I like museums. I have always liked museums. Especially the British Museum. I don’t want to say it’s an unhealthy obsession but I don’t know anyone else who has visited these items as often as I have.
And I like Ancient Egypt. It’s been an obsession since before I was ten.
But I don’t want you to think this review is biased by either of these factors. Even The Guardian gave it five stars and they don’t like anything. (Seriously, reading The Guardian is like eating high-bran oatmeal. Worthy, boring, unappetising.)
Egypt is something that the British Museum has always done really well. I have visited the closest contender for the title of ‘Best Ancient Egyptian Museum Outside Cairo’ and it really doesn’t compare. Whilst the British Museum was founded on the 17th century obsession with Ancient Greece (we have the tradition of the Grand Tour to thank for so much of its loot), it was the Egyptian displays in the Victorian era that really set it apart.
The Egyptian wing was the epicentre of the London magical world in the 19th century. Samuel Mathers first clapped eyes on Moina as she was sitting in front of a statue of Ramses II, sketching it in her notebook. (It’s another location I visit reasonably often.) It was love-at-first-shared-obsession-with-a-long-dead-foreign-culture. We’ve all been there. It was from here that so many of that crowd was first able to access the poorly-translated primary material that runs through so many cornerstone ceremonies.
So my expectations were extremely high. And they were blown out of the water. You know how I promised to personally escort you through the exhibit? I’m even more serious now. I will see it twenty times.
This is the largest exhibition/collection of books of the dead ever assembled. Thinking about this on the tube back to West London, I want to add another ever at the end of that sentence.
Not even the shops where the scribes worked on them would have had a collection like this. It qualifies as a Significant Magical Event. Especially as so many of the displays are still magically active. Remember that first cigarette you tried as a teenager? And how your head spun and spun? If you ever want to recapture that feeling, it’s available for the reasonable rate of a £15 entry ticket or the cost of my company. (Take the ticket.)
A magical grab bag
There doesn’t seem to be much point in going blow-by-blow through the exhibit, especially as Gandalf himself has personally narrated an introductory video for you.
So instead, I will just give you a few magically-relevant tidbits you may find interesting.
There is no defining copy of the book of the dead. Think of it like the Lonely Planet Guide to the Afterlife meets a choose-your-own-adventure book. You would have the spells you wanted/needed customised for you. (Obviously I knew this already but it was fascinating to get a glimpse of the different personalities of the owners based on their spell choices.)
Historians really need to hang with more wizards. Speaking of customisation, the exhibit closes with a 37 metre book of the dead created for the daughter of the High Priest of Amun; Nesitanebisheru. It curves half way around the Reading Room where Marx, Wilde, Mathers, Crowley, Conan-Doyle et al wrote and is simply staggering.
This sistah quite clearly spent her life messing with magics she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near. And the afterlife was where she called in those chips. Hers is one of the most unique BOTDs ever found. There are two depictions of the weighing of the heart… Here’s where the wizards come in. One is exoteric, one is for initiates. None of this was mentioned and it’s as obvious as the nose that isn’t on the Sphinx’s face.
Nuit also appears and that’s even rarer. It seems our man AC may have picked up on a genuine initiatory current that existed in Ancient Egypt. This squares a few things away for me because Nuit/Geb etc were minor figures in the historic pantheon. Why would they be such big parts of a new cosmology if they weren’t big parts of the one they claimed to hail from? It didn’t make sense to me until now. There’s a Masters thesis in tackling this mystery cult theory for anyone who’s interested.
The best I will do is dedicate a whole ‘Magical History’ post to Nesitanebisheru later.
Her spells certainly worked. You could feel her delighting in all the attention. I’m definitely going to come prepared for that on my next trip. And if I get a few moments to myself in the next couple of months, I may fire up the Buffy Board and see if we can’t have a chat. Because there was certainly some chemistry between us.
Once in the afterlife, your first location was the Field of Reeds: a realm of canals, cities, grain fields, etc where you would till the titular fields for a bit (fuck that) and then meet dear old Mom and Dad. The Egyptian word for ‘reeds’ -iaru or ialu- is the source word for the ‘Elysian’ fields of the Greeks.
You can cure writers block with water. Scribes would pour simple water onto the ground in offering to Thoth as -using these words exactly- “An offering to the Lord of The God’s Words”. (God is singular here.) The offering was made to Thoth as a baboon… Exoterically this form is due to the fact that baboons will “greet” (murderously shriek at) the rising sun but -on an esoteric level- I think we all know that inspiration is sudden, petulant, impulsive and very often stinky… Just like a baboon. It will show up when it wants and it probably doesn’t like you very much. There’s also the mystical “truth” that it is written language alone that separates us from monkeys and Thoth is that bridge. There you go. There’s a free, Ancient Egyptian spell to cure writer’s block for you.
Onion paste was inserted into vaginas to stop menstruation. Actually, this wasn’t part of the exhibit. I learnt this in a book I flipped through -and then instantly put back down- in the gift shop. Granted, I wouldn’t put myself forward as your first port of call when looking for a “Vagina Expert” for a variety of very good reasons but… well… I wouldn’t recommend this spell. The onions were cooked down with wine to make the paste. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a tampon, that’s a pasta sauce. Pasta sauce should go in a completely different hole.
Spell for kindling a torch for the departed
Yes, this might have been better suited to last weekend, but I only saw the exhibit this morning. Here’s one of the few spells that can be performed by someone other than the departed. It’s rather sweet, I think. It reminds me of the Phial of Eärendil in a way. The cinnamon/myrrh combo comes from the same book with all that unhelpful vaginal advice. (Ended up buying it.)
You will need:
- A gold or white candle
- Cinnamon. Optional: can be mixed with myrrh
- Charcoal briquette
What you do:
Light the briquette. Sprinkle on the cinnamon. Light the candle and say:
“This torch is kindled for N.
The Bright Eye of Horus comes, the glorious Eye of Horus comes; welcome, O you who shine like Ra in the horizon. It drives off the powers of Seth from the feet of Him who brings it. It is Seth who would take possession of it, but its heat is against him; the torch comes. When will it arrive? It comes now, traversing the sky behind Ra on the hands of your two sisters, O Ra. Live, live, O Eye of Horus within the Great Hall! Live, live, O Eye of Horus, for he is the Pillar-of-his-Mother priest.”
The last line is presumably the job title of the person for whom the spell is written. Add your relation to the deceased or the reason for sending them the torch. Then set the candle in the window.