Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Die like an Egyptian

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 16 November 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6478
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}

The ancient Egyptians believed that beautifully illustrated spells would guide them to paradise after death. The British Museum provides a unique opportunity to see these fragile papyruses, some more than 3500 years old, explains Wendy Moore

As if the ancient Egyptians did not have enough to contend with in daily life—what with marauding crocodiles, venomous snakes, and locust plagues—they were convinced that after death they had to negotiate a perilous journey to reach paradise.

Surviving this gruelling voyage through an underworld populated by vengeful gods and terrifying demons required all the ingenuity a wandering spirit could muster. And so the resourceful builders of the pyramids armed their deceased with a handy pocket-sized scroll that contained all the spells and guidance that might conceivably be needed to attain eternal life.

Combining map, passport, and travel guide—a kind of Rough Guide to Hell—these papyruses became known collectively as “the book of the dead.” Skilfully inked in black and red hieroglyphics, lavishly illustrated in vivid colours, and lovingly personalised to suit each individual’s likely passage, these exquisite artefacts provide a key to understanding the rich belief system of …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription