Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text generally written on papyrus and used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BC) to around 50 BC. The original Egyptian name for the text, transliterated r(ꜣ)w n(y)w prt m hrw(w), is translated as Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. “Book” is the closest term to describe the loose collection of texts consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife and written by many priests over a period of about 1,000 years. Karl Richard Lepsius introduced for these texts the German name Todtenbuch (modern spelling Totenbuch), translated to English as Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead, which was placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased, was part of a tradition of funerary texts which includes the earlier Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, which were painted onto objects, not written on papyrus. Some of the spells included in the book were drawn from these older works and date to the 3rd millennium BC. Other spells were composed later in Egyptian history, dating to the Third Intermediate Period (11th to 7th centuries BC). A number of the spells which make up the Book continued to be separately inscribed on tomb walls and sarcophagi, as the spells from which they originated always had been.
Egyptian concepts of death and afterlife Preservation
One aspect of death was the disintegration of the various kheperu, or modes of existence. Funerary rituals served to re-integrate these different aspects of being. Mummification served to preserve and transform the physical body into sah, an idealized form with divine aspects; the Book of the Dead contained spells aimed at preserving the body of the deceased, which may have been recited during the process of mummification. The heart, which was regarded as the aspect of being which included intelligence and memory, was also protected with spells, and in case anything happened to the physical heart, it was common to bury jeweled heart scarabs with a body to provide a replacement. The ka, or life-force, remained in the tomb with the dead body, and required sustenance from offerings of food, water and incense. In case priests or relatives failed to provide these offerings, Spell 105 ensured the ka was satisfied. The name of the dead person, which constituted their individuality and was required for their continued existence, was written in many places throughout the Book, and spell 25 ensured the deceased would remember their own name. The ba was a free-ranging spirit aspect of the deceased. It was the ba, depicted as a human-headed bird, which could “go forth by day” from the tomb into the world; spells 61 and 89 acted to preserve it. Finally, the shut, or shadow of the deceased, was preserved by spells 91, 92 and 188. If all these aspects of the person could be variously preserved, remembered, and satiated, then the dead person would live on in the form of an akh. An akh was a blessed spirit with magical powers who would dwell among the gods.