Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Kha and His Wife Meryt Before Osiris (detail) from the Book of the Dead
In ancient Egypt, the belief in an afterlife led to the development of a complex culture of funerary rituals and practices.
After death, it was believed that the soul would travel through the underworld in search of the Hall of Judgment of Osiris—whose tribunal would determine whether one could achieve immortality as an akh, or transfigured spirit. The journey involved overcoming a variety of perils and obstacles. Books of the Dead, which the Egyptians called Books of Going Forth by Day, were collections of magic spells written on papyrus and enclosed in the burial chambers of tombs. These spells were believed to help guide and protect the deceased on their complicated journey.
The earliest collections of such spells, known as “Pyramid Texts,” were created specifically for kings and queens, inscribed inside royal pyramids of rulers of the Sixth to Eighth Dynasties. However, after the end of the Old Kingdom in the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130–1938 BCE), the practice became more widespread, and “Coffin Texts,” including expanded collections of spells, were inscribed on the interiors of coffins and tombs of varying social classes. Books of the Dead later developed in the New Kingdom, when Egyptians began copying the funerary incantations onto papyrus scrolls, accompanied by illustrations like the one shown here.
This particular Book of the Dead was created for a man named Kha, who served as the overseer of works at Deir el-Medina. In this scene, Kha and his wife Meryt stand before Osiris, “Lord of the West” (the “West” representing the kingdom of the dead), who is often depicted with a green face. Egyptians believed that Osiris would weigh the heart of the deceased in a scale against the feather of Ma’at, goddess of truth, harmony, and justice. Kha and Meryt stand with hands raised, presenting offerings and awaiting judgment.
Deborah Vischak, Lecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
“The Egyptians certainly had a sense of an afterlife. They thought there was something after this world. The Book of the Dead is something that has very deep roots in Egyptian religious and cultural traditions. It’s one part of this larger body of texts that relate to the experience of death and ideas about the afterlife. The first example of these texts appear in the Old Kingdom, they are called the Pyramid Texts, and these texts were inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers of pharaohs, starting with the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, and then through the Sixth Dynasty. Over the course of Egyptian history, these texts were developed and expanded, both in their content and in who could use them. The kings had their own set of texts that weren’t used by elite people. But the Book of the Dead was used by elite, traditionally painted on papyri roles and buried with the individual. And the idea of the Book of the Dead was, in essence, a guidebook to the netherworld, with these kind of cues and helpful little hints to get you through an obstacle that you might confront or a scary beast of some kind, what you would need to say or do to get past him.
Elite people were responsible for preparing their tomb and all of the goods that would be buried while they were still alive. The elite had it pretty good here, so they were happy to have it continue that way in the next world and they perceived a continuation of the sort of best parts of the world that they had lived in.”
El-Shahawy, Abeer. Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt: A Bridge to the Realm of the Hereafter. Photography by Farid Atiya. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005.
Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.
Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Silverman, David. Ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Taylor, John H. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Wasserman, J. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Translated by R. Faulkner. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.