A papyrus from the Book of the Dead in the Egyptian Archive of the British Museum tells the story of the scribe Hunefer in the waiting room of the afterlife: of how his fate hangs in the balance as his heart is weighed against a feather upon the scales of Maat, the scales of eternal justice, by the jackal-headed god Anubis.
Hunefer's heart resides, during this transitional period of judgment, inside the small pot on the scale tray to the left; on the scale tray to the right, we see the feather of Maat, or Rectitude. The emotional, intellectual and moral history of Hunefer has been distilled into the contents of the pot. There is no longer any chance of bargaining, negotiating or doing a deal. The finite game of mortal life, with all its little white lies perpetrated in the desperate attempt to keep the game going, is now over for the scribe; the game of infinity, with its very different set of rules, has begun.
Anubis leads Hunefer by the hand into the zone of judgment, and oversees the weighing; the drama is all in the moment for Hunefer, as Ammit the Devourer, also known as the Bone-Eater, not a goddess but more like a terminal custodian of justice, her features a composite of those creatures most feared, the dog, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, crouches beneath the scales, ready to scarf up the heart of Hunefer should the faintest trace of wickedness, a blemish greater than a feather's weight, be found.
As this supreme test takes place, ibis-headed Thoth, clerk of the gods, waits to record the result in the eternal annals.
In the next panel the scribe, should he pass the test, is to be presented by the hawk-god god Horus to the shrine of his father Osiris, the green-skinned god of the dead, and of the latter's divine sisters Isis and Nephthys.
Above the scene, in precise order of rank, sit in judgment the fourteen presiding gods of Egypt; each of the first seven of whom holds an ankh, the loop-headed cross, trilateral hieroglyphic character of eternal life.
The moment is pregnant with meaning. If Hunefer fails the test, his remains will be swallowed up by the chimerical Ammit and he will be denied entry to the afterlife. He will be consigned to nonexistence for eternity.
The weighing of the heart of Hunefer by Anubis, before the Devourer Ammit: from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, 19th Dynasty, c. 1285 B.C. (British Museum, via National Geographic)
Details from the above (the scales, the shrine): photos by Lenka P, 2007
Goddess Isis: from the tomb of Seti I, Valley of the Kings at Thebes, 17th Dynasty, c. 1380-1335 B.C. (Karnak Museum via the Yorck Project)