BMCR 2000.04.25

The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated from the German by David Lorton

, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated from the German by David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. xxii + 188. $16.95.

Ancient Egyptian funerary literature is a complex subject, sometimes as daunting to the Egyptologist as to the nonspecialist. Modern titles assigned to ancient collections of funerary texts, such as “Pyramid Texts” or “Book of the Dead,” often give little hint of their contents, which are often obscure to modern readers even when available in translation. There has long been a need for a thorough English language survey of this material, a need that is well met by the present volume. In a relatively brief book, the author provides detailed descriptions and summaries of the major Egyptian funerary texts, along with extensive bibliography to provide a valuable and useful guide. The author modestly introduces his book as a “survey and orientation for nonspecialists,” but even specialists in Egyptian funerary literature will find much of interest in this volume.

After a brief preface on the history of scholarship, the author presents a series of chapters on individual texts, some grouped into thematic sections. Each chapter covers the sources for the work under discussion; the history and current state of research on the composition, its structure and language; and a summary of its contents. Accompanying illustrations give an idea of the appearance of the work under discussion, sometimes with detailed diagrams of the layout of illustrated funerary compositions. The book concludes with a glossary, a bibliography on each chapter and an index; the translator of the volume has also added a listing of English translations of the texts described in the volume — a very useful supplement for the reader.

The initial chapters of this volume treat the major corpora of funerary texts known as the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead. These three collections of numerous individual texts (referred to as “spells” or “chapters”) were intended as guides to the afterlife and are often seen as the “classic” funerary works of the periods in which they are first or best attested (the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, respectively). The Pyramid Texts were initially intended for the king and members of the royal family and were mainly concerned with the dead king in his ascent to the sky and his interaction with the gods. The corpus contains many rituals designed to assist the dead king but little information about the topography of the afterlife. The Coffin Texts developed from the earlier corpus, but were available to elites outside the royal family; there was more emphasis on the challenges faced by the deceased and a clearer sense of the topography of the world of the dead. The corpus known to scholars as the Book of the Dead (but known to Egyptians as the “Book of Coming Forth by Day”) further elaborated on individual spells from the Coffin Texts while becoming accessible to an even wider audience with an increasingly pragmatic approach to the afterlife. Each of these sections in the book is a remarkably concise summary of a highly complex and diverse corpus; the chapter on the Book of the Dead is particularly useful with its spell-by-spell summary. These chapters are followed by a brief section on the later but related “Books of Breathing,” known from Graeco-Roman period manuscripts and specifically devoted to securing the ability of the deceased to breathe after death.

The heart of this volume is found in the section “The New Kingdom Books of the Netherworld.” These books are best known from their appearances in royal tombs of the New Kingdom and they have formed the main object of study for the author of this volume, who may safely be described as the foremost authority on them. In general, these Netherworld books focus on the nightly journey of the sun, but have clear funerary associations through the parallel of the setting, regeneration and rising of the sun with the process of death, transformation and revival in the afterlife. The earliest of these books, the Book of Amduat, shows the voyage of the sun as a linear progression through the twelve hours of the night, while the later Netherworld books (including the Book of Gates, Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth) provide variations on this theme. All are heavily illustrated and provide considerable insight into Egyptian conceptions of the Netherworld. A few of the lesser-known compositions in this category are written, either whole or in part, in cryptographic writing; the author’s descriptions of these texts are especially valuable given their relative obscurity and the lack of accessible translations.

Also best known from New Kingdom royal tombs are the books covered in the section “The Books of the Sky.” These books too are concerned with the sun’s journeys, but focus on the sun’s travels on (during the day) and inside (during the night) the body of the sky-goddess Nut. These compositions are best known from the scenes on the ceilings of later Ramesside tombs, showing the body of the sky-goddess greatly elongated to accommodate the sun’s nightly and daily route. The final section, “Special Compositions,” includes a number of works that do not fit into the major categories; again these are mostly compositions known from New Kingdom royal tombs: the Litany of Re (an invocation of the many forms of the sun-god) and the Book of the Heavenly Cow (which recounts a rebellion of humanity against the sun-god, the ensuing punishment and a reorganization among the gods). The volume concludes with a brief section on the Graeco-Roman period Book of Traversing Eternity, a guide for the dead when they return to earth to celebrate festivals.

One of the useful resources of this book is its bibliography, a compact (pp. 157-182) but detailed listing with comments, especially helpful for reference to recent scholarly literature. Of the few additions one might suggest, most have appeared too recently for inclusion in this volume.1 As a general supplementary reference, the reader of this book may also want to consult a recent study on the contexts and background of Egyptian funerary literature, which will help situate these texts in their physical, intellectual and political environments.2 A few other notes on specific points covered in the book: the chapter on the Coffin Texts mentions the complexity of the corpus (published in seven substantial volumes) and hints at individual groups of texts within it but does not address the issue of whether what we know of as the “Coffin Texts” was understood by the ancient Egyptians themselves as a corpus. The existence of individual compositions within the corpus, such as the Book of Two Ways, is well-known, but other groups, such as the ritual book represented in P. Gardiner II, suggest that parts of the Coffin Texts corpus might more properly belong in categories of their own. One might add to the “Research” section on the Book of the Dead some mention of the efforts of the Bonn-Cologne Totenbuch-Projekt, a massive effort to collect information about all known Book of the Dead manuscripts and to publish individual manuscripts (some of which are listed in the bibliography) and studies, including a comprehensive bibliography (see publications listed in note 1 below). Finally, in the chapter on Books of Breathing, the author follows the traditional division of these books into a “First” and “Second Book of Breathings.” Readers should note the recent research by Marc Coenen that makes a convincing case for dividing these texts into three separate works: the “Book of Breathing Made by Isis” as well as “First” and “Second” Books of Breathings.3 Readers might also want to note the existence of a reliable English translation of a manuscript of the “Book of Breathing Made by Isis” by Klaus Baer.4

The volume contains 95 drawings and black-and-white photographs that illustrate the texts. Given the intricate interaction between text and illustration in these books and their often complex layouts, such images are essential in understanding the texts. Unfortunately, the illustrations in this volume suffer from the format and printing of the book. Many of the photographs are printed in such a way as to seem murky and slightly out of focus, while the intricate line drawings often seem to have been reproduced at a very low resolution. The book would definitely have benefited from a larger format: the drawings of the long, horizontal sections of the Netherworld books are divided up and piled on top of each other in arrangements that are not always clear. A reader unfamiliar with the layout of the Book of Amduat, for example, will probably find the sequence of illustrations on pp. 42-53 hard to follow. One misses the spacious and clear layout of the illustrations in the author’s earlier German translation of these Netherworld books (accomplished, ironically, on a smaller page size).5

Readers of BMCR may share the reviewer’s wish that the coverage of Egyptian funerary books in the later periods was more thorough. It is encouraging to find coverage of such compositions as the Books of Breathing and the Book of Traversing Eternity, both of which appear in predominantly Graeco-Roman period manuscripts and tend to be ignored in general surveys. However, the chapters devoted to these texts are relatively brief and give little idea of their complexities. Moreover, there are other funerary texts of the Graeco-Roman period that receive little or no mention and no substantial discussion, including a number in Demotic.6 The uses of texts from corpora such as the Book of the Dead, Pyramid Texts and the Book of Amduat in the later periods of Egyptian history are noted in this volume, but relatively little attention is given to the significance of such later use (often in new forms and for new audiences) or to how the texts develop over time. In part, this may be a function of the structure of the book itself, where use of the separate chapters on individual compositions does not permit much discussion of the interrelationships between texts or their diachronic development.

In general, readers may regret the lack of a substantial introduction, situating the texts in the wider context of Egyptian religion and funerary practices. Similarly, the lack of a concluding chapter that attempts a synthesis of the material may leave the reader feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Given the author’s considerable expertise, it would have been wonderful to have had chapters on his thoughts on the position and context of Egyptian funerary literature within the larger framework of Egyptian religion, his ideas on the development of Egyptian funerary literature over time and his understanding of the often complex interrelationships between individual works. However, these are not the stated aims of the present volume and could easily fill another book on their own; perhaps this is something that the author will do in the future. The ancient Egyptian literature of the afterlife is a complex and involved subject and the volume under review provides a clear and concise overview of the individual texts. It will be useful for anyone interested in these ancient Egyptian books for the dead.


1. Perhaps the most important additions to the bibliography are recent publications on the Book of the Dead by the Bonn-Cologne Totenbuch-Projekt: Irmtraut Munro, Das Totenbuch des Nacht-Amun aus der Ramessidenzeit (Berlin P. 3002), Handschriften des altägyptischen Totenbuches 4 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997), Barbara Lüscher, Untersuchungen zu Totenbuch Spruch 151, Studien zum altägyptischen Totenbuch 2 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998), Ursula Rössler-Köhler, Zur Tradierungsgeschichte des Totenbuches zwischen der 17. und 22. Dynastie (Tb 17), Studien zum altägyptischen Totenbuch 3 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1999), the forthcoming Ursula Verhoeven, Das Totenbuch des Monthpriesters Nespasefy aus der Zeit Psammetichs I., Handschriften des altägyptischen Totenbuches 5 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2000), and the extremely useful bibliography Svenja Gülden and Irmtraut Munro, Bibliographie zum altägyptischen Totenbuch (Unter Mitarbeit von Christina Regner und Oliver Sütsch), Studien zum altägyptischen Totenbuch 1 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998) See also the publications cited in notes 2-4 and 6 below.

2. Werner Forman and Stephen Quirke, Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

3. M. Coenen, “Books of Breathings: More Than a Terminological Question,” Orientalia Lovanensia Periodica 26 (1995) 29-38. Also to be added to Hornung’s bibliography is M. Coenen, “An Introduction to the Document of Breathing Made by Isis,” Revue d’Égyptologie 49 (1998) 37-45.

4. “The Breathing Permit of Hor: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3:3 (1968) 109-134. An extensive literature has grown up around the manuscript (P. Joseph Smith I + X + XI) on which this translation is based, but most of this work falls outside the realm of Egyptology.

5. Erik Hornung, Ägyptische Unterweltsbücher, 3rd edition (Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1989), reprinted in a slightly larger format as Die Unterweltsbücher der Ägypter (Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1992).

6. See, for example, the compositions represented in the survey of select late funerary manuscripts in Stephen Quirke, “The Last Books of the Dead?” in Studies in Egyptian Antiquities: A Tribute to T. G. H. James, ed. W. V. Davies, British Museum Occasional Paper 123 (London: British Museum, 1999) 83-98 at 86-90.