The Pyramid Texts of the Egyptian Empire

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt — The End of the Old Kingdom

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The Egyptian Empire is known for its grandeur and is remembered by its great architecture, such as that of the pyramids, and the Sphinx. But a fascinating discovery from the period that is often overlooked is the pyramid texts, which were discovered in the pyramids built in the fifth century. 

The Pyramid Texts, hieroglyphic texts found inside the pyramid of Unas in Saqqara.
The pyramid texts, first found in the Pyramid of Unas, the last pharaoh of the fifth dynasty, were hieroglyphic texts arranged in columns, each column a separate spell.
(Image: EvrenKalinbacak/Shutterstock)

When the fourth dynasty of the Old Egyptian Kingdom fell, it took down with it the extravagance of the kingdom as well. The last of the great pyramids at Giza were built by Menkaure, the penultimate pharaoh of the fourth dynasty. 

Learn more about The Great Pyramids of Giza.

However, the fifth dynasty had its own contribution to the annals of history. The last pharaoh of the dynasty, Unas, built a modest, but remarkable pyramid at Saqqara. The pyramid, while insignificant in size, featured thousands and thousands of hieroglyphics on the inner walls of the pyramid. They were arranged in columns going from the floor to the ceiling, each column a different spell. An even more remarkable fact about the hieroglyphics is that they have all been found to be inscribed individually, and not stenciled on for efficiency. 

These inscriptions are now referred to as the Pyramid Texts, and a lot of studies have been conducted over their contents.

The Pyramid Texts of Ancient Egypt

The purpose of the pyramid texts is to protect the body of the king in three stages. They come into play because the body of the king is kept in a sarcophagus in the pyramid. In fact, Unas’ sarcophagus is a beautiful relic, and it still has all its vibrant colors intact, as there was no weathering inside the pyramid. 

The first stage of the texts is intended to protect the body of the king while it lies in the chamber. They ensure that the body is not disturbed until it is ready for the ‘big journey’. So they contain spells which protect the body from scorpions, robbers, and so on. 

The second stage is for when the pharaoh goes towards the west in the sky, and the set of spells would ensure that when the pharaoh made his journey through the sky, he would not be impeded in any way. The west was associated with the dead, perhaps because the sun dies each day in the west and is reborn in the east the next day. Tombs and pyramids were built towards the west, and when one died, they were said to have ‘gone west’. Thus, when the king passed away, he would make his journey across the sky towards the west in a solar boat, a strong reminder of how strongly devoted the fifth dynasty was to the Sun God. 

The last set of spells was to make sure that when the pharaoh got to his destination, he would be accepted there, in the next world. The spells also provide alternate means for the pharaoh to get himself accepted into the next world, such as ‘Unas ascends his ladder’, or else, ‘Unas ascends the steps to the next world’. These ensure that the pharaoh would get in, one way or another. 

Learn more about Ancient Egyptian Thought.

The Cannibal Hymn

The Pyramid Texts also house a very strange piece of text, which is referred to as The Cannibal Hymn, and Egyptologists are fairly certain that they understand the meaning of this text by now. 

It describes Unas eating the entrails of his enemies, and also eating parts of the Gods. 

While the idea here is that once a pharaoh defeated his enemy and ate them, he would obtain their powers. Eating parts of Gods also comes from the same notion. This gives birth to the question, however, of whether this idea was adopted literally as well. Does the Cannibal Hymn imply that Unas was a cannibal, or if the Egyptians, in general, practiced cannibalism?

Osiris, the Egyptian God of Resurrection
Osiris, the Egyptian God of Resurrection, had legends surrounding him, which were used in claims of cannibalistic behavior in Ancient Egypt.
(Image: OlgaChernyak/Shutterstock)

While most Egyptologists do not take this notion literally, one in particular does. E.A. Wallis Budge, the then curator of the British Museum’s Egyptian Collection, wrote a book in the 1920s.

The book spoke about the legend of Osiris, and how he was the first to resurrect, after being hacked to pieces and then put together. The legend points to the fact that the Egyptians believed in the resurrection. Budge claims that this legend was introduced to stop Egyptians from indulging in cannibalism. By claiming that friends and relatives would require their body for their next birth, the Egyptians would be able to control their cannibalistic tendencies. 

However, Budge belongs to a very small segment of Egyptologists, as most do not agree with the notion of Egyptians being cannibals. There is virtually no evidence for cannibalism in Egyptian society. No bones have been discovered, for instance, with human teeth marks on them. There have never been any textual mentions of cannibalism, either. 

The lack of evidence to prove that the Egyptians were cannibals has led Egyptologists to reach the conclusion that the Cannibal Hymn is, indeed, metaphorical.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Linking the Dynasties of the Old Kingdom

The Pyramid Texts have helped Egyptologists understand a great deal about the culture and religion of the Old Egyptian Kingdom. They have also helped to fill a lot of gaps in the understanding of dynasties before the fifth one. For instance, Egyptologists, before discovering the Pyramid Texts, were surprised that the pyramids, such as the Great Pyramids of the fourth dynasty, did not have any inscriptions, not even the names of those who commissioned them. Not only does Unas’ pyramid change that, but it also points towards a larger, systemic change going from the fourth to the fifth dynasty. The fifth dynasty came with a big declension in the economic powers possessed by the Egyptian kingdom. Further, the decline continued into the sixth dynasty as well, which ended up being the last dynasty in the Old Kingdom. While pharaohs of the sixth dynasty built their own pyramids, complete with pyramid texts, these pyramids were small and insignificant compared to those of dynasties past. Even more intriguing, this period saw a strong shift in power and wealth dynamics, with the nobility surrounding the pharaoh gaining a lot more economic and political clout. For instance, while the sixth dynasty pharaoh Teti built his pyramid, his chancellor Mereruka built a mastaba, one which rivaled the pharaoh’s pyramid in size and grandeur. This hints to an almost competition – like situation between the pharaoh and his nobility. 

With Pepi II, the last Pharaoh of the sixth dynasty, the Old Kingdom came to an end, beginning the first intermediate period in Egyptian History. 

The Old kingdom left behind a lot of invaluable relics, including the Pyramid Texts. These have been the source of precious information for modern-day archaeologists, who, to date, continue their attempts to fully understand the secrets held by the long lost empires. 

Learn more About The End of the Old Kingdom.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Pyramid Texts

Q: Who wrote the Pyramid Texts?

The first instance of the Pyramid Texts was found in the Pyramid of Unas, and then also in other Pyramids made by sixth dynasty pharaohs.

Q: Where are the Pyramid Texts?

The Pyramid Texts can be found on the interior of the pyramids, and on the sarcophagi of fifth and sixth dynasty pharaohs of ancient Egypt. They were mostly found in Saqqara.

Q: What was the purpose of the Pyramid Texts?

The primary purpose served by the Pyramid Texts was to hold spells which enabled the pharaoh to transition easily into the next world.

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