The Egyptian Book of the Dead: Summary, Spell 125 & Quotes

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  • 0:04 What is the Book of the Dead?
  • 3:03 Structure of the Book…
  • 3:44 Spell 125
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we'll examine the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a complete series of formulas and spells that the Egyptians considered essential for the afterlife. We'll see in detail the section known as Spell 125.

What Is the Book of the Dead?

The ancient Egyptians were a civilization that still fascinates us today. We marvel at their pyramids, their hieroglyphs, and the great statues they raised in honor of their gods. In this lesson we're going to see a very important aspect of Egyptian life: their beliefs concerning the afterlife. To see how the Egyptians imagined the underworld, we'll study a document of great historical value: The Book of the Dead.

Sphinx and pyramid.

The Book of the Dead is a series of rites, prayers, and myths containing the Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. The origin of this group of beliefs is very old, and they appear for the first time inscribed in the pyramids. Later, we find formulas and sentences related to the same subject in some sarcophagi, or stone coffins. Finally, all these beliefs were unified and written on papyri. Some of these ancient books have come down to us, though not in their complete form.

Book of the Dead in papyrus.

Early funeral rites and spells were inscribed in pyramids. The first texts of this type were those written in the funerary chamber of the Pharaoh Unis. On the walls of this chamber, it's possible to see hieroglyphs containing sentences and explanations to help the Pharaoh come back to life. Unfortunately, these phrases are written using very infrequent hieroglyphs. For this reason, they have not all been clearly deciphered.

Funeral formulas in a pyramid.
pyramid texts

Later, the funeral formulas began to be written in sarcophagi. The language used in the sarcophagi is clearer than that of the pyramids and, in addition, the authors began to include drawings and colors. On the other hand, the texts on the pyramids were meant only for the Pharaoh. However, the texts in the sarcophagi could be for other people. They were very expensive, so only powerful and important people could be buried in sarcophagi with these types of texts embedded in it.

Underworld map in a sarcophagus.

Finally, funerary texts began to be written in materials more economical than the previous ones. First, they were written on the fabrics with which the dead were mummified. In this way, the deceased had with him everything he or she needed to face the journey into the afterlife.

Later, all these prayers, spells, and beliefs were collected and written on papyrus, forming books or scrolls. The books were left in the tomb to help the deceased. Thanks to this custom, some of them have come down to us and we can read them and know the Egyptian beliefs.

Hieroglyphs and pictures.

Many of the books that exist today are incomplete. The best preserved and most complete Book of the Dead is the Papyrus of Ani. It contains many chapters and a large number of drawings that explain step-by-step what happens to the soul when it leaves the body. It's a very large papyrus. Unrolled, it measures more than 26 meters.

We do not know much about its owner, Ani. In the introduction of the book, we can read that Ani was a scribe, governor, and administrator. He was married to a priestess. Surely, he had to be a person of high rank to be able to afford a Book of the Dead so complete and so beautiful.

Papyrus of Ani.

Structure of the Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead has about 200 chapters and is generally organized into four sections:

  • Chapters 1-16 describe how the deceased enters the Duat, where the mummified body begins to move and speak.
  • Chapters 17-63 offer explanations of Egyptian myths, and the deceased returns completely to life.
  • Chapters 64-129 describe how the deceased travels the sky in the solar barge; at sunset, he goes before Osiris (the god of the afterlife) to be tried.
  • Chapters 130-189 explain that if the judgment has been favorable, the deceased enters Heaven with the other gods.

The solar barge.
solar barge

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