The Egyptian Book of the Dead Definition and spells

The «Pert em hru,» commonly known in English as the «Book of the Dead,» is one of ancient Egypt’s most significant funerary texts.

The Egyptian book of dead Definition and Meanings

  • Meaning of «Pert em hru»: The term «Pert em hru» translates to «coming forth by day» or «manifested in the light.» This title reflects the belief that the spells contained within would help the deceased navigate the afterlife and emerge into the light of immortality.
  • Content of the Text: The Book of the Dead is a collection of spells, prayers, and incantations designed to aid the dead in their journey to the afterlife. These spells were believed to protect the deceased from various dangers and help them overcome obstacles in the afterworld.
  • Versions of the Text: There are several versions of the Book of the Dead, with notable ones being the Heliopolitan, Theban, and Saite versions. These versions are broadly similar but contain differences that reflect the local religious beliefs and practices of different regions and periods in ancient Egypt.
  • Thaumaturgic Theme: The primary theme of the Book of the Dead is thaumaturgic, focusing on the use of magical spells to protect and assist the deceased. It reflects the ancient Egyptians’ complex beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the power of magical and religious rituals.
  • Placement with the Deceased: The spells were typically written on papyrus or leather and placed in close association with the deceased. They might be found beside the coffin, within the mummy wrappings, or inside small funerary statuettes. This proximity was believed to ensure that the spells were readily available to the deceased.
  • Use in Funerary Practices: Many spells from the Book of the Dead were recited by priests during funerary ceremonies. Their inclusion in the burial arrangements was thought to provide ongoing protection and guidance to the deceased in the afterlife.
  • Archaeological Discoveries: Sections of the Book of the Dead have been found inscribed in tombs, on the walls of pyramids, and on sarcophagi. Complete papyri and fragments have been discovered, providing valuable insights into ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and practices related to death and the afterlife.
  • Cultural and Religious Significance: The Book of the Dead holds immense cultural and religious significance, offering a window into the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of mortality, the soul’s journey after death, and their deep-rooted beliefs in an afterlife.


Origin and Development

The «Book of the Dead,» a pivotal funerary text in ancient Egyptian culture, underwent significant development and evolution over centuries. Here’s an overview of its origin and historical progression:

  • Earliest Examples in the 18th Dynasty: The earliest known examples of what would become the Book of the Dead date back to the 18th dynasty (1570-1304 BC). However, it’s important to note that the text did not suddenly appear in its complete form but evolved over time.
  • Origins in Pyramid Texts: Elements of the Book of the Dead can be traced back to the Pyramid Texts, which are the oldest known religious texts in the world. These were inscribed on the inner chamber walls of the pyramids built for the 5th, 6th, and 8th dynasty rulers. Initially, these texts were exclusively for the pharaoh, ensuring his survival and rule in the afterlife.
  • Exclusivity to Royalty: Initially, the Pyramid Texts were meant only for the pharaoh, and by extension, perhaps to his close relatives and courtiers who were buried near the pyramid. This exclusivity reflected the belief that only the pharaoh and those in his favor had a guaranteed passage to the afterlife.
  • Funerary Practices for the Common People: During the Old Kingdom (2664-2155 BC), there is little evidence of elaborate funerary texts for ordinary Egyptians. Their graves, furnished with personal belongings, suggest a belief in an afterlife, but the funerary texts like the Pyramid Texts were reserved for royalty.
  • Development of Mummification: The Old Kingdom period also saw the development of mummification techniques, aimed at preserving the body for the afterlife.
  • Emergence of Coffin Texts: The Coffin Texts, which borrowed from the Pyramid Texts, emerged during the late 6th dynasty (2341-2181 BC) and continued into the Middle Kingdom (2051-1756 BC). These texts marked a democratization of the afterlife beliefs, extending the magical spells and rituals beyond the pharaoh to the nobility and later to the general populace.
  • Transition to Papyrus: With the advent of mummy-shaped coffins in the early 18th dynasty, it became more practical to inscribe incantations on papyrus scrolls rather than on coffins. This transition marks the formal development of the Book of the Dead.
  • Continuous Evolution and Copies: The Book of the Dead continued to evolve, with copies from all subsequent periods of Egyptian history, including those dating to Roman times. This continuity underscores the text’s enduring significance in Egyptian funerary practices.



The form and presentation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead varied over time, reflecting changes in artistic styles and writing techniques. Here are some key aspects of its form:

  • Arrangement of Text: The texts in the Book of the Dead were typically arranged in vertical columns. This format was a common feature in ancient Egyptian writing, particularly in religious and funerary texts.
  • Writing Style: The writing was often done in simplified linear hieroglyphs, which were the formal writing system of ancient Egypt. In some instances, an older style of writing known as hieratic script was used. Hieratic script was a cursive form of Egyptian writing used primarily for religious texts and administrative documents.
  • Horizontal Lines and Contemporary Script: In a few later examples of the Book of the Dead, the text was arranged in horizontal lines and written in a more contemporary script. This variation indicates the evolution of writing styles and formats over time.
  • Use of Ink: Typically, plain black ink was used for the main body of the text. However, it was common for titles of spells, names, and other significant words to be highlighted in red ink. The use of red ink for important words or phrases is a distinctive feature of ancient Egyptian manuscripts, underscoring their significance within the text.
  • Illustrations: The level of illustration in the Book of the Dead varied considerably from one copy to another. Some versions contained few illustrations, while others were adorned with numerous and elaborate drawings. The illustrations often included scenes depicting the journey through the afterlife, gods and goddesses, and various rituals and ceremonies.
  • Quality of Artwork: The style and quality of the illustrations ranged from simple black-line drawings to intricate and beautifully colored images. The more lavish manuscripts with detailed and colorful illustrations were likely commissioned by wealthier individuals, reflecting their social status and resources.



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.