If you are in the UK...
Subject: [agade] EXHIBITS: Journey Through the Afterlife, at the BM
Book of the Dead: Scroll down and learn how to die like an Ancient Egyptian
The Book of the Dead guided Ancient Egyptians through death and on to
the afterlife, as a forthcoming British Museum exhibition will show
When it comes to scary monsters, the ancient Egyptian Devourer is
always going to be hard to top. With the head of a crocodile, the body
of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippo, it is certainly more exotic
than the average Halloween outfit. And, though it sounds risible now,
for centuries in Egypt the grim fear of meeting this evil,
"cut'n'shut" beast on the other side of death helped to shore up an
entire system of belief, a system shared by pharaohs and artisans. In
fact, the devourer played a key part in one of the most intriguing
tenets of faith humankind has yet come up with: The Book of the Dead.
Next month, the most comprehensive exhibition to be staged on this
ancient doctrine of denying death will open inside the Reading Room at
the British Museum. It will showcase, for the first time, the entire
length of the Greenfield Papyrus, which, at 37 metres, lays out each
detailed stage of a journey the ancient Egyptians believed they would
all have to make when mortal life had slipped away.
On display, too, will be a succession of paintings taken from the
papyri of Hunefer and of Ani, probably the two most famous works to
depict the many episodes, or trials, that together constitute The Book
of the Dead. Both papyrus series are owned by the museum, which has
the widest collection of these rare manuscripts in the world.
The individual papyri are, of course, priceless; more surprising is
the familiarity of the images they contain. From the looped outline of
the ankh sign, to the falcon beak of Horus and the jackal head of
Anubis, the figures and signs depicted on an Egyptian papyrus are
instantly recognisable, even when their meaning is unclear.
Down the centuries, these shapes and hieroglyphs have informed the
traditions of illustration and graphic art and they are still being
invoked, even, for instance, in this autumn's annoying new television
advert for the Go Compare website. According to John Taylor, the
British Museum's expert in these ancient last rites, the best way to
think of The Book of the Dead is as a reassuring map to the afterlife.
"It is a kind of a combination of a spell, a talisman and a passport,
with some travel insurance thrown in too," he explains.
So the papyri, which were made for well-to-do customers between 1500BC
and 100BC (the Hunefer and Ani ones date from 1280-1270BC), each
function like an A-to-Z of the netherworld: full of symbols and
landmarks that orient and guide the dead soul through a projected
The papyri are kept together at the museum in a seemingly rather
low-tech way, amid the smell of dust and glue inside what looks like a
geography teacher's cupboard from the 1970s. Taylor, who has curated
the new exhibition, says he is still amazed by the intricacy of the
work. Untouched by the restorers, most of these paintings have the
astonishingly fresh appearance of a piece of magazine artwork
completed only yesterday. But they are, in fact, extremely fragile and
the temperature and humidity in the storage room is held at a constant
The majority of the papyri in the museum's collection came to Britain
in the 19th century and were part of the booty of returning diplomats
and aristocrats. Those sheets that were put on public show in the
sunlight bear the scars. "Sadly, the pigments were not as stable as we
thought," says Taylor. "The terracotta colour has faded to a pale
brown and the yellows have whitened. So we now have to be very, very
careful about what we show."
In an early attempt at conservation, some damaged papyri were pieced
together like jigsaws. Neither the meaning of the words nor the images
was fully understood at the time, so pigments and brushstrokes were
painstakingly matched by eye. These fragmentary papyri and a greater
number that were in good condition were then mounted on brown paper
and framed under glass. Now, in preparation for the exhibition, the
backing paper has been peeled away slowly, with the help of tweezers
and a little water.
And it is the papyri that will be at the core of the new show.
Although a couple of stylish mummies and some golden coffins and mummy
masks are going on display as well, alongside the sparkling bling of
the amulets and charms, it is the papyri that give everything its
context. Before they were comprehensively deciphered, over the decades
following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, it was supposed
that they told individual life stories. Now it is clear they were an
essential piece of funerary kit and were produced by specialist
scribes who toiled in workshops attached to temples. Sometimes, the
scribes worked at speed, perhaps leaving the images sketched out in
crude black ink, like a modern film storyboard. But if the client was
rich and there was time, the papyri were ornate and colourful.
Taylor, who taught himself the rudiments of hieroglyphics at school,
is by now so steeped in the ancient art he can spot the styles of
specific scribes. "But I'll never know their names, of course," he
Sometimes, there is an odd gap in the text. These blanks spaces were
left deliberately for the name of the customer. In one place, a name
has clearly been added in a thicker stroke: a form filled out in a
Ani's elaborate papyrus, thought to be among the best surviving
examples in the world, was 23.5 metres long. But even here a mistake
is visible at the join between two sheets of papyri because the job
was being done by a variety of hands across a workshop floor.
The script of a papyrus is read from one side across to the other,
depending on which way round the depicted animal heads are facing. The
spells and incantations appear alongside the images they evoke and
they commonly deal with the sort of problems faced in life, such as
the warding off of an illness. They are usually rather
straightforward: prose rather than poetry. "Get back, you snake!"
reads one for protection against poisonous serpents.
For the ancient Egyptians, the act of simply writing something down
formally, or painting it, was a way of making it true. As a result,
there are no images or passages in The Book of the Dead that describe
anything unpleasant happening. Setting it down would have made it part
of the plan. There was, however, always a heavy emphasis on dropping
the names of relevant gods at key points along the journey.
The British Museum exhibition will twist and wind like the route taken
by dead souls and visitors will have to negotiate gateways at each
stage. In one section, the ceilings will narrow to the height of the
tomb, but it will not be necessary, as it was for a dead Egyptian, to
offer the name of a god as a kind of magic password.
The best-known stage in this journey through the afterlife is the
weighing of the heart. Scales watched over by Anubis are used to
balance the heart of the dead soul against a feather, which represents
truth. If the heart passes the test, then the way forward is clear. If
not, the unseen threat is that the Devourer who hovers below will snap
up the organ in its crocodile jaws.
Other stages of the journey are just as fascinating, if less perilous.
A board game called Senet, which looks a little like a cross between
chess and backgammon, is an allegory of the journey to paradise.
Depicted elsewhere is the ritual of the opening of the mouth, which
involves a series of macabre tools that were often buried inside a
tomb with the dead body. At a pivotal moment, the dead soul also has
to satisfy the demands of 42 separate judges, saying each one of their
names out loud to please them. It makes The X Factor look easy.
And this is where the papyrus crib sheet came in. It carefully listed
each god in the correct order for the recently deceased client.
If all else failed, at the final hurdle there was a handy spell
designed to conceal all sins and mistakes from the gods by making them
invisible. And then, when a dead soul finally completed the journey,
there waiting for them at the end, so the papyri all promised, would
be an ancient Egyptian version of Heaven: full of reeds and water and
looking very much like the Nile Valley in the year of a good harvest,
replete with grain and food and drink.
The point of the whole experience for the moribund traveller was a
vital reunion with their dead ancestors. "The family unit was
crucial," explains Taylor. "You cared for your dead family because
they were still there, on the other side. They could communicate with
you and had power over you. So people wrote letters to the dead asking
things like, 'Why are you still punishing me?'"
Death, he adds, was a familiar part of daily life and ancient
Egyptians felt closely connected to it, if not quite comfortable with
it. Most people died before they were 40 and so mapping out a plan for
the afterlife was a way to handle this unpalatable probability.
Mummies disinterred down the ages are usually found to belong to those
who were between 25 or 30 years old when they died, and these would
have been the bodies of the elite, people who lived in comparative
wealth. A few ancient Egyptians survived until they reached 70 or 80
and they were then revered because the gods had so favoured them. "110
was seen as the ideal target age, but I can't imagine anyone ever made
it," said Taylor.
Intriguingly, evidence reveals that there were some sceptics who were
prepared to question the likelihood of a paradisal "field of reeds"
waiting for everyone on the other side of death. Taylor confirms that
documents have been found in which these sceptics, the Richard Dawkins
of their day, seem to query the point of The Book of the Dead. Most,
however, seem to have decided that buying a papyrus was a useful
insurance policy in case it all turned out to be true.
Being a scribe at a temple was regarded as a relatively good job
because they were well fed and respected. This sense of self-worth
among scribes is clear in the frequent appearance of Thoth, the god of
writers, within the papyri. He is shown holding his pen and palette,
just as the scribes themselves did. The scribes also liked to sneer at
manual workers, like potters, and they also looked down on the class
of foreign slaves that carried out much of the hard labour, breaking
rocks and constructing buildings.
Among all the varied ideas contained in The Book of the Dead
manuscripts there is no sense anywhere that the scribes were setting
down history for posterity. Neither is there, Taylor says, any
striving for objectivity in the way sentiments are expressed. Instead,
the papyri are a practical piece of political and spiritual spinning,
a means to an end delivered at an agreed price.
And yet because these papyri deal with fear and death and hope, they
cannot help but provide an immensely absorbing window into the minds
and emotions of an ancient society. Their images and hieroglyphs,
known to every schoolchild, have now become the emblem of all that is
mysterious to us about this remote culture. Yet the study of the
complex transformation the ancient Egyptians hoped they would undergo
in death is oddly humanising. In their imaginative scheme to defeat
mortality and to be reunited with lost members of their family, they
are somehow almost recognisable.
"The Opening of the Mouth"
1 Rituals for the day of burial such as the "Opening of the Mouth"
form a prominent part of the Book of the Dead. To perform it on a
mummy - Hunefer's, in this case - a priest would touch the face mask
with a series of implements, symbolically unstopping the mouths, eyes,
ears and nostrils so the corpse regains its faculties.
2 Two women mourning for the dead Hunefer. The standing one is named
as his wife, Nasha.
3 The mummy of Hunefer, adorned with a mask. It is held up by a
jackal-headed figure representing the god Anubis, protector and
embalmer of the dead. This may represent the god himself or a priest
wearing a mask to impersonate him.
4 An inscribed tablet, which would have been set up outside Hunefer's
tomb. At the top, a scene shows Hunefer worshipping Osiris.
5 A stylised depiction of Hunefer's tomb.
Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,
sponsored by BP, is at the British Museum, London WC1, 4 November
until 6 March. britishmuseum.org.
Extra members can get a rare insight into the exhibition at a
breakfast and talk with curator John H. Taylor at the museum on 13
November. For more information, go to guardian.co.uk/extra