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The ancient Egyptians believed that after death they would embark on a journey to the underworld where, on board of Ra’s solar boat, they would overcome many difficulties and misadventures until reaching the Egyptian underworld. Here, Osiris, the god of the dead, would await to pass the final judgment and decide the destiny of their souls.
If they had been pure and good during their lives, the transformation of their physical bodies would be complete, and they would join Osiris in eternity. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or Egyptian Book of Spells as it’s also known, was a series of funeral texts consisting of a number of magic spells written on a scroll during the New Kingdom. The pharaoh, the royal family, and the nobility used this ancient book to assist a dead person's journey through the Duat, or underworld.
According to what ancient Egyptians believed, once humans had passed away, they had to present themselves to Osiris, Egyptian Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, that would submit them to judgment and decide the fate of their souls. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was a funerary text that started being used at the beginning of the New Empire, (1550 BCE to around 50 BCE) and aided the deceased along their journey to the underworld.
The origins of the Book of the Dead, the most famous Egyptian funerary text, were the earlier Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, which were painted onto objects, such as tomb walls and sarcophagi, and later collected onto papyrus. These inscriptions, instructions for the dead and useful guides, ultimately made their way into the Book of Death.
There are multiple versions of this ancient book, and it is believed that each person collected the spells and afterlife advice that they believed to me most important. Once these spells were compiled together, the Book of the Dead was placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased.
In early times, possessing such a scroll of spells was a real privilege, seeing how only the pharaoh needed it in order to find his way to the gods and reunite with his maker, Ra. Starting with the emergence of the New Kingdom, wealthier families and royal clerks also gained access to the ancient spells in these scrolls, which gave way to more versions of the ancient book as well as to more variety.
The incantations reflect the Egyptians’ beliefs regarding the natural course of death and the afterlife which not only makes the discovery of the ancient book a monumental historical event but also provides us with a rich source of information about the Egyptian afterlife and their religious beliefs.
Typically, the Book of the Dead contained four sections:
1. The first one is when the deceased enters the tomb and descends into hell.
2. Secondly, the mythical origins of the gods are explained and resurrection of flesh is presented.
3. The third section describes the journey through the skies that the deceased make so they can stand before Osiris.
4. Finally, the deceased reclaim their powers in the universe and become a god.
The Book of Spells is a clear reflection of how the Egyptians saw death and particularly, the afterlife.
For the Egyptians, death was the decomposition of matter, and via the funerary ritual, the deceased would become reintegrated into a transcendental being. Mummification preserves the body and transforms it into divine essence, as we can see in spell number 154 of the Book of the Dead, formula for preventing the body from perishing:
"Hail, oh Osiris, my divine father. I stand before you to embalm your limbs. So that they do not die, embalm mine, and also so that I may become equal to the god Kepra, Lord of the Metamorphoses, who does not know what putrefaction is".
"The ”ka”, or vital force, would remain close to the deceased due to the food items placed in the tomb. Preserving the soul, or the “ba” was covered in formular 61 to 89, while 91,92, and 188 were spells for preserving one’s shadow after death. After going through all these preservation rituals, the deceased was ready to receive divine powers and turn into an “Aj” before undertaking the journey to Osiris.
We must take into account that ancient Egypt was home to many coexisting religious traditions and the concept of the afterlife had many interpretations. In this sense, the Book of the Dead talks about the Duat as the place where Osiris dwells and receives the deceased to pass judgment on their souls.
Starting from the 100th formula, ancient Egyptians would describe the journey of the person that had passed as a ride in Ra’s solar boat across the skies. The deceased would admire the beauty of fertile Egypt, and begin the transformation of the mortal body into the divine essence. The deceased would thereafter join the Grand Ennead, which were a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis.
Despite the appearances, this is no joy ride, the deceased must work in the fields, that is one of the reasons they were buried with tools as well as the reason why The Book of the Dead contained spells about how to facilitate manual labour.
One of the most important aspects of this voyage is how it is presented. Ancient Egyptians described the voyage as a perilous endeavor where the deceased had to break down gates, travel though mountains and caves, and defend themselves from the monsters and beasts guarding these dwellings. Luckily, the ancient Book contained various spells on how to defeat said monsters.
This complex view of death and of the Egyptian underworld centres around Osiris’ trial and judgment. That is without a doubt, the most important moment in the voyage, when the deceased are submitted to their final judgment. Hence, the importance of the Book of the Dead.
The most important formula in the ancient Book, one that wasn’t missing from any version of the book, was chapter 125, known as the ritual of “Weighing the soul”. This ritual contains the “Negative confession”, a text that had to be read to Osiris after overcoming the difficulties of the journey to the Duat and being taken by Anubis to see the god of the underworld.
This is when Maat, the goddess of Truth and Justice, depicted in ancient hieroglyphs as a feather, would weigh the soul of the deceased using a scale that would reveal all the sins one had committed during their lifetime. Formula 30B was used to prevent people from confessing their sins, which proved to be quite a useful tool in a moment like that.
If the scale was balanced, the deceased would be allowed to enter the divine dimension alongside Osiris and become reincarnated. If, however, the scale tipped the wrong way, the deceased would be instantly devoured by the beast Ammyt. Therefore, this is the pivotal moment of the whole journey, the one that decides between eternal life and eternal damnation:
"May my name be neither corrupted nor revolted before the all-powerful Lords who rule the destinies of men. May the ears of the gods rejoice and their hearts be full when my words are weighed on the Balance of Judgment".