This article was first published in the December 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Wearing clean clothes and white sandals, you stand in a long hall supported by columns. On a throne at the far end of the room you see the figure of Osiris, the god of the underworld. You are surrounded by 42 gods, terrifying mummified figures including the Swallower of shades, the Bone-breaker and the Eater of entrails.
In front of you is the god Thoth in the form of a baboon. He sits atop a pair of scales that will very shortly decide your eternal fate. This is judgment day and, should you fail the test, you will experience the agonising second death. But you show no fear because you are a possessor of the Book of the Dead – a tome that contains within its texts the secrets to surviving the afterlife.
You turn to the first of the gods and begin to speak: “O Far-strider who came forth from Heliopolis, I have done no falsehood.” Then you turn to the second: “O Fire-embracer who came forth from Kheraha, I have not robbed…”
Coming forth by day
For ancient Egyptians, life on earth could be very short, so the rituals surrounding death were an integral part of their culture. Many of the best-known relics from Egypt – pyramids, tombs and mummies – reveal the time and resources that the people of the Nile were prepared to spend to ensure a successful afterlife. Spells or formulae that could aid your path through the next world first appeared on the walls of pyramids during the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty, around 2350 BC. Some 400 years later, in the time of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, these Pyramid Texts evolved into Coffin Texts that were inscribed on coffins, tomb walls and, sometimes, sheets of papyrus.
It was after 1550 BC that a corpus of spells written and illustrated on sheets of papyrus started to replace Coffin Texts in Egyptian tombs. This is what we now know as the Book of the Dead, though the Egyptians themselves referred to it as the book of “coming forth by day”. The Book of the Dead continued to be used, albeit with evolutions, for the next 1,500 years until great changes in the country undermined many of Egypt’s traditions.
Although we know it as the Book of the Dead, in fact no two books were made the same. “There wasn’t a standard Book of the Dead – every manuscript contained different texts,” explains John H Taylor, expert on the funerary archaeology of ancient Egypt at the British Museum. “There was a pool of texts [around 200] from which you could choose, but no known manuscript contains every known spell. There are some that occur in pretty much every copy of the Book of the Dead and others that are really rare, of which we have only one or two examples.”
The Book of the Dead was widely used, and indeed thousands of examples have survived to the present day. Yet it is clear that such books were not available to all Egyptians. Carefully written and often beautifully illustrated, Books of the Dead would have been beyond the resources of the majority of people. They are only found in the tombs of the upper echelons of Egyptian society. Were they, therefore, not essential? “The Book of the Dead didn’t seem to be something you absolutely had to have,” says Professor Stephen Quirke of the Petrie Museum, University College London. “It was an additional luxury to shore up and reinforce the chance to get eternal life. It was a very dominant, desirable addition to a rich burial.”
After you died, Egyptians believed, your ba (spirit) would depart your body – but only temporarily. The ba would need to return to your remains periodically, perhaps every night, and for this reunion to be successful the body had to be intact. That’s why Egyptians developed a complex process of mummification – because without it your afterlife would be jeopardised.
Halting decomposition was, however, not enough to guarantee that you would prevail in the next world. Your ba would itself face several challenges on its journey – and a Book of the Dead would be an invaluable aid in dealing with these. So the book was often placed in the coffin, sometimes even wrapped up within the bandages of the mummy, ensuring that the words inside would follow you as you encountered the perils of life after death.
There is no doubt that the next world was a dangerous place, haunted by monsters that echoed and exaggerated the wild beasts Egyptians might have encountered in the world of the living. You were, therefore, equipped with spells for fighting off serpents, crocodiles, beetles, snakes and a frightening being known as “the creature that swallows the ass”. You might also encounter some unpleasant henchmen of Osiris, “sharp of fingers”, and the so-called “slaughter place” of the god.
Thankfully, you were provided with the means of fighting off evil, escaping traps, and avoiding decomposition and decapitation. Another scary prospect was being turned upside down, a fate that would play havoc with your digestive system. For this reason a spell was included in some Books of the Dead “for not eating excrement or drinking urine in the underworld” – a vivid description of some of the horrors that might befall you.
Your ba would have to pass through a series of gates, each of them guarded by a fearsome deity. Your knowledge of the gates and guards was crucial to your advancement, and this information was helpfully contained within the Book of the Dead.
So, for example, when you approached the sixth gate, spell 146 advised you to declaim: “Make a way for me, for I know you, I know your name, and I know the name of the god who guards you – ‘Mistress of Darkness, loud of shouts; its height cannot be known from its breadth, and its extent in space cannot be discovered. Snakes are on it, of which the number is not known; it was fashioned before the Inert One’ is your name.” You would claim the protection of gods and assert your own worth. “Mine is a name greater than yours, mightier than yours upon the road of righteousness,” says spell 144.
The most important test of all would come at the so-called Hall of the Two Maats, where your life on earth would be judged. After answering the questions of the 42 mummified gods in the hall, you would approach the set of scales presided over by the jackal-headed god Anubis. On one scale was the image of truth and on the other your own heart. If you had behaved well in your life then the scales would balance and a rosy future would await you. But if the scales failed to balance, your next appointment would be with the devourer, a nightmarish beast with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the haunches of a hippo. The devourer would consume your heart; you would die the second death and be gone for ever.
This was far from an appealing prospect – but, thankfully, the Book of the Dead offered a solution in the form of spell 30B: “O my heart of my mother! O my heart of my different forms! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.”
As John H Taylor explains: “Even if you had lived a bad life you could get away with it by using this spell, which prevents your heart from spilling the beans to the gods. This was the first time in history when you see the idea that your fate after death was dependent on your behaviour when you were alive. However, it was not carried through to its logical conclusion – because you could cheat your way around that particularly tricky moment.”
Once you had navigated your way through these difficult situations, where exactly would you want to end up? “There is no single goal in the Book of the Dead,” explains John H Taylor. “It is a collection of texts that contains spells and texts from different periods and different localities in Egypt. They’re all a bit contradictory so there are actually several different possible end points you could reach on your journey.”
One possible destiny would be to sail across the sky every day with the sun god Ra in his boat. A second option would be to live in the underworld with its resident god, Osiris. But the place that you would most like to visit was the Field of Reeds, an idealised version of Egypt in which you could continue many of your earthly activities. Ploughing, reaping, eating, drinking and copulating are all explicitly mentioned in Book of the Dead descriptions of this tempting place.
The Field of Reeds was undoubtedly somewhere with strong agricultural connections, a theme that Stephen Quirke believes recurred throughout Egyptian ideas of death. “Egypt was an urban society but farming was still the mainstay of the country,” Quirke says. “Part of the way that death was illustrated was through the agricultural cycle. You locked into the sun, which was the dominant source of light, energy and warmth. It dictated the agricultural year, which was central to this farming economy. You also locked into the earth, where the idea that you went to the ground to die and could be resurrected was linked with the notion of agricultural and plant regrowth. These are very organic ways of looking at life.
“Then there is the Field of Reeds,” Quirke continues, “which, in the way I read it, is more like a marsh. If you think of the Nile flooding often, then farming would often be a marshy experience. One of the most famous illustrations from the Book of the Dead is a scene of the Field of Reeds where dead people are happily reaping corn at miraculous heights”.
Sometimes, though, all this sowing and reaping might seem a bit too much like hard work. For this reason the Book of the Dead provided you with a useful solution. You would often be buried with a small figurine known as a shabti to whom you would delegate labours in the next life. Spell 6 requested that the shabti would take your place when you were tasked with “making arable the fields”, “flooding the banks” or “conveying sand from east to west”. With this little helper busily doing the work that might have inconvenienced your afterlife, you would be free to enjoy your eternal paradise.
Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine.