The so-called Egyptian Book of the Dead, one of the best-known ancient writings in popular culture, had an interesting origin story for its famous title. Although it is known as the Book of the Dead, the actual collection of writings that the name represents were never known by that title in the ancient world. Neither were they actually ever a true codified book in the past. Instead, what we know of as the Book of the Dead is a modern compilation of a specific genre of ancient Egyptian texts—funerary scrolls.
For the origin story of the title, Book of the Dead, we must turn back to the 19th century. That century saw a great increase in interest within Europe concerning the history and artifacts of ancient Egypt. One of the scholars caught up in the craze was a German professor named Dr. Richard Lepsius. This man, in 1842, decided to publish a single funerary scroll, dividing it into chapters, but still keeping it in hieroglyphic form. Before sending his edition of the hieroglyphs off to print, Dr. Lepsius added one last touch—a title. As the story goes, Lepsius had learned that the Arabic phrase for such funerary scrolls was Kitab al Mayyitun, or ’dead people’s books.’ This Arabic phrase, it was said, inspired Lepsius’ own German title for his publication: Das Todtenbuch der Aegypter, or ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead.’
Richard Lepsius’ publication of a single funerary scroll made scholars hungry for more. Another academic figure named Henri Édouard Naville fulfilled this demand in the 1880s, when he released an anthology of Egyptian funerary scrolls, derived from seventy-seven ancient papyri. His collection would go on to become a core component for the vernacular translations that popularized the Book of the Dead for average readers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Relief of Amenemhat I and Deities ca. 1981–1952 B.C. , [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge (c. 1899) and introduced by John Romer. Penguin Classics, 2008.