“Out you, O Rebel Serpent! Out you, monster that destroys, Apep that sends forth evil emanations! Your face shall be destroyed, O Apep. You shall advance to the block of execution.”
- The Book of Gates, 10th Hour
Egyptian spiritualism is heavily rooted in elements of death. and rebirth. The resurrection of Osiris following the battle with Set is the most iconic and referenced scene in Egyptian mythology. For the Egyptians, death was not a extinction, but a symbolic trial to be overcome. It was the continuation of the soul’s path evoking the classic polarized themes of good versus evil, and chaos versus balance. Over the centuries, these practices and traditions were solidified into a document named "The Papyrus of Ani", more formally known as "The Book of the Dead" – a document that deeply influenced Egyptian spiritualism from the predynastic period, all the way into the New Kingdom.
In truth, The Book of the Dead has no definitive author, nor is it one singular document; it is a collection of scriptures, prayers, religious passages and incantations spanning various dynastic periods and kingdoms. The roots of the book have origins in predynastic Egypt (6000 BC), as its inhabitants acknowledged the possibility of an afterlife. However, the book was not actually compiled until the Middle Kingdom (circa 2000 BC), and further expanded upon during the New Kingdom (1500 BC).
Though it went by many other names, “Le Livre des Morts”, “Das Todtenbuch”, or Kitab-Al-Mayyitun, a version of the Book of the Dead was found in every tomb.
Egyptologist Gerald Massey suggests that the most comprehensive and accurate title would be "The Ritual of the Resurrection" While on the surface, the book appears to be a mythological account of the afterlife, it forms the basis for several Egyptian mystery school teachings, serving as an extension of Hermetic philosophy. Looking beyond the obvious ceremonial rites and burial imagery, this work was a manual for self-mastery, rectitude and the fortification of one's own spirit. In other words, in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, The Book of the Dead provided an instruction on how to live.
The open-ended nature of Egyptian mythology allows for a certain flexibility of interpretation. There are specific recurring figures in the Book of the Dead, each serving an important symbolic role in the journey. In Gerald Massey's account, each of the the figures embody a certain theme:
The sun: The god as self/immortality- (Ra) The beetle: transformer evolver (Khepri) The serpent: Renewal = Eternal life (Apophis/Apep) The ibis: Messenger = Word or logos (Tehuti/Thoth) The jackal: Seer in the dark = Guide in death (Anubis) The heifer: The moon =Virgin mother (Isis) The hawk: Soul of the sun = (Horus)
"The Book of the Dead is so called because it seems to consist of a description of the after-death wanderings of the soul in the underworld. But no one who is at all acquainted with the story of ancient initiations can believe that this remarkable work is other than a story of initiation, a complex, detailed and wonderful narrative of the evolution of the soul until it finally triumphs forever over matter and enters into its heritage of godhood."
- Sidney Coryn, The Faith of Ancient Egypt
Prayers and hymns were offered to the deceased in an attempt to empower them during their journey through the Du'at. These funerary prayers were influenced by the legendary figure Tehuti, commonly referred to as Thoth, the Ibis-headed scribe of the gods and founder of the Hermetic order. Priests and clergy of the early dynastic period would adapt Thoth’s earlier writings for later use in mummification and burial ceremonies. For this reason, Thoth is considered to be the de facto author of the Book of the Dead, as well as the official scribe of the Creator. He was seen as a largely benevolent figure; when issuing judgment against the deceased, Thoth was known to tip the scales in their favor:
"At the weighing of hearts, [Thoth] is portrayed the character of the deceased, and in one of the texts it is said that when he placed the heart in the scales against Maati, the goddess of justice, he leaned to the side of mercy, that the judgment might be favourably inclined, as though he exerted a little pressure on the human side of the balance. "
- Gerald Massey, Egyptian Book of the Dead And the Mysteries of Amenta
(A depiction of the weighing of the scales ceremony in the halls of Osiris. From left to right: Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Osiris)
The pieces authored by Thoth were said to provide the deceased with the required strength to make their journey into the Du’at. Certain passages gave the deceased special powers, such as being able to assume another physical form in the afterlife.
A key segment of the book that was not said to be authored by Thoth is the PER-EM HRU (The Book of Coming Forth By Day), comprised of 190 passages. This portion was taken from the writings in the halls and corridors of the 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas in Saqqara - the same source of the Pyramid Texts. Among the fragments of the Book of the Dead, the biggest funerary text was the Greenfield Papyrus, measuring 123 feet in length, containing more passages and hymns on burial practices than any other document.
On the physical plane, a priest would be assigned to take part in the ceremonial “opening of the mouth” ritual. The priest, dressed in leopard robes, would touch the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth of the cadaver. Doing so would awaken the deceased’s five senses during the afterlife, also allowing them to speak, receive food, and breathe. This ritual could also be performed on a statue to the same effect. During the ceremony, a priest would address the deceased with a prayer, stating: “You are young again. You shall live again. You shall be young forever.”
The Ka represented the physical body of the deceased, that was to be mummified, preserved and entombed, yet the cadaver was not perceived as an inanimate object, but rather one "piece" of a being's total existence. The degradation of the physical component would result in the degradation of the spiritual component in the afterlife, so it was believed. The Ba represented the innate nature of a person, similar to the traditional concept of the soul; encompassing their reputation and spiritual essence. After the mummification ceremony takes place, the Ba would exit the physical body and begin its spiritual journey and initiation. The Book of the Dead depicts the Ba as a bird bearing the same face and characteristics as the deceased.
The actions of the deceased continued to exist after death. This was known as their Bau, or their collective conduct as a mortal which took on a spiritual form of its own.
In the case of pharaohs and royals, their souls possessed a third component – the Akh. Depicted as a crested ibis, the Akh referred to the quality of their decisions as a statesman, as well as their sound judgment as a leader of the people. Positive actions as a ruler would enhance the Pharaoh’s Akh in the eyes of the creator.
What happened to the soul, (ba) after burial? For the Egyptians, this was the beginning of the soul’s journey into the Du’at, to endure trials and face final judgment for their actions on Earth.
VARIATIONS OF THE STORY
In the New Kingdom, a variation of the Dynastic Book of the Dead was used, known as the “Book of Gates”. The New Kingdom version places the sun god Ra as an important figurehead, while the traditional dynastic version places a greater importance on Osiris.
Between the two versions, the main purpose was the same, depicting a soul entering the underworld, to face their final trial in the Hall of Judgment.
There is a key difference in the New Kingdom account; the soul’s journey was documented by the hours of the night, with a different stage of initiation occurring during each hour. In the traditional version, the deceased would begin his journey at nightfall, and by dawn, the trial would be complete. The deceased would then face trials in 12 domains, spending one hour in each.
"At the entrance to the mysterious valley of the Du'at there is a walled-up doorway, the first door of twelve in the passage of Amenta. These twelve are described in the Book of Hades as twelve divisions corresponding to the twelve hours of darkness during the nocturnal journey of the sun. The first division has no visible door of entrance. The rest have open doors, and the twelfth has double doors. It is hard to enter, but made easy for the exit into the land of eternal life."
- Gerald Massey
The purpose of the trial is a symbolic journey, where the soul must enter the deepest part of the night with the Sun God Ra (in the New Kingdom version), to defeat his eternal enemy, the lord of darkness, the great serpent Apophis (Apep). This process was the proverbial “Dark night of the soul”, in which the depths of one’s being is tested against a seemingly insurmountable trial. In the case of the death of a Pharaoh, the sun’s rising the next morning was an indication that the Pharaoh had succeeded in his journey.
(Note: This version is adapted from E.A Wallis Budge's translation of the Book of the Dead):
Hour One: The first hour of the journey. The deceased is transported on a ferry boat, traveling with gods Sia and Hu (the personifications of perception and the spoken word).
The sun god Ra enters the underworld in the form of a Khepri (scarab beetle). The entry to the realm of the dead is blocked by the mountains of the West. Ra commands the Gods of the West to divide the mountains, to allow the spirit entry into the realm of the dead:
“Open your door to Ra, throw wide open your door to Khuti. The hidden abode is in darkness, so that the transformations of this god may take place.” This door is closed after this god has entered in through it, and there is weeping on the part of those who are in their mountain when they hear this door shut.”
(Aten-Ra, the solar deity formally instated by Pharaoh Akhenaten during the his reign. He successfully converted Egypt into monotheism for a short time during the New Kingdom).
Hour Two: In the second hour, the newly arrived spirit enters the realm of the dead, and is gathered with other spirits, also awaiting final judgment. The dead are distinguished and separated into two groups: those depicted above, who had lived in harmony with Ma’at and the worship of Ra, and the damned who are believed to have gone against Ra and the way of Ma’at are judged as sinners, depicted below.
In Egyptian tradition, the natural order of balance, truth and justice was kept in place through the cosmic force of Ma’at, embodied by the goddess of the same name. On the opposite side of justice and truth stood Isfet, the goddess of chaos, falsehood and imbalance.
The path of Ma’at came to represent virtue and the Egyptian concept of ethics and morality. The followers of Ra are promised an endless supply of food and cool water in the afterlife, in addition to protection from physical harm. The damned are to be punished by having their arms bound, and their flesh cut to pieces. They would remain in the the Meskat - the Egyptian version of purgatory, where they would be "purified" through scourging. The "irretrievably evil" souls would undergo a second death in the Du'at - being completely annihilated from existence.
Hour Three: Ra enters a shrine surrounded by 12 mummified gods. Below them, a lake of fire burns with the bodies of the damned. Ra’s words reanimate the righteous dead, as he promises them food, water, and provisions as a reward for their devotion. He urges them to burst out of their burial wrappings and join the boat’s procession through the underworld. At the end of the hallway, the precession encounters the monstrous serpent Apep (Greek: Apophis), the embodiment of evil and the ancient enemy of Ra.
Ra commands that the serpent open the gate to the next chamber, he reluctantly submits and grants them entry, to the lamentation of those that remain after the door closes upon them.
Hour Four: The twelve gods accompanying Ra approach the Lake of Life, guarded by twelve Jackal gods, and the Lake of Serpents, guarded by 12 serpents, representing the 12 hours of the Du’at. At the end of the gate, the entourage encounters Horus tending to his father, Osiris.
Hour Five: The 12 gods are given a surveying cord, and instructed that the prime evil, Apophis, must be restrained before they may enter the sacred Hall of Judgment. In the fifth gate, the four races of the Egyptians, Asiatics, Nubians and Libyans are present, implying that all races are under the protection of Aten, the Sun Disk of Ra, if they lived a pure and righteous life. After injuring Apophis, the serpent retreats, while the precession enters the Great Hall of Judgment.
(The four races: Egyptian, Asiatic, Nubian and Libyan as presented in Hour Five.)
Spell 125 marks one of the major themes of the Egyptian underworld, and the judgment of the deceased. It refers to the ceremony of the weighing of the heart, which took place on the Great Scales in the Judgment Hall of Osiris. The deceased was to compare the weight of their sins against that of a feather. The deceased would then declare their innocence from the 42 negative confessions:
"...O Set-qesu, comer forth from Hensu, I have not uttered lies. O Nekhen, come forth from Heqat, I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
I am not a disturber of the peace I have not transgressed the Law
I have not acted with evil rage.
I have not polluted myself
I am not a man of deceit.
I have slandered no man
I have not stolen the property of the gods..."
After declaring his innocence from the 42 sins, the deceased would address the 42 gods as a whole, pledging his unwavering dedication to the path of Ma’at.
At the end of the hall were the Great Scales, protected by Anubis, and Ammit, the “Eater of the Dead”. Anubis was the jackal-headed lord of the underworld, and the overseer of death, mummification and burial ceremonies. Though his animal appearance is based on the Golden African Jackal, his skin is colored black to symbolize rebirth, also the same color of the soil of the Nile river.
(Anubis, Jackal-personified lord of the underworld).
Upon entering the hall, the 12 gods and the deceased approach a staircase. The deceased ascends the steps to find a large scale with two empty pans Directly behind the scale is Osiris, seated on his throne.
The deceased faces Thoth and pleads:
"Let me be glorified through my attributes; let me be estimated according to my merits"
The heart of the deceased exits his body, and is transferred to the scale. Thoth weighs the heart against the feather of Ma’at, and renders his final judgment. If the scales do not reflect the deceased’s harmony with Ma’at, he is instantly sent to the “Place of Annihilation”, along with the enemies of Osiris.
When the heart of the deceased was weighed against the truth on the great scales, if it remained perfectly horizontal, Thoth would declare, “he hath done no evil’, and the deceased would accept the identity of Osiris, becoming one with the god of eternal life himself.
Hour Six: The precession enters the deepest part of their journey through the underworld. In this hour, the Sun God is portrayed as deceased, awaiting reunion with his Ba in order for his resurrection. The 12 gods are armed with tridents to guard against Apophis, who would try to interfere with the union of Aten and his Ba (Soul).
Hour Seven: The negative influences that may prevent the resurrection of the sun god are cleansed. The rewards to the blessed devotees of Aten are distributed. The blessed are depicted carrying baskets of grain, or feathers of Ma’at, as a confirmation of their devotion. Farmers tend to the harvest of trees, signifying that the Sun God will provide several plentiful harvests after his resurrection.
Hour Eight: An enemy of Ra in the form of a giant serpent approaches the procession, who are carrying a long rope meant to be symbolic of time.
Hour Nine: The group encounters a large pool of water, where the bodies of Ra’s devotees are found floating, motionless, being purified and nourished by the waters, and who will be resurrected. The Sun God Ra, and the precession prepare for the final battle against Apophis.
Hour Ten: The tenth hour marks the climax of the journey, and the battle of good versus evil. Ra once again encounters Apophis, now healed from his injury and stronger than before. Ra is joined by the four gods of the north, and the four gods of the south to subdue him. The gods are depicted holding spears, ropes and nets, which they will use in their battle to eliminate the great serpent.
This is the moment where the core theme of Book of the Dead is realized - the soul of the deceased must consummate his or her innate godhood in order to overcome the forces of darkness. The spirit of the deceased endures not by praying to the great gods of Egypt, but by conjoining with and identifying with them:
"Behold, thou canst not harm me! I am Osiris, the lord of life, and I have the great magic words of power!” I am Turn! I am the only One! I am Ra at his first appearing! I am yesterday, to-day and forever! “Thou canst not hurt me! Mine are the two feathers of Horus that were on the forehead of his father. I am that great Phoenix which is in Heliopolis!”
Ra gathers his forces and commands them: “Receive your heads, O gods, and draw tightly the front end of your rope. Hail, O gods, come into being! Hail, possess the power of light, O gods, and come into being, O gods. Possess the power of light, O gods, by my coming into being in the secret place, and by my power of light in the hidden place, in the chambers of things.”
“Out you, O Rebel Serpent! Out you, monster that destroys, Apep that sends forth evil emanations! Your face shall be destroyed, O Apep. You shall advance to the block of execution. The Nemu are against you, and they will hack you into pieces. The Aaiu are against you, and they shall destroy you. The Abebuiti shall drive their harpoons into you, and enchant you by means of their call! You are destroyed, dashed in pieces, and stabbed to death”
Hour Eleven: By the 11th hour, the serpent Apophis has been defeated and has become dismembered. A chain can be seen binding together his remains. The allies of Ra celebrate their victory over the dark forces, and they prepare for the final, most important stage of the trial – the deceased’s union with Ra.
Hour Twelve: The final phase of the book of the dead varies depending on the version. In the New Kingdom account, during the final hour, The Sun God Ra approaches the final exit, which after passing, he will be reborn. Ra is surrounded by groups of various gods, numbering four in each group. Ra approaches a door marked by a scarab and guarded by Isis and Nephthys, who grant him passage. The sun god Ra finally leaves the netherworld, and enters the waters of Nun. This is meant to be a symbolic description of the three areas of the cosmos: the primeval waters, the heavens, and earth.
12th Hour: (Apophis has been defeated (middle) and the boat carrying Ra and the deceased enter the waters of Nun (left).
In the dynastic version of the Book of the Dead, the deceased would be approached by Thoth, who would then lead him to Osiris. Thoth would then escort the deceased to a flat country surrounded by rivers and canals, operated by ferrymen. Here, the deceased would be assigned cattle, and oxen to raise, much like a traditional Egyptian farm – the idyllic Field of Reeds "where the wheat grows seven cubits high". In either version, the ultimate goal has been realized- the soul successfully endures the trials of death and resurrection, and achieves eternal life, having attained singularity with Ra.
Do our actions in this life vanish with the body, or do they follow us into the next plane of existence? This was a fundamental question for Egyptian spiritual traditions, as reflected by their depiction of the afterlife. For followers of Egyptian mysticism, actions and decisions could take on lives of their own, capable of shaping and molding one’s destiny. Vibrations, energetic forms and metaphysics form the basis of these traditions – a spiritual process known as Inner Alchemy, which is an entirely new discussion of its own.
"If our minds as well as our bodies are bounded by the three score years and ten, then truly have we closed the larger senses of the soul. We have allowed our minds to be polarized by the span of one earth life. Change the polarity by changing the habit of thought. Think in eternities and the knowledge of eternity will come to us."
- Sidney Coryn, The Faith of Ancient Egypt
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead - E. A. Wallis Budge
- Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Mysteries of Amenta - Gerald Massey
- The Faith of Ancient Egypt - Sidney Coryn