Negative Confession (Spell 125 Book of the Dead)

The Negative Confession forms part of Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead It was intended to be recited by the deceased when they entered the Hall of Judgement and stood face to face first of all with Osiris and the Osiris backed up by a further forty-two other divine judges, all of whom the deceased had to name. They then had to make a statement asserting their purity and worthiness as their heart was weighed against the feather of Ma’at. Rather that boasting about the actions they had taken, this statement consisted of them confirming that they were not guilty of a range of evil deeds.

Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead (the Negative Confession) of Ani, 19th Dynasty, British Museum

The Negative Confession consists of a declaration of innocence before Osiris listing offences they had not committed, followed by statements made directly to each of the forty-two judges confirming to each one an offence not committed. We are not told the names of the judges, just their epithets along with a geographical location – for example Far Strider who came forth from Heliopolis. All of the towns named are in Middle or Lower Egypt, suggesting that the text originated from that area, possibly the Herakleopolitan kingdom of the First Intermediate Period or a scribal school in Heliopolis.

The offences range from murder, robbery and rape to being deaf to the words of truth, sullen or hot-tempered. In all they combine to give us a clear picture of Egyptian morality from the New Kingdom onwards by setting out the kind of behaviour that was not deemed acceptable. They set a fairly high bar for actions which were considered to be in line with the principles of Ma’at (truth and correct order), after all who can truly say that they have never lied? Thankfully for the Egyptians, they had the back up of Spell 30 (often inscribed on a heart scarab) to ensure that their heart did not tell on them while they were making their confession.

Some of the statements have their origin within wisdom texts such as the Instructions of Merikare in which a student is told how to behave in life, and some clearly refer to crimes. It is notable, however, that the text does not include all of the rules commonly found in didactic texts (for example being respectful to your elders). Were these rules, not deemed relevant, or was the text more concerned with asserting ritual purity? Some statements certainly seem to derive from the oaths of purity spoken by Egyptian priests before they could take up their duties. The earliest copies of these oaths date to the Roman Period, but their grammar bears many of the hallmarks of Middle Egyptian, making it likely that they predate this period. However, without any other supporting evidence we cannot be sure how strongly they are connected with the Negative Confession.

Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead (the Negative Confession) of Lady Neferini, Late Period, Neusmuseum Berlin

The date of the composition of the Negative Confession is unclear. There is no obvious parallel from the Middle Kingdom, although there is at least one stele dating from the twelfth dynasty which included a list of actions considered worthy. There are copies of Spell 30 which date from their period, but no examples of Spell 125. The earliest examples of the Negative Confession are from the reign of Hatshepsut in the eighteenth dynasty. Once adopted, Spell 125 remained in use for around 1,500 years and in that time, it hardly changed at all.

Both Spell 125 and Spell 30 are associated with a popular vignette in which the Hall of Judgement is depicted. Osiris is given primacy, but we also often see the four sons of Horus (associated with the canopic jars) and the forty-two other judges. In vignettes from the eighteenth dynasty it is generally Thoth (sometimes in the form of a Baboon) who watches over the Scales of Justice. In some smaller versions from this period, and more often in later periods, it is Horus who oversees the weighing of the heart, while Thoth records the judgement. There are also eighteenth dynasty versions in which it is Anubis who watches the scales, often accompanied by Ammit (“Swallower of the Damned”) who will gobble up the hearts of the unworthy.

Following the Amarna Period, the weighing scene is generally expanded to fill the entire height of the papyrus and is much more detailed than before. During the Ramesside period there was a shift in emphasis away from the weighing of the heart to the declaration of innocence. Generally, Anubis leads the deceased to the scales and oversees the weighing, then Horus leads the deceased to Osiris to make their declaration. This format was very popular during the Third Intermediate Period, but during the Late Period and the Greco-Roman Period the earlier type (focusing on the weighing of the heart) became more popular.

In some versions other gods and goddesses are present. Isis and Nepythys often appear to offer support to Osiris, although in the Late Period they may be replaced by Maat. After the Amarna Period vignettes often included depictions of Shai, Meskhenet and Renenutet. We also occasionally see the addition of other figures beside the scales. From the Ramesside period there may be a second human figure representing the Ba of the deceased; in the Third Intermediate Period a crouching figure (possibly also the Ba); and in the Late Period a divine child on a sceptre (representing Horus or Ra).

It has been proposed, with reference to notes made by Diodorous on Egyptian funerary practice, that there may have been a performance of the Judgement of the Deceased during the funeral itself. This is an interesting idea, but again we have no evidence to substantiate this claim.

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  • Ikram, Salima (1997) Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt
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  • Teeter, Emily (2011) Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt
  • Stadler, Martin A (2008) Judgment after Death (Negative Confession) From Encyclopedia of Egyptology Edited by Jacco Dieleman and Willeke Wendrich

copyright J Hill 2018