The Turquoise Field

My contemplation on the album Blackstar by David Bowie unambiguously places the central character, the fallen space alien T. J. Newton in the Underworld of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (BOTD). I started off with a few questions…

  • The figures crucified in Blackstar are also blinded, or at least wear the blindfold and buttons. Is the rough beast that menaces them some kind of Antichrist, as in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming? I now doubt that this is its primary allegorical root.
  • Bowie/Newton communicates with the ‘cat goddess’ by blinking. Why is communication in the world Newton occupies non-verbal?

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day – The Complete Papyrus of Ani /Paperback – June 2, 2008, by Eva Von Dassow (Editor), Raymond Faulkner (Translator), Carol Andrews (Preface), Ogden Goelet (Introduction), James Wasserman (Foreword).

I just bought it on Amazon. As I wait for the hard copy to arrive by post, I have been reading in Google Books. Also there are a number of encyclopaedia/blog/Wiki entries for Duat, Orisiris and the Egyptian Underworld, too many to list here.

The BOTD only became one book in modern times. It is assembled from a fascinating, detailed, sometimes contradictory set of books, of different time periods. The description in these of the Place of the Dead is based on images, it is highly colourful and visual. The landscape there is described as turquoise, just like the final section of the Blackstar video; this then is the ‘Field of Reeds’, at the heart of the Underworld. Reading this leaves me in no doubt that Blackstar describes the journey of Newton after death. What a strange world he has entered. Many gods dwell there, and they control things, more or less. But a soul who enters there after death travels a perilous path. The underworld is a place of ‘caprice and randomness’. They need to avoid being brought to the place of punishment; ‘save me from the whipping posts, the place of punishment’.

Ogden Goelet remarks that Osiris is strongly connected with kingship, particularly the exercise of kingship in the realm of the dead. The afterlife was predominantly celestial, with an important subterranean complement represented by the Duat. This text in its original form in the third millennium BC was aimed specifically at the royalty of Egypt. In these ‘Pyramid Texts’, the solar/stellar aspect dominates.

‘Many of these texts are concerned with the methods of getting up to the heavens and becoming an akh-soul there. The king hoped that he would eventually join the heavenly retinue of the supreme deity, the sun-god Re. The preferred method was to fly up to the sky, but more down to earth methods like ramps, steps and ladders might also help. … the purpose of the pyramid texts was to aid the king in the many difficulties that he would face, notwithstanding his godlike status, in the afterlife. Whatever gods could possibly help him were called to his aid, even if it meant threatening them or using magic’.

There is at least one ladder in the Blackstar video.

The BOTD contains a Chapter for Raising up a Spirit, and Causing a Soul to Live in the God’s Domain. Certain formulae of words must be spoken; the dying spirit is meant to say:

O, Nut, I have cast my father to the earth with Horus behind me;  my wings have grown into those of a falcon, my plumes are those of a sacred falcon, my soul has brought me and its words have equipped me.

Nut answers the soul:

You have opened up your place among the stars of the sky, for you are the Lone Star of the sky … the Ennead raise you up with their hands… Be strong at the door of the Kas of the horizon-dwellers, for their doors shall be opened to you… You shall neitheer persish or be destroyed, but you shall act among men and gods.

There is a section (I initially thought for mourners or makers of funerary ritual; now the penny is dropping that this must be a task for the dead spirit) in the Chapter for Raising the Corpse, which advises the dead on sort of re-assembling themselves, ‘having power in the eyes and ears and for making the head firm when it has been set in its proper place.’ I love the names of some of the chapters, one of the best is; The Chapter for Leaving Yesterday and Coming into Today

My demise was granted yesterday; I have returned today, I have gone forth in my own shape: I am the heir of Osiris, I have received his Nemes Headdress in the Duat; look at me for I have appeared in glory after coming forth from your body. I have become his father and he applauds. Look at me, rejoice over me, for behold, I am on high…Open your paths, draw back your bolts. O Re who guides this land, you are the guide of souls, you are the leader of the gods.

It seems unnecessary to labour over the parallels with the visual and lyrical content of Lazarus in the foregoing texts.

The Coffin Texts

According to Goelet, The book of the dead can be broken into 4 sections.

  1. Chapters 1-16: The deceased enters the tomb and descends to the underworld. the corpse of the deceased must regain the physical capabilities it had on earth.
  2. Chapters 17-63: the deceased is made to live again so that he or she might arise as the reborn morning sun
  3. Chapters 64-129. The deceased travels across the sky in the sun-bark as one of the blessed dead. In the evening the deceased continues to travel through the sky in the underworld, eventually appearing before Osiris and the judges of the dead as one already judged worthy. (Being born every morning from the body of Nut; might explain ‘we were born upside down’. Also everything is reversed in the afterlife, (time and space are reversed, too) there is even a Chapter for Preventing a Man from Going Upside Down and Eating Excrement…
  4. Chapters 130-189: These chapters are about travelling in the sun-bark with Re and advice on protective amulets, food and important places.

The Coffin Texts, a later (c.2000 BC) condensation/revision of the pyramid texts, were written on the inside walls of wooden coffins of private individuals. At this point in history there is a change of emphasis, mostly because now (mostly middle class) non-royals can enter the Osirian afterlife. There is more emphasis on the Duat, which has become even more dangerous, and Osiris spends more of his time in the underworld. it is in the Coffin Texts that the idea of a judgement, based on your deeds in the living world, is most clearly enunciated.

The cosmology of Ancient Egypt put Earth at the centre of the universe, a flat oval shaped expanse bordered by the oceans. This was the Land of the Living, the place to which the deceased hoped to return in order that he might ‘go forth by day’.  Goelet says that each chapter of the BOTD armed the dead with verbal weapons, and these in turn would be signalled by the phrase‘words spoken.’ Everything must be re-assembled, so perhaps at the beginning point he cannot speak, as he has yet to get a mouth? Hopefully I will understand this more once I have read the book.

He needs to acquire the facility of speech fast, though. He has a lot of stuff to say and to remember. In a much later era than the Egyptian BOTD, The Petelia Tablet, from Orphic Greece (c. 300 BC) recommends a formula of words to the dead:

You will find a spring on your left in Hades’ halls,
and by it the cypress with its luminous sheen. Do not
go near this spring or drink its water. You will find
another, cold water flowing from Memory’s lake; its
guardians stand before it.
Say: “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven, But
descended from Heaven; you yourselves know this. I am
parched with thirst and dying: quickly, give me the
cool water flowing from Memory’s lake.” And they will
give you water from the sacred spring…

The idea of a gatekeeper is invoked in many ancient texts. There is a great book by Bruce Lincoln called Death, War and Sacrifice which touches on this. William Butler Yeats’ At the Hawks Well is an example of a modern era riff on this theme. In the Egyptian afterlife, using names or even threatening to do so, was often enough to gain power in the afterlife. Again quoting Goelet: “A particularly common sort of word-play occurs in addresses to the gods in the BOTD. The deceased can sometimes get by the most fearsome of gatekeepers simply saying ‘I know you, I know your name’. In Lazarus, of course, Bowie sings ‘everybody knows my name’”.

The Width of a Circle

Circles or spheres are hugely important motifs in the Irish passage tombs. The kerbs are often circular. Cursus or prescribed routes follow curving paths. As in the Petelia Tablet, there is a preference for right-handed progress over left, following the path of the sun. Processions played an important part in the Egyptian religion as a public demonstration of devotion to a deity, particularly at festivals.

There was often an additional magical aspect of such rituals, for any Egyptian processions would go around an area several times with the intent of rendering malevolent beings and forces harmless by encircling (pekher) them. The most important encircling of all occurred daily when the sun god Re traversed the firmament above the world, then continued through the night sky beneath the earth. This daily journey, particularly the nocturnal component, was the central theme of most of the royal underworld books. One of the prime objectives of several chapters of the BOTD was to assist the deceased in joining Re in the his bark as he established his power over the entire universe daily.

Images in the BOTD are more important than texts. The texts are not just words or formulations in the descriptive, narrative or scientific sense; they are actually draft scripts for performances.

I want to return to the Bowie video for Blackstar and the line about only women kneel and smile, which I don’t believe has been fully explained. The role of women in the Egyptian funerary ceremonies was different to that of men. They play instruments like the menat and sistrum ‘two instruments which make a rattling, rustling sound’ and were used to accompany the ritual singing and recitations done by the women. Perhaps Bowie means that only female goddess are guides and protectors?

My favourite excerpt from Goelet’s excellent introduction to the BOTD concerns the Ani papyrus manuscript. Ani was a Theban scribe who died around 1250 BC. The scribe was stolen from Egypt in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, assistant Keeper of the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum, and cut up for ‘ease of handling’. The original papyrus was disfigured by the effects of sunlight and glue. Fortunately Budge also made a colour lithograph facsimile, which allowed later curators the possibility to reconstruct this precious work of art.


An elongated and arched form of the sign pet “sky” stretches across the top of the entire vignette. The same blue-green sign is found in several other parts of the papyrus – for example, above the two lions in Chapter 17 (Plate 7) and underneath the solar barks throughout the papyrus. Directly beneath this is a personified sign for ‘life,’ the well-known unkh, whose two arms seem to be lifting the large red disk of the sun into the sky above. The ankh stands upon a djed-pillar.

The Osiris-Re motifs are combined into a motif, whose origin and meaning have not been satisfactorily explained, associated with the god Osiris. As a word the motif means ‘endurance,’ and therefore was extensively used as an allegorical figure, especially on amulets. In effect, the tripartite motif is a form of Osiris-Re, the syncretized deity who combines the chthonic and celestial aspects of the afterlife. Significantly, the text to the right of this vignette is a hymn to Osiris Wennefer, so that the scene is enclosed by praises to Osiris-Re’s components. Flanking the Osiris-Re motif are the goddesses Isis (left) and Nephthys (right), who are both shown in the posture of adoration and squatting upon the sign nub “gold”. Like most Egyptian goddesses, they are distinguishable only by the attributes (really their names in hieroglyphs) that they wear on their heads. The ‘gold’ signs are themselves resting upon a reed mat. Beneath the mat and flanking it is a form of the sign for ‘mountain’ (dju). Thus, while showing the temporary dissolution of the syncretized Osiris-Re into his component deities, the scene illustrates the beginning of the sun’s daily journey through the sky, when it emerges out of the desert horizon after its nighttime journey underneath the earth and through the Duat. The entire vignette is framed by the image of the rolling desert on which stand six baboons worshipping the sun. Other variants of the same vignette show the complete cycle in one scene, with the sun being received into the arms of a goddess representing the underworld.

Shai, Meskhenet and Renenuted are the three aspects of Fate in the BOTD. They watch over the weighting of the scales (in this case of Ani). Ani’s ba perches on a shrine, watching the event on which his future literally balances. Ani thus appears twice, once in human form, and once in spiritual form. Both are different aspects of the same deceased Ani. These characters have equivalents as the Fates of ancient Greece, the Norns of Scandanavia, and the triple goddesses of ancient Gaelic legend.

As for the Scary Monster with the dreadlock (or animal tail) headdress in Blackstar, Goelet informs us that ‘souls found wanting are fed to an almost humorously grotesque, composite beast waiting with a dog-like eagerness on a reed mat behind Thoth’. But the Scary Lad is brandishing a pike or scythe, or some class of yoke. It reminded me a bit of the weapon of choice by the occupants of the Moon in The First Men in the Moon, a 1960’s take on H.G. Wells. Some of the sets of this movie are very reminiscent of those of the Blackstar video, too. Even the idea of the guy abandoned on the alien planet is there. Wonder if that was another inspiration?