The Egyptian Book of the Dead was a foundational work of ancient Egyptian culture. It comprised a very lengthy text, with some preserved specimens on papyrus scrolls reaching up to forty meters in length.
Moreover, it was an expensive commodity, for which one could pay with a silver debit, equivalent to half of a farmer’s annual pay. However, for the Egyptians, the value of this text was immeasurable, as its formulas facilitated the deceased’s journey to the Hereafter.
These formulas were inscribed on papyrus scrolls, linen bandages of the mummies, the walls of the tombs, the sarcophagus, and the items placed in the deceased’s funeral grave goods.
Without these crucial formulas, the deceased could suffer a second death, leading to complete annihilation.
During the funeral ceremony, it was the priests who recited the initial formulas of the Book while transferring the sarcophagus to the tomb. Once inside, rituals were performed to revive the senses, magically opening the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of the deceased. Upon regaining their senses, the journey through the Hereafter would commence.
For the ancient Egyptians, this was a moment of hope, as expressed in formula nine of the Book of the Dead, known as the “Book for the day’s departure”:
“I have opened the ways that are in heaven and on earth, because I am the beloved of my father Osiris. I am noble, I am a spirit, I am well-equipped. Oh, all the gods and all the spirits, prepare a way for me!”
According to Egyptian belief, the deceased embarked on an underground journey from west to east, mirroring Ra, the sun, which after setting, returns to its original point.
During this journey, the deceased, traveling in Ra’s boat, would encounter perilous beings attempting to hinder departure from the east and rebirth.
Among these adversaries was Apophis, a serpent seeking to obstruct the solar boat’s progress and disrupt Maat, the cosmic justice and order.
Apophis threatened Ra daily during the subterranean journey. A passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead refers to the encounter with this fearsome reptile:
“May you be submerged in the Lake of the priest, in the place established for your destruction. […] Go back! Your poison is destroyed!”
The deceased could assume the attributes of various divinities and confront adversaries, as illustrated in section 179 of the formula:
“I have been granted the great Red Crown and I go out against my enemy to capture him, because I have power over him. […] I will consume it in the Great Field, on the altar of Wadjet, for I have power over it, like Sekhmet, the great one.”
The Judgment of the Soul
At last, the deceased arrived at a labyrinth guarded by a series of twenty-one doors, although another section in the Book states there are seven.
Before each door, the deceased had to recite a specific text, mentioning the door’s name, the guardian, and the town crier. On every occasion, the door declared: “Enter, for you are pure.”
Upon completing the maze, the deceased reached the Truth Room, where a court composed of 42 judges and presided over by Osiris would assess their life.
Before the gods, the individual made a “negative confession,” listing all the wrongful acts they had not committed, as detailed in formula 125:
“I know you, Lords of Truth and Justice! I present myself as Just and I have put an end to evil. I have not caused harm to others. I have not mistreated my family. I have not spoken falsely. I have not conspired. I have not engaged in wrongdoing. As a leader, I have not exploited anyone beyond their due labor.”
Following the confession, the pivotal moment of the trial arrived: the weighing of the deceased’s heart.
Anubis, the jackal god of mummification, held an ostrich feather, Maat’s symbol of justice, on a scale; the heart was placed on the opposing plate, representing each person’s deeds.
The deceased would be saved if the feather and the heart balanced each other.
The weighing of the heart was so crucial that the Egyptians crafted a specific amulet, the heart scarab, placed on the deceased’s heart during the mummification process.
Formula 30 of the Book was always inscribed on the amulet’s back, ensuring the heart wouldn’t testify against the deceased during the final judgment.
“Oh, my heart of [my] mother! Oh, my heart that gives me life on earth! Do not bear witness against me! Do not stand in judgment against me before the gods! Do not be hostile towards me before the great god, Lord of the West!”
Ultimately, the gods delivered their verdict. Those whose hearts weighed heavily in the balance were deemed impure and sentenced to various punishments: enduring eternal hunger and thirst, being burnt while crossing a lake, or consumed by a wild beast in a cauldron.
The justified, however, had reason to celebrate. “Though lying on earth, I am not dead in the West, for I am an honored Spirit for eternity,” as expressed in a formula from the Book of the Dead. Before them unfolded the paradise of the ancient Egyptians.
Work in the Hereafter
The post-life realm where the virtuous deceased resided was known as Sekhet-Aaru.
Ancient Egyptians envisioned it as a place very akin to Egypt, replete with rivers, mountains, roads, caves, and highly fertile fields where barley thrived up to five cubits in height.
However, the departed still had to concern themselves with sustenance. Even in a state of “glorification,” as per a formula in the Book of the Dead, they were required to “plow and reap, eat and drink, and perform all the tasks conducted on earth.”
To assist with these tasks, they could rely on an army of servants depicted in characteristic statues known as ushabtis. Always found in the funeral belongings, these figures would transform into servants through magical means.
Each figurine had crossed arms and held farming tools in hand. Inscribed at the base was a formula from the Book of the Dead: “Formula for ushabtis to perform work in the Necropolis. Osiris [name of the deceased], justified, commands: Oh ushabti! Osiris [name of the deceased], justified, to perform any duty to be done in the Necropolis… Respond with ‘Here I am’ when you are called upon.”
Eternal Life’s Enjoyment
One final concern for the departed was the preservation of their body. Mummification helped in its preservation, but the aid of magic was also sought.
Hence, it was common for the bandages enveloping the mummy to bear inscriptions of formula 154 from the Book, preventing decomposition:
“I come to embalm my organs. This body of mine shall not decay. I remain intact like my father Osiris-Khepri, whose body endures. Come, take hold of my breath, lord of the breath, paramount among your kind. Grant me stability, form me, you, Lord of the sarcophagus. Permit me to walk for eternity as you do when with your father Atum, whose body never corrupts, who faces no destruction.”