Saturday, February 15, 2014

In Ancient Egypt They Thought They Could Take It With Them

If a person writes novels set in ancient Egypt as I do, when the word for the week is "bury", where do you suppose my mind travels? Right - beautifully painted tombs, amazing sarcophagi, King Tut's mask....but the Egyptians went to all that trouble because they were trying to ensure themselves a happy afterlife, and to have everything they needed with them in that future. (Sort of you can take it with you...)

Here's a scene from Priestess of the Nile that shows a small part of what the ancient Egyptian citizen thought would happen to them, after they were buried in that well appointed tomb. (Warning: possible SPOILERS if you haven't read the book yet). I've edited and abridged this a bit from the published version, to focus on the Afterlife events:

Merys was tired of walking. Where am I going? How did I come to be in this tunnel? She contemplated the passageway filled with mist and bathed in blue light. She stumbled and stopped, one hand on the cold stone wall to steady herself. She was dressed in fine robes, bedecked with jewels. A thin gold circlet held her hair. Rings and bracelets she had never seen before adorned her hands and arms. Her shoes were soft leather, lined with fur, trimmed in gold. Merys turned to see what lay behind her. The tunnel ended at a closed door. The door fit snugly into the tunnel wall, with no handle, no hinges.

“My tomb,” she said out loud and the words echoed. She felt strangely detached from the reality. “But my family wouldn’t honor me so, even if they had the funds.”
She slid down the wall and sat huddled for a few moments, mourning all she had left behind in the upper world of the living. Eventually, Merys took a deep breath and stood, using the wall for support. She smoothed her skirts and straightened her jewelry. Every Egyptian, even the children, knew at the end of this tunnel lay the Hall of Judging, where her heart would be weighed and her spirit’s ultimate fate decided. It is no less and no more terrifying than what I have already endured. ....
She walked on. A lighted chamber lay ahead and as she entered the enclosure, she found Anubis, Thoth and Lady Ma’at waiting as she expected. Anubis had the semblance of a man from the neck down, well muscled. From the shoulders up, he was a sharpfeatured, ebony-furred jackal. Long, pointed ears framed a feral face. Cold emerald eyes glowing with uncanny brilliance scrutinized her as if assessing whether she was to be his prey in some otherworldly hunt.
Breathtakingly beautiful, Lady Ma’at had a kind face and welcoming smile. She was clad in fine white robes, and many intricate necklaces formed a multicolored collar swathing her elegant neck. A scarlet ribbon headband threaded its way among the glossy curls on her head, holding a large feather, which curled gracefully back over her hair.
Thoth sat behind her, cross-legged on the floor, in the manner of all scribes. Merys rejected a mental picture of her father, working on his scrolls in the village. I won’t think of him anymore. Thoth held a sharp reed pen upraised in one well-formed hand and clasped a small oblong tablet in the other. His head was in the form of an ibis, with an elegant, long curving beak and fine green iridescent feathers. Merys had often seen such birds in the shallows of the Nile.  
A scrabbling sound in the corner of the room beyond the table drew her attention to the beast Ammit, busily chewing on a pile of bones. The sheer wrongness of Ammit—heavy crocodile head blending into the neck and chest of a powerful lioness, with the sturdy hindquarters of a hippopotamus—made Merys want to vomit. All the most dangerous and fearsome predators of Egypt embodied in one obscene creature, waiting to devour the unworthy. Ammit paced in the shadows, scuttled a bit closer as if sensing Merys’s fear, the claws on her feline front legs scrabbling on the floor, while the muscles in her stumpy hippopotamus hind legs bunched as she readied herself to spring.

Merys swayed and closed her eyes.

And of course after the heart was judged, and the person managed to get past this stage of the Afterlife, they had many more perils and dangers to traverse, as documented in the well known Egyptian Book of the Dead. But hopefully they'd prepared well ahead of time and their loved ones had stocked their tomb with all the amulets and unguents and spells and paintings and tiny statues of servants that would be needed.

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