Death in ancient Egypt was far from straightforward. A new and splendid exhibition at the British Museum -- “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” -- makes that clear.
Viewed from within the mummy case, the hereafter was strewn with pitfalls. The “Book of the Dead” was a post mortem self-help manual to get you safely through the tricky early stages to the Egyptian paradise, or “Field of Reeds.”
This is not the kind of show you can just relax and enjoy. There’s a steep learning curve, as there was for the occupants of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Renaissance Italian art isn’t really comprehensible without a smattering of Greco-Roman mythology and Biblical events. Similarly, to appreciate Egyptian imagery, you have to assimilate a pantheon of gods (many beast-headed), plus numerous arcane rituals and beliefs.
So this exhibition involves work. On the other hand, it’s beautifully designed: The installation is in a maze-like series of spaces within the old Reading Room that evoke the gloom and mystery of Pharaonic architecture, though I could have done without the sci-fi sound effects.
The exhibits largely come from the BM’s own collection, the largest in the world (seldom displayed for conservation reasons). In Egyptologist terms, the Books of the Dead themselves are actually a bit newfangled, only appearing in the 17th century B.C. That means they date from the New Kingdom (16th century B.C. to 11th century B.C.), or later -- at which point Egyptian civilization already had been established for more than a millennium.
If not actually mass produced, the books (papyrus scrolls) were made in quantity and stayed in fashion on and off for 1,500 years. Thousands survive. Many have the weird quality -- a consequence of the hot, arid Egyptian climate -- of looking as if they had been written last week even though they are 3,500 years old. Often magnificently illustrated, they contain spells and hymns to the gods to avert the perils of afterlife.
There were plenty of perils and spells. The largest surviving example -- “The Greenfield Papyrus,” made around 990-969 B.C. for Nesitanebisheru, daughter of a high priest -- is 37 meters in length. Also on show are coffin cases and other accessories for the well-furnished tomb.
I emerged understanding the Ancient Egyptian cosmos a good deal better, though admittedly starting from a somewhat low base. Much of it seems strange, and also, if you come from a Judeo-Christian background, oddly familiar. The Egyptian paradise, an idealized version of the Nile Valley landscape, is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden and the Greek Elysian Fields.
The toughest test the dead faced was interrogation by 42 divine judges to whom one had to plead innocence of a long list of offenses. Among these was murder, of which Queen Nodjmet was definitely guilty. Amazingly, the BM has an incriminating letter on show beside her Book of the Dead.
At this point, the heart -- believed to be the site of consciousness -- was weighed in a pair of scales much like those used in paintings of the Last Judgment. If these tipped the wrong way, you were prey to the “Devourer,” a nasty-looking customer with the head of a crocodile, forelegs of a lion and back end of a hippopotamus. But the Books of the Dead always show the owner arriving successfully in the Field of Reeds. Some things don’t change: Self-help manuals tend to look on the bright side.
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” is at the British Museum, London, through March 6, 2011. The exhibition is sponsored by BP Plc.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)