British Museum blog

What is a Book of the Dead?

John Taylor, British Museum

I’m the curator of the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens at the British Museum on 4 November 2010. The exhibition is the result of years of work behind the scenes in planning, preparation and research. It’s exciting to be able to focus on these special documents and to have the rare opportunity to display such a variety of them.

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way.

The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.

The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, heart, they’re all embodiments of a person, and they were afraid that these elements would disperse when you died. So there are a lot of spells to make sure you don’t lose your head or your heart, that your body doesn’t decay, as well as other spells about keeping alive by breathing air, having water to drink, having food to eat.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles, insects – an idea very much based on the threats they knew in real life only much more frightening and much more dangerous.

As well as the animals, you could be attacked by gods or demons who served the gods. In the next world there are a lot of gods who are guarding gateways that you have to get through, and if you don’t give the right answers to their questions at the gates, they can attack you because they have knives and snakes in their hands.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on to the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!).

The worst thing that can happen is what is called the second death. This meant you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that they believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing regularly about the aspects of the exhibition that I’m most excited about – and there’ll also be updates from some of the many people working on the exhibition behind the scenes here at the British Museum.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 13,496 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Mary Anning was born #onthisday in 1799, one of the most famous fossil finders of her day. This large skull and lower jaw of an ichthyosaur was found by her at Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1821. You can see it on display in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1), on loan from the @natural_history_museum.
© 2003 The Natural History Museum.
#history #fossil #dinosaur Albrecht Dürer was born  #onthisday in 1471. Here’s his wonderful drawing of a woman from 1520.
This study is drawn with a brush in black and greybodycolour. The light is strongly shown by white heightening when it falls onto the woman's face and hair. The light falls down the exact centre of her face. On the left, only the protruding eyelid and cheek bone catch the light. Her eyes are closed and her head centred, its outline strongly marked by black line and silhouette.
By 1520, the date of this drawing, Dürer was deeply interested in the ideal, human form. He had made numerous life studies, both male and female. He had also travelled to Italy and studied classical sculptures and their proportions. For Dürer, the chief purpose of these theoretical studies was to discover the mathematical proportions of the ideal human body. These he would then use in his paintings (portraits, altarpieces and images of saints) and prints. 
#Dürer #art #drawing #history The Enlightenment Gallery in the Museum (Room 1) shows how people saw the world in the 18th century.
The #Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820. This rich and diverse permanent exhibition uses thousands of objects to demonstrate how people in Britain understood their world during this period. It is housed in the King’s Library, the former home of the library of King George III.
Objects on display reveal the way in which collectors, antiquaries and travellers during this great age of discovery viewed and classified objects from the world around them.
#BritishMuseum #history #art #museum #gallery To celebrate the ‪#ChelseaFlowerShow opening, here's some floral inspiration from the collection.
This watercolour is by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682–1749).
#flowers #art #artist #floral Born ‪#onthisday‬ in 1883: Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the #Bauhaus school. He designed the shape of this teapot in 1969.
#art #design #history #teapot It's International ‪#MuseumDay‬! How would you spend your perfect day @britishmuseum? ‪#IMD2015‬
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,496 other followers

%d bloggers like this: