The various books of the afterlife are many and varied. While their content are among the same lines, the setup and journey through the underworld varies. What one finds in the Book of Night is not necessarily what one will find in the Book of the Hidden Chamber, or Amduat. The wide range of subject matter, and even the topography of the Duat described therein, hints at the ever changing focus of the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs.
Each book follows the same general layout in that the sun god’s journey lasts for a full twelve hours as the sun god passes through the Netherworld. The Netherworld could be a whole other world or be housed within the body of Nut. The books where the sun god travels through the body of Nut correlates in some way to her body and I will make sure to address which body part we know or we suspect the hour is related to.
The move from one hour to the next heralds a passing through a gateway, most of which we have the names for. The names of these gateways tend to foreshadow what the next hour relates to on the god’s journey to renewal and rebirth. Where I know the name of the gateway, I will make sure to highlight that information.
The first hour doesn’t seem to have a gateway of its own that the god passes through from his journey of daylight into the night. Hornung references regularly to these first hours in his book as “interstitial” places; liminality reigns supreme in these hours. It is the place where the sun god breaks the barrier from one realm to the next so that he can move forward on his journey towards renewal and rebirth.
The Book of the Hidden Chamber [Amduat]
Each book of the Amduat starts with a heading except for the First Hour. This is a common theme in afterlife literature, so it may be that the ancient Egyptians didn’t want to include it as they believed that to write something was to give it permanence. Perhaps, though they didn’t feel that an introduction for the First Hour of the Amduat was a necessity as they open the book with a detailed introduction, indicating that the Amduat stresses knowledge: “it promises knowledge of netherworldly phenomena nine (which is Egyptian stands for “many, many”) times” [p33, Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife].
The first hour describes an ordered list of the important beings that occur in the afterlife. The lists include both the beings that the sun god will come into contact with as well as those in his retinue. The solar barque depicted in the Amduat is overflowing with a variety of gods to help the sun god on his journey. All beings are shown to be filled with joy, except the enemies of the sun god, as they are greeted by the sun god on his nightly journey.
The goddess Ma’at is shown twice in this first hour. In both instances, she is shown standing before the solar barque. This seems to indicate that she is as integral to the solar god’s journey of renewal as the sun god himself.
In the middle register, a scene seems to represent that Ra has already succeeded on his journey through the netherworld: “the sun god is already present in his morning form of the scarab beetle; the beginning of the journey thus already alludes to its successful completion” [p35, Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife].
This first hour is not a true hour of the underworld, or at least is not truly described in such terms. The sun god has yet to truly enter the netherworld, which could also be why there is no heading or gateway indicated in this hour. It is only upon entry into the second hour that the journey truly begins.
The Book of Gates
In this book of the Netherworld, the solar barque has only two gods traveling as companions with the sun god, Sia and Heka. Ma’at is not shown in any capacity during this hour. The boat’s cabin is protected by a Mehen-serpent, as though to keep the sun god safe from all the upcoming dangers.
In the Book of the Amduat, the sun god was greeted upon entry into the netherworld by a multitude of gods. In the Book of Gates, the collective dead witness his entry into the night hours and greet him.
This first hour is also not a true hour of the netherworld. No true description of the hour exists and it only serves as a sort of introduction to the eventual journey of the sun god through the netherworld.
The Book of Caverns
It is this book that focuses more on the journey of the sun god on his way to merge with Osiris. Osiris was depicted in the previous two books discussed, however his imagery almost seemed to be an anecdote or a mention in passing. Here, Ra and Osiris are almost seen as aspects of the same god as the sun god journey to the body of Osiris in his intent to merge and renew himself with Osiris.
The first hour discusses Ra’s journey specifically in its relation to care for Osiris and to send his enemies to their deaths. “Ra turns directly to Osiris and extends his hands to him. Osiris is represented in a shrine that is surrounded protectively by a serpent; those in his following are also protected by serpents inside their sarcophagi.” [p85, Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife] Below this scene, the enemies of Osiris are punished in the “Place of Annihilation.” The ultimate punishment is visited upon them: Ra banishes them to non-existence.
The Book of Night
As with the first hours discussed in the Book of the Amduat and the Book of Caverns, no first hour truly exists. It is not until the sun god enters the second hour that the journey to rebirth/renewal begins. In the Book of Night, the first “hour” is associated with the arms of Nut. The sun god’s solar barque travels within her body and in order to truly enter the Netherworld housed within her, he must travel up her arms on his way to her mouth.
And that is the sum total of information regarding the first hours of the books I have some access to. The first hours are less about the journey itself and more in line with a sort of setup, or along the lines of an introduction to a novel, for the journey through the netherworld.
- The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife by Erik Hornung
- Knowledge for the Afterlife by Theodor Abt and Erik Hornung
- My Heart, My Mother by Alison Roberts