Story by Louise Lerner | Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute

The instructions to live after death in ancient Egypt were complicated. Written on papyrus, a copy of the Book of the Dead, which for 1,500 years served as the definitive guide to the afterlife, could span more than 30 feet.

After all, there was a lot of ground to cover: How to avoid demons on the way to the netherworld. The right names to address the gatekeeper as you drew near to the gates. Protection from crocodiles, snakes and scorpions. And defense against a closer threat: Your own heart spilling secrets and betraying you during your judgment by Osiris, the god of death.

Beginning this fall and through the spring of 2018, visitors can explore the Book of the Dead at a special exhibit at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. The exhibit showcases how religious beliefs shaped the lives and material culture in Egypt over a period of more than a thousand years, from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 100.

Foy Scalf, head of research archives at the Oriental Institute, discusses the Book of the Dead exhibit. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkQuYvGibTc (Video by UChicago Creative)

“Although the ancient Egyptians may on the surface appear to be fascinated with death, it was in fact everlasting life that preoccupied the Egyptian mind,” said curator and Oriental Institute scholar Foy Scalf. “They believed that, with the proper preparation, any living person could become an immortal divinity after death.”

Extras, just in case

The exhibit’s central display includes two 2,200-year-old papyri, each beautifully illustrated with texts and color images. They surround the mummy of an ancient Egyptian woman from the city of Akhmim, along with dozens of mortuary objects inscribed with Book of the Dead spells—most from the permanent collection of the Oriental Institute, whose museum holds the Chicago area’s largest collection of Egyptian art and artifacts.

The Book of the Dead, Scalf said, is less a book than a collection of spells, maps and incantations to guide and protect the deceased. And it did not necessarily only appear as what we would think of as a “book.”

The ancient Egyptians, like NASA engineers, believed in redundancy. Because it was so important, a copy of the Book of the Dead could be written and illustrated on papyrus in full to accompany the dead; but versions of its spells also could be inscribed on magic bricks set into the walls of the tomb. They would be carved into green stone scarabs and tucked inside the mummy’s wrappings and written on linen bandages that wrapped around the body. “In case one copy was damaged or destroyed, you would have backup copies,” Scalf said.

Clockwise from left: A statue representing the god of the dead Osiris, a group of magical bricks that are each inscribed with a different section of a Book of the Dead spell to ward off dangers approaching from the four cardinal directions, and a heart scarab inscribed with a spell on the bottom. (Images courtesy of the Oriental Institute)

If all the spells worked and your heart was favorably judged by Osiris, you would yourself become a god, Scalf said. “This is symbolized by taking the literal name of the god with your own, e.g. Osiris-Jane or Osiris-Joe.”

These souls would ride with Re, the sun god, in his boat on his daily trip across the sky—hence the literal translation of the Book’s title, “Spells of Going Forth by Day.”

Ultimately, the deceased could become an Akh spirit, able to affect the living world. People would write letters to dead relatives or known powerful spirits, asking them to intercede in their lives—to heal injuries or for healthy children to be born, for example.

Customized copies

The Oriental Institute exhibit displays two different copies of the Book of the Dead. One is written in hieroglyphs for a man named Irtyuru, dated between about 305 and 50 B.C.; the other is for a person named Nesshutefnut who lived around the same period, and is written in hieratic, a cursive script.

Each is customized with the names of the dead person in key locations throughout the spells; such papyri were made by hand in special workshops, Scalf said, although there is evidence such workshops often created fill-in-the-blank versions for "off-the-shelf" purchase.

They are also, like all books, slightly different. “There was no rigid canon; any Book could include a selection from a set of incantations, and the texts scribes drew from were vital and dynamic,” Scalf said. “Over the years, it was always acquiring new interpretations, and new editions. Egyptian religion in that way was very inclusive: open to accommodating new ideas, new gods and even foreign practices.”

Copies of the Book of the Dead on display at the Oriental Institute Museum. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Part of his research addresses how the Book evolved over time. Its earliest incarnations were probably passed down through oral tradition; some phrases appear in graffiti on tombs a century before they were written down. Over the years, variants and commentary recorded by scribes might become part of the canon. Eventually, over the course of the second and first centuries B.C., it morphed and became known as the Books of Breathing.

But the Book of the Dead’s essential purpose remained the same. Part of the appeal of the exhibit, Scalf said, is that the Book addresses the same questions that we grapple with today.

“The content in these spells covers the existence of the soul, what awaits us in the afterlife, how will we be judged, the nature of god, and the continued relationship with friends and family on Earth,” he said.

Originally published on October 30, 2017.