Blog #18 The Many Ways to Read "The Book of the Dead"

There have always been difficulties with truly understanding the full expression of Ancient Egyptian thought. The challenges began with the initial discoveries and translations of the hieroglyphic texts stemming from the material excavated and translated during the heightened scientific activity of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Today the modern reader has access to the result of over a hundred years of study and effort to capture the truth to be found in the book commonly called as the “Book of the Dead” that is in fact much more accurately known as the “Book of Coming Forth by Day.[1]”  In our recent research we have been led to compare translations undertaken by some of the principal scholars; Budge[2], Gardiner[3], Faulkner[4], Ellis[5]with a recent interesting version by Brind Morrow[6]. The broad sympathy of Budge for his material as well as his deep knowledge of his own and other's work in translation and interpretation is noteworthy. We are fortunate that his original publications also make special efforts to show how his interpretations are derived from the hieroglyphic texts. Furthermore, his original publishers at the British Museum supported the publication of the actual hieroglyphic texts that still serve as a basis for personally checking his conclusions.  These are important to us.  He displayed remarkable insight and understanding, despite the limited state of the grammar available to and partly developed by him. Such transparency of effort is seldom offered to us through other’s published works. 


The humanist style of Budge's presentations is in contrast to the austere, "scientific" approach of Gardiner, author of one of the best-known, extensive expositions of Egyptian grammar. In our limited experience, Gardiner seems to have actively avoided making reference to his chief predecessor, Budge. In various works he expressed his belief that the Egyptians were a primitive people whose early religion is tinged with the magical or superstitious, and whose poetry is characteristic of a people "lacking in depth of feeling and in idealism[7]." In accord with Gardiner's views, Faulkner's translations call the chapters of what he too called “Book of the Dead”, "spells," a terminology that has persisted in other works to this day. The implication that the texts were magical incantations, hence untrustworthy for developed modern scholars, seems to be offered as tacit explanation of the obscurity in which some of his own versions of the translations were left. In the 1994 edition of these translations, they are published with magnificent illustrations taken directly from the tomb walls, but without explicit cross reference to the fact that the original illustrations are precisely those used by Budge[8], but without explicit recognition that some of the altered Faulkner translations[9]are surely suspect. Checking these translations with Budge is sometimes helpful in identifying the source of obscurities.


Ellis[10], while writing highly expressive poetry, and acknowledging her debt to Budge, on first encounter seems so overwhelmed by her insights that the translations depend rather more on the author than the source. However, familiarity with her unique style, so far removed from literal translation, yields to further delving into the facts comprehended by her expressions. It has led us to a better appreciation of the depth and scope of her understanding. Study of the details that she has apprehended seems to reveal more about the remarkable insights and intentions of the original authors of the otherwise terse, symbolic texts. She has been able to convey the import of some of the originals, and through them enables a modern reader to fathom the aims of many of the elaborations added in the 18th dynasty revisions. Study of her work seems likely to justify further efforts for anyone interested in better understanding what we take to be the presentations of original myth in the literal translations that have previously been available to us; despite what we have earlier said - that some understanding of the hieroglyphic is most valuable if not essential[11].


Gardiner’s[12]translations also contain a most helpful introduction to the state of the “vignettes” by Carol Andrews. Some of these were used by Budge’s original accounts, but subsequent neglect has inhibited interpretations. The reasons for selection of Faulkner’s text are given in Goelet’s cogent and sympathetic “Introduction”, and are very compelling but do not obviate a certain irony in the fact that Faulkner’s reputation as a scholar has unduly influenced, perhaps limited, the value of other, coincident writings. Fortunately, this seems overcome in a recent and otherwise admirable introduction to both Sumerian and Egyptian texts by Littleton[13].  Faulkner’s influence is not specifically denied in this recent text but we believe that a weakening of his influence is detectable and probably intended. 


The last treatment of the Book of Coming Forth by Day that we have found useful can be found in the recent publication by Brind Morrow[14]. She takes a multi-dimensional view of the hieroglyphs. The result of this new approach is that the text is found to contain a mixture of poetry, prose and even phrases of onomatopoeiasuch as “wepwawet” for the cry of the coyote and “shu” to represent the movement of air as wind. Brind Morrow does a detailed study of the placement of the hieroglyphs carved onto the surfaces in the Pyramid of Unas. While indeed the general flow of the symbols run up and down, there are instances where they can be read horizontally as well, much like a modern day crossword puzzle. As a result it becomes apparent that the care and intention of the writings are at a high level of refinement. This is of no surprise considering the importance of the location of the text in one of the greatest constructions of humankind, but also considering the significance of the thought that the creators were attempting to capture: that being the levels of human consciousness and its potential for reaching for the divine.



[1] Dickie, L.M. and P.R. Boudreau. Awakening Higher Consciousness: Guidance from Ancient Egypt and Sumer. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vt.

[2] Budge, E.A.W. 1967. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. Dover Publications, New York. 377 pp.

[3] Gardiner, A. 1982. Egyptian Grammar. Griffith Institute, Oxford.

[4] Faulkner, R.O. 1994. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. Introduction by Ogden Goelet and Preface by Carol Andrews. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 176 pp.

[5] Ellis, N. 1988. Awakening Osiris: A New Translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 227 pp.

[6] Brind Morrow, S.  2015. The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  New York. 289 pp.

[7] Kingsley, P. 2003. Reality. The Golden Sufi Center, Inverness, California. 591 pp.

[8] Budge, E.A.W. 1967. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. Dover Publications, New York. 377 pp.

[9] Faulkner, R.O. 1994. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani. Introduction by Ogden Goelet and Preface by Carol Andrews. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 176 pp.

[10] Ellis, N. 1988. Awakening Osiris: A New Translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 227 pp.

[11] Huxley, A. 1950. Music at Night. Penguin Books, in association with Chatto and Windus, Edinburgh.

[12]Gardiner, A. 1982. Egyptian Grammar. Griffith Institute, Oxford.

[13]Littleton, C.S. [ed.] 2002. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. Duncan Baird, London. 687 pp.

[14] Brind Morrow, S.  2015.  The Dawning Moon of the Mind/ Unlocking the Pyramid Texts.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  New York.  289 pp.

What Spiritual Nature Magazine has to say about Awakening Higher Consciousness

"The ideas expressed in Awakening Higher Consciousness: Guidance from Ancient Egypt and Sumer are paradoxically both simple and multi-layered. It may sound strange, but when I started reading the book, my experience was of peeling back the layers of the proverbial onion, but without the tears!"


"Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined"


Harari,Y.N. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House of Canada Limited.

Andrew Collins' new book is out entitled "The Cygnus Key: The Denisovan Legacy, Göbekli Tepe, and the Birth of Egypt".

Wow there is a lot of information in this book. Note that there is also a lot of speculation. 

The good side of this book is to expose readers to much about the history of modern humans that has not been fully exposed before. Concepts concerning the origins of common myths and beliefs found around the world are traced back a possible single origin point. Precession and its impact on human psyche is examined in great detail. It presents an excellent summary of what is know of that area in Southern Siberia that is associated with the genetic mixing of the Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovan. I very much like Collins' investigation of the pyramids of Giza and their alignment with the constellation Cygnus. As I said, there are lots of interesting themes presented.

The challenge of the book is to keep in mind that although Collins presents a very good story that links the many topics, many of the connections are by no means confirmed. Yes they might be true, but they are certainly not proven. In the best of worlds this will allow for more detailed investigation and exploration as we go forward. 

The discriminating reader should be able to make their way through the many points with a mind to become aware of, and to actively question, the many unknowns that remain about our development since the last glacial maximum - but it is not an easy read. Specifically if one is not aware of the many points of argument, there will be much information to be digested. 

I would have preferred the story laid out in time from start to finish instead of in the present form that tends to jump around in time from 10,000 BCE, to 5,000 BCE to 20,000 BCE.