Alleviating Anxiety with the Book of the Dead

Author: Bridget Bracken

Sub-editor: Pamela Piechowicz

Image Credit: A vignette in The Papyrus of Ani, from Spell 30B: Spell For Not Letting Ani’s Heart Create Opposition Against Him, in the Gods’ Domain, which contains a depiction of the ba of the deceased. Wikipedia Commons.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or Book of Going Forth by Day, reveals that, for a culture so closely associated with death in the modern imagination, the ancient Egyptians had a lot of anxieties about death and the afterlife. While to a modern audience the processes outlined in the Book of the Dead reveal these anxieties, this essay will argue that to an ancient audience they would have rather worked to alleviate them. First, the ancient Egyptian conception of life and death as a continuous cyclical process will be explored, in order to understand the fundamental attitudes to death that motivated the creation of the Book of the Dead. Next, the processes of preparing for death and entering the afterlife, as outlined in the Book of the Dead will be examined. This will be followed by an examination of the transformations the deceased underwent in the afterlife so that they could return to the upper world, and what motivated this desire to return, in accordance with processes described in the Book of the Dead. Finally, a copy of the Book of the Dead belonging to a priest named Ankhefenkhonsu will be used as a case study to reveal how individuals could use the spells of the Book of the Dead to relieve the anxieties that the Book reveals. All of this will support the argument that the Book of the Dead reveals anxieties about death and the afterlife because it was a means of assuaging them. 

A Continuous Cycle: Egyptian Attitudes to Death 

Meskell states that for ancient Egyptians “existence formed a continuum that was only slightly interrupted by the experience of death”. They believed life and death were simply parts of a continuous cycle, which continued even in the afterlife. This belief of life and death as transitory states extended to the belief that the dead could interfere in the affairs of the living, and vice versa. Given this belief system, it makes sense that death played a central role in the “cultural consciousness” of ancient Egypt. It would also make sense that, given death was not conceived of as an end, there would be high levels of anxiety around what exactly happened after death. Though the Egyptians had strong beliefs about what death meant and what the afterlife might entail, their conception of the afterlife was nonetheless somewhat confusing. It seems as though the afterlife could be a positive, divine realm in which the deceased was safe, and simultaneously as though it could be a dark and shadowy realm in which the deceased had dangers to contend with. Anxieties about the unknown aspects of the afterlife and about the circular nature of life and death are apparent in the spells of the Book of the Dead; particularly notable are the “Spell[s] For Not Dying Again”. Spell 44 has the deceased recite “I am not attacked (nor) plundered” and “I am risen as (King) of the gods; I shall not die again”. Though this spell reveals definite anxieties about suffering the deceased may face, it reads like a mantra. The confidence of the speaker comes through in these statements, even if it is a contrived confidence, intended only to be a facade over anxieties. Spell 175, meanwhile, ties together the dead with the living, having the speaker say “May I endure on the earth… May my (heir) keep healthy and my tomb stand firm”. With this spell the connection between the realms of the living and the dead is acknowledged and the deceased is able to relieve concerns about their ability to maintain this connection. Evidently, despite their belief that the realms of the living and the dead were intertwined, the ancient Egyptians felt anxieties about this connection. Spells from the Book of the Dead could help them to relieve these anxieties by acknowledging them, whilst at the same time negating their potency. 

Preparing for and Entering the Underworld 

Of the anxieties that the Book of the Dead reveals about death and the afterlife, preparation for death and entrance into the underworld appear to be of primary concern. Death was not something to embark upon lightly, it was “a call to action”. Thus, the Book of the Dead was a tool to ensure that ancient Egyptians would be prepared for their journey to the underworld. One of the key steps in the journey to the underworld was when the deceased rejoined and was reconnected with their ka (life force, or soul). Spell 105 of the Book of the Dead deals with this reunion, and in doing so reveals that preparing for and journeying to the afterlife incited many anxieties around worthiness and purity . At one point in this spell the deceased states that “I have become a ba, mighty and healthy”. The ba was the part of the soul associated with mobility after death. With this statement, the deceased is reassuring their ka that they are worthy of being joined with it and that they have the strength and ability needed to complete the remainder of the journey to the afterlife. The need to express this reveals some anxiety that the deceased must not only be worthy of reaching the afterlife, but that they must be able to prove this worth. At another point, the deceased tells their ka that they have come to it “purified and justified”. This reveals another set of anxieties about what exactly it means to be worthy of reaching the afterlife.

The concept of Ma’at was central in ancient Egypt, and one must have lived in accordance with Ma’at in order to enter the afterlife. Ma’at is a term that encompasses order, truth, justice, and balance, and was one of the central governing principles of Egyptian life and religion. Spell 125, more commonly known as The Negative Confession, expands upon these anxieties, as the deceased lists 42 sins which they have not committed. In doing so the deceased is able to affirm that they have lived their life in accordance with Ma’at, thereby alleviating anxieties of acceptance. It is not only anxieties about one’s character that are shown in the spells of the Book of the Dead. Spell 149 describes some of the physical dangers of the underworld, including “various mysterious locations inhabited by, amongst other entities, snakes who hurl knives, or blessed demons who live in shadows, and the atmospheres of these locations consist of fiery air or roaring floods”. In such statements, the Book of the Dead illustrates a host of anxieties ancient Egyptians had regarding the afterlife. This does not, however, diminish its power as a tool to relieve these anxieties. The effectiveness of its spells is affirmed throughout, with many containing the phrase “a truly excellent spell [proved] a million times,” or some similar variation, assuring the reader and asserting strong belief in the power of the spells. This strong belief ancient Egyptians had in the spells is supported by the fact that copies of the Book of the Dead have been found tucked into the wrappings of mummies, or sometimes even written directly onto the wrappings themselves. While Bommas suggests that this was simply a cost-effective strategy, it can also be interpreted as a need or desire for the spells to be close at hand in order to be most effective for the deceased. It undoubtedly indicates that the spells were highly valued, for them to have been placed so close to the deceased. Therefore, both content from the Book of the Dead and evidence of it where it was physically placed and how it was used can show that it was a tool for relieving anxieties both during preparation for death and in the journey to the underworld. 

Transformation and Return to the Upper World 

Though it is most commonly known as the Book of the Dead in the modern era, this was not always its name; to the ancient Egyptians this collection of spells was more likely to have been referred to by the title “Going Forth By Day”. In fact, one-seventh of the spells that today make up the Book of the Dead claim this phrase as their title. This title much better sums up the motivations behind the creation of these spells; it highlights the desperate longing and deep anxiety that the ancient Egyptians had to not be separated from their lives on earth by death, as well as their belief that this was possible. Thus, many of the spells in the Book of the Dead detail how the deceased may transform themself in order to ascend once again to earth. Assmann describes these transformations as “one of the most important means of freeing oneself from the realm of death”. That so much of the Book of the Dead was focused on freeing oneself from the realm of the dead reveals in and of itself that there was great anxiety around death and the afterlife. There are four main earthly locations that the ancient Egyptians were most anxious to stay connected with after death, according to the spells of the Book of the Dead: their tomb (to receive offerings), their home and their garden (to visit family) and festivals (to participate in them alongside the living). That these locations are the ones focused on in the Book of the Dead points once again to anxieties about maintaining the circular and reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead. However, the sheer quantity of spells that allowed for the deceased to transform and return to earth, “assuming whatever form one will,”and participate in even mundane activities of the living such as “playing chess, sitting in a pavilion [and] going forth as a living soul” must have provided comfort to the ancient Egyptians. These spells legitimised the relationship between the living and the dead and thus were once again clearly a tool to relieve anxieties about another aspect of death and the afterlife. 

Ankhefenkhonsu’s Book of the Dead 

One of the most compelling aspects of the Book of the Dead is the fact that no two copies of it are the same. None contain every single spell that is known – some contain only ten, others fifty – yet it is still accepted that no matter the length or detail of any copy, its validity or effectiveness is not impacted. Therefore, looking at examples of individual Book of the Dead manuscripts, rather than complete compilations of the spells, can reveal what was most important to individual ancient Egyptians as they prepared for their journeys to the afterlife. Here, O’Rourke’s analysis of the Book of the Dead of Ankhefenkhonsu will be utilised to exemplify this theory. This particular manuscript of the Book of the Dead consists of only eight spells. These eight spells primarily focus on ensuring the deceased will have all the powers they need for the afterlife and therefore ensuring that they will be able to transform and leave and re-enter the afterlife as they desire. Thus, the spells selected for this particular copy of the Book of the Dead fixate on the main themes of rebirth and a denial of the finality of death. These themes culminate in the use of Spell 180, in which “the deceased emerges at dawn reborn”. In reciting this spell they claim “I prevail over darkness; I enter it, I leave it.” Thus, this copy of the Book of the Dead demonstrates what the Book does: it reveals the most prominent anxieties of its owner. In this case, anxiety about the validity of the cyclical nature of life and death, because it is comprised of spells that calm these anxieties, assure the owner that they will be able to be transformed and return to the upper world. 


The Book of the Dead reveals anxieties about death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt because it was primarily a tool to alleviate these anxieties. It tells us that ancient Egyptians were anxious about being worthy of and pure enough for the afterlife, because it outlines spells to justify their worthiness and purity. It shows that ancient Egyptians were anxious to remain involved with their lives on earth even after death because so many spells involve their transformation into forms that will allow them to return to earth. It reveals that they were anxious to know that their conception of life and death as cyclical was correct. For the ancient Egyptians, anxieties about death and the afterlife did not have to be explained, they were a part of their lived experience. What was needed was a way to relieve these anxieties, and thus exists the Book of the Dead. To a modern audience, the Book of the Dead clearly reveals a plethora of anxieties about what occurred after one died. To ancient Egyptians, it would have meant that, with these spells nearby, one no longer had cause for anxiety; these spells would protect their journey to the afterlife, justify their entrance to the underworld, and allow for their return to the upper world.


Secondary sources

Allen, Thomas George. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Own Terms. Chicago I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1974. 

Assmann, Jan. “Introduction: Death and Culture.” In Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, translated by David Lorton, 1-20. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. 

Assmann, Jan. “Going Forth by Day.” In Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, translated by David Lorton, 209-234. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. 

Bommas, Martin. “The Mechanics of Social Connections Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Egypt.” In Living Through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World. Edited by Maureen Carroll and Jane Rempel, 159-182. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011. 

Janák, Jiří. “Journey to the Resurrection: Chapter 105 of the Book of the Dead in the New Kingdom.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 31 (2003): 193-210.

Meskell, Lynn. “Cycles of Life and Death.” In Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, 178-207. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

O’Rourke, Paul F. “The Book of the Dead of Ankhefenkhonsu in Brooklyn.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 43 (2014): 277-315. 

Robinson, Peter. “Book of the Dead Chapters 149 & 150 and Their Coffin Text Origins.” In Current Research in Egyptology 2007: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Conference. Edited by Kenneth Griffin, 123-140. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016. 

Schulman, Alan R. “The Iconographic Theme: ‘Opening of the Mouth’ on Stelae.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 21 (1984): 169-196.