Egyptian Religion: The Literature

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From the dawn of Egyptian history, and throughout the three and a half millennia of their currency, religious beliefs and practices were for practical purposes committed to written form. The singular phenomenon of the nation-state the pharaohs had created put far greater stock in the hieroglyphic script, the novel creation of a bureaucracy of wise men, than it did in any memory, individual or collective, that might serve as a repository for the important knowledge of the community. The scribal tradition, therefore, at an early date took precedence over the oral in Egypt, and the scribe became recorder and transmitter of all that was deemed important among the intellectual creations of pharaonic society. Egyptian religion was practiced according to beliefs and directives "as they were [found] in writing," and scorn was poured on anything that remained in an oral stage of transmission. The latter was "the narrative discourse of the people," and was considered to be unsophisticated, hyperbolic, and unreliable.

In the light of this it should come as no surprise to learn that the scribe in ancient Egypt was the kingpin in the running of the government, and the most respected member of the community (Williams, 1972). The "scribe of the god's book," later to become the sacred scribe, and the "lector-priest" (lit., "he who carries the book role") are found already in the Early Dynastic period (c. 30002650 bce). Precisely what kind of sacred literature such worthies wrote, copied, and guarded at this early time is difficult to ascertain. As the vast majority of texts, both originals and copies, were written on papyrus, it is scarcely to be wondered at that none has survived from the Old Kingdom (c. 30002200 bce), and very few from the Middle Kingdom (c. 21341660 bce). Something of the early history of the sacred library can, however, be reconstructed from hieroglyphic records and from the known exigencies of the cult. Thus, the overriding importance of sacred monarchy demanded that rites concerned with coronation and jubilee be regulated by written directories, and the remarkable uniformity of relief-scenes and texts commemorating these ceremonies over three millennia argues the presence, already in the Old Kingdom, of written prescriptions.

Of equal, if not greater, importance to the ancient Egyptian community were two rites intimately connected with the funerary cultthe offering to the ancestors and the mortuary liturgy. The former called forth at the very dawn of Egyptian history the offering-list, a formal and comprehensive listing of foodstuffs and other requirements of the dead, together with name and titles of the ancestor and occasionally a formulaic text to be used orally (Barta, 1963). The mortuary liturgy became the starting point for that ever-burgeoning body of texts known to the Egyptians as sakhu ("[funerary] beatifications"), pronounced by the lector-priest on the day of the obsequies to assist the deceased in securing a glorified existence in the beyond. Any person for whom offering-list and beatifications had been provided could ipso facto be termed "a competent and equipped spirit."

Mortuary Literature

Although one must await the twenty-fourth century bce for the first extensive texts of funerary purport, from that point the genre rapidly becomes one of the most frequent in the repertoire of Egyptian writings.

The Pyramid Texts

The corpus of religious literature called the Pyramid Texts comprises approximately 760 individual paragraphs, or "spells," inscribed on the walls of the tomb chambers and entrance corridors of Egyptian kings (and occasionally queens) from Wenis (c. 24102380 bce) to Aba (fl. c. 2185 bce). As such it represents the earliest, and in some respects the most interesting, body of sacred literature in the ancient world (Faulkner, 1969; Barta, 1981). In later times the material was sporadically revived and recopied; but the original exemplars reflect its heyday. (Even when first seen, however, the corpus was undergoing a rapid evolution: Much of the content of the Wenis texts is missing and has been replaced with additional material of like sort in the pyramid of Pepi II [c. 22902200 bce].) The texts follow no special sequence, other than a general "order of service" from the arrival of the funeral cortege at the pyramid to the king's acceptance by the sun god in heaven. Broadly speaking, the intent is that of an apologia on behalf of the deceased in order to secure the gods' acquiescence to his eternal stay among them. The Pyramid Texts incorporate hymns to the gods, magical incantations, prayers for the dead, liturgical pieces, and ritual texts, and as such envisage rites of embalmment and purification, the "opening of the mouth" ceremony (to revivify the mummy and the mortuary statues), coronation, rites of passage, and the offering liturgy.

While this was not their primary intent, the Pyramid Texts provide an introduction to the cult and pantheon of the gods current in Egypt during the Old Kingdom. The texts were undoubtedly produced by the theologians and scribes of the great center of sun worship, Heliopolis, where lay the "great mansion" of the sun god, Re-Atum. Reflecting the amazing political unity the Egyptian state had achieved under pharaonic administration by the middle of the third millennium bce, these Heliopolitan priests had synthesized the religion of the Nile Valley and Delta into a unified whole, and enlisted its aid in effecting the king's journey to the solar beyond (Anthes, 1959). The Pyramid Texts can, therefore, be usedwith appropriate cautionas a source for Egyptian religion during the Old Kingdom.

The Coffin Texts

This body of literature, comprising more than 1,150 "spells" and called in Egyptian the Book of Justifying a Man in the Realm of the Dead, is known in numerous copies from the ninth dynasty through the thirteenth (c. 21501650 bce). Although a few extant fragments make it plain that the original was written up in papyrus copies, the vast majority of examples are found written in ink in vertical columns (in apparent imitation of the Pyramid Texts), on the insides of the large, rectangular wooden coffins that were characteristic of the period (Faulkner, 19731978). Unlike the Pyramid Texts, of which they could be considered a later development, the Coffin Texts often precede a spell with a rubric docket giving the purpose of the piece, and follow it with another supplying directions for use. The latter might suggest use by cult initiates during life, and indeed the Book of Two Ways has been taken to be a manual of initiation. On the other hand, the rubric headings of spells most frequently point to their construing by the ancients as magical incantations designed to circumvent obstacles, combat dangers, and ensure the well-being of the deceased in the next life. Over half of the spells are concerned with mystical transformations of the deceased into animals, gods, objects, or desirable elements in nature (the Nile, grain, air, and so on), and in a large proportion of them magical effectiveness is ensured by the knowledge of esoteric mythology to which the deceased lays claim.

Much of the Coffin Texts derives from the Pyramid Texts, and belongs under the general rubric of "beatifications," but the content and atmosphere of the Coffin Texts sometimes differ markedly from the aristocratic or royal aura of the Pyramid Texts. Often a spell from the latter is distorted and misinterpreted, either to suit the new requirements of life in a different age or, more often, through ignorance of what it originally meant. Like the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts come from the context of the sun cult, but yield more information on other cult centers, such as Abydos, Mendes, and Buto. For the first time in Egyptian religious literature, prominence is given to the concept of the judgment of the dead in the afterlife; and Osiris and his cycle, on the ascendant in the later versions of the Pyramid Texts, are very much to the fore in the Coffin Texts.

Book of Going Forth by Day

By the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty (c. 1569 bce), the vast corpus of "beatifications" represented by the Coffin Texts was being pressed into service as a source for a new document of funerary use, the Book of Going Forth by Day, erroneously termed the Book of the Dead by moderns (Allen, 1974). Written most commonly on a papyrus roll that was placed in the coffin beside the mummy (of both royalty and commoners), the Book of Going Forth by Day derives nearly 60 percent of its material from the known Coffin Texts; but the spells were evolving under constant pressure of reinterpretation, and new incantations were being added. Their magical intent is clearer than ever: Each spell has a title, and most a prescription for use. All were, as is to be expected, intended for the well-being of the deceased in the next life, although, as is the case with the Coffin Texts, use by the living is not entirely excluded. The Book of Going Forth by Day continues and expands a practice begun on a small scale by the Coffin Texts, that of glossing selected spells with colored vignettes showing the deceased before various gods or engaged in cultic acts. Whereas for the New Kingdom spells are treated as individual units having little connection with other material and no fixed position in a canonical order, the "archaizing" revival of the Kushite-Saite period (712525 bce) produced a standard sequence of spells that survived into Roman times.

The Book of Going Forth by Day shows the concept of the Egyptian afterlife at a stage from which it developed little. The concept of the judgment, or psychostasia, is virtually full-blown, the trust in the efficacy of magic at its height. It now becomes standard procedure to place certain spells on "shawabtis" (servant figurines) to activate them, or on "heart scarabs" (beetle pectorals) to prevent the heart from testifying against its owner. Proper use of chapter 125 will ensure that the deceased emerges from the divine tribunal unscathed, whether he be "guilty" or not; the pious intoning of hymns to the sun at dawn and sunset will elicit divine indulgence for eternity.

Underworld literature

From the earliest period one can sense an antithesis between Re, the supernal sun god, fons et origo of the universe of light, and Osiris, the passive infernal hypostasis of the mystery of fertility, death, and the earth. Every night the sun passed through the perils of the infernal regions where Osiris dwelt, and it was only by magic and the prayers of the devout that it emerged whole in the morning. The "well-equipped" soul showed an ambivalence in its postmortem desires, now striving to accompany the sun boat in its eternal round through sky and the underworld for ever, now craving identity with Osiris, embedded forever in the life-giving soil. Preoccupation with these aims, ostensibly irreconcilable, conjured up in the New Kingdom (c. 15691085 bce) an ever-increasing literature on the underworld and the mystery of the eventual union of Re with Osiris (Hornung, 1980). The very names of the books comprising this esoteric library reveal the nature of the realm described: the Book of What Is in the Underworld, the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, the Litany of Re, the Book of Traversing Eternity. Though they were genuine papyrus books whose origins in some cases possibly date before the New Kingdom, most of these pieces are known from hieroglyphic copies inscribed on the walls of the tombs of the kings at Thebes. They describe an underworld divided into twelve regions (corresponding to the hours of the night), peopled by fierce demons and fraught with dangers for gods and mortals alike. It is a place of punishment from which all people fervently pray to be saved. Concern for such salvation, as well as for well-being in life, led in the first millennium bce to the practice of placing "decrees" in the mouths of the gods on behalf of other gods and individual human beings, and inscribing them on prophylactery strips of papyrus or on tablets.

The cosmic balance between Re and Osiris and the natural principles for which they stood were of great concern in the Late period (second half of the first millennium bce). Underworld literature envisages a union of the two at a crucial point in Re's nightly passage through the underworld. In a curious ritual called the Rite of the House of Life, designed to preserve life in the universe and prevent the sun crashing to the earth, Osiris was united with Re in the form of a mummy.

Communications between living and dead

Central to Egyptian mortuary practices was the offering to the ancestors. The entire tomb in its layout and decoration focused upon the offering station with its stone table, libation stone, and sculpted or painted representation of the deceased. Here the dead met the living, as it were, and lively "conversation" was the result. At a very early date, certainly by the close of the third dynasty (c. 2650 bce), tomb owners had begun to use the wall space in the tomb chapel to convey messages to posterity: personal identification (name and titles), legal contracts with mortuary priests, scenes from the life of the deceased, and formal addresses to the living. The last, introduced by the heading "He [the tomb owner] says " and followed by direct speech, constituted a biographical statement, and throughout Egyptian history this statement became a major source not only for history but also for personal ethics and conduct in society. Very frequently the tomb owner used it as a vehicle to cajole or harangue the passerby into either making a formal offering or (more often) pronouncing the offering formula whereby the foodstuffs named were actualized for the deceased in the next life. The tomb owner sensed that his visitor might be reluctant to comply with his request, and so he presented arguments of convenience and self-interest; at times he all but threatened. The same type of text could be used as a means of warding off would-be violators of the tomb, usually by threatening them with a lawsuit at the court of the Great God in the Beyond.

Conversation of the living with the ancestors was also possible. This took the form of "letters to the dead," written on bowls, shards, or papyrus and placed in the offering chamber of the tomb, to be seen by the spirit when it emerged to partake of the food offerings. Frequently the letters incorporated complaints that the dead relative was interfering in the writer's life.


No myths have come down from ancient Egypt composed solely for the sake of the narrative itself (Schott, 1945). No practical need was felt to produce an editio princeps. But mythology was constantly used, so powerful were its archetypal protagonists and events felt to be as a basis for cult procedure, and mythology was drawn on as an inexhaustible source of prototypes and identifications in the realm of magic. Further, the cultic and magical act enjoyed a reciprocal influence on the myth, and the latter is found evolving and reproducing under the influence of a changing cult. This evolution, however, was not in the hands of the scribe. In the cult, indeed in everyday life, the spoken word predominated; and variant forms of myth are often found developing from like-sounding words or phrases. One senses a creative impulse here that derives from the common Egyptian belief that sound structure constitutes a powerful force throughout the elements of the created world.


There is no single text from the pharaonic period whose sole purpose is to set forth a creation myth; but allusions to creation motifs are legion in all types of religious literature. Four basic patterns manifest themselves, in all of which the act of creation is construed as the elimination of chaos and the ordering of preexistent elements: (1) the primeval ocean and the creator-god or creative element that appears within it; (2) the separation of earth from sky, both personified in a sexual union; (3) creation by means of a skilled craft (e.g., the ceramic expertise of Khnum, the plastic modeling of Ptah, or the weaving of Neith); (4) the conflict between hero-god and monster, out of whose carcass the world is created. Of the four the last is the least known, the motif in Egypt having been early carried over into a cosmic explanation of the continued integrity of creation. Thanks to its espousal by the dominant solar theology of Heliopolis, the first is by far the most common, but perhaps the most crass (expectoration, masturbation, and weeping being mechanisms involved).

A rather more sophisticated approach to the problem of creation was essayed at Hermopolis and Memphis. At the former site, the abstract qualities of the Primeval Ocean (Nun) are personified as four gods (with their consorts): Nothingness, Inertness, Limitlessness, and Darkness. At Memphis, Thought and Fiat are singled out as the essence of the divine, in this case the god Ptah, and are made the sole elements in the creation process. Wherever rationality and the capability of enunciating thought exist in the created world, there exists Ptah, sustaining and informing his creation. This doctrine is most clearly set forth in the Memphite Theology, a commentary on a dramatic text, appearing under Shabaka (712697 bce) as an inscription on stone but purporting to have been copied from a much older document (Sethe, 1928). Although the alleged antiquity of the text has been doubted, the same concepts it sets forth are clearly alluded to in New Kingdom religious literature. The claim, often made, that it does in fact date from the late third millennium bce may yet prove correct.

Myths of kingship and fertility

These center upon two great cycles of myths, the Horus-Seth conflict and the death of Osiris. The former describes the struggle of Order with Chaos, variously cast as an act of revenge, a fight over the right to rule, or simply a natural struggle. When linked with the Osiris myth, the fight is sharpened and humanized: It is not only a son's act of revenge upon his father's murderer, but also the son's assertion of his legal and political rights. When the king adopts the role of Horus and performs the obsequies for his deceased father, "Osiris," the whole myth takes on heightened significance as the mythological underpinning of the monarchy (Anthes, 1959).

From an early period the whole is inextricably intertwined with the myth of fertility, and Osiris and those gods with whom he is associated become hypostases of the principle of fertility. While it may well be a skewing of the evidence through the haphazard of preservation, texts pointing to Osiris and his congeners as associated with the Nile, the fertile soil, and the crops tend to become more numerous as the Late Period approaches.

Like cosmogonies, fertility myths are not in ancient Egypt accorded any special archetypal publication. There was no need for one. No canonical version existed, and constant use in the cult and in everyday life continued to produce changes in detail. Seldom is the myth of Osiris epitomized in the literature of the pharaonic period from beginning to end (cf. as exceptions the eighteenth-dynasty hymn to Osiris in Louvre stele c. 286 and the Plutarch version, the latter in Griffiths, 1970). But allusions of widely varying length to fertility myths are legion in all types of religious literature.

Myths about the destruction of humankind

Another well-defined group of myths centers upon a feline deity dispatched by the gods to punish humankind for disobedience. Identified as the sun's "eye" (i.e., the fierce heat of the sun disk, personified) or the goddess of plague, she ranges far over the earth effecting the gods' will; but soon she exhibits a mind of her own and refuses to follow the directives of the head of the pantheon. The plot turns on the means used by the gods to subdue her and bring her back into the divine fold (Hornung, 1981).

Mythological stories

Several pieces of writing exist that can be broadly characterized as elaborations on a mythological theme. Most date from the New Kingdom and are written in the Late Egyptian dialect (current as a literary medium from c. 1320 bce to nearly 1000 bce), but sporadic references suggest the presence of the genre already in the Middle Kingdom. These works center upon a known incident in a myth and rework it into a coherent narrative, often with dramatic overtones, lending a charming, human cast to the divine protagonists. Favorite foci around which interest gravitates are the topos of Isis and baby Horus hiding in the marshes of the Nile Delta, and the conflict/trial of Horus and Seth. Some, like the stories of Papyrus d'Orbiney, Papyrus Chester Beatty I, or the Amherst Papyrus, constitute independent works; others are found only in secondary contexts, where they are used as magic spells. Occasionally in the New Kingdom, themes of Canaanite mythology appear in Egyptian translation (Simpson, 1973; Lichtheim, 19731980).

Speculative Literature

The complete collapse of society and government in the obscure "revolution" that brought an end to the Old Kingdom (c. 2200 bce) shook the Egyptians' confidence in traditional beliefs and procedures. In the literature of the First Intermediate period that followed (c. 22002050 bce) a questioning tone may be sensed; Egypt, or at least a part of it, was engaged in a fundamental reappraisal of the nation's institutions and identity. While the continuum in the mortuary cult attested by the Coffin Texts shows the presence of a traditional "mainstream" in Egyptian thought, a surprisingly large number of pieces written during the period display a questing spirit prepared to break with the past and espouse heterodox views.

Dialogues and harpers' songs

An untraditional, indeed agnostic, view of humankind's prospects beyond the tomb was the contribution of a very special group of texts that must have had their birth in the First Intermediate period. In the genre of the dialogue, two proponents of differing (if not opposing) points of view engage each other in conversation, and the views expressed are startlingly heterodox. In one example, Osiris, typifying the soul on the point of entering the afterlife, gives vent to his fear of the unknown, in spite of centuries of confident mortuary practices; and Atum is obliged to offer him the assurance of eternal survival and union with the creator himself. Even more peculiar is the Dialogue of a Man with His Soul (a modern titlethe ancient has not survived). In the sole surviving manuscript of this work, which lacks the first few pages, an unnamed man contemplates the prospect of death and declares his determination to pursue the traditional course of preparing a tomb, the funeral service, and an endowment. His soul, however, whose acquiescence in all this is crucial to the man's hope of future existence, expresses profound doubts on the efficacy of the customary procedure, on the alleged happiness of life in the beyond, and even on man's ability to attain an afterlife (Williams, 1962).

The note of doubt sounded in these works gives over into the advocacy of a hedonistic approach to life in a well-represented genre known as "harpers' songs" (Williams, 1981, pp. 4f.). Derived from the innocuous banquet song whose sole purpose is entertainment at a social event, the harpers' songs originated in the troubled times of the twenty-second century bce as a vehicle for the expression of a profound disillusionment with traditional views of the afterlife. Recurring themes include the desuetude of tombs and mortuary installations, the impossibility of knowing what is beyond the grave, and the need to live life to the full here and now. Although most examples of the genre are today found on tomb walls in association with a scene of the harper before the deceased, there is good reason to believe that such songs enjoyed a primary Sitz im Leben among the living. The content of individual pieces tends to become cliché-ridden as time goes on, but the tone is always lively, with a tendency toward impiety. Harpers' songs remained popular for centuries, and their irreverent nature occasionally evoked a counterblast from the pious.

The pessimistic view of humanity's ability to forecast what will be met beyond the grave leads naturally, though illogically, to the proposition that the afterlife, in pointed contrast to what is expected by all, is in fact a realm of gloom and misery. A story of thirteenth-century date in which a pious priest encounters the spirit of one long departed who enlightens him on this score, sets forth this view, and a few mortuary stelae of later times elaborate on the same theme.


The Egyptians, like many ancient peoples, identified one sort of wisdom with the ability to foretell the future under divine inspiration. The verb meaning "to foretell, to announce in advance" did not, however, give rise to a genre term. More often than not it is the wise man himself whose name is the identifying element, and the text goes under the label of "The discourse (lit., the word) of so-and-so." Broadly speaking, such declamations are grouped by the ancients under the general rubric of "teachings."

The turbulent years of the First Intermediate period were the heyday of the prophetic discourse, although as a "literary" phenomenon it had a longer life. In the main it constituted a lament over the sorry condition of the land, gone to ruin politically and socially, and could be cast either as a backdated prediction or a contemporary description (Junge, 1977). With the coming to power of the twelfth dynasty (c. 19911778 bce) the prophecy was used as a powerful tool of propaganda to bolster the regime's claim to legitimacy; it might even be placed in the mouth of a god to support the pretensions of an individual ruler.

The discourses of the First Intermediate period frequently reveal themselves as vehicles of heterodox messages. Ipuwer, an otherwise unknown wise man of the past, rails in a lengthy tirade against none other than the creator god himself, and lays at his feet the blame for having allowed the land to go to ruin under unjust administrators. A peasant, wrongfully deprived of his possessions, goes to lodge an official complaint before the appropriate magistrate, and the result is a series of paeons adulating justice and decrying civil corruption. The theme of the petitioner in a lawsuit robbed of a just hearing turns up in several works of the period.

Magical Texts

The Egyptians conceived of magic (heka ) as a powerful element in the universe that, if controlled, could be employed to any end, even to the constraint of the gods themselves and the dislocation of the cosmos. So dominant was the preoccupation with this possibility that literature with magical intent constitutes the most common genre in the corpus of ancient Egyptian writings. Broadly speaking, magical texts can be divided into two subgroups on the basis of purpose, those concerned with the official cult and those for private use; but the Egyptians themselves never made this distinction. Incantations are introduced under several headings: "The protection against " (sau nu ), "The spell of " (ra n ), "The repelling of " (sehry ), "The book of " (medjat ), "The protection of " (meket ), "The protection book " (nehet ) (Redford, 1985, p. 104, n. 60). As in the case of mortuary literature, rubrics specifying use are sometimes included, but stories in which magicians appear as protagonists often reflect the procedures involved.

The purpose of magic spells varied. Most often they were designed to ward off external forces of evil, whether ethereal or concrete. Temple ritual invoked magic to ensure the integrity of the rites, the cult personnel, the paraphernalia, and the installation. So closely intertwined in the ritual was the magical incantation that frequently it is difficult to distinguish cultic prescriptions, prayers, and hymns from texts with purely magical intent. A perusal of the famous Edfu library catalogue, for example, will reveal the startling fact that much of what would pass as ritual is subsumed under magic! Private use was concerned with protection from disease, bodily harm, or demons who effect harm, and thus was closely associated with medicine. Very common were spells to ward off snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, and other noisome animals, or to neutralize the evil intent of people (often foreign), of the dead, or of the evil eye. Formal execration of foreign enemies, employing the ritual smashing of pots and figurines, was well known in the sphere of pharaonic statecraft. Productive, as opposed to prophylactic, magic is not well attested.

By his thorough training in magical lore, the magicianthe Egyptians used such a word (hekay ), but magic could be learned by anyone intelligent enoughcould confront the most powerful hostile force and triumph. Most often the speaker identified himself in a spell with a god, or invoked a mythological incident as precedent. Numerous myths are in fact known only because they were considered efficacious enough to be used as spells! Identification of celebrant or victim with a divine figure, or the extensive use of homophonous words ("pious puns"), was considered useful in ensuring the effectiveness of the spell (Borghouts, 1978).

Great compilations of magical texts were copied on papyrus and kept in temple libraries, but few of these have survived, and one is often thrown back on "unofficial" copies. Private scribal libraries have occasionally yielded magical papyri, but casual copies on ostraca are more numerous. Of special interest are the prophylactic statues of mortals or gods in various poses, covered with magical spells and provided with the means of collecting water poured over them. These usually were installed in sanatoriums attached to the temples (especially in the second half of the first millennium bce), where sufferers from various diseases came for healing. The magical stelae and cippi were intended for private protection, and often show representations of the child Horus and the creatures against whom protection is sought.

Wisdom Literature

The word that in Egyptian approaches closest to the concept conveyed by the Hebrew hokhmah ("wisdom") is sebayt ("teaching"), but this word is so loosely used that it can scarcely point to a formal genre. Any text with broad didactic purpose could be grouped under this heading. Thus it is found used of collections of maxims (most frequently), but also of texts of occupational guidance, model letters for students, political pamphlets, word lists, and so on. Anything, in fact, within the purview of the teacher-scribe that could be used for instruction fell broadly under this rubric.

It is, however, to aphoristic literature that the term is most often applied. A piece will begin with some such introduction as "Here begins the life-teaching, the attestations to well-being, all instructions of executive deportment and the regular procedure of courtiers" or "Here begins the instruction that educates the heart and witnesses to the ignorant." The inclusion of "testimonies" and "sayings of the way of life" generally denotes the incorporation of a collection of proverbs. The usual context of wisdom literature is the father-to-son chat, in which fatherly advice is given to the young on how to win friends and influence people and, generally, how to lead a successful life. Much of the worldly wisdom set forth suggests an origin in everyday life and a primary oral transmission. Nevertheless, from the earliest period canonical versions of many books of wisdom existed, in which wording and sequence of pericopes were of paramount importance; and the motif of a wise man's words being taken down in writing at the moment of delivery is a commonplace in Egyptian literature.

Collections of wise sayings originate in all periods of Egyptian history. Purporting to be the work of a vizier of the fifth dynasty (c. twenty-fifth century bce), the Wisdom of Ptahhotep is known in a complete text, while the wisdom writings under the names of Prince Hor-djedef and Vizier Kagemni, also known Old Kingdom figures, have survived in less satisfactory condition. From the First Intermediate period comes the Instruction for Merikare (c. 2075 bce), a fascinating treatise on statecraft written by a king of the tenth dynasty for his son and successor on the throne. The twelfth dynasty has bequeathed a wealth of wisdom literature, including the posthumous Instruction of Amenemhet, a political tract "written" from the grave and placed in the mouth of the assassinated founder of the house; a "loyalist" treatise supporting adherence to the pharaonic government; a "satire" of the trades, an early schoolboy text advocating the scribal calling; and several minor collections of maxims. The teachings of Ani and the thirty wise sayings of Amenemope come from the later New Kingdom; and the first millennium bce has preserved the Wisdom of Onkhsheshongy and Papyrus Insinger, both of which show traces of foreign influence.

Although very much akin in form and content to its biblical or Akkadian counterparts, Egyptian wisdom literature had only limited influence abroad. The Wisdom of Amenemope had long been considered (rightly) the basis of Proverbs 30, and Psalm 104 seems to be more than an echo of Akhenaton's "teaching," as represented in his hymn to the sun disk (fourteenth century bce). But biblical, Mesopotamian, and Greek folklore with a "wisdom" element owe more to local themes and sources than to Egypt (Williams, 1972, 1981).

Temple Libraries

While the "House of the God's Book" was originally, in the Old Kingdom, a secular registry office for royal rescripts, by the Middle Kingdom the term god was being construed as a reference not to the king but to a member of the pantheon, and the expression was coming to mean "temple library" (Schott, 1972, 1977). Occasionally alternating with such terms as chamber, office, or hall of writings (the last a repository of more secular documents), this department of temple administration was overseen by librarians ("keepers of the writings"), and was open to lector-priests, scribes of the god's book, and temple scribes in general. Scrolls were copied out in an adjacent scriptorium and then deposited in the library in wooden chests, less frequently in jars. Associated with the sacred library but outside the temple proper was the "House of Life," an institution open only to the highest grade of skilled scribes and to the king. Here were copied and composed the most holy rituals, hymns, commentaries, and magical texts, and here also the most esoteric rites were performed in secret.

As an archive constantly referred to in all aspects of temple life and procedure, the temple library was treated by the Egyptians as their most precious textual resource. Thoth, the inventor and master of the hieroglyphs, was the library's patron, and Seshat, the goddess of books, presided over its contents. The scribes were proud of their ability to compose, copy, and edit texts, and were strictly enjoined not to let their "fingers tamper with the god's words." One senses a continuum in the life of temple archives over many centuries in the three and a half millennia of Egyptian history. Users could ferret out scrolls of high antiquity and marvel at the difficult syntax and archaic vocabulary. The most skilled scribes boasted of their ability to restore what was lost in lacunae in moth-eaten originals. Although many such references are cliché-ridden, there is every reason to believe that a priestly scribe such as Manetho, living in the third century bce, had access to written sources ranging back through three millennia. In the present time, although no temple library has survived intact, the contents of a typical collection are easy to reconstruct from the copious references in inscriptions and from a few papyrus caches (Reymond, 1977; Redford, 1985).

Ritual texts

Several terms designate this broad genre. The oldest, which is attested already at the dawn of Egyptian history, is hebet ("ritual book"), the special preserve of the chery-hebet (lector-priest; lit., "he who carries the ritual book"). This was a sort of breviary or missal, giving the order of service and the texts that were to be read. Occasionally the book was identified with a particular cult, as "the hebet of the temple of Ptah." Slightly later terms, used of documents as well as in the abstract, were net-ʿ ("customary procedure, ritual"; also pressed into service to render the Akkadian word for "treaty") and iru ("cultic forms/acts"). Sometimes "book of " is substituted for net-ʿ. During the Middle Kingdom a compendious order of service was referred to as "the complete [guide]," and the requirements of the ritual and, curiously, the spells to be recited were contained in the "god's offeringbook." Among the few ritual papyri that have survived, one may cite a funerary ritual and a rite of succession from the Middle Kingdom, a daily offering liturgy from the New Kingdom, and rituals for various gods' festivals from the Late period. It is important to note that, whatever mnemonic devices a priest may have employed, a ritual was always performed "in accordance with that which is in writing."


The category of "beatifications" (sakhu, from a causative root meaning "to turn someone into a glorified spirit") encompasses texts intended to "actualize" the future glorified state of the deceased in the beyond. The term is often used in captions to a scene depicting the lector-priest reading from a scroll on the day of burial. Oblique references make plain the esoteric nature of the material in their allusion to "that secret writing of the lector-priest's craft," by which beatifications are undoubtedly meant. In all probability this is the rubric under which the ancients classified such collections of mortuary spells as the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, and there can be little doubt that they were intended to be read aloud.


In Egyptian the hymn goes under several designations. Most common is duau ("adoration"); less frequent, senemehu or sensu ("supplication"). Often inscribed on stelae, this adoration of the deity is sometimes explicit in its purpose, "propitiating the spirit" of the gods or goddesses addressed. Hymns are often characterized by the recurrent refrain "Hail to thee!" followed by a direct invocation of the deity, replete with epithets. Less often the key words are "Praise to thee!" The genre includes such formal hymns as cultic supplications to individual gods, litanies, and even royal apologias; but it also encompasses the popular, private hymns to the sun god at dawn and sunset, and even the inscribed "testimonies" of the semiliterate class of workers, witnessing to healing and forgiveness. By extension duau may also be applied to the "adorations" of Hathor, goddess of love (i.e. to love poetry). The term can refer as well to the outburst of praise, spontaneous or formal, of the king by the people.

Several longer hymns, intended for temple service, were nonetheless didactic in nature. Such were the hymns to Re-Harakhty, Amun-Re, the sun disk, and Ptah, which are known from New Kingdom exemplars. These display a sophisticated universalism, and preach (in the case of the hymn to Ptah) the same syncretistic deism as is found in the Memphite Theology. The monotheism of the hymn to the sun disk is well known.

Most examples imply or state directly that the hymns are to be intoned, either by private individuals as pious acts of devotion, or in a temple context by a priest or a choir. In temple ritual the papyrus containing the order of service will often give only the incipit of a hymn; the choristers and the celebrant undoubtedly knew it by heart.

Mythological compendiums

The Egyptians loved to compile catalogs of the salient features of the cult(s) and of the gods and their mythology for a particular nome or group of nomes. Known especially from the first millennium bce, the genre undoubtedly has an earlier history, which is today, unfortunately, not directly attested. Late hieroglyphic texts refer to the scroll of the Directory of Mounds of the Early Primaeval Ones and the Reckoning of Every Cult Seat and the Knowing of What Is in Them. Elsewhere one hears of the Great Plan of the Two Lands, which contained information on Egypt and its arable land.

Chronicles and narratives

Chronicles cannot be identified as a native Egyptian genre, the form being derived from Babylonia some time in the first millennium bce. From the early Ptolemaic period (third century bce) comes the so-called Demotic Chronicle, in actuality a tendentious interpretation of selected events in the recent past that in form and inspiration shows strong influence from Asia. Narratives are more common. The papyrus fragments from the library of the temple of Sobek in the Fayum (the lakeland immediately west of the Nile, about fifty miles south of present-day Cairo) contained a number of quasi-legendary romances, including stories of the magician Setna, the Romance of King Petubastis, the story of King Djoser and his Assyrian campaign, the Amazon romance, and the Prophecy of the Lamb. Similar material has been unearthed in temple libraries at Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis (Redford, 1985, chap. 8).

King-lists and offering-lists

It is most probable that temple libraries possessed historical source material in the form of king-lists and offering-lists. The offering cult of the royal ancestors had been maintained in the chief temples in the land from the earliest dynasties, and had involved an "offering invocation" in which the spirits of the deceased kings and queens were called by name to the offering table. From the twelfth dynasty at latest there had existed a formal king-list, tracing the occupancy of the pharaonic seat from the creator Ptah through an unbroken line of divine and human incumbents. Such a king-list was known to and used by Manetho, the priest-scribe who wrote a history of Egypt in Greek (third century bce), and the relative accuracy of his Aegyptiaca attests to its uninterrupted and sober transmission (Waddell, 1940; Redford, 1985).

Annals of the gods

Closely allied to the compendiums mentioned above is a type of document purporting to give an account of divine acts. Derived from an old word for "annals" used originally of the yearly records of the king, the "annals of the gods" first appeared in texts of the New Kingdom and, although examples are lacking, they probably contained cosmogonic and mythological material. These "mighty acts of the gods," which of course reflect the historicization of the world of the gods, were the special preserve of the House of Life. Examples are rare in the New Kingdom. The Book of the Cow of Heaven, though used as a set of magic spells in the extant versions, contains an etiological account of the reign of Re (Hornung, 1981). Both Ramses II (c. 13041237 bce) and Ramses IV (c. 11671161 bce) refer to certain books in the House of Life that contain cosmogonic material from the reigns of the gods. Late versions of well-known myths that might qualify for inclusion in this genre are the reigns of Shu and Geb from the Wady el-Arish naos, the myth of Horus of Edfu, and the Expulsion of Seth. In using these well-known pieces, however, it is well to remember that they were recast in a period of history (fourth century bce) when xenophobia and paranoia because of foreign conquest lent a tendentious tone to theme and content.

Directories and prescriptions

Prescriptive manuals abounded, especially in the late period. One of the earliest was the Great Inventory, the standard compilation of directions for the manufacture of cult images and paraphernalia, the decoration of shrines, and so on. Manuals on the construction and decoration of temples were often ascribed to Imhotep, the almost-legendary savant of the reign of Djoser (twenty-seventh century bce). Under the same heading are directories of purification, manuals of offering, and festival calendars.

Omen texts and related genres

Omina are not common in the Egyptian religious corpus because they are confined to the Late period, when contact with Mesopotamia was more frequent. Hemerologies and oneiromancies, on the other hand, enjoyed native popularity and development at an early stage of Egyptian history. The former were apparently called "That Which Is in the Year," though known exemplars assign a variety of specific titles. What is important is that the explanation of why a particular day was considered propitious or inimical was always assigned a mythological context (Brunner-Traut, 1981), and in the process a myth was often adumbrated. Egyptians, like most ancient peoples, took dreams seriously, and this is reflected in the literature.

Oracle texts

The belief that a god made his will known through oracular utterances can be traced back to a relatively early period in Egypt's history, but the practice of employing oracles as an administrative and juridical mechanism dates from the nineteenth dynasty (thirteenth century bce). Whether in the seclusion of the shrine or at the public procession of the god in his sacred bark, eliciting the god's response to solve a problem became so common that a special scribal office was called into being, that of "the scribe of oracles," to keep the records. Examples of the questions put to the god (demanding affirmative or negative responses) are extant, as are the beautiful papyrus records of the petitioner's appeal and the results. Often, especially from the twentieth to the twenty-second dynasties (c. 1200730 bce), a hieroglyphic record of the oracle, including a vignette showing the petitioner(s) and the divine bark, might be set up in a prominent place in the temple to serve as a legal record.

Medical texts

The writing of medical prescriptions and procedures and of the pharmacopoeia was one of the earliest acts of scribal activity in ancient Egypt. Later traditions are unanimous in ascribing certain medical books to the kings and wise men of the Old Kingdom, and in some cases the archaic syntax and vocabulary of surviving papyri bear this out. Written and edited by the sacred scribes associated with the House of Life, the papyri that have survived are collections of cases and recipes more or less united in common areas of interest or practice. Thus there are papyri on gynecology (P. Kahun), obstetrics and pediatrics (P. Ramesseum and P. Carlsberg), surgery (P. Edwin Smith), and veterinary medicine (P. Kahun); in some of the longest papyri (P. Ebers and the Berlin and London papyri) there is a miscellany of prescriptions and recipes. References to works now lost show specialization in diseases of the heart, eye, and abdomen, in anatomy and hygiene. While many magical incantations are found throughout these papyri in greater or smaller concentrations, there is everywhere in evidence an insight into pathology and pharmacology that is based on objective diagnosis and scientific deduction.

Administrative texts

In ancient Egypt the temple was not only the "god's mansion" where he resided and was ministered to by his servants, the priests, but also the hub of a large landowning institution comprising a number of disparate organs of production. Tenant farmers, herdsmen, artisans, and merchants all worked for their master, the god, and the revenue they raised provided a sizable income for the temple estate. The business documents that recorded this commercial aspect of temple life formed a major segment of any temple's archives. One of the oldest caches of papyri extant today, the Abusir Papyri, reflects the contents of such an archive from the pyramid-temple of Neferirkare I of the fifth dynasty, spanning a period of approximately fifty years several generations after the death of the king (c. 23702320 bce). Here are found inventories of temple furniture, daily records of income, monthly accounts of food distribution and expenditures, and duty tables. In the Middle Kingdom, temple daybooks put in an appearance. These record income and disbursements, letters received in the temple office, celestial observations, work assignments, lists of personnel, records of cultic celebrations, and so on, all organized simply by calendrical notation. Throughout most periods, temple libraries contained inventories of land, personnel, and goods receivable; priestly correspondence; and account texts. Taxation documents, specifying quotas levied on sharecroppers and herdsmen on the temple estates or placed under obligation by the crown, were also to be found in the library. Moreover, during imperial times lists of booty from foreign wars were delivered to the temples and deposited in papyrus form in the archives there. Any records of special importance to the temple community, such as royal decrees, inductions and promotions of priests, and lists of royal and private bequests, were often culled from their primary locus in daybooks and the like, and inscribed in more permanent form on stelae, walls, and architraves for ease of reference (Redford, 1985; Reymond, 1977).

In addition to the above textual classifications, many of the genres already discussed, such as wisdom literature and magical texts, were also represented in temple libraries. There is every reason to believe that information on such subjects as geography, mineralogy, and biology was to be found there as well, but it is difficult to say whether any ancient categories corresponded to these modern terms of disciplinary research.

Temple Inscriptions

The wall space provided by temple construction in ancient Egypt was used as a medium for didactic, reference, and propaganda purposes. Because the source for almost all of this textual and iconographic decoration was the temple library, temples that have survived provide a most precious record of genres whose originals have perished.

For the Old Kingdom the material is limited to a handful of royal mortuary establishments (pyramid-temples). Here the range of inscriptions is wider and more varied than was later to be the case. Decorated walls display scenes and texts recounting battles, the gathering of booty, the transportation of captives, construction, and famine, as well as singing, dancing, and royal processions. The celebration of festivals (especially the jubilee) is also present in the subject matter, but purely cultic commemoration is not as common as might be thought. The listing of townships and estates as part of the record of endowment of the temple takes the form of servant personifications, arranged in rows along the bases of walls.

While little remains from the Middle Kingdomthe eleventh-dynasty temples show mutatis mutandis a continuation of Old Kingdom themes, while the twelfth has left virtually nothingthe New Kingdom and later periods have bequeathed a wealth of inscriptional and iconographic evidence. As a rule, a New Kingdom "processional" (axial) temple will display on its wall surfaces texts appropriate to the status of those allowed to view them. Thus, those parts of the temple on view to the laityexternal walls, pylon, and first courtare often decorated with vaguely "propagandistic" intent, and the repertoire tends toward stereotype. Here are scenes and texts of foreign wars, standard head-smiting scenes, lists of conquered places, and the welcoming of the king by the god (which continues as a major motif throughout the temple).

Most often, walls of inner courts and hypostyle hall are adorned with sequences of vignettes and accompanying texts showing the daily liturgy of waking, adorning, and offering to the god, with the king as celebrant, taken from the ritual books of the temple. Specific festivals, such as those of the jubilee, coronation, the gods Sokar and Min, the Opet feast, the foundation of the temple, and so on, are often elaborately depicted with large excerpts of accompanying texts. Processions of princes and princesses, personifications of townships, towns, and the Nile are used as decorative dadoes, or as scenes in their own right. Rooms for storage and the preparation of cult requirements are decorated with offering scenes of a "neutral" nature, which makes it difficult to ascertain the precise use of some rooms. Certain temples have preserved the records of rituals or beliefs peculiar to their localities. One may mention in this regard the Osirian rites recorded in the Sety I temple at Abydos, the Horian myths at Edfu, the ritual adapted for royal use in the Theban mortuary temples, and the jubilee rites at Soleb, Karnak, and Bubastis.

The temple courts and the immediate surroundings of the structure were deemed suitable for the display of texts set up for a variety of purposes. Prominence of place was given to royal inscriptions, either on freestanding stelae or on temple walls. These are records of royal acts or regulatory decrees affecting the temple (frequently the product of a king's speech delivered at a "royal sitting"), and often involve building inscriptions and offering endowments. The contents of such inscriptions, though rhetorically embellished for popular consumption, are usually derived from such official records as the "daybook of the king's house."

Another type of stele, set up before or just inside the temple, was inscribed with a royal encomium. Clearly associated with occasions of oral delivery, such adulations took the form either of stereotyped praise of the king in prose for his "mighty acts" or deeds, or, more often (especially in the later New Kingdom), a formal "song" to be sung to harp accompaniment, each strophe ending with the names of the king. Private individuals of high rank were allowed to set up, in an ambulatory within the temple, statues of themselves with lengthy inscriptions. Such statue inscriptions, while most often cast in the form of an address to the passerby, inevitably incorporate biographical and genealogical information of the highest importance. Citizens of low rank might, certainly in smaller temples, hope to be able to set up hymns, prayers, and testimonials to the gods on stelae where the god might see them and honor their requests.

The best-preserved temples in Egypt date from the fourth century bce to the first century ce, and ultimately reflect the risorgimento of the cult during the Saite Period (664525 bce). In the main they follow the New Kingdom tradition, but with some modifications:

  1. Offering vignettes showing king or god before the divine owner of the temple or his guests, and derived from the daily offering liturgy, are now repeated on the walls, both interior and exterior, ad nauseam.
  2. The mystic birth of the god-child, offspring of the goddess of the temple, is given great prominence in text and iconography.
  3. The stone naos wherein the cult image resides has become a major focus of the rites, and its sides are covered with a representative list of all the divine denizens of the temple.
  4. One senses a tendency to inscribe large excerpts from ritual books, mythological compendiums, and hymns on the walls, wherever space is available, conveying a false sense of horor vacui.

These later temples contain a wealth of (local) mythological material, but the degree to which they reflect genuinely ancient beliefs and practices is unclear.


Allen, Thomas George, ed. The Book of the Dead. Chicago, 1974. The most authoritative translation of the Book of Going Forth by Day in English, by a scholar who devoted his life to its study.

Anthes, Rudolf. "Egyptian Theology in the Third Millennium b.c." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 18 (July 1959): 169212. The most detailed and incisive treatment of basic mythological concepts in ancient Egypt, using mainly the evidence of the Pyramid Texts.

Barta, Winfried. Die altägyptische Opferliste von der Frühzeit bis zur griechisch-römischer Epoche. Berlin, 1963. The standard treatment of the most common type of funerary text in ancient Egyptian tombs.

Barta, Winfried. Die Bedeutung der Pyramidentexte für den verstorbenen König. Munich, 1981. An excellent summary, with useful indexes and tables, of the major theories on the origins and purpose of the Pyramid Texts.

Borghouts, J. F., trans. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. A well-written and well-translated compendium of representative incantations, with a brief but useful com-mentary.

Brunner-Traut, Emma. Gelebte Mythen. Darmstadt, 1981. A collection of five articles on specific aspects of Egyptian mythology, with a pithy introduction, useful for the student.

Faulkner, Raymond, trans. and ed. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford, 1969. The most up-to-date translation into English of this early corpus of texts.

Faulkner, Raymond, trans. and ed. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster, 19731978. The bestand the onlycomprehensive translation of the Coffin Texts available.

Griffiths, J. Gwyn, trans. Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff, 1970. There is no more authoritative treatment of the Osirian cycle of deities and their mythology in any language than this work. It is the best translation and commentary on Plutarch's De Iside available today.

Hornung, Erik. "Jenseitsführer." In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, compiled by Hans Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto, vol. 3. Wiesbaden, 1980. The most recent introduction to New Kingdom literature relating to the underworld.

Hornung, Erik. Das Buch des Himmelskuh. Göttingen, 1981. A new publication and commentary of a long-known "underworld" book, containing the story of the destruction of humankind.

Junge, Friedrich. "Die Welt der Klagen." In Fragen an die alt-ägyptische Literatur, edited by Jan Assmann et al., pp. 275285. Wiesbaden, 1977. A study of those Middle Kingdom compositions that describe the anarchy ensuing upon the collapse of society.

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. 3 vols. Berkeley, Calif., 19731980. A selection of representative texts from various genres. The translations are first-rate, and the commentary brief but very useful for the novice.

Redford, Donald B. King-lists, Annals and Daybooks. Toronto, 1985. A contribution to the historiography of ancient Egypt. Manetho is treated in some detail.

Reymond, Eve A. E., trans. From Ancient Egyptian Hermetic Writings. Vienna, 1977. Fragmentary ritual and prescriptive texts on temple buildings and cult procedure from a temple library of the Roman period. The translation is not always as reliable as one would like.

Schott, E. "Bücher und Bibliotheken im alten Ägypten." Göttinger Miszellen 1 (1972): 2427 and 25 (1977): 7375. A brief statement of work done on the study of ancient Egyptian books and libraries, an area of research in which the author's late husband excelled.

Schott, Siegfried. Mythe und Mythenbildung im alten Ägypten. Leipzig, 1945. A fundamental investigation of the myth-making process in ancient Egypt.

Sethe, Kurt H., ed. and trans. Dramatische Texte zu altägyptischen Mysterienspielen. Leipzig, 1928. A fundamental work on Egyptian religion, incorporating two studies: (1) a translation and interpretation of the Memphite Theology; (2) the text of a ritual papyrus of Middle Kingdom date in the British Museum.

Simpson, William K., ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, Conn., 1973. A set of translations, by leading Egyptologists, of selected stories, wisdom texts, and poetry.

Waddell, W. G. Manetho. London, 1940. The only accessible translation of the history of Egypt by Manetho (third century bce). The commentary is slim and occasionally inaccurate.

Williams, R. J. "Reflections on the Lebensmüde." Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 48 (1962): 4956. Possibly the most judicious assessment of the enigmatic dialogue that goes under the title The Man Who Was Tired of Life.

Williams, R. J. "Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt." Journal of the American Oriental Society 92 (AprilJune 1972): 214221.

Williams, R. J. "The Sages of Ancient Egypt in the Light of Recent Scholarship." Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (JanuaryMarch 1981): 119. An excellent summing-up of present work in the sphere of Egyptian wisdom literature, with complete bibliography.

Donald B. Redford (1987)