The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Inspired by yesterday’s celebrations of World Book Day, today’s post by Becca from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum takes a closer look at the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead… 

World Book Day – The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Today we will be discussing the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead – I know, I know, it’s always dead stuff with me, isn’t it?

The term ‘Book of the Dead’ is very much a modern Western invention, with a more literal translation being, ‘Spells of Coming Forth by Day’ – but that doesn’t lend itself to a catchy phrase in a film now does it?

book-of-dead_the-mummyA replica of The Book of the Dead featured in The Mummy (1999). Image courtesy of Stelter Creative Woodworks (via

And although we call it a book, it isn’t necessarily what we would recognise as a book today, it’s more like having all the answers to your final year exam … if your final year exam was death and the afterlife that is!

So, if it’s not a ‘book’, what is it?

The best way to describe it is as a collection of spells and illustrations – these are all intended to help the person who owns the book make it safely from the Duat (the realm of the dead) into the ‘Field of Reeds’ (the Egyptian afterlife). No two copies are exactly the same – there are so many spells, or chapters, to choose from you never end up with the same collection in every version.

35.9.20a?wBook of the Dead of the Priest of Horus, Imhotep (Imuthes), ca. 332–200 BC. From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Some copies are tailor-made for a specific individual, but death became big business in ancient Egypt, and there are also examples that have been completed, all but for blank spaces left for the name of the person who buys it!

Just how ancient is it?

The Book of the Dead developed from the use of ‘Pyramid Texts’ in the Old Kingdom, these were spells or “utterances” written on the walls of the burial chamber inside the pyramids, or on the huge stone sarcophagi. The oldest examples date back to as early as c. 2400 BC, and at first were for the Pharaoh alone. By the end of the Old Kingdom pyramid texts were also being used by regional governors and other men of high status.

piv‘Pyramid Texts’, from the antechamber of the pyramid of King Unas. Plate IV from Alexandre Piankoff’s ‘The Pyramid of Unas’. (Image from: Pyramid Texts Online)

With the decline ‘Pyramid Age’, scribes found new surfaces for these magical inscriptions, and Egypt’s Middle Kingdom saw the rise to prominence of the ‘Coffin Texts’. Now, here’s the surprising bit, even though the name makes you think they would be found on the coffin, this new genre, with its new spells, incantations and illustrations, have also been found on tomb walls and papyri. As with mummification, these inscriptions were becoming a saleable commodity so, as well as the Pharaoh and high status officials, other people in Egypt could now buy these texts – but only if you had enough money, they still weren’t cheap!

box coffin

‘Coffin Texts’; from the Middle Kingdom, outer coffin of Khnum Nakht, from Deir Rifa. Acc. No.: 4725.a-b, Manchester Museum.

A magical book …

The Book of the Dead as we know it today first appears in the 17th Dynasty (c. 1580 BC) and was typically being written onto the linen that the mummy was wrapped, and although at this point there were examples written on the coffin or papyrus, these are not common.

uc32444largeLinen bandage fragment with images and text from Book of the Dead (Dynasty 30). Petrie Museum, UCL.

By the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III in the New Kingdom, the Book of the Dead was being commonly written on papyrus and individually illustrated for the user. And it is also in the 18th Dynasty that the famous image of the Weighing of the Heart, spell 125, comes into popular usage.


‘The Hall of Judgement’ from the Papyrus of Ani (frame 3). 19th Dynasty, from the Tomb of Ani, Thebes. British Museum.

By the Third Intermediate Period copies of the book were also made in hieratic, a cursive writing system, as well as cursive hieroglyphs. These were far more affordable, as they were mainly text, illustrated with occasional vignettes.

Currently, we know of 192 different spells that could be used to make up a copy of The Book of the Dead, and we know of no versions that include them all – not only would it have been too expensive, it would have been even heavier than carrying your PE bag and all your school books!

The spells covered a range of important things the owner would need to know about the afterlife, such as; giving the person control of the world around them, protecting them from things in the afterlife that may harm them, and even telling them how to avoid various traps and obstacles that may stop them on their way to the afterlife.

Last Chance!

Manchester Museum is currently displaying sections of a papyrus Book of the Dead, made for a man named Padiusir, dating to the early Ptolemaic period (c. 300 BC). It is on loan from The John Rylands Library. Read more about it on the curator’s blog, Egypt at the Manchester Museum – Object Biography # 19: The Book of the Dead of Padiusir.

But if you want to see it, you’ll have to be quick, as it will only be on display until the end of March 2017!

hieratic-3-6Papyrus Rylands Hieratic 3 – with judgement vignette (Image from:

A Final Exam…

If the owner of the book made it past these obstacles in the Duat they would then have to pass a further test – the Weighing of the Heart. The deceased stands before the god Osiris and swears they haven’t committed any of the 42 sins on Osiris’ checklist. Their heart would then be placed on the scales and weighed against the feather of Maat (the goddess who represented truth), if you had sinned your heart would betray you – unless of course you’d thought to include spell 30B in your collection, a handy little insurance policy to guarantee you passed the test! (It gets a little complicated, doesn’t it?)

Spell 30B was typically inscribed on ‘heart scarabs’ to prevent the heart from betraying the deceased in the Judgement of the Dead. Heart Scarab of Na-her-hu, Acc. No.: 5998, Manchester Museum

If the scales balanced you would find your place in the afterlife but if not, the demon Ammit, or Ammut, the ‘devourer’, would eat the heart, without which the owner couldn’t enter the afterlife.

AN00684684_001_l.jpgDetail from the Papyrus of Ani, British Museum

So, having a copy of this book would allow the owner to make it to the afterlife in relative ease to enjoy eternity. This was well worth the high price to many ancient Egyptians. Now if only I had one to help me with my exams…

Rebecca Horne

For more about ancient Egypt and Sudan, have a look at the Curator’s blog Egypt at the Manchester Museum.


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