The Book of the Dead was Egyptians' inside guide to the underworld

For centuries, Egyptian royalty guarded the sacred rituals that guaranteed divine favor after death, but over time all Egyptians, both rich and poor, could possess its secrets.

The Book of the Dead helped Egyptians prepare for the afterlife where Osiris, god of the underworld, would judge them.
Photograph by SCALA, FLORENCE

In 1842, the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius transformed understanding of Egyptian spirituality after he published a collection of ancient mortuary texts. Known in ancient Egypt as “The Chapters of Going Forth by Day,” Lepsius dubbed it the Book of the Dead. Its 200 chapters are a thrilling insight into beliefs about the trials, joys, and fears on the journey into death’s mysterious realm.

For centuries, it was assumed the writings found in Egyptian tombs were passages from ancient scripture. Later, when scholars learned to decipher hieroglyphs, they discovered that these texts were spells—magic “road maps” provided to the dead to navigate their way safely through the afterlife. (Explore the 4,400-year-old untouched tomb discovered at Saqqara.)

Although scholars had known of the magical content of the writings before Lepsius’s publication, his careful ordering of the spells and the assigning of a chapter number to each is the system still used to study them today. However, there is no uniform version of the Book of the Dead. Of the many versions of the spells that have been found, the texts’construction are not exactly alike—yet the arrangement of Lepsius’s publication helped scholars to see this body of work as a more coherent whole.

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