The Book of the Dead

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 when they are resurrected in Osiris’s name and in accordance with the prescribed formalities. The secrets of embalming, the processes and forms for charms and incantations and funereal rites, are given to mortals by Isis, who thus gives them a means of being reborn. As she re-creates Osiris’s body, so it is for the dead reborn in Osiris’s name. As the dead approach Osiris in the afterlife, they recite the ritual incantations learned in life, and their impurities, manifestations of Set, fall away from them. Meanwhile the living, left to perform rites of ablution and purification, sprinkle cleansing water on the dead and make offerings. One after another the dead approach Osiris, and those who are justified are rejuvenated and are blessed by Isis and by Horus, who hold a special position within the hierarchy of immortals.

Horus, one of the greatest of the Egyptian panoply of gods, has as many as twenty different forms. In a sense he is one aspect of Osiris; in another sense he is an aspect of Ra. In most of his aspects, however, and perhaps because of his relationship to Ra, he is closely associated with light. In a battle with Set, Horus loses one eye, but pursues Set, the spirit of evil, and castrates him, making Set powerless. Horus is therefore especially revered by the dead, for by Horus’s victory over the darkness of Set the dead can see to approach eternity, and by Horus’s victory over the evil of Set the dead can be sanctified. Horus’s face, in the aspect called Harmachis (translated as “Horus on the Horizon”), is immortalized as the face of the great Sphinx of Gizeh.

Horus leads the dead into the presence of Osiris and acts as intermediary for the dead during the process of judgment. Horus is especially suited for this role by virtue of his aspect as an avenger of his father and of the miraculous circumstances surrounding his conception. Making his petitions for the dead to his father in the presence of his mother, his pleas are granted. Then the dead make a special appeal to Osiris to restore the physical body and protect it from decay, as he renewed his own after it was dismembered by his brother Set.

The gods live in a paradise in the sky, and there the justified dead live with them. When Nut, the goddess of the sky, bends over forward and places her palms flat on the earth before her, her arms and legs form the pillars that uphold the sky. Across this sky pass the sun and moon, and through it sails the Celestial Boat, carrying the gods and the dead permitted to join them. Their souls arrive by ascending a ladder or by passing through a gap in the mountains. There they live in peace and serenity in the presence of the gods, renewed daily by the power of Osiris.

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