August 12, 2020
A woman with the familiar name of Ankh was found in a tomb with the earliest illustrated book for how to become a god in the afterlife.

A team of researchers has unearthed the remains of a 4,000-year-old “Book of Two Ways,” which the New York Times calls “the earliest known copy of the first illustrated book” and could also be the earliest known maps from any culture. The “illustrated guidebook to the afterlife” was painted on the floor of coffins.

Coffin_of_Gua
Map of the netherworld from the coffin of Gua, from Deir el-Bersha, Egypt. 12th Dynasty, 1985-1795 BC. from the British Museum via Wikipedia

The tomb remained undiscovered after a team a century earlier discovered that looters had been there and incorrectly thought nothing was remaining to be found.

The “book” serves as a guidebook to help an elite woman named Ankh navigate the afterlife and the “two ways” of passing by land and by water. If she was able to cast the right spells and follow incredibly complex instructions, it was believed she could become a god in the next life.

Times author Franz Lidz wrote:

“The two journeys were a kind of purgatorial odyssey reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons: extraordinarily arduous, and so fraught with peril that they necessitated mortuary guidebooks like ‘The Book of Two Ways’ to accompany a person’s spirit and ensure its safe passage. (The ‘two ways’ refer to the options a soul had for navigating the Underworld: one by land, the other by water.) Among other annoyances, the deceased had to contend with demons, scorching fire and armed doorkeepers, who protected the dead body of Osiris against gods bent on preventing his rebirth, according to Harco Willems, an Egyptologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Success in the afterlife required an aptitude for arcane theology, a command of potent resurrection spells and incantations, and a knowledge of the names not just of Underworld doorkeepers but also of door bolts and floorboards.”

Ankh’s coffin with the inscribed “book” was discovered in a cliff-side necropolis called Deir el-Bersha along the eastern shore of the Nile River. The rotting cedar panels were found 20 feet down, and researchers carefully handled the brittle pieces of 4000-year-old wood. Only later, using the latest technology, would they realize the importance of their discovery.

Using software called DStretch, usually used to enhance rock art, the team discovered ancient engravings. Almost all the paint was missing, but the software can analyze scratches in the wood.

A “jumble of bones” was found in the shaft, which belonged to the woman named Ankh. Strangely, the book refers to her as a “he,” as was customary at the time.

Dr. Harco Willems, an Egyptologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium led the team and commented on why she was labeled he:

“To me, what’s funny is the idea that how you survive in the netherworld is expressed in male terms,” Dr. Willems said. To the ancient Egyptians, creation and regeneration were solely the province of male gods. “Goddesses were believed to be protective vessels,” Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. In the engraving, “the pronoun ‘he’ was essential even for female deceased people because they needed to be like Osiris.”

The Ankh

Of course, the word, “Ankh” is familiar as one of the most recognizable symbols from ancient Egypt, and known as “the key of life” that unlocks the passageway in the journey to the afterlife.

The origin of the Ankh is unknown, but historians date the symbol’s appearance to the Early Dynastic Period (c3150 – 2613 BCE) when the cults of Isis and Osiris became popular. Initially, the cult of Osiris was more popular as “the god who died and returned to life, thus bringing life to others.”

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the Ankh symbol was adopted by Coptic Christians in the 4th century CE as a symbol of Christ’s promise of everlasting life.

“The symbol is an Egyptian hieroglyph for “life” or “breath of life” (`nh = ankh) and, as the Egyptians believed that one’s earthly journey was only part of an eternal life, the ankh symbolizes both mortal existence and the afterlife.”

Ancient Origins notes that the “map” to the afterlife is more of a “psychological road map for the soul” rather than a literal map. Since it is 4000-years-old, it predates the later works known as the Book of the Dead with its 1,185 spells and incantations. 

The article describes how the deceased could expect to navigate a series of gates with uniquely strange guardians.

“During the deceased’s journey they must navigate through two regions separated by a wall of darkness and the first has four gates while the second has three, and each gate has its own guardian. The Ancient Egypt Online article details some of these guardians and perhaps the two most interesting are associated with the third gate of the first section, who is described as “He who eats the droppings of his hinder parts,” and the middle gate of the second section is protected by “He who lives on Maggots.”

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the Book of Two Ways was one of the Coffin Texts that opened up the doors of an afterlife to anyone, from nobility to ordinary people. Before that, the concept of an afterlife was reserved for the elite.

“The texts, a collection of ritual texts, hymns, prayers, and magic spells, which were meant to help the deceased in his journey to the afterlife, originated from the Pyramid Texts, a sequence of mainly obscure spells carved on the internal walls of the pyramids of the Old Kingdom. The Pyramid Texts were exclusively for the king and his family, but the Coffin Texts were used mainly by the nobility and high-ranking officials, and by ordinary people who could afford to have them copied. The Coffin Texts meant that anyone, regardless of rank and with the help of various spells, could now have access to the afterlife.”

So the Book of Two Ways from the grave of Ankh is one of the earliest sets of instructions for democratizing the afterlife, regardless of gender or social status.


Featured image: Ankh image via Pixabay

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