Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Pyramid Texts

The Pyramid Texts are the oldest of the three principal collections of Egyptian funerary literature. 19 They are also among the earliest religious writings known from anywhere in the world. The texts are divided into sections; each is preceded by an Egyptian phrase meaning "words to be spoken" but sometimes translated as "spell" or "incantation." These incantations can be as short as a single sentence or many paragraphs long..

The pyramid of King Weni contains around 300 incantations, but more than 800 are currently known. Pyramid Texts have been found in the pyramids of five Old Kingdom kings and three queens. No two pyramids have exactly the same selection. No illustrations accompany the Pyramid Texts, though the ceilings of royal burial chambers were usually decorated with stars. Many hieroglyphic signs consist of images of living creatures. In the writing of the Pyramid Texts, potentially harmful creatures such as snakes, scorpions, and some kinds of birds and people are often shown dismembered or skewered with knives.

This suggests that there was a strong fear of the latent power of images during this period. The texts themselves seem to have been adapted from a variety of genres, such as hymns, lists of divine names and epithets, spells from the type of magic used in daily life, and the "recitations" that accompanied ritual actions. Many were composed in the first person and would have been highly dramatic when spoken or chanted aloud. Some of the incantations may have been passed down orally for many generations and only written down when the Pyramid Texts were first assembled.

The majority of the texts probably belong to the "secret knowledge" written on leather or papyrus rolls, which is known to have been kept in the libraries attached to some Old Kingdom palaces and temples. The composing, copying, and reading out of these sacred books were the province of a special class of priests, known as 'lector' priests. No actual books of this kind have survived from the Old Kingdom, and they are rare from later periods too. No major temple library has ever been discovered intact, and this gap is one of many in the sources for Egyptian myth.

 A section of the Pyramid Texts in the antechamber of the pyramid of King Weni. The antechamber represented the Akhet, the place where the dead king would be transformed and rise again like the sun above the horizon. (Courtesy of Princeton University)

The main purpose of assembling these texts and inscribing them inside pyramids was to help the body of the deceased king to escape the horror of putrefaction and his spirit to ascend to the celestial realm where he would take his place among the gods. Some of the texts were probably recited during theking’s funeral or as part of the mortuary cult that continued after his death.Others may have been intended to be spoken by the deceased king as he entered the afterlife. In this type of incantation, the king took on the role of many different deities.Around 200 deities are mentioned in the Pyramid Texts.

Some are the major deities already known from cult temples, such the fertility god Min and the creator goddess Neith. Others are entities such as snake deities and celestial ferrymen who inhabit a complex and intensely imagined realm of the gods. The most frequently mentioned deities are Anubis, Atum, Geb, Horus, Isis, Nephthys, Nut, Osiris, Ra, Seth, Shu, and Thoth (see "Deities, Themes,and Concepts").

These include most of the deities who make up the Ennead of Heliopolis, and it is often argued that the Pyramid Texts largely represent the theology of the solar temple at Heliopolis. A stellar element was also important in the Pyramid Texts. The king was destined to join the "imperishable stars," and the god Osiris was identified with the constellation of Orion and the goddess Isis with the Dog Star, Sirius. 20 The cult of Osiris is hardly known before the Fifth Dynasty, but he gradually became the most important funerary god.One thing the Pyramid Texts are not is a collection of narrative myths.

They do contain numerous allusions to myths, many of which are difficult to interpret. Some passages include what have been called "mythical statements." These give the bare outlines of an event that has taken place in the divine realm, such as "Horus comes and Thoth appears.

They raise up Osiris from upon his side and make him stand erect in front of the two Enneads. "21Many of the most important themes of Egyptian mythology, such as the journey of the sun god in his solar barque, the murder of the good god Osiris,and the violent conflict between Horus and Seth, are already present in the Pyramid Texts.
These texts are also the earliest source for the complex array of myths and symbols that the Egyptians constructed on the theme of creation. The gods as depicted in the Pyramid Texts often seem violent, hostile, and terrifying beings, and this is a consistent picture in Egyptian funerary texts.

Near the end of the Sixth Dynasty, sections of the Pyramid Texts began to be used in the tombs of important but non royal people in various parts of Egypt. This has been seen as one of the symptoms of a breakdown of royal authoritythat led to the fall of the Old Kingdom. 22 In the twenty-second century BCE, Egypt entered a time of disunity, which historians call the First Intermediate Period. There were still kings ruling from Memphis, but they did not control the whole country.

A rival dynasty emerged from a place called Herakleopolis. One of these kings was traditionally credited with writing the remarkable work known as the Teaching for King Merikare.
This text mentions a brutal civil war in which the king had been involved. Later Egyptian literature generally portrayed the First Intermediate Period as a time of chaos and misery when the gods had withdrawn their blessing.

Only one First Intermediate Period king had a pyramid inscribed with Pyramid Texts, but they continued to be used in some private burials. 23 A group who benefited from the relaxation of royal authority was the nomarchs (provincial governors).

These nomarchs had close ties with their local temples, and it was probably among the priesthood of these temples that an innovative new body of funerary texts began to develop.
The independence of the nomarchs and the period of disunity were brought to an end in the late twenty-first century BCE by a king called Nebhepetra Montuhotep (Mentuhotep), who came from the southern city of  Thebes.

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