Study Guide

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The god Temu, the spirit of creation, manifests first as Ptah and then as the word spoken by Ptah, which brings creation into existence. Ptah creates first himself, then the other gods, and finally creates Egypt, by speaking the divine words that make the gods aware of themselves; thus, all of creation exists as different aspects, or “faces,” of Ptah, and of his words. Immediately after he speaks these first powerful magic words, while the earth and the waters of primordial chaos are still in the process of separating themselves, Ptah promises eternity to the dead who are not yet born. On that same day, the god Anubis, protector of the souls of the dead, allots to each person a destiny and holds all these fates in readiness.

For mortals, the immediate earthly manifestation of Ptah is Ra, the sun, and it is in this form that they most often contemplate the one God. Priests use many names to refer to the different faces of God; these names vary from place to place, but the names that the gods give themselves are hidden, because in their names lies their essence, and so their power. By a stratagem, Isis learns the hidden name of Ra and, with a power derived from his, becomes queen of the goddesses. Her power is illustrated by the story of her healing of her mate, the god Osiris.

Osiris is murdered by Set, his brother, who in his malice cuts the body of Osiris into pieces and scatters them across northern Africa. Isis, weeping, gathers these pieces together and rejoins them, and from the corpse conceives Horus, their son. Then she brings Osiris back to life, leads him before the gods, and brings him into new forms, with new powers. It is through this rebirth that Osiris becomes the principle of birth and rebirth. He is the fountainhead through which the earth receives life, from the first new life of sprouting corn and all the life it brings in its turn, to the rebirth in the afterlife of the pharaohs.

All the dead who receive the proper rites and who perform the sacred rituals are reborn in the afterlife as new forms of Osiris and share his glory. Like him, their bodies are made whole and perfect...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

The Book of the Dead Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum—The Egyptian Text with Interlinear Transliteration and Translation. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1967. An extensive introduction describes the gods, their roles, and their realms, along with the funeral ceremonies and their importance. Clear interpretations by chapter.

_______. Egyptian Religion: Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life. Reprint. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. Explores conceptual and symbolic parallels between the beliefs of the Osirians and the modern Christians. Classification by subject imposes a degree of order on the diverse topics.

erný, Jaroslav. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1952. erný describes Osirian beliefs in a style that is learned without being difficult. Includes a timetable matching dynastic periods with dates.

Champdor, Albert. “The Book of the Dead,” Based on the Ani, Hunefer, and Anhaï Papyri in the British National Museum. Translated by Faubion Bowers. New York: Garrett, 1966. Arranges material chronologically, from creation to modern times. Champdor weaves interpretation with text to capture the substance and grandeur of the work. Extensive, beautiful illustrations provide visual context.

Dunand, Françoise, and Christian Zivie-Coche. “Death Will Come.” In Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 B.C.E. to 395 B.C.E. Translated from the French by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. There are numerous mentions of The Book of the Dead in this book about ancient Egyptian religion, but the majority of them are contained in this section that describes Egyptian ideas about death. The comprehensive index provides a listing of all of the references to the book.

Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. An exhaustive treatment of the subject, in which Hornung outlines the Egyptian solution to the paradox of unity in multiplicity. Includes an invaluable chronology, a glossary of gods, and an index.

Schumann Antelme, Ruth, and Stéphane Rossini.“Third Stage: The Book of the Dead, Methods of Obtaining Immortality.” In Becoming Osiris: The Ancient Egyptian Death Experience. Translated by Jon Graham. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1998. The authors describe the procedures set forth in The Book of the Dead and other practices that the ancient Egyptians believed were necessary for the human soul to attain immortality.