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Abstract

The funerary literature from ancient Egypt has long been studied. However, the final manuscripts in this tradition have received negligible attention. In the first two centuries of the Common Era, a new funerary composition appeared, with papyrus as its most common medium for transmission. The composition consisted of a series of formulaic phrases, voiced primarily in the third person, concerning the deceased’s postmortem existence, participation in the following of Osiris, reception of offerings, the proper mortuary treatment, and well wishes for remaining children. All known manuscripts can be dated to the first and second centuries of the Common Era, were written in Demotic script and grammar, and derive mostly from the Theban area. A small portion of the corpus was illustrated with a variety of vignettes reinforcing the main concepts of the textual formulae. The composition has been referred to by its opening phrase as the ʿnḫ pꜢ by “May the ba live” formulae. The identity of the original owners of the manuscripts, despite the indication or preservation of personal names, remains mostly obscure. In the few cases where an individual can be identified, it is clear that they belong to the upper class of Egyptian society. Therefore, the small size and often hasty appearance of the texts cannot be taken as evidence that they were cheap substitutes for the poor. The papyri were specifically intended to be placed among the mummy wrappings, implying a certain level of social standing. The origin of the formulae can be traced to an oral tradition that circulated at least by the time of the Ptolemaic Period. Short formulaic phrases would have been recited during the funerary rituals and similar formulae would have been uttered by grieving family and tomb visitors. At some point in the early Roman Period, a selection of these common phrases was committed to writing, initiating the manuscript tradition preserved today. The formulae represented the mourning lamentations of the bereaved and were therefore stated in the texts to derive from Isis. Several features in the manuscript tradition demonstrate the oral circulation of the formulae and suggest that scribes composed some of the manuscripts from memory without resorting to a template text from which to copy. Once committed to writing, the ʿnḫ pꜢ by “May the ba live” composition became part of a textual tradition. The surviving manuscripts preserve fragmentary evidence for the redaction of the text. Roman Egypt had a vibrant funerary literature industry in which this new composition became the most codified and most often reproduced. Scribes had intimate knowledge of all of these texts as is reflected in the highly intertextual nature of the texts with respect to both topical content and borrowing of formulae across multiple scripts (hieratic, hieroglyphs, Demotic) and registers (graffiti, literary texts, ritual texts).

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