Guidebook to the Underworld: Egyptian Funerary Texts

The Duat is the realm of the Dead in Egyptian Mythology. Ruled by Osiris it is not so much a realm of punishment, but a land of trials and tribulations. The texts from which we gather knowledge of the Duat include the various funerary texts which also served as guides to the underworld. The texts were used in funerary rites, buried alongside the dead, or painted on the walls of their tombs; these collections of spells helped the deceased navigate the perilous journey through the underworld. There are two different types of texts that were used; ones which were literal guidebooks tailored to the deceased, and allegorical texts which were written about the daily journey of Ra.

Journey of the Soul

These were the texts that were designed to aid the individual journey through the underworld by the dead. It not only containing pathway guidance through and protective spells for the journey, but also lists the good deeds of service they performed while alive, these texts include:

Pyramid Texts: These are the oldest collection of spells; reserved for the Pharaohs buried in the Saqqara complex and were carved into their sarcophagi and written on the walls of the burial chambers. These texts were written precursors to the more elaborately illustrated funerary texts of later times. The pyramid texts mainly focused on the transformation of the Pharaoh into an Ankh- the symbol of life- allowing them to join the gods in the afterlife. As well as the spells for transmutation these texts also listed various methods of moving through the Duat, warned of hidden enemies, and listed the living accomplishments of the Pharaoh- indications that they could- and would make it to their place among the gods.

Coffin Texts: The coffin texts were the next evolution of the funerary texts, where the afterlife began to be more accessible to the mere mortal- and the entry price was reduced from a Pyramid to a coffin. While there were over 1,000 different spells people could also start to mix and match the different spells to their budget; although the more spells you had in your arsenal the easier your journey would become. The coffin texts also warned of the concept of dying a second death if your journey through the Duat was unsuccessful and began to give shape to the geographical layout of the Duat, providing detailed warnings of the various traps, tests, and dangers that lay in wait. One of the coffin texts – The Book of Two ways also began to map out the different paths that could be chosen through the afterlife- one by water, and one by land, each with their own obstacles and each leading to the same eventually spot, where they were to be judged by Osiris and his council.

Map of the netherworld from the coffin of Gua

The Book of the Dead (Book of Coming Forth by Day): The Book of the Dead is the first collection of funerary texts that began to take the form of a book, written on Papyrus sheaths and buried with the dead – although some specific spells would be duplicated and continue to be inscribed on the walls, carved in scarabs or other amulets, or even written on the mummy wrappings themselves. The Book of the Dead also started to take a more formal form, while individual copies differed there was a reduction in the number of spells from the coffin texts, and the book began to take a more standardized form. The idea of the judgement of the dead introduced in the coffin texts evolved into a more detailed and elaborate process in Spell 125- now representing the weighing of the heart by Anubis against the feather of Maat and became one of the more important spells in the text, as was the accompanying negative confession that went with it, the crucial test in gaining admittance through the underworld.

The Weighing of the Heart from the Papyrus of Hunefer

Journey of the Sun

Another set of funeral texts existing in Egyptian mythology that appeared in the New Kingdom dealt with a more allegorical journey through the underworld; that of Ra, the sun god. The cycle of death and rebirth was played out in a daily microcosm of the setting sun journeying through the dangerous underworld each night, battling to be born anew again each morning.

The Amduat (That Which is in the Afterworld): The Amduat was reserved for the Pharaohs and other honored nobility and detailed the 12 hours of night that Ra battled in the underworld. Each hour of the journey is detailed, each containing its own set of tests and encounters with both the good and evil spirits in the underworld. The Amduat gave names to all these forces, allowing the deceased the knowledge needed to gain aid from the helpful sources, and defeat the demons that are encountered in each hour. As each Pharaoh rose to the level of God reserved for them in the afterlife, they would be expected to recreate Ra’s journey, proving themselves worthy of the godly title.

The Book of Gates: Like the Amduat, this text is broken up into a series of gates that the deceased passes through on the way to the afterlife. Each of the gates is guarded by a different goddess, and the book is designed so that the deceased will know the names of each, allowing them to grant passage through. This again is modeled on the journey of the dun, and each gate is thought to represent the passing of the sun through the underworld and back to the east to be born again.

The Book of the Caverns: The book of the caverns also details Ra’s journey, but this time through the six caverns that make up the underworld. This book tends to be longer and more literary focused as it describes the encounters Ra has in each of the caverns with its multiple inhabitants.

All the funerary texts focused on knowledge of the afterlife, and without this knowledge the chances of making it through to the afterlife dramatically decreased. The Egyptians never really feared death in this life, but a second death in the underworld was an entirely different story!

2 thoughts on “Guidebook to the Underworld: Egyptian Funerary Texts

  1. Wow, I had no idea there were so many different guides to the afterlife in Egyptian lore! Though it’s understandable, considering how complicated the terrain of that realm was said to be. It’s sobering, though, to think that these texts often imply an afterlife was a privilege. I wonder what was thought to happen to ordinary souls prior to the Coffin Texts.

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