Now showing, an ancient book of spells for the dead | ET REALITY


In the mid-19th century, a British antiquarian named Sir Thomas Phillipps announced his intention to own a copy of every book in the world. Mr. Phillipps, a quarrelsome baronet, declared “vellomaniac,” bought manuscripts indiscriminately from booksellers with whom he fought incessant battles. He soon had barely room in his decaying Cotswolds mansion for his second wife, Elizabeth, who eventually moved to a boarding house in Torquay, a working-class English seaside resort. When Mr. Phillipps died in 1872, he had amassed an unparalleled collection of 60,000 documents and 50,000 printed books.

His descendants gradually auctioned off his private library, and in the late 1970s his collection of 19 fragments of ancient funerary scrolls (each part of what is today collectively known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead) was sold. purchased by a New York bookseller. Hans P. Kraus. Along with his wife, Hanni, Kraus donated the lot to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1983. Over the past four decades, the writings, which span a period from about 1450 B.C. C. and 100 BC. C., have been stored in a vault, fragile and easily damaged by light. On November 1, an exhibition at the Getty will present seven of the most representative pieces to the public for the first time. The show will run until January 29.

Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “I am glad that the Getty has finally decided to reveal and exhibit what until now has been an almost forgotten part of its glorious collection of antiquities, but which in fact contains important specimens from one of the most famous ancient Egyptian corpora in the world.”

A standard component in the burials of the Egyptian elite, the Book of the Dead was not a book in the modern sense of the term but a compendium of some 200 ritual spells and prayers, with instructions on how the spirit of the deceased was to recite them in the most there. Sara Cole, curator of the Getty exhibition, called the incantations a kind of supernatural “travel insurance” designed to empower and safeguard the deceased on the long, winding journey through the afterlife. Unlike today’s insurance policies, no two copies were the same.

Despite the book’s title, it was life rather than the afterlife that concerned the ancient Egyptians, who lived an average of 35 years. “Your happiness outweighs the life to come,” reads an inscription from the New Kingdom period, which lasted from 1550 BC to 1069 BC.

“Texts are a means to relieve your mortal anxiety and control your destiny,” said Foy Scalf, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago and editor of the exhibition catalog.

In fact, the original name of the text translates as “Book of the Day Going Out.” In 1842, the German scholar Karl Richard Lepsius published a translation of a manuscript and coined the name Book of the Dead (das Todtenbuch), which reflected old fantasies about the nature and character of Egyptian civilization. The numbering system he used to identify the various spells is still used today and features prominently on the exhibition panels at the Getty.

Compiled and perfected over millennia from approximately 1550 BC. C., the Book of the Dead provided a kind of visual map that allowed the newly disembodied soul to navigate the duat, a labyrinth-like underworld of caverns, hills, and fiery lakes. Each spell was intended for a specific situation that the dead might encounter along the way. For example, spell 33 was used to ward off snakes, which had a disturbing taste for chewing on “the bones of a putrid cat.”

Without the proper spells, you could be decapitated (Spell 43), placed on a killing block (Spell 50), or, perhaps most humiliating of all, turned upside down (Spell 51), which would reverse your digestive functions and cause you to waste away. your own waste (Spells 52 and 53).

In a booby-trapped hell populated by some of the most terrifying imaginations of ancient times, magic mattered. Among the creepiest illustrations on display at the Getty are depictions of gods (the jackal-headed Anubis; the falcon-headed Horus) and monsters (Ammit the Devourer, a crocodile-headed lion-hippopotamus hybrid).

“The reason the creatures are scary is not to scare away souls trying to access these places, but to keep away those who don’t belong there,” Dr. Scalf said. “Entering among the gods is something very restricted.”

The intended destination was the realm of the gods and the safe haven of eternal paradise, a field of gently waving reeds that looked like an idealized version of the Egypt the deceased had left behind. The lush landscape had laborers who helped each arrival sow, plow and harvest the grain that provided sustenance to the gods..

“The dead not only worship and feed the gods, but they also worship and feed their deceased ancestors and even themselves,” Dr. Scalf said. “This is not servitude, it is pious work that shows your piety towards the gods.”

Having achieved divinity, the deceased joined the sun god Re as he crossed the sky in a solar boat. At sunset, they crossed to the West and merged with Osiris, god of the underworld, and assumed regenerative powers. Near dawn, Re would battle the giant serpent Apep, lord of chaos, and emerge victorious in the East to complete an endless cycle of renewal and rebirth.

Ownership of the Book of the Dead was largely limited to nobility, priests, courtiers, and other patrons who could afford it. People of high status would commission a workshop of scribes to produce a personalized selection of spells that mentioned them by name.

Two of the four papyrus scrolls in the Getty sample belonged to women named Aset and Ankhesenaset, both priestesses and ritual “singers of Amun” in the god’s temple at the Karnak complex in Thebes. The scrolls are tattered remains that were removed from tombs during an unregulated era of European colonialism and modified for the art market.

The oldest papyrus scroll in the Getty collection was owned by a woman named Webennesre and includes spell 149, in which the deceased encounters 14 mounds in the underworld, each with its own inhabitants. “Spells were inscribed on almost every available space in the burials,” Dr. Scalf said. Some were painted on the inside and outside of the sarcophagi, others were printed on shrouds, statuettes, amulets and “magic bricks” embedded in the walls of the tombs.

Another highlight of the exhibition are three thin strips of linen that were inked with spells and then wrapped around mummified bodies as part of the ritual embalming process. “The bandages brought the sacred texts into direct physical contact with the deceased, enveloping and protecting them,” said Dr. Cole, the exhibit’s curator. “That made people’s relationship with the Book of the Dead even more personal.”

The wrappings, once part of longer textiles applied to the corpses of two men called Petosiris, were torn off during the 19th century and sold in pieces. The bodies themselves may have been powdered and sold as paint pigment (mummy brown) or medicine (mummia, a powder found on apothecary shelves across Europe).

The show’s coup de theater is a papyrus representation of the Hall of Judgment made for Pasherashakhet, a “gatekeeper” who served the moon god Khonsu at Karnak. The detail of the vignette shows an episode of spell 125, in which the deceased appears before Osiris and a court of gods while Anubis, guardian of the realm of the dead, weighs his heart, which is believed to be the place of intellect. .

On one side of the scale is the heart; on the other, the feather of the goddess Maat, incarnation of truth and justice. If the heart of Pasherashakhet equals the weight of the feather, he will be admitted to the other world. If the heart is too heavy, that is, his sins outweigh his good works, Ammit the Devourer, crouching and with his mouth open, will consume him and condemn him to a second and lasting death.

In accompanying hieroglyphs, Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing, announces the result: “His heart is safe in the balance without fault being found.”

Pasherashakhet has passed the test. It’s time to join Re and board the solar ship.

There’s a spell for that too.

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