Dr. Raymond Faulkner (1894-1982)—renowned British Egyptologist—was a major contributor to the field of Egyptian philology, the translator of many important texts, and the author of numerous scholarly publications.
Dr. Ogden Goelet is assistant professor of Egyptian Language and Literature at New York University and has written extensively on the subject of Egyptology.
Carol Andrews has been a curator in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum since 1971.
James Wasserman is an author and book designer in New York City whose innovative vision shaped the unique format of this book.
Bill Corsa is a co-founder of Specialty Book Marketing and a partner in Studio 31. His expertise includes marketing and sales of special interest nonfiction books and intellectual property rights outside the commercial book trade
Selections from the Introduction by Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, New York University
“The Egyptians lived in a world of allusions.” This statement of Helmut Brunner, one of the greatest historians of Egyptian religion, is a profound observation regarding the language and imagery of Egyptian religious texts. We enter Ani's Book of the Dead as we might enter a contemporary tomb, flanked by hymns to the sun god Re and then by eloquent invocations to Osiris. Passing through these hymns, so to speak, the deceased arrives at the central metaphor of the papyrus and the critical moment of the passage from this world to the next: the weighing of the heart. Here the visual image symbolically represents the judgment of a person's moral worth as the balancing of his heart against the feather of Maat, the goddess who personified truth, justice, and order.
How evocative is this Egyptian metaphor! For all humanity, male or female, mightily rich or wretchedly poor, the delicacy of the necessary equipoise of moral worth contained in the heart meant that one's sins must be feather-light; the criterion of judgment was as unbiased, fair, and impersonal as a marketplace scale. During the New Kingdom, weighing scenes like this were placed near the beginning of a papyrus. The implication was clear — virtue was necessary in procuring passage beyond this point and into a successful afterlife.
In many passages of the Book of the Dead we can almost hear the voice of a modern symbolist poet. Like the metaphor of the scales of judgment, the rich imagery of Egyptian texts was derived from the concrete world of daily life and the natural environment of Egypt. For example, the locus of the afterlife in the Field of Reeds (an Egyptian version of the Isles of the Blessed) emerged from a vision of an infinitely vast and peaceful expanse of golden reeds, much like the wide tracts of the Delta and the thickets along the Nile banks. The Egyptian hoped to find in the next world marshes like those in which he had hunted during life, and fields like those he had plowed.
The Nature of the Book of the Dead
The pyramids and the Sphinx, the mummies and the hieroglyphs, and the Book of the Dead have become the most popular symbols of Egypt in the public imagination; they are icons summarizing that ancient culture.
Consider the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) at Giza. Rising 484 feet above ground level, its 780-foot sides were oriented so accurately that there was a deviation of only a half degree of arc from true north along one edge. This massive structure contains approximately 2.5 million blocks weighing on the average a ton and a half apiece, some so finely dressed that it is barely possible to insert a playing card between adjacent stones. It would be easy to be overwhelmed merely by the engineering achievement and miss the corollary information about Egyptian society. If we assume that Khufu reigned for fifty years and that his builders worked at a breakneck pace ten hours a day, one enormous block had to be added to the pyramid every four minutes or so — every day for fifty years, inexorably. Only the precision scheduling, rigorous planning, and careful organization of an efficient, honest, and clear-thinking bureaucracy could complete a project like this.
Icons, however, can also become stereotypes, which are at best oversimplifications and often involve misinterpretations. In the case of the Book of the Dead, we can literally look up its misinterpretation in library catalogues. The idea that the Book of the Dead was like a bible goes back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, long before the papyri could be read. Since all that was known about these mysterious documents was that they came from coffins and cemeteries, it was assumed that they were the one religious text that the deceased wished to take into the next world, and such a text must have been the Egyptian equivalent of the Bible. With Champollion's decipherment of the hieroglyphs in 1822, Egyptology changed dramatically from a speculative exercise to a scholarly discipline. Although specialists soon realized that the Book of the Dead was not an Egyptian “Bible,” that notion has persisted in the public imagination.
The Bible and the Koran, each of which transmits the revealed messages of a single supreme deity to humanity, are fundamental to their respective religions. These books articulate the bases of faith: the nature of the deity and the theological underpinnings of man's relationship to the deity; the obligations of god to man and man to god; the moral code by which adherents should conduct themselves; and, especially in the case of Islam, even the social and political thought by which the believers should organize their societies. The Book of the Dead, on the other hand, is chiefly concerned with the afterlife. Its purpose was not to set forth the basic tenets of Egyptian religion, nor to guide the faithful through a religious life, but rather to assist its owner in the next world. Moreover, rather than serving as a fundamental text, the Book of the Dead was part of a larger body of religious literature (discussed in the next section). And, as the more speculative and eclectic product of a polytheistic culture, the Book of the Dead was never formalized into a canon. It is a collection of texts from which the individual was able to choose for his or her particular scroll, based often on a combination of what could be afforded and the current religious views of the period. Certain chapters were loosely considered to be essential, others were completely discretionary.
Egyptian religion was not one of revelation; its doctrines were not ascribed to any one divinely inspired intermediary and teacher comparable to Christ, Mohammed, or the Buddha. Only in the genre we call Wisdom Literature — Egyptian collections of moral teaching, proverbial maxims, and worldly guidance — are texts attributed to (almost certainly pseudepigraphic) teachers of the past. Egyptian Wisdom Literature was strongly didactic, and the moral tone of these texts is more reminiscent of biblical texts than other Egyptian literature is. Just as the language of our daily life is filled with phrases and images drawn from the Bible, Egyptian literature and biographical texts continually allude to Wisdom Literature.
The origins of the Book of the Dead may be traced to the Pyramid Texts, which appear at the end of the Fifth Dynasty in Egypt's Age of the Pyramids (ca. 2400 b.c.e.). As their name implies, the Pyramid Texts were originally intended solely for the benefit of the king and his family. Over the next few centuries these texts were adapted for private use and incorporated into a group of new spells called the Coffin Texts, which could be employed by anyone who could afford a sarcophagus. By the early New Kingdom (ca. 1550 b.c.e.), the Coffin Texts were slowly being replaced by the work which we know as the Book of the Dead. Like a line of shingles, these groups of texts follow each other, partially overlapping and partially presenting innovative material.
Although the Book of the Dead focuses on the afterlife, some of its chapters are said to be equally efficacious in this world; similarly, its moral content applies to this life. Each statement of the so-called Negative Confession, which the deceased proclaimed before the weighing of his or her heart, implied a code of behavior to be followed during life. Every “I did not . . .” reflects an unexpressed “ Thou shalt not . . .” Without an exemplary and moral existence, there was no hope for a successful afterlife.
Dr. Ogden Goelet
New York University