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Last Judgement of Hunefer, from his tomb

Hunefer's Judgement in the presence of Osiris, Book of the Dead, 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom, c. 1275 B.C.E., papyrus, Thebes, Egypt (British Museum). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We're in the Brithish Museum in London, in a room that is filled with ancient Egiptian mummies, and as a result it's also filled with modern children. And tourist. It's a great room, there's great stuff here. We're looking at a fragment of a scroll which is largely ignored. It's a papyrus scroll. A papyrus is a reed that grows in the Nile Delta that was made into a kind of paper-like substance and actually was probably the sigle most important surface for writing right up into the Medieval. We're looking at a written text of something that we call the Book of the Dead which the ancient Egyptians had other names for, but which was a ancient text that had spell and prayers and incantations, things that the dead needed in the afterlife. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to the Old Kingdom, writing that we call pyramid text. These were sense of instructions for the afterlife, and than later we have coffin text, writing on coffins and then even later in the New Kingdom, we have scrolls like this that we call the books of the dead. Sometimes the texts were written on papyrus, like the one we are looking at, sometimes they were written on shrouds that the dead were burried in. So these were really important texts that were originally just for kings in the Old Kingdom, but came to be used by people who were not just part of the royal family, but still people of high rank, and that's what we're looking at here. This text was found in the tomb of someone named Hunefer, a scribe. A scribe had a priestly status, so we are dealing here with somebody who was literate, who occupied a very high station in Egyptian culture. And we actually see representations of a man who had died, who was burried with this text and if you look on the left edge of the scroll at the top, you can see a crouching figure in white, Hunefer, who is speaking to a line of crouching deities, gods prophesing the good life that he lived that he's earned a place in the afterlife. Well, what we have below is a scene of judgement whether Hunefer has lived a good life and deserves to live into the afterlife, and we see Hunefer again, this time standing on the far left and we can recognize him beacause he's wearing the same white robe and he's being led by the hand by a god with a jackal head, Anubis, a good that is asscociated with the dead, with mumification, with cemeteries and he's carrying in his left hand and ankh, a symbol of eternal life, and that's exactly what Hunefer is after. If we continue to move toward the right, we see that jackal-headed god again, Anubis, this time crouching and adjusting a scale, making sure that it is exactly balanced. On the left side, we see the heart of the dead so the heart is on one side of the scale, on the other side there's a feather. The feather belongs to Ma'at that we also see at the very top of the scale, and we can see a feather coming out of her head. Now, Ma'at is a deity associated with divine order, with living an ethical, ordered life. And in this case, the feather is lower, the feather is heavier. Hunfer has lived an ethical life, and therefore is brought into the afterlife. So he won't be devoured by that evil-looking beast next to Anubis. That's Ammit who has the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and a hind-quarters of a hippopotamus. He's waiting to devour Hunefer's heart, should he be found to have not lived an ethical life, not lived according to Ma'at. The Egyptians belived that only if you lived the ethical life, only if you pass this test, would you be able to have access to the afterlife. It's not like the Christian conception where you have an afterlife for everybody, no matter if they were blessed or sinful that is you either go to Heaven or you go to Hell. Here you only go to the afterlife if you have been found to be ethical. The next figure that we see is another deity, this time with the head of an ibis, of a bird. This is Thoth who is reporting the proceedings of what happens to Hunefer, and in this case reporting that he has succeeded and will move on to the afterlife. I love the representation of Thoth. He is so upright, and his arm is stretched out, rendered in such a way that we trust him that he's gonna get this right. Next we see Hunefer yet again, this time being introduced to one of the supreme gods in the Egyptian pantheon, Osiris. And he's being introduced to Osiris by Osiris' son, Horus. Horus is easy to remember, cause Horus is associated with a falcon, and here has a falcon's head. Horus is the son of Osiris and holds in his left hand an ankh which we saw earlier, and again that's a symbol of eternal life. He is introducing him to Osiris as you said, who is in this fabulous enclosure, speaks to the importance of this deity. He's enthroned, he carries symbols of Egypt, and he sits behind a lotus blossom, a symbol eternal life and on top of that lotus blossom, Horus' four children who represent the four cardinal points: North, South, East and West. The children of Horus are responsible for carrying for the internal organs that would be placed in Canopic jars, so they have a critical responsibility for keeping the dead preserved. We see Horus again, but symbolized as an eye. Now remember, Horus is represented as a falcon, as a bird, and so here even though he's the symbol of the eye, he has talons instead of hands, and those carry an ostrich feather, also a symbol of eternal life. The representation of the eye of Horus has to do with another ancient Egyptian myth, the battle between Horus and Seth, but that's another story. Now, behind Osiris we see two smaller standing female figures, one of whom is Isis, Osiris's wife, the other is her sister, Nephthys, who's a guardian of the afterlife and mother of Anubis, the figure who we saw at the very beginning leading Hunefer into judgment. Notice the white platform that those figure are standing on. That represents natron, the natural salts that were deposited in the Nile and they were used by the ancient Egyptians to dry out all of the mummies there in this room. So that they could be preserved. Actually, the word "preservation" is really a key to thinking about Egyptian culture generally, because this is a culture whose forms, whose representations and art remain remarkably the same for thousands of years. Even though there are periods of instability or even just before this we have Amarna Period where we saw a very different way of representing the human figure. What we see here, these forms look very familiar to us, because this is the typical way the ancient Egyptians represented the human figure. Even though this is a painting from the New Kingdom, these forms would have been recognizable to Egyptians thousands of years earlier in the Old Kingdom. And we see that mixture that we see very often in ancient Egyptian art, of words, of hieroglyphs, of writing and images. I love the mix, in our modern culture we really make a distinction between written language and the visual arts, and here in ancient Egypt, there really is this closer relationship, this greater sense of integartion.