Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book of the Dead exhibition at British Museum - the passport to afterlife


As a kid, I was terrified yet fascinated by the mythology behind the notion of hell. Dad used to bring me to Haw Paw Villa, a theme park (if you can call it that) dedicated to scenes of different levels of hell. According to the Chinese mythology, there are eighteen levels in all with the first level for light sinners (lying, mischief etc.) and the eighteenth level reserved for the likes of murderers. I recalled that there was this boat ride that would bring you through a dragon’s mouth and you would get to witness the torture the souls go through at each level of hell. Not a pleasant sight at all. Needless to say, nights of nightmares awaited after each visit.

The ancient Egyptians too were great believers of Judgement Day as depicted in the Ancient Eygptian: Book of the Dead exhibition currently running at British Museum. It came in the form of weighing one’s heart against the Ma’at feather or the Feather of Truth. If the heart turned out to be heavier, the soul would get devoured by the aptly named Devourer, which came with an alligator’s head, a lion’s torso and a hippopotamus’ rear. If they survived the trial, they would be accompanying Ra on his boat on his eternal journey through the perfect world modelled after the River Nile.

One can forgive the ancient Egyptians for obsessed about their afterlife journey and especially Judgement Day. That was what the Book of the Dead, essentially a ancient spell book, was for. In it laid spells for every single calamity that would befall on the soul up till their encounter with Ma’at. Spells that ward off beetles, placate deities and gods that inhabit the netherworld and even prevent one’s heart from betraying oneself, the Book of the Dead was literally the dead’s passport to eternal life.

Unsurprisingly, the wealthy and the well connected were equipped with beautifully crafted books while paupers had badly copied readymade ones (with bearers’ name left blank) ones. In the last room of the exhibition, there was a display of a Book of the Dead measuring a whopping 37m belonging to a lady by the name of Nesitanebisheru. That must have cost a small fortune.


While the exhibition was intriguing, I noticed that there was a certain formula to the Book of the Dead after the first couple of rooms. The eleven rooms of the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum would probably get a bit tedious for the layperson but for someone who is into Egyptology, set two to three hours for the entire exhibition. There are also some “spell collecting” activities available for the young children as well, look out for that at the start of the exhibition. Also, don’t miss the short film just behind the audio guide counter.

Ancient Eygptian: Book of the Dead
Till 6th March
British Museum
Great Russell Street
City of London WC1B 3DG
020 7323 8000

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