Book of the Dead

The Egyptians called it Reu nu pert em hru meaning The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, for it is a book about coming forth, a book about the afterlife. It’s a set of spells, hymns, incantations, prayers and mummification techniques all designed to help the dead person resurrect into a glorious afterlife in the Hall of the Two Truths.

The Book can be best described as a map, as a guide book for the Dead, showing the way to ensure a happy afterlife. The instructions are clearly written, and easy to follow for a dead person during the final journey into the Underworld.

It showed how to overcome obstacles, revealed routes, gave clues to shortcuts, taught passwords and prayers to navigate safely, kept the dead from getting lost and guaranteed the help and protection of the gods.

A group of funerary chapters began to appear about 2300 BCE carved nside pyramid walls and stone sarcophogai of the Old Kingdom. Later on more hymns and directions were added and the texts were engraved inside wooden coffins. These magical texts were eventually written on papyrus and commissioned by the wealthy before their deaths. The rich demanded the finest quality papyrus that money could buy, while the less affluent would buy a generic book and have a scribe fill in the blanks with their name.

The Egyptians believed that death was not the end of life, but merely a temporary interruption. If piety to the gods was followed, the physical body was preserved through mummification and the proper funerary equipment was provided, then eternal life was ensured.

Each person possessed a physical body, the ‘ka’, the ‘ba’, and the ‘akh’. The Name and Shadow were also living entities. To enjoy the afterlife, all these elements had to be sustained and protected from harm. The body had to be carefully preserved as an essential element to the afterlife and needed for all eternity. It was a long process taking almost three months to perform correctly, allowing extra time to put the finishing touches on the tomb when all of the dead person’s worldly possessions were packed away and the Book of The Dead was carefully laid in the final resting place.

The British Museum holds the finest and most complete example of these papyri – the Papyrus of Ani. Written and painted some 3500 years ago, it’s the most complete and preserved example of Ancient Egyptian philosophical and religious thought.

This text is wondrous, it shows not only an elaborate and ritualistic judgement of the dead, but what constitutes a proper life for a citizen. From this ancient text we learn of the ethics of Egyptian society, we see the guidelines for an orderly and harmonious society. When finally the soul is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the supplicant recites from the Book – these lines are but a few of the statement meant to be from the deceased.

I have committed no evil upon men.
I have not oppressed the members of my family.
I did not rise in the morning and expect more than was due to me.
I have not brought my name forward to be praised.
I have not defrauded the poor of their property.
I have made no one weep.
I have not killed.
I have not diminished the bushel when I’ve sold it.
I have not diverted the running water in a canal.

To live as a worthwhile member of the ancient Egyptian society was to llive one’s life according to Ma’at.