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July 17, 2018
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August 1, 2018

The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

The Egyptian Book of the Dead features prominently in the Eye of the Moon.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was just like the Egypt of the time, only more perfect. To get there, one had to travel through the twelve gates of the underworld. Passage through them was not guaranteed. It was easy to get lost, and there were evil forces that could prevent one’s passage. This journey was made possible only by magic, which required the use of spells.

The ancient Egyptian word for spell means “utterance”. To be effective, the spell had to be spoken aloud. By naming the demons and answering their questions, the traveler could control them and pass unmolested. Rather than resort to memorization, it was thought better to have the spells written down so the deceased could speak them as needed.

In the beginning, the spells and incantations necessary were written on the walls of the pharaohs’ tombs. These were called “Pyramid texts” and made their appearance around 2400 BCE. Their purpose was to reunite the pharaoh with Ra, his divine father, so that the deceased could take his place among the gods.

Some 400 years later, the first of what are called “coffin texts” appeared. Rather than being painted on walls, they were written on the inner surfaces of coffins, although they were sometimes written on papyrus and then placed in the sarcophagus. These contained new spells and were written in a more modern language. Coffin texts were available to wealthy individuals.

By 1500 BCE the use of papyrus scrolls for spells was widespread and referred to as the Book of the Dead.

It is difficult to grasp that ancient Egypt existed for thousands of years. Beliefs change over such lengths of time, but the ancient Egyptians, from what we know, thought that the underworld was like the desert. It was treacherous and ruled by predators. What’s more, there was no single passage through to the other side.

As the use of Books of the Dead became common, each person chose what spells they felt they needed to make their way in the afterlife. Each person’s journey was unique, and their Book of the Dead became a unique document to ensure a safe passage.

Whether the spells chosen were sufficient was never known. In the Eye of the Moon that also is a question that remains unanswered for now.

1 Comment

  1. SILVIA says:

    True, fascinating book and outstanding as it started, as you noted, 1,500 years or more BC.

    I do remember its mention in the Eye of the Moon, another fascinating book, too.

    Thank you Ivan.

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