EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD AND ANCIENT EGYPTIAN VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE

ANCIENT EGYPTIANS AND THE AFTERLIFE

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Ramses IV mummy
The Egyptians were obsessed with death and the afterlife, much more so than the Mesopotamians and Greeks. Death was regarded as something one must prepare for during life and take care of after death. This is why Egyptians bodies were mummified, their tombs were fill possessions for the afterlife and their prayers went out to hundreds deities, all of whom had to be placated with chants, rituals and offerings. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus put it this way: “The Egyptians say their houses are only temporary lodgings and their graves are their real houses.”

The Egyptians believed that life and death was a cycle that was repeated everyday with the coming and going of night and day, the passage of the seasons, the rise and fall of rulers. Reams of literature was devoted to death. "To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again." To speak the name of the dead restores the "breath of life to him who has vanished." So say the inscriptions of ancient Egypt. Those judged worthy boarded a boat to paradise while sinners died a second death, their heart eaten by a monster that is part crocodile, part lion and part hippo.

"Abhorrence of death," writes scholar Daniel Boorstin, "did not lead them to fear the dead or ancestor worship. Tomb robbery could hardly have been so prevalent in all periods of the Egyptians had been haunted by fear of the dead. Excavators almost never find an unrobbed tomb. The way was to not to fear death but to deny it...Because the dead had reason to fear the living...inscribed on the walls of the chamber and the side of the sarcophagus were spells against intruders."

Early Ancient Egyptian Religious Texts

The Pyramid Texts are among the oldest texts. They were based on inscriptions of spells found in the burial chambers of the pyramids and dated to around 2600 B.C. They were like an early compendium on the Egyptian religion. The Amduat (“The Book of the Netherworld”) and The Book of the Dead are based on them. A typical spell from the Pyramid Texts went: “O Osiris, the King, may you be protected. I give to you all the gods, their heritages, their provisions, and all their possessions, for you have not died.”

The Pyramid Texts evolved into the Coffin Texts , dated to around 2000 B.C., a collection of spells placed by artisans in wooden coffins. Neither the Pyramid Texts nor the Coffin Texts ever appeared in book form. They were written on tomb walls or coffins.

Amduat (“The Book of the Netherworld”) was a narrative that described the daily journey of a dead pharaoh through the netherworld on a boat of the sun god Re, and his victory over dangers and obstacles to rise again the next morning. The book was originally restricted to use by the pharaoh and those that attended him.

Other important texts included: 1) The Book of Two Way , describing the underworld as composed of canals, streams, islands, fires and boiling water; 2) The Book of Gates , describing the night journey of Osiris and the rewards and punishments for inhabitants of the Underworld; 3) The Book of That Which Is , describing the 12 sections of the Underworld, each related to an hour of the Night; and 4) The Book of Adophis , detailing the battle between the sun god Ra and the giant serpent Apophis.

The Egyptians did not believe in single soul; they believed in a number of different entities that together comprised what Westerners think of as a soul. There is some debate among scholars as to how many components there were. Some say four. Others say six. Yet others say eight.

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Anubis
The primary component was 1) the ka , a life force that was present even in fetuses in the womb and continued to live on after a person died. This was often was often portrayed in iconography as a duplicate of its owner. When a person was living the body and the ka were united. After death it separated from the body. Another important component was 2) the ba . Found in humans, animals and gods, it is a kind of cognitive soul representing self consciousness, perception and memory. It is represented in hieroglyphics by a bird with a human head, arms and hands.

Other components of the soul include: 3) the akh , a sort of ghostly aura or spirit represented in hieroglyphic by an ibis: and 4) the ib , a deep seated self that is the source of creativity and courage and is represented in hieroglyphic by a heart.

The notion of an afterlife and judgement was embraced by the ancient Egyptians millennia before it was among Christians. Attaining the afterlife was of supreme importance.

When a person dies, the Egyptians believed that his ka , or life force, leaves his body, followed after burial by ba , the soul. One passage from the Book of the Dead reads: “Raise yourself. You have not died. Your life force will dwell with you forever.”

During the Old Kingdom it seems that only the pharaohs were privileged enough to enjoy eternal life. Ordinary and even aristocratic Egyptians were not. Later prominent priest, bureaucrats and noblemen were welcomed into the exclusive club. Eventually anyone that could save money for a small tomb and a ritualistic funeral could achieve immortality.

Anubis and Other Gods Associated with the Dead

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Anubis
Anubis was the jackal-headed god of the dead, and mummification. Even though jackals were dreaded because they dug up the graves of the dead, Anubis was watchful-guardian deity who watched over the dead. See Funerals, Judgement.

Maate is the winged Goddess of Justice. She is often represented with her wings spread on lintels over doorways in the tombs of pharaohs and their wives in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.

Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Selket were the four female benefactors of the dead. The four sons of Horus---Imsety, Hapy, Qebhsenuef and Duamutef---guarded the shrines of internal organs among other duties.

The goddess Selket, who guarded the shrines of internal organs, was so powerful she could cure the sting of the scorpion. She is often depicted with a scorpion on her head. The artisan-god Khnum is credited with creating human beings on his potter's wheel. Kheperi was the God of the Rising Sun and Resurrection. Montu was the God of War.

Ancient Egyptian Journey to Afterlife

After death, the Egyptians believed the dead went on a spiritual journey, along which they encountered demons and other malevolent creatures, who tried to slow and disrupt the journey. The dead were generally unable to negotiate all the obstacles by themselves and needed the help of the gods. The falcon-headed god Horus, for example, helped lead the dead through doors of fire and cobras.

Many tombs were filled with spells and incantations from the Book of the Dead that were supposed to help them get past the obstacles and solicit help from guardian gods that could help them. Sometimes people were buried with manuscripts of the entire Book of the Dead .

Egyptians believed that the dead could enter the afterlife in one of three ways: 1) through the underground world of the dead ruled Osiris: 2) a pharaohs rebirth in the morning; and 3) the pharaohs rise at night into the stars.

According to one text the journey to the afterlife could take several earthly lifetimes. The pharaohs undertook the journey in a boat. On Thutmose III’s journey the river dried up and the boat became a snake that moved across the sand; helpful deities helped slay his enemies who body parts were tossed into flaming pits. The dead pharaoh was reborn when a scarab nudged the sun out of the underworld to usher in a new day.

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Guide To The Afterlife---Custodian For Goddess Amun

Ancient Egyptian Views on Judgement After Death

The Egyptians believed on the judgement day the heart of the dead was weighed on a scale against the feather of truth to determine the fate of its owner in the afterlife. One line from the Book of the Dead goes: “Oh my heart that I have had when on earth, don’t stand up against me as a witness, don’t make me a case against me beside the great god.” The feather of truth is ostrich feather, a symbol of Maat, the god responsible for keeping the cosmos in order.

The heart-weighing ceremony was believed to be watched over by the gods Osiris, Maat (truth), Thoth, Anubis and Horus. Anubis weighed the heart while Osiris and the others watched as judges. Those whose heart weighed the same as the feather moved on to the Egyptian equivalent of heaven. Mummies were believed to sometimes lie about their sins to win passage to the afterlife.

Those who heart weighed too little or too much disrupted the order of the universe and were condemned to the Egyptian equivalent of hell. They were snatched by a monster that was part crocodile, lion and hippopotamus and devoured and condemned to a life in a coma.

Some scholars say the Egyptians believed in a Judgement day after death and that ascension to heaven was linked with moral deeds and god behavior in real life.

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Weighing of the heart

Ancient Egyptian Netherworld and Underworld

For those whose heart balanced on the scale, their ba and ka united to form an akh , or spirit, which emerged in Osiris’s underworld. One hieroglyphic reads: “I have come forth in this daytime in my true form as a living spirit. The place of my heart’s desire is among the living in this land forever.”

For the Egyptians, the netherworld---their version of heaven---was a pleasant place not all that different from their real world in the Nile Valley. That is why they were buried with treasures, jars of beer, knives and food---things they thought they could use in the netherworld. One Egyptologist told d Smithsonian magazine: “being dead was one of the modes of existence, but a finer one. You were more perfect when you were dead.” By contrast the Romans and Greeks believed in a gloomy underworld and the Mesopotamian believed in a world like the real world but not very pleasant.

It is not so clear what the netherworld was like. The Amduat said the dead were reborn like the rising sun and lived a physical life in which one could have sex and be taken care of by servants. It also said the dead were able to communicate with the living. Other texts describe an underworld paradise and place called the Field of Reeds. A monster called the "Devourer of the Dead" waited in the underworld for those who had "stolen rations of bread," "pried into the affairs of others," and "had sex with a married woman."

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Ani before Osiris

Early Ancient Egyptian Religious Texts

The Pyramid Texts are among the oldest texts. They were based on inscriptions of spells found in the burial chambers of the pyramids and dated to around 2600 B.C. They were like an early compendium on the Egyptian religion. The Amduat (“The Book of the Netherworld”) and The Book of the Dead are based on them. A typical spell from the Pyramid Texts went: “O Osiris, the King, may you be protected. I give to you all the gods, their heritages, their provisions, and all their possessions, for you have not died.”

The Pyramid Texts evolved into the Coffin Texts , dated to around 2000 B.C., a collection of spells placed by artisans in wooden coffins. Neither the Pyramid Texts nor the Coffin Texts ever appeared in book form. They were written on tomb walls or coffins.

Amduat (“The Book of the Netherworld”) was a narrative that described the daily journey of a dead pharaoh through the netherworld on a boat of the sun god Re, and his victory over dangers and obstacles to rise again the next morning. The book was originally restricted to use by the pharaoh and those that attended him.

Other important texts included: 1) The Book of Two Way , describing the underworld as composed of canals, streams, islands, fires and boiling water; 2) The Book of Gates , describing the night journey of Osiris and the rewards and punishments for inhabitants of the Underworld; 3) The Book of That Which Is , describing the 12 sections of the Underworld, each related to an hour of the Night; and 4) The Book of Adophis , detailing the battle between the sun god Ra and the giant serpent Apophis.

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Book of the Dead Hunefer sheet 1

Egyptian Book of the Dead

Egyptian Book of the Dead was a compilation of rituals, incantations and spells designed to assist the dead in their journey to the netherworld. Hieroglyphics from this book were usually written all over the walls inside tombs. Egyptian Book of the Dead did not provide information on what death was like give advise on how to make mummies and prepare tombs.

The Egyptian name of the Egyptian Book of the Dead was Per Em Hru , which literally translated means “Book of Coming Forth by Day” or “Journey of the Light.” It was created around 1500 B.C., when papyrus became widely used and people could more easily afford to be buried with papyrus rolls rather pay out for expensive tomb paintings or wooden coffins. Many copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead have been excavated from tombs. Many spells are accompanied by illustrations with scenes of the afterlife.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead was never a real book but rather a collection of spells from various sources. In ancient Egyptian times the spells often varied from text to text. Many of the spells originated in the Pyramid Texts and the Amduat .

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Book of the Dead Hunefer sheet 5

Journey Described in the Egyptians Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead guided Ancient Egyptians through death and on to the afterlife. John Taylor, the British Museum's expert in these ancient last rites, told The Guardian the best way to think of The Book of the Dead is as a reassuring map to the afterlife. "It is a kind of a combination of a spell, a talisman and a passport, with some travel insurance thrown in too." [Source: Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer, October 24, 2010]

In 2011, the Reading Room at the British Museum showcased, for the first time, the entire length of the Greenfield Papyrus, which, at 37 metres, lays out each detailed stage of the ancient Egyptians journey to the afterlife. Also on display were a succession of paintings taken from the papyri of Hunefer and of Ani, probably the two most famous works to depict the many episodes, or trials, that together constitute The Book of the Dead. The papyri, which were made for well-to-do customers between 1500BC and 100BC (the Hunefer and Ani ones date from 1280-1270BC), each function like an A-to-Z of the netherworld: full of symbols and landmarks that orient and guide the dead soul through a projected ghostly landscape.

Vanessa Thorpe wrote in The Observer, “The script of a papyrus is read from one side across to the other, depending on which way round the depicted animal heads are facing. The spells and incantations appear alongside the images they evoke and they commonly deal with the sort of problems faced in life, such as the warding off of an illness. They are usually rather straightforward: prose rather than poetry. "Get back, you snake!" reads one for protection against poisonous serpents. For the ancient Egyptians, the act of simply writing something down formally, or painting it, was a way of making it true. As a result, there are no images or passages in The Book of the Dead that describe anything unpleasant happening. Setting it down would have made it part of the plan. There was, however, always a heavy emphasis on dropping the names of relevant gods at key points along the journey.[Source: Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer, October 24, 2010]

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Book of the Dead

The best-known stage in this journey through the afterlife is the weighing of the heart. Scales watched over by Anubis are used to balance the heart of the dead soul against a feather, which represents truth. If the heart passes the test, then the way forward is clear. If not, the unseen threat is that the Devourer who hovers below will snap up the organ in its crocodile jaws...When it comes to scary monsters, the ancient Egyptian Devourer is always going to be hard to top. With the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippo, it is certainly more exotic than the average Halloween outfit. And, though it sounds risible now, for centuries in Egypt the grim fear of meeting this evil, "cut'n'shut" beast on the other side of death helped to shore up an entire system of belief, a system shared by pharaohs and artisans.

Other stages of the journey are just as fascinating, if less perilous. A board game called Senet, which looks a little like a cross between chess and backgammon, is an allegory of the journey to paradise. Depicted elsewhere is the ritual of the opening of the mouth, which involves a series of macabre tools that were often buried inside a tomb with the dead body. At a pivotal moment, the dead soul also has to satisfy the demands of 42 separate judges, saying each one of their names out loud to please them. It makes The X Factor look easy. And this is where the papyrus crib sheet came in. It carefully listed each god in the correct order for the recently deceased client.

If all else failed, at the final hurdle there was a handy spell designed to conceal all sins and mistakes from the gods by making them invisible. And then, when a dead soul finally completed the journey, there waiting for them at the end, so the papyri all promised, would be an ancient Egyptian version of Heaven: full of reeds and water and looking very much like the Nile Valley in the year of a good harvest, replete with grain and food and drink.

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Book of the Dead spell

Spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

Egyptian Book of the Dead contained 200 spells and incantations that covered all different aspects of death and the afterlife. Many were designed to thwart specific demons and obstacles on the journey in the afterlife. There were spells for transferring ka (the life force) into statues and ones for restoring limbs and sensory organs snatched by monsters. One spell repels a gruesome crooked-legged scarab. Another transforms the corpse into a crocodile, snake or bird to get past a ram-headed deity. Yet another prevents one from having to consume urine or feces. Some images show the dead turned upside down, throwing the digestive system into reverse so they ate their feces and defecated food. Each spell began with Osiris and the name of the deceased. Osiris’s name was sort of title for the dead.

Spell 148 went: “Book of Secertes for him who is in the netherworld, (for) initiating the blessed [deceased] into the Mind of Re...(it contains) secrets of the Nether World, mysteries [such as] (how) to cleave mountains and penetrate valleys...secrets wholly unknown; (how to preserve the heart of the blessed one: widen his steps, give him his (powers of ) locomotion, do away his deafness, and reveal his face and (that of) the God...This roll is very secret. No one else is ever to know (it); (it is) not to be told (to) anybody. No one is see nor ear to hear (it) except the soul and its teacher.” [Source: Thomas Allen, The Book of the Dead , Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago]

By around 1000 B.C. most of the spells were standardized. But even then they were differences between spells regarded as the same. The wording from text to text was sometimes slightly different. People sometimes changed the wording to meet their individual needs.

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Book of the Dead Field of Reeds

Opening of the Mouth

Rituals for the day of burial such as the "Opening of the Mouth" form a prominent part of the Book of the Dead. This rite usually involved a priest touching the face mask of a mummy with a series of implements as he uttered mystical incantations. Rachel Campbell-Johnston wrote in the Times of London,” Like a midwife clearing the orifices of a newborn baby, he symbolically reopened the ears, nose and mouth of the corpse. Several manuscripts depict this re-animating moment. A few also show a gruesome accompanying ritual in which the foreleg is severed from a still living calf and presented still pulsating , along with its freshly excised heart, to the human corpse. In the papyrus of Hunefar the mother cow is shown watching. The spectator can almost hear the wailing echo of her flat-tongued bawl. A symbolic lamentation for a passing soul. “

Thorpe wrote: “1) To perform it on a mummy---Hunefer's, in this case---a priest would touch the face mask with a series of implements, symbolically unstopping the mouths, eyes, ears and nostrils so the corpse regains its faculties. 2) Two women mourning for the dead Hunefer. The standing one is named as his wife, Nasha. 3) The mummy of Hunefer, adorned with a mask. It is held up by a jackal-headed figure representing the god Anubis, protector and embalmer of the dead. This may represent the god himself or a priest wearing a mask to impersonate him. 4) An inscribed tablet, which would have been set up outside Hunefer's tomb. At the top, a scene shows Hunefer worshipping Osiris. 5) A stylised depiction of Hunefer's tomb. [Source: Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer, October 24, 2010]

Ideas About Death in the Egyptian Book of the Dead

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Opening of the Mouth
Tutankhamun and Aja
The point of the whole experience for the moribund traveller was a vital reunion with their dead ancestors. "The family unit was crucial," Taylor told the Observer. "You cared for your dead family because they were still there, on the other side. They could communicate with you and had power over you. So people wrote letters to the dead asking things like, 'Why are you still punishing me?'" Death, he said, was a familiar part of daily life and ancient Egyptians felt closely connected to it, if not quite comfortable with it. Most people died before they were 40 and so mapping out a plan for the afterlife was a way to handle this unpalatable probability. [Source: Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer, October 24, 2010]

Vanessa Thorpe wrote in The Observer, “Intriguingly, evidence reveals that there were some sceptics who were prepared to question the likelihood of a paradisal "field of reeds" waiting for everyone on the other side of death. Taylor confirms that documents have been found in which these sceptics, the Richard Dawkins of their day, seem to query the point of The Book of the Dead. Most, however, seem to have decided that buying a papyrus was a useful insurance policy in case it all turned out to be true.

Among all the varied ideas contained in The Book of the Dead manuscripts there is no sense anywhere that the scribes were setting down history for posterity. Neither is there, Taylor says, any striving for objectivity in the way sentiments are expressed. Instead, the papyri are a practical piece of political and spiritual spinning, a means to an end delivered at an agreed price.

And yet because these papyri deal with fear and death and hope, they cannot help but provide an immensely absorbing window into the minds and emotions of an ancient society. Their images and hieroglyphs, known to every schoolchild, have now become the emblem of all that is mysterious to us about this remote culture. Yet the study of the complex transformation the ancient Egyptians hoped they would undergo in death is oddly humanising. In their imaginative scheme to defeat mortality and to be reunited with lost members of their family, they are somehow almost recognisable.

Much of the ancient Egyptian art that has made it to us today was oriented towards death, the dead and the quest for the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that artistic renderings of images placed in tombs would become real and accompany the deceased to the afterlife. Some scholars say the Egyptian belief in the afterlife is what helped ancient Egypt survive even after the empire had died.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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