A collection of texts usually written on a single scroll which contained all the spells, prayers, and rituals the deceased soul would need in the Egyptian afterlife. It is commonly known simply as the Book of the Dead, the name assigned to it by E.A. Wallis Budge when he first purchased a scroll in 1888. Since then, numerous other papyri have been found, and these texts compared to similar ones inscribed on the pyramid walls of the Old Kingdom and the coffins of the Middle Kingdom.
Although there are 192 spells in most standardized publications and transcriptions, not every papyrus contains every spell. Our version is the culmination of a textual genre which began centuries before and did not end until after the pharaonic period of Egyptian history, continuing in tattered books and remnants even into the early Roman rule.
These spells offer some of the most important textual evidence for an Egyptian theology of the afterlife and the continuation of the soul. After death, with a proper burial, the soul began a long journey through the underworld, sailing on the bark of the sun-god on the waters of the underworld, beset on every side by demons and monsters. Sometimes he was Horus, fighting for his life against the hippopotamus Seth, sometimes the crocodile-god Sobek, floating through the waters combatting his enemies, sometimes Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe who could answer all the riddles posed to him, and sometimes he was Ra, sitting on his bark while Isis and the vulture-headed Nekhbet and a host of divine allies helped him along his journey. More often than not, he became a combination, a synchretistic deity, while always remaining Osiris, destined to be resurrected. Egyptian theology depicted the deceased in whatever aspect was most beneficial to him at a given point.
Not suprisingly, a large number of the spells are labeled "transformations", spells to effect a particular metempsychosis, which are usually of the simple formula, "I am the god X", followed by epithets. It is worth noting that the act of proclamation had an actualizing force, crucial to the understanding of the mechanics of the later negative confessions:
I have flown as a falcon; I have honked as a smn-goose. It has been granted me to alight on this lake district. I stand on it, I sit on it, I have appeared as a god. I have eaten of the foods of the field of offerings, being gone down to the meadow of the stars that set. I have opened the doors of truth, I have passed the celestial waters. -Spell 149l2
Other snares awaited his soul in its journey. The passage was largely viewed as a series of gates and caverns, each of which held a specific trial. Here the deceased begins his journey through the Field of Rushes in the House of Osiris, a reference to Osiris' dismemberment and death in a reed marsh:
Make way for me, for I know thee, I know thy name, I know the name of the god who guards thee. Lady of the Trembling, lofty of battlements, supreme one, lady of breaking and entering, uttering proclamations, warding off storms, rescuing the plundered whether present or far away, is thy name. The name of her Doorkeeper is Terrible. -Spell 145a
The epithets are all part of the name of the goddess who guards the door, the knowledge of which is prerequisite to continuance. Where the god's are not flattered, they are tricked, fought, worshipped and abused, for the deceased lays claim to divinity, he is Osiris, and so has every right to treat the gods as equals.
The journey culminates in a widely-known and frequently depicted scene called the Weighing of the Heart. The soul finally arrives to the Hall of Two Truths, ushered in by Anubis, where his heart, the seat of his merits and sins, is weighed on scales against a feather (the same feather that crowns the head of Maat, Truth); Thoth, the baboon and divine scribe, stands by to record the result, and the Devouress of the Dead, a combination crocodile and hippopotamus, waits to devour the heart should it fail the test. Here the soul speaks the negative confessions, and a dialogue begins:
Anubis: A man come from Egypt declares he knows our road and our city, and I agree. I smell his odor as that of one of you.
Deceased N: I am Osiris N. I have come hither to see the great gods, that I may live on the offerings that are their nourishment, while I am the Ram, the Lord of Mendes. He lets me ascend as a phoenix at my word, when I am in the river...
Anubis: Now behold, this has been told me about him which I tell of him whom thou art balancing in our midst.
Only when he has passed all the myriad trials of the underworld can the soul finally pass through the gates of heaven, as Kheper, the beetle who rolls the sun across the sky at dawn. This is the reason for the titles on the scrolls; the soul comes forth again by day, after defeating his enemies with the aid of the book. The entire process is one of divine assimilation, in which the deceased becomes part of the divine play enacted every day by the sun-god, simultaneously the resurrection of the god Osiris, god of fertility and the Nile's abundance. It is no accident that he attaches himself to the two regular occurences without which Egypt could not exist.
However much we can learn about Egyptian theology from these texts, we learn just as much about their social function and an important trend in Egyptian history by their form. Their textual ancestors were carved on stone tombs almost a millenium beforehand; it is clear if only from the enormous resources required for their production that these were a royal privilege, confined only to the king and perhaps a few wives or favourites. After the age of the pyramids and the first intermediate period, this strong religious centralization had ended, and the next stage of development, the Coffin Texts, inscribed on the coffins, walls, and ceilings of lesser tombs, had begun. But by the time of the papyrus copies, the texts were wide-spread, available to any official with enough money to buy a copy. A declaration from the reign of Amenhotep III that a text had been completed in full, without errors or omissions, suggests at least that many were not. While it was entirely possible to commission a text specially for an individual, most were prepared beforehand, leaving only a small blank space for different names, a "blank check" for success in the afterlife.
This process of gradual increase in availability has been termed the democritization of death; no longer was the assimilation to the sun god Ra, the pharaoh, reserved for the king. By the end of the pharaonic period and the beginning of the foreign invasion, there is a direct correlation between the decentralization of political and religious control; temples to gods could be replaced by personal shrines, the sun-god pharaoh by a personal devotion, and the king himself by countless local authorities. It is more than a little ironic that the hallmark of popularization of Egyptian culture is one of the most telling artifacts of its decline.
A few notes on readings and translations. The Book of Coming Forth by Day exists in countless copies, written variously in hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts with strong tendencies towards archaism in its language. The first copy published and translated, the Papyrus of the priest Ani, the one purchased by E.A. Wallis Budge in 1888, is certainly the one most widely available. It is since in the public domain, and is available through Dover Publications for about $15.00. DO NOT BUY THIS. If it's worth anything, it's as an historical curiosity, and is a perfect example of the limited use of many public domain translations. Egyptian Grammar has progressed by leaps and bounds since Budge first published his results, and indeed, while he was a fine popularizer, he was an incompetent philologist even for his day. There are, however, two more modern editions available. The first, from which the translations above were taken, was published in 1974 by the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. It is an excellent work, but due to the various tom-fooleries of that place, is not regularly available. By far more common is the translation of R. Faulkner, titled the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, and published by the University of Texas.
An excellent and accessable introduction to the Book of Going Forth by Day and other Egyptian religous texts mentioned above is the book Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, written and translated from the original German by Erich Hornung. It sells for about $16.00 or so.