The Book of the Dead guided Ancient Egyptians through death and on to the afterlife, as a forthcoming British Museum exhibition will show
When it comes to scary monsters, the ancient Egyptian Devourer is always going to be hard to top. With the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippo, it is certainly more exotic than the average Halloween outfit. And, though it sounds risible now, for centuries in Egypt the grim fear of meeting this evil, “cut’n’shut” beast on the other side of death helped to shore up an entire system of belief, a system shared by pharaohs and artisans. In fact, the devourer played a key part in one of the most intriguing tenets of faith humankind has yet come up with: The Book of the Dead.
Next month, the most comprehensive exhibition to be staged on this ancient doctrine of denying death will open inside the Reading Room at the British Museum. It will showcase, for the first time, the entire length of the Greenfield Papyrus, which, at 37 metres, lays out each detailed stage of a journey the ancient Egyptians believed they would all have to make when mortal life had slipped away.
On display, too, will be a succession of paintings taken from the papyri of Hunefer and of Ani, probably the two most famous works to depict the many episodes, or trials, that together constitute The Book of the Dead. Both papyrus series are owned by the museum, which has the widest collection of these rare manuscripts in the world.
The individual papyri are, of course, priceless; more surprising is the familiarity of the images they contain. From the looped outline of the ankh sign, to the falcon beak of Horus and the jackal head of Anubis, the figures and signs depicted on an Egyptian papyrus are instantly recognisable, even when their meaning is unclear.
Down the centuries, these shapes and hieroglyphs have informed the traditions of illustration and graphic art and they are still being invoked, even, for instance, in this autumn’s annoying new television advert for the Go Compare website. According to John Taylor, the British Museum’s expert in these ancient last rites, the best way to think of The Book of the Dead is as a reassuring map to the afterlife. “It is a kind of a combination of a spell, a talisman and a passport, with some travel insurance thrown in too,” he explains.
So the papyri, which were made for well-to-do customers between 1500BC and 100BC (the Hunefer and Ani ones date from 1280-1270BC), each function like an A-to-Z of the netherworld: full of symbols and landmarks that orient and guide the dead soul through a projected ghostly landscape.
The papyri are kept together at the museum in a seemingly rather low-tech way, amid the smell of dust and glue inside what looks like a geography teacher’s cupboard from the 1970s. Taylor, who has curated the new exhibition, says he is still amazed by the intricacy of the work. Untouched by the restorers, most of these paintings have the astonishingly fresh appearance of a piece of magazine artwork completed only yesterday. But they are, in fact, extremely fragile and the temperature and humidity in the storage room is held at a constant level.
The majority of the papyri in the museum’s collection came to Britain in the 19th century and were part of the booty of returning diplomats and aristocrats. Those sheets that were put on public show in the sunlight bear the scars. “Sadly, the pigments were not as stable as we thought,” says Taylor. “The terracotta colour 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 an early attempt at conservation, some damaged papyri were pieced together like jigsaws. Neither the meaning of the words nor the images was fully understood at the time, so pigments and brushstrokes were painstakingly matched by eye. These fragmentary papyri and a greater number that archaeology best were in good condition were then mounted on brown paper and framed under glass. Now, in preparation for the exhibition, the backing paper has been peeled away slowly, with the help of tweezers and a little water.
And it is the papyri that will be at the core of the new show. Although a couple of stylish mummies and some golden coffins and mummy masks are going on display as well, alongside the sparkling bling of the amulets and charms, it is the papyri that give everything its context. Before they were comprehensively deciphered, over the decades following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, it was supposed that they told individual life stories. Now it is clear they were an essential piece of funerary kit and were produced by specialist scribes who toiled in workshops attached to temples. Sometimes, the scribes worked at speed, perhaps leaving the images sketched out in crude black ink, like a modern film storyboard. But if the client was rich and there was time, the papyri were ornate and colourful.
Taylor, who taught himself the rudiments of hieroglyphics at school, is by now so steeped in the ancient art he can spot the styles of specific scribes. “But I’ll never know their names, of course,” he says wistfully.
Sometimes, there is an odd gap in the text. These blanks spaces were left deliberately for the name of the customer. In one place, a name has clearly been added in a thicker stroke: a form filled out in a hurry.
Ani’s elaborate papyrus, thought to be among the best surviving examples in the world, was 23.5 metres long. But even here a mistake is visible at the join between two sheets of papyri because the job was being done by a variety of hands across a workshop floor.
The script of a papyrus is read from one side across to the other, depending on which way round the depicted animal heads are facing. The spells and incantations appear alongside the images they evoke and they commonly deal with the sort of problems faced in life, such as the warding off of an illness. They are usually rather straightforward: prose rather than poetry. “Get back, you snake!” reads one for protection against poisonous serpents.
For the ancient Egyptians, the act of simply writing something down formally, or painting it, was a way of making it true. As a result, there are no images or passages in The Book of the Dead that describe anything unpleasant happening. Setting it down would have made it part of the plan. There was, however, always a heavy emphasis on dropping the names of relevant gods at key points along the journey.
The British Museum exhibition will twist and wind like the route taken by dead souls and visitors will have to negotiate gateways at each stage. In one section, the ceilings will narrow to the height of the tomb, but it will not be necessary, as it was for a dead Egyptian, to offer the name of a god as a kind of magic password.
The best-known stage in this journey through the afterlife is the weighing of the heart. Scales watched over by Anubis are used to balance the heart of the dead soul against a feather, which represents truth. If the heart passes the test, then the way forward is clear. If not, the unseen threat is that the Devourer who hovers below will snap up the organ in its crocodile jaws.
Other stages of the journey are just as fascinating, if less perilous. A board game called Senet, which looks a little like a cross between chess and backgammon, is an allegory of the journey to paradise. Depicted elsewhere is the ritual of the opening of the mouth, which involves a series of macabre tools that were often buried inside a tomb with the dead body. At a pivotal moment, the dead soul also has to satisfy the demands of 42 separate judges, saying each one of their names out loud to please them. It makes The X Factor look easy.
And this is where the papyrus crib sheet came in. It carefully listed each god in the correct order for the recently deceased client.
If all else failed, at the final hurdle there was a handy spell designed to conceal all sins and mistakes from the gods by making them invisible. And then, when a dead soul finally completed the journey, there waiting for them at the end, so the papyri all promised, would be an ancient Egyptian version of Heaven: full of reeds and water and looking very much like the Nile Valley in the year of a good harvest, replete with grain and food and drink.
The point of the whole experience for the moribund traveller was a vital reunion with their dead ancestors. “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?'”
Death, he adds, was a familiar part of daily life and ancient Egyptians felt closely connected to it, if not quite comfortable with it. Most people died before they were 40 and so mapping out a plan for the afterlife was a way to handle this unpalatable probability.
Mummies disinterred down the ages are usually found to belong to those who were between 25 or 30 years old when they died, and these would have been the bodies of the elite, people who lived in comparative wealth. A few ancient Egyptians survived until they reached 70 or 80 and they were then revered because the gods had so favoured them. “110 was seen as the ideal target age, but I can’t imagine anyone ever made it,” said Taylor.
Intriguingly, evidence reveals that there were some sceptics who were prepared to question the likelihood of a paradisal “field of reeds” waiting for everyone on the other side of death. Taylor confirms that documents have been found in which these sceptics, the Richard Dawkins of their day, seem to query the point of The Book of the Dead. Most, however, seem to have decided that buying a papyrus was a useful insurance policy in case it all turned out to be true.
Being a scribe at a temple was regarded as a relatively good job because they were well fed and respected. This sense of self-worth among scribes is clear in the frequent appearance of Thoth, the god of writers, within the papyri. He is shown holding his pen and palette, just as the scribes themselves did. The scribes also liked to sneer at manual workers, like potters, and they also looked down on the class of foreign slaves that carried out much of the hard labour, breaking rocks and constructing buildings.
Among all the varied ideas contained in The Book of the Dead manuscripts there is no sense anywhere that the scribes were setting down history for posterity. Neither is there, Taylor says, any striving for objectivity in the way sentiments are expressed. Instead, the papyri are a practical piece of political and spiritual spinning, a means to an end delivered at an agreed price.
And yet because these papyri deal with fear and death and hope, they cannot help but provide an immensely absorbing window into the minds and emotions of an ancient society. Their images and hieroglyphs, known to every schoolchild, have now become the emblem of all that is mysterious to us about this remote culture. Yet the study of the complex transformation the ancient Egyptians hoped they would undergo in death is oddly humanising. In their imaginative scheme to defeat mortality and to be reunited with lost members of their family, they are somehow almost recognisable.