Book of the Two Ways

The most detailed graphical composition of the Coffin Texts is the “Book of Two Ways”. This collection (also known as the “Guide to the Ways of Rostau”) is found on a few coffins from the Middle Egyptian necropolis of Deir el Bersha and is the earliest example of a map of the netherworld. It is a clear precursor to later Netherworld books such as the Amduat and the Book of Gates.

The Deir el Bersha coffins often have images depicting the sky goddess Nut or the sky itself painted on the inside of the lid, and the Book of Two Ways painted on the floor. This seems to emphasis what Robinson has described as a sky-oriented sub-theme which is perhaps reminiscent of elements of the Nut. Unlike the later netherworld books, the book does not start at sunset, but rather at sunrise in the eastern horizon with much of the journey taking place in the sky.

The Two Ways refer to two paths which zig zag across a dangerous landscape beset with obstacles and demonic entities towards Rostau – the realm of Osiris. Rostau, which is said to be at the boundary of the sky, is locked in darkness and surrounded by fire. Here lies the body of Osiris, and any person who looks upon it will never die. The deceased also hopes to reach the Field of Offerings where they will feast with Osiris and their every need will be met. Unfortunately, the road is dangerous, many of the paths cross one another and some lead to nowhere.

The two paths are separated by the Lake of Fire which can destroy, but can also revive. The deceased has to contend with the “fiery court” which surrounds the sun, numerous guardians and demons, and their way is blocked by darkness, high walls of stone and walls of fire. Some versions include the depiction of a mansion, its numerous rooms containing monstrous creatures.

Coffin of Gua twelfth dynasty from Deir el Bersha
Coffin of Gua twelfth dynasty from Deir el Bersha

The texts of the Book of Two Ways may have originated elsewhere (there is a notable lack of reference to Thoth, the patron god of the area, in most of the spells) but the graphical element is unique to the area and was only used for a few generations. To date, only one example of the composition has been discovered outside Bersha, in the tomb of Khesu the Elder at Kom el-Hisn (Western Delta). At that time, there had been no other attempt to map the netherworld, and none of the later netherworld books come close to the detailed depiction of the afterlife. Later texts divide the afterlife into hours or caves, or include vignettes depicting specific landmarks or events. The Book of Two Ways is a road map.

Lesko divided the Book of Two Ways into types A, B and C. Type A and B represent the longer version of the text and they differ from each other only in certain textual elements. Type C, the shorter version, was thought by Lesko to be the older form (but some have questioned this attribution). The longer version shows some signs of having derived from Hermopolis, in part because it does have frequent references to Thoth.

Journey through the Netherworld

Book of Two Ways, De Buck (1961) The Egyptian Coffin Texts
Book of Two Ways, De Buck (1961) The Egyptian Coffin Texts

The longer version starts a description of the sun rising in the eastern horizon. The deceased calls for the Great Bark of Re “0 Mahaf, awaken Aken for me, as you are endowed with life. See, I have come”. The deceased is described as “the magician” and “one beloved of my father, whom my father greatly loves”. They must name the ferry-man and various elements of the boat. Mahaf is initially unwilling, claiming the boat is not in working order, but is eventually persuaded (CT 395-396). Then, follow spells to help the deceased navigate the bark of Ra (CT 1029 and 1030), a spell for passing over the ring of fire protecting the cabin of the bark (CT 1033), and spells offering guidance on the paths of Rostau (CT 1034 and 1035)

In the shorter text (CT 1141-1145) the journey begins at a palace or primeval shrine with high walls of darkness or flame, named ” the mansion of the many-faced”. The deceased states “I am a builder and I have knowledge. I am a builder and I raise up my father”. They also claim to be “Lord of the secret things”. Spell 1141 is particularly evocative…

I am the torch and the flame, I am the spear which is in the hand which is stabbed at those who are below. 0 you of fire, beware of me, for I am the knife which pierces the middle of his head. It is I who repels her (?) and give her to the earth-gods who are in the lake. Geb is your protector, down on your face! Do not frustrate his actions.

Both versions then depict two pathways, an upper pathway in blue (possibly a water course), and a lower darker pathway. The two paths are separated by the “Lake of Fire of the Knife Wielders” (CT 1166), depicted as a red band. The deceased travels down the waterway or darkened path, meeting guardians and watchers who will prevent the unworthy from passing. Some guardians sound relatively approachable (e.g. “the sad voiced one”, “he whose face is covered”, and “dog face”) or a bit grumpy (“scowler”, “he whose face is hot”), but others are clearly considered frightening (“he whose face is dreadful”, “monster”, “she of the knife”, “Hippopotamus face, bellowing of power”). Possibly the worst is “He who is driven off with two faces in dung”!

In some versions multiple paths are drawn, in others just the two paths winding across the landscape. The texts describe the geographical features such as towns and fields, and detailed versions also have images of the guardians or demons armed with knives and staves (CT 1036 – 1059 for the longer version 1147 to 1170 for the shorter version). On the way, there is a brief respite when the deceased stops at the Field of Offerings where they prepare a meal (or harvest) for Osiris (CT 1159-1162, and CT 1046-1049). Finally, they reach the other side, and are granted fine clothing and emblems of authority to show that they have successfully navigated the pathways (CT1069 and 1179). However, they are not home and free yet. Now the deceased must enter the dark and foreboding Rostau (CT1070 – 1079 and 1180 – 1185).

The deceased moves through a wide hall, divided into three sections by flaming walls. They are observed by the watchers, but thankfully can call on Thoth for protection. At the end of the hall is a wall composed of sky symbols possibly representing the horizon. Now they must find a way through a confusing maze of winding blue pathways, representing rivers or pathways though the sky. Spell 1072 describes the scene…

The paths here are in confusion, every one of them is opposed to its fellow. It is those who know them who will find their paths. They are high on the flint walls which are in Rostau, which is on both water and on land.

Rostau is filled with inimical god and demons, some with the heads of scarabs, others holding serpents or lizards. One particularly friendly character is described as “He who eats his fathers. He who eats his mothers. He who drives off Set when he is angry” (1076). Eventually they reach safety, and eternal life, in the presence of Osiris. At this point, the short version ends, but the longer version has more in store for the deceased.

The deceased begs an audience with Thoth (CT 1089 and 1092). They travel the paths of Thoth (CT1093) and meet him in the mansion of Re (CT1094) before meeting Ra in his sacred bark (CT1096-1098). The next section has no images, just text. The deceased justifies their actions in life and denies any wrongdoing before being accepted onto the bark of Ra (CT 1099).

Now the deceased must navigate through two regions separated by a wall of darkness: the first with four gates, the second with three, each with their own guardians (CT 1100 – 1110). My personal favourite is the keeper of the third gate of the first section who is described as “He who eats the droppings of his hinder parts”, but there is also the charming “He who lives on Maggots” (the middle gate of the second section). At the end of this journey they meet Osiris who offers them the Eye of Horus. They become one with Thoth, who is described as the son of Osiris, and get to spend eternity in the presence of Ra. Spell 1130 confirms the happy ending….

As for anyone who knows this spell, he will be like Ra in the east of the sky, like Osiris within the Netherworld, and he will go down to the circle of fire. There will never be a flame against him forever. It has come happily to an end.

  • Faulkner, R.O (1978) The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts Vols 1, 2 and 3
  • Hornung, Erik (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife
  • Robinson, Peter (2003) “As for them who know them, they shall find their paths: Speculations on Ritual Landscapes in the Book of Two Ways” in O’Connor, D. & Quirke, S. (eds.) Mysterious Lands pp139-159

Copyright J Hill 2018