Passport to paradise
Placed next to a mummy, Books Of The Dead were intended to help the dead on their journey through the afterlife. The British Museum’s new exhibition relishes the horrors of ancient Egypt.
that they express were far older than that.
Pyramid-building, which reached its peak in about 2500BC, had served as a particular trend-setter – a nationalised project of resurrection-machine construction, designed to set those laid to rest inside them on the pathway to the gods: “A staircase to heaven is built for the pharaoh, that he may ascend to heaven thereby.”
This prospect, of attaining divinity in the afterlife, had been, under the megalomaniacal rule of Egypt’s first dynasties, a wholly royal prerogative. When, two centuries after the construction of the Great Pyramid, a pharaoh named Unas had the walls of his own burial chamber decorated with a profuse array of spells, it never crossed his mind that these same spells might end up being widely produced.
That, however, following the implosion of the Old Kingdom in about 2100BC, is precisely what happened. First on coffins, and ultimately on rolls of papyrus, resurrection spells began to appear in the tombs of relative nobodies. By the time of the New Kingdom, when Egyptian power attained its swaggering peak, their popularity was assured. Whether wedged under a mummy’s arm, placed under its head, or stuffed, as in Hunefer’s tomb, inside the statuette, these compendia of prayers and incantations had become a musthave feature of the Egyptian way of death.
That is not to say that paradise had remotely been democratised. The afterlife remained a privilege that came very expensive indeed.
The funerary scrolls themselves, as the examples on display at the British Museum serve to demonstrate, were often exquisitely decorated, and might be written virtually on the scale of a novel. The so-called Greenfield papyrus, for instance, which is the longest Book Of The Dead yet discovered, and which provides the exhibition with its climactic coup de theatre, clocks in at a whopping 37m.
Nor was a funerary scroll the only investment required to reach paradise. Spells would serve no purpose without effective mummification and a tomb. For the vast majority of the Egyptian population, who could hope at best for burial in the arid desert sands along-
Mysterious: A vignette from the Book Of The Dead. The funerary texts reflected fantasies about the character of ancient Egyptian civilisation.