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Book Review - The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The ancient Egyptians, as almost everyone knows, believed in an afterlife. It's why, for example, they put so much effort into mummifying the dead. Their conception of the afterlife, though, was a bit different than the Christian one that most people in this country are used to. There wasn't a simple, one time judgement, after which the deceased either went to heaven or hell. The afterlife was more like a parallel world, and the dead would have to know how to get around. Fortunately for them, their religion knew all about the afterlife, and so could give them advice.

In early periods of Egypt, this advice was appeared as inscriptions in the deceased's tomb. As time wore on, these inscriptions were transfered to papyri, and the collection became known as 'The Book of Going Forth by Day.' When modern Europeans discovered the collection in the mid 1800s, they dubbed it the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead.' The book was not canonical, in the same sense as most of use are used to with the Bible. A few passages were included in nearly every copy of the Book of the Dead, but for other passages, it was up to the whimsy of the scribe or his customer.

In 1888, a British Egyptologist by the name of E.A. Wallis Budge acquired a papyrus, which upon closer inspection, turned out to be a very well preserved copy of the Book of the Dead, originally intended for a scribe named Ani. Subsequently, it became known as the Papyrus of Ani. In order to make the papyrus easier to work with, Budge had it cut into 37 approximately equal length sheets, and had these sheets glued to boards. He also commissioned a detailed facsimile. Unfortunelty, his 'preservation' method took a toll on the original papyrus, but fortunately the facsimile did preserve what it looked like.

Budge set to work translating the papyrus, and in 1895 published his translation. The book consisted of three parts. The first was an extensive introduction, giving the reader a great deal of information on Egyptian religious beliefs. The second section showed a transcription of the heiroglyphics, along with a transliteration and a word for word translation. For each line of heiroglyphs, the transliteration and word for word translation appeared directly underneath. The third section was a 'plain' English translation of the entire collection (actually, written very much in the style of the King James version of the Bible). The first and third sections were extensively annotated, with some pages having more footnotes than body. Budge wasn't afraid to show multiple translations of a few passages, where other Egyptologists disagreed with him. He also included translations from other copies of the Book of the Dead when the Papyrus of Ani left out passages, or when the Papyrus of Ani differed significantly from the norm.

Going backwards in my review, I'll review the third section first. It was interesting, but I have to admit that I got bored reading it, and it turned into a bit of a slog to complete. Just imagine trying to read something like the Bible, including all the 'begat' sections, when it's a foreign religion that nobody at all even believes in anymore. Still, I have to say that it was worth reading at least once.

The second section I only glanced at. I don't know how to read heiroglyphics, nor how to speak Egyptian, so there really wasn't much point in studying those. I did figure out the symbols for 'your' and 'gods,' but that's about it.

The first section was great. I know now that it wasn't entirely accurate, but it was still very interesting to read. I've already mentioned it briefly in a previous blog entry, but this first section is where Budge related a bit of Egyptian mythology to us modern readers. Reading the legend of Osiris was very interesting (he was the god who had been killed and resurrected, and it was through him that Egyptians hoped to attain eternal life). But what I found especially interesting was just how much more complicated the Egyptian concept of a human was than I'd ever realized. Coming from a Christian perspective, we're used to the concept of a material body being a container for a soul. It's a simple, two part system. Not so with the ancient Egyptians. Just consider these quotes from Budge (the ellipses can be over a page in this quote):

There is, however, no doubt that from first to last the Egyptians firmly believed that besides the soul there was some other element of the man that would rise again. The preservation of the corruptible body too was in some way connected with the life in the world to come, and its preservation was necessary to ensure eternal life; otherwise the prayers recited to this end would have been futile, and the time honoured custom of mummifying the dead would have had no meaning. The never ending existence of the soul is asserted in a passage quoted above without reference to Osiris; but the frequent mention of the uniting of his bones, and of the gathering together of his members,[3] and the doing away with all corruption from his body, seems to show that the pious Egyptian connected these things with the resurrection of his own body in some form, and he argued that what had been done for him who was proclaimed to be giver and source of life must be necessary for mortal man.

The physical body of man considered as a whole was called khat, a word which seems to be connected with the idea of something which is liable to decay...

But the body does not lie in the tomb inoperative, for by the prayers and ceremonies on the day of burial it is endowed with the power of changing into a sahu, or spiritual body. Thus we have such phrases as, "I germinate like the plants,"[3] "My flesh germinateth,"[4] "I exist, I exist, I live, I live, I germinate, I germinate,"[5] "thy soul liveth, thy body germinateth by the command of Ra himself without diminution, and without defect, like unto Ra for ever and ever."...


In close connection with the natural and spiritual bodies stood the heart, or rather that part of it which was the seat of the power of life and the fountain of good and evil thoughts. And in addition to the natural and spiritual bodies, man also bad an abstract individuality or personality endowed with all his characteristic attributes. This abstract personality had an absolutely independent existence. It could move freely from place to place, separating itself from, or uniting itself to, the body at will, and also enjoying life with the gods in heaven.This was the ka,[1] a word which at times conveys the meanings of its Coptic equivalent {Coptic kw}, and of {Greek ei?'dwlon}, image, genius, double, character, disposition, and mental attributes...

To that part of man which beyond all doubt was believed to enjoy an eternal existence in heaven in a state of glory, the Egyptians gave the name ba, a word which means something like "sublime," "noble," and which has always hitherto been translated by "soul." The ba is not incorporeal, for although it dwells in the ka, and is in some respects, like the heart, the principle of life in man, still it possesses both substance and form: in form it is depicted as a human-headed hawk, and in nature and substance it is stated to be exceedingly refined or ethereal...

In connection with the ka and ba must be mentioned the khaibit or shadow of the man, which the Egyptians regarded as a part of the human economy. It may be compared with the {Greek skia'} and umbra of the Greeks and Romans. It was supposed to have an entirely independent existence and to be able to separate itself from the body; it was free to move wherever it pleased, and, like the ka and ba, it partook of the funeral offerings in the tomb, which it visited at will...

Another important and apparently eternal part of man was the khu, which, judging from the meaning of the word, may be defined as a "shining" or translucent, intangible casing or covering of the body, which is frequently depicted in the form of a mummy. For want of a better word khu has often been translated "shining one," "glorious," "intelligence," and the like, but in certain cases it may be tolerably well rendered by "spirit."...

Yet another part of a man was supposed to exist in heaven, to which the Egyptians gave the name sekhem. The word has been rendered by "power," "form," and the like, but it is very difficult to find any expression which will represent the Egyptian conception of the sekhem...

Finally, the name, ren, of a man was believed to exist in heaven, and. in the pyramid texts we are told that

nefer en Pepi pen hena ren-f anx Pepi pen hena ka-f

Happy is Pepi this with his name, liveth Pepi this with his ka.

Thus, as we have seen, the whole man consisted of a natural body, a spiritual body, a heart, a double, a soul, a shadow, an intangible ethereal casing or spirit, a form, and a name. All these were, however, bound together inseparably, and the welfare of any single one of them concerned the welfare of all. For the well-being of the spiritual parts it was necessary to preserve from decay the natural body; and certain passages in the pyramid texts seem to show that a belief in the resurrection of the natural body existed in the earliest dynasties.

That's a whole lot more interesting than a simple binary belief.

One thing that Budge's translation didn't have were any images of the papyrus, itself, which made it very frustrating when he was describing the vignettes. I read that this was because he intended the translation to be a companion to the facsimile, and not a stand alone volume. Fortunately for us in the digital age, we can find images of the original papyrus online, for free. The highest quality images I could find were from The British Museum. You can search their online database, and then request high quality versions of the images, which they will then e-mail to you. You have to sign up for the service, and it's a bit cumbersome when you're used to the Internet providing instant gratification, but it does give the opportunity to see very high quality scans with only an overnight wait. To find the images, go to the following page, and search for 'Papyrus of Ani:'
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx

As far as the rest of the book, there are many sites where it can be found online if you want to read it for free. As always, Project Gutenberg has the book in multiple formats.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, particularly the introduction, which was actually more of a history lesson in ancient Egyptian religion. However, after doing more research on the book, it appears that Budge made several mistakes. This is understandable, of course, considering how much we've learned since Budge performed the translation. However, if one were interested in getting the most accurate picture of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, there are probably better sources out there.

For more information on the Book of the Dead, I found the following pages to be pretty informative. These pages are from the website of a modern translation.


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