The Egyptian Book of the Dead carries one of the most misleading names in archaeology. Popular culture likes entertainment and oversimplification. For that reason, the Book of the Dead is usually thought of as “the ancient Egyptian Bible” or a book of sorcery or something along those lines. This title was used of a magical grimoire in The Mummy film series. It also probably inspired the Necronomicon as originally mentioned in the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft. None of those comparisons are historically accurate.
The truth about the Egyptian Book of the Dead is less mysterious, but far more useful for understanding ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. These collected writings were intended as a guidebook for travel through the afterlife. Each “Book of the Dead” was customized for a specific person, based on his life and wealth. None of the “spells” has any meaning in the world of the living. There was no “canon” of contents, and each copy’s main purpose was to be buried with the deceased. According to Egyptian beliefs, this would allow the dead person to take the text with him into the afterlife.
It should be noted that the term Book of the Dead is an extraordinarily loose translation. The more literal title of these writings is something like “Chapters for Coming Forth by Day.” An Egyptologist used the phrase “Book of the Dead” when publishing translations in the 1840s. Those translations were based on papyrus found in Egyptian tombs, many of which included some version of those “spells.”
The “spells” in the Book of the Dead were believed to be useful only in the afterlife. The purpose of the writings was to guide the dead person to paradise. The instructions included ways to avoid certain dangers, passwords to use around certain spirits, and the correct procedures for getting past obstacles. Some of the directions are relatively mundane. Some are simple. Others were incredibly intricate and detailed. None of them were meant as magic incantations for the living to use.
The contents of the Book of the Dead varied considerably from person to person. There was no mandatory set of inclusions or anything parallel to the canon of the Bible. In fact, each Book of the Dead was custom-written for that person. Individuals with differing social position, lifestyles, and professions might have books including very different material. In some cases, professional scribes compiled Books of the Dead with blank spaces to be filled in later with the name of a customer.
Despite those wide variations, there was a “typical” version of the Book of the Dead used from around 1600 BC until the time of Christ. The only similarity between these writings and the Bible is that both are collections of separate texts. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was not a primary religious source or authority in Egyptian religion.
Among the more famous contents of a typical book of the dead are descriptions of how souls might hope to enter paradise. One especially famous passage, known as “Spell 125,” describes a convoluted process of answering questions, while naming and describing deities and spirits. This must be done correctly to arrive at the point where one’s heart is weighed on a balance—this determines if the deceased is worthy of paradise. This ornate ritual includes naming some 42 judges, each concerned with a unique sin or virtue.
The “real” status of the Egyptian Book of the Dead is not especially exciting. Arcane books full of magical spells make good props in action movies. Rolls of papyrus buried in tombs, intended as Google Maps for the Egyptian afterlife, are not nearly so entertaining. The truth about these writings, however, does provide insight into the religious beliefs of the Egyptian people.