The Pyramid Texts

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“Pyramid Texts” is the name now commonly given to the long hieroglyphic
inscriptions that are cut upon the walls of the chambers and corridors
of five pyramids at Sakkarah. The oldest of them was built for Unas, a
king of the fifth dynasty, and the four others were built for Teta, Pepi
I, Merenra, and Pepi II, kings of the sixth dynasty. According to the
calculation of Dr. Brugsch, they were all built between 3300 and 3150
B.C., but more recent theories assign them to a period about 700 years
later. These Texts represent the oldest religious literature known to
us, for they contain beliefs, dogmas, and ideas that must be thousands
of years older than the period of the sixth dynasty when the bulk of
them was drafted for the use of the masons who cut them inside the
pyramids. It is probable that certain sections of them were composed by
the priests for the benefit of the dead in very primitive times in
Egypt, when the art of writing was unknown, and that they were repeated
each time a king died. They were first learned by heart by the funerary
priests, and then handed on from mouth to mouth, generation after
generation, and at length after the Egyptians had learned to write, and
there was danger of their being forgotten, they were committed to
writing. And just as these certain sections were absorbed into the great
body of Pyramid Texts of the sixth dynasty, so portions of the Texts of
the sixth dynasty were incorporated into the great Theban Book of the
Dead, and they appear in papyri that were written more than 2000 years
later. The Pyramid Texts supply us with much information concerning the
religious beliefs of the primitive Egyptians, and also with many
isolated facts of history that are to be found nowhere else, but of the
meaning of a very large number of passages we must always remain
ignorant, because they describe states of civilisation, and conditions
of life and climate, of which no modern person can form any true
conception. Besides this the meanings of many words are unknown, the
spelling is strange and often inexplicable, the construction of the
sentence is frequently unlike anything known in later texts, and the
ideas that they express are wholly foreign to the minds of students of
to-day, who are in every way aliens to the primitive Egyptian African
whose beliefs these words represent. The pyramids at Sakkarah in which
the Pyramid Texts are found were discovered by the Frenchman, Mariette,
in 1880. Paper casts of the inscriptions, which are deeply cut in the
walls and painted green, were made for Professor Maspero, the Director
of the Service of Antiquities in Egypt, and from these he printed an
edition in hieroglyphic type of all five texts, and added a French
translation of the greater part of them. Professor Maspero correctly
recognised the true character of these old-world documents, and his
translation displayed an unrivalled insight into the true meaning of
many sections of them. The discovery and study of other texts and the
labours of recent workers have cleared up passages that offered
difficulties to him, but his work will remain for a very long time the
base of all investigations.
The Pyramid Texts, and the older texts quoted or embodied in them, were
written, like every religious funerary work in Egypt, for the benefit of
the king, that is to say, to effect his glorious resurrection and to
secure for him happiness in the Other World, and life everlasting. They
were intended to make him become a king in the Other World as he had
been a king upon earth; in other words, he was to reign over the gods,
and to have control of all the powers of heaven, and to have the power
to command the spirits and souls of the righteous, as his ancestors the
kings of Egypt had ruled their bodies when they lived on earth. The
Egyptians found that their king, who was an incarnation of the “Great
God,” died like other men, and they feared that, even if they succeeded
in effecting his resurrection by means of the Pyramid Texts, he might
die a second time in the Other World. They spared no effort and left no
means untried to make him not only a “living soul” in the Tuat, or Other
World, but to keep him alive there. The object of every prayer, every
spell, every hymn, and every incantation contained in these Texts, was
to preserve the king’s life. This might be done in many ways. In the
first place it was necessary to provide a daily supply of offerings,
which were offered up in the funerary temple that was attached to every
pyramid. The carefully selected and duly appointed priest offered these
one by one, and as he presented each to the spirit of the king he
uttered a formula that was believed to convert the material food into a
substance possessing a spiritual character and fit to form the food of
the ka, or “double,” or “vital power,” of the dead king. The offerings
assisted in renewing his life, and any failure to perform this service
was counted a sin against the dead king’s spirit. It was also necessary
to perform another set of ceremonies, the object of which was to “open
the mouth” of the dead king, i.e. to restore to him the power to
breathe, think, speak, taste, smell, and walk. At the performance of
these ceremonies it was all-important to present articles of food,
wearing apparel, scents and unguents, and, in short, every object that
the king was likely to require in the Other World. The spirits of all
these objects passed into the Other World ready for use by the spirit of
the king. It follows as a matter of course that the king in the Other
World needed a retinue, and a bodyguard, and a host of servants, just as
he needed slaves upon earth. In primitive times a large number of
slaves, both male and female, were slain when a king died, and their
bodies were buried in his tomb, whilst their spirits passed into the
Other World to serve the spirit of the king, just as their bodies had
served his body upon earth. As the king had enemies in this world, so it
was thought he would have enemies in the Other World, and men feared
that he would be attacked or molested by evilly-disposed gods and
spirits, and by deadly animals and serpents, and other noxious reptiles.
To ward off the attacks of these from his tomb, and his mummified body,
and his spirit, the priest composed spells of various kinds, and the
utterance of such, in a proper manner, was believed to render him immune
from the attacks of foes of all kinds. Very often such spells took the
form of prayers. Many of the spells were exceedingly ancient, even in
the Pyramid Period; they were, in fact, so old that they were
unintelligible to the scribes of the day. They date from the time when
the Egyptians believed more in magic than religion; it is possible that
when they were composed, religion, in our sense of the word, was still
undeveloped among the Egyptians.