What is the Book of the Dead?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian text that gives instructions regarding the afterlife. There is no single definitive version, but rather a number of texts that may be referred to by this name, often customized for a particular decedent. "The Book of the Dead" is not a translation of the text's Egyptian title, but an invention of German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who published translated portions of the book in 1842. The Egyptian name for the texts is The Book of Coming Forth By Day.

The pharoahs who were entombed in the Pyramids of Giza believed that the Book of the Dead would guide them through the after life.
The pharoahs who were entombed in the Pyramids of Giza believed that the Book of the Dead would guide them through the after life.

The texts contained spells intended to help the decedent in the afterlife. Some were meant to please the gods, while others were meant to prevent certain misfortunes from befalling the dead person as he or she entered the afterlife. The Book of the Dead also provided an overview of what would happen after death according to Egyptian religious belief. One of the best known images associated with the book is one in which the god of the dead, Anubis, places the heart of the deceased in a scale to weigh it against a feather of truth.

The Book of the Dead prepared Egyptians for the trials their souls would face in the afterlife.
The Book of the Dead prepared Egyptians for the trials their souls would face in the afterlife.

Many portions of the Book of the Dead are common to nearly all versions, but most texts in this genre are customized for a specific funeral. The appropriate spells to include differed according to the deceased's wealth and social status, for example. There are four main categories used to classify the texts, though each extant version is unique. These categories are the Heliopolitan version, the Theban version, a third version with no fixed order of chapters that is closely related to the Theban texts, and the Saite version.

The earliest known versions of the Book of the Dead date from the beginning of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty, in the 16th century BCE. Portions of earlier funerary texts, the Coffin Texts and the Pyramid Texts, were incorporated into these early versions. The book became more standardized over the centuries, and the latest versions, dating from after the 26th Dynasty of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, show a stricter and more consistent order.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


@ Chicada & GlassAxe- There have also been reports of a Medieval Bible bound in Human skin and the Decretals (Catholic Canon Law) from the same era written on human skin. No one has able to confirm or deny this, but during those times, flaying people alive and using his or her skin as a tool to spread fear was not uncommon. Creepy right!


@ Chicada- I do not know if there is an actual book of the dead bound in human skin, but binding books in human skin is nothing new and scientists have verified these books through DNA testing. The scientific name for binding books with human skin is Anthropodermic bibliopegy. A few Ivy League universities actually carry some of these books in their rare books collection. Harvard's Law School has three of these books, but they only allow viewings if there is an actual research need, or enough interest to hold a public viewing. Brown University also carries a couple of these in their library.

The practice was common during the 17th and 18th century. Courts would sometimes bind the case details of the trial of a convicted murderer in his or her skin. Medical professionals from the 18th and 19th century used to bind anatomy manuals in the skin of the cadavers used during experimentation. These are the books that are held in the Brown University Library. There is even a copy of "The rights of Man" and several copies of the 1793 French Constitution bound in the skin of humans conquered during the French Revolution.


Is there an ancient book of the dead that was actually bound in human skin? When I think of the book of the dead, all I can think of are the books of the dead that you see in various horror movies and eighties comedies. I always wondered if this was true, and I figured there was no better place to ask someone than the comment boards on wiseGEEK.

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