Dr Burkhard Backes: These beautiful scrolls shed light on the mysteries of Egyptian culture

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:31

The compilation of texts known today as the "Book of the Dead" was called "Going Forth by Day" by the Egyptians. Leaving the tomb and the Netherworld was one of the main goals of the deceased. "Going forth by day" meant both a triumphant journey as a close follower of the sun god and the ability to go to any place in the human world that one desired – for example, the chapel of the tomb where offerings were waiting on the altar.

Texts helping the deceased to reach this goal were ubiquitous in Egyptian elite burials. We find them on tomb walls, coffins, mummy bandages, shrouds and on papyri buried with the mummy. These papyri start to appear in the early 18th dynasty (around 1500 BC), replacing similar texts written on the insides of wooden coffins. With only a few interruptions, they continued to be standard for elite burials until the 1st century BC, maybe even a bit longer.

The incredible number of Books of the Dead makes them a major resource for the study of many aspects of Egyptian culture – one research project at Bonn University has collected more than 3,500 and none looks exactly like any other.

It is this variety – from impressive long rolls with more than 150 spells, down to short papyri that contain only a few – which makes an exhibition on the Book of the Dead so valuable. The papyri contained spells to help the deceased reach his or her goal by knowing what has to be said in different situations: how to repel dangerous demons, how to regain corporeal integrity, how to be justified in the judgement of the dead and thus accepted in the realm of Osiris and Re and how to get enough food, for example.

The beautiful vignettes that illustrate the texts allow us to understand the mythological allusions made in the spells, and also to look for the great local diversity – for the "schools" of artisans and the painters' varying technical skills.

It is often said that these texts were supposed to "inform" the dead about what they should do in this or that situation. Really, the sacred texts stating that she or he will lead an eternal and safe afterlife among the gods were really there as a source of hope, a "magical" guarantee for the positive fate of the deceased.

In spite of progress in the last decades, no Egyptologist would seriously claim, yet, to know what exactly is going on in these texts and images.

The writer is a lecturer in Eyptology at Oxford University

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