Monday, April 6, 2009

The Book of the Dead

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

The earliest copy discovered of the Book of the Dead dates back from the mid 15th century BC during the 18th Dynasty (1580 BC- 1350 BC). But it was first given the name "The Book of the Dead” by the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of the texts in 1842.
The Book of the Dead was known to the ancient Egyptians as “Reu nu pert em hru” translating literally to means 'utterances of emergence during daytime' or a slightly looser translation would be ‘The Chapters of coming forth by day.’

When it was first discovered, The Book of the Dead was thought to be an ancient Egyptian Bible. But unlike the Bible, it was not considered by the ancient Egyptians to be the product of divine revelation, nor did it set religious tenets, so it was possible for the Egyptians to change the content of the Book of the Dead over time. In fact it was the product of a long process of evolution from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom to the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom.

The Book of the Dead did contain the major ideas and beliefs in the ancient Egyptian religion, a religion that stressed an afterlife, so Egyptians devoted much of their time and energy into preparing for their journey to the "next world." Guiding every aspect of Egyptian life, religion was based on polytheism, or the worship of many deities. With as many as 2000 gods and goddesses each representing characteristics of a specific earthly force, combined with a heavenly power. Often gods and goddesses were represented as part human and part animal, including animals like the bull, the cat, the crocodile and the hawk were all considered as holy. The two supreme gods were Amun-Ra and Osiris. Amun-Ra was believed to be the sun god and the lord of the universe. Osiris was the god of the underworld and was the god that made a peaceful afterlife possible.

Although some spells still praised the sun-god Ra as being all important, he was no longer supreme with regard to the afterlife, as Osiris, the king of the underworld, was the judge of the dead before whom a trial would take place to determine if the deceased was worthy to enter the realm of Osiris and spend his afterlife in the ‘Field of Reeds’.
In truth the Book of the Dead remained popular until the Roman period. It is a collection of chapters that contained hymns, spells, passwords and instructions intended to guide the deceased to pass through various trials and obstacles to reach the Land of the West and a happy afterlife. To once more, “come forth by day” as a living man would awaken with the sun and to live forever with the gods. The title 'Coming Forth by Day' refers to the belief that the deceased took a whole night to travel through the realms of the dead then emerge with the sun, triumphant. It was also believed to granted freedom to the spirit forms to come and go as they pleased in the afterlife.

The Book of Dead was most commonly written on a papyrus scroll and placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased. These papyri were commissioned by the deceased before their death. You could commission the finest quality papyrus money could buy or you could purchase one "off the rack" and have a scribe fill in the blanks with your name.
The cost of a typical book might be equivalent to half a year's salary of a laborer, so the purchase would be planned well in advance of the person's death. Only the wealthy could commission a scribe to write the text based on his personal choice of spells. The less wealthy had to make do with the ready made text template, with just a space left for the name of the deceased to be written later. The blank papyrus used for the scroll often constituted the major cost of the work, so papyrus was often reused.

The Book of the Dead was usually illustrated with images or vignettes to illustrate the text, they were even considered mandatory. More time and attention was spent on the pictures to the extent that as much as the images were done at a high level, the quality of the text was often poor, with words misspelled or omitted.

One of the best preserved copies of this type of Egyptian funerary text to survive comes from “The Papyrus of Ani” written in 1240 BC. This version of the book is the most complete, filled with beautiful images of Ani and his wife as they travel through the land of the dead, and to the Halls of Ma'ati and beyond although there were many version of The Book of the Dead. The Papyrus of Ani now resides in The British Museum, London.

The most important point in the journey was the weighing of the heart of the dead person against Ma'ati, or Truth (carried out by Anubis). The heart of the dead was weighed against a feather, and if the heart was not weighed down with sin (if it was lighter than the feather) he was allowed to go on. The god Thoth would record the results and the monster Ammit would wait nearby to eat the heart should it prove unworthy.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem