Book of the Dead - Egyptian

Entrance of Luxor Temple, Egypt
Bartosz Hadyniak / Getty Images

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is not, in fact, a single book, but a collection of scrolls and other documents which include rituals, spells, and prayers found in the ancient Egyptian religion. Because this was a funerary text, copies of the various spells and prayers were often entombed with the dead at the time of burial. Often, they were commissioned by kings and priests to be customized for use at death.

The scrolls which survive today were written by a variety of authors over the course of several hundred years, and include the Coffin Texts and the earlier Pyramid Texts.

John Taylor, of the British Museum, was the curator of an exhibit featuring the Book of the Dead scrolls and paypyri. He says, "The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey. The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted."

Documents which are included in the Book of the Dead were discovered in the 1400s, but were not translated until the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time, French researcher Jean Francois Champollion was able to decipher enough of the hieroglyphics to determine that what he was reading was in fact a funerary ritual text.

A number of other French and British translators worked on the papyri over the next hundred or so years.

Book of the Dead Translations

In 1885, E.A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum presented another translation, which is still widely cited today. However, the Budge translation has come under fire by a number of scholars, who state that Budge’s work was based on flawed interpretations of the original hieroglyphics. There is also some question about whether Budge’s translations were actually done by his students and then passed off as his own work; this tends to imply that there may have been a lack of accuracy in some portions of the translation when it was first presented. In the years since Budge published his version of the Book of the Dead, great advances have been made in the understanding of early Egyptian language.

Today, many students of Kemetic religion recommend Raymond Faulkner’s translation, entitled The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day.

The Book of the Dead and the Ten Commandments

Interestingly, there is some discussion as to whether the Ten Commandments of the Bible were inspired by commands in the Book of the Dead. Specifically, there is a section known as the Papyrus of Ani, in which a person entering the underworld gives a negative confession - statements are made as to what the individual has not done, such as committing murder or stealing property.

However, the Papyrus of Ani contains a laundry list of over one hundred such negative confessions - and while about seven of them could be loosely interpreted as inspirational to the Ten Commandments, it's really hard to say that the Biblical commandments were copied from Egyptian religion. What is more likely is that people in that area of the world found the same behaviors to be offensive to the gods, no matter which religion they might be following.

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Wigington, Patti. "Book of the Dead - Egyptian." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2017, Wigington, Patti. (2017, February 26). Book of the Dead - Egyptian. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Book of the Dead - Egyptian." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).