The Egyptians were the first people to produce illustrated manuscripts in which words and pictures were combined to communicate information. A preoccupation with death and a strong belief in the afterlife compelled the Egyptians to evolve a complex mythology about the journey into the afterlife. Through inventive myth and legend, the inexplicable was explained and faced. A final judgment would ultimately allow the deceased either to be admitted into the company of the gods or to suffer eternal damnation. The prayer of every Egyptian was to be cleansed of sin and found worthy at the final judgment. Scribes and artists were commissioned to prepare funerary papyri, called the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. A nineteenth-century scholar named them the Book of the Dead, and this name is generally used today.
The Book of the Dead was a third phase in the evolution of funerary texts. Beginning with the pyramid of Unas (c. 2345 bce), the walls and passages of the pyramids were covered with the pyramid texts of hieroglyphic writings, including myths, hymns, and prayers relating to the godlike pharaoh’s life in the afterworld. This practice was followed by the coffin texts: all surfaces of the wooden coffin and/or stone sarcophagus were covered with writings and often illustrated with pictures of possessions for use in the afterlife. Thus, high officials and noblemen could now enjoy the benefits of funerary texts even though the cost of a pyramid was beyond their means.
The dawning of the New Kingdom, around 1580 bce, saw papyrus manuscripts come into use for funerary texts. Even citizens of fairly limited means could afford to have at least simple papyri made to accompany them on the journey into the afterlife. From pyramid to coffin to papyri—this evolution toward cheaper and more widespread use of funerary texts paralleled the increasingly democratic and secular aspects of Egyptian life.
The Book of the Dead was written as a first-person narrative by the deceased and placed in the tomb to help triumph over the dangers of the underworld. The artists who illustrated the Book of the Dead papyri were called upon to foretell what would occur after each subject died and entered the afterlife . Magical spells could enable the deceased to turn into powerful creatures; passwords to enter various states of the underworld were provided, and the protection of the gods was sought. Wonderful futures were illustrated. One might dwell in the Fields of Peace, ascend into the heavens to live as a star, travel the sky with the sun god Ra in his solar boat, or help Osiris rule the underworld.
The journey into the underworld is depicted as a chronological narrative. The final judgment is shown in the Papyrus of Ani. The jackal-headed god Anubis, keeper of the dead, prepares to weigh Ani’s heart against a feather symbolizing truth to see if he is “true of voice” and free from sin. Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods and keeper of the magical arts, is poised with a scribe’s palette to write the verdict. To the right, the monster Ammit, the devourer of the dead, stands poised for action should Ani fail to pass the moment of judgment. An imaginative visual symbol, Ammit has the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. A register across the top shows twelve of the forty-two gods who sit in judgment. Addressing each god in turn, a “negative confession” denies a host of sins: “I have not done evil; I have not stolen; I have not killed people; I have not stolen food.” Then, Ani speaks to his heart: “Set not thyself to bear witness against me. Speak not against me in the presence of the judges, cast not your weight against me before the Lord of the Scales.” Upon being found virtuous, his soul spends the night after death traveling into the underworld and arrives at his “coming forth by day” on the following morning.
A consistent design format evolved for the illustrated Egyptian papyri. One or two horizontal bands, usually colored, ran across the top and bottom of the manuscript. Vertical columns of writing separated by ruled lines were written from right to left. Images were inserted adjacent to the text they illustrated. Images often stood on the lower horizontal band, the columns of text hanging down from the top horizontal band. Frequently, a horizontal frieze like register ran along the top of a sheet. A sheet was sometimes divided into rectangular zones to separate text and images. The functional integration of text and image was aesthetically pleasing, for the dense texture of the brush-drawn hieroglyphs contrasted splendidly with the illustration’s open spaces and flat planes of color.
In the earlier versions of the Book of the Dead, the scribe designed the manuscript. If it was to be illustrated, blank areas were left that the artist would fill in as best he could. The vignettes gradually became more important and dominated the design. The artist would draw these illustrations first. Then the scribe would write the manuscript, trying to avoid awkward blank spaces and sometimes writing in the margins if the illustrator did not leave adequate room for the text. Skilled artists were retained to create the images, but the scribes who did this work were not scholars. Often, passages were omitted for purposes of layout or through poor workmanship. The manuscript illustrations were drawn in simplified contour lines using black or brown ink, and then flat color was applied using white, black, brown, blue, green, and sometimes yellow pigments. Perhaps the extensive use of luminous blue and green was a response to the intense blue of the Nile and the rich green of the foliage along its banks, a cool streak of life winding through vast reaches of desert.
Wall paintings and papyri used similar design conventions. Men were shown with darker skin color than women, and important persons were in larger scale than less important persons. The human body was drawn as a two-dimensional schematic. The frontal body had arms, legs, and head in profile. The stylized eye reads simultaneously as both profile and frontal image. Even though flatness was maintained, Egyptian artists were capable of sensitive observation and recording of details.
One could commission a funerary papyrus or purchase a stock copy and have one’s name written in appropriate places. The buyer could select the number and choice of chapters, the number and quality of illustrations, and the length. Excepting the 57-meter (185-foot) great Turin Papyrus, the Book of the Dead scrolls ranged from 5 meters (15 feet) to 28 meters (90 feet) long and were from 30 centimeters (12 inches) to 45 centimeters (18 inches) tall. Toward the final collapse of Egyptian culture, the Book of the Dead often consisted merely of sheets of Papyrus, some of which were only a few inches square.