Friday, November 13, 2015

"DEATH ON THE NILE: A Post-Mortem On Ancient Beliefs" (Imaginary TED talk)

Maybe a time to ask: what do we believe about death today?

[Imagine a TED talk given by my fictional, renegade Egyptologist Anson Hunter on the subject of death and the afterlife.]

"Were the ancient Egyptians right, or wrong, in their beliefs about death and the afterlife? Do we survive?
Think of this presentation as an inquest into death and survival, where you in the audience are the coroner.

You’ll notice that a large black dog has followed me on stage and is sitting here watching. Two reasons. His name is Anubis and he represents the black jackal-dog of the dead in ancient Egypt. The black jackal-dog was said to guard the necropolis and early archaeologists used to follow their tracks to find tombs.

He also represents the black dog of depression. You see, I’ve been in some deep, dark places in my life that were not always tomb shafts, underground sanctuaries, or tomb pits like the ones in my photos.

They’re inside me. And I’ve never been alone in these places. The 'black dog' of depression lopes along behind me. So I’m peculiarly qualified to talk about this very dark subject. I’ve lived closer to death than most of you out there. I dwell on it. Hell, I’m probably half in love with it and the whole death taboo thing, although I must say I have a horror of modern day graveyards.

Death of the ancient variety has been my teacher as an Egyptologist. Ancient Egypt is the great university of death. Death and the funerary beliefs of ancient Egypt taught me everything I know. Without their funerary practice and belief in survival, I’d be pretty much in the dark about this mysterious ancient civilization. So would we all. No tombs. No Tutanhamun. No Nefertiti… well, that’s a work in progress.

So let’s start with a dissection. I’m not going to unravel and cut open a mummy in front of you today the way they did for Victorian audiences – here's one being performed by Margaret Murray in front of an audience of 500 at Manchester Museum.

A literal public dissection of death and the mummy

But I’d like to reveal just how seriously the Egyptians took it.

Ancient Egypt is the only civilization in history that directed government funded research into death and what comes next.

They threw everything at it, the state, religion, their entire culture. 
The Egyptians truly believed. People are wrong to imagine that cynical priests pretended to believe and merely went through the motions when they presented offerings and prayers and burnt incense in front of tombs. They believed unshakably in an afterlife. They lived in an age where humankind and gods, the living and the dead, and the forces of good and evil, existed side by side in two parts that held the universe together. In today’s age that denies god and laughs at the devil, people can’t see both sides. But they need to believe in the light and the shadow and to hold both in their minds, not least the shadow. The shadow gives things shape and form. Without it there’s just blinding, unrelieved glare, like the sunlit desert.

Was the Egyptians’ afterworld a physical place? Or just a different reality, a sort of virtual world created by a civilization’s collective unconscious and sustained by its religion? 

Do I believe in survival after death? I’m unusual in that I grant value to the sacred of ancient Egypt. Also, I haven’t let go of Christianity. So you are not going to get the knee-jerk agnostic reflex about religion that mainstream academics feel obliged to display. Some days, when I think about it, I say no. But what about when I don’t think about it, but merely feel it, at a deeper level?’

Humans, they say, are the only creatures that must live life with the knowledge that one day they’re going to die and our culture is the world of distraction we create around ourselves to shield us from this knowledge. But the Egyptians’ culture did not serve as a mere distraction from the pitiless cruelty of death. Instead their culture came to grips with death in an attempt to overcome its tyranny. The glowing painted underworlds of the tombs, the Books of Coming Forth By Day, or the Book of the Dead as they called these religious texts - were grappling with the ‘first mystery’- death and the afterlife. 

The early pyramids were like nationally financed space-shots designed to launch the god-king pharaoh into the hereafter and a collective salvation for all Egyptians. The Egyptians even had maps showing the routes to the underworld painted on the bases of coffins.

Carl Jung asserted that ‘The unconscious psyche believes in life after death. The founder of analytical psychology wrote of a near-death experience after a heart attack and reported a spiritual existence outside of his body.

The architecture of tombs may also reflect modern ideas about death. So-called Near Death Experiences. OR NDE’s.

There is a theory about Palaeolithic cave art, that it is the result of a cave in the mind, created there by the wiring of the human nervous system, and that deep caves inspired the idea of a subterranean spirit-world. In a cave, the mind is said to fill the space with spirit-animals and beings.

Are the tombs of Egypt also the result of our internal wiring? The tomb in the mind? Or is the Egyptian tomb the mirror of something else – death itself?

Like the modern NDE?
I am interested in the theory that the Egyptian tomb may have been inspired by the so-called Near Death Experience. Consider how closely an Egyptian tomb echoes the classic NDE. Both involve a journey along a tube-like passage, with surrounding ministering beings, and both come to a scene of judgement where the dead person reflects on his life and answers for his actions. Was it something experiential, and not just spiritual and intellectual, that inspired the Egyptian tomb and religion?

The record is filled with people, some scientists and doctors, who have experienced NDE’s where they entered a bright tunnel of light and found themselves in so-called heaven with their friends and families.
Cynics say they are experiencing graphic, neuro-chemical spasms of an oxygen-starved brain, or perhaps the tricks of demons. 

The Egyptians regarded tombs and sarcophagi as resurrection machines. That’s why they were quite happy to recycle the machinery of death and resurrection. We have plenty of evidence of reuse of coffins by the ancient Egyptians. And also of the re-use of tombs, secondary interment by later generations.

The Egyptians even wrote letters to their dead. They wrote pleading letters to the dead on the sides of offering bowls imploring the dead to come to their aid and provide guidance with the insoluble problems of living. “Why are you punishing me when I treated you so well in life?” an aggrieved husband writes to his wife.

Maybe we can all learn from the ancient Egyptians and should start writing our own letters to the dead. It could be extremely cathartic and save years of expensive analysis. (Mumble into microphone) Make note to write a tetchy letter to my dead Egyptologist father who abandoned me as a child.

Think how many millions lived and died over Egypt’s long history. While other empires lasted a century or so, Egypt’s lasted for thousands of years.
Consider some recent estimates. If you take the average population of ancient Egypt at around three million and you say the civilization spanned around three thousand five hundred years, then some five and a quarter billion people lived and died on the Nile. Who are we to say that the ancients were wrong? That they went to their graves resting on a broken reed, believing in a non-existent eternity?

Standing beside mummies, it’s easy to understand what attracts people to the ‘first mystery’, death, to the gods and the magical afterlife of Egypt. There are few subjects on earth, or beneath it, quite so compelling.
The ancient Egyptians gave birth to the idea of heaven, the first to set out their beliefs clearly in texts and illustrations, while others, such as the Israelites, still believed that at death a person entered a dark realm of nothingness called Sheol.

I sometimes wonder if they achieved some sort of ghostly existence within the withered husks of their remains, suspended, like their bodies, in stasis, where the relative motions of space and time no longer operate.

So what is your post-mortem verdict? Were the ancient Egyptians on to something? The conviction about the afterlife carved on the tomb walls and monuments of Egypt urges me to believe. But the veil of mystery remains. Perhaps we were not meant to have the truth exposed so that we can endure this life.
Thank you. And thank you to the black dog Anubis for sitting here as patient as death itself."