Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

A Magical Papyrus Fragment Speaks

by Elaine A. Evans, Curator, Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum


Figure 1. Judgement Scene from the Book of the Dead, Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC McClung Museum: 98.11.1 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Berry, 1998

Samples of ancient papyrus are rather rare due to the fragility of the material.
The many found by fellahin (peasants) at sites in Egypt were usually sold to willing, local, antiquities dealers, eager to turn a profit from them. Some were separated into smaller portions and sold separately. Also, papyri were thought worthless and deliberately or environmentally destroyed and, therefore, did not find their way to museums or private collections. Such unfortunate circumstances made the recently purchased painted papyrus fragment a welcome addition. (Figure l). Even in its fragmentary state and lack of provenance, the papyrus yielded clues about its possible origins.

But at the same time it posed some perplexing questions. Strong reasons emerged for the colored papyrus having been part of a vignette from Chapter CXXV of the Book of the Dead, comprised of spells and called by Egyptians “Going Forth by Day.” Versions of Chapter CXXV visualize an important event held in the Hall of Judgment in the Underworld, or Tuat, the dwelling place of the gods.

The So-Called Book

The Book of the Dead is really not a book, but a group of chapters (i.e., spells and rubrics), some versions estimated at 192, written in a cursive form of hieroglyphics called hieratic, with vignettes illustrating particular passages. A combination of text and illustration was believed to increase the effectiveness of the message. The so-called Book of the Dead varied a great deal in the number and order of Egyptian hymns, religious texts, and vignettes, the deluxe papyrus having over 400 illustrations. There is no existing book that contains all of these spells and incantations, nor are they put in any particular sequence or illustrated in the exact same way. A Book of the Dead was composed of selections of potent writings of religious thought believed magical. Not only were favored sections selected, written and variously illustrated on papyrus, but they were also painted on tomb walls, coffins, and funerary stelae, and certain shortened spells were inscribed on scarabs and shawabtis.

The original length of the Museum’s papyrus is not known, nor can it be determined what it looked like in its entirety. At one time the papyrus (37.5 centimeters long x 27.5 centimeters at its highest point) broke apart, mostly vertically, and was subsequently rejoined. The incomplete vignette on the McClung Museum papyrus from a Hall of Judgment segment is lacking its lengthy spell. (Note 1) Listed would be heartfelt expressions of the deceased’s innocence of any earthly wrongdoing before members of the tribunal of the Underworld. It is appropriate, therefore, before analyzing the papyrus scene a brief mention be made about a preceding section usually included in versions associated with Chapter CXXV. A few observations about it will add to an understanding of the fragment.

The Missing Scene

Missing from the papyrus is the Weighing of the Heart scene, depicting the deceased’s way of earthly life being tested on a balance scale, according to the perfect standards of behavior required on earth and by the gods. Central to the scene is a balance. In one version of the Book of the Dead from the well known Papyrus of Ani at the British Museum, a pan on the balance holds a feather, symbol of the goddess Maat, or “truth,” while the other pan holds the deceased’s heart, or “seat of consciousness”(Figure 2.).


Figure 2. Drawing of Weighing of the Heart Scene, New Kingdom. Circa 1320-1200 BC From E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead, 1938, p. 23.

If the pans balance equally, this proves the deceased innocent of any earthly offense. The major players usual in this drama are the jackal-headed god Anubis, patron of embalming and keeper of the tomb, who crouches and steadies the scales for an accurate read. The ibis-headed god Thoth, inventor of hieroglyphic writing and god of wisdom and magic, stands at the right of the scale holding a palette and reed pen in his hands to record each of the forty-two denials by the deceased of wrongdoing. A rapacious animal, the Devourer of the Dead, hovers nearby and casts a sinister look at the proceedings. The crocodile-headed beast awaits a tasty meal should the verdict be negative and the deceased be thrown his way.

Is the Deceased True of Heart?

The Hall of Judgment scene depicted on the Museum’s fragment is an extension, a subsequent event to the Weighing segment. Although much of the compelling vignette is destroyed, this writer has tentatively identified the deities, the tribunal judges, in attendance (Figure 3.)(Note 2) To the right is the god Anubis in a pleated, white skirt, with a brown tinted area behind his legs representing a transparent cloak. Only part of his elaborate short-skirted costume remains.He clasps the hand of a deceased female. The woman wears the required pure, white garment. It is loose fitting and pleated, decorated by a narrow panel down the front, and a wide strap over her right shoulder. Her dark brown skin contrasts with a lappet from her black wig, which falls over her left shoulder and down her back. The black skin, head, and wig of Anubis appropriately represent death and the Underworld. He holds the usual was-scepter, symbolizing divine authority. His head is turned and he looks with encouragement towards his charge. She has just endured the Weighing test and passed one of the rigorous trials in her journey through the Underworld. At this moment Anubis presents her to Osiris, great God of the Dead. Anubis has just assured Osiris she was found just, is true of heart, and therefore deserving. Osiris will make the final judgement to grant her passage, or not, to happily dwell with him among the gods and goddesses of the Tuat. It is a forgone conclusion, however, that he will, as the intent of these funerary texts is to ensure a favorable outcome.

As the Drama Unfolds


Figure 3. Proposed Reconstruction of Papyrus


The head of Osiris bearing his elaborate Atef Crown is lost from the papyrus. One of the oldest of Egyptian gods, the Prince of the Underworld is seated on a green and gold, low-backed, red cushioned throne. He comfortably rests his feet on a plain, rectangular, gold-toned base. The omnipotent deity is clothed in a close, brown garment. A broad collar encircles his neck. Against his chest he holds a scepter and flail, royal emblems denoting power and dominion. A high, gold-toned offering table, with two lotus buds entwined around its stem, stands before him, laden with bread and cakes presented by the deceased to win his favor.

Although two-thirds is missing from the figure standing behind Osiris, it is surely his son Horus, one of the principal gods of Egypt. It is probable the missing upper section showed him as falcon-headed and wearing the Double Crown. Still visible, however, is part of his short-skirted garment and his hand holding the traditional was-scepter. Behind him stands a dark, brown-skinned goddess wearing a long, close fitting, green garment, a color representing life, resurrection, and association with the goddess Hathor. Traces of her headdress survive, revealing a sun-disk between cow horns. Her placement behind Horus identifies her as Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris and mother of Horus. Isis is commonly identified with Hathor, the great mother and goddess of joy, whose attribute is a sun-disk between cow horns. Almost a third of the female figure following Isis is lost. This goddess has pale yellow skin and wears a long, black garment. A bit of her tripart wig is visible on her left shoulder. She must be identified as the goddess Nephthys, mother of Anubis, sister of Isis, and friend of deceased persons, hence the color black for her costume. The sisters, who hold green papyrus scepters, are often paired in the Book of the Dead, in tomb paintings, on coffins, and other objects in their role as protective goddesses.

detail of papyrun

Figure 4. Detail of the Text on the Papyrus



At the far left, standing on a slatted, broad platform are sections of the lower body of a tan-colored animal. Although the animal’s anatomy is questionable, it might be a ram, sacred animal identified with the soul of Osiris. Butting the platform side is a crudely drawn, gold-toned, sacred lotus flower, a potent symbol of rebirth, surmounted by a tall, slender, green panel. The lotus bloom and green panel are protective symbols of growth, or flourishing. The base line under the platform has been left blank.

A few traces remain of the text visible within perpendicular panels at the top right of the fragment, which are read from right to left (Figure 4). The columns above the deceased’s head (entirely missing) would have given her name and titles. However, the two (barely visible) columns of inscriptions above the head of Anubis can be read “[Anubis, lord] of the underworld, foremost of the divine embalming booth, who makes protection.” Although the writing in the yellow column above the offering table is incomplete, it suggests: “[Entering the] court [of Osiris].” In the brown column nearest to Osiris, the text has the likely reading (right to left) “[Recitation bythe great god Osiris,Lord of eternity”(Note 3).

Extant examples of the Book of the Dead vary greatly in length, number of chapters or spells, and in the vignettes that illustrated them. These components depended on a number of factors including availability of scribes, artists, and wealth of the deceased.

The artistic quality varied, too, according to the skill of the scribe and artist. The purchaser could choose vignettes in full color, just black and white, whether he/she wanted dimensional forms, or simple, one dimensional, stick-like images. As is the case with coffins, blanks were sometimes left on a finished papyrus for a future name to be written in; its size and elaborateness dictated the cost. Orders could be placed ahead of time to accommodate potential buyers. The finished papyrus was placed in a niche in the tomb wall, encased in pedestals of tomb statues, and set on top of the sarcophagus. Or it was wedged between the knees, or placed on other body areas of the mummy within the coffin, intentionally close by so the deceased could easily recite the text. Also, versions of the text were written.

Papyrus fragment

Figure 5. Painted Papyrus From a Mummy Cartoonage, Ptolemaic Period, 332–30 BC, courtesy of Duke University: P.Duk. inv. 588(b).


Considering the loose type of drawing, brush strokes, and scant detail, the work signals the Ptolemaic Period, 332–30 BC, a period when a certain carelessness replaced ancient prescribed standards by some scribes and artists. The date assigned is likely as the long, slim bodies with small heads are common in style to those in illustrated papyri of that period (Figure 5). Some questions might arise about the use of dark brown paint versus a light skin color usual to female figures as found on the female figure to the left on the McClung fragment and the brown color for Osiris’ garment instead of a more common, scale-patterned, white costume. One can reasonably conclude, however, these reflect an artistic style on the part of the ancient illustrators; it is known they tended at this time to follow their own inclinations and interpretations. By this late period some scribes had lost touch with the meaning of the texts they were preparing and did not know everything about hieroglyphic signs. However, even though the text in the panels is loosely executed, it does attest to a certain scribal conformity to tradition in using passages from the Book of the Dead. Repeated copying and the period lapses between producing them did cause papyri to become corrupt and rife with all manner of errors. The downward trend continued and it seemed by the Roman Period the demise of the Book of the Dead had firmly taken hold.

Upon close examination, particularly when viewed by computer digital enlargement, it became evident the papyrus had been composed of a series of related fragments from a once whole papyrus roll. At some point in time the fragments were re-pieced to recreate the scene. This is clear when observing the compressed figure of Horus, who hardly fits into his space. Also, when examined under computer magnification, there are clearly defined vertical joins in other sections of the fragment. Inconsistencies recognized, it is nevertheless tempting to conclude the Museum’s papyrus was originally part of a Book of the Dead and, when in its usual rolled up state, was among the funerary objects in a tomb.

The acquisition provides a contrast with the meticulously reproduced copy of the famous Kha Papyrus in the Egyptian Gallery of the McClung Museum. In 1992 a copy of the first 1.72 meters of the 16.5 meters long original Kha Papyrus housed in the Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy, was commissioned for the McClung Museum. The more recent acquisition will allow visitors to compare the two papyri and alert them to variations found in creating a so-called Book of the Dead. They will be afforded an insight into the world of funerary beliefs and religious structure of ancient Egyptian life. Also to ponder will be the parallel scholars have drawn between the ancient Egyptian concept of “Judgement Day” and that believed by the devout of today.


  1. For translations of the spell see, Thomas George Allen, The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Ideas of the ancient Egyptians concerning the hereafter as expressed in their own terms. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization. No. 37, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974, in particular pp. 97-102; cf., The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The Book of Going Forth By Day, trans. by Raymond O. Faulkner. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994, Pl. 31.
  2. Judges can vary from the usual 42 to several, cf. Faulkner, Pl. 31. I wish to express my appreciation to Steve Long, Exhibit Coordinator at McClung Museum, for his computer assistance in scanning the papyrus, transferring it into Adobe Illustrator, skillfully emphasizing the fragment details by black outline, and indicating missing areas by dotted lines.
  3. My sincerest thanks to Robert Ritner, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, for his most helpful assistance and clarification of Anubis’ cloak, the green panel, and in kindly providing the transliteration of the inscription and related information.