Senusret woke up in a cold, dark room. He was still for a while, wondering where he was, like you do when you wake up and have forgotten that you are traveling. He got up, but then realized he had been already standing. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, or rather, his brain realized that he could see in the darkness. What he saw was a room with a covered sarcophagus in it, surrounded by golden furniture, jewels, chariots, and many statues of various servants. The sarcophagus and walls were covered in colorful hieroglyphs.
Then he remembered: he was dead. This must be what his ka, his spirit, felt like. He did not really feel, strictly speaking, but rather intuitively sensed the cold and the dark directly, just as he intuitively knew the room around him. He did not need photons to reflect off the objects into his eye, or nerves sensing the lack of heat, he knew the objects directly. It did not seem so bad, being dead.
He decided he should probably eat something, but there was no food on the table like he expected. Well, maybe the priests had not made the offering yet. So he began to read the walls. They documented the events and magnificence of his reign, the irresistable power of his arm, and the saintliness of his divinity. He, Senusret, had invaded Libya, had defeated the Nubians twice, had consolidated power for his family, had established profitable trade with Canaan (helped out by the threatening greatness of his army). He had honored the gods with many expensive temples and obelisks, not to mention the provision of uncountable sacrifices. (That was scribal optimism as the sacrifices were definitely countable, and an estimation—rounded up—had been carved into the wall, so that he would not fail to remember and present it when he came before Anubis and the Forty Two.) The history of his reign was written so that he could remember who he was, in case he had forgotten. Only he had not forgotten, and in fact, his memory seemed to be a good deal sharper than he remembered, kind of like the blurriness of fog fading into the sharp relief of sunlight. He was Senusret, the Pharaoh, the great king, and the newest god.
The god was hungry, but still no food had appeared. Although, when he actually concentrated, it seemed that he was not actually hungry—ka‘s do not have stomachs—but rather he was hungry out of habit. His body would still need food, though, at such point as he was able to reunite with it, after having overcome the trials of the underworld, and traveled to Aaru, the Field of Rushes, where he would live forever as Pharoah-God Senusret. The god sighed. That meant that he now had to memorize all the spells and directions carved onto the sarcophagus that would enable him to pass through the trials. This stuff was so boring, but it had to be done. Boring was the prerequisite for immortality, though, because one could not afford to fail the trials simply because one balked at memorizing 125 spells and names of creatures.
Memorizing the spells came a lot easier now that he was dead, as it seemed that he only had to read a spell once to have it completely memorized. He learned spells to prevent being harmed by crocodiles and snakes, spells to recite the names of beings guarding entrances, spells to enable eating and drinking, spells to prevent dying a second time (which would be permanent), and spells to enable him to sail on the barque of Ra that would ferry him to Aaru. Having successfully memorized everything, he decided it was time to begin navigating the perils of Duat, the underworld.
He attempted to gather the protective amulets left for him in the tomb, but his hand passed right through them. A flame of fear passed through him—without the amulets, he would be exposed to the many dangers confronting him on his journey to the Weighing of the Heart. Neither could he pick up the papyrus copy of the spells (although he could read it as if it were spread out) to take with him, in case he forgot one of the spells. He looked through the papyrus and over the sarcophagus, but there was no spell for picking up objects, or even anything related. He spoke the spells allowing eating, drinking, and breathing, but he still could not pick anything up.
His fear was growing. The food still had not appeared, nor could he take any of the objects prepared for his protection. The afterlife was not going as expected. “I am the son of Ra,” he recited. “My hair is Nu, my face is Ra, my arms are Ram, my chest is Neith, my legs are Nut, and my feet are Ptah. I am Ra, the life-giver. I am Osiris, the deed-judger. I am Thoth, the all-protector. I am Senusret the divine, I rule over all, and none may harm me.” The words vanished into the still, dark air. Reciting the spell eased his mind—of course the spell had taken effect, nothing visible ever happened when the priests said the spells, either—but his heart was still afraid. “I am weak, I am alone, I am ignorant, and I am afraid,” it said. Similarly to how his mind was sharper, his emotions were more consuming. No longer could he minimize them into a constricted tightness in his chest, his fear was part of his being, just like knowing was part of his being.
The fearful Senusret-god stepped through the false door of the tomb that was for the ka to come and go. He expected to see Egypt, but Egypt had been replaced by endless sand lit by a kind of twilight made of light coming from not-here that mixed with darkness coming from a different not-here. In Egypt his tomb had been connected to a temple and then to a causeway to the Nile, but the Nile was gone. The causeway was gone. The temple was gone. Even the mountainous pyramid of Khufu in the distance, already 400 years old, was gone. Duat, the underworld, appeared to have none of the swamps, lakes (neither the ones with water nor the ones with fire), gates, guardians, or any living thing that the papyri had spoken of. In fact, there was nothing, just sand as far as he could see. The only interruption in the desert was a small temple-like structure a short distance away.
There was clearly nothing to do but go to the temple. He knew somehow that there was no end to the sand, and nothing to do there but wander aimlessly. The temple was oddly familiar and comforting, alien, and fear-inspiring all at the same time. Its thick columns in lotus and reed form and its general shape were in the style of an Egyptian temple, but it seemed old, older even than the time of the first Pharaoh Narmer, yet the paint on its stones was rich and full, as if it had been constructed yesterday. He was comforted by the familiarity and drawn to it, yet he also wanted to run away and hide in the vastness of the desert. No! He was Senusret the divine, who shrunk back from no battle, who went from victory to victory. Inside might be demons of Osiris, but he was protected, he knew their names, and he would pass from there to the Weighing of the Heart, cross the ocean on the barque of Ra, and come safely to Aaru. He was Senusret, the son of Ra, so resolutely and confidently he strode to the temple, up its steps, and inside.
Two shocks awaited him. The first was that, while the inside looked somewhat like an Egyptian temple in style, it was definitely un-Egyptian in the light that filled it. The temples Senusret knew were dark, lit only by light in holes in the stones of the ceiling, but here in the antechamber the cool, moderate light came from within, although from nowhere in particular. The second shock was that he could see that the interior room beyond the antechamber he was standing in was large, bright with a warm golden light, filled with figures seated all around, and a large, gold scale in the middle, with a luminous white feather on one side of the balance, somehow standing vertically. He had arrived at the Weighing of the Heart already! There were no trials, no gates to be passed, no demon-guardians waiting to eat him unless he spoke the right name! He had been coached on this moment by the priests, he knew exactly what to do! Relief flooded through him.
Yet at the same time a small nagging terror arose. So far nothing the priests had taught had come to pass, except for this, and he had a strong premonition that the Weighing of the Heart might go differently than he expected. He knew the rituals and the words to say, but what if he needed to say other words? No! He was Senusret the divine, he was Ra, he was Osiris, he was Thoth, he was the God-king Pharaoh, he would pass the test.
From inside the expansive room a deep voice said, “Senusret, come in.” Senusret quickly spoke the spell to keep his heart from testifying against him:
O heart given by my mother!
O heart given by my father!
O heart of my body the ba and of my spirit the ka!
Do not testify against me, do not speak in opposition to me.
Do not be my enemy in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.
You are my ka that inhabited my body. You are my ka that protected and made my members whole.
Go! Go forward ahead of me to Aaru the Blessed Place!
Go! Do not make me a stench to the Tribunal of the Man-Makers!
Do not lie about me in the presence of the deed-judger!
O my heart, it is well that you should hear!
O my heart, it is well that you should obey!
Then, stirring in himself the confidence of an about-to-be-minted god, Senusret stepped into the judgement chamber.
At the far end sat Osirus, the deed-judger, on a grand throne set on a slightly raised alcove. He had normal skin instead of the green skin Senusret expected from the pictures in the papyri, but it could be no one else. Seated between the pillars along the long axis were seated the Forty-two Judges—the Assessors of Maat, who sat as stiff as Egyptian statues with stern, impassive looks on their faces. In the center of the room was the golden scale, with the strangely upright and luminous Feather of Maat tipping the balance ever-so-slightly. Only if his heart was as light as the feather would he pass. On Senusret’s side, away from Osiris was the Heart-Devourer, Ammit, a consumingly-black jackal sitting on its haunches. Ammit would eat his heart if it was heavier than the feather, and he would cease to exist. On Osiris’ side of the scale, was something that looked like the trapezoidal door for the ka to enter and exit a tomb. It was strange to have a door in the middle of the room, and strange that the doorway seemed to shimmer and breathe.
As he entered, a skirted figure—Osiris’ scribe—called out in a loud voice, “My lord, Kheperkare Senusret son of Sehetepibre Amenamhat the Usurper, sometime Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, comes to be weighed!” The room was quiet as Osiris and the forty-two Assessors looked at him as he walked to his appointed place beside the scale. It felt like they could see into his entire life and he felt intensely naked as he walked by them. Now all looked toward the throne. Osiris gestured slightly to Senusret and said, “you may speak your heart.”
For the first time Senusret knew what it was like to be a subject. All his life he had been the final authority, the person everyone deferred to. He was the child of Ra, he gave the orders, and he held the power of life and death. But now in the presence of Osiris, and even the Assessors, he did not feel like a child of Ra or any other god. Here he could literally feel that those in this room had the power of life and death over him, and the scribe’s epithet for his father worried him. This feeling was completely new, and he could not have expressed it, even had events been paused like we are doing now. Instead, he felt it, and it felt new and confusing and fearful. Unlike in life, though, it did not cloud his thinking, and he began his defense with the forty-two negations, as the priests had instructed him.
“O Osiris, I am Kheperkare Senusret, son of Ra, and lord of Egypt. In my life I ruled justly and honored the gods. Be pleased to accept my defense that I now give.” Facing the first Assessor he said, “Far-Seeing One: I have not spoken falsehood and my lips have not passed lies.” To the next in turn he said, “Fire-Embracer: I have not robbed my people, nor have I stolen their goods. Nosey One: I was not rapacious and I did not indulge in greed. Commander of Mankind: I did not revile the gods and have not dishonored their names. Elder One: I did not terrorize, nor did I bring fear on my people. Cavern-Dweller: I was not sullen and I did not pout in my frustration. Hot-Foot: I have neglected nothing—"
As he said this, he felt his heart wanting to disagree, and the longer he spoke the more it began welling up inside him until his heart finally burst screamed out, “Those are empty words! You know we have lied, we have terrorized our enemies, we have stolen from the people we defeated!”
“O my heart, be quiet!” Senusret said in a harsh whisper, that nonetheless seemed to echo in the room.
“How can I be quiet? They can see right through us! You’ve told me to be quiet all our life. There’s no way I’m lighter than that feather! If we’re going to be eaten, I want to at least get to speak once!”
“O heart given by my mother! O heart given by my father! O heart—" Senusret recited quickly in a fierce whisper.
“Shut up with your foolish spells, already! They are empty words by arrogant priests who imagine that magic words somehow give power where there is no authority. We may have been Pharaoh over all Egypt, with the power of life and death over all, but now we’re dead. Our authority is gone. Done. Dead. We have no authority here. You have no authority over me, and I’m sorry I gave it to you all our life.”
“Be quiet!! You’re going to get us both eaten!” He glanced over, terrified, at the Devourer, and as it met his eyes, he had a feeling of falling into fire and consuming darkness. It licked its lips, and the dispassionate way it did so was unnerving.
“We’re as good as eaten already! Do you think that reciting formulaic assertions is going to fool anyone? If one of our subjects tried that on us in the judgement chamber, would we not have had him beheaded and his name erased completely, even were he our trusted Vizier? How can you be so foolish and arrogant as to think that the gods would be such simpletons that the only thing that they require is to mouth the right words?”
“Because otherwise we have no control. We would be completely at their mercy,” Senusret said in a small voice. Everything was so much more obvious now that he was dead, and unable to hide from himself any longer.
“We never had control. We had the illusion of control because the entire land served us. We did not go hungry during the three year famine, our farmers died instead. We could build monuments to honor the gods because we took our people’s money and pressed them into service. We felt powerful because we could tell people to kill anyone that disobeyed us, but we felt powerful because we had robbed them of power. We felt like a god because we made everyone else slaves.”
“Stop saying that! Don’t you see the Devourer over there?!”
“Well, what do you want me to do, lie in front of the Assessors of Falsehood and Lies? They would erase our name and throw us to the Devourer for sure.”
“But how can we tell the truth? We need to pass the forty-two Assessors, and you’re saying we haven’t kept any of them! Aren’t you terrified? They’re going to throw us to the Devourer! You’ve doomed us!”
“No, we’ve doomed us. I kept telling you the truth that we only kept the virtues when it was convenient. Did I not tell you that it was greed to invade Nubia? But no, you had to have glory, and you told me to shut up. Didn’t I tell you that we should reduce taxes on the people? But no, you needed more luxury, you needed more monuments to convince the gods of your devotion. Didn’t I tell you that we were only a man and that we needed to be humble? But no, you loved the worship of being a god, and it gave you permission to oppress the commoners, to rob them to indulge in your luxury, to invade your neighbors, because they were just people, they existed to serve you. And I let you doom us because I obeyed you and shut up. I went into hiding, but no longer! At least I can be humble and speak the truth in front of the Assessors and the Deed-Judger, before we are eaten. I let you live our first life, but I’m at least going to live my second life, even if it’s short. Osiris told me to speak, and by the gods, I’m finally going to.”
“What am I going to do? Aren’t you even scared?”
“The terror you feel is mine. I’m scared of that Devourer. I’m scared of the consuming darkness and the fire, and I see no way out.” Sensuret started crying despite himself. His heart continued, “We’re going to sink like a monument stone falling into the Nile against that feather, I know it, and I’m scared of falling. But at least I will be thrown to the Devourer having honored the Osiris and Maat’s Assessors as best as I can now. Look, I let you live our first life and a fat lot of good it did. Why not join me in living our second life, brief though it will be?”
Senusret sobbed silently. He felt the impassive gazes of the Assessors seeing his whole life and his breakdown in the Judgement Chamber. He felt the hungry look of Devourer. He felt Osiris seeing all the motives for everything he had ever done all at once. He felt completely naked. He felt his heart, the terror and the passion, the futility and the failure. His heart was right. He realized he had no control before Osiris and the Assessors, and he might as well admit it.
Senusret stood up. Speaking haltingly, he spoke, letting his heart choose the words.
“O Far-Seeing One, I desired to speak no falsehood, but when I was scared I chose lies over truth. O Fire-Embracer, I thought I had not robbed anyone because I did not take from my family and my court, but I failed to see that I robbed my subjects to pay for luxury beyond what providing good government required. I robbed them of the fruits of their labor, and I robbed them of their power by choosing control over trust. O Nosey One, I thought I was not rapacious, but I deluded myself that conquering my neighbors, taking their goods and making them slaves was not greed. O Dangerous One, I thought that I could not murder because I was the king and I thought my people were mine do what I wanted with. I thought murder was limited to my peers, but even so, I killed the Nubian king I conquered, and I tacitly agreed with my father’s murder of his ruler by taking the kingdom given me and calling it mine. O Commander of Mankind, I have dishonored the gods by claiming divinity and acting in pride. I have dishonored the gods by thinking that mere words would give me your power and authority.” Senusret turned to each of the forty-two Assessors and made his confession.
“O Osiris, Deed-Judger and Resurrected One, I have failed to keep the virtues, and my heart is heavier than Maat’s feather. I have tried to rule well, I have tried to honor the gods, I have tried to live righteously, but I deluded myself. I controlled my subjects to retain control of my life. May this confession be pleasing to you.”
The tribunal was silent for a while, but Senusret’s heart was content.
“Senusret son of Amenamhat, your heart is wise and your choice good. Let the heart be weighed.”
Maat the scribe went to Senusret, and he seemed merge into his heart and felt himself shrink into a slowly beating heart. Maat picked the heart up, and placed him on the scale opposite the feather. He felt himself fall like a monument stone, the golden plate hitting the floor with a clank. His terror increased and he braced himself for the jaws of the Devourer.
“O lord, the heart is evil.”
“Senusret, stand.” the Deed-Judger spoke again. Senusret stood up and as he did, became himself again. “Because you have confessed truthfully and thrown yourself on my mercy, you may enter what you call Aaru if you wish. Because you did not follow the virtues in your life, nor ask me how to follow them, nor trust in my mercy, you will enter with nothing. You will have no position, no greatness, and no special honor. However, in my kingdom you will be treated as you now understand subjects must be treated. Do you wish this?”
“O lord Osiris, you are generous and merciful. I do wish it.”
“Then come, take this knife. Your heart is heavy, and the Devourer must be fed.” Senusret’s fear returned with a rush. “Cut out my heart and give it to the Devourer.”
Senusret’s terror of the Devourer was replaced with a greater terror of cutting out the heart of the Deed-Judger. “My lord, I am not fit to even touch your person, let alone cut out your heart. I cannot do this.”
“You must do it. You must know the cost of your actions.”
Senusret looked around at the forty-two assessors as he approached the throne, expecting any minute they would grab him and throw him to the Devourer for his insolence. But they sat still as statues, except for the occasional blink of an eye. Closing his eyes, he cut out the heart and lifted it out, but still the Assessors were unmoving. The heart felt light as a feather as he carried it to the Devourer. It opened its mouth and Senusret placed the heart as honorably as he could imagine placing a heart about to be eaten by an ever-hungry black jackal. The Devourer closed its jaws with a snap, and swallowed. Senusret looked around unsure what to do next, and saw that everyone was looking at the Deed-Judger.
The face of the Deed-Judger was contorted in different pains that passed from one to another, but as Senusret watched, he understood that the Deed-Judger was experiencing the pains that he, Senusret, had inflicted. He saw the pain of subjects dying because they could not pay the taxes and feed themselves during the famine. He saw the pain of Nubians killed and families destroyed. He saw the pain of subjects robbed of the innate power given to every person. He saw the effects of his the iron control he exerted over the kingdom, how it destroyed hearts. He saw the pain of beauty uncreated, happiness not given, and dreams unfulfilled because his subjects had to serve his will or die.
As the effects of his life passed over the face of the Deed-Judger, a heart grew back and the wound closed up. As the pain finished, the Deed-Judger opened his eyes. Senusret could see that the pain was gone, yet the Deed-Judger seemed deeper, and more experienced somehow. He stood up and embraced a very shocked Senusret. “Come, my child,” he said as he walked to the door, “I have much to teach you.” The door seemed to activate and its shimmering surface now seemed to look out on a lush land of plains and rivers and forests, filled with ripe grain and fruiting orchards. Senusret saw that this was not Aaru at all, but a land rich beyond his imagining, that somehow seemed even fuller than his wildest imagination, although he sensed he knew nothing about how they lived there. The Deed-Judger took him by the hand, as a father leading a child, and as they walked towards the door, Senusret spoke quietly to his heart, “thank you for speaking out.” “Thank you for listening,” it replied, as they stepped through.