An Ancient Egyptians Guide to the Afterlife


Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you are in archeology circles like me, you might have read last year about the 100-plus mummies found undisturbed in the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Egypt, one of the biggest mummy discoveries in the past few decades with mummies still in their original place. More recently, though, they have discovered a 16 meters (52 foot long) perfectly preserved papyrus containing the “Book of the Dead.” 

Now, you might be asking yourself, “what is the ‘Book of the Dead,’ and why is it so important?” The “Book of the Dead” is the ancient Egyptians’ traveler’s guide to get to the afterlife. For example, it contains one of the most famous pop culture images from Ancient Egypt: the weighing of the heart. The text can tell us about the properties and functions of religious life in Ancient Egypt. 

As someone who focuses on Bronze Age Mediterranean archaeology, I felt that reading the “Book of the Dead” would be an invaluable resource to understand the lives of the people at the time of the New Kingdom (1539-1069 BCE). I chose the beautiful translation by E.A Wallis Budge which has great footnotes and includes the actual hieroglyphs as you read. 

In this edition, we follow Ani, a scribe and the overseer of the double granary of the lord of Tawer in 1275 BCE. As Ani makes his way to the Field of Reeds, he meets and gains protection from all of the major deities of Egyptian mythology like Osiris, Isis, Ra, Hathor and Toth. When he finally reaches the Field of Reeds after facing judgment through the weighing of his heart and a couple pyramids full of snakes, he is finally able to live out his eternal life in paradise. 

This text is important in order to understand what religious life was like for the ancient Egyptians. Unlike the Greek or Roman deities whose sources are preserved in stories and myths that can be adapted for a modern audience, the Egyptians’ wish was kept secret in “Mystery Cults.” The Egyptian gods are only referred to in this religious context, as many Christians see Jesus: there are not as many stories about the Egyptian gods testing heroes or manipulating men into going to war. 

This text provides some very important information about the main “jobs” of each god and how they helped mortals. In plates 31-32, there is a list of what each god provides to Ani for his body in the afterlife, thereby associating each god with that part of the body. 

The hymns and spells also tell about the gods of Egypt. In plate 10 a hymn/spell says, “Hail, Kephera in thy boat, the twofold company of the god is thy body.” Kephera is the beetle on mummies’ chests whose job is to resurrect the gods, particularly Ra. He is calling out to be registered in the underworld so he could continue his journey to paradise, like going through an EZ pass while on a trip, he needs to be recorded as being in the the underworld part of the afterlife before moving on.

The “Book Of The Dead” provides important context about the hierarchy of ancient Egypt. It was not a text given to every mummy, so the discovery of one that is 16 meters long is very important. It was saved for societal elites like pharaohs, priests and scribes — common people would not get these texts. 

This is very important for two reasons, because we know that Ani, being a scribe, was wealthy and respected in society. The mummies found in the Step Pyramid of Djoser were also wealthy individuals. This is interesting because the paradise this book leads to is an everlasting farm. There are depictions of Ani alone tending, processing and replacing grain. This act of farming was not something the Ancient Egyptian elite would have done; they would have people below them doing all of the work, so why did Ani choose to go to this eternal afterlife? 

The “Book of the Dead” is an excellent text to read to help you expand your knowledge of Ancient Egyptian society. It depicts images of the divine that send shivers down your spine with every twist and turn that Ani must take to get to the afterlife, asking gods to help him. As a classical text, the “Book of the Dead” should be seen in the same vein as the Theogony, a text that covers the Greek creation myth. It is a must-read for everyone, and if you are inspired to pick it up, Whistlestop Bookshop on High Street has some beautiful copies available.