Homage to thee, O RA… Thou art adored.
Thou goest to thy setting in the Solar Boat with fair winds, and thy heart is glad…
Thou stridest over the heavens in peace, all thy foes being cast down.
The stars which never rest hymn thee, and the stars which never vanish glorify thee as thou sinkest to rest…
Thou art beautiful at morn and at eve, O thou Living Lord, the Unchanging One, my Lord.
(“Papyrus of Ani”, A Hymn to Ra when he rises on the horizon and when he sets in the Land of Life)
It begins in Egypt.
The first voyage was up the river Nile. We were a group of four friends in search of artistic and spiritual inspiration, and winter sun. It was the Arab Spring, a time of great hope but also unrest in Egypt. The resulting dearth of visitors was tough on the tourist industry but fortunate for us, allowing us access to the sites without queues or crowds; a rare opportunity to tune into the spirit of Ancient Egypt, where it all began.
The sun burns bigger and brighter in Egypt, the muezzin’s call resonates more vibrantly through the desert air.
Every evening the sun set in splendour over the Nile, with a heart-stirring poignancy for Basil and I. For twelve years we had been ruled by enjoyed the companionship of Ra, a charismatic Siamese cat.
Only two weeks before this voyage Ra had left us and we were bereft. Now we could only remember him at the rising and going down of the sun, the Solar Boat of his namesake. In Egypt we felt closer to him, where you can still sense the outline of the mighty solar barque as it arcs through the heavens on its stately progress.
We also met Ra again in the living, breathing beauty of pigment and stone, ancient animal gods adorning the walls of temples and tombs. We were not prepared for the wealth of monuments and artefacts still standing, especially after the bareness of Greek and Turkish sites we had visited from where the British had sailed off with shiploads of antiquities, while the Germans had taken most of the rest.
As part of our preparation for this voyage we had visited an exhibition of the Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum in London, a stunning display of illuminated manuscripts. Yet even this did not prepare us for the impact of seeing the originals in situ. Walking through a desert tomb brings to vivid life the original, more poetic title of the sacred text: Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. Like the better known, though later, Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is a guide for the long, complicated journey of the soul through the bardo: the liminal state of being between death and rebirth.
Death is not the end: there are many hoops to jump through before you reach your final destination. There are many obstacles to be overcome, gates to be passed, monsters to be defeated, traps and snares to be evaded, riddles to be solved and, of course, passwords to be remembered before arriving at the judgement hall of Osiris.
Here Anubis weighs your heart on a scale against the feather of truth. If your heart is totally pure then have no fear, but it is a sensible precaution to school your heart to be silent about any peccadilloes and to not speak out against yourself. In a world where balance and stability are the most fundamental values, only perfect balance will gain your soul entry to its reward.
Otherwise, Ammit (aka “the Devourer”) is lurking below. A slavering monster with the jaws of a crocodile, the strength of a lion and the temper of a hippo, he devours the unfortunates who fail at this final challenge. Looking on the bright side, the Beast is always hungry, so it is a quick final death, unlike the long drawn out tortures imposed in some later productions of the Judgement scene.
Moving swiftly on, the fortunate few who pass the whole series of tests literally reap their reward in the Egyptian paradise: the Field of Reeds. Your prize for triumphing on this most epic, perilous quest is a tiny plot of land on a mythical river much resembling the Nile with a team of oxen to help you plough the land and reap the crops that will feed you in the bardo realm.
How does that appeal to you as a vision of Paradise? A bit rustic perhaps? Or maybe you cherish the dream of a rural idyll – a smallholding with vegetables, chickens and goats? To appreciate the abundance of this prospect you have to take yourself back a few thousand years to a simple tribal society where only a few people are fortunate enough to live out their natural span. What greater happiness can be imagined for the soul liberated from its mortal body than to spend eternity on the banks of the Nile? Every year the Nile bursts its banks and its rich mud fertilizes the surrounding fields, bringing great plenty and prosperity. To be born Egyptian is fortunate. To live by the Nile and work its muddy fields is to be already in paradise. Paradise is enough to eat.
Even in the 21st century, seen from above in a hot-air balloon, the Nile valley is an awe-inspiring prospect. As the sun rises slowly, majestically above the horizon, illuminating the panoramic landscape, you can easily recapture the joy of the ancient Egyptians welcoming the return of the Lord Ra with his life-giving light. As you hover 3000 feet in the air you see, like a green serpent, the river with its verdant, intensively cultivated banks weaving through the desert landscape. Beyond, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
In the beginning it appears that the bardo was a level playing field, however hierarchical the social order in life. True, the rich as ever had unfair advantages. They could afford the expensive funerals and elaborately decorated tombs that were essential preconditions to a successful outcome in the afterlife. They could also pay priests to coach them for the contest, to chant prayers and weave spells for a guaranteed positive result. But, at the end of the day, your soul stands alone in a strange land, pitted against the dark forces of the chthonic deities. The good news for poorer candidates is that nimble wits and a pure heart give you a better crack at it than if you were a wealthy but stupid and corrupt court official.
However, a theological problem arose in Egypt following the elevation of the Pharaohs to semi-divine status as Sons of God. Is it seemly for Great Pharaoh to toil with the peasants in the afterlife? There was already dissatisfaction with traditional eschatology. An eternity of farming sounds fine to a peasant, but for a courtier manual labour is dull and demeaning: “What? Trudge through the mud behind filthy oxen all day? Grind up corn with a stone? That’s what you have slaves for!” Originally the whole tribe had been expected to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand at harvest time, but civilization had brought division of labour. Military service took precedence, and of course the politicians were busy governing the country. The priests’ job is to pray for a good harvest and the scribes write the rules anyway. Obviously exemptions in real life have to carry over to the other side.
The problem was temporarily resolved by the introduction of shabtis, spirit slaves who do all the work for you while you amuse yourself in the happy hunting grounds or lounge on the terrace of your villa sipping lotus wine and watching the sunset, just like home. Bring on the dancing girls! This solution seems to have caught on in a big way, judging by the enormous number of shabtis excavated in graves. I have one myself, standing on my dressing table, but sadly she doesn’t do housework.
Clearly it is time for a new story, and here it is, dreamed up by some bright spark of a young priest in the temple of Heliopolis….