The Egyptian Book of the Dead: Instructions for the Soul

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was a funerary text which was written on papyrus scrolls and placed in tombs with the purpose of guiding the soul of the deceased through the afterlife. The importance of this text cannot be overstated. Scrolls or other methods for providing instructions for the dead about the afterlife go all the way back to an Egyptian era called ‘the old kingdom’ (starting in 2146 B.C.E, over 2,000 years before Jesus was born). These instructions, eventually evolving into the The Book of the Dead, continued to be added to the tombs of Egyptian Royalty (and later to other famous, noted Egyptians) all the way to 50 B.C.E., or just about the time Egypt was incorporated as a province into the Roman empire.

Though the title "Book of the Dead" gives this funerary text quite a dark and negative image, the Egyptian name for the text is actually surprisingly positive, and would perhaps translate better as the "Book of Coming Forth by Day." The ancient Egyptians did not believe that the soul ceased to exist after death. On the contrary, it was the beginning of a very important journey.

It is important to note that there is not one single text that can be called the canonical Book of the Dead. Every scroll was likely different, and was often tailored to include the deceased in the story told by the text. Nevertheless, the journey that each soul had to undergo was fundamentally the same.

It began with the soul entering what was known as the great hall of judgment. The main feature of this hall was a large set of scales which stood at the center of the room. The scale was there to provide a kind of test. The heart of the deceased person was to be placed on one end of the scale, while a feather was placed on the other. The feather represented Maat, the goddess of truth, justice, balance, and morality.

The scale would be used to judge whether the heart was good or evil, pure or impure. It was surrounded by various gods of the dead. The jackal-headed funerary god Anubis would adjust the scale, while the ibis-headed Thoth recorded the result of the weighing. If the heart balanced with the feather of Maat, then it was considered to be in accordance with truth and justice, as well as free of any guilt or impurity. If, however, the heart was heavier than the feather, then the soul of the person was deemed to be wicked.

A wicked soul would be sent off to the terrifying goddess known as Ammit, who was fearfully known as "the eater of the dead." Ammit had the body of a lion, the hindquarters of a hippo and, worst of all, the jaws of a crocodile. A wicked person had to face the unfortunate consequence of going through these jaws and becoming Ammit’s food. Some spiritual interpreters say this process of being devoured by Ammit was the ‘self’ the ‘you’ or ‘personality’ being destroyed and seperated from the soul. The soul itself would be returned to earth to try again to live a life of goodness – which would seem to indicate that the ancient Egyptians had some sort of appreciation of reincarnation and the spiritual development of the soul.

A person whose heart balanced with Maat’s feather would instead be fed the sacrificial food of the gods. They would then be allowed to proceed to the court of Osiris, where they became a god-like being. Death, then, for the good-hearted person, was not an end at all. Rather, it provided the opportunity to become one of the gods, giving them powers the likes of which they would have never seen as a human being.

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The idea that there is a ‘spirit world’ or ‘afterlife’ is shared by almost every culture on earth from the beginning of human history. The concepts about the afterlife in ancient Egypt seem to share many characteristics with other major religions, from the idea that one will be judged after death, the concept of heaven and the idea that the soul must spiritually evolve to enter eternal heaven. One has to wonder how the ancient Egyptian Priests came to this knowledge. One thing about ancient Egypt … it is never short on mysteries.

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