Educator How-To: Deciphering Papyrus with the Egyptian Book of the Dead

Background:

The Book of the Dead, ironically, is not a book at all, but rather a diverse collection of magical spells intended to aid the dead in successfully navigating the complicated and oft tumultuous process of reaching the afterlife.

The bulk of the 200-plus spells discovered to date were created on papyrus, and a few have been found written on the walls of the tomb itself. Of the known spells, most are centered on the idea of making it safely to the afterlife.

All ancient Egyptians desired to safely reach the afterlife. The afterlife, after all, was a real place, and they believed magical spells would help them get there. Prosperous Egyptians would hire professional scribes to record the spells of their choice on fine papyrus sheets. This precious collection of spells was then packed away with their other grave goods, to be placed in their tomb at the time of their burial.

Not to worry, if you were not a “man of means,” so to speak, you could buy spells at the market. Many of the more popular spells were mass produced and could be purchased for a reasonable amount; there was even a space on the papyrus so that the purchaser’s name could be written on the document after purchase. Both the Ba and the Ka, the two aspects of the soul, would need this validation to know the spell belongs to them.

Materials:

Procedure:

  1. Research the Book of the Dead and the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony.
  2. Read the Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani description.
  3. Looking at the picture of the papyrus and using the description, label what each of the lettered items are on the papyrus.
  4. What other judgments stories are the you familiar with?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani

The above scene from the Book of the Dead of Ani reads from left to right. At the left, Ani and his wife enter the judgement area. In the center are the scales used for weighing the heart, attended by Anubis, the god of embalming. The process is also observed by Ani’s ba spirit (the human-headed bird), two birth-goddesses and a male figure representing his destiny.

Ani’s heart, represented as the hieroglyph for ‘heart’ (a mammal heart), sits on the left pan of the scales. It is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat, the principle of order, which in this context means ‘what is right’. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the character, and thus represented the good or bad aspects of a person’s life. If the heart did not balance out with the feather, then the deceased were condemned to non-existence, and was consumed by the ferocious ‘devourer’, Ammit, the strange beast, part-crocodile, part-lion, and part-hippopotamus, shown at the right of this scene.

However, a papyrus devoted to ensuring the continued existence of the deceased is not likely to depict this happening. Once the judgement is completed, the deceased was declared ‘true of voice’ or ‘justified’, a standard epithet applied to dead individuals in their texts. The whole process is recorded by the ibis-headed deity Thoth. At the top twelve deities supervise the judgement.

R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of t, (revised ed. C. A. R. Andrews) (London, The British Museum Press, 1985); R.B. Parkinson and S. Quirke, Papyrus, (Egyptian Bookshelf) (London, The British Museum Press, 1995); S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc (London, The British Museum Press, 1992); via the British Museum

Sugar Skull How-To Part II: Royal icing’s not just for royals

When last we left you in the sweet lobotomies how-to, we had made the actual sugar skulls, let them dry and scooped the backs out.  In this post, you will learn how to make the icing used to decorate the skulls and cement them together.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!Materials:

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • ½ cup meringue powder
  • 2/3 cup water
  • Several bottles or jars of gel food coloring in a variety of colors (available in the baking aisle of your local craft store)
  • Heavy-duty Kitchen Aid-style mixer
  • Sturdy tall cup
  • Good quality plastic sacks
  • Clear packing tape
  • Scissors
  • Small rubber bands

 

Procedure:

1.  The most important part of this whole how-to is obtaining the heavy-duty mixer. If you don’t own one yourself, you’ll need to find one or borrow one. I’m a pretty proficient baker, but one year (with great hubris) I tried to skip this step and use my hand mixer.  After we put the fire out, we swept up the pieces of my sad little hand mixer and said a few kind words before dumping it in the trash. In short? Do not skip this step.
2.  The second thing you need to know is that royal icing for sugar skulls is not an exact science, and you will likely have to feel your way through the first batch. You definitely want your icing to be pasty rather than runny, so adjust as needed.
3.  Once you have your heavy-duty mixer, dump a 2-pound bag of powdered sugar into the bowl. To this, add ½ cup meringue powder and about 2/3 cup water.
4.  Start the mixer on slow, but after you know the powdered sugar isn’t going to go everywhere, bump it up to a medium speed. Keep an eye on it.
5.  Stop the mixer after a minute or two and scrape the bowl. You may need to add a little bit more water or powder to get the right consistency.
6.  Let the mixer run again on medium speed.  I don’t have an exact time, but here’s what I usually do: Start the mixer, get distracted with something, forget that you are making icing, come back in 3 to 15 minutes, add a tiny bit more water, mix again, and then think, “That’s probably alright.”
7.  Now we are going to get some piping bags ready by reinforcing them.  The point of steps 7 through 11 is to reinforce the edge of the sack so that it doesn’t split when you squeeze it. To reinforce your sack, you will need to get out your good quality plastic sacks, scissors and clear packing tape. My version of this can be a little tricky, so I have included a terrible drawing and a picture of the finished product. Enjoy.
8.  Cut off a piece of tape about 7 inches long. The piece of tape in the photo has the edge outlined in black so that you can see and hopefully follow the line.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scrach: Here's how to decorate 'em!

9.  Lay the tape on the edge of the counter, sticky side up.
10.  Place the bag on the table with one tip touching the edge of the counter.
11.  Wrap the extra pieces of tape up on the bag so that the lower two edges end up meeting on top of the bag, perpendicular to the edge of the counter.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!12.  Once you have your sack reinforced, tuck your taped corner into a sturdy glass and fold the edges down — much like you might put a trash bag in a trash can. Pull the edge of the sack down tight so that the least amount of sack is in the glass.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!13.  Take a big fat dollop of your icing and stick it in the sack.
14.  Pull the sack out and twist the open end shut. Rubber band it tightly! You don’t want any escapees.
15.  With your fingers, massage some of the icing into the reinforced tip of the bag.
16.  Snip off about 1/8 of an inch from the corner of the bag. If you aren’t sure what an 1/8 of an inch looks like, snip off the least amount you can possibly cut. You can always cut more off, but you can’t put any back on, as they say somewhere about something.
17.  Take the sack in your dominant hand (unless you want to make things harder for yourself), and cup it gently in your palm with the twisted end in between your thumb and pointer finger.
18.  Squeeze your thumb against your pointer finger. If your sack is super full, you won’t be able to touch the two together. The point is to keep the icing from coming out of the twisted end.
19.  Practice squeezing the frosting out of the hole onto a piece of paper towel by rolling your fingers — pointer to pinky — down the bag. With a little practice, you will get a feel for it and probably develop a technique that feels okay to you.
20.  Adjust the size of the hole as needed. (Note: More pressure does not equal more awesome. If you use too much pressure, your sack of icing will explode). If the frosting isn’t coming out, there may be a lump caught in the hole or your icing is too thick. If it’s the former, pinch the tip between your fingers to squish lumps. If it’s the latter, put the frosting back in the mixing bowl and add a bit more water.
21.  Now for the fun part! Take one of your scooped skull fronts in your hand, face down, and squeeze out a line of icing along the scooped rim.
22.  Take a scooped skull back and press it to the frosted edge.
23.  Press the two skull parts together with a tiny, tiny bit of twisting back and forth. If some icing squishes out of the joint, wipe it off with your finger.
24.  The skulls are technically ready to decorate now, but if you need a little more practice with the piping bag, let them dry a bit first. Wet, the skull bits might shift if you aren’t careful. Dry, nothing will get those two to move!
25.  To get colored frosting, you will want to scoop all of the icing out of the mixing bowl and then put back just what you want to tint with the first color of gel food coloring.
26.  Select a color for the icing from your gel food coloring options. I suggest starting with the lightest color first so you don’t need to wash out the bowl between batches. Some might call this lazy; I prefer “efficient.” We made our icing in this order: First batch, yellow, orange, red and second batch, green, blue, purple, black.
27.  Put about a quarter of the food coloring into the mixing bowl and mix well.  If it is too bright, add more white. If it’s too soft, add more coloring.
28.  When you have the right color, reinforce another sack and put the colored icing in it.  Don’t cut the tip yet.
29.  Repeat steps 25 to 28 until you either run out of frosting and have to make another batch or have all the colors you want.
30.  Black icing is not necessary to make a sugar skull, but many people prefer it for eye sockets, noses and teeth. To make black icing for the skull, get an unreasonable amount of black food coloring – let’s say three bottles or jars. Add the coloring a half a jar at a time until you get the right color. It often seems purple, grey or dark blue for a long, long time but eventually turns black. If you have the time and are patient enough to wait, letting the black icing sit in the piping bags for a few days seems to help the color darken.
31.  When you’re ready, snip the bag corners and decorate your skulls. Pay attention to where your skull touches the table when resting and try not to decorate it there.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!

32.  If you want to save your bags of icing for more skulls or a later use (like gingerbread houses), squish the icing out of the tips so that the tips are flat for a centimeter or so, and then put painters’ tape across the holes. If you are going to use the icing within a week or 10 days, you can leave it out. If you are waiting longer than that, you might want to put it in the fridge. When you are ready to use the icing again, bring it to room temperature and remove the painters’ tape.

Fun Facts:

Fun Fact No. 1: Gel food coloring will stain everything you own. Do not decide to make colored icing the day before you are in a wedding, or your hands will be purple.

Fun Fact No. 2: As far as we can tell, sugar skulls are unattractive snacks to pests because of the meringue powder. So, if you are careful with them, you should be able to use them from year to year!

Making slime one step at a time: Join our birthday party team as they cook up dino boogers!

You’ve already read about our ballin’ birthday party program. But now you can sneak a peek behind the scenes with one of our most outlandish birthday craft activities: MAKING SLIME! Our slime is customizable for different party themes (and can be made in different colors). We like to call the iteration below “dinosaur boogers.” (It comes with the dinosaur-themed birthday party.)

Slime and other crafts are included in any regular birthday party package. To learn more about our Party Smarty birthday party program and what our packages include, email birthdays@hmns.org or call 713-639-4646.

Supplies:  
•    Bowl or cup
•    Mixing utensil (a popsicle stick, knife or spoon all work fine)
•    Plastic bag or sealable container to put the finished slime in
•    2 tablespoons of white school glue (washable)
•    1 tablespoon of paint (color of choice; preferably washable paint)
•    1 tablespoon of Borax water (see note below)

Instructions
•    Fill a measuring cup with water and add a thin layer of Borax. Mix until dissolved and set aside.
•    In a separate mixing container, combine glue and paint. Mix together until the paint is evenly mixed with the glue.
•    Add the Borax water. (It begins to become slime the moment you add the Borax water, so be ready to mix!)
•    Mix the Borax water into the glue mixture until it wraps around the mixing utensil. It may be a little wet, so put the slime in your sealable container and let it stand for a few minutes. Soon it will be ready to pull, throw, bounce, and blow out of your nose!

Check out our step-by-step guide below, in pictures:

1. Add glue.

Making slime, on step a time

2. Add paint.

Making slime, on step a time

3. Mix glue and paint.

Making slime, on step a time

4. Add Borax water.

Making slime, one step a time

5. Mix quickly!

Making slime, on step a time

6. DINOSAUR BOOGERS!

Making slime, on step a time

Making slime, on step a time

Sweet lobotomies: A sugar skull how-to for fellow craft addicts

Fall is a favorite time of year for many people in the Education Department. The summer rush is over, the weather has gone from sweltering to just hot and Dia De Los Muertos is approaching. When it comes to Day of the Dead crafts, some might say we have an addiction. But we don’t! We can stop crafting whenever we want to … we just don’t want to.

To share in the spirit of this holiday for craft addicts, we’re going to show you how to make sugar skulls. They are fun and easy, but you should be prepared to get a little sticky, and the process does take a bit of time.

Completed sugar skull!Ingredients:
5 lbs of sugar
¼ cup of meringue powder
3+ tablespoons of water

Supplies:
A big bowl
A sugar skull mold (see notes below)
Scraps of cardboard sized to your mold
Your hands (because a spoon just doesn’t cut it!)

Procedure:
1.    Dump your 5 lbs. bag of sugar into your bowl.
2.    Add ¼ cup of meringue powder. We used a rounded ¼ cup, so precision isn’t super important here. Meringue powder is widely available at any store selling cake decorating supplies.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to3.    Mix the sugar and powder with your hands.
4.    Add 3 tablespoons of water half a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. You are aiming for the sugar to stick to itself. To test this, sprinkle a handful into your open palm. Close that palm into a fist and then open your hand. If the sugar stays in the shape of your closed fist — however briefly — you’ve got a winner.  If it is too powdery or won’t stick, add more water. If it is too mushy, add a bit more sugar.
5.    Once you’ve got it to the right consistency, get your mold. We’ve cut ours apart for ease of use, but you can leave them as a whole sheet too.
6.    Put the mold in one of your hands face down.
7.    Pack the sugar mixture into the mold like you would brown sugar for baking.  It is okay if it is overly full as long as it is tightly packed.
8.    Using your cardboard scrap, scrape the excess sugar off and back into the bowl.  Your skull’s back, if viewed from the side, should be totally flat.
9.    Place the cardboard scrap on the back of your skull so it covers all the sugar.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to10.    Press the mold and cardboard together.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to11.    Flip!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to12.    Place both pieces on the counter together.
13.    Lift the mold off.  Ta-da!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to14.    Repeat this process, making sure to make enough backs and fronts. Making sugar skulls is a very forgiving process. If you aren’t 100 percent satisfied with your work, dump it back into the bowl and start over. If your skull is dried and has a defect, cover the defect with icing.  No worries!
15.    After 4 to 8 hours, depending on the humidity, your skulls should be stiff to the touch and you can gently pop them off the cardboard.
16.    Take a skull and place it in your hand face down.
17.    With a metal spoon, lobotomize your sugar skull. You will scoop out all the inside goodness and put it back in your bowl.  If your skull isn’t dry enough, it will crumble in your hand. This isn’t a problem – just wet your hand, mix up the bits and do it again. If your skull is too hard, you won’t get any scoopings. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, but no scoopings means heavier skulls and it is a bit wasteful.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to18.    Re-wet the scoopings, if necessary, and use them to make a few more skulls!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to19.    Stay tuned for a second post on how to make royal icing to cement and decorate your skulls.

If you are nervous about the process, don’t have the time or just don’t want your floors to be sticky, join us on Monday Oct. 22, for an evening workshop on Day of the Dead and Sugar Skulls.

Editors’ Notes:
If you live in Houston, then you’re in for a treat. Casa Ramirez in the Heights is your one-stop-shop for Day of the Dead items, including a variety of sugar skull molds. Senor Ramirez is old school, however, so there is no website and definitely no online ordering option. This is offset by the instant gratification of walking away with your molds and not having to pay shipping.

If you are not from Houston, you might want to check out MexicanSugarSkull.com, a pretty terrific online store that sells just about anything you can imagine when it comes to Dia de Los Muertos. Happy lobotomizing!