Friday, October 29, 2010

Passport To Paradise: The Egyptian Book Of The Dead

By Nancy Mattoon

Scene From: The Book of the Dead of Hunefer.
Egypt, c. 1280 BC

(All Images Courtesy of The British Museum)

For Christians, it involves you and Saint Peter meeting at the Pearly Gates, watching a This Is Your Life-style recap of your good and bad deeds, and checking the final tally to see if you fly on up to dreamland in a private jet or take a one-way ride to perdition on the next Greyhound. For Egyptians, getting to heaven was a little trickier. The dead were reanimated in a kind of underworld purgatory, and faced a series of tests to determine their fate in the great beyond. When taking a pop quiz with such high stakes, a cheat sheet always comes in handy. So, enterprising scribes came up with Spells of Coming (or Going) Forth By Day, better known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Detail From: The Greenfield Papyrus.
Egypt, c.1025 BC

The Book of the Dead, or more accurately the papyrus scroll, was the ancient equivalent of that "Don't leave home without it," credit card. According to John H. Taylor, curator of the ancient Egyptian funerary collection at The British Museum, "It is a kind of a combination of a spell, a talisman and a passport, with some travel insurance thrown in too." The British Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Book of the Dead manuscripts on papyrus in the world, and is opening a major exhibit of the scrolls on November 4, 2010. The show, Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, will include the first ever public display of the Greenfield Papyrus in its entirety. This manuscript, acquired by the museum in 1910, is the longest known book of the dead in the world, measuring 37 meters in length or just over 40 yards.

Detail From: The Papyrus of Nedjmet.
Egypt, c.1070 BC

The papyri were made for well-to-do customers between 1500BC and 100BC. They were churned out by scribes, and were probably prefabricated as fill-in-the blank forms with the dearly departed's name written in at the point of purchase. A typical book cost half a year's wages, so the scroll was commissioned well in advance of the buyer's demise. Bargain basement scrolls were made with ink of any color, as long as it was black. Those with a bit more disposable income could spring for a scroll with red highlights, while the scrolls of ancient Egypt's high rollers were produced in glorious technicolor. Images decorating the text were de rigueur, and words took a backseat to art. The miniatures adorning the scrolls are flawless, while the accompanying text is filled with misspellings and omissions, and is sometimes even placed beneath the wrong image.

Detail From: The Greenfield Papyrus.
Egypt, c. 1025 BC

The majority of the papyri in the British Museum's collection were acquired in the 19th century and were part of the loot diplomats, aristocrats, and scholars brought back from sojourns in the Middle East. Back in the 1800's fragile papyri were pieced together on brown backing paper, framed under glass, and shown in public under direct sunlight. That proved to be a huge mistake. "Sadly, the pigments were not as stable as we thought," says curator Taylor. "The terracotta color 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 preparation for this new exhibition, the backing paper has been carefully peeled away using water and tweezers, and the scrolls will be shown in a controlled environment with special lighting. Because of their fragility, it is extremely rare for these manuscripts to be displayed, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view them.

Detail From: The Greenfield Papyrus.
Egypt, c. 1025 BC

Besides the Greenfield papyrus, which is done in black and red ink, also on display will be images from two of the full color scrolls in the museum's collection, the Papyri of Ani and Hunefer. These include iconic images of the trials the ancient Egyptians faced on their journey through the underworld. Many of these works will look familiar, as they are frequently reproduced in contemporary books.

The Weighing Of The Heart By Anubis.
From: The Papyrus Ani,
Egypt, c. 1275 BC

One of the most famous scenes is the weighing of the heart. Here the departed is led to scales watched over by Anubis, and his heart is weighed against a feather. A wicked heart will outweigh the feather, and be eaten by the monstrous devourer, Ammit. A pure heart balances the scales perfectly, and allows the deceased to continue his journey. The optimal outcome of the journey was to reunite with one's dead ancestors in paradise. "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?'" (Some things never change...)

The Weighing Of The Heart By Anubis.
From: The Greenfield Papyrus
Egypt, c.1025 BC

Taylor says research has shown that not all Egyptians believed in the power of The Book of the Dead. Some ancient skeptics saw this religious insurance policy as nothing more than a crass scam to make a fast buck. Some believed the scribes pandered to the superstitious by refusing to depict any bad fortune befalling the deceased. No unpleasant events are ever recorded in the scrolls, for fear merely writing them down might make them come to pass. And each scroll included a final spell potent enough to get any dead man past the Egyptian version of the TSA full body scan. This ultimate "get-out-of-jail-free card" concealed all of the traveller's sins from the gods by making him invisible. But skepticism lost out to prudence in the long run. For 4,000 years The Book of the Dead remained the cornerstone of the Egyptian religion. The vast majority of the ancients thought it was better to shell out six month's pay and be safe, rather than risking a hellish eternity being sorry.

Scene From: The Papyrus Of Nakht.
Egypt, c1350-1300 BC

The exhibition, Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, will continue through March 6, 2011 at the British Museum in London.

1 comment:

  1. Your opening statement evidences a complete and utter failure to understand Christian theology. Your description is closer to orthodox Judaism -- the primary difference being "good" is obeying the Commandments and other laws of God (Abraham killing Isaac in obedience to God would have been "good").

    The irony is Christian theology is much more inclusive and forgiving than non-Christians assume. There is no comparison of good deeds versus bad. In fact, there doesn't actually even have to be any good deeds. Rather Christian theology involves the acknowledgment that we are ALL sinners and, therefore, fall short of the Glory of God. Attempting to gain entrance to Heaven based on good deeds is useless -- it has only been done once in history.

    That was Jesus Christ. Being sinless, Jesus voluntarily gave his life (and God gave his only son) so that those who believe in Christ and accept his gift may be "justified" / "sanctified." In other words, accepting the GRACE offered by FAITH ALONE makes the Christian pure, makes the Christian Holy, and worthy of eternal life with God. This is based on the GRACE of God (through Christ), NOT MERIT.



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