Saturday, February 19, 2011

Navigating the land of the dead

We wonder what happens after death, we always have. For the ancient Egyptians it was the start of a new journey, leading either to eternity or destruction.

The afterlife for them was a complex domain of gods, beasts and traps for the unprepared. To navigate a way successfully to paradise they needed a guide, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, currently the focus of a stunning exhibition at the British Museum.

But it is not like an Admiralty chart, rather it's a bit like a Harry Potter spell book, words of power to control the afterlife. So for example should you be worried about beetles (and who isn't) then the appropriate spell is number 36:

Begone from me! O crooked-lips! I am Khnum, Lord of Shen, who despatches the words of the gods to Ra, and I report affairs to their master.

The exhibition describes many of the 192 charms, taking you on the path from death to (hopefully) the bliss like field of reeds (above) where you glide peacefully in your boat with gods and family members. 

The journey of the modern day visitor is in contrast an intensive learning curve, with examples at each stage from several papyrus's together with tools, masks and amulets. 

The papyrus's themselves are works of beauty, many over 3,000 years old, colours and marking preserved carefully, so carefully it is unlikely a similar collection will be on display any time soon. They tell the story of the spirit or ba, connected to the mummy, the preserved body, but able to come forth by day (hence its alternative tile of "The book of coming forth by day").

The spells allow this process, allow the body to transmute into birds or snakes, fight off crocodiles, control water, make servants to harvest the crops, open gateways, give safe passage, name guardians correctly, ward off evils and fend off disease.

After many trials the deceased would be judged, their heart placed on the scales, with all deeds good and ill weighted in the balance. The punishment for the bad was to be handed to the monster called the Devourer, part crocodile, lion and hippo.

Obviously many powerful Egyptians were worried that their heart might reveal a bit too much, in which case there was a special spell to ensure their heart keeps their secrets (Mr Mubaruk might be interested to know it it is number 30B).

For those that passed they could pass into the kingdom of Osiris and eternity. To speed them on their way their spirit or ba (oft represented like here as a human headed bird) could even hoist a sail:

It is a lot to take in, and it takes a good two hours to go from start to finish. It does feel like a crash course in Egyptian hieroglyphs and theology under the great reading room dome.

But it is worth it. For at the end are two complete Books of the Dead, and now understanding some of its symbology you can follow the passage of the dead from mummy, through challenges and dangers, on to being weighing in the balance on to an afterlife in the field of reeds.

An amazing collection, possibly a once in a lifetime, so do try to catch it if you can. But leave enough time to savour each papyrus, to learn all the symbols, understand their meaning and relationship to the Egyptian's gods.

For then you can imagine what life must have been like for those people walking by the Nile or sailing through its reed beds all of three thousand years ago.

No comments: