Understanding The Egyptian Book of the Dead
James Wasserman offers a new, behind-the-scenes look at the publication of the 3500-year-old Papyrus of Ani.
November 9, 2012 - 3:00 pm
The Papyrus of Ani was created in Egypt about 1250 B.C. It represents the best preserved, longest, most ornate, and beautifully executed example of the form of mortuary text known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Ani was an important Temple scribe. He and his wife Tutu chose from among some 200 available prayers, hymns, spells, and ritual texts the 80 that most appealed to them. Their completed scroll measured some 78 feet long by 15 inches in height. Their likenesses were painted among the elaborately crafted hieroglyphic vignettes. This individualized papyrus roll would be buried with them, with the intention of opening a gateway in the afterlife. If successful in persevering through the trials they encountered there, they would be free to eventually feast and dally with the gods.
As a magical, polytheistic religion, the Egyptian faith was alive with creativity and energy. It involved a continuous interaction between the individual and the various deities who constituted its elaborate and exalted pantheon. The dignity afforded the observant Egyptian was an invigorating state. One who had led an upright moral life, had shown respect to the gods, and been strong enough to proceed through the dangers and trials of the afterlife, was invited to join the gods—playing board games in beautiful fields, drinking beer, eating, even making love. The successful adherent would reach a stellar glory of his own, at last a member of that hierarchy he had honored throughout his life.
The prayers of The Egyptian Book of the Dead are connected to certain archetypal images. Thus an invocation to Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld, will be written within a painting (or vignette) of that deity. The meaning of the scene is a marriage of word and image, reaching well beyond the merely verbal level of comprehension. One of the best known examples is the Weighing of the Heart scene below. The heart (the moral integrity of the deceased, his conscience) is weighed against the feather of Truth and Justice. If the cumulative effects of a person’s life have allowed his soul to be as light as the feather of Truth, he or she is judged pure and allowed to continue on with the journey. However, if the person’s heart is weighted down with the burden of sin, his soul is flung to the great monster who awaits the recording of the verdict and is no more.
Plate 3: The Weighing of the Heart. (As restored © 1994, 1998 James Wasserman)
In 1888, Ani’s papyrus was acquired by Sir E.A. Wallis-Budge, assistant Keeper of the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum and author of numerous books on ancient Near Eastern civilizations. He described the Papyrus as the largest he had ever seen. “… I was amazed at the beauty and freshness of the colours of the human figures and animals, which in the dim light of the candles and heated air of the tomb, seemed to be alive.” Budge recognized the Papyrus of Ani was the greatest of such scrolls ever found.
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