So, which tourist guide to the afterlife is best?
As you are about to discover, it can be a very dangerous place, even when you are already dead…
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Also known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day.
One classic scene in Spell 125 is where the scribe Hunefer’s heart is weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by jackal-headed Anubis. Ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result.
If his heart exactly equals the weight of the feather Hunefer is allowed to pass to the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit composed of crocodile, lion and hippopotamus.
Talk about Hungry, Hungry Hippos!
It is a loose collection of texts, first found around 1600 BC, consisting of a number of magic spells written in hieroglyphics or hieratic on papyrus, intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat or underworld and into the afterlife.
The Book would be placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased.
Some people commissioned their own versions choosing the most vital spells.
Some 192 spells are currently known. They may give mystical knowledge in the afterlife or identify the deceased with the gods. Some are to preserve and reunite elements of the deceased and give them control of the world around them, protect them from hostile forces or guide them through the underworld past obstacles.
Mystical names of entities are included to give the deceased power over them.
Amulets feature heavily, as does the magical healing power of saliva.
The Books are often ordered into four sections:-
(1) The deceased enters the tomb, descends to the underworld and the body regains its powers of movement and speech.
(2) Explanation of the mythic origin of gods and places, the deceased are made to live again so that they may arise, reborn, with the morning sun.
(3) The deceased travels across the sky in the sun ark as one of the blessed dead. In the evening the deceased travels to the underworld to appear before Osiris.
(4) Vindicated, the deceased assumes power in the universe as one of the gods. Has bonus material on amulets, food and important locations.
Mummification is to preserve and transform the body into sah, an idealised form with divine aspects, with spells to preserve and also protect the heart, seen as essential, and with jewelled heart scarabs buried as a back up.
The ka or life force remained with the body in the tomb and required sustenance by offerings of food, water and incense, with Spell 105 as backup to satisfy the ka.
The name of the dead person was required for their continued existence and so written throughout the book with Spell 25 ensuring the dead would remember it.
The ba was the spirit depicted by a human-headed bird, which could “go forth by day” from the tomb into the world, Spells 61 and 89 would preserve it.
The shut, or shadow of the deceased was preserved by Spells 91, 92 and 188.
If all went to plan, the dead person would live on as an akh, a blessed spirit with magical powers who would dwell among the gods.
The dead would be taken into the presence of the god Osiris, who was in the subterranean Duat. Spells enabled the ba or akh of the dead to join Ra as he travelled the sky in his sun-barque and help him fight off Apep. Maybe give Ra a-Pep talk.
Alternatively the dead can live in the Field of Reeds, a paradisiac likeness of the real world, lush and plentiful.
You might encounter the Great Ennead, a group of gods, as well as your ancestors, and acquire some divine characteristics.
Manual labour is expected in the Field of Reeds, statuettes inscribed with spells were included in burials to do any of that kind of heavy lifting.
But the path to the afterlife is tricky. Passing gates, caverns and mounds guarded by supernatural creatures, grotesque and armed with enormous knives, often with animal heads and parts.
Luckily they could be pacified by reciting the appropriate spells, and may then even offer protection. Phew!
Oh yes, also watch out for slaughterers, who helpfully kill the unrighteous on behalf of Osiris, luckily the Book of the Dead protects you from these, as well as crocodiles, snakes and beetles.
No, not those Beatles!
Then it is that scary weighing of the heart thing. Drama!
Led by Anubis, watched by Osiris. The dead person swears they have not committed any of a list of 42 sins, reciting the Negative Confession.
Their heart is weighed against goddess Maat, embodiment of truth and justice, represented by an ostrich feather. Spell 30B prevents the heart spilling the beans about sins. Handy! Knowing the name of the judges also helps.
If the scales then balance, Anubis takes them vindicated to Osiris.
Otherwise it is “eat your heart out” Ammit style. Dammit!
The longest Book of the Dead found is 40m long.
Black carbon based ink was used, with red ochre based ink for titles and openings and closings of spells, spell instructions and names of dangerous creatures such as the demon Apep.
There were often lavish illustrations.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Also known as Bardo Thodol, Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State.
It is to guide through the experiences the consciousness has after death, the bardo, before rebirth.
Thought to be composed in the 8th century, and buried in Tibet before discovery in the 14th century.
It is part of a larger work, Karma Lingpa’s Peaceful and Wrathful Ones.
Once out of the body, potentially confused awareness creates reality like in a dream.
There are three bardos in the Bardo Thodol:-
(1) Bardo of the moment of death, featuring the experience of the Clear Light of the Ultimate Reality. Ideally the savvy soul will recognise and stick with this bit, especially if it is meditated on whilst alive and reminded of at the time of death.
With an attitude of love and compassion one must realise they are Ultimate Reality and they will then attain liberation. Otherwise there is the Secondary Clear Light and second chance to make that realisation or failing that to succeed through mediating on your favourite deity or an Avatar. Failing that, you descend into the Second Bardo…
(2) Bardo of the experiencing of reality, experiencing visions of various Buddha forms. This lasts two lonnng weeks. First you meet the Peaceful Deities. The reaction to these and effects of any bad karma is key. Temporary heaven and hell, with its full smoke-coloured light are possibilities, with the cycle of death and rebirth waiting. Liberation is the only way out. Other fates can be fast-track return to Earth as human or animal, or rebirth in the world of hungry ghosts or fierce warrior demons. Yikes! The deities met seem to gradually get worse. But then it is week two, the Wrathful Deities, who as pretty hardcore, but must be faced without fear. They are just the Peaceful ones in disguise, and illusions from your own mind, you may still attain the second degree of Liberation. Or wander to the Third Bardo…
(3) Bardo of rebirth, featuring karmically impelled hallucinations, typically yab-yum imagery of men and women passionately entwined. The Lord of Death with the Mirror of Karma is also knocking about here. You need to recognise it all as projections from your own mind. Or you are off to Rebirth via one of the six Lokas, the shiniest looking, don’t try to hide in any caves- they are entrances to wombs! You could still attain the third degree of liberation even now instead, if you play it cool.
The other bardos are waking consciousness, meditation and the dream state.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is used during life by Dzogchen Buddhists to learn to visualise what will come after death.
English translations may often be skewed by Theosophical or Jungian interpretations.
Aldous Huxley introduced The Tibetan Book of the Dead to Timothy Leary, who found parallels in LSD effects, including stripping away of ego defences.
It has inspired many musical and cinematic works, some of the best being the movies Jacob’s Ladder and Enter The Void.
Then there is horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a different type of Book of the Dead. Said to be a fictional grimoire, containing accounts of the Old Ones, guarded by Yog-Sothoth and how to summon them, written by a crazed Arab, translated by John Dee, studying it leads to a sticky end. It is mentioned in many of Lovecraft’s novels. Pranksters often add the book to library catalogues. A number of hoax versions have been released, and it is now embedded in popular culture.
Well, I hope I have put that topic to bed, best wishes in the afterlife, don’t say I didn’t warn you, though I wouldn’t be seen dead in any of those freaky places, personally…