Ancient Egypt: the “Book of the Dead”, the Egyptians’ Bible for the afterlife

In a tomb in Saqqara, south of the Pyramid of Djoser, Egyptian archaeologists discovered in 2022 a recently restored 16-meter-long papyrus dated 50 BC. J.-C., they announced on January 14, 2023. Called the “Waziri papyrus”, it is a copy of Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the first found in a century. Since the texts of this corpus have been preserved in their entirety, they are rare: in the 19th century and before the decipherment of hieroglyphs (notably thanks to the Rosetta Stone), they were broken up for sale and scattered among private collections. This rare discovery provides an opportunity to delve into the writings of ancient Egypt and thus have an overview of the beliefs that animated its inhabitants, especially about life after death. For if the richest had their bodies mummified and their coffins decorated with religious texts, belonging to a book of the dead was also important in the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties to prepare it.

Unique papyri, placed with the deceased

The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is in fact the modern name given by German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius to a series of funerary texts, which would help the deceased navigate the afterlife. The Egyptians, who then called it the Book to get away from the sun — hear, the world of the living — papyri containing its formulas and its spells were sometimes placed in their burials, about 1500-1000 BC. J.-C. Prominent during the New Empire, they are finally derivatives of the oldest Texts of pyramidswritten there, and Texts from sarcophagi (or coffins), reserved for the royal family and then for high-ranking dignitaries. Many authors contributed to the writing of the corpus: scribes copied the texts on the scrolls and illustrated them in bright colors, before selling them to the individuals who buried them. Several copies have been found, but none known to contain the book’s more than two hundred individual chapters. None of the parchments are alike, precisely adapted according to the beneficiary.

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Spells “to get out of the sun” or to prepare for it

The purpose of the book is to accompany the deceased spiritually in the trials that await him after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that their body could be reborn – hence the importance of mummification processes – and navigate somewhere “of gods, demons, magical places and potential obstacles”, wrote Barry Kemp, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge in his book How to Read the Egyptian Book Of The Dead (Granta Books2007). “The Book of the Dead, through its fairies, [lui confère] the power to navigate successfully — for eternity — in different fields.” That is why his chapters describe what awaits him, such as the Soul Judgment ceremony (chapters 30B and 125). Having to report to Osiris (or to Re, depending on the season) for his actions on earth, the dead man submits his heart in the balance before the feather of Maat, goddess of truth and justice. The spells (rꜢ) of Book to get away from the sun led him to “awaken” his ohpart of the “happy” soul that lives on after death.

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By giving indications of what awaited them, these texts also allayed the ancient Egyptians’ fear of the unknowns of death. The statements included instructions on how to use them on Earth, suggesting that they were likely used during their lifetime as well. Some appear more often than others. “spell 17”, for example, recalls the importance of the sun god Re or Ra in Egyptian mythology. The texts were often illustrated – papyri with colorful illustrations flourished during the New Kingdom, when funerary documents also proliferated, recalls an article published in Scientific Reports in January 2023. Because if many owners could not read the hieroglyphs on their copy, they had through these vignettes a summary of their content. Papyri difficult to read because of their length – the longest of the manuscripts discovered measuring about forty meters – were intended to be prestigious copies, deposited in the tomb.

Part of the papyrus of Ani (1250 BC) discovered in Thebes in 1887, taken from the “Book of the Dead”. Ani and her husband are approaching the Seven Gates of Osiris. No royalty

Extracts from the mask of Tutankhamun

The formulas of Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was not always written on papyrus. They have been found on the walls of tombs, the bandages of a mummy… and even on the famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun (1345-1327 BC), with inscriptions taken from the chapter entitled “Formula for mysterious head” (151B). ). According to Foy Scalf, head of the archives of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (USA) and holder of a doctorate in Egyptology, the last published extracts from the manual were written in the 1st or 2nd century AD (Book of the Dead: Divinity in Ancient Egypt2017). The Breathing Books — one meant to be placed under the head of the deceased, the other under the feet — then became new popular texts. They are made up “of a selection of spells from the Book of the Dead […] [entrelacé] with new compositions, commentaries and the reproduction or deletion of particular passages”indicates the researcher studying one of them, the papyrus FMNH31324.

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