Saturday, January 02, 2016

Book of the Dead

A few years ago, the British Museum had a large exhibition for the Egyptian Book of the Dead. According to John Taylor, the curator of the exhibition, it's a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey:
  • spells for controlling your own body after death;
  • spells for protecting yourself from attack;
  • spells for satisfying the gods and demons guarding the gateways you must pass through.

We bought a jigsaw puzzle at the time, which we finally got around to solving this Christmas. The jigsaw at least we solved. But what about the meaning of the picture?

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, c. 1275 B.C.E., 19th Dynasty, 45.7 x 83.4 cm, Thebes, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum

The picture shows a ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth. This is a ritual performed on a mummy (in this case, Hunefer) to enable the dead person to breathe, to speak, and to consume ritual offerings. The priests are waving the foreleg of a bull calf over the heads of Hunefer's grieving wife and daughter.
But the spell has already been cast, so why would Hunefer need to know the spell? To my mind, the purpose of this particular page doesn't seem like practical guidance at all, but more like bureaucratic compliance. It is a certificate (audit trail) to prove that the Opening of the Mouth ceremony has been correctly cast. One might imagine an official in the Egyptian afterlife scanning the document, rather in the same manner as a US immigration official checking your visa waiver and customs declaration form. 

So the Book of the Dead seems to conflate and confuse the functions of guidebook and logbook. John Taylor acknowledges that parts of the Book don't make sense to the modern mind, and speculates:

"Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have."

Box-ticking? From one of the most bureaucratic cultures in the Ancient World? Surely not!

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Exhibition at the British Museum, November 2010 - March 2011.

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, 1285 BC (Google Cultural Institute, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

Hunefer, Book of the Dead (Khan Academy, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

John Taylor, What is a Book of the Dead? (British Museum Blog, September 2010). A bit of afterlife admin? (British Museum Blog, December 2010).

Wikipedia: Ancient Egypt, Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

No comments: