 and spell 126, regarding the heart, were inscribed on scarabs.

At first, only in certain cases and for special emphasis did spells include a vignette, a symbolic representation in pictorial form summarizing the intent or content of a spell. In a burial chamber from the reign of Tuthmosis III, only two of a total of 35 spells are illustrated, but by the Ramesside Period, the reverse is true and only a few spells are un-illustrated. In Dynasty 21 and in the Late Period, vignettes were often used for the spells, without the texts. But in many manuscripts the vignettes constitute a row of pictures, with texts placed beneath them.

The earliest Book of the Dead on record dates to the mid-fifteenth century BCE, but some of the spells had their origins in the Pyramid Texts from the 5th and 6th Dynasties, carved more than 1000 years earlier. The Pyramid Texts themselves in part refer in their own turn to rituals and practices probably in common usage 1000 years prior to them.

The Pyramid Texts were carved on the inside or pyramid walls of Kings and queens of the 6th Dynasty and early First Intermediate Period for another 200 years. Eventually more spells were added to the Pyramid Text repertoire, and the texts were written now in the cursive script called hieratic, not in hieroglyphics, within the wooden coffins. These texts are thus now known as Coffin Texts.

In the Coffin Texts, as in the Book of the Dead, the sun-god is no longer supreme with regard to the afterlife, as he was in the Pyramid Texts. Some spells in the Book of the Dead still praise the sun-god Ra as being all-important. But, now it is Osiris, the king of the underworld, under whom the blessed dead hope to spend eternity, and it is Osiris with whom the dead become assimiliated as "the Osiris X", where X is the name of the deceased. Osiris also became the judge of the dead, before whom a trial would take place to determine if the deceased was worthy to enter the realm of Osiris in the afterlife.

The Coffin Texts also spoke of a belief in an afterlife spent in the Field of Reeds where agricultural tasks would be performed by the deceased for all eternity. To undertake this work for the deceased, the ushabti-formaula makes its first appearance in the Coffin Texts, and are later incorporated into the Book of the Dead. The ushabtis were small figurines, often representing the deceased or servants of the deceased. They would act as magical substitute workers and relieve the deceased of all hard work in the afterlife.

None of these concepts were incongruous to the Egyptian. He could believe in an afterlife in which he would spend eternity in the company of the circumpolar stars as a blessed akh, yet also be restricted to the burial chamber and offering chapel of the tomb as a ka, but also visit the world of the living, inhabit the Field of Reed, and travel across the sky and through the underworld as a ba with the sun-god.


The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife by Erik Hornung, translated by David

Lorton The Book of the Dead by R.O. Faulkner