Exhibit illustrates magical powers of Book of the Dead in ancient Egypt

Oriental Institute features papyri, mummy to explain concepts of afterlife

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.

A central feature of the exhibit is an enclosure featuring the mummy of an ancient Egyptian woman from the city of Akhmim. In the display, she is surrounded by mortuary objects inscribed with Book of the Dead spells—typical for an Egyptian burial chamber, where multiple copies of the same spells could be found. Long strips of linen inscribed with Book of the Dead spells reveal how ancient Egyptian priests wrapped the Book of the Dead around the body to protect it within an amuletic cocoon of powerful religious texts.

The two Book of the Dead papyri on display, from two different regions of Egypt, were painstakingly hand-produced by a team of skilled scribes and illustrators. Seeing the papyri laid out end-to-end makes their compilation starkly apparent, the curators said; each Book of the Dead papyrus is not a single book at all, but a collection of shorter spells compiled together in a single manuscript.

“The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead has often been described as a ‘map’ of the next world, but in reality, it is much more than that,” said Scalf. “Copies of the Book of the Dead could have as few as one spell, or as many as 165. The content in these spells covers many facets of the Egyptians’ spirituality: the existence of the soul, what awaits us in the afterlife, how will we be judged, the nature of god, and the continued relationship with friends and family on Earth.

“What we discover is that the Book of the Dead is actually about eternal life, not death,” he said.

The Field Museum of Natural History has loaned several rarely displayed objects, including several limestone blocks inscribed with large Book of the Dead spells from the tomb of a man named Bakenrenef, as well as a papyrus inscribed with a composition known as the First Book of Breathing. Over the course of the second and first centuries B.C., the Book of the Dead was largely abandoned in favor of the Books of Breathing; they represent the last documents in a tradition of funerary literature stretching back more than 2,500 years.

“Exhibit curator Foy Scalf has done a truly remarkable job in creating a tightly conceived exhibit that explores the Book of the Dead in all of its complexity—the fullness of its religious, cultural and archaeological contexts, as well as its development, use and production,” said Chris Woods, director of the Oriental Institute.

A companion catalog contains essays by 13 prominent scholars with expertise in religion and the use of funerary literature in ancient Egypt. It includes complete photographic documentation of the two Book of the Dead papyri from the Oriental Institute in color for the first time.

Photo and video available for media upon request; contact louise@uchicago.edu.