Like many ancient cultures, the Ancient Egyptians had a rich system of beliefs concerning the afterlife and saw death as just the beginning of a long and arduous journey to the eternal lands. Littered with obstacles and demons, the path to paradise was a treacherous one for the departed of Ancient Egypt, and the so-called Book of the Dead, therefore, served as a guide to help the deceased navigate this supernatural terrain.
The Origins Of The Egyptian Book Of The Dead
Despite its name, the Egyptian Book of the Dead isn’t a book at all. Rather, it’s a collection of spells written over a period of about 1,000 years that has no formal order, structure, or narrative. Each of these spells is designed to help a dead person overcome a specific challenge they are likely to encounter in the underworld, and various combinations of these incantations can be found on papyri placed in tombs alongside corpses.
The earliest of these spells were painted onto objects inside the burial chambers of Egyptian royalty around 2400 BCE, and came to be known as the Pyramid Texts. Later versions - known as the Coffin Texts - were inscribed on the coffins of non-royal elites, before the collection was re-edited during the 16th century BCE under the title of "The Book Of Coming Forth By Day".
Now available to anyone who could afford a copy, the "Book" was sold by scribes and came to be seen as an essential piece of kit for those preparing to exit the world of the living. Typically, expiring mortals would only buy certain chapters, and no tomb has ever been found with the complete collection of spells.
It wasn’t until 1842 that the collection came to be known as the Book of the Dead, when German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius published the text under that name.
What’s In The Egyptian Book Of The Dead?
The various spells in the Egyptian Book of the Dead were designed to help people say the right things at the right time in order to avoid annihilation and reach the eternal afterlife. According to Ancient Egyptian beliefs, the dead were required to travel through the underworld in order to meet the god Osiris, at which point they would be judged according to the righteousness with which they lived.
However, this path was guarded by terrifying monsters and other supernatural nasties that had to be appeased or tamed along the way. Many of the spells in the Book of the Dead served to equip the deceased with the phrases that could be recited in order to overcome these foes. Others contained the answers to the many questions that the gods asked of the dead as they progressed along their journey.
Those who made it to Osiris were then required to speak the names of each of the 42 deities that judged the souls of the dead. Following this, they had to recite the so-called “negative confession”, affirming that they had abstained from 42 different sins - ranging from murder to theft - during their lifetime. Fortunately, all of this information was written down in the Book of the Dead, so those who purchased a papyrus before dying had little to worry about.
Only once all of these challenges had been completed would the heart of the deceased be weighed on a scale against a feather. If the scales were balanced, the individual was judged to be free of sin and granted entrance to the afterlife. However, those whose heavy sins tipped the balance were immediately devoured and condemned to oblivion for the rest of eternity.
In the end, then, even the Egyptian Book of the Dead couldn’t save you if you were a jerk.