The Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead; A Source Of Otherworldly Magic

The land of the Pharaohs is known for a lot of things. When speaking about Egypt, usually the Great Pyramid and The Sphinx come to mind. However, in addition to the numerous ancient monuments built by the ancient Egyptians thousands of years ago, their riches reside in the various ancient texts they left behind.

One such ancient text is the so-called “Book of the Dead,” a collection of spells that were included in the tombs of the New Kingdom, and was intended to help the deceased on his difficult road to the Hereafter and the trial of Osiris.

Interestingly, the Egyptian Book of the Dead was never codified and no two copies of the work are exactly the same.

Book of the Dead
The Judgment of Osiris represented in the Papyrus of Hunefer. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Its original title may have been translated as ” Book of Coming Forth by Day.”

For the ancient Egyptians, death was no more than a rebirth, just as the sun rises every day, the deceased agreed to a new rebirth.

The Book of the Dead consisted of a series of magical spells destined to help the deceased overcome the trial of Osiris, assist them in their journey through the Duat, the underworld, and travel to Aaru, the afterlife.

The best-known example of the Book of the Dead is the so-called Papyrus of Hunefer, which was written during the XIX Dynasty of Egypt, approximately between 1310 and 1275 BC. It is now on display at the British Museum of London. Initially, it measured 5,50 m length by 39 cm in width, but at the moment it is divided into eight pieces by needs of conservation.

The Book of the Dead was a fundamental work of ancient Egyptian culture. It was a very extensive text: some specimens preserved in papyrus have a length of up to forty meters.

In ancient times, owning the Book of the Dead was extremely expensive.

The Book consists of approximately 200 chapters or spells.

Book of Dead Egypt
“This is an excellent example of one of the many fine vignettes (illustrations) from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer. The centerpiece of the upper scene is the mummy of Hunefer, shown supported by the god Anubis (or a priest wearing a jackal mask). Hunefer’s wife and daughter mourn, and three priests perform rituals. The two priests with white sashes are carrying out the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The white building at the right is a representation of the tomb, complete with the portal doorway and a small pyramid. Both these features can be seen in real tombs of this date from Thebes. To the left of the tomb is a picture of the stela which would have stood to one side of the tomb entrance. Following the normal conventions of Egyptian art, it is shown much larger than normal size, in order that its content (the deceased worshipping Osiris, together with a standard offering formula) is absolutely legible. At the right of the lower scene is a table bearing the various implements needed for the Opening of the Mouth ritual. At the left is shown a ritual, where the foreleg of a calf, cut off while the animal is alive, is offered. The animal was then sacrificed. The calf is shown together with its mother, whose bellowing mouth might be interpreted as a sign of distress at hearing its offspring screaming in pain.” Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Book of the Dead was part of a tradition of funerary texts which includes the earlier Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, which were inscribed on walls of tombs or coffins, and not on papyri.

Some of the spells from the Book of the Dead were extracted from these ancient texts and date from the third millennium BC., while other magical formulas were later composed in Egyptian history and date from the third intermediate period (11th-7th centuries BC).

Some of the chapters that made up the book continued to be inscribed on walls of tombs and sarcophagi, just as the spells had been from the beginning.

The Book of the Dead was introduced in the sarcophagus or in the sepulchral chamber of the deceased.

There was no single canonical Book of the Dead.

The surviving papyri include a varied collection of religious and magical texts and differ markedly in their illustrations. Some people ordered their own copies of the book, perhaps with a choice of spells, they considered most significant for their own progression in the afterlife.

The Book of the Dead was commonly recorded with hieroglyphs or hieratic writing on papyrus scrolls and often illustrated with vignettes representing the deceased and his journey to the afterlife.

It is believed that the first funerary texts were the Pyramid Texts, first used in the Pyramid of King Unas of the 5th dynasty, around 2400 BCE. The Book of the Dead first developed in Thebes toward the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, around 1700 BCE. The earliest known appearance of the spells included in the Book of the Dead originates from the coffin of Queen Mentuhotep, of the 13th dynasty.

Featured image credit: Part of the Book of the Dead of Pinedjem II. The text is hieratic, except for hieroglyphics in the vignette. The use of red pigment, and the joins between papyrus sheets, are also visible. Wikimedia Commons.

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