Book of the Dead, Book of the Amduat, Book of Caverns, Coffin Texts, Book of the Night, Book of the Earth, Book of Gates - these and more comprise a group of ancient Egyptian texts which describe the journey of Ra through the night world and, by extension, that of the dead soul following his pattern. First discovered by Champollion in the Valley of the Kings in 1829, they were pretty much dismissed as priestly fantasies by subsequent Egyptologists, though Maspero and Lefébure worked on deciphering some of the books in the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did scholars like Piankoff and Hornung begin to really study this rich material.
But I can understand why some were initially put off. I even found myself commenting last week to a friend, “The ancient Egyptians were in their own way just as nutty as the early Christians!” (If you’ve read all the lately-translated apocryphal texts you’ll know what I mean.) Hornung’s The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife is a blow-by-blow description of what you see in the accompanying drawings. Page after page of embellishments, fantastical netherworld characters, and attempts to graphically illustrate esoteric concepts begin to make me a bit dizzy. I start to wonder just how much artistic license the different priest-artist-scribes employed while creating their masterpieces.
But I’ve reconsidered. Some say that pre-industrial people did not distinguish between the physical and the realm of the soul, as we do now. Certainly, the written record indicates that Egyptians viewed every part of existence as infused with meaning and spirit. The books of the afterlife predominantly depict and describe these ideas, illustrated with a seemingly-endless pantheon of otherworldly deities and characters. Hence, a human figure with the head of an cobra can stand for the motherly protection for which the cobra was noted. A floating pair of arms may denote protection, or the reverential passing of the sun disk from one place to another. Mummies are shown which have waked from the dead and turned over in their coffin, the implication being that they are about to rise and walk into a new life. And snakes - there are a lot of snakes, some of them a protective coil or ourobouros, and others represent the sinister Apep (or Apophis).
Egyptian culture was one that valued dreams and the numinous. The Duat was nothing if not liminal, poised as it was on the edges between life and death and new life, between conscious and subconscious, between this world and the next. I can imagine that priests who were truly devoted to their practice and craft would birth fresh ideas in the course of temple life. No doubt, some also wanted to impress the client with elaborate products that might be perceived as better than the last client’s - though most of these works were found in tombs of pharaohs. The texts also span many centuries and several locales; given how different English communications now are radically different from only 400 years ago, I would likewise expect Egyptian texts to show some evolution.
The afterlife books also remind me of the value of personal gnosis. Our scientific era has made this a dicey subject - how can gnosis replace so-called verifiable fact? But ancient Egyptians understood the importance of those insights which can only emerge from within, from the dark waters of the Duat, or from the watery interior of Nut’s body (through which the sun also passed during the night). Pondering the mysteries of the afterlife texts is like stepping into those waters and exploring, one foot in the conscious world and one in that of the soul.