History of the Book of the Dead The nature of the afterlife which the dead people enjoyed is difficult to define, because of the differing traditions within Ancient Egyptian religion. In the Book of the Dead, the dead were taken into the presence of the god Osiris, who was confined to the subterranean Duat. There are also spells to enable the ba or akh of the dead to join Ra as he travelled the sky in his sun-barque, and help him fight off Apep. As well as joining the Gods, the Book of the Dead also depicts the dead living on in the ‘Field of Reeds’, a paradisiac likeness of the real world. The Field of Reeds is depicted as a lush, plentiful version of the Egyptian way of living. There are fields, crops, oxen, people and waterways. The deceased person is shown encountering the Great Ennead, a group of gods, as well as his or her own parents. While the depiction of the Field of Reeds is pleasant and plentiful, it is also clear that manual labour is required. For this reason, burials included a number of statuettes named shabti, or later ushebti. These statuettes were inscribed with a spell, also included in the Book of the Dead, requiring them to undertake any manual labour that might be the owner’s duty in the afterlife. It is also clear that the dead not only went to a place where the gods lived, but that they acquired divine characteristics themselves. In many occasions, the deceased is mentioned as “The Osiris – [Name]” in the Book of the Dead.

Two ‘gate spells’. On the top register, Ani and his wife face the ‘seven gates of the House of Osiris’. Below, they encounter ten of the 21 ‘mysterious portals of the House of Osiris in the Field of Reeds’. All are guarded by unpleasant protectors.

The path to the afterlife as laid out in the Book of the Dead was a difficult one. The deceased was required to pass a series of gates, caverns and mounds guarded by supernatural creatures. These terrifying entities were armed with enormous knives and are illustrated in grotesque forms, typically as human figures with the heads of animals or combinations of different ferocious beasts. Their names—for instance, “He who lives on snakes” or “He who dances in blood”—are equally grotesque. These creatures had to be pacified by reciting the appropriate spells included in the Book of the Dead; once pacified they posed no further threat, and could even extend their protection to the dead person. Another breed of supernatural creatures was ‘slaughterers’ who killed the unrighteous on behalf of Osiris; the Book of the Dead equipped its owner to escape their attentions. As well as these supernatural entities, there were also threats from natural or supernatural animals, including crocodiles, snakes, and beetles.