The following is an interview about the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead with Professor Rita Lucarelli by Richard Marranca of Montclair State University.
I’m so glad you’re up for an interview. What are you currently working on?
Currently I am working on a book of demons, especially those from the Book of the Dead (BD). In general, I am surprised at the number of unknown comic book fragments that continue to be discovered in Egypt and in private and museum collections, adding new insights into ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs.
How did you become interested in Egyptology? And what is your background? And what do you teach at Berkeley?
I have always loved archaeology, the Arab and African world. I first studied Egyptology at the Oriental Institute in Naples, then I obtained my doctorate in Egyptology in Leiden, the Netherlands. At Berkeley, I teach courses on ancient Egyptian language, religion and recently also on digital Egyptology, in particular on 3D technology applied to the preservation of ancient Egyptian heritage.
What is the Egyptian Book of the Dead? Is that the original name? And what is the time period for its prominence? Is the Book of the Dead inspired by older Egyptian documents or is it something very original?
The Book of the Dead is the name given to a corpus of ancient Egyptian magic, ritual and funerary texts, aimed at protecting the body of the deceased and accompanying it on its journey through the regions of the Duat, the ancient Egyptian hell. . The Egyptians called this collection “peret em heru”, “going out in the day or in the sun”, which was a metaphor for rebirth and eternal life after the liminal stage of death.
The corpus is attested over a very long period, from the beginning of the New Kingdom (1500 BC) to the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 380 AD) . The objects in which spells and vignettes (illustrations) from the Book of the Dead appear are part of the funerary material used for burial rituals: first of all papyrus, mummy dressings, linen, coffins, stelae, amulets, canopes (used to preserve the interiors of the body before mummification) and statuettes; spell selections from the Book of the Dead also occur on the walls of tombs and temples.
Who created these Books and for whom? Was there a lot of freedom to create them?
Ancient Egyptian theologians and priests composed the spells, which derived from the tradition of magical spells for the dead, which began with the Pyramid Texts. So these are traditional texts but there was freedom to rearrange and produce new variations of previous spells.
There are thousands of Books of the Dead. What is the papyrus? Why have the Books of the Dead endured, sometimes in an excellent state of liveliness?
Papyrus is a plant that grew in Egypt and was used to make a special type of paper that ancient Egyptian scribes used to write all kinds of documents. The Book of the Dead papyri were kept in the tomb along with the mummified body of the dead and so many of them were kept in good condition until the tombs and coffins were opened and the papyri brought to the museums around the world.
Unlike other ancient peoples, the Egyptians seem to have had a good life, and the afterlife was an ideal reflection of life on earth. Can we assume that life was good, or is it tinged with propaganda? And were the Egyptians obsessed with death?
The ancient Egyptians lived well according to the social class to which they belonged. Even what we now call “slaves” could become free if they behaved well and obeyed Pharaoh’s laws or if they could demonstrate special skills. They were also obsessed with death in the sense that they believed that death was a new beginning and therefore they had to prepare for the journey to the afterlife.
The Egyptians understood that no one comes back from the dead. But they firmly believed in the afterlife. So the ideal was for the person to be mummified and for the Book of the Dead, in some form or another, to be included in the grave? How were these images, spells and amulets included in the tomb?
Yes, the Book of the Dead was to protect the body and spiritual parts of the dead. Spells and accompanying images (vignettes) were copied onto papyrus, tomb walls, coffins, and other magical items that accompanied the dead in the afterlife.
What would the deceased have to say or do to reach the afterlife? Were there many walkways and dangers? Who helped the deceased?
He had to repeat the magic words of spells, address the divine and demonic inhabitants of the underworld and know their names and what they looked like, in order to pass through the many gates of the underworlds. Some of the deities also aided the deceased.
My understanding is that there are different ways to inhabit the afterlife. The soul (as in Ba and Ka) joins the pharaohs in the firmament? Was it also true that we resided in the west in the Field of Rush? And could the person’s spirit also somehow reside in a tomb or statue?
The mummified body (of the pharaoh but also of non-royal people) remained in the tomb, the ba could enter and exit the tomb, the Ka received the offering as a kind of life force from the deceased, while the Akh was the transfigured spirit of the dead, after judgment and living with the gods. The “West” is traditionally considered to be the realm of the dead (the cemeteries were on the west bank of the Nile), so the field of rushes can be considered to be to the west (Imenet), while the Westerners ( Imentyw) were the dead.
Who are the main gods and goddesses involved in the journey to the underworld and the underworld itself?
Osiris, Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Ra but ideally all the gods were part of it.
In “Demonology in the Late Pharaonic and Greco-Roman Periods in Egypt”, you wrote that “all supernatural beings in Egypt, whether of the category ‘demon’ or ‘god’, could act both benevolent and malevolent way towards people (and towards each other). )?” This is fascinating – can you explain the potential for help and pain here for humans?
If the dead or the living knew how to deal with demonic creatures as well as with deities, they need not fear them – it was magical knowledge of spells and rituals. Sometimes gods and demons turned malevolent when they had to inflict punishment on mankind, as in the myth of mankind’s destruction.
The heart weighed against a feather representing maat opens up a world of questions. Was it like a court case that had to be proven? What if one of them failed? Eat?
Yes, it reflects the earthly tribunal with the recitation of the negative confession, when the deceased had to prove his innocence. In theory, in case of failure, Amemet (the devourer of the dead) will devour the deceased.
Did the person have to have a virtuous life and not have been sacrilegious and that kind of thing? What if, like all of us, the person had things to hide? What if your heart spoke through and through?
Then you will be condemned to pain and punishment in the underworlds, in a kind of Egyptian Hell depicted in the so-called Books of the Underworld, like the Book of Doors and the Book of Earth.
Is the book a kind of reminder for the deceased in case things go wrong? Was the journey the same for the rich or the poor? I think — the democracy of death? And did the Book serve as the sale of indulgences that the Catholic Church used to do?
The Book of the Dead was a collection of magic spells and only the elite could afford it, but also the non-elites believed in the same kind of divine justice, and they had less rich funerary equipment and shorter papyri, if they could even afford it. a. I wouldn’t compare it to anything in the Catholic Church though, which is based on a different ideology and a monotheistic religion.
When and why did the book lose its importance?
It was only when the ancient Egyptian civilization disappeared, at the end of the Roman period when the Christians (Copts) arrived in Egypt and destroyed the productions of the native religion.
What are some of the greatest examples from the Egyptian Book of the Dead? What about this famous one that EA Wallis Budge bought from a reseller in Egypt?
The Book of the Dead of Ani (purchased by Budge) is certainly a masterpiece, we have many other beautifully illustrated papyri such as the Book of the Dead of Kha from Deir el Medina (now in Turin) and the very long Greenfield papyrus (in the British Museum 40 meters long)
Did the Book of the Dead influence later religions in the Middle East, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam?
It has inspired afterlife imagery in other religions, particularly depictions of hell, but not the beliefs of monotheistic religions whose idea of salvation is very different.
Interview with Richard Marranca of Montclair State University
Header image credit: Shutterstock