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What Are the Pyramid Texts?

Whew! My wild and woolly semester at Cherry Hill Seminary just ended (yes, I'm a student, as well as staff).  A real treat was to get to write about my favorite ancient Egyptian religious texts for a final paper in Psychology of Religion, taught by Vivianne Crowley.  I thought readers here might enjoy a bit of that paper.  Please excuse the stuffy language, and any Egyptologists among you, please write me if you see a glaring error.

Pyramid Texts Overview

b2ap3_thumbnail_unasbc2_20140507-172026_1.pngA king called Unas ruled Egypt at the end of the 5th Dynasty (2375 – 2345 B.C.E.); he built for himself a large temple and pyramid complex at the royal burial grounds of Saqqara, near Cairo. The walls of the interior are covered with hieroglyphs, the body of which has come to be known as the Pyramid Texts. They are the oldest known religious writings in the world, comprising a liturgy which is assumed to be conducted upon the death of the king. (The title “pharaoh” was not used by Egyptian rulers until the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.), after the reign of Hatshepsut.)

The Pyramid Texts are a liturgical treatment of the afterlife journey of the soul, first through the Duat, then through transfiguration and ascent to the sky as an “imperishable star.” In this specific context the texts apply this journey, also made by the sun, the mythical embodiment of Ra-Horus-Osiris, to the afterlife journey of the king’s soul. Section III of this article describes the Duat, a sort of “world-between-the-worlds” which is the location of the afterlife journey.


The three-dimensional drawing above shows the Unas mortuary complex. The Pyramid Texts are found in the passages and chambers inside the pyramid itself. There are later tombs which include some additional components not found in the Pyramid of Unas, perhaps for lack of space. (Allen, 1994) Although the collection of writings commonly called the Book of the Dead have dominated the public imagination, they are predated by nearly one thousand years by the Pyramid Texts. (Hornung, 1999) Several translations of the Pyramid Texts have been published; this article uses both Mercer and Faulkner, with quotations taken from the Mercer translation.

The funeral procession for Unas would have begun in the passageway from the outside, passed through a subterranean antechamber, then across a distinct threshold into the sarcophagus chamber. Every surface is completely covered with glyphs, the translation for which reveals language and memes which may be obscure to the modern reader. Generally, the texts include passages (”spells”) for purification, the opening of the mouth ceremony (performed at every ancient Egyptian funeral), offerings to the gods, anointing of the king, and transition of the king to eternal life. The Old Egyptian glyphs, themselves, are outlined in green, signaling the anticipated regeneration of the king.

Not only is the written liturgy seen to have a logical sequence through the pyramid-tomb interior, the architectural configuration itself is part of the cosmology of the texts, as well as a guide for the ceremony. South is the direction of the southern constellations, which would have appeared to move and even disappear for part of the year. The polar and northern constellations appeared to the ancient Egyptians to be fixed, hence, the term “imperishable stars”. (Naydler, 2006) Movement of the liturgy (both literal in the procession and figurative in the reading of the texts) from south to north indicates the king’s change from a being which is perishable into something eternal, an imperishable star. The entire complex is oriented west to east, the direction in which the sun traveled each night through the Duat.

The concept of the king’s journey from death to new life enshrined in Unis’ Pyramid Texts parallels that of the sun: dying in the west, uniting with Osiris in the Duat, and rising again in the east. The cosmology of this solar passage is that of night (west to east). It is reflected not only in the texts and their layout but also in the substructure of the pyramid itself. (Allen, 1994, p. 20)

Akhet is the ancient Egyptian word for “horizon,” an important place of transformation as demonstrated by the sun each day at dawn and dusk. In the cosmology of the Pyramid Texts, the akhet is the threshold at which the king moves forward in his journey, first through the Duat, then appearing in judgment before Osiris, then ascending as a star.


So that the meaning could not be missed, the ancient priests labeled the rooms of the pyramid interior correspondingly; a glyph label in the antechamber reads “akhet,” and in the sarcophagus chamber a label reads “Duat.” The intentional turn of the architecture also reflects this idea of transition; each doorway represents an akhet, the “place of becoming akh,” or a transfigured spirit. (Allen, 1994)

Pr m hrw pn m jrw mAa n AHi anx (Pyr. 318 c.)
Emergent in this day in the proper form of a living akh.

The last quotation sounds a theme represented in the Pyramid Texts only here but eventually canonized as the central purpose of the Book of the Dead: namely prt m hrw “to emerge in the daytime.” In the Pyramid Texts this goal stands at the end of the king’s process of resurrection from the sarcophagus, as it does for the sun’s nightly passage through the Duat. The Pyramid Texts thus combine in one corpus the same vision of rebirth that the New Kingdom divided into the Book of the Dead on the one hand and the “Netherworld” books on the other. While the texts themselves are ancestral to the Book of the Dead, the architecture they decorate is conceptually identical to the cosmic geography of the sun’s nightly journey described in the Amduat and other New Kingdom creations. (Allen, 1994, p. 28)


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Holli Emore is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the premiere educational resource for Pagan and other nature-based religions (, founder of Osireion (, editor/writer for Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at, and serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Partners of S.C. (  She is co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table,, and author of "Pool of Lotus," available in print, or for Kindle or Nook, at


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