Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
The Forty-Two Judges were the divine beings of the Egyptian after-life who presided over the Hall of Truth where the great god Osiris judged the dead. The soul of the deceased was called upon to render up confession of deeds done while in life and to have the heart weighed in the balance of the scales of justice against the white feather of Ma’at, of truth and harmonious balance. If the deceased person’s heart were lighter than the feather, they were admitted to eternal life in the Field of Reeds; if the heart were found heavier than the feather it was thrown to the floor where it was eaten by the monster Amemait (also known as Ammut, `the gobbler', part lion, part hippopotamus and part crocodile) and the soul of the person would then cease to exist. Non-existence, rather than an after-world of torment, was the greatest fear of the ancient Egyptian.
Although Osiris was the principal judge of the dead, the Forty-Two Judges sat in council with him to determine the worthiness of the soul to enjoy continued existence. They represented the forty-two provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt, and each judge was responsible for considering a particular aspect of the deceased’s conscience. Of these, there were nine great judges, Ra (in his other form of Atum) Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Isis, Nephthys, Horus, and Hathor. Of the other judges, they were depicted as awe-inspiring and terrible beings bearing names such as Crusher of Bones, Eater of Entrails, Double Lion, Stinking Face and Eater of Shades, among others (Bunson). The Forty-Two Judges were not all horrifying and terrible of aspect, however, but would appear to be so to that soul who faced condemnation rather than reward for a life well-lived. The soul was expected to be able to recite the Negative Confession (also known as the Declaration of Innocence) in defense of one's life in order to be considered worthy to pass on to The Field of Reeds.
The Negative Confession included statements such as: "I have not stolen. I have not slain people. I have not stolen the property of a god. I have not said lies. I have not led anyone astray. I have not caused terror. I have not made anyone hungry." The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the most famous funerary text of ancient Egypt, composed c. 1550 BCE) provides the most comprehensive picture of the Forty-Two Judges as well as spells and the incantation of the Negative Confession. According to the scholar Ikram, "As with the earlier funerary texts, the Book of the Dead served to provision, protect and guide the deceased to the Afterworld, which was largely located in the Field of Reeds, an idealized Egypt. Chapter 125 was an innovation, and perhaps one of the most important spells to be added as it seems to reflect a change in morality. This chapter, accompanied by a vignette, shows the deceased before Osiris and forty-two judges, each representing a different aspect of ma'at. A part of the ritual was to name each judge correctly and give a negative confession" (43).
Once the Negative Confession had been made by the soul of the deceased (aided by the spells in the Book of the Dead) and the heart had been weighed in the balance, the Forty-Two Judges met in conference with Osiris, presided over by the god of wisdom, Thoth, to render final judgement. If the soul were considered worthy then, by some accounts, it was directed out of the hall to the creature known as Hraf-haf (meaning He-Who-Looks-Behind-Him) who was an ill-tempered and insulting ferryman whom the deceased had to find some way to be kind and cordial to in order to be rowed to the shores of the Field of Reeds and eternal life. Having passed through the Hall of Truth and, finally, proven themselves worthy through kindness to the un-kind Hraf-Haf, souls would, at last, find peace and enjoy an eternity in bliss. The Field of Reeds perfectly reflected the world one had enjoyed in one's earthly existence, right down to the trees and flowers one had planted, one's home and loved ones. All an ancient Egyptian needed to do to attain this eternal happiness was to have lived a life worthy of approval by Osiris and the Forty-Two Judges.