The Book of The Dead

The Book of The Dead
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The principal purpose of ancient Egyptian funerary literature was to help the deceased pass through the dangers of the Underworld and be reborn into new life. The "Book of the Dead" refers to the funerary texts which the Ancient Egyptians called "the spell for coming forth by day". This title refers to the belief that the deceased took a whole night, as did Re with his solar barque, to travel through the realms of the dead. The all-conquering spirit of the deceased would then emerge triumphant with the morning sun.

It was introduced at around the time of the latter part of the Second Intermediate Period, and consisted of about two hundred spells or chapters, usually inscribed on papyrus and sometimes on amulets, linen or vellum. The scrolls would be illustrated with small drawings known as vignettes, that accompany most of the chapters or spells, and serve to illustrate their contents. Originally vignettes were used only in certain cases or for special emphasis, where it was considered necessary to have a symbolic representation in a pictorial form of the content or intent of a spell. However by the late New Kingdom, a majority of the spells were actually illustrated, and on some occasions just the vignettes themselves are used for the spells without any text. In many manuscripts, the vignettes are in rows with text placed beneath them.
Spells from the Coffin Texts, shown on the 12th Dynasty inner coffin of Gua.
The inner coffin of Gua, from Deir el-Bersha, 12th Dynasty, c.1985-1795 BC. Spells from the Coffin Texts were inscribed in the coffin to aid the deceased in reaching the afterlife.
The influence of the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts
The spells from the Book of the Dead were influenced by the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts. The walls of the burial chamber and the ante-chamber of the pyramid would be inscribed with vertical columns of text of individual sayings and spells that ensured the well-being of the pharaoh into the afterlife. The texts appear to vary from one pyramid to another, the oldest edition, that in the Pyramid of Unas, contains only 283 of the known texts, and includes ones not found in later editions.
During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, pyramid texts began to be inscribed in the tombs of high officials. Often the spells would be ornately carved inside the coffins of important people. These texts became known as the Coffin Texts. During the Middle Kingdom, funerary practices were made available to everyone. Previously, the right to be embalmed and the prospect of a guaranteed afterlife were restricted to royalty and nobility. Now the opportunity became available to anyone, providing they could afford it!
The earliest texts of the Book of the Dead appear on mummy shrouds of members of the 17th Dynasty royal family (c.1650-1550 BC); they then appear on those of high officials of the early New Kingdom, after about 1550 BC. The appearance of vignettes followed, and then the texts appear on papyrus and leather rolls. Papyrus rapidly became the main medium, and remained so for over a thousand years.
Matters of the heart
To the Ancient Egyptians, the heart was of the utmost importance, considered to be the seat of intelligence and emotion, and so consequently no less than four spells in the Book of the Dead were concerned with preventing the unauthorised removal of this organ, or ensuring its quick return. To find out whether the deceased was worthy to enter the Field of Reeds, the heart would have to be weighed on a balance. If the heart balanced on the scale, then the lucky owner could expect to enjoy the afterlife. Chapter 125 shows one of the best known vignettes in the Book of the Dead (see also "featured scrolls" below):
The deceased stands at the side, often accompanied by their ba and various forms of fate and destiny. Anubis checks the balance, and Thoth, the ibis headed god of scribes stands ready to write down the result of the weighing. Twelve great gods, seated across the top of the scene, act as witnesses to ensure a fair trail. A strange creature, part crocodile, part hippopotamus, part lion or panther lurks nearby, she is called Ammit, meaning "she who gobbles down", the eater of anyone unworthy to enter the Field of Reeds. The heart of the deceased sits in one of the trays on the balance scales. The heart is weighed against either Ma'at, the goddesses of truth, cosmic order, wisdom, and righteousness, or more usually just her symbol, the ostrich feather. Should the deceased be unfortunate enough to have a heart that was considered to be "heavy with sin" and unable to balance against Ma'at's feather, then Ammit would be able to gobble it down. Deprived of their heart, the deceased would then be denied an afterlife.
The Opening of the Mouth - spell number 23
The most important ritual performed for the deceased just before burial was the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This would restore all the faculties and body functions to the mummy so that the afterlife could be enjoyed to the full. Sometimes the ceremony was performed on the mummy, and often it is shown being performed on the funerary statues. Afterwards, the mummy and the statues were effectively transformed and ready for use by the "ka" of the deceased.
Scene of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, from the papyrus of Hunefer
Detail from the scene of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, from the papyrus of Hunefer. The centrepiece of the upper scene is the mummy of Hunefer, shown supported by the god Anubis. Hunefer's wife and daughter mourn, and three priests perform rituals. Those wearing the white sashes are carrying out the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The white building at the right is a representation of the tomb, complete with portal doorway and small pyramid. At the right of the lower scene is a table bearing the various implements needed for the Opening of the Mouth ritual. At the left is shown a ritual, where the foreleg of a calf is offered. The unfortunate animal would then be sacrificed.
In the scenes for the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the deceased's mummy is usually shown propped up before a representation of the tomb chapel. The "sem" priest, distinguished by the wearing of a panther or leopard skin, prepares to use the ritual implements set out nearby. Sometimes the "sem" priest takes on the role of the deceased's son, although often the ceremony was performed by the deceased's son and heir as a final act of piety. The "hery heb" (lector priest, usually wearing the Anubis mask) reads out the appropriate instructions from a papyrus. The mummy would be touched with various ritual implements, the most important being the "pesesh kaf", so that the senses were restored, not only to the mouth, but also the eyes, ears, nose and other parts of the body. Elaborate rituals involving purification, censing, anointing and incantations would be performed and offerings (including a foreleg and a bull's heart) made.
Afterwards, the mummy could be placed in its nest of coffins, the canopic chest set in its niche and the grave goods and shabti figures stacked around the tomb. From the early New Kingdom, shabti figures were inscribed with the "Shabti formula of Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead": "O shabti, if the deceased is called upon to do any of the work required there in the necropolis at any time ... you shall say "Here I am, I will do it." 
Just before the burial chamber was sealed, final magical and protective aids were put into position. From the 18th Dynasty, a rolled up papyrus of the Book of the Dead would be placed in the coffin.
The focus of any tomb, royal or otherwise, was an offering place and a false door, which acted as the entrance to the Netherworld. In large tombs and pyramid complexes, wall scenes included hunting, fishing and the delivery of offerings for the deceased.
Featured Scrolls:
Book of the Dead of Nakht
Nakht was a royal scribe and overseer of the army (general) at the end of the 18th Dynasty (c.1550-1295 BC). His Book of the Dead is a beautifully illustrated example. This papyrus shows Spell 110, a series of addresses to deities who dwell in the "next world", specifically in the Field of Offering and the Field of Rushes. The deceased was expected to undertake agricultural work in the Field of Rushes.
Book of the Dead of Nakht
Spell 110 from the Book of the Dead of Nakht, the royal scribe.
The vignette evolved from a map of the Field in the earlier Coffin Texts. It shows areas of land surrounded by water. Nakht is shown with Thoth at top right, with the balance and feather of Maat, referring to the Judgement Scene. He then paddles his boat across the Lake of Offerings where two mummiform deities stand before a table of offerings. Nakht is also shown worshipping the Heron of Plenty. He is shown pulling flax, reaping, and ploughing below. The boat of Wennefer (a name for the god Osiris), shown with a head of a snake, is moored in a channel of the water at the bottom. Three deities of the ennead (group of nine gods) are shown bottom right.
Book of the Dead of Ani
Ani is depicted in the vignettes with his wife, Tutu. His titles include "Royal Scribe", "Accounting Scribe for Divine Offerings of All the Gods" and "Overseer of the Granaries of the Lords of Tawer". These titles indicate that Ani was a member of the administration associated with Osiris and other gods in the Abydos region. Ani's Book of the Dead was written around the year 1240 BC.
Detail from chapter 17 from the Book of the Dead of the scribe Ani
Detail from chapter 17 from the Book of the Dead of the scribe Ani. A long and complicated spell, with an equally long history Chapter 17 is essentially a statement of religious doctrines relating to the sun-god Re.
This scene from the Book of the Dead of Ani reads from left to right. On the left Ani and his wife Tutu are shown playing senet, the board game that can also be used a metaphor for a man travelling into the next world. In front of them both, on top of their white tomb stand their human-headed ba spirits next to one another. The two lions represent those of the horizon over whose backs the sun rises daily, whilst the bird standing to the right of the lions is the benu bird, the phoenix-like bird that represents the soul of the sun-god Re. Under the canopy, Ani's mummy lies on its bier, attended either side by Isis and Nephthys in the form of two birds.
The Book of the Dead of Ani was not actually commissioned especially for him. Ani used a version of the text that was already prepared, and then his name and titles would be simply inserted into the text at the appropriate points. This form of the Book of the Dead was less personalised than the specially commissioned version, and as a result was a lot less expensive. The location of the tomb of Ani at Thebes is not known and his Book of the Dead is the only object that can be securely attributed to him.
The Book of the Dead of Hunefer
Hunefer and his wife Nasha lived during the 19th Dynasty, in around 1310 BC. Like Ani, Hunefer was a royal scribe and "Scribe of Divine Offerings". He was also "Overseer of Royal Cattle", and steward of pharaoh Seti I, the father of Ramesses the Great. These titles indicate that Hunefer held prominent administrative positions, and as such would have been close to the king. The location of his tomb is not known, but he may have been buried at Memphis.
Chapter 125 from the Book of the Dead of the scribe Hunefer
Chapter 125 from the Book of the Dead of the scribe Hunefer. To the left, Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgement area, where he then supervises the judgement scales. Hunefer's heart, represented as a pot, is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Ma'at. Ammit waits by the scales, but Hunefer is judged as being "true of voice" and is led by Horus into the presence of Osiris. Behind Osiris stand Isis and Nephthys, and in front, on the lotus blossom stand the four sons of Horus. At the very top of the papyrus, Hunefer is shown adoring the row of deities who supervised the judgement.
Hunefer's high status is reflected in the fine quality of his Book of the Dead, which was specially produced for him. This, and a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure, inside which the papyrus was found, are the only objects which can be ascribed to Hunefer. The papyrus of Hunefer is characterised by its good state of preservation and the large, and clear vignettes that are beautifully drawn and painted. The vignette illustrating the "Opening of the Mouth" (see above) ritual is one of the most famous pieces of Ancient Egyptian papyrus, and gives a great deal of information about this particular part of the Egyptian funeral ritual.
The Book of the Dead of Nebseny
The papyrus of Nebseny is an earlier example, and the accompanying vignettes are not coloured like those of Hunefer and Ani. Nebseny was a temple copyist, whose job was probably to make copies of temple documents for archives, as well as writing out new ones. It is possible that he may have drawn the pictures himself rather than pay a specialist papyrus illustrator.
Page from the Book of the Dead of Nebseny.
Page from the Book of the Dead of Nebseny. From a Memphite cemetery, probably Saqqara, 18th Dynasty, around 1400 BC, showing Nebseny and his wife receiving offerings.
The scene of an owner and their spouse receiving offerings is often represented in Books of the Dead. Such offerings are conventionally the duty of the eldest son. Here we see Nebseny and his wife Senseneb seated before the offering table - the horizontal row of hieroglyphs over the young man on the left names him as their son, Ptahmose. The hieroglyphs above give the text of the offering prayer written in a "retrograde text" - normal hieroglyphic text is read from the side from which the birds, animals and humans face, whereas a retrograde text is read starting at the opposite end. In this case, the text begins at the left and continues to the right, and reflects the words coming away from the priest at the left.
Funerary papyrus of Taminiu
Taminiu's funerary papyrus dates from the Third Intermediate Period, around 950 BC, and details "The demons which the deceased must pass on the way to the Afterlife." There were many obstacles on the path to the Afterlife, and they often took the form of demons. The various funerary books were intended as assistance to the deceased, with the spells needed to overcome every potential problem they could possibly encounter.
"The demons which the deceased must pass on the way to the Afterlife", from the funerary papyrus of Taminiu.
"The demons which the deceased must pass on the way to the Afterlife", from the funerary papyrus of Taminiu.
Some Underworld demons guarded the gates to the Mansion of Osiris, where the deceased was judged. These were often depicted, as here, in a mummified form, crouching and wielding sharp knives. The demons were pictured with the heads of recognisable animals, such creatures such as rams or hares, that posed no threat in the living world. Others, like the double snake-headed demon, shown on the right of the upper register, were creatures of pure fantasy. Some would be shown with their heads facing behind them, others face-on. Another demon gatekeeper was the upright snake, with human arms and legs, again shown here with a pair of sharp knives. This individual was the last guardian who stood at the doorway of the judgement chamber.
The lower left section of this papyrus shows the deceased woman, Taminiu, receiving cool water from Nut, appearing as a sycamore goddess. Her ba, the small human-headed bird, is at her feet. Behind her is the goddess Ma'at, whose head has been replaced by the feather that is her emblem.
                                                                       Coffin texts, papyrus scrolls and papyrus descriptions are courtesy of The British Museum
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