What Is the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead?


Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead (detail), 304–30 B.C., Egyptian. Papyrus and ink, 10 ¼ x 111 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AI.46.2. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

These texts developed from spells that were first inscribed on scarabs and coffins at the end of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period.


By Sara E. Cole
Curatorial Assistant, Antiquities Department
J. Paul Getty Museum


“Book of the Dead” is a modern term to describe a series of ancient Egyptian funerary spells that helped the deceased find their way to the afterlife in order to become united with the god of the dead, Osiris. There are nearly 200 known spells, but they weren’t collected into books in our current sense of the word. Rather, spells were inscribed on objects from mummy wrappings to coffins to figurines meant to accompany the dead in the tomb. They provided instructions for the various challenges the deceased would face on their journey. Spell 125 (a vignette from which is illustrated below), for example, lists a number of sins they must deny having committed in life when they appear before Osiris.

This vignette detail shows an episode from Book of the Dead Spell 125, in which the deceased appears before Osiris and a tribunal of gods to have his heart weighed against the feather of Maat, symbolizing justice and truth. If his heart equals the weight of the feather, he is allowed to pass into the next world. Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead (detail), 304–30 B.C., Egyptian. Papyrus and ink, 10 ¼ x 111 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AI.46.2. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Getty’s Book of the Dead manuscripts include seven papyri and twelve linen mummy wrappings that are now undergoing new scholarship spearheaded by Martin Bommas, an Egyptologist who came to Getty in 2017 as a Villa Scholar. Along with Getty’s ongoing provenance research, Bommas is studying the texts and preparing translations and analysis in order to place them within the broader context of the long history of the Book of the Dead.

Book of the Dead spells were meant to be spoken aloud, and placing them on items in the tomb allowed the mummy to recite them from within his coffin. Texts could be written either in hieroglyphic Egyptian, or a cursive form of the script called hieratic.

The spells on this papyrus are written in hieroglyphs. Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells from the Book of the Dead, 304–30 BC, Egyptian. Papyrus and ink, 6 5/8 x 20 11/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 81.AI.46.8. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

The group that we call the Book of the Dead developed from spells that were first inscribed on scarabs and coffins at the end of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, around 1650 B.C. By the New Kingdom, around 1550–1069 B.C., scribes started writing Book of the Dead spells on papyrus scrolls. Vignettes often illustrated key points in the text, as in the example from Spell 125 illustrated above, in which the deceased has his heart weighed in the presence of Osiris.

Getty’s collection spans a wide timeframe, which provides an exciting opportunity to examine how the Book of the Dead evolved for more than 1,000 years, and how it was used by the Egyptians.

The earliest text we own is an 18th Dynasty papyrus that was made sometime around 1450–1380 B.C., during the height of Egypt’s New Kingdom. The papyrus, which belonged to a woman named Ra-webenes, includes Spell 149, in which the deceased encounters 14 “mounds” in the afterlife, each of which has its own inhabitants. These mounds are illustrated at the far right of the scroll.

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead (detail), 1450–1380 B.C. Papyrus and ink, 7 5/8 x 73 ¼ in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AI.46.3. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Three papyri come from a later period called the Third Intermediate Period, around 1069–664 B.C., a time of political instability that included rule by foreign dynasties of Nubians and Persians. Despite changes in the socio-political landscape in Egypt, traditional funerary practices, including the Book of the Dead, endured. We are hopeful that by examining our own collection, we can better understand why particular spells were popular in different time periods.

Also from the Third Intermediate Period is a recently acquired faience ushabti. These mummiform figurines were animated in the afterlife by reciting the spell (Spell 6) inscribed on their bodies. Once alive, they could perform labor on behalf of the deceased. This ushabti is one of 336 that were excavated from the tomb of a man named Neferibresaneith at Saqqara, Egypt.

Ushabti for Neferibresaneith, ca. 570–526 BC, Egyptian. Tomb of Neferibresaneith, Saqqara Egypt. Green faience, 7 3/16 x 2 1/16 x 1 9/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016.2. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Over time, we can see how people’s relationship to the Book of the Dead became more personal. One way in which this evolving relationship manifested was in the use of Book of the Dead spells on strips of linen that were laid over the mummy, putting the spells in direct physical contact with the deceased.

Our group of mummy bandages belong to the Ptolemaic Period, around 305–30 B.C., when Egypt was under the rule of the Greek successor dynasty that followed Alexander the Great’s conquest. Book of the Dead papyri continued to be produced during this time as well, and three of our papyri are Ptolemaic in date.

The bandages come from the burials of three individuals: Pa-di-Usir, son of Ta-di-Usir (six bandages); Pa-di-Usir, son of Naii-nes-Bastet (four bandages); and Ni-nef-Bastet, son of Tes-neferet-her (two bandages).

This bandage comes from the mummy of Pa-di-User, son of Ta-di-User. Mummy Wrapping with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead, 3rd–1st century B.C., Egyptian. Linen, 2 3/8 x 31 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AI.47.1.4. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

It’s important to trace the ownership history of the manuscripts—how they were collected and sold and what those relationships mean. This information can help contextualize related manuscripts, reveal connections to older sale groups, or document patterns of site discovery over time. In short, to know an object, you have to know its history, and that in turn allows you to tell richer stories.

In the 19th century, English scholar and collector Sir Thomas Phillipps of Thirlestane House purchased the papyri and mummy bandages as part of his personal quest to create one of the largest manuscript collections in the world. After Phillipps’ death, they remained in his family until the mid-20th century; eventually, they ended up with bookseller Hans P. Kraus​, Sr., in New York, who ​together with his wife Hanni donated them to the Getty in 1983.

Sir Thomas Phillipps, ca. 1860, unknown photographer. Source: / Wikimedia Commons

Understanding how Phillipps acquired his collection is part of Getty’s ongoing research and will help us reconstruct the movement of Egyptian antiquities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We’ve begun to piece it together, discovering that a New Kingdom papyrus that also belongs to the Phillipps group (but does not contain Book of the Dead spells) was sold at auction in 1831, and that Charles Augustus Murray, who was the British Consul-General in Egypt from 1846 to 1853, supplied Phillipps with other mummy bandages.

But the history of the other objects requires some more sleuthing. For example, additional bandages from the same three mummies represented in our collection are now found in collections around the world. Researching how they were split up is one major piece of the puzzle. Another goal is to identify the present locations of the full group of ushabtis discovered in Neferibresaneith’s tomb; so far we’ve found them in places from San Jose, California to Cuba, from Poland to India.

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells from the Book of the Dead (detail of shelfmark), 1085–730 BC, Egyptian. Papyrus and ink, 7 ¼ x 23 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 83.AI.46.6. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Finally, there are intriguing clues on some of our papyri in the form of unusual, handwritten shelfmarks on octagonal labels. Phillipps didn’t use this kind of label, so they must have been added by a previous owner. If this label looks familiar to you, please let us know!


Originally published by The Iris, 08.13.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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