Ancient Egypt: The Book of the Dead, Part 2

            The importance Egyptians placed on retaining the whole being in death may also be explained according to their belief in the several aspects of human existence, which included a soul, spirit, shadow, heart, and name, all held together by the khat or ‘body.’  It is clear from the following quote that the body itself never rose to heaven or entered the underworld: “Soul to heaven, body to earth” (1vii).  However, the body itself could apparently be transformed from physical matter to spiritual, the implication being that the existence of the sahu or ‘spiritual body’ in the underworld was dependent on the preservation of the physical body left on earth.  From this belief we might better interpret the emphasis on wholeness as having to do with the bringing back together of the spirit and soul of the dead with his spiritual body in the underworld, without which no spiritual life would be possible.  We see the importance of this unity of parts in the following passage concerning the ab or ‘heart,’ the ka or ‘double’ (or ‘spirit’), and the name:


My heart whereby I come into being.  May there be nothing to withstand me at [my] judgment; … may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him who keepeth the Scales! Thou art my ka within my body, [which] knitteth and strengtheneth my limbs.  Mayest thou come forth in the place of happiness [to which] I advance.  May the Shenit, who make men to stand fast, not cause my name to stink.  (309)


            Another reason for the inscription of funerary texts, and specifically of the Book of the Dead, was to implore aid from the gods.  By the New Kingdom, these texts reflected less the pleading of the dead for help, than promises from the gods to assist.  Again we see the importance attached to unity of form for the sake of existence in the afterlife in this passage which details several parts of the body which require the assistance of the gods:


May my heart be with me, and may it rest in [me] . . .  May my mouth be given unto me that I may speak with it, and my two feet to walk withal, and my two hands and arms to overthrow my foe.  May the doors of heaven be open unto me; may Seb, the Prince of the gods, open wide his two jaws unto me; may he open my two eyes which are blinded; may he cause me to stretch out my feet which are bound together; and may Anubis make my legs firm that I may stand upon them.  (308)


            From passages such as this in the Book of the Dead, we see as well the importance of the roles each god played in the revival or resurrection and protection of the dead.  Anubis, the son of either Ra or Osiris, generally depicted with a jackal’s head, is said in a legend of Osiris to have been given birth to, not by Isis, but by her sister Nephtys.  Nonetheless, Isis took the child to be her own and raised him to guard and protect, and that is the function we find him performing in funerary texts, protecting the dead from harm and helping to guide them to the underworld.  If this genealogy is correct, that would make Anubis the grandson of Seb.  Here called the “Prince of the gods,” Seb is also referred to as the “erpa or head of the gods” (cxii).  He is also known as the “great cackler” who laid the great egg from which the world came, making him the chief creator, and therefore an important figure to include in the Book of the Dead.

            But for the dead, the most important figure was clearly Osiris, who was not only ruler of the dead, but their judge as well.  In the story of Osiris’ death, he must pass a test of judgment before entering the underworld to claim its throne for himself.  This judgment is made based upon one’s existence among the living and the confession one makes to the judges, including Osiris, Thoth, Anubis, and Astennu.  To be admitted into the underworld it is necessary, apparently, for one to cleanse oneself of all bad or evil deeds committed during life.  Funerary rituals, generally employing waters, were possibly used to help cleanse and purify the dead to ease their entrance into the underworld.  Without this cleansing and purifying, the dead could expect to suffer torment, burning fires, and terrible demons in the afterlife.  To avoid this terrible fate, the dead appeal to the judges:


Hail, Thoth, who madest Osiris victorious over his enemies, make thou the Osiris Ani, the scribe and teller of the sacred offerings of all the gods, to be victorious over his enemies in the presence of the godlike rulers who judge the dead, on the night of the condemnation of those who are to be blotted out.  (303)


He hath destroyed his enemies, and he hath destroyed every evil thing belonging unto him.  (305)


            We see from these passages that the purpose of the Book of the Dead was to assist the deceased in gaining a place in the underworld, not only as guests of Osiris, but as gods themselves.  Such passages were made available, apparently, to a great number of people who could afford them, practically mass produced with spaces left for names to be entered when purchased for the deceased.  This tradition continued for many years, an indication of the great apprehension the ancient Egyptians felt towards death, and their desire to master death through resurrection and entering the heavenly society of the gods. 

Ancient Egypt: The Book of the Dead, Part 1

            The religion of the ancient Egyptians is a complicated, mysterious system of belief comprising a number of local deities, national deities, and even foreign deities incorporated into the Egyptian pantheon of gods.  Egyptian religion also included numerous rituals and beliefs associated with this life, but particularly with the afterlife.  Much of what we know about these beliefs comes to us from the many inscriptions discovered on stone, ceramic, papyri and even wood left in or used to build the funerary monuments of the Egyptians.  One of the most intriguing of these inscriptions has come to be known as the Book of the Dead.

            The Book of the Dead is not actually a book at all, at least not as far as we know, but a collection of inscriptions on papyri, written either in hieroglyphics or hieratic script, and left in the tombs of the dead.  A number of these papyri have been found, dating from different dynasties, but the interesting thing about them is the possibility that they might all have originated from a common source, a single text written in pre-dynastic or early dynastic times from which scribes took and adapted any number of passages or chapters to suit their own needs in preparing someone for the afterlife.  While we have not found this definitive original text, it would seem likely that one did indeed exist and was copied, not only because of the similarities in the various papyri found, but also because of the character of Egyptian funerary practices.

            The chance to gain the afterlife along with the god Osiris was initially at least limited to the pharaoh.  But early on in Egyptian history, this right was claimed by others as well.  To assist their chances of making it to the underworld, these people would be buried in a fashion similar to that of pharaoh, including the same funerary texts as were originally written for pharaoh and jewelry, such as the uraeus crown of pharaoh, placed on their mummies.  We have found grid layouts, templates used by artisans in the decoration of tombs which allowed artisans anywhere in the kingdom to decorate the tombs they worked on with the same representations as those which decorated the pharaoh’s tomb.  Copying artists and scribes from the past was far from criminal; in fact, by the New Kingdom it was vogue to do so.  So it is not surprising that for centuries funerary texts would be left within the tombs of Egyptians with passages stolen from other texts, possibly from one single text.

            The chapters of the Book of the Dead were written to assist the dead on their way to the Underworld and include texts with several purposes: to identify the dead with Osiris and to protect the dead from harm.  Books of the Dead included passages which were intended to protect the dead on their way to the underworld, and statements to the gods imploring them to help and to recognize the accomplishments of the deceased, which made him worthy of life after death.

            The fear of life after death is founded on the belief in the existence of fiends in the after life whose duty it was to punish and torment the dead.  Along with this belief in the dangers of the afterlife, the following passage indicates that the text itself is expected to help the dead avoid this suffering:  “So then shall no evil things be done unto to me by the fiends, neither shall I be gored by the horns [of Khepera]; and the manhood of Ra, which is the head of Osiris, shall not be swallowed up” (317).[1]

            Many passages identify the dead with Osiris himself, suggesting the belief not simply that the dead join Osiris as his companions in the afterlife, but that they become Osiris, that perhaps we all come from the same element or god, and in death we rejoin him, become one with him.  “I am the great One, son of the great One . . .  I have knit together my bones, I have made myself whole and sound; I have become young once more; I am Osiris, the Lord of eternity” (317).  Osiris is clearly the most important figure among the deities to appear in the Book of the Dead.  Once ruler of the gods, of the living, he became ruler of the dead after he was killed by his brother Seth and resurrected by his sister and wife Isis.  He therefore symbolized for the Egyptian the chance to live again, to be resurrected in the afterlife.  But he was more than just a god to appeal to; Osiris was also the name given to our various spiritual aspects which, once brought back together, whole and sound, were the basis of our existence in the afterlife.

            The stress in this last passage placed on this soundness and wholeness suggests that perhaps in life we lack that soundness due to being separate from god, and that in death, having joined him, we are whole again.  While this idea does not necessarily argue for monotheism in Egyptian religion, it does suggest the belief that we all come from a God and will return to him when we are ready and pure at death; that we are not just creations of the gods, but are aspects of a God, coexistent with him since the beginning of time, and only separated from him by our birth in this world.  We see a hint of this idea of coexistence in the following passage:


The bones of my neck and of my back have been joined together by Set and by the company of the gods, even as they were in the time that is past . . .  Nut hath joined together my bones, and [I] behold [them] as they were in the time that is past [and I] see [them] even in the same order as they were [when] the gods had not come into being in visible forms.  (316)


We see again in this passage the importance of being whole, brought back together as we once were during a time before the gods had visible form.  So we were in existence, although not this worldly existence, even as far back as then, before the gods had visible form, which would suggest back before the creation of the world, or perhaps at the beginning of this creation when there was only one God.

[1] All quotes from Budge, Wallis E. A., Trans.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967. 

Ancient Egypt: Religion

The religion of pharaonic Egypt, while monotheistic for a short unsuccessful period (led by the heretic king Amun-hotep IV during the New Kingdom), was otherwise polytheistic, including many, many gods, both male and female. The land was divided into nomes, administered by nomarchs, and each nome had its own local deity. The power of these gods could rise and fall depending on the political climate, but a certain number of them were always important in Egypt, independent of political events. And no matter how many gods were worshipped, the state religion focused on the state deity, usually known as Amun-Ra.

The state deity was always male, never a goddess. Worship of this particular divinity was, of course, beneficial to the solar priests of Heliopolis, birthplace of Ra, whose power grew with that of their god. Local priesthoods were quite protective of the position of their god in the Egyptian pantheon, as this position also influenced the power and wealth of the priesthood. That this solar mythology was always important in Egypt, despite politics, is understandable in light of the importance of the sun in Egypt as giver of life and bringer of death. The sun and the Nile river were the life giving forces of the Egyptians.

Egyptian religion was synchretic, bringing together elements from Egyptian beliefs and foreign religions. Contact with Syro-Palestine, for example, brought the Egyptians into contact with the god Baal. Rather than add him to their pantheon or reject their own gods in favor of Baal, the Egyptians simply saw Baal as another form of Seth, a cruel god.

The syncretism of Egyptian religious beliefs also included combining two or more deities into a single god. This characteristic stemmed from the great number of local deities who were always incorporated into the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Even when certain gods had been elevated to positions of superiority, lesser gods were never eliminated, but somehow assimilated into the state religion. But this incorporation led to a religion with too many gods to remember and stories which were constantly changing to fit the influx of new gods. It also meant greater expense, as the more gods there were, the more temples needed to be built to worship them. Therefore, you could say for the sake of simplicity and lower costs, two or more gods, such as Amun and Ra, were combined together to make a single god: Amun-Ra. As many as four or five gods could be put together in this way, with one temple for all five.

Different ritual ceremonies were associated with the worship of particular deities. Worship centered around the temple (according to official records). Many temples were built in each city to the many different gods, but the focus was on the state deity. The temple was not only the center of religious worship, but the center of life as well; temple complexes included schools, workshops, and dwellings. The most important dwelling place of the complex was the temple itself, believed to be the dwelling place of the god/s to which the temple was dedicated. It was thus a divine dwelling with a divine double of the deity residing within in the form of a statue.

It was known that statues were man-made. Nonetheless, they were considered divine as visible representations of the holy gods. However, the common people were not allowed to view these statues. Only the pharaoh was considered worthy, as a living divinity himself, to see another god, so he could go inside the temple to the dwelling place of the statue. During certain times of the year, the statue was brought forth out of the temple for the public to worship, but at these times the public was warned not to look at the god/statue, which was veiled for protection from unworthy eyes. Offerings were regularly made to these statues, and these offerings were no doubt what sustained the priests.

Another way of incorporating inferior or subject gods into the pantheon was by relating them to other established gods through the creation of triads or family groups of three: father, mother, son. This could reflect political changes in Egypt, alliances between different regions reflected in alliances between the gods. For example, Ptah, the mild and artful god of Memphis, was wedded to Sakhmet, the local god of a neighboring region, who was herself a savage, lioness-headed deity. Another region allied to these two, that of the near-by Delta marshes, produced the local god Nefer-tem, who was incorporated into this triad as the son of Ptah and Sakhmet. The best known of these triads was that of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. We see very clearly here the tradition of the Holy Trinity which would be incorporated into Christian theology, which probably began as father, mother, son, but was changed to father, holy ghost, son.

Egyptian deities were represented in human form, animal form, or associated with plants, or in a combination of all three. However, the tendency of the religion was towards anthropomorphization: giving human attributes to those elements which were not human to begin with. Some deities might have begun as objects of nature, abstract ideas, animals or plants, but they developed into male or female forms associated with objects, abstract ideas, animals or plants. And finally these non-human powers became attributes or images of anthropomorphic deities. 

Ancient Egypt: Hieroglyphics

History begins with writing and our discovery of written records. The past which existed before any discovered written records is referred to as pre-history. In Egypt, history begins around 3150 B.C., which is the earliest time for which we have written records – the first hieroglyphics. Klemens of Alexandria, in the 2nd/3rd century BC, was the first to use the term hieroglyphics for the Egyptian writing system. Hieroglyphics means “sacred carved letters” (from Greek). Most of our knowledge of pharaonic Egypt is based on the tombs, which provide us with the great majority of hieroglyphic texts in existence. Before hieroglyphics, we have symbols or pictures inscribed on Egyptian pottery, some of which also appear in hieroglyphics. But we lack definitive proof that these symbols were used for any form of communication until they appeared in hieroglyphics.

In the 5th century B.C., Horapollon tried to decipher hieroglyphics and ended up deluding people for the next 14 centuries. In his work, the Hieroglyphia, he interpreted hieroglyphics not as a writing system but as pictures with a symbolic meaning. He emphasized the sacred quality of the hieroglyphics, implying a great mystery decipherable by a select few only, and people took him at his word for hundreds of years. His misinterpretations included translating a picture of a tree as year, a goose as mother, a vulture as female (since it was believed there were only female vultures). Unfortunately, his Hieroglyphia was used as a bible of hieroglyphics. No one tried to decipher the script because no one believed it was a script.

And so the centuries passed, until the discovery of one of the most significant artifacts in history – the Rosetta Stone, which became the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone was discovered by Napoleon’s forces when he marched them into Egypt in order to weaken the British by disrupting their links to India. While French forces took potshots at the Sphinx, causing destruction to important historical monuments, they were also responsible for the discovery of a stone from ancient times that had on it a text in three different scripts: hieroglyphics, demotic, and ancient Greek. While early attempts to decipher Egyptian symbols had failed, because people were still following the false conclusions of Horapollon, that it wasn’t a writing system at all, the Rosetta Stone provided researchers with a new approach.

Of course, Napoleon in Egypt, and consequently the stone fell into the hands of his enemies – the British. Which was how Thomas Young got ahold of the text on the stone. He took a look at the three scripts and, based upon the assumption that hieroglyphics was indeed a writing system and not just a bunch of meaningless magical symbols, he made some important discoveries: 1) he recognized that the cartouches, oval symbols surrounding other hieroglyphic symbols, were the names of ancient Egyptian kings, and 2) he recognized that demotic, the middle language on the stone, was a cursive form of Egyptian. Further, since demotic possessed fewer symbols than hieroglyphics, he felt confident that demotic must have been an phonetic script. Therefore, if demotic was indeed a cursive form of hieroglyphics and demotic was at least partly phonetic, then hieroglyphics must also be partly phonetic. This meant that while some hieroglyphic symbols represented whole words or concepts, some also represented discrete sounds.

At this point Young was stuck, and it took a second interpreter to take his research further: Jean François Champollion. Champollion was obsessed with ancient Egypt, as well as with languages. He might have done better to begin with, but he was also following the wrong steps taken by Horapollon. But then he read Young’s research, and was called on by Young himself, and his own efforts took a new direction. Two years after the publication of Young’s work, Champollion began to compile a hieroglyphic alphabet of 19 different signs based on the translation of formal names begun by Young. These translations, however, only went so far in helping Champollion understand Egyptian names found in the Rosetta Stone text.

One particular cartouche, for example, proved indecipherable to Young. A circle followed by the phonetic hieroglyphics for MSS (with the assumption that some vowel sound existed between the two s’s). The problem was, what was the circular hieroglyphic? Remember, a circular figure in hieroglyphics could represent a sound, a word, or both. And lest you assume that this is easy, just think for a moment – what could a circle represent? A wheel? A plate? A planet? The concept of inclusion or permanence or endless?

Now this was where Champollion’s background in languages paid off. Of the many languages he was familiar with, one was Coptic, the language of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt, essentially a dead language, used only in scripture or possibly for church services, much like Latin is in the Catholic Church. By Champollion’s time, the common language of Egypt was Arabic. It had long since been forgotten that the ancient language of Egypt had developed into its final phase of Coptic, but Champollion made an educated guess that the circular symbol in the cartouche might refer to the sun, since after all, the Egyptians worshipped many gods, but above all the god of creation was the god of the sun. In the Coptic language, SUN is RA. In 1822, the first Egyptian names were thus deciphered; with this piece of the puzzle, the name of the Egyptian pharaoh mentioned on the stone was revealed: RA+M+S+S or Ramesses. 

Ancient Egypt

As we’ve begun a discussion of ancient Egypt in the ESL Speaking and Listening class, I thought it might be helpful to share some information on the Egypt of the pharaohs. Ancient Egypt was divided into Lower and Upper Egypt, Lower referring to northern Egypt around the delta and the northern most part of the valley, and Upper referring to southern Egypt from the first cataract north to the ancient capital of Memphis. The history of Pharaonic Egypt extends from around 3200 BC (with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt) to 332 BC (with the liberation of Egypt by Alexander). In these nearly three centuries, there were 30 Egyptian dynasties, plus one Persian dynasty, which ended with Alexander’s conquest, to the gratitude of the Egyptians, who never particularly cared for the Persians.

Habitation of Egypt was only possible in the Nile Valley (and a few oases), which is only around 1 km. wide, although it could expand to nearly 10 km. wide during the floods. Something like 99% of Egyptians are supported by the Nile. It is the only area of the Middle East where flooding was for millennia seen as a positive thing. The floods began every spring and reached their peak in September. They fertilized the Nile Valley with large quantities of sediment rich in minerals, making the soil fertile for agricultural growth. This dependence on the Nile led quite early on to developments in irrigation, which assisted the growth of Egyptian civilization. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile.”

When the Romans came, the Nile valley became something else – a blessing for the Romans. Egypt became the Bread Basket of the Roman Empire. A land that is principally uninhabitable produced enough food to feed people far from Egypt. This is not the case today. In the 20th century, Gamal Abdel Nasr, leader of modern Egypt, ordered the construction of a damn across the Nile, which put an end to these annual floods and compelled Egyptian farmers to rely on fertilizers to replenish the soil’s nutrients. A process which is less effective than in the past.  Which means that modern Egypt, unlike the Bread Basket of ancient times, has greater difficulty providing enough food to feed its own people.

The Egyptians were never well known for sailing on the open sea. Surrounded by the Mediterranean to the north, the Libyan desert to the west, the Egyptian desert to the east, and the Sudan to the south, Egypt has always been isolated, and is in many ways still isolated today. Like Turkey, it is part of the Islamic Middle or Near East, yet it is culturally distinct from the rest of the Arab world. It could be said that a lightly-veiled animosity has persisted from ancient times between the Egyptians and Arabs and Persians.

Despite this isolation, ancient Egyptians enjoyed fairly extensive trade with their neighbors. From Lebanon/Syrio-Palestine, they obtained the much needed timber for building, since they had relatively little of their own. The timber market to Egypt was so great in fact that most of the Cedar forests of Lebanon are now gone. And when the Egyptians had trouble paying their debt to the Lebanese or Syrians, Lebanon and Syria suffered economically, so dependent were they on the Egyptian market.