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12 October 2010 @ 11:47 am
"How to Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead" by Barry Kemp  
"How to Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead" (book 39) is part of a series providing an introduction to various writers/texts, each written by an expert in the relevant field. The expert in this case is Barry Kemp, who is an Egyptologist & archaeologist working on Amarna. The format of the book (and I believe the whole series) is to present extracts from the actual texts and talk about them. Obviously in this case they're presented in translation - it would be a pretty niche work if only the Egyptian text was given ;) We partly got this book out of the library because there's an exhibition on the Book of the Dead opening soon(ish) at the British Museum, and it seemed a good time to learn a little bit more before we went to it.

The Book of the Dead was called the Book of Going Forth by Day in Egyptian, and is often found buried in tombs from the New Kingdom period of Egyptian history onwards. It is a collection of "spells", some of which are derived from older texts found in Middle Kingdom & earlier tombs (the Coffin Texts and the Pyramid Texts, respectively). Taken together these spells would give the deceased the best chance of navigating the afterlife. Each version of the book seems to have been unique, with a different selection of spells, although over time this became more & more standardised. There is some split in opinion amongst Egyptologists about whether the Book of the Dead was read by the living, or just buried with the dead (and thus "read" by them as they went through the afterlife where it would be useful) - Kemp comes down on the side of it being read by the living, pointing out that there are spells that say things like "And for him that knows it on earth [...] and he will proceed to a very happy old age".

Kemp quotes a handful of these spells and uses them to provide an insight into how the ancient Egyptians thought about the world around them, about the afterlife & the gods and their place in the universe. The mindset of the Egyptians seems pretty alien to someone brought up in a Christian religious & cultural environment - there seems to be no necessity for consistency, for instance. The myths don't necessarily form a cohesive story when taken all together, they are fragments which illuminate some aspect of the truth behind the universe. There seems to have been no dogma & insistence on everyone believing the same thing as each other at all times - in fact, Kemp brings up the fact that belief is never mentioned, you do these things, you say these things and it will work out in your favour. Belief is almost a given, and certainly doesn't seem to have been focused on. There are also multiple things that happen in the Egyptian afterlife that are mutually incompatible - for instance there is a (well known) spell which has a list of 42 denials all of the type "I have not done bad thing". And there are other spells which are to ensure that one's heart does not bear witness against one and admit the bad things one has done. And it doesn't appear that you were encouraged to lie, instead in Kemp's words "The Egyptian view allowed for two contrary streams of thought, one which denied that any wrongdoing had been committed and one which sought ways of avoiding punishment for the fact that it had.". Some of the afterlife is an endless journey accompanying the sun as it travels beneath the land between sunset and sunrise, some of the afterlife involves being able to go forth into the land of the living in various forms, some of the afterlife is your trial by the gods, some was in the Field of Rushes doing the work that must be done to provide food. And it was all simultaneously true (as I understand it).

I found this an interesting and very readable book - as I write this little review I keep wanting to say "oh and another thing it told me that's neat", it's just full of little tidbits of interesting stuff. I'd definitely recommend reading it if you're interested in Ancient Egypt & the Egyptians :)
Current Mood: curiousinterested
Current Music: The Monkees "Greatest Hits of The Monkees"
marnanel on October 12th, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC)
I am wondering whether the urge towards consistency is a Greek thing, and what sort of upheaval in Egyptian thought was caused by the arrival of Ptolemy.

For a text from another culture without Hellenic influence which seems not to mind about inconsistency, the Psalms spring to mind: nobody ever seems to notice that Psalm 51 ("For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me; against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight") is bound in with Psalm 7 ("if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands, if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe, then let my enemy pursue and overtake me; let him trample my life to the ground and make me sleep in the dust.")
Margaretpling on October 12th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)
I think the Ptolemies based their legitamacy in part on being "as Egyptian as can be", and thus I'm not sure there'd be an obvious upheaval, but maybe the later standardisation of the Book of the Dead is a consequence of Greek desires for consistency percolating through into Egyptian culture (note: this is wild speculation based on little knowledge on my part ;) ).

Ooh, good point about the Psalms, I'd never noticed it (not knowing them terribly well - I'll've come across them one by one in church services, but not sat down to read the lot). I'm sure I've read something somewhere (but I can't find it in the book I thought it was in, which makes me wonder if I've imagined it :/ ) about some of the Psalms showing signs of similarity to some Egyptian literature.
marnanel on October 12th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Psalm 51 is an appropriate example:
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
(which in the Anglican church is also the start of the invitatory used in morning prayer) is heavily reminiscent of the opening of the mouth ceremony from the Pyramid Texts.
Margaretpling on October 12th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
Oh good, I didn't invent that :)