Some Penguin Classics seem like the most unlikely choices in the world, and this is surely one of them. We might expect Penguin to publish popular-audience studies of the vast funerary literature of the ancient Egyptians, who were, after all, a writing people and who left behind an enormous amount of literature of every type. But “The Book of the Dead”? The ancient Egyptians no more had such a single, unified book than the earliest Christians had a “Bible.” It’s not the lucky fate of most religions to have a singular, discreet, all-encompassing revelation ( like the Mormons), one incredibly haggled-over central text (like the Jews), or one extremely productive board meeting (like the Unitarians) – most of them are bewilderingly incremental and contradictory things that accumulate over centuries (like Barbara Walters).

And if not “The Book of the Dead,” then sure as hell not this “Book of the Dead”! The 1909 ‘recension’ (a vigorous compilation of dozens of sources, conflated and then translated as an organic whole) – updated and expanded from its 1899 debut – of Sir Edward Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge has been mocked and pitied by scholars almost from the moment of its publication. This present volume’s editor, John Romer, correctly points out in his Introduction that the mention of Budge’s name is met largely with embarrassment in current Egyptological circles, despite the fact that he wrote some 140 books and did more than anybody in the early 20th century to popularize all things ancient Egypt. For the editorial team at Penguin Classics to add this particular title to their lineup at the late date of 2008 must have struck some people as nothing short of lunacy.

If so, it’s the inspired kind of lunacy that’s pretty much always guided this imprint. As Romer points out in his Introduction (which is slightly breathless and ends with a quote from Michel Foucault that is, as usual, less than enlightening), Budge’s Book of the Dead has enjoyed a popularity of such enormous and wide-ranging dimensions that it’s entered Western culture as a thing itself, regardless of provenance (although Romer’s contention that it’s “the bestselling edition of any ancient text” ignores a certain royally-commissioned translation of the Bible). Romer points to the surprising amount of influence Budge’s rolling, powerful diction has had on writers as varied as Joyce, Tolkien, and Jim Morrison. And reading through this satisfyingly plump Penguin Classic, I was overjoyed to see that prose come into its own again after all these years. Open the book to any page and you’re submerged in the incantatory hallucinations Budge channeled so well. Here’s part of the papyrus of Mut-hetep, singing a hymn to the setting sun:

Thou settest as a living being in the hidden place. Thy father Ta-tuten raiseth thee up and he placeth both his hands behind thee; thou becomest endowed with divine attributes in thy members of earth; thou wakest in peace and thou settest in Manu. Grant thou that I may become a being honoured before Osiris, and that I may come to thee, O Ra-tem! I have adored thee, therefore do thou for me that which I wish. Grant thou that I may be victorious in the presence of the company of the gods.

Or this purification prayer from the papyrus of Nabseni:

I sit among the great gods, and I have made a way for myself through the house of the Seheptet boat; and behold, the mantis hath brought me to see the great gods who dwell in the underworld, and I shall be triumphant before them, for I am pure.

Or the text on the fourth doorway-arch of the dead man Ani:

The name of the doorkeeper is Khesef-hra-asht-kheru; the name of the watcher is Seres-Tepu; the name of the herald is Khesef-at. The Osiris Ani, triumphant, shall say: “I am the Bull, son of the ancestress of Osiris. O grant ye that his father, the lord of his godlike companions, may bear witness for him. I have weighed the guilty in judgment. I have brought into his nostrils the life which is everlasting. I am the son of Osiris, I have made the way. I have passed thereover into Neter-khert.”

Budge was a professional grave-robber for the British Museum long before he was its Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities for 30 years; whatever he could steal, swindle, or smuggle from Egypt, he did. And like many trailblazers who open a new cultural doorway, he then immediately turned around and planted himself athwart it, trying to prevent anybody else from coming through – he hated the surging growth of Egypt-mania that he did more than anybody to bring about, and he mocked the Egyptology departments that began to spring up at major universities everywhere.

But in this great, weird, manufactured book of his, he found the greatest and highest calling for all his freakish learning, all his partisanship, and all the novelistic dreams he had no novelist’s skill to otherwise exploit. Romer and the Penguin Classics team are entirely right: this particular Book of the Dead is a classic in its own right, despite how angry it would make any ancient Egyptian who saw it.

And now that Penguin Classics has demonstrated that it’s not above enshrining liturgical works, perhaps we’ll finally see a Penguin Classic Book of Common Prayer (the pre-1950s version, of course) …