Before Comics: The Egyptian Book of the Dead

According to what I am seeing in my research so far, narrative art has been widely studied and using it as a search term results in a lot of finds. However, when I separate the specifically sequential from the generally narrative, there is less to be found. Art historians don’t seem to be as obsessed with sequential art as those of us in the comics world are. And there are a lot of non-academic sites out there that claim to have a “history” of sequential art, but seem to be more interested in cheerleading than focused on actual research. All this is to say that I have to be careful with what I am finding. Examples of narrative art are easy to find, but narrative is not the same as sequential.

This becomes especially true when looking at ancient Egyptian art. For one, the time range of what can be considered ancient Egyptian art is huge. It spans from the 6th millennium BCE to the 4th century CE. That’s 6,400 years. I need to do more research, but from what I can tell sequential art seems to appear in the New Kingdom, 1550-1069 BCE. But, according to Helene Kantor, narrative art is there from predynastic times, around 3,400 BCE onwards. Also, some comics historians and theorists casually toss out the idea that the ancient Egyptians had sequential art. But, as I said above, the art historians don’t make this distinction clear and while much of the art is clearly narrative, the proof that it is sequential is not always obvious. So we have to be careful with the examples that we use.

That’s why I’m going to stick to one example from ancient Egyptian art: The Book of the Dead.

As Kellie Warren warns us, saying “The Book of the Dead” acts as its own spell and conjures up scenes from Hollywood movies and images of Egyptian gods judging the weight of human organs and reanimated mummies brought to life by ancient incantations. So there are a lot of romantic ideas about this text.

First off, The Book of the Dead is not exactly a book. It doesn’t present a story. Instead, it is more like a guidebook. And there is not only one of them. Anyone in the New Kingdom who could afford one could get their own Book of the Dead made. In essence, it’s a handbook for how to navigate the afterlife written on papyrus scrolls and included in the tomb for the buried person who commissioned it and to be used by them in the next world. It’s a rich person’s “What to Do When You’re Dead.”

But are there gods sitting in judgement? Are there spells? Why yes. Just not in the way modern culture has interpreted them.

from Wikipedia

In the example above, you can clearly see the same two figures on the left appearing in two horizontal scenes. This couple is Ani and his wife. In the top row they face a series of seven gates. Each gate is guarded by different creatures and each creature must be appeased to pass through safely. The words around each gate are the spells the newly deceased must recite to calm the guardians of that gate. The bottom row explains ten of the twenty-one portals, which are also guarded.

So we have a left-to-right progression representing a sequence of acts. The words however are not the speech of the characters depicted nor are they precisely narrative. Instead, they are instructions, as in a cook book. Basically, the monstration says “when you see this…” and the narration states “recite this…” The images depict what to recognize and the words convey what to do.

from Wikipedia

Above, from the Papyrus of Hunefer, we see one of the most famous scenes from The Book of the Dead: the judgement. Anubis leads the newly deceased, wearing white, in on the left. On the top row, we see the deceased stating that they have not committed any of a set of forty-two sins. Then, on the bottom row, Anubis takes the person’s heart and places it on a pair of scales. From there, the deceased is presented to Osiris and takes their place in the afterlife.

Unlike the example from the Papyrus of Ani, this part of the Papyrus of Hunefer decompresses a single event, the final judgement. We see the stages of a process and the different actions of its principle players. In the Papyrus Ani, the repeated figures are in the same basic posture. Not so here. For instance, the deceased kneels and confesses, then takes Anubis’s hand and walks to the scales, and then meets Osiris. Likewise, Anubis leads the deceased, then kneels and places their heart on the scales. We can also see the judgment itself: the feather is heavier than Hunefer’s heart, which is shown by the feather being lower in the picture frame. So we have a more complex set of actions that are broken down into smaller increments.

Interestingly, this part of The Book of the Dead deals explicitly with morality. The other scenes depict rites and spells to ward off creatures, but aren’t concerned with virtue. Here, the deceased must be free of sin and be light of heart. These are not just rigmaroles to memorize, but ethics to embody. I find it fascinating that this part has the most careful and decompressed set of images. Morality requires careful instruction, it seems.

Also, as Beth Harris and Steven Zucker point out, in The Book of the Dead words and images exist integrated in the picture plane. There is not the separation between the two as there is in other cultures, such as in much of European culture with literature and fine art being distinct and removed disciplines. Here, showing and telling exist in the same space. So we see an early example of one of sequential art’s strengths: instruction.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Last Judgement of Hunefer.” Khan Academy

Helene J. Kantor, “Narration in Egyptian Art.” American Journal of Archaeology, Jan. 1957.

Kellie Warren, “Book of the Dead: A Guidebook to the Afterlife,” American Research Center in Egypt

Sara E. Cole, “What Is the Egyptian Book of the Dead?” Getty

Wikipedia, “Art of ancient Egypt”
“Book of the Dead”

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