The Ultimate Travel Guide in the Ancient Egyptian Underworld

Vidhya  |  Vivien  |  Jeong  |  Charissa

Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown, The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown, The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps for most of us, life after death is full of uncertainties. However, this was not the case for the ancient Egyptians because they had a special guidebook called the Book of the Dead1, which was a collection of funerary texts that had its origin in the Third Dynasty of Egypt (c. 267 - 2613 BCE). It was only during the New Kingdom (1570 - 1069 BCE) when the Book of the Dead gained much popularity among the ancient Egyptians from various classes because of the value they saw in acquiring one for themselves.

Hence, the Book of the Dead served as an important religious symbol to the ancient Egyptians as it reflected their understanding about the deities and the afterlife, which can be seen in the portrayal of the various Egyptian gods involved and the various spells needed to guarantee a safe journey to their concept of the afterlife.

  1. A more accurate translation of this title would be The Book of Coming Forth by Day or Spells for Going Forth by Day instead.

Ancient Egyptian Gods

The ancient Egyptians lived their lives deeply based on their religion and beliefs. So, it was only natural for their guidebook to the underworld to serve as a reinforcement of the roles and powers of the various deities, as the ancient Egyptians had perceived them to be. Along the way to the Hall of Final Judgement1, the deceased would finally get to meet these gods.

  1. It was the final stop before one entered the afterlife (that is, if one had managed to impress the gods).

Anubis

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Before starting the journey, the deceased met Anubis, the Jackal god. In fact, Anubis had multiple names.1 He was always depicted in black, which was a color to portray desolation and rebirth. Anubis was usually known to help guide the individuals from the world of living to the afterlife, where he finally led them to the Hall of Final Judgement.

Even though Anubis’ main roles were to embalm the body, guide the soul, and protect the tomb, he also played a part in punishing humans. His role as the “Guardian of the Scales,” in the Hall of Two Truths, allowed him to decide if the soul was worthy enough to cross over to the afterlife.

  1. For example, “He who is upon his mountain” (keeping guard over tombs from above), “Lord of the sacred land” (god of the desert necropolis), “He who is in the place of embalming” (god of mummification and embalming), and many more.
By unknown Egyptian artisan (Jon Bodsworth: photographer) (BD_Hunefer.jpg), Weighing of the heart scene with Ammit sitting, from the book of the dead of Hunefer, [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons.

By unknown Egyptian artisan (Jon Bodsworth: photographer) (BD_Hunefer.jpg), Weighing of the heart scene with Ammit sitting, from the book of the dead of Hunefer, [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ma'at

Maat, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Maat, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Hall of Two Truths, Anubis brought the soul before the scale and weighed the heart of the deceased. However, Anubis was not left alone to carry out this task. The next important god of the afterlife, Ma’at, comes into play.

Ma’at was the personification of truth, justice, balance, morality, and cosmic order. Without her, or so the ancient Egyptians believed, the stars wouldn’t move, the seasons wouldn’t change and there would be chaos between Heaven and Earth.

The deceased person’s heart was weighed against the feather1 of Ma’at, who was the goddess of truth and justice.2 If the heart was lighter than the feather, all would be well with the soul.

  1. The ostrich feather, used for the scales, symbolized her as a being and was therefore also a representation of balance and order.
  2. Sometimes, art depictions also show the heart being weighed against Ma’at’s head instead.

Ammit

By BD_Weighing_of_the_Heart.jpg: Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown (BD_Weighing_of_the_Heart.jpg), The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By BD_Weighing_of_the_Heart.jpg: Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown (BD_Weighing_of_the_Heart.jpg), The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

But what happens if the heart was heavier than the feather? The devil of the underworld, Ammit (also known as the goddess1 of the underworld), would consume the heart of the deceased if the heart did not meet the “standards” of the test.2

After Ammit devoured the heart of the deceased individuals, they experienced their second demise, which means that they would cease to exist even in the afterlife. Not only that, it was also claimed that their souls would remain emotionless forever. Any of these two were dreaded and unwanted by the ancient Egyptians.

  1. Ironically, even though she was regarded as one of the goddesses, none of the ancient Egyptians actually worshipped her. Instead, pictures of her scary image were used to avert any calamity that would fall upon them.

    Exactly how ‘scary’ did she look like for the people to do such a thing? Well, she was depicted as having “the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lioness and hindquarters of a hippopotamus.”
    Please refer to the image if you need help imagining how that even looks like.
  2. If a heart was heavier than the feather, it implied that it had been made heavy with sins and evil deeds. This called for due punishment by Ammit, which was how she got the name “the devouring of the deceased.”

Osiris

Ignati, Osiris (12 May 2009), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ignati, Osiris (12 May 2009), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, after the deceased person went through this entire ordeal, he/she finally met Osiris. Osiris had numerous names due to the multiple powers that he granted people. He was widely known as the god of afterlife, life, death1, and fertility.

Osiris was claimed to be the first mummy to be created. Thus, he was considered as the Pharaoh of the Kingdom of Osiris, as he governed the souls who were “living” in the kingdom. Souls who arrived at the kingdom were led to their allocated land in the Field of Reeds.2

  1. Hence, the customs of burial and embalming were usually linked to Osiris.
  2. You would be introduced to the Field of Reeds in a bit! We’re keeping the best for last! 😉

As you can see, even with the journey within the underworld, the Book of the Dead placed great emphasis on the different deities that the ancient Egyptians believed in. This goes to show how it served as a religious symbol to the ancient Egyptians' polytheistic beliefs. 


SPELLS

With the Book of the Dead, one could be equipped with up to 190 chapters or spells that protected the deceased and guided him/her through the underworld. 

This means that the ancient Egyptians could pretty much anticipate the kinds of obstacles and trials that awaited them. How reassuring!

1. Prayers and Hymns
When entering the presence of various gods, one would need Prayers and Hymns to give praise to the gods. This way, the deceased could prove his/her innocence and would become deserving of a place in the afterlife.

2. Magical powers
The deceased needed magical spells for the activation of their physical objects, such as amulets1 and shabti dolls2, in the afterlife.

  1. Amulets were seen as good luck charms that gave the deceased powers so that the dead could safely get to the afterlife and live a fruitful life.
    You would see the importance of one amulet, the heart scarab, later!


  2. Shabti dolls (also known as shawbti and ushabti) were funerary figures, usually made out of stone, wood or faience (glazed ceramic), that were put together with the deceased in their tombs so that they could accompany them to the afterlife.
    You would see their usefulness in the later part of this post!




3. Transformation
To make it easier to pass each gate and obstacle into the afterlife, transformational spells were needed to turn the deceased into various different animals and creatures so that one could become identified with them in the journey. What do you think about being transformed into a hawk of gold1, or a benu-bird2, or a snake3?
  1. Spell 77
  2. Spell 83: A benu-bird was a mythical creature that was often identified with the sun god or a phoenix.
  3. Spell 87: This snake was known as ‘a son of the earth.” In ancient Egypt, snakes took on both protective and destructive roles.


4. Protection
Dying a second time on this perilous journey to the afterlife was also possible. The protection spells ensured that the soul of the dead would be safe and sound to remain as a single entity.

The dangers to be faced included snakes, crocodiles, being decapitated, consuming excreta, not being able to breathe, being putrefied, and many more. All of these were combated with the appropriate spell found in the Book of the Dead. In Spell 42, you can see how the deceased could claim protection by attributing each body part to a different god.

“My hair is Nu; my face is Ra; my eyes are Hathor; my ears are Wepwawet; my nose is She who presides over her lotus leaf; my lips are Anubis; my molars are Selkis; my incisors are Isis the goddess; my arms are the Ram, the Lord of mendes; my breast is Neith, Lady of Sais; my back is Seth; my phallus is Osiris; my muscles are the Lords of Kheraha; my chest is he who is greatly majestic; my belly and my spine are Sekhmet; my buttocks are the Eye of Horus; my thighs and my calves are Nut; my feet are Ptah; my toes are living falcons; there is no member of mine devoid of a god, and Thoth is the protection of all my flesh.” (Taylor, 162-163)



5. Guidance and Directions
If the deceased managed to escape a second death in the realm of vast caverns, lakes of fire, and magical gates, the soul would finally reach the Hall of Final Judgment. Standing before the 42 divine judges, an ancient Egyptian would then plead his/her innocence for 42 wrongdoings.

However, since it is almost impossible to be totally without sin, a soul could easily mess things up if he/she didn’t have Spell 125. It was a really important spell because it provided all the instructions and specific information about the gods so that one could safely make the Negative Confession (pp 12-13).

For example,

8. “Hail, thou Flame (Neba), which comest and goest, I have spoken no lies."
12. “Hail, thou whose face is turned back (Herf-ha-f), who comest forth from thy hiding place, I have not caused shedding of tears.”
13. “Hail, Bast, who comest forth from the secret place (Bubastis), I have not dealt deceitfully.”
25. “Hail, thou who orderest speech (Shet-kheru), who comest forth from Urit, I have not burned with rage.”
38. “Hail, Neheb-ka, who comest forth from thy hiding place, I have not stolen.”1

  1. Is it really possible for one not to have spoken a lie, caused someone to cry, been super honest, have not gotten angry, or have not stolen something in his/her life before?

After passing all 42 negative confessions, the soul would finally get to the much awaited Weighing of the Heart ceremony, where the deceased’s eternal fate was determined.1

Thus, with the 190 different spells in the Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptians could envision their passage to the afterlife, where they would reach their final destination at the Field of Reeds.

  1. The heart was treated with great significance to the ancient Egyptians because they believed that it controlled one’s mind. A heart scarab, along with Spell 30B were key to preventing the heart from betraying its owner during the Weighing of the Heart.
    Now you know how it was possible for one to get through all 42 negative confessions!
 

FIELD OF REEDS

As you know by now, death was not the end of the ancient Egyptians’ lives. Instead, it was a chance for them to move on to another world where they could live blissfully; that is if they had managed to pass through all the tests put in place by the gods.

When you think that everything was over when a soul had succeeded after the weighing of one’s heart, think again! The soul still had to get across Lily Lake, where many dangers continued to lurk, before meeting the Divine Ferryman, Hraf-hef, who was known as a rude meanie. However, once a soul managed to clear the ultimate test, one was rewarded access to the Field of Reeds—a promised place of perfect rest for eternity.

Even though the Field of Reeds, or Aaru, was known to be a paradise, it was ultimately a world that bore an identical reflection to the life back on earth.

This means that work continued on, even in the afterlife.1

  1. Remember the plot of land that Osiris allocated to the souls who entered the Field of Reeds? The souls would reside within the land that were assigned to each of them, where they would have to plow and fertilize on the land that were given to them.

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, work wasn’t as miserable as it sounded. A soul could employ the help of a shabti doll1 to do the work instead, so that the soul could just go off to do whatever one pleased and not worry about a thing.

The afterlife, as depicted by the Book of the Dead, was something that the ancient Egyptians could look forward to because everything that was once lost in the mortal realm was restored again. This included loved ones, personal possessions, and even pets! The people wouldn’t ever need to fear of losing them again as they continued to live a normal life.

By having a greater understanding of how the afterlife would be like, it gave the ancient Egyptians a strong motivation to live their current life to the fullest, so that they could continue that same life after death forever.

  1. Shabti dolls were activated by reciting Spell 6 which reads,
    "O shabti, allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead, if indeed any obstacles are implanted for you therewith as a man at his duties, you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks or of conveying sand from east to west; 'Here I am', you shall say” (Taylor, 43).
    Pretty neat huh!

Having the Book of the Dead was akin to having eternal life. Although the funerary texts were initially only reserved for male pharaohs, the various social classes eventually could also gain access to them during the New Kingdom.

Even though death itself doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the Book of the Dead continued to point out the social inequality evident in ancient Egyptian society. These books were hand-made by scribes, so the ancient Egyptians could customize them according to his/her financial means. This means that the rich could get better decorated books with more spells that would protect them, whereas the poor had to make do with the bare minimum. It became an unfair risk to the poor to attain eternal life if you know the kind of dangers that awaited them in this arduous journey.

However, even with all the spells and instructions provided, the Book of the Dead couldn’t really guarantee a soul’s place to eternity because anything could still go wrong in the process.1

  1. Remember Ammit?



Thus, the Book of the Dead was really a reflection of the ancient Egyptian’s limited understanding about the afterlife as it continued to reinforce their religious beliefs that were deeply embedded in all aspects of their life (& afterlife).

If you would like a nice short visual summary about the ancient Egyptians' ultimate travel guide, check this video out!


References

Arico, Ashley F. & Foley, Kierra. Ancient Egyptian amulets: Heart scarab . From Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Johns Hopkins University. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Alchin, Linda. Ammit, goddess of Egypt. From Land of Pyramids. (2015) Accessed 21 February 2017.

Book of the Dead: spell 77. From The Fitzwilliam Museum. University of Cambridge. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Book of the Dead: spell 83. From The Fitzwilliam Museum. University of Cambridge. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Book of the Dead: spell 87. From the Fitzwilliam Museum. University of Cambridge. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. “The 42 negative confessions.” (2007) Rosicrucian Digest, 85(1): 12-13.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of the Dead. (27 March, 2016). Kindle.

Egyptian Books of the Dead. From the Fitzwilliam Museum. University of Cambridge. Accessed 20 February 2017.

Funerary texts in ancient Egypt. (22 September 2009) From Australian Museum. Accessed 20 February 2017.

Hart, George. A dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. (1986) Questia.

Kinsley, David. The Goddesses’ Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East and West. (1989) Questia.

Mark, Joshua J. Egyptian afterlife – The Field of Reeds. (28 March 2016) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 16 February 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. Egyptian Book of the Dead. (24 March 2016) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 February 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. New Kingdom of Egypt. (7 October 2016) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 8 March 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. Shabti dolls: The workforce in the afterlife. (18 January 2012) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 February 2017.

Mark, Joshua J. The Egyptian afterlife & the feather of truth. (18 January 2012) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 26 February 2017.

Mark, Joshua K. Third Dynasty of Egypt. (10 February 2016) From Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed 8 March 2017.

Patch, Diana C. Egyptian amulets. (October 2004) From The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Riggs, Christina. The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity, and Funerary Religion. (2005) Questia.

Taylor, John. What is a Book of the Dead? (22 September 2010) From The British Museum Blog. Accessed 17 February 2017.

Taylor, John H. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey through the afterlife. (2010) British Museum Press.

TED-Ed. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: A guidebook for the underworld - Tejal Gala. (31 October 2016) Youtube.

The Book of the Dead. From The White Goddess. Accessed 21 February 2017.

The underworld and the afterlife inancient Egypt. (30 October 2015) From Australian Museum. Accessed 21 February 2017.

Unwrapping the secrets of ancient Egypt: Book of the Dead. (5 November 2014) From THEMUSEUM. Accessed 17 February 2017.

Weighing of the heart. From Michael C. Carlos Museum. Emory University. (2016) Accessed 24 February 2017.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (2003) Scribd.