Egyptian Book of the Dead: literary and philosophical value?

Mar 2012
2,351
#1
Good Day All.

I recently finished listening to a translation of the Papyrus of Ani, a personalized copy of the Book of the Dead, or, as the Egyptians called it, The Book of Coming Forth By Day.

The book is a series of spells, magic words, god and demon names, negative confessions, and incantations that guarantee the dead transition to the afterlife. I was overcome by the compelling poetic quality of the words, even translated into a language that did not exist when they were written. This is one of the few I think it is better to listen to on audiobook, as it has a certain pleasing hypnotic quality. I have also heard advocationists claim that the words have a philosophical meaning beyond their intended magical/religious quality.

I thought it would be fun to have a conversation about the deeper importance, if any, or this work.
 
Nov 2016
968
Germany
#2
the deeper importance
First of all one should grasp the basic message of the Book of the Dead, which by the way is not a book in the actual sense, but an unsystematic collection of texts from different epochs. It is about guiding the soul of the dead to the attainment of eternal life. According to ancient Egyptian doctrine, this only works through the mechanism of the so-called Solar-Osirian Unity.

In the world of the gods, the solar cycle starts with the sun god Re being born in the morning from the womb of the sky goddess Nut, which is equated with the realm of the dead, the Duat. So the Duat is functionally a womb, which should always be kept in mind. The sun god then travels through the sky and returns to the Duat in the evening, i.e. he enters again the womb of his mother Nut, who swallows him with her mouth. According to the Amduat, at the moment of this dying/being swallowed begins for the sun god the 12-hour journey through the Duat, which is full of dangers and threatens his continued existence and thus the existence of the world. In the given context, the sixth hour is decisive when Ra approaches the corpse of Osiris, the god of the dead, and finally merges with it to form a unity, the so-called Solar-Osirian Unity. In this moment the almost extinct vital force of the sun god is regenerated and his vigor rises to 100 percent. This gives him the strength to master the challenges in the following hours and finally to be reborn.

The concept of the sun god passing through the sky and of the god of the dead resting as a corpse in the Duat implies the idea of the splitting of a being into a soul (ba) and a material body. Ra represents the soul (the Ba of Ra, as it is called) and Osiris the material body. In the world of the gods, the sky journey of Ra, through which he gives life energy to the world, presupposes his separation from his Osirian physical component, for united with this body he obviously could not accomplish that task.

From a philosophical point of view, this reminds of Hegel's philosophy, which understands the process of world history as the self-discovery of a world spirit divided into consciousness and matter. This division, I think, corresponds to the splitting of the Ba of Ra (soul) and Osiris (corpse). Hegel knew the Egyptian religion well, as far as it was possible in his time, and therefore certainly received a stimulus for his own system. I will go into this in more detail some other time.

As far as the dead human individual is concerned, for whom the texts of the Book of the Dead are written, of course a completely different ontology applies than that of the sun god, as far as he functionally secures the existence of the world, since it is about securing the eternal continued existence of the individual in a blissful state. For this purpose, the instructions in the death book use two methods:

(1)
The dead person is requested to identify with all kind of important gods in order to gain maximum power. These gods include Ra, Atum, Osiris, Thot, Horus, Isis, Nephthys, Sekhmet, Wadjet and others. Such identification is independent of the sex of the deceased, i.e. men should also identify with goddesses and women with gods.

It should be noted here that in order to attain a favorable fate in the realm of the dead, dead women must first simulate a male identity, since in the patriarchal thinking of the Egyptians of those centuries women per se cannot attain immortality, so in the realm of the dead they must first pretend to be male. Only when they have attained bliss can they return to their original sex. To make this possible, the artists who worked the coffins of wealthy women used various tricks. Firstly, the name of the dead woman was linked with the name of Osiris, which, according to the magical thinking of the Egyptians, contributed to the masculinization of the dead woman. In the accompanying texts she was further referred to by the pronoun "he", which was expected to have a similar effect. The decoration of the coffin with pictures of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, responsible for Osiris, and the naming of Nut as the mother of the dead woman also served to feign masculinity.

(2)
The identification with Ra is the most essential of all, since only through being Ra can eternal existence be attained, in such a way that the dead person as Ra merges with Osiris and thus attains eternal vitality. The surrounding context, as it appears in the cycle of the sun god, is blanked out, since the dead has nothing to do with the continued existence of the world. By becoming one with the corpse of Osiris as Ra - or as Ba of Ra - the dead man thus achieves eternal life.

It is not really clear how this should be imagined in detail. Darnell says that the corpse of Osiris is a womb into which the Ba of Ra enters. However, as I have already stated in the Akhenaten thread, the representation of Osiris on the second shrine of Tutankhamun reveals that the Ba of Ra is not generally localized in the body of Osiris, but very precisely in his abdomen region corresponding to the womb, which is signaled by the circular shape, which in Egyptian iconography is strikingly often equated with the womb. So Osiris represents the original mother function of Nut, from whose womb, the Duat, he is the ruler. One could say that the womb of Osiris is a doubling of the womb of Nut, so to speak, a womb in the womb.
 
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Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,976
Crows nest
#3
There is no Hell as we know it as when we get to the "horror" elements in the various texts, and they are more for illustration of dangers, but these dangers are always overcome, so no Egyptians ever actually burned in lakes of fire even if they believed such lakes existed. The ultimate horror for them was the second death, the destruction of the soul. We can though see where our idea of hell came from, as this excerpt from the fifth hour of the Amduat shows.

Translation by Erik Hornung and adapted slightly by me to scan better as this is not from a papyrus meant to be read as a "story", but to accompany images on the wall of the tomb.

The horned one.

Backward facing who catches with the lasso.

The demolishing one who cuts the damned to pieces,

They are those who stand punishing the damned in the Netherworld.

What they have to do is to burn the corpses of the damned with the scorching breath of their mouths every day.

---------

She lives from the blood of the damned and from what these gods provide her.

He who knows her passes by her in peace.

Oh! butchers belonging to the slaughter block who are busy punishing the damned!

May your words rise and may your magic be brilliant!

Efficiency for your Ba, strength for your power!

Grind the enemies that you annihilate the damned and cut down the shadows of the annihilated!

Punished be all your damned!

You are the one who address Osiris who inquire because of the Perfect Being!

May your knives be sharp, your slaughtering blocks violating and your rope tight.

May your arms hold fast on the images among which you are, that I may pass by you in peace.


So rather a bit of a nightmare journey at this point, but you always get through it. The not so hidden subtext being that the knives and slaughtering blocks are not for you if you are strong and righteous, and that resurrection and everlasting life will be yours.
 
Likes: Edratman

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,815
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#4
I would start from the literary value of the "Book of Death" [as we call this collection]. It's a symbolic text written using a symbolic writing system. It's the triumph of semiotics!

A part that this has generated room for interpretation and different translations [Wallis Budge has left his usual contribution also about the "Chapter of the Coming Forth by Day" [he uses the word "chapter"], the literary value of this composition is enormous and pivotal if we want to understand how, during many centuries, the basic structure of the hieroglyphic writing system remain substantially unchanged.

As a comparison, think to Latin. Also Latin had used for many centuries [but really many, still in Renaissance Latin was the erudite language of culture and science]. But Latin evolved a lot. I know Latin and I'm able to recognize classical Latin and Medieval Latin [the difference is absolutely evident, you can trust me about this]. But what about hieroglyphics? They didn't evolve so much about their look, they evolved about their usage [philological studies about hieroglyphics exist and they are really fascinating].

The point is that Latin was written using an alphabet, not symbolic signs.

So that, from a literary perspective the "Book of Death" can be considered like a kind of never-ending model [like the models we use in Microsoft Word ...] which had used by the persons approaching their last moment in this material world.

So, it's a philological treasure with very archaic forms next to evolved forms.

This is to say that also the literary [we could say "technical"] value of the "Book of Death" is extraordinary.
 
Likes: Edratman
Nov 2016
968
Germany
#5
I have also heard advocationists claim that the words have a philosophical meaning beyond their intended magical/religious quality.
(Who are, please, the "Advocationists"?)

The Book of the Dead has no real philosophical meaning in the full sense, simply because what we understand by philosophy today presupposes an abstract way of thinking that the Egyptians could not yet have at that time. Philosophy historically begins where thought turns away from the mythological constructs of religion and introduces abstract concepts that do not involve anthropomorphism or naive metaphorization. Anaximander of Milet in Greece is the first to do this step. He entered the stage in the early 6th century BCE, at the time of the Solonic Reforms, as a metaphysician who approached Brahmanic and Buddhist insights like hardly anyone else after him in the Occident. His idea of the primordial cause of all things is completely free of mythological associations, as can still be felt in his teacher Thales, who believes that the world is filled with gods. Anaximander describes this cause or origin as 'Apeiron', the boundless:

Everything is either origin or from an origin, but the Apeiron has no origin. That would be the boundary for him. Furthermore, it is both unfathomable and imperishable, since it is origin (...) Therefore, as I said, there is no origin of this origin, but this origin seems to be the origin of the other things, encompassing and directing everything. And that is the divine, immortal and imperishable.

Unlike the Egyptians, who think the ultimate origin as water (nun), the Apeiron of Anaximander has no material nature, it is entirely abstract and thus a philosophical term, similar to the Brahman of the Upanishads or the Nirvana of the Buddha.

But there are undoubtedly approaches to abstract thinking in Ancient Egypt, for example the conceptual distinction between "neheh" and "djet". Neheh is the processual time in which something develops, it is linked to sun god Ra, who exists cyclically and dynamically. It´s the dimension of history. The other form of time, djet, is linked to Osiris and refers to perfection and accomplishment that persists in timelessness, as imagined in the blessed realms of heaven and the Sechet-Iaru. This dimension exists beyond history.

Another question is what kind of secret knowledge the Egyptian priests had that was not expressed in the official texts, i.e. esoteric knowledge in contrast to exoteric, i.e. official knowledge. I will come back to that.

So rather a bit of a nightmare journey at this point, but you always get through it.
That's right. After all, the deceased paid half a fortune during their lifetime for the texts the production of which was very expensive. So whoever had these texts in his or her tomb did not have to worry about continued existence.

But the lake of fire is probably not only a metaphor or "illustration", but a fire imagined as real, which can consume and extinguish a soul. The concept was derived from the real death penalty by burning, which was imposed for some capital crimes, probably including adultery by women.
 
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Likes: Edratman

Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,976
Crows nest
#6
The lake of fire is a clever construct, for enemies of Ra it is indeed a hellish lake of fire, but for those who are not enemies of Ra and can understand the nature of the world they find themselves in, and can understand themselves, it is a lake of water from which they can drink. Likewise we have a similar situation with the "demons", for while they are dangerous, the texts are in part an admonition to them to be ready to deal with any enemies, therefore those who understand them and are not enemies can pass in peace, the real danger being chaos in the form of Apopis, or of your own inner demons.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,617
#7
Funny thing about the Egyptians, they do abstract, but their abstractions are associative rather than logical and reductionist.

The general concepts behind the Book of the Dead is the distinction between the created and the uncreated world. The latter is a source of power, but in order to tap into that, which cosmically needs to occur on a daily basis, as the world is renewed. The dead travels into the underworld like Ra travels into the underword, and as this occurs all the fundamental aspects of the created world, in particular time, distance and identity, starts breaking down. That why the distances travelled can be near infinite, spanning millennia of time, while still taking place within the confines of a single night in the the created world. Most importantly, for the miracle of life eternal to be achieved, as identity breaks down the identities of Ra, Osiris and the dead become indistinguishable. That's how the deceased "becomes an Osiris".

The assumption abstract thinking was beyond the Egyptians because it doesn't quite resemble the Greeks, is a bit of overestimation of the Greeks really. Probably one that might have surprised them, considered their rather open admiration for a bunch of things Egyptian.
 
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Nov 2016
968
Germany
#8
The lake of fire is a clever construct
As to the construction of their concepts, the Egyptians were indeed very inventive. This is particularly evident when certain doctrines that were perceived as annoying could be circumvented by exceptions. Two examples: Normally it was necessary for the survival of a deceased in the afterlife that the bereaved regularly left food in his tomb. But because such measures could delay for some reason, perhaps permanently, the alternative was devised that if necessary it would be sufficient to place pictures of food in the tomb, which magically serve the same purpose. Another example I mentioned above: the temporary masculinization of dead women by various tricks, so that they reach bliss in the dead realm. Thus the gods were deliberately deceived...

therefore those who understand them and are not enemies can pass in peace, the real danger being chaos in the form of Apopis, or of your own inner demons.
Are there any indications that those demons were actually thought as "inner", or is this a psychological interpretation on your part?

The general concepts behind the Book of the Dead is the distinction between the created and the uncreated world. The latter is a source of power, but in order to tap into that, which cosmically needs to occur on a daily basis, as the world is renewed.
I'm glad you're interested in this subject. Could you specify what you mean by the concepts of the created and the uncreated world? Sky and underworld are created, if you look at the story about the Celestial Cow. Instead of the eternal day of primeval times, Ra creates the contrast of day and night. Instead of being eternally stabile like in primeval times, the sun must now complete a cycle through the sky and the underworld. Uncreated are actually only the Nun, the primeval water, the sun god, who arises by himself from the Nun, whereby this "by himself" is only relative, because it presupposes the Nun, so the sun god does not create himself from nothing. In one place Ra speaks to Nun:

O eldest god, in whom I came into being...

Nun ist obviously addressed as father, but has here the function of a mother, since water as a source of birth is usually linked with goddesses. Thus Nun as a primordial father is, like Atum in the Heliopolitan creation myth, the result of a patriarchal inversion of the older motif of a primordial mother goddess.

How the other deities originated is not told in the myth, at least I didn´t find a description of it.

In the Heliopolitan creation myth, Atum arises from the water and creates by masturbating Shu and Tefnut, who create the next generation, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Here it is clear that only the water and, in some way, Atum are uncreated.

But maybe you know of another concept of ´created´ and ´uncreated´?

That why the distances travelled can be near infinite, spanning millennia of time, while still taking place within the confines of a single night in the the created world.
What clues do the texts have that indicate that the experience of time in the hereafter is completely different from that in the earthly world?
 
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Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,976
Crows nest
#9
Are there any indications that those demons were actually thought as "inner", or is this a psychological interpretation on your part
In the first instance what we are shown in the Amduat, and all the other texts, is extraordinarily complex, as you well know, and this complexity mirrors the workings of our own minds as it is a construct of our mind, so in that sense as the demons in the duat are our creations, then they our inner demons.

At another level, a level within a level, the lake of fire is a mirror of our souls, so if inside we are fundamentally good, or have a good attitude to our position in that we understand where we are and how we should act and proceed, that is within the Duat in the first instance, but in our subconscious at another level, then the lake of fire becomes a lake of water. If we are flawed then it remains a lake of fire.

This is my take on the Jungian analysis of the Amduat espoused by Abt, Hornung, Schweizer, and to an extent by Cavalli. My precise analogy of the lake of fire being a mirror of our souls is my own, as is my explanation of inner demons.
 
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Nov 2016
968
Germany
#10
this complexity mirrors the workings of our own minds as it is a construct of our mind, so in that sense as the demons in the duat are our creations, then they our inner demons.
This is my take on the Jungian analysis of the Amduat espoused by Abt, Hornung, Schweizer, and to an extent by Cavalli.
I am more of a Freudian than a Jungian and am therefore skeptical about a Jungian interpretation from the outset. That does not mean, however, that I would fundamentally reject a psychologizing interpretation of the Amduat in the sense that the authors conceived the described events and figures as a journey into the interior of the soul, of course without making this concept explicit. The only problem is that there are no sufficient clues for such a view that Jung and Hornung and others hold and with which you have befriended.

Hornung, by the way, seems to assume that the Egyptians had applied this concept unconsciously, which I find confusing, because it does not make sense to me how the journey in the underworld could have been designed as a soul journey unconsciously, i.e. without consciously intending it. You could just as well say that someone was drawing a triangle, but unconsciously meant a square. Wouldn't that sound weird?

Unfortunately I miss the original texts by Jung and Hornung in detail. Insofar as they allude to the interior of the soul, to which soul type do they refer in the Egyptian context? To the Ba, to the Ka? These are the main concepts of soul which the Amduat authors had, so if those authors would have intented to describe a journey into the soul, which type of soul? And were the Ba and/or the Ka imagined to have an ´interior´ by the Egyptians?

So what indications are there that the Egyptians had an idea of an interior of the soul at all? As for dreams, for example, their contents were not thought to be located within the soul, but interpreted as messages from the gods.

So wouldn't it be possible that Jung and Hornung and others project the modern concept of psychic depth and interiority anachronistically onto the ideas of the Amduat authors?

There is no doubt that deep psychological factors were at work in the production of the Amduat, of course, but probably not in the sense that the authors were aware of these factors (and that they unconsciously applied these factors seems to me, as I said, absurd). Rather, from today's psychoanalytical point of view, these factors are recognizable as unconscious mechanisms in the creation of a religious-symbolic narrative.

I assume, however, that the flood of images did not originate exclusively from the metaphorizing imagination of the authors, but also from old shamanistic material that had been visioned in possibly drug-induced trances.
 
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