Scholars have long pored over the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, searching for insights into complex belief systems. A new exhibition at the British Museum puts these ‘magical’ texts under the spotlight, and also shows that they offer a rich visual feast.
Jack Watkins went to the launch.
‘What happens after death?’ asks one of the posters advertising the British Museum’s latest landmark exhibition. Questioning such an imponderable has lost none of its morbid fascination over the centuries, but, whatever does happen, you’d have to hope it is nothing quite as involved as the hair-raising experiences the ancient Egyptians thought you must undergo to secure eternal life.
Mysterious caverns and mounds… gateways watched over by intimidating gods and demons and various other weird beasts… all these had to be negotiated on the journey through the netherworld – and even then you weren’t done. Next up was the harrowing ordeal of ‘the weighing of the heart’, performed in the presence of the monstrous beast known as ‘the Devourer’, who had the head of a crocodile, the front part of a lion and the rear of a hippopotamus. The Devourer was on hand for a tasty meal if the scales tipped against you. If you were successful, you passed through into an audience with Osiris, ruler of the underworld and symbol of rebirth, full of hope that you might be admitted to serve as one of his followers.
The Devourer, Book of the Dead papyrus of Ani, c1275 BC
The key to safe navigation through this maze of obstacles was the Book of the Dead, a collection of spells which provided dead souls with knowledge of the dangers that lay ahead, and the powers needed to overcome them. The Book – which was never, in fact, a single text, even though some scholars in the 19th century tried to interpret it as the Egyptian equivalent of the Bible – was used for over 1500 years, between c1600BC and 100AD. The British Museum’s collection of Books of the Dead is one of the most comprehensive in the world, but for conservation reasons – not least the extreme sensitivity of the papyri pigments to light – they are rarely on show to the public. Augmented by an array of painted coffins, tomb figurines, mummy trappings, gilded masks and amulets from other museums around the world, the new exhibition makes quite a spectacle.
It begins by tracing the origins of these ‘magical’ texts, the idea of the Book seeming to have emerged from a long Egyptian tradition of leaving religious instructions for the dead. Initially, they were written on the walls of royal pyramids. A brightly painted cedar wood coffin on display, dating back to the 12th Dynasty (c1850BC), has texts and images on its outside showing the rituals required to resurrect the dead. Those on the inside of the coffin, thus accessible to the occupant, contained spells needed to empower and guide them. Nearby, a cabinet holds a tightly rolled papyus, placed inside the coffin with the mummy. Evidently, its soul had no need of it, for it has never been opened, so that its contents remain secret to this day.
Once a body was mummified and placed in the tomb, it was never to be seen again, though relatives continued to visit the tomb, sustaining the mummy’s spirit with a constant supply of food and drink, and praying for it to act as an intermediary on their behalf with the gods. ‘May you appear for me as a blessed one before me, that I may see you fighting for me in a dream.’ beseeches one inscribed tablet from around 2100BC. The anxieties of ancient Egyptians, seemingly so distant and unknowable, suddenly spark to life as you read such words. The average age at the time was only 35, and the sense of one’s mortality and the briefness of time on earth must have been even more apparent to them than it is to us.
In the low light of the exhibition rooms, the dome of the old British Library Reading Room high above, the planners of this exhibition have succeeded in creating an uncanny atmosphere, as if we too are embarking on a journey with the dead souls through the various stages of the Landscape of the Hereafter. A selection of inscriptions above the doorways help: ‘O you door keepers who guard your portals, who swallow souls and who gulp down the corpses of the dead… May you guide the deceased, may you open portals for him,’ says one.
The papyri were written by scribes and were often beautifully illustrated. A particularly appealing and detailed one is the Papyrus of Anhai. She was from a powerful priestly family in the Egyptian New Kingdom around 1100BC, and the scenes show her weighing of the heart scene in considerable detail. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming and protector of the dead, crouches beneath the scales, while the Devourer looks on. Other deities also sit in attendance. Finally, on the right, the slender figure of Anhai is shown raising her arms in celebration – or perhaps simply relief? – as the scales have tipped in her favour.
Once through these ordeals, what lay on the other side? Poignantly, it was a somewhat idealised version of the home that the Egyptians would have left behind beside the Nile – a lush, well-watered place of phenomenally high-growing crops and beautiful creatures, which probably provided the inspiration for the later Greek notion of the Elysian Fields. To the Egyptians, it was known as the Field of Reeds. Anhai and her husband are shown in it, ploughing and worshipping ‘the heron of plenty’ and, it appears, being reunited with their dead parents.
Thousands of Books of the Dead manuscripts have been discovered in the last two centuries, and they’re till turning up. The biggest one on display here was given to the British Museum as long ago as 1910. The Greenfield Papyrus takes its name from its donor Edith Mary Greenfield, but was made for Nesitanebisheru, a daughter of the high priest, Amun, who lived in Thebes and died around 930BC. At 37m in length, it is the longest known Book of the Dead and, spare and elegant in style, has never been publicly shown in its entirety before. Stretching for what seems like an eternity round the wall of the Reading Room, it makes for the perfect culmination of a strange journey through the imagination of a distant civilisation.
The Journey through the afterlife:
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition
continues to 6 March 2011.
See www.britishmuseum.org for details. Booking advisable.