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...
(The entire section is 849 words.)