In the last era of ancient Egypt religious writings were largely translated into Greek, at a time when they were studied and collected as an embodiment of the ideas of a world that was already fading. This revered past has kept its hold on imagination as it contained mystical powers to convince the invisible and strange disguises of ancient formulas, whose effectiveness could not be rivaled by subsequent writings that were highly intelligible. There were four main classes of writings, on theology, rite, science and medicine. Although late compilations are almost entirely lost, we can nevertheless derive the nature from the portions of the original documents preserved in earlier eras.
The most popular work in later dynasties was what has been called the Book of the Dead by modern writers. We must not conceive of it as a bound whole, like our Bible; but rather as an incongruous accumulation of formulas, parts of which were taken at the discretion of various scribes according to local or individual tastes. No single papyrus contains even the most, and the choice made between the heterogeneous material is infinitely varied. The different sections have been numbered by modern editors, starting from the order found in some of the best examples, and more than two hundred of these chapters are recognized. Every variety of belief finds its place in this great collection; every spell or direction that could benefit the dead has found a foot here if it has achieved popularity. From prehistory onwards it has formed a religious repertoire without limits or regulation. Portions known at the end of the old kingdom disappear entirely in subsequent copies, while others appear to be obviously of late origin.
The incessant addition of notes, the incorporation of glosses and the accumulation of explanations on each other has increased the confusion. And to add to our amazement, the scribes were usually quite insensitive to errors in writing that could never be seen or used by living eyes; and corruptions, which in turn have been added, have left almost no sense in many parts. At best it is difficult to follow the illusions of a lost faith, but among all the varieties of overlapping ideas and bad readings, the task of critical understanding is almost hopeless.
The complete study of this work will need many new discoveries and will occupy generations of critical ingenuity. We can distinguish some groups of chapters, an Osirian section on the reign of Osiris and his service, a theology section, a series of spells, formulas for the restoration of the heart, for the protection of the soul from spirits and snakes in the hours of night, spells to escape the dangers ordained by the gods, an account of the paradise of Osiris, a different version of the reign and judgment of Osiris, a heliopolitical doctrine on the ba and its powers of transformation completely separate from all that is affirmed elsewhere, the story of the meeting of soul and body, magic formulas to enter the kingdom of Osiris, another account of the judgment of Osiris, spells for the conservation of the mummy and to create effective amulets, along with various portions of popular beliefs.
Contrary to the predominantly Osirian character described above, we see the dominant solar religion in the Book of Am Duat, or that found in the underworld. Describes the following hours of the night, each hour fenced with doors guarded by monsters. At each door the right spells must be pronounced to subdue the evil powers, and thus pass through the sun. The oldest beliefs in Seker, the god of the silent earth, and Osiris, the king of the blessed world, are inserted into the new system by assigning some hours for other kingdoms as part of the solar journey. A variation of this work is the Book of Doors, which describes the doors of the hours, but omits Seker and makes Osiris more important. These books represent the fashionable doctrines of kings at Ramessides times and are known mainly from the royal tombs on which they are engraved.
Another branch of the sacred books survives in the formal theology of the schools that grouped the gods in Trinity or Ennead. These were certainly very ancient, having been formed under the rule of Eliopolis before the rise of the first dynasty. And if the artificial coordination of the gods of various sources is so ancient, we can glimpse the age much greater than the gods of Osiris, and even farther than the primitive Seb and Nut gods and the first cult of animals. The great ennead of Heliopolis consisted of Shu, Tefnut, Seb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Set, Nebhat and Horus; there were also secondary and tertiary minor gods. When the sun god Atmu became prominent, Horus was omitted and the other eight gods were called sons of Atmu, who led the group, as in the Pyramid texts. The nine are not composed of three triads, but four pairs and a leader. This is of the same type as the four pairs of elemental deities of Hermopolis under the main god Tahuti. The triads were usual in most cities, but in many cases they were clearly of artificial agreement, in order to follow a type, the deities being of very unequal importance. In Thebes, Amun, Mut and Khonsu; at Memphis, Ptah, Sekhet and the deified man Imhotep; and in general Osiris, Isis and Horus were the main triads.
W. M. FLINDERS PETRIE