The Pyramid Texts are the oldest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts dating to the Old Kingdom. Written in Old Egyptian, the pyramid texts were carved onto the subterranean walls and sarcophagi of pyramids at Saqqara from the end of the Fifth Dynasty, and throughout the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and into the Eighth Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period.
The oldest of the texts have been dated to c. 2400–2300 BC. Unlike the later Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead, the pyramid texts were reserved only for the pharaoh and were not illustrated. Following the earlier Palermo Stone, the pyramid texts mark the next-oldest known mention of Osiris, who would become the most important deity associated with afterlife in the Ancient Egyptian religion.
The use and occurrence of pyramid texts changed between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt. During the Old Kingdom (2686 BCE – 2181 BCE), pyramid texts could be found in the pyramids of kings as well as three queens named Wedjebten, Neith, and Iput. During the Middle Kingdom (2055 BCE – 1650 BCE), pyramid texts were not written in the pyramids of the pharaohs, but the traditions of the pyramid spells continued to be practiced. In the New Kingdom (1550 BCE – 1070 BCE), pyramid texts could now be found on tombs of officials.
History of discovery and publication
French archaeologist and Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, director of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, arrived in Egypt in 1880. He chose a site in South Saqqara, a hill that had been mapped by the Prussian Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius in the prior decades, for his first archaeological dig. There, Maspero found the ruins of a large structure, which he concluded must be the pyramid of Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty. During the excavations he was able to gain access to the subterranean rooms, and discovered that the walls of the structure were covered in hieroglyphic text. Maspero contacted the then 'director of the excavations' in Egypt, Auguste Mariette, to inform him of the discovery, though Mariette concluded that the structure must be a mastaba as no writing had previously been discovered in a pyramid.
Maspero continued his excavations at a second structure, around a kilometre south-west of the first, in search of more evidence. This second structure was determined to be the pyramid of Merenre I, Pepi I's successor. In it, Maspero discovered the same hieroglyphic text on the walls he'd found in Pepi I's pyramid, and the mummy of a man in the sarcophagus of the burial chamber. This time, he visited Mariette personally, though he rejected the findings, stating on his deathbed that "[i]n thirty years of Egyptian excavations I have never seen a pyramid whose underground rooms had hieroglyphs written on their walls." Throughout 1881, Maspero continued to direct investigations of other sites in Saqqara, and more texts were found in each of the pyramids of Unas, Teti and Pepi II. Maspero began publishing his findings in the Recueil des Travaux from 1882, and continued to be involved in the excavations of the pyramid in which the texts had been found until 1886.
Maspero published the first corpora of the text in 1894 in French under the title Les inscriptions des pyramides de Saqqarah. Translations were made by German Egyptologist Kurt Heinrich Sethe to German in 1908–1910 in Die altägyptischen Pyramidentexte. The concordance that Sethe published is considered to be the standard version of the texts. Samuel A. B. Mercer published a translation into English of Sethe's work in 1952. British Egyptologist Raymond O. Faulkner presented the texts in English in 1969 in The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.
Gustave Jéquier conducted the first systematic investigations of Pepi II and his wives' pyramids – Neith, Iput II, and Wedjebetni – between 1926 and 1932. Jéquier also conducted the excavations of Qakare Ibi's pyramid. He later published the complete corpus of texts found in these five pyramids. Since 1958, expeditions under the directions of Jean-Philippe Lauer, Jean Sainte-Fare Garnot, and Jean Leclant have undertaken a major restoration project of the pyramids belonging to Teti, Pepi I, and Merenre I, as well as the pyramid of Unas. By 1999, the pyramid of Pepi had been opened to the public, and the debris cleared away from the pyramid while research continued under the direction of Audran Labrousse. The corpus of pyramid texts in Pepi I's pyramid were published in 2001. In 2010, the texts were discovered in Behenu's tomb.
To date, the Pyramid Texts have been discovered in the pyramids of these pharaohs and queens:
|Unas||Dynasty V||pharaoh ca. 2353-2323 BCE|
|Teti||Dynasty VI||pharaoh ca. 2323-2291 BCE|
|Pepi I||Dynasty VI||pharaoh ca. 2289-2255 BCE|
|Akhesenpepi II||Dynasty VI||wife of Pepi I|
|Merenre I||Dynasty VI||pharaoh ca. 2255-2246 BCE|
|Pepi II||Dynasty VI||pharaoh ca. 2246-2152 BCE|
|Neith||Dynasty VI||wife of Pepi II|
|Iput II||Dynasty VI||wife of Pepi II|
|Wedjebetni||Dynasty VI||wife of Pepi II|
|Behenu||Dynasty VI||probable wife of Pepi II|
|Qakare Ibi||Dynasty VIII||pharaoh ca. 2109–2107 BCE|
The spells, or utterances, of the Pyramid Texts were primarily concerned with enabling the transformation of the deceased into an Akh (where those judged worthy could mix with the gods). The spells of the Pyramid Texts are divided into two broad categories: Sacerdotal texts and Personal texts.
The sacerdotal texts are ritual in nature, and were conducted by the lector priest addressing the deceased in the second person. They consist of offering spells, short spells recited in the presentation of an offering, and recitations which are predominantly instructional. These texts appear in the Offering and Insignia Rituals, the Resurrection Ritual, and in the four pyramids containing the Morning Ritual. The writing in these texts indicates that they originated around the time of the Second and Third Dynasties.
The remaining texts are personal, and are broadly concerned with guiding the spirit out of the tomb, and into new life. They consist of provisioning, transition, and apotropaic – or protective – texts. The provisioning texts deal with the deceased taking command of his own food-supply, and demanding nourishment from the gods. One example of these texts is the king's response in Unas' pyramid. The transition texts – otherwise known as the Sakhu or Glorifications – are predominantly about the transformation of the deceased into an Akh, and their ascent, mirroring the motion of the gods, into the sky. These texts form the largest part of the corpus, and are dominated by the youngest texts composed in the Fifth and possibly Sixth Dynasties. Apotropaic texts consist of short protective spells for warding off threats to the body and tomb. Due to the archaic style of writing these texts are considered to be the oldest, and are the most difficult to interpret.
These utterances were meant to be chanted by those who were reciting them.[clarification needed] They contained many verbs such as "fly" and "leap" depicting the actions taken by the Pharaohs to get to the afterlife. The spells delineate all of the ways the pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call the gods to help, even threatening them if they did not comply. It was common for the pyramid texts to be written in the first person, but not uncommon for texts to be later changed to the third person. Often times this depended on who was reciting the texts and who they were recited for. Many of the texts include accomplishments of the Pharaoh as well as the things they did for the Egyptian people during the time of their rule. These texts were used to both guide the pharaohs to the afterlife, but also inform and assure the living that the soul made it to its final destination.
Appearance in pyramids
Pyramid of Unas
The texts first appeared in the pyramid of the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, that belonging to Unas. A total of 283 spells[a] appear on the subterranean walls of Unas' pyramid. These spells are the smallest and best preserved corpus of the texts in the Old Kingdom. Copies of all but a single spell, PT 200, inscribed in the pyramid appeared throughout the Middle Kingdom and later, including a near complete replica of the texts inscribed in the tomb of Senwosretankh at El-Lisht.
Unas' pyramid, situated between the pyramids of Djoser and Sekhemkhet in North Saqqara, was the smallest of those built in the Old Kingdom. It had a core built six steps high from roughly dressed limestone, encased in a layer of carefully cut fine white limestone. It had a base length of 57.75 m (189 ft) with an incline of 56° which gave the pyramid a height of 43 m (141 ft). The substructure was accessed through an entrance in the pavement of a chapel on the north face of the pyramid. The entry led into a downward sloping corridor, followed by a 'corridor-chamber' with three granite portcullises that guarded the entrance into the horizontal passage. The horizontal passage ends at the antechamber of the substructure, and is guarded by a fourth granite portcullis. The antechamber connects to two further rooms, a room with three recesses for holding statues – called the serdab – to the east, and the burial chamber with the ruler's sarcophagus to the west. The roofs of both the antechamber and burial chamber were gabled.
With the exception of the walls immediately surrounding the sarcophagus, which were lined with alabaster and painted to resemble reed mats with a wood-frame enclosure, the remaining walls of the antechamber, burial chamber and a section of the horizontal passage were covered with vertical columns of hieroglyphs that make up the Pyramid Texts. Unas' sarcophagus was left without inscription, and the king's royal titulary did not appear on the walls surrounding it as it does in later pyramids.
The west gable of the burial chamber is inscribed with protective spells; in later pyramids the gable was used for texts commending the king to Nut, and, from Pepi I onwards, also for Sakhu, or 'glorifications', for the transformation into an Akh. The other walls of the burial chamber are primarily dedicated to ritual texts. The north wall, along with the northern part of the east wall and passage, are dedicated to the Offering Ritual. Spatial considerations required part of the ritual to be spread across to other walls, and likely explains the omission of the Insignia Ritual altogether from the pyramid. The Offering Ritual, from the 'initial libation' to the 'dedication of offerings' occupies the north wall and is arrayed into three horizontal registers.
Kurt Sethe's first edition of the pyramid texts contained 714 distinct spells; after this publication additional spells were discovered bringing the total to 759. No single collection uses all recorded spells.
Because of its early use, the set up and layout of the Unas pyramid was replicated and expanded on for future pyramids. The causeway ran 750 meters long and is still in good condition, unlike many causeways found in similar ancient Egyptian pyramids.
In the pyramid of Unas, the ritual texts could be found in the underlying supporting structure, while the antechamber and corridor contained texts and spells personalized to the Pharaoh himself.
The following example comes from the pyramid of Unas. It was to be recited in the South Side Burial Chamber and Passage, and it was the Invocation To New Life.
Ho, Unis! You have not gone away dead: you have gone away alive.
Sit on Osiris's chair, with your baton in your arm, and govern the living;
with your water lily scepter in you arm, and govern those
of the inaccessible places.
Your lower arms are of Atum, your upper arms of Atum, your belly of
Atum, your back of Atum, your rear of Atum, your legs of Atum, your
face of Anubis.
Horus's mounds shall serve you; Seth's mounds shall serve you.
Offerings and rituals
The various pyramid texts often contained writings of rituals and offerings to the gods. Examples of these rituals are the Opening of the mouth ceremony, offering rituals, and insignia ritual. Both monetary and prayer based offerings were made in the pyramids and were written in the pyramid texts in hopes of getting the pharaoh to a desirable afterlife. Rituals such as the opening of the mouth and eye ceremony were very important for the Pharaoh in the afterlife. This ceremony involved the Kher-Heb (the chief lector priest) along with assistants opening the eyes and mouth of the dead while reciting prayers and spells. Mourners were encouraged to cry out as special instruments were used to cut holes in the mouth. After the ceremony was complete, it was believed that the dead could now eat, speak, breathe and see in the afterlife.
The Egyptian pyramids are made up of various corridors, tunnels, and rooms which have different significances and uses during the burial and ritual process. Texts were written and recited by priests in a very particular order, often starting in the Valley Temple and finishing in the Coffin or Pyramid Room. The variety of offerings and rituals were also most likely recited in a particular order. The Valley Temple often contained an offering shrine, where rituals would be recited.
Queens with pyramid texts
Pyramid texts were not only found in the tombs of kings, but queens as well. Queen Neith, who was the wife of Pepi II, is one of three queens of the 6th dynasty whose tomb contains pyramid texts. The other two queens (both also thought to be wives of Pepi II) Iput II and Wedjebetni also contained tombs inscribed with texts but those of Neith have been kept in much better condition. Compared to the tombs of the kings, the layout and structure of those that belonged to these queens was much simpler. Though much simpler, the layout of the texts corresponded to similar walls and locations as those of the kings. For example, the Resurrection Ritual is found on the east end of the south wall. Due to the fact that the pyramid of Neith did not contain an antechamber, many of the spells normally written there were also written on the south wall.
The texts of Queen Neith were similar and different to those of the kings in a few additional ways. Like those of the kings, the use of both the first and third person is present in these pyramid texts. Neith's name is used throughout the texts to make them more personal. Many of the pronouns used throughout her pyramid texts are male, indicative of the parallels between the texts of the kings and queens, but a few female pronouns can be found. The texts also contain spells and utterances that are meant to be read by both the spirit herself as well as others addressing her.
After death, the king must first rise from his tomb. Utterance 373 describes:
- Oho! Oho! Rise up, O Teti!
- Take your head, collect your bones,
- Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
- Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not,
- Stand at the gates that bar the common people!
- The gatekeeper comes out to you, he grasps your hand,
- Takes you into heaven, to your father Geb.
- He rejoices at your coming, gives you his hands,
- Kisses you, caresses you,
- Sets you before the spirits, the imperishable stars...
- The hidden ones worship you,
- The great ones surround you,
- The watchers wait on you,
- Barley is threshed for you,
- Emmer is reaped for you,
- Your monthly feasts are made with it,
- Your half-month feasts are made with it,
- As ordered done for you by Geb, your father,
- Rise up, O Teti, you shall not die!
The texts then describe several ways for the pharaoh to reach the heavens, and one of these is by climbing a ladder. In utterance 304 the king says:
- Hail, daughter of Anubis, above the hatches of heaven,
- Comrade of Thoth, above the ladder's rails,
- Open Unas's path, let Unas pass!
Another way is by ferry. If the boatman refuses to take him, the king has other plans:
- If you fail to ferry Unas,
- He will leap and sit on the wing of Thoth,
- Then he will ferry Unas to that side!
Utterances 273 and 274 are sometimes known as the "Cannibal Hymn", because it describes the king hunting and eating parts of the gods: They represent a discrete episode (Utterances 273-274) in the anthology of ritual texts that make up the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom period.
Appearing first in the Pyramid of Unas at the end of the Fifth Dynasty, the Cannibal Hymn preserves an early royal butchery ritual in which the deceased king—assisted by the god Shezmu—slaughters, cooks and eats the gods as sacrificial bulls, thereby incorporating in himself their divine powers in order that he might negotiate his passage into the Afterlife and guarantee his transformation as a celestial divinity ruling in the heavens.
The style and format of the Cannibal Hymn are characteristic of the oral-recitational poetry of pharaonic Egypt, marked by allusive metaphor and the exploitation of wordplay and homophony in its verbal recreation of a butchery ritual.
- A god who lives on his fathers,
- who feeds on his mothers...
- Unas is the bull of heaven
- Who rages in his heart,
- Who lives on the being of every god,
- Who eats their entrails
- When they come, their bodies full of magic
- From the Isle of Flame...
In popular culture
In the first scene of Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten, the phrase "Open are the double doors of the horizon" is a quotation from the Pyramid Texts. More specifically, it seems to come from Utterance 220.
The American death metal band Nile made a song, "Unas Slayer of the Gods" which contains many references to the Pyramid Texts, including the Cannibal Hymn.
In the 2001 action-adventure movie, The Mummy Returns, when Imhotep gets a jar full of dust and blows it, he quotes part of the Utterance 373 and the dust turns into mummy warriors.
The 2013 BBC programme Ripper Street, Colonel Madoc Faulkner (Iain Glen) refers to a variant of Utterance 325
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- list of on-line resources (including translations) for further study
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- A book on the Cannibal Hymn
- The Cannibal Hymn