Ancient Egyptian Texts

Amduat - Called by the Egyptians, the Book of the 'Secret Chamber'

This book is the earliest of all funerary text, and documents the sun god's journey through the 12 divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Kehpri, the newborn sun in the East. They correspond to the 12 hours of the night.

Amduat can be interpreted to mean, "That Which Is in the Underworld".  In this book the deadpharaoh travels through the underworld to the afterlife in his solar boat. While most tombs in the Valley of the Kings (on the West Bank at Luxor which was ancient Thebes) contain passages from the book, the burial chambers of Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II contain almost the complete text.

Pyramid Texts

The Pyramid Texts are the oldest collection of religious spells known to us from ancient Egypt. This collection forms the basis of much of the later religious theology and literature of ancient Egypt. The passages were eventually separated and categorized, as well as illustrated and eventually evolved into the Book of the Dead, or more properly, "The Book of the Coming forth by Day". The oldest of these text come from that Pyramid of Wenis, or more popularly these days, Unas at Saqqara. However, the first Pyramid Text that were actually discovered were from the Pyramid of Pepy I.

This collection forms the basis of much of the later religious theology and literature of ancient Egypt. From Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty, varying selections of spells were carved in all the royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom, particularly the sarcophagus chamber and antechamber. There were some 227 spells in the Pyramid of Unas, and each subsequent pyramid provided fresh new additions, though no single pyramid contained the whole collection of spells.

The maximum number was 675 utterances from the pyramid of Pepy II. With Teti's pyramid, the text also appeared on the sarcophagus itself, and in the pyramid of Pepy I the inscriptions extend beyond the antechamber. During the rule of Pepy II we begin to find the text in the tombs of queens, and after the Old Kingdom, they even appear on the walls and coffins of officials. Specifically, in the Old Kingdom the text appears in the pyramids of Unas, Tei, Pepy I, Merenre I, Pepy II and Ibi, along with those of queens Wedjebten, Neith and Iput.

We have difficulty really dating the text. The Pyramid Texts have aroused much speculation regarding their origin because they emerge, as a fully-fledged collection of mortuary texts, without any precedent in the archaeological record. The fact that the texts are made up of distinct utterances which do not have a strict narrative sequence linking them together has led scholars to believe that many of them were not composed specifically for the purpose of being inscribed in the pyramids but may have had earlier uses. In fact, spells such as Utterances 273-4, called the Cannibal Hymn, and which only appears in the Pyramids of Unas and Teti, refer to aspects of the funerary cult that seem to no longer been in practice at the time the pyramids were built.

Early analysts attempted to date the text as early as possible; even from the predynastic period. A very early dating of these texts remains a strong possibility, though today, scholars place the text's origins with the date of the monuments where they reside. In reality, we have very little idea of the date of their initial invention, perhaps other than the antiquated language employed.

What might also be called Pyramid Spells, were discovered when Gaston Maspero was working on the pyramid of Teti. He began publishing translations of the text as early as 1882, starting with those of Unas. Kurt Sethe also published pyramid texts in his "Dictionary of the Egyptian Language" in 1899. In 1924, a further translation was rendered by Louis Spleleers in French. Gustave Jequier advanced our knowledge of pyramid text considerably during his investigations in southern Saqqara between 1924 and 1936.

He added many spells from the pyramid of Pepy II, and also discovered the versions in the pyramids of Wedjebten, Neith, Iput and Ibi. A systematic investigation of the 6th Dynasty pyramids was initiated by Jean-Philippe Lauerand Jean Sainte-Fare Garnot in 1951. Later, Lauer teamed with Jean Leclant to unearth an additional 700 spell fragments from the tomb of Teti and over 2,000 more from that of Pepy I. In 1952, Samuel A. B. Mercer delivered a full English translation of the text then known, but that has since been superseded by a translation of Raymond O. Faulkner. In addition, the extensive commentaries and translations of Sethe were published after his death, appearing between 1935 and 1962.

The Pyramid Text differ considerably in length, and were not illustrated. Individual spells are not titled, with the sole exception of spell 355, the "Opening the Double Door of the Sky". The individual signs are outlined in green, hopeful for the regeneration of the deceased. Each column begins with a notation "words to be spoken", though in the tomb of Unas this only appears at the beginning of the composition.

The spells are separated by a hieroglyph for house, in all the pyramids with the exception Unas, where they are marked by a horizontal line. All together, Sethe found 714 spells, while Faulkner increased the number to 759, though with some duplicates. We call these spells, "utterances", because we believe they were meant to be spoken by priests in the course of the royal mortuary rituals. They are usually numbered by their position within the pyramid, progressing from the burial chamber outward.

We are not really sure in which order the spells are to be read. Sethe started with the north wall of the sarcophagus chamber, but other scholars such as Siegfried Schott and Alexandre Piankoff thought they began at the entrance to the antechamber. There seems no correlation with the text and the four coordinal points.  In fact, considerable debate exists as to their actual use and the associated rituals, though there seems to be no question of their ritualistic content. It has been assumed that they were selected from a larger collection of spells for very specific reasons and arranged according to a distinctive point of view

The language, while Old Egyptian, does seem antiquated, displaying differences from other text of the period, including highly redundant language. It is the earliest use of what is referred to as retrograde writing, where the normal sequence of columns is reversed. There is an avoidance of complete figures of animals and people, believed due to the fear that such signs might come to life and pose a danger.

The main theme in the Pyramid Texts is the king's resurrection and ascension to the Afterworld and this is described in many different ways. In some of the texts, the king boards the sun-boat of Re and passes through different regions in the sky, encountering many gods. In other texts, the king reaches the sky by flying up as a bird, such as a falcon or a goose. At other times the king climbs up the ladder of the sky. What all these texts have in common is an emphasis on the eternal existence of the king and the location of the sky as the realm of the Afterlife, which is dominated by the sun-god Re. The night sky is also described, particularly the imperishable stars.

Generally, the text is supposed to provide services to the deceased king in his ascent into the sky and with his reception in the world of the divine. Every possible means is given for this assistance, including a ladder or ramp leading to the sky, clouds, storms hail, incense and sunlight. The god, Shu, who holds up the sky is there for his assistance, while the text communicates knowledge to the pharaoh of the customs and places in the hereafter. It also warns him of dangers. There are dialogues with gatekeepers and ferryman where the king is given the specific knowledge that he will need in order to name the correct names and answer all the questions needed to prove his legitimacy and make his way though the afterlife.

Many of the locations remain unclear to us, but the Field of Reeds, the Field of Offerings, the Lake of the Jackal and the Winding Waterway are clearly important. The waterways of the heavens are navigated by boat, so the king is dependent on the efforts of his ferryman. Though the afterworld is celestial in nature, it does not seem to be all that desirable of a place to stay. Not even Re is happy here, only seemingly able to bear out the time before sunrise when he could be freed. The king arrives in this realm violently, and then is repeatedly identified with the creator god Atum.

There are many references to various problems such as repelling the attacks of various supernatural beings and we find, for example in spell 244, the "smashing of the red pots" specifically intended to annihilate one's enemies. But more mundane topics are also approached. On earth, the king had needed a boat to travel throughout Egypt along the Nile; in the next world, he would need a boat as well. Some of the prayers call for food and provisions; some assert that the king will not lose the power of his limbs, that he will still move, breathe, eat, and copulate in the next world.

We find an expressed plea for the king to overcome death by entering the eternal course of the cosmos together with the sun god in his solar barque, but we also find the king with a strong, general association with Osiris. Here, we find the earliest known reference to Osiris as the ruler of the underworld. In spell number 239 this relationship is especially evident, and we find considerable reference to the Osiris legend. Almost all of the myth's elements may be found within this text. Osiris' son, Horus, along with Osiris' two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, search for the murdered god (Osiris). Horus finds his father and revives him. It also provides a version of the contention of Horus and Seth.

A number of specifically ritualistic text stand out, such as the 'Opening of the Mouth' ceremony, which to the best of our knowledge is here presented for the first time. There are also offering and statue rituals.

The Coffin Texts - The Book of Two Ways

The Coffin Text, which basically superseded the Pyramid Text as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom, are principally a Middle Kingdom phenomenon, though we may begin to find examples as early as the late Old Kingdom. In effect, they democratized the afterlife, eliminating the royal exclusivity of the Pyramid Text.

Mostly, as the modern name of this collection of spells implies, the text was found on Middle Kingdom coffins of officials and their subordinates. However, we may also find the spells inscribed on tomb walls, stelae, canopic chests, papyri and even mummy masks.

Though many are unique to individual coffins, de Buck divided the coffin text into 1,185 spells, with some being assigned to larger compositions such as the Book of the Two Ways. These spells, which always refer to the deceased in the first person singular, attempt to imitate the language of the Old Kingdom, though they are actually produced in the classical language of Middle Egypt. They are inscribed using hieroglyphs, or occasionally early hieratic. Unlike the Pyramid text, they are almost always titled, though at times the title may come at the end of the text.

Usually written in vertical columns, the columns are sometimes split in order to save space. Red ink is utilized for emphasis and as divisions between the spells. However, some important spells are completely written using a red pigment.

For the first time in funerary literature, the coffin text use graphic depictions, though very infrequently. In both the Book of the Two Ways and in spell 464 known as the Field of Offerings, we find detailed plans. At other times (spells 81 and 100) there are textual descriptions of figures that were meant to strengthen the magical results of the text.

Yet the ancient Egyptians were cautious of graphic depictions. One holdover from the Pyramid Texts that we find at least in the early Coffin Text is the mutilation of most of the hieroglyphic signs representing animate objects. Sometimes the glyphs are actually carved as two separate pieces divided by a blank space. At other times, snakes, other animals and various other creatures are inscribed with knives in their backs. This was all intended to ensure that the intact figure would not be able to somehow threaten the deceased person interred nearby.

Within the coffin text, the composition that today we refer to as the Book of the Two Ways is the most comprehensive. Usually placed on the inside bottom of coffins examined at Deir el-Bersha, various Egyptologists have divided it into four, or nine sections which can consist of a long version (spells 1,029 through 1,130) or a short version consisting of spells 1,131 through 1,185 but which also includes spells 513 and 577.

While the coffin text were available as a tool for the afterlife to all Egyptians, the spells were primarily employed by the local governors and their families of Middle Egypt. The content of the coffin text spells basically continued the tradition of the Pyramid Text, though the afterlife is better defined, and its dangers are portrayed more dramatically. They were intended to aid the deceased during his afterlife. The spells providing protection against supernatural beings and other dangers and helped assure the deceased admission into the cyclical course of the sun, and thus, eternal life. Other spells, such as number 472, were used to activate ushabti figures so that they could perform various labor related duties for the deceased during the afterlife.

Significantly, for the first time we also find within the coffin texts spells to deal with Apophis, a huge serpent who had to be combated as the enemy of the sun. Apophis would continue to play a major role in the refined funerary books of Egypt's New Kingdom.

In the coffin text, all deceased must be subjected to the Judgement of the Dead based on the actions during his or life, rather than on a person by person indictment.

Many of the coffin text spells play on the concepts of creation, so we find the deceased portrayed as a primeval god and creator and once series of spells references the creator god and his children, Shu and Tefnut, who were given the responsibility of creation. At other times the deceased takes on the form of Osiris, or that gods helper, while he may also be portrayed as his devoted son, Horus, who rushes to his fathers aid as in spell 312.

One reason that the composition within the coffin text known as the Book of the Two Ways, perhaps originally composed at Hermopolis, has received so much attention is that, for the first time, it describes a cosmography. It was perhaps originally titled, the "Guide to the Ways of Rosetau" and the ancient Egyptians believed the composition was discovered 'under the flanks of Thoth'. Rosetau is a term regularly translated by Egyptologistsas the 'Underworld or Netherworld', which would be misleading in this case. Here, the journey is made through the sky. It takes the deceased on a journey to the Kingdom of Osiris on a route with the sun god, first from east to west along a waterway through the inner sky and then back again from west to east by land through the outer sky (the two ways). Between the two ways was a Lake of Flames, where the ambivalent fire could consume (the damned) but also serve the purpose of regeneration (to those blessed followers of the sun god, Re).

Litany of Re

This is a two part Litany of the Sun that provides the sun God Re under 75 different forms in the first part. The second part is a series of prayers in which the pharaoh assumes various parts of nature and various deities but particularly that of the sun god. Developed in the 18th Dynasty, it also praises the king for his union with the sun God, as well as other deities.  The text was used in the entrance of most tombs from the time of Seti I, though we first know of it form the burial chamber of Tuthmosis III.

Book of Gates

We first know of the 'Book of Gates' in the late 18th Dynasty, but passages from the book appear in the burial chambers and first pillared halls of most tombs thereafter. Like the Amduat, but somewhat of a more sophisticated text, this book references the hours of the night, but referred to as the 12 gates and emphasis is placed on the gates as barriers. It deals with the problems of the underworld, such as Apophis, justice, material blessings and time. The infinity of time was symbolized by an apparently endless snake or doubly twisted rope being spun from the mouth of a deity. Time is thought of as originating in the depths of creation, and eventually falling back into the same depths. The most complete texts we find in tombs appears on the tomb of Ramesses VI and on the sarcophagus of Seti I.

Book of the Dead - Book of Coming Forth by Day

1240 BC - The Papyrus of Ani

This book is well known to many modern fans of Egyptian antiquities, it was certainly not the most important of the funerary texts. In fact, the earliest examples of the book were used by commoners. Later, passages from the Book of the Dead can be found in the antechambers of some Ramessid tombs. The book is actually a collection of magical spells, many of which were derived from earlier Coffin and Pyramid Texts.

Book of Caverns

This books gives us a vision of the underworld as a series of six pits, or caverns over which the sun god passes. Most of the underworld is illustrated, while the text primarily praises Osiris. It stresses the destruction of the enemies of the sun god, and references afterlife rewards and punishments. The dead King, in order to complete his journey through the underworld, must know the secret names of the serpents and be able to identify his guardian deities. We only know of a nearly complete version in the tomb of Ramesses VI, though it appears in the upper parts of others.

Book of The Heavens

This book, developed during the late New Kingdom, describes the sun's passage through the heavens. There are actually a number of individual books, but the better documented of these include the Book of the Day, the Book of the Night and the Book of Nut. Closely related is The Book of the Celestial Cow.

For example, the Book of the Night, like other books, documents the sun's journey but set within Nut, goddess of the heavens. She swallows the sun at the close of the day and gives birth to it each morning. Passages from these books are mostly found in Ramessid period tombs. The Book of the Divine Cow begins with the "Myth of the Destruction of Mankind", the Egyptian version of the story of the great flood.

In the beginning daylight was always present, and humans and gods cohabited on earth.  This was depicted as paradise, but humans rebelled against the aging sun god, Ra. Ra sent Hathor as his eye (cobra snake) to punish the rebels, who began to destroy them with fire. However, Ra ended up feeling sorry for them and so deceived Hathor into letting some humans live. Ra then rearranged heaven and the underworld and left earth on the back of the celestial cow.

Book of the Earth

Book of the Earth in four parts - describing the sun's night time passage through the underworld. It was developed in the 20th dynasty, and appears in the burial chamber of several late Ramessid tombs. It also sometimes appears on some anthropoid sarcophagi of the same period.