HYMNS, RITUALS AND SPELLS FROM THE BOOK OF THE DEAD AND OTHER EGYPTIAN RELIGIOUS TEXTS

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.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Egyptian Book of the Dead


Book of the Dead fragment

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 .

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.

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 spell

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]

Book of the Dead Spell 125: the Judgement Procedure

Martin Stadler of Würzburg University wrote: “The vignette of the judgment after death, attested from the mid-18th Dynasty onward, gives us an idea of the actual trial procedures. Although its association with Book of the Dead spell 125 is well known, the vignette is also found in accompaniment to other BD spells associated with the judgment. After the New Kingdom, the representation is found in a variety of contexts—coffins, shabti chests, mummy bandages, shrouds, and in one instance, a relief in the small Ptolemaic temple of Deir el-Medina. Although the set of figures displayed in the judgment scene changes over time, a typical representation comprises the introduction of the deceased to the judgment hall by a deity (Anubis, Thoth, Maat, or the Goddess of the West); a scale on which the deceased’s heart is weighed against a feather (the symbol of maat: cosmic order and justice); a devourer (a beast that is part lion, part crocodile, and part hippopotamus), who stands by, ready to eat the heart of—and thereby annihilate—the sinful deceased; Thoth, who records the result in writing; and the enthroned Osiris, presiding as chief judge. All or some of a group of 42 judges are also shown. Abbreviated versions of the vignette exist, as well as more elaborate depictions. [Source: Martin Stadler, Würzburg University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“According to its title, BD spell 125 is to be recited by the deceased when entering the judgment hall. It is intended to ensure that the individual will pass through the judgment phase and be found ethically worthy to enter the realm of Osiris. To this end, the deceased claims to know the names of the judges and asserts his purity. As the knowledge he displays reveals familiarity with cults, rituals, and cult topography, it presents him as one who is versed in religious matters. In the spell’s main section, the deceased addresses each of the 42 judges by his name and cult center. Each address is followed by the deceased’s denial of having committed a specific sin, hence the term “negative confession.” The 42 negative confessions confirm the speaker’s equanimity—that is, they confirm that his behavior did not undermine or disturb the societal peace (for example, through theft, adultery, murder, or adding to the balance) and that he acted according to the cultic prescriptions, such as that of respecting the cultic chastity. Together with Egyptian instructions that parallel BD spell 125, and autobiographical texts that commemorate the achievements of individuals of the Egyptian elite, the negative confession is a major source of ancient Egyptian ethical standards. A life lived in accordance with these standards was a life lived according to maat. Over the more than 1500 years of the spell’s tradition, the set of negative confessions remained remarkably stable, varying from (BD) manuscript to manuscript only in sequence. Variations are particularly noticeable between the redactions of the New Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period, and Late Period, where it is apparent, at least in some cases, that scribes had re- or misinterpreted words or phrases when copying. <>

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Book of the Dead Hunefer sheet 1

“Some scholars have suggested that BD spell 125 is an adaptation of the oaths of purity sworn by priests during their initiations. This suggestion is prompted by the texts of two priestly oaths whose structure and content are reminiscent of the negative confession of BD 125. The oaths, however, are written in Greek on papyri of Roman date. It has been argued that the recent discovery that the oaths are in fact translations from Egyptian constitutes further support for the suggestion. The oaths’ Egyptian version is contained in the so-called Book of the Temple, a manual on the ideal Egyptian temple. However, there are no known manuscripts of The Book of the Temple that predate the Roman Period. Therefore, the text might be much younger than the first witnesses of BD spell 125, although a Middle Kingdom date for the Egyptian priestly oaths has been advocated on the basis of The Book of the Temple’s Middle Egyptian grammar. This dating method has not been unanimously accepted by Egyptologists; thus it cannot be definitely excluded that there is a reverse dependence, i.e., that the priestly oaths are, in fact, adaptations of BD spell 125. The known and available Egyptian sources do not presently allow a decisive conclusion, but it can be stated that there is a relationship between ritual texts pertaining to the temple context and texts that were used for funerary rituals, or as mortuary compositions.” <>

Ideas About Death in the Egyptian Book of the Dead

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.

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Book of the Dead Field of Reeds

Hymn to Ra from the Book of the Dead

This hymn to Ra, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, offers a glimpse at the Egyptian reverence for their gods. It goes: NEKHT, THE CAPTAIN OF SOLDIERS, THE ROYAL SCRIBE, SINGETH A HYMN OF PRAISE TO RA, and saith: Homage to thee, O thou glorious Being, thou who art dowered [with all sovereignty]. O Tem-Heru-Khuti (Tem-Harmakhis), when thou risest in the horizon of heaven a cry of joy goeth forth to thee from all people. O thou beautiful Being, thou dost renew thyself in thy season in the form of the Disk, within thy mother Hathor. Therefore in every place every heart swelleth with joy at thy rising for ever. The regions of the South and the North come to thee with homage, and send forth acclamations at thy rising on the horizon of heaven, and thou illuminest the Two Lands with rays of turquoise-[coloured] light. O Ra, who art Heru-Khuti, the divine man-child, the heir of eternity, self-begotten and self-born, king of the earth, prince of the Tuat (the Other World), governor of Aukert, thou didst come from the Water-god, thou didst spring from the Sky-god Nu, who doth cherish thee and order thy members. O thou god of life, thou lord of love, all men live when thou shinest; thou art crowned king of the gods. The goddess Nut embraceth thee, and the goddess Mut enfoldeth thee at all seasons. Those who are in thy following sing unto thee with joy, and they bow down their foreheads to the earth when they meet thee, the lord of heaven, the lord of the earth, the King of Truth, the lord of eternity, the prince of everlastingness, thou sovereign of all the gods, thou god of life, thou creator of eternity, thou maker of heaven wherin thou art firmly established. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]

“The Company of the Gods rejoice at thy rising, the earth is glad when it beholdeth thy rays; the people who have been long dead come forth with cries of joy to behold thy beauties every day. Thou goest forth each day over heaven and earth, and thou art made strong each day be thy mother Nut. Thou passest over the heights of heaven, thy heart swelleth with joy; and the Lake of Testes (the Great Oasis) is content thereat. The Serpent-fiend hath fallen, his arms are hewn off, the Knife hath severed his joints. Ra liveth by Maat (Law), the beautiful! The Sektet Boat advanceth and cometh into port. The South and the North, and the West and East, turn to praise thee. O thou First, Great God (PAUTA), who didst come into being of thine own accord, Isis and Nephthys salute thee, they sing unto thee songs of joy at thy rising in the boat, they stretch out their hands unto thee. The Souls of the East follow thee, and the Souls of the West praise thee. Thou art the Ruler of all the gods. Thou in thy shrine hast joy, for the Serpent-fiend Nak hath been judged by the fire, and thy heart shall rejoice for ever. Thy mother Nut is esteemed by thy father Nu.

HYMN TO OSIRIS UN-NEFER: A Hymn of Praise to Osiris Un-Nefer, the great god who dwelleth in Abtu, the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in his existence. Thou art the eldest son of the womb of Nut. Thou was begotten by Keb, the Erpat. Thou art the lord of the Urrt Crown. Thou art he whose White Crown is lofty. Thou art the King (Ati) of gods [and] men. Thou hast gained possession of the sceptre of rule, and the whip, and the rank and dignity of thy divine fathers. Thy heart is expanded with joy, O thou who art in the kingdom of the dead. Thy son Horus is firmly placed on thy throne. Thou hast ascended thy throne as the Lord of Tetu, and as the Heq who dwelleth in Abydos. Thou makest the Two Lands to flourish through Truth-speaking, in the presence of him who is the Lord to the Uttermost Limit. Thou drawest on that which hath not yet come into being in thy name of "Ta-her-sta-nef." Thou governest the Two Lands by Maat in thy name of "Seker." Thy power is wide-spread, thou art he of whom the fear is great in thy name of "Usar" (or "Asar"). Thy existence endureth for an infinite number of double henti periods in thy name of "Un-Nefer."

“Homage to thee, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and Prince of Princes. Thou hast ruled the Two Lands from the womb of the goddess Nut. Thou hast governed the Lands of Akert. Thy members are of silver-gold, thy head is of lapis-lazuli, and the crown of thy head is of turquoise. Thou art An of millions of years. Thy body is all pervading, O Beautiful Face in Ta-tchesert. Grant thou to me glory in heaven, and power upon earth, and truth-speaking in the Divine Underworld, and [the power to] sail down the river to Tetu in the form of a living Ba-soul, and [the power to] sail up the river to Abydos in the form of a Benu bird, and [the power to] pass in through and to pass out from, without obstruction, the doors of the lords of the Tuat. Let there be given unto me bread-cakes in the House of Refreshing, and sepulchral offerings of cakes and ale, and propitiatory offerings in Anu, and a permanent homestead in Sekhet-Aaru, with wheat and barley therein-to the Double of the Osiris, the scribe Ani.”

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Book of the Dead Hunefer sheet 5

Coffin Text: The Tale of Horus and the Pig, c. 1900 B.C

Coffin Text: The Tale of Horus and the Pig, (c. 1900 B.C.): Why the Egyptians did not eat pork: “O Batit of the evening, you swamp-dwellers, you of Mendes, ye of Buto, you of the shade of Re which knows not praise, you who brew stoppered beer---do you know why Rekhyt [Lower Egypt] was given to Horus? It was Re who gave it to him in recompense for the injury in his eye. It was Re--he said to Horus: "Pray, let me see your eye since this has happened to it" [injured in the fight with Seth]. [Source: A. de Buck, “The Egyptian Coffin Texts,” (Chicago, 1918), p. 326, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]

Then Re saw it. Re said: "Pray, look at that injury in your eye, while your hand is a covering over the good eye which is there." Then Horus looked at that injury. It assumed the form of a black pig. Thereupon Horus shrieked because of the state of his eye, which was stormy [inflamed]. Horus said: "Behold, my eye is as at that first blow which Seth made against my eye!" Thereupon Horus swallowed his heart before him [lost consciousness].

Then Re said: "Put him upon his bed until he has recovered." It was Seth---he has assumed form against him as a black pig; thereupon he shot a blow into his eye. Then Re said: "The pig is an abomination to Horus." "Would that he might recover," said the gods. That is how the pig became an abomination to the gods, as well as men, for Horus' sake...”

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

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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