Funerary texts in Egypt and Greece had a similar purpose, to guide the deceased safely through the underworld. My exhibit examines the Middle Kingdom coffin texts and the Orphic gold tablets as passports to an eternal blessed afterlife.
Egyptian Coffin Texts
The Egyptian Coffin Texts are a collection of religious texts most often engraved on coffins, but they can also be found on tomb walls, stelae, grave goods and on the mask of the mummy itself. Because the surfaces available were small, many times the spells would be condensed and abbreviated. These texts were seen as early as the First Intermediary Period, but gained prevalence primarily in the Middle Kingdom era (2025 – 1700 B.C.).
The texts were essentially a guide for the dead on their journey through the underworld and contained spells, prayers and passwords the deceased would need to know in order to go safely through the afterlife. Here is a spell that will allow the deceased to pass by an evil spirit that attempts to catch the dead in a bird net:
Coffin Text 473
O Herefhaf, fowler of the canals, powerful of heart Geb of the Webetta-net, O fishers, O progeny who trap the dead, capturing birds of passage: you will not trap me in your nets in which you trap the dead, but capture birds of passage, for I know its name: the net of the gods is the Inyt-net for I know the name of its bait it is the spreader, after he put his White Crown of lapis-lazuli upon him
The Coffin Texts are based on the earlier Pyramid texts, which were used in the Old Kingdom to guide the King in his ascension to the heavens,they are more accessible for the common man, if he had the monetary means to get it. The imagery is more focused upon the netherworld instead of the sky and it portrays more scenes of daily life than its predecessor. It attempts to include both The sun-god Re and Osirian beliefs in afterlife mythology (By the time of the New Kingdom, funerary texts rely heavily on the Osirian narrative only). This transition mirrors the change in availability of the afterlife which up to this point was primarily only available to royalty. Egyptologists believe that this is a reflection of a changing democratic landscape in Egypt at the time, a process known in academia as the democratization of the dead.
The Coffin of Gua, currently held by the British Museum, is a standard example of a coffin from the Middle Period. It has both an outer and an inner coffin. The outer coffin has scenes from the “Book of Two Ways”, a new addition to funerary texts at its time, which includes a detailed map of the route to the underworld. The internal coffin also depicts a map of the underworld, along with an offering list that ensures infinite nourishment and protective spells from the Coffin Texts. Gua was a chief physician in Djehutihotep’s court. His chamber also contained an ivory headrest, servant models and a cedar chest with a full set of canopic jars inside. These items seem to indicate that Gua was wealthy man who could afford to portray the coffin texts in his tomb quite elegantly. This is an example of how in the middle kingdom, if you could afford the afterlife, you could have it. It was about wealth and not nobility.
Mythology had a large influence on this change, before, the belief was that only the Pharaoh could achieve eternal life through his connections with the sun god Re (believed to be his father). However, in the time of the Coffin Texts the mythological beliefs now included Osiris whom anyone who had lived a good life could join in the netherworld. Peasants too began to hope for immortality and a eternal home in the Osirian “Field of Reeds” that gave everyone an equal plot of land that the rich and the poor were expected to tend too. This other world was quite different from the harsh reality of Egyptian peasant life.
The function of mythology in this context is to serve as a basis for social order. If all Egyptians believed that only the Pharaoh could achieve immortality, it reinforced his complete divine right to rule however when common Egyptians began to think they could reach an eternal state, they may have questioned royal blood as the legitimate heirs to the throne, something that is theoretically reflected in later political unrest.
The “Orphic Gold Tablets”
Like the Egyptians, members of the Orphic mystery cult believed that special knowledge was necessary for ones travel into the afterlife. However unlike the Egyptians, Greek people prepared for such knowledge while they were still living, as opposed to merely getting the protective spells engraved on their funeral goods. The Orphic cult dictated that one be initiated before their death in order for them to be able to call upon Persephone.
The Orphic cult also calls back to a creationist myth that people are the product of a betrayal between the Titans and Dionysus, in which the Titans ripped him apart. This creation myth also echoes that of the Egyptian God Osiris, who was betrayed by his brother then torn into pieces.
Orpheus, in and of his self- was an ancient poet believed to have traveled to Hades and back. His supposed poems, are what make up the general Orphic tablet text that instructs the deceased on dealings in the underworld. The text I want to compare to Egyptian mortuary text is as follows:
You will find in the halls of Hades a spring on the left,
and standing by it, a glowing white cypress tree;
Do not approach this spring at all.
You will find the other, from the lake of Memory,
refreshing water flowing forth. But guardians are nearby.
Say: “I am the child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is heavenly; and this you know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish; but give me quickly
refreshing water flowing forth from the lake of Memory.”
And then they will give you to drink from the divine spring,
And then you will celebrate the rites[?] with the heroes…
-B1 Petelia 4th century BCE
This text introduces images that recur throughout Egyptian funerary text such as , a tree next to a body of water and the deceased needing to drink said water, the deceased having to answer to guardians of the water and the response being a need to quench their thirst. There are two theories on the meaning behind these similarities. The first being that the text are not mutually exclusive and that the recurrences show a universal cultural thought process, and the second being that the Greek verse is merely an extension of the Egyptian beliefs about the underworld.
Regardless of the reason behind the similarities it further crystallizes the idea of mythological influence on funeral practices. The Orphic tablets were not found in every grave, and are products of an established cult system similar to that of the Dionysian (Bacchic) cult. The main beliefs of the two cults are similar it is how one becomes a cult member that differs.In the Dionysian tradition, one can only become a cult member if he/she was a citizen of Greece that spoke Greek and it was sponsored by the state. This tradition generally excluded the poor or those not of noble birth. Orphic tradition did not exclude the poor(though they were few and far between), and was done in a more private setting.
People believed that you had to be a member of one of these cults in order to be received in the afterlife, based on writings by Orpheus and other in the Dionysian tradition. Status played a large role in the accessibility of such knowledge as there were barriers between the non-elite and the initiation rites. The shift from elitist burial practices in Greece could arguably be of a political nature. Control of the afterlife meant solidification of social order, as it did in Egypt.
Whether or not the Coffin Texts influenced the Orphic myths, in this case, doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact the religious beliefs of the masses had on socio-political understanding of the larger society. Mythology can become a useful tool in controlling a group of people if they believe in it strong enough, or if they believe it is essential to the eternal conditions of their soul if they follow certain protocol. The relationship between how the Egyptians and the Greeks went about burials and thought about the afterlife , and mythology are assuredly interconnected. We make assumptions about mythologies place in politics and social stratification.
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Edmonds, R. G. (2011). The ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path, Cambridge University Press.
Forgetfulness in the Golden Tablets of Memory.R. Janko The Classical Quarterly , New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1984), pp. 89-100
Graf, Fritz, and Sarah Iles Johnston. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1978. Print.
Dodd, D. and C. A. Faraone (2013). Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Critical Perspectives, Taylor & Francis.