The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a western title for an ancient collection of Egyptian manuscripts, the majority of which were funerary in nature. These collected writings have also been referred to as the Egyptian Bible or identified by the names of the scribes who penned them. The Papyrus of Ani comprises the most significant contribution to these texts, though there are some other minor sources which are often included. In the original languages, these works were more accurately entitled the Books of Coming Forth By Day. One of the greatest challenges to English-language speakers when confronting all the great scriptures is the language gap. Unless one has the time and inclination to learn Arabic, Hindi, Hebrew, Greek -- or in this case, Egyptian Heiroglyphs -- it becomes necessary to read the scriptures in translation. The farther removed one's own culture, and alphabet, is from the culture which spawned this scripture, the more translation becomes a vital and subjective area. This particular book review covers a translation of the Egyptian scriptures by Normandi Ellis, which have been printed by Phanes Press under the title Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Normandi Ellis is not generally considered the definitive translator of these books. That honor goes to noted Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge. Unfortunately, Budge's translations tend towards the mundane and prosaic. The original works were mystic, lyrical, full of alliteration and wordplay. According to Egyptian thought, The Word itself was sacred and powerful, and the mystic impact of these works was inseparable from the poetry of their language. When Normandi Ellis attempted her translations, she abandoned the strict phonetic and word-by-word translation style favored by Budge and embraced a more complete metaphorical and conceptual translation which focused on bringing the deep-rooted poetic style and power of the original into modern translation. Her translation has been hailed by peer reviewed journals as "a poetry unmatched anywhere in the literature so far," and "as close to an appreciation of the themes... As any modern interpretation." This translation is clearly geared not at the mere student of Egyptian culture, but at the mystic who wishes to approach the ancient texts as sacred scriptures by which they will be touched, moved, and inspired.
This approach to the Books of Coming Forth by Day is far more historically apt, for in Egypt these works were meant to be personalized, meditated upon, and used as a literal guide to enlightenment which would provide ultimate salvation from death. The texts were not only inscribed on the walls of the tombs of priests and rulers, and not only studied by the great scribes and mystics -- they were also mass produced, with blank spaces on the scrolls where the reader could insert their own name, and distributed widely to the populace -- much like any holy scripture today -- so that all the people could seek the wisdom that leads to enlightenment.
Normandi Ellis' version, far more than any previous translation, approaches this text not merely as an arcane view of life after death or as a set of "spells" of which the repetition allows one to secure eternal life, but rather as a guide to daily faith, life, and work in the living and breathing world. Considering the great scope of Egyptian civilization, and the degree to which their ideas positively influenced all the cultures around them (for Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and African traditions all show significant influence from the Egyptians, and arguments can even be made on their influence on faith as far away as India), one is led to believe that they were not merely the sober, death-fearing and life-denying aesthetes that has commonly been imagined by those who today can only view their tombs. Like many faiths which focused on living the good life as a way of assuring that they would be prepared to face death, the Egyptians appear to have been a life-embracing people who had great faith that the beauty of life continued after death. This text highlights that faith. It is, in its dedication to the simple beauty of nature and neter, and invaluable translation for modern mystics seeking to understand the faith of civilization's ancestors and a faithful translation of one of the earliest and arguably greatest sacred texts.
The content of the book is sixty-odd individual songs, which vary in length between a few mere lines of psalmstry to over ten pages of narrative and dialog in pieces like "The Duel," which describes the great battle between Horus and Set. The book addresses vital mythological stories, such as the death and rebirth of the god Osiris, the mourning of Isis and Horus' coming of age, and in doing so contains a number of brilliant hymns exhorting the gods, or neters, of the world. The connection between neter and nature is not merely linguistic (though the two words would be written identically with an Egyptian alphabet which considered the sanctity of words to be such that the vowels were not to be written, and so both words would be NTR ) -- on the contrary, the neter of Egypt were indistinguishable from the power of nature; they were physical embodiments of the powers of nature and the one spirit which passes through nature passes through the gods. Subsequently many of the chapters exhort some aspect of nature and of the gods.
Other chapters provide deep mediations of the nature of human life and the interconnection of the soul with nature around it. In these chapters the self is strongly identified with the gods and with nature. Chapters of this sort include "Becoming the Crocodile," and "Becoming the Heron." Historians have frequently viewed these writings as some sort of shape-shifting spell. In their current translation, they appear more as rhapsodies on the interconnection of self, deity, and nature. Perhaps the works of the greatest significance to this work as a funerary text, of course, are the chapters which deal with facing the after life. These chapters include vows which one must make before the judgment of Truth regarding the sort of life one has lived -- they are an exhortation to good, self-aware and responsible living, to which one can openly confess before the world. Chapters such as "Not Letting His Heart Be Carried Off" speak of the vital importance of being true to one's soul in life so that one can face judgment saying "I have lived in truth with my heart. I have lived by the words in my heart." (p. 119) The phases through which one passes after death are mapped here with ecstatic poems of self-analyzation and enlightenment.
The idea of not losing one's self after death is perhaps the most important funerary theme in this work. Despite the fact that numerous chapters describe the process of "Becoming" some other being, from snake to crocodile to the very eye of Ra, these are balanced by just as many chapters focusing on not losing one's self. "Not Letting His Heart be Carried Off" is accompanied by chapters such as "Remembering His Name," "Not Losing His Mind," "Bringing Home His Soul," and "Returning to See His Home." The right to these victories is consistently earned -- as in other world religions -- through purity in life. Scattered through-out these chapters, and finally coming to a complete form in "The Confession," one finds the pure soul's claims to goodness and integrity. "I extinguished no man's light... I've not been less than what I was... I've not wasted love...." (197-198) The word integrity is really very essential here because a great deal of the issue at stake is not so much survival (for other chapters assure that the speaker will, of course, survive. All things, they suggest, are eternal) but rather the maintaining of the soul's integrity as it goes through its many transformations after death. Thus in these chapters one sees a focus on not losing what one has and defending this retention with claims that one truly knows and understands one's self and has used and explored it thoroughly. The heart must not be carried off, the text suggests, because "In my heart are the deeds my body has done and... I spoke no lies..." (119) which is to say that there was integrity between the heart and the action of the body, that there was no hypocrisy but rather that "I am lord of my heart... I am it -- the things I have made. I have lived in truth with my heart." (119) These vital themes of bodily and spiritual integrity are a central part of the theme, which focuses simultaneously on the uniqueness of the individual striving to maintain itself against the universality of existence, and on the very deep importance of that universality -- it is as if only by recognizing that the soul is one with nature and still itself can the soul survive being forcibly returned to nature in death.