Coffin Texts

The Coffin Texts are a collection of funerary texts which were in use from the beginning of the First Intermediate Period (although the earliest examples from the necropolis of Balat in el Kharga Oasis are tentatively dated to the end of the Old Kingdom). Although they had largely been replaced by the Book of the Dead by the end of the Middle Kingdom or beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, there are a few examples dated to the New Kingdom (e.g. the burial of Minnakhte TT87) and a few spells (notably spell 151, 607 and 625) were popular during the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties. As the name would imply, they are mostly to be found on coffins, but examples of these texts have also been found on stelae, canopic chests, papyrus and mummy masks.

Coffin Texts on the Coffin of Imeny, Middle Kingdom Dra Abu el-Naga copyright kairoinfo4u
Coffin Texts, Coffin of Imeny

De Buck collected a corpus of 1,185 spells, and more spells could easily be added. De Buck did not include spells which were clearly copies of spells from the Pyramid Texts when they were found on coffins, and there are also later texts (e.g. spells 777-785) which were included in De Buck’s corpus but were exclusively used to decorate the outsides of coffins long after the other Coffin Texts had fallen out of favour.

Some spells were only ever used in one local area or for a short period of time and it is also likely that the personal preference of the deceased, their family, or the officiating priest was influential. Coffin Texts did not appear on all of the coffins from this period. It is estimated that less than one per cent of Upper Egyptians had coffin texts on their coffins, and no coffin has been found which features all of the texts.

The distinction between the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead may seem more important to us than it was to the ancient Egyptians. Assmann strongly argued that the distinction between the Pyramid and Coffin Texts was artificial, created by the fact that the former was inscribed on the walls of tombs and the latter painted on a coffin. While there are differences (the Coffin Texts focus on the underworld as well as the celestial realm of the Pyramid Texts and were available to a wider range of people) the connection between the texts remains clearly evident. The essential content of the Pyramid Texts (the need for sustenance in the afterlife, the protection from dangerous beings, the desire to transform into a number of different deities and connect with the renewing cycle of the sun) remains in place and many Coffin Texts contain excerpts directly lifted from the Pyramid Texts. In fact, Thompson has proposed that the texts found on Saqqara coffins (which were clearly influenced by the Pyramid Texts from more than one pyramid) support the existence of one or more libraries in which hieratic copies of funerary texts were stored. These texts, if they did exist, would have been written on papyrus and so did not survive into the modern era. Perhaps a copy yet remains to be discovered.

Grajetzki has shown that a similar connection existed between the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead and has also argued that the apparent distinction between these texts may also be in part a result of the different medium on which they were written rather than their intent or content. There are certainly a wealth of examples showing the overlap between the two, in particular evidence that some spells from Book of the Dead first made their appearance on Second Intermediate Period coffins (for example the Coffin of Senenhenaef, Abydos Tomb D 25). Grapow has suggested that around a third of the spells of the Book of the Dead originated in the Coffin Texts.

The Coffin Texts did seem to introduce a number of new concepts (or at least are the earliest record of these concepts so far discovered). The rather comforting idea that the deceased will join their beloved family in the afterlife is first mentioned in a coffin text. Less comforting is the introduction of Apep, the terrifying serpent who threatens the sun on his journey and must be defeated so that renewal can take place. A moral aspect is introduced to the afterlife with the concept of the judgement of the dead. In this the preeminent deity is Osiris, not Ra. The texts also refer to the deceased as Osiris (e.g. Osiris Ani) and many of the spells are intended to help the deceased complete this transformation. Thus, any person, not just the king, could become a god!

Another difference between the Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts is the inclusion of graphical vignettes. Not all Coffin Texts include these images, but in certain cases (such as spells 81 and 100) the depictions were thought to increase the potency of the spell. The Book of Two Ways (a selection of spells almost exclusively from the el Bersha necropolis) included illustrations which constitute the first detailed map of the netherworld.

It has often been claimed that the Coffin Texts were evidence of a democratization of the afterlife. The theory held that following the upheaval of the First Intermediate Period the royal prerogative of transforming into an Akh spirit to join the gods in the afterlife was adopted by non-royals in the form of Coffin Texts. However, it has also been suggested by some that this theory may have overreached. While the Pyramid Texts were only used by kings (at least until later periods) there is evidence that similar texts were available to non-royals in a less permanent form. The Coffin Texts could instead be viewed as a development of ideas concerning the afterlife and the method of transmitting those ideas, rather than a change to who could access that afterlife.

Selected Coffin Texts
  • Faulkner, R.O (1978) The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts Vols 1, 2 and 3
  • Grajetzki, Wolfram (2003) Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt
  • Grajetzki, W. (2006) “Another Early Source for the Book of the Dead: The Second Intermediate Period Burial D 25 at Abydos” Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 34 pp.205-216Hornung, Erik (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife
  • Hornung, Erik (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife
  • Redford Donald B (2002) Ancient Gods Speak
  • Robinson, Peter (2003) “As for them who know them, they shall find their paths: Speculations on Ritual Landscapes in the Book of Two Ways” in O’Connor, D. & Quirke, S. (eds.) Mysterious Lands pp139-159
  • Thompson, Stephen E. (1990) “The Origin of the Pyramid Texts Found on Middle Kingdom Saqqara Coffins” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 pp 17-25

Copyright J Hill 2018