In ancient Egypt, you did not go to the afterlife empty-handed. The Book of the Dead, a collection of spells and charms, was there to guide you.
Starting Oct. 3, visitors to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago will have a unique opportunity to peruse copies of the Book of the Dead: Two 2,200-year-old papyri, each more than 30 feet long and beautifully illustrated with texts and images. They are on display in their entirety for the first time at a museum, accompanied by the mummy of a woman who lived over 2,000 years ago, as well as statues, stelae, scarabs, magic bricks, ushabtis (small funerary figurines) and other artifacts.
“The exhibition demonstrates how the ancient Egyptians developed the Book of the Dead to address humanity’s mortal anxiety,” said Foy Scalf, curator of the exhibit. “They believed the Book of the Dead was imbued with magical power, and when this magical power was combined with the appropriate funerary rituals, each individual could become an immortal god in the afterlife and take on the identity of Osiris, the god of the dead.” (An elegant statue of Osiris greets visitors as they enter the exhibit.)
The exhibit presents 76 artifacts that demonstrate how religious beliefs shaped the lives and material culture in Egypt over a period of more than 2,000 years (from 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D). Most are from the permanent collection of the Oriental Institute, whose museum holds the Chicago area’s largest collection of Egyptian art and artifacts, as well as galleries devoted to the other cultures of the ancient Middle East.