a collection of funerary rituals and spells first inscribed on the sarcophagi and subterranean walls of nine Old Kingdom pyramids: those of Unas, last pharaoh of the fifth dynasty; his sixth dynasty successors Teti, Pepy I, Merenre Antyemsaf, and Pepy II; three queens of Pepy II (Neith, Iput, and Wedjebteni); and the eighth dynasty pharaoh Ibi.

The pyramid of Unas, which preserves the most complete Old Kingdom corpus, contains 236 spells (sometimes called “Utterances”), varying in length from a few words to several pages in translation. The pyramids of Unas's successors have yielded another 750 spells, bringing the total to nearly one thousand. The exact number of spells in the Pyramid Texts cannot be determined, since most of the subterranean walls in the pyramids of Unas's successors have been damaged, with large portions lost.

Copies of the Pyramid Texts were also inscribed on the sarcophagi, coffins, and tomb walls of nonroyal burials from the First Intermediate Period onward. The most important of these later sources is the twelfth dynasty tomb of Senwosret at el-Lisht, which contains a nearly complete copy of the collection of Unas, with some additions. Copies of Pyramid Texts that were made later than the Old Kingdom generally reproduce the texts of Unas, although a number of spells from the later Old Kingdom pyramids were also used, primarily in Middle Kingdom sources.

In the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts were re-edited and expanded with additional spells, known as Coffin Texts. Both Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts are often interspersed in later sources, indicating that they were considered a single genre. Although many Coffin Texts can be identified as newer creations, on the basis of content and differences in language, others are composed with the same grammar as that of the Pyramid Texts and may actually have been a part of the original corpus. At least six spells that were initially identified by scholars as Coffin Texts have since been found among the fragmentary texts of Tety and his successors, whereas others are essentially the same as older Pyramid Texts.

Despite their large number, the spells of the Pyramid Texts may be grouped into a few distinct assemblages, on the basis of their content and location within the pyramids. The tombs of Unas and his sixth dynasty successors each have the same basic interior arrangement; these consist of a sarcophagus chamber, an antechamber to its east, and a corridor leading from the northern wall of the antechamber to the pyramid's northern face. The Pyramid Texts occupy the walls of those rooms in a specific arrangement that reflects their function and that of the rooms themselves.

Pyramid Texts

Pyramid Texts. Portion of the Pyramid Texts from the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, fifth dynasty. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

The northern wall of the sarcophagus chamber is devoted to the Offering Ritual, designed to provide the deceased with the means of daily life; it consists mostly of short spells of one or two sentences each, spoken to the deceased as the offerings were presented. The spells in the southern half of the sarcophagus chamber are fewer and longer. Addressed to the deceased and the gods, they form the text of the Resurrection Ritual, designed to arouse the king's spirit from the sarcophagus and send it to new life among the gods. It begins with the words “You have not gone away dead: you have gone away alive”; it concludes with the assurance that “your name will live on among people even as your name comes to be with the gods.”

In the pyramid of Unas these two rituals occupy nearly the entire wall space of the sarcophagus chamber, with the exception of the western gable above the sarcophagus. That gable wall is devoted to a third set of spells, meant to protect the sarcophagus and its contents from the danger of snakes and other harmful beings. In later pyramids, the wall to the west of the sarcophagus contains spells addressed to the sky goddess Nut.

The walls of the antechamber and corridor are inscribed with a fourth set of spells, designed to aid the deceased's passage from the night of the tomb to the day of new life outside the pyramid. Originally written in the first person, these were meant to be recited by the spirit itself during its nightly journey and were “personalized” for each tomb, by substituting the name of the deceased for the first person.

In their content and arrangement, the Pyramid Texts reflect a vision of the afterlife modeled on the nightly journey of the sun through the Duat (the netherworld) on its way to rebirth at dawn. As the sun received the power of new life by joining with the body of Osiris in the depths of the Duat, the deceased's spirit gained the same power by uniting each night with its Osiris, the deceased's mummy, in its Duat, the sarcophagus chamber. This “solar” concept of daily resurrection constituted the primary vision of the afterlife for most of Egyptian history. The Pyramid Texts, however, also contain evidence of an earlier “stellar” concept, in which the deceased's spirit became one of the “imperishable stars” in the northern sky. Perhaps, for that reason, the corridor leading from the tomb emerges in the pyramid's northern face, rather than on the eastern (the direction of sunrise).

From grammatical evidence, the composition of most Pyramid Texts can be dated to no later than the mid-fifth dynasty. The specific subterranean architecture associated with the Pyramid Texts is first attested in the late fourth dynasty tomb of the pharaoh Shepseskaf, although it is prefigured in that of his predecessor, Menkaure; this association suggests a date of composition that is no earlier than Menkaure's reign, although some of the Pyramid Texts' “stellar” passages may well be older.

The spread of Pyramid Texts to nonroyal burials after the Old Kingdom has long been viewed by Egyptologists as a “democratization of the hereafter.” Nonroyal tombs of the Old Kingdom, however, depict funeral rites analogous to those of the Pyramid Texts; they also contain lists of offerings identical in content and order to those of the Pyramid Texts' Offering Ritual—both of which suggest that Pyramid Texts were already recited during nonroyal burials of the Old Kingdom.


  • Allen, James P. “Reading a Pyramid.” In Hommages à Jean Leclant, edited by Catherine A. Berger et al., vol. 1: Études pharaoniques, pp. 5–28. Bibliothèque d'étude, 106. Cairo, 1994. A study of the sequence and meaning of the Pyramid Texts of Unas and Senwosretankh and their relationship to tomb architecture.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford, 1969. Complete translation. A companion volume by the same author, Supplement of Hieroglyphic Texts, (Oxford, 1969), includes some of the hieroglyphic texts from the pyramids of Pepy II and his queen Neith.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Berkeley, 1973. Includes a translation of some Pyramid Texts.
  • Mercer, Samuel A. B. The Pyramid Texts in Translation and Commentary. 4 vols. New York, 1952. An unreliable translation, but it includes some valuable essays on aspects of the Pyramid Texts by other scholars.
  • Piankoff, Alexandre. The Pyramid of Unas. Bollingen Series, 40. Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations, 5. Princeton, 1968. Complete photographic record and translation of the Pyramid Texts of Unas; the only primary publication of Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts generally available.
  • Sethe, Kurt. Die altägyptischen Pyramidentexte. 4 vols. Leipzig, 1908–1922; reprint, Hildesheim, 1960. Primary scholarly publication of Pyramid Texts from the pyramids of Unas and the sixth dynasty pharaohs; does not include the texts of Ibi, Pepy II's queens, or many of the texts discovered since 1922. (These later texts were published, in part, in a series of volumes by Gustave Jéquier and in journal articles by Jean Sainte-Fare Garnot and by Jean Leclant.) The complete Pyramid Texts of Tety, Pepy I, and Merenre await final publication.
  • Sethe, Kurt. Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den Altägyptischen Pyramidentexten. 2d ed., 6 vols. Hamburg, 1962. Translation of Spells 213–582, with extensive philological commentary.

James P. Allen