Inside the Book of the Dead at the British Museum

By Ben Miller | 12 November 2010
An image of an ancient Egyptian inscription
The Papyrus of Ani illuminates the 13th century BC King’s judgement before the Gods
Exhibition: Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum, London, until March 6 2011

As you chance your luck through the darkened tunnel and up the dimly-lit steps, you sense there could be a surprise or two in store at the British Museum’s major winter show.

The ancient Egyptians’ deep belief in afterlife rituals – tombs full of clay pots and prayer books, tightly-wrapped mummies and all – has always been a cornerstone to a spirit world in classrooms, and is one which has been frequently visited by the Museum itself across the decades.

These corridors, though, take a deeper look, concluding three years of energetic investigation and planning by its curator, John Taylor, into the Books of the Dead, a series of Lonely Planet-style guidebooks full of spells aimed at helping their bearers into the next world.

“In this exhibition we’ve aimed to show people what a complete Book of the Dead looked like,” he explains, exuding a strong hint of glee as we gaze at the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, a famous Papyrus text which has been almost completely reassembled by the Museum.

Peering into the glass panel from the shadows, we spot a mummy being placed outside his tomb before priests carry out rituals to bring him back to life, followed by a storyboard portraying episodes from his encounters in the next world.

“He’s facing different directions,” observes Taylor. “The idea here is that his spirit has got the freedom to move out of the tomb at any time he likes.”

A brightly-framed board game, known as a senet by the Egyptians, is a snakes and ladders allegory of the journey to the afterlife. “He’s playing this game to show that he’s going to make his journey in safety.

“Then you see him in spirit form as a bird with a human head. After that he’s shown worshipping two lions with the sun rising up – the lions represent today and tomorrow, and the whole image is meant to be one of eternity.”

An image of an ancient Egyptian inscription
Depiction of the Opening of the Mouth ritual. Papyrus of Hunefer (circa 1280 BC)© Trustees of the British Museum
Suitably enlightened, we move on to a book where a mummy is being dragged to a tomb by oxen via a sledge and miniature boat, his widow lamenting his demise as a priest prods at his face.

“What he’s doing there is reanimating the mummy, giving it back the power to support life,” says Taylor. The theme, again, is perpetual – a bird with a human head swoops down to a shaft where the mummy lies, symbolising its spirit rejoining it.

“This is the life cycle that the Egyptians hoped would go on forever. The spirit joins the body and leaves it again every day, and the dead person rises up to get the lifegiving rays of the sun.”

The content of the spells themselves are captivating enough in their own right. “One of the things the dead wanted to be able to do when they got into the next world was to turn themselves into different states, and some Book of the Dead spells give you the words that will transform you into a snake or a crocodile or one of the Gods,” nods Taylor, assuring us that these hieroglyphic texts “make your journey through this unknown realm easier.”

The red writing, it turns out, is the text of each spell, with accompanying black scribbles specifying the utterances required to complete the transformation.

Whether they turned into serpents or predators, no-one was safe from judgement. The Papyrus of Ani illuminates the 13th century BC King’s judgement before the Gods, literally debating whether he would be leaving his mortal coil with a heavy heart.

“Before he could go into the next world they had to decide whether he deserved it, whether he’d lived a good life on earth,” adds Taylor, looking at the figure and his wife, both clad in white robes as they bow before a jackal-headed God called Anubis.

“On one side is the heart of the dead person – the Egyptians imagined that the heart was really where the mind was located. It’s being weighed against a feather, standing for light, justice and truth.

“If they balance correctly then he’s lived a good life and the Gods let him go forward into the next world. If the heart is heavier than the feather it means he’s lived a bad life, he’s got some sins.”

Anyone who failed this test would end up having their heart swallowed by a monster, so it’s little surprise that Taylor describes it as “a really crucial test” which potential victims were “really concerned about.”

“Nearly all the Books of the Dead show this scene,” he concludes, summarising their critical value. “They give the dead person the words he needs to speak to get safely through.”

The enthusiasm of visitors, says Taylor, has been a key reward for his meticulous foray into magic and mysticism. His own infectious wonder for it epitomises the spirit of the show.

Watch John Taylor introduce the Tomb of Katabet and the longest Book of the Dead in the world:

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