Book of the Dead

In Egypt during the New Kingdom (c.1500-1295 B.C.E.), it became the customary funerary practice to place a papyrus scroll in the tomb next to the body of the dead. This scroll, commonly called the Book of the Dead, contained a collection of magical spells, prayers, and hymns designed to guide the deceased and ensure a safe passage through the next world.

Many of the texts which comprise the Book of the Dead originated in pre or early Dynastic times and are found in the Pyramid Texts of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (c. 2450-2250 B.C.E.) and the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2025-1700 B.C.E). However, the Book of the Dead itself, does not actually represent a standard collection of texts. It exists in many different versions or recensions. Standard passages do recur, but there is great variation from copy to copy. Even the most beautifully exicuted examples appear to be quite haphazardly put together with vital chapters missing and others senselessy repeated. Errors are also quite common. It would not be until the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (663-525 B.C.E.) that a "standardized" version would be established.

During the Greco-Roman period, the tradition of accompaning the dead with a copy of the Book of the Dead degendeated. Often, it didn't matter what book accompanied the dead nor if it was complete. Only that the dead were accompanied by a "book." This practice lead to the preservation and rediscovery of a few lost literary manuscripts.

Although the text varied from copy to copy, most scribes followed a general pattern for the layout of the scroll. Each section of the scroll was enclosed in a ruled border which was often colored. The text was arranged in vertical columns separated by lines. Titles were written in horizontal bands above the text. The titles and instructions for the spells are often written in red.

Equally as important as the text, were the vignettes or illustrations which accompanied the spells. Depending on cost and the tastes of the time, the vignettes ranged from simple black line drawlings highlighted in red to beautifully painted scenes. Often, the more beautiful the illustrations, the poorer the text.

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