From the Beginning to the End: How to Generate and Transmit Funerary Texts in Ancient Egypt

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions
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With a continuous tradition spanning more than two millennia, funerary texts from ancient Egypt offer an excellent data set for studying how compositions were composed and passed on in the ancient Near East. Clear evidence demonstrates the importance and mechanics of scribal copying in the transmission process. What remain less clear are the methods by which new compositions were created. In some cases, the accretion of scholia, commentary, and exegesis produced new versions of old texts. This is well illustrated by the continuum between Coffin Text (ct) spell 335 and Book of the Dead (bd) spell 17. In other cases, however, large collections appear in writing for the first time showing few hints at the earlier stages of their production. This is true for the Pyramid Texts (pt), whose pre-written forms can only be hypothesized. Fortunately, fragmentary steps from conception to textualization are partially preserved for a relatively little studied corpus from Roman Period Egypt, sometimes known by the title the Demotic Book of Breathing. Despite clearly representing the final stage in the pt-ct-bd tradition, scribes did not create this composition by copying from its predecessors. Instead, a new composition was crafted without direct parallel. In addition, the new text was never fixed, as fifty separate exemplars attest to a core set of formulae that could be added to, subtracted from, or rearranged at will. The variance in this corpus reflects a growing trend toward multiplicity in similar funerary manuscripts from Greco-Roman Egypt. A portion of this variance can be demonstrated to derive from an active oral tradition and it is this oral tradition, I will argue, that provided the raw material for new compositions such as the Demotic Book of Breathing. This paper will therefore address how textual traditions began by looking at the very end of funerary literature in ancient Egypt.

From the Beginning to the End: How to Generate and Transmit Funerary Texts in Ancient Egypt

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions




Isaac GewirtzBeatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road (New York: New York Public Library2007).


David P. Silverman“Textual Criticism in the Coffin Texts,” in Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypted. W. K. Simpson yes 3 (New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar1989) 30–33.


Chris H. Reintges“The Oral Composition Form of Pyramid Text Discourse,” in Narratives of Egypt and the Ancient Near East: Literary and Linguistic Approacheseds. F. Hagen et al. ola 189 (Leuven: Peeters2010) 3–54.


Harco WillemsLes Textes des Sarcophages et la Démocratie: Éléments d’une histoire culturelle du Moyen Empire égyptien (Paris: Cybele2008); Mark Smith “Democritization of the Afterlife” in ucla Encyclopedia of Egyptology eds. Jacco Dieleman and Willeke Wendrich (Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles 2009) 1–16; Harold M. Hays “The Death of Democritisation of the Afterlife” in Old Kingdom New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology 2750–2150 bc eds. Nigel Struckwick and Helen Strudwick (Oxford: Oxbow Books 2011) 115–130; Harco Willems Historical and Archaeological Aspects of Egyptian Funerary Culture: Religious Ideas and Ritual Practice in Middle Kingdom Elite Cemeterieschane 73 (Leiden: Brill 2014) 124–229; Harco Willems “Die Frage der sogenannten ‘Demokratisierung des Jenseitsglaubens’ vom Späten Alten Reichs bis zur Zweiten Zwischenzeit” in Handbuch der Altägyptischen Religion eds. Jan Assmann and H. Roeder Handbuch der Orientalistik (Leiden: Brill in press).


Christopher EyreThe Cannibal Hymn: A Cultural and Literary Study (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press2002) 20.


For description see Th. DevériaCatalogue des manuscrits égyptiens (Paris: Charles de Mourgues Fères1881) 155; Vleeming Short Texts ii 703 (no. 1163). Translations can be found in E. Revillout “Les prières pour les morts dan l’épigraphie égyptienne” Rev. ég. 4 (1885): 52 and Marie-France Aubert and Georges Nachtergael “Le cerceuil de Chélidôn au Musée du Louvre” CdÉ 80 (2005): 298 n. 17. A full edition and hand copy can be found in Scalf Passports no. 29 137 and 364.


Papyrus Louvre E 3452studied by Mark Smith The Demotic Mortuary Papyrus Louvre E. 3452 (Ph.D. Dissertation University of Chicago 1979). However Demotic funerary phrases were composed in graffiti from an earlier period as discussed below.


SmithDemotic Morutary Papyrus Louvre E. 34524–13; Martin Stadler Einführung in die ägyptische Religion ptolemäisch-römischer Zeit nach den demotischen religiösen Texten (Berlin: Lit Verlag 2012).


For general commentary see SmithTraversing Eternity557–564; Vleeming Short Texts ii 779–793.




Luft“Gedanken” 296–298.



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