The Papyrus of Reri

Article | Updated 5 years ago

Introduction by Dr Moya Smith, Head of Anthropology & Archaeology at WA Museum
Translation of spells by John Taylor, Curator Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, The British Museum

Secrets of the Afterlife has two sheets of a fragmented papyrus of a priest named Reri who lived during the Ptolemaic period between 305-30 BCE. 

Reri was a priest from Thebes, whose titles included ‘Second god’s servant of Amun’, and ‘Illuminator of the Wedjat’. 

What did those titles mean? 

The priesthood of the creator god Amun, continued to be a powerful religious and administrative group in Egypt even as late as the Ptolemaic period when Egypt was ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian generals. 

A Second god’s servant was a senior priestly office with responsibilities for overseeing temple property, overseeing the workers in the field, controlling offerings and foreign tribute to the god, and with responsibility for administrators, scribes and other offices. 

It is not entirely clear what an ‘Illuminator of the Wedjat’ did, for the moment we will call that an enigmatic title! 

Who collected them? 

The papyrus fragments were collected by William John Bankes who as well as being an aide de camp to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War (Spain), travelled extensively in the Near East and Egypt, journeying as far up the Nile as Abu Simbel, some 975km south of Cairo. Amongst other objects, he collected part of a 19th Dynasty limestone king-list from Abydos which was acquired by the British Museum in 1837.

What are they about? 

The papyrus of Reri is written in hieratic, a cursive script related to hieroglyphs, and commonly used for administrative and religious texts. One of the sheets of papyrus with spells from the Book of the Dead [EA 75044/6], depicts spells empowering Reri to transform into various forms: a falcon, lotus flower, a benu bird, a heron, the god Ptah, a snake and a crocodile; and other spells that gave him the ability to move freely, and to receive air to breathe and water to drink. This is described in the Secrets of the Afterlife souvenir catalogue. 

The other papyrus [EA75044/4] which we are describing here, has a different group of vignettes of 12 spells from the Book of the Dead. These spells (21-31 and 33) allowed the dead person to speak, protected his heart, and repelled dangerous creatures. British Museum curator Dr John Taylor provided a list of their titles, and some examples of the wording of similar spells come from a revised version of Faulkner’s translation of the papyrus of Ani [available in the Secrets of the Afterlife Shop] 

This papyrus is read from right to left, and in each column it reads top to bottom. 

The first four spells enabled the dead to speak.

SPELL 21. Column 1, upper: For giving to the deceased his mouth in the realm of the dead. ‘May you give me my mouth to speak with” 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 21
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 22. Column 1, lower: For giving to the deceased his mouth in the realm of the dead.

SPELL 23. Column 2, upper: For opening the mouth of the deceased in the realm of the dead. “My mouth is opened … the bonds of Seth [Osiris’s brother] which restricted my mouth have been loosened”. 

SPELL 24. Column 2, lower: To bring magical power to the deceased in the realm of the dead. 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 24
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 25. Column 3, top: To enable the deceased to remember his name in the realm of the dead. [This would ensure the deceased kept on living rather than sliding into the second death]. 

SPELL 26. Column 3, middle: For giving to the deceased his heart in the realm of the dead. “My heart is mine in the House of Hearts” [this enabled the dead to have all the knowledge and abilities that we now know that the brain has]. Reri is holding his heart in his left hand, his right hand raised towards his ba [human headed soul] which wears a djed [an amulet for stability and endurance, representing the backbone of the god Osiris] around its neck. 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 26
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 27. Column 3, bottom: To prevent the heart of the deceased being taken from him in the realm of the dead [and thus dying the second death]. Reri holds his heart in his left hand, hi right hand raised towards 4 gods sitting on a plinth. “Oh you who take away hearts and accuse hearts … Hail to you lords of eternity, founders of everlasting! Do not take [this person’s heart] …”. 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 27
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 28. Column 4, upper: To prevent the heart of the deceased being taken from him in the realm of the dead. Reri raises his arms in praise towards his heart on an offering table [there is a hole in the papyrus where the heart would have been], and there is a god sitting behind this. 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 28
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 29. Column 4, lower: To prevent a person’s heart from being stolen in the realm of the dead. “Get back you messenger of any god! Have you come to take away this heart of mine which belongs to the living? I will not let you take this heart of mine which belongs to the living who move about.” 

SPELL 30B. Column 5, upper: For preventing the heart of the deceased from opposing him in the realm of the dead. On the left is the amuletic scarab beetle which prevented the heart from revealing its owner’s bad deeds to the gods of the hall of judgement. This spell is often carved on heart amulets: “Oh my heart which I had from my mother, Oh my heart of my different ages! Do not stand up as witness against me …” 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 30B
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 31. Column 5, lower: For repelling a crocodile which comes to take away the deceased’s magical power. The dangers of crocodiles in the spiritual world parallel the danger they present in the real world. “Get back, you dangerous one! Do not come against me, do not live by my magic … no crocodile which lives by magic shall take [my magic] away!” 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 31
© Trustees of the British Museum.

SPELL 33. Column 6: For repelling a snake. “Oh Rerek snake, take yourself off … you have eaten a mouse which Ra detests, and you have chewed the bones of a putrid cat!’” 

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus depicting a spell

The Papyrus of Reri - Spell 33
© Trustees of the British Museum.

Views of the Reri papyrus fragments at the BM: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_ima ge_gallery.aspx?assetId=685446&objectId=112623&partId=1#more-views

Graphic depicting where spells 21-27 are located on the papyrus

The Papyrus of Reri: Spells 21-27
© Trustees of the British Museum

Graphic depicting where spells 21-27 are located on the papyrus

The Papyrus of Reri: Spells 28-33
© Trustees of the British Museum

The Papyrus of Reri in its entirity

The Papyrus of Reri
Image copyright WA Museum