Two kinds of judgment of the dead are attested in Egyptian documents: tribunals operating in the underworld in the same continuous manner as tribunals on earth; and in a later version, a single moment for each person after death when a divine tribunal determines whether that individual is worthy of eternal life.

The first version is attested first in late Old Kingdom hieroglyphic tomb-chapel inscriptions with threats to would-be vandals of tombs, and in Hieratic “Letters to the Dead”; references continue in the early Middle Kingdom funerary literature (Coffin Texts). Here the afterlife is a continuation of life on earth; plaintiffs can bring cases to the authorities, who execute justice. The texts do not name the “great god” of the tribunal; he may be the deceased king or the god Osiris, though this is a matter of expression rather than of substance.

In the later version, death marks discontinuity, as a moment determining the immortality of the individual. Here people are either pure or evil; the evil die a second death to become mut “dead” (mt; “damned”), whereas the good achieve the status of akh (ʒḫ; “transfigured spirit”). Unerring divine judgment is expressed figuratively by the scales used to weigh precious metals with mathematical objectivity in treasury accounts. This judgment conflates two episodes in the myth of the god Osiris: his resuscitation by his sister-wife Isis after his murder by Seth, and the declaration by the gods that his son Horus was telling the truth in his physical and legal battles with Seth over the inheritance of Osiris. At death, each individual becomes Osiris if declared “true of voice” like Horus; “Osiris (name) true of voice” comes to be the commonest formula for referring to the deceased. In some periods, a word such as “to” before the word “Osiris” can be repeated before the title and name of the deceased, as if to separate the divine and human aspects of the identity surviving death. The very retention of the personal name and official titles marks a limit to the assimilation of the individual to the deity. In early Roman times, identification as Osiris for both men and women was superseded by a system assigning Osiris for men and Hathor for women.

The new judgment appears first in the Middle Kingdom. The term “calculation of differences” later denotes assessment of the individual after death; it occurs already in the phrase “his voice is true in the calculation of differences” on the Abydos stela of an eleventh dynasty general, Intef (Copenhagen Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek AE.I.N.963, lower, line 6). The First Intermediate Period stela of Merer may include a reference to the scales of reckoning but is of uncertain interpretation. Unambiguous references to scales occur in the Coffin Texts (CT) on early to mid-twelfth dynasty coffins (CT 335, “whose eyebrows are the arms of the balance”; CT 452, “that balance of Ra on which Maat is raised”); four coffins of that date bear a text in which the dead are polarized as good and evil (CT 338, “the tribunal which is in Abydos on that night of distinguishing the damned and reckoning the blessed dead”). However, none of these sources attests certainly to “death as judgment time” rather than an afterlife court of appeal. In the Instructions for Merikare, a Middle Egyptian literary discourse dated perhaps to the twelfth dynasty, one section (P53–7) warns against wrongdoing with reference to the afterlife: “Do not trust in length of years—they see a lifetime as an hour; when a man is left over after mourning, his deeds are piled up beside him.” This might indicate simply a better hearing for the good than for the evil, on the legal principle that those of good character are trustworthy. However, there follows: “As for the man who reaches them without doing evil, he will abide there like a god, roaming (free) like the lords of time.” Here the good person undergoes transformation.

The classic exposition of judgment at death comes in the Book of Going Forth by Day (the Book of the Dead) texts numbered BD 30 and BD 125 by the nineteenth-century Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, and the associated illustration in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the goddess Maat (“what is right”). The two chapters and the weighing illustration are among the most frequently attested elements of the Egyptian funerary corpus, though not every manuscript or burial includes an example. Of the three elements, BD 30 is first attested, on four late Middle Kingdom human-faced heart scarabs (Neferuptah, Nebankh, Dedtu, and one erased), on a late Middle Kingdom or Second Intermediate Period gold plaque, and in both later versions (BD30A and B) among the Book of Going Forth by Day coffins of the seventeenth dynasty queen Montuhotpe. In this, the deceased appeals to the heart not to weigh down the balance or testify in a hostile manner before the keeper of the balance. The longer chapter, BD 125, is first attested in the mid-eighteenth dynasty, from the joint reign of Hatshepsut with Thutmose III, in connection with a new burial custom of placing a funerary papyrus with the dead (Books of the Dead). In editing earlier Books of the Dead, Naville used as the main manuscript the papyrus of Nebseny, dated stylistically to the reign of Thutmose IV (British Museum EA 9900). In the first part, the deceased is led into the “broad court of the Two Maats,” to declare innocence of wrongs before the great god (List A), and before the full tribunal of forty-two divine assessors, including Osiris and Ra (List B). The texts conclude with announcements by the deceased of purity and initiation into the afterlife. The declarations of innocence (often called “negative confession” in Egyptology) form the most explicit statement in Egyptian texts of maat (m3ʿt; “what is right”), by delineating its opposite, wrongdoing. However, there is a culturally specific setting for both series: some denials reflect the precepts of the literary tradition of Instructions or Teachings, a genre in which a father or master instructs a son or apprentice in the correct way to behave in life; others are related to the priestly oaths of purity taken at the moment of entering priestly service, a genre attested only in later copies but probably in existence earlier. The sequence of declarations varies between manuscripts. In List A, in the Book of the Dead of Nebseny, thirty-six declarations of innocence are given, opening with “I have not done evil to anyone” and “I have not slain the sacred herd” (interpreted in some manuscripts as humankind). Other declarations of List A include the religious norms “I have not blasphemed,” “I have not harmed the offering-loaves of the gods,” “I have not removed the offerings of the blessed dead,” and, related, the affirmation of sexual rules “I have not copulated” (in some versions “with a male”) and “I have not ejaculated” (in some versions “in the sanctuary of my city god”). Other rules concern probity in administrative measurement: “I have not reduced the aroura land-measure”; “I have not tampered with the counter-poise of the scales.”

In List B, the forty-two declarations are tabulated graphically, divided into on the model “O broad of strides, he who comes forth from Iunu, I have not committed evil.” The deities before whom List B was to be recited are thus identified not by their primary names but by epithets, sometimes not attested elsewhere, with the addition of a cult center or other place of origin (e.g., cavern, twilight, darkness). All named towns are in Lower or Middle Egypt, a feature that might identify the period and place of redaction as being the Herakleopolitan kingdom of the First Intermediate Period but, perhaps, more simply reflecting compilation at an unknown date in a northern scribal school, such as Iunu/Heliopolis. The date of composition of BD 125 remains uncertain; there is no precise parallel from the Middle Kingdom, though a positive series of declarations of good character is graphically tabulated on one early twelfth dynasty stela in a manner reminiscent of the List B tabulation. This is the period in which the royal cult complex gained “Osirian” features. The pyramid of Senwosret II at Illahun had a rectangular tree border, with underground chambers on a pattern later echoed by the cenotaph of Sety I at Abydos, while Senwosret III had a major royal cult complex constructed at Abydos South. However, the few sources for funerary literature of the royal family attest to BD 30 but not to BD 125 (heart scarabs, coffin of queen Montuhotpe). It remains possible, then, that the textual edition dates, with the vignette, to the eighteenth dynasty.

The texts and vignettes of BD 30 and 125 may seem to encapsulate an explicit code of ethics, but they are intended to establish a purity analogous to the purity of the priest entering a period of temple service. Therefore, this afterlife codification does not include every precept of didactic literature; some, such as respect for seniors and parents, were evidently not deemed relevant to the aim of entering the underworld. Modern agnostic reading might suggest that, by including declarations of innocence in their burials, the elite may have hoped to secure automatic entry to a good afterlife; when such a question becomes widespread, the questioners already stand outside the particular system of belief. There is no evidence that inclusion of texts exempted anyone from judgment; the texts affirm the desired outcome but insist on judgment. The ethics of providing religious texts for those who could afford them, whatever their biography, seems to receive no explicit treatment in Egyptian sources until the comparison of the damned rich man and the blessed poor man in the Demotic tale of Setna and his Son, in which Hellenistic influence may be involved.

The principal vignette to BD 30 and 125 illustrates “truth of voice” in declaring innocence as a weighing of the heart on scales against Maat, before Osiris. Throughout the history of its use, the scene often includes the four sons of Horus as protectors of the internal organs of the deceased after mummification. Weighing vignettes vary in number and role of figures, and in scale within a compositional field, occupying on a papyrus the full height of the roll or only a part. Eighteenth dynasty depictions on papyrus occupy only part of the full height of a roll, and they present the scales as managed by Thoth in baboon form, beside the god Osiris on his throne. In the Book of the Dead of Nebseny, this scene is provided as illustration to BD 30; the text of BD 125 occurs farther on in the sequence of the roll, where the “Hall of the Two Maats” becomes a full-height vignette enclosing the tabulated declarations of innocence. Other small-scale weighing scenes of this period and later place Horus in charge of weighing, while Thoth is shown as a scribe declaring or recording the result of the weighing to Osiris. Later eighteenth dynasty versions sometimes make Anubis, god of embalming, the deity in charge of weighing, and they may add nearby a monster called variously Amemet (“Swallower”) or Am-mut (“Swallower of the Damned”). The earliest manuscript with Anubis and Amemet is the Book of the Dead of Nebqed (Louvre N 3068, reign of Thutmose IV or Amenhotpe III). Here the monster is already the hybrid specified in a caption on the Papyrus of Hunefer (British Museum EA 9901, early nineteenth dynasty): “Its fore as a lion, its rear as a hippopotamus, its middle as a lion.” After the Amarna era, the weighing scene tends to occupy the full height of manuscripts, offering opportunities for increasing detail. Ramessid depictions begin to shift the emphasis from the weighing to the declaration of innocence; in the version for Hunefer just cited, Anubis leads the deceased to the scales, which he then oversees alongside Amemet, following which Horus leads the justified deceased to the throned Osiris. This focus on justification recurs in Third Intermediate Period papyri, while in the standard version of the Late to Roman periods (first attested in the tomb of Sheshonq III at Tanis), weighing and justification are given equal importance as an interwoven scene in front of Osiris.

Supplementary figures in more complex vignettes include the goddesses Isis and Nephthys supporting Osiris, and, particularly in the standard Late period version, one or two figures of the goddess Maat. After the Amarna era, features of individuality are added: Shai (allotted life), Meskhenet (birth-brick), and Renenet (nurturing of the deceased). Later vignettes generally include a secondary human figure beside the scales: from the Ramessid era, the ba-soul of the deceased; from the Third Intermediate Period, a crouching figure; and from the Late period, evoking Horus and/or Re, a divine child on a scepter. Besides these full-height vignettes, other versions include narrower compositions of stacked horizontal registers, or single excerpts such as the weighing. On coffins of the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties, a single band extends over the coffin breast, with the weighing scene over the heart, and, toward the center, the deceased before a line of deities.

The judgment motif continues to be used into Roman times. For example, the weighing and the arrival before Osiris are depicted in a single scene on the papyrus of Kerasher (British Museum EA 9995), and as separate scenes on the coffin of Teuris (weighing along mummy's left side, introduction before Osiris on right side). Texts in Roman period manuscripts come mainly not from the Book of the Dead but from the Books of Breathing, including sections of BD 125. In versions of this period (or perhaps slightly earlier), the vignette is often reduced to select elements, and the dead souls are sometimes shown as black shadows or skeletal creatures.

Sometimes the weighing scene (e.g., Book of of the Dead of Nebqed) or a part of the text of BD 125 (e.g., Book of the Dead of Nebseny, concluding text of BD 125) attracts a vignette of the Lake of Fire. This underworld lake actually judged the dead by scorching the evil but sustaining the good. The vignette shows a rectangle of water with red flaming-torch hieroglyphs and a baboon at each corner. It is more often attached to the separate text BD 126, the appeal to the four baboons (Thoth as justice, at each of the four cardinal points).

Illustrations of a hall for divine judgment also occur in other contexts. The royal Underworld Books of the New Kingdom describe in varying details the fate of the evil and of the blessed dead in the underworld, but they are less often explicit on the place or moment of judgment. In the Book of Gates, a version of the night journey of the sun god first attested on the walls of the tomb of Horemheb as king, the central scene of the composition presents Osiris enthroned at the top of a stepped platform with a scales, in part as a mummiform deity; on each of the nine steps is a human figure beneath the collective caption “Ennead of the retinue of Osiris.” Beneath Osiris appears a text damning the “enemies,” and above him are four inverted gazelle heads labeled hmhmyw (“the roarers”). The inscriptions of this scene are distinguished by unusual extension in selection and meaning of signs (cryptography). Above the Ennead, beside the scales, a boat bears a monkey wielding a curved stick to drive off a pig, and the monkey and stick are repeated outside the boat without the pig; this employs the force of ridicule to overpower enemies. This vignette recurs on later sources, sometimes combined with the Book of the Dead version (as on the Third Intermediate Period cartonnage Harvard 2230). Sarcophagi of the thirtieth dynasty attest to another version of the hall of Osiris, in which the enthroned god is offered life by his son Horus.



  • Allen, Thomas G. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations, 37. Chicago, 1974. The most source-critical translation of Book of Going Forth by Day texts into English.
  • Assmann, Jan. Ma'at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1990. Includes the most important discussion of the judgment of the dead (chap. 4, pp. 92–121, for the tribunals in the afterlife; chap. 5, pp. 122–159, for the judgment of the dead as a single test of purity at entry into a blessed afterlife). See also an extended review by Stephen Quirke in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80 (1994), 219–231.
  • Cenival, Jean-Louis de. Le Livre pour Sortir le Jour: Le Livre des Morts des anciens Égyptiens. Bordeaux, 1992. A thematic general introduction to the Book of Going Forth by Day, with extensive illustrations from the collections of the Louvre.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster, 1973–1978. The standard translation into English of the corpus of Middle Kingdom funerary texts, including the passages referring to judgment of the dead.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. London, 1984. Edition by Carol Andrews, with extensive illustrations from the collections of the British Museum.
  • Quirke, Stephen. Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife. London, 1996. A history of funerary literature, with discussion of the emergence of Book of Going Forth by Day texts, including the heart scarabs with “chapter 30” (pp. 102–104, 111–114), and of early examples of the judgment in the Book, notably that of Nebqed (pp. 119–123).
  • Seeber, Christine. Untersuchungen zur Darstellung des Totengerichts im Alten Ägypten. Münchner Ägyptologische Studien, 35. Berlin and Munich, 1976. The principal scholarly discussion of judgment vignettes.
  • Wente, E. Letters from Ancient Egypt. Atlanta, 1990. Translations of letters for the context and style of Letters to the Dead, with reference to tribunals in the afterlife.

Stephen G. J. Quirke