Short facts about Egyptian Book of the Dead

Book of Coming Forth by Day, or what we call The Egyptian Book of the Dead , is a set of spells, incantations, and mummification techniques designed to help the dead person resurrect into a glorious afterlife in “heaven,” or “The Hall of the Two Truths.” The work is a New Kingdom text and is similar to many texts found in the pyramids (from the old Kingdom) and coffins (from the Middle Kingdom) which outline the rituals performed at the burial of a important person. The Book of the Dead first developed in Thebes towards the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, around 1700 BC. A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes. They were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased.

In Ancient Egypt, these burial rituals aren’t read from a book. At first, they are read directly off of the walls of the inner chambers of a pyramid; later they are read directly off the sides of the coffins. Book of Coming Forth by Day was read off of papyrus sheets, much as religious rituals today are read out of books. Like a modern day Bible or Qur’an the book was meant to be relatively easy to purchase (it’s, like, real expensive buying a pyramid and coffins ain’t none too cheap neither), so that any fairly well-off person could secure a hand-written copy of it and use it on a loved one or whatever.

As a well-off Egyptian in the New Kingdom, you would buy a copy that would have blanks where the names go, and you would hire a scribe to insert your name in all those blank spots. In the text you have, the blank spots where the name of the deceased is to go, is indicated by the letter “N,” an “Insert Name Here” instruction. When you died, or when your loved one died, you would be buried with your papyrus scroll of Book of Coming Forth by Day. As a result, quite a few of these texts survive. In addition to Book of Coming Forth by Day, several scribes wrote what you might call travel guides to the afterlife; these, too, were buried with the dead.

Almost every Book of the Dead was unique, containing a different mixture of spells drawn from the corpus of texts available. Most owners of the Book of the Dead were evidently part of the social elite; they were initially reserved for the royal family, but later papyri are found in the tombs of scribes, priests and officials.

The work is not divided into chapters; this is a modern invention to make it easier to read. The longest and most famous chapter is “The Judgement of the Dead,” chapter 125, which we are reading here. In it, the dead person appears before Osiris and a council of the gods; the heart of the dead person is weighed on the scales in full view of the council.