Ancient Egyptian Religion: Book of Gates

The Book of Gates (sometimes also known as the "Book of Pylons") is an ancient Egyptian religious text dating from the New Kingdom describing the journey of a deceased soul though the underworld with reference to the journey of the sun god (Ra) during the hours of the night. The underworld is divided into twelve hours divided by a series of "gates". Each gate is guarded by a large serpent and two deities; in order to pass safely the deceased must name them correctly. This tradition dates back to the "Book of the Two Ways" (part of the Coffin Texts), which recorded seven gates each with three guardians.

The races of mankind in the Book of Gates: Libyans, Nubian, Asiatic, and Egyptian

Probably the most famous section of the Book of Gates is the text which describes the different races of people. The Egyptians divided all people into "Libyans", "Nubians", "Asiatics", and "Egyptians". All races were welcome in the afterworld and all are depicted journeying through its chambers.

Because of its similarity to the Amduat, it is sometimes suggested that it was composed some time before the New Kingdom.

Alternatively, it is proposed that it was composed during the Armarna period (during the "Atenist Heresy"). This seems unlikely as the earliest version so far discovered is from the tomb of Horemheb (who reigned after the restoration of the old gods) and the text was also used by Seti I and Ramsses II who both omitted Akhenaten and Tutankhamun from their kings list (strongly implying they did not support the Atenist reforms) and gives prominence to Osiris (particularly in the hall of judgement).

Book of Gates

Text and images from the Book of Gates appear in a number of New Kingdom tombs from the reign of Horemheb through to Ramesses VII. However they also appear in the tombs of nobles and workers such as that of Sennedjem (a worker from Deir el-Medina, the workers village beside the Valley of the Kings) and Tjanefer (a priest of Amun). After the New Kingdom, sections of the book of Gates were occasionally merged with the Book of the Dead in the tombs of commoners and nobles. In particular, the first hour and the judgment hall remained in use in non-royal burials.

Not all of the texts are complete or in the correct order. The version in the tomb of Seti I has the hours in a continuous sequence ending with the last hour being placed by the head of the deceased king, but in other cases the hours are split up in different chambers. There are a total of one hundred scenes. Many of the early scenes are very large, but the last two hours contain a number of smaller scenes. The text is Middle Egyptian and displays little evidence of the influence of Late Egyptian, but does have a particularly wide and rich vocabulary.

In structure the Book of Gates similar to that of the Amduat; eleven hours are each divided into three registers and the first hour has a different structure. However, there are some notable differences; the last three hours contain depictions of the judgment of the dead; only Sia, Hu and Heka travel on the boat with the sun god; four human beings tow the sun barque; instructions for the use of the book are replaced by instructions regarding offerings; and (most notably) each hour in the book of gates ends with a gate protected by a serpent and two guardians.

In early versions of the Book of Gates the fifth hour depicts the judgement hall of Osiris. However, in the tomb of Seti I the deceased king stands before Osiris, and the emphasis moves from the judgement of the dead to the association between the deceased pharaoh and Osiris. His successors copied this innovation, with minimal changers to the position of the God in the scene. Most versions of the text also include extra texts which refer only to the king - ensuring the status of the deceased pharaoh.

  • Book of Gates; hour seven
  • Book of Gates; hour eight
  • Book of Gates; hour nine
  • Book of Gates; hour ten
  • Book of Gates; hour eleven
  • Book of Gates; hour twelve
copyright J Hill 2010
Return to Top
Ancient Egypt Online