Egyptian Book of the Dead: unknown example of the book was found in Kyiv

Єгипетська Книга мертвих: у Києві знайдено невідомий раніше екземпляр

Previously unknown fragments of the Egyptian Book of the Dead were found in the Kyiv Institute of Manuscripts of the V.I. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine

Previously unknown and the only one in Kyiv fragments of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are stored in the Institute of Manuscripts of V.I. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. Mykola Tarasenko, Senior Fellow at A.Yu. Krymskiy Institute of Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, started to study them as far back as 2015. However, he reported on the first results of his work only on this November 17 at the “XXI A. Krymskyi Readings in Oriental Studies”.

Egyptologist Mykola Tarasenko has represented Ukraine at the international project Bonn Totenbuchprojekt, dedicated to the study of the Book of the Dead.

Egyptologist Mykola Tarasenko has represented Ukraine at the international project Bonn Totenbuchprojekt, dedicated to the study of the Book of the Dead.

The Book of the Dead is the modern name of the collection of the ancient Egyptian funeral anthems and religious texts. Its original name “The Spells for Coming Forth by Day”, and it bears no relation to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ancient Egyptians put papyri with the texts of the Book of the Dead in the tomb with the dead to help them to overcome the obstacles and dangers of the other world.

The study of various examples of this source helps us to better understand the worldview and culture of the ancient Egypt that influenced the further development of our civilization. This is precisely why Bonn Totenbuchprojekt, one of the most large-scale and expensive international projects in humanities that lasted 12 years, was dedicated to the study of the Book of the Dead. Nearly fifty researches were involved in it – almost all of them are the leading world experts in this field, and Mykola Tarasenko represented Ukraine as a part of it in 2007.

Nearly three thousand samples of the Book of the Dead, stored in various countries, were put on record within the framework of this project. Ukraine has six fragmented Egyptian papyri, inclusive of with the texts of the Book of the Dead. Until recently they were stored in one place – the Odessa Archaeological Museum of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Pieces of history

Mykola Tarasenko paid attention to the small collection of Oriental manuscripts, stored in the Institute of Manuscripts of the V.I. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine in the stock of “Library of St. Volodymyr Kyiv University”. Among other things, you may find here calendars in Turkish and Arabic languages, Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts, as well as fragments that were indicated in the inventory list as “Egyptian hieroglyphs on papyrus”. Prior to that they were under the field of vision of the Egyptologists. The origin of all these documents is not yet known with certainty, but Mykola Tarasenko suggests that they were one of the private pre-revolutionary collections.

EGYPTIAN PAPYRUS FROM THE COLLECTION OF EASTERN MANUSCRIPTS CONSISTS OF 36 FRAGMENTS. THE LARGEST OF THEM IS 5.1×3.5 CM IN SIZE, THE SMALLEST ONE – 0.7×0.6 CM.

The Egyptian papyrus from this collection consists of 36 fragments. The largest of them is 5.1×3.5 cm in size, the smallest one is only 0.7×0.6 cm. Fragments are placed between two glass plates, and small piece of mummy bandage is stored in the envelope along with them. There is a likelihood that it belonged to the very same mummy, on which papyrus was found. Text of the papyrus is written in Hieratic (one of the forms of Egyptian writing. – Editor’s note).

The name of the papyrus owner failed to stand the test of time, but it is known that it was a woman. This is particularly evidenced by the shape of the wig on the remained parts of the vignettes and by the text on one of the fragments. This text is translated in such a manner: “[so that] her Ba-soul [could see] her (dead) body”. Feminine pronoun “her” is used here, which is the indicative of the gender.

This very excerpt affords ground to take up the position that papyrus was created in the late IV – early III centuries B.C. and falls into one of 11 groups (or so-called textual traditions), distinguished by the Egyptologists. This very group is marked as Louvre N. 3079; nine documents that are stored in museums of London, Paris, New York and other European cities fall into it.

The style and design of the papyrus point up the fact that it is highly likely that it was created in Thebes, former capital of ancient Egypt that was located on the ground of present-day Luxor.

СHAPTERS OF KYIV PAPYRUS REFER TO THE THIRD PART OF THE BOOK OF THE DEAD – “COMING FORTH BY DAY” AND CONTAIN THE SPELLS ON THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE DECEASED INTO THE DEITY, ITS INTRODUCTION TO THE SUN SHIP, COGNITION OF MAGIC MYSTERIES, RETURN TO THE TOMB, AS WELL AS “WEIGHING THE HEART” AND UNDERWORLD COURT OF OSIRIS

Moreover, we succeeded in identification of some chapters of the Book of the Dead, to which Kyiv city fragments belong. For instance, chapter 87 “Spell for being transformed into a (snake) Sa-ta” may be recognized by the survived images of this very snake on one of the fragments. This and other chapters that were successfully identified refer to so-called third section of the Book of the Dead – “Coming Forth by Day” that combines chapters 64 to 129. This part of the Book of the Dead contains rhetoric about the spells on the transformation of the deceased into the deity, its introduction to the Sun ship, cognition of magic mysteries, return to the tomb, as well as “weighing the heart” and underworld court of Osiris.

Who is Felix Rönne?

It is still an open question, how papyrus turned out to be in Kyiv. Prompting the answer may be the inscription on the envelope, where this document is stored jointly with the bandage fragment: “Small fragments extracted from the Egyptian mummy in 1825 by Felix Rönne”.

It is unclear, where exactly bandage was taken off the mummy and where papyrus was pulled out. This could happen in one of the “anatomical theatres” of Europe or directly within Egypt alike. Then, perhaps, afore-referenced Felix Rönne presented the fragments of papyrus to the new owner, but who was this owner – remains unclear. On the other hand, there is some information about Felix Rönne himself.

Dr. Marc Etienne from Louvre, to whom Mykola Tarasenko turned for professional advice, made an assumption that this is one of the representatives of aristocratic lineage von Rönne, who lived in Lithuania in XIX–XX centuries. Complexity lies in the fact that there were only two Felixes  among them:  Felix I. Baron von Rönne, who was born in 1750, and his second son Felix II. Baron von Rönne, who was born in 1797. Both of them – people of knowledge and philanthropists, but who exactly of them may be the first owner of papyrus, is still unclear. Perhaps, some light on the origin of the document may be thrown by postal stamps and sign on the envelope.

Mykola Tarasenko points out that these are the interim results of the study of Kyiv papyrus. Next year he purposes to publish the final results in the USA in collection of articles, dedicated to the late edition of the Book of the Dead.