Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exhibition: Journey through the afterlife

The Guardian, UK (Vanessa Thorpe)

When it comes to scary monsters, the ancient Egyptian Devourer is always going to be hard to top. With the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippo, it is certainly more exotic than the average Halloween outfit. And, though it sounds risible now, for centuries in Egypt the grim fear of meeting this evil, "cut'n'shut" beast on the other side of death helped to shore up an entire system of belief, a system shared by pharaohs and artisans. In fact, the devourer played a key part in one of the most intriguing tenets of faith humankind has yet come up with: The Book of the Dead.

Next month, the most comprehensive exhibition to be staged on this ancient doctrine of denying death will open inside the Reading Room at the British Museum. It will showcase, for the first time, the entire length of the Greenfield Papyrus, which, at 37 metres, lays out each detailed stage of a journey the ancient Egyptians believed they would all have to make when mortal life had slipped away.

On display, too, will be a succession of paintings taken from the papyri of Hunefer and of Ani, probably the two most famous works to depict the many episodes, or trials, that together constitute The Book of the Dead.


With a link to the full online Papyrus of Ani

For four thousand years it was the cornerstone of Egyptian religion. It started as a few prayers said in prehistoric times before a body was laid to rest in the desert next to the Nile. As the civilization in Egypt grew the prayers and spells became more elaborate, as did other rites for the dead. They were written inside pyramids and other tombs. Eventually the various rituals and spells were gathered together to create what we call the Book of the Dead. It's made up of numerous chapters in no set order. Individual chapters or groups of chapters were written on tombs, sarcophagi, and rolls of papyrus. The book survived, with various changes and variations that Egyptologists are still puzzling out, until the Christian era.

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