Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
The Pyramid Texts are the oldest religious texts in the world (some scholars cite the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh as the oldest, though it is debatable whether the Epic of Gilgamesh is a religious text). They comprise the texts which were inscribed on the sarcophogi and walls of the pyramids at Saqqara in the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom (2465-2150 BCE). The texts were reserved for the soul of the deceased pharaoh by his scribes and priests and were a series of spells and incantations designed to free the soul of the pharaoh from the body and help it ascend toward the heavens. The inscriptions also relate myths and religious practices regarding the after-life and the journey of the "ka" (the soul). The pyramid texts provide the first written reference to the great god Osiris, king of the dead, and the concept of the judgement of the soul.
The so-called "utterances" are inscriptions meant to be spoken out loud (hence their designation) and, by the way in which they are written, most likely chanted. In the "utterance" which details the deceased pharaoh's journey into the sky, for example, verbs like "flieth", "rusheth", "kissed" and "leapt" are written to be emphasized: "He that flieth, flieth! He flieth away from you, ye men. He is no longer in the earth. He is in the sky. He rusheth at the sky as a heron. He hath kissed the sky as a hawk. He hath leapt skyward as a grasshopper" (Nardo, 113). Each "utterance" corresponds to a chapter in a book; a book to be read aloud to the soul of the deceased.
The priests of the Old Kingdom are credited with the creation of these works and inter-textual evidence strongly suggests that they did so in order to provide the pharaoh's soul with detailed knowledge of the after-life and how to arrive there safely. Some "utterances", which call upon the gods to help and guide, also comfort the soul and assure it that this passage from the body is natural and not to be feared. Other "utterances" seem to assure those living (and chanting the words) that the soul has arrived safely: "He hath gone up into the sky and hath found Ra, who standeth up when he draweth nigh unto him. He sitteth down beside him, for Ra suffereth him not to seat himself on the ground, knowing that he is greater than Ra. He hath taken his stand with Ra" (Nardo, 115).
The soul, it seems, could fly or run or walk or even row to the Field of Reeds in a ship as this passage indicates: "A ramp to the sky is built for him that he may go up to the sky thereon. He goeth up upon the smoke of the great exhalation. He flieth as a bird and he settleth as a beetle on an empty seat on the ship of Ra… He roweth in the sky in thy ship, O Ra! And he cometh to the land in thy ship, O Ra!" The soul's flight, of course, could only take place after the deceased had passed through the judgement of Osiris in the Hall of Truth and had the heart weighed in the golden balances against the white feather of Truth (the feather of Ma'at, goddess of harmony and balance). While the Pyramid Texts are the first to mention the Judgement of Osiris, the concept would be fully developed in writing later in the Book of Coming Forth By Day, also known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
The ship of Ra was closely associated with the sun and the texts indicate that the soul, having passed through the judgement, would travel with the ship of Ra through the dark underworld but, always, would rise toward the zenith of heaven with the morning and proceed on to the Field of Reeds where one would enjoy eternal life in a land very like that which the spirit knew on earth, ever in the benevolent presence of the great god Ra.