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Mysterious ancient Egyptian papyrus reveals Cliffs Notes to the afterlife

By Elizabeth Rayne
Assassin's Creed: Origins

What if you suddenly ended up in another universe, and had absolutely no idea where you were going and no one to ask for directions?

This is why the Book of the Dead is the most iconic funerary text of ancient Egypt. Spells for the quest to the afterlife and visions of the deceased living alongside the gods were carefully inscribed into its mystical pages (some of which were painted on the walls of tomb chambers). The First and Second Books of Breathing were abbreviated versions of the Book of the Dead that were supposed to be a guide to the afterlife that was easy to follow for the deceased, who was on their way to final judgment by the gods. Now a papyrus first unearthed in the 19th century has literally breathed new life into the First Book of Breathing.

Egyptologist Foy Scalf, from the Univeristy of Chicago, led a study of the reanalysis of the First Book based on that papyrus that was recently published in Near Eastern Studies.

“Papyrus FMNH 31324 has many similarities to other manuscript, but one of the most important aspects of this manuscript is that it shows how spells that were originally individual and separate in the Book of the Dead—each having their own title and section—were fused into a single, continuous “narrative” in the First Book of Breathing. This is important because it shows how ancient scribes used authoritative, sacred scripture to produce new texts,” he told SYFY Wire.

Papyrus FMNH 31324 was first discovered in the 19th Century and then acquired by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The First Book of Breathing is thought to have first emerged near the west bank of Thebes, where many versions of it were transcribed over the years, but what makes FMNH 31324 unique is that it appears to have been written and illustrated by the reed pen of just one scribe. While the ravages of time have made it difficult to date, it is thought to be from anywhere between 50 B.C. and the late first century A.D., possibly the early second century.

"There exists the Book of Breathing which Isis Made (the oldest), The First Book of Breathing, and The Second Book of Breathing. These three compositions are attested from the late 4th century BC until the 2nd century AD. The First Book of Breathing, and The Second Book of Breathing) and around 50 shorer manuscripts are likely the last witnesses of native ancient Egyptian funerary literature," said Scalf.

This papyrus is also an abridged version of the already simplified Book of the Dead that appears in both Books of Breathing, making it the easiest guide to the afterlife, but there are some errors. Even ancient scribes who didn’t risk typos on a computer experienced issues with confusing grammar and glyphs while copying a manuscript. However, it is this manuscript that is now shedding light on the First Book of Breathing and the Books of Breathing in general, which are not mentioned by Egyptologists nearly as often as the Book of the Dead. The illustrations show scenes that only someone passing into the afterlife would witness in person, including the famous judgment scene where the deceased’s heart is weighed against a feather. If the heart and the feather balanced out, the soul was deemed worthy of living on forever. If the heart outweighed the feather, that soul would fall into the snapping jaws of a monster below. Scalf believes the manuscript was cut short for a reason.

"I think the scribe simply ran out of room on this particular papyrus scroll," he said. "Rather than try to squeeze in another column awkwardly at the end or adding incomplete sentences, they finished out the text at a logical point where the text summarized the divinity and healthiness of the owner--'There is no limb in me devoid of divinity for Thoth is the protection of my limbs. My flesh is complete for living every day.'"

Other scenes include a figure the cow-headed goddess Hathor on a shrine, three guardian genii brandishing swords, a human with a knife, and the crocodile-headed god Sobek clutching a mace. There is also no guide to the afterlife without the jackal-headed embalming god Anubis. He is also shown holding a knife which may represent the same knife used for the mummification of the deceased or what was believed to be the first mummification, that of the Osiris, ruler of the underworld. The dead were believed to become divine in the afterlife. Pharaohs who had passed would be deified into an iteration of Osiris.

"It is clear that the individuals responsible for putting together the First Book of Breathing wanted to focus on the divinization of the deceased," said Scalf. "The First Book skips from spells 18-30 in the Book of the Dead to spell 42. Spell 42 was a very important spell in terms of theology. In the spell, the body parts of the dead are directly identified with ancient Egyptian divinities, going so far as to state that for the deceased 'none of my limbs are free from divinity. It demonstrates that the scribes made conscious and intentional choices of inclusion and omission, putting together a new sacred text that focused on the divinity of the dead in the afterlife."

While it may seem that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death, they were actually obsessed with life. This is why they put so much preparation into the inevitable journey to the afterlife—existence on this mortal coil may have been short (not to mention much shorter and more brutal back then), but the realm of the gods was forever. Pharaohs would start building their pyramids years before they died, specifying exactly what they needed to get to the other side. The fantastic ship found in the pyramid of Khufu was literal preparation to sail to the otherworld. Death itself was not seen as doom. It was simply a pause until the person was reborn, and once they “breathed” again, the journey began.

This is where the Book of the Dead comes in. The two Books of Breathing were placed at the head and feet of a mummy for the person to have on hand as a sort of roadmap to the afterlife. “Breathing” was not necessarily literal to the ancient Egyptians. It encompassed all aspects of rebirth after death and began with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, during which a priest in a ceremonial mask of Anubis would recite spells to make the deceased able to eat, drink, and (of course) breathe again in the spirit world. But first, they needed a guide to the unfamiliar place beyond the Earthly world they knew.

"There are other documents from ancient Egypt that the Egyptians applied the generic title 'Book of Breathing'," Scalf said. "In fact, 'Book of Breathing' could be used as a general term for any funerary text. There are a group of these that are short, about 10 lines, but they provide a summarized formula of Egyptian afterlife theology focused on continued existence, reception of offerings, and communion with Osiris."

These Cliffs Notes on the Book of the Dead end after the body parts of the deceased are identified with the deities that rule over them. During mummification, certain internal organs, including the heart, would be separately mummified and placed in canopic jars, each of which bore the image of the deity that organ was associated with.

Whether the Second Book of Breathing intended to continue Papyrus FMNH 3134 exists remains unknown. It is possible that it may have already been discovered and is just waiting to reemerge from the shadows of another museum.

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