Book of the Dead
Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
This lesson introduces students to the writing, art, and religious beliefs of ancient Egypt through hieroglyphs, one of the oldest writing systems in the world, and through tomb paintings. Hieroglyphs consist of pictures of familiar objects that represent sounds. They were used in ancient Egypt from about 3100 BCE to 400 CE.
In the first part of this lesson, the class creates a pictorial alphabet of its own and then learns and uses the symbols of the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet. In the second part of the lesson, students identify and represent in their own drawings figures from the Book of the Dead, a funereal text written on papyrus and carved on the walls of tombs to help guide the deceased through the afterlife.
What are some ways people have used to communicate in the past and the present? What writing systems have been developed in other cultures at other times? What can tomb paintings tell us about ancient religious beliefs in Egypt?
The ancient Egyptians drew (and carved) figures of gods and goddesses, people, animals, and everyday objects on tomb and temple walls, stellae, obelisks, and papyrus. They believed in the magical quality of these figures. For example, they believed that after a body was placed in a tomb and the doors were sealed, the figures on the walls (and even models of figures made of clay) would come alive to serve the deceased in the afterlife. For this reason, pharaohs and nobles had plenty of pictures (and figures) of servants to wait on them for all eternity!
Sacred Texts were placed in the tombs of the Egyptian elite to guide the soul of the deceased through various obstacles as it journeyed between this world and the next. These texts included special words and phrases (known as spells) that, if uttered at particular times and places, enabled the soul to arrive at the edge of the land of the dead. During the Old Kingdom (the earliest period of dynastic Egyptian history, dating from the third millennium BC), these writings were carved onto the walls of the pyramids of the pharaohs and their queens. The texts were accompanied by illustrations of the soul's perilous journey and eventual arrival in the land of the dead. (These are known as the Pyramid Texts.)
During the Middle Kingdom (beginning in 2055 BCE), passages and drawings from the Pyramid Texts were painted directly onto the wooden coffins of wealthy nobles and Egyptian royalty. (They are known as the Coffin Texts.) During the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE), sacred funereal texts (and illustrations) were painted on papyrus scrolls. These were in large part derived from the earlier texts and are referred to as individual versions of The Book of the Dead. A scroll was rolled up and placed in a special container in the coffin beside the body. In addition to the scrolls, many pharaohs who were buried in the Valley of the Kings had copies of The Book of the Dead carved and painted on the walls and ceilings of their tombs.
An important part of The Book of the Dead was a pictorial description of the drama that would supposedly unfold when the soul arrived in the land of the dead. The soul (which resembled the deceased person) was first greeted by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, who posed a number of questions about the quality of the person's life on earth. (The appropriate answers were conveniently written above the drawings for easy reference.) Then Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummies, placed the heart of the deceased on a scale. If it balanced with a feather (this symbolized truth and goodness), the soul would go on to enjoy a very pleasant afterlife. But if the heart was heavier than a feather, a monster named Ammut (part hippo, part lion, and part crocodile) was waiting to gobble it (the soul) up! Thoth, the ibis-headed god of scribes, stood by the scales, ready to write down the verdict, while 42 other gods sat in judgment. Overseeing the ceremony was Ma'at, the goddess of truth. (She's easy to spot - she has a feather on her head!) Because the ancient Egyptians believed in magic, they assumed that everything depicted in the paintings of the Book of the Dead would actually occur once the tomb was sealed.
Go to the EDSITEment-reviewed website Metropolitan Museum. This is a fragment from The Book of the Dead found in a tomb dating from about 1000 BCE. Also you can view larger version of the graphic, without the text. Print copies of the graphic for your students.
Explain to the students about the Book of the Dead, referring to information in the Introduction. Then go to the Metropolitan Museum. Read aloud the description of the Book of the Dead to the students. Point out the figures of the soul and the various gods in the image as you come across them in the text.
Go to the The Detroit Institute of Art page for the Papyrus of Nes-Min. This is a papyrus fragment found in a tomb dating from 300 BCE. Read the description aloud. Have the students identify the various figures in the picture.
Now navigate to the Oriental Institute of Chicago, Highlights page. Scroll down to the Book of the Dead. Click on the picture to enlarge it. This is another fragment of the Book of the Dead dating from around 300 BCE. Read the description with the students.
Discuss with the students what they've learned about the picture story of The Book of the Dead. Then hand out the copies of the graphic you printed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Talk about the various figures, noting the special attributes of each one. Notice that some have animal heads or bodies, others don't. The falcon at the top is Horus, son of Osiris and protector of the living pharaoh. This time Thoth appears as a baboon. (The Egyptian gods were often depicted in more than one way.) You might also want to display colored pictures of the Egyptian deities (Anubis, Osiris, Horus, Ma'at, and Thoth) found in books in your school library. Have each student choose a favorite figure from the Book of the Dead.
Hand out large pieces of paper and markers or crayons. Have the students draw their figures. Those who are ambitious might even try to write the name of the figure in hieroglyphs. When the drawings are finished, have each student share his or hers with the class, explaining who it is and what his or her special functions might be. Later, hang the figures near the exhibit of hieroglyphs for all to enjoy.
Now that the students have some background about Egyptian writing, art, and religious beliefs, gather a collection of colorfully illustrated books about ancient Egyptian culture from your school library. Many stories are currently available which can be read aloud to the children. The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1989) is a favorite with this age group. Older children could do research projects on their favorite gods or goddesses, finding stories about them derived from ancient Egyptian mythology. Material on this subject is available at EDSITEment-reviewed websites, including Exploring Ancient World Cultures, Odyssey Online, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2 class periods