For four thousand years it was the cornerstone of Egyptian religion. It started as a few prayers said in prehistoric times before a body was laid to rest in the desert next to the Nile. As the civilization in Egypt grew the prayers and spells became more elaborate, as did other rites for the dead. They were written inside pyramids and other tombs. Eventually the various rituals and spells were gathered together to create what we call the Book of the Dead. It’s made up of numerous chapters in no set order. Individual chapters or groups of chapters were written on tombs, sarcophagi, and rolls of papyrus. The book survived, with various changes and variations that Egyptologists are still puzzling out, until the Christian era.
One of the foremost institutions for collecting and studying the Book of the Dead is the British Museum in London. Now the museum is opening up its archives for an exhibition of its amazing collection of this esoteric masterpiece. Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead features items rarely if ever seen by the public, including the Greenfield Papyrus, the longest scroll of the Book of the Dead at 37 meters. Other items like sarcophagi and tomb figurines will give a complete view of the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead.
The papyri are elaborately illustrated with scenes of the gods and the toils a spirit must go through in the afterlife. In the above scene Anubis leads Hunefer, a dead scribe, to a scale, where his heart will be weighed against the feather of truth. A wicked heart will be heavier than the feather and the monster Ammut, crouching below the scale, will eat it. This image is from the Hunefer Papyrus and will also be on display at the exhibition.
For a taste of what you’ll see, check out the online scan of the complete Papyrus of Ani.
Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead runs from 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2011.
[Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons]