Ancient History & Civilisation





Between the time when the newborn soul left the tomb and the moment when it settled down amid the comforts provided for it in the Land of Eternity, it had a long and dangerous journey to make. In order to reach the West the dead man had to cross water; for this he needed a boat. Perhaps there was a ferry; if so, the ferryman might prove hostile or indifferent. He would have to be bribed, or coerced, or wheedled into carrying the spirit across.

All along the way the dead man was beset by demons. If not properly handled, each and every one of these monsters—gigantic snakes, animal-headed monstrosities—could overpower and destroy the spirit. Supposing that he passed the demons unscathed and managed to cross the river, the dead man still had to face the gods. What if they didn’t know him, or refused to accept him? All these possible emergencies had to be anticipated and prepared for. The whole process has always reminded me of a child’s game: “Suppose this happens! All right, but then suppose that happens!”

The defenses against dangers of this kind could only be of one sort. They consisted of magico-religious spells, and they make up several sizable collections. The oldest collection is the Pyramid Texts, which were inscribed in pretty blue hieroglyphs on the walls of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids. These texts are a real hodgepodge; if we find Egyptian religion contradictory, the Pyramid Texts are the epitome of contradiction. There are spells invoking Osiris and spells asking for protection against Osiris; spells hailing Re as god of the dead and other spells naming Osiris. In one text the dead king humbly accepts the job of secretary to the god; in another he threatens to march in and eat Re and the rest unless they submit to his demands.

The contradictions are to some extent resolved if we regard the Pyramid Texts as an anthology, made up of spells from different places and times. And there is a unifying feature. Although a few texts are in the form of hymns to the god, the great majority deal with practical problems: how to reach the hereafter, how to live once one gets there, how to control potential antagonists.

The Pyramid Texts as such were used for the royal dead, although not all the privileges they claim for kings and queens were their sole prerogative. By the Middle Kingdom the magical collection had been taken over by commoners and written on the coffins of the dead. The Coffin Texts were not just the Pyramid Texts in a revised edition and a new medium but include many of the older spells and have the same purpose. In the New Kingdom and thereafter the anthologies of magical incantations, greatly altered and revised, were written on papyrus scrolls, some of them handsomely decorated with miniature scenes, or vignettes, of the life to come. We call these scrolls the “Book of the Dead,” but there were actually a number of different collections, for which the Egyptians had other names—the Book of Gates, the Book of That Which Is in the Afterworld, the Book of Coming Forth by Day.

The Book of the Dead is often mentioned in awed tones by various schools of occultists. However, if a reader has the fortitude to wade through the entire collection, he is left with an impression not of mysterious, occult power, but of practical, thorough organization. The books of the dead, all of them, are guidebooks to the beautiful roads of the West, including useful phrases, explanations of local customs, and hints on how to deal with the natives. A sampling of chapter titles gives some idea of just how thorough the compilation was:


·         Not letting X be bitten by snakes

·         Not dying a second time

·         Not letting the head of a man be cut off from him

·         Drinking water and not being burnt by fire

·         Taking the form of a hawk of gold or what ever a man pleases

·         Bringing along a boat

·         Going into the boat of Re

·         Giving funeral offerings

·         Not allowing the body of a man to decay

·         Not eating filth

·         Making the ushebti figure do work

This is only the briefest sampling; there are hundreds of similar texts. It might be interesting to examine one in detail, to see how it works. If a man wants to avoid being bitten by snakes in the afterworld, he says: “Oh Serpent! I am the flame which shines on the Opener of hundreds of thousands of years, the standard of the god Tenpu.”

Offhand, this may not strike us as very effective. But we are not attuned to this variety of magic. Underlying all the seemingly meaningless verbiage was the basic power of all spells, the power of the word. Even the spoken word had effectiveness; the written was even more powerful, and the very fact that the handsome, and costly, papyrus said, in writing, that these words would eliminate the danger from serpents meant that that danger was thereby eliminated.

Above all, the books of the dead, from Pyramid Texts to papyrus scrolls, decree life for the lifeless. In their affirmation of life, the texts deny death. There is a majestic power, even in our pedantic translations, of the rolling, constantly repeated demand for existence: “King Teti has not died the death! He does not die! This king lives forever!”

Affirmation of a desire or denial of a fear have magical potency in themselves. Some words had more power than others, and one of the most significant magical words was a man’s name. Like his image and his blood and his spittle and all the other elements that resembled him or were part of him, his name contained the essence of his being. In many cultures the names of the gods were sacred, not to be spoken. This is not only respect, it is a reflection of the idea that the name was power. When Herodotus describes the rites of the Dying God in Egypt, he refers to the deity as “a god whose name a religious scruple prevents me from mentioning.” Another example is the name of God which devout Jews refuse to pronounce aloud.

In Egypt, to know the name of a god or of any man or object was to have power over it. The magical texts are full of the phrase, “I know you, I know your name!” The dead man, confronted by the gods who might question his right to enter heaven, gives each of them his name and passes in, triumphant. There is even a spell to keep a man from forgetting his own name—tantamount to a loss of identity and, hence, of existence. The magical compilations were the final bulwark against “dying a second time.” Not only did they protect the dead from danger, but they provided substitutes for necessities which might fail or be missing. And all this could be done for the price of a painted coffin or a written scroll.

Thus, the dead were guarded against possible neglect of their funerary cult and against purely spiritual dangers. Another peril had its magical defense as well. The Egyptians were painfully well aware of the industry of the tomb robber. Ancient tombs gaped forlornly in various abandoned cemeteries, thieves were constantly being punished by local or royal courts. Perhaps the best defense against these ghouls (or redistributors of wealth) was to die and be buried during the reign of a strong, ferocious pharaoh who would put up with no nonsense in the necropoli. But this was at best a temporary expedient; so, once again, the power of the written word was called in to defend the tomb and its occupant.

As for any man who shall enter into this tomb in his impurity, and who shall do a thing evilly against it, or who shall damage any stone or any brick in this tomb, or who shall erase the writing herein, I shall seize his neck like a bird…. I shall be judged with him in the august council of magistrates of the great god. But as for any man who shall enter into this tomb, being pure with regard to it, I shall be his partisan.

From texts like these (the quotation is a composite) come the exciting but incorrect journalists’ stories of “curses” in ancient Egyptian tombs. As our quotation shows, these texts were not so much curses as threats—not of ghostly ghastly attack, but of a lawsuit in the court of the gods! And the threats were not against visitors to the tomb as such, but against violators. In these terms, modern archaeologists should stand high in the favor of the ancient Egyptian kas whose tombs they discover, for most of them would rather cut off a hand than destroy a stone or a sign. They are pure with regard to the tomb. However, archaeology in the early days was not so scrupulous. The world’s great museums include statues, pieces of wall paintings, ushebtis, and the mummies themselves, removed from the tombs. The original owners can be said to have attained a kind of immortality by being placed on display, but it wasn’t publicity they were after. What about the poor soul (pun intended) whose body is in one museum, his canopic jars in another, and his Book of the Dead in a third? And what about the ones whose mummified bodies were ripped apart in the name of science, the protective amulets removed?

Neither threats of divine retribution nor physical barriers availed against the worst desecrators, thieves ancient and modern. Egyptian doctrine could not allow the only sure defense against despoilation—a burial so poor in worldly goods that no robber would waste his time on it. In Egypt you could take it with you. At least you could take your worldly goods as far as the tomb, and the chance that you might succeed in carrying them all the way into the West was well worth the effort.

But what about the men and women who had nothing to take, who could not afford even the cheapest type of embalming? It has been suggested that the poor in Egypt lacked the hope of immortality; there was no “pie in the sky” to make up for the conspicuous lack of that commodity on earth. The theory that the lowest classes gave their dead to the animal scavengers of the river and the desert instead of burying them is contradicted by hundreds of proofs—the graves of ordinary men, women, and children. We see today that people are willing to impoverish themselves to give their dead a “nice” funeral; the principle must have operated even more strongly in Egypt, where survival depended on the preservation of the body and where a cheap, accessible embalming material was available to everyone in the desert sand.

At all periods of Egyptian history the poor found the same grave—a hole in the ground—and they were laid to rest in the dignity of their own unembalmed flesh and bone. These people had no coffins; sometimes the survivors could not spare so much as a pot of food from the scanty house hold store. Yet the naked, hungry soul could have one hope of nourishment. As a beggar squats at a rich man’s gate, the bodies of the poor were often buried near a nobleman’s tomb, where they could catch the crumbs from his well-stocked offering table. This process reached its logical conclusion when the tombs themselves were invaded. Such intrusive burials, tucked cozily away in someone else’s tomb, are common; even the pyramids were not exempt, and some tombs have dozens of burials ranging over many generations. Ironically enough, the poorest of the poor sometimes attained that physical survival which was denied the divine pharaoh. The coffins and sarcophagi, the very unguents used in the ritual of resurrection, helped to destroy the flesh they were designed to protect; and if time and decay spared the royal bones, the tomb robbers did not. There is a moral in all of this, of course; but perhaps we are in no position to sneer at the Egyptians because they failed to see it.


Tomb, mummy, magic, food offerings—in all this there is one conspicuous omission—any reference to an ethical or moral requirement for eternal life. Some scholars believe it was actually missing, that anybody could get to heaven from Egypt if he could pay the price. Contrarily, other scholars have claimed for the Egyptians the “dawn of conscience,” and the first demonstration of righteousness as a prerequisite for immortality.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, as it so often, boringly, does. The phrase “dawn of conscience” comes from James Henry Breasted. His argument, presented with enthusiasm and elegance of expression, was very persuasive; today, however, most Egyptologists would qualify it almost out of recognition. And yet we cannot dismiss all of the Egyptian mortuary cult as magic. There was, for one thing, the Judgment.

On the walls of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece gives an unforgettable picture of the Last Judgment in Christian terms. Christ, enthroned aloft, is not the merciful Redeemer, but the stern Judge. With upraised hand He sifts the risen dead, lifting the blessed into Paradise and sending the wailing shapes of the damned to Hell.

The Egyptian judgment had its majestic aspect too, but it was the formal majesty of the law court, complete with judge and jury, recording secretary, prosecutor, defendant, and witness. Two of our common symbols of law were present in the courtroom—the scales of justice and the goddess of truth. They didn’t mean quite the same to the Egyptians, but they strike an oddly familiar note.

In the Hall of the Two Truths sat the judge, the resurrected Osiris, with his wife Isis behind him. The jury consisted of forty-two personages instead of twelve, and all were gods. In the center of the hall, the focus of the scene, was a huge pair of scales. Thoth, the divine scribe, stood beside it, his pen poised and ready to record the judgment. Sometimes he was accompanied by the goddess Maat, Truth (or Divine Order); sometimes she was represented by a small figure or by the feather which was her symbol, occupying one pan of the scales. In the opposite pan was the heart of the man or woman to be judged. Near the scales hovered one other essential member of the court—a beast with the head of a crocodile, the midsection of a lion, and the hind-quarters of a hippopotamus. Its name was “Devourer of Souls.”

Into the court came Anubis Psychopompos, leading the defendant by the hand. The dead person was dressed in his best, just as he would be for such an occasion today. The dead ladies, in their finest filmy linen and curled wigs, irresistibly suggest the attractive females who try to explain to a sympathetic male jury why they felt it necessary to shoot their husbands.

The image of the feather in the pan of the scales is one I find very appealing. The feather was the symbol of truth, the goddess; but the idea that the heart of the dead man must be so light, so free of evil, as to balance the featherweight on the other pan of the scales is a modern interpretation rather than that of the Egyptians. It is still a significant symbol—the weighing of the heart against truth or divine order, that which was and should be. The scales must balance—and in the scenes of the Judgment, they always do.

The heart was the seat of the emotions and the organ of intelligence, memory, and will. With its accumulated memories of passions and deeds, the heart was the sole witness for or against a man in the case of his own salvation.

This was the Egyptian judgment in its developed form, known to us not only from descriptions in the Book of the Dead but also from the pictures with which such texts were illustrated. The idea of a judging of the dead goes back a long way, however, to a period before the papyrus scrolls came into use, and our knowledge of the earlier conception is not so clear.

The first judge may not have been Osiris. He is called the “Great God,” and although there has been a lot of debate about his real name, we cannot be entirely sure who he was. His identity is less important than his function. Assisted by a tribunal of divine magistrates, he, like Osiris, judged the fitness of the soul for immortality on the basis of the defendant’s plea:

I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked. Never have I done anything evil against any man. I rescued the wretched man from one who was stronger than he. I judged two men so that they might be satisfied. I was respectful to my father, pleasant to my mother. Never did I take a thing belonging to any man. Never have I said anything evil against any person. I spoke truth, I rendered justice.

There is quite a contrast between texts like this, which were written on tombstones of the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, and the Pyramid Texts, which were used at approximately the same time. The truth or falsehood of the claims to virtue are immaterial, as is the possibility that the mere statement of them had magical import. What is important is that they state a moral code, and that a man’s behavior during his lifetime had a bearing on what happened to him after he died. “I spoke truth, I rendered justice.”

However, there has been a lot of debate in Egyptological circles about the key words in that last sentence. They are the same word in Egyptian—the word “maat.” As we mentioned earlier, this word can be translated as “candor” as well as “truth” or “justice.” It has also been read as “the divine order,” that arrangement of the universe which was established by the god creator at the beginning of the world.

Our word “truth” means many things in different contexts, and it is clear that “maat” has no one meaning. The men whose tombstones claim that they spoke maat and rendered maat give a number of specific examples of the acts they thought of as just and true, and these are moral qualities—charity toward the poor, help for the helpless. If these were qualities established by the gods in the beginning, “the divine order,” that order itself had what we would call moral standards.

Later in the First Intermediate Period a royal father, composing a series of precepts for the guidance of his son, had this to say about the day of judgment:

Perform maat while you endure on earth. Quiet the one who weeps; do not oppress the widow; supplant no man in the property of his father; impair no officials at their posts. Be on guard against punishing unfairly…. The council which judges the deficient—you know they are not lenient on that day of judging…. Existence yonder is for eternity…but as for him who reaches it without wrongdoing, he shall exist yonder like a god, striding freely like the lords of eternity!

This is, I think, an impressive statement. My omissions, represented by dots, give the text more coherence than it actually has; but the development of the idea is really there.

At about the same time that King Achtoy wrote his Instructions, the Coffin Texts were beginning to be inscribed. Once again there is a distinct difference between the mortuary magic of the Texts and the mortuary ethics of the Instructions.

After the Coffin Texts came the Book of the Dead; and by now we have reached the judgment as it has been described, with Osiris as supreme judge and all the trappings of the formal court. What about the moral aspect of this version of the judgment?

I am afraid there is some excuse for the attitude of the skeptic, who claims that even this noble concept degenerated into another attempt to reduce all problems to those which could be solved by magic spells. The Book of the Dead is quite wordy about the Judgment. Chapter 125 (the number is that of a modern classification) is the one dealing specifically with the Hall of the Two Truths and what went on there. It gives, at some length, the speech of the defendant to the tribunal. The chapter in question used to be called “The Negative Confession”—a well-turned but essentially meaningless phrase which has now been replaced by other titles such as “The Declaration of Innocence.” In his peroration the dead man makes a statement to each of the forty-two gods, denying that he has committed a particular sin. We find all the Ten Commandments mentioned, except for the first two—Egyptian gods were not at all jealous, and they were very fond of graven images. In place of these there is a long list of crimes and sins. The dead man tells the god “Dangerous of Face” that he has not committed murder, and informs the “Devourer of Shades” that he has not stolen. Lying, assault and battery, deceit, gossip, adultery, general violence, arrogant behavior, inordinate ambition—the list is much longer than the Judeo-Christian catalog of prohibitions, which, we must recall, is also negative in character.

As an implicit ethical code, “The Declaration of Innocence” is fairly impressive. A certain number of rather picayune ritual sins are mentioned, but in general the list compares favorably with any other morality statement I can think of. However, the shining air of virtue is sullied by the fact that this chapter forms part of a book made up almost entirely of magical spells. The format makes it clear that this is only another formula, another incantation against danger. The denial of sin negates the sin, and the gods can be mastered by telling them their names.

But the judge, Osiris, surely reaches his verdict through the evidence given by that impartial witness, the heart. Can the decision of the “Foremost of the Westerners” be subverted by a petty official armed with a papyrus scroll?

It could be; but there is an easier way out of the difficulty. The most disillusioning of all the spells in the Book of the Dead is Chapter 30, the text written on the base of the ubiquitous heart scarabs. Its intent, candidly stated, is to gag that one essential witness: “My heart of my mother! My heart of my mother! Do not stand up against me as witness! Do not create opposition against me as witness! Do not create opposition against me among the magistrates! Do not weigh heavy against me in the presence of the keeper of the scales!”

No, there is not much ethical content in this. It is said that there is more rejoicing in our heaven over a repentant sinner than over many of the faithful. The Egyptian did not even need to repent; all he needed was enough money to buy a scroll that saidhe had repented.

Yet it would not be entirely fair to see in the corruption of the Judgment a shift from primitive ethics to sophisticated cynicism. The Pyramid Texts are just as “magical” as the Book of the Dead, and the later literature contains statements which show not only a striving for moral virtue, but a new humbleness before the god and an awareness of man’s sinful nature. “The Declaration of Innocence” is corrupt, but its content cannot be wholly ignored. To the literal sinner—a category not restricted to ancient Egypt—the magic of the written word might be assurance enough. To a more thoughtful believer, it might be a statement of a creed he had honestly tried to follow. In Egypt even the gods could err; and knowing human courts, the man preparing himself for the judgment from which there was no appeal might feel more secure in the knowledge that he had a written statement of the innocence he had tried to maintain. Perhaps the humble burials of the poor are themselves a testimonial to the enduring faith in the purity of the Judgment. If these men and women could hope for survival, without the aid of heart scarabs or magical scrolls, they must have had some spiritual claim to be included among the followers of Osiris.

There was no appeal from the Judgment; the sentence for the guilty was annihilation, that “dying a second time” which the Egyptians dreaded beyond all else. The little vignettes of the judgment hall always include a picture of the monster called the “Devourer of Souls.” His name makes his role fairly evident, and sometimes he is so impatient for his prey that he stands on his hind legs, fairly drooling. I find this monster rather charming, myself, and it is possible that the Egyptians did not take him too seriously. Even in the scenes where he sits poised, hungrily watching his potential dinner, the dead man smirks and bows, fully confident that the judgment will be in his favor.

We do not find the Egyptian monsters very frightening; the neat crisp drawing and the conventional types reduce them to abstractions. But perhaps the Egyptians were not so blasé about them. It is not always easy to distinguish between gods and demons, for some of the gods were strange composites of men and beasts, and even they might be hostile toward an unprotected spirit. Serpents are among the commonest of the demons; the great enemy of Re, who attacked his boat each night in the Underworld, was a snake named Apophis. However, there is no real Devil in Egyptian theology. Set, the murderer of Osiris, was only evil in specific contexts. He represented the barren desert and the storm, forces of disorder, but he could sometimes be personable and agreeable, holding the ladder for the dead king to mount to heaven and helping Re repel the threatening serpent. In the Nineteenth Dynasty, and perhaps in the Second Dynasty as well, he was one of the patrons of the royal house.


Selected demigods and demons who might interfere with the dead man during his journey to the hereafter (from a mortuary papyrus). Left to right: the Devourer of Souls, a lion-headed god, “Turn-face” the ferryman, a great serpent.

Whether they feared their demons or not, the Egyptians did fear death—the first physical death and that second death from which there was no resurrection. They spent a good part of their lives fighting annihilation, and in so doing they built up the most complicated structure of mortuary ritual any people has ever produced. We are the beneficiaries of it, in terms of museum collections and scholarly books; and perhaps we will not find the painted mummy cases and weird amulets so bizarre if we see, beneath their extravagance, a common human terror and a common hope.

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