The Book of the Dead and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
If there is one constant in human life, it is the certainty of death. What comes after, has plagued the human mind since the earliest signs of civilization; Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Mayans, and of course, Ancient Egypt. Stories of mummies, curses, pharaohs, and pyramids first appeared in western culture in the 18th century, and to this day have not ceased. The ancient Egyptians' death and the afterlife was so complex a process that a whole literature surrounding it has been created. All of which is neatly recorded in, what is now known as, the Book of the Dead.
Before diving into the Book of the Dead and the complexities of the afterlife, it is important to understand that Ancient Egypt's obsession with death is a misconception. Over the years, scholars have found plenty of evidence that Egyptians loved life and their land. While other ancient cultures viewed death as an opportunity to leave for a faraway land different from their lives, Egyptians saw the afterlife as a mirror image of their life on earth. They believed their country to be the most blessed land and therefore the afterlife would be just the same minus the hardships. They had festivals and games that celebrated life and encouraged happiness on earth. They deeply appreciated their families and home, and they loved their pets.
Ancient Egyptians believed that death was only not the ending, but a transition from one life to the next. Essentially, death opened a door to the possibility of eternal happiness. Therefore, to ensure a continuation and a mirror-like image of life on earth, every ancient Egyptian aimed to ensure their life was worth living forever. However, the journey to the afterlife was not an easy one. It was described to be full of complications and tests that challenged one’s worth to successfully reach paradise.
When one dies, ancient Egyptians believed the soul to be trapped inside the body because it had been in its vessel for such a long time. They feared the possibility of one's soul becoming lost, and thus compiled a series of texts to guide the soul to the after life and ensure its safe journey. Spells and images depicting the journey to the afterlife were kept in their tombs in order to guide the soul. This collection of scriptures was known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, or better known as the Book of the Dead.
The name and concept of the Book of the Dead implies an actual physical book with pages, however it was not always so. The first chapters were initially recorded in tombs and on the walls of the pyramids (now known as Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts respectively), it was only later that they started requesting books made of papyrus. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is also sometimes known as the Egyptian Bible, which is far from the truth. It was a compilation of spells the ancient Egyptians believed necessary for the journey from this world to the next and even though they shared a many similarities each copy was carefully curated for each individual.
The Book of the Dead was full of spells the ancient Egyptians thought were necessary for a safe journey. For instance, there was a spell titled "Repulsing the crocodile which comes to carry away the magical spells from man in the Underworld" (Allen, 1974, p. 41) or "Spell for driving of a cockroach" (Allen, 1974, p. 45). Other spells were meant to keep the darkness away or to rejoin the soul and the body. However, there was one particular spell that appeared in every copy of the book: Spell 125, which described the judging of the heart of the deceased by the god Osiris. This is one of the most well-known pieces of Egyptian mythology and it has been depicted many times in popular culture, the most recent one being the Marvel TV Series Moon Knight (2022).
According to the Book of the Dead, the soul will encounter the jackal-headed god Anubis who will guide them from their tomb to the Hall of Truth. There, they will wait in line for their judgement. When their turn arrives, Anubis will take them to face Osiris, god of the deceased, and Thoth, god of writing and wisdom. The soul will then make the Negative Confessions in front of the gods and the Forty-Two Judges. These confessions were a list of forty-two sins that the soul should be able to truthfully deny having committed. They were related to theft, murder, adultery, or even angering someone without reason, anything that the ancient Egyptians believed could alter the peaceful course of society.
Once the Confessions are made, the gods will discuss them with the judges and if satisfied, the deceased will then present their heart to be measured. Osiris will place the heart on the golden scales and weigh it with the white feather of Ma’at, the feather of truth. If the heart is lighter than the feather, the person is allowed to move on to the next phase. However if the heart is heavier than the feather, the heart will be thrown on the floor to be eaten by Ammut, the Devourer of the Dead. There is no concept of hell in Ancient Egyptian mythology, and this devouring of the heart would render the deceased non-existent. This was known as the Great Death, and it was the worst outcome that could befall a person.
If the Weighting of the Heart is successful, the deceased will then go on to the Lily Lake or the Lake of Flowers. There, depending on the version, the soul will face either dangers or something as peaceful as taking a walk. At the shore, Hraf-hef the Devine Ferryman, or He-Who-Looks-Behind-Him, will be waiting. He will be unpleasant and rude, and the soul will have to prove once more their worth to him. Once this last test is passed, the soul will finally reach the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian equivalent to paradise. There, the soul will encounter their house just as they left it before death, with all their favourite things as well as their deceased family, friends, and pets. They will go on enjoying life and happiness for all eternity.
Even though most of what has reached popular culture about Ancient Egypt seems to indicate a life constructed around death, Egyptians were a civilization that instead celebrated life and their land. So much so that their afterlife was a mirror image of their life on earth. They viewed death as a transition from one life to the next, and it began with a dangerous journey filled with tests and powerful deities. All to make sure that the life they had lived was one worth living forever.
Allen, T. (1974). The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in their own Terms. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, Vol. 37, University of Chicago Press.
Ikram, S. (2003). Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press.
Taylor, J. H. (2001). Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. The Trustees of the British Museum. British Museum Press.
Ojeda, C. (2017). Papyrus of Ani. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.worldhistory.org/image/6550/papyrus-of-ani/
Metropolitan Museum of Art. (ca.1850-1750 B. C.). Coffin of Khnumnakht. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326
Museum, T. o. t. B. (ca.1250BC). Papyrus of Ani. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10470-3
Museum, T. o. t. B. (2020). Ammit & Thoth Await the Judgement of a Soul. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.worldhistory.org/image/12848/ammit--thoth-await-the-judgement-of-a-soul/