The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony

Vignette from a papyrus depicting the Weighing the Heart of the deceased in a balance. The Two Maat in the Judgment Hall weigh the heart of the deceased against a statue of Maat. The goddess Maat was the symbol of the cosmic order and it was believed that there were two of them:

One for the living and one for the dead. She was characterized by two main aspects: on the one hand, she represented the universal order or balance – including concepts such as truth and justice – that were established at the time of creation.

The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony
The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony

On the other, Maat also represents the concept of ‘judgement’ and in fact, in later funerary literature, the deceased, during his journey to the afterlife, comes to the hall of the ‘two Maats’ to have his heart weighed. The gods themselves, acting as judges of the divine tribunal, are called “the council of Maat”.

The baboon is one form of Thoth, inventor of writing and secretary to the gods, whose other form is as an ibis-headed man. He is usually associated with this scene in order to register the outcome of the weigh in. Above the balance is a block of written hieroglyphs extracted from the spell 125 of the Book of the dead.

Egyptians believed that it was the heart, “ib”, the most important organ of the human body. It was in fact one of the few organs that was left, or reinserted, inside the mummified body.

The heart was the seat of thought and emotions, the creator of all feelings and all actions, as well as being the seat of memory, and therefore responsible for the character of each individual. No wonder then that it was precisely the heart that was weighted during the final judgment.

The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, AmmitAngus McBride (British, 1931-2007)
The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, Ammit. Angus McBride (British, 1931-2007)

The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart recorded all of the good and bad deeds of a person’s life, and was needed for judgment in the afterlife. After a person died, the heart was weighed against the feather of Maat (goddess of truth and justice).

The Book of the Dead

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of instructions and spells to enable the soul of the deceased to safely navigate the dangers of the afterlife and ultimately ensure eternal life. Written on papyrus, a copy of this work could span many meters.

The longest known copy in the world, the Greenfield Papyrus, measures 37 meters, and is now in the British Museum EA10554,87.

The famous title was given by western scholars, most notably K. R. Lepsius, a pioneering Prussian Egyptologist. The ancient Egyptian title would translate as ‘the Book of Coming Forth by Day‘—coming forth from death that is.

The ‘Book’ was never codified and no two copies of the work are exactly the same. It was not a central holy book and so it is incorrect to refer to it as ‘the Bible of the ancient Egyptians‘.

Copies have beautifully colored illustrations showing the fields and rivers of the netherworld, the gods and demons whom the deceased would meet, and the crucial ‘weighing of the heart’ ritual which would determine whether the soul was admitted into the afterlife or condemned to destruction. They were placed as scrolls in the tombs and graves with the dead.

While Egyptians may appear to be fascinated with death, it was in fact life that preoccupied their minds. They believed that, with proper preparation, a living person could become immortal following death. And the Book of the Dead was developed as a means to cope with their mortality and ultimately their immortality.

Detail from a funerary papyrus dates to the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1292 BC) of the New Kingdom of Egypt. Now in the Louvre.