BMCR 2010.02.72

Traversing Eternity: Texts for the Afterlife from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

, Traversing Eternity: Texts for the Afterlife from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xviii, 725. ISBN 9780198154648. $250.00.


Egyptian funerary texts of the Graeco-Roman period are less well known than their Pharaonic predecessors. This relative obscurity is partly due to their “lateness” in Egyptological terms, but also because of their diversity and complexity. Modern scholars have tended to group the earlier funerary texts into large corpora (e.g., Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, etc.), but the later texts defy such broad categorization. Many later compositions were used in a variety of configurations, and the boundaries between individual “books” could be fluid. The complexity of these later funerary texts has made their study as a whole difficult, but the volume under review here will significantly change this situation. In Traversing Eternity, Mark Smith provides an authoritative overview of the funerary literature of Graeco-Roman Egypt, with translations of some sixty texts, extensive introductory material for each and a general introduction for the corpus as a whole. For the first time, the majority of this diverse body of texts is gathered together in a single volume that is an essential resource for anyone interested in Egyptian funerary beliefs and practices of the later periods.

The documents translated in this volume come from the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE) and the first two centuries of the Roman Period (30 BCE-c. 200 CE), a time when Egypt was under foreign rule and the Greek language dominated written documents in Egypt, but also a time when indigenous language and religion were still active and vital forces. The conjunction of cultures can be seen in the funerary artifacts of the time, in which Egyptian and Greek elements combined to create a new and distinctive synthesis. The later funerary practices were, however, firmly rooted in earlier Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife, seen in the survivals of older funerary texts and the development of the new compositions in indigenous language that form the subject of this volume. Thus the Ptolemaic period saw the most extensive copies of the standard ancient Egyptian funerary book known to modern audiences as the “Book of the Dead”, but it was also the period in which the “Book of the Dead” ultimately disappeared. To take its place, an expansive body of funerary literature developed, some of which derived from the “Book of the Dead”, but much of which drew on other Egyptian sources to create new compositions for the afterlife. It is this material that is translated in Traversing Eternity, and it reveals the development and vitality of indigenous funerary beliefs and practices in Graeco-Roman Egypt.

The funerary texts of Graeco-Roman Egypt are far from unknown to scholars, but remain relatively under-studied. Individual copies of late funerary compositions were published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some parallel text editions of specific compositions appeared, and there were a few overviews of the material. It was not until the pioneering work of Jean-Claude Goyon in the 1960s and 1970s that the study of these texts entered a new phase; Goyon’s 1972 anthology of later funerary texts in French translation was a foundation on which current work rests.1 Although Goyon concentrated on only three compositions, his work demonstrated the importance of the wider body of Graeco-Roman period funerary texts from Egypt. Since then, much work has been done on the further identification and publication of additional texts and the organization of the corpus as a whole. The present volume builds on this earlier work but represents a dramatic advance in its comprehensiveness and the rationality of its approach to this complex body of material.

Traversing Eternity begins with an extensive “General Introduction” (pp. 1-57), the generic title of which belies its original contents. In this introduction, the author situates the later funerary texts within the wider history of Egyptian funerary literature and the range of funerary practices and material culture of burials in the later periods. It is particularly interesting to read of the relationships between the later funerary texts and contemporary non-funerary literature: for instance, how Demotic texts like the well-known Setna II story and the wisdom literature relate to the vision of the afterlife seen in the funerary texts (pp. 26-29). The author also looks briefly at the language and physical aspects of the funerary texts with a discussion of the plan of the book as a whole and as a general introduction to the texts themselves.

The texts translated in this volume are divided into two main groups. The first group (texts 1-10 on pp. 61-206) contains compositions not originally intended as personal funerary texts, but as rituals adapted for the benefit of deceased individuals. Many of these come from longer ritual books, such as the well-known Papyrus Bremner-Rhind (the source of texts 2 and 3), and most relate in some way to the death of the god Osiris and its aftermath. By far the most striking and original of these adapted texts are the two versions of laments for the dead Osiris by the sisters Isis and Nephthys (texts 2 and 4). These lamentations were to be performed by singers disguised as the goddesses, as specified in some detail in one composition (text 2). The goddesses lament the death of Osiris, but encourage him to rise from the dead. The texts’ adaptation for individuals presumes that the deceased with benefit from this parallel with the dead Osiris, and this divine paralleling is the rationale behind the adaptation of most of the texts in this section.

The second group of texts includes compositions specifically intended for the benefit of deceased individuals (texts 11-60 on pp. 209-668). Although not every surviving manuscript in this category is translated, the author gives representative examples of all funerary compositions. Highlights include an embalming ritual (text 11), perhaps the most extensive description of the practice of mummification (and its mythological justification) in Egyptian, followed by a group of extensive ritual papyri of varied content (texts 12-15). Longer and shorter versions of the important “Liturgy of Opening the Mouth for Breathing” (texts 16-19) attest to the emphasis in providing the deceased with the ability to breathe in the afterlife. Long and short versions of the “Book of Traversing Eternity” (texts 21-22) guarantee the ability of the deceased to travel through the world of the living and to attend religious festivals. The “Book of Traversing Eternity” is amalgamated with the section of the “Book of the Dead” concerning judgment in an important Demotic papyrus (text 23), while a Hieratic papyrus presents the “Book of Glorifying the Spirit” for the benefit of the deceased (text 24). Texts 25-33 are representative examples of a category of compositions generally known as the “Books of Breathing”, but more accurately (as in the present volume) as “Letters for Breathing”. These texts guarantee that the deceased will be able to breathe in the afterlife, but also provide a number of other important benefits, such as offerings, identification with the gods and the preservation of the name of the deceased. Related to the “Letters for Breathing” are the examples of the “Book of Entering the God’s Domain and Promenading in the Hall of the Two Truths” (texts 34-35). A number of shorter, untitled compositions (texts 35-51) reflect concerns similar to those of to the longer texts, but in more concise terms. Divine hymns (text 52) and divine decrees (texts 53-54) provide various afterlife guarantees, while the different versions of the “Book of Transformations” (texts 55-57) allow the deceased mobility through the power to transform themselves into a variety of birds, animals and other beings. (The author’s introductions to these texts, incidentally, provide very useful discussion of the beliefs and theology behind these transformations.) Text 58 is a partial translation of a ritual papyrus devoted to divine rituals and offerings, and the section concludes with two very brief texts (59-60) concerning offerings in the afterlife.

The afterlife represented in these texts is recognizable from that envisioned in earlier periods of Egyptian history: the deceased passed through ordeals into a hall of judgment for a final reckoning. For those who successfully passed judgment, the later funerary texts emphasize the afterlife as a place of abundant offerings, and a place of ongoing interaction with the gods. The deceased have transformative powers (as in texts 55-57) and at least have the potential to travel and interact with the living, as seen in the elaborate round of holy places and festivals in the Book of Traversing Eternity (text 21). Readers unused to Egyptian funerary texts in general might find the emphasis on post-mortem sexuality to be a surprise. Earlier texts certainly address the afterlife fertility and procreative powers of the deceased, especially the royal dead. But these Graeco-Roman period texts go beyond what one finds in earlier periods—the afterlife is not only a place of procreative sex, but also a place in which the dead experience sexual pleasure. These later texts feature many striking and unusual images of the afterlife, perhaps none so arresting as the description of the goddess Hathor surrounded by antelopes, gazelles and other wild animals who speak to the deceased (text 45).

Contrary to earlier practice, later funerary texts sometimes include brief biographical sketches that recount the lives and deaths of the beneficiaries of the papyri. Thus we read of one man’s happy professional and personal life of nearly sixty years (text 14), a woman’s death shortly after being widowed and her subsequent embalming process (text 15), and another man’s life as a priest and magician and his mysterious death (text 57). Comparison of these short biographical sketches with the longer formal biographical texts of the period inscribed on stone stelae might be an instructive exercise. Shorter manuscript colophons giving dates of death or manuscript copying, also unusual in earlier periods, can be found in, for example, texts 13 and 23.

The book concludes with a glossary and bibliography. The glossary (pp. 669-702) lists divine names, places, titles, festivals, sacred objects and items of divine regalia, provides brief explanations and cites occurrences in the volume. While the glossary is a helpful guide to the sometimes obscure individuals, places and things that appear in these texts, a book of this extent really does need a full index. Short of reading the whole book, there is no way to find discussion of individual Egyptian words or the occurrences of items too mundane to appear in the glossary. The extensive bibliography (pp. 703-725) cites references specific to the book, of course, but is also a useful guide to the widely dispersed editions of relevant papyri and secondary. The volume includes 14 illustrations of documents translated and relevant funerary artifacts, and two maps, all of which form a useful supplement to the text.

One significant contribution of this book is the simple yet bold decision to integrate Demotic texts into the wider corpus of Egyptian language funerary literature of the Graeco-Roman period. The majority of this material was written in Hieratic script, the more formal cursive derived from hieroglyphs, and composed in a form of the language known to Egyptologists as Middle Egyptian. The Middle Egyptian of the later funerary texts, though, was a highly archaizing form of the literary language of earlier periods, far removed from the everyday indigenous language in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which was written in the highly cursive Demotic script. The majority of texts to survive in Demotic are non-literary in nature, the documents of daily life, but Demotic was also used for formal inscriptions, a lively and diverse body of literary texts, and a substantial body of religious works, including the funerary texts that appear in the present volume. Traditionally, scholars have treated Demotic funerary texts separately, so it is particularly useful to see them considered as part of the larger body of funerary literature.

The appropriateness of presenting Demotic and Hieratic funerary texts together can be seen in some of the papyri themselves, which include texts in both scripts (see, for example, texts 14-15, which preserve parallel Demotic and Hieratic versions of the same text, and text 58, which contains different texts in the different scripts). There are even a few texts in which Demotic script is used to write Middle Egyptian (texts 20, 54, 57, 58 and 60) and one text that includes brief passages in a cryptographic form of Demotic yet to be deciphered (text 57, with an example of its cryptography in fig. 4). Other manuscripts include separate texts in both cursive Hieratic and formal hieroglyphs (for example, text 56) and hieroglyphs and Demotic (as in text 60), with hieroglyphs sometimes used as captions for illustrations (as in text 51). Greek is only ever used in these texts to write personal names (as in text 41) and then only rarely. These various combinations of script and language have a significance that is perhaps only partly understood and the author’s discussion in the individual text introductions will form a useful starting point for future study. Regardless of the original script or phase of the language, the translations of all texts in the present volume are clear and elegant, with vivid touches where appropriate. The author’s introductory notes about his principles for translation (pp. 53-55) are useful reading, in part because past translations of these later texts have tended to treat the grammar rather loosely.

The volume includes both published and unpublished texts. Some of the documents are entirely unpublished, or published only in summary or description. Among these, it is especially good to see the author’s translation of an unpublished Hieratic and Demotic funerary ritual (Text 58). The majority of texts in the volume have been published before, but often in older or incomplete editions, and the author has devoted much effort to improving readings. A certain amount of the material in this book, of course, already appeared in French translation in Goyon’s 1972 anthology mentioned above. The author provides new translations of Demotic texts he has previously edited himself, sometimes improving on his earlier work; note in particular the new translation of Papyrus Louvre E 3452 (text 57), which formed the subject of the author’s 1979 doctoral dissertation. The author also draws on newer editions by scholars currently working on late funerary texts, like François Rene Herbin, Mark Coenen, Joachim Friedrich Quack and Martin Andreas Stadler. None of these texts are particularly easy to read and many are very obscure, so the earlier editions and translations of the texts were often major feats, but the author of the present volume is sometimes perhaps unduly critical or dismissive of the efforts of earlier scholars on these difficult texts. In particular, the translations of Jean-Claude Goyon receive rather rough treatment in the footnotes, where corrections are stated in terms that may seem ungenerous given the pioneering nature of Goyon’s work. But one can also sympathize with the author’s apparent frustrations, given the amount of work that must have gone into making Traversing Eternity such a unique and important contribution to scholarship.

This handsome and well-produced volume provides the most comprehensive survey of Egyptian funerary texts of the Graeco-Roman period available. The translations of the texts alone would have made it indispensable, but the author’s detailed introductions to the corpus as a whole and to the individual documents make it an essential reference for anyone interested in Egyptian funerary practice and belief in the later periods.


1. Jean-Claude Goyon, Rituels funéraires de l’ancienne Égypte, Littératures anciennes du Proche Orient, 4 (Paris: Les Éditions du CERF, 1972).