Book of the Dead - The Journey Begins

Did I ever mention that I once met a man who claimed to be the reincarnation of Pharaoh Ahkenaton's daughter? No?
One of my most bizarre encounters over the years. He was totally and utterly convinced of the fact... he had vanity-published a set of hypnotically "recovered" memoirs and wanted me, off the back of a production of Macbeth directed by me that he had seen, to adapt these into a dramatic form. When he realised that I was slightly sceptical as to the veracity of what he was claiming, he took the memoirs back, which was a shame, because they would have made for an interesting play or even novel, but not one that would have achieved his desired end of championing his claims.
It was strange that our paths should cross, however, since his opening gambit was "Have you ever thought of directing a play about Ahkenaton?" Now most people, when asked that question would probably have said, "Ahken who?" But the truth is that I had been interested in Egyptian history for years (particularly their military history) and specifically in Ahkenaton ever since I had seen the truly appalling film "The Egyptian" when I was young. For those who are not blessed with such an interest, Ahkenaton is regarded as the "heretic" Pharaoh, one of the earliest recorded monotheistic monarchs, and perhaps a key influence in early Israelite religious practice, theology and liturgy (eg. the comparisons made between the so-called "Hymns to Aten" and Psalm 104).

This is just a long way round of saying that I am a bit of a closet Egyptian nut... and am fascinated by what, on the face of it, with the hieroglyphs and animal-headed gods, seems a totally alien religious culture... yet one which existed in close proximity to the monotheism which developed into modern Christianity. One of the key elements of any religion is how they help their adherents address the reality of life and death... whether it be a belief in reincarnation, like my friend who thought he was Ahkenaton's daughter, or the annual advent service of remembrance and prayer for those who have been bereaved that we had last night in the Methodist church I minister to.

In the light of all that I was determined to go see the British Museum's special exhibition of the Book of the Dead, and so trailed my dear wife off to see it last weekend.

Again, for the uninitiated, the Book of the Dead is a set of around 200 prayers/spells that, in various forms were used in Egyptian funerary rites for over 1000 years prior to the birth of Christ... first, carved on the walls of royal tombs, then later painted onto the coffins of the wealthy, and finally produced on papyrus scrolls to be placed in the grave with a suitably prepared mummified body. Each of these prayers/spells were supposed to assist the deceased at some point or other in their journey from this world to the next...

This particular exhibition brings together a wide range of versions of the Book of the Dead and related artefacts to offer a detailed picture of the whole journey and its associated rituals. It is set up in the reading room of the British Museum (which is pretty close to my personal idea of heaven) and wends its way around the exhibits like some ancient funerary maze. The amount of information and range of artefacts on display is amazing and, incase you were thinking of going but are put off by the entrance fee, is well worth every penny.

I found my wife after 2 1/2 hours, in the middle of the final astonishing gallery, slumped on a bench, saying "I can't take anything more in!"

Anyway... it has taken me a week to post this first reflection on the exhibition, but I intend posting a few more over the coming weeks... However, given the subject matter and the season I thought that I might ration my reflections to one or two a week, lest I be accused of being a bit grim...

But this particular journey from death to new life has only just begun...


Joseph W said…
Have you seen the Battle of Kadesh on Youtube?

Thanks for the heads up... just watched it over a cup of coffee... While there are bits and pieces I would have disagreed with historically (eg. the use of chariots), tho' nothing like as vociferously as some of the comments (scary!), and I didn't like the low rent cgi (which seems to be borrowed from an early generation strategy game) it was interesting... And the thing is... many of the same geo-political issues that made the area a point of conflict in the past are still at play today... OK it may no longer be a vital land-bridge in this era of aircraft and global shipping, but it is still a nexus of north, south, east and west... And added to that the competing theologies of land in both Judaism and Islam, it makes for an explosive cocktail... I'm not a Tim la Haye-like apocolypticist (if that is a word) but its not for nothing that Revelation points to a second (or perhaps even 3rd or 4th... my memory of that particular bit of military history is a bit hazy) Battle of Megiddo as the final showdown...
Joseph W said…
Yes, totally! It's definitely a hot-spot for many of the same reasons it was back in Pharaoh's day.

Thanks for the link about the British Museum, I've booked my tickets now.

By the way, who do you think was the Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses? Walter Kaiser suggests it was Tuthmosis III - following the Bible's own timeline and the Low Chronology of Egypt).

Tuthmosis had his own famous Battle of Megiddo!

There's as many theories on this as there are Egyptologists - so frustrating...
Certainly around the period of Tuthmosis/Ramases II from what I've read... The post-Hykssos period and the massive city building would fit with the slave story, with the dynastic changes going far to explain the amnesia re Joseph etc, and given Thutmosis and Ramasses tendency to rewrite history (eg. Megiddo written up as a glorious victory over the Hittites, when it was a minor victory over Hittite satelite states, and Kadesh being written up as a decisive victory that would live forever, when it was a bit of a Phyrric victory at best) it would also explain why the Hebrews and Moses don't appear in the records (with the exception of one reference to the Hapiru I think)... They didn't go for recording defeats really...
Enjoy the exhibition... If you enjoy the British Museum in general you will love this... It's like their Egyptian exhibits on intellectual steroids!

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