The Egyptian Book of the Dead by Anonymous

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of all the great classic books, The Book of the Dead has been on my list for the longest time. My interest in the book was first ignited by the 1999 cinematic masterpiece, The Mummy, which was released at just the moment to leave a permanent imprint on my growing brain. Unfortunately, I have discovered that The Book of the Dead does not really allow you to summon an army of ninja mummies or to revive my long-lost love, Anck-su-namun. If anything, I appear to have only resuscitated Brendan Fraser’s acting career…

Some books are far more interesting to read about than to actually read, and this is one of them. The Book of the Dead is not really a book in that it was never intended to be read for pleasure or even for edification. And, in any case, The Book of the Dead is not an accurate translation of what the Egyptians called it, which would be something like: The Book of Coming Forth by Day.

This sounds poetic. But perhaps a more descriptive title would be The Ancient Egyptian Manual for Safely Dying. For despite this text being the product of an ancient religion, filled with supernatural beings and too many gods to keep track of, this is above all a practical text. If you use the spells contained herein, you can be sure of making your way through Duat, the hellish underworld populated by monsters and other perils, to safety in the afterlife.

These powerful spells would be written on a long scroll of papyrus and buried along with the mummified body. These various papyri were not always identical, often containing variations of the same spell and a different total numbers of spells. But in total about 190 different incantations have been identified.

The practice of burying bodies with this “book” began about 1500 BCE, during the so-called New Kingdom, but many of the spells have even older origins. The very oldest funerary spells are known as Pyramid Texts, and they were inscribed inside the burial chamber of the Pharaohs in (you guessed it) the pyramids, during the Old Kingdom. Apparently, the afterlife was the sole privilege of the Pharoah in the beginning of Egyptian history. But this changed during the Middle Kingdom, when officials, courtiers, and otherwise very rich individuals began to be buried with Coffin Texts—spells inscribed on the inside of the sarcophagus or on the linen shroud that wrapped the body. When these spells began to be written on papyrus, their use became even more widespread. Life in Ancient Egypt was still thoroughly monarchical, but the afterlife became a touch more democratic.

Even (or perhaps especially) if you cannot read hieroglyphs, these papyri were often quite lovely, being richly decorated with vignettes. The most beautiful example of these papyri is the Book of Ani, named after the man whom the book was made for, a Theban scribe. It is worth scrolling through the entire papyrus (the full image is on Wikipedia) and just enjoying the many illustrations, including the famous vignette of Anubis weighing the deceased’s heart against the feather of Maat. This papyrus was actually stolen from the Egyptian police (who had confiscated it from antique dealers) and smuggled to England, where it became a prized item in the British Museum. (The man who stole it, E.A. Wallis Budge, is also, as it happens, the author of the most widely read English translation.)

All of this information is, in my opinion, quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the actual experience of reading the book is considerably less stimulating. As I mentioned above, the spells were not written as literature and make for repetitive, dull, and flat reading. I first attempted to tackle a Spanish version that had been given to me, edited by one Luis Tomás Melgar. But after about 100 pages I simply could not stand it, and decided to try the classic Budge version. The same thing happened: after about 100 pages, I could not bear to read another spell.

Indeed, I am a little embarrassed to admit how unpleasant I found this. Normally I can power through when I don’t much like a book. But it felt as though my brain had been dissolved with acid and was being extracted through my nose. Thus, I decided to have mercy on myself and to mark the book as “read,” while I still had some grey matter intact.

In fairness to the Ancient Egyptian priests and scribes who compiled the book, I ought to include a sample of a spell. Here is one allowing the deceased to transform into a hawk:

Hail, Great God, come now to Tattu! Make thou smooth for me the ways and let me go round to visit my thrones; I have renewed myself, and I have raised myself up. O grant thou that I may be feared, and make thou me to be a terror. Let the gods of the underworld be afraid of me, and may they fight for me in their habitations which are therein. Let not him who would do harm to me draw nigh unto me, or injure me, in the House of Darkness, that is, he that clotheth and covereth the feeble one, and whose name is hidden; and let not the gods act likewise towards me.

If you can make it through 200 pages of this, you are a stronger reader than I am.

Even if The Book of the Dead is not exactly great (or good) literature, it does provide an interesting insight into ancient religion. There is a striking difference displayed here in the attitude towards the Egyptian gods and, say, that displayed towards Yahweh in the Old Testament. In the former, the believer uses spells that grant him predictable control over the gods and other supernatural beings, while the psalms are prayers, supplications, thanksgiving, worship, meditations—attempts to approach and understand the divine, rather than command it.

Another noteworthy aspect is how thoroughly focused on death and the afterlife the Egyptian religion appears to have been. Getting to the afterlife was not seen as the reward of a life well-lived. To the contrary, the spells in this book allow the deceased to reach this eternal reward despite whatever sins they may have committed. The judgment of the gods was not inexorable or unavoidable, but open to magical manipulation. Even if you “defrauded the temples of their oblations” or “purloined the cakes of the gods,” there was still hope of escaping divine retribution.

I know it is highly unfair—and, also simply pointless—for me to judge an ancient religion, especially considering that I did not even manage to finish the sacred book. But I couldn’t help thinking that this religion lacked most of the elements which I normally find compelling in a creed: a substantive moral code, consolation for life’s tragedies, acceptance of the inevitable… There is nothing poetic about death, life’s last major transition (if it can be called that). Instead, the final journey is regarded in such a prosaic, literal-minded way that it evokes no strong feeling. The soul must be defended from physical dangers in order to reach a state of physical well-being, and that is all.

Of course, it is quite possible, and perhaps likely, that The Book of the Dead is not perfectly representative document when it comes to Egyptian religion. After all, the book was not meant to be read by the living, so maybe it is no wonder that I did not find much of value. If I can still access Goodreads from beyond the grave, I will update this review at that (hopefully remote) date.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s