How Ancient Egyptians Would Join the Gods After Death

New analysis of a First Book of Breathing papyrus sheds light on its derivation from the Book of the Dead and postmortem deification in ancient Egypt – for those who could afford it

Ruth Schuster
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The Book of the Dead papyrus of Pinedjem II, 21st dynasty, circa 990-969 B.C.E. This scene depicts Pinedjem II in his role of High Priest making an offering to the god Osiris.
The Book of the Dead papyrus of Pinedjem II, 21st dynasty, circa 990-969 B.C.E. This scene depicts Pinedjem II in his role of High Priest making an offering to the god Osiris.Credit: British Museum
Ruth Schuster

Death has preoccupied us since the dawn of our species. Elaborate burial may not even have been Homo sapiens’ exclusive fief, but mortuary rites to stave off terror of the Great Nothingness certainly reached new heights with our species. Among the most enthralling to us was the ancient Egyptians’ literally spellbinding practice of shepherding the dearly departed to the next world.

Essentially, well-to-do Egyptians were buried with manuals to help the deceased transition to the afterlife and join the gods. Now a new analysis of one such treatise – Papyrus FMNH 31324, containing an edition of the First Book of Breathing – has shed light on its derivation, and on ancient Egyptian funerary literature in general. Foy Scalf, head of Research Archives at the University of Chicago, published his analysis in .

Deification, capitalist style

Starting about 4,400 years ago, elaborate funerary texts were inscribed on the walls of ancient Egyptian pyramids and sarcophagi. The Book of the Dead began to appear around 3,700 to 3,500 years ago, and that in turn begat three types of Book of Breathing – manuals on how to achieve deification and generally manage in the afterlife, including how to breathe after death, Scalf told Haaretz.

The three Books of Breathing were a “Letter for Breathing” ostensibly written by Isis for her brother Osiris; the First Book of Breathing; and the Second Book of Breathing.

Mereruka vizier's funeral statue in front of his false door at his Saqqara tomb
Mereruka vizier's funeral statue in front of his false door at his Saqqara tomb.Credit: HoremWeb

All these books, whether inscribed on a pyramid wall or coffin or penned on a papyrus, fulfilled the same basic purpose: to help the owner of the text join the gods in the afterlife. But to be clear, these are not books as we think of books, Scalf says. They’re collections of spells written on papyruses. Nor were the texts canonical. Books of Breathing varied in wording and illustrations, and so did the Books of the Dead. (Ancient versions of biblical texts since canonized also had variants.)

He adds that the pyramid texts, coffin texts and Book of the Dead are related, with a clear transmission of spells over time. The three Books of Breathing are almost exclusively written on papyri, while the earlier funerary literature was found all over various materials and in the tomb itself, Scalf adds.

Mammon ascendant

Asked about the differences between the three Books of Breathing, Scalf explains that all have the same purpose and roughly similar content – collections of spells. He also points out that all were handwritten, and hence no two were exactly alike. But among other things, Isis’ text tells the user to roll up the papyrus, wrap it in linen and place it under the mummy’s left arm. The First Book of Breathing instructs that it should be placed under the head; the Second Book of Breathing says to place it under the feet. In one variation, the text found in a woman’s grave includes the First and Second Books of Breathing on a single papyrus.

One might assume deification was the privilege of the elites, but it was not so, Scalf explains. Rather, it was the privilege of anybody who could afford it.

Book of the Dead spell 17 from the Papyrus of Ani.
Book of the Dead spell 17 from the Papyrus of Ani.Credit: British Museum

“Burials in ancient Egypt range from simply being placed in a shallow hole in the desert all the way up to sumptuous tombs, and everything in between,” Scalf says. “As far as we know, what was provided for you at death was related to your wealth in life.”

Just like a latter-day millionaire might build a fancy mausoleum in a “name” cemetery, ancient Egyptians prepared for death with what they could afford. People buried with Books of Breathing were those with enough disposable income to afford a burial and a relatively expensive papyrus.

Or more than one. Some would be buried with two texts – say, a Book of the Dead and a Book of Breathing; or different versions of the Book of Breathing; or some other funerary text. There is even one known case of four texts and one of five, Scalf says.

Why would anybody need more than one “afterlife” papyrus? We think of the Book of the Dead as a singular item but the ancient Egyptians didn’t, he explains. Religious literature to them was always multiple, manifold and diverse. Put otherwise, perhaps those who could afford it were hedging their bets. Maybe they felt it was a matter of prestige, whether in the here-and-now or hereafter.

As for the mighty pharaohs, they didn’t need papyrusial pap. “Royalty had their spells placed on more robust media such as tomb walls, sarcophagi, coffins, masks, statues, and anywhere else the texts could be inscribed,” Scalf notes.

Papyrus of Hunefer
Papyrus of Hunefer.Credit: British Museum

Spell against crocodiles

The mortuary papyruses were individualized to the extent that they would bear the name of the dearly departed at the beginning – for instance, “This First Book of Breathing is placed under the head of ____ [fill in the blank].” Sad to relate, we don’t know for whom the bell of Papyrus FMNH 31324 tolled because the first column of text is missing and the name is gone.

As for the differences between the books, in the Book of the Dead the individual spells are separated and , Scalf says. For example, how to navigate the underworld (spells 98 to 112), and to breathe and drink water (spells 54 to 63). The First Book of Breathing stemmed from spells in the Book of the Dead, but the content was reshaped from individual spells into a single continuous composition, Scalf explains.

It was also reedited. The scribes chose which spells to copy into the First Book of Breathing – omitting some, adding some and reinterpreting some.

“The scribes were very keen on what they were putting in and leaving out,” he says. The selected spells appear in the same order as in the original Book of the Dead – the older, authoritative text.

Pyramid Texts from Pyramid of Teti I in Saqqara.
Pyramid Texts from Pyramid of Teti I in Saqqara.Credit: Chipdawes

What did they keep and what did they leave out? The First Book of Breathing omits spells 30 to 41, which in the Book of the Dead engage mainly in repelling noxious forces . The latter may have been revered in some form at some time, but are quite the hazard on the Nile.

Then the papyrus jumps to spell 42, which lists body parts and their divine parallels. “My hair is Nu; my face is Ra; my eyes are Hathor…” In other words, the scribe skipped apotropaic spells and picked theologically significant ones involved in deifying the deceased, Scalf explains. Also included is justification before Osiris against their enemies and the heart being weighed in balance.

Papyrus FMNH 31324 specifically contains an abridged version of the First Book of Breathing, breaking off after the identification of the deceased’s body parts with deities, Scalf says. He also notes that this particular manuscript is, “on the whole, well-written and free from egregious scribal errors” – but there are some mistakes, of the kind typical when copying from a source. Embarrassing.

Being Osiris

One thing the First Book of Breathing has that the older Book of the Dead doesn’t is a starter where the deceased commands the attention of the gods: “O gods of the underworld, turn your face toward me…”

Fragment of coffin of Muthetepi (c. 747 - 656 BCE, Third intermediate period, 25th dynasty), gesso, paint, ink on wood. Book of the Dead, spell 79: attaching the soul to the body; and spell 80: preventing incoherent speech.
Fragment of coffin of Muthetepi (c. 747 - 656 B.C.E.). Book of the Dead, spell 79: attaching the soul to the body; and spell 80: preventing incoherent speech.Credit: Alan Scott Walker

In contrast to liturgical prose in other traditions, this is no groveling bleat. If anything, the deceased blusters. “Be aware of me because I’m so powerful,” Scalf says. “It starts with the deceased taking on the persona of the sun god: I am Ra, the sun god, as he rises and sets.”

Scalf suspects, however, that this addition to the First Book of Breathing does actually stem from the Book of the Dead, spells 15 and 16, which were about the rising and setting sun. From a hymn to the god, in the First Book of Breathing, the spells morphed to the dead becoming Ra and the gods taking notice of him.

Could absolutely anybody be deified? In theory, yes, becoming an Osiris through the funerary rites and ritual spells, if they could afford them, he says.

Becoming Ra, becoming Osiris ... Haaretz is confused. “After death, the individual hoped to join the solar-Osirian cycle,” Scalf explains. “Re [Ra] and Osiris were really poles on a continuum. Re went into the underworld at night and rejoined with Osiris so that he would be rejuvenated into the sky at dawn. The dead wanted the same thing and the dead’s ba-soul was symbolic of its solar association and the corpse was symbolic of its Osirian association.”

Aha. “In this regard, the spells in the Book of the Dead and the First Book of Breathing often suggested that the dead person would take on the persona of various gods, including, but not limited to, both Re and Osiris,” Scalf continues. “So the dead did not ‘become Re,’ in the sense of supplanting the god, but took on elements of the god’s identity as their own.”

Book of the Dead spells 144 and 145 or 146 from the Papyrus of Ani.
Book of the Dead spells 144 and 145 or 146 from the Papyrus of Ani.Credit: British Museum

In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of ancient Egypt, which is when the Books of Breathing were used, most burials were multiple: several mummies would be placed into a single tomb. It even seems that the Breathing papyri were wrapped up with the mummy itself, since he or she wasn’t alone, Scalf says – lest perhaps the spells affect the wrong body. That would indeed be embarrassing.

And what about the poor slobs left in a shallow pit in the sand? They were probably doomed to the Great Nothingness.

Book of the Dead papyrus of Hunefer.
Book of the Dead papyrus of Hunefer.Credit: British Museum

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