ARTYFACTS: Book of the Dead: British Museum (out of this world)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book of the Dead: British Museum (out of this world)

Decided to bite the bullet and become a member of the British Museum, as I spend so much time there. So it was nice to go straight to the front of the queue, and linger for ages in the labyrinth of this amazingly detailed exhibition and know that I can return for a repeat visit. I go to Egypt every year, mostly to Luxor, which is where most of the exhibits in this show originate, as it's the centre of New Kingdom tombs and temples, the period during which the Book of the Dead came into its own. The pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom and Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom were its precursors. Now I though I knew a thing or two about the Book of the Dead, in fact I knew next to nothing, other than the general intent, names of the Gods and the process. As you walk through the sheer complexity of the phenomenon is revealed step by step, taking you through the process of mummification, mourning, weighing of the heart, tests and the afterlife. The documents and objects are stunning, as art, but it's the meaning that matters.

Egyptian metaphysics
Egyptian metaphysics is a complex set of, what seems like, odd ideas. Because of their inward looking culture, their cosmology was primitive leading to a sun driven concept of life and death. Death, of course, would have been ever-present, as life expectancy was around 30 with disease and ever present, and lethal, threat. Then there were snakes, scorpions and crocodiles to contend with. Egyptian art distorts and idealises their world, as it presents ideal forms. You don't see age, illness or disability in Egyptian art, as its functional purpose was to represent ideal forms and activities. All men and women are shown as perfect and youthful, as are scenes of eating, hunting and enjoyment.

Judeo-Christian dichotomies
No surprise, then, that the spells in the book of the dead protected you from very possible mishap and obstacle. It was a passport or contract that ensured a safe journey into the afterlife, with sub-clauses covering every imaginable problem, warranty after warranty. There is none of the Judeo-Christian dichotomies; body and soul, good and evil, God and devil, reward and punishment, heaven and hell. Everything is much more practical and complex. There are distant early echoes of what we now know as religion, with the heart being weighed against a feather before Osiris, and a world beyond death, but the trick is to start afresh and drop all preconceptions as things are much more complex.

Sure, there's a judgement, but the spells in the book allow you to cheat your way in by protecting yourself from real scrutiny. There's a wonderful case of a woman who had two policemen killed, cheerfully exonerating herself. Each spell protects you from the various pitfalls, creatures and Gods that may impede your progress. This is a religion of recitation. You say something and it works. Life in heaven is the same as life on earth, you work, play and do all the things you did on earth, hence the shabtis, complete with little bags of tools that accompanied you on your journey. The soul is not a simple concept in Egyptian philosophy. There are four or more manifestations, including Ka and Ba. The journey is a complex set of transformations or metamorphoses via doppelgangers and attributes that are given life after death.

Not a book
You can see this exhibition as a set of artifacts but the Book of the dead is not really a book, but a collection of spells used in all sorts of selections, sizes and styles. The practical side of commercial production, blanks for names and reuse is also of interest. Far better to shed your existing ideas around religion and let your mind rebuild ideas from scratch. Be prepared to enter the room and die. then understand what meaning was attached to each stage in the process and you go through a process of rebirth. If you're lucky, you'll come out feeling enlightened, resurrected and ready to learn more.


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