Tag Archives: Book of the Dead

Object Biography # 19: The Book of the Dead of Padiusir

For the first time in its history, Manchester Museum is currently displaying (sections of) a copy of the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’.  Despite the negativity implicit in its modern title, the ‘Book of the Dead’ is, in fact, an extremely optimistic document. Hollywood has a lot to answer for in, Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’ series and ‘The Mummy’ franchise having conjured up an image of a forbidden text that must not be read aloud for fear of waking demonic forces.

BoD -The Mummy

The ‘Book of the Dead’ in The Mummy (1999)

In fact the ancient Egyptian name for the collection of texts can be translated as ‘Spells for Coming Forth by Day’. These spells – and accompanying images – act as both a guidebook and a passport to the afterlife, assuring a successful transition to the blissful ‘Field of Reeds’ after death. The key part of that transition is the judgement before Osiris, god of rebirth, and the most well-known vignette in the Book of the Dead is the scene of this judgement. The deceased is shown before a set of scales on which his or her heart is weighed against the feather of Truth. Usually, the feather is shown as heavier than the heart and thereby a positive outcome for the trial is magically assured.

Hieratic 3.6

Papyrus Rylands Hieratic 3 – with judgement vignette

Other texts – or ‘chapters’ – in the Book of the Dead are designed to protect the deceased against misfortune on the journey to, and existence in, the afterlife. Copies of the Book can run to many metres in length and would have been rolled up into scrolls, deposited in the tomb, within the


Hollow statuette for papyri – Warrington Museum

coffin or directly wrapped with the mummy. Hollow statuettes, known as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures, were common in elite burials of the 19th-22nd Dynasty as receptacles for Book of the Dead papyri.

The Book of the Dead currently on loan to Manchester Museum from the John Rylands Library is early Ptolemaic (c. 300 BC) in date. In common with many such papyri, the long roll has been cut up into sections for sale, which are now located in museums around the world. This copy was made for a man named Padiusir, and shows the deceased a number of times in standard vignettes. There are clear examples in some cases of a prefabricated papyrus, with the name of the deceased added secondarily.

Sections from late copies of the Book of the Dead, similar to Padiusir’s, have in the past been interpreted as key texts within The Church of Latter-Day Saints, and are the subject of extensive debate. Egyptologists tend to agree that this most common of ancient Egyptian religious compositions was for the benefit of the deceased, and is in no way likely to bring about a curse for the living.

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The function of a mummy mask

Acc. no. 7931. Early New Kingdom.

A mummy mask provided protection – both physical and magical – to the head of the mummy. Masks were introduced in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2955 BC) and were used until Roman times (30BC-395AD). They show the deceased in an idealised form, like a god who has triumphed over death. The use of gilding on masks of the wealthy symbolises the golden skin of the gods.

Spell 151 from the Book of the Dead – the ‘Spell for the Head-of-Mystery’ – makes the function of the mask explicit:

Anubis speaks, the embalmer, lord of the divine hall, when he has placed his hands on the coffin of [the deceased] and equipped him with what [he] needs: ‘Hail, O beautiful of face, lord of vision, whom Ptah-Sokar has gathered together and whom Anubis has upraised, to whom Shu gave support, O beautiful of face among the gods!

Your right eye is the night boat, your left eye is the day boat, your eyebrows are the Ennead. The crown of your head is Anubis, the back of your head is Horus, your fingers are Thoth, your lock of hair is Ptah-Sokar. You [the mask] are in front of [the deceased], he sees by means of you. [You] lead him on the goodly ways, you repel Seth’s band for him and cast his enemies under his feet for him in front of the Ennead of the great House of the Noble in Heliopolis. You take the goodly way to the presence of Horus, the lord of the nobles.’

Acc. no. 2178a. Ptolemaic.

This text appears on the famous golden mask of Tutankhamun, inscribing an object with its function in order to ensure that it would ‘work’ for the dead king. The spell makes clear that the mask was to protect the deceased (magically) from their enemies. As is common in such spells, the text is a command from a god to an inanimate object – divine authority used to spark to life a lifeless substance.

The spell emphasises the power of the mask to restore to the deceased the ability to see. An important part of the funeral ritual was a rite known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth’, which restored the power of speech, as well as the other senses to the mummy (set up outside the tomb, probably wearing the mummy mask). The senses were required for a successful rebirth into in the afterlife as a fully-functioning person, as in life.

In a label written to accompany a mummy mask displayed in our exhibition ‘Unearthed’, a schoolgirl wrote that she thought the mask in the case looked like it was “about to start speaking.” Although this is not the sort of label museum curators write, the girl highlights the essential function of one of the most important items of Pharaonic funerary equipment. Far from being made to simply look pretty, masks were made to give their owners the power of sight – and speech.


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Texts in translation #7: The shabti spell of Horudja

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

The Manchester Museum holds 58 pale green faience shabtis belonging to a man named Horudja, a priest of the goddess Neith during the 30th Dynasty (380-343 BC). Horudja’s tomb was discovered by Flinders Petrie at Hawara, near the Faiyum, in 1888. Petrie found 399 shabtis belonging to Horudja, distributed between two niches at either end of the sarcophagus. Many had been damaged by the flooding in the tomb, but most preserve the fine workmanship of a master shabti-maker.

The role of shabtis (or ushabtis, as the word was spelled at Horudja’s time) as servants for the deceased is well-known
. Horudja’s examples are all mummiform in shape. They each hold a pick and a hoe, and have a basket slung over their shoulder to help with their allotted tasks in the afterlife. By inscribing the figures with a text (Book of the Dead chapter 6, the ‘shabti spell’) detailing their obligations, the Egyptians ensured that shabtis could be magically activated in the afterlife.

Shabti spell on Acc. No. 3727b. © Glenn Janes

Shabti spell on Acc. No. 3727b. © Glenn Janes

Horudja’s spell appears in three slightly different versions, this is one of the most typical:

The illuminated one, the Osiris, the Priest of Neith, Horudja, born to Shedet, justified, he says: O these ushabtis, if counted upon, the Osiris, the Priest of Neith, Horudja, born to Shedet, justified, to do all the works that are to be done there in the realm of the dead – now indeed obstacles are implanted there – as a man at his duties, “here I am!” you shall say when you are counted upon at any time to serve there, to cultivate the fields, to irrigate the river banks, to ferry the sand of the west to the east and vice–versa, “here I am” you shall say.

Horudja’s shabtis in Manchester will shortly be published by Glenn Janes. His book, The Shabti Collections 5. A Selection from the Manchester Museum, is due for publication in October – in time for the opening of our Ancient Worlds galleries.


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Texts in Translation #1: The Heart Scarab of Na-her-hu (Acc. No. 5998)

Visitors sometimes comment that they would like to have access to translations of the hieroglyphic texts that appear on some of our Egyptian and Sudanese objects. We aim to provide these as a digital resource to complement the new Ancient Worlds galleries, and I will post them here as time – and work – allows. On a recent visit to the Museum, a group called Forever Young expressed a particular liking for this text, so it seemed a good place to start.

Heart Scarab 5889

Underside of 5998

This spell is of a type usually carved on the underside of amulets known as Heart Scarabs. This example dates to the later New Kingdom (c. 1320-1069 BC), and belonged to a scribe named Na-her-hu. This is a shortened version of Spell (or ‘Chapter’) 30B of the Book of the Dead: slightly different versions are sometimes included in papyrus copies of the Book.

‘The Osiris, Scribe of the Mat, Na-her-hu, justified, he says: “O my heart, which I had from my mother, the centre of my being. Do not stand against me as a witness, do not oppose me in the judgement hall, in the presence of the keeper of the balance. You are my ka (spirit) in my body, the creator [who makes my limbs prosper]”.’

Heart scarab 5998

5998 - obverse

The Egyptians believed that in order to gain entry into the Afterlife – described as a blissful ‘Field of Reeds’ – one had to undergo judgement before the gods. During mummification, all the internal organs were removed – except the heart, which was regarded as the seat of intelligence and emotion. The righteousness of the deceased was assessed by weighing the heart on a set of scales. If it balanced with a feather, a symbol for truth, then the deceased was declared ‘justified’ and could enter the afterlife.  If, however, the heart was heavier than the feather – presumably weighty with wickedness – then it was swallowed by a monster called Ammut (‘the Devourer’): part crocodile, part lion, part hippo. This was the second death that all Egyptians feared, and meant non-existence.

Asru's inner coffin

Thoth, 'keeper of the balance', leads Asru before the gods. From the judgement scene of her inner coffin (c. 700 BC).

As the seat of emotion, the heart was prone to be unpredictable. It might betray misdemeanours or make false claims. The deceased therefore needed to be appealed to his own heart to ensure its compliance in his rebirth. A Heart Scarab was placed within the mummy wrappings, ideally directly over the heart, to ensure both that the heart was magically protected – and that it was kept in check.

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