Book of the dead
Today I am going to tell you the story of the Last judgement of Hu-Nefer directly from one of the most famous Books of the dead! Ancient Egyptian Art: Last judgement of Hu-Nefer
NAME Last judgement of Hu-Nefer
LOCATION British Museum, London
YEAR 1310 BC
Hi everyone and welcome back!
We are in the fascinating Ancient Egyptian Art and in the previous post I anticipated that today we would have learned more about the Book of the Dead. I picked a specific scene that is emblematic to understand better the Egyptian culture and their approach to the death: the Last Judgement of Hu-Nefer.
Egyptians did not have real “books”, but they used papyrus scrolls. And this papyrus is really important for the good state of preservation and the clear and beautiful hieroglyphics and vignettes (illustrations) drawn and painted. From this book was possible to make interesting discoveries even if a lot of meaning are still mysterious.
Book of the Dead…?
But what is a “Book of the Dead”? It is an ancient text filled with spells, prayers and incantations to help the dead in the afterlife. Actually the Egyptians had other names for these texts depending on their types, but we know how much death was important for them to move to a different dimension of their “lives”.
It is a tradition in fact that started way back to the Old Kingdom (c. 2649-2150 BC) when the “instructions” for the afterlife were written inside the pyramids: pyramid texts. In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2030-1640 BC) the inscriptions were over the coffins so we talk about coffin texts and then during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC) Egyptian started to use scrolls.
The one we are looking at today is dated c. 1310 BC and it was found in the tomb of someone named Hu-Nefer, a scribe.
A scribe at that time had a very important role in the society, at the same level of priests and the quality of the papyrus is an evidence of Hu-Nefer’s status. It is important to say in fact that in the Old Kingdom texts were originally just for the royal family and just later they started to be used outside the family, but still for people of high rank.
And actually Hu-Nefer was called “Royal Scribe” and “Scribe of Divine Offerings”, titles that indicate he was close to the king.
This Book of the Dead was made for Hu-Nefer when he died and we can see him: he is the crouching figure in white at the top left of the image. He is depicted while he is praying to a line of deities (gods) professing the good life he lived and hoping to earn a place in the afterlife.
But…it is not so easy… Hu-Nefer needs to be judged for his life and the main scene represents this process. Ancient Egyptian Art: Last judgement of Hu-Nefer
Starting from the left we can see once again the scribe with the same white robe led by hand by Anubis, the god with a jackal head associated with the dead (and mummification and cemeteries). Anubis is carrying an ankh, a symbol of eternal life and that’s exactly what Hu-Nefer is after.
After this first scene we have a second with Anubis crouched and adjusting a scale. Why? Well because this is the central moment of the judgment: on the left side of the scale there is Hu-Nefer’s heart represented by a small jar and on the right a feather from Ma’at. Ma’at, that we can see at the very top of the scale, is the deity associated with the divine order: with living an ethical, ordered life. If the heart is lighter Hu-Nefer deserves the afterlife, if the heart is heavier he is going to be devoured by Ammit, the evil-looking beast next to Anubis.
That was the way how the Egyptians believed to be judged and Hu-Nefer passed the test. The feather is heavier and the next deity with the head of an ibis, Thoth, is reporting that the scribe can move to afterlife.
Now we can see again Hu-Nefer, this time introduced to Osiris, one of the supreme gods, by his son Horus. Horus is associated with a falcon and here has a falcon’s head. In his left hand he is holding the ankh: the “ticket” for Hu-Nefer’s afterlife.
Osiris is enthroned in a beautiful and rich enclosure, he is carrying the symbols of Egypt and he is surrounded by other deities and many symbols. Among them we can see two standing female figures behind Osiris: his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys who is the guardian of afterlife and mother of Anubis.
In front of them Hu-Nefer is blessed with the afterlife thanks to his ethical life and we are able to enjoy this fascinating path!
Please watch the video to learn other details and play with the interactive image below to find out the many symbols and secrets of this amazing work of art.
Thanks for reading and see you in the next post!