Egypt: Coffin Texts

The Coffin Texts

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Taylor Ray Ellison

Coffin Text from an actual cedar coffin

The Coffin Texts, which basically superseded the Pyramid Text as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom, are principally a Middle Kingdom phenomenon, though we may begin to find examples as early as the late Old Kingdom. In effect, they democratized the afterlife, eliminating the royal exclusivity of the Pyramid Text.

If the dating of examples in the Dakhla Oasis at the Balat necropolis is correct (Old Kingdom), these would be the oldest known coffin texts, though we can be certain of the text found in the First Intermediate Period pyramid of Ibi (8th Dynasty) at South Saqqara. While examples of the text have been discovered from the Delta south to Aswan, our major sources of the text are found in the later necropolises, especially of regional governors (nomarchs), of the 12th Dynasty, particularly at Asyut, Beni Hasan, Deir el-Bersha, el-Lisht and Meir. The necropolis which probably yielded the largest number of coffin text spells was Deir el-Bersha, the necropolis of the ancient city of Hermopolis. By the end of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, the coffin texts were refined into the corpus of the Book of the Dead (Book of Coming Forth by Day), though we may continue to find the spells in burial chambers of the New Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period and early Late Period. Spells 151, 607 and 625 were particularly popular during these later times.

Mostly, as the modern name of this collection of spells implies, the text was found on Middle Kingdom coffins of officials and their subordinates. However, we may also find the spells inscribed on tomb walls, stelae, canopic chests, papyri and even mummy masks.

The earliest known research on the coffin text was done by C. R. Lepsius, who in 1867, published the first copies from coffins that had been removed to Berlin. Afterwards, there were several publications made of the text from individual coffins, but between 1904 and 1906, Pierre Lacau published many of the Middle Kingdom coffins as part of the Cairo Museum's Catalogue generale. Based on this work, he set out individual spells of the coffin text in a series of articles entitled, "Texts religieux" in a publication called Receuil de travaux between 1904 and 1915.

Early on, one part of the coffin text known as the Book of the Two Ways, received special attention. Found on the floor of the coffin of Sen, Hans Schack-Schackenburg published this text in 1903 and in 1926, Kees detailed it in a publication.

Using Lacau's work from the Textes religieux, James Henry Breated (1912) and Hermann Kees (1926) both made early evaluations of the coffin text, but the first (relatively) complete publication of the coffin texts was supplied by Adriaan de Buck in seven volumes that were produced between 1935 and 1961. This work was based on the earlier research done by James Henry Breasted and Alan H. Gardiner just after World War I. Though new spells have been added since then, most present day divisions of the spells relies on de Buck's work.

Adriaan de Buck's work was used by Louis Speleers, who translated de Buck's first two volumes into French in 1947, and between 1973 and 1978, Raymond O. Faulkner produced the first complete translation into English. He used de Buck's order of spells, while a later translation in French by Paul Barguet produced in 1986, divided them into thematic groups.

Today we face many of the same problems in dealing with the coffin text that de Buck faced, which mostly concerns their order. He had no established chronological order and the beginnings or ending of the text were not consistent from one source to the next. Furthermore, the text could be written on all six surfaces in the interior of the coffin, and their progression within any given coffin could vary.

Though many are unique to individual coffins, de Buck divided the coffin text into 1,185 spells, with some being assigned to larger compositions such as the Book of the Two Ways. These spells, which always refer to the deceased in the first person singular, attempt to imitate the language of the Old Kingdom, though they are actually produced in the classical language of Middle Egypt. They are inscribed using hieroglyphs, or occasionally early hieratic. Unlike the Pyramid text, they are almost always titled, though at times the title may come at the end of the text.

Usually written in vertical columns, the columns are sometimes split in order to save space. Red ink is utilized for emphasis and as divisions between the spells. However, some important spells are completely written using a red pigment.

For the first time in funerary literature, the coffin text use graphic depictions, though very infrequently. In both the Book of the Two Ways and in spell 464 known as the Field of Offerings, we find detailed plans. At other times (spells 81 and 100) there are textual descriptions of figures that were meant to strengthen the magical results of the text.

Yet the ancient Egyptians were cautious of graphic depictions. One holdover from the Pyramid Texts that we find at least in the early Coffin Text is the mutilation of most of the hieroglyphic signs representing animate objects. Sometimes the glyphs are actually carved as two separate pieces divided by a blank space. At other times, snakes, other animals and various other creatures are inscribed with knives in their backs. This was all intended to ensure that the intact figure would not be able to somehow threaten the deceased person interred nearby.

Within the coffin text, the composition that today we refer to as the Book of the Two Ways is the most comprehensive. Usually placed on the inside bottom of coffins examined at Deir el-Bersha, various Egyptologists have divided it into four, or nine sections which can consist of a long version (spells 1,029 through 1,130) or a short version consisting of spells 1,131 through 1,185 but which also includes spells 513 and 577.

While the coffin text were available as a tool for the afterlife to all Egyptians, the spells were primarily employed by the local governors and their families of Middle Egypt. The content of the coffin text spells basically continued the tradition of the Pyramid Text, though the afterlife is better defined, and its dangers are portrayed more dramatically. They were intended to aid the deceased during his afterlife. The spells providing protection against supernatural beings and other dangers and helped assure the deceased admission into the cyclical course of the sun, and thus, eternal life. Other spells, such as number 472, were used to activate ushabti figures so that they could perform various labor related duties for the deceased during the afterlife.

However, we also find interesting new components not found within the older Pyramid Text. Now, we find spells (268-295), meant to allow the deceased king ascent to the sky in the form of a bird, but which may also be used to transform the deceased into anyone of a number of different deities. For example, spell 290 reads: "into every god into which one might desire to transform". However, with other spells the deceased could become fire, air, grain, a child or perhaps even a crocodile. This may explain why, during the Middle Kingdom, the scarab beetle, representing transformation, was one of the most popular amulets. Other newly created spells also allowed the deceased to be reunited with his loved ones and family during the afterlife.

Significantly, for the first time we also find within the coffin texts spells to deal with Apophis, a huge serpent who had to be combated as the enemy of the sun. Apophis would continue to play a major role in the refined funerary books of Egypt's New Kingdom.

In the coffin text, we now find that all of the deceased must be subjected to the "Judgement of the Dead", based on the actions during his or life, rather than on a person by person indictment. Many of the coffin text spells play on the concepts of creation, so we find the deceased portrayed as a primeval god and creator and once series of spells references the creator god and his children, Shu and Tefnut, who were given the responsibility of creation. At other times the deceased takes on the form of Osiris, or that gods helper, while he may also be portrayed as his devoted son, Horus, who rushes to his fathers aid as in spell 312.

One reason that the composition within the coffin text known as the Book of the Two Ways, perhaps originally composed at Hermopolis, has received so much attention is that, for the first time, it describes a cosmography. It was perhaps originally titled, the "Guide to the Ways of Rosetau" and the ancient Egyptians believed the composition was discovered "under the flanks of Thoth". Rosetau is a term regularly translated by Egyptologists as the Underworld or Netherworld, which would be misleading in this case. Here, the journey is made through the sky. It takes the deceased on a journey to the Kingdom of Osiris on a route with the sun god, first from east to west along a waterway through the inner sky and then back again from west to east by land through the outer sky (the two ways). Between the two ways was a Lake of Flames, where the ambivalent fire could consume (the damned) but also serve the purpose of regeneration (to those blessed followers of the sun god, Re).

Coffin Text and the Book of the Two Ways

Above: Coffin Text and the Book of the Two Ways;
Below: A rendering of the Book of the Two Ways

A rendering of the Book of the Two Ways

Though not nearly as elaborate as later New Kingdom books of the netherworld, it was meant to depart to the deceased the necessary knowledge needed to navigate their way to the afterlife while avoiding the many dangers of their journey. While this guide was not as systematic as, for example, the later Book of Gates, it nevertheless provided warnings and a schematic plan making it the first real guide to the afterlife.

Unlike the later funerary books, the Book of the Two Ways does not begin with the sunset, but rather with the sunrise in the eastern sky. Hence, the journey takes place in the sky rather than the underworld. The deceased is faced with many obstacles, such as the threatening guardians at the very gates of the hereafter that must be dealt with before the entering. Other dangers include the "fiery court", which is the circle of fire about the sun. At other times, total darkness followed by walls of flame seem to continuously block the deceased path. In fact, within the very middle of this composition we find a region known a Rosetau, which is "at the boundary of the sky". According to spell 1,080, it is here that the corpse of Osiris resides and the region is locked in complete darkness, as well as surrounded by fire. If the deceased can reach this region and gaze upon Osiris, he cannot die. Consistently there are regions that the deceased wishes to reach, but must overcome dangers to do so. Another of these is the Field of Offerings (peace, or Hetep), a paradise of abundance, but again the path is full of obstacles. By the end of the book, the deceased encounters confusing paths that cross each other, many leading nowhere.

An important concept found within the Book of the Two Ways (spells 1,100 through 1,110) is that of seven gates, each with three guardians. Though primitive, this is obviously an early text that would later evolve into the New Kingdom Books of the Netherworld such as the Amduat. At these boundaries, the deceased must display his knowledge to the guardians in order to establish their legitimacy to proceed in the afterlife.

By the center of the last section of this text, we find three boats, all of which may perhaps be intended as the solar barque, from which the serpent Apophis must be repelled. In spell 1,130, the "Lord of All" gives us his final monologue from his barque:

The Lord to the Limit speaks
before those who still the storm, at the sailing of the entourage:

'Proceed in peace!
I shall repeat to you four good deeds
that my own heart made for me
within the serpent's coils, for love of stilling evil.
I did four good deeds within the portals of the horizon:

I made the four winds that every man might breathe in his place.
This is one deed thereof.

I made the great inundation, that the wretched should have power over it like the great.
This is one deed thereof.
I made every man like his fellow;
I did not ordain them to do evil, (but) it was their own hearts which destroyed that which I pronounced. *
This is one deed thereof.
I made that their hearts should refrain from ignoring the west,
for love of making offerings to the gods of the nomes.
This is one deed thereof.
I created the gods from my sweat.
Man is from the tears of my eye.

I shine, and am seen every day
in this authority of the Lord to the Limit.
I made the night for the Weary-hearted. **
I will sail aright in my bark;
I am the lord of the waters, crossing heaven.
I do not suffer for any of my limbs.
Utterance together with Magic
are felling for me that evil being.
I shall see the horizon and dwell within it.
I shall judge the wretch from the powerful,
and do likewise against the evildoers.
Life is mine; I am its lord.
The sceptre shall not be taken from my hand.
I have placed millions of years
between me and that Weary-hearted one, the son of Geb;
then I shall dwell with him in one place.
Mounds will be towns.
Towns will be mounds.
Mansion will destroy mansion.'

I am the lord of fire who lives on truth,
the lord of eternity, maker of joy, against whom the otherworldly serpents have not rebelled.
I am the god in his shrine, the lord of slaughter, who calms the storm,
who drives off the serpents, the many-named who comes forth from his shrine,
the lord of winds who foretells the northwind,
many-named in the mouth of the ennead,
lord of the horizon, creator of light,
who illumines heaven with his own beauty.
I am he! Make way for me
so that I shall see Niu and Amen.
For I am a blessed spirit, equipped with otherworldly knowledge;
I shall pass by the fearful ones -
They cannot speak (the spell) which is on the end of the book-roll;
they cannot speak for fear of him whose name is concealed, who is eithin my body.
I know him; I am not ignorant of him.
I am equipped, excellent in opening portals.

As for any man who knows this spell,
he shall be like Re in the east of heaven,
like Osiris within the Netherworld;
he descends into the entourage of fire,
without there being a flame being against him, for all time and eternity!

Thus, he recounts all his beneficial deeds when he created the world, and for the first time, we also find him foretelling the end of this creation after "millions of years". Apparently, only he and Osiris will survive beyond this end of time.

Some Selected Spells:

A Spell for the Revival of Osiris (74)

Ah Helpless One!
Ah Helpless One Asleep!
Ah Helpless One in this place
which you know not-yet I know it!
Behold, I have found you [lying] on your side
the great Listless One.
'Ah, Sister!' says Iris to Nephthys,
'This is our brother,
Come, let us lift up his head,
Come, let us [rejoin] his bones,
Come, let us reassemble his limbs,
Come, let us put an end to all his woe,
that, as far as we can help, he will weary no more.
May the moisture begin to mount for this spirit!
May the canals be filled through you!
May the names of the rivers be created through you!
Osiris, live!
Osiris, let the great Listless One arise!
I am Isis.'
'I am Nephthys.
It shall be that Horus will avenge you,
It shall be that Thoth will protect you
-your two sons of the Great White Crown-
It shall be that you will act against him who acted-against you,
It shall be that Geb will sec,
It shall be that the Company will hear.
Then will your power be visible in the sky
And you will cause havoc among the [hostile] gods,
for Horus, your son, has seized the Great White Crown,
seizing it from him who acted against you.
Then will your father Atum call 'Come!' Osiris, live!
Osiris, let the great Listless One arise!'

Osiris, the Prototype of every Soul Who Hopes to Conquer Death (197)

Now are you a king's son, a prince,
as long as your soul exists, so long will your heart be with you.
Anubis is mindful of you in Busiris,
your soul rejoices in Abydos where your body is happy on the High Hill
Your embalmer rejoices in every place.
Ah, truly, you are the chosen one!
you are made whole in this your dignity which is before me,
Anubis' heart is happy over the work of his hands
and the heart of the Lord of the Divine Hall is thrilled
when he beholds this good god,
Master of those that have been and Ruler over those that are to come.

Mans Soul Identified with Both Osiris and With Nature (330)

Whether I live or die I am Osiris,
I enter in and reappear through you,
I decay in you, I grow in you,
I fall down in you, I fall upon my side.
The gods are living in me for I live and grow in the corn
that sustains the Honoured Ones.
I cover the earth,
whether I live or die I am Barley.
I am not destroyed.
I have entered the Order,
I rely upon the Order,
I become Master of the Order,
I emerge in the Order,
I make my form distinct,
I am the Lord -of the Chennet (Granary of Memphis?)
I have entered into the Order,
I have reached its limits. . . .


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, The Hornung, Erik 1999 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-3515-3
Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion Redford, Donald B. 2002 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-515401-0
Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many Hornung, Erik 1971 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-8384-0
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt Armour, Robert A. 1986 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 669 1
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice Baines, John; Lesko, Leonard H.; Silverman, David P. 1991 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-2550-6