Religious Literature in Ancient Egypt

by Wim van den Dungen

the Scribe of Saqqara
IVth or Vth Dynasty

Because religion itself was an all-important factor in everyday life, religious texts are a major part of Egyptian literature. Secular texts were usually written on papyrus, but most have persished together with the liberaries, offices and homes of the officials in which they were kept (except if they were deliberately buried). Instead, religious texts were inscribed on more permanent media, like tomb walls or stelae.

Religious texts fall into one of two categories : funerary and devotional literature.


These are the oldest texts, and most extensively preserved. They tend to be written in vertical columns of text rather than in horizontal lines (some texts are arranged retrograde, the signs facing the end of the text rather than its beginning). Let us discuss them chronologically :

1. The Pyramid Texts : Old Kingdom

This is a collection of rituals and magical texts in hieroglyphs inscribed on the walls of the burial chamber, ante-chamber and other rooms and corridors inside the royal pyramids of the Vth and Vth Dynasties (initiated by
Pharaoh Unis). As most of these texts start with the expression "Dd-mdw" or "words to say", egyptologists refer to them as "utterances" or "spells". These nearly thousand spells, ranging in length from a few words to several pages in a modern translation, all belong to one of three categories :

  • Offering Rituals : to be recited during the presentation of individual offerings, in which the deceased is generally addressed as "Osiris", whereas the offering itself is referred to as the "Eye of Horus". They are short and often contain a "pun" on the name of what is offered. This ritual began with a series of utterances designed to "wpt r" or "open the mouth" of the deceased, so that the mummy could recover its senses and powers in the afterlife before the offerings were presented ;

  • Resurrection Rituals : these long texts were also to be recited to the deceased and were found in the antechamber and burial chamber. They were intended to release the soul ("ba") from its attachment to the mummy, so that it could begin its daily cycle (at night with the mummy, during the day among the living), though on a different plane of existence, namely as a spirit ("akh") like the gods ;

  • Personal Spells : these line the walls of the other rooms and corridors of the royal tomb, and had to be spoken by the deceased's soul as it made its way through the night toward its rebirth at dawn. Originally in the first person, they were often edited into the third person for each tomb (substituting the name of the deceased for the original first-person pronouns).

Scenes from the tombs of officials show the same kind of rituals being performed as given in the royal Pyramid Texts. Instead of the Offering Ritual, these non-royal tombs often had an "offering list", and the order of these offerings was usually identical to the offerings mentioned in the Pyramid Texts.

2. The Coffin Texts : First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom

The Coffin Texts superceded the Pyramid Texts as early as the VIIIth Dynasty (First Intermediary Period), but their principal sources are the later cemeteries of the nomarchs of Middle Egypt in the XIIth Dynasty. Most of them were written on papyrus or wood coffins in an early form of Middle Egyptian, mostly in cursive hieroglyphs or sometime hieratic.

During the First Intermediate Period, officials began to inscribe Resurrection Rituals and some Personal Spells from the Pyramid Texts on the walls of their own burial chambers and coffins. These were often accompanied by new spells, known as the Coffin Texts, a body of nearly twelve hundred spells. Most are Personal Spells in the first person and meant to give the soul save passage from the tomb to its new spiritual life. In contrast to the Pyramid Texts, these spells employ "vignettes" or illustrations (though only rarely).

These texts also contain a new type of funerary text, the "Books of the Netherworld", or texts providing a description of the various places in the "Duat" or netherworld, along with the words the soul needed to know to pass safely through them. The most elaborate of these guides is known as The Book of Two Ways, illustrated with a map of the regions described. It still lacks the clear arrangement of the later "Books of the Netherworld" like the Amduat and starts the journey of the soul through the hereafter with sunrise (and not, as later, at dusk). These books represented the results of governement-funded research into the hereafter !

The Coffin Texts eliminated the royal exclusivity of the Pyramid Texts, for every deceased person had a soul and was an "Osiris NN". The essential content of the Pyramid Texts remained, but new motifs were added : transformation spells (the importance of the scarab beetle), reunion spells, battle spells (against Apophis, the gigantic serpent and enemy of Re) and the Judgment of the Dead. Although the importance of Osiris greatly gained, the celestial afterlife of the Pyramid Texts survived.

3. The Book of the Dead : Second Intermediate Period

Funerary texts began to be separated into several distinct corpora. The most important of these was the so-called "Book of the Dead", known to the Egyptians as "prt m hrw" or "coming forth by day", a hundred or so spells of the personal type (called "chapters"), including spells from the earlier literature (Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts). These texts were generally written in cursive hieroglyphs on papyrus with vignettes. 

This text primarily served the purposes of provisioning and protecting the deceased. The general Judgment of the Dead, to which every deceased is subject, played an important part.

4. The Netherworld (Duat) guides : the Amduat, Book of Gates, Book of Caverns, etc.

The Book of the Two Ways of the Coffin Texts, gave rise to several New Kingdom royal netherworld guides. The netherworld was divided into twelve separate sections (cf. the hours of the night). They were written in Middle Egyptian. The mystery of the nocturnal rejuvenation of Re in his nightly journey (in the Book of Caverns, first appearing in the Osireion, as Osiris) was their focus. In the Amduat and the Book of Gates, the battle with Apophis is prominent and follows the moment Re has been rekindled (in the Sixth Hour of the night).

5. Special compositions : Mouth-Opening Ritual, Litany of Re, Book of the Heavenly Cow

From the earlier ritual texts found in the Pyramid Texts, the New Kingdom composed 75 "acts" in which priests "open the mouth" of a statue of the deceased, providing it with offerings. They inform the ritualists. In the Litany of Re, a description and a praise of that deity is given. He descends into the netherworld, renewes life, cares for the blessed and punished the damned. The central motif of the Book of the Heavenly Cow is Re's witdrawal to the sky because of the rebellion of humankind against him.


Egyptian devotional literature consists of hymns, prayers and induction rituals.

1. Hymns :

The great majority of devotional texts are hymns, the most carefully composed of all literary forms found in Egypt. Key concept here is the act of worship ("dwA") and praise ("iAiw"). They hymns are exclusively devoted to praising a god or a goddess. Occasionally do hymns beseech the deity for intercession, favors or blessings. The hymns are the prime vehicle through which the theologians eternalized and transmitted their thoughts. 

"As such, they are the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the philosophical writings of the Greeks and the theological treatises of medieval scholars."
Allen, 2000, p.342.

2. Prayers :

All Egyptians felt their gods were accessible through private prayer and devotions. For the New Kingdom, this practice is attested, and the most unreachable of the gods, Amun, heard everybody.

3. Induction rituals :

For certain very important posts, such as high priest, the higher clergy, vizier, etc., rituals were performed to introduced (initiate ?) that individual into the dignity of his or her office.

Considering the high antiquity of this vast religious literature, the given amount of material is extraordinary. In comparison, what remains of the conceptual edifice of the Minoan-Mycenæan world and what we know about Archaic & Ionian Greece, is extremely fragmentary. It is remarkable our academic institutions have in casu not yet taken measure to reduce their cultural lag. The study of these ancient texts helps us understand Greek thought considerably.

Indeed, the original watermark of many concepts deemed Judaic, Greek, Christian, Islamic or belonging to the European Renaissance, might prove to be Egyptian. Also, the "sources" of the Renaissance were too early in time and biased in favor of a Hellenocentric (and Europacentric) interpretation of the civilizations of antiquity ! Thanks to the mummifying climate of Egypt, and the linguistico-analytical work of Champollion and his followers,
postmodern intellectuals should know better.

initiated : 2003 - last update : 27 XI 2010

© Wim van den Dungen