In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Egyptian Book of the Dead

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Papers
  • Journals
  • Editions of Texts and Manuscripts
  • Translations
  • Working Tools
  • Contexts and Use of the Book of the Dead and Its Manuscripts

Biblical Studies Egyptian Book of the Dead
Burkhard Backes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0232


Today, the so-called Book of the Dead (BD) is certainly the most prominent corpus of funerary texts from ancient Egypt. Its name as well as the numbering of its c. 200 “spells” or “chapters” were established only in the 19th century (in the following “BD xy”), while in Egyptian it was called “(spells of) going out by day.” “Book(s) of the Dead” is also the common designation for funerary papyri inscribed with BD spells. Furthermore, texts and illustrations (“vignettes”) from the BD are also found on other types of objects, such as mummy bandages, walls of tombs and sarcophagi, coffins, and more such that the number of preserved BD sources of all kinds exceeds three thousand. The Book of the Dead is normally said to be a product of the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1700–1550 BCE) because the oldest attestations of some BD spells have been identified on objects from that era. But only some generations after the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE), the custom of equipping the deceased with “Books of the Dead,” that is, papyrus scrolls combining a series of funerary spells and vignettes, became frequent and, with only few and relatively short interruptions, remained popular for almost 1,500 years. About half of the texts normally counted as BD spells stem from older corpora, mostly the so-called coffin texts used during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–1700 BCE). Therefore, it is generally believed that an “editorial” process consisting of collecting, choosing, reformulating, and adding funerary texts took place, certainly in the upper Egyptian capital of Thebes. This is why the BD of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–700 BCE) is often referred to as “Theban Recension.” From this corpus, spells were chosen—sometimes complemented by others—to compile individual textual programs. From the Late Period (25/26th dynasty) onward, a number of papyri show an almost invariable order of spells, counted today from 1 to 165. This standardized version of the BD is called “Saite” (named after the “Saite,” 26th dynasty) or “Late Recension.” The last funerary papyri that can justly be called “Books of the Dead” are dated to the 1st century BCE. Apart from a better understanding of the content of the spells, questions raised by the enormous variability of the corpus, its complex transmission, and its embedding in diverse forms of funerary, ritual, and social practice are prime goals of BD research.

General Overviews

Introductory volumes to the Book of the Dead are few. A richly illustrated overview is Taylor 2010b. Compact introductions are included in some of the translations of BD spells listed here under the section Translations, also in Backes 2011 (cited under the “Late Recension” and Other BD Traditions in the Late and Ptolemaic Periods). Basic information and further reading are provided in Kockelmann 2006 and, for a nonacademic public, Taylor 2010a. More extensive introductions to contents and functions of the BD and its manuscripts are Eschweiler 1999 and Kemp 2007. Both are written from a non-philological perspective and thereby add aspects neglected in most translation volumes. Lüscher 2014 documents the early stages of modern research on the Book of the Dead. For publications that introduce the main fields and current trends in BD research, see Collected Papers.

  • Eschweiler, Peter. Das Ägyptische Totenbuch: Vom Ritual zum Bild. Frankfurt: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1999.

    Addressing the wider public, the author offers an access to Egyptian religious belief and practice via the vignettes of BD spells, primarily those of the papyrus of Ani. The images are presented as a means of perpetuation of rituals.

  • Kemp, Barry. How to Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead. London: Granta, 2007.

    Combines general information on contents and forms of the spells with the “fresh” perspective of an Egyptologist not mainly concerned with funerary literature but with the cultural history of Egyptian civilization.

  • Kockelmann, Holger. “Totenbuch.” In Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet (WiBiLex). Edited by Michaela Bauks, Klaus Koenen, and Stefan Alkier. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

    Provides basic information and further reading. Article in an encyclopedia addressed to scholars and students of biblical studies and related subjects.

  • Lüscher, Barbara. Auf den Spuren von Édouard Naville: Beiträge und Materialien zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte des Totenbuches. Totenbuchtexte Supplementa 1. Basel, Switzerland: Orientverlag, 2014.

    History of the earlier research on the Book of the Dead with a focus on Édouard Naville’s important editorial work.

  • Taylor, John H. Spells for Eternity: The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. London: British Museum, 2010a.

    May be regarded as an abrégé of Taylor, ed. 2010. The seven chapters consisting of an introductory page and illustrations present the main themes of the spells.

  • Taylor, John H., ed. Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010b.

    Catalogue of the exhibition at the British Museum from 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2011. Introductory chapters on the history of the Book of the Dead and the production of its manuscripts. Illustrations include some of the most prominent manuscripts of the BD.

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