This week I am actually teaching the Book of the Dead to my Humanities class via a documentary so I figured this post was perfectly timed. There are many ways to teach this awesome Ancient Egyptian text; it’s a great window into Ancient Egyptian mythology so I would NEVER skip it. And plus, the kids love it!
Beginnings of the Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead began being widely known during what is considered as the New Kingdom (approximately 1550 BCE-50 BCE). The Book of the Dead is merely the modern name of the funerary text and is directly translated to mean “Book of emerging forth into the Light.” “Into the light” refers to the afterlife where paradise is achieved through the different tests and trails. In addition to the scrolls, archaeologists have also found pyramid and coffin texts, which were painted on objects buried with the deceased instead of written on papyrus. The book was never officially codified, so no two copies of the work were the same and each one is personalized.
Some of the spells within the Book of the Dead date back to roughly to the third millennium BCE when there was no canonical”book” but a varying selection of religious and magical texts that were helpful to the deceased when going through the process to get to paradise. One of the most famous spells recorded was Spell 125 that would describe the judging of the heart of the deceased by the god Osiris in the Hall of Truth which is also one of the best known images of ancient Egyptian art.
There are about 192 spells but no one text contains them all because many of the spells were exclusive to the chamber walls of the mummified person. Some spells have generally the same meaning but not the same effects. For example, spells 6 and 126 both relate to the heart and were always inscribed on scarabs. Other spells, like spell 17, are an elongated description of gods or goddesses and how they are worshiped in the afterlife. The numbers of spells were determined to cover the extent in which the deceased would need to get through the afterlife.
The spells depicted the Egyptian beliefs about the nature of death and the afterlife. The Book of the Dead and other texts, were placed within the coffin so that it could be close enough to the deceased for them to use in the afterlife. Thoth, the god of magic and writing, states in the book, “What I hate is ignorance, smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes. All things are possible. Who you are is limited only by who you think you are.” Meaning if we see beyond our present self then we can have a future without limits.
Note: the two videos below come from one of the Books of the Dead on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Trials of the Gods
One of the many obstacles on this journey included a serpent named Apep. When Ra made his journey, Apep had the intentions of stopping Ra’s boat and bringing chaos to the world. If the deceased were to come face-to-face with this terrifying creature, chapter 7 of the Book of the Dead was at hand to offer help: “I will not be inert for you, I will not be weak for you, your poison shall not enter my members, for my members are the members of Atum.”
After passing Apep, the deceased would proceed to the labyrinth which was a series of gates. To pass through each one the deceased would have to recite a specific spell and call out the gates name. After the gates was the Hall of Two Truths, where the dead would be judged by the panel of 42 judges, symbolizing the 42 sins that could not be committed, who were presided by the god of the underworld, Osiris. The deceased would swear that they did not indulge in a long and lengthy list of sins, for example: “I have no slain people… I have not stolen the gods’ property… I have not cause (anyone) to weep…”
Read more: What is a Book of the Dead?
The Final Judgment
After the confession came the climax and one of the most famous scenes in the Book of the Dead, the weighing of the heart. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, held up pair of scales where in one dish sat a feather, representing the goddess of justice, Ma’at, and in the other dish is the heart of the deceased symbolizing the actions carried throughout the deceased life. If the heart and feather balance then the deceased passed the test, but if the heart outweighs the feather, the deceased was considered impure and then further sentenced to nonexistence, the biggest fear of any ancient Egyptian.
P.S. This perfectly relates to the AP Art History image of the Last judgment of Hun-Nefer.
- “Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.” British Museum. Accessed on October 3, 2016. https://www.british museum.org/pdf/3665_BOTD_schools_Teachers.pdf.
- “Book of the Dead.” Crystalinks. Accessed on October 3, 2016. http://www.crystalinks.com/bookofthedead.html.
- Castellano, Nuria. “The Book of the Dead.” National Geographic History, January/February 2016.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published on March 24, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Egyptian_Book_of_the_Dead/.