British Museum blog

What is a Book of the Dead?

John Taylor, British Museum

I’m the curator of the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens at the British Museum on 4 November 2010. The exhibition is the result of years of work behind the scenes in planning, preparation and research. It’s exciting to be able to focus on these special documents and to have the rare opportunity to display such a variety of them.

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way.

The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.

The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, heart, they’re all embodiments of a person, and they were afraid that these elements would disperse when you died. So there are a lot of spells to make sure you don’t lose your head or your heart, that your body doesn’t decay, as well as other spells about keeping alive by breathing air, having water to drink, having food to eat.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles, insects – an idea very much based on the threats they knew in real life only much more frightening and much more dangerous.

As well as the animals, you could be attacked by gods or demons who served the gods. In the next world there are a lot of gods who are guarding gateways that you have to get through, and if you don’t give the right answers to their questions at the gates, they can attack you because they have knives and snakes in their hands.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on to the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!).

The worst thing that can happen is what is called the second death. This meant you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that they believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing regularly about the aspects of the exhibition that I’m most excited about – and there’ll also be updates from some of the many people working on the exhibition behind the scenes here at the British Museum.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, , , ,

29 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. This sounds like a fantastic exhibtion I cant wait to come and see it and bring my children along. the Book of the Dead fascinated me when I was a small child and I can honestly say that reading the meanings behind it put me on the road to becoming a museum curator which is my other job when I am not entertaining two children!


  2. Jennifer says:

    So excited for more updates on the progress of this exhibit as it is on display! Also, I think the idea of a curator’s blog is wonderful. I myself am a student at university with hopes of becoming a curator someday, and it is always a treat to read about the work of current professionals.


  3. dianabuja says:

    How were the poor able to transet into the afterlife?



  4. Dianabuja,

    The burials of poor people were usually similar to those of the rich in their main features, but with less expense – the body would be preserved in a crude manner and wrapped in cloth, and a few gifts would be put into the grave (food, drink, a few simple trinkets). So, as far as we can tell, they expected to go to the same kind of afterlife as the wealthy, but they would have to manage without the help of the Book of the Dead and all the rich trappings of a high-status burial. How you behaved during your life was important. In an ancient Egyptian story someone watches the funerals of a rich man and a poor man, and then makes a journey to the realm of the dead, where he sees how the gods treated them. The poor man is enjoying a luxurious life, while the rich man is being tortured – the gods had judged them on their past record in life, irrespective of their wealth. Although this story comes from very late in Egyptian history it does seem to show a belief that everyone had an equal chance of reaching the afterlife.

    John Taylor, Exhibition Curator


  5. noelle says:

    I wouldn’t waste my time!
    John Taylor the Exhibition Curator put together a very boring show and an uninspiring audio tour guide. The tour could of easy moved the crowds of people through the exhibition, giving content on each artifact but instead Mr. Taylor left you walking in circles in the extremely low lighting that left you unable to see where the audio related items where.

    Last year I was in San Francisco for TUTANKHAMUN and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs and it blew this out of the water! Mr. Taylor should look towards the de Young Museum for creative inspiration and knowledge on how put together a first class show.


  6. John says:

    I havent seen the exhibition yet,the anticipation of walking in circles viewing the beauty of Egyptian art and thought,hopefully making my own time to move through the exhibition is what I would appreciate.
    Extremely low lighting,to view artefacts 35 centuries old,must be the only practical way that they can now see the light of day.
    Looking forward to my visit!


  7. Simon says:

    I thought the exhibition was excellent!

    There were some points that could have been better and these revolve around the use of physical space. Often there were bottlenecks of visitors surrounding the objects listed on the audio guides. This could be frustrating and the objects could have been better placed with traffic flow, as it were, in mind,

    This is a minor gripe. The objects and the panels from the book of the dead were, excuse the pun, spell binding. On several occasions had to stop and remind myself I was looking at texts thousands of years old and a window into the world of the ancients.

    As to the lighting, these are objects that need care and protection: yes it’s a little dim but I found it made no overall difference. Besides if it means I have to look a little longer, who cares? I’d much rather have these objects available for future generations to enjoy than be damaged by artificial light.

    Finally there was one really interesting figure that I saw several times. It was shaped like salt shaker with two legs and two eyes. It was so odd looking. What an earth is it? And what does it mean?


  8. LUARA says:



  9. Simon

    This strange-looking figure appears in the illustration to Book of the Dead spell 17. It is a long and complex spell, mentioning many gods, some of them very obscure. The currently-accepted view among Egyptologists is that the figure represents Medjed (whose name means ‘The Smiter’). In the text of the spell we read:
    ‘I know the name of that Smiter among them, who belongs to the House of Osiris, who shoots with his eye, yet is unseen.’
    The fact that only his eyes are shown, while the rest of him (except his feet) is covered seems to fit this description. Unfortunately, nothing else is known about this god.

    John Taylor, Exhibition Curator


  10. Maya says:

    I am an Open University student studying towards BA with History Art. In our modules we have only studied the Western art. I don’t know why that is as there is so much more to know outside its ‘comfort zone’. I am someone who would love to work within the art world and to become a curator one day. (I am willing to start from anywhere). Always ‘hungry’ for more knowledge, I am looking forward to this exhibition that I booked for 28 November.
    My deepest regards to the curator!


  11. Megan says:

    Sounds like a fantastic exhibition. Creating a blog on what the exhibition entails is a innovative way to communicate with members of the public who may be coming to view and have already had the opportunity to view the exhibition. Just wondered when your next update will be? I am particularly intrigued as I am a student at UCL and I am currently writing a blog for my university project on two objects from within UCL’s archives. UCL houses the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology which contains objects and texts also from the Egyptian era. I know a lot of my friends are considering doing two objects from the Petrie Museum – I will be sure to recommend your exhbition and your blog to them.


  12. Shirley says:

    I am interested in the burial of the poor Egyptians.
    Were they kept for the 70 days before burial? Where were they buried? I assume some could be buried on the East bank too? Have there ever been any cemeteries found of poor people?
    And if a family had a baby that died after birth where and how were they buried?


  13. STJAustin says:

    Would love to visit this exhibition …. unfortunately i’m in Austin Texas and not able to zip over.



  14. This exhibition exceeded my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were more artefacts and the papyrus fragments were more varied in age and style than I had expected. I visited late morning and though it was a little crowded, especially around the audio exhibits, visitors only had to be patient for a short time in order to see everything. I definitely recommend the exhibition, but make sure you leave enough time – there’s a lot to see.


  15. madagoo says:

    Truly a fantastic exhibition. i thoroughly enjoyed the multimedia technology too. please, are you releasing this on DVD after the exhibition? It would be good if the thanatology of mesopotamia could be inlcuded and how they influenced the abrahamic religions collectively.


  16. […] Egypt has come to London again, with a spectacular exhibition at the British Museum entitled: Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. John Taylor, curator of the […]


  17. grace alves says:

    I’ve just been invited by friends to go to the exhibition on Mon 21st Feb! I’m so excited! I can’t wait to see the wording of the spells. How faithful to the original ‘texts’ can I expect them to be? Did the ‘sending off’ of the Egyptians -both the poor and wealthy- involve any chanting of sorts? Also, as a Portuguese person who’s lived in London for the past 20 years, I have observed that the ‘sending off’ of people here is oftentimes without much decorum and notably without concern for the ‘welfare’ of the dead once they’ve ‘gone’. I wonder if this exhibition will have an impact in the psyche of the increasingly secular British society.


  18. Marguerite Higham says:

    I am planning to visit on Mon 21st what time would you recommend?


  19. Marguerite

    Great to hear you’re planning to come. It’s a big exhibition with lots to see, so leave yourself plenty of time. Booking in advance is recommended and you can do it here:

    Otherwise tickets are available in the Great Court on the day – but best to get here early.

    David Prudames, Web team


  20. Gordon says:

    You write that it is not a Bible but I read somewhere that it contains rules that are very similar to those in The Ten Commandments.
    The Jewish religion must have come from somewhere and does not ancient Egypt makes sense?
    I wanted to get to the exhibition but it’s a long way from Banffshire to London.
    Any chance of it touring?


    • Madagoo says:

      hi gordon,

      part of the various BOD spells inlcude the 42 Negative Sayings/Confessions which often have similar things that could be precursors to the Ten Comandments. The other interesting thing to compare with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) are the other influences for exile seen in Babylonian thanatology which was heavily influenced from Zoroastrianism.

      bw Mal


  21. marion says:

    I haven’t made it to the Exhibition for family reasons and I am so disappointed. Will any of the ‘spells’ from the BM’s collection be on view in the Egyptian Galeries after March 6th, so that I can come and get an idea of one or two in reality?

    Thank you


  22. Jean Phillips says:

    I visited this exhibition on 3rd March and then the Treasures of Afghanistan on 4th March, together with my 94 year old mother. We enjoyed the exhibitions but did find it too crowded and therefore not able to see many of the displays. Perhaps a little more of a gap between groups, 10 minute slots are obviously not long enough to get people through these very interesting events. More seats for the elderly would be welcome also. Otherwise two very enjoyable days!


  23. Helen MacInnes says:

    My sister found ‘The Book of the Dead’1899 in the house she bought.It is in good condition inside with some amazing plates.She is not sure what to do with it!


  24. teeehee says:

    too hard to understand


  25. Michelle Straebler says:

    This must have been a great exhibition. I got the app from iTunes and it’s wonderful – thank you!


  26. Antony taker says:

    The book of the dead it as Allways had a strange fascination for me to see what there way of thinking was 3500 years ago


    • It also provides some interesting insights into the development of religious though not just in Egypt, but also through Israel’s first exile in Egypt. E.g the gates and negatives saying of one’s passage thought to the afterlife are where we find the precursors of the Ten Commandments . Similarly, the second exile in babylons gives insight into the importation of monotheism into Judaism to replace early henotheism. Later, not so much an exile as an occupation , the roman period was where Christianity grew out of strictly monotheistic Judaism dealing with much speculation about metatron, memra, and theophany. But most of all, I think all of this gives us much richness in discovering our connectivity is seeking the other and speaking of the numenal.


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