c. 1500-30 BCE
The Book of the Dead originated from concepts depicted in tomb paintings and inscriptions from as early as the Third Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2670 – 2613 BCE). By the 12th Dynasty (1991 – 1802 BCE) these spells, with accompanying illustrations, were written on papyrus and placed in tombs and graves with the dead. Their purpose, as historian Margaret Bunson explains, “was to instruct the deceased on how to overcome the dangers of the afterlife by enabling them to assume the form of serveral mythical creatures and to give them the passwords necessary for admittance to certain stages of the underworld” (47). They also served, however, to provide the soul with fore-knowledge of what would be expected at every stage. Having a Book of the Dead in one’s tomb would be the equivalent of a student in the modern day getting their hands on all the test answers they would ever need in every grade of school.
At some point prior to 1600 BCE the different spells had been divided in chapters and, by the time of the New Kingdom (1570 – 1069 BCE), the book was extremely popular. Scribes who were experts in spells would be consulted to fashion custom-made books for an individual or a family. Bunson notes, “These spells and passwords were not part of a ritual but were fashioned for the deceased, to be recited in the afterlife” (47). If someone were sick, and feared they might die, they would go to a scribe and have them write up a book of spells for the afterlife. The scribe would need to know what kind of life the person had lived in order to surmise the type of journey they could expect after death; then the appropriate spells would be written specifically for that individual.
How far back?
2020 | Present