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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The delicate details of the afterlife written down on papyrus by the ancient Egyptians have been unfurled in public at a British Museum show in London.
"Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead" explores in more detail than ever before the complex theology laid out in the Book of the Dead, an illustrated guide to death and negotiating the perils of the underworld.
The British Museum has gathered together an unrivalled collection of these papyri, many of which have never been on show, not least because they are so delicate.
The exhibition winds through the museum's circular Reading Room in chronological order, from the moment of death to burial, judgment, and finally paradise.
"The main aim really is to give people a deeper understanding of ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death and to throw more light on their hopes and fears," exhibition curator John Taylor told Reuters.
Mummification -- long the focus of popular Egyptology -- was only the first step on the path to eternal life.
"This exhibition is really meant to be the next stage: what happens after that; after you've been mummified and put in your tomb? What happens to your spirit? We're trying to tell that story," Taylor said.
Once buried, the dead's spirit left the tomb to begin its journey through an underworld fraught with danger.
The Book of the Dead contained spells to help the spirit through this spiritual obstacle course by enabling it to eat, breathe and ward off cockroaches, amongst other things.
Without the right spells for protection, the dead might be attacked by snakes and crocodiles, or worse yet, die again.
The final hurdle was the weighing of the heart, when the deceased's heart was placed on a scale with the Feather of Truth as counter-weight.
If clean from sin, the heart would balance the feather, guaranteeing entry to paradise: the Field of Reeds. If not, the deceased was tossed to a hideous creature called The Devourer.
These trials are documented in the world's longest Book of the Dead -- the Greenfield Papyrus -- all 37 meters of which are on display at the British Museum for the very first time.
With their solemn masks and sharp profiles, the ancient Egyptians are not known for levity and wit, but a satirical papyrus in the exhibition offers a rare insight into ancient Egyptian humor with a menagerie of animals pictured seated on chairs around a table, playing 'senet', an Egyptian board game.
"They seemed to like the idea of mocking human behavior by showing animals in the role of humans," said Taylor, noting a similarity with today's caricatures.
As well as papyri, the exhibition also includes coffins, amulets, tomb figurines, gilded masks and mummy effects, with loans from museums in Paris, Boston and Leiden.
The exhibition is the first of three British Museum shows to examine death and spirituality through the ages. An exhibition next year on devotion in Medieval Europe will be followed in 2012 by one about the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj.
"Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead" is on at the British Museum until March 6.
Editing by Paul Casciato