Book Review: The Ancient Egyptian Books Of The Afterlife

The Ancient Egyptian Books Of The Afterlife, by Eric Hornung

There are at least two kinds of people who might theoretically be interested in a book like this.  Some of us are at least familiar with the general outlines of Egyptian religion and history and this book demonstrates the connection between Egyptian heathen religion and the Egyptian politics during ancient history [1].  On the other hand, there will be some people who will be interested in this work for esoteric reasons, because they have some sort of belief in the efficacy of the spells that supposedly allowed the Egyptian Pharaohs (and sometimes their trusted officials) to claim oneness with God and seek a successful journey into the Netherworld.  For the record, I am the first sort of reader, although I am familiar enough with esoteric studies to understand how it might be appealing to some.  The author manages to do a service in making the writings of the ancient Egyptians more familiar to Western audiences, and the translator does a good job bringing this material from German into English.  I read this book, of course, because it was a German translation into English and I accepted a challenge to read a certain amount of books on a Goodreads challenge that were originally written in that language.

The materials of this book are easy enough to read that I was able to finish this book during a lunch break at work.  Even with the lengthy bibliography and index the book is less than 200 pages.  The author begins with a brief discussion of the Pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom and the slightly later Coffin texts.  After this there is a discussion of the somewhat famous Book of the Dead and a brief discussion of some fascinating and odd Books of Breathing found in a couple of pharoah’s tombs or cenotaphs.  The majority of this book, though, takes a very detailed look (with plenty of drawings and photographs) of various New Kingdom books of the Netherworld, such as the Amduat, the Spell of the Twelve Caves, the Book of Gates, the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, the book of Caverns, and the Book of the Earth.  After this the author talks about three books of the sky, namely the Book of Nut, the Book of the Day, and the Book of the Night.  The rest of the book contains discussions of three special compositions:  the Litany of Re, the book of the Heavenly Cow, and the book of Traversing Eternity.

There are at least a few insights that one can gain from this book without being interested in its esoteric value or having any belief in Egyptian mythology.  A few of the insights are as follows:  the Egyptians considered their gods to be protected by giant and powerful serpents, which is ominous when one compares this to biblical religion’s inveterate hostility to snakes and dragons.  Additionally, the Egyptians appeared to have a modalist view of their gods where the sun god during the day (Re) was equated with Osirus at night and various other names at dawn and sunset.  Likewise, it appears that the earlier texts were focused mainly on providing practical advice for the afterlife (!) through spells and supposed insights while later stories were more interested in providing a coherent narrative and illustrated mythology.  For those who are interested in Egyptian religion, this book is an accessible introduction to the wide variety of texts in the literature of the Egyptian books of the afterlife, and it is of use whether your purposes are to attempt to carry on the esoteric traditions of Egyptian elites or to decry their obvious connection to the worship of demonic powers and to corrupt hierarchical structures of authority.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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