One of several collections of texts in various cultures which are intended to prepare and guide the recently deceased in their passage through the afterlife; the best known of these are the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The concept that the dead require specific incantations, spells and rituals to prepare and guide them through the afterlife has been shared by a number of belief systems throughout the centuries, and collections of texts detailing these rituals and spells are known to have existed in Aztec and Mayan cultures, and in early Christianity. But the best-known bodies of such material, generally known as ‘Books of the Dead’, are the two which set out the Egyptian and Tibetan rituals for those who have recently died.
The ancient Egyptian funerary texts which detailed the hymns and rituals to be performed for the dead, and instructions for the spirit’s behaviour in the afterlife, are thought to have been written by many different scribes between around 2400 bc and 1500 bc. They were a collection of spells, charms, passwords, magical numbers and formulas intended to guide the deceased though the various trials they would encounter before reaching the Underworld. Knowledge of the correct spells was thought essential for happiness after death, and copies of all or parts of these texts were carved on pyramids, written on papyrus scrolls and placed with the body inside the sarcophagus, inscribed on mummy cases, and included on amulets buried with the dead person. Different spells were held to be required depending on the prominence and social status of the deceased, and the texts were often individualized to the dead person, so no two collections are the same. But most were illustrated with depictions of the tests awaiting the deceased, and their ancient Egyptian name translates as The Book of Going Forth By Day. Since the texts were said to have been originally transcribed by the Egyptian god Thoth, they are also sometimes known as The Book of Thoth.
The name ‘Book of the Dead’ was coined by the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection from these Egyptian funerary texts in 1842. But the best-known version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead is the one discovered in 1888 by Dr E A Wallis Budge. Written around 1500 bc for Ani, the Royal Scribe of Thebes, it was found in an 18th-Dynasty tomb near Luxor, and is the largest, most perfectly preserved, and best-illuminated of the surviving Egyptian papyri.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead was the title given to the Tibetan funerary text, the Bardo Thodol, by the editor of its first English translation, W Y Evans-Wentz. Its name literally means ‘liberation through hearing in the intermediary stage’, and its authorship is traditionally ascribed to the legendary 8th-century sage, Padma Sambhava, although many scholars believe it is the work of a number of authors over several generations.
The text is intended as a guide for the dead during the intermediate stages between death and rebirth known as bardos. It is believed that as soon as physical death takes place, the spirit goes into a trance state during which it is disoriented and the person is not aware that they have died. This period is called the First Bardo. Toward the end of this time, the person is thought to see a brilliant light, and if they can embrace it without fear, they will be freed from the cycle of rebirth. However, most people flee from it, and thus enter the Second Bardo, in which all their deeds and thoughts in this life pass before them. In the Third Bardo, the person assesses what they have seen and makes resolutions for their achievements in their next incarnation. The Bardo Thodol is therefore recited by lamas over a dying or recently deceased person, or sometimes over an effigy of them, to enable them to recognize the nature of their state and either escape rebirth altogether, or achieve a calm and successful passage to their next life.
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