The Book of the Dead. British Museum. 14-01-11

This is a wonderful treat of an exhibition. It was sure to please me as I have always been fascinated by ancient Egypt and went out there to see most of the major sites in my twenties but this was special. It was a chance to see some of the papyri which are not usually on show, Ani’s book of the dead, the most beautiful one which has been found so far, and the complete length of  Huneffer’s book of the dead. The British museum has a wonderful Egyptian section and this was a chance to show it off. Everything was beautifully laid out and well lit and by the time you had been all the way round someone who was learning about Ancient Egypt for the first time would have a clear idea of what they believed about life after death and the practices which they carried out in view of their beliefs, and someone who already had some knowledge would have had the chance to get a very close look at some astonishing images and artefacts.

The Book of the Dead was a book of spells which every wealthy Egyptian would have with them in their tomb, either written on an illustrated papyrus, carved in stone, or painted on their sarcophagus, probably all three. If it was on papyrus it would be personally written for the individual by scribes and often beautifully and intricately illustrated with scenes from the afterlife. The basic journey which the dead person was going to undertake was one of enormous challenges. Firstly they had to be ritually brought back to life by spells and rituals so that their mouth was open and they could move and speak. When this was finished they would start their ordeal, facing a series of knife carrying monsters (all of whom needed to be appeased by the spells in the book) until they reached the moment where they had to go through the weighing of the heart ceremony. Anubis would weigh their heart to see if it balanced against Maat, the feather of truth. If it did (and in the illustrated books of the dead there is always a jubilant dead person raising their arms to celebrate the fact that it did) they were allowed to pass on and enter the blessed fields, an idealised version of Egypt. If it didn’t the devourer was waiting to gobble down the heart and their journey would end. Dead would really mean dead. He was a rapacious creature with the head of a crocodile, the body of a leopard and the back legs of a hippopotamus- a composite of all that they most feared. Those who passed the test could look forward to an eternity in the blessed fields where they could rest and relax while the shabti figures which had been buried with them came to life and did the work.

This is the most cursory description of a tiny part of the most complex and detailed belief system that you could possibly imagine. It is astonishing. They thought of everything. For example there was a spell to keep the heart from telling tales on the dead person while it was being weighed. They believed that their whole being was located in the heart and that it could give away all their wrongdoings and let them down at the crucial moment unless it was prevented from speaking. There is something quite charming and accessible in the way that their beliefs sprang out of their very human hopes and fears. It’s easy to sympathise with them and understand their need for reassurance and hope.

We are very lucky to have some of their great manuscripts in this country and I was very excited to have seen them. Now I need to go back down the Nile………………….


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