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This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Pictures from a Library
Pictures from the Rylands Library
‘A Life Beyond Life’ in the Book of the Dead
Stella Halkyard
Hieroglyphic Manuscript P3, Book of the Dead, 1st-2nd Century BCE

Books, according to John Milton, contain ‘a potency of life… as active as that soul whose progeny they are’. They ‘preserve as in a vial the pure efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’. They are ‘the master spirit embalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life’. In other words books never die for they are ‘as living in the minds or thoughts of readers, literally inhabiting the minds of others… in the readerly mind rethought’ (Andrew Bennett).

Putting to one side the fact that the Book of the Dead shown here is the product of an entire culture rather than an individual, an ancient Egyptian might have felt Milton’s vision of a book’s power to ensure a ‘life beyond life’ a failure of ambition. For this ‘book’, a collection of magical spells, in the form of a hieroglyphic scroll written on papyrus by an unknown hand long before the Common Era, is designed as a practical guide. Its aim was to assist the deceased owner avoid the hazards of their journey through the afterlife so they could be ‘absorbed in the great rhythm of the universe’ for all eternity (H. Frankfort).

But before the deceased could embark upon their quest they first had to undergo the trial of a Second Death known as the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony shown above. At the centre of this cosmic drama Maat, goddess of truth (identified by a feather) ...

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