"This activity builds on the Egyptian idea of a whole innate “you” that was not just a body and a soul but somehow all that rolled up."

By Ellen Arnold, Ph.D.

Ellen ArnoldIt is the week before midterm break, and everyone on campus is running on empty. The students are stressed, I am stressed, and everyone has a sense of dread and doom. It is also the week that we are covering the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my ancient history course.

The class is largely first-year students. I’ve been trying to shake up the “texts” for this class to include more multimedia and different forms of narrative and storytelling, so their homework for today was to listen to an episode of the BBC program, “In Our Time.” The program builds on some points I’ve been making throughout the term about how scholars integrate textual and archaeological evidence, how context matters for interpretation of both, and how history is a slow process of teasing out interpretation rather than just a set narrative.

We talked briefly about how the Book of the Dead narrates a successful path through death and the afterlife, and how it provides a kind of a template for what it would mean to have been a good and successful Egyptian. I gave them an excerpt from a book of the dead that included the Oaths—the statements a heart needed to make before being weighed.

Here’s a sample:

  • My name has not reached the office of director of servants.
  • I have not orphaned the orphan of his goods.
  • I have not done the abomination of the gods.
  • I have not slighted a servant to his master.
  • I have not caused affliction; I have not caused hunger; I have not caused grief; I have not killed.
  • I have not harmed the offering-cattle; I have not caused pain for anyone.
  • I have not reduced the offerings in the temples.
  • I have not harmed the offering-loaves of the gods.

We connected this to Sumerian proverbs, to law codes, and to the poetry and proscriptions we’ve already read from other ancient cultures and then, as part of a continued effort to help students connect to the past, and see it as connected to them and their lived experiences—we worked on drafting the Book of OWU.

I had them think about the course of a semester rather than of a life; about the steps needed to get to the weighing of their terms (grades!), and the paths that lead them there successfully.

Trying to engage them in talking openly to one another about this, I had two corresponding tasks (they were in groups of 2 or 3). The first was to draw a section of the book (I handed out 11x14 paper and colored pencils)—at the same time, they needed to come up with five “I have not” statements to match the tone of the Egyptian ones they had just read. Then each group had to put two of them on the board, and then share their image with another group and talk about it.

Here are some of their "I have not" statements:

  • I have not skipped class without good reason.
  • I have not stopped asking questions.
  • I have not procrastinated.
  • I have not watched Netflix instead of doing homework.
  • I have not been an obnoxious neighbor.
  • I have not given my RA grief.
  • I have not cheated.

I added some of my own, points I hope we can agree students need to hear.

  • I have not neglected my bodily and mental health.
  • I have not judged the efforts of others.
  • I have not tried to deal with everything alone.

Together, the students had a chance to air some of their anxieties, to talk about the traps and pitfalls of living and learning and working all together, and the fears that somehow they are going to fail at “college.” I got a chance to remind them to talk and communicate and understand that they are not alone in their anxieties and exhaustion. And I got them to express it in a low-stakes and engaging way that also connected them to an ancient text.

I recognize that some of my peers may say that with such an activity, I’m losing chances to teach about *Egypt* - about the nuances and details of a past civilization. But I think this helped them see something nuanced too, about resonances with people of the past. This activity builds on the Egyptian idea of a whole innate “you” that was not just a body and a soul but somehow all that rolled up. It also draws on the liberal arts educational value that the intellect and the body and the person are all wrapped up together - that you can’t nourish one while depriving another. Sometimes, teaching is about knowing when to let the intellectual subject go a bit in order to help the students nourish their whole selves.
Ellen F. Arnold is Associate Professor of History and teaches ancient, medieval, and early modern history. She is the author of Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes, University of Pennsylvania Press (2012).