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A COPTIC VERSION OF THE PHARAONIC WEIGHING OF THE HEART: COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 8

January 9, 2014

The judgement of the dead was an Egyptian article of faith from the earliest times. As E. A. Wallis Budge, the prominent Egyptologist, says, “The belief that the deeds done in the body would be subjected to an analysis and scrutiny by the divine powers after the death of a man belongs to the earliest period of Egyptian civilization, and this belief remained substantially the same in all generations.”[1] This belief was coexistent in the Egyptian mind with the other important belief in immortality.[2] Judgement was not general but each soul was dealt with individually.[3]

 Pap_AniFigure 1: The Papyrus of Ani, acquired by E A Wallis Budge for the British Museum in 1888 (British Museum, No. 10,470)

Details of the judgement of the dead can be found in the text of Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead, which originated in the IVth Dynasty, and, pictorially, in the Papyrus of Ani, that dates to the XVIIIth Dynasty. The judgement of the dead is conducted in the Hall of Maat, where Osiris resides with other gods, including the forty-two called shenit, and believed to control the acts and deeds of men when in the world. The foes of the deceased might produce evidence unfavourable to him at the judgement, so he prays, “May naught stand to oppose me in the judgement; may there be no opposition to me in the presence of the sovereign princes; may there be no partying of thee [his heart] in the presence of him that keepth the Balance! … May the officers of the court of Osiris [the Shenit], who form the conditions of the lives of men, not cause my name to stink! … Let me have joy of heart at the weighing of words. Let not that which is false be uttered against me before the Great God, the Lord of Amentet[4].”[5]

The court of justice at which the deceased is judged is called by the Egyptian, the Hall of Maat – Maat being justice, law, right, the truth, integrity, righteousness, straightness, etc. At the beginning of the case the deceased counts the sins which he has not committed, in what has been described as the “Negative Confession”. He mentions forty two offences, such as in, “I have not done inequity;” “I have not done violence to any man;” “I have not committed theft;” “I have slain neither man nor woman;” “I have not committed fornication, and I have not committed sodomy;” etc.[6] Such offenses are easily recognisable to us as sins, and as Budge says: “A brief examination of this ‘Confession’ shows that the Egyptian code of morality was very comprehensive, and it would be very hard to find an act, the commission of which would be reckoned a sin when the ‘Confession’ was put together, which is not included under one or other part of it.” All that is true not entirely as there is noticeable lack in the Confession of what the Christians call “positive virtues” as charity to the poor and the various acts of kindness, as in Christ’s words: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”[7] This is not to say that the Ancient Egyptian did not have in his moral code these virtues – it is just to remark that the deceased at the Hall of Maat focuses on the negative virtues, or the sins he hasn’t committed (the deeds that would have caused harm to others had he done them), without much emphasis on virtues such as acts of charity to others that Christianity, which became the religion of the Copts, focuses on.[8]

The next stage at the Hall of Maat is what is known as the “weighing of the heart”, or “weighing in the balance”. The heart of the deceased is laid in one pan of the scales while the feather of Maat is laid in the other pan, and “The heart must counterbalance the feather symbolic of Maat … neither outweighing nor underweighing it.”[9] Thoth,  the scribe of the gods, writes down the result, and if the deceased heart counterbalances the symbol of the law, Thoth announces, “There has not been found any wickedness in him … he has not done harm by his deeds.” And so the happy deceased is allowed to pass into the kingdom of Osiris and the blessed. If, however, the heart of the deceased underweigh Maat,[10] the Devourer ‘Am-mit, Eater of the Dead, shall be allowed to prevail over his soul, which is destroyed straightaway.

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Budge has commented in his books about some of the ideas of the Copts which “represent ancient beliefs which they derived from the Egyptians traditionally;” but he also noticed some of the Coptic beliefs are “the peculiar product of the Egyptian Christian imagination.” An example of the imaginings of the mind of the Christian Egyptian, he noted, is the Coptic hell, which is “little more than a modified form of the ancient Egyptian Amenti, or Amentet.” He argues, in his study of the encounter of Pisentios, Bishop of Keft, with a Hellene mummy,[11] HeHhhhhH that the Copts borrowed not only the name of the Egyptian underworld [Amente] but absorbed at the same time, “ideas and beliefs concerning it which were held by the ancient Egyptians.” The torments which the wicked is supposed to suffer in Amenti, he says, reflected “some of the pictures with which we are now familiar, thanks to the excavation of toms which has gone on in Egypt during the last few years;” but, the writer of the life of Bishop Pisentios, as he describes these torments, “in common with many other Coptic writers, misunderstood the purport of them.”[12]

I think Budge was right in his observations. When the Egyptians replaced most Demotic letters by Greek letters, and the knowledge of Hieroglyphic declined, the nexus with the ancient Egyptian literature was lost – but what the Egyptian (Copt) could not comprehend by reading, he could somehow understand through the impressive pictorial heritage his ancestors had left him, and through the verbal passage of knowledge from one generation to the other, though confusedly and often inaccurately.  But there is no denial that the ancient Egyptian beliefs did influence the Coptic Christian imagination – several Coptic texts reveal motifs that are peculiar to the Copts – product of Coptic imagination influenced by ancient Egyptian beliefs and mixed with Christian dogma. The Copts have produced literature that one can say is not purely Christian and cannot represent the Faith as represented by the Church of Alexandria, but, nonetheless, is highly moral and beautiful to the extreme.

Now, I am going to bring to the attention of my reader one of the examples of such fascinating synchronisation between the Egyptian, the Christian, and imagination that the Coptic mind has produced: the Story of Butrus (Peter), the Ascetic. We do not know much detail of this saint in the Coptic Church, except from the Coptic Synaxarium that celebrates the memory of his repose on 25 Tuba (25 Terr in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, which is derived from the Copto-Arabic). He most probably lived a long time ago, before the Arab invasion of Egypt in the seventh century. The Coptic Synaxarium, which is available in Arabic version, and believed to have been gathered from earlier ancient Coptic and Greek documents, was composed in the Middle Ages.[13] Budge has translated the Ethiopic Synaxarium, and with it the Story of Butrus, whom he calls Peter, but I believe there are inaccuracies, possibly the fault of the translator from Arabic to Ethiopic.[14] The Copto-Arabic Synaxarium has never been translated critically into English; however it was translated into French between 1904 and 1929 by René Basset (1855 – 1924) under the title Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte).[15] Basset published both the Arabic original and his French translation. I reproduce below Basset’s Arabic text, and then an English translation, which I bravely attempt; and I hope it will better convey to the reader the story without the missing details in Budge’s version:

peter1

peter2 Figure 2: The Arabic text of the story of Butrus, the Ascetic, from Basset’s Synaxaire arabe-jacobite, PO, tome 11, 1915, pp. 694-5.

On this day Saint Butrus, The Ascetic, was martyred[16]. This saint was a tax-gatherer at the tax-office and he was cruel with no mercy in him so much so that because of his meanness and miserly life he was nicknamed “the merciless,” and he was not referred to except by that bad label. But he who does not wish the death of any [sinner], had mercy on him, and so sent him a certain poor man asking for alms.

And it so coincided that when the poor man was standing by begging, [Butrus’] servant arrived with bread. And [Butrus] snatched a loaf off the top of the servant’s head, and stoned with it the poor man’s head; [intending it] not [as] an act of mercy but to hit the poor man and drive him away so that he didn’t return back.

And when the poor man took the loaf and left; and this saint slept that night, he saw in his sleep as if his judgement had come. [He saw] a pair of scales set up, and a throng of ugly black [beings] carried his sins and acts of injustice, together with his other wrong-doings, and laid them in the left pan of the scales; and there was a horde of angels of light, good-looking and clad in white garments, and they were standing by the right pan of the scales wondering what they could lay in it. And when [the angels] could not find something [good to put in the pan], one of them brought that loaf which [Butrus] stoned the poor man with, and said, ‘He has nothing but this.’ And they [the rest of the angels’ horde] answered, ‘And how is this sufficient to weigh up to what is [set] against him?’

And at that moment, [Betrus] woke up frightened and in terror; and he started to woe and reproach himself for what he had done [of cruel acts]. [And from that day on] he used mercy and exceeded in it until he gave up the gown that was covering his body. And when nothing remained in his possession, he left his town and sold himself slave and distributed [his] price to the poor. And when he felt that [his reputation of good deeds] became known [to people], he fled and entered the Scetes of Saint Macarius[17] and became a monk. And he performed many acts of great asceticism.

And as he followed this beautiful, blessed way of life, he got to know the day of his death. And he called in the leaders of the monks, and gave them goodbye, and went to God.

May his prayers be with us? Amen!

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Here we have a story reminiscent of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol – that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” Butrus, was a tax-gatherer, mean, miser, cruel, and merciless. To demonstrate his unkindness and cruelty, we are told of the story of the poor man who begged for something to eat. Infuriated, Butrus snatched a loaf and threw it at the beggar, hitting him on the head with it, not intending charity at all but hoping that he would never come back. The cruelty of his deed must have been one of many, but on this occasion, the storyteller relates to us, no doubt influenced by the consequences it had on Butrus, the encounter between the poor man and Butrus was compassionately planned by God who did not want Butrus to die in his sins – God’s way was to send to Butrus the poor man asking for alms. Here we see a clear influence of Christianity: God is merciful and “is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”[18]

That incident, which should have passed as others have, did not just fade into nothingness = it brought about a dream in which Butrus envisaged his judgement. This does not seem to be the Judgement Day at the end of the world when the dead shall rise and give account for every deed they have done in their lives but an individual judgement, as that of Ani’s, that occurred probably shortly after death.

Butrus saw “a pair of scales set up, and a throng of ugly black [beings] carrying his sins and acts of injustice, together with his other wrong-doings, and laying them in the left pan of the scales; and there was a horde of angels of light, good-looking and clad in white garments, and they were standing by the right pan of the scales wondering what they could lay in it. And when [the angels] could not find something [good to put in the pan], one of them brought that loaf which [Butrus] stoned the poor man with, and said, ‘He has nothing but this.’ And they [the rest of the angels’ horde] answered, ‘And how is this sufficient to weigh up to what is [set] against him?’”

The idea of using a balance on judgement day does not seem to be Christian, and Butrus (or the writer of his story) must have been influenced by the ancient Egyptian beliefs in this matter; but, instead of the weighing of the heart, where the heart is laid in one pan and the feather of Maat on the other, and a good outcome would be a counterbalance, here we have a man’s bad deeds laid in the left pan of the scale while his good deeds are laid in the right pan, and a good result, as it seems, would be the right pan (with its good deeds) overweighing the left pan (with its bad deeds) – an opposite result, with the left pan overweighing the right one would condemn the soul to hell. Further, another diversion from the ancient Egyptian judgement of the dead, we don’t have here shenit who could turn foes and must be pacified by certain magical prayers, but demons (representing Kosmokrator[19]) who act as foes to the soul but also angels who act as advocates for the soul, and try desperately to find any act by the individual that could possibly be taken as good even if its intention had been bad.  Finally, another Christian element in this story is the focus on charity, the feeding of the poor and mercy to them. This is a positive virtue that is not part of the “negative Confessions” of the ancient Egyptian.

The end of the story is that Butrus’ dream, that terrifies him, brings a real change in his heart, and he repents, like Ebenezer Scrooge, and becomes a model of generosity and kindness – but like a typical Copt with extreme deeds of asceticism and sacrifice, as the story tells.

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (9 January 2014), a Coptic version of the Pharaonic weighing of the heart: Coptic death and afterlife 8, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/a-coptic-version-of-the-pharaonic-weighing-of-the-heart-coptic-death-and-afterlife-8/


[1] E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion. Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life (first published 1899; published by Arkana in 1987); p. 110.

[2] Ibid; p. 110.

[3] Ibid; p. 110.

[4] Amenti or Amentet (also Ament and Ement) is the Egyptian underworld. The Copts use the same word for the transitional life after death before the Day of Judgement.

[5] Ibid; p. 117.

[6] Ibid; pp. 130-134.

[7] Luke 6:31 (King James Version).

[8] In the Papyrus of Nu (British Museum, No. 10,477), after the deceased comes out of the Hall of Maat vindicated, he says: “I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man, and apparel to the naked man, and a boat to the [shipwrecked] mariner.” See: Budge, Egyptian Religion; p. 151.

[9] Budge, Egyptian Religion; p. 143. For a full and excellent account of the balance and the weighing procedure, see: Budge, Egyptian Religion, pp. 135-136.

[10] I cannot conceive of a situation in which the heart overweighs the feather of Maat.

[12] Budge, Egyptian Religion; pp. 111-115.

[14] I reproduce here Budge’s translation under 25 Terr:

On this day died the blessed Peter, the ascetic. This saint was a tax-gatherer, and as he sat in the office of the tax-gatherer he was a man who was dense of heart (i.e. understanding), and without any compassion, and he lacked the quality of mercy to such a degree that the people used to apply to him the evil epithet of “merciless.” And He Who desireth not the death of a sinner had compassion upon him, and sent to him a certain poor man to ask alms of him. And at that moment his servant came carrying bread, and he took one of the bread-cakes from his servant and threw it to the poor man, not as an act of mercy, but in order that he might drive him away from him and that the poor man might never come back to him; and the man having taken the bread-cake departed to his house. That night, whilst this Peter was sleeping he saw in his sleep as if there were many beings who wished to weigh him and as if they had a pair of scales in their hands, and many of the beings were black, and they had exceedingly foul faces, and they stood on the left of the scales. And there were many shining angels of beautiful appearance, who were wearing glorious white apparel, standing on the right of the scales; and they were sorrowful and were thinking what they could lay in the right pan of the scales. When they found nothing at all, one of them brought that bread-cake which Peter had thrown to the poor man, and the angel who brought the bread-cake said, “We have not found one good thing about him except this.” And his fellow-angels answered and said unto him, “What good will this be when set against his multitude of sins?” And as he was looking on at this he awoke from his sleep, and he was afraid, and trembled, and was dismayed. And he reproached himself and was sorry for his soul because he had done what was evil; and from that day onwards he became very merciful, and he gave his house and his goods to the poor and needy, and he changed his character. When he learned that many praised him and honored him for the good deeds, which he had done, he fled from the world and went into the desert of Scete, and entered the monastery of Saint Abba Macarius and became a monk therein. And he devoted himself to the ascetic life with great strenuousness, and he fought a good fight and pleased God with his deeds. And on the day of his death he called the aged monks, and embraced them, and he died straightway and departed to God. Salutation to Peter.

See: The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church: A Translation of the

Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum, by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge (Cambridge, 1928).

[15] It was published in the Patrologia Orientalis between 1904 and 1929. It is based on two Copto-Arabic manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, one from the 14th century while the other is dated the 17th century. Basse’s Synaxarium is published in Arabic text at the top of the page and equivalent French text at its bottom. In 2000, the Coptic bishop, Anba Samuel published the Arabic text of Basse’s edition in four volumes under the title: السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى.

[16] Clearly, this is a copyist mistake – Saint Butrus, The Ascetic, was not martyred but reposed at the Monastery of Macarius.

[17] Meaning the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi el-Natrun.

[18] 2 Peter 3:9 (King James Version)

[19] Kosmokrator is a Greek word that means a ruler of this world, and which has been used in the New Testament. “In Greek literature, in Orphic hymns, etc., and in rabbinic writings, it signifies a “ruler” of the whole world, a world lord. In the NT it is used in Eph 6:12, “the world rulers (of this darkness),” RV, AV, “the rulers (of the darkness) of this world.” The context (“not against flesh and blood”) shows that not earthly potentates are indicated, but spirit powers, who, under the permissive will of God, and in consequence of human sin, exercise satanic and therefore antagonistic authority over the world in its present condition of spiritual darkness and alienation from God.” From: W. E. Vine’s New Testament Greek Grammar and Dictionary (1940). For more on the kosmokrator, see: Coptic death and afterlife 5: Saint Pisentius encounter with a Hellene mummy and a conversation on death and afterlife.

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