For the less affluent, the mass-production Book of the Dead of its day was available, with space to insert the particulars of the deceased towards its close.
Certain passages of the Book of the Dead were left open to interpretation, with some papyri containing red text, perhaps by priests or scribes, inserted to offer interpretation. Ultimately, the British Museum offers a formal, aesthetic, didactic assessment of the Book of the Dead, overlooking the problems Egyptologists face when attempting to translate and understand the papyri.
The nuances of Egyptian religion are also brushed over. Also, the book of Hunefer, famed for its generous illustrations and recently conserved so that its vibrancy and freshness is remarkable.
In pictures: the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum
Many of the best exhibits are associated with such high-ranking women, demonstrating the agency of women, alongside their men, in Dynastic Egypt. She is coloured so as to be made god-like, with gilded flesh and blue hair of lapis lazuli. In subsequent rooms, taking viewers on a labyrinthine journey simulating that of the dead through the netherworld, artefacts ranging from painted coffins and masks to amulets, jewellery, mummy trappings and tomb figurines, accompany the papyri. Wonderful as all of this visual and material culture is, the exhibition is dominated by the papyri.
Some of these are illuminated with wonderful images of animal-headed deities, monsters and the walking dead, but the black hieroglyphs are overwhelming, and one really needs to be into hieroglyphs and papyri to get the most out of this exhibition.
And the focus on the Book of the Dead inevitably reinforces the stereotype of a death-obsessed culture. The exhibition is both sensational subdued lighting, deep shadows, ethereal music, deathly black and tomb-like ochre-coloured displays and serious the focus, necessarily, is on the minutiae of the papyri themselves — a tension which should keep most visitors interested. The match may be all the more complementary with the next exhibition, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, Summer Image: Gilded mummy mask of a person of high rank.
A spell from the Book of the Dead is inscribed on the headband, 1st century BC. This unusual copy of the Book of the Dead can be viewed in the mummy chamber of the museum. The Papyrus of Ani mentioned earlier can still be viewed in the British Museum. Nevertheless, a general overview of some of the central tenets the Book of the Text might help with its elucidation. One belief that transcended all of the metamorphoses of Egyptian religion is that at some point following death the soul or some other article of an individual would return to life. It was for this very reason that Egyptians were so fastidious when it came to the preservation and burial of the dead.
All of these rituals were symbolic of the transcendent state the person was about to enter in, their transition from the physical state, referred to as khat , to component parts of this whole, which were variously described as making their own voyage through the underworld.
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In the introduction to The Papyrus of Ani , Wallis Budge details these parts, the first of being the heart or ka , for the sustenance of which an abundance of food was left in the tomb. Next is the soul or ba , which paradoxically is corporeal as it is an intrinsic part of the physical body of the man. Other aspects are the shadow or khaibit, the intelligence or khu , the form or physical mummification of the body called the sekhem , and finally the ren or name of the man.
According to some ancient texts the heaven that the dead strove to ascend to was in the sky and had to be reached by clambering up a ladder, while others claimed it was through a gap in the mountains of Abydos; yet the ultimate destination was a region of the Tuat or the underworld Budge Here the individual was deified and enjoyed an immortality of abundant food and drink, a veritable paradise for the wearied but successful pilgrim of the afterlife.
Written in the Book of the Dead is an account of some of the beneficent delights one can expect in this heavenly realm. May the water of Unas be of the wine which is of Ra, may he revolve in the sky like Ra, and may he pass over the sky like Thoth.
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The Book of the Dead contains a multitude of magical spells that its owner could use to aid them in their quest to the afterlife. This journey was fraught with all manners of danger posed by an assortment of grotesque creatures and other supernatural obstructions, and this book was considered as an essential item for triumphing over these and thus achieving success. Similarly, knowing the name of some unknown entity was believed to empower the knower, giving them dominion over the named; for this reason the Egyptian Book of the Dead contained many names of the evils one was likely to encounter after death.
As mentioned, only the later versions of the texts contained a coherent structure, split into chapters. For example in the Saite version the structure can be divided into four parts: the first 16 chapters deal with entering of the tomb, the descent into the underworld, and the body reacquiring the ability to move and speak. The second section, chapters 17 to 63, delineates the myths concerning the gods and places the dead pass through. The individual is then bequeathed life again so they might be born again with the morning sun.
The next section, chapters 64 to , describes the journey across the sky in the sun ark, and then in the twilight hours, the deceased descends into the underworld to be judged by the god Osiris.
Papyrus of Ani; Egyptian Book of the Dead [Budge]
So long as the individual passes this judgement, they move on to section four — chapters to — where they assume their position as a god amongst gods. There are obvious comparisons between the contents of the Book of the Dead and religious texts such as the Bible; for example, belief in a life after death.
The resemblance between many of these sins and the Ten Commandments is striking. Comparisons can be made for almost every single one of the 42 sins.
The heart of the deceased is then weighed against the god Maat , represented by the feather of an ostrich, and should there be an imbalance the heart of the dead will be devoured by Ammit , part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus, and they will not find a place with Osiris in the afterlife.
In fact, the entire journey the deceased make with its risk of failure and eternal damnation, or second death — the failure to reach the afterlife — can be likened to judgement in purgatory in the Christian faith. Many more likenesses can be made between the Book of the Dead and later religious texts; one of the reasons it is considered so important.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead holds significance as the first known major religious text concerning beliefs about the afterlife. Whilst the doctrine and beliefs have long since been supplanted, one can inform and frame contemporary understandings of death and the afterlife by enveloping oneself, mummy-like, in the entrancing papyrus pages of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.