Book of the Dead

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Book of the Dead

Book of the Dead

The concept of a guide book for corpses aided the priestly ministrations to congregants in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Tibet.

The funerary writings of the Egyptian Empire (1550-1070 B.c.), the Egyptian Book of the Dead (ca. 1240 B.c.) anthologizes some 200 chants or charms to the Sun Father to protect the deceased from monsters and terrors of the land of the dead (in Roberts 1991, 159). The magic spells shield the soul from attack on its way to the netherworld, a dark underground realm that presages the Roman concept of Hades, the Jewish Sheol, and the Christian Hell. Written in the style of quest lore, the formulaic liturgy that priests recite over corpses appeases the goddess Isis, an archetypal wife and mother figure, and names the beneficent monarchs whom Egyptians revered like divinities.

Egyptian liturgy clings to earthly life as the height of being. A lyric chant to the divine Shu, god of the air, declares, “My soul is God, my soul is eternity.” Responses assert the survival of the deceased: “I shall possess my flesh for ever and ever, I shall not decay, I shall not crumble away, I shall not wither away, I shall not become corruption” (Egyptian, Book of the Dead, 1898, 50, 52). In a moment of exultation, the deceased realizes his preservation in human form: “I exist, I exist, I live, I live, I germinate, I germinate” (52). Blameless spirits acquire privileges after proper preparation of the corpse and after the soul's recitation of secret formulas at stopping places on the way to the gods' courtroom. For its democratized view of humankind, the anthology became a stabilizing social force guaranteeing eternal life to any Egyptian with a clear conscience.

An early scroll from the 18th dynasty, the Book of What Is in the Netherworld (ca. 1554 B.c.), uses metaphors of light and dark to dramatize the conflict between good and evil, a standard struggle in world religion. In chapter 125, to avoid a second death and permanent eradication, upon arrival at the Hall of the Two Truths, or Hall of Double Justice, the deceased must settle accounts before a tribunal of 42 provincial judges, representing the districts of the Egyptian empire. The spirit confesses wrongdoing, proclaims a lifetime of obedience to the king, and requests the right to mercy and ma’at (justice). Of the centrality of the conscience, the seeker cries out, “My heart my mother, my heart my mother, my heart my coming into being!” (140). Coffin inscriptions and pyramid texts describe the critical point—the weighing of the heart, restoration of breath to the righteous, and the soul's union with the sun god Re, who steers a boat that traverses the waters of the underworld. In the next chapter, the anointed soul passes through portals to the presence of northern and southern kings, with whom he remains for eternity.

The Ethiopian Afterlife

Another version of northeastern African funerary lore, the Ethiopian Book of the Dead (A.D. 400), is an anonymous folk anthology composed in Ethiopic and Amharic at the beginning of the Aksumite empire (ca. fourth century B.c.-ca. A.D. 950). Like Arabs, Celts, Copts, Egyptians, and Hebrews, the people of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), inscribed various divine names and traits on stones and charms to ward off suffering and despair. The manuscript reprises Egyptian burial chants, verse amulets, and Christian monotheism introduced to ancient Abyssinia by Saint Frumentius, an evangelist shipwrecked at Aksum in A.D. 316. He converted to Christianity the pagan queen Sofya and her son, the future Emperor Ezana, who founded Abyssinian trade with Egypt. The immediate cultural response—the Egyptian superstitions of three millennia and the Christian faith that began to encroach on ancient customs—straddled two empires.

The Ethiopian Book of the Dead consists of spells, conjurations, and alternative names for divinities—for example, the Merciful, Dominant, Creator, Protector, Knower, and Restrainer, a series similar to godly honorifics in the Arabic KORAN. In Ethiopian theology, exact recitation of the mystic Ethiopian burial liturgy, comprised of 141 secret names for God, shielded the soul from demons and served as a token of passage through after-death obstacles, mutilation, and torture. The syncretic Ethiopian text comforts the deceased and, like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, reanimates them through repetitions of cross symbols and magic geometric shapes as well as incantations pleading for mercy. Mixed into animistic ritual are the prayers of St. Athanasius, St. Peter, and the Virgin Mary and a funeral homily by St. Frumentius.

The Tibetan Afterlife

A much later collection, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (ca. A.D. 775), composed in Sanskrit by the wandering mystic Padmasambhava in the second century of the Tibetan Empire, incorporates strands of Buddhism from China and Nepal. After Sambhava began serving King Trisong Detsen at Samye, Tibet, as prophet and exorcist, he converted the court to Buddhism. As a conservator of scripture at the royal monastery he built in A.D. 749, he translated 65 volumes of the TANTRAS from Sanskrit to Tibetan and composed his Tibetan Book of the Dead, a compendium on mortal faults and perpetual change. The collection of pragmatic incantations sung by the lama serves the dying as a guide to self-purification and a preparation for the soul's issuance into a higher state of consciousness. At the subject's last breath, the lama calls the dying individual from a permanent sleep. The mind clears as the soul seeks oneness with God. Priestly chanting or whispering steadies the expiring individual and bolsters the next of kin with compassion and acceptance of the inevitable.

The Tibetan text assuages sorrow by offering enlightenment or salvation to the departed and comfort to the living. If the corpse is destroyed, lost, or missing, the lama addresses a photograph or a personal belonging of the deceased, reciting step-by-step directions for the after-death journey. Over 49 days, during six stages of consciousness, the liturgist's voice exhorts the soul to liberate itself from evil and desire. The liturgy begins with the moribund state. The spirit acknowledges that death “is dawning upon me—after having given up indolence, since there is no time to waste in life—may I undistractedly enter the path of listening, reflecting, and meditating” (Tibetan, Book of the Dead 2000, lxi). At first, the departed struggles against inattention and enjoys seven peaceful days. Mourners hear advice on avoiding phobias, faults, and illusions, an instruction that prepares the next generation for death and reincarnation. In a painless existence, earthly life gives place to “the very Reality, the All-Good,” which takes the form of “the Great Body of Radiance … the immutable Light” (xxxix). In the final 30 days, the spirit rids itself of destructive habits for a return to earth and rebirth as a better person.


Assmann, Jan. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt.

Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. Translated by E. A. Wallis Budge. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1898.

An Ethiopian Book of the Dead: The Bandlet of Righteousness. Translated by E. A. Wallis Budge. London: Kegan Paul International, 2002.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Translated by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.