The Pyramid Texts of UNAS

Cartouche of King Unas ("wnis").
(ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE)

The Royal Ritual of
Rebirth & Illumination

the regeneration of the divine king and
the transformation of his Ba into an Akh

by Wim van den Dungen

King Unas was the first to include hieroglyphic inscriptions in his tomb, namely on the walls of the corridor, antechamber, passage-way and burial-chamber, as well as on the four gables. These earliest 'Pyramid Texts' were found by Maspero in 1881. The tomb had been sealed ca. 2348 BCE and so the texts unaltered for over 4200 years ! Besides an intro on  how to approach Egyptian texts, involving epistemological, anthropological and egyptological considerations, and a complete new translation, this 2019 book includes a commentary pointing to two salvic strategies put into evidence : renewal (in the Duat of Osiris) and ascension (on/in the horizon, headed towards the sky of Re), mediated by 'Horus-consciousness', the power of majesty. These salvic perspectives return in Hermetism, monotheism and Hermeticism.


"O You, the great god, whose name is unknown."

King Unas (Utt.254 - West Wall of Antechamber)

01 From Predynastic graves & mounds to royal tombs.
02 The rise of henotheism.
03 The ritual complex of King Unas.
04 The interpretation of the Pyramid Texts.
05 An integration of perpectives.
06 The role of Osiris in the Unas text.
07 Greek versus Egyptian Initiation

The Complete Text
l Central Plan of the Hieroglyphs l Commentary l Bibliography

by Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2006 - 2009.

Burial-Chamber l Passage-way l Antechamber l Corridor l Serdab


Burial-chamber or Sarcophagusroom (I, II, III, IV, V) l Passage-way (VI)
Antechamber (VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII) l Northern Corridor (XIII) l Serdab (XIV)

Remark :

The use of capitals in words as "Absolute", "God" or "Divine", points to a rational context (i.e. how these appear in a theology conducted in the rational mode of thought). Hence, when these words are used in the context of Ancient Egyptian ante-rational thought (which, as a cultural form, was mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational), this restriction is lifted. Hence, words such as "god", "the god", "gods", "goddesses", "pantheon" or "divine" are not capitalized.

1. From Predynastic graves & mounds to royal tombs.

Predynastic burials

In Egyptian funerary rituals, the tomb was a dark, underground structure, dug out in desert sand or rock and completed with offerings accompanying the dead. In the Predynastic millennium (ca. 4000 - 3000 BCE)  preceding the Pharaonic Period (ca. 3000 - 30 BCE), the tombs were simple holes in the ground, with wooden walls and mats. Little is known of what was on top of them, and so scholars hesitate to categorize these constructions as funerary architecture. On the outside, a mound of sand or gravel or perhaps a simple wooden construction may have served as a marker. Most Predynastic corpses were completely dried out because of the desert sand. Was this a prefiguration of the Pharaonic practice of removing bodily fluids with natron (during mummification) ?

From Naqada II onwards, highly differentiated burials are found in cemeteries in Upper Egypt (cf. Gerzean, ca. 3600 - 3300 BCE). These élite burials contained large quantities of grave goods, with exotic materials such as gold and lapis lazuli. These burials point to an increasing hierarchical society and the wish of the deceased to keep their status in the afterlife, of prime important in the funerary theology under the Pharaohs. In short, the royals had access to the sky of Re, whereas commoners were spirits unable to leave the kingdom of Osiris.

Naqada III tomb - Minsjat Abu Omar - Eastern Delta - ca. 3300 BCE.

First seen in Amratian culture (Naqada I, 4000 - 3600 BCE), there was, during the second phase of the Gerzean culture, a distinct acceleration of the funerary trend, whereby a few individuals were buried in larger, elaborate tombs, containing richer and more abundant offerings (cf. the Painted Tomb at Naqada). These Gerzean cemeteries develop a wide range of grave types, ranging from small oval or round pits, poorly provided, to burials in pottery vessels and rectangular pits subdivided in partitions (to put the funerary offerings). There were coffins of wood or airdried pottery, and indications of the wrapping of the body in strips of (expensive) linen (cf. the Double Tomb at Adaïma near Hierakonpolis). Various burial-sites appear, and also the richer tombs of the chieftains, the predecessors of the "Followers of Horus", the first divine kings.

"In the Neolithic period the dead were desposited in oval graves in foetal position, with the head at the south. In Lower Egypt the deceased was placed on his right side, his face turned towards the east, while in Upper Egypt, as all along the upper Nile, the dead person was placed on his left side, looking west. Often the body was wrapped in a cloth or an animal skin, the head resting on a cushion." - Lamy, 1981, p.27.

On the treshold of the First Dynasty (ca. 3000 - 2900 BCE), the graves of the rulers and the élite consisted of neat mudbrick boxes, sunk in the desert and divided, like a house or an imitation palace, into several rooms. The tombs of the first kings followed this pattern, but with increased complexity. Situated far out in the desert near the cliffs at Abydos, they were marked by a pair of large stelæ and covered by a mound. These mounds of sand and gravel can be traced back to the modest pit graves. The pyramid form is deemed an elaboration of this architecture, itself rooted in the myth of the primordial hill emerging out of the eternal "zep tepi", the Golden Age. This "risen land" ("ta-tenen") was the "first land" to come into being (in phenomenal time - cf. Nun).

the advent of dual kingship & sacred language

At Naqada, Abydos and Hierakonpolis, the end of the Naqada II phase brings separate political centres to the fore. At the end of Naqada III, we witness a new style of "royal" burial. Also at this time, the first hieroglyphs appear.

Predynastic names of kings - Names not to same scale - Wilkinson (1999), p.53.

From the very early start, Egyptian kingship expressed a unique feature : realizing the harmony or equilibrium of opposites by using sacred language & its ritual. The dual nature of the monarchy was all-comprehensive and reflected in the regalia, in the royal titulary, in the royal rituals and festivals, building-projects, etc. Frankfort (1948) called the presence of the divine king and his institution of "transcendent significance".

Divine kingship or theocratic statemanship was a unique phenomenon in the region, if not in the world. Contemporary civilizations were often fragmented and political unity was difficult, short-lived or foreign to them. By absence of natural buffers, centuries of political centralization, stability, sacrality, administration & economy were unknown to them.

The Eastern & Western Deserts of Egypt surrounded the narrow strip of green land bordering the Nile. It was not an easy to attack Egypt from the South or the North. Its culture flourished on the surplus economy of the yearly inundation. Without a "good Nile", Egypt perished. Add to this the power of the divine, sacred kingship of the Great Word (cf. power & magic of words), creating the world (cf. Memphis theology), and Egyptian divine kingship is unique in Antiquity. Its direct influence on Greek philosophy and monotheism are unmistaken.

The first outstanding feature of the Egyptian solution was to institutionalize the king's dual nature : he was the Lord of Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as human and divine. At first, in the Early Dynastic or Archaic Period (ca. 3000 - 2670 BCE), when the "Followers of Horus" ruled, the Falcon-principle inherent in Horus (the sky-god) was deemed to incarnate in each king. Later, in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 - 2205 BCE), the divine king or "nesut" was deemed the son of Re, i.e. the sole divine being abiding on Earth (the Akhu or deities remained in the sky and only sent their Kas -doubles- and Bas -souls-, not their spirit).

This crucial witnessing quality of the "great house" ("pr-Aa", much later Hellenized as "Pharaoh"), associated with the images of (a) the watchful, surging Falcon and (b) the mighty and fertile Bull (cf. the Predynastic consort of the great goddess), help to explain the importance of the institution of divine kingship in Egyptian culture, as well as the longevity and endurance of the Pharaonic canon. In the actual transmission of the standards of the Ancient Egyptian mindset, hieroglyphs played a crucial role.

Kingship implied the end of the fragmentation of Prehistory, terminating the "chaos" to which no return was possible. Thanks to the second crucial feature, the advent of sacred language (cf. magic and the power of the word), the new political ideology could be "eternalized" for millennia : the divine king, overseeing the "Two Lands" as its sole Lord, speaks Maat, thus keeping Upper & Lower Egypt together & united by way of this Great Word. Incarnating the Great Word (cf. Memphis theology), the royal ritual balances the scales of Maat, allowing for communication between the divine and the mundane, maintaining creation and causing a "good Nile" (not too much and not too little flooding).

"Indeed, the lips of King Merenre are as the Two Enneads.
This King Merenre is the Great Speech."

The Egyptian symmetry or play of equilibria, verbal, visual and written, utilizes the duality of opposites as part of a careful strategy to master the whole. The power of pairing lies in the combination demarcating and underlining a greater unity. Opposites are not contradictions, but complementarities. A kind of "organic" patchwork-thinking of great delicacy emerges.

Thanks to the presence of the divine king, the eternal cycle of the natural order ("neheh") initiated by Atum in the First Time, is transcended by a witnessing consciousness characterized by :

  • the overseeing capacities of the son of Re, keeping dynamical divisions united ;

  • the wholesome, fertilizing power of the regenerated Osiris who is king of the Duat and

  • the strong, creative output as Horus on Earth, engaging others in community-building activities and securing one's return to the stellar light-fields of father Re. These works made the natural order and its dynamical equilibria endure for "millions of years".

the royal tombs

With the arrival of the institution of kingship & sacred language, the royal ritual and its funerary cult came into existence.

The kings of the First Dynasty were buried at Abydos (the cult place of Osiris), an indication of the Upper Egyptian origin of the Egyptian state (cf. the "Followers of Horus" first uniting Upper Egypt before settling in Memphis). The institution of kingship was already strong & powerful. The central element of the later Osiris myth, the pairing of Horus and Seth, is attested from the middle of this First Dynasty (cf. the two ivory djed-pillars found in the First Dynasty tomb at Helwan). Osiris, not attested by name until the Unas texts, is very likely "Khentiamentiu", or "the Foremost of the Westerners", the god of Abydos, most likely of Predynastic origin.

Palace façade style mud-brick tomb - Queen Neithhotep - First Dynasty - ca. 3000 BCE.
The burial-chambers were incorparated at ground level.

The superstructures of the first royal tombs at Abydos were simple mounds of sand held in place by a mudbrick revetment. Scholars conjecture the burial mound recalls the primeval mound which emerged from the waters at the time of creation. The mound is Solar, and refers to the first ray of Re shining on the first day after the waters receded. In the tombs of kings Den and Adjib (First Dynasty, ca. 3000 - 2800 BCE), the entrance stairway approaches the burial-chamber from the East and the rising Sun. The symbolism speaks for itself. Like the rising Sun, the king rose to the sky.

In the tomb of King Qaa, who closes this dynasty, a change to a northerly orientation is effectuated (and maintained thereafter). The entrance corridor is a large ramp pointing northwards toward the circumpolar stars ("ixmw-sk" or "the ones that know not destruction"). Funerary ideology became stellar. The pyramids reflect a stellar ideology made possible by the local horizon delimiting the cycle of the Sun. They are made to assist the divine king on his celestial voyage to the stars. This is effectuated in two stages : Osirian regeneration, Solar ascension and luminous existence in heaven.

In these theological considerations, the change from mastaba to step pyramid, from primordial mound (of the Sun) to celestial ladder (to the stars), reflects the increased importance of the celestial, stellar terminus of the divine king. The influence of Re rose and a pre-rational and Heliopolitan henotheism saw the light. The royals were divine beings, and so bound to the sky, whereas commoners hid beneath the Earth, in the dark kingdom of Osiris. This Lunar fertility god would eventually represent the "regenerative" part of the royal ritual, but his kingdom had to be escaped. It represented an "order" created by Re but outside his reach (cf. Heavenly Cow), making humans & deities alike fear Osiris and make sure his judgement was favourable.

In this pre-rational henotheism, Re and his divine son rule the pantheon & creation. By the end of the Vth Dynasty (ca. 2487 - 2348 BCE), Osiris became "second best" in royal theology, creating the unsettling tension between the "Duat", the Netherworld,  and "pet", the sky, left unresolved in the texts. Horizontal (fertility - rebirth) & vertical (illumination - transformation) layers are not integrated in the text (yet), but in the architecture. This movement away from the strong architectonic message of gigantic hieroglyphic monuments for all to see, to the use of written hieroglyphs to make the magic work in splendid secure tombs, is another evidence of the growing importance of the magical power of hieroglyphs, lasting for ever.

"The sun's apparent path across the sky throughout the year follows a 12°-wide arc from east to west, known as the Winding Canal. The region of the sky to its south was known as the Marsh of Reeds and that to its north the Marsh of Rest or Marsh of Offerings. These names reflect the Egyptian's experience of their own country, where the marshes of the Delta gradually gave way to the Mediterranean Sea. Features within both regions were sees as islands, some inhabited by the 'Imperishable Stars', in the north, and the 'Unwearying Stars' in the south, and others known as the Mounds of Horus, Seth and Osiris." - Allen, 2005, p.9.

In some mysterious way, Osiris' Southern "Field of Reeds" and Re's Northern "Field of Offering" or "Field of Peace" were adjacent salvic conditions with conflicting ontological features. They reflect the dual spiritual economy at hand, and represent the Solar (dry) and Lunar (wet) "mechanics" of the high magic of rebirth (as the Lunar Osiris) and enlightenment (as the Solar Re). Very likely, divine kingship (as Re) assimilated the Lunar power of the Predynastic "great goddess", represented by Osiris, the "fertile bull" slain & risen. The earliest hieroglyphs evidence these two theologies, and their distribution in the tomb points to a sequence involving Lunar purification (rebirth) and Solar illumination (transformation).

Although the tombs left by the kings of the Early Dynastic Period are monumental in size, they do not approach the scale suddenly reached in the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 - 2600 BCE), in particular under King Netjerikhet or "Djoser" (ca. 2654 - 2635 BCE) and his grand architect Imhotep.

Pyramid of Djoser and part of its surrounding enclosure wall.

"The Step Pyramid of Djoser heralded the classic pyramid age, the 4th to 6th dynasties, also known as the Old Kingdom. During these centuries the Egyptians built pyramids for their god-kings in a 72-km (45-mile) span of desert, between Abu Roash, northwest of Giza, to Meidum in the south, near the entrance of the Fayum. Excluding the pyramids of Djedefre at Abu Roash and Sneferu at Meidum as outliers, the 21 major Old Kingdom pyramids stand like sentinels in a 20-km (12-mile) stretch west of the capital the 'White Walls', later known as Memphis, clustering at Giza, Zawiyet el-Aryan, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur." - Lehner, 2001, pp.14-15.

The Step Pyramid represents a significant leap in architectural size and sophistication. A limestone wall, 10.5 m high and 1.644 m long, contained an area of 15 ha (then the size of a large town). This is the barrier between the outer world and the domain of the divine king. The complex, with functional and dummy buildings, large terraces, façades, columns, stairways, platforms, shrines and life-seized statues, reflected the dual nature of the afterlife : the half-submerging dummy buildings "must have signified the chthonic, underworld aspect of existence after death" (Lehner, 2001, p. 84), while the Step Pyramid itself, rising in six steps to a height of ca. 60 m, reflects the route of celestial (stellar) ascension/descension taken by the Solar King after he was mummified and entombed. Even after death, the king was still "at work" in his tomb, which acted as a stairway to and fro the sky. This depicted the fundamental duality of the afterlife : on the one hand, the Lunar underworld ("Dwt", "Duat") and, on the other hand, the Solar sky ("pt", "pet") of the "imperishable" circumpolar stars (Alpha Draconis rather than Alpha Polaris), about 26° to 30° above the northern horizon in the area of the pyramids.

2001, p.19
older DJOSER type new MEIDUM TYPE
Orientation North - South East - West
Parts N - S sequence E - W axial symmetry
Enclosure wall niched,
no inner wall
smooth outer wall,
at times niched inner wall
Entrance South end of East side Centre East side
Ka tomb South tomb
no Satellite Pyramid
Satellite Pyramid
Temple N or S temple E temple, N entrance chapel

In the reign of King Sneferu (ca. 2600 - 2571 BCE), the first king of the IVth Dynasty, radical changes in the overall plan of the Pyramid complex happened. A new form was sought. The royal tomb changed into a true pyramid. A new orientation was applied (the main axis of the complex was now from East to West instead as the previously North - South direction), and the mortuary temple was built against the Eastern face of the Pyramid (Djoser's is to the North). It was linked by a causeway to a valley temple, close to the edge of the cultivated area further to the East, which provided a monumental entrance to the complex as a whole ... 

This new standard, so-called Meidum-type arrangement, was amplified by the gigantic Giza complex of King Khufu (ca. 2571 - 2548 BCE), and remained unchanged throughout the Old Kingdom. Only in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 - 1759 BCE), when the earliest Meidum-type were fading into ruin, did pyramid builders return to the basic elements of Djoser's complex, with a long North - South rectangular enclosure, defined by a decorated wall with a single entrance at the far South end of the East side.

During his reign, Pharaoh Sneferu finished in half a century three giant pyramids at Meidum and Dahshur. But the largest pyramid, 146.59 m high, would be built by his son Khnum-khuf ("Khnum is his protector"). The only known figure of him is a tiny figurine around 7.6 cm high with his name on its throne !

Plan of the Pyramid-complex of Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2571 - 2548 BCE). The northern ventilation shaft pointed directly to Alpha Draconis, the Pole Star. But once every 24 hours, the three stars in Orion's belt passed at culmination above the southern ventilation shaft of the burial-chamber ; a combination of the myths of Re and Osiris ?

Even if we allow Pharaoh Khufu a reign of 30 to 32 years, his workers and builders would had to set in place 230 m³ of stone per day, i.e. a rate of 1 average-size block of 2.5 tons every 4 or 6 minutes (working in day and night shifts), to finish his pyramid, causeway, two temples, satellite pyramids, three queens' pyramids and official's mastabas (a combined mass of ca. 2.700.000 m³). Although this king did not equal his father's total mass of monuments, he surpassed his pyramids in sheer size and accuracy. After a few failures, the principle of pyramid-building had been mastered and the building of the king's royal pyramid-complex (also containing his tomb) become state policy.

The base of the Great Pyramid (containing about 2.300.000 blocks of stone weighing on average ca 2.5 tons) is level within 2.5 cm (290.33 m) with an angle of slope of 51°50'40", the average deviation of the sides from the cardinal points is 0°03'06" degrees of arc and the greatest difference in length of the sides is 4.4 cm. The pyramid alone covers 5.3 ha. The finished pyramid was surrounded by an 8m high Tura limestone wall !

The Great Pyramid has three chambers : a King's Chamber with the sarcophagus near the western wall ; a Ka chamber with the statue of the king, the so-called "Queen's Chamber", never intended for the burial of the queen and the Subterranean Chamber, 30 m below the plateau surface, reached by a Descending Passage cut straight into the natural rock of the plateau. Some think the lower chambers were "mistakes", while this seems unlikely (in view of the triune architecture of royal tombs, with burial-chamber, antechamber and Ka-chamber). What is typical for these "Stellar" pyramids of Sneferu (Bent Pyramid as well as North Pyramid) and Khufu is the elevated position of the King's Chamber. In both, the funerary symbolism is clearly celestial. The expanse of the sky was the celestial Nile, with banks on the West and on the East. The Milky Way was called "the beaten path of stars" and paradise was invisioned as the Nile Valley at inundation : the Field of Reeds (Osiris) on the eastern edge (i.e. the culminating moment in the movement from dusk to dawn) and the Field of Offering (Re) further North.

By elevating the King's Chamber, the architects of the Great Pyramid underlined the celestial goals of Solar Kingship, and, by doing so, also made it possible for the "son of Re" to unite with the celestial, stellar corpse of Osiris, associated with the Orion constellation and the star Sirius (the Southern shafts). By the bright appearance of the Dog-star in the dawn sky of July, the annual Nile inundation was heralded. This star, associated with Isis, was called "the Bringer of the New Year and the Nile flood". Osiris, the brother and husband of Isis, was identified with Orion : the announced renewal of life by the heliacal rising of Sirius, entailing the blessing of Osiris, the vegetation god. Moreover, the Ba of King Khufu, son of Re, could rise in its "sah" ("sAH", "noble") and be transformed into an "Akh" ("spirit") helped by Osiris and Isis in their stellar, celestial form (in the South). Thus he reached his final destiny : the Imperishable Stars in the North.

Pyramid with Sphinx

In this remarkable architecture, we may "read" the same ambiguity, apparent in the Pyramid Texts, between, on the one hand, the sky of Re ("pet"), creator of the deities and the universe, and, on the other hand, the Netherworld ("Duat") of Osiris, its king hidden in the darkness of the subterranean world, i.e. between, on the one hand, the royal Solar/Stellar prerogative and, on the other hand, the influence of the popular (Lunar and Predynastic ?) Osiris, with whom eventually (in the Middle Kingdom), every deceased would identify. The kings of the IVth Dynasty (ca. 2600 - 2487 BCE) emphasized the Solar component of divine kingship, the direct manifestation of the supreme deity on Earth. Nevertheless, Heliopolitan theology incorporated Osirian thematics, but only insofar Osiris assisted the celestial terminus of the deceased king, i.e. the son of Re returning to his father, and escaping the darkness of the Duat, thematized in the New Kingdom Amduat.

Cairo taken from behind the Sphinx

2. The rise of henotheism.

"Men hide, the gods fly away."
 King Unas (Utt.302 - antechamber, North Wall)

At the start of Dynastic times (ca. 3000 BCE), the religious beliefs of the Egyptians were contextual, local & relative to social class. Hither and thither, a variety of gods and goddesses were worshipped. Each and every local deity was "great" ("wr") and polytheism reigned. At the level of state, Horus (Lower Egypt) & Seth (Upper Egypt) represented the balance of the Two Lands, realized by the institution of divine kingship (his Great Word) and the powers of state (cf. the royal palace or "great house", the temples, the economy, the seats of learning, the administration, health-care, the military, etc). The (Predynastic ?) identity of the anarchic Seth seems obvious enough, but the identity of Horus is less so, appearing as a fusion of (a) Horus the Elder and (b) Horus, son of Osiris.

From the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 BCE), initiating the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 - 2205 BCE), the royal ritual issued a new emphasis on the single, Solar creator-god Re, replacing the traditional balance between Horus and Seth. The original battle was reorchestrated as a smaller part within the scheme of a single, universal, all-powerful creator : Atum-Re. The latter did not assimilate or reject the other deities (as in monotheism, stressing the singular), but became their original point of departure, the self-created initiator of the "first time" (zep tepi) of them all (cf. the Heliopolitan Ennead, or henotheism), the operative principle (ba) of Nun, the primordial ocean of unending potential outside creation.

The architectural wonders of Pharaohs Djoser (ca. 2654 - 2635 BCE), Snofru (ca. 2600 - 2571 BCE) and Khufu (ca. 2571 - 2548 BCE) evidence this new royal theology, focusing on the divine king while in power (cf. as Osiris & Horus in the Sed-festival) and as Son of Re in the afterlife. The latter is two-tiered : first the Duat is confronted (the king becomes Osiris), then, in the horizon, the Ba of the king is transformed into a spirit rejoining the Imperishables.

The pyramid is a stairway to heaven, a rising as given by , 041, the double stairway, a determinative indicating "ascent" and "high place" (cf. the Step Pyramid of Djoser). The names given to the earliest edifices imply the transformation (happening in the Akhet or "horizon") of the royal soul (ba) of the king into a spirit (akh) rejoining the stars : "Sneferu Endures" (Sneferu"), "The Southern Shining Pyramid" (Sneferu), "The Shining Pyramid" (Sneferu), "Akhet Khufu" (Khufu), "Djedefre is a Sehed-star" (Djedefre), "Great is Khafre" (Khafre), "Menkaure is Divine" (Menkaure), "The Purified Pyramid" (Shepseskaf), "Pure are the Places of Userkaf" (Userkaf), "The Rising of the Ba Spirit" (Sahure), "Pyramid of the Ba of Neferirkare" (Neferirkare), "The Places of Niuserre Endure" (Niuserre), "Beautiful is Isesi" (Djedkare-Isesi).

By the IVth Dynasty (ca. 2600 - 2487 BCE), when King Khephren (ca. 2540 - 2514 BCE) added the title "son of Re" to his royal titulary, Ancient Egyptian culture had reached its pinnacle. Canonical attainments in science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, magic, ritual and sapiental teachings had been realized, and we have to wait until the New Kingdom (ca. 1539 - 1075 BCE) to witness new developments (cf. Amduat, Atenism and Amonism). However, in all periods, especially in the Late Period (664 - 332 BCE), Egypt would return to the canon initiated by King Djoser and his "Leonardo da Vinci", the vizier, scribe, doctor and architect Imhotep, "the one that comes in peace". In architecture (cf. Giza pyramids), religion (cf. the Pyramid Texts) and wisdom-teaching, to name but a few areas of interest, these Old Kingdom rules became sanctosanct.

the henotheist religion of Re

As Papyrus Westcar puts into evidence, the beginning of the Vth Dynasty saw major changes in Egyptian religion. The powerful influence of Re made the first Pharaoh of the Vth Dynasty (King Userkaf - ca. 2487 - 2480 BCE) highpriest of Re and begotten by Re himself. Re had visited the wife of Userra, a highpriest of Re. The result was the birth of a divine child.

"From the 3th Dynasty we have the evidence for a new emphasis on a single creator, eclipsing the balance between the good Horus and the anarchic Seth. The battles of Horus and Seth do no disappear in the new, classical Egyptian arrangement of divine powers, but they become a smaller part within the general scheme of a single all-powerful creator." -
Quirke, 2001, p.83.

The popular Osiris and the crucial battle between his son Horus and Seth, were apparently not ousted from the royal mindset. On the contrary, his divine family-drama became part of the cycle of the "Great Re", the overarching & overseeing deity. Osiris became the "Sun of the night", although an essential tension between both myths continued to exist throughout the Old Kingdom.

"In the royal and state temple theology, Osiris is lifted to the sky, and while he is there Solarized, we have just shown how he also tinctures the Solar teaching of the celestial kingdom of the dead with Osirian doctrines. The result was thus inevitable confusion, as the two faiths interpenetrated." -
Breasted, 1972, p.160.

The pyramid of Userkaf was built at North Saqqara, close to the north-eastern corner of Djoser's enclosure. It evidences a truly substantial re-evaluation of the rigid monumentality of the previous Dynasty (cf. its small size : side = 73.5m and height = 49m) and less painstaking methods of construction. The main surviving architectural achievement of Pharaoh Userkaf was his temple dedicated to Re, the Sun-god. Six of the seven kings of this Vth Dynasty, King Unas included, would do the same in the next eighty years. Re became a state god and Pharaoh the son of Re. These temples were personal monuments to each king's continued relationship with Re during life and in the afterlife.

The funerary ritual was also elaborated, and in the Vth Dynasty, the Lector-priest, or "Kheri-Heb" appears in scenes. He was a specialist, and master of the mortuary rituals for the royals. He was attended by the "Heri-Shesheta", the "Head of Mysteries". These developments evidence an increased interiority. Sacred writing realizes its first internal structure : words joined together in simple sentences. Internalization led to the formation of pre-concepts, i.e. word-images created through imagination and the interplay of meaningful objective relational contexts. Subjectivity was expressed as a function of an objective state. The actions of the "I"-form are objective states which are not yet (self) reflective. The opacity of the material side of presence prevailed. The subject has no transparancy of its own, but functions as a "collective Self" walking the Lunar and Solar paths.

However, in the royal cult, three central natural types emerge : on the one hand, the divine king, his residence and magical power to assure a "good Nile", and, on the other hand, his father, the creator-god Re, "father of the gods" and giver of life. This is Atum, the "Ba of Nun", the potential to autogenerate floating in the inert waters of chaos. In-between there is Osiris, the prototype of the regeneration brought by darkness and silence.

Pharaoh, being the son of Re, returns the "right order" to his father (as the sole god on Earth, he is the only one able to do so). Because he worships his father properly (effectively), he is blessed by the latter and receives a "good Nile". Thanks to the tomb, his father may descend from the sky and assist his son. The dead would thus continue to rule and Egypt would last for millions of years ...

Because of this emphasis on Re, a constellational henotheism ensued. To evidence unity, multiplicity is not eliminated. To operate the multiple, the original unity of the divine is not eclipsed. The various natural types work together under the overarching order of Re, who is their beginning and end. The deities are so many appearances of the creator. Every night they are reborn with him. Likewise, his son Pharaoh is present in more than hundred temples simultaneously and he alone effectuates the necessary rituals to make the god find his shrine pleasant and become united with his statue. Deities only communicate with other deities. A human coming face to face with the god dies.

the royal titulary

Changes in the royal funerary rituals had already been monumentally expressed by Kings Sneferu and Khufu, but under Khufu's son, Pharaoh Radjedef (ca. 2548 - 2540 BCE), the signs of far-reaching religious change become institutional. Re surpassed all other deities, even Horus, the sky god and emblem of the "Followers of Horus". Pharaoh Radjedef, who provided himself with the name "belongs to the firmament", is the first to bear the name "son of Re" ("sA Ra").

His brother or half brother King Khephren (ca. 2540 - 2514 BCE) incorporated the royal title "son of Re" in his official, royal titulary. T
his titulary ("nxb.t") consisted of 5 titles or "rn wr", "great names". Each of these express a specific view-point on kingship. As the name of someone was crucial and all-important for his or her survival and effectiveness, the royal name was the "name of names". To know and understand Pharaoh's names revealed his power in life and to have one's own name written next to his, guaranteed success in the afterlife.

As the "son of Re", King Khephren added a fifth name to his four other titulary names, thereby expressing the idea of the divine king being the human form of Re at birth, i.e. Re begets the king, who rules over Egypt in the former's name.
"From this time onward every king of Egypt, whether of Egyptian origin or not, called himself the 'son of Râ'. In later days, when Amen, or Amen-Râ, became the King of the Gods, it was asserted by his priesthood that the god assumed the human form of a man and begot the king of Egypt." -
Budge, 1989, p.33, my italics.

The definitive form of the royal titulary was attained : it began with the Horus Name of the Early Dynastic Period and ended with the name of the king at birth (as a prince), preceded by "son of Re". When enthroned, the king received a "prenomen", a divine name referring to Re. Both names were enclosed by an oval ring (suggestive of the Solar cycle), a cartouche. The "nomen" name is phenomenal. The "prenomen" name is for all of eternity. This enclosure may be compared with the wall surrounding the temple. Thus it reflects the Solar horizon of the Sun-disk and assures the clear distinction between the divine and the profane.

Just as the "sah" is the result of "senetjer" or ritual consecration, the king becomes the "son of Re" in actu exercito only after having received his throne-name. As a prince, he was the son of a divine father, as divine king he is a Lone Star, the son of the unique creator-god and god of light, Re, the star of stars. By adding "son of Re" to the birth name, the divine birth (not yet divine right) of the royal prince was underlined. At his coronation, he received the "form" of kingship ritually (cf. the royal Ka), but his divine nature was already present at birth (cf. the royal placenta), for he was conceived by Re himself.

The five names of the royal titulary, a temporal as well as a spiritual declaration of divine rule, are :

  1. the Horus name, Banner name or Ka-name : designating the king as the manifestation of Horus, the elder sky god (Horus in the palace, not yet Horus, son of Osiris, although both were confused), the divine prototype and patron of the Egyptian kings. The earliest divine kings, the "Followers of Horus", ruled with this Horus name alone. In the Early Dynastic Period, the perched falcon of Horus was part of the name of the king. King Aha, for instance, was "Horus-Aha", or "Horus who fights". In the New Kingdom, "Mighty Bull" was added at the beginning of the name, but it was usually quite variable. Although it would continue to be used throughout the entire Ancient Egyptian history, it lost its importance to the prenomen en nomen from the end of the Old Kingdom on. This name was not the birth name of the king, but it was given to him when he ascended the throne. During the Early Dynastic Period and the early Old Kingdom, it was the king’s official name. His name of birth would not appear in official documents.
    This name is often written within a rectangular frame, at the bottom of which is seen a design of recessed panelling, such as we find in the facades of early tombs and in the false doors of many private tombs. The Ancient Egyptian name for this facade was "serekh". When speaking of the (palace) facade, this name is often used in modern texts as well. On top of this "serekh" is perched the falcon of Horus, hence the appellation "Horus-name". In more elaborate New Kingdom examples, Horus is wearing the double crown and is accompanied by the Sun and an Uraeus ;

  2. the Nebti name or "Two Ladies" title : first met in the reign of Pharaoh Aha, Nekhbet and Uadjit ("wADiit") were the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively (a vulture & a cobra, each atop the basket for "Lady"). These two refer to the dual kingdom the king unites as "Lord of the Two Lands". The "Two Ladies" correspond to these "Two Lords", and to the royal gods Horus and Seth (Lower and Upper Egypt respectively). The concept of the king embodying both goddesses, highlights the reconciliation of opposites to maintain the balance, here on a geographical level ;

  3. the Gold name, Golden Horus name or Falcon of Gold name : this name of gold, a falcon atop a beaded collar (meaning "gold"), is first attested in the IVth Dynasty and is represented by a Horus falcon atop a beaded collar ("nbw" - gold). The name might refer to the wealth and splendour of Pharaoh's divinity, as well as to his enduring qualities (gold was considered to be the untarnished "flesh" of the deities). The Papyrus of Ani (chapter 77) makes the Falcon of Gold refer to the Sekhet Hetep, the Field of Peace. The notion of "gold" may thus be linked to neheh-time & its eternal repetition. The burial-chamber in the royal tombs of the New Kingdom was often called the "golden room", not (only) because of the presence of actual gold, but because it was there for all of eternity. The gold name may convey the same notion of eternity, expressing the wish that the king may be an eternal Horus, i.e. he and his kingdom endure ;

  4. the Throne name (prenomen) : is preceded by the "nswt-bitii" title, which translates as "he of the sedge and bee", "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" or "Dual Kingdom" and is enclosed (in a cartouche). The first known example of this title is dated to the reign of Pharaoh Den, when it was often combined with the Nebti-name. It would take until the end of the IIIth Dynasty before it came into use and eventually replaced the Horus-name as the most important official royal name. The systematic presence of the name of Re in the prenomen (starting with Pharaoh Khephren) indicates it was given to the king when he ascended the throne. It put him in a narrow relationship with the universal Solar god Re. More recent scholarship conjectures the name to be a statement regarding Pharaoh and his policies (instead of a theological statement concerning the god). It was compounded with the name of the Sun god Re (including the hieroglyph of the disk of the Sun), written first (cf. honorific transposition) ;

  5. the personal name of Pharaoh (nomen - our family-name) : always preceded by the epithet "son of Re". It is the name given to the prince at birth. After coronation, it was also enclosed in a cartouche. It affirmed Pharaoh was by birthright a god. A "cartouche" or "royal ring" depicts a loop formed by a rope, the ends tied together. This conveys the notions of "eternity" and "encompassing the entire creation". The loop can be seen as the cycle of the Sun itself, the celestial ecliptic (in reality, the elliptical movement of the Earth around the Sun). The crucial role of "Tail-in-Mouth" in the VIth Hour of the Amduat refers to this "encircling of creation".

On a single royal monument, all five names seldom appear together. When only one name was used, the Throne name was the most common. Usually, it was also used when the king had died, avoiding the necessity to add numbers to the personal names, a method in vogue since the time of Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century BCE, who wrote a history of the Dynasties (of which only fragments have survived). For example, by his contemporaries, King Amenhotep III was named "Nebmaatre", his Throne name, or "Re is the Lord of Maat" and not "Amenhotep", or "Amun is pleased", the name given to the royal prince at birth (indicative of his family lineage).

The kings of old were named by their Horus name, suggestive of the overseeing qualities of the Falcon flying over the "Two Lands". After the theological changes brought about by the Old Kingdom Heliopolitans, the Throne name was preferred. The complexity of the titulary and the use of these names, tries to encompass the supernatural effectivity of the presence of the divine king on Earth. His "name of names" conveys his extraordinary nature in the order of things. The king is "divine" because he is an incarnated Akh, which is truly exceptional, and also the only living being possessing a "Ba" or principle of transformation (dynamism, change, movement). He is a human being with a personal name, but also a divine being, with a Ba becoming an Akh (soul becoming spirit). The nomen of the prince underlines his divine origination and vocation, but without the "royal Ka". Although in the titulary, the nomen is preceded by "the son of Re", he does not use this epithet as long as his father rules. Once crowned, the king is no longer called by his princely nomen name. Whenever used, it is preceded by "son of Re". As a king, only his Throne name is heard.

the complete titulary of Pharaoh Amenemhet III (ca. 1818 - 1773 BCE)
Middle Kingdom, XIIth (Theban) Dynasty :

Mighty Horus
Great of Might
He of the Two Ladies
Taking possession of the inheritance of the Two Lands
Horus of Gold
Permanent of Life
King of Upper and Lower Egypt
Maat of Re (Nimaatre).
Son of Re
Amun at the Head

the theology of Heliopolis

In the theology of Heliopolis (the "On" of the Bible and today the Coptic suburb of Cairo), the divine king of Egypt, as the sole son of Re, ascends to the realm of Atum, the unique supreme deity (cf. Hornung, 1986). There, in the Sun's domain, the First Time, the king is ensured of an ongoing increase in spirituality (an efficiency due to the transformation of his Ba into an Akh, a spirit of light) and a union with the only true source of life and youth, projected near the Northern Circumpolar Stars ; he arrives there as an awesome god (cf. Cannibal Hymn). He sails on Re's Bark of Millions of Years, ascends with a ladder or flies as a bird, a grasshopper or sacred smoke ... He escapes the realm of Geb (the Earth) and the Duat of Osiris (the land of the dead).

The lightland of Re, fountain of rejuvenation and endless power, is a continuing cycle of renewal (in neheh-time), a perpetuum mobile at the core of (stellar) light. Here, the powerful Sa-energy of the universal Heka-field can be harvested. The latter is due to the autogenic activity of the sole creator-god Atum.

  • "Nun" : the unmanifested sameness of everything that is not light ;

  • "Atum" : unmanifested light diffused in Nun ;

  • "Atum-Kheprer" : the unmanifested, first occurrence of eternally recurrent light ;

  • "Re" : the manifest presence of Atum as light on the primordial "hill".

Grosso modo, this Heliopolitan ideology of the divine king was Solar, stellar & national, complementing the contextual, regional and variable Lunar spirituality of the common Egyptians. In the latter, shared by the majority of Egyptians, the role of Osiris was as crucial as the yearly inundation (cf. the agrarian, Sothic calendar) and the monthly cycle of fertility (cf. Isis & Osiris as Moon deities).

The four compass points and the Heliopolitan ritual.


Re at dusk and his entry into the Netherworld to regenerate. Thanks to the magic of Isis and Thoth, Osiris rose in the realm of the dead. When Pharaoh Horus brought his restored eye to his father, Osiris was pulled out of his slumber and became the king of the "beautiful West" ;


During the twelve hours of the night of the Netherworld, Re travels (and countless Bas with him) on his Bark of Millions of Years. At midnight, the darkest point is reached. The stars shining in Osiris' Netherworld are in the upper sky, the abode of the Imperishable Stars, the spirits of Re, the pantheon, the sons of Horus and Pharaoh.


The rise of Re's rebirth at dawn, the place of light, rebirth and the Ka-statue (the false door). "Khepri", the end result of the nocturnal regeneration of the deities thanks to Re and his (re)union with Osiris - Horus as a child ;


The culmination of Re at noon, the heat of Seth, the place of birth of the Egyptian state, the inundation given by Osiris (Sothis), the slaying of Osiris, the mourning of Isis, the fierce battle between Horus and Seth and the justification of the former as the "avenger of his father" - Horus as king ;

For good reasons, Kemp (1989) and Lesko (1999) doubt whether, in the Predynastic and the historical periods, Heliopolitan henotheism was shared by the vast majority of unlettered Egyptians. The opposite seems to be true, associating Heliopolitanism with elitism and Osirian faith with populism.

"Kemp has suggested that Egyptian religion, as we know it from the formal, state-approved written texts, is an intellectually manipulated construction of the historic period, most likely of the middle or late Old Kingdom (...) to promote the divinity of the king of Egypt." - Lesko, 1999, p.31.

3. The ritual complex of King Unas

the architecture

King Unas, Unis or Wenis (ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE) was the last Pharaoh of the Vth Dynasty. His pyramid at Saqqara, called "Perfect are the Placed of Unas", is at the South-western corner of Djoser's enclosure and the smallest of all known Old Kingdom pyramids. The complex, a model for subsequent rulers, is almost diagionally opposed to the pyramid of Userkaf (ca. 2487 - 2480 BCE), the founder of this Heliopolitan Dynasty. Located between the enclosures of Djoser's pyramid and Sekhemkhet's, King Unas completed "a historical and architectural symmetry" (Lehner, 1997, p.154). The pyramid temple was erected directly over the substructure of the IInd Dynasty tomb assigned to King Hetepsekhemwy. The entrance of the pyramid proper, in the middle of its North side, opens at ground level in the pavement of the pyramid court (and not in the face of the pyramid). There are remnants of a small entrance chapel.

Plan of the Pyramid-complex of Unas (ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE).
The Pyramid was 57.75 m², 43 m high, with a slope of 56°.
Lehner, 1997, p.155)

Like most Old Kingdom pyramids, the complex of Unas included a pyramid-complex, a causeway and a valley temple below, adjacent to a canal. Coming in by boat, preparatory rituals took place in the valley temple. One then proceeded uphill along a causeway, a long corridor with high walls and an insulating roof. The processional causeway to the pyramid of Unas is 750m long and equal to Pharaoh Khufu's. Most causeways have been destroyed, but that of King Unas at Saqqara is in a good condition and hand been restored in modern times. In its roof, a slit is left open, so a shaft of light illuminates the gallery of brightly painted reliefs, of which only fragments survive. A wide array of scenes once covered the wall : boats transporting granite palm columns, granite cornices or lintels, craftsmen working gold & copper, harvesting scenes (grain, figs & honey), deer hunted by greyhounds, archers, woman bearing offerings, battles with enemies, bearded "Aziatics", scenes of starving people, prisoners begging for mercy ... The causeway had two changes of angle, and South of the second bend lay two boat pits (each 45m long). By the New Kingdom, the complex had fallen into ruins. More than 1000 years after King Unas died, Khaemwaset, son of Ramessess II and high priest at Memphis, restored it, causing the famous name of Unas to live again ...

Plan of the Valley temple and Pyramid-complex of Unas
Lehner, 1997, p.154)

The pyramid-complex of Unas consisted of two parts separated by a long, transverse corridor : the foretemple had an entrance hall and a pillared court and the secret, inner temple included a hall with five statue niches, an antechamber (a high square room with in the middle a single granite pillar) and a sanctuary. A network of storerooms enclosed these elements. There the offerings and sacred objects for the royal ritual were kept. A temenos wall surrounded the complex. Today it is in ruin, and the pyramid reduced to a small heap of debris. The temple design itself is also lost.

Plan of the royal tomb underneath the pyramid of Unas.

If the pyramid-complex of Unas became the model for the later pyramid temples, then the purpose of certain parts of the temple may be inferred by studying later examples, like Pepi II's pyramid temple. In the latter, the transverse corridor was adorned with reliefs illustrating the Sed festival, the this-life ritual of regeneration of the divine king. The West end of the sanctuary abutted the East wall of the pyramid. This West wall against the pyramid was covered by a granite stela, serving as point of contact between the world of the living and the realm of the dead (the tomb below). At its foot an altar was set up and offerings were brought by priests.

Entering the pyramid from the North, it is necessary to bend over in order to move down the passage. The slope is deliberate and varies between 28° (Khufu), 26° (Khafre), 25° (Pepi II) or 22° in the case of the pyramid of Unas. The passage is oriented to specific northern stars. It slopes down to a corridor-chamber or vestibule, followed by the usual horizontal passage with three granite portcullis slabs. It is not possible to stand upright. Once this barrier passed, the first hieroglyphs appear, to be read from the inside of the pyramid out.

Plan of the royal tomb underneath the pyramid of Unas.

This entrance/exit corridor then opens into the antechamber, directly under the pyramid's centre axis. Standing up, one is surrounded on all sides by blue-tinted hieroglyphs. On the ceiling of the tomb, golden, pentagram-like stars were carved in relief on a sky-blue background. The North and South walls of the antechamber and the burial-chamber stop short of the ceiling, forming a kind of shelf below it (cf. left picture).

In the East of the antechamber (on the left hand side when entering the tomb), a doorway opens to the undecorated and uninscribed tomb-chapel with three recesses. The middle recess of this possible tomb-chapel lies lower but aligned with the false door of the sanctuary above. Egyptologists are not sure about the role of this triple chamber, the so-called "serdab" or "cellar".

© Piankoff, A. : The Pyramid of Unas, Princeton University Press - Princeton, 1968.

Burial-chamber  - pyramid of King Unas.
Sarcophagus West, western half of North & South walls in alabaster.

On the West of the antechamber (at the right hand side when entering the tomb and precisely opposite the Ka-chapel), a passage-way leads to the burial-chamber. This has a black granite sarcophagus at its West end. In its immediate vincinity, there are no texts. Instead, we see a palace-façade design, with reed-mats and a wood-frame enclosure, an iconography derived from the royal mastaba tombs of the First Dynasty. Together with the icon of two lotus flowers back to back, these motifs recur, possibly because the lotus represents dawn, the emergence of light as Nefertem, the son of dawn. This would make the royal ritual a ceremony of life, merging the finite life of the king (both alife & deceased ?) with the infinite life, viewed as "djedet", everlasting (as Osiris, through darkness) and "neheh", eternal recurrent (as Re, through light).

"All of these considerations may lead us to conclude that in the highly sensitive space surrounding the sarcophagus, certain ritual events took place that were -in the pyramid of Unas- regarded as too delicate to reveal in words. But in later times, after the reign of King Teti, the immediate vincinity of the sarcophagus -especially the West wall- was freed from this stricture, and what was only implied by the symbolic designs in the Unas pyramid was now openly expressed in words. It is of for this reason that the pyramid of Unas contains so little textual reference to the Osirian re-memberment : It was considered too delicate a matter to put into words." - Naydler, 2005, p.164.

In the West, the place of regeneration, the mummy is in the total darkness of Osiris, allowing it to be reborn, ascending to illumination. The walls around the sarcophagus, on which these designs were carved, are made of polished alabaster, whereas all the other walls of the tomb are in Tura limestone. Alabaster is soft and translucent. It was referred to as "ankh", or "life" and had a milky color (milk was also called "ankh was", "the sap of life"). Sunk in the floor to the left (South) of the foot of the sarcophagus was the canopic chest, meant to protect the four "ritual" elements of the physical body, represented by the "sons of Horus", or lords of the four pillars of the physical world the deceased (or the high priest) has left. Taken together, these spiritual symbols learn us a lot suggesting the sacredness of this uninscribed area of the tomb, overtowered by the West Gable hieroglyphs, acting as magical protection devices, and initiating oration.

"One of the recurrent motifs is that of two lotus flowers with their stems but no leaves, represented back to back. This is a motif that occurs in many Old Kingdom tombs and on tomb artifacts, but especially on sarcophagi and around false doors. The significance of this is that the sarcophagus was a place of transition between the physical and spiritual worlds, while the falso door was a place of communication between realms. The lotus, whose manner of growth involves passing out of the water element in order to flower in the air, touched by the rays of the sun, was preeminently a symbols of breakthrough from one world to another."
Naydler, 2005, p.162.

the eternalization of the divine kings

In the Old Kingdom, temples for the cult of the deities were usually made out of brick, a perishable material. The tombs of the divine kings were petrified, precisely because in this way he became the sole guardian of the magical keys of the kingdom : a "good" Nile. Only the king was the son of Re on Earth (cf. Heavenly Cow). The plateau being full, the kings of the Vth Dynasty, in order to erect their pyramid complex, had to leave Giza. In doing so, they lost their sight-line to Iunu (Heliopolis). Adding a Solar temple to the pyramid complex (cf. King Userkaf) compensated for the distance, assuring the royal cult was directly associated with the son of Re on Earth. These "Heliopolitan" Dynasties (Djoser - Unas ?), were exceptional & foundational.

The royal cult also served this-life purposes (of which the celebration of the Sed festival is an outstanding example, but there must have been more). Service to the father of the king, and creator of all deities, was also part of it. To represent the link with the Sun, a massive stone mound shaped like a squat obelisk was used. It stood at the back of an open court (the best example is King Neuserre's at Abu Ghurab, following the model of the pyramid complex, and situated riverside). As a result, both the royal cult and the cult of the deities (in casu Atum-Re) took place in temples made out of lasting materials. Later cult temples, even disconnected from the royal cult, remained stone edifices. Thanks to Re the deities endured.

© Piankoff, A. : The Pyramid of Unas, Princeton University Press - Princeton, 1968.

Antechamber  - pyramid of King Unas
passage-way West to Burial-chamber, corridor North

The royal cult is origin and goal of the traditional theologies of the Old Kingdom (Heliopolitan, Hermopolitan, Memphite & Osirian). Without the king, there is no Maat and the created world returns to chaos, as light to darkness. The ideal of divine kingship, a unity of temporal and spiritual activities, is crucial to understand the "canon" of the Old Kingdom mentality and way of life. Especially in the IIIth, IVth & Vth Dynasties, a fairly unmixed, pristine strand of this culture is revealed.

The Unas text is a literary masterpiece summarizing the best theology of the moment. It is not a loose set of funerary spells, but a composition to be viewed as an integrated whole, albeit in early ante-rational thinking. No doubt, the intellectual elite produced concrete concepts, as in proto-rational cognition, but the culture at large was still steeped in myth and pre-rational pre-concepts, remaining very situational and with limited functionality.

"But one cannot help suspecting that a fundamental revision of the ritual coincided with the decision to immortalize these spells, previously handed down on perishable papyrus, by carving them in stone and thereby also endowing them with greater magical power. The decision on Wenis's part has provided for us the earliest collection of religious texts, not only of Egypt, but of all humankind." - Hornung, 1999, p.36.

The divine nature of the king is the core myth holding Ancient Egyptian society together. It explains royal magic (effectiveness), Great Speech and Maat, truth & justice. In the "ideal" of the Heliopolitan priests, the living Horus-king guarantees a "good Nile" and his united administration creates economic surplus. The Nile records his magic, while the "pacification" of the "two lands" is his control & power, the brilliance of his Great Mansion. Centuries before Unas, this state ideology was already fully in place (cf. the great building projects).

the texts

King Unas was the first to include hieroglyphic inscriptions in his royal tomb, namely in its corridor, antechamber, passage-way & burial-chamber. The area around the sarcophagus and the serdab are left uninscribed. This coincides with a general increase of writing in general in the later Vth Dynasty. The Unas text, carved and filled with blue pigment, contains, in 228 of the 759 (Faulkner, 1969) known "utterances", the first historical account of the (Heliopolitan) religion of the Old Kingdom, in particular its royal cult. It precedes the textualization of the Vedas, reckoned at ca. 1900 BCE (Unas died ca. 2348 BCE).

"The Pyramid Texts reflect not only an Egyptian vision of the afterlife but also the entire background of Old Kingdom religious and social structures, and they incorporate an ancient worldview much different from that of more familiar cultures." -
Allen, 2005, p.13.

Technically, the Pyramid Texts are a corpus consisting of "utterances" or "spells", so called because the expression "Dd mdw" ("Dd" = "word" ; "mdw" = "speech"), "to say" or "to say the words", i.e. the sacred words to be recited is, as a rule, atop most texts, allowing for a classification. The one introduced by Sethe (1910, with 714 utterances), is an inventory of all texts, irrespective of the kind of text or its placement in the tombs.

Integrating both variables underlines the effort to bring out the dramatic & ritualistic features of these texts.

"The actual inscription of text on the walls of the Pyramid of Unas shows considerable redactional care, with a significant number of corrections, both to the original ink draft and to the carved signs, in ways that seem to imply copying and then collation from a more cursive original. There can indeed be no reasonable doubt that inscriptions themselves were copied immediately from papyrus text." - Eyre, 2002, p.12, my italics.

Discovered by Maspero in 1881, the Unas text had been buried and left undisturbed for ca. 4200 years. An untainted primary religious source ! Together with the texts found in the tombs of King Unas' successors, Pharaohs Teti, Pepi I, Merenre & Pepi II (ca. 2270 - 2205 BCE) of the VIth Dynasty, these compositions form the first known religious corpus in world literature, as well as the earliest example of extended writing worldwide (including a rich pallet of various styles, forms & intentions). The small pyramids of the three wives of King Pepi II (Neith, Ipwet and Oudjebeten) are also inscribed, as is that of King Iby (VIIIth Dynasty).

The quality of these inscriptions is however relatively crude and they are not part of the inventory realized by
Sethe (1908), the "standard edition" of the Pyramid Texts, later translated into German. In 1952, Mercer published the first English version and in 1968, Piankoff translated the text in his The Pyramid of Unas. Finally in 1969, Faulkner published his The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the acclaimed standard English translation, with new & refreshing grammatical & semantic perspectives. For him, Sethe's work was bulky, incomplete and never revised by its author. Meanwhile, more material had come to light, enabling him to restore many lacunae, whereas in the last half of the previous century great advances in Ancient Egyptian had been made.

The list of tombs containing Pyramid Texts is apparently never final, nor has our knowledge of Ancient Egyptian stopped advancing. In 2005, Allen published The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, containing the texts found in 10 tombs (besides the canonical five, he also includes Ankhesenpepi II, Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni & Ibi). This clear translation of the Unas text is in many ways remarkable and most welcome, in particular regarding the use of verbal forms, as well as offering translations of passages beforehand deemed untranslatable, calling for revision. No doubt, this translation by Allen excells Faulkner's and is a humbling experience for anyone studying these texts for years.

The Unas text was copied in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 - 1759 BCE) tomb of the official Senwosret-Ankh, high priest of Ptah, suggesting the presence of a separate corpus (on papyrus ?), i.e. a continuous manuscript tradition and an underlying archival tradition.
This is also the best preserved body of text representing a complete set, providing the standard approach to the theology of the Old Kingdom, dominated by Re-Atum of Heliopolis (Pepi II has the most complete surviving texts of the later pyramids, but suffering damage).

"... the Unas texts were evidently regarded as an integral work in their own right, and seem to have acquired 'canonical' status ..." - Naydler, 2005, p.149.

Maspero (1884, p.3) assumed these texts were exclusively funerary and divided them in ritual texts, prayers and magical spells. In the previous century, authors realized they include drama, hymns, litanies, glorifications, magical texts, offering rituals, prayers, charms, divine offerings, the ascension of Pharaoh, his arrival & settling in heaven, etc. They offer a glimpse of an African, anterational perspective on death, rebirth & illumination.

4. The interpretation of the Pyramid Texts

"They include very ancient texts among those which were nearly contemporary with the pyramids in which they were inscribed, imposing on the modern reader problems of grammar and vocabulary ; the orthography is apt to be unusual ; and there are many mythological and other allusions of which the purport is obscure to the translator of today." - Faulkner, 1969, p.v.

For Sethe (1908), the Pyramid Texts were a free collection of magical utterances, which, by virtue of their presence, assisted the divine king in his resurrection & ascension de opere operato, dispensing with the need for daily priestly offerings to his Ka (in the pyramid temple above) as well as elaborate monumental buildings. He himself uttered the words of power to regenerate himself and rise up. The sarcophagus chamber texts have to be read first. This is the standard funerary interpretation.

"Food offerings alone, however, even when they conformed to the prescriptions regarding purity and dietary taboos (e.g. no pork, no fish), did not suffice to maintain the divine forces. These forces were nothing without ritual and efficacious speech." -
Traunecker, 2001, p.40, my italics.

The presence of offering-texts feeds the subtle bodies of the deceased. Sacred words or hieroglyphs not only describe objects, but embody their double (cf. the Lascaux pictures and the Eastern desert petroglyphs). Hence, once properly recited (by the dead and/or the living, the so-called "voice-offerings"), they become efficient (for all of eternity). The hidden, secret, dark potential of hieroglyphs is evidenced by the sacrificial rituals found in the extended mortuary literature. Words made these rituals work. The Ba of the deceased reads the words and the latter manifest their meaning, guaranteeing a safe passage to the afterlife.

"We have already pointed out that the spells of the so-called sacrificial ritual, i.e. the texts used in the provision of supplies, were inscribed in a prominent place where they could be seen by the dead person resting in his sarcophagus. (...) In other words, texts were written down so that the dead themselves could 'proclaim the provision of supplies' ("nis dbHt-Htp") instead of this being done by unreliable priests. This was the nucleus around which the texts crystallized." - Morenz, 1996, p.229.

Schott (1945) & Ricke (1950) advanced the thesis that at the time of the funeral, these texts were recited in the various chambers, corridors and courts through which the procession passed on its way to the pyramid. The valley temple corresponded to the vestibule, the causeway to the entrance corridor, the outer pyramid temple to the antechamber and the sanctuary to the burial-chamber. But it was not easy to identify where each spell was recited.

This view was challenged by Arnold (1977), who tried to discover the function of the pyramid complex by examining the wall reliefs, statues, inscriptions and architectural features of the complex itself. These refer little to funerary rituals ! Schott discovered three literary forms : (a) dramatic texts recited by the participants in a ritual drama, (b) hymns assisting the ritual drama and (c) transfiguration spells, in which the scene happens in the spirit worlds while the king speaks through the reciting priest. As for Scott the funerary procession terminated in the inner pyramid temple (corresponding with the sarcophagus room), we have to read the texts in the burialchamber last !

For Spiegel (1953 & 1971) the texts are an integral part of the funerary ritual performed in the tomb and hence recited in the area were they were inscribed. They reflect the royal burial ritual taking place solely in the tomb underneath the pyramid. Their placement reflects the entry of the funerary procession into the tomb. Hence, the text begins on the West wall of the entrance corridor, continue in the burial-chamber and re-enter the antechamber on its South wall, ending on the East wall of the entrance corridor ... Again a different order from that of Sethe, Scott and Ricke ! Spiegel is the first to claim the sarcophagus chamber represents the Duat and the antechamber the Akhet.

These conjectures were criticized. In 1960, Morenz wrote :

"This bold, learned and ingenious interpretation can properly be accessed only by one who has examined it in terms of the vast and diverse material. When this is done, it appears that quite serious objections may be levelled against numerous points in the argumentation and thus against the thesis as such." - Morenz, 1996, p.228-229, my italics.

According to Mercer (1952), only the offering liturgy (on the North wall of the burial-chamber) belongs to the funerary ritual proper. The purpose of the magical & mythical formulae, prayers, hymns and petitions was to guarantee the king's resurrection and new birth, involving transfiguration and deification, the king being immortal like the other deities. In his translation, Mercer follows Sethe's classification.

Likewise, for Piankoff (1968) the texts describe a postmortem mystical journey, culminating in union with the godhead, Re-Atum. It entails rebirth, ascent, traveling in the Solar Barque, absorption of the substance of the deities and exaltation in the embrace of Re-Atum. Like Schott, Piankoff begins to read the text in the corridor leading into the tomb, moves to the antechamber for the king's ascension and projects his final deification in the burial-chamber.

Faulkner (1969), the Pyramid Texts are to be regarded as religious and funerary literature. They describe the king's postmortem journey to the stars and transformation into one (Faulkner, 1966). His translation again follows Sethe's classification.

Altenmüller (1972) agrees with Schott & Ricke that these texts were recited in the pyramid temple, as well as in the tomb, involving priests assuming the god-forms of Re, Horus, Seth and Thoth.

In the Unas text, he isolates three main sections : (a) the funerary procession and actions on the mummy (censing, libation, opening of the mouth), (b) the offering ritual and (c) the burial ritual on the West wall of the antechamber. He attempts to explain every utterance in terms of the mortuary rituals, relying mostly on mythological references and worldplay to determine which text corresponds to which representation. He based his order of the text on (a) the sequencing found in the tomb of Senwosret-Ankh and (b) his conjectured order of the royal funerary ritual as portrayed in the later Middle and New Kingdom private tombs.

"Schott, Spiegel, and Altenmüller all see the key to understanding the Pyramid Texts as lying outside the texts themselves." - Naydler, 2005, p.180.

Barta (1981) doubts whether the Pyramid Texts belong to the funerary ritual at all. The goal of these texts extended beyond the short duration of the actual funerary ritual. They serve the king in the afterlife. Barta returns to the interpretation of Sethe. The texts are used by the king in the afterlife, providing him knowledge and magical power, assisting him in the process of his deification. Barta accepts that the Duat might be accessible to the king while he is still living, but the texts themselves are intended to help the deceased king ...

Osing (1986) &
Allen (1988) compared the location of the texts within the tomb of Unas with other Old Kingdom pyramids and the tomb of Senwosret-Ankh at Lisht. Allen was able to establish a coherent model describing the funerary ideology of these royal tombs without reference to conjectured stages of a funerary ritual. The position of particular groups of texts within Unas' pyramid corresponds with the placement of the same texts in other pyramids. Spells recited during the burial ritual were thus eternalized as divine words on the walls, further complementing the importance of symbolism in the general layout of the mortuary complex in general and the royal tomb in particular. The order is determined by the thematic relationship of the texts to the architectural symbolism of the two chambers and their four quarters. There is a spatial semantic at work.

"Allen's analysis of the sequence of spells in the pyramid of Wenis defines the architecture as a material representation of the passage of the king through death to resurrection, exploiting themes familiar in the Underworld Books of the New Kingdom. From the darkness of the earth he passes to life in the light of the sky, progressing from the burial chamber as underworld (duat) through the antechamber as horizon (akht) where he becomes Akh, through the doorway leading to the corridor -ascending by ladder- to heaven (pet), or passing like the setting sun from the west to his rising from the mouth of the horizon in the east, or exploiting the image of the king passing from his sarcophagus -the womb of Nut- through her vulva to birth at the door of the horizon. (...) Allen's analysis focuses on the principle whereby the position of discrete units of ritual text asserts a functional identity between the theology of the text and the architectural symbolism of the pyramid substructure, and so the reality of the king's passage to resurrection". - Eyre, 2002, p.44-45 & 47.

The direction of the texts
was thus identical with the soul's path through the tomb, moving from the innermost parts of the burial-chamber (the "Duat" in the West), through the antechamber (the Eastern horizon or "Akhet"), to the outside of the pyramid via the second northern tunnel, flying to the Northern, circumpolar (imperishable) Stars, reaching the Field of Offering.

  • the Duat (burial-chamber) : though a part of the world (Earth), but neither Nun or sky, the Netherworld is inaccessible to the living and outside normal human experience. It is separate from the sky and reached prior to it. The Field of Reeds is the realm of the deceased and the deities and the mystery of Osiris. The Horus-king has perpetuated offerings, and stands at the door of the horizon to emerge from the Duat and start his spiritualization ;

  • the Horizon (antechamber) : "Axt" ("Akhet"), translated as "horizon", is both the junction of sky and Earth and a place in the sky underneath this point (before eastern dawn and after western dusk), a secret interstitial zone reached and crossed by boat. It is a zone of transition and a "radiant place", the "land of the blessed". The horizon is the place of becoming effective, the locus of the becoming "Ax" ("Akh"), an effective spirit. Note (as did Allen, 1988), that the Cannibal Hymn, thematically belongs in its place (the East Gable). It summarized the king's passage through the night sky to the Sun at dawn. The process of spiritualization ends with the emergence of the new light ;

  • the Imperishable sky (northern corridor) : the process of transfiguration (ultimate spiritualization) being completed, the Akh-spirit leaves the tomb and ascends to the northern stars, becoming an Imperishable One.

Eyre (2002) suggests the training and initiation of the funerary priests points to this-life rituals. Perhaps the king rehearsed his forthcoming burial during life ?

"The promise of divine assistance, resurrection, and safe passage to the afterlife is not, however, a concern purely of funerary ritual, and the markedly initiatory form of parts of the mortuary literature must be taken as a pointer to contemporary 'this-life' ritual that is otherwise lost from the archaeological record." - Eyre, 2002, p.72.

Recently, Naydler (2005), by suspending the funerary interpretation, evidenced that the Pyramid Texts in general and the Unas texts in particular, reveal an experiential dimension, and so also represent this-life initiatic experiences consciously sought by the divine king (cf. Egyptian initiation). These may be classified in two categories : Osirian rejuvenation (cf. the texts of the burial-chamber), already at work in the Sed festival, and Heliopolitan ascension (cf. the texts in the antechamber). Apparently the former was celebrated regularly, whereas the latter is foremost funerary.

According to Allen (2005), the Pyramid Texts :

"are largely concerned with the deceased's relationship to two gods, Osiris and the Sun. Egyptologists once considered these two themes as independent views of the afterlife that had become fused in the Pyramid Texts, but more recent research has shown that both belong to a single concept of the deceased's eternal existence after death - a view of the afterlife that remained remarkably consistent throughout ancient Egyptian history." - Allen, 2005, p.7.

conjectured symbolism of the compass points

Many variations regarding the reading direction of the pyramid texts of Unas prevail. Allen's interpretation of Spiegler's conjecture (identifying the burial-chamber with the Duat and the antechamber with the Akhet) seems very interesting and has been adapted. However, my sequencing of the texts differs from both Allen & Naydler, and this for variant reasons.

For example, Allen (2005) is not impressed that in the sacropagusroom, PT 219 on the South Wall continues on the East Wall, nor that in the antechamber PT 260 on the West Wall continues on the South Wall. For Naydler (2005), this points to the Solar & regenerative movement from West to East, as seen in the tomb, confirmed by what he sees as examples of inverse quioning, used in architecture to avoid making the joint between two blocks in the corner.

5. An integration of perspectives.

the mind & magic of Re

Let us try to integrate these various perspectives, taking into consideration the cognitive texture of the ante-rational mind as well as the dramatic, ritualistic interpretation of these ancient magical texts.

If we understand these texts as magical devices, and realize each monarch had his own political and theological preferences, then it seems likely each divine king, to define his own royal cult, made his own, titulary choice out of the available body of religious literature (available on papyrus), maybe adding a few spells of his own. By doing so, he left to posterity an elaborated theo-literary testament with magical effectivity. If so, it became exemplary. This was his magical Great Speech, serving Pharaoh's welfare in the afterlife, elevating him above all possible beings and making him rise even above most deities (cf. the Cannibal Hymn). But also during life on Earth, his royal cult was active and assured his renewal (as the Sed festivals testify).

This magic is part of the logic of the Great Speech, which involved a return to the First Time ("zep tepi") of Atum-Khepri, the self-created essence of Re. This going back to the Golden Age lay at the core of both this-life and afterlife rituals. In the books of the Netherworld, they are represented near Re on his Sacred Barque ; Re with his functions :

  • "sia" (understanding) : often wrongly associated with "wisdom" ("saa"), "sia" is related to "knowledge", "perception", "intelligent plan", and might be equated with the mind of Re, or "understanding". In the Old Kingdom, Sia is the divine functionary at the right side of Re, holding the god's sacred papyrus scroll. He is mostly depicted or mentioned together with "Hu". For the Memphites, the mind of Re was the heart of Ptah (cf. Late New Kingdom) ;

  • "hu" (authorative utterance) : the creative word of the supreme creator-god is uttered by his tongue. To speak words of power is immediate and carries conviction, strength and weight. "Hu" is also deified, and is always depicted together with Sia. Both represent the basic functions of the divine mind : overarching understanding (overviewing the Two Lands) hand in hand with authority, weight & power of command. Both concepts pre-figurate the omiscience & omnipotence of the Judeo-Christian God ;

  • "heka" (magic) : the creative power contained in the divine word of Atum. "Heka" is used to denote (a) the "primordial Sa", the ever-dynamical energy of creation, issued from the word of Atum when he created himself as Atum-Kheprer, and (b) the "primordial field" underpinning creation. Sa-energy was present from the beginning, when Atum-Kheprer hatched out of the primordial egg floating in Nun. Not only does the king's Great Speech know it all and carry the power of conviction & authority, but it has immediate effectiveness and causal power. The king is such a powerful cause that creation bows before the son of the Creator ;

  • "maat" (truth & justice) : daughter of Re, and spouse of both Heka and Thoth (deities of magic), Maat represents the impersonal idea of cosmic order, embodied by the divine king, who offers "truth" to his father Re. Maat is the plummet of the balance of justice. In Middle Egyptian, the word "maat" ("mAat") is used for "truth" and "justice". Truth is an equilibrium (a bringing together hand in hand with a keeping apart), measurable as the state of affairs given by the image, form or representation of the balance :

U38 "mxAt", balance

"Pay attention to the decision of truth and the plummet of the balance, according to its stance."

Papyrus of Ani
18th Dynasty - Chap.30B, pl.3
Anubis measures & represents this precise attention of the divine guardian & psychopomp, while the input of sensation is recorded (mind) by Thoth.

This New Kingdom exhortation by Anubis, the Witness of the Balance, summarizes the Egyptian practice of wisdom and pursuit of justice & truth. By it, their "practical method of truth" springs to the fore : serenity, concentration, observation, quantification (analysis, spatiotemporal flow, measurements) & recording (fixating), with the sole purpose of rebalancing, reequilibrating & correcting concrete states of affairs, using the plumb-line of the various equilibria in which these actual aggregates of events are dynamically -scale-wise- involved. Responding likewise, but always from two different angles : on the one hand, the "common" view of "the heart", namely the end result of the activities of the living person, on the other hand, the divine view of truth & justice, the truth of the cosmic order of the world, represented by a feather (H6).

The activities of the divine king cause :

(a) Maat to be done for them and their environments and
(b) the proper "Ka", or vital energy, at peace with itself, to flow between all parts of creation (truth and justice are personified as the daughter of Re, equivalent with the Greek Themis, daughter of Zeus - cf. "maati" as the Greek "dike").

The "logic" behind the operation of the balance involves four rules :

  1. inversion : when a concept is introduced, its opposite is also invoked (the two scale of the balance) ;

  2. asymmetry : flow is the outcome of inequality (the feather-scale of the balance is a priori correct) ;

  3. reciprocity : the two sides of everything interact and are interdependent (the beam of the balance) ;

  4. multiplicity-in-oneness : the possibilities between every pair are measured by one standard (the plummet)

  5. witnessing consciousness : the operation of measuring the whole balance is witnessed with precise and concentrated attention and recorded for further comparison and retuning.

Parapsychology, comparative religions and mysticology allow us to distinguish between psi-events (parapsychology), occultism (knowledge of the invisible worlds between heaven and Earth) and mysticism (direct, radical experience of the Divine, the "totaliter aliter"). Although in immature instances of meta-nominal experience (i.e. those falling outside empirico-formal consciousness - cf. Clearings, 2006), these phenomena cannot be distinguished, I avoid adjectives as "shamanic" or "shamanistic" (cf. Naydler, J. : Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, 2005), and prefer "ecstatic", which is more neutral and devoid of the historical connotations implied by historical Shamanism (the art & science of controlled trance). The word "ecstatic" comes from the Greek "ex", "out" + "stasis", "standstill" or "statikè", "art of weighing", and refers to an extraordinary, unmeasurable, radical experience, clearly out of the ordinary. In my opinion, the Heliopolitan priesthood was too well organized to be called "Shamanistic", although this does preclude shamanistic components in the sacred spells (compare this with the presence of trance oracles & dagger-liberations in Tibetan Buddhism today). Can one do otherwise but disagree with a most rewarding sources of inspiration and learning, Erik Hornung, who wrote about the Egyptians :

"... any sort of ecstasy appears quite alien to their attitudes." - Hornung, 1986.

In Ancient Egypt, the variety of ecstatic experiences may be classified as personal piety (offerings, prayers, festivals, mystery plays), magic (psi-events), the occult (initiation, entering and leaving the Duat) and mysticism proper. The latter is found in the spirituality of the divine king and his high priests, meeting the deity "face to face" in their temples or transforming into one during life (as a living Osiris during the Sed festival).

the royal cult

In order to understand the Pyramid Texts, the ecstatic, magical, occult & funerary elements should be combined. The pyramid-complex may well have been the place of the royal cult, both during and after the king's life. He was the "Great House" or "Great Mansion" of the Old Kingdom (Memphis), and he alone uttered the Great Speech. All areas of the temple complex may have been used in this magico-religious empowerment of the divine king, who was the sole reference-point here, in the invisible Duat as well as in the afterlife. Much later, with king Akhenaten, we witness the return of this royal Solar cult.

"In each instance Maat is in concrete forms undoubtedly the divinely-established pattern of government, and the pharaoh, by virtue of his divine nature, receives it substantially like a sacrament. It will at once be clear that in this process the king is not regarded as an individual person but as the bearer of the royal office. One must assume that the Maat at work in the ruler was thought to be of benefit to each individual Egyptian." - Morenz, 1996, p.121.

So the "djed medu" or the recitative use of these texts should not be surprising. With the tomb as cosmos, the material image of the texts magically assist the process of the Pharaonic rite of passage, transforming the king into a spirit efficient enough to bless his son with a "good Nile", guarantee of the unity of Egypt. But the royal cult was much more. During life, it was a means to continuously regenerate the powers of the divine king to perform his office efficiently, i.e. ti was accompanied by great magic & divine protection.

The overall Egyptian mentality seems to favour an enduring canon of broad schemes adaptable to immediate circumstances. As each divine king had his own titulary, or political statement, so he, as supreme High Priest, had his own regeneration-ritual & burial ritual, of course influenced by the prevailing dynastic theology, each Temple being the home of the "supreme" god of each system, one of the five local gods promoted to national deities  : Osiris of Abydos, Re of Heliopolis, Ptah of Memphis, Thoth of Hermopolis or Amun of Thebes.

The royal cult was both regenerative as mortuary, reflecting a variety of local (nomic) traditions at work around the divine king and soliciting his favours. Of course, some compositions were considered more sacred than others, and the texts carved in Unas' tomb were and/or became canonical.

The Egyptians existed by the grace of the "good Nile" the king alone, being divine, could guarantee. His death was thus a major calamity, and could perturbate the agricultural cycle, leading to famine, conflicts and death. His burial provided him with a ladder between heaven and Earth, and so the first thing the glorified (spiritualized) king would do arriving in the sky (pet, heaven), was to provide Egypt with a new king and a "good Nile". The latter was the magical proof of the king being blessed by the spirit of his father ...

Ba of Ani rejoining the mummy - Ba leaving the tomb
Papyrus of Ani -  ca. 1250 BCE - New Kingdom.

This reciprocal function of the tomb has to be emphasized. The Ba could return with its Ka. The liberated "Akh" has freedom of movement and time. It is bright, light, radiant and efficient. While they stay in the sky, the spirits make their souls and doubles come down and unite with their statues. Through them, they were present to the priests. The destruction of a tomb or a temple, implied the end of its role as "interphase" with "the other side" of the false door.

the language of the texts

In the ca. 650 years between ca. 3000 BCE (the beginning of the Dynastic Period) and ca. 2348 BCE (the death of king Unas), the written language had considerably developed. But although words could be joined together in simple sentences and the latter in pragmatical groups (dealing with honors & gifts, offices, legacies, inventories, testaments, transfers, endowments, etc.), the additive, archaic quality of the literary style was pronounced and remains.

The Pyramid Texts pose their own particular problems & difficulties. Most, if not all, founding fathers of Egyptology accepted Maspero's funerary interpretation, in which these texts form a set of symbolical "heraldic"  utterances (great speeches) dealing with the promotion of the welfare of the divine king in the afterlife. But, enjoying a broader perspective, conjecture these utterances were part of the ceremonies of the royal cult, especially those relating to the coronation, rebirth (Sed festival), death, resurrection (in the Duat or Netherworld) and ascension of the divine king (via Akhet, horizon, to Pet, sky).

These texts are to a large extent a composition, a compilation and joining of earlier texts which must have circulated orally or have been recorded on papyrus many centuries earlier. Certain registers go back to the oral tradition of the Predynastic Period, for they suggest the political context of Egypt before its final unification (as Sethe pointed out). Others, although the archeological record is limited, were used in this-life rituals (Naydler, 2005), and must have had initiatoric connotations.

"The Pyramid Texts were not the work of a single man or of a single age. They are entirely anonymous and of uncertain date. And they are religious literature which reflect more or less clearly the conditions of religious thought in ancient Egypt previous to the Seventh Dynasty - more like the Psalms than any other book of the Old Testament." - Mercer, 1956, p.2.

In the Old Egyptian of the Pyramid Texts, the composition between semantic groups is loose. Subjectivity is still objectified. Pre-operatoric activity is limited to the immediate material context. Older structures were mingled with new ones and many traces of earlier periods were left over. The language of these compositions, which has the style of the "records" of the Old Kingdom, is often additive and offers little self-reflection (which starts with the literature of the First Intermediate Period). Didactic poetry (precepts) and lyrics in which personal emotions & experiences are highlighted are nearly absent. Although proto-rationality is most of the time lingering, the overall framework of the composition is pre-rational (cf. cognition and epistemology). The tensions are not resolved but stratified, allowing for several registers to be identified : Predynastic, Heliopolitan, Hermopolitan, Osirian, royal, funerary, ecstatic, magical, occult, funerary, etc. The blend itself is most interesting, if not very difficult to understand.

Various types of parallelism occur : synonymous (doubling or by repetition), symmetrical, combined, grammatical, antithetic, of contrast, of constraint, of analogy, of purpose and of identity. Metrical schemes of two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight lines occur (the fourfold being the most popular). The play of words is the commonest literary feature, depending on the consonantal roots. Alliteration, metathesis, metaphors, ellipses, anthropomorphisms and picturesque expressions and puns are also found. Not surprising a thorough understanding of these texts is lacking.

Translating Ancient Egyptian literature calls for special considerations, which may be summarized as follows :

  1. semantic circumscription (Gardiner) : to those unaware of the semantical problem in mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought and its literary products, the differences between various translations may be disconcerting. Ancient Egyptian literature is a treasure-house of this ante-rational cognitive activity, and its "logic" is entirely contextual, pictoral, artistic and practical. The meaning or conception of the sense of certain words, especially in sophisticated literary context, is prone to large discrepancies. Gardiner spoke of "interpretative preferences" (Gardiner, 1946).

    Furthermore, despite major grammatical discoveries, Egyptian writing is ambiguous qua grammatical form. Some of its defects can not be overcome and so a "consensus omnium" among all sign-interpreters is unlikely. The notion of "semantic circumscription" was derived from this quote by Gardiner :
    "If the uncertainty involved in such tenuous distinctions awake despondency in the minds of some students, to them I would reply that our translations, though very liable to error in detail, nevertheless at the worst give a roughly adequate idea of what the ancient author intended ; we may not grasp his exact thought, indeed at times we may go seriously astray, but at least we shall have circumscribed the area within which his meaning lay, and with that achievement we must rest content."
    Gardiner, 1946, pp.72-73, my italics.
    To the latter, more attention to lexicography (a discussion of individual words) and the rule that at least one certain example of the sense of a word must be given were considered as crucial. Personally, I would add the rule that one has to take into consideration all hieroglyphs (also the determinatives) and try to circumscribe the meaning by assessing the context in which words and sentences appears ;

  2. the benefit of the doubt (Zába) : amendments should be introduced with great caution and for very good reasons. Indeed, some egyptologists change the original text with great ease, and consider that Egyptian scribes were careless and prone to mistakes. This is not the correct attitude. We all make mistakes. Zába prompted us to respect the original text and made it his principle. He wrote :
    "Pour ce qui est la traduction d'un texte égyptien dans une langue moderne, l'étude de divers textes (...) m'a amené au principe dont je me suis fait une règle, à savoir de considérer a priori un texte égyptien comme correct et de m'en expliquer chaque difficulté tout d'abord par l'aveu de ne pas connaître la grammaire ou le vocabulaire égyptien aussi bien qu'un Egyptien. (...) et ce n'est donc qu'après avoir longement, mais en vain, consulté d'autres textes et ne pouvant expliquer la difficulté autrement, que je suis enclin à croire que le texte est altéré."
    Zába, 1956, p.11.

  3. multiple approaches (Frankfort) : one has to assimilate the Egyptian way of thinking before engaging in explaining anything. Their "method" being not linear, axiomatic (definitions & theorema) or linea recta. Frankfort (1961, pp.16-20) explains : "... the coexistence of different correlation of problems and phenomena presents no difficulties. It is in the concrete imagery of the Egyptian texts and designs that they become disturbing to us ; there lies the main source of the inconsistencies which have baffled and exasperated modern students of Egyptian religion. (...) Here then we find an abrupt juxtaposition of views which we should consider mutually exclusive. This is what I have called a multiplicity of approaches : the avenue of preoccupation with life and death leads to one imaginative conception, that with the origin of the existing world to another. Each image, each concept was valid within its own context. (...) And yet such quasi-conflicting images, whether encountered in paintaings or in texts, should not be dismissed in the usual derogatory manner. They display a meaningful inconsistency, and not poverty but superabundance of imagination. (...) This discussion of the multiplicity of approaches to a single cosmic god requires a complement ; we must consider the converse situation in which one single problem is correlated with several natural phenomena. We might call it a 'multiplicity of answers'."

  4. integral acceptation (Zimmer) : in his study of Eastern religions and exegesis of Hindu thought, the German scholar Heinrich Zimmer introduced a principle which implies that before one studies a culture one has to accept that it exists or existed as it does and claims. One should approach and interprete its cultural forms as little as possible using standards which does not fit in, which focus on subjects which were of no interest to it (like the colour of the hair of royal mummies) or which reduces it to what is already known. This means that one, as does comparative cultural anthropology with its methodology of participant observation, accepts the culture at hand without prejudices and projections. Zimmer (1972, p.3) explains himself : "La méthode -ou, plutôt, l'habitude- qui consists à ramener ce qui n'est pas familier à ce que l'on connaît bien, a de tout temps mené à la frustration intellectuelle. (....) Faute d'avoir adopté une attitude d'acceptation, nous ne recevons rien ; nous nous voyons refuser la faveur d'un entretien avec les dieux. Ce n'est point notre sort d'être submergés, comme le sol d'Egypte, par les eaux divines et fécondantes du Nil. C'est parce qu'elles sont vivantes, possédant le pouvoir de faire revivre, capables d'exercer une influence effective, toujours revouvelée, indéfinissable et pourtant logique avec elle-même, sur le plan de la destinée humaine, que les images du folklore et du mythe défient toute tentative de systématisation. Elles ne sont pas des cadavres, mais bien des esprits possesseurs. Avec un rire soudain, et un brusque saut de côté, elles se jouent du spécialiste qui s'imagine les avoir épinglées sur son tableau synoptique. Ce qu'elles exigent de nous ce n'est pas de monologue d'un officier de police judiciaire, mais le dialogue d'une conversation vivante."

  5. non-abstraction : egyptologists are aware that the cognitive abilities of the Ancient Egyptians were not the same as the Greeks. Thanks to Piaget's description of the genesis of cognition, we can assess the Egyptian heritage with the standards of ante-rational thought, to wit : the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of thoughts, which each have their specific modus operandi. Hence, when we try to interprete a text, the question before us is : in what mode or modes of thought was this written (which kind of text is this) ? Indeed, because of the multiplicity of approaches, the Ancient Egyptians left old strands of thought intact, with an amalgam of approaches placed next to each other without interference ;

  6. spatial semantics : Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was more than a way to convey well-formed meaning (i.e. language), but tried to invoke the magic of the "numen praesens", involving the use of artistic space (a contemporary equivalent is the Zen garden) as a additional element in the composition of meaning. The Shabaka Stone, discussed earlier, is only one (late) example of the principles of spatial organization which governed Egyptian from the start (besides honorific or graphic transpositions). Unsightly gaps and disharmonious distributions were rejected. Groupings always involved the use of imaginary squares or rectangles ensuring the proportioned arrangement. This allowed for slight imperfections. Symmetry-breaks bring the importance of an item to the fore. Furthermore, important hieroglyphs were given their architectonic, monumental or ornamental equivalent. Spatial semantics was at work in large monumental constructions as well as in small stela or tiny juwelery and important tools (for Maat is at work in both the big and the small) ... Besides Schwaller de Lubicz, egyptologists have not given this aspect of Egyptian "sacred geometry" the attention it deserve leaving the horizon wide opened to wild stellar, historical & anthropological speculations ;

  7. metaphorical inclination : Ancient Egyptians "spoke in images". This holds true in a linguistic sense (namely their use of pictograms), but also with regard to their literary inclinations. When somebody grabbed his meat violently, the Egyptian thought of the voracious crocodile who has no tongue and who has to grab his food with his teeth and swallow it in one piece. When they saw the Sun rise and heared the baboons sing, they associated this activity with praise and the glorification of light, etc. Some hymns speak in images, poetical phrases, metaphors and other sophisticated literary devices. Literary and metaphorical meaning overlap and interpenetrate (for example : "He who spits to heaven sees his spittle fall back on his face.") ... The epithets of the deities too are full of visual elements. Some egyptologists tend to rewrite this to comfort the contemporary readers. This harms the fluid nature of the texts and makes them dry and gray. The contrary (leaving these images intact) works confusing when Egyptian literature is new. As a function of their intention to try to really grasp the sense, translators make a compromize between literal and analogical renderings. I myself tend towards the analogical (which was closer to the Egyptian way of life), leaving room for explicative notes and comments.
    "The only basis we have for preferring one rendering to another, when once the exigencies of grammar and dictionary have been satisfied -and these leave a large margin for divergencies- is an intuitive appreciation of the trend of the ancient writer's mind." - Gardiner (1925, p.5).

It goes without saying, that all the hermeneutical rules-of-thumb in the world will not guarantee a "perfect" translation, which simply does not exist. The Italian dictum "traduttore traditore" (the translator is a traitor), is especially true for Egyptian. As with all texts of Antiquity, large scale comparison of all available translations (in this case, those of Mercer, Piankoff, Faulkner & Allen) is the best option. Not only has the text to be contextualized, but one has to acquire the habit of looking up the same word or expression in various contexts across time (lexicography). But even then, one should be content with Gardiner's view that to circumscribe sense is the best one can do.

"Although we can approach its grammar in an orderly fashion (...) we are often puzzled and even frustrated by the continual appearance of exceptions to the rules. Middle Egyptian can be especially difficult in this regard ..." - Allen (2001, p.389).

Put aside the obvious difficulties encountered when trying to translate texts 4300 years old, a more subtle problem is posed by the mentality of the Egyptians themselves. We must not be entrapped by projecting on Ancient Egyptian literature our own rational approach, based on abstract cognitive activity initiated by the Greeks. Egyptian civilization is ante-rational. This means mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational strands are at work. In the Pyramid Texts, the pre-rational mode of thought is mostly at hand. Hence, no concrete "closure" is realized. In other parts (as in the ascension texts), proto-rationality is suggested.

"The ordinary consideration of the Egyptian symbol reduces it to a primary arbitrary, utilitarian and singular meaning, whereas in reality it is a synthesis which requires great erudition for its analysis and a special culture for the esoteric knowledge that it implies - which does not exclude the necessity of being 'simple', or knowing how to 'simply look' at the symbol." - Schwaller de Lubicz, 1978, p.55.

the present English version of the Unas text

The present English version of the Unas text makes use of the hieroglyphs to choose between alternative views on the text as proposed by Sethe, Mercer, Piankoff, Faulkner & Allen. It pays homage to their magisterial translations and is indebted to them. Especially in the case of an Opus of such scope as the pyramid texts of Unas, the present author claims no authority over a "new" English translation of this monumental work, and presents his work as the ongoing result of constantly (re)studying direct (the hieroglyphs) & indirect sources (new translations), and amending his choices. For the goal of these Ancient Egyptian studies is not to translate Egyptian texts ab ovo, but to bring together a basket of texts allowing us to appreciate Ancient Egyptian wisdom teachings and clarifying the relationship with Greek philosophy (cf. Hermetism and the Hermetic Keys). Because these texts only exists on the WWW, amendments can always made without cutting trees.

The contemporary school of egyptological literalism equates the earliest temporal layer of any text with its historical date of composition, mistrusting the presence of literary antecedents. In the case of the Pyramid Texts, they would agree to push the date of inception with a few centuries (the margin of error for this period being ca. 100 years), but try to avoid a Predynastic figure, which is not supported for all the texts. Indeed, comparisons with the architectural language of the period, makes it likely that under Pharaoh Djoser, the Egyptians had the conceptual framework of the Pyramid Texts at their disposal. King Djoser, the "inventor of stone" and his vizier Imhotep, the "great seer" (or prophet) of Re at Iunu, "the Pillar", layed the foundations of the Old Kingdom "canon" ruling all aspects of the life of the elite, including writing, sapience, art & religion. To project the beginning of the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 BCE) as the date of inception of most (not all !) of these texts is altogether a reasonable guess.

Here is Sethe's standard edition of the Pyramid Texts (1910) and Mercer's translation (1952).

Summarizing :

  • aim of the texts : to assist the divine king in his royal cult, both during his life on Earth (namely through Lunar regeneration), and in the afterlife (to ascend to Re) ;

  • spatial semantics : there is a spatial symbolism at work in the actual placement of the texts in the chambers, passage-way & corridor : Lunar Duat (sarcophagus room) and Solar Akhet (antechamber) are at work in four directions : West (Duat, sarcophagus, false door, dusk), North (Imperishables, the sky of Re), South (cyclic stars, the inundation) & East (Eastern Horizon, rise of Re). The texts circumambulate the theme of the king's glorious being, both as a living Horus (a reigning monarch), a living Osiris (rejuvenated by the Sed festival) and, finally, a divine ancestor, a "power of powers" and "image of images", a god one with Atum ;

  • composition : the texts form a literary unity insofar as they represent a careful and conscious selection out of the available body of ritual utterances (cf. those found in the tomb of his successors plus very likely others). They are not narrative and do not represent the actual funerary ritual, nor the pyramid complex. As a ritual and magical anthology, they bring together all what is needed to bring about for the divine king his regeneration (in the Lunar Duat) and ascension (via the Solar Akhet) to the stellar Imperishables. The composition is not available as a linear narrative. There is matter of choice guided by spatial semantic, although an overall story-line is discernable ;

  • cognitive limitations : to back the unstable concepts of pre-rationality, a regression into myth is a common strategy, as are conservatism, contextuality and multiple approaches. As a lot of these myths are meaningless today, some connotations may seem pointless to a contemporary reader. Careful study of the images and the actual hieroglyphs used is often rewarding but seldom conclusive ;

  • hermeneutical typology : the Unas text contain short pieces of drama, hymns, litanies, glorifications, magical texts, offering rituals, prayers, protective charms and divine offerings. They invoke the regeneration of Osiris King Unas, the ascension of King Unas, his arrival in heaven, settling in heaven, eating the deities, etc. Predynastic, Heliopolitan, Hermopolitan, Osirian, royal, funerary, ecstatic, magical, occult & funerary registers can be isolated, making its unity and integration (in one tomb) even more remarkable ;

  • date of inception : the beginning of the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 BCE).

6. The role of Osiris in the Unas text.

In the Old Kingdom, the king affirms the divine status of his "Ba" by partly assimilating the Lunar deities of old (Hassan, 1992). The royal nation state is given an administrative body, with Memphis as royal residence and focus of culture. A patrilineal system is invented, lasting for more than three millenia. Its state approved mythology was largely based on the Solar and stellar considerations. But, in the more popular strands of the Egyptian cultural form, the Lunar, contextualized, wandering, matriarchal line of transmission (of which the original root is Upper Palaeolithic) was never relinquished, as we can see in the First Dynasty Abydos burials. Without the female side of Nature, no balanced equation is possible. The divine king is nurtured by the milk of the goddesses and in all major dynastic turns, the role of women was of extreme, if not decisive, importance.

Dynastic Egypt remembered the mythical family of (Lunar) Osiris, his wife Isis and their son Horus. People identified and played the dramatic episodes of their lives, including in their musings his assassination, dismemberment, restoration, resurrection and rejuvenation. The mystery of his becoming the "king of the Duat" completed the picture. Whether Osirian faith was already popular in the Early Dynastic remains disputed, although a Predynastic origin of Osirian faith concurs with the fertility cults of the Neolithic (the "Bull of his Mother" pointing to his role as consort of the great Neolithic fertility goddess), both agrarian (grain, flood) as communal (just ruler). But this remains largely speculative. Re had given to Osiris a separate jurisdication, a kingdom of his own, and so he was feared by humans & gods alike.

The "djed" may point to a crucial link between history and Prehistory : this backbone of Osiris serves as a mortuary amulet of stability and everlastingness. It is a necessary aid in the transformation of the human body into the spiritual body of glory assumed by the dead in the afterlife. With it, the shamanistic beliefs of old are maintained but refined. The divine dead bone is there to transmute. The restoration of the body of Osiris and his "resurrection" in the noble, spiritualized, beautified and stellar body ("sAH"), given by Isis thanks to Re and Thoth, is completed when Osiris receives the Eye of Wellness (the Left Eye) from Horus, the Lunar Eye of Re. Restored, resurrected and resuscitated, Osiris then becomes the "king of the Duat" and, receiving a jurisdiction of his own.

The "djed" Pillar Festival was held annually. It was a time of enthusiasm and rejuvenation for the people. On the first day of Shomu, the season of harvesting, the priests raised up the "djed" Pillar, and all payed homage to the symbol. People conducted mock battles between good and evil. Oxen were driven around the walls of Memphis ...

"Although the god Osiris is not attested by name until the Fifth Dynasty Pyramid Texts, the probable antiquity of many of these texts makes it not unlikely that he was recognized at an earlier period, perhaps under the name Khentiamentiu. A central element of the later Osiris myth, the pairing of Horus and Seth, is attested from the middle of the First Dynasty." - Wilkinson, 1999, p.292.

The majority of cemeteries were situated to the West of the Nile, the region where the Sun set. Already in the Neolithic, the West was the principal mortuary direction. Deceased Badarians faced West (ca. 5000 - 4000 BCE). The Solar horizon had been assimilated. The steady rise of kingship and piecemeal centralizations followed. Dating to the Late Predynastic Period, Khentiamentiu, "the Foremost of the Westeners", the god of the Abydos necropolis, was depicted as a jackal. He also navigated Re's nightly voyage in the Duat. His cult was popular in the First Dynasty (cf. seals of Kings Den and Qaa). Heliopolitan theology associated him with Osiris, who also bore the epithet "the Foremost of the Westeners". We have to wait until the First Intermediate Period before Abydos becomes a cult centre explicitly dedicated to Osiris.

In the Heliopolitan account, Osiris belonged to the last generation of deities, those sustaining the mythical kingdom of plenty of Atum-Re, the sole, unique creator of it all. Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys are the differentials or natural types covering the ideal state of affairs for human beings. Osirian faith appealed to the common majority.

"The four children of Geb and Nut are not involved in this description of the universe. They establish a bridge between nature and man, and that in the only manner in which the Egyptians could conceive such a bond - through kingship. Osiris was the mythological form of the dead ruler forever succeeded by his son Horus." - Frankfort, 1978, p.182.

As the "Bull of his mother", he represented the myth of the "perfect king", empowered not by patrilineal logic, but by the self-possessed and unalienated power of the great goddess and her dark secrets of resurrection, rejuvenation and rebirth (associated with the Duat rather than the sky). His assassination by Seth evokes the discontinuum of moral evil ("isefet"), rooted in a natural divine will to harm, hurt and cause suffering for the sake of dominion, love of power and the persistent gratification of perverse desires (cf. the Isis & Horus cycles of the Delta). It underlines the power of evil and destruction, and invokes the fragility of life and order, in all directions under seige by evil, annihilation, death and chaos. The tragedy of evil's power does not lead to pessimism, for in Egyptian thought, the soul of chaos is the author of light, life and order. If chaos itself is to be avoided, not so its efficient, auto-generative potential. The latter regenerates the deities and sustains creation. This distinction drawn a line between the blind lust to destroy (as in "Apophis", the giant snake of destruction) and the divine will to harm (or "Seth", who controls the snake).

"But it will be discerned at once that the Osiris myth expressed those hopes and aspirations and ideals which were closest to the life and the affections of this great people. (...) In the Osiris myth the institution of the family found its earliest and most exalted expression in religion, a glorified reflection of earthly ties among the gods." - Breasted, 1972, p.37.

Paradoxically perhaps, a pyramid tomb is not an expression of Osirian faith as profound as the "Heb Sed" or "Sed festival", in which the divine king assumed the costume and insignia of Osiris, enjoying the same resuscitation by Isis and Horus. This does not (as Egyptian thought teaches) exclude Osirian components, connotations or assimilations (such as a subterranean chamber). But the Pyramid Age was of Heliopolitan inspiration. Pharaoh finally adheres to his own divinity ("son of Re") and evidences his authority on a gigantic scale. In the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is present but at times avoided. King Unas passes-by Osiris (and is, as the latter, resurrected in the Duat as "this Osiris King Unas"), but does not stay in the Duat. As a bird or as incense, he flies away to be transformed into a stellar spirit, joining his father Re in the sky. A strange division is, at times, maintained between Osiris in the Duat and Re in the sky. In the pre-rational mode of cognition, such conceptual tensions are left unresolved.

Nothwithstanding royal this-life rituals, a pyramid complex was, after the king had died, the tomb of a divine king of Egypt, and so the focus of a temple complex, with a dedicated priesthood and regular priests, daily maintaining the Ka of the deceased king to gratify its Ba or soul and clearing a safe passage to and fro the tomb. As such, a royal mortuary temple was an spirito-economic motor, employing people and redistributing goods for the sake of a spiritual economy of transformation of material offerings into "food" for the Ka of the king, who would bless Egypt. A funerary complex was also a "false door" or "gate" allowing the enlightened spirit of the deceased (justified to realize the station of the Akh-spirits) to return as Ba and/or Ka. This divine presence of the spirit in its tomb on Earth, is always indirect (never absolute). It happens through the intermediate states of consciousness, such as the Ba and Ka of the divine son of Re.

The pyramid ensured Maat, the turning of days and seasons, as well as a "good Nile". How ? It allowed the deceased king to "transform" ("kheperu") into an "Akh", a glorified spirit-being of light, effective and equipped in the afterlife. The pyramid was his way to ascend. Arrived in heaven as an Akh, the king allowed his divine incarnation to pass to his son (from Osiris to Horus) and the pyramid "is better understood as the meeting point of life and light with death and darkness" (Lehner, 2001, p. 20). After mummification, it became a "cosmic exchange engine" set in motion by the appropriate funerary rituals, bringing the glorified body ("sah") into being (cf. the ritual of "Opening the Mouth"). As an Akh-spirit, the deceased king could then choose to bring down his souls and doubles on Earth. If so, he would use his tomb and mummy as a point of entry into the physical plane of existence. In this way, the presence of the ancestor could continue to influence the living, in particular the new Horus-king. The names given to the pyramids or associated with them, reflect the crucial spirito-economical role of royal tombs : "horizon", "radiant place", "endures", "flourish", "established", "pure", "divine", "perfect" etc.

Indeed, the focus of any tomb, including the king's, was the "false door" and adjacent "offering place". This imaginal gate was the point of departure to or return from the Netherworld. The success of this bi-directionality of the justified, blessed deceased in the afterlife (from the tomb to the sky and back) depended on the funerary rituals, as well as on the offerings placed in the tomb. During their daily rituals, the priests (endowed by the son) fed the Ka of his father and placed the sacrifices near the "false door". In this way, the "lowest" point of the transformational chain would be kept active. The subtle energy (or "Ka") of the offerings gratifies the Ba and attracts the attention of the Akh, who returns in the tomb in its "sah", completing the cycle by uniting with the mummy. This ideal of Egyptian religious life was only attained by the deities and the justified dead. Pharaoh ascended, while common men hid ...

Can may be argued that, in order to operate properly, every state needs to stay in touch with its people. So the Heliopolitan, Solar Atum-Re assimilated (before the Vth Dynasty) a human generation of deities, namely Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, entangled in a Lunar family drama ? Already present since ever, they would then become the great-grand children of Atum-Re, and represent the human side of the "Golden Age" of Egypt, the epoch when the gods reigned on Earth, a time when the eternal equilibrium of the First Time had not yet been broken by Seth. This was the time of Osiris, the Lunar deity of vegetation, reigning over the whole of Egypt, making her living, healthy and prosperous, bringing bread & wine. By doing so, the theologians of Atum-Re assimilated the popular (Predynastic) Lunar cult, and made it part of the royal ritual, especially in terms of the physical regeneration & resurrection of the divine king (during and after life), whereas the latter's ascension remained Solar and spiritualizing.

"While there is some effort here to correlate the functions of Re and Osiris, it can hardly be called an attempt at harmonization of conflicting doctrines. This is practically unknown in the Pyramid Texts. (...) But the fact that both Re and Osiris appear as supreme king of the hereafter cannot be reconciled, and such mutually irreconcilable beliefs caused the Egyptian no more discomfort than was felt by any early civilization in the maintenance of a group of religious teachings side by side with others involving varying and totally inconsistent suppositions. Even Christianity itself has not escaped this experience." - Breasted, 1972, pp.163-164.

Although historical traces of Osirian faith predating the Pyramid Texts are sparse, popular Osirian beliefs must have, during the previous Dynasties, slowly infiltrated the Solar state religion. Had Predynastic religion identified Osiris with the fertile waters of the inundation, with soil and vegetation (cf. Orion and the Dog-Star in the South, the direction of the inundation) ? The ever-waning and ever-reviving life of Egypt's soil through the Nile was entrenched by the story of the murder & resurrection of Osiris and the triumph of his son Horus over Seth, the evil uncle. As a result, and despite its popular origin, Osirian faith entered into the most intimate relationship with the ideology of divine kingship, causing a fundamental tension no pre-rational structure could resolve. When, in the "classical" Middle Kingdom (XIIth Dynasty), proto-rationality blossomed, and Osiris, as netherworldly god of the dead, was increasingly seen as the nocturnal aspect of Re (cf. the New Kingdom Solar theology, the Amduat).

So, although the religion of state was Solar and focused on the divine king, the Pyramid Texts evidence an ambiguous relationship with Osiris, the god of the common people and popular beliefs. The Predynastic Osiris cult, probably local to the Delta, involved a forbidding, stern & repellent hereafter. Osiris was a Nile-god and a spirit of vegetable life, a harvest-god. But, as a king of Egypt, he had been killed by his brother Seth, recovered and restored by his wife Isis (with the help of the secret name of Re) and resurrected by his son Horus, who avenged his father by overcoming Seth in a battle presided by Thoth. When Osiris migrated up the Nile from the Delta, he was identified with the old mortuary jackal-god of the South, "the First of the Westeners" (Abydos, Assiut). His kingdom was conceived as situated below the western horizon, where it merged into the Netherworld, the Duat. He became the king of the dead below the Earth, the "Lord of the Duat", monarch of a subterranean kingdom. 

"... in the Solar faith we have a state theology, with all the splendor and the prestige of its royal patrons behind it ; while in that of Osiris we are confronted by a religion of the people, which made a strong appeal to the individual believer. (...) In the mergence of these two faiths we discern for the first time in history the age-old struggle between the state form of religion and the popular faith of the masses." - Breasted, 1972, pp.140-141.

According to Breasted, nothing in these primordial myths proved Osiris to have a celestial afterlife. As in the New Kingdom Amduat, a millennium later, he enjoys a juridiction of his own, one powerful enough to alert the gods. Indeed, the Pyramid Texts evidence survivals from a period when Osiris was even hostile to the Solar dead. There are exorcisms intended to retain Osiris to enter the Solar tomb with evil intent.

"May Osiris not come with his evil coming. Do not open your arms to him ..."
Pyramid Texts, § 1267, utterance 534.

However, the popularity of Osiris among the common people forced the theologians to incorporate him into their Solar creed. In this way, Heliopolitan Solar theology got slowly Osirianized. Eventually, these tensions would be resolved in the Middle Kingdom, which in turn gave rise to the New Kingdom books of the Netherworld.

the eternal cycle of dawn/dusk/dawn
the seasonal cycle of the Two Lands
the perpetuity of darkness - the Nun
the local, monthly cycle of agriculture
Re-Atum hidden in Nun
the diffused, efficient principle of Nun
Osiris is created by Re-Atum
Osiris is left behind in the Duat
Bi-sexual Atum is self-created within Nun
simultaneously s/he generates the Ennead
he, the Lord of Eternity
mostly passive himself, Osiris is reassembled by Isis &
healed by the Eye of Horus
Atum thrones the Akh-sphere Osiris thrones the Duat
Atum belongs to pre-creation
Atum is the sole Lord of Creation
Osiris is bound to creation & the Duat
Osiris receives a separate jurisdiction
Atum is the spirit of matter or the awareness of consciousness (of itself) Osiris is the matter of spirit or the substrate of consciousness : energy.
Atum refers to eternity-in-everlastingness
the recurrent hatching within Nun & the
indestructible, primordial nature of light
Osiris refers to everlastingness and the endurance of absolute sameness, the backbone of being, the prima materia
the Akh
the Ba, the Ka
Re chamber
Osiris room

The resurrection of Osiris by Horus and the restoration of his body was affirmed to be the king's privilege. The Osirian hereafter was celestialized. Osiris was now called "Lord of the Sky" (PT, §§ 964, 966a) and the king was announced to Osiris in the sky precisely in the same way as he had been announced to Re in the Solar theology. Hence, we find the king ascending to the sky and then descending among the dwellers in the Duat (PT, § 1164), implying that the Duat became (via the North) somehow accessible from the sky. In the Osirian cult, the Duat became the lower region of the sky, in the vincinity of the horizon, below which it is also extended (Breasted). An important link between Re and Osiris was the former's death every day in the West, the place of the dead. The dead king and the dying Sun corresponded well, as did the resurrection of Osiris (as king of the dead) and the dawning of the Sun (as the child Harpocrates, who is the father of the king of the living).

"The fact remains, then, that the celestial doctrines of the hereafter dominate the Pyramid Texts throughout, and the later subterranean kingdom of Osiris and Re's voyage through it are still entirely in the background in these royal mortuary teachings. Among the people Re is later, as it were, dragged into the Nether World to illumine there the subjects of Osiris in his mortuary kingdom, and this is one of the most convincing evidences of the power of Osiris among the lower classes. In the royal and state temple theology, Osiris is lifted to the sky, and while he is there Solarized, we have just shown he also tinctures the Solar teaching of the celestial kingdom of the dead with Osirian doctrines. The result was thus inevitable confusion, as the two faiths interpenetrated." - Breasted, 1972, pp.159-160.

The Pyramid Texts evidence the emergence of a composite doctrine. But what used to be viewed as a separate "Osirian" destiny of the king "has more recently been recognized as one aspect of his celestial cycle - the regenerative phase through which he passes before 'rising in the eastern side of sky like the Sun' (Pyr. 1465d-e)." (Allen, 1989, p.1).

7. Egyptian versus Greek initiation.

Egyptologists like Morenz, Piankoff, Mercer, Frankfort, Faulkner, Assmann, Hornung or Allen have good reasons to stress the difference between the Greek and the Pharaonic perspective on initiation (from the Latin "initio", introduce into a new life) and the mysteries (from the Greek "muoo", to close lips or eyes, i.e. hidden, secret ; "mustès" = "initiate").

The Egyptians maintained a series of rituals aimed at "a constantly renewed regeneration" (Hornung, 2001, p.14) of (1) the divine king and through him the whole of creation, and of (2) their supreme deity, Atum-Re, situated as the Unique, Self-Begotten Great One at the core of a henotheist constellation of deities, or "cosmic beings, the elements and forces of nature. As such, they existed on a scale far removed from that of ordinary human beings." (Allen, 2000, p.55).

At best, the Greeks, like the Egyptians, induced the point of death (assumed the "death posture") in order to glimpse into Darkness and "see" the divine to be renewed. But they had no "science of the Hades" as in the Amduat. The active continuity between life and death found in Egypt, of which funerary rituals and the interaction between the living and their dead (cf. the letters to the dead) are examples, contradicts the closed and separated interpretation of the Greeks, fostering "escapism" (the "body" as a "prison" out of which one needs to escape, the "Hades" as a place of shades, divorced from the plane of Earthly life). In Egypt, no "new" life was necessary. Potentially, death is "more" life. For both life and the afterlife depend on identical conditions : offerings ; either directly to the deities through the divine king or indirectly to the Ka of the deceased, gratifying the Ba. If dualism fits Greek religion, triadism rules Egyptian theologies (while duality takes on the dual "form" or "land"- ruled by the "third", or "nswt", the divine king, the "tertium comparationis").

By the exclusive funerary interpretation given to the religious literature of Ancient Egypt (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Coming out into the Day, Amduat, Book of the Heavenly Cow, Book of Gates, etc.) these great scholars evidence Hellenocentrist prejudice. Although the Platonic philosopher "preparing for death and dying" is like the initiate of the Eleusinian mysteries (cf. Phaedrus and Phaedo), and so may come to the point of death to see into the invisible (spiritual) worlds, as did the Egyptian initiate and the Shaman of old, the Greek knows that he will never find wisdom in all its purity in any other place than in the next world.

So, according to these authors, sustaining the Hellenistic approach of contemporary Egyptology regarding religious experience in Ancient Egypt, the initiatic, this-life experiences of the king, of his priests and of his worshippers, found in the religious text and on the monuments of Egypt, do not reflect direct spiritual experiences, but are imaginal constructions and wishful thinking about the afterlife, the dogma being : Ancient Egyptian religion is funerary & mortuary. This position is rejected.

It is not because a text is found in a tomb that it is necessarily funerary. In Egypt, the king and his high priests encountered the deity "face to face" every day. He was a god on Earth, in the Duat and in the sky. His energy had no limitations and with it he sustained creation by offering the right order of nature (cf. the Great Hymn to the Aten). There was no question of initiation being linked with the separation caused by physical death. Physical death (of Osiris, the divine father) was the gate to a resurrection for the benefit of the living (Horus, the divine son). But the living king (Horus) could also ritually assume death (as "Osiris King N") to resurrect (himself and Egypt) while his physical body had not died (as in his Heb Sed festival). This assumption of the death posture is a universal characteristic of the spiritual process of emancipation of Homo Sapiens sapiens (cf. the Ars Obscura of the Hidden Chamber).

"As we have already seen, it is perfectly feasible for the same pyramid to have been use both for the Sed festival, 'secret rites' and then subsequently as the tomb of the king." - Naydler, 2005, p.109.

Indeed, the validity of an exclusive funerary interpretation of the Pyramid Texts (or for that matter of the complete corpus of religious texts, popular in Egyptology the last 50 years, has to be addressed : is there a mystical dimension or direct experiential contact with the divine beyond the first three studied by Egyptology (Assmann, 2002) ? To wit :

  1. the cultic : the local, political residence of the deities, either as belonging to a particular place and/or as state deities functioning as symbols of the collective, political identity ;

  2. the cosmic : the emergence, structure & dynamics of the sphere of their action ;

  3. the mythic : the sacred tradition, or "what is said about the gods", their cultural memory as set down in myths, names, genealogies etc.

  4. the mystic : the direct experience of the deities or the objective spiritual realities encountered by the divine king, his priests and worshippers ?

For Moret (1922), the Egyptian mysteries revolved around the concept of "voluntary death", experienced before the actual physical death of the body. This "dead posture" preludes spiritual rebirth or "peret-em-heru" : going out into the day ... For Wente (1982), the New Kingdom Amduat and Book of Gates bring "the future into the present", so that rebirth "could have been genuinely experienced in this life now". And this, most likely through festivals, pilgrimage & personal piety. In these latter contexts, Osirian faith allowed non-royals to have direct spiritual access to the Duat, the world of magic and of the dead. The Books of the Netherworld are usually very explicit about this.

"He who know these words will approach those who dwell in the Netherworld. It is very very useful for a man upon Earth."
Amduat, concluding text of the Second Hour.

"The mysterious Cavern of the West where the Great God and his crew rest in the Netherworld. This is executed with their names similar to the image which is drawn in the East of the Hidden Chamber of the Netherworld. He who knows their names while being upon Earth will know their seats in the West as a contented one with his seat in the Netherworld. He will stand among the Lord of Provision as one justified by the Council of Re who reckons the differences. It will be useful for him upon Earth ..."
Amduat, introductory text of the Ninth Hour.

These texts point to a this-life magical knowledge (assisting the mystical quest for union with godhead, a return to the "first time" of the "Golden Age"). And once we acknowledge the presence of a mystical dimension, we beg the question of how to operate the magic ? Is there a particular series of rituals enabling one to experience the objective spiritual realities behind three thousand years of spirituality today ?

"And so the study of ancient Egyptian religion may lead us to conceive of a task that we have to fulfill in the present day. This task is to open ourselves once more to those realms of spirit that we are presented with in the mystical literature of Egypt. This could lead to the possibility of a new Egyptian-inspired Renaissance, in which Western spiritual culture is given fresh vigor by its reconnecting to its Egyptian roots. While it would make little sense to try to resurrect the religion of ancient Egypt today, the spiritual impulse that issues from ancient Egypt into contemporary culture may nevertheless encourage us to persue paths of inner development appropriate to our own period in history ..." - Naydler, 2005, p.329.

Of course, the first thing to do is to lift the funerary restrictions put on the available corpora. Although found in tombs, they move beyond funerary concerns (cf. Wente, 1982), but also put into evidence an experiential register, albeit in ante-rational terms, and in initiatic (cf. Duat) and ecstatic (cf. Akhet) mindsets.

Egyptian initiations, unlike the Greek, were not meant to release the applicant from the solid chains of the world and its destiny, quite on the contrary. The initiate entered the invisible Duat at will and was free as a bird to stride and experience. He also returned, completing the standard cycle of human spirituality en vogue since the Cro-Magnon. The Egyptians understood the revitalizing logic of plunging into the darkest night of the spirit-world and particularly focused on regeneration, rejuvenation and rebirth both in this life and in the afterlife. This happened by an "embrace" of objective spiritual principles projected upon recurrent natural cycles (like Horus and Osiris in the myth of Osiris, or the Ba of Re and the body of Osiris in the Books of the Netherworld).

In Egyptian, the verb "bs" ("bes") has two nuances : inductive and secretive :

  • inductive : to introduce, bring in, install ;

  • secretive : to initiate, reveal.

What is revealed should never be said. It is a secret, or "bs"  again, but with one more determinative added (that of a papyrus scroll, indicative of words related to writing and thinking). The "secret of secrets" was the secret image of the deity or "bsw" ("besu").

"I am a priest knowledgable of the mystery,
who's chest never lets go what he has seen !" 
Chassinat, 1966, pp.11-12.

With the verb "bes", Middle Egyptian points to the Egyptian initiate as someone who had seen the hidden image of the deity "face to face", triggering a secret experience. Transformed, he or she had received more life-power (balancing the natural depletion), and had become thus more complete. The initiate had gone and come back, and was prepared for the afterlife. He had faced judgment, had been regenerated and transformed on Earth as he would be in the afterlife. After death, he was ready for his ascension, and would escort Re in the sky. Osiris would not be able to lay his hands on him as he escaped the Lunar world and entered the Solar.

Clearly then, the "initiates" were foremost the divine king and those Egyptian priests who belonged to the higher priesthood. Only they were allowed to enter the sanctuary of the temple and perform rituals there (the offering hall, the ambulatory, the inner sanctum). Only one member of this higher priesthood saw the deity "face to face", enthroned in its naos at the back end of the inner sanctum. This high priest was the representative of the king, the divine "son of Re" and the "Lord of the Two Lands".

Another word for "secret" is "StA" ("Shtah"), also meaning : "secretive, mysterious, inexplicable, hidden, hidden away." "Shtahu", in epithets of divine beings, refers to the mysterious secrets themselves. In Greek, the word "mustikos" (root of "mystic, mystical, mysticism") also means "hidden". But in the Greek mysteries, the afterlife was depicted as a realm of shadows and any hope of individual survival was deemed ephemeral. Nobody escaped destiny, except the deities and the lucky few elected. The latter "escaped" from the world and its sordid entropic fate, misery and possible "eschaton" : a world-fire invoked by these wrathful deities themselves, unforgiving of man's tragi-comical sins, but able to recreate the world in a whim ! Escape from this fated comedy was offered through the Greek mysteries dedicated to certain Deities. They would erase the cause of the heaviness of the soul and its attachment to Earth, and end the cycle of metempsychosis, the successive return of the soul in other physical bodies. Both perspectives (a negative view on matter and reincarnation) are absent in the Egyptian mindset.

"... what appears in the fifth century is not a complete and consistent doctrine of metempsychosis, but rather experimental speculations with contradictory principles of ritual and morality, and a groping for natural laws : the soul comes from the gods and after repeated trials returns to them, or else it runs forever in a circle through all spheres of the cosmos ; sheer chance decides on the reincarnation, or else a judgement of the dead ; it is morally blameless conduct that guarantees the better lot or else the bare fact of ritual initiation that frees from guilt." -
Burkert, 1985, p.300, my italics.

The Greek spiritual experience was rational (decontextual). But with the end of the Polis States, a great fear had taken hold. Late Hellenism was flooded by astral fatalism and Oriental mysteries adapted to Greco-Roman standards and tastes. Deities or demons were invoked to erase a preassigned fate or to control destiny. The Greek initiate, a God or Goddess, was deemed "liberated" from nature. The Egyptian initiate was "deified" by nature.

Egyptian initiation was not redemptoric (elimination of guilt), did not intend to break away from the (inexistent) cycle of reincarnation, nor invite its adepts to leave the material plane without ever returning. The Egyptian adept did not enter the sanctuary with a confused idea about death. His initiatoric this-life rituals intended to prepare him for what was bound to happen in the afterlife. Osiris was the prototype of this Lunar quest. Thanks to a "general rehearsal" of what would happen, the adept would have no surprises in the afterlife. Indeed, the laws of life (the deities) were operational in the afterlife as well as on Earth, and the spirits of the deceased existed together with the living, albeit on another plane of existence (cf. hylemorphism). The efficient adept escorted Re in the sky. All other initiates remain in the Lunar Duat and find their use in the dark kingdom of Osiris.

As a temple ritualist, the Egyptian initiate, in order to be transformed and "see" the deity directly, never leaves his physical body behind in a passive, trance-like state (compare this with what happens in the Hermetic Poimandres or in Classical Yoga). Fully awake, he enters into a deeper, more profound, mysterious layer of reality and contacts this plane directly, alone and without intermediaries, except for the doubles (Kas) and the souls (Bas). Rituals make his body fully participate in this inner experience.

A marked contrast with the Greek mentality ensues : the Greeks had assimilated a rational, formal distinction between the conditions of becoming and those of being, between potentiality and actuality (cf. Plato and Aristotle). In general, matter was perceived as "gross" and more in tune with the world of becoming. Concepts, ideas and their contemplation were deemed of a "higher" order, which meant done for their own sake (decontextualized). Linear order was the standard of Greek conceptual rationality and the afterlife was envisaged as a gloomy land of no return, alien to the living. The body was negative and had to be made passive in order for it to "see" the Divine light. Only in its death was true liberation found (later, this Greek prejudice was made dogma by all three "religions of the book"). But, because of the difficulties involved with magic and initiation, most men are meaningless shades in the Hades ("hidden" as Pluto). Hence, the Greek mysteries anticipate a rupture between the living and the dead. Let this difference stand out : the Egyptian mysteries anticipate a continuation of communication between the diurnal and nocturnal sides of creation. In Greek thought, dualities easily become oppositions (contradictions, antinomies, etc.). In the Egyptian way of life, dualities always remain complementary.

"The living are not at the mercy of the dead ; the shades are without force and without consciousness. There are no ghostly terrors, no imaginings of decomposition, and no clatterings of dead bones ; but equally there is no comfort and no hope. The dead Archilles brushes aside Odysseus' words of praise, saying : 'Do not try to make light of death to me ; I would  sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much to live on, than ruler over all the perished dead.' In the dreary monotony everything becomes a matter of indifference." - Burkert, 1985, p.197, my italics.

The regular movements of the planets followed precise geometrical conditions. These were suggestive of the "perfect forms" of the world of ideas (or those perceived by the "active intellect"). Hence, in the Greek mysteries, astrology was used to divinate destiny and fate ("heimarmene" and "ananke"). Magic was addressed as a means to overcome one's preassigned fate, wiping out unluck, etc. Finally, theurgy came into being. A decisive release from the forces of fate & mortality was invisaged by working directly with the Deities. In Gnosticism, which had many branches, a "special knowledge" was aimed at. Again the material world appeared in negative, depreciative terms (cf. evil as "privatio boni" in Neoplatonism and Roman Catholicism on original sin and the cause of evil).

"And when, by drawing on repressed or non-Greek traditions, mysteries began to feed on the hopes of individuals with universal speculation and sought to overcome the chilling isolation of man in death, this was for a long time more a complement than a dangerous rival to the Greek system." - Burkert, 1985, p.203.

In the Egyptian conception, commoners sought a happy life to satisfy their souls (cf. the Discourse of a Man with his Ba), while priests were consecrated in (local) induction rituals (leaving the "ultimate" experience to the high priest). Is it possible that the higher priesthood also participated in the Osirian mysteries of death and resurrection, held in major temples of Egypt, like those of Abydos, Busiris and Karnak ? Such ritual activity would prepare them for the afterlife and transform them into "initiates" on Earth (adepts "justified" while alive) ?

"Follow the god as far as his place,
in his tomb which is found at the entrance of the cavern.
Anubis sanctifies the hidden mystery of Osiris,
(in) the sacred valley of the Lord of Life.
The mysterious initiation of the Lord of Abydos !"
Griffith, tombe I, 238, lines 238-239, ca.XIIth Dynasty.

But Egyptian and Greek initiations had this in common : both involved a confrontation with a symbolical death, followed by a new state of being alife. In Greek, "teleirtan" (to die) and "teleisthai" (to be initiated) are alike.

"to die, that is to be initiated"


The Unas Text is divided in thirteen sections :

I (226 - 243) l II (23, 25, 32 - 57 / 72 - 79 , 81 - 96, 108 - 116 / 117 - 171) l III (213 - 219) l IV (219 - 224) l V (204 - 205, 207, 209, 210 - 212) l VI (23, 25, 32, 199, 200 & 244 - 246) l VII (247 - 253) l VIII (254 - 260) l IX (260 - 272) l X (302 - 312) l XI (273 - 276) l XII (277 - 301) l XIII (313 - 317 & 318 - 321)

Unas text in English

"<" or ">" between numbers = sequence of the text
"<" from right to left (facing right) or ">" from left to right (facing left)

Unas Tomb in Detail

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initiated : 18 VI 2006 - updated : 10 XI 2015 - version n°3

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