Book of the Dead


The great Egyptian funerary work called pert em hru properly meaning «coming forth by day» or «manifested in the light.»

The work consists of collections of spells which was believed to aid the dead in the crossing to the next life. There are several versions or renditions of the work, namely the Helipolis, Thebes, and Salis. Each version is mainly the same except for the differences found in the translations made by the colleges of priests at the various centers.

Its theme is thaumaturgic as its purpose is to protect the dead from dangers which they face when attempting to reach the other world. The spells were usually found on papyrus or leather in intimate association with the corpse – – beside of it in the coffin, actually inside the mummy wrappings, or inserted inside of a small statue of a funerary deity.

It is believed that many of the spells were recited by priests at the funeral and also that their presence within the reach of the deceased made them available to him when he needed them. Many papyri of sections from the Book of the Dead as well as sections themselves have been discovered inscribed on tombs, pyramids, and sarcophagi.


Origin and Development

The earliest examples of the Book of the Dead are from the 18th dynasty (1570-1304 BC). However some sections of these examples have been found in earlier known Egyptian funerary texts.

These were the so-called Pyramid Tests inscribed on inner chamber walls of 5th, 6th, and 8th dynasty rulers. These Pyramid Texts insured the survival only of the pharaoh whose name they contained and his subjects over whom he would rule in the Hereafter.

Royal relatives and courtiers who were granted favor to be buried in tombs surrounding the pyramid were perhaps fortunate enough to reach the realms of the blessed through the agency of the ruler.

Until the final era of the Old Kingdom (2664-2155 BC) there is little knowledge of the funerary liturgy for the ordinary Egyptian. His hope for survival is suggested by the fact from earliest times he was buried in a substantial grave which his wealth would provide; and accompanying his body would be ornaments, weapons, food and beverage, clothing and cosmetics.

It was in the period of to Old Kingdom that the process of mummification was developed to improve the preservation of the body itself.

The Coffin Tests, which are selections from the Pyramid Texts, were found in coffins from the late 6th dynasty (2341-2181 BC) until the Middle Kingdom (2051-1756 BC).

When coffins became mummy-shaped at the beginning of the 18th century it was more convenient to set the incantations on papyrus, and the Book of the Dead proper began developing. There are discovered copies from all sequential periods of Egyptian history, with the latest being Roman in date.


Most of the texts of the Book of the Dead are arranged in vertical columns and often are written in simplified linear hieroglyphs or in old-fashioned hieratic script. A few late examples exist where the lines are horizontal and in contemporary script.

Sometimes plain black ink was used, but frequently the titles of spells and important words were written in red. Illustrations could range from few to many, they varied from plain black-line drawings to beautiful drawings in lavish color.


The number and order of the spells varied greatly in the 18th and 19 dynasty versions of the Book of the Dead apparently on the command or wishes of the person commissioning the copy.

By the Ptolemaic period (320-322 BC) the number and order of the spells were standardized, and during the publication of the papyrus in the same period a consecutive numbering of the spells was applied. This consecutive numbering continued as further spells were added. There are presently over 200 spells, but not all are contained in any one discovered papyrus.

Concepts of the Hereafter:

The various glimpses of the afterlife provided in Egyptian funerary literature give a very complicated and confusing picture.

A New Kingdom book (1554-1075 BC) entitled the Book of What Is in the Netherworld describes the Hereafter as a subterranean region completely devoid of light during the day.

An area divided into 12 regions, each called a «cavern» and ruled by a king whose subjects are «spirits.» The many sections are connected by a great river similar to the Nile. Along this river during the night, sails a boat of the sun god bringing light and joy to the dwellers of the underground regions.

The illustrations in Chapter 110, depict the realm of Osiris, which was believed to be the sixth region of the Hereafter. It was shown as an agricultural area connected by canals. In one part were several islands, and Osiris held court on one of them.

It was in the «Hall of the Two Truths» that the trails of the deceased were held. If the deceased could prove his worthiness he was ferried across the waters where he could pursue a peaceful existence of plowing, reaping, and threshing, or having these things done for him by servants who was bound to work for him at his request.

Selected Spells:

After death the Egyptian hoped to be free to return to the earth during the day or be accepted as one of the blessed in the realm of Osiris.

The Book of the Dead contains a variety of hymns, magic formulae, litanies, incantations, prayers, and words of power which clearly was to be recited with the intent of helping the decease to overcome obstacles which might prevent him from achieving the above objectives.

Spell 1b, for example, gives the body power to enter the Hereafter immediately after burial. (Translations are from T. G. Allen, The Egyptian Book of the Dead Documents in the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago): «As for one who knows this roll on earth or puts it in writing on his coffin, he goes forth by day in any form he wishes and enters his place again unhindered.

There are given to him bread and beer and a chunk of meat from the altar of Re. He arrives at the Field of Rushes, and barely and wheat are given to him there. So he shall be thriving as he was on earth.»

Spells 2-4 give the decease the power to revisit the earth, visit the gods, and travel in the sky. Spell 6 binds the funerary statuette on which it was painted or carved to «volunteer» to perform any labors required of its master or mistress in the Hereafter. Spells 21-23 secured the help of several gods in «opening the mouth» of the deceased, enabling him to perform such functions as breathing and eating. Spell 25 restored the deceased’s memory, 42 put every part of the body under the protection of a god or goddess, 43 protected the body from decapitation, 44, prevented the deceased from dying a second time, and 130-131 enable to use the boats of sunrise and sunset.

Spell 154 has an address to Osiris by the deceased that partially said: «I continue to exist, I continue to exist, alive, alive, enduring, enduring.

I awake in peace untroubled. I shall not parish younder… My skull shall not suffer, my ear shall not become deaf, my head shall not leave my neck, my tongue shall not be taken, my hair shall not be cut off, my eyebrows shall not fall off. No harm shall happen to my corpse. It shall not pass away, it shall not parish, from this land forever, and ever.»

Perhaps the best-known chapter in the Book of the Dead is 125 containing the episode of judgment. In the accompany vignette, Osiris is enthroned, usually on the left, and facing four minor deities including the underworld goddess Ammut, who is depicted with the head of a crocodile, trunk and forelimbs of a lion, and the hind part of a hippopotamus, and has the responsibility of devouring the dead who are found unworthy.

In the center is a great balance with the heart of the deceased in one pan, and a feather representing truth in the other. The gods Horus and Anubis check the balance and Thoth records the result. To the right of the deceased is received by Maat, the goddess of truth; 42 deities sit in judgment around the hall.

The deceased is required to make his own defense. He first addresses Osiris in words that are part hymn and part spell. Then he recites a general «declaration of innocence» which is a denial of various evildoings and breaches of ritual customs. «I have not oppressed dependents.» «I have not caused anyone to go hungry.» «I have not caused anyone to weep.» «I have not diminished the food offerings in the temples…I have not taken the cakes set aside for the blessed.» «I am pure.»

He does this to assure Osiris that he has lived a reasonably decent life on earth, (or he knows the litany for declaring that he has) and that his body is complete and ritually pure.

Next he begins addressing the 42 deities denying various faults to each. It is at this point in his trial that he could really triumph by speaking their secret names and places of origin, thus gaining control over them.

Here he needs the powerful magic of the knowledge of the secret names and places of origin of Osiris and the other 42 deities. By such knowledge he could coerce their judgment in his favor.

Lastly the dead person addresses his heart, beseeching it not to bear witness against him. It is at this point in his trial that the deceased loses all control of his defense. If the heart does not confirm the person’s innocence (which never happens in the vignette) the person is lost.

But when the heart confirms the person’s innocence, then Horus leads the individual before Osiris who assigns the person a proper place in the realm of the blessed.


So it can be seen that according to the general outline of the Book of the Dead that it was thought that even in the afterlife the person still might scheme and coerce if he possessed the right knowledge. Such knowledge laid in the spells and hymns of the book which a few was along with him least he would not forget them.

First he needed the knowledge to fight off the dangers which he probably would face along his journey to the realm of the blessed. As in most Egyptian mythology the dead would combat malignant spirits and other dangers. Also, he needed the knowledge to influence or coerce the deities judging him at his trial in the Hall of Two Truths.

The work abounds with magical references. This is why many are of the opinion that the material in the work gives the conception that stipulation is mingled with the idea of circumvention by sorcery in the most extraordinary manner.

The first published translation by E. A. Wallis Budge appeared in 1898. It was reissued as a second edition by Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969. Other editions were put out by University Books, New York, 1960; Dover Publications, New York, 1967; and Causeway Books, New York, 1975. A.G.H.

Sources: 9, Caroline Peck, Brown University 61.