Perhaps the most misleading term used to designate a corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary literature is the Coffin Texts. The term applies first to religious spells or chapters inked or scratched onto the insides of more than two hundred Middle Kingdom coffins from various sites. The edition of these spells published as The Egyptian Coffin Texts (1935–1961) includes only some of those texts: it excludes those that had been found in Old Kingdom pyramids, and previously edited as Pyramid Texts by Kurt Sethe (1908–1922), and those that were simply lists of offerings. Related texts that are included in the corpus of Coffin Texts are found on papyri, in tombs, and on mummy masks, canopic chests, biers, statues, and stelae. The group is unified by two features: first, by its position temporally between the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts and the New Kingdom Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead); and second, by the fact that these texts were generally the earliest known to have been used for nonroyal men and women, usually high officials and their wives. The Coffin Texts come from sites throughout Egypt, including Kom el-Hisn, Saqqara, Dashur, el-Lisht, Herakleopolis, Beni Hasan, Bersheh, Qau, Meir, Akhmim, Siut, Abydos, Dendera, Thebes, Gebelein, and Aswan.

The manuscripts with Coffin Texts vary a great deal in their selection of texts and the quantity used. Sometimes very abbreviated versions of spells were deemed sufficient to stand in for the whole. In a few cases, more or less complete versions of small separate books were included; occasionally, different versions of the same book are found on the same document or on an accompanying document—for example, inner and outer coffins can contain variants of the same group. Some of these books are generally associated with a particular site, such as the Book of Two Ways, which is found essentially complete on most of the coffins from Bersheh, with only a small portion of its spells found elsewhere.

The Book of Two Ways is especially interesting because its two basic variants are centered on Osiris in one case and on Re in the other. Which was the earlier makes a real difference, and attempts have been made to show priority based on the contents, the variants, the coffins' owners, and the different styles of the coffins. The dates of the coffins, however, are still uncertain, and even if they could be clearly arranged chronologically, the sources from which their texts were drawn are still totally lacking. Moreover, some individuals in the Middle Kingdom obviously had both variants copied on their coffins in any case. If the contents and variants are the principal criteria used, it still seems that, based on apparent additions to the text—some of which amount to duplication—the Re version should have been the later development. This also fits in remarkably well with what has been termed the “democratization of the hereafter,” which apparently accompanied the social changes around the First Intermediate Period. The nonroyal elite seem first to have been able to join, or become, Osiris, which should have been a royal prerogative originally; the next step was to join and even become Re, which had been the more recent royal goal.

A second significant group of texts within the Coffin Texts involves the Field of Hetep, which is often described as a paradise or Elysian Fields because of its verdant fields, lush orchards, and ample water supply. It is clear that some of the Coffin Text references emphasize that this is a place to work at producing what would become “offerings” for Osiris (a play on the word htp, which also means “peace” or “rest” and is often personified as a god). Merely “living and rotting” beside Osiris must surely have been presented as a less desirable goal than sailing in the sun's bark.

These and most other groups of spells involve knowledge that the deceased should have about the afterlife. Very little in them would have been considered useful for a living person. Obviously, the geography of the day and night skies and the demons to be encountered at various locations had to be identified to be passed safely, and the deceased would also have to learn all the ship's parts to be a successful sailor on the solar bark.

Coffin Texts include hymns, prayers, descriptions of the afterlife, ascension texts, transformations, serpent spells, and offering lists—generally the same types of material found in the Pyramid Texts and the Book of Going Forth by Day. In fact, the Middle Kingdom coffins contain many spells that are close variants of those found in both these earlier and later collections, which interestingly have almost nothing else in common with each other. The descriptions revolve principally around three deities: the sun god, Re, whom the deceased joins or must guide in his daily circuit; the god of the dead, Osiris, with whom the deceased identifies himself, or herself and who died and rose from the dead to thrive in the west in a tomb equivalent to a mansion of eternity, living on abundant offerings; and the goddess Nut, who as mother of Osiris represents both the sky through which Re passes at night and the tomb—or, more specifically, the coffin/womb—from which Osiris is reborn.

There are a great many other mythological allusions in the Coffin Texts, as well as explanations that are at times both contradictory and syncretistic. The Coffin Texts, like the Pyramid Texts, illustrate how little dogma there was in Egyptian religion generally. Differing explanations occur, often side by side, sometimes made to fit together somewhat logically but more often presented as alternative possibilities.

Unlike the Pyramid Texts, which are generally confined to fewer than a dozen manuscripts and half as many variants, there are now more than 250 manuscripts of Coffin Texts, and often dozens of variants. While the number of variants is quite useful for establishing correct readings, the fact that so few of the documents can be dated precisely has made attempts at producing stemmata questionable. The need for some clear ordering is easy to see, but dating by stylistic features is also rather subjective. It seems that in one group or the other within the Coffin Texts an order can be established, but in another group the order might appear different. This is undoubtedly the result of our not having any of the original sources on papyri for any of these texts. The large number of spells (1,185) as well as the diffusion of these texts to the coffins of nomarchs, generals, scribes, and some important wives throughout Upper Egypt, are perhaps the most compelling features of this intermediate corpus of funerary literature.



  • Buck, Adriaan de. The Egyptian Coffin Texts. 8 vols. Oriental Institute Publications, 34, 49, 64, 67, 73, 81, and 87. Chicago, 1935–1961. The standard edition of the transcribed texts.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster, 1973–1978. Translation of the de Buck edition.
  • Lesko, Leonard H. The Ancient Egyptian Book of Two Ways. Near Eastern Studies, 17. Berkeley, 1972.
  • Lesko, Leonard H. Index of the Spells on Egyptian Middle Kingdom Coffins and Related Documents. Berkeley, 1979. Arrangement of the spells on the individual documents, including parallels to the Pyramid Texts.
  • Willems, Harco, ed. The World of the Coffin Texts: Proceedings of the Symposium Held on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Adriaan de Buck. Egyptologische Uitgaven, 9. Leiden, 1996.

Leonard H. Lesko