Egypt: The Major Egyptian Books of the Underworld

About Ancient Egypt


The Major Egyptian Books of the Underworld

by Jimmy Dunn


The magical text that decorated the tombs of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt basically provided a detailed roadmap of the what the Egyptians believed to be the Netherworld. Actually, most of these were derived in some manner from the much earlier Pyramid Texts developed by the Kings of the 5th and 6th Dynasty.



While a number of tombs are said to contain the whole text of one are more of these books, none actually have the entire text of any single book, though some have most of the text. Other tombs simply have passages from the books.



The oldest of the royal funerary books is the Amduat. From the Ramessid period onward, the underworld and the heavens received new attention. The commonly used names of all the books are of modern origin. The books include:



Pyramid Text are the oldest collection of religious spells known to us from ancient Egypt. This collection forms the basis of much of the later religious theology and literature of ancient Egypt. The passages were eventually separated and categorized, as well as illustrated and eventually evolved into the Book of the Dead, or more properly, "The Book of the Coming forth by Day". The oldest of these text come from that Pyramid of Wenis, or more popularly these days, Unas at Saqqara. However, the first Pyramid Text that were actually discovered were from the Pyramid of Pepy I.



The Coffin Text, which basically superseded the Pyramid Text as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom, are principally a Middle Kingdom phenomenon, though we may begin to find examples as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.




Amduat (Called by the Egyptians, the Book of the Secret Chamber): As mentioned above, this book is the earliest of all funerary text, and documents the sun god's journey through the 12 divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Kehpri, the newborn sun in the East. They correspond to the 12 hours of the night. Amduat can be interpreted to mean, "That Which Is in the Underworld". In this book the dead pharaoh travels through the underworld to the afterlife in his solar boat. While most tombs in the Valley of the Kings (on the West Bank at Luxor which was ancient Thebes) contain passages from the book, the burial chambers of Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II contain almost the complete text.


Litany of Re: This is a two part Litany of the Sun that provides the sun God Re under 75 different forms in the first part. The second part is a series of prayers in which the pharaoh assumes various parts of nature and various deities but particularly that of the sun god. Developed in the 18th Dynasty, it also praises the king for his union with the sun God, as well as other deities. The text was used in the entrance of most tombs from the time of Seti I, though we first know of it form the burial chamber of Tuthmosis III.




Book of Gates: We first know of the Book of Gates in the late 18th Dynasty, but passages from the book appear in the burial chambers and first pillared halls of most tombs thereafter. Like the Amduat, but somewhat of a more sophisticated text, this book references the hours of the night, but referred to as the 12 gates and emphasis is placed on the gates as barriers. It deals with the problems of the underworld, such as Apophis, justice, material blessings and time. The infinity of time was symbolized by an apparently endless snake or doubly twisted rope being spun from the mouth of a deity. Time is thought of as originating in the depths of creation, and eventually falling back into the same depths. The most complete texts we find in tombs appears on the tomb of Ramesses VI and on the sarcophagus of Seti I.


Book of the Dead (Called by the Egyptians, the Book of Coming Forth by Day): While this book is well known to many modern fans of Egyptian antiquities, it was certainly not the most important of the funerary texts. In fact, the earliest examples of the book were used by commoners. Later, passages from the Book of the Dead can be found in the antechambers of some Ramessid tombs. The book is actually a collection of magical spells, many of which were derived from earlier Coffin and Pyramid Texts.




Book of Caverns: This books gives us a vision of the underworld as a series of six pits, or caverns over which the sun god passes. Most of the underworld is illustrated, while the text primarily praises Osiris. It stresses the destruction of the enemies of the sun god, and references afterlife rewards and punishments. The dead King, in order to complete his journey through the underworld, must know the secret names of the serpents and be able to identify his guardian deities. We only know of a nearly complete version in the tomb of Ramesses VI, though it appears in the upper parts of others.


Books of the Heavens: This book, developed during the late New Kingdom, describes the sun's passage through the heavens. There are actually a number of individual books, but the better documented of these include the Book of the Day, the Book of the Night and the Book of Nut. Closely related is The Book of the Celestial Cow. For example, the Book of the Night, like other books, documents the sun's journey but set within Nut, goddess of the heavens. She swallows the sun at the close of the day and gives birth to it each morning. Passages from these books are mostly found in Ramessid period tombs. The Book of the Divine Cow begins with the "Myth of the Destruction of Mankind", the Egyptian version of the story of the great flood. In the beginning daylight was always present, and humans and gods cohabited on earth. This was depicted as paradise, but humans rebelled against the aging sun god, Ra. Ra sent Hathor as his eye (cobra snake) to punish the rebels, who began to destroy them with fire. However, Ra ended up feeling sorry for them and so deceived Hathor into letting some humans live. Ra then rearranged heaven and the underworld and left earth on the back of the celestial cow.


Book of the Earth: This is a four part book describing the sun's night time passage through the underworld. It was developed in the 20th dynasty, and appears in the burial chamber of several late Ramessid tombs. It also sometimes appears on some anthropoid sarcophagi of the same period.


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Last Updated: June 12th, 2011