Ancient Egypt is a place of firsts or near firsts – the first monumental stone building, one of the first civilisations to develop writing, one of the first places people lived in cities – but one that I haven’t often seen mentioned is that it has the first significant corpus of written religious texts in the world. This is another of these things that we take for granted today, most of the extant religions of the modern world have a canonical body of written literature that underpins what people believe and how they practice their religion. It’s also an illustration of how comparisons to the modern world can be misleading – these Egyptian texts weren’t an ancient Bible or Book of Common Prayer. For starters the population was almost entirely illiterate and so these texts would’ve been no more than pictures & squiggles carved in stone to them (as, to be fair, they are to most of us who can’t read hieroglyphs). And secondly the copies we’ve found were carved on the inner chambers of pyramids – hence the modern name of Pyramid Texts – and so were inaccessible to everybody once the king had been buried.

Pyramid Texts

The Pyramid Texts were first discovered in the 1880s, much to the surprise of archaeologists in general. Most Old Kingdom pyramids, like the ones at Giza which we’ve all heard of, have nothing on the walls of their burial chambers. But something changes in the late 5th Dynasty and from then until the end of the Old Kingdom the walls of the internal chambers are covered in texts. There are (so far) 10 pyramids known to have these texts, all of them at Saqqara. The first is that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (reigning some 200 years after the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza). The kings of the 6th Dynasty follow suit (Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II), and some of their wives also have texts in their pyramid chambers: Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I) and three wives of Pepi II (Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni). The last known king to have these texts was an obscure 8th Dynasty king called Ibi – in fact he’s so obscure that the only evidence for his existence is his pyramid texts! This isn’t the end of the line for the texts – they in some sense develop into or merge with the Coffin Texts (so called because they’re found written on Middle Kingdom coffins). The books I read are divided in how much they think this was an evolution of one turning into the other and how much the Coffin Texts were a parallel development that borrowed from the Pyramid Texts. Some aspects of the texts definitely survive through into the New Kingdom and beyond (like the Opening of the Mouth ritual), whereas others aren’t even found in all the pyramids that have Pyramid Texts. There’s also a bit of a renaissance for the texts in the Late Period (around 2,000 years after Unas) as part of a general culture of harking back to the “old ways”.

The texts are written in columns and were divided up by the ancient writers into sections – generally each starts with a word meaning “Recitation” and ends with “chapter” or “section”. We call these sections spells or utterances – I think I prefer utterances because spells has all sorts of connotations which don’t always seem appropriate, whereas if they themselves wrote “Recitation” at the beginning then they were all intended to be uttered. Modern scholars give them numbers to make it easier to discuss them, but these numbers have no ancient relevance. The original numbering was done by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe who numbered them according to where they were found in the pyramid, going from the inside out. Then as more examples were found with extra utterances these were added onto the end of the list (not always consistently). There are around 800 utterances found in total (so far!) but not all of them are found in every pyramid, for instance Pepi II had over 600 but Unas had only a couple of hundred.

There are indications that the texts that end up on the pyramid walls were copied off a papyrus master copy written in a cursive script (rather than the monumental form carved in the stone). James Allen describes how you can use mistakes in the copying to detect this, and to detect how the spells were edited for their new location. For instance, some texts began life in 1st person but were edited into 3rd person to be carved on the walls with some 1st person pronouns replaced with the deceased’s name and some with the appropriate 3rd person one – and there are occasional places where the original pronoun is left intact, or a verb form hasn’t been changed to match the new grammatical structure. So this is very clearly not a new set of rituals or theology that spring up from out of nowhere in the 5th Dynasty. Instead it looks like an already existent tradition is expanding into a new context, that adds a level of permanence to the rituals and utterances.

The overall purpose of the texts is to ensure a successful afterlife for the king (or queen) for whom they were inscribed. They can be divided up into a few broad genres of texts, although almost every author seems to divide them up a bit differently. In essence there are texts that have to do with rituals, there are texts that have to do with protection from problems (which are the ones for which “spells” seems most appropriate) and there are descriptions of the journey the deceased must take into the afterlife and what he or she will do once there. The ritual ones often look like instructions for the priests conducting these rituals – words to be said and stage directions for the required actions. Some scholars (in particular Siegfried Schott) have used these to argue that the whole corpus should be interpreted as the funeral ritual written out on the walls in the order the priests should read it as they bring the body into the chamber. I think this specific idea is almost entirely discredited now, although the general concept that the ordering reflects order of “use” is still influential. James Allen’s recent translation of the texts sees them as being ordered for the convenience of the resurrecting king – in the burial chamber are texts to protect him and to help him resurrect and start his journey. Then in the antechamber and corridors there are spells that the king must read on his journey to the afterlife (via the exit from the pyramid).

Taken as a whole the texts do not form a coherent or consistent body of literature. They don’t even seem to’ve all been written at the same time – some have language & imagery that implies they are contemporary with the pyramids that they’re written in, some seem much older. And they appear to be deliberately obscure. To write things down was in some sense to make them magically present for eternity so that affected what & how the Egyptians were willing to write in their texts. Hieroglyphic signs that had the shape of dangerous animals were damaged to make sure they couldn’t cause harm to the king in his tomb. And myths tended to be talked round and referred to rather than spelt out – Mark Lehner suggests they might’ve been regarded as too potent to commit to writing. Altogether this makes it rather difficult to reverse engineer a sense of “the Ancient Egyptian Religion” from these texts, and I don’t think there’s even general agreement as to whether these texts represent a single tradition or a selection from co-existing and/or competing concepts for the gods & the afterlife.

In some parts of the texts the king is to rise from his tomb and make his way to the “imperishable stars” (the ones near the northern pole star that never set) there to join with the court of the gods. In some parts of the texts the king rises up to the sky (assisted by wind, by flying, by jumping like a grasshopper) and travels with Re in his solar boat across the day sky. And in yet other parts of the texts the king travels through the Duat (the underworld) to merge with Osiris and become reborn. But there is an underlying consistency – the king will rise from his tomb and go to join with the gods in some capacity. Contemporary non-royals expected an afterlife in the vicinity of their tombs – the idea that everyone might partake in the Osirian afterlife doesn’t develop until the Middle Kingdom after the political upheavals of the First Intermediate Period.

And finally I should mention the Cannibal Hymn, the most notorious utterances of the Pyramid Texts. This part of the texts describes quite graphically how the king will eat the gods and absorb their powers to become more mighty than them, and pretty much always gets brought up in any discussion of the texts. As is so often the case how the Cannibal Hymn is interpreted shines more light on the person doing the interpreting than the text itself. Some scholars jump in both feet first and use some indications of retainer sacrifice in Early Dynastic Egypt to back up a bloodthirsty story of ancient ritual cannibalism now only referenced in this one hymn. Other scholars clearly take a step back, reflect on the fact that we don’t think early Christians ever actually ate Jesus or anyone else during the Eucharist, and interpret the whole thing as entirely symbolic and magical. And yet others take a path that’s a mixture of the two – hinging round the fact that some Egyptian gods had bulls as avatars. The most well known one is the Apis Bull (an avatar of Ptah) and I’ve mentioned the Buchis Bull (avatar of Montu) in a previous article. In later periods of Egyptian history these bulls were mummified and buried in catacombs, but there’s some evidence that in earlier periods they were cooked and eaten – a presumably ritual & symbolic meal where the king consumed the powers of the god via this avatar. I’m most inclined to this mix of practical & symbolic, which presumably tells you all something about me!


Resources used:

“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts” James P. Allen
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Serapeum at Saqqara” Aidan Dodson; talk given at Sussex Egyptology Society 28 September 2019
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I: The Old and Middle Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“Pyramids” Miroslav Verner
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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