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Monday, 22 November 2010

Exhibitions - Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead - British Museum

Star rating – 8/10

The sense of drama and history I get as I pass under the magnificent Ionic, not to mention iconic, pillars of the British Museum is palpable. And the special exhibitions in the beautiful and inspiring dome of the reading room within its walls certainly have an awesome setting. But not all have lived up to my always grand entrance into the building. But this latest offering about the attitude and rituals of the ancient Egyptians towards death and the afterlife certainly lives up to its star billing.

I admit that I am a sucker for all things Egyptian and ancient. The death mask of the boy king Tutankhamen in the Cairo museum is quite probably the most beautiful and mesmerising object that I have ever seen. I was transfixed and dazzled by its perfection for a long time when I was lucky enough to see it a few summers ago. But this exhibition about the rituals and beliefs of the Egyptians around death and the afterlife is not so much noteworthy and memorable for any particularly beautiful single object, but for its totality as an illuminating event.

We are all familiar with the process of mummification that Egyptians followed to give their dead divine qualities, but we are probably not so familiar with the totality of their rituals surrounding their departure from this world and hopeful entrance to the next. Death was just a part of the eternal cycle of life to them. Nothing more, and nothing less. They believed that people had both physical and spiritual attributes, which were separated from each other at death, and had to be reunited to attain the holy grail of eternal life. Key to the process of reunification were the gods Ra and Osiris. Ra was the sun god and creator of the world, who died each day as the sun went down, and rose each morning to a new dawn. Osiris was a mythical king who was murdered by his brother, and brought back to life by the goddess Isis.

Magic and spells were key to the whole process of entering the afterlife, and the power of the written word resulted in the Book of the Dead – a collection of the famous hieroglyphics which we are so familiar with today. These manuscripts were buried with them (only the highest ranking ones of course), written on the walls of their tombs, and on the coffins themselves. And boy were the ancient Egyptians confident of their destiny: ‘I am noble, I am a spirit, I am equipped: O all you gods and all you spirits, make a path for me’ is a particular favourite of mine. No self doubts, a touch of arrogance – might as well have been Mancunians.

And some of the spells doubled as fixes for illnesses of the living – great multi tasking. The women of course had to make do with being a part of the papyri of their husbands. That is until around 1100BC when I am not sure why but they struck out on their own. One particular book that caught my eye was that of Anhai the Chantress of Amin –now there’s a great title for you. Having said that this exhibition is all about finding out about the detail of the process, there are some beautiful pieces in it, such as the golden coffin of Henutmehyt, and the golden masks of the dead, fashioned to make them resemble gods.

The netherworld was a mysterious place for the Egyptians, and they had odd notions of how to reach it. The heart was the location of the mind for them, and it had to be weighed on a set of scales against a god to see if they merited entry into paradise. If they were not worthy and had been particularly bad in their human life their heart would be eaten by a monster – ouch.

They had great spells to ward off nasties on their journey, such as a spell to prevent them being tipped upside down and thus having to consume their own urine and faeces; and a spell for repelling beetles: ‘Begone from me! O crooked lips’. And they were not averse to a bit of cheating. They tried to cheat death by pleading with their hearts not to testify against them for their mortal sins.

This is a beautiful, fascinating exhibition, full of minute details and familiar images, but put into a totally new context. Catch it if you can – and be sure to make a grand entrance.

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