The Egyptian Book of the Dead is by far the most sensational book handed down from the priests of ancient Egypt, and after nearly 4500 years it still intrigues modern readers with its imaginative insights into the universal human condition and the desire for a blissful afterlife. Originally the Egyptians called it The Book of Going Forth by Day, but it was in fact not a book in the modern sense but rather an anthology of religious illustrations and hieroglyphic writings that assisted the living spirits of mummified Egyptians. Entombed with this book of rituals, the deceased had an illustrated travel guide for the nightly journey with the sun through the dark and dangerous underworld, providing a guarantee of resurrection in the afterlife at dawn. Although the Book of the Dead was never read by the general Egyptian populace, modern readers can find in it the roots of current religious rituals, belief in the ethics of the good life, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and the resurrection of the spirit. We discover in the Book of the Dead a commonly shared humanity that reaches out to us across more than four thousand years with timeless and universal expressions of hopes and fears that are sometimes quite familiar, sometimes quite strange.
The Book of the Dead did not have a single author, as it is a composite work written by unknown Egyptian priests over a period of nearly 1000 years. Beginning in about 2400 BCE the priests and their educated scribal assistants inherited some of the writings now in the Book of the Dead and added new ones as needs arose. They first wrote these hieroglyphs on tomb walls, then coffins, and finally on papyrus scrolls for members of the royal family and the elite classes. These priests claimed to hold the keys to the knowledge of life itself, including the nature of the underworld and the afterlife, and most importantly the rituals the deceased must perform in order to attain a successful journey through the underworld passages leading to the afterlife. But the modern task of discovering and deciphering the Book of the Dead was a long and difficult process. Hieroglyphs were first deciphered in about 1822. Many Egyptian writings, including the Book of the Dead, were soon translated into modern languages and made available to the general public for the first time. But there is another author to whom we are deeply indebted, and is British Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934). Budge remains a controversial figure in the history of Egyptology. He held the distinguished position of Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, London, from 1894 to 1924. Budge was an extremely productive scholar who drew attention to many Egyptian and other ancient writings that might otherwise have remained unpublished. But perhaps he was too prolific for the demands of careful and accurate scholarship. Today there is a general agreement among Egyptologists that he translated and published too many ancient writings from a variety of ancient languages in too short a time period. Specifically, he demonstrated little interest in the proper methods of archaeology and the interpretation of material remains by using an outdated system for transcribing hieroglyphs. Despite these concerns, Budge remains a monumental figure and an inspiration for many readers, especially aspiring young students of Egyptology (who must use his books with a high degree of caution)
E. A. Wallis Budge's edition of the Book of the Dead represents only one particular form of this ancient book, certainly the most famous. This Book of the Dead is originally known from a papyrus scroll discovered in a tomb in Thebes, Egypt, sometime before 1888. It dated to about 1450 BCE, and measured 78 feet long by 1 foot, 3 inches wide. It was produced by Egyptian funerary priests for an otherwise unknown nobleman named Ani, a royal scribe of the New Kingdom's Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1295 BCE), thus the modern subtitle the Papyrus of Ani. No two copies of the Book of the Dead are exactly the same, and since many radically differ from their counterparts, it is now clear that the Book of the Dead in the Papyrus of Ani represents only one of the forms that the Book of the Dead could take. This might seem odd to modern readers with their concept of fixed authoritative scriptures revealed from a single God, like the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, or the Muslim Koran. But for the polytheistic Egyptians, the Book of the Dead was not equivalent to such fixed scriptures, nor did they desire such, so that the Book of the Dead was constantly revised as personal needs demanded, and even as religious, economic, and political conditions changed over Egypt's long history.
E. A. Wallis Budge uncritically accepted and promoted the idea, originally espoused by Edouard Naville in 1886, that the Book of the Dead was produced in two major versions or editions, commonly called "recensions" by literary critics. Budge's erroneous argument, as he explains in his introduction, was that early papyrus scrolls originating in Thebes during the New Kingdom period, especially the eighteenth to twentieth dynasties-the period of the Papyrus of Ani-represent a "Theban Recension" of the Book of the Dead. He adds that versions of the Book of the Dead from this period are characterized by the use of a title for each chapter although there is no clear order to the arrangement of chapters. Egyptologists have since shown that in fact there is great variety among the Theban versions of the Book of the Dead from this period, verifying that nothing like an established recension related to a distinct geographical location and chronological period can be convincingly established. Budge then suggested that the later versions from the Saite period-especially the Twenty-sixth Dynasty to the end of the period of Greek rule-represent a second and later recension, the so-called "Saite Recension." Budge argues that versions of the Book of the Dead from this late period are characterized by a definite order in the arrangement of chapters. This order has led some scholars to refer to such late versions as representing a "canonical" or official version of the Book of the Dead. Other scholars have now demonstrated that rather than an established canonical recension during the Saite period, there was instead a fixed form resulting from the cessation of creative revisionism. But this fixed form existed alongside a general devolution of the book due to scribal carelessness and perhaps unfamiliarity with the traditions in the Book of the Dead and their meaning. Naville's original idea, promoted by Budge, seems to assume that the Book of the Dead had fixed versions analogous to the model perceived to be provided by the Bible, which had for the Old Testament both a Hebrew (Jewish) and a Greek (early Christian) version which in some ways were radically different in content and meaning. Instead, we see in the development of the Book of the Dead a long process of creative composition, editorial revisions, stylistic alterations, and scribal corruptions-including radical abbreviations and the separation of texts from their accompanying vignettes-that altogether gradually contributed to some versions in the later periods that were only tangentially related to such classic full versions as that represented by the Papyrus of Ani.
Perhaps the best way to approach the Book of the Dead is to focus on its primary theme. Even a quick reading indicates that the book's main theme is the journey of the deceased through the underworld into the glorious afterlife. The French Egyptologist Paul Barguet in 1967 was able to identify thematic groupings in the late Saite versions. This breakthrough enabled scholars to understand the priests' groupings of the chapters and thus the book's thematic development, at least as they perceived it in the late period. Barguet argued that chapters 1-16 focus on the descent of the deceased into the tomb and the underworld, with the mummy's reacquisition of the physical functions of the previously living body; chapters 17-63 focus on the identifications of the sacred spaces and the gods who inhabit them, with the revivification of the mummy in preparation for its resurrection at dawn; chapters 64-129 describe the spirit of the deceased as it travels across the sky and the underworld and stands before the god Osiris and the afterlife judges who find that the spirit is justified; and chapters 130-189 describe the spirit of the deceased as it ascends to its position as one of the eternal gods of the afterlife. This convincing analysis by Barguet provides for modern readers of Budge's Papyrus of Ani a sort of reconstructed plot line that can function as a useful aid to understanding the ancient book.
Egyptian mythological concepts related to the afterlife are quite foreign to the modern reader. For example, the Egyptians never referred to the person in the tomb with the words "the deceased" or "the dead," but rather with very positive terms indicating a still living spirit who retains the person's name and heart (personality). In the Book of the Dead one of these terms is Ba, referring to the mobile form the deceased would take when it returns to its tomb to receive offerings. The Ba was often represented in the images in the Book of the Dead as a Jabairu stork in flight over the mummy, but with the human head of the deceased. Another term is Ka, representing the dynamic energy of the personality without which life was impossible. The Ka is represented in the Book of the Dead as a pair of up-stretched arms, apparently in a defensive posture that also suggests worship. Every person was born with his or her Ka, but when the person died, the Ka lived on as a sort of vital twin. Another term is Akh, representing the highest form the spirit of the deceased could acquire. Here the deceased is transfigured into a form that is represented in its most pure state, that of light. In reference to the Akh, we often speak of the Egyptian concept of resurrection. But the Egyptians did not conceive of a physical resurrection on earth, which they would have seen as a most unfortunate situation. Instead, they looked forward to a transfiguration of the spirit of the deceased into an incorporeal body of light, into a celestial being like the sun and the stars. This was the ultimate goal of our nobleman Ani.
Modern readers of Budge's Book of the Dead encounter an immediate problem when attempting to understand this ancient book. The problem concerns meaning and understanding since we have lost the original conceptual framework-the worldview-that provided consistency, logic, and clues to the meaning of the texts and the images in the accompanying artistic vignettes. Although the various chapters are thematically related, they do not provide modern readers with familiar characters, recognizable plot development, or a narrator who addresses them. Since the central unifying theme of the chapters is the progression of the deceased through the underworld and in the afterlife, the priests who collected and often composed the chapters never imagined they would be read by anyone outside of the tomb, the underworld, and the afterlife. The chapters are instead hymns and ritual instructions to be read by and for the deceased and the gods. If modern readers expect a clearly understandable storyline, such will not be found. The chapters are purely utilitarian in that they assist the deceased in the afterlife. The journey on which the deceased embarks is in its general outlines only faintly familiar to what one finds in modern religions, but the details are nearly all strange and unfamiliar. The modern reader must approach the Book of the Dead with humility and patience, and must read and reread each chapter and examine each vignette. We must realize that our inability to comprehend immediately both the larger framework and the smaller details is, at least in the case of the Papyrus of Ani, not due to the supposed inabilities of the original authors, editors, or scribal copyists, but rather to our own cultural distance from the world in which this fascinating book was written. We modern readers are like uninvited guests who observe and listen to a private conversation we can barely understand.
Paul Mirecki (Harvard, 1986) is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions and languages with a specialization in Egyptian manuscripts. He has studied and published manuscripts in museum collections in the United States, England, and Europe focusing on religious texts written in the ancient Greek, Middle Egyptian, and Coptic languages. He is currently Chair and Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Kansas.