The Getty Book of the Dead

Ancient Egyptian Funerary Texts in the J. Paul Getty Museum

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Ancient Egyptians made extensive preparations for the afterlife. In addition to equipping their tombs with provisions for the next world, they took guidebooks to the grave. A series of texts, collectively known as the Book of the Dead, provided instructions for the soul’s laborious journey through the netherworld and into eternity.

The Getty’s Egyptian Book of the Dead manuscripts form one of the largest such collections in North America, with examples ranging from the 18th Dynasty until the end of the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 1450–30 BC). These manuscripts shed light on the evolution of Egyptian funerary religion over a period of nearly 1,500 years.

Due to their fragility, the papyri and mummy wrappings shared in this exhibit have never been on display.

“Book of the Dead” is a modern term for a collection of nearly 200 ancient Egyptian funerary spells. Together, these spells formed a road map to help the deceased navigate his or her way to the afterlife to unite with the god of the dead, Osiris. The spells did not form a “book” in our current sense, and they could be inscribed on a range of materials including papyri, mummy wrappings, coffins, stone slabs (steles), funerary figurines (ushabtis), and more.

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Papyri

The Book of the Dead developed from spells that were first inscribed on beetle-shaped amulets (scarabs) and coffins at the end of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, around 1650 BC.

By the New Kingdom (ca. 1450 BC), scribes started writing Book of the Dead spells on papyrus scrolls, where the text was often accompanied by drawn vignettes. During the New Kingdom era, a cultural flourishing fired the imaginations of those who designed early versions of the Book of the Dead, resulting in new funerary literature guiding the deceased to the beyond. 

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Papyrus of Ra-webenes

The owner of this papyrus manuscript was Ra-webenes, a woman whose name translates to “(the sun god) Ra rises for her.” Most Book of the Dead manuscripts were owned by men, but this papyrus shows that some women had not only the financial means but also the knowledge to appreciate the ownership of a personal copy. This manuscript dates to the New Kingdom and is the oldest in the Getty's Book of the Dead collection. 

Book of the Dead papyri were primarily written in hieroglyphic Egyptian, but Ra-webenes’s example is written using hieratic, essentially a cursive version of hieroglyphs. Only scribal students who showed promising talent were chosen to learn how to write hieroglyphs, which was not the domain of writers but of artists.
 

Ra-webenes’s manuscript records Spell 149, in which the deceased encounters 14 mounds. The mounds represent places in the afterlife, each with its own inhabitants. 

The L-shaped mound, for example, is home to a knife-throwing snake. Spells like this one inform the deceased about dangerous places and communicate secret passwords to open doors that would otherwise be closed or too dangerous to pass through. 

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Papyrus of Ankh-es-en-aset

During Egypt’s 21st and 22nd Dynasties (1069–715 BC), when this papyrus was made, the country was politically divided between north and south. People continued to turn to religion in these turbulent times, and the Book of the Dead evolved to suit their needs. New collections of spells became fashionable.


This papyrus belonged to Ankh-es-en-aset (“may she live for (the goddess) Isis”). Her name is written here in the lower right corner (from right to left in black ink), though it is partially obscured by damage. The text contains Spells 23 and 28, in reverse order. Spell 23 reminds the deceased that her mouth has been opened so she can defend herself against the enemies of the underworld by activating helping gods: 

“As for any male or female magical spell said against me: gods will indeed arise against them, my nine gods united and their nine gods united.” 

Spell 28 helps to avoid the destruction of the heart during its removal in the embalming process. Only the dead whose body parts remained completely intact could enter the netherworld.    

Ancient Egyptian texts do not make use of spacing between words or conventional signs. For modern readers, the lack of punctuation makes hieroglyphic texts somewhat challenging to understand at first glance. 

Ancient Egyptians apparently faced the same problem. This is why headings of texts are written in red ink to serve as signposts for the reader.    

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Papyrus of Pa-sheri-en-asha-khet

The manuscript owned by Pa-sher-en-asha-khet (“The son of a rich man”) dates to the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 305–30 BC) when Egypt was occupied by the Greeks after Alexander the Great’s conquest. It is written in hieroglyphs and lavishly illustrated with three vignettes. The surviving text records Spells 15, 110, and 125.    

Spell 15

Spell 15 contains a total of nine sun-hymns which are meant to be sung in the morning as the sun rises in the east, awakening the deceased in their tomb. 

At the bottom, Pa-sheri-en-asha-khet and his wife receive offerings of incense and a libation (water offering) under a roof-like structure symbolizing his tomb. 

The middle section shows four baboons and two ba-birds (human-headed birds that embodied the deceased’s spirit) praising the morning sun. 

In the top register, the rising sun’s rays fall between a woman (left) and a man (right).

Spell 110

Spell 110 expands on the topography of the underworld to include scenes showing the deceased sowing and ploughing, harnessing two oxen, and harvesting grain. This realm, known as the Field of Offerings, is the “great place” where the deceased lives and “where he is doing everything done on earth.”    

Spell 125

This vignette from Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead is probably the best known. It shows the deceased at the court of the god Osiris, who sits underneath a baldachin (ornamental canopy), surrounded by 26 divine judges. They watch the weighing of Pa-sheri-en-asha-khet’s heart against the feather of justice. 

Ammit, a monster with the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a lion, waits in anticipation. She sits on top of the tomb ready to gobble down any heart that fails the test. No examples are recorded, however, of anyone meeting this fate. 

The deceased is accompanied by his wife when ordered to appear before Osiris, along with four entities with human heads that embody fate, birth, and upbringing (seen here as two seated figures followed by two sphinx-like figures, facing left). According to ancient Egyptian belief, these qualities form a person’s character, and they make sure that during an individual’s lifetime they do not deviate from the path of rightfulness.

Some vignettes include direct speech, like speech bubbles in a comic book or manga. When Pa-sheri-en-asha-khet’s heart passes the test, Thoth, the god of writing, communicates the result to Osiris on the left, saying “His heart is sound. The lack of truthfulness cannot be found.”

Osiris responds “Welcome, welcome in peace to the Beautiful West!”

This term describes the places where the Egyptians buried their dead. While settlements were ideally located east of the Nile River, the west was traditionally the place for the dead. 

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Mummy Wrappings

Sometimes, when an individual was mummified, Book of the Dead spells were written in hieratic on the linen bandages used to wrap their body, providing protection and preventing any harm from approaching. The deceased did not even need to read these spells in order to activate them; their presence provided permanent and eternal cover. The Getty collection includes mummy wrappings that belonged to three individuals.

Mummy Wrapping of Pa-di-User, son of Ta-di-User

As on the papyrus of Pa-sheri-en-asha-khet, the mummy wrappings of Pa-di-User show the vignette that accompanies Spell 15, associated with sun hymns. Both examples date to the Ptolemaic Period and show how the Book of the Dead was used on different materials. 

Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This vignette on this set of wrappings accompanies Spell 17, one of the longest Book of the Dead spells. It enables the deceased to leave his sarcophagus and roam freely. The image shows the deceased inside his sarcophagus with his head already sticking out. 

Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To the left and right, the canopic jars (jars with the heads of protective deities known as the four Sons of Horus) were used to hold mummified organs. Free movement is one of the most important wishes of the dead and is discussed in other spells as well.

Mummy Wrapping of Pa-di-User, son of Naii-nes-Bastet

A second set of mummy wrappings in the Getty's collection belonged to another man also named Pa-di-User, whose mother was Naii-nes-Bastet. This wrapping records Spell 158, which identifies an elaborately beaded collar (the wesekh collar) as an important accessory to the deceased’s newly gained status. 

Pa-di-User stands to the right of an offering table, holding the collar in his hands. At left, the goddess Isis shakes a ritual rattle known as a sistrum.

Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Mummy Wrapping of Ni-nef-Bastet

The third set of mummy wrappings belong to an individual named Ni-nef-Bastet. These wrappings have vignettes that appear rather schematic and the artistic expression is somewhat stifled. 

The repertoire depicted includes repetitive offering scenes, libations, and burning of incense.

Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ushabti for Neferibresaneith by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ushabtis

Ushabtis (or shabtis) are small funerary figurines that were interred in tombs, sometimes in large numbers. Their mummiform bodies were inscribed with Spell 6 of the Book of the Dead, also known as the ushabti spell. When spoken aloud, the spell animated the figures so that they could perform labor in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased.

Ushabti of Neferibresaneith

Three hundred and thirty six ushabtis, including this one, were buried with a man named Neferibresaneith in a tomb in Saqqara, Egypt, which was excavated from 1928 to 1929.

Neferibresaneith (whose name appears in the top line of the hieroglyphic inscription on the figure’s body) held the titles of wab-priest, Royal Chancellor of Lower Egypt, and Administrator of the Palace during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose II (ca. 570–526 BC). 

This ushabti is made from faience, a quartz-based glazed ceramic common in ancient Egypt.

Ushabti for Neferibresaneith by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In his crossed arms, the ushabti holds a hoe and a pick. A seed bag held by a cord is slung over his left shoulder. These agricultural tools reference the figure’s function: to perform labor in the afterlife.

Ushabti for Neferibresaneith by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Credits: Story

Dive deeper into the Getty's Book of the Dead manuscripts in What is the Book of the Dead?, an article from the Getty Iris blog.

To learn more about this topic, Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt is available for free through the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. 

To cite these texts, please use: "The Getty Book of the Dead," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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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