Review: Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead @ British Museum

BM_Book_Dead.jpg
King Herihor and Queen Nodjmet adore Osiris. Papyrus of Nodjmet, c.1050 BC. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

The BM lives up to its reputation as ‘that place with the mummies’ with its new exhibition looking at Ancient Egyptian death rituals and their beliefs about the afterlife, centred around Books of the Dead that were placed in tombs. They’re not something that receives much attention in the bunfight to stare at embalmed bodies, but the Books were considered vital to the spirit in their journey through the Underworld: less a set text and more a personalised collection of spells to arm the spirit with knowledge and power against the evils they might encounter.

This is a rare chance to see so many of these fragile documents together, but once the awe of ‘it’s 3,000 years old but looks like it was done yesterday’ passes, some of the exhibition wears a little thin. Unlike last year’s Moctezuma exhibit, there is no narrative arc to carry you through and we can’t help feeling there was an opportunity missed; the Underworld of the Egyptians was a perilous place where all kinds of dangers could befall the spirit, but the static displays make it feel like an amble round a library. An interesting and pleasant amble, but still.

That said, there are a few mummies and exquisitely decorated coffins to pore over, and make sure you spot the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Punch – a ‘satirical cartoon’ of animals playing a boardgame and cats herding goats. We were also highly diverted by the room dedicated to repelling danger in the Underworld, especially the spell which would help the spirit to avoid having to eat its own poo. This made us wonder how many other fascinating insights are contained within the texts, but for all the writing on show there aren’t many translations. It’s also worth a reminder that the British Museum’s major exhibitions are the only way to see the beautiful Reading Room these days.

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum runs until 6th March 2011, tickets £12 / members children under 16 and accompanied by a paying adult are free. For more information visit the British Museum website.

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  • http://www.justinroxburgh.com Justin

    Move over Harry Potter, there are some new spells in town, and these ones are the real deal.

    Well that depends on your religion of course, but for the ancient Egyptians they were the key to reaching the afterlife. The spells would empower, guide and give knowledge on this long and dangerous journey.

    Everything that was needed to protect the body on this journey was diligintly and expertly transferred onto papyrus, which would be buried in the tomb. The papayri on display were beautifully illlustrated by hard-working scribes, and are in remarkably good condition considering they are over 3,500 years old .

    We all know that the rich Egyptians would be mummied before they were placed in a tomb. This was done to emulate the god Osiris, who was killed by his wicked brother Seth. Their sister, Isis, wrapped Osiris’ cut body in linen, where it was rejuvenated and he was reborn in the Field of Reeds – the afterlife. The ancient Egytian belief structure revolved around the desire to get to dwelling place of Osiris.

    To ensure this happened, the rich and powerful members of Egyptian society would have their tombs loaded with objects – amulets, figurines, images of gods and magic bricks. Each would have it’s own particular purpose. Once the relevant spell in the Book of the Dead had been read aloud by the dead person, the objective would be activated.

    The original name for The Book of the Dead was ‘the spells for coming forth by day’. A key part of their belief system was the idea of the soul roaming around during the day & rentering the body at night in the tomb. This is known as the concept of ‘Ba’. On the day of burial, outside the tomb & under the life-giving rays of the sun, ‘the opening of the mouth’ ceremony was performed, (2nd picture above). A priest would touch the mouth, nose, ears and eyes of the death mask with a rod. This would allow the dead to regain control of their senses and reanimate their bodies. Their journey had begun. The most common way of depicting the soul transending the earth, heavens and netherworld was in the form of a human-headed bird, which had to return to the tomb by nightfall and reunite with the body. Sometimes a ram would be used in place of a human-headed bird. I was puzzling over the significance of a ram. Then I thought, what sound does a ram make? ‘Baaaaa’! Any thoughts on my theory, please comment below!

    The different amulets on display would provide for a wide variety of protection. There is the Isis knot that was placed on the throat & gave the protection of Isis, while a pillar idendified the dead with Osiris. Some were ingenious – The heart scarabs on display are images of scarab beatles that were placed over the heart. The heart contained the record of a persons life. It ensures that on the Day of Judgement, during the weighing of the heart ceremony, (shown in the first picture), the heart doesn’t speak the truth on what you’ve been getting up to in your life!

    The mummys were a lazy lot. Another figurines known as shabti were also placed in the tomb. Since the Field of Reeds was an idealised version of their own agricultural society, there were the fields to attend to, and they were certainly not going to do that themselves. Enter the shabtis. These were miniature figures holding the tools they were going to use. After the spell had been read out, hey presto they awaken and do all your work for you. Brillant!

    I’m getting ahead of myself here. They had to reach the afterlife, & this was no mean feat. Hostile creatures abounded in the form of snakes and crocodiles, (the two biggest threats in the real world as well) and they had to be dealt with. Spells would give you the ability to kill them – just as well really, since these creatures represented a double threat. They could not only kill you, (again!) but take away your magic powers, rendering your journey effectively over. There were also fearsome Gods that would be guarding gates. There were spells to make sure one remembered their names. Handy, since you’d be killed, if you forgot them. Spells would transform the dead person into different animals when needing to. A serpent with legs & you could travel through earth. Need to be swift and powerful? Then turn into a crocodile. Want to be lively? Become a ram.

    Youu know what? Being dead in ancient Egypt actually sounds like quite good fun!

    In these cynical, rational times we live in, The Book of the Dead exhibition is a fascinating insight into a completely different type of society with a different structure of beliefs. Yet maybe it is not all as alien as it seems. Amulets and charms are still used in the world today to protect against evil, so maybe we haven’t changed as much as we think.

    My final thought – I’m definitely seeing potential in a ‘Book of the Dead’ computer game!

  • http://www.justinroxburgh.com Justin

    Move over Harry Potter, there are some new spells in town, and these ones are the real deal.

    Well that depends on your religion of course, but for the ancient Egyptians they were the key to reaching the afterlife. The spells would empower, guide and give knowledge on this long and dangerous journey.

    Everything that was needed to protect the body on this journey was diligently and expertly transferred onto papyrus, which would be buried in the tomb. The papyri on display were beautifully illustrated by hard-working scribes, and are in remarkably good condition considering they are over 3,500 years old .

    We all know that the rich Egyptians would mummified before they were placed in a tomb. This was done to emulate the god Osiris, who was killed by his wicked brother Seth. Their sister, Isis, wrapped Osiris’ cut body in linen, where it was rejuvenated and he was reborn in the Field of Reeds – the afterlife. The ancient Egyptian belief structure revolved around the desire to get to dwelling place of Osiris.

    To ensure this happened, the rich and powerful members of Egyptian society would have their tombs loaded with objects – amulets, figurines, images of gods and magic bricks. Each would have it’s own particular purpose. Once the relevant spell in the Book of the Dead had been read aloud by the dead person, the objective would be activated.

    The original name for The Book of the Dead was ‘the spells for coming forth by day’. A key part of their belief system was the idea of the soul or spirit roaming around during the day & rentering the body at night in the tomb. This was known as ‘Ba’. On the day of burial, outside the tomb & under the life-giving rays of the sun, ‘the opening of the mouth’ ceremony was performed, (2nd picture above). A priest would touch the mouth, nose, ears and eyes of the death mask with a rod. This would allow the dead to regain control of their senses and reanimate their bodies. Their journey had begun.

    The most common way of depicting the soul transcending the earth, heavens and netherworld was in the form of a human-headed bird, which had to return to the tomb by nightfall and reunite with the body. Sometimes a ram would be used in place of a human-headed bird. I was puzzling over the significance of a ram. Then I thought, what sound does a ram make? ‘Baaaaa’! Any thoughts on my theory, please comment below!

    The different amulets on display would provide for a wide variety of protection, and some were ingenious – The heart scarabs on display are images of scarab beetles that were placed over the heart. The heart contained the record of a persons life. It ensures that on the Day of Judgement, during the weighing of the heart ceremony, (shown in the first picture), the heart doesn’t speak the truth on what you’ve been getting up to in your life!

    Those rich Egyptians were a lazy lot. Figurines known as shabti were also placed in the tomb. Since the Field of Reeds was an idealised version of their own agricultural society, there were the fields to attend to, and they were certainly not going to do that themselves. Enter the shabtis. These were miniature figures holding the tools they were going to use. After the spell had been read out, hey presto they awaken and do all your work for you. Brilliant!

    I’m getting ahead of myself here. They had to reach the afterlife, & this was no mean feat. Hostile creatures abounded in the form of snakes and crocodiles, (the two biggest threats in the real world as well) and they had to be dealt with. Spells would give you the ability to kill them – just as well really, since these creatures represented a double threat. They could not only kill you, (again!) but take away your magic powers, rendering your journey effectively over. There were also fearsome Gods that would be guarding gates. There were spells to make sure one remembered their names. Handy, since you’d be killed, if you forgot them. Spells would transform the dead person into different animals when needing to. A serpent with legs & you could travel through earth. Need to be swift and powerful? Then turn into a crocodile. Want to be lively? Become a ram.

    You know what? Being dead in ancient Egypt actually sounds like quite good fun!

    In these cynical, rational times we live in, The Book of the Dead exhibition is a fascinating insight into a completely different type of society with a different structure of beliefs. Yet maybe it is not all as alien as it seems? Amulets and charms are still used in many places in the world today, to bring the owner good luck, and to protect against evil

    My final thought – I’m definitely seeing potential in a ‘Book of the Dead’ computer game!