More on Words of Power

by Esteban

“The written word has been regarded in the East with reverence from time immemorial, and a copy of a sacred writing or text is worn or carried about to this day with much the same ideas and beliefs about its power to protect as in the earliest times.

In ancient Egypt the whole Book of the Dead, as well as the various sections of it which are usually copied on papyri, consisted of a series of “words of power,” and the modern Egyptian looks upon the Koran in the same light as his ancestor looked upon the older work. (In a similar way the Arabs attach as much importance to the Fatha, or opening chapter, and to the chapter which declares the Unity of God (CXII.), as to the rest of the Koran).

A curious passage in the text inscribed on the inside of the pyramid of Unas reads (1. 583), “The bone and flesh which possess no writing are wretched, but, behold, the writing of Unas is under the great seal, and behold, it is not under the little seal.”

It is difficult to explain the passage fully, but there is no doubt that we have here an allusion to the custom of placing writings believed to be possessed of magical powers with the dead.

Certain passages or sections of the religious books of ancient nations have always been held to be of more importance than others, and considering the great length of such compositions this is not to be wondered at.

Among the Egyptians two forms of the LXIVth Chapter of the Book of the Dead were in use, and there is no doubt whatever that the shorter form, as far back as the Ist dynasty, about B.C. 4300, was intended to be a summary of the whole work, and that the recital of it was held to be as efficacious as the recital of all the rest of it. (See Chapter of Coming Forth by Day, p. 70).

It is a remarkable fact that this form is called “The Chapter of knowing the ‘Chapters of Coming Forth by Day‘ in a single Chapter,” and that it is declared to date from the time of Hesepti, a king of the Ist dynasty, about B.C. 4300, whilst the “finding” of the longer form is attributed to the reign of Men-kau-Râ (Mycerinus), a king of the IVth dynasty, about B.C. 3600.

It is interesting to note how persistently certain chapters and formulæ occur in funeral papyri of different periods, and the explanation seems to be that a popular selection was made at an early date, and that this selection was copied with such additions or omissions as the means of the friends of the deceased allowed or made necessary.

One thing is quite certain: every man in Egypt died in the firm belief that in the course of his journey into the next world he would be provided with words of power which would enable him to make his way thither unhindered, and give him abundance of meat and drink.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 124-6.