Egyptian Book of the Dead

Symbol of the House of Life. Osiris stands in the center surrounded by the primordial deities of the elements.
Symbol of the House of Life. Osiris stands in the center surrounded by the primordial deities of the elements.

The Per-Ankh—the “House of Life”—discussed in the previous post, served as the library of Egyptian temples. There various texts were transcribed and kept by scribes, including the “books of the dead”. According to Jeremy Naydler, the House of Life was also a center of esoteric training where students may have undertaken a course of spiritual development, resulting in initiations into “various degrees of symbolic death and rebirth”.

Fragment from Book of the Dead. ca. 1075-945 BCE.
Fragment from Book of the Dead. ca. 1075-945 BCE.

Instructed by funerary texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, initiates may have engaged in visionary journeys to the duat—the underworld—thereby acquainting themselves with its spiritual realities. Naydler insists that familiarity with the underworld was essential knowledge for the Egyptian priest-magician, and mastery of its psychic energies was necessary on the path of spiritual attainment. Funerary texts served not only as guides for the dead but also for the living—they were “training manuals” preparing them for the afterlife experience, so to speak. By studying them initiates could cross the threshold of death while still alive, leading to spiritual rebirth. This may have been achieved in a state of deep trance, perhaps similar to an “out of body experience”.

Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch recognizes the magical and shamanistic qualities of the texts: “Some of the Pyramid Texts do have a visionary and ecstatic quality, giving an impression that they are records of journeys into a spirit world…when spoken, or more likely, chanted aloud, the many repetitious passages would have had an almost hypnotic effect.” She proposes these writings developed from even older shamanistic traditions: “There could have been a long period of oral transmission before this. It has been suggested that the earliest Egyptian rulers were advised by shamans and that some funerary texts could have developed out of their rites”.

Coffin Text painted on panel of sarcophagus.
Coffin Text painted on panel of sarcophagus.

Among the oldest literature of Egypt, the Pyramid Texts were originally inscribed on the interior walls of pyramids and intended exclusively for use by the pharaoh. During the Middle Kingdom, funerary texts such as the Coffin Texts were painted on sarcophagi. They continued in the New Kingdom as the Book of Coming Forth by Day—popularly known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These were commissioned by the wealthy and deposited in their tombs. They serve as guidebooks to the afterlife, providing prayers, hymns, magical formulas and maps of the territory of the duat to assist the soul in its postmortem journey.

Sarcophagus with Coffin Texts inscribed on them, including a map of the underworld. ca. 1985-1795 BCE.
Sarcophagus with Coffin Texts inscribed on them, including a map of the underworld. ca. 1985-1795 BCE.

These books of the dead describe the fantastic topography of the underworld: its marshes, rivers, lakes of fire, pylons and other sights to be found there. During the journey souls were required to pass through a number of gates, caverns and mounds. The journey through that realm was a hazardous and demanding one, requiring knowledge of many magical spells to enlist the help of the gods in overcoming obstacles along the way. These include incantations to subdue the monsters and demons that are encountered there, as well as of the names of gatekeepers who need to be addressed before they allow the traveler to continue on their way.

The following is a spell for repelling the demonic serpent Apep, the personification of evil, by by identifying oneself with Ra, the god of light, who overcomes all darkness:

“Get back! Crawl away!

Depart from me you snake!

Go and be drowned in the Waters of Nun,

at the place where your father

has commanded that you shall be slain.

Depart from the divine birth-place of Ra!

You tremble with fear,

for I am Ra at whom all tremble,

Get back you fiend, before the arrows of his light!

Ra has overthrown your words.

The Payrus of Ani is a version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, written for Ani, a royal scribe. It describes the series of pylon gates that must be passed through in transit through the underworld, reminiscent of the gates of Egyptian temples. Each pylon has a guardian who challenges the soul’s right to pass, threatening to burn them in fire, or cut them into pieces. They have terrifying names such as “She Who Repeats Slaughter”, “Lady of the Knife Who Dances in Blood” and “The Purifier of Sinners”. Ani is required to give the name of each guardian-doorkeeper to pacify them.

Eventually Ani arrives at the “Hall of Two Truths” where his final and most important trial occurs—the “balancing of the scales”, where his heart is weighed in the balance against the feather of truth. The heart was believed to contain the record of the deceased’s actions in life, and without it there was no memory, or chance for eternal life.

Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.
Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.

If the heart weighs heavier than the feather in the scales there is always the danger the soul might be devoured by the monster Ammit–part lion, crocodile, and hippopotamus, who waits nearby. Judged worthy by the forty-two assessor gods, Ani is led by the falcon-headed god Horus into the presence of his father Osiris, ruler of the underworld and god of rebirth and regeneration. Osiris welcomes Ani to his kingdom as one of the “living ones”—the blessed dead. Following this, righteous souls may choose to dwell in the paradisiacal Fields of Reeds, or ascend to accompany the sun-god Ra on his daily journey across the heavens in his Boat of Millions of Years.

Worshipping Ra upon his rising. Book of Ramose.
Worshipping Ra upon his rising. Book of Ramose.

Naydler writes that the Egyptian underworld is primarily a psychic experience, similar to a dream, where the soul exteriorizes its contents, finding itself in environments which reflect its state. Progress through this realm consists in purging the part of the soul known as the ba, roughly equivalent to the subconscious mind, of all that is impure and spiritually disharmonious. According to Naydler, the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the metamorphosis of the ba-soul into the akh-spirit, during which it becomes united with the source of spiritual light—dwelling in the heavens as a “shining one”, a star. The ba is associated with the realm of Osiris, and the akh with the sun-god Ra, so this apotheosis occurs as the center of consciousness transitions from the underworld to the heavenly world, resulting in spiritual illumination.

Visions of death and the afterlife are also part of the training of the shaman. Mircea Eliade writes that during their initiations, shamans have ecstatic experiences involving: “…dismemberment of the body, followed by a renewal of the internal organs and viscera; ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods or spirits; descent to the underworld and conversations with spirits and the souls of dead shamans; various revelations, both religious and shamanic.” There are many parallels between passages in the books of the dead and shamanic narratives of initiatory journeys to the underworld, with similar themes of purification of the soul, magical transformations, and rebirth.

Shrouded tekhenu being pulled into tomb.
Shrouded tekenu being pulled into tomb.

Another Egyptian funerary tradition that may have retained elements of pre-dynastic shamanism is the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual. According to Egyptologist Greg Reeder, during this ceremony a funerary sem-priest known as the tekenu was shrouded in cloth while kneeling in the fetal position, and pulled on a sledge by other priests into the tomb of the deceased. While the body of the tekenu was seemingly lifeless, he entered a deep, cataleptic trance-like dream state. During this time he travelled to the spirit-world and located the soul of the deceased, before being awakened, according to Reeder.

Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun.
Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun.

This “soul retrieval” enabled the priests to perform the next phase of the ritual, during which the mouth of the mummy was opened using various implements, magically restoring its ability to see and eat in the afterlife. Through this act the ka or spiritual body of the deceased was believed to be reawakened. The role of the tekenu is remarkably similar to that of the shaman, who as “psychopomp” or guide of the dead enters into an altered state of consciousness to lead souls to their new home in the underworld.

The Egyptians were not the only culture to produce books of the dead. The Tibetan Book of the Dead has a similar purpose of guiding the consciousness of the deceased through the afterlife experience, and is studied by Buddhist monks to prepare them for dying. In medieval Europe, Christian monks wrote the Ars Moriendi, which were read to the dying to ease their soul’s passage to the afterlife.

Illustration from Ars Moriendi showing demons tempting dying man with a crown--a symbol of pride. Woodblock ca. 1460
Illustration from Ars Moriendi showing demons tempting dying man with a crown–a symbol of pride. Woodblock ca. 1460

Psychologist Stanislav Grof agrees that these books were written not only for the dead, but also to guide the living. He insists they are not products of superstition and primitive imagination–but are instead accurate descriptions of the experiential territories traversed in non-ordinary states of consciousness, based on countless personal experiences, and many centuries of careful observation.

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2 thoughts on “Egyptian Book of the Dead

  1. Exactly! They describe the territory which the soul experiences in the otherworld– the astral plane, the Duat or Bardo, however you choose to describe it. It’s the imaginal realm which connects the divine with the earthly plane–on the lower level it reflects the sensory/concrete images based on sense perception, and memory (Osiris and the underworld) and this transitions to a more archetypal level of spirits and god-forms, and these finally dissolve into the light, the experience of the illumination of Ra or the light of the void of the Tibetan Bardo. The magician-priest or monk by entering these planes in visionary states while alive rehearses for the after-death experience, while also gaining freedom from attachment to their earthly experience, fear of death, etc

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