6 / Death
|Artist / Origin||
Unknown artist, Egypt
New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1567 BCE–320 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE - 500 BCE
Pigment on papyrus
|Location||Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy|
|Credit||© Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS, The Picture Desk Limited|
|Deborah VischakLecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University|
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.
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.