This scene, from an ancient Egyptian funerary scroll housed in the Neues Museum of Berlin (and generously photographed by Gary Todd of WorldHistoryPics.com), depicts what is perhaps the most famous test faced by the spirits of ancient Egyptians in their afterlife journeys. On the right side of the image is the falcon-headed god, Horus. Next to him stands the jackal deity, Anubis. Beside them, the tall scribe with the head of an Ibis is the god Thoth. Finally, sitting patiently on the platform, rests the monstrous goddess, Ammut (or Ammit). These deities, and the large scale that they are situated around, make up the scene popularly known as the “Weighing of the Heart,” one of the most memorable episodes found in ancient Egyptian funerary scrolls—a genre of texts that came to be labeled as The Book of the Dead in the 19th century. Despite the term, “Book,” images such as the one featured above were never truly codified, so they often varied from scroll to scroll. For example, the arrangement of the gods often changed, and deities could be included or excluded from the scene. Details of the scale, too, such as the objects and beings adorning it, differed between sources. In the image featured here, the symbol on the right pan of the scale represents Maat, the Egyptian goddess of truth. Yet, in other images of the Weighing of the Heart, it was not the goddess, herself, but instead her feather that was placed in the scale. Regardless of the changing variables, the premise of the scene was the same each time it was drawn—for the dead to pass this challenge, their heart (or at least their sins), had to weigh equal to or less than that of Maat or her feather. Unfortunately, if the judgement turned out poorly, then the gods were said to have unleashed the monstrous Ammut on the unworthy soul.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge (c. 1899) and introduced by John Romer. Penguin Classics, 2008.