Episode 4: Divine Judgment

In the 3,500 year old Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, we can find the roots of the world’s religions.

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The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 4: Divine Judgment. The first three episodes were all about Mesopotamia. We talked about cuneiform, and how when Persia invaded Babylon in 539, the age of the clay tablet ended and a new one of phonetic alphabets and more perishable writing materials began. We explored the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis, Mesopotamia’s most prominent creation stories. And finally, we heard of the doings of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the story many Mesopotamians called “He who saw the deep,” and that we call the Epic of Gilgamesh. Other than mentioning that the rulers of Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon kept up friendly correspondence with Egyptian pharaohs, I haven’t had much to say about the civilization of the Nile. In this episode, though, I’m going to cover Ancient Egypt’s most important contribution to world literature, The Book of the Dead. [music]

Literature and History’s Episodes on Ancient Egypt

Let’s set aside pretenses for a minute. I think that when most of us think about Ancient Egypt, we see in our imaginations some combination of pyramids, sarcophagi, the Sphinx, and maybe the mask of Tutankhamun. A few more might know about the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, her warrior-imperialist son, Thutmose III, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and his successor Ramesses II, the most powerful pharaoh in Egypt’s history. That’s where things start to fall apart. But, the fact that the average person knows anything at all about this ancient civilization is a testament to the extraordinary nature of its achievements. Show a guy on the street a picture of the Mask of Sargon, the first great conqueror of Mesopotamia, and that guy won’t know what he’s looking at. Show him a picture of the Ziggurat of Ur from around the same time, and he’ll shrug and shake his head. But show him a picture of pyramids on the Giza plateau, produced during the same millennium as the other two, and I bet you he’ll say, “Egypt.”

I’m going to do three episodes on Ancient Egyptian literature. The first one, this one, will confirm everything you always thought you knew about Egypt. The texts that we’ll look at, a huge collection of papyrus manuscripts and fragments collectively called The Book of the Dead, will show you an ancient civilization that was deeply religious, profoundly concerned with the afterlife, had a particularly complex pantheon of deities, and really, really liked to drain bodily fluids out of things and wrap them up in linen bandages.

But of course, we can’t just look at The Book of the Dead and walk away with the assumption that a civilization that endured for 3,000 years spent every single one of them carving sarcophagi, embalming dead cats, and groveling in front of jackal-headed statues. There’s a lot more to Ancient Egypt than morbid religiosity and a bunch of pointy mausoleums in the desert. The second episode on Egypt – the one after his – will cover some of their secular folktales. For all the documentaries, and web pages and world history textbooks that speculate about whether or not slaves were used to build the pyramids, how their blocks were moved, how mud ramps were used to carry up the topmost blocks, and so on, it’s surprising how little we talk about Egypt’s fiction. Granted, we don’t have a ton of stories from ancient Egypt, and you can’t have your picture taken in front of them with a camel, and you can’t see them from space – but the stories that we do have from ancient Egypt are diverse, and revealing, and really fun to read.

The final episode on Ancient Egypt will be about the civilization’s wisdom literature, or collections of proverbs. These collections, which may have influenced key books of the Old Testament, tell us what everyday life and ethics were like for the common citizen of Egypt. So while this episode will cover the traditional view of Egypt – stone, megalithic, and preoccupied with eternity, the other two will explore the culture of the other 99% of Egypt’s industrious, mostly agrarian culture.

The pyramids and caskets of Egypt will probably always be the ultimate shorthand for this ancient civilization. Nonetheless, stay with me for a couple of episodes and I hope you’ll see that a kingdom you thought was austere, mystical and alien can also be friendly, psychologically perceptive, sententious, and utterly familiar. To dispense with the notion that the ancient Egyptians were merely morose monument builders, the first step is to learn about their religion, a religion epitomized in The Book of the Dead. [music]

Exclusive Salvation and the Old Kingdom

Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Your existence is more than material. It is also spiritual. As you go through life, your actions and the choices that you make are not forgotten. At the time of your death, when the material portion of you perishes, the spiritual part lives on. After a short duration, this spiritual part of you is judged according to the righteousness of the actions you took on earth. If you are judged and found wanting, you’re in trouble. If not, you go to a celestial place where everything is clean and luminous, and you partake in feasting, and enjoy the company of the divine. Now, which religion’s adherents believe this?

Ancient Egypt map-en

Map of Ancient Egypt by Jeff Dahl. The most important things to know (starting up in the delta) are the locations of Rosetta (where the famous stone from 196 BCE was discovered in 1799), Memphis and Giza (old capital and site largest pyramids), Saqqara (site of some of the oldest pyramids), Amarna (site of the famous letters that often come up in this podcast), and then Thebes. Just across the river from Thebes is the Valley of Kings, where the tomb of King Tutankhamun and many others were discovered.

Is it a) Christianity, b) Islam, c) Ancient Egypt from the Middle Kingdom onward, d) Zoroastrianism, or e) all of the above? Yup, it’s E. All of the above. In the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, we can see the notions of an immortal soul, of divine judgment, and of a dichotomous afterlife all being recorded for the first time. The main idea I want to convey in this episode is the notion of divine judgment. The promise that the pious and good will be rewarded and the evil punished is one of the most appealing parts of the religions mentioned above. During all times, but especially during turbulent eras of history, the belief in posthumous judgment helps one cope with the chaos, unfairness, and randomness of the events that we experience as a species.

The belief in divine judgment, first written about in ancient Egypt, was possibly the most important force in propelling their achievements in architecture, science, art, and literature. But it didn’t arise from nowhere. Egypt’s notions of divine judgment for all evolved slowly, over hundreds of years. Although the notion of divine judgment is widespread throughout world cultures today, the nation that first wrote about it began with a very, very different set of beliefs. Let’s go back in time, to the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

In about 2950 BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt were unified for the first time. The reliable seasonal flooding of the Nile, which caused rich soil to be deposited in the concave lands beyond the river’s embankments, allowed for excellent crops. The arid climate and lack of natural resources in the periphery of the Nile meant that the river civilization that dwelt there had, for the first millennium of its existence, few sizable neighbors that threatened them. If cuneiform was the medium that kept Mesopotamian civilization culturally adhesive for 2500 years, in ancient Egypt, that force might have been the river.

What we call the Old Kingdom flourished from about 2650 until 2100 BCE. This period, surprisingly early in Egypt’s history, produced the marvels at the Giza necropolis near present day Cairo – the colossal pyramids of Khufu and his successors Khafre and Menkaure, and the Sphinx. Let’s pause here a minute, because I think that if you picture the pyramid of Khufu, which was the tallest manmade structure in the world for 4,400 years, until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, you can get an idea of the religious beliefs of the earliest Egyptians. It’s impossible not to gawk at some of the statistics about this pyramid. It probably took 10,000 people to build. It covers 13 acres, and rises to 481 feet. It’s almost perfectly oriented to true north. Khufu’s pyramid has shafts running all the way through it – not for ventilation, as we once believed, but because these shafts face Sirius in the Orion constellation, and other northern stars, significant to the Egyptians because, like eternal things, they never set.

We now know that a system of conscripted seasonal laborers and slaves, together with marvelous feats of engineering, produced the pyramid. But what sort of a belief system lay behind its construction? This is where we can begin with the history of Ancient Egypt’s religion.

During most of the Old Kingdom, it was believed that the soul of the Pharaoh, and only the soul of the Pharaoh, was immortal, and thus it was terribly important that his embalmment, mummification, and entombment were all carried out according to stringent traditions so that he could join the gods in the afterlife. Early in the Old Kingdom, what Egyptologists call “retainer sacrifice” was a common practice. Djerr, a king during the First Dynasty around 2900, was found with 318 followers, all murdered so that they could continue to serve their king after he passed away.

Imagine if, when former US President George W. Bush died, his cabinet were all executed, together with the congresspeople who served while he was in office. And imagine that for decades the United States spent most of its GDP building him a mound the size of New Hampshire, so that when Bush died he could join other celestial beings, like Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Richard Nixon and Rutherford B. Hayes, and they’d all live together through eternity amidst the circumpolar stars. Perfectly reasonable, right? As for the rest of us, we’d be a sort of cosmic slime, significant only in that we assisted our godlike leader’s ascent into the airy ether. What rational beings could resist such a not-at-all-horrifying-and-self-servingly-autocratic belief system?

Well, the analogy probably isn’t perfect. And it is hard to believe that all along the Nile, half a millennium of men and women were consistently giving each other enthusiastic high fives over the thought of their leader journeying up to join the gods. Even amidst the despotic working conditions of the 2515 BCE Giza plateau, we find names of working crews, like “The King’s Drunkards,” suggesting that the citizens of the Old Kingdom were as capable of brouhaha and derision as we are.1 Still, though, the official state religion, for hundreds of years, did attest that only one man had an immortal soul. A pretty sweet deal if you’re that one man. And lest we think that the practice of deifying leaders was all that exotic or unusual, we should remember that after Julius Caesar, the practice of declaring that deceased leaders had gone to join the gods was fairly standard during the Roman empire.

To return to North Africa, though, other than a bunch of particularly arresting rock piles, what do we have that records the ideology of Egypt in the mid third millennium? Well, from a period toward the end of the Old Kingdom, we have our first ancient Egyptian texts. The “Pyramid Texts,” dated to the 2300s BCE, are so named because they were discovered etched into walls and sarcophagi at the pyramids of Saqqara, about fifteen miles south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. The Pyramid Texts consist of spells and incantations designed to safeguard the remains of the pharaoh and make sure that he is resurrected in order to join the gods. The Pyramid Texts have the distinction of being the oldest religious writings we know of, although they’re very chronologically close to the hymns written by Sargon’s daughter Enheduanna in Mesopotamia.

The Ancient Egyptian Afterlife Gets Democratized

But how long could a religion actually last that served to benefit and glorify one person, at the expense of everyone else? For six dynasties, or about 800 years. Something culturally gigantic happened in Egypt when the Old Kingdom fell in the Middle Bronze Age. In the turbulent period between 2125 and 1795, and then throughout the Middle Kingdom, which endured until 1630, there spread the notion that all people had immortal souls, and that upon death, a person’s ab, or heart, would be judged by the gods. If that person had worked on behalf of chaos and done evil deeds, he would be eaten, and annihilated for all time, by a terrible monster called Am-met. If he’d worked on behalf of order and goodness, he’d go to beautiful, fertile fields filled with flowing water and the presence of gods, and be given a homestead there. The question is, who did the judging?

BD Hunefer cropped Book of the Dead

A 19th-dynasty scribe is taken by Horus to meet Osiris, lord of the underworld, in a copy of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Behind Osiris are Isis and Nephthys.

Central to this period of Egyptian history was belief in a god called Osiris. Osiris, who had been murdered and dismembered by his wicked brother Set, and then reconstituted by his sister and wife Isis, epitomized the cycle of death and resurrection Egyptians believed everyone went through. Beginning around 2100, a second group of Egyptian writings, which we call the “Coffin Texts,” began philosophizing about a dark place called the Duat, Egypt’s equivalent of Hades or Sheol. In the Duat, the dead needed to be careful to avoid perils and meet the judgment of Osiris, together with his council – frequently, Thoth, the scribe of the Gods, and Anubis, the jackal-headed deity who weighed each person’s heart in the scales.

Depictions of the judgment scene commonly appear in ancient Egyptian artifacts. On one side of the scales of Anubis is the heart of the deceased person, a sort of condensed record of all of his deeds and thoughts. On the other side of the scale is a feather, symbolizing what is perhaps ancient Egypt’s most important and all governing concept. Their word for it was ma’at. Ma’at meant, in a word, order. A natural order governed the universe – one that set the rhythms of the seasonal floods, turned the motor of births and deaths, and put everything in its rightful place, from pharaohs to grains of sand. Later, we’ll get into details about what, exactly caused one’s heart to balance with the feather of ma’at. For simplicity’s sake, I can say that by behaving prudently, and showing kindness toward others and self control, an ancient Egyptian might expect his heart to be in concert with the general principles of ma’at when the all important moment of his judging arrived.

The idea that all Egyptians could have their deeds measured by the gods rose between 2100 and 1800 BCE. Immortality was thus democratized early in the Middle Kingdom, and the texts of the period reflect it. The average Egyptian believed that with the right earthly conduct, some correctly timed spells and rituals at the time of his death, a couple of jars of oil and food, and perhaps companionship from some embalmed animals, he could have the approval of Osiris and the rewards of a happy existence after he died. Egypt’s belief in the possibility of a happy afterlife endured through the next great political transition the country faced.

The years between 1600 and 1000 BCE saw another intermediate period, and then the rise of the New Kingdom. The New Kingdom’s many dynasties were centered in Thebes, hundreds of miles south of Cairo, and it was within the necropolis called the Valley of Kings that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the autumn of 1922. And it’s also from Thebes of the New Kingdom, or modern day Luxor on the east bank of the Nile, that we have the text we’re going to now focus on, The Book of the Dead.

When I first read The Book of the Dead, I read the translation by Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, edited by John Romer and published by Penguin, and which I’ll be quoting from today. Now, in addition to having far too many names, Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge includes a stupefyingly long 244 pages of prefatory material before actually getting to The Book of the Dead. Perhaps this famous turn-of-the-century translator hoped his reader would actually die of old age while reading the prefaces and summaries, and thus be in an appropriate condition to appreciate The Book of the Dead. Anyway, while reading said forwards, prefaces, and so on, I wished for a nice, punchy summary of The Book of the Dead, what it was, where it came from – that kind of thing, and never felt like I got one. So I’m going to give you one, right now.

Between 1600 and 100 BCE, Egyptians who could afford it were buried with the texts of spells and incantations. These spells and incantations were usually accompanied with illustrations, and printed on coffins, papyrus, and/or linen shrouds wrapped around the body of the deceased. In total, we have discovered 192 spells, or “chapters” of what we’ve come to call the Egyptian Book of the Dead. For most of its existence, the Book of the Dead was a miscellaneous, non-standard group of these spells or chapters, the bulk of which were believed to have been written by the scribal god, Thoth. If you were rich, you’d get a lot of them, and they’d have lavish illustrations. If you were middle class, you’d get the spells you most needed. If you were poor, you were out of luck. Hieroglyphics on parchment were the specialty of well-trained scribes, and large books were beyond the price range of most Egyptians. The Penguin edition of the book now weighs in at 992 pages. Imagine copying that out with a 2,000 character library of ornate hieroglyphics, producing hundreds of accompanying illustrations, and doing it on the woven together reeds of a plant. If you could do that, you’d want some ample compensation. At least, a couple of kegs of Ancient Egyptian barley beer.

Right, so, very basically, that describes The Book of the Dead. We have it in many bundles and fragments, and it’s an encyclopedia, complete with a dizzying number of gods, spirits, prayers, and magical rituals, capturing more than three thousand years of civilization’s beliefs about death and the afterlife.

The Egyptians called their funerary writings “The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day,” based on the notion that the spirit leaves the body on the day of death, wanders all night, and then rejoins the body on the morning of the next day. This of circle departure and return, similar to the sun god Ra’s nightly journey, necessitated careful preservation of one’s earthly remains.

We don’t have time to go through all 192 chapters of Egypt’s most famous text. Even if we did, I think you might find its repetitiousness less than riveting and its compound polytheism impenetrable. So let’s just look at the book’s most important moments, and some of its key emblems and motifs. I think that by the episode’s end, you’ll have a very decent grasp on where the terrifically important notion of divine judgment first shows up in humanity’s writings.

Just two more things before we begin looking at this book. First, the Budge translation has been the most literarily influential translation, which is why I’m using it. Yet, in an effort to convey the power and majesty of the text, Budge translates into seventeenth-century English, so that the book sounds like the King James Bible. As I quote from the 2008 Penguin edition, I’ll modernize Budge’s prose. And the second thing is a simple fact about the structure of the book itself. Most of the book’s chapters have what we call “rubrics.” A “rubric” explains how a chapter is supposed to be used. For instance, the rubric to Chapter 1 tells the reader that if a person knows the text of Chapter 1 while she is alive, and if Chapter 1 is emblazoned on her coffin, she will be able to make her way through the underworld, and successfully find her habitation in heaven and enjoy all the rewards there. Rubrics are often very specific, explaining exactly how spells are to be recited to correctly ward off evil, and corruption, and decay, and that kind of thing.

Now you know where The Book of the Dead came from, its basic contents, and the essential facts about its structure. Let’s open it up, and see what’s inside. [music]

An Opening Prayer and Scene of Judgment

The Book of the Dead opens with a hymn to the sun god Ra. “You rise,” the hymn says. “You renew your youth, and you set yourself in the place where you were yesterday. Oh, divine youth who has created yourself, I am not able to describe you. You have come with your diadems, and you have made heaven and earth bright with your rays of pure emerald light.”2 The sun god Ra upholds the holy order of ma’at. He enriches the earth with the marvelous and extraordinary journey that he takes every day.

A hymn to Osiris follows this, in which a supplicant prays that he’ll be able to descend to the underworld and then come forth, made new with the blessings of the great deity. Then, only a few pages into The Book of the Dead, and before even the first chapter of The Book of the Dead, comes a typical scene of a judgment.

In this scene, a humble scribe prays for a just judgment. He’s brought into the awe inspiring council of the gods. The Egyptian deities Hathor, Horus, Isis, Nephthys, Nut, Thoth, Anubis, and other beings all turn their heads to regard the breathless mortal. His hands extended, his fingers trembling, he studies the frightening figure of Anubis, whose hands are on the scale. The jackal head of the deity symbolized his power to decide whose body will suffer decay and scavengers, and whose will be preserved for all time. But it is not Anubis who the mortal scribe fears the most.

Behind Anubis is Thoth, frequently called “The Great God” by Egyptians. Thoth has the head of an ibis, along with a great headdress symbolizing his preparation to judge anything – even the very length of the seasons. But still, it’s not Thoth that causes the poor mortal’s fingers to quake. Behind Thoth, in the darkness at the rear of the chamber, is Am-met, the monster that Egyptians called “The Eater of the Dead.” With the head of a crocodile, and the body of a lion and hippopotamus, Am-Met smacks his chops and looks expectantly up at Thoth when the mortal enters the room.

Anubis weighs the man’s heart. Thoth considers it for a long time, and the Eater of the Dead licks his gory teeth in the darkness. Finally, Thoth speaks. “There has not been found any wickedness in him,” he says. “He has not wasted the offerings in the temples; he has not done harm by his deeds; he has uttered no evil reports while he was on earth” (26). Collectively, the gods announce their decision. “He has not sinned,” they conclude. “Neither has he done evil against us. Am-met won’t be allowed to prevail over him. Meat-offerings and entrance into the presence of the god Osiris will be granted to him, together with a homestead forever in Sekhet-hetepet.” With that, the mortal’s fate is sealed. He will not be annihilated by the monster Am-met. He will join the gods in a joyous afterlife. [music]

Chapter 64: A Sample Prayer and Rubric

Variations of the scene you just heard exist everywhere in The Book of the Dead. The many aspirants who were buried with sections of the book hoped for admittance into Sekhet-hetepet, a place also called the “Field of Reeds.” While the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom pictured the afterlife as a high place, filled with radiant stars, increasingly over the Middle and New Kingdoms, Egyptians began picturing a much more earthly scene when they thought of heaven. In Sekhet-hetepet, there would be lakes, harvests, plowing, lovemaking, the dissemination of seeds, feasting, fine clothing, bathing in clean water, and, of course, the god Osiris.

Chapter 64 of The Book of the Dead is often thought of as being one of the oldest chapters of the collection, perhaps dating back to the very first dynasty. Chapter 64 shows a speaker supplicating himself to the sun god Ra, and in the chapter’s devoutness and the beauty of its composition it sounds like a Psalm or prayer out of the Old Testament. I’ll quote it at length, and again this is a prayer to the sun god Ra from Chapter 64.
Make your roads glad for me, and make broad for me your paths when I set out from earth for the life in the celestial regions. Send forth your light onto me, O Soul unknown, for I am [one] of those who are about to enter in, and the divine speech is in [my] ears in the. . . (underworld); let me be delivered and let me be safe. . . Let me journey on in peace; let me pass over the sky; let me adore the radiance of the splendor [which is in] my sight; let me soar like a bird to see the companies (?) of the Spirits in the presence of Ra day by day, who vivifies every human being who walks. . .upon the earth. ” (211-12, 214)

This perhaps 4,000 year old petition to Ra was accompanied with a rubric that explained how to use it. Because rubrics accompany almost every chapter, let’s look at the one that accompanies the prayer you just heard. I’ll quote Chapter 64’s accompanying rubric at length, too, to give you an idea of what these rubrics sound like.

Egypt Papyrus of Bakay

A section of the Book of the Dead from the later 1400s BCE. Note the curious little figure on the upper right.

[If this chapter be known] by a man he will come forth by day, and he will not be repulsed at any gate of the [underworld], either in going in or in coming out. He will perform [all] the transformations which his heart desires, and he will not die; behold, the soul of [this] man will flourish. And moreover, if [he] knows this chapter he will be victorious upon earth and in the underworld, and he will perform every act of a living human being. It is a great protection which [has been given] by the god. . . This chapter must be recited by a man who is ceremonially clean and pure, who has not eaten the flesh of animals or fish, and who has not had intercourse with women. (214)

So, that’s the rubric for that chapter. You can see that the rubric makes the value of the chapter pretty clear. Rubrics like this one are all over The Book of the Dead, and they get much more specific, offering instructions for objects to put in the tomb, what to burn, concoctions to mix, times of day of prayers, and things like that. At the sacred moment of death, the deceased must only be close to the ritually clean who, like priests and believers in the Book of Leviticus, had abstained from sex and animal foods for a sufficient period of time.

The Negative Confession

So far, you’ve seen the essential structure of ancient Egypt’s notions of divine judgment, and you’ve heard a prayer and seen the rubric specifying how this prayer was to be delivered. And while the chapter we just looked at is often thought of as the oldest and the most typical part of The Book of the Dead, it’s not the most famous. That honor goes to Chapter 125, a chapter that Egyptologists have nicknamed the “Negative Confession” chapter. It’s a beautifully written piece of work that also typifies ancient Egypt’s ethical system a bit more specifically than what we’ve seen so far, and it probably came about around the reigns of Thutmose II and his widow Hatshepsut in the mid-fifteenth century BCE.

So the “Negative Confession” chapter, Chapter 125, has three parts. In the first, the speaker describes his arrival in the underworld. “I came and I drew into [the place where] the acacia tree doesn’t [go], where the tree thick with leaves doesn’t exist, and where the ground yields neither herbs nor grass. Then I entered into the hidden place. . .I have been in the water of the stream, and I have made offerings of incense..I have entered into the Temple of Osiris, and I have arrayed myself in his apparel. . .I have seen the hidden things” (357, 8).

This, though, is only the beginning of the speaker’s journey. What follows next is the “negative confession” for which the chapter, Chapter 125, is nicknamed. The speaker enters a hall called the “hall of double ma’at,” and he confesses not his sins, but tells an assembly of forty-two different gods all of the things that he did not do. The confessions are essentially an index of ancient Egyptian morality – the believer must promise that he hasn’t “slain man or woman,” or tipped the scales of a trade transaction, or lied, stolen temple artifacts, stolen food, killed sacred animals, slandered someone, become unduly angry, committed adultery, threatened someone, ignored righteous counsel, fomented strife, made another person cry, “committed acts of impurity, neither have I lain with men” (369) – that he hasn’t been loud or egotistical, that he hasn’t judged overhastily, or polluted water. So he confesses that he hasn’t done any of these things, and he ends with a final desperate plea. The supplicant says, “Let me not fall under your knives of slaughter. . . Let me come to you, for I have not committed faults, I have not sinned, I have not done evil, I have not borne false witness; therefore let nothing [evil] be done unto me. I live on right and truth. . .I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man, and apparel to the naked man, and a boat to the [shipwrecked] mariner” (371-2). That’s his final plea. Once his earnest confessions have been made, the gods deliberate, and the man’s heart is weighed, and the gods decide that indeed he will be allowed to join the company of Osiris in the underworld.

Chapter 125, or the “negative confession” chapter, has particularly detailed instructions. It was supposed to be spoken by a person on his deathbed, once he was cleansed and purified, and carefully clothed, and once white leather sandals had been put on his feet and his eyes had been painted, and once sacrifices had been made, and a tile had been removed, and the text of Chapter 125 placed on it, then the man’s descendants would flourish, and he would be regaled with delicious foods and drinks in the company of the gods.

Chapter 125 and its rubric perhaps epitomize ancient Egyptian religion’s similarities and differences from Christianity and Islam. Every time you’ve been reading The Book of the Dead for a while and think that this or that section might belong in the Psalms in the Bible, or the Family of Imran in the Qur’an, something so strange, and distant, and quintessentially Egyptian comes up to remind you of the unfamiliar aspects of their religion – their complex polytheism, their obsession with the physical body of the deceased, or their curious formulations about the multipart being of humankind. By seeing what subsequent monotheisms took, and did not take from Ancient Egypt’s belief system, we can better understand The Book of the Dead and its significant place in the history of world religions.

The Book of the Dead, the Bible, and the Qur’an

Let’s start by considering how Ancient Egypt’s religion differs from Christianity and Islam. The first point is simple, but we still shouldn’t overlook it. Ancient Egyptians did not believe in hell. They did believe that wayward souls should suffer – their bodies would rot and they’d be devoured by the Eater of the Dead, but not again and again, and not for all time. It wasn’t a happy fate, but it still wasn’t the never ending burning and bloodbath that await nonbelievers of the modern world’s two dominant monotheisms.

The next point is slightly more complicated. In the chronological progression of religions that stretches from Ancient Egypt through Judaism and Christianity, the physical body becomes increasingly less important. Christianity’s dualistic conception of humanity as possessing body and soul is familiar and widespread – soul is immortal, the body is transitory; the soul tries its best to be moral, but the body is lazy and wayward; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The binary between soul and body in Judaism is less pronounced.

In the Book of Leviticus, proscriptions against tattoos, still culturally present in today’s Jews, were written to guarantee that when time of the general resurrection came for the Chosen People, Yahweh wouldn’t be miffed by any butterflies on lower backs or Japanese characters on biceps. Or whatever the hell people were having tattooed on them 2,500 years ago. Anyway, this and other rules in the Hebrew Bible show that the earliest Jews didn’t have the neatly dualistic theory of body and soul that later Christianity did – the soul was immaterial, but not entirely. Egyptians, though, had something almost completely different.

There was the khat, or physical body, which could be preserved by mummification. Somewhere between body and soul was the ka, a sort of extracted individuality of a person, which still needed to eat and drink. A person’s ba, neither body nor soul, but a bit of both, transported food and drink into their tomb. The ab, or heart, was the moral conscience of them, weighed in the scales of Anubis and Thoth. There was also the khaibit, or shadow, the khu, or the ethereal component of a person entirely apart from the body, the sekhem, a person’s life force, and the ren, a person’s name, which had to be preserved if she wanted to continue existing. That’s not all of it, but it suffices to say that you can’t use the vocabulary of Christian selfhood to describe the way that Ancient Egyptians thought about us. Several hours would probably still be insufficient to clarify the puzzle pieces of the khat, ka, ba, ab and so on, and maybe the very complexity of ancient Egyptian selfhood was the reason it didn’t catch on.

I think The Book of the Dead is at its strangest and most theologically unfamiliar when its writers pray for bodily preservation after death. Let’s look at an example. A supplicant in Chapter 154 resolves that after he dies, “I shall not putrefy; my intestines shall not perish; I shall not suffer injury; my eye shall not decay; the form of my visage shall not disappear; my ear shall not become deaf; my head shall not be separated from my neck; my tongue shall not be carried away; my hair shall not be cut off; my eyebrows shall not be shaved off; and no baleful injury shall come upon me” (520). So, while modern Christians and Muslims share ancient Egypt’s core belief that a person will be judged by a higher power at the time of her death, they’re probably less worried about the eternal life of their eyebrows, or tongue or intestines. I thought that that prayer for the preservation of one’s eyebrows was so funny that I wrote a song about it, and that’s at the end of this episode. Well, now that we’ve looked at some of The Book of the Dead’s differences from modern religious thought. Now, let’s explore two things that The Book of the Dead shares with the Bible, and the Qur’an.

The first is the notion of rebirth in heaven. While scholars have explored the parallels between story of the physical resurrection of Osiris and the one of Christ in the Gospels, the more general notion that one can start fresh, in a comfortable place where all of one’s needs will be met, is almost unavoidable in the religions of the modern world. The simple, wonderful idea that one might be able to leave a place where things are painful and complex, and transcend to a far better one, whether we call it heaven, or loka, or jannah, or enlightenment, is shared by the modern world’s major religions.

But still, Egypt made an even more important contribution to religious history. Let’s turn to the central idea of this episode – the notion of divine judgment. Going to heaven, or more precisely Sekhet-hetepet, was the preferred outcome of the judgment by the Egyptian gods. But judgment and its outcomes presuppose something else far larger and more important – more important even, than the gods themselves. I’m talking about ma’at – the aforementioned Egyptian word for order.

Egyptian - Maat - central principle of Book of the Dead

An amulet from some time after the New Kingdom showing a woman as the embodiment of ma’at, or cosmic order.

The idea of divine judgment cannot work very well unless it presupposes a set of rules, universal rules that all people instinctively understand. The Egyptian notion of ma’at is the first evidence we have of humans concertedly believing that abstract moral laws exist, beyond our physical senses but still, ultimately, within the power of our intuitions. When someone tells you that you know the difference between right and wrong, she makes the assumption that ancient Egyptians did – that somewhere, an ultimate codex of laws exists. You can act in harmony with them, or violate them, but because you are human, you are conscious of them on some deep level.

We are so used to the notion of right and wrong that it’s hard to imagine humanity without them. The idea that we are born with innate knowledge of good and evil, and that all beings have the choice to act in accordance with this, didn’t face real opposition until the late seventeenth century, when John Locke argued against innate ideas, and instead wrote that we are blank slates, produced by our environments. About half way in between the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the early Enlightenment, the Athenian philosopher Plato, in dialogues like Meno and Theaetetus, and more famously in the Republic, argued that an absolute order existed, beyond the human senses, and that the best of us can understand this order.

It is the Ancient Egyptians who really bring us to the first of the great philosophical questions we’ll explore throughout this podcast. And that is this. Are we merely material beings, or do we have a spiritual, or extrasensory dimension? The former approach is morally relativistic. The latter can, if it chooses, be morally absolutist. Ancient Egyptians, and after them Plato, the Hebrew prophets, the Christian apostles, and Muhammad, believed that the paramount tier of reality was a realm of spirits beyond the frail and deceptive world of our senses. Many Ancient Mediterranean philosophers, like Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, and Lucretius followed by their heirs in the Enlightenment, believed that there are only atoms, and that all of our knowledge comes from our senses. The general conception of idealism versus materialism comes up time after time in literature, and the incredibly elaborate schema the Egyptians developed to conceive of selfhood shows how carefully our species was considering the question, even in the early phases of human civilization.

The Book of the Dead is gigantic in world literature. It was so fascinating to the Irish modernist James Joyce that it encouraged him to write his final work, Finnegan’s Wake. Though it’s strange, repetitious, and often impenetrable, The Book of the Dead tells us that Bronze Age Egypt was the great cauldron where many of the ingredients of modern religion were cooked up. And while the pyramid of Khufu, with its blocks and flat sides and nifty astrological portals, was certainly a great achievement, it was a very, very insignificant thing next to the notions of divine judgment, salvation by good works, the death and resurrection of a god, the multipart being of humanity, and above all else, universal order. [music]

Moving onto Ancient Egyptian Fiction

Next time, we’ll move away from the religion of the Middle and New Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt, and on to the subject of the fiction that we have from the lands of the Nile. It wasn’t all embalming, making big block piles, and griping about the afterlife for our Ancient Egyptian predecessors. They have some pretty terrific folk tales, too, and after all this talk of death, a look into the diversity of their fiction will, perhaps help bring them to life. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. Try a quiz on this program on the website to test what you can recall about The Book of the Dead. If you want to hear a song featuring a man praying for the eternal life of his eyebrows, I’ve got one coming up. And otherwise, see you next time, for Episode 5: Beneath the Obelisks.

Still here? Well if you remember, a supplicant in Chapter 154 of The Book of the Dead earnestly prays that after he dies “my eyebrows shall not be shaved off; and no baleful injury shall come upon me” (520). I got to thinking about how funny that is – the notion of hoping that one’s eyebrows will exist for all time. And I wondered what it would sound like if a modern Christian rock group wrote a tune praying for the longevity of their eyebrows, and I wrote the following song, which is called, “May My Eyebrows Live Forever.” Hope it’s an amusing way to spend sixty seconds, and I’ll see you next time.


1.^ Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. New York: Random House, Inc., 2010. Kindle Edition, Location 1317.

2.^ Romer, John. The Egyptian Book of the Dead New York: Penguin Classics, Kindle Edition, p. 14. Further references are noted parenthetically.