The Book of the Dead

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What are the stages of the afterlife described in The Book of the Dead?

The stages of the afterlife are described in the four sections of The Book of the Dead. The deceased descends to the underworld and reanimates, learns about the gods and the journey through the afterlife, is resurrected and travels with the sun god across the sky and then into the underworld to be judged by Osiris, and either has their heart eaten by the beast-goddess Ammut and ceases to exist or becomes a god.

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The Book of the Dead, or The Egyptian Book of the Dead, originated in the tomb paintings and inscriptions placed in tombs in the Third Dynasty (c. 2670–2613 BCE) of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE) of ancient Egypt. By the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1991-1802 BCE) of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1782 BCE), the paintings and inscriptions had evolved into written spells accompanied by illustrations, which were placed in tombs and graves with the deceased as their guide to the afterlife.

At some time before the New Kingdom (c. 1570–1069 BCE), the spells were organized into chapters and put into book form, although no two copies are exactly alike. The book could be purchased in either in a generic version, with spaces to fill in the name of the deceased, or in a version written specifically for a particular deceased individual.

The journey through the afterlife is complicated, and the deceased encounters challenges that requires them to recite the appropriate spell and provide correct names at exactly the right time and to respond correctly to the gods' many questions, some of which require up to forty-two separate answers. Fortunately, The Book of the Dead contains all of the required information.

The Book of the Dead is divided into four main sections. In the first section, chapters 1–16, the deceased descends into the underworld, where the deceased's body reacquires the abilities to move and speak.

In the second section, chapters 17–63, the deceased learns about the origins of the gods and the journey the dead take in the afterlife.

In the third section, chapters 64–129, the deceased is resurrected and joins the sun god Re (or Ra) to travel across the sky during the day and then, as night falls, to travel down to meet Osiris, Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, in Daut, the realm of the dead, where the deceased faces the final judgement—in Spell 125—in the Hall of Truth.

Spell 125 is one of the most well-known of all the spells in The Book of the Dead. The heart of the deceased is weighed against the white feather of Ma'at, represented by an ostrich feather called the Feather of Truth.

If the deceased's heart is found to be heavier than the feather, denoting that it is filled with impurities signifying wrongdoing, the heart is thrown on the floor, where it's devoured by the beast-goddess Ammut—part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus—and the soul of the deceased ceases to exist.

If the heart is found to be lighter than the feather, the deceased becomes immortal and moves through the fourth section of spells, chapters 130–189, where they take their place as a god among the other gods.

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