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The Weighing of Hunefer’s Heart

Updated: Apr 28

Reproduction Details

Type: Painted papyrus

Date: c. 1285 BC, Dynasty 19, reign of Seti I

Findspot: Presumed Tomb of Hunefer, Thebes (location unknown)

Materials: Papyrus

Size: Width 40cm, length 87.50cm

Current location: British Museum, London (EA9901,3)

Art Ref: DP23B

The Weighing of Hunefer’s Heart

In 1285 BC, a royal scribe called Hunefer put the finishing touches to what would become one of the most celebrated examples of ancient Egyptian funerary art. It was a scroll known as ‘The Book of Going Forth By Day’ which contained the instructions and spells he believed would allow him to reach the afterlife safely. Hunefer was buried with this papyrus scroll in the Theban hills, where they both remained until they were discovered 3,300 years later by archaeologists and ended up in the British Museum.

At 5.5m long, this Book of the Dead contains columns of detailed instructions, hymns and spells punctuated by beautifully detailed illustrations of Hunefer and the gods. One of the most famous vignettes from the papyrus illustrates Chapter 125 and shows Hunefer navigating the halls of judgment.

In the vignette, Hunefer is led into the Hall of Truth by Anubis and is greeted by the gods responsible for deciding whether his soul will enter the afterlife or suffer a terrible fate. His heart has been placed upon a set of scales, and Anubis is weighing it against a feather personifying Maat, the concept of truth, justice and cosmic balance. As the source of Hunefer’s emotions, intellect and character, his heart represents the good and bad aspects of his life, and it now stands witness for him in the trial.

This is a critical moment in Hunefer’s journey; if he fails this test his heart will be devoured by the terrifying beast called Ammit which sits at the scales and his soul will not be able to reach the afterlife. To ensure this doesn’t happen, he recites the words to spell 30B, instructing his heart not to betray him during the weighing and to be found in balance with Maat. This spell is destined to work, and Thoth, scribe of the gods, proclaims to the assembled deities that Hunefer has “been found true on the great balance”. Horus leads Hunefer to a shrine in which his father Osiris sits enthroned, accompanied by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, and is welcomed to the afterlife.

The Scales

Hunefer can be found in the bottom left being led by the hand of Anubis into the Hall of Truth. He is shown as a living man with braided hair and a small square beard, wearing fine white linen, bracelets, and a broad collar.

The focus of the scene is the balance scales in the centre surrounded by gods. In the left pan is Hunefer’s heart, and it is being weighed against the feather in the right pan representing Maat, the divine personification of truth and rightful order. The scales are topped with the figure of Maat in the form of a goddess with a feather on her head, so she literally and figuratively oversees the weighing.

To pacify his heart so it won’t speak against him during the trial, Hunefer is speaking the words of Spell 30B. The text of the spell varies slightly across different versions of the Book of the Dead but generally emphasises the purity of the heart and the individual's righteousness in life. This spell was so important that it also appeared on stone heart-shaped amulets placed inside the mummy wrappings, giving it its alternative name of the Heart Scarab spell. Here it says:

"Do not stand against me as a witness, do not oppose me the court! Do not make my name stink in front of the great god, Lord of the West!"

Kneeling on a white shrine before the scales is Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead and embalming. He is shown wearing a strapped vest with a fish-scale pattern, an archaic and unfashionable garment in the New Kingdom which has been used to recognise the great antiquity of the old god. Anubis is performing his role of the Guardian of the Scales and is steadying the plumb bob of the scale’s balance that is looped around a peg in the shape of a Maat feather, ready to declare the result.

To the right of the scales sits Ammit, or ‘She Who Swallows the Dead’, a demonic composite of ancient Egypt’s most terrifying animals, described in the hieroglyphic inscription as “Her front is a crocodile, her rear a hippopotamus, her middle a lion”. If Hunefer fails this test, Ammit will spring forward and devour Hunefer’s heart, leaving him incomplete and damned for eternity.

Overseeing the weighing of Hunefer’s heart is Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods. He wears a white sash across his chest, the typical garb of a lector priest and holds a scribal palette and a reed brush, ready to record the result. Hunefer’s spell has clearly worked because Thoth informs the assembly of gods and goddesses witnessing the judgment:

"Look, I am recording the name of the Osiris, the Royal Scribe Hunefer. His heart has come from the scales and hasn't been found faulty."

The Ennead

In the top register, Hunefer can be seen kneeling before an offering table with his hands raised in adoration of the company of deities seated before him. These gods are witnessing the weighing of Hunefer’s heart and passing final judgment upon hearing Thoth’s record of the ceremony. Above each is their name in cursive hieroglyphs and they are picked out in alternating shrouds of green, white, and gold.

From left to right they are:

  • Ra, the falcon-headed sun god.

  • Atum, the creator god.

  • Shu, the god of air and atmosphere.

  • Tefnut, the lion-headed goddess of moisture and rain.

  • Geb, the god of the earth.

  • Nut, the goddess of the sky.

  • Horus, the god associated with kingship and protection.

  • Isis, the goddess of motherhood and fertility.

  • Nephthys, the goddess of mourning and the night.

  • Hu: the god of authority and divine utterance.

  • Sia: the god of perception and wisdom.

  • Southern Road: the goddess of the path taken by the sun during the day.

  • Northern Road: the god of the path taken by the sun during the night.

  • Western Road: the goddess of the path taken by the sun during sunset, and the route to the afterlife.

Osiris Shrine

Having successfully passed the test and proclaimed worthy by the gathered gods and goddesses, Hunefer is led by the falcon-headed god Horus to a shrine decorated with lotus columns draped, fabric flags, and topped with golden royal cobras (uraeus). Like Anubis, Horus is shown wearing the traditional clothing associated with the old gods and he carries an ankh, the life symbol, in his hand. With a gesture of the other hand, Horus presents Hunefer to his father Osiris and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys with the words:

"Look, I am introducing to you the Osiris Hunefer, true of voice. He has been judged by the scales."

Hunefer stands with a bent back, a pose used by officials to pay respect to their superiors. Before him is "Osiris, the greatest of Westerners", the god of death and the underworld, who sits on a golden throne. In his hands are the crook and flail, symbols of his power and authority and on his head, he wears a tall atef crown decorated with plumed feathers. Osiris is wrapped in a white shroud and is shown with green skin, not to represent death but to evoke the verdant vegetation that emerges from the fertile soil of the Nile floodplain after the annual inundation. Green represents the vitality and rejuvenation of the dead as they pass through the cycle of death and rebirth in the afterlife under Osiris's guidance.

Standing behind Osiris with their hands raised in welcome are the sister goddesses of Isis and Nephthys. They are here to protect Hunefer in his journey to the afterlife. Both had roles to play in the resurrection of Osiris after his murder at the hands of Seth and protect Hunefer.

Beneath Osiris’ throne is a pool of water from which green shoots and a lotus flower emerge. The lotus symbolises the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as the flower was seen to arise from the murky depths of the water each day, blooming anew. Its presence reinforces Osiris’ association with rebirth and regeneration. It suggests that he, like the lotus, has the power to bring forth new life from the waters of the underworld.

Standing on the lotus flower are the Four Sons of Horus, a quartet of gods that assist in the preservation and protection of Hunefer’s body in the afterlife. Qebehsenuef is responsible for protecting Hunefer’s intestines, Hapi his lungs, Duamutef his stomach and Imsety his liver. They are shown in shrouds with human heads and curved beards but are more commonly seen on canopic jars with the heads of a falcon, baboon, jackal, and a masked man.

Further Reading

The Complete Book of The Dead of Hunefer by Richard Parkinson, 2010


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