Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Oldest Egyptian Soul Map has been found on the text of a woman’s coffin.     Source: Boggy / Adobe Stock

Inscription on Coffin Discovered to be Oldest Egyptian Soul Map

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A 4000-year-old ancient Egyptian text illustrates the oldest map of the underworld in existence.

In 2012 archaeologists opened a burial shaft in the Middle Egyptian necropolis of Dayr al-Barsha and one of the coffins was found to be inscribed with text from ‘The Book of Two Ways,’ an illustrated guide to the afterlife.

A new study published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology by Harco Willems suggests this ancient text is the earliest known copy of  The Book of Two Ways, dating back at least 4,000 years. This dating has been associated with the tomb because it contains inscriptions mentioning Djehutinakht I from around the 21st to 20th century BC. However, it was previously incorrectly believed that the coffin must therefore contain the body of Djehutinakht I, but this latest study suggests the coffin was inhabited by the body of an elite female called Ankh.

Wooden panel from the coffin is engraved with the oldest Book of Two Ways. Harco Willems / SAGE Journals

Library of the Afterlife

Archaeologists have only ever discovered a handful of versions of the archaic text on tomb walls, papyri, other coffins, and on burial masks; but this newly identified version was found on two wooden panels written for Middle Kingdom officials.

The text’s “Two Ways” are the two routes which a soul can use to navigate the afterlife in the Underworld and to finally enter the realm of Osiris, the Egyptian overlord of the Underworld and high-court judge of human souls. According to Ancient Egypt Online, ‘ The Book of Two Ways’ belongs to a larger body of works known as ‘The Coffin Texts,’ and it is referred to as a clear precursor to later Netherworld books such as the ‘Amduat and the ‘Book of Gates.

The layout and landscape of The Book of Two Ways: coffin of Sepi. (after de Buck, Plan 1)

The Coffin Texts are themselves one of the bodies of work that make up the famous ‘Book of the Dead,’ which National Geographic describe as the ancient Egyptian collection of mortuary texts made up of spells related to the afterlife - “1,185 spells and incantations” to be precise.

Map of the netherworld from the coffin of Gua, from Deir el-Bersha, Egypt. 12th Dynasty, 1985-1795 BC. (CC0)

Trials of the Voyaging Soul

‘The Book of Two Ways’ describes two zig-zagging paths crossing a dangerous landscape where demonic entities challenge ones progression to ‘Rostau’ – the realm of Osiris - a dark place surrounded with fire and located at the “boundary of the sky.” It was believed that any person who looked upon the dead body of Osiris would never completely die and if one reached the Field of Offerings, after a feast with Osiris their desires would be satisfied.

But the winding paths are dangerous and sometimes they lead nowhere. They are separated by the Lake of Fire with the power to destroy or revive the soul, and along the way the deceased must overcome the Sun’s “fiery court” with endless guardians and demons blocking the way with high walls of stone and fire.

Outer coffin of Taywheryt depicting Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. (CESRAS/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Outer coffin of Taywheryt depicting Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. (CESRAS/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

4000-Year-Old Soul Map

An IFL Science article about the discovery of the text says that we should avoid making cultural assumptions about an ancient idea with our “21st-century mindset” and just because it looks a bit like a modern-day road map this does not mean the ancient Egyptians necessarily used it as a map. At the time of its creation, about 4000 years ago, nobody had yet attempted to map the netherworld and scholars maintain the later texts all divide the afterlife into hours or caves and include landmarks and events, whereas the ‘Book of Two Ways’ is a psychological road map for the soul.

During the deceased’s journey they must navigate through two regions separated by a wall of darkness and the first has four gates while the second has three, and each gate has its own guardian. The Ancient Egypt Online article details some of these guardians and perhaps the two most interesting are associated with the third gate of the first section, who is described as “He who eats the droppings of his hinder parts,” and the middle gate of the second section is protected by “He who lives on Maggots”.

Monsters from Middle Kingdom funerary contexts: (a) Magic wands (after Petrie 1927, Plate XXXVI),(b) detail of the coffin floor of Sepi, showing creatures from the Book of Two Ways. (after de Buck, Plan 1)

Monsters from Middle Kingdom funerary contexts: (a) Magic wands (after Petrie 1927, Plate XXXVI),(b) detail of the coffin floor of Sepi, showing creatures from the Book of Two Ways. (after de Buck, Plan 1)

Maybe Death is an Illusion?

After accomplishing all of the hurdles and obstacles the soul ends its journey in meeting Osiris, who offers the journeyman the Eye of Horus which makes the soul “one again” with the god Thoth, the son of Osiris, and thus it spends eternity in the presence of the god Ra, which is all confirmed in Spell 1130: the Instructions for Merikare, and the Great Hymn to the Aton.

Essentially, what this new version of ‘ The Book of Two Ways’ does is offer not only scholars, but all of us, further detailing on how ancient people viewed death and the afterlife not as the end of anything; but as an extension of the here and now, and that the long standing question as to what might, if anything, happen after death has shaped the creative imaginations of humans, and therefore all culture across the planet, ever since we have been “popping our clogs.”

The judgement of the dead in the presence of Osiris: Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgement area. Anubis is also shown supervising the judgement scales. Hunefer's heart is weighed against a feather, the symbol of Ma’at. Then Hunefer is brought to the right in the presence of Osiris by his son Horus. Osiris is shown seated under a canopy, with his sisters Isis and Nephthys. At the top, Hunefer is shown adoring a row of deities who supervise the judgement. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Oldest Egyptian Soul Map has been found on the text of a woman’s coffin.     Source: Boggy / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



I love when they dig out forgotten items and rework their translations - seeing something like this cartonnage is great, and I love the look at how someones mind works, interpreting the afterlife as a trip is fascinating. I love how it seems that every culture sees the afterlife as an extension of current life, and seeing maps and road guides is great. I have always wanted to include a full Book of the Dead in my coffin. When I buried my brother, I added some items to his coffin for his afterlife - an ipod of his favorite music, a pack of cigarettes, a small pipe and some hashish and his favorite lighter. I see him relaxing, listening to his music and having a pipe with his friends that already passed on.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

Next article