Mahaf, literally ma-ha-ef, ‘whose sight is behind him’, is also known as Herefhaf, ‘whose face is behind him’. Mahaf is the celestial ferryman, and he is depicted in his boat, looking back over his shoulder. In PT utterance 270, the deceased asks Mahaf to “ferry me across in this ferry-boat in which you ferry the Gods,” and demonstrates his worthiness by affirming that no one living or dead makes accusations against him (the deceased), nor does any duck or ox, who are cited either to represent collectively the creatures of the water, the air and the land or because they are animals frequently eaten by humans and thus have a right to accuse (see Griffiths 1991). In utterance 359, it is made clear that the journey in question is to the eastern side of the sky, the side of dawn. This explains the address to Mahaf, “Awake in peace, O Mahaf,” and perhaps his backward-looking gesture, for the journey in the ferry-boat represents a rejuvenation, a virtual rolling back of time. The journey in the ferry-boat is from the southern to the northern sky, across the “Winding Waterway,” which has been identified with the ecliptic, to the “imperishable” circumpolar stars, which never set. Sometimes references to the ferry-boat occur as a formalized element in autobiographical funerary inscriptions. Hence the Sixth Dynasty autobiography of Harkhuf (Lichtheim, vol. 1, p. 24), in addition to the standard elements, namely “I have given bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked,” includes the statement, “I brought the boatless to land.” Similarly, in BD spell 125 the deceased affirms that he has supplied “a ferry-boat to the boatless.” The term which is used to refer to ferrying someone across the river is literally “to unite the land”, i.e. to bring the two shores together, is also used often to mean “to bury.” Hence to be ferried is in itself a symbol of passing into the netherworld.
Later versions of the ferryman spells (e.g. CT spells 395-403 and BD 98-99) take the form of an elaborate dialogue between the deceased and Mahaf. Mahaf quizzes the deceased, sometimes in very cryptic terms, about his/her ritual or magical qualifications, intentions, and esoteric knowledge, to which the deceased responds in equally cryptic or ritualistic fashion. Particularly noteworthy about these spells are the lengthy recitations of the parts of the boat and their identification with diverse deities or divine potencies. These are usually introduced by a statement that the boat has been disassembled, and in effect require the deceased to magically construct the boat, part by part, out of the images and attributes of the Gods. The ‘vehicle’ for the deceased therefore is to be constructed out of his/her knowledge of myth and iconography as well as his/her grasp of its significance. This understanding is manifested in the ability to apply this esoteric knowledge to the practical purposes symbolized by the construction of the boat. The ferry-boat spells therefore represent in some sense the deceased’s appropriation for him/herself of the religious imagery and narratives taught to them, and is but one of the manifold expressions in the afterlife literature of the fundamental Egyptian theme of the resurrection as being accomplished through the summoning forth of the deceased’s own initiative or volition from out of the inert passivity of death. A new perspective on such passages may be offered by the Demotic ‘Book of Thoth’, a fragmentary speculative or initiatory text which draws upon the afterlife literature without itself belonging to that genre. At one point in the text (Jasnow and Zauzich, p. 306, 309-310), the aspirant to occult wisdom, called ‘the one-who-loves[or ‘desires’]-knowledge’, recounts having received from certain animals certain items which are identified with parts of a boat, a procedure which appears to be the reverse of the one in the ferry-boat spells from the Coffin Texts, as though the passage in the ‘Book of Thoth’ equips the living with the ‘parts’ to be used to construct the ferry-boat after death.
In CT spell 474 (BD spell 153), Mahaf is not the ferryman, but rather the leader of the ‘fishermen’ who threaten to trap the deceased in their nets. This genre of spells (represented by CT spells 473-481) is similar to that of the ferry-boat spells inasmuch as it involves a more or less detailed identification of the parts of the fishing-boat and the net with a series of deities or mythic images. They differ, however, from the ferry-boat spells in that there is no dialogue between Mahaf and the deceased, or between the deceased and any of the ‘fishermen’, due to the adversarial relationship which is posited in these spells. Here, the ability to appropriate esoteric knowledge to one’s own purposes is demonstrated, not in the ability to constitute a vehicle for oneself, but to transform something hostile into something beneficent. It should also be noted that CT spell 548 and BD spell 93, without mention of Mahaf, refer to the ferry-boat itself in a negative context, for they seek to prevent being “taken and ferried over to the east in order to carry out wrongful slaying on me in the festival of those who rebel against me.” These brief spells involve no discussion of the boat’s parts or interaction with the ferryman.
Another change between the Pyramid Text version of the ferry-boat spell and that found in the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead is that in the latter it is actually a figure named Aken who is to bring the ferry-boat once Mahaf has consented to rouse him. This takes the place of the appeal in the version from the Pyramid Texts for Mahaf himself to “awake in peace” and allows for the dialogue between Mahaf and the deceased which is not a feature of the earlier text. In spell 775 in the Coffin Texts Horus is in need of a ferry-boat, which is supplied by Isis, who also provides him food, echoing the standardized autobiographical formula of having given food to the hungry and a ferry-boat for the boatless. In this spell, however, it is Isis whom Horus asks to “come and row me, come and ferry me over, come and bring me to land at the great city before Re.”
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Cruz-Uribe, Eugene. “On the meaning of Urk. I, 122, 6-8.” In Egyptological Studies in Honor of Richard A. Parker. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1986.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Griffiths, J. G. 1991. “The Accusing Animals.” In Religion und Philosophie im Alten Ägypten. Leuven: Peeters.
Jasnow, Richard and Karl-Th. Zauzich. 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.