In the mid-19th century, a British antiquarian named Sir Thomas Phillipps announced his intention of owning one copy of every book in the world. A professed “vello-maniac,” Mr. Phillipps, a quarrelsome baronet, bought manuscripts indiscriminately from booksellers with whom he engaged in ceaseless battle. Soon there was hardly room in his moldering Cotswolds mansion for his second wife, Elizabeth, who eventually moved to a boardinghouse in Torquay, an English working-class seaside resort. By the time Mr. Phillipps died in 1872, he had amassed an unparalleled collection of 60,000 documents and 50,000 printed books.
His descendants auctioned off his private library bit by bit, and by the late 1970s his collection of 19 ancient funerary scroll fragments — each a part of what is today collectively known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead — was acquired by the New York book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Together with his wife, Hanni, Mr. Kraus donated the lot to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1983. For the last four decades, the writings, which span a period from around 1450 B.C. to 100 B.C., have been stowed in a vault, fragile and easily damaged by light. On Nov. 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 Jan. 29.
Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I am glad that the Getty finally decided to disclose and exhibit what has been until now an almost forgotten part of its glorious collection of antiquities, but that contains in fact important specimens of one of the most famous ancient Egyptian corpus in the world.”
A standard component in Egyptian elite burials, 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 deceased’s spirit should recite them in the hereafter. Sara E. Cole, the curator of the Getty exhibition, called the incantations a kind of supernatural “travel insurance” designed to empower and safeguard the departed on the long, tortuous 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 preoccupied ancient Egyptians, who lived for 35 years on average. “Your happiness weighs more happily than the life to come,” reads one inscription from the New Kingdom period, which lasted from 1550 B.C. to 1069 B.C.
“The texts are a means to assuage your mortal anxiety and control your destiny,” said Foy Scalf, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago and the editor of the exhibition catalog.
Indeed, the original name for the text translates to the “Book of Coming Forth By Day.” 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 longstanding fantasies about the nature and character of Egyptian civilization. The numbering system he used to identify the various spells is still used today and figures prominently on the Getty’s exhibition panels.
Compiled and refined over millenniums since about 1550 B.C., the Book of the Dead provided a sort of visual map that allowed the newly disembodied soul to navigate the duat, a maze-like netherworld of caverns, hills and burning lakes. Each spell was intended for a specific situation that the dead might encounter along the way. For instance, Spell 33 was used to ward off snakes, which had an unsettling taste for chewing “the bones of a putrid cat.”
Without the right spells, you could be decapitated (Spell 43), placed onto a slaughter block (Spell 50) or, perhaps most humiliating of all, turned upside down (Spell 51), which would reverse your digestive functions and cause you to consume your own waste (Spells 52 and 53).
In a hellscape primed with booby traps and populated by some of antiquity’s most fearful imaginings, magic mattered. Among the spookier 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 hybrid of a lion and a hippopotamus).
“The reason that the creatures are terrifying is not to scare souls trying to access these places, but to keep out those who don’t belong there,” Dr. Scalf said. “Entering in among the gods is a very restricted thing.”
The intended destination was the realm of the gods and the safe haven of eternal paradise, a field of gently waving reeds that resembled an idealized version of the Egypt that the deceased had left behind. The lush landscape had field hands who helped each arrival sow, plow and harvest the grain that supplied sustenance for the gods.
“Not only are the dead worshiping and feeding the gods, but worshiping and feeding their deceased ancestors and even themselves,” Dr. Scalf said. “This isn’t servitude, this is pious work that shows your piety toward the gods.”
Having attained divinity, the deceased joined the sun god Re as he traversed the sky in a solar boat. At sunset, they crossed in the West and merged with Osiris, god of the netherworld, and assumed regenerative powers. Near dawn, Re would fight the giant serpent Apep, lord of chaos, and emerge victorious in the East to complete an endless cycle of renewal and rebirth.
Scrolling at the Getty
Ownership of the Book of the Dead was largely limited to nobility, priests, courtiers and other patrons who could afford the extravagance. Individuals of high status would commission a scribal workshop to produce a customized selection of spells that mentioned them by name.
Two of the four papyrus scrolls in the Getty show belonged to women named Aset and Ankhesenaset, both of whom were priestesses and ritual “singers of Amun” at the god’s temple in the Karnak complex of Thebes. The scrolls are tattered scraps, having been removed from tombs during an unregulated age of European colonialism and altered for the art market.
The oldest roll of papyrus in the Getty collection was the property of a woman named Webennesre and includes Spell 149, in which the deceased encounters 14 mounds in the netherworld, each with its own inhabitants. “Spells were inscribed on nearly every available space in burials,” Dr. Scalf said. Some were painted on the interior and exterior of sarcophagi, others were imprinted on shrouds, statuettes, amulets and “magical bricks” embedded in the walls of tombs.
Another of the exhibition’s highlights are three thin linen strips that were inked with spells and then wrapped around mummified bodies as part of the ritual embalming process. “The bandages brought the sacred texts in direct physical contact with the deceased, enveloping and protecting them,” Dr. Cole, the show’s curator, said. “That made the relationship of people to the Book of the Dead even more personal.”
Once part of longer textiles applied to the cadavers of two men named Petosiris, the wrappings were torn off during the 19th century and sold in pieces. The bodies themselves may have been pulverized and sold as paint pigment (mummy brown) or medicine (mummia, a powder found on apothecary shelves throughout Europe).
The show’s coup de théâtre is a papyrus rendering of the Hall of Judgment made for Pasherashakhet, a “doorkeeper” who served the moon god Khonsu at Karnak. The vignette detail shows an episode from Spell 125, in which the deceased appears before Osiris and a tribunal of gods while his heart — believed to be the site of the intellect — is weighed by Anubis, keeper of the kingdom of the dead.
On one side of the scale is the heart; on the other, the feather of the goddess Maat, the embodiment of truth and justice. If Pasherashakhet’s heart equals the weight of the feather, he will be admitted into the next world. If the heart is too heavy, meaning his sins outweigh his good deeds, the crouching, open-mouthed Ammit the Devourer will consume and consign him to a second, and lasting, death.
In the accompanying hieroglyphics, Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing, announces the result: “His heart is safe upon the scale without fault found.”
Pasherashakhet has passed the test. It is time to join Re and climb aboard the solar boat.
There is a spell for that, too.