tue 28/06/2022

Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum | reviews, news & interviews

Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum

Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum

Gods, monsters, mummies, magic spells and the sweet hereafter

Those ancient Egyptians, they loved life! So much so that they even conceived of an afterlife that differed hardly at all from the one on Earth, only better: they didn’t get sick and they carried on just as before, to eternity – which might sound like a bore to some, but given that the average life expectancy for an ancient Egyptian - even a very rich one - was 35, a certain reluctance to leave the earthly realm was understandable.

In the divine realm of The Field of Reeds, the lucky few would drive their oxen, plough the fertile fields and paddle their boats. If they didn’t fancy doing much of that – though presumably they didn't get tired, either – they would get their servants to take over. However, you might have guessed that this probably wasn’t how the average pharaoh spent their days, but in the spirit realm it seems they took on the role of a kind of divine Everyman. This was the kingdom of the gods, where the upper echelons of society could indeed also become gods, free to enjoy all the natural riches of a paradisal Egypt. But before they got there, they had to repel all kinds of danger, and this is where the Book of the Dead came in.

OsirisThe Book of the Dead (it wasn’t called that at the time, but was named by a 19th-century German scholar) isn’t a single text, but a compilation of spells – 150 of them discovered to date. These equipped the dead with the knowledge and the power to guide them safely to the hereafter. The illustrated papyrus scrolls that accompanied the dead on their hazardous journey were rolled up, bound tightly and secreted about the mummified body, or, in later centuries, popped into a container, just like the small painted wooden figure of the god Osiris (pictured right), the king of the Netherworld (this one belonged to Anhai, a woman from a powerful priestly family who died in about 1100 BC). Osiris’s counterpart was the sun-god Ra, and both were guarantors of immortality.

The British Museum’s scholarly but thoroughly accessible exhibition takes us on a labyrinthine journey through the different stages to divine immortality. On the way we encounter the ritual artefacts that made this complex journey possible: funerary statuettes (shabtis) that worked on behalf of their dead owners in the afterlife; hybrid deities with the heads of animals and the bodies of humans who acted as protectors; gilded mummy masks; magical amulets; and scrolls and scrolls of papyri containing spells. And you'll even find a popular board game for the living, called Senet (translating as “passing” or “passage”) which echoed the obstacles and challenges that faced the soul (ba) after death.

Manu_HeartThe final challenge was the weighing of the heart (pictured left: Papyrus of Ani, c 1275 BC). Placed on a set of scales, the heart was weighed against an ostrich feather. If the heart was heavy with sin, and the scales tipped, then the newly dead would soon find themselves in the jaws of the Devourer, a creature with the head of a crocodile, the upper body of a lion and the lower body of a hippo. To us, the Devourer looks no more terrifying than a pantomime horse, but to the ancient Egyptians this monstrous creature spelled the end of the road to immortality. Terrifying.

What this exhibition highlights is that these scrolls were often thoroughly individualised manuscripts, each furnished with the deceased owner's own choice of spells. If you were very rich, then you'd get your own personalised Book; if you were not so wealthy then your family could purchase an almost ready-made one (blank spaces would be filled by a scribe with the owner's details). Here we find one measuring over 37 metres in length. The Greenfield Papyrus (named after one Mary Greenfield, whose husband purchased it in the 19th century) was made for one of the most important women in Egypt, Nesitanebisheru, daughter of the High Priest of Amun PinedjemIi (c 990-969 BC), and so is highly personalised.

But, however fascinating you may find this exhibition - and no doubt you'll learn an awful lot - you'll still probably leave feeling that this is a culture that remains as remote and as strange to us as ever. Complex belief systems attached to the hereafter are not, after all, the rumbustious stuff of everyday life that brings such temporally remote cultures alive to us.

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters