Monday, 17 January 2011

The Rough Guide to Eternity


It’s the most fearsome court you will ever face. There you are, standing in a long hall. At the far end sits Osiris, the god of the underworld. To approach him you have to pass a gauntlet of terrifying mummified gods. If you are not already scared out of your wits the Swallower of Shades, the Bone Breaker and the Eater of Entrails should send you into a condition of total collapse. Just when you think things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Here comes the prosecutor, Thoth in the shape of a baboon, sitting on top of a pair of scales that will shortly determine your eternal fate.

Nil desperandum. You have long prepared yourself for this court that no mortal can escape: you have taken out an insurance policy; you have in your hands the Book of the Dead, a sort of Rough Guide to the afterlife, with all sorts of helpful hints on how to address the locals, no matter how elevated.



In Ancient Egypt life was nasty, brutish and short. No, let me rephrase that: it was nasty, brutish and very short. Everywhere one is surrounded by a cult of death, by reminders that this life is a mere antechamber to eternity. The Book of the Dead is therefore an essential acquisition for the literate, full of helpful spells and incantations. We call it the Book of the Dead for obvious reasons, but for the Egyptians in the shadow of the pyramids it was known as the Book of the Coming Forth by Day.

This fascinating document is the subject of an exhibition in the British Museum, scheduled to run until March. Do go if you can; it’s a journey that you are unlikely to forget, taking a path trodden thousands of years ago into the heart of Egyptian mythology, magic and mysticism; a path trodden by the ba, the spirits of the dead.

There is a tunnel at the end of which lies the promise of eternal life, provided one can negotiate a way past the terrors ahead, not just the ultimate judgement but all sorts of demons and monsters. The book is full of spells for fighting off crocodiles and serpents, animal and insect terrors of all sorts, including an entity simply known as The Creature that Swallows the Ass!

Using the right words, one is able to avoid decapitation and decomposition. Another possible danger was being turned upside down, which entailed, as the Egyptians saw it, a reversal of the digestive process. The Book is even prepared for this, some versions including a spell “for not eating excrement or drinking urine in the underworld.”

So, the ba has made it this far, through a series of portals, each guarded by a terrifying gatekeeper. Safe passage has depended on saying the right words, all contained in your guide. The most important test of all comes in a place called the Hall of the two Maats, where Osiris presides with his forty-two companions, where one’s earthly conduct is weighed in the balance, weighed on scales presided over by Anubis, the jackal-headed god. In one pan sits the image of truth; in the other your own heart.

This is it; this is the ultimate test. If one has led a good life the scales will balance. If they do not then the next appointment is with the Devourer, a dreadful beast with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the haunches of a hippopotamus. The Devourer feasts on the hearts of those who have failed, which involves a second death, one of complete oblivion. Don’t panic, even if you have not exactly lead a blameless life. Open your Book at spell 30B and repeat slowly;

O my heart of my mother! O my heart of my different forms! Do not stand up as witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.



The interesting thing about this is that while the Egyptians were the first to conceive of a direct relationship between one’s eternal fate and one’s conduct while alive, they still believed it possible to avoid unpleasant consequences in death by trickery. Their gods may have been awesome but they were clearly not all-knowing! In theory, therefore, it would have been quite possible to have been a thoroughly bad person in life and still make it into celestial bliss. It was the Christians who carried the process of judgement through to a logical conclusion.

So, you’ve made it; you have found a way through; the court has declared you blameless. What next, you may wonder? The goals are actually quite varied, differing from Book to Book. In one you might sail with Ra, the sun god, in his chariot across the sky; in another you would live in the underworld, blessed by the presence of Osiris. The third and most common possibility was to live in the Field of Reeds, essentially a divine and perfect version of all that you knew on earth. There the corn grew to unimaginable heights.

Corn? But surely that involves sewing and reaping; surely that involves, ahem, work? Again there is no need for concern, for the Book of the Dead is ready to provide you with one final service. Amongst the things you have carried into the underworld is a small figurine called a shabti. Simply recite spell 6 and it will do all the work for you. Relax; lie back and do whatever one does when there is nothing else to do. You have made it into the Egyptian Paradise.

31 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I suppose I just have a very vivid imagination. I always manage to make the best of these things, the crowds nothwithstanding.

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  4. thanks for sharing. i enjoyed reading this.

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  5. Adam, I just wish for enlightenment, and the occasional spot of fun. Death is not a temporary state of affairs!

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  7. Patience, with people like you reading makes it enjoyable to write. :-)

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  8. It would be fascinating to travel back in time and witness two great intellectual leaps of imagination: when humans first became aware of time and began to envision the past and future as different from the "now;" and when the first inkling arose that death might be door to a future life. Did these ideas first emerge in dreams or visitations? How did the first imaginer share the idea, when no words existed for the concepts? When the listeners understood, at last, how did they react? When did demons and gods begin to stalk their dreams?

    I am quite fond of a poetic science fiction writer: Roger Zelazny. You might try "Creatures of Light & Darkness," "Lord of Light," and "Shadowjack," among others.

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  9. Calvin, yes, I quite agree. It's my guess that the demons came first, in the forests of the night, fear in a raw state, then fear given shape. Aaah, Amazon draws me further and further down!

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  10. Perhaps, we may say that the mind came first...that the mind dawned in the primeval brain and brought some light into a vessel that had evolved and could contain it. But the darkness created fear and produced the demons to reclaim its portion of the eternal night.
    And through war, brutality, cruelty, strife, and conflict, humanity produced a world that even the demons and gods could not imagine.

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  11. The old ways, ancient civilizations were far more advanced than generally realized and human existance is much older than previously thought to be. Ancients had a profound understanding of time and space without modern computers and telescopes?. Many engineering marvels with precise astronomical precision are all over the planet?. Most all civilizations have very similar accounts in their recorded history of gods comming down from heaven to enlighten them. These were extra- terrestrial aliens that came to earth in the past and we are the by-product of their bio-engineering ( we are almost there ourselves) this explains the origins of the many different strains of humanoids on earth.Soon there will be disclosure on this ( see the disclosure project) and the Vatican is scrambling to find their place in this as the creation fables are just that. We are in the midst of a magnetic polar shift which has happened before with major climatic and geological effects on the planet. This has been recorded in the written histories of all major civilizations, Sumerians, Egyptian, Mayan, Hopi etc. There is perterbation on our solar system causing the planets to heat up and has increased solar activity as Nasa ( Never A Sraight Answer) has warned. The ancients recorded this and attributed this to Nibiru or wormwood of Elai of bible fame,They all had diffrent names for this event but similar stories . We are also to pass the galactic center which emminates energy and may cause effect on our solar system. Civilization has survived before and world goverments have been making preperations for some time but not for everyone.Many nations have put up probes and infa-red telescopes to monitor this. Nasa has opted to extend the obsolete shuttle program in favor of a new system and has privatized to spaceX etc. Nasa in conjunction with Darpa are building the 100 year starship (one way trip) to colonize another earth like planet,They say Mars but most likely Gliese 581c (twenty light years distance)with new plasma drive technology. Ancient civilizations knew of these events but most present day people are unaware. The Aussies got caught unaware but the bats didn't. The next two years and four months are so should be interesting,The ancients knew.

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  12. I read somewhere that the Tibetan Book of the Dead explains that you can make the monsters you encounter after death disappear simply by realizing that your own mind has created them - an advance on the Egyptians, I'd say.

    Also, I would recommend Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained for anyone who wants an (unpoetic) insight into how the brain creates gods and spirits.

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  13. Hi Ana,
    Egyptian history always fascinate me, lots of mysteries.
    I am glad to be back here on your blog again.

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  14. Count Sneaky, that's a conjecture quite as valid, and more profound than my own. My view is based on the belief that instinct comes before mind; that the primitive brain would give imaginary shape to real terrors. I takes a far higher level of consciousness to conceive of god.

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  15. Anthony, thanks. Your point about civilization and the wisdom of the ancients is well taken.

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  16. Mark, yes, I dipped into the Tibetan Book of the Dead a couple of years ago. It's not just the monsters that are dispelled as illusionary but encounters with people one knew when alive. I remember this when people come back from 'near death' experiences, telling of meetings with relatives.

    Thanks for that recommendation.

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  17. Harry, and I'm glad you're here. I see you've acquired a 'biz' tail. :-) Anyway, I'll come visit you this evening.

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  18. Sounds like a good time and place to have been an atheist.

    The questions I would ask are who wrote it? And on what (whose?) authority was it originally based?

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  19. Nice way to share a passage of egyptian history, sound to me like a story of fiction, a little dark, dangerous and complicated like a good short story from literature, the death never was so hard but like you say with astuteness you can do it even with a bad heart. The creature that eat his own ass make me imagine a funny character, the egyptians have sense of humor. Egyptians have too many gods with animal faces and so many rules, dead always was an interest of human being and a first state like Egypt should thought about it. It is a theme that move many theories, egyptians had one, all is "valid" even unbelieveable and strange thoughts, the curiosity is there and will make the world keep try to solve the question or invent a good story. A hug. Mario.

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  20. As for the consumption of defecation, well in life we inadvertently do. So why not in the afterlife as well? the urine would help to wash it down.

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  21. I wanna docent the Egyptian wing of Houston's museum once it's built, Perfect for a magician like me ;-)

    Coll

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  22. Dennis, it 'emerged' round about the beginning of the New Kingdom, drawn from older funeral texts and incantations. A little like the Bible there was no single author. Unlike the Bible there is no agreed text, so there was never an 'authorised' version.

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  23. I wonder if Dante heard whispers of the Egyptian rites?

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  24. Mario, the sad thing is that this was only for the literate, I imagine a tiny proportion of the general population, so most people would would die with the conviction that they faced a second, more terrible, extinction.

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  25. Coll, yes, it would. :-) Hugs and a Happy New Year.

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  26. I was reading an article on the knowledge magazin and it ia about the Egypcian god of the dead,And it has a huge similarity with your article

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  27. Thanks, Rudolfo. Same subject, I suppose! Is this a UK publication?

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