by Marie Parsons
The Book of the
Dead is the name given by Egyptologists to a group of mortuary spells
written on sheets of papyrus covered with magical texts and accompanying
illustrations called vignettes. These were placed with the dead in order
to help them pass through the dangers of the underworld and attain an
afterlife of bliss in the Field of Reeds. Some of the texts and
vignettes are also found on the walls of tombs and on coffins or written
on linen or vellum rather than on papyrus.
The texts are divided into individual spells or chapters, nearly two
hundred in total, though no one papyrus contains them all. Specific
chapters could be selected out of the total repertoire. If the
prospective owner of a Book was wealthy and his death not untimely, he
might commission a scribe to write the text for him, based upon his
personal choice of spells. Other less wealthy clients had to make do
with a ready written text, a template, in which spaces had been left for
the insertion of the name and titles of the buyer.
These spells were influenced by and developed after the Pyramid Texts
and Coffin Texts. The spells were originally designated by the Egyptians
as the Book of the Coming Forth by Day, expressing the freedom granted
to the spirit forms to come and go as they pleased in the afterlife. The
Spells in this Book, like the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts (which
were named those by Egyptologists), primarily served to provision and
protect the deceased. It is concerned with descriptions. and with
practical help and magical assistance for the hereafter.
Early examples of spells from the Book of the Dead are found on mummy
cloths and coffins of the New Kingdom, as were used commonly by
officials beginning with the reign of Tuthmosis III, and then they
appear on papyri. By the reign of Merneptah the spells appear on the
walls of certain tomb chambers, beginning with Spell 125, the Judgment
of the Dead. The spells also appeared continuously through the Third
Intermediate Period and the Late Period.
Some spells such as #148 and 110 appear on temple walls, the latter at
Medinet Habu. The chapters such as spells 26-30, and occasionally spell
6 and spell 126, regarding the heart, were inscribed on scarabs.
At first, only in certain cases and for special emphasis did spells
include a vignette, a symbolic representation in pictorial form
summarizing the intent or content of a spell. In a burial chamber from
the reign of Tuthmosis III, only two of a total of 35 spells are
illustrated, but by the Ramesside Period, the reverse is true and only a
few spells are un-illustrated. In Dynasty 21 and in the Late Period,
vignettes were often used for the spells, without the texts. But in many
manuscripts the vignettes constitute a row of pictures, with texts
placed beneath them.
The earliest Book of the Dead on record dates to the mid-fifteenth
century BCE, but some of the spells had their origins in the Pyramid
Texts from the 5th and 6th Dynasties, carved more than 1000 years
earlier. The Pyramid Texts themselves in part refer in their own turn to
rituals and practices probably in common usage 1000 years prior to them.
The Pyramid Texts were carved on the inside or pyramid walls of Kings
and queens of the 6th Dynasty and early First Intermediate Period for
another 200 years. Eventually more spells were added to the Pyramid Text
repertoire, and the texts were written now in the cursive script called
hieratic, not in hieroglyphics, within the wooden coffins. These texts
are thus now known as Coffin Texts.
In the Coffin Texts, as in the Book of the Dead, the sun-god is no
longer supreme with regard to the afterlife, as he was in the Pyramid
Texts. Some spells in the Book of the Dead still praise the sun-god Ra
as being all-important. But, now it is Osiris, the king of the
underworld, under whom the blessed dead hope to spend eternity, and it
is Osiris with whom the dead become assimiliated as "the Osiris X",
where X is the name of the deceased. Osiris also became the judge of the
dead, before whom a trial would take place to determine if the deceased
was worthy to enter the realm of Osiris in the afterlife.
The Coffin Texts also spoke of a belief in an afterlife spent in the
Field of Reeds where agricultural tasks would be performed by the
deceased for all eternity. To undertake this work for the deceased, the
ushabti-formaula makes its first appearance in the Coffin Texts, and are
later incorporated into the Book of the Dead. The ushabtis were small
figurines, often representing the deceased or servants of the deceased.
They would act as magical substitute workers and relieve the deceased of
all hard work in the afterlife.
None of these concepts were incongruous to the Egyptian. He could
believe in an afterlife in which he would spend eternity in the company
of the circumpolar stars as a blessed akh, yet also be restricted to the
burial chamber and offering chapel of the tomb as a ka, but also visit
the world of the living, inhabit the Field of Reed, and travel across
the sky and through the underworld as a ba with the sun-god.
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The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife by Erik Hornung, translated
by David Lorton
The Book of the Dead by R.O. Faulkner
Tour Egypt Website
� Arab World Books