Egyptian Funerary Texts: The Coffin Texts


(Grajetzki 37)

The outer coffin of Gua, from the tomb of Gua, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt
12th Dynasty, 1985-1795 BC
(British Museum)

Inner coffin of Gua, from the tomb of Gua, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt
12th Dynasty, 1985-1795 BC
(British Museum)



Theoretical Approach: I use functionalism to see how the Coffin Texts act in society.

A continuation of the Pyramid Text traditions, the Coffin Texts better define the afterlife and portray its dangers more dramatically.  Intended to aid the deceased in the afterlife, the Coffin Texts provide spells for protection from supernatural beings and other dangers in order to assure admission into the cyclical course of the sun and eternal life. These spells had no established chronological order and beginnings or endings of individual spells are inconsistent from source to source (Dunn).  Written for Middle Kingdom officials and their subordinates, they are found not only on coffins, but occasionally tomb walls, stelae, canopic chests, papyri and mummy masks. Texts written on papyrus are rare, but definitely existed to provide copies for the scribes who worked on the coffins (Faulkner i).  By the Middle Kingdom, the practice of inscribing religious texts on the coffins becomes rarer, as more and more people start to put papyri into their burials – though these are not always of a religious nature (Grajetzki 58).



As Grajetzki points out, “Written texts have been always an important part of elite burials.”  Texts on coffins, originally just the titles and the tomb owners’ names, were funerary texts of the most regularity (Grajetzki 47).  Indeed, the coffin itself is the most constant feature of burials across the three millennia of Pharaonic history (Quirke 146).

Particularly clear in coffin production, regional variations in funerary culture in First Intermediate Period Egypt were results of political fragmentation.  Surviving written records portray the time as a period of political instability and social unrest, explaining why it is easy to distinguish cemeteries from one another by coffin style (Grajetzki 36-38).

Example of hieroglyph forms unique to Gebelein:

(Grajetzki 37)


In direct relation to the degeneration of a unified kingdom in the late third millennium BC is the adoption of royal texts and images by people other than kings, termed ‘democratization’ in Egyptology (Quirke 155).



The scholar Adriaan de Buck divided the Coffin Texts into 1,185 different spells, some assigned to larger compositions such as the major Book of Two Ways.  The spells always refer to the deceased in the first person singular and the language, although it imitates that of the Old Kingdom, was of classical Middle Egypt – inscribed with hieroglyphs and occasional early hieratic (Dunn).

The Coffin Texts also sometimes include depictions of royal symbols such as crowns or staffs in “the so-called ‘object frieze’ or ‘frise d’objets,’ a graphical depiction of a variety of items associated with the mummification of the deceased and burial rituals, as well as more ritualistic objects concerned with the well-being or desires of the deceased” (Robinson 3).

Unlike the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts were almost always titled (sometimes the title came at a text’s end).  They were usually written in vertical columns with the use of red ink to divide spells.  For emphasis, some important spells were written entirely in red pigment.

The Coffin Texts are the first instance in Egyptian funerary literature to use graphic depictions, though infrequently.  The Book of Two Ways and Spell 464 offer detailed plans while other textual descriptions of figures are used to bolster the texts’ magic.

A holdover from the Pyramid Texts is the mutilation of many hierogylphs which represent animate objects.  These glyphs are sometimes carved as two separate pieces divided by a blank space.  Sometimes snakes and other animals/creatures are inscribed with knives in their backs, intended to ensure the safety of the deceased from the figure (Dunn).

(Grajetzki 57)




“This is the path to the abodes of those who live on sweet things” (CT1053)

(Robinson 4)


The set of texts known as the Book of Two ways is almost unique as a regional variety to the Middle Kingdom coffins of el-Bersheh.  Described as the first Egyptian Cosmography, it presents the routes and paths that zig-zag past obstacles through the mythical Netherworld known as the lands of Rostau.  Examples of some of the gateways of darkness are walls of flame and flint to trap and exclude the unwary (Robinson 2-3).  There is both a shorter, older version and a longer version of the Book (5).



1. Rising sun described, deceased boards solar/lotus bark of Re to begin journey

2. Two pathways: Upper blue way and darker lower way – separated by a red band designating a spell to pass “Lake of Fire of the knife-wielders.”

3. Meandering/winding/crossing of multiple paths in some cases.  Geographic features such as: waterways, basins, fields and shrines.  Demons/monsters present at bends.  Deceased reads through spells as protection from, for example: “Large-face who drives off aggressors… a spell for passing by him which is below the waterway” (CT1167)

(Robinson 12)


4. Deceased receives special clothes and staffs of authority to demonstrate successful initiation through landscape

5. Enters Rostau.  Deceased calls upon protection of Thoth to pass by ‘watchers’ through a hall that is divided into 3 compartments by flaming walls

6. Realm of paths of confusions – painted blue, possibly located in sky or water.  More gods, demons, scarab-headed and holding snakes and lizards await deceased.

7. Deceased arrives in presence of Osiris to live eternally (Longer version includes four more sections) – single spell identifies deceased with Re, giving justification of his/her actions and denying any false deeds

(8. Deceased encounters 7 gates.  Deceased presents guardian of each gate with knowledge of their names.

9. Meets with Osiris and divine beings around the solar bark, witnesses a speech of Re, deceased compared to Re at moment of sunrise.  Eternal existence reached.)


In sum, the Book of Two Ways “should be seen as a detailed road map laid out on the floor of the coffin, for the expressed benefit of guiding the deceased through a journey to his or her destination at the side of the sun-god Re” (Robinson 4).  It includes a Sky-borne world of celestial pathways as well as a dark, foreboding Underworld to be traversed by paths and canals.  The evolution of the Book of Two Ways culminates into the creation of the Amduat (Dunn).




Some spells are unique to individual coffins.

Issue of Creation:

The most common surviving Coffin Text from all cemeteries of the period has to do with a poem interspersed by commentary – sometimes titled ‘incantation for going out (of the tomb) by day in the necropolis.’  This title continued to be used for series of funerary texts after 1500 BC and into the corpus of the Book of the Dead (Quirke 159).

Assuming Any Form:

Used in both the afterlife and life on earth, man (living or dead) could become any form of his choosing, “into every god into which one might desire to transform,“Assuming the form of any god that man may wish to assume” (CT290).

Other spells might turn the deceased into fire, air, grain, a child or even an amulet, while others allowed the deceased reunion with loved ones and family in afterlife.


The Coffin Texts deal with the first time Apophis – the huge serpent and enemy of the sun.  He continues to play a large role in New Kingdom funerary books (Dunn).




A quote from the article by Robinson I found interesting reads: “A number of scholars have suggested that the Egyptian coffin, like the various objects included within the burial, the reliefs on the tomb walls and the tomb itself, acted like a machine to transport the deceased at the moment of internment from this world to the sought-after afterlife” (Robinson 12).


In any case, by the end of the Middle Kingdom the Coffin Texts were refined into the Book of the Dead.




Lauren Nadler



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