Curious Trends

01/11/2010

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead


For some time now a curious trend has been emerging – a growing interest in curiosities of a distinctly morbid nature. At a time when most of us expect to live to a ripe old age – and some of us go to extraordinary lengths to prolong our lifespan beyond its natural limit – the subject of death has become something of a curiosity. As we try to come to terms with our own mortality, we’re visiting other parts of the world where mortality rates are significantly higher than ours – as in parts of Africa, where diseases like malaria and HIV are rife. We’re also revisiting our ancestors’ responses to the natural condition of death – from Victorian mourning rituals, to studies of morbid anatomy and the ancient Egyptians’ complex belief systems, rites of passage and preparation for the afterlife.


The British Museum’s forthcoming Autumn exhibition (from 4th November) – Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead - presents and explores ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death. The British Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Book of the Dead manuscripts on papyrus, and this is the first chance to see so many examples displayed together, as well as the Greenfield Papyrus, which at 37 metres is the longest in the world.

The photograph above shows a painted wooden statuette of the god Osiris, ruler of the netherworld and judge of the dead. The figure is hollow and it contained the rolled Book of the Dead papyrus of a high-ranking woman named Anhai. C. 1150 BC.

The Book of the Dead is not a single text, but a compilation of spells thought to equip the dead with knowledge and power to ward off dangers in the ‘netherworld’, and guide them through the afterlife on the road to eternity. The Book of the Dead papyri, dating from 1600 BC to 100 AD, will be on shown alongside famous paintings from the papyri of Ani and Hunerfer, plus a dazzling selection of painted coffins, gilded masks, amulets, jewellery, tomb figurines and mummy trappings.

This gilded mask is of an unidentified person of high rank and dates from the first century BC. The mask magically gave the dead person the power to see and protected him against enemies in the netherworld. A spell from the Book of the Dead is inscribed on the headband.

Many of the illustrations show the gods and demons whom the deceased would meet, as well as the critical ‘weighing of the heart’ ritual, the judgement of which would determine whether the soul was admitted to the afterlife, or condemned to destruction at the hands of the monstrous ‘Devourer’

On this papyrus, the heart of the scribe Ani is weighed in the balance of judgement by Anubis, jackal-headed god of embalming. If the heart did not balance against the feather of Maat (truth and justice) it would be swallowed by the monstrous Devourer and its owner’s existence would end. Book of the Dead of Ani, c.1275 BC.

The Devourer was a monster, which was believed to eat the hearts of those who failed to satisfy the gods that they had lived a good life. It is a composite of crocodile, lion and hippopotamus. One is shown here from the Book of the Dead papyrus of Ani, c.1275 BC.


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