The Book of the Dead is not a book per se, but rather a corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary texts from the New Kingdom. Each “book” is unique in that it contains its own combination of spells.
In total, about 200 spells are known, and these can be divided into various themes. In general, spells were meant to assist the recently deceased on their journey through the underworld, which is dangerous and full of obstacles.
Many of the spells originate from the earliest Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, which show continuity as well as changes in ancient Egyptians’ beliefs regarding the afterlife.
Although it is commonly called the Book of the Dead, its original name in ancient Egypt is transcribed as rw nw prt m hrw, which can be translated as Book to come forth by day or Book to emerge forth into light.
It is unclear when the Book of the Dead was first produced. However, the first known example of this work was found in the sarcophagus of Mentuhotep, a queen of the thirteenth dynasty.
Due to the presence of new spells, scholars have considered Mentuhotep’s sarcophagus as the first example of the Book of the Dead that we currently have.
During the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts were reserved for Pharaoh, and this is reflected in the spells found in this work.
These spells are primarily about protecting the pharaoh’s physical remains, reviving his body after death, and ascending to heaven, the three main concerns of the pharaohs of the Ancient Kingdom regarding their afterlife.
Pharaoh’s ultimate goal was to become the sun or the new Osiris, but this journey of transformation was fraught with danger.
Therefore, the Pyramid Texts contain spells that could be used to ask for help from the gods in the afterlife, a feature that is also found in later funeral texts.
Interestingly, if the gods refused to comply, the Pyramid Texts provide spells that the deceased pharaoh could use to threaten them.
One of the most famous examples of a Book of the Dead from this period is the Ani Papyrus, which is now on display in the British Museum in London. Ani’s papyrus consists of six distinct pieces of papyrus and has a total length of 78 feet (23.7 meters).
Like many other examples from the New Kingdom Book of the Dead, the Ani Papyrus was written in cursive hieroglyphs. Almost all the spells on this papyrus are accompanied by an illustration, making it a beautiful work of art.
It goes without saying that the ancient Egyptians believed that traveling through the underworld was dangerous, and the deceased needed all the help they could get to get to paradise, as reflected in the spells found in the Book of the Dead.
The climax of the trip, however, was the deceased’s judgment. The chief judge, of course, was Osiris, the ruler of the underworld.
In addition, there were also 42 gods who assisted Osiris in his judgment of the deceased. The spells required by the deceased to pass the final judgment in the underworld can be found in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead.
The deceased must declare his innocence once again by confessing to each of them a crime that he has not committed. Confessions include “I am not a man of deception,” “I have not depraved any man’s wife,” and “I have not blasphemed.”
After having made their confessions before the gods, the final test for the deceased is the “weighing of the heart”, during which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice.
If the heart and the pen had the same weight, the deceased was allowed to enter paradise. On the other hand, if the heart was heavier than the feather, the monster Ammit was fed, and the deceased would die a second (and permanent) death.
To prevent the heart from counting the deceased, the ancient Egyptians had to resort. The Chapter 30 spell is known as the “Formula to prevent a man’s heart from staying away from him in the underworld.”
This spell was so important that it is often carved into beetle-shaped amulets and placed in a mummy’s chest before wrapping it.