Dissemination of the Book of the Dead Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Egyptian Book of the Dead offered guidance for the soul in its postmortem judgment and journey to the afterlife.

Summary of Event

The Egyptian Book of the Dead consists of lists of formulas and rubrics to be used by the soul in order to achieve a satisfactory state after separation from the body. The practice of reciting spells during funeral ceremonies to safeguard the existence and welfare of the deceased dates from an early period in Egyptian history, though most of the texts known to Egyptologists were produced after 1550 b.c.e.

Many spells known from early pyramid texts were adopted for use by the common people over the years, and similar ones were added. These texts were not only recited during funerals but were also considered useful if placed close to the deceased where they could be reached if there was a need. The texts were at one time inscribed on the walls of coffins; only later were they written on papyrus and buried with the dead. At this stage of usage, such texts received the name Book of the Dead, or the Book of Coming Forth by Day. Such books or chapters are not systematic treatises about Egyptian beliefs regarding life after death, but a random collection of magical practices. These spells claim to give to the dead protection against hunger and thirst, the ability to assume various animal forms, and especially the power to come forth by day, that is, to emerge at daylight from the tomb to partake of the funerary offerings.

Survival after death was a conviction firmly anchored in the minds of the Egyptians. They conceived of death as separation of the spiritual and corporal elements of human beings, yet believed that the spirit continued to live close to the corpse and was in some way dependent on it. The Egyptians’ inability to abstract the survival of the immortal parts from the continued existence of the body shows how they were bound to ideas of concrete, material reality. Though they admitted both death and survival, they could not imagine existence without a physical basis. The body was seen as the concrete substratum of individuality; the cell or tomb of the body, therefore, was looked on as the eternal dwelling place of the soul. Life of the soul after death tended to be conceived of as gloomy, so that throughout Egyptian history there were efforts to provide a more pleasing substitute for this dismal existence.

At the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-c.2345 b.c.e.), believers in solar doctrine began to work out a place for the dead in their theology. The most well-developed of these paradises was that of Osiris, or “the West.” “The West” was reserved for Osiris’s believers, who after death became his subjects for all eternity. At first, the paradise of Osiris was reserved for the pharaoh, but gradually it became accessible to more and more of the population. Entrance into paradise was a favor granted only on certain conditions. Among these was the ordeal of judgment.

One of the most popular religious texts of ancient Egypt was a section of the Book of the Dead known to scholars as Chapter 17. This text, which seems to have been written during the Nineteenth Dynasty, about 1200 b.c.e., opens with a monologue by the high god and expresses a concept quite distinct from the rest of the composition. It indicates a belief, or at least the tendency toward a belief, in one supreme god who first existed as “word” and who manifested or created himself by pronouncing the names of his own limbs.

Chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead provides an example of the attempt to use magical incantations to fulfill the ethical requirements of sinlessness in the judgment. This chapter is addressed to the heart, which Egyptians held to be the most important agent whose favor had to be sought. Although magic had no official place in Egyptian worship of the gods as conducted in the temples, it was the basis of all funeral rites and worship of the dead. It was considered a science whereby, through recited formulas and amulets, protection was obtained against all evil spirits and from all kinds of danger. These formulas and amulets were widely used in all classes of society.

Chapter 125 in the Book of the Dead is probably the best known and is sometimes taken as representative of the whole. In its detailed description of the process of judgment, it exemplifies both the highest ethical component and the most magical features of ancient Egyptian religion. The oldest copy of Chapter 125 dates from about 1550 b.c.e. An accompanying illustration shows the god Osiris seated at one end of a hall and at the other end a dead man who has been brought in by Anubis, the soul leader. In the center of the hall is a set of scales with the heart of the dead man on one side and the symbol of Maat, the goddess of justice, on the other. Anubis supervises the weighing and records the results. The text of the judgment consists of a greeting to the god and then successive declarations of innocence made by the dead man. The declarations are known as the “negative confessions.” In these, the man declares he has not committed a whole series of faults that the Egyptian value system saw as immoral.

The negative confessions themselves reflect high moral concepts: The dead man declares that he has not oppressed the members of his family and that he has not been domineering with his servants or filched the property of the lowly man. He further states that he has not inflicted pain, that he has not permitted any man to suffer hunger, that he has neither murdered nor given an order to cause murder, and that he has been just in commercial transactions.

Apparently, during most of the millennium or more the “negative confession” formula was in use, its very recital magically won paradise. One did not state the truth; rather one created it. This magic-superstitious approach was offset in Egyptian culture by a more rational ethic, as exemplified in the wisdom literature, which was also popular and flourished throughout Egyptian civilization.

Significance

Although the Book of the Dead is about the afterlife, it reveals much about the Egyptian view of life, morals, and behavior. The Egyptians viewed the universe as essentially static. This notion of the changeless world provides a useful key to enter the mind of the Egyptians who compiled and used the Book of the Dead. The Egyptians believed that human beings could find immortality and peace by becoming part of one of the cycles of nature. This is the unifying thread connecting so many different religious ideas, customs, and symbols. However, there is a paradox here: The Egyptians conceived of the world as static, yet they thought of immortality as participation in perpetual movement. However, even this movement was in some sense static because it was part of the changeless order of the world. The Egyptians saw the world as an equilibrium of opposites. Death appears to the modern Western mind as a singular event; to the Egyptian it was at most an interruption in life. This attitude is reflected in Egyptian art and writing regarding death, an attitude confident in the ability of the living to continue interpersonal relations with the dead.

However, although the Egyptians could not conceive of a life after death that did not depend on material goods, this led the Egyptians not to view life materialistically but rather to view food spiritually: The same word, Ka, denotes both humankind’s impalpable, vital force, and its sustenance. This notion provides an understanding of such Egyptian practices as feast day celebrations, including a meal, at the tombs of the dead; and it clarifies much of the subject matter of the Book of the Dead. On one hand, the dead person was considered as having an animated existence. This is the meaning of the term Ba, which should not be translated as soul. Ba is not part of a living person, but the whole person as he or she appears after death. The Egyptian also regarded a dead person as Akh or transfigured spirit. As Akh, a dead person had an exalted form of existence, and was seen at night as a star in the sky. Thus, the dead were thought to be incorporated in the cosmic order and, therefore, eternal. For the Egyptian, the righteous person is in harmony with the divine order; therefore, all manifestations of concern with judgment are simply expressions of fear of the unknown.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Assmann, Jan. The Mind of Egypt. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002. A rather dense discussion that nonetheless explains the ramifications of the Egyptian view of the cosmos—and thus history—as essentially static.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faulkner, Raymond, trans. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Chronicle Books, 2000. A straightforward translation of the Book of the Dead by a well-known Egyptologist. There is little commentary, but the translation is placed beneath full-color facsimiles of the papyrus that represent the material in the scroll in its proper order and in its entirety.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. Discusses the Book of the Dead along with nineteen other texts concerning the afterlife. Places the book in a much broader cultural context than is generally offered. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redford, Donald B., ed. The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. This volume extracts all the articles on Egyptian religion from the authoritative Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (2000). Includes nearly one hundred signed articles on all aspects of the subject, providing a handy reference to the subtleties and technicalities of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife.

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