On Going Forth Into the Book of the Dead Exhibition at the British Museum and Coming Out the Other Side Alive

The British Museum's Autumn blockbuster exhibition 2010 focuses on Africa, Ancient Egypt to be precise.  The round reading room has been split into 11 rooms filled with treasures and manuscripts never before seen together.  In the best traditions of explorers past, Untold London ventures into the unknown to tell of wonderful things...

Entering the exhibition made me feel a little bit like Lara Croft, so shadowy and dramatic is the lighting. Fortunately, having slunk up the stairs, creeping in between the pools of light, I was just about able to resist the urge to do a forwards roll into the first room with a flaming torch gripped between my teeth. Probably for the best.

Once inside, sound effects add to the tomb raider atmosphere, running water and the eerie susurrus of not quite voices, not quite white noise, murmur and fade as one enters and leaves areas of the exhibition. Elsewhere clever light shows play around doorways repeating the themes of transformation on the Egyptian soul’s journey through the afterlife.

Papyrus shows mummiform figure with five people infront and jackal headed god behind

Depiction of the 'Opening of the Mouth' ritual, which was performed on the mummy on the day of burial. The mummy of Hunefer is held up by Anubis, while his wife and daughter lament and priests ritually reanimate his body.
Book of the Dead papyrus of Hunefer, c. 1280 BC.

(c) The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition itself is a journey of discovery. Visitors trail the shades of dead Egyptians through their preparations for the afterlife – from the burial of their corporal bodies to the empowerment of their eternal souls on the path to the perfect hereafter.

For the Ancient Egyptians, in death as in life, knowledge = power. The spells in the Book of the Dead are knowledge that is assimilated in death through their inclusion in the burial goods of the mummy.

Things to know included esoteric delights such as the names of the Bull of heaven and his seven cows, the names of each part of the nets the gods drag through the fields and waterways of the afterlife to ensnare the unwary and the specific declarations of innocence that the postulant must make to the gods in the halls of judgement.  A thorough grounding in this kind of thing will safeguard against such dangers as having your soul eaten by some kind of hippocrocolion monster, getting jumped by actual crocodiles and being turned upside down and forced to eat your own excreta. Naturally I took notes.

Hippocrocolion monster aka The Devourer, a monster which was believed to eat the hearts of those who failed to satisfy the gods that they had lived a good life. It is a composite of crocodile, lion and hippopotamus. Book of the Dead papyrus of Ani, c. 1275 BC.

(c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Papyrus shows ibis headed god with animal with crocodile head, lion body and hippo hindquarters sitting behind it

The exhibition text takes pains to explain the proliferation of the male presence in the material evidence, but there are still four or five papyri belonging to women on display. Unsurprisingly these ladies are the wives and daughters of important men, but it still runs counter to what we are led to believe about the invisibility of women in the ancient record.

In some papyri, although the women are shown as the protagonists of the journey, it is still their husbands who intervene at important junctures to speak to the gods on their behalves or in one case, go and tell the crocodiles where to get off.

Papyrus show man and woman with raised arms 

Adoring the god Osiris in the afterlife: King Herihor shows Queen Nodjmet how it's done.  From the Book of the Dead papyrus of Nodjmet, c. 1050 BC.

(c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Elsewhere however it’s all about the ladies doing it for themselves. The longest Book of the Dead scroll ever found was made for a woman. She was Nesitanebisheru, daughter of the extremely powerful and influential high priest of Amun Pinedjem II, and her testament is so long, at 37 metres, that the scribes had to make up more spells to fill the space. Well perhaps not make up, but the exhibition text states that there are spells on this papyrus not seen in any other and the weighing of the heart scene (starring the aforementioned hippocrocolion monster) is unusually rendered twice, just for good measure.

The heart of the scribe Ani is weighed in the balance of judgement by Anubis, jackal-headed god of embalming. If the heart did not balance against the feather of Maat (truth and justice) it would be swallowed by the monstrous Devourer* and its owner's existence would end. Book of the Dead of Ani, c. 1275 BC.

(c) The Trustees of the British Museum

*hippocrocolion monster not shown, but there in spirit

Papyrus with ink and paint drawing of scales with heart and ancient egyptian on one side and feather and jackal headed god on other

The full 37 metres of Nesitanebisheru’s papyrus are on display in the final room and serve as a test of whether you’ve been paying attention throughout the rest of the exhibition. If you have been a dutiful Ancient Egyptian and assimilated the spells of the Book of the Dead as you journeyed through the previous ten rooms then you will be able to go forth by day safe in the knowledge that you have recognised at least every other panel and know which stage of the soul’s journey they concern.

Woe unto you if not, but at least you will be able to pass into the shop and pick up a catalogue of the exhibition to fill in the gaps.  Ancient Egyptians got eaten by the hippocrocolion.

The exhibition is on until March the 6th 2011, more information here.

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Contributed by: Babs.Guthrie

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