Book of the Dead

Becoming God in ancient Egypt

By Oriental Institute Museum


Book of the Dead: Introduction (2017) by Foy ScalfOriental Institute Museum


With these words, the ancient Egyptians sought identity, communion, and fellowship with Osiris, the god of the dead. They believed that language and writing were imbued with magical power and that reciting and recording such declarations would make the statements come true. Like all of us, the people of ancient Egypt wondered what would happen to them after they died. To alleviate this anxiety about our human mortality, a life-affirming religion developed in ancient Egypt that emphasized the possibility of immortality – an everlasting life in the hereafter among the gods. Each Egyptian needed to undergo the proper rituals of embalming and burial to ensure their continued existence in the next world. Magical spells of ritual power accompanied these rites. So powerful were these words that Egyptians wanted to take the spells with them to the grave. To do so, they gathered the spells into a compilation we now call the Book of the Dead. As you will see in this exhibit, the ancient Egyptians made extensive use of the Book of the Dead, so that they could continue to live and be one with the gods.

Statue of Osiris (Late Period, Dynasty 26, ca. 664-525 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Osiris was arguably the most important god in ancient Egyptian funerary religion. He was the god of the dead who presided over the divine tribunal during which the righteousness of the deceased was judged. The deceased sought intimate fellowship with him after death, wishing to join his retinue, become a part of his following, and even unite with the god himself. This union was symbolized by the dead taking on “Osiris” as part of their name. It would be akin to calling ourselves “Osiris Joe” or “Osiris Jane.” Considering that each person sought such a close postmortem association with Osiris, it is not surprising to find many objects in the form of Osiris buried among the tomb items. This statue derives from a stone burial chamber that belonged to an unidentified individual buried at Medinet Habu.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) with Spells 1–15 (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

This magnificently preserved Book of the Dead belonged to a priest named Irtyuru. The manuscript was a stock purchase, evident in the spaces left for the owner’s name to be added after its purchase. When acquired, the papyrus was still rolled up. It was expertly cut into sections for preservation and study. The document is beautifully laid out from right to left, the script well executed, and the illustrations are detailed and elegant. Papyrus Milbank includes Book of the Dead spells 1–162, but the scribe omitted forty-four spells from this range and the sequence is jumbled. In spite of the appearance of confusion in the order of spells, nearly the same sequence can be observed in several other manuscripts, suggesting that it was not confusion at all, but an intentional order copied from a master source. Despite this evidence of copying, many of the spells are unique to this document and passages seem to have been garbled even though the hieroglyphs are well drawn.

What is the Book of the Dead?

The term “Book of the Dead” is a modern designation born in the nineteenth century and applied to religious texts from ancient Egypt. The Book of the Dead was not a “book” in the modern sense that it was bound together at the spine and it was not a single narrative composition. What we have come to associate most closely with the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a papyrus manuscript  inscribed with many short texts called “spells.” Each spell had its own theme and structure, but the spells were often grouped together in sequences and inscribed on long scrolls produced by attaching sheets of papyrus together. Some manuscripts had only a single spell, while others contained up to 165. Each manuscript was laboriously made by hand — a process that produced a unique, one-of-a-kind document. Although we closely associate the Book of the Dead with papyri, its spells could be inscribed on linen bandages, amulets, coffins, sarcophagi, statues, stelae, and the walls of the tomb. To the ancient Egyptians, these spells were called the “spells of going forth by day,” a reference to the ability of the soul to leave the tomb at dawn.

Rubrics in Book of the Dead Spells

The beginning and end of spells in the Book of the Dead were written in red in order to highlight the transitions between spells. Because of their red color, they are today referred to as "rubrics," after the Latin word rubrica meaning "red (ochre)." These rubrics can help you identify where spells begin and end. Rubrics at the beginning of spells often included the hieroglyphs for "Spell of" or "Recitation by." However, don't be fooled! Not every red section of text is the beginning of a spell. Sometimes individual words or phrases were written in red for other reasons, such as when they designate dangerous forces, threats to the dead, or explanatory glosses.

Book of the Dead Spell 6: The Ushabti Spell

One of the rubrics on this page is for spell 6, the ushabti spell. This spell well illustrates the composite nature of Book of the Dead papyri. Spell 6 was meant to empower small figures, such as those of king Amenhotep and princess Nitocris in this exhibition, to do the necessary work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife. However, the spell was also used on papyrus manuscripts like Irtyuru's, where the title of the spell can be seen written in red. In Irtyuru' papyrus the spell has been combined under a long series of images related to the funeral, but in other manuscripts the spell is illustrated with an image of a ushabti. The title written in red here reads "Spell for making a man do the work, for making a ushabti do the work, in the necropolis."

Funerary Figure of Queen Nitocris (Late Period, Dynasty 26, 664-525 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Ushabit of Princess Nitocris

The hands of this usahbti protrude from an enveloping cloak, grasping two hoes rendered in fine detail, and the right hand also clasps a rope connected to a woven seed bag visible behind the left proper shoulder, emblematic of the laborious farming tasks the ushabti was enjoined to perform in the text of spell 6, which is inscribed on the body. Nitocris was the daughter of the first ruler of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, Psamtek I. The uraeus serpent on the brow and the appearance of her name inside a cartouche in the inscription signifies her royal status. Her tomb included dozens of other inscribed funerary figures.

Funerary Figure of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III, ca. 1390-1352 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Ushabti of Pharaoh Amenhotep III

This ushabti is inscribed with a special version of spell 6 devised for Amenhotep III. Rather than the deceased commanding the figure to perform labor on his behalf, here the ushabti itself speaks, exhorting the gods to ensure offerings on behalf of the king in the sacred precinct of Abydos, the traditional resting place of Osiris. The spell concludes with the more usual assertions of performing work as a substitute for the owner. The uniqueness of the spell on Amenhotep III's funerary figures reveals the creativity of the scribes and the vitality of the Book of the Dead tradition as it continued to develop, including under royal sponsorship.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spells 15–16: Hymns to the Sun

As a culture very focused on the agricultural cycle of nature, hymns to the sun were very prominent in a wide variety of ancient Egyptian texts. Book of the Dead spell 15 designates a collection of sun hymns, each with the theme of adoration of the rising or setting sun, but each with differences as well. Harsiese had such hymns incorporated into his stela shown elsewhere in this exhibition, while Irtyuru's papyrus included them in a long section ending with the image of two goddesses reaching out to the rays of the sun. This image was given the designation Book of the Dead spell 16 by nineteenth century scholars.

Stela of Harsiese Inscribed with BD 15 (Late Period, Dynasty 26, ca. 664-525 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Stela of Harsiese with Spell 15

Harsiese's stela was erected in the tomb or nearby in an associated chapel. The text and scenes have been carefully planned and laid out by those who designed it. The lunette at the top shows "the great god, Behdeti," as a winged sun disk beneath a vaulted sky decorated with stars. In the center, Harsiese worships Rehorakhty on the left and Atum on the right. these gods symbolized the rising and setting sun respectively. The text of spell 15 has been divided into two columns reflecting the same division as the scene above: a hymn on the left focused on the rising sun; a hymn on the right focused on the late evening sun. Compared to spell 15 in the papyrus of Irtyuru, Harsiese's stela is a testament to how the same spells were adapted for different contexts and media.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spells 99–124: A Descent into the Netherworld

Spell 99 includes an interrogation in which Irtyuru had to recite the names of various parts of the ferry boat, indicated by the stacked columns alternating with red and black ink. A group of spells for travel by boat were illustrated by images of gods sailing on water. Several offering spells showed Irtyuru standing before offering tables.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spell 110

The spells in the middle of the papyrus roll concerned various areas and inhabitants of the netherworld. Book of the Dead spell 110 had a set of vignettes, here split by a cut in the papyrus, portraying Irtyuru making offerings, sailing the waters, and reaping bountiful harvests in heaven, an area referred to as the "field of reeds." Spells 111–124 made Irtyuru familiar with divine emanations of the sun god called bau, written with three jabiru bird hieroglyphs. These sections illustrate how the Book of the Dead was not a continuous narrative, but that spells were collected into thematic groups and inscribed in meaningful sequences.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spell 125: The Judgment

Spell 125 shows Irtyuru before the tribunal presided over by Osiris and forty-two additional judges—one for each ancient Egyptian district. Irtyuru is led by Maat, the feather-headed goddess of truth. His heart is weighed against a figure of Maat while Anubis and Horus attend the plumb bob and call out the verdict. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing and wisdom, records the verdict. A hybrid monster called the “devourer” stands ready to consume Irtyuru should he fail.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) with Spell 125 (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead spell 125 actually begins with an invocation to “these gods in the hall of the two truths,” followed by the “Negative Confession”—a series of recitations indicating that Irtyuru had not committed offense. For example, “O bone-breaker from Heliopolis, I have not told a lie.” This section can be identified by the columns of text surmounted by mummiform figures with feathers on their heads. Scholars have identified similarities between the negative confession, recited before entering the sanctified space of the hereafter, and oaths taken by priests to enter the purified space of the temple. The use of these statements by living priests demonstrates how the Book of the Dead was a flexible compilation of texts that could be used in a variety of ways.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) with Spell 162 (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spell 151

Book of the Dead spell 151 recreates the burial chamber, what the spell calls “the hidden chamber of the netherworld.” Illustrations often depicted Anubis tending to the embalmed body of the deceased lying upon a bier and flanked by Isis and Nephthys. The transition from death to the afterlife was fraught with perils for the ancient Egyptians. Therefore, spell 151 is devoted to important aspects of the process, including the protection of the head and mummy mask. Parts of spell 151 were inscribed on magic bricks positioned at the four walls of the burial chamber to ward off evil spirits. Irtyuru’s papyrus manuscript omitted the text entirely and relied solely on a selection of images. Isis and Nephthys attend to the body in the vignette from Book of the Dead spell 151. The jackal Anubis protects the deceased from atop a shrine. Mummiform figures represent the four sons of Horus who guarded the embalmed organs removed from the body.

Magic Brick of Pharaoh Thutmose III (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Reign of Thutmose III, ca. 1479-1425 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Magic Brick of Pharaoh Thutmose III

This magic brick of Thutmose III is the earliest known example made for a king. A passage from spell 151 is incised in hieroglyphic script at the bottom. The text implores Anubis, whose figure was on top of the brick, to be vigilant and protect the dead. A hieratic text written in white instructs that it should be placed against the eastern wall of the tomb. The clay used to make the brick was mixed with small red particles—presumably the incense noted in the spell’s instructions. Recent research demonstrates that scribes used different source documents when inscribing spell 151 on bricks from those used for papyri.

Book of the Dead Papyrus Irtyuru (Papyrus Milbank) (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

What was the Book of the Dead for?

With spells of diverse origins, the Book of the Dead fulfilled a network of spiritual needs including protecting the dead from dangerous beings and acting as a guidebook to afterlife realms. However, the common goal of the texts was the rejuvenation of the deceased, restoration of their vital and intellectual abilities, and ensuring that they would join the divine retinue of the gods. In addition to proclaiming their identification with Osiris, the dead used spells to be transformed into various entities, including falcons, herons, a swallow, a snake, and a lotus. Also included were transformations into divine beings, such as the “greatest of the tribunal,” a “living soul,” and the gods Ptah and Sobek. A more generic spell ensured that the dead could take “any form they wish.” The Book of the Dead, then, is a grimoire of magical incantations intent on resurrecting the deceased and turning them into a powerful immortal spirit, called an akh in ancient Egyptian. As an akh-spirit, the dead joined with the sun god Re as he sailed in his solar barge across the sky during the day and with Osiris as he ruled the netherworld at night. Living relatives often petitioned the akh-spirits of their ancestors to intercede on their behalf in earthly and spiritual matters, for akh-spirits were divine entities like other gods.

Statue of Isis and Horus (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, ca. 664-30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Statue of Isis and Horus

According to mythology, the goddess Isis, a great magician, helped resurrect her husband Osiris after he was murdered. She bore and raised their son Horus, protecting him from imminent dangers in the process. Due to the elaborate mythology surrounding her figure as a mother and a magician, Isis was linked with protection as well as rebirth, both of which extend from Osiris to the deceased associated with him. In the Book of the Dead Isis primarily plays a supporting role of facilitating the rebirth of Osiris and the deceased, and protecting him/her in the netherworld. In spell 18, she is listed as part of several divine councils before whom the deceased is vindicated. The seated Isis holds her son Horus. She wears a horned crown with a sun disk that was adopted from the cow goddess Hathor and a vulture headdress associated with the goddess Mut.

Amulet of Nephthys (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, ca. 664-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Amulet of Nephthys

This small figure was carefully molded, including the lines in the hair and the weave of the basket on top of her head used in the hieroglyph of her name. Nephthys meant “lady of the (temple) enclosure” in ancient Egyptian. She was the daughter of Geb and Nut, making her sibling to Osiris, Isis, and Seth. Seth also served as her occasional consort. After the death of Osiris, she joined Isis in supporting Osiris against Seth. This serves as the mythological background to how Nephthys is portrayed throughout the Book of the Dead. She appears most often along with Isis as women who mourn on the behalf of the dead. The two goddesses served as models for the funerary rites. Mimicry during these rituals took elaborate forms, including women impersonating the roles of Isis and Nephthys by having the names of the goddesses inscribed on their shoulders.

Statue of Horus (Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statue of Horus

Horus avenged the murder of his father Osiris by defeating his uncle Seth. The dispute is referenced in Book of the Dead spell 17 as “that day of the fight of the two comrades” when “Horus fought with Seth.” After Seth’s defeat, Geb granted Horus the crown of Egypt and each pharaoh was regarded as the earthly incarnation of Horus. Horus wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt to symbolize his rule. He held a spear, now missing, which would have been thrust into a Sethian animal near his feet.

Amulet of Thoth (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, ca. 664-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Amulet of Thoth

Thoth was the god of wisdom, the inventor of the hieroglyphic script, and the mythological author of the Book of the Dead. According to spell 94, “the secrets of the gods” are present in “this scribal kit of Thoth” — a reference to the water-bowl and writing-palette. This spell portrays the dead as a scribe “equipped with the writings of Thoth” who declares “I am a scribe. Bring to me the blackened efflux of Osiris so that I may write with it.” By proclaiming “I am Thoth!” in spell 83, the deceased takes on the god’s identity. Thoth played a crucial role in spell 125 where he recorded the verdict of the judgment. Spells 18 and 20 explicitly reference his role in vindicating the deceased, just as he had for Osiris.

Amulet of Re (Late Period-Roman Period, ca. 664 BC-AD 50)Oriental Institute Museum

Amulet of Re

The hawk-headed figure with sun disk is likely Re, one of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Re was the sun god, creator of the universe who illuminates the visible world through his rays. When combined with Amun as Amun-Re, he became the de facto state god of New Kingdom Egypt. When the sun set, it descended into the netherworld during the hours of the night where Re united with Osiris in order to be reborn at dawn. Many passages from the Book of the Dead focused on the sun god, his theology, and the deceased’s apotheosis, because individuals routinely identified themselves with Re. In spell 42, the ritualist states “I am Re everyday,” and in spell 85, “I am Re, who came forth from Nun. The god is my ba.”

Statue of Sobek (Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statue of Sobek

Sobek was associated with the Nile and particularly venerated in the Fayum region of Egypt where the marshes provided an ideal environment for his tutelary animal — the crocodile. As a crocodile, Sobek had a rather schizophrenic nature: symbolizing the fecundity of the Nile on one hand and the ferociousness of the crocodile on the other. Book of the Dead spell 88, a “spell for becoming Sobek,” emphasized the power and fierceness of Sobek, which the deceased hoped to harness by repeating: “I am Sobek in the midst of his dread. I am Sobek who seizes with aggression.” Spell 113, an enigmatic text that recalls the Contending of Horus and Seth, portrays Sobek as the inventor of the fishnet, which he used to retrieve the hands of Horus after Isis amputated them and cast them into the river because they had caught the semen of Seth during their quarrel.

Lady of Akhmim (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, 664-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

How was the Book of the Dead used?

Most Book of the Dead spells have been discovered in burial chambers of tombs, although several spells are also found in temples. The centerpiece in the burial chamber was the human body. Since the common purpose of the spells was the transformation of the dead into a glorified spirit (akh), proximity to the body was important in the placement of Book of the Dead spells. As a safeguard, ancient Egyptian funerary practice included a redundancy by layering Book of the Dead spells around the body. This began with the texts on linen wrappings and amulets of the mummy itself, extended out to the walls of the coffin and sarcophagus, and finally included the papyri, ushabtis, magic bricks, and tomb relief inscriptions. In this fashion, if one of the copies were damaged, additional copies would be available to perform their magic. Wrapping was a symbolic feature that permeated ancient Egyptian society. Wrapping symbolized secrecy, sanctification, and protection through the act of surrounding and enveloping. Such notions were also reflected in ancient vocabulary because words that meant “to encircle” had extended connotations of “to perform magic” and “to enchant.” To become sacred — to mimic the mummiform god Osiris — the dead were surrounded by powerful religious spells that created for them a transformational space, which was necessary for their transition into the next world. In this section, you will explore where Book of the Dead spells appeared in the tomb from the inside out, beginning with the human body and working your way to the walls of the tomb.

Papyrus case in the Form of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris (Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Storage Case in the Form of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris

Book of the Dead papyri were often placed near the body, either among the wrappings, within the coffin, or nearby in a container such as this statue of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris was a composite god of resurrection. He wears a crown of ostrich feathers, sun disk, and ram’s horns — attributes of the gods Ptah and Sokar. His mummified body was representative of Osiris. Known as papyrus sheaths, these figures commonly held funerary papyri. Manuscripts were rolled up and deposited either in the base under a sliding panel or in a cavity of the body. There is a cavity in the back of this figure’s head that was disguised by a painted panel. The cavity appears to be empty, perhaps unused at the time of burial. Future analysis may help to confirm the presence or absence of any material inside.

Lady of Akhmim (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, 664-30 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Mummy of a Lady from Akhmim

According to Egyptian mythology, the body parts of Osiris were brought together and wrapped into a mummiform figure by his sister Isis. Each individual mummy was produced in imitation of that mythological precedent in the hopes that the deceased, like Osiris, would be rejuvenated in the afterlife. The body is central to the Book of the Dead and spells were meant to prevent rotting (spell 45) and decapitation (spell 43). The mummy of a lady from Akhmim received a proper Egyptian embalming and was wrapped in high quality linen. Based on CT scans of her remains, it appears that this woman lived to an elderly age and probably died as the result of complications from some catastrophic event. Many fractures were present, but healing indicates that the injuries were not immediately fatal. The extent and pattern of the injuries suggest a specific scenario near the end of her life. In addition to these acute changes, she may have suffered from additional chronic issues such as bone loss and her teeth were in rather poor condition.

Graphic Panel for Spell 101 (2020-03-19) by Josh TulisiakOriental Institute Museum

Mummy Wrappings

The ancient Egyptians literally wrapped themselves in the Book of the Dead. In some cases, Book of the Dead papyri were measured against the size of the mummy, inscribed according to the position where the texts would appear after applied, and were actually pasted to the outside of the wrappings. This practice was rare and spells were more often written on linen cloth prior to applying it to the embalmed body of the deceased. Some of the earliest attested copies of the Book of the Dead were written on linen shrouds where the cursive hieroglyphic style laid out in columns was refined, prior to appearing on papyri. The hieroglyphic text here is from the instructions of Book of the Dead spell 101, which says: "Recitation over a bandage of royal linen upon which this spell is written, placed for the glorified spirit at his throat."

Linen Bandage of Tadimhotep Inscribed with BD 17 in Hieratic (Late Period–Ptolemaic Period, ca. 400–200 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Bandage of Tadiimhotep with Spell 17

The beginning of spell 17 identified the departed with the creator god. Subsequent sections focused on the victory over evil forces, the healing of the eye of Horus, the myth of the sun’s eye, the conjunction of Re and Osiris, and the protection of the deceased. The images of spell 17 show the owner standing with a staff, sitting to play the game senet, and appearing as a ba before the solar bark. The lions of yesterday and today form the horizon where the phoenix arises and the ba unites with the corpse near the end. Though the bandages were commissioned for a woman, the upper vignettes show the deceased as a male. The seated woman on the right may be Tadiimhotep, but the scene typically shows a husband and wife receiving offerings together.

Gilded Heart Scarab Inscribed with BD 30B in Hieroglyphs, front (New Kingdom–Late Period, Dynasty 19–26, ca. 1295–525 bc)Oriental Institute Museum

Heart scarabs

The heart carried with it the memories of each individual and had the potential to reveal any immoral deeds committed during one’s lifetime. In the afterlife, the dead could use magic to maintain control over it: “My heart belongs to me for I have power over it. It will not tell what I have done. … Listen to me, O heart of mine! I am your lord for you are in my body” (Book of the Dead Spell 27). Spells 29B and 30B were written on amulets carved into the shape of a heart or scarab beetle. The rubric of spell 30 indicates that it was a “magical charm” intended for “recitation over a scarab of green stone, fashioned and purified with gold, set in the area of the heart of a man.” They were typically positioned inside the linen wrappings close to the physical heart or mounted in a pectoral hung around the neck.

Heart Scarab Inscribed with BD 30B in Hieroglyphs, top (Third Intermediate–Late Period, Dynasty 25–26, ca. 747–525 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Heart Scarab with Spell 30B

While heart scarabs can occasionally take the form of the Egyptian hieroglyph for “heart,” this example is carved as a scarab beetle, representing the word for “being” or “becoming,” signifying both the eternal essence of the deceased and the regenerative powers of the inscribed amulet in the afterlife. A colophon to spell 30B, found in papyrus sources, states that heart scarabs should be carved out of green stone, mounted in a gold frame, and placed on the breast of the deceased. Most existing examples are indeed fashioned out of serpentine, jade, or another stone of greenish cast, a color associated with rebirth by the ancient Egyptians.

Heart Scarab Inscribed with BD 30B in Hieroglyphs, bottom (Third Intermediate–Late Period, Dynasty 25– 26, ca. 747–525 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Heart Scarab with Spell 30B

Having passed through the obstacles of the netherworld with the support of Book of the Dead spells, the deceased arrived before the god Osiris and forty-two judges tasked with admitting spirits into the afterlife. Following the negative confession, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat, typically depicted in the vignette of spell 125. If the heart outweighed the feather it was devoured by the hippo-lion-crocodile hybrid, Ammut, causing the second and final death for a person. Because the heart was believed to be the seat of one’s consciousness and emotions, it became the only organ traditionally left inside the body during mummification. Heart scarabs were positioned near the heart in the wrappings and ensured a favorable judgment for the owner.

Fragment from the Coffin of Djehutymes Inscribed with BD 15 (Ptolemaic Period, 332–30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Coffins and sarcophagi

Coffins and sarcophagi were used throughout the history of ancient Egypt with many changes in construction methods, materials, shapes, and decorations. One constant, however, was the theological interpretation of these objects as cosmological models representing earth and sky. Of course, sarcophagi and coffins also served the practical purpose of protecting the body from environmental hazards. The surfaces of these objects provided large canvases for the prodigious ornamentation of religious imagery and mortuary texts. Although papyri are often considered the primary conduit for ancient Egyptian funerary literature, coffins were an important means by which spells were transmitted.

Fragment from the Coffin of Djehutymes with Spell 15

This thin plank formed one of the slats for the side of Djehutymes’s coffin. Individual boards were joined together to form the coffin walls with a post at each corner. The coffin’s shape looked like an elongated shrine, modeled after the tomb of Osiris. On the right, we find the solar bark with crew flanked by Nile gods holding ankh-symbols, depicted in vibrant colors, dominated by a brilliant sea foam green symbolic of rejuvenation. The image is fitting for the adjacent spell 15. In the text, the rising sun is implored to “shine in the face of Osiris, scribe, Djehutymes” so that “his soul may go forth” — a phrase that alluded to the title of the Book of the Dead.

Corner Post from the Coffin of Djehutymes Inscribed with Glorification Spells, front (Ptolemaic Period, 332–30 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Corner Post from the Coffin of Djehutymes

The two vertical lines of text are taken from a well-known Osiris liturgy, called Glorifications 1, but titled by the ancient Egyptians as “Book of glorifying the spirit which is recited in the temple of Osiris.” This composition was adapted for private individuals from a temple ritual intended for the god Osiris. Djehutymes could use the text for himself since he became Osiris Djehutymes through the mortuary rituals. The coffin of Djehutymes attests to the continued creation of new texts after the Book of the Dead and demonstrates how the Book of the Dead was combined with other funerary literature on the same object.

Sarcophagus Fragment with Divine Guardian (Late Period, Dynasty 26, 664-525 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Sarcophagus Fragment of Ibi

The female figure with a snake behind her shoulder recalls the goddesses represented in the twelth hour of the Amduat, who attend the sun’s journey in the netherworld before its rise in the sky. In the New Kingdom, the book of the Amduat, a title meaning “what is in the netherworld,” appeared on the walls of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and quickly proliferated. Its focus was on the nocturnal journey of the sun through the netherworld. A caption above the figure refers to “O opener of the way,” a reference to the deity who accompanied the sun god in his boat.

Statue of Anubis (Late Period, Dynasty 26, ca. 664-525 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Statue of Anubis

The striding god with a jackal head and human body represents Anubis with his arms stretched out to attended to the body. Because wild dogs inhabited the desert edge near cemeteries, canine deities were closely linked with funerary rites. Anubis was specifically responsible for mummification and protecting the dead. In the Book of the Dead Anubis plays the important role of vouching for the deceased before the judges of the Osirian court, as well as for tending to the scale in the weighing of the heart ceremony. Stemming from the canine’s keen sense of smell, the jackal-god Anubis affirms that the deceased belongs with the gods because he/she smells like them in spell 125A.

Statue of the Mourning Goddess Isis (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 23-25, ca. 750 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Statue of Isis

This statue forms a group with Nephthys and Anubis. These figures have lost the hieroglyphs providing their names on top of their heads, but remaining outlines show clearly that the figure with the green sash is Isis, and Nephthys with the red sash. The attire identifies them as kites, a long-winged bird of prey, or a tern, a seabird. Avian manifestations refer to the search for the body of Osiris which was accomplished by the kite circling over the land, the tern hovering above the Nile. Isis and Nephthys guard and mourn the deceased as they did their brother Osiris in the original myth.

Statue of the Mourning Goddess Nephthys (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 23-25, ca. 750 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statue of Nephthys

With the statues of Isis and Anubis, this statue of Nephthys formed a group for the burial equipment of a prosperous person. The three figures were likely positioned around the coffin, the goddesses on each end and Anubis alongside, as depicted in scenes invoking the embalming of Osiris. The mourning aspect is reflected solely in their bare-breasted appearance. Just enough remains of the arms to conclude that they do not perform a mourning gesture. Rather, they are laying their hands upon the deceased in protection. Images of Isis and Nephthys surrounding the body or coffin can be found throughout the Book of the Dead, particularly in the illustrations to spells 1 and 151.

Funerary Figures of Khaunbastet (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 25, ca. 1069-664 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Funerary figurines

Ancient Egyptians believed that model figures could be animated in the afterlife to perform work on behalf of the dead. Funerary figures are called ushabtis (or shabtis) after the ancient Egyptian term wšbty (or šwbty). Spell 6 was a “spell for causing a ushabti to do work for a man in the necropolis,” meant to ensure the figures would perform their required tasks. The spell takes the form of an address by the deceased to the figure itself, which agrees to be presented for the work: “O ushabti, if I am called upon and assigned to do any work which is done in the necropolis, … you will assign yourself for me to them everyday. … ‘I will do them. Here I am,’ so you will say.”

Funerary Figure of Amunirdis (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 25, ca. 747-656 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Ushabti of Amunirdis

This servant figurine of Amunirdis is adorned with the royal uraeus serpent and her name is placed in a cartouche, reflecting her status as the sister of the Nubian pharaoh Piye. Spell 6, the standard text for ushabtis, summons the substitute figurine to work on behalf of Amunirdis in case she is called upon to perform agricultural labor in the afterlife. Few Book of the Dead manuscripts are known from the century before the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, and it appears that the Nubian pharaohs paid increased attention to the religious literature of the past in an archaizing trend to emulate Egypt’s ages of bygone glory.

Funerary Figures of Khaunbastet (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 25, ca. 1069-664 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Ushabti of Khaunbastet

Khaunbastet’s figures are special because they were inscribed with spell 6 in hieratic, a far less common practice than the use of hieroglyphic text. A scribe added the hieratic text by hand, starting on the upper right of the backside, and wrote the text from right to left, often overlapping onto the front of the figure. The text was added as the last step in production with the ink overlapping imperfections in the glaze that resulted from the firing process. It is uncertain whether the scribe copied from a source or composed the text from memory as there are small idiosyncrasies between each copy.

Magical Brick of Nesqashuti (New Kingdom or Third Intermediate Period, 1550-712 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Magic bricks

Magic bricks contained spells to ward off dangerous forces from each cardinal direction. As part of the burial ritual from the New Kingdom to the Late Period, a set of small clay bricks was inscribed with sections of Book of the Dead spell 151, combined with an amulet, and placed within the burial chamber. Each brick, spell excerpt, and amulet worked to ward off a specific force that approached from the north, south, east, and west. Instructions accompanying spell 151 directed that the bricks be placed inside niches within the walls facing out toward the spiritual threats. In many cases, the niches were then plastered over and decorated, thereby disguising the location of the bricks inside.

Magic Brick of the God's Father of Amun Paibmer, front (New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, ca. 1295-1186 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Magic Brick of Paibmer

A complete set of magic bricks consisted of four inscribed bricks with their associated amulets. Three of Paibmer’s magic bricks are housed in the Oriental Institute Museum. Although his assemblage is nearly complete, missing only a single brick, the texts on the bricks do not match with the correct amulets. The text written in hieratic around this brick is for the mummiform figure, but the mummiform figure in Paibmer’s set was inscribed with the spell for Anubis. Therefore, it’s possible that the rectangular cavity on the top of this brick held an Anubis figure. Such discordance between practice and the instructions of the Book of the Dead is not uncommon, even for kings.

Magic Brick of the Scribe Amenemhat, top (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Reign of Thutmose III, ca. 1479-1425 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Magic Brick of Amenemhat

According to spell 151, magical bricks were walled up in the burial chamber in relation to cardinal points to protect the mummy. However, this brick seems to have been deposited on the floor, for no niches were discovered in Amenemhat’s tomb. It was positioned on the northern wall with a mummiform figure of wood inserted into the surface. To empower this figure, the ritual of opening the mouth was performed on it according to the instructions in spell 151. Once activated, the figure protected the dead from an aggressive force: “I will entangle you! I will assault you! I am the protection of Osiris, the scribe, Amenemhat.”

Magic Brick of the Scribe Amenemhat, back edge (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Reign of Thutmose III, ca. 1479-1425 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

On the edges of Amenemhet's magic bricks were instructions written in white pigment and hieratic script. The sign in white here is a standing mummiform figure, indicating that this brick was to be associated with a figure that once stood in the cavity on top.

Magic Brick of the Vizier Nespamedu (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 25, ca. 747-656 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Magic Brick of Nespamedu

An amber-colored material can be seen mixed throughout the clay used to produce this magic brick. According to the instructions of spell 151, “this spell will be spoken over an Anubis of unbaked clay mixed with incense, fixed into a brick of unbaked clay, upon which this spell is inscribed.” Traces of an Anubis amulet are clear on the top and the inclusions are assumed to be incense, although no tests have been done to confirm this assumption. The hieratic text of spell 151 on the exterior surface contains uncommon variants that are only found on bricks and not on papyri.

Djed-Pillar of the God's Father of Amun Paibmer (New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, ca. 1295-1186 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Djed-Pillar of Paibmer

This bright blue djed-pillar had spell 151 inscribed on its surface rather than being combined with a brick. It would have been placed on the western wall of the burial chamber. The addition of a pair of eyes in the upper part of the pillar adds a human element to the amulet. Such personification is well known, for some examples have been dressed and adorned like a human being. In fact, spell 151 instructs that the figure be wrapped up like a mummy. The final hieroglyphic signs in the text are an unusual addition that seem to implore the eyes to “keep watch!”

Book of the Dead Papyrus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) with Spells 52–99 (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

How did the Book of the Dead work?

The ancient Egyptians sought to change reality by speaking words out loud while performing accompanying ritual actions. Through the power of magic (heka), they believed that saying it made it real. This magic allowed the dead to become an effective spirit (akh) that joined the gods in the afterlife and thereby achieved immortality. Through the Book of the Dead, each individual sought to unite with the solar-Osirian cycle. The solar-Osirian cycle is a reference to the sun god Re who ruled the visible universe and the god Osiris who ruled the netherworld. Re and Osiris represented two poles on a spiritual continuum. Each night, Re joined with Osiris in the netherworld – the solar-Osirian union personified by a ram-headed mummy. This union allowed Re to partake in the rejuvenating power of Osiris and be reborn into the horizon each morning.The dead participated in this cycle as well. The mummified corpse represented the individual’s Osirian quality and the soul (ba) represented their solar attribute. Each night, the soul returned to the tomb and united with the corpse. By doing so, it regained the eternal power to “go forth in the day” and join the sun god in his boat as he crossed the daytime sky.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) with Spells 16–18 (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson)

Papyrus Ryerson is named in honor of its donor Martin A. Ryerson. This outstanding Book of the Dead was custom made specifically for a priest named Nesshutefnut, whose name and titles were inserted as it was written. The spells were written in hieratic script, but captions to larger vignettes were added in hieroglyphs. His Book of the Dead papyrus included 160 spells. He would have paid a significant sum for it in the hope that having so many spells would provide the best chance for his successful transformation into an akh-spirit. The first part of the document with spells 1–15 was missing when purchased, but it was recently identified in the Spokane Public Library.

Book of the Dead Spells 15–16

The images at the beginning of Nesshutefnut’s papyrus belong to Book of the Dead spell 16. Spell 16 has no text and the number was assigned by scholars to the imagery of solar worship. In actuality, spell 16 served as the illustration for the sun hymns of spell 15. So important were these spells that they are found at the beginning of many manuscripts from the Eighteenth Dynasty to the Late Period. They served to depict the owner as a devout follower of Re who performed his pious duty of worship and offering before the sun god. In the statue of Pashed shown to the right, his posture of kneeling adoration served as an illustration to the solar hymn on his stela.

Stelophorus Statue of Pashed Inscribed with BD 15, front and side (New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, ca. 1295-1186 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statue of Pashed with Spell 15

Pashed is shown holding an inscribed stela in front of him, with his gaze lifted upward to the sun. Sun hymns are commonly inscribed on such stela, but Pashed’s included a series of offering prayers soliciting benefits desired by the deceased and encapsulating the boons bestowed by the Book of the Dead. The sequence of these benefits mirrors the daily circuit of the sun god, beginning with the perpetual adoration of Re from dawn to sunset, as well as free egress for the deceased’s ba from the “horizon” — a reference to the tomb.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spell 30

The judgment of the dead was not only depicted with spell 125, but it also commonly appeared with spell 30B, a “spell to prevent the heart from opposing a person in the necropolis.” Spell 30B was found on scarabs, such as this example which belonged to a “god’s father” priest. Nesshutefnut’s papyrus incorporated it into spell 30, which shows him worshiping an enormous scarab beetle on a throne — a hieroglyphic pun for the word ḫpr “to come into being.” The heart was the seat of thought for the ancient Egyptians and carried with it the memories of each individual. In the afterlife, the dead recited spells against their own heart, using magic to maintain control over it to prevent the revelation of any misdeeds in the tribunal before Osiris.

Gilded Heart Scarab Inscribed with BD 30B in Hieroglyphs, top (New Kingdom–Late Period, Dynasty 19–26, ca. 1295–525 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Heart Scarab Inscribed with Spell 30B

This scarab adheres to the instructions for spell 30B by using green stone and traces of gold paint. The colors and form of the beetle were symbols of regeneration and divinity. The beetle was a form of the god Khepri, the form of the morning sun in the horizon that puns on the word ḫpr “to come into being.” Green symbolizes fresh growth from new vegetation as it emerged from the dark colored soil. Gold symbolized the shining rays of the sun and the flesh of the gods. To produce the intended magical effects, the scarab was placed near the heart.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Spells 31– 40

Protection against hostile forces was an important part of the Book of the Dead. Such dangers included physical threats from the environment, such as aggressive crocodiles and poisonous snakes, or insects that may feed on the mummy or a papyrus. For complete coverage against any peril, spells for preventing destruction in the necropolis by any means were included, symbolized by images showing the owner spearing the hieroglyph for “slaughter." Bakenrenef eliminated these menaces in enlarged vignettes carved into the walls of his burial chamber, while Nesshutefnut’s papyrus gathered these spells together into a sequence based on their shared themes.

Book of the Dead Papyrus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) with Spells 52–99 (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Soul

The goal of the Book of the Dead was to transform its owner into a glorified spirit called an akh. The akh symbolized the rejuvenated individual after the funerary rituals restored their faculties and reconstituted their essential elements. These elements included the corpse, name, ka, shadow, and ba — a term traditionally translated as “soul,” but which had a specific connotation in ancient Egypt. The ba was most closely associated with the ability to leave the tomb during the day and join the sun god’s retinue sailing across the sky. For these reasons, the ba was commonly depicted as a bird with a human head.

Statuette of the Ba (Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statuette of the Ba

A bird with human head represents the ancient Egyptian ba, a soul-like manifestation of the deceased. The red sun disk associates the ba-bird with the sun god Re. Spell 85 is entitled “taking the form of a living ba” and specifies that the deceased wished to unite with the ba of Re. The ba is the most mobile form of the dead. It is shown leaving the tomb during the day and returning to the corpse at night in order to reinvigorate itself through the rejuvenating power of Osiris, with whom the deceased was equated.

Book of the Dead Papyrus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca 250 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Hall of Osiris

The journey through the netherworld culminated in the reception before Osiris in the “hall of the two truths.” This was the most important transformative event in the afterlife. With the appropriate funerary rituals and magical spells, the dead safely arrived in the judgment hall. A successful tribunal meant that the dead joined the gods in the following of Osiris. For the ancient Egyptians, Osiris was an extremely important divine figure with whom they could identify through the very human elements represented in his mythology, including his family relationships, but most importantly, his demise and ultimate triumph over death.

Statue Triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus (Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Statue of Osiris, Isis, and Horus

Osiris, his sister wife Isis, and their son Horus, formed one of the primary divine triads of ancient Egypt. The trio evokes the epic myth of Osiris involving his murder by his brother Seth, his mummification by Isis, and his redemption by Horus. Through the spells in the Book of the Dead, ancient Egyptians sought to emulate Osiris by triumphing over death. They assumed his identity in spell 69 by reciting: “I am Osiris, brother of Isis, while my son Horus, with his mother Isis, saved me from my enemies who do everything evil against me.” The dead gained their Osirian form as a result of the appropriate funerary rituals, which ancient texts described as “giving an Osiris to” someone.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) with Spells 116–147 (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Gates of the Netherworld

The ancient Egyptian netherworld contained complicated and confusing pathways barring the uninitiated from the divine realm. A sequence of Book of the Dead spells (144–150) detailed the knowledge necessary to pass gates, travel through caverns, and journey across mysterious mounds. The quantity varied, but many obstacles numbered twelve or twenty-four, associated with the hours of the night and day. Versions on papyri such as Nesshutefnut’s often contained elaborate sequences of texts with detailed imagery, but these guides could be stored directly on the body itself, as Hor’s bandages demonstrate. The knowledge these spells provided was secret, indicated by the rubric: “You must use this book without letting anyone see it.”

Linen Bandage of Hor Inscribed with BD 146–147 in Hieratic (Late Period–Ptolemaic Period, ca. 400–200 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Bandage of Hor with Spells 146–147

This fragment of Hor’s linen wrappings is inscribed in hieratic with spells regarding the gates of the netherworld and their guards. The sequence of spells from 144 to 150 provides the origin for the interpretation of the Book of the Dead as a “guide” to the netherworld. The deceased had to know the names of the gates and their guardians in order to pass through them toward the “house of Osiris in the field of reeds.” By providing Hor with the secret knowledge necessary to pass by these obstacles, these spells ensured that his arrival in the hall of Osiris was a success.

Papyrus Scroll with Linen Wrapping (Third Intermediate Period-Late Period, 1069-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

How was the Book of the Dead made?

There is not a single method for how a Book of the Dead was produced because the Book of the Dead was not a single composition, but rather a compilation of spells that could appear on different media such as linen, stone, wood, or papyrus. Variation in manufacturing techniques also reflected local traditions among workshops or changes over time. Papyrus remains the most iconic medium for Book of the Dead spells. Papyrus manuscripts were produced by trimming stalks of the papyrus plant, pounding them flat, and allowing the natural sap to bind them together into a sheet. Individual sheets were joined to form long scrolls.Blank scrolls were taken to a workshop where they were inscribed and illustrated. The work could involve as few as a single scribe or an entire team of scribes and painters. Typically, the scribe laid out the format of the text by drawing framing lines, often in red ink, to outline the spaces for text and images. Then, the text would be added, followed by the pictures. Some manuscripts were custom-made for a buyer who had their name and titles inserted into the text, while other manuscripts were made as stock templates where spaces were left for the name and titles of the eventual buyer to be inserted.

Book of the Dead Papyrus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca 250 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

The drafting process has left ghostly red figures where a scribe had originally laid out the scene before it was changed in the final draft. Spaces were also left in the hieroglyphic text above for the name of Nesshutefnut, but the spaces were never filled in.

Linen Bandage of Herankh Inscribed with BD 1 in Hieratic (Late Period–Ptolemaic Period, ca. 400–200 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Bandage of Herankh Inscribed with Spell 1

When the Book of the Dead was inscribed on mummy bandages, the spells could spread over several individual linen strips. A note indicating the “first (bandage)” has been written on Herankh’s linen wrapping, centered vertically on the right edge. With the aid of these numbers, scribes in the workshop could check the completeness of the whole set of bandages and of the sequence of spells. It remains uncertain how many bandages were produced for Herankh, but recent research has demonstrated that a Book of the Dead on mummy wrappings could be distributed over more than thirty.

Linen Bandage of Tjaihorpata Inscribed with BD 144 in Hieratic (Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, ca. 400-200 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Bandage of Tjaihorpata Inscribed with Spell 144

Two fragments of Tjaihorpata’s mummy wrappings are in the Oriental Institute, while many other fragments are in international museum collections. Of the two Chicago sections, one is inscribed with spells 8–15 while the other has spell 144. It is likely that these two fragments belonged to different individual linen strips used to wrap Tjaihorpata’s body. The writing of Tjaihorpata’s name is different on each bandage, indicating that at least two different scribes worked on his copy of the Book of the Dead for his mummy.

Heart Scarab with Human Face Inscribed with BD 30B in Hieroglyphs, front (Second Intermediate Period–New Kingdom, Dynasty 17–18, ca. 1580–1295 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Heart Scarab with Human Face Inscribed with Spell 30B

In place of the owner’s name in the first line on the bottom on this scarab, we find the phrase “one who is called So-and-so” — an Egyptian version of “fill in name here.” This suggests that the name was unknown to the producers of the scarab or that it was made as a generic template, simply filling in “So-and-so” where the name belonged. No textual references clarify the meaning of the face, but it likely represents the owner, for spell 30B addresses the heart as “my ka which is in my body.” The ka was a person’s social identity, the psychic continuity through which their family and community knew them. As the seat of thought, memory, and emotion, the heart is a logical symbol of the ka and its relationship between the dead and the living.

Book of the Dead Papyrus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson)

Illustration errors on this sheet make clear that a scribe wrote out the text before the images were added. On the lower half of the papyrus in the third column from the right, two blank squares can be seen between the titles for spells 103–104 and the text of the spells. The illustrator should have added the appropriate illustrations for the spells in these spaces, but mistakenly left them blank. Similar oversights throughout Nesshutefnut’s papyrus have resulted in mismatching texts and vignettes for spells 37–111. The scribe left the subsequent column blank to avoid the rough join between two papyrus sheets, but the artist added the vignette to spell 105 at the top of the column anyway.

Book of the Dead Payprus Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, 250 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson)

The scribe of this papyrus must have realized the errors his artist colleague made. In the middle of this section, there is an open space with a single line of Demotic text. It states: “It is not a space for a picture.” The note was left by a conscientious scribe so that the artist knew the space was not intended for an illustration. Lines overlapping from the previous column created a bounded area of blank papyrus that could be mistaken for the space for a vignette. The scribe probably chose to use Demotic because the illustrator could not read hieratic, a script used for texts written in Middle Egyptian grammar, which by this time was nearly 2,000 years old.

Papyrus Scroll with Linen Wrapping (Third Intermediate Period-Late Period, 1069-332 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Papyrus Scroll with Linen Wrapping

The long scrolls of papyrus used for Book of the Dead manuscripts required a large investment of labor to produce. Once inscribed, they were typically rolled up and deposited within the burial chamber. Wrapping the papyrus in linen helped protect and sanctify it. The nearly perfect preservation of this papyrus raises many questions. The papyrus is tightly rolled and no text has been identified from either a visual or CT examination. At this stage, it is impossible to say if it is a Book of the Dead papyrus or not, but it provides an excellent example of what these scrolls looked like when rolled up.

Scribal Palette (Old Kingdom-New Kingdom, 2686-1069 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Scribal Palette

The most important equipment in the scribe’s toolkit was the palette. A typical palette
contained reservoirs for red and black inks and a hollow cavity for storing the writing implements. Such palettes were used by Book of the Dead scribes as they could easily switch between red and black for spells and rubrics. Egyptian scribes used the shaft of a rush plant, with the end frayed to form a brush. In the Greco-Roman era, scribes adopted the Greek style kalamos-pen, a stiff reed sharpened to a point. Although this palette is uninscribed, other examples are decorated with the owner’s name and titles.

Painter Palette with Pigments (New Kingdom, ca. 1550-1069 BC)Oriental Institute Museum

Painter Palette with Pigments

Palettes for painters had multiple pigment pans, but no compartments for pens or brushes — a design similar to modern painters’ palettes. Illustrators needed a broader color selection than the black and red of the typical scribal palette. Pigments were made by mixing powdered minerals with a binder such as gum arabic. The pigments were diluted with water for application. The measurements of this palette are exactly ten ancient Egyptian digits, the equivalent of two palms, a dimension that would allow it to be used as a measuring tool if needed. Holes in the pigment pans made by a rigid brush are evidence of use.

Papyrus of Shemaynefer with the Guardian of the Gate from Spell 146 (Roman Period, 30 BC-AD 100) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

What happened to the Book of the Dead?

Ancient Egyptians employed Book of the Dead spells for over 1,500 years, from the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1700 BC) down to the Roman period (ca. AD 200). However, the classical style of Book of the Dead manuscripts, like the papyri in this exhibit, fell out of use by the end of the Ptolemaic period (ca. 50 BC). Afterward, there was a rise in a new set of texts called the Books of Breathing. These Books of Breathing represent the last stage of Egyptian funerary literature before the Christianization of the country in the third and fourth centuries AD. Knowledge of the Book of the Dead was largely forgotten in the time between the third century AD and Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 AD. Very little scholarship has been devoted to the Medieval Arabic scholastic tradition, which clearly had contact with manuscripts in Egypt. Several facsimiles of Book of the Dead manuscripts were produced by Napoleon’s artists as published in the Description de l’Égypte, but little sense could be made of them until Jean-François Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphic script in 1822. Twenty years later, the Prussian Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius produced the first definitive edition of a Book of the Dead papyrus. Lepsius assigned numbers 1-165 to the sequence of spells in this papyrus, and it is his numbering system that we continue to use today, supplemented by numbers assigned by later Egyptologists. Translations into various languages soon followed, with the idiosyncratic English translations of Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge readily available in very popular reprints. The pioneering work of these and other scholars laid the foundation for all subsequent study of the Book of the Dead.

Papyrus of Shemaynefer (Roman Period, 30 BC-AD 100) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Papyrus of Shemaynefer Inscribed with a Mortuary Compendium (Papyrus Hynes)

This papyrus with a compendium of texts including Book of the Dead spells is one of the latest Books of the Dead to survive, dating to a time when the Book of the Dead had largely disappeared. Three critical sections are shown: the depiction of an underworld gateway through which the deceased must pass (spell 146), the adoration of the sun god Re by Shemaynefer, and the presentation of his mummy following the purification of his spirit. This is the only known funerary papyrus from Esna and a rare example of such documents outside Memphis and Thebes. It is written in a combination of hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts.

Papyrus of Shemaynefer with the Sun God Re (Roman Period, 30 BC-AD 100) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Shemaynefer kneels in prayer before the sun god Re. The hieroglyphic text provides his prayer: "Come to my voice, may you heed my prayer. May you give to me years of breathing air in exchange for cutting off my years on earth."

Crowley Aleister 1875-1947LIFE Photo Collection

Appropriation of the Book of the Dead

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead continues to captivate us. It has influenced literature, art, music, film, and the occult. Perhaps its most famous appearance is in the 1932 Universal Studios film The Mummy starring Boris Karloff. In the film, an archaeological assistant reads the magical spells from an ancient Egyptian papyrus and thereby unwittingly awakens the mummy of Imhotep.Spells from the Book of the Dead figure prominently in various religious revival and so-called occult practices. None are more famous than those employed by Aleister Crowley. He incorporated passages from Book of the Dead spell 30 into an initiatory text for his spiritual organization. He had discovered spell 30 on a stela bearing the inventory number 666 in the Cairo Museum. A manuscript with Crowley’s handwritten text and illustrations shows the passing of the initiate through the pylons that were symbolic of the stages of initiation. The imagery included prominent cultural symbols from ancient Egypt and the recitation of spell 30.Such popular reflections of the Book of the Dead have nothing to do with the reality of ancient Egypt itself. They are a tribute, however, to the attraction of the modern title “Book of the Dead,” which was immediately comprehensible and compelling for a contemporary audience. Western readers continue to have an enduring fascination with ancient Egypt and its very particular way of overcoming death with eternal life.

Credits: Story

Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt, an online exhibit produced for Google Arts & Culture, was curated, designed, and arranged by Foy Scalf with photographs by Bryce Lowry and objects from the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum.

This online exhibit is based on the special exhibition Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt, October 3rd, 2017 – March 31st, 2018. The associated catalog may be viewed and downloaded online from the Oriental Institute website:

We would like to thank George Thomson for his editorial help.

© Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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