Pyramid Texts in the burial chamber of Unas

The sarcophagus chamber in the Pyramid of Unas; some of the Pyramid Texts can be seen written on the gable. The Pyramid Texts are the oldest religious writings known to exist. They were first recorded in the pyramid of Unas, last king of Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty, and are called “Pyramid Texts” because they were carved in columns on the inner walls of the pyramid. Pyramids before Unas’ appear to have been undecorated on the inside. As the name suggests, these texts were reserved for the royal dead, and do not seem to have been available to the administrative élite for use in their tombs.

The Pyramid Texts are neither a theological discourse nor a mythological narrative, but present a sequence of often disjointed and seemingly nonsensical “utterances” or “spells”, which begin with the formula “Words to be spoken”. There are a total of 759 spells known to date, though not all of them are found in the same pyramid; Unas’ pyramid, for example, contains 228.

Inside the burial chamber in the Pyramid of Unas decorated with Pyramid Texts, mid-24th century BC, Saqqara.
Inside the burial chamber in the Pyramid of Unas decorated with Pyramid Texts, mid-24th century BC, Saqqara.

These spells vary from brief pieces of ritual, to lengthy description of the king’s behaviour in the afterlife, to long sequences which make little if any sense to the modern reader. Many of the spells appear to be connected with rituals for making the king live in the afterlife, and list items with them, perhaps to be offered or used in a ritual, as in Spell 90:

Osiris Unas, take the eye of Horus, the dim one, which Set has eaten from! (One Djesret-beer.)

In truth, though, no-one really knows what actions, if any, were performed with the Pyramid Texts, if the Pyramid Texts were performed at all. The above spell comes as part of a long series of spells exhorting the dead to “take the eye of Horus”. The eye of Horus was a powerful amulet and icon, and could refer to the sun or the moon, or to Horus’ eye in a more direct sense. According to Egyptian myth, Horus’ left eye was gouged out in his battle with Seth, his uncle (or in some versions of the myth, his brother), for control of Egypt, and this may be what this spell refers to. As can be seen, however, the meaning is far from clear.

Other spells give something closer to a narrative description of the king’s ascent into heaven to dwell in the afterlife. Among the more well-known of these are Utterances 273 and 274 from the Pyramid of Unas, which are together called the “Cannibal Hymn”. In this text, the king’s arrival in heaven is described, along with how he devours any god who stands in his way:

To say the words:

The sky is covered, the stars are darkened,

The bow-clouds tremble, the bones of the earth-gods shake,

The decans are still;

They have seen Unas, arisen as a soul, as a god, who lives on his fathers and feeds on his mothers.

Unas is the Bull of Heaven, who rages in his heart,

Who lives on the manifestation of every god,

Who eats the innards of those who come from the island of fire, their bellies full of magic.

It is Khonsu who gashes the lords, as he cuts their throats for Unas, and he removes for him what is in their bellies.

It is not clear whether this should be taken as a literal reading, or as a more metaphorical description of the king’s assumption or absorption of the power of gods. The dramatic opening of the text, with the whole cosmos shaken by his arrival in heaven, is typical of a baw, the appearance or manifestation of a god in the world, which is often accompanied by similar, cataclysmic portents.

The Pyramid Texts are focused exclusively on the royal afterlife, and were indeed almost exclusively used by the kings of the latter part of the Old Kingdom. It is also found in the pyramids of some queen-consorts, but in the Old Kingdom at least, a celestial afterlife appears to have been confined to the king. While the king hoped to join the gods in heaven, as a god in his own right, or to live everlastingly as one of the “imperishable stars”, the non-royal, elite dead could look forward to an eternity in their tombs, sustained by food-offerings from their living relatives. (What happened to the ordinary Egyptian who couldn’t afford a tomb when they died is unknown.)

In the early Middle Kingdom (ca. 1900-1600 BC), parts of the Pyramid Texts re-appear, heavily redacted, in non-royal tombs and on the coffins of the elite, but these are sporadic appearances, and the Coffin Texts are more commonly found, a corpus more suited to the needs of the elite and incorporating some material from the Pyramid Texts. The Pyramid Texts reappear in non-royal tombs again in the Late Period (ca. 664 – 332 BC), when archaism became a major feature of funerary and religious practice. The Pyramid Texts had originally been written in archaic language, and by the Later Period were around 1500 years old, and appear to have been copied directly from the pyramid walls of the Old Kingdom, so it may be that their new readers could not fully understand the funerary texts they were borrowing.