Funerary texts in ancient Egypt

Funerary texts acted as ‘travel guides’ for the dead in their journey through the underworld. These texts were written on walls, coffins, statues or papyri. They contained all the required passwords and spells for use in the underworld. They were placed within reach of the dead person’s body in the burial chamber so they could be retrieved and recited when necessary.

Ancient Egyptian funerary cone

 © Australian Museum

Initially, funerary texts were only made available to royals. These are today known as the ‘Pyramid Texts’ because they were found written on the walls of chambers inside the Old Kingdom pyramids. These texts were revised at the start of the Middle Kingdom, about 2100 BCE, so that officials and nobles were also allowed to use them. (This is referred to as the ‘democratisation’ of the afterlife). This set of texts became known as the ‘Coffin Texts’ because they were mostly written on coffins. Eventually, at the start of the New Kingdom (about 1500 BCE), a funerary text was made available to the general population of Egypt. This text is known today as the Book of the Dead.

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead is the modern name for the funerary text that was used in burial chambers from about 1500 BCE. The ancient Egyptians knew it as the Spells for Going Forth by Day. It was not a book in the modern sense of the word, but rather a collection of spells, passwords and images to be used by the deceased in the underworld. The spells were normally written on papyrus rolls, but also on grave goods, coffins, walls and mummy bandages. The fact they were written on papyrus, as opposed to coffins or tomb walls, made them affordable to most people. The complete collection contains about 200 spells, although no papyrus contains all of them. This suggests that not all the spells were required in the next life and that the number of spells purchased depended on the needs and wealth of the buyer.

The Amduat

The Amduat (meaning ‘that which is in the underworld') is one of a number of funerary texts that belong to a separate literary tradition from the Book of the Dead. These texts include the Book of Heavens, Book of Night and Book of the Celestial Cow. Rather than containing passwords or spells, these books provide descriptions and images of the underworld. The Amduat focuses on the journey of the sun god through the twelve regions of the underworld. Each region corresponds to an ‘hour’ of the night. At the end of his journey he is reborn each morning as the rising sun, symbolising the hope that the deceased held for rebirth. The Amduat is most commonly found written on the walls of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but occasionally appears on papyrus in tombs of wealthy people.

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Tags funerary texts, spells, ancient Egypt, burial, death, funeral, book of the dead, amduat,