The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian collection of spells that helped the deceased pass through the afterlife. The name of the Book of the Dead was coined by Karl Richar Lepsius, who gave it the German name of das Todtenbuch. The book can be considered an Egyptian form of scripture, however comparing it to the Bible can be controversial. It is similar to the Bible in that “it is an ancient compilation of texts written together in book form” (1), but it is different from the Bible in that “the Book of the Dead was not the central holy book of Egyptian religion” (1). Instead, it was simply a compilation of spells that were used for funerary and burial purposes. The spells originated from concepts depicted in tomb paintings, and from the Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts. The spells were written on tomb walls and sarcophagi, and the book was placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased. When a person died, the relatives of the dead would commission scribes to write a customized version of the Book of the Dead for the deceased. The customized version would contain the spells that were thought to help the deceased the most in the afterlife. For this reason, there are no identical copies of the Book of the Dead. The most famous copy is the Papyrus of Ani. However, one spell that every copy seemed to have was Spell 125.

The spells in the Book of the Dead “instructed the deceased on how to overcome the dangers of the afterlife by enabling them to assume the form of several mythical creatures and to give them the passwords necessary for admittance to certain stages of the underworld” (1). The most famous of these spells was Spell 125, or “The Weighing of the Heart.” It describes the judging of the heart of the deceased by the god Osiris in the Hall of Truth and tells the soul exactly what to say when meeting Osiris. “When a person died, they were guided by Anubis to the Hall of Truth (also known as the Hall of Two Truths) where they would make the Negative Confessions (also known as The Declaration of Innocence). This was a list of 42 sins the person could honestly say they had never indulged in. Once the Negative Confession was made, Osiris, Thoth, Anubis, and the Forty-Two Judges would confer and, if the confession was accepted, the heart of the deceased was then weighed in the balance against the white feather of Ma’at, the feather of truth. If the heart was found to be lighter than the feather, the soul passed on toward paradise; if the heart was heavier, it was thrown onto the floor where it was devoured by the monster goddess Ammut and the soul would cease to exist” (1). In the Negative Confession, “certain very specific information was required in order to be justified by the gods. One needed to know such details as the names of the doors in the room and the floor one needed to walk across; one even needed to know the names of one’s own feet. As they would answer each deity and object with the correct response, they would hear the reply, ‘You know us; pass by us’ and could continue'” (1).

The afterlife is described as this: “the afterlife was considered to be a continuation of life on earth and, after one had passed through various difficulties and judgment in the Hall of Truth, a paradise which was a perfect reflection of one’s life on earth. After the soul had been justified in the Hall of Truth it passed on to cross over Lily Lake to rest in the Field of Reeds where one would find all that one had lost in life and could enjoy it eternally. In order to reach that paradise, however, one needed to know where to go, how to address certain gods, what to say at certain times, and how to comport one’s self in the land of the dead; which is why one would find an afterlife manual extremely useful” (1). “The deceased were required to pass a series of gates, caverns and mounds guarded by supernatural creatures. The dead were taken into the presence of the god Osiris, who was confined to subterranean Duat. If all the obstacles of the Duat could be negotiated, the deceased would be judged in the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ritual, depicted in Spell 125. The deceased was led by the god Anubis into the presence of Osiris. There, the person swore that he had not committed any sin from a list of 42 sins, reciting a text known as the ‘Negative Confession.’ Then the dead person’s heart was weighed on a pair of scales, against the goddess Ma’at, who embodied truth and justice. If the scales balanced, this meant the deceased had led a good life. Anubis would take them to Osiris and they would find their place in the afterlife, becoming maa-kheru, meaning ‘vindicated’ or ‘true of voice.’ If the heart was out of balance with Ma’at, then another fearsome beast called Ammit, the Devourer, stood ready to eat it and put the dead person’s afterlife to an early and unpleasant end” (2).

  1. “Egyptian Book of the Dead” by Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia, published on 24 March 2016, https://www.ancient.eu/Egyptian_Book_of_the_Dead/
  2. “The Book of the Dead” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_the_Dead
  3. “Book of the Dead” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Book-of-the-Dead-ancient-Egyptian-text

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