‘Coming Forth by Day’: an exhibition of the Book of the Dead

Make a way for me, my soul, my spirit and my shadow,
for I am equipped, I am a transfigured spirit

Spell No 91

A rich Ancient Egyptian drawing his last mortal breath didn’t just lie down and accept eternal rest, he packed his tomb and got ready for his biggest adventure.  His goal was the Duat, or Field of Reeds – the Nile valley with better weather – and to get there he’d need to journey through the netherworld of Osiris before he could get his heart weighed and emerge blinking into the sunshine.  it was complicated and perilous, so to keep himself safe after death he’d buy a set of spells beforehand, chosen from the vast body of magic words and pictures that we now know as the Book of the Dead.

Field of Reeds, from the tomb of Sen-Nezem near Luxor

Field of Reeds, from the tomb of Sen-Nezem near Luxor

The British Museum’s new exhibition guides you right through this exhausting process, from mummification and burial through the netherworld and into the fields beyond.  Every ancient Egyptian navigated this realm in his or her own way, and so every Book of the Dead is unique.  With off-the-peg versions, a scribe would  leave space for the buyers name, the very rich would commission their own especially made books, meaning they could make their own choice of spells and add family members to the cast of characters.  The British Museum has one of the worlds best collections of Books of the Dead, and for this exhibition it has borrowed a few more.  Just as the Books are animated by the character of their owners, so they also carry influence of the scribes who wrote them.  Funerary texts were originally carved on the walls of royal pyramids, then written on surfaces of coffins.  By 1600BC these texts had evolved into the Book of the Dead, which could be inscribed on coffins, shrouds, bandages or mummy lids.  Style varied according to personal taste: Ani’s Book (1275BC) is as boisterous as a kids cartoon,  Anhai’s (1100BC) one of the first found made for a woman, is more elegant.  In some instances you can see where different scribes have been employed during different parts of creation.  The best example of this is the Greenfield Papyrus made for a priestess called Nestanebtasheru, daughter of High Priest Pinudjem I,  in 930BC.  At 37 metres long, it was illustrated by two different draftsmen, one of whom is noticeably more graceful in style.

Book of Nesitanebtashru

Book of Nesitanebtashru

These papyri were crafted and owned by individuals and so are shaped by a very human self-interest.  The ancient Egyptians imagined the Duat as a complex material world similar to that of the living, and so, in a  very practical manner, they prepared for it as they would for any journey, compiling spells as we would pack a bag.  In chief amongst their concerns was self-preservation.  Dying did bring some changes, mostly of the mechanical variety and so the first stages of the papyri show a ‘opening of the mouth‘ ritual, which allowed the deceased to breathe again.  Once the funerary rites were complete, the soul or Ba, often represented by a human headed bird, was free to leave the body and roam the human world so long as it returned to its bandages when night fell.  This vision of the afterlife was reflected in the Egyptian name for the Book of the Dead, the ‘Coming Forth by Day’.  Dying was not a termination, but a different state in which the self remained in tact.  Talismans and spells which protected the living could also protect the dead.  Spell 163 against injury and death could be used to keep the dead body safe  and gain admittance to the afterlife.

The underworld was as real and dangerous as the world above ground, and every potential peril had to be foreseen and protected against, spells 153A and B guard against the possibility of becoming entangled in the gods’ nets.   By the same reasoning, the afterlife was as mundane as the earthly existence, so the living had to prepare very practical spells for breathing air, eating food or drinking water after death.  Just as death mimicked life, so semi-divinity was just a splash of gold and some chosen words away.  Mummification and a lapis-lazuli mask imbued the dead with god-like qualities, with  which they traveled round the underworld.  The deceased moves through the underworld battling a series of snake and knife wielding gods, collects magical talismans to aid them, (such as a magic brick with a reed stuck through to breathe through should the tomb fill with sand), before having his or her heart weighed on the scales of Ma’at.  Should there be failure in that his heart weighs heavier than the feather of truth, the Devourer, a mix of the most feared animals of the Nile Delta, a crocodiles head with the body of a lion and hippo, would eat up the heart and the deceased would cease to exist.

The Devourer waits for judgement on the Scribe Hunefer

The Devourer waits for judgment on the Scribe Hunefer

if the netherworld is likened to a computer game in which missions are undertaken and there is success in challenges, then the Book of the Dead can be seen as a series of cheat codes.  It wasn’t piety or good which got you through the trials, it was use of Heka, the magical use of a word or image.  You did get your heart weighed before you could pass through to the Field of Reeds, but Osiris was not all-seeing.  All you required if your life was suspect was a heart-scarab amulet and spell 30B instructing your heart not to tell on you.  it was thanks to this underhand ruse that Nodjmet’s Book could show her as being judged good, even though she was involved in the political murder of two policemen and so by rights should have been snapped up by the Devourer.

heart scarab

heart scarab

Not only did the dead cheat out of need for safe passage, but they also cheated to get out of doing any work.  The papyri show them playing Senet (S’n’t) and they even packed their boards in their tombs, partly perhaps because the game itself was a metaphor for the journey of death, but it also seems likely that they were hoping to get a good deal of playing time in when they arrived.  They also carried figures made from wood, clay or faience, which are known as Shabti, or Ushabti, representation figurines of slaves, which they could activate to do work for them.  During the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, slaves were interred with them, but this practice was soon replaced with the placing of small representational figurines.

Tutenkhamuns Ivory Senet Board

Tutenkhamuns Ivory Senet Board

Ushabti figurines

Ushabti figurines

The very process of preparing the dead for the journey demonstrates a flair for the macabre, and the spells attest to other considerations such as warding of snakes, protection against decapitation and slaughter, and also to keep you from a diet of excrement and urine.  Such graphic images attest to the horrors of death for a people whose average age at death was 35 and whose final journey had to be navigated alone without the intercession of priests.  In effect the Book shows a very human concern for survival in an appealing vision of death, opposed to the land of the living.

Find out more at the British Museum Exhibition, details below, or at one of the many sites dedicated to the Book of the Dead, such as this one.

The Exhibition “Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” runs until 6th March 2011 at the British Museum, London.  Tickets are £12 and can be booked online at their website.

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