Death becomes you

Ned Denny negotiates the perils of the ancient Egyptian underworld.

Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
British Museum, London WC1

The modern, secular west is unique among world cultures in giving no guidance for what we might term the post-death state. And yet the prevailing conception of death as pure and simple extinction is a matter not just of experience but of cultural prejudice: specifically, the belief that consciousness is brain-based and so must cease when the body dies. Such is the conclusion to be drawn from a rigidly materialist perspective on life. But there is ample evidence - not only from the accounts of religious mystics and tribal shamans but from depth psychology and speculative physics - to suggest that things could be far richer and stranger than at first appears.

It could even be argued that it is a kind of metaphysical innocence, a refusal to look beyond the world's day-lit surfaces, that makes us dismiss accounts of the afterlife. We should keep such thoughts in mind when contemplating the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the subject of a wonderful new exhibition at the British Museum. Described by the author Graham Hancock as a "Baedeker for the transmigration of the soul", this ancient collection of images, spells and hymns - properly known as the "Book of Coming Forth by Day" - is intended to guide the dead through the perils of the underworld.

And what perils they are. Along the way will be encountered singing snakes, giant beetles with "crooked lips" and crocodiles with knives for teeth and sweet talk in their mouths. There are traps and nets to catch the unwary and square lakes of geometrically rendered fire. The book's verses provide magical passwords to defeat monsters, enter gateways and jump to further levels of the ordeal - much as in computer games, those repositories of mythic consciousness.

At the end of all this is the famed weighing of the heart, which must be no heavier than a feather, after which the deceased can pass into the company of Osiris (the underworld deity known variously as the "king of the living", "lord of love" and "lord of silence"). His or her ba - or soul - would now also be free to "come forth by day" and travel in the boat of Ra, the sun god, provided that it returned at night to the mummified corpse.

One of the first and most touching objects in the exhibition depicts this homecoming. A soapstone figure of a man clasps to his chest
the small, human-headed bird conventionally used to represent the ba. With its eyes closed, the ba embraces the body with its wings in a sublime gesture of love. Has the interdependence of matter and spirit ever been more beautifully portrayed?

Nearby is a magnificent mask; the gold leaf that covers it evokes the posthumous trans­figuration that everything is aiming for. The mummy's mask (or "head of mystery") was highly important. Its role was to enable the deceased to become "one who sees with the head of a god". Similarly, the extraordinary inner coffin of the "chantress of Amun" - a high-ranking temple singer - is entirely coated in gold, the raised-relief iconography playing over the surface like pale hallucinations.

Rarely exhibited, because of the risk of fading, the scrolls have an improbable brightness that is further heightened by the show's dark, labyrinthine setting. Figures advance through a dense matrix of hieroglyphs with hands raised, as if feeling their way through Baudelaire's "forest of symbols". In one particularly telling detail, we see a woman being led by a god who clasps not her hand, but her wrist. This is serious business indeed.

Superbly staged, the exhibition has an eerily numinous feel: one senses the presence of ­supernatural intelligences operating from realms other than our own. I wonder if I am alone in finding the jackal-headed god Anubis - embalmer of the dead - particularly affecting. It is as if one had looked at something long forgotten, buried deep in the psyche but as unavoidable as death itself.

All in all, there is an atmosphere around the display that encourages esoteric musing. It even seemed to be affecting the two stuffed shirts I passed on the way out, one of whom was saying to the other: "Perhaps they knew something we don't." Quite.

Journey Through the Afterlife" runs until 6 March 2011
For more information, visit: britishmuseum.org