In the Hall of the Double Truth (cont)
A Serpent which Cannot Die ...
The urge to read them must be very old because it can be traced back deep into ancient Egyptian times, long before the compilation of the Corpus Hermeticum. For example, a papyrus of the Ptolemaic period preserves the story of a certain Setnau-Khaem-Uast, a son of Rameses II (ruled 12901224 BC), who sought for a "book written by Thoth himself". Information had come Setnau's way, as a result of diligent research, that this book - which was said to contain a spell capable of granting immortality - lay concealed in an antique tomb in the Memphite necropolis (an extensive burial area stretching for some 35 kilometres along the west bank of the Nile from Meidum to Giza):
Setnau went there with his brother and passed three days and nights seeking for the tomb ... and on the third day they found it. Setnau recited some words over it, and the earth opened and they went down to the place where the book was. When the two brothers came into the tomb they found it to be brilliantly lit up by the light which came forth from the book.
Another papyrus, this time from the Middle Kingdom (the Westcar Papyrus, circa 1650 BC), preserves an even older story from the time of Khufu (ruled 25512528 BC), the supposed builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The papyrus speaks of a "building called 'Inventory'", located at the sacred city of Heliopolis (18 kilometres north-east of Giza), in which was stored "a chest of flint" containing a mysterious object that Khufu is reported to have "spent much time searching for". The context suggests it could have been a document of some kind because it recorded the "number of the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth".
It is generally agreed that the Westcar Papyrus reports - or at any rate touches upon - real events. According to Professor I. E. S. Edwards it contains a "kernel of truth" and "was certainly a copy of an older document". Edwards further points out that Heliopolis, the site of the "Inventory Building", had been a centre of astronomical and astrological science in Egypt since times immemorial and that the title of the high priest of that city was "Chief of the Astronomers".
The Egyptologist F. W. Green expresses the opinion that the "Inventory building" could well have been a "chart room" at Heliopolis "or perhaps a 'drawing room' where plans were made and stored". Similarly, Sir Alan H. Gardner argues that "the room in question must have been an archive" and that Khufu "was seeking for details concerning the secret chambers of the primeval sanctuary of Thoth".
The central image of the Westcar Papyrus of some great secret of Thoth lying sealed away in a box is repeated in another text which tells how the wisdom god had deposited one of his books "in an iron box in the middle of the Nile at Coptos" (an ancient site some kilometres to the north of Luxor):
The iron box is in a bronze box, the bronze box is in a box of palm-tree wood, the palm-tree wood box is in a box of ebony and ivory, the ebony and ivory box is in a silver box, the silver box is in a gold box ... The box wherein is the book is surrounded by swarms of serpents and scorpions and reptiles of all kinds, and round it is coiled a serpent which cannot die.
Last but not least amongst many similar sources that we could cite, there is a Coffin Text, circa 1900 BC, that speaks of the journey of the soul towards immortality. "I open the chest of Thoth", states the deceased, "I break the seal ... I open what the boxes of the god contain, I lift out the documents ..."
So there is a sense in all of this that what is weighed in the Judgement Scene at the "weighing of words" must in some way have to do with the possession of knowledge by the deceased, the kind of knowledge that can be inscribed on to tablets of stone or written down in books and "documents".