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|The ancient Egyptians believed that the deceased must journey after death through the eerie parallel universe of the Duat - which is at once a starry "otherworld" and a strange physical domain with narrow passageways and darkened galleries and chambers populated by fiends and terrors. On this journey the jackal-headed mortuary god Anubis would sometimes act as a guide and companion to the soul.|
On the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor and Karnak, stands the strange and beautiful temple of Deir el Medina - which, like Edfu and Dendera, is a product of the final days of the once-remarkable civilization of ancient Egypt. Dedicated in the third century BC to Maat, the Egyptian goddess of cosmic equilibrium, its walls are inscribed with hieroglyphic texts expressing archaic religious and spiritual ideas.
|Detail from the "weighing of the soul", Deir el Medina. Top, some of the Assessors who hear the 42 Negative Confessions; left, ibis-headed Thoth, god of wisdom, records the verdict; centre, Ammit, the Eater of the Dead, the agency of the soul's extinction; right, Osiris, Judge of the Dead and agency of the soul's resurrection.|
|Complete scene of the weighing of the soul, Deir el Medina.|
The temple is built around an axis oriented south-east to north-west. We entered it through a gate in the south-eastern wall leading to a courtyard dominated by four elaborately adorned columns with floral capitals. Beyond these we passed into a central hall at the end of which we came to three doorways leading into three separate enclosed shrines. The southernmost of these shrines, dark and unprepossessing though it seemed at first, proved to contain a finely crafted and almost complete scene of what scholars describe as the Psychostasia, or Weighing-of-the-Heart (derived from the Greek psyche = soul, i.e. heart, and stasis = balance).
We took time to examine this scene, which consists of a chapter from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Reu Nu Pert Em Hru, literally the "Book of Coming Forth By Day", one of a large corpus of funerary texts copied and recopied at all periods of Egyptian history, that concerned themselves with "the freedom granted to spirit forms which survived death to come and go as they pleased".
Standing in the doorway of the shrine our eyes were drawn to the wall on our left containing an elegant relief of Ptolemy IV Philopator (ruled 221205 BC), the Macedonian Greek Pharaoh on whose orders this Temple of Maat was built. Represented as a deceased soul, dressed in sandals and a simple linen kilt, this scene shows him being ushered into a spacious hall at the head of which, in partially mummified form, sits Osiris, the high god of death and resurrection, identified in the ancient Egyptian sky-religion with the great southern constellation of Orion.
The place to which Ptolemy has been brought is sometimes referred to as the Judgement Hall of Osiris, and sometimes as the Hall of the Double Maati - which translates as "the Hall of the Two Truths" or possibly "the Hall of Double Justice". It is not a place to which the soul was believed to have come immediately after death. Indeed, it could only be reached by those who were spiritually "equipped" to complete a long and hazardous post-mortem journey through the first five of the twelve divisions of the Duat - the fearful parallel dimension, shadowy and terrifying, filled with fiends and nightmares, that was believed by the ancient Egyptians to separate the land of the living from the kingdom of the blessed dead. The reader will recall that it was this same Duat, referred to as the Duat-N-Ba (the "netherworld of the soul"), that was said to have provided the model for the mysterious "primeval temple" spoken of in the Edfu Building Texts.
Ptolemy stands in the posture of salutation, left hand clenched across his right breast, right hand raised. On either side of him is a figure of Maat (hence "Double Maati") - a tall and beautiful goddess, sensual and full-breasted, wearing a head-dress topped by her characteristic ostrich-feather plume (the hieroglyph for "Truth"). The figure behind Ptolemy is empty-handed, and seems to be guiding him into the hall; the figure facing him holds in her right hand a long staff and in her left hand the hieroglyph ankh, the "cross" or "key" of life - the symbol of eternity.
In a double row at the side of the Hall 42 dispassionate figures crouch in the manner of scribes pouring over papyrus, each wearing the feather of Maat. These are the 42 Judges or Assessors of the Dead, before each of whom the deceased must be able to declare himself innocent of a particular wrong - the 42 so-called "Negative Confessions". For example:
No. 4 "I have not stolen";
No. 5 "I have not slain man or woman";
No. 6 "I have not uttered falsehood";
No. 19 "I have not defiled the wife of a man";
No. 38 "I have not cursed the God".
|The goddess Nepthys, benefactor and protector of the dead. Tomb of Seti I, Valley of the Kings. Nepthys was the mother of Anubis.|
Having completed this stage of his examination, Ptolemy now finds himself confronted by an immense pair of scales beneath the arms of which are to be seen representations of Anubis, the jackal-headed guide of souls, and Horus the falcon-headed son of Osiris. One pan of the scales contains an object, shaped like a small urn, symbolizing the heart of the deceased, "considered to be the seat of intelligence and thus the instigator of man's actions and his conscience". In the other pan stands the feather of Maat, symbolizing once again ... Truth.
On this encounter of the heart with Truth everything hinges.
For at this moment an irrevocable Judgement will be passed which will offer the prospect of eternal life to the soul that triumphs, and eternal annihilation to the soul that fails. Beyond the scales is depicted the agency of the soul's extinction: a monstrous hybrid, part crocodile, part lion, part hippopotamus, who is known as Ammit, the "Devourer", the "Eater of the Dead". And beyond Ammit, seated in majesty on his throne at the extreme right of the scene, our eyes are drawn again towards the mummified figure of the star-god Osiris, the agency of the soul's resurrection.
Horus and Anubis test the scales, and proceed to measure the weight. Meanwhile, to the immediate right of the scales, between the deceased and the snarling, slavering jaws of Ammit, we observe the tall ibis-headed figure of Thoth, the "personification of the mind of god ... the all-pervading and directing power of heaven and earth ... the inventor of astronomy and astrology, the science of numbers and mathematics, geometry and land surveying". Mysteriously referred to in archaic inscriptions as "three times great, great", Thoth was the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, "the recorder of souls", who - from Ptolemaic times onwards - would also come to be known to the Greeks under the name of Hermes Trismegistus ("Hermes the Thrice Great"). In the Judgement Scene he is shown as a powerful man dressed in a short tunic, wearing his characteristic avian head-mask. In his left hand he holds up a palette and in his right a fine reed pen.
Heart and feather stand poised in equilibrium, as they must if the soul is to be admitted to the afterlife kingdom of Osiris.
Horus confirms the balance.
Anubis announces the verdict.
Thoth records ...
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