Egypt: Judgment of the Dead in Ancient Egypt, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Judgment of the Dead

The Ancient Egyptian Soul being Weighed

The Judgment of the Dead is known primarily after the New Kingdom and later on, through illustrated vignettes appearing on funerary papyri that were part of the Book of Coming Forth by Day. However, two earlier versions of this process are attested in Egyptian texts. The earliest, the divine tribunal that continuously operated in the under-world, is attested first in the late Old Kingdom hieroglyphic tomb-chapel inscriptions, with threats to would-be tomb robber, and in Hieratic "letters to the Dead." An inscription from the tomb of the 5th Dynasty official named Hetep-her-akhet reads: "As for any people who would enter this tomb unclean and do something evil to it, there will be judgment against them by the great god." Letters to the dead were prompted by some unfortunate situation in which the writer or close relative of the deceased has found himself. The deceased, or some other person in the afterlife, is addressed in the letter as the cause of the misfortune, and is requested to either desist from its malign influences or to institute legal proceedings in the beyond against that one responsible for the misfortune. One example of such an Old Kingdom letter is by a man named Shepsi who addresses his father, "Is it in your presence that I am being injured by my brother even though there is nothing that I, your son, did or said?.Since you had said regarding me, your son, "It is in my son Shepsi that all my property shall be vested,".Now my fields have been taken possession of by Shers son Henu. Now that he (my brother) is with you in the same city of the dead, you must institute litigation with him since you have witnesses at hand in the same city."

References to these continuous tribunals can also be read in the early Middle Kingdom funerary literature called the Coffin Texts. Here the afterlife is a continuation of life on earth, with death merely a temporary interruption. Plaintiffs can bring cases to the authorities, who would then execute justice. The "great god" of the tribunal is not named, though he may be Osiris, the god who is lord of the underworld. One example of such a textual reference comes from Coffin Text spell 335 which says in part: "Hail to you, Lords of Truth, the tribunal which is behind Osiris, which puts terror into those who are false when those whom it protects are at risk."

In the later version of the judgment, when the divine tribunal determines whether the deceased individual is worthy of eternal life, death marks the moment determining the immortality of the individual. People are now considered either pure or evil, with the evil dying a second death to become mt, or damned. But the good become transfigured as akh or spirit. This divine judgment is expressed figuratively by the use of scales which were used by accounting scribes to weigh precious metals with objective calculation in treasury accounts.

At death, each individual becomes Osiris if declared justified or "true of voice", resuscitated into new life, as Isis did when she magically revived Osiris, and like Horus, who was declared as "telling the truth" in his physical and legal battles with Set over the inheritance of the kingship from Osiris.

Unambiguous references to scales of reckoning occur in the Coffin Texts, such as CT spell 335 and CT spell 452, the latter referring to "that balance of Ra on which Maat is raised,"; four coffins of the 12th Dynasty bear a text of CT spell 338in which the dead are polarized as good and evil. This text refers to various divine tribunals, and asks that the deceased be vindicated against his foes just as the god Thoth vindicated Osiris against his own foes. One line reads, "the tribunal which is in Abydos on that night of counting the dead and the blessed spirits."

The Instruction of Merikare says "Do not trust in length of years-they are a lifetime as an hour; when a man is left over after mourning, his deeds are piled up beside him.As for the man who reaches them, without doing evil, he will abide there like a god, roaming free like the lords of time." It was apparently important to the ancient Egyptians that they be remembered as having lived rightly and in accordance with some ethical guidelines. The 6th Dynasty tomb of an official named Nefer-Seshem-Re carefully noted that the deceased "spoke truly, did right, spoke fairly, rescued the weak from one stronger than he, gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the undressed, respected father, pleased mother." [paraphrased] The passage of centuries did nothing to change this desire to be remembered as having lived rightly. The New Kingdom tomb of the mayor Paheri listed his own good conduct: "I told no lie to anyone. I did the tasks as they were orderedI was a model of kindliness."

The classic exposition of judgment at death comes in the Book of Coming Forth by Day, in Chapter/spell 30 and in chapter/spell 125 and the so-called weighing of the heart. To the Egyptians, the heart, or ib, rather than the brain, was the source of human wisdom and the center of emotions and memory. Because of its apparent links with intellect, personality and memory, it was considered the most important of the internal organs. It could reveal the persons true character, even after death, so the belief went, and therefore, the heart was left in the deceaseds body during mummification. In the weighing of the heart rite, the heart of the deceased is weighed in the scale against the feather of the goddess Maat, who personifies Order, Truth, what is right. Spell 30 was often inscribed on heart scarabs that were placed with the deceased. The spell appeals to the heart not to weigh down the balance or testify against the deceased to the keeper of the balance. Part of the spell gives instructions for making the heart scarab: "Make a scarab of nephrite adorned with gold and put within a mans breast, and perform for him the ceremony of opening the mouth, the scarab being anointed with myrrh."

Judgment of the Dead

In spell 125, the deceased is first led into the broad court of the Two Maats or Two Truths, to declare innocence of wrongs before the great god, and before the full tribunal of forty-two divine assessors, including Osiris and Ra. Some of the denials reflect the precepts of the Instruction genre of Egyptian literature, whereby the father instructs a son or apprentice in the correct way to behave. Others are related to the priestly oaths of purity taken at the moment of entering priestly service. The style of the declarations are in the form of "I have not done X."

The illustrations, or vignettes, of the "weighing of the heart" often include the four sons of Horus as protectors of the internal organs of the deceased after mummification. These were represented by the canopic jars. They were named Imseti, who was human-headed and guarded the liver, Hapi, who was baboon-headed, guarding the lungs, Dua-mutef, jackal-headed, guarding the stomach, and Qebeh-senuef, falcon-headed, for the intestines.

During the 18th Dynasty, the scales are depicted as being managed by Thoth, in his baboon form, beside the god Osiris who is seated on his throne. Later 18th Dynasty versions make Anubis, god of embalming, the deity in charge of the weighing, and they now add a monster called Ammut, Swallower of the Damned. If the heart proved to be false, and the deceased wicked, Ammut would swallow the heart and the deceased would die a second death. The earliest manuscript showing Anubis and Ammut is the Book of Nebqed during the reign of either Tuthmosis IV or Amenhotep III.

Ramessid illustrations start to shift from the weighing of the heart to the declaration of innocence. In the Papyrus of Hunefer, Anubis leads the deceased to the scales, which he then oversees alongside Ammut, following which Anubis leads the justified deceased to the enthroned Osiris.

Supplementary figures in the vignettes often include the goddesses Isis and Nephthys supporting Osiris, and in the standard Late period version, one or two figures of the goddess Maat. Later vignettes generally include a secondary human figure beside the scales: from the Ramesside period it was the ba-soul of the deceased; from the Third Intermediate Period, it was a crouching figure; and from the Late Period, it was a divine child on a scepter.

See Also:


  • Ancient Egyptian Literature translated by Miriam Lichtheim
  • Letters from Ancient Egypt by Eduard Wente
  • Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts by Raymond O. Faulkner
  • Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
  • Hieroglyphics and the Afterlife by Stephen Quirke
  • Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
  • The Book of Going Forth by Day translated by Thomas G. Allen
  • The Book of Going Forth by Day translated by Raymond O. Faulkner