Egyptian Funerary Texts: The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead, also know as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, is the Egyptian funerary text that emerged in the New Kingdom. As a progression from the Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead was a collection of as many as 200 prayers and spells (Peck, 23) written in an effort to protect the individual in the afterlife and guide them through the treacherous path toward the afterlife. William Peck explains that the Book of the Dead also became known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, because “there are several sections that deal with the concept of the spirit acquiring the freedom and ability to leave the tomb “by day” or in “triumph over enemies” and in various magical forms or manifestations” (Peck, 23).

Weighing of the heart (excerpt from Book of the Dead of Nes-min)

The Book of the Dead is placed with the deceased in their burials as a guide through the underworld. Throughout Egyptian history, the view of the underworld and the journey to arrive at eternal life has evolved, developed and changed over time. Initially, only a ruler would have the ability to gain access to the underworld, then it was opened up to the nobility, and eventually all who could afford the book had the opportunity to make it to the eternal resting place. Having the Book of the Dead in ones grave meant that spells were made available to, “allow the spirit to enter and progress through the underworld; to pass all obstacles; to be able to confront the guardians of gates and portals; as well as to breathe, posses a heart and voice, and otherwise function in the next life” (Peck, 23).  This also meant that the Book of the Dead became much more personalized and applicable to an individual’s life. The book was written down on a papyrus scroll (for the most part), and specific spells were chosen to be included or omitted depending on personal wishes and the financial ability to do so (Allen, 177).

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani (Thebes, C.1275 BC)

The Book of the Dead has numerous spells that help protect the individual against the obstacles of the underworld and serve as evidence that the deceased lived a just and moral life.  The journey through the underworld was filled with obstacles that the spells would help the individual successfully pass, but also served as proof of the individual’s worth. Spell 125 in the Book of the Dead was one of the final moments of judgment that the deceased had to pass before reaching eternal life. The spell serves at the individual’s ‘negative confession’ to the gods as proof of his “maat” or truth, and then his heart is weighed (Peck, 24). As Taylor describes, the deceased stood before a balance. His heart was place on one of the scale pans, to be weighed against the image of maat. […] An even balance signified a life in conformity with maat, whereas wrongdoing caused the heart to weigh heavier” (Taylor, 37).

The majority of the Book of the Dead is written on papyrus scrolls that are buried with the deceased, however, some spells were written on other funerary objects such as amulets and shawbtis (small clay figurines) that were also buried with the individual. For example, as Taylor describes, spell 30b “would prevent the heart from disclosing anything un toward” (Taylor, 37) to the gods during the weighing of the heart. This spell is an example of the protective nature that the Book of the Dead provides for every individual. The amulet was placed in an effort to protect the heart when “the heart was temporarily out of the deceased’s control” (Taylor, 37). Throughout the journey through the underworld narrative lies an evident protective nature, as well as undertones of morality and judgment. If the heart of the deceased were unrighteous, they would not be allowed into the afterlife, and Ammut, “The Devourer” would eat the deceased’s heart (Taylor, 38).

Heart Scarab, New Kingdom Egypt (C. 1550-1070 BC)

Unlike its funerary text predecessors, first the Pyramid texts and then the Coffin texts, the Book of the Dead was not only available to Kings or members of the nobility, but the book of the dead was “dependent, however, on what an individual was able to afford” (Peck, 23). This wider availability of such a desirable and seemingly necessary item for a successful journey through the underworld functions as an outlet to examine Egyptian society as a whole during the New Kingdom. The even further democratization of these texts shed light on a further democratization of

Excerpt papyrus of Book of the Dead of Nes-min

status throughout the nation. In a society focusing much of its energy on the importance of the funerary methods, the widened availability allows readers to see a lessened impact of nobility on ones chances on getting to the afterlife. Instead the “length and number of spells in any single document depended on the wealth and wishes of the deceased or his/her family or on local religious custom, usage, or tradition” (Peck, 23).  Instead of being written personally for a member of nobility, “some examples were produced in the expectation of purchase, with the name and titles of the deceased to be added in designated blank spaces” (Peck, 23). What had originally been a guidebook of the underworld strictly fit for a ruler now became available for all who could afford it.

By examining the Book of the Dead through this functional lense, it can be inferred that the final destination, “called the Field of Reeds or Field of Offerings. This is a kind of ‘paradise’ reserved for the righteous” (Taylor, 4). While initially only the king and eventually only the nobles were seen as this righteous minority, by the New kingdom, any individual could pass judgment to live eternally in the Field of Reeds.

 

 

Allen, T George. Additions to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 177-186. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952. http://jstor.org/stable/542636 Web.

Peck, William H. The Papyrus of Nes-min: An Egyptian Book of the Dead. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts. 20-31. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000. http://jstor.org/stable/4150496 web.

Taylor, J. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. 2001. 15-40. Print.