The Book of the Dead

The first book that I read for my Western Canon reading project was The Book of the Dead by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge. I think it is important to note here that for much of the first half of the reading list, I am getting whatever version of the work is available on Project Gutenberg . Also, the first things I am reading are all the religious texts. I thought reading them all together would be interesting.

So, back to the book. This is the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” Before I cracked this open and actually read it, I had some wonderful anticipation that I knew was going to get crushed. I love anything having to do with ancient history. Anything from the rise of civilization in Ur, Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome up to the fall automatically gets a little rush of excitement going through me. The problem with Egypt is that reading about it is actually a little anticlimactic after my wild imaginings. Egypt is remarkable in the fact that it found something culturally that it liked, and just stuck with it. For 2000 years.

The Book of the Dead is actually a latter-day compilation of spells and texts that were called “Chapters of the Coming Forth into the Day.” They get the name “Book of the Dead” by grave robbers calling the scrolls of papyri they found with mummies “dead man’s books.” Because it isn’t necessarily a cohesive, standard religious text (although I believe it does get standardized at one point), it is possible to trace an evolution in burial rituals based on which version of the text was left in the tomb, and how it is presented.
The texts were believed to be written by Thoth for the benefit of the dead, and were basically a formula to make sure the deceased would get through the underworld. A “get into heaven free” card, if you will. Thoth, in Egyptian mythology, is the arbitrator in the battle between good and evil- the great mediator.

The scrolls provide a guide through the underworld. They provide the hymns that must be recited at certain times, the magical names of the door-parts that you must recite to gain entrance to come before Thoth, the answer to the riddle Thoth will pose to you before you can come before Osiris and the gods to be judged. This part of the mythology may sound familiar: in order to obtain your immortality, your heart will be weighed against a feather, and if you are found lacking, Ammit, the Devourer of Souls, will eat your heart and your soul will be restless forever.

The heart was considered” the seat of all will, emotion, feeling, reason and intelligence” and the feather is symbolic of truth and righteousness. The interesting point here is that you weren’t expected to “kick the beam” of the balance, you only had to counterbalance Truth. You didn’t have to be especially good, you just couldn’t be evil. In fact, you got through if Thoth’s pronouncement was “He hath done no evil.”

These religious beliefs are interesting to muse about today, when religion is much more metaphysical. Egyptians believed that the afterlife intersected this life. Part of your soul came back to your body each day to rest. The land of the dead was a physical place you could point to on a map. You lived an eternal existence with your loved ones in paradise. (Wait a minute…)

So, while my wild imaginings of reading a book of magic weren’t necessarily fulfilled, I did get a dollop of mythology (my favorite!) and some food for thought on what humans expect to happen when we die.


  1. I just got the book of the dead on my kindle & I have to say - THANKS for this review. I was disappointed because I was frankly confused by its dis-jointed ness and I did not know what to make of it...so I never finished...but this has inspired me to persist :P

  2. Wow, glad I could be an inspiration! I have a feeling that the old translation and the accompanying old-school egyptology doesn't help getting through this version very well.

    Still, anything is going to be a disappointment when you are expecting a book of magic, right?