Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Book of the Dead

"Truth is in my heart, and in my breast there is neither craft nor guile. -- The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Today we went to the British Museum to see the Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition. It was a truly worthwhile visit. 

According to John Taylor, the curator of the exhibition:
‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way. [Read more here.] [Want to read all the spells? Try here.]
I was fascinated by many of the things we saw (and listened to - the audio guide is highly recommended). Below are some of the things I found interesting:
  • The ancient Egyptians strongly believed in the power of the word, both spoken and written. Carved or painted images also had power. Their faith in words and images led them to believe that magical power could be activated when certain words were uttered or images created.
  • There are altogether about 200 spells in The Book of the Dead but usually a manuscript would contain only a selection of these spells. 
  • There is at least one thing that the Egyptians and the Chinese have in common: simplified characters. In many papyri made between about 1550 and 1100 BC, a special simplified script was used, now known as Book of the Dead cursive hieroglyphs.
  • Sometimes, texts were written on the surface of the coffin, used by the living to resurrect the dead. And inside the coffin were the spells needed by the coffin lodger. This makes sense. But what if the two sets of texts were accidentally reversed, I wonder?
The exterior and interior texts of this coffin were catered for different readership
  • Not everyone could read the traditional hieroglyphic script. Sometimes the Book of the Dead was written in hieratic, the script for daily life. The Book of Dead of Padiamenet, chief baker of the temple of Amun, for example, has only six spells and they were written in hieratic, probably the script he was more familiar with.
  • There were also pictorial funerary papyrus rolls available. The illustrations delivered the full power of the spells. Below are two examples demonstrating the results of correctly-cast spells:
spell 59. The Goddess Nut in a tree feeding Tameni and her ba spirit
spell 81A. Spell to transform into a lotus flower.
spell 87. Spell to transform into a serpent.
  • Surprise! Surprise! Between about 1500 and 1100BC most funerary papyri were made for men. Sometimes, wives were portrayed alongside their husbands but only the men were named. From about 1100 BC women also began to have their own papyri.
  • I think the woman below is smoking. Her name is Anhai and she was a Chantress of Amun and the Chief of the Musicians of two cults. Her high social status is reflected in the large size of her papyrus and the use of gold leaf to embellish some of the vignettes. 
Click image to enlarge
  • I like the image below. These are women portrayed on one papyrus; they are mourning the death of a family member. Must they all show their nipples? Are those red things nipples or parts of the garment? I am no costume historian. 
Click image to enlarge
  • Have you seen a mummy? Did you know how a mummified body is reanimated? Answer: "The Opening of the Mouth ritual reanimated the mummifed body. Originally a ritual to enable a new born child to breathe and feed, it was performed on mummies to restore their bodily faculties. By touching part of the face with special implements a priest made it possible for the dead to see with their eyes, breathe through their nose and speak with their mouth." Interestingly, the tools used in the ritual were also those used by midwives. 
  • Do not judge a person by his/her mask. Often, the mask did not reflect the real face of the deceased but how he/she would like to appear in afterlife. That's why these masks all seem to depict young countenances with smooth skin. Also, because the gods had gold flesh and blue hair, the masks were often covered with gold leaf and blue paint was used for hair.
  • After all the ordeal that the deceased went through, he/she faced the final judgement, during which his or her heart was weighed against a feather of truth. The heart would be fed to the Devourer (a female monster with a body that was part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile) if it was heavier than the feather; and if the heart was light, the dead person would be granted permission to fly with the Sun god to the Field of Reeds, which was an idealised version of Egypt.

    The interesting thing about the weighing of the heart is that during the process, the heart could speak and reveal unflattering secrets about the owner's life, which could affect his/her chances to advance to paradise. For this reason, there were spells to mute your heart. For example: "May nought stand up to oppose me at [my] judgment, may there be no opposition to me in the presence of the Chiefs (Tchatchau); may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him that keepeth the Balance!"

    Since one of the sins the Egyptians were judged for was lying, this seems like cheating. Still, it's better than having your heart eaten. 
Weighing of the heart
The exhibition is on until 6 March 2011.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to post this. Even if I can't see the exhibition myself, I can learn all these interesting history by reading this post.

  2. 100 WORDS
    --by Neil Gaiman

    A hundred words to talk of death?
    At once too much and not enough.
    My plans beyond that final breath
    are currently a little rough.

    The dying thing comes on so slow:
    reluctance to get out of bed
    is magnified each day and so
    transmuted into dead.

    I dream of dying all alone,
    nobody there to watch me pass
    nothing remains for me to own,
    no breath remains to fog the glass.

    And when I do put down my pen
    my memories will fly like birds.
    When I am done, when I am dead,
    and finished with my hundred words.

    (Thank you, you-know-who, for sharing this poem with me.)


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