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Journey Through the Afterlife

Stephen Tomkins

British Museum
Until 6 March


The gods of Egypt never captured the imagination of western culture like those of Greek and Rome, which is a shame because while they may not have had they best stories, they had by far the best cartoons. Journey Through the Afterlife offers a uniquely vivid view of Ancient Egyptian faith, through the vista of the Book of the Dead. It was not so much a single book as a personal collection of travel documents for the afterlife. There are scenes of its landscapes, instructions and descriptions, prayers and hymns, images of gods and funeral rites, but above all it gives the departed a set of spells to negotiate the journey into and through the world to come.

With the Book of the Dead in your tomb, you are equipped to drive off celestial snakes and crocodiles, avoid decapitation, and escape having to eat excrement. There are even spells to save you from beetles, but that seems like overkill. There are incantations to reunite your soul and body and to enable you to breathe. You will be able to pass the gateways guarded by armed demons, and find the caverns where friendlier but equally well-armed spirits wait to help you. Eventually you will travel in the sun god's boat, to the Field of Reeds, a perfected Nile valley, meet the gods and finally be reunited with your family.

The exhibition is filled out with illustrations and explanations of Egyptian death rites. Yes, mummies and pyramids, but also headrests - just because you're dead there's no need to be slovenly - and a repetition of the rites that give life to the eyes, mouth and ears of newborn babies (pictured above). The lifeforce is conveyed to the corpse by the touch of a leg cut from a live calf. They wouldn't let you do that these days. It's political correctness gone mad.

The cumulative effect of this superb exhibition is achieve what the Book of the Dead was for: it restores to life a dead faith with extraordinary credibility and vigour. There is a great temptation to find the religion of the ancient world infantile. So many gods, all so human, naïve hopes, bizarre rituals, all proved so obviously wrong by having been dead for a millennium or two. The greatest triumph of Journey Through the Afterlife is that it persuades Christians - and who knows perhaps even humanists - to look it in the eye as equals.

One lasting impression is of the extraordinary physicality of Egyptian hope. Mummification and related rituals equip the body for resurrection, and heaven is not in the clouds but in a fertile valley. As history meanders along, religion has tended to become less physical and more spiritual, but in the 20th century Christians who were taught to hope for disembodied post mortem spiritual bliss have rediscovered the fact that the Bible looks for the resurrection of the whole person, not just the Platonic bit.

There was more to Egyptian faith than the Book of the Dead, to be sure, but you can't escape the sense that it was obsessed with escaping death. There is little here about mourning or celebrating, only surviving. It makes for a striking contrast with the Hebrew scriptures, so close in time and space, which have virtually no interest at all in life after death, and even deny it. The Old Testament is the book of the living. And Christians made life after death a centrepiece of faith. Was Egyptian hope ahead of the Judeo-Christian? Did Christians succumb to the lure of Egyptian escapism? Or were the Egyptians waiting for something that turned up in first-century Palestine?

There is compelling poetry in Egyptian spells. If you want to return to earth in the form of a crocodile, you'll need this:

I am a crocodile immersed in terror
I am a crocodile who takes by violence
I am the fish of Horus, great in Athribis
I am lord of obeisance in Leotopolis

Not exactly Our Father, but it has something. Of course the idea of that croc over there being Aunty Nojmet is exactly the kind of thing that makes the faith seem incomprehensibly implausible and primitive. Until it asks you to explain transubstantiation.

Steve Tomkins