Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Background information on the Book of the Dead - formulae for going out in the day


What is the Book of the Dead?

            A group of about two hundred formulae for securing eternal life, from which a selection is found in manuscripts written for elite burials from the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) to the end of the Ptolemaic Period. The same formulae are found on many other supports, from tomb walls to single objects placed in the tomb or religious setting.


Why is it called the Book of the Dead?

            This is the name given by Richard Lepsius to the group in his 1843 publication of a Ptolemaic Period manuscript with the longest selection of the formulae known to him. This was the first modern edition of the formulae. The name was retained by Edouared Naville for his 1883 publication of New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) manuscripts. Lepsius seems to have borrowed the term from contemporary inhabitants of the Theban cemeteries, who used the Arabic phrase 'books of the dead' to denote any papyrus roll in a burial; the great majority of such papyrus book rolls in Theban burials were funerary manuscripts with selections from this set of two hundred formulae.

What was the Egyptian name for the Book of the Dead?

            Ancient Egyptian manuscripts do not have any title page, but some compositions were identified by an introductory phrase. Books of the Dead sometimes begin 'beginning of the formulae for going out in the day'. Some manuscripts introduce additional formulae with a note 'added to the formulae for going out in the day'. In the Third Intermediate Period (tenth century BC) and the late Ptolemaic to early Roman Period (first century BC), burials regularly included two funerary manuscripts, and in these cases the Book of the Dead formuale were identified as 'the (book roll with) Going out in the day'.

How was a selection of formulae made for a particular manuscript?

            We have no explicit written sources for the commissioning of a Book of the Dead, and it is not known whether personal selection played a part, or even at what stage in a career a person might commission a funerary manuscript. In the late Ptolemaic Period to early Roman Period, a couple of manuscripts indicate that the son commissioned the roll. Our only guide to the process of selection is the surviving stock of manuscripts. Most are still not published.

Numbering the formulae: (1) the Saite Edition

            In order to identify a particular formula, Lepsius allotted the numbers 1 to 165 in sequence to the formulae he found in the Ptolemaic Period papyrus he selected for his 1843 edition, the Book of the Dead of a man named Iufankh, now preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Turin. Note that in some instances he gave a number to an illustration ('chapters' 16, 143, 150). More or less the same sequence and selection is found in most longer manuscripts from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty to the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Since this sequence is first observed in manuscripts of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, ruling from Sais, the sequence is often called the Saite Recension of the Book of the Dead. It is highly standardised in sequence and in content, almost in the manner of a modern textual edition. Although this arrangement of the formulae is known as the Saite or Late Period Recension, it should be noted that very few manuscripts can be dated to the Twenty-sixth or Saite Dynasty itself; there are perhaps fewer than twenty surviving Twenty-sixth Dynasty Books of the Dead, in contrast to some four to five hundred manuscripts dated to the Ptolemaic Period. Click here for a listing with the chapters in modern numerical order.

Numbering the formulae: (2) the Theban Edition

            In contrast to the later manuscripts, New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) and Third Intermediate Period Books of the Dead show great variety in sequence and content. These earlier versions are sometimes grouped together under the designation 'Theban Edition' of the Book of the Dead, intended in contrast to the 'Saite Edition', though the place of editing is not known for either. Edouard Naville took up the task of editing these versions for the German academic institutions, and produced his synoptic edition in 1882. Some later compositions do not occur in the earlier manuscripts, and there are also several compositions in the earlier manuscripts that are not found later. For 'new' compositions, Naville added numbers higher than 166, and this series was continued by Wallis Budge, taking the number to 190. A few additional formulae or 'chapters' have been identified since then, and more numbers proposed. Click here for a listing with the chapters in modern numerical order.

Although the total number of different formulae in all 'Going out by day' manuscripts may amount to about two hundred, there seem to have been about 150 in circulation within any one period. The earlier manuscripts are extremely varied, but can be grouped roughly into (1) New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) before the Amarna Period, (2) New Kingdom after the Amarna Period, and (3) Third Intermediate Period.

What do we know about the origins of the Book of the Dead?

            Formulae for going out by day are first found on the coffin of a queen Mentuhotep of the Seventeenth Dynasty; the coffin was drawn and the lines of hieratic writing on its interior walls carefully copied by John Gardner Wilkinson in the early nineteenth century. In part these earliest Book of the Dead formulae are taken from the early Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts, in part they are 'new' compositions not previously known in writing. Some of the 'new' compositions may be copied from rituals that had not previously been written down, while others may have been composed in the Seventeenth Dynsaty or shortly before. The formulae are next found in the Valley of the Queens at Thebes, on shrouds of members of the family of king Ahmose, first in the Eighteenth Dynasty as founder of the New Kingdom. They do not occur on papyri before the reign of Thutmose III with Hatshepsut, when it became a more regular (though not obligatory) custom to place a scroll with a selection of the Book of the Dead formulae in elite burials.


Copyright 2002 University College London. All rights reserved.