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The afterlife remained a privilege that came very expensive indeed. The funerary scrolls themselves, as the examples on display at the British Museum serve to demonstrate, were often exquisitely decorated, and might be written virtually on the scale of a novel: Nor was a funerary scroll the only investment required to reach paradise.
Spells would serve no purpose without effective mummification and a tomb. For the vast majority of the Egyptian population, who could hope at best for burial in the arid desert sands alongside a humble pot or two, a Book of the Dead was an extravagance beyond their wildest dreams.
Only the elite — the priests, the scribes and the court apparatchiks — could hope to afford them. The journey to join the gods would have been a feasible prospect for, at most, one Egyptian in Quite what form that journey would have taken, however, was a question to which they never gave a consistent answer.
Traditionally, two pathways had been imagined. The first, and more venerable, required the soul of the deceased, the ba , to fly out every morning to be united with the sun god, and then, every evening, as the sun sank back into the underworld, to return for shelter to the mummy in its tomb.
Sunset, however, did not have to see the deceased wholly confined to their tombs. If the ba had little option at night but to twiddle its thumbs and wait for dawn, then the ka , the eternal spirit of a person, could embark on a journey of its own, following the sun on its night-time journey through the duat , travelling from the west, the realm of darkness, towards the east, the realm of dawn and of resurrection.
This was the journey that the Book of the Dead — and the British Museum's exhibition — most compellingly illustrates. As in a dream, so in the duat: Rather, its contours and dimensions vary deliriously from scroll to scroll.
Nevertheless, there are recurrent themes. Gates feature with a particular prominence, guarded by animal-headed deities, who are invariably armed with knives and prone to hacking up corpses, dancing in blood and eating hearts.
Snakes loom large as well, often coiled round giant mountains, and with an unsettling taste for eating "the bones of putrid cats".
The gods themselves, like celestial fishermen, sometimes rig the firmament with nets, or else turn it upside down, and oblige the deceased to consume their own excrement.
All these horrors, and more, were only to be avoided by the utterance of the requisite spells. The Egyptians, it would seem, were no great enthusiasts for moral philosophy.
Although they were certainly not oblivious to the notion that the fate of one's soul in the afterlife might depend upon what one had done while still alive, the spin they gave it was hardly one that Dante would have recognised.
Come the moment of truth for a soul after its lengthy journey through the duat , when its heart would be weighed on a set of scales against a feather, all that was required to stop the heart from sinking and being swallowed by a terrifying monster a crocodile-headed compound of a lion and a hippopotamus named the Devourer was the requisite magic.
A human-headed scarab placed over the heart of the mummy would prevent the organ from piping up at the moment of judgement, and spilling any inconvenient truths.
Likewise, a written profession of innocence would readily be accepted by the gods as a more than adequate substitute for any authentic lack of moral blemish.
Virtue was virtue only if it appeared on a strip of paper. In death as in life, pharaonic Egypt was irredeemably a realm of bureaucrats.
The strangeness of all this, it goes without saying, only adds to its fascination. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is better than the British Museum at forcing on its visitors a recognition of how every culture in every period has shared a common humanity.
But the converse is also true. An exhibition such as this one serves to remind us of something no less profound, and perhaps more unsettling: Death and taxes may be the only constants in existence — but the interpretation of death has certainly never stayed the same.
Journey Through the Afterlife: Guardian Extra members are invited to breakfast and a talk with the curator.
Order by newest oldest recommendations. Show 25 25 50 All. One aspect of death was the disintegration of the various kheperu , or modes of existence.
Mummification served to preserve and transform the physical body into sah , an idealised form with divine aspects;  the Book of the Dead contained spells aimed at preserving the body of the deceased, which may have been recited during the process of mummification.
The ka , or life-force, remained in the tomb with the dead body, and required sustenance from offerings of food, water and incense.
In case priests or relatives failed to provide these offerings, Spell ensured the ka was satisfied. It was the ba , depicted as a human-headed bird, which could "go forth by day" from the tomb into the world; spells 61 and 89 acted to preserve it.
An akh was a blessed spirit with magical powers who would dwell among the gods. The nature of the afterlife which the dead person enjoyed is difficult to define, because of the differing traditions within Ancient Egyptian religion.
In the Book of the Dead , the dead were taken into the presence of the god Osiris , who was confined to the subterranean Duat.
There are also spells to enable the ba or akh of the dead to join Ra as he travelled the sky in his sun-barque, and help him fight off Apep.
There are fields, crops, oxen, people and waterways. The deceased person is shown encountering the Great Ennead , a group of gods, as well as his or her own parents.
While the depiction of the Field of Reeds is pleasant and plentiful, it is also clear that manual labour is required. For this reason burials included a number of statuettes named shabti , or later ushebti.
These statuettes were inscribed with a spell, also included in the Book of the Dead , requiring them to undertake any manual labour that might be the owner's duty in the afterlife.
The path to the afterlife as laid out in the Book of the Dead was a difficult one. The deceased was required to pass a series of gates, caverns and mounds guarded by supernatural creatures.
Their names—for instance, "He who lives on snakes" or "He who dances in blood"—are equally grotesque. These creatures had to be pacified by reciting the appropriate spells included in the Book of the Dead ; once pacified they posed no further threat, and could even extend their protection to the dead person.
If all the obstacles of the Duat could be negotiated, the deceased would be judged in the "Weighing of the Heart" ritual, depicted in Spell The deceased was led by the god Anubis into the presence of Osiris.
There, the dead person swore that he had not committed any sin from a list of 42 sins ,  reciting a text known as the "Negative Confession".
Then the dead person's heart was weighed on a pair of scales, against the goddess Maat , who embodied truth and justice.
Maat was often represented by an ostrich feather, the hieroglyphic sign for her name. If the scales balanced, this meant the deceased had led a good life.
Anubis would take them to Osiris and they would find their place in the afterlife, becoming maa-kheru , meaning "vindicated" or "true of voice".
This scene is remarkable not only for its vividness but as one of the few parts of the Book of the Dead with any explicit moral content.
The judgment of the dead and the Negative Confession were a representation of the conventional moral code which governed Egyptian society. For every "I have not John Taylor points out the wording of Spells 30B and suggests a pragmatic approach to morality; by preventing the heart from contradicting him with any inconvenient truths, it seems that the deceased could enter the afterlife even if their life had not been entirely pure.
A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes. They were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased.
They were expensive items; one source gives the price of a Book of the Dead scroll as one deben of silver,  perhaps half the annual pay of a labourer.
In one case, a Book of the Dead was written on second-hand papyrus. Most owners of the Book of the Dead were evidently part of the social elite; they were initially reserved for the royal family, but later papyri are found in the tombs of scribes, priests and officials.
Most owners were men, and generally the vignettes included the owner's wife as well. Towards the beginning of the history of the Book of the Dead , there are roughly 10 copies belonging to men for every one for a woman.
The dimensions of a Book of the Dead could vary widely; the longest is 40m long while some are as short as 1m. The scribes working on Book of the Dead papyri took more care over their work than those working on more mundane texts; care was taken to frame the text within margins, and to avoid writing on the joints between sheets.
The words peret em heru , or 'coming forth by day' sometimes appear on the reverse of the outer margin, perhaps acting as a label.
Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces being left for the name of the deceased to be written in later. The text of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs , most often from left to right, but also sometimes from right to left.
The hieroglyphs were in columns, which were separated by black lines — a similar arrangement to that used when hieroglyphs were carved on tomb walls or monuments.
Illustrations were put in frames above, below, or between the columns of text. The largest illustrations took up a full page of papyrus.
From the 21st Dynasty onward, more copies of the Book of the Dead are found in hieratic script. The calligraphy is similar to that of other hieratic manuscripts of the New Kingdom; the text is written in horizontal lines across wide columns often the column size corresponds to the size of the papyrus sheets of which a scroll is made up.
Occasionally a hieratic Book of the Dead contains captions in hieroglyphic. The text of a Book of the Dead was written in both black and red ink, regardless of whether it was in hieroglyphic or hieratic script.
Most of the text was in black, with red ink used for the titles of spells, opening and closing sections of spells, the instructions to perform spells correctly in rituals, and also for the names of dangerous creatures such as the demon Apep.
The style and nature of the vignettes used to illustrate a Book of the Dead varies widely. Some contain lavish colour illustrations, even making use of gold leaf.
Others contain only line drawings, or one simple illustration at the opening. Book of the Dead papyri were often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together.
The existence of the Book of the Dead was known as early as the Middle Ages, well before its contents could be understood. Since it was found in tombs, it was evidently a document of a religious nature, and this led to the widespread misapprehension that the Book of the Dead was the equivalent of a Bible or Qur'an.
In Karl Richard Lepsius published a translation of a manuscript dated to the Ptolemaic era and coined the name " Book of The Dead" das Todtenbuch.
He also introduced the spell numbering system which is still in use, identifying different spells. The work of E. Wallis Budge , Birch's successor at the British Museum, is still in wide circulation — including both his hieroglyphic editions and his English translations of the Papyrus of Ani , though the latter are now considered inaccurate and out-of-date.
Allen and Raymond O. Orientverlag has released another series of related monographs, Totenbuchtexte , focused on analysis, synoptic comparison, and textual criticism.
Research work on the Book of the Dead has always posed technical difficulties thanks to the need to copy very long hieroglyphic texts. Initially, these were copied out by hand, with the assistance either of tracing paper or a camera lucida.
In the midth century, hieroglyphic fonts became available and made lithographic reproduction of manuscripts more feasible.
In the present day, hieroglyphics can be rendered in desktop publishing software and this, combined with digital print technology, means that the costs of publishing a Book of the Dead may be considerably reduced.
However, a very large amount of the source material in museums around the world remains unpublished.