Friday, March 9, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

The above illustration, from the papyrus scroll known as Ani’s Book of the Dead, illustrates beautifully the modern imagining of the Ancient Egyptian underworld.  In the place where all those who once lived are judged for their actions, known as the Hall of Two Truths, Ani and his wife Tutu approach with reverence on the far left as demigods sit above them to witness the fate of the deceased.  

Ani, who was a scribe in life, next stands before the scales of afterlife judgment.  Ani’s Ba, one of the three “souls” that would survive after the death of his body, perches to the left of the scales in the form of a bird with a human head.  Ani stands facing Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming and necroplei who will handle the delicate balance of the scales.  Behind Anubis the ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the divinities and lord of learning, waits with pen in hand to write down the outcome of the test.  Will Ani’s heart be pure enough to prove lighter than the feather that represents the goddess of truth, Ma’at?  Or will his unjust deeds in life weigh it down?

In fact, the pivotal moment portrayed in this portion of the papyrus is almost more of a dénouement than an all important climax.  To get to this point, Ani – and his faithful wife, a musician in the temple of Amun – had to pass through a seemingly unending series of tests that would make a professional athlete who happened to also be a doctorate student dizzy. 

There were rivers of lava, dark caves and endless wastelands to slog through on the road to face the Lord of the Dead, Osiris.  All that taken into consideration, though, stamina was only half of the equation.  Just as important was being able to answer riddles and knowing names.  An uncountable number of talking objects and body parts would ask Ani if he knew their names.  If he did not, or his answers were incorrect, his journey to the Hall of Two Truths would end, and an everlasting afterlife of wandering, wraithlike and deformed, around the underworld waited.

Spells and amulets, most provided in various versions of the Book of the Dead, could help a soul avoid being disemboweled or having its head cut off.  The answers to the riddles that would be posed to the deceased were also written in the Book.  Whether or not all of these had to be memorized in life or were at hand if the Book was entombed with an individual is still up for debate. 

An example of the kind of quizzing Ani and Tutu could experience went like this:

Upon encountering a door, the lintels on the left and right ask Ani for their names.  He is to respond that they are “scale pan of wine” and “scale pan that carries Ma’at.”  When this correct answer is given, the doorjamb asks if Ani knows its name.  He does, of course: “plummet of the place of truth.”  The questions keep on coming from the door’s bolt, “toe of his mother”, the threshold, “Ox of Geb”, and so on until he passes to the floor beyond.  The floor changes up the line of questioning.  It asks Ani not for its name, but for the name of Ani’s own feet.  (If you’re curious, they turn out to be “who enters before Min” and “wenpet of Nephthys.”)

The final danger – the one that no amount of knowledge and spell casting can help a soul wriggle out of – is Ammut “the devouress of the dead.”  This strange creature, who sits to the right of Thoth in the picture above, is a combination of crocodile, lion (or sometimes leopard) and hippopotamus.  Should Ani’s heart prove heavier than the feather of Ma’at, it will end up in the eager jaws of the demon/goddess Ammut.  This was the worst possible fate for any Ancient Egyptian: total annihilation.

This complex and convoluted maze of travails would lead the happy soul to the its reward: the Field of Rushes.  Here men and women would live simply as agrarians, working part-time for the gods and spending the rest of the afterlife in feasting, music and dance.  A just reward, it seems, for so much trouble.

Header: The Hall of Two Truths from Ani’s Book of the Dead c 1400 BCE


Timmy! said...

I recognize most of these from reading "The kane Chronicles" with our little red-head (who is 13 years old today). Happy birthday!

Spending your afterlife in feasting, music and dance sounds pretty good to me, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Yep; I would imagine they're pretty much all in there.

And you were required to do some work on the gods' farm on occassion. I like that wealthy people in the New Kingdom tried to wriggle out of that part by being buried with ushabti: fiance or clay statues that - with the right spell - would come to life and do your afterlife work for you.