For five thousand years, those who lived along the Nile and across Northern Africa believed that when they died, they would be resurrected in body and spirit by the power of Osiris and would live forever in the presence of the majesty of the One God in all his different forms. Death was an untying of the knot that held the soul on the mortal plane and was more a cause for methodical care and preparation than for fear. The precepts on which the Egyptians built their convictions are recorded in what has come to be known, somewhat inaccurately, as The Book of the Dead.
The literal translation of the title by which the Egyptians referred to this remarkable work is “the book of coming forth by day.” Its influences on Western culture have been significant, and various editions and forms of the book have been continuously available for study since long before the time of Cleopatra. Some “chapters” were inked on the sarcophagi of the pharaohs; others were carved into the stones of the secret and sacred chambers of the pyramids. Copies on papyrus of the spells, hymns, and incantations were buried with the dead for ready use in the trials that the departed soul would face in the netherworld. Whatever translation one reads, however, one finds that the book is a vehicle for profound feeling, from the weeping of Isis as she searches for the severed limbs of her beloved Osiris to the joy of the dead whose spirits awaken to a fresh northern breeze in the light from Ra.
Recorded editions exist in three forms; the earliest are the Pyramid texts, dating from 2400 b.c.e., hieroglyphics carved in the stones of the pyramids of the fifth, sixth, and eighth dynasty rulers. These texts are clearly derived from much older oral versions. Later, when coffins became shaped to conform to the body within, papyrus scrolls replaced the carvings or inked symbols; gradually the use of hieratic script, a more abstract form of writing, replaced the earlier hieroglyphics. Finally, after the Roman conquest, scraps of spells or charms, their meanings largely forgotten, were written in contemporary script on small squares of papyrus and tossed into the coffins before they were sealed.
There is no authoritative version of the book, although a reasonably complete compilation appeared in German translation in 1842 and was widely available in English translation after 1895. The various chapters, of which there are now known to be more than three hundred, include hymns of adoration, charms, rituals of purification and passage, and devotional poems written over a period spanning five millennia. Copies were eventually mass produced by priests and scribes for sale to individuals for burial use, though the text was not standardized until the Ptolemaic period, which began in 322 b.c.e. Various “recensions,” authoritative versions of which multiple and various editions exist, have been identified and studied extensively, but no comprehensive ancient version has been found to contain all of the chapters.
The influence this rich and vital book of scripture has had on other cultures is incalculable. The religion of Osiris was flourishing while the Israelites were captive in Egypt, and there can be little doubt that some of the images and symbols, as well as some of the more powerful precepts of faith and spirituality, were incorporated from the Egyptian cult of Osiris into the holy Hebrew writings that later formed the bases of the Talmud, the Qur՚n, and the Bible. Hymns to Ra and Osiris have much in common with the Psalms, both in image and theme. The image of...
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King David dancing before God, for example, mirrors that of Seti I dancing before the assembled deities of the netherworld.
The most significant parallels, however, are in the coincident views on a single, all-powerful father/creator and on a redeemer, part man and part God, who will come to afford the souls of the sanctified resurrection and eternal life. All three of the major modern religions to originate in Northern Africa share these basic views; all three revere the power of ritual worship; all three believe in the existence of a paradise to which the justified dead may aspire, and all three have elaborate funereal procedures during which prayers are made to intercede for the departed souls. The Egyptian cult of Osiris significantly predates all three of the other main North African religions, and when the Romans introduced Christianity to the Egyptians they found fertile soil already prepared. Osiris and Horus, father and son, easily became identified with God and Christ, while the statues of Isis suckling Horus could be seen as Mary with the infant Jesus. Other parallels too numerous to mention may be noted.
The Book of the Dead is an affirmation of faith and joy. All such works are beautiful allegories reconciling seeming contradictions of light and darkness, good and evil, multiplicity and unity, and life and death. New generations of readers will bring new interpretations, but what is timeless will remain so, and The Book of the Dead will continue to be a subject of study.