The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exerts an enduring fascination, perhaps because it presents the idea that one might confront the hereafter with a guide to the trials and terrors it might present, as well as offering the rather misleading impression a translation gives of making secret material available. For a century there have been widely sold editions of individual ancient papyri and of composite texts, often addressed to a general public despite their difficult and specialised content. Many people - but not Egyptologists - seem to think this composition will give them special insights into the nature of existence.
Another reason for the Book of the Dead's appeal is its fusion of text and picture, an area in which the Egyptians always excelled. The finest manuscripts contain remarkable and beautiful vignettes, some running along the top of the papyrus roll and others occupying its full height. The next world depicted in the vignettes is somehow domesticated. In Egyptian conventions the worst monster, such as the female "Devourer" of the damned, appears remarkably unthreatening. She is not, of course, shown eating the owner of the manuscript, who appears many times in the vignettes, because the whole purpose was to ensure a successful passage into the next world.
James Wasserman, who organised this new volume, was drawn to the material by the manuscript's beauty and by his interest in "occult philosophy", but under his direction a number of people have produced something quite sober. The work focuses on the papyrus of Ani in the British Museum of around 1250bc, one of the best-known and most beautiful manuscripts. The book is visually most attractive and easy to use.
The papyrus is reproduced in colour in its component sections or "chapters", which are arranged on plate spreads with translations of the texts at the foot. This arrangement is a clear advance on what has been available hitherto. The translation (R. O. Faulkner's established modern version) is of a generic text, not the relatively corrupt Ani manuscript. After the colour section comes a useful four-page photographic summary of the make-up of the manuscript, which it is suggested was pasted together from ready-made sections. There follow translations of the chapters that happen not to occur in Ani's copy.
Ogden Goelet then presents an introduction to Egyptian funerary literature and relevant areas of religion, together with a commentary on the papyrus. Despite some minor slips, this part is generally excellent - focusing on the essential, elucidating what the general reader may find strange, and giving much valuable information. Occasionally the tone jars, as when a figure of Ani praying is said to look as though "he could change into modern clothes and walk the streets of Greenwich Village".
Elaborate methods have been used to reproduce a 1890 hand-made facsimile (produced under the supervision of E. A. Wallis Budge), which was chosen in preference to photographs as giving a better sense of the papyrus's original appearance. This, however, is the least satisfactory aspect of the book. I feel the published photographic facsimile is artistically superior and gives a better feel for the papyrus. The choice between the two is like that between heavily restored and unrestored paintings, while the brownish tinge of the new reproduction is not what the Egyptians looked for in a papyrus. Moreover, the 1890 facsimile was replaced in 1895 by a much more carefully executed one. That book is now very scarce, but since photographs had been rejected for this edition, it would have been worth searching for a copy to serve as a basis for reproduction. This book offers much of value in presentation, layout and commentary, but the reproductions are something of a lost opportunity. Handsome and modestly priced though the result is, it could have been both more handsome and more accurate.
John Baines is professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day Being The Papyrus of Ani (Royal Scribe of the Divine Offerings)
ISBN - 0 8118 0792 4 and 0767 3
Publisher - Chronicle Books, San Francisco
Price - £25.00 and £16.99
Pages - -
Translator - Raymond O. Faulkner