In contrast to the prevailing view that texts found in the Old Kingdom Egyptian Pyramids of the fifth and sixth Dynasty were addressed to the dead Pharaoh, there is evidence that the writings played a role in the development of the Pharaoh himself while he was still alive. While the writings in the Pyramid Texts may contain funerary themes, it is likely that they also carry the symbolism of initiation, mysticism and shamanism for use by the living Pharaoh (Naydler 2004).
Although the three Great Pyramids of Giza are often seen as the iconic buildings of the Ancient Egyptians, it is lesser-sized pyramids, beginning with that of the Pharaoh Unas at the end of the Fifth Dynasty, which contain the Pyramid Texts engraved into the walls of the chambers and on the sarchophagi (http://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/index.html). These pyramids are said to be built over a relatively short, early 175-year period of the 3-millenium duration of the Ancient Egyptian culture. There is very little evidence that any of these pyramids contained human remains. In fact, several of the sarcophagi found in the pyramids, which had their ancient seals intact, when opened were found to be empty.
Beginning circa 2345 BCE with the Pharaoh Unas, various compilations of Texts were carved in ten major pyramids. In succession, these are the pyramids of:
- Pepi I,
- Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I),
- Pepi II,
- Neith (wife of Pepi I),
- Iput II (wife of Pepi),
- Wedjebetni (Wife of Pepi II) and
- Ibi a Pharaoh of the Eight Dynasty circa 2170 BCE (Allen 2005).
While the Pyramid Texts are the second oldest text ever written in the world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_literature), they present a well developed, expansive list of over 750 well-developed phrases or recitations such as Recitation 536 from (Naydler 2004) that reads:
"My death is at my own wish, my spiritualization is at my own will."
The Pyramid Texts contain many such images and themes that are also found in later Egyptian writing. There is a danger in compressing history and considering all texts written over 2500 years as the same: a) Old Kingdom texts engraved in Pyramids, b) Middle Kingdom texts written on coffins and c) texts of the later New Kingdom included in temples and tombs. The Coffin Texts were first written on coffins in the first Intermediate Period circa 2181–2055 BCE. The best known of Egyptian literature, the mis-named. “Book of the Dead”, more properly entitled “The Book of Coming Forth by Day”, was written at the beginning of the New Kingdom around 1550 BCE, 600 years after the last use of Pyramid texts. While the later writings of Middle Kingdom Egypt are said to include wisdom literature, the Pyramid Texts continue to be considered as funerary in nature (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom_literature). E. Wente (1982) explored the evidence in the writing of the Book of Coming Forth by Day for mysticism in Pharaonic Egypt. He finds multiple references to the phrase “upon earth” in this later Text. It is difficult to imagine this phrase applying to a dead person who has moved off to another world after death.
It is also important to recognize that the pyramids that contain the Texts are found within complexes with several recognizable building structures. On the banks of the River Nile there is a Valley Temple that is the beginning of a long enclosed corridor built on top of a man-made causeway leading up a mortuary temple. This temple attaches to a walled area within which the pyramid proper is built (Naydler 2004). The presence of a mortuary temple within the larger complex is not sufficient to believe that the whole complex is of a solely funerary nature. It is possible to consider multiple uses throughout the complex. For instance, in the modern Western World we would not maintain that a church and its associated graveyard as being strictly funerary, even though they are found in close proximity of one another and present similar images. Similarly, even though the structures within the pyramid complex might use some of the same images, concepts and themes, they may have performed different functions for the pharaoh throughout their lives and after their deaths. It is most likely that the Egyptians buried their dead in tombs, celebrated in their temples and used the great pyramids for their own directed purposes that we are still trying to fully understand.
Dr. Jeremy Naydler (2004) explores the evidence for a mystical tradition in the Pyramid Texts in more detail. His book “Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt” is a follow-up to his PhD. thesis. In his book he follows two lines of argument for a more-than-funerary application for the Pyramids and their Texts in the: 1) repeated references to the well-known Sed festival that was led by a living Pharaoh and 2) repeated references to mystic themes.
First of all, the Sed festival was an important jubilee ceremony for the Pharaohs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sed_festival). It served to confirm their place in Egyptian culture, and seems to have been celebrated over much of the Egyptian cultural period. This is definitely evidenced in structures that date from the reign of Pharaoh Pepi I, who was the third to build a Pyramid containing the Pyramid Texts. The Sed festival was certainly undertaken by a living Pharaoh. The many references to the Sed festival in the Pyramid Texts, such as written references to the ritual running of the “boundary markers”, the Pharaoh taking on the power of a bull, and the joining of the Pharaoh with the gods. This combination strongly suggests that the Texts in the Pyramid are dealing with a living person, not a corpse. Dr. Naydler suggests that the Pyramid complexes, which include the temple, the causeway, the surrounding walls and the Pyramid proper were associated with the Sed festivals of the Pharaohs who built such structures for use while they were alive.
Secondly, Dr. Naydler finds in the Pyramid Texts repeated themes of mysticism and shamanism. Shamanism is recognized as involving an individual entering a spiritual world or dimension - while alive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism). The Pyramid Texts contain many phrases concerning the passage of the intended participant into other dimensions, joining with the gods, etc. Within the context of mysticism and shamanism, the Texts clearly state: “You have not gone away dead, you have gone away alive.” (Faulkner 1969).
Naydler’s two lines of argument strongly suggest that the Pyramid Texts and the Pyramid structures, were prepared for use by a living Pharaoh. It is easy to imagine the dark isolated chambers of a Pyramid Complex with its Valley Temple, enclosed connecting corridor and Pyramid to be excellent venues for an initiation process to assist the Pharaoh in communing with the gods. Texts written on the walls would support a pharaoh in his transformation from the earthly world to another dimension, and back, while alive.
Another piece of evidence that suggests the role of a more-than-funerary wisdom in Ancient Egypt comes to us through the Greeks.
Secret initiation rights were well known throughout the Middle East at the time of Middle Kingdom Egypt. For example the Eleusinian Mysteries are said to be the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleusinian_Mysteries). They began as early as 1600 BCE corresponding to end of the Middle Kingdom and the time of the writing of the Book of Coming Forth by Day. It is certainly conceivable that both of these important ancient cultures were aware of religious motivations and the need to address man’s relation to higher levels while alive.
Greek philosophers, who are much revered by the present day western world, have strong connections with Ancient Egyptian wisdom through reports of their training in Egypt. Thales, who lived circa 624 – c. 546 BCE and considered the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, was trained by an Egypt priest (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thales). Although the philosophers from the Classical Greece culture lived much later in time from that of the writing of the Pyramid Texts, it is important to note that they seem to have been drawing from the same Egyptian traditions and teachings as the Pyramid Texts. It is very difficult to think that the Greek philosophers who have so directly influenced later Western culture would have been so interested in a culture solely focused on death and life after death such as is represented in the writings of the Late Period Egypt tombs from 664 BCE until 332 BCE (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Period_of_ancient_Egypt). It makes much more sense that they were trained in the secret mysterious Egyptian wisdom that related to the higher levels of the Egyptian thought - including mysticism and initiation of the living.
Clearly it is ironic that we revere the Egyptian-trained Greek philosophers, yet relegate the Ancient Egyptian culture to “the graveyard.”
In conclusion, while the Pyramid Texts do contain funerary images appropriate for the final resting place of a dead pharaoh, it can also be seen that they contain images, concepts and themes relating to initiation, mysticism and transformation of a living pharaoh into a person who has experienced the gods.
Allen, J.P., 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.
Faulkner, R.O., 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Pyramid Text 213; Unis Text 146.
Naydler, J., 2004. Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt. Inner Traditions.
Wente, E., 1982. Mysticism in Pharaonic Egypt?” Journal of Near East Studies. 41, 161-79.