For ancient Egyptians, death was the easy part. Gaining eternity was, regardless of rank, a journey that makes Dante's Inferno look like a walk in the park. And though they could not buy their way into the afterlife, those with means definitely had a strong advantage. That is the context of "To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
More than 100 objects spanning 4,000 years illustrate the evolution of a complex system of beliefs and rituals regarding the departure from this life and entry into the next. The twist is that the exhibition generally looks at the perspective of people of more modest means. We're used to seeing the whiz-bang regalia of pharaohs. But what about the Egyptian equivalent of Joe the Plumber, who cared just as much about immortality as King Tut?
We see how those lower on the food chain emulated as best they could the surface feeders and understand that it wasn't just for show. How one was buried and with what accoutrements were, literally, life and death issues. Amassing the money needed to pay for a proper sendoff could take years.
Preservation of the body was paramount, as was specific identification by name. Different levels of mummification were available, and whether you got the full treatment, in which most of the organs were removed and everything encased in resin, or a simple wash-and-wrap job, depended on your budget. The heart, considered to control thought and emotion, was left in the body. The brain, not believed to have value, was destroyed. In this show, a man named Demetrios was someone of means; his remains are stored in gold-washed linen and his portrait, painted in encaustic, is fitted on his head. Not so lucky was the stonecutter who could afford only a wooden tag inscribed with his name. Presumably his body was not embalmed as elaborately as Demetrios' so his body was lost to time.
The goal was to arrive in the netherworld beneath the earth, undertake a perilous journey by boat, avoid the onslaughts of demons and find an advantageous spot to settle down permanently. The body was needed to act as a sort of template for the soul's resettlement, which took on a life of its own.
The soul was able to function corporeally after death, eating and drinking. And traveling. A fear was that it would take off and not return to the body. So there were ritual chants and amulets that discouraged such truancy. Those with the means had tablets inscribed with incantations and descriptions from The Book of the Dead for every stage of the journey, a cheat sheet in case they were unprepared. Examples of these objects are in the show along with a papyrus fragment from the book.
A coffin was essential to this journey, acting as a protective case and safe haven for the soul in the netherworld. Its importance was based on the myth of Osiris, the first king of Egypt, who was murdered by his brother Seth (sometimes spelled Set) by sealing him in a coffin (made to fit his body perfectly) and throwing it in the Nile. Osiris' wife Isis found the coffin and managed to revive him long enough to conceive a son, Horus, who eventually defeated Seth. Osiris continued to the netherworld and ruled as its king. The evolution of the myth, embroidered with more elaborations through the centuries, was the prototype for all Egyptian funerals. The wood coffin, for example, was constructed to resemble a human shape and painted with references to Osiris, who passed judgment on all who entered the afterlife.
A curious custom that seems to have become common was the recycling of funeral objects. Even pharaohs were not above the practice; scholars believe King Tut's coffin was originally made for an earlier, wealthier king. There are several examples of this repurposing and the intriguing, unresolved question of how Egyptians reconciled their reverence for custom with the practicalities of economy.
Unlike other large shows of Egyptian antiquities I have seen, this one is not intended to inspire awe. It gives us a sense of how real people coped with the exigencies of life and aspirations in death. Because so much time is covered, we also see how many practices changed. And though it dwells on the nonrich a lot, most of the objects belonged to those with some means. The poorest people probably could not afford even a simple coffin.
The Brooklyn Museum, which organized the show from its own enormous, world-famous collection, sent few objects made of precious metals and gems. But I really like the show. It has a clear mission and makes sense of the carved stones and old statues that tend to make our eyes glaze over in many antiquities shows. The wall labels are especially well done and the catalog, for sale in the museum store, has a wonderful essay about the cost of a funeral. The Ringling is offering family-friendly tours every Saturday and has a free activity guide and interactive area for younger visitors.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.