11. The Egyptian Book of the Dead (~3000BC)

The Egyptian Book of the Dead had an enduring influence over Burroughs. Not only it is referenced in hundreds of places throughout his work, but he wrote whole books – The Book of Breeething (1975) and The Western Lands (1987) – adapting it.

He often mentions it alongside the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and compares both books unfavourably with the Mayan codices. Yet, as barely any of the Mayan codices survive, his responses to these is far more imaginative than direct.

He also cites almost nothing from the Tibetan book, suggesting his knowledge of it may have been merely second-hand. His friend Timothy Leary knew it well and based his book The Psychedelic Experience on it, for instance. Ginsberg, despite tireless efforts, never managed to turn him on to Buddhism.

I read it in the original 1895 E.A. Wallis Budge translation; the 1967 Dover edition that Burroughs likely owned when writing Breeething. It’s an excellent version, including 120 pages of introductory material outlining the Egyptian cosmography, Gods and the history of the book, then the full Egyptian text plus transliteration and translation, then finally a prose translation (correcting grammar that is often unclear in direct translation) and describing the tomb wherein the book was found and the images within that correspond to certain passages.

The correspondence of image and text is foregrounded in this edition. It clearly made a huge impact on Burroughs, who argued in numerous places during the early 1970s that we should replace our alphabet with ideograms (cf/ The Job, The Revised Boy Scout Manual, Ah Pook is Here).

The book, as you’re no doubt aware, was originally written for the benefit of a dead pharaoh. It is a set of instructions on how to return from death, cross through the abyss into the Western Lands, win over the other Gods and finally join them on the million-year-boat that floats down the underworld Nile.

The world depicted is simultaneously pantheistic, monotheistic and polytheistic.

First, there is neter. Neter roughly translated as God, singular, but is closer to Spinoza’s “substance” or Meister Eckhart’s “One”. It is not the “Creator” but the “Refresher” or “Renewer”. The Egyptians didn’t believe in starts and ends, but rather a cosmic eternity, and so neter merely serves to renew the world (like the annual flooding of the Nile); there is no beginning or end.

From neter is made Ra, who is the one true God. Other Gods are then made by Ra (these are aspects of Ra, who is himself a materialisation of neter), and these Gods fight, squabble, punish and reward in the morality-free mode common among the Greek and Roman gods.

Newest among the new Gods is Osiris, whose body is torn into pieces and must be brought back together. The pharaoh, on his path to immortality, must first replicate this feat. Once his body is reassembled, an instrument will be placed in his mouth, allowing him to breathe again. He will then be resurrected as Osiris-Ani.

Egyptian Gods, we quickly realise, are quite at home with “being” each other. The Pharaoh, once he is Osiris-Ani, is essentially the original Osiris, who is also Ra and neter as well. Without linear time, the fact that Pharoah will one day become Osiris-Ani/Osiris/Ra/neter also means that he has always been these things.

This is why it was Pharaoh himself who made the sun rise every morning and the Nile to flood every year. He one day will become a god, and so is a god retrospectively, despite not yet rising to godhood.

Burroughs was captivated by alternative approaches to time, and the fact that Egyptian time seems to follow the same rules as those described in J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time (which I’m yet to read) must have been meaningful. Burroughs, being a magical thinker, did not believe in coincidences.

The Egyptian world is essentially one long, continuous path. It is a civilisation built on two miracles, the sun rising and the Nile flooding, that eternally recur. Its habitable Empire was limited to a thin strip of arable land either side of the Nile, with deserts either side. All this naturally produced a religion of perpetual repetition and a route through life that started in the East and ended in the West, before starting in another East beneath the ground and returning to the West again.

Burroughs believed that time was recorded, and so playing back snatches of sound, image or text from earlier periods could edit and “cut-up” our currently-lived time. Most famously, he suggested playing the sound of rioting to crowds in order to induce rioting; but he also had a love for Proustian moments, and attempted to use his “time travel” techniques when he was older to revisit his childhood.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, looked at from this perspective, is not so much a series of “spells” as snippets of recorded mythology that are written down and saved, ready to be “played back” when th Pharaoh is in need of them.

Need to navigate a river? Play back this recording of Osiris-Ani turning into a crocodile and you too will have the power of the crocodile: “I am the crocodile within his terrors, I am the crocodile god, I being destruction”.

By playing it back, you become it. You have mastery over time. When you return from the dead you cannot remember your name, so you play back the sequence of Thoth recording your name when you are freshly dead. Now you know your name.

There’s an eminently practical element here which fits with Burroughs’ Minnesotan pragmatism.

It’s also filled with monstrous characters who, if I go back and look, I’m sure I will find making cameos in Burroughs work: “the watchers” who bring “slaughtering knives”, the “lord of ruddiness” who “lives upon entrails”, or “Eternity and Everlastingness” whose names are “Millions of Years” and “Green Lake” respectively.

The Egyptians are far more strange and complicated in their beliefs than I’d previously given them credit for. Reading the Book of the Dead alongside Budge’s commentary and with an eye to Burroughsian categories like time, magic and textuality, has provided me with a better insight into them than I’ve ever previously gotten from books by historians and mythologists.