10 December 2010

Journey with a book of the dead

From 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2010 the British Museum, London, shows a special exhibition on the Egyptian book of the dead. The complete title of the exhibition is "Journey through the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead." I was happy to visit this extraordinary exhibition together with my English class.

The title grasps exactly the character of the whole custom and ritual around death in the ancient Egypt: a journey through the afterlife. It was not mere a book, which at that time the living laid together with the dead in the coffin. It was more an "instruction" on what the dead had to do in order to be able to pass all the obstacles on the way to the final judgment.

It is interesting to see that the idea is not totally unknown in the Christian religion an other religions. The Roman Catholic theology used to say that after this life there is a purgatory, i.e. the place where those who have died pass a purification from their sins in order to be able to enter into eternal life. The Egyptian book of the dead could be then, in Christian context, the instructions on how to pass the purgatory.

But there is a big difference between the two. "The book of the dead" of the Egyptian was written by the living to be read by the dead. The instructions are meant to be performed by the dead himself/herself. Therefore by the mummification the heart should be preserved, because it seems that for the ancient Egyptians the heart was considered to be the central instance of human being, and not the brain as we perceive it today. While in the Christian theology the instructions are meant for the living. The dead can do nothing anymore after death. But the living can still "do" something in the hope that God has mercy on the dead.

By the end of the exhibition we saw a very long "book of the dead" of a priestess, which contains more than 200 spells and is 37m long. I just thought, poor rich Egyptian! The richer they were, the more spells they got, the more detailed instructions they had to observe, the longer the book they had to "read". In that sense the simple poor people were in a better state. Because they could not afford to get an "expensive" book of the dead, they just got "simple" and "common" book of the dead with fewer instructions and spells. But if with it they could pass all the way to the final judgment, was it not an advantage? This reminded me to a passage from the Bible, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:23).

The guide was made interactive although I had the impression that it was meant more for school children than for adults. Unfortunately at the same time there was also guide for school children. The children shouted, screamed and run every where. Sometimes they even disturbed our guided tour.

The whole ambient gives a mystical touch, thanks to excellent selection of colours, lighting, and design. Of course all "these effects" were lost because of the school children screaming and shouting. Going through the exhibition in silence could bring a very deep impression.


It is interesting to find out that there is a similarity between the ancient Egypt an Nias regarding the concept of heart, as the central instance of human being. I've written an article on this on niasonline.net. Click here to read it.

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