Egyptian Funerary Texts: The Pyramid Texts

An inscription of the Pyramid Texts in the pyramid of Unas.

The Pyramid Texts

Emily Roff


This exhibit investigates the Pyramid Texts, Old Kingdom religious texts found on the inner walls of Egyptian pyramids.  The various aspects of the text that describe the beliefs of the elite at the time it was written regarding access and the passage to the underworld will be examined.  Consistent with the other exhibits within the group, functionalist theory will be used to examine what we know about Old Kingdom views of life after death from the Pyramid Texts and how they might be influenced by the contemporaneous society.

A detail of the Pyramid Texts from the pyramid of Pepy I.

The Old Kingdom was an Ancient Egyptian period lasting from 2686 to 2181 BC and from the 3rd through 6th dynasties.  The Old Kingdom was, compared to the later and relatively democratized periods, very focused on the glorious power of the pharaoh. Politcally, it was highly organized, with the ruling class having tight control and lots of power.  The concept that it was the pharaoh’s duty to preserve ma’at, the concept of justice and natural order, helped justify his godly status and power (Bard, 124).  There was only one main urban center, the city of Memphis, also eliminating competition and unrest for the rulers; most of the population were rural farmers (Bard, 126).  The pharaohs wielded such power that they could erect great pyramids to commemorate their existence, using various forms of taxation.  It was in these great monuments to themselves that the Pyramid Texts were recorded.  These texts on the interior walls of the pyramids were a rather disorganized collection of spells, prayers, mortuary rituals, myths, and instructions; through these, it is possible to roughly decipher Old Kingdom beliefs of the afterlife, at least for the pharaoh (Kinkade, 334).  With the lack of Old Kingdom temples of local gods or papyri describing religious beliefs, these texts are the only solid information available about Old Kingdom beliefs of the afterlife (Malek, 109).   With this lack of surviving information about other classes afterlife beliefs coupled with evidence for the great power of the pharaoh, we might surmise that the Pyramid Texts, though not indicative of the beliefs of the common-folk’s afterlife, functioned as an important myth reinforcing the dominance of the pharaoh as well as providing insight into what was believed to lie in the afterlife for the society’s most important member.

The deceased pharaoh’s journey to the Hereafter, though there are different accounts of his exact path, can be generally illustrated by the pictogram below.  Click on the different images to investigates the various steps of the journey.


Overall, this path and belief system reserved for the pharaoh in the Pyramid Texts is indicative of the pharaoh’s association with the gods and set up an influential afterlife narrative that the other texts would all be influenced by in some capacity. Echoes of what is recorded in these Pyramid texts gets passed down throughout the successive Egyptian funerary texts as they became more democratized and potentially even had an effect on the Archaic and Classical Greek conceptions of the afterlife as depicted in The Odyssey and The Republic.  Within Egyptian texts, the Pyramid Texts set up not only the initial narrative of the path of the afterlife that the Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead would later draw from (a journey containing some form of obstacles and a judgment, ending with a final resting place), but also the idea of secret knowledge that you needed in order to get to the desirable afterlife, which would become less exclusive as society democratized.





Bard, Kathryn. Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Web.

Davis, Whitney M. “The Ascension-Myth in the Pyramid Texts.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 36.3 (1977): 161-179. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Stilwell, KS:, 2007. eBook.

Kinkade, Marvin Dale, Kenneth Locke Hale, and Oswald Werner. Linguistics and Anthropology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1975. eBook.

Malek, Jaromir. In the Shadow of the Pyramids:Egypt During the Old Kingdom. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. eBook.


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