Book of the Dead
An arbitrary title given to a funerary work from ancient
Egypt called pert em hru, the translation of which is ‘‘coming
forth by day,’’ or ‘‘manifested in the light.’’ Several versions or
recensions of this work are known, namely those of Heliopolis,
Thebes, and Sais, differing only inasmuch as they were edited
by the colleges of priests founded at these centers. Many papyri
of the work have been discovered, and passages from it have
been inscribed upon the walls of tombs and pyramids and on
sarcophagi and mummy-wrappings. One very complete copy is
on display at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.
It is undoubtedly of extremely early date; exactly how early
it would be difficult to say, but in the course of centuries it was
greatly added to and modified. It contains about 200 chapters,
but no complete papyrus has been found. The chapters are
quite independent of one another, and were probably all composed
at different times. The main subject is the beatification
of the dead, who were supposed to recite the chapters in order
that they might gain power and enjoy the privileges of the new
The work abounds in magical references. The whole trend
of the Book of the Dead is thaumaturgic, as its purpose is to
guard the dead against the dangers they have to face in reaching
the other world. As in most mythologies, the dead Egyptian
had to encounter malignant spirits and was threatened by
many dangers before reaching his haven of rest.
He also had to undergo judgment by Osiris, and to justify
himself before being permitted to enter the realms of bliss.
This he imagined he could in great part accomplish by the recitation
of various magical formula and spells, which would ward
off the evil influences opposed to him. To this end every important
Egyptian of means had buried with him a papyrus of the
Book of the Dead, containing at least all the chapters necessary
for encountering the formidable adversaries at the gates of
Amenti, the Egyptian Hades. These chapters would assist him
in making replies during his ceremony of justification. First
among these spells were the ‘‘words of power.’’ The Egyptians
believed that to discover the ‘‘secret’’ name of a god was to gain
complete ascendancy over him.
Sympathetic magic was in vogue in Egyptian burial practice,
which explains the presence, in tombs of people of means, of
paintings of tables laden with food and drink, with inscriptions
attached conveying the idea of boundless liberality. Inscriptions
like the following are extremely common—‘‘To the ka [essential
double or soul] of so-and-so, 5,000 loaves of bread, 500
geese, and 5,000 jugs of beer.’’ Those dedications cost the generous
donors little, as they merely had the objects named painted
upon the wall of the tomb, imagining that their ka or astral
counterpart would be eatable and drinkable by the deceased.
This of course is merely an extension of the Neolithic conception
that articles buried with a man had their astral counterparts
and would be of use to him in another world.
Pictorial representation played a considerable part in the
magical ritual of the Book of the Dead. One of the pleasures
of the dead was to sail over Heaven in the boat of Ra, and to
secure this for the deceased one must paint certain pictures and
mutter over them words of power. Regarding this belief, E. A.
Wallis Budge states in his book Egyptian Magic (1889)
‘‘On a piece of clean papyrus a boat is to be drawn with ink
made of green abut mixed with anti water, and in it are to be
figures of Isis, Thoth, Shu, and Khepera, and the deceased;
when this had been done the papyrus must be fastened to the
breast of the deceased, care being taken that it does not actually
touch his body. Then shall his spirit enter into the boat of Ra
each day, and the god Thoth shall take heed to him, and he
shall sail about with him into any place that he wisheth. Elsewhere
it is ordered that the boat of Ra be painted ‘in a pure
place,’ and in the bows is to be painted a figure of the deceased;
but Ra was supposed to travel in one boat (called Atet) until
noon, and another (called Sektet) until sunset, and provision
had to be made for the deceased in both boats. How was this
to be done On one side of the picture of the boat a figure of
the morning boat of Ra was to be drawn, and on the other a figure
of the afternoon boat; thus the one picture was capable of
becoming two boats. And, provided the proper offerings were
made for the deceased on the birthday of Osiris, his soul would
live for ever, and he would not die a second time. According to
the rubric to the chapter in which these directions are given,
the text of it is as old, at least, as the time of Hesept, the fifth
king of the 1st. dynasty, who reigned about 4350 B.C., and the
custom of painting the boat upon papyrus is probably contemporaneous.’’
The words of power were not to be spoken until after death.
They were ‘‘a great mystery,’’ but ‘‘the eye of no man whatsoever
must see it, for it is a thing of abomination for every man to
know it. Hide it, therefore, the Book of the Lady of the Hidden
Temple is its name.’’ This would seem to refer to some spell uttered
by Isis-Hathor that delivered the god Ra or Horus from
trouble, or was of benefit to him, thus was concluded to be
equally efficacious in the case of the deceased.
Many spells were included in the Book of the Dead for the
purpose of preserving the mummy against molding and for assisting
the owner of the papyrus to become as a god and to be
able to transform himself into any shape he desired. Painted offerings
were also provided so the deceased would be able to
give gifts to the gods. It is apparent that the Book of the Dead
was undoubtedly magical in character, consisting as it did of a
series of spells or words of power, which enabled the speaker
to have perfect control over all the powers of Amenti.
The only moment in which the dead man is not master of
his fate is when his heart is weighed by Thoth before Osiris. If
it does not conform to the standard required for justification,
he is cast out; except for this, an absolute knowledge of the
Book of the Dead safeguarded the deceased in every way from
the danger of damnation. A number of the chapters consist of
prayers and hymns to the gods, but the directions as to the
magical uses of the book are equally numerous; the concept of
supplication is mingled with the idea of circumvention by sorcery
in the most extraordinary manner.