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Funerary Compositions

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The seventh hour of the Book of Gates in the tomb of Rameses III.
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From the end of Dynasty 5 onward, religious texts were inscribed in the burial chambers of royal tombs. The oldest surviving compositions, called Pyramid Texts because they were inscribed in pyramid burial chambers, were compilations of spells describing different aspects of the dead king's restoration and existence in the realm of the gods in the afterlife. For some unknown reason, Middle Kingdom rulers did not have any such texts inscribed in the burial chambers of their pyramids. Contemporary private burials, however, had a series of spells, called Coffin Texts because they were inscribed on coffins. Many were derived from or influenced by the Pyramid Texts. The first descriptions of the netherworld appear as schematic "maps" on the inner floors on many of these coffins.  They form what is called the Book of Two Ways.

New Kingdom Books of the Netherworld

New compositions appear for the first time in royal tombs of the New Kingdom. They consist of both figures and texts that describe the realm of the dead ruled by Osiris and the journey of the sun god Ra through this realm.

Book of Caverns

The modern name of this book was given because many of the figures are shown inside ovals that represent caves in the underworld.

Book of Caverns, fourth division, beginning: guardian serpent; third division, scene 5: Osiris in shrine, surrounded by deities in caverns.
Book of Caverns, fourth division, beginning: guardian serpent; third division, scene 5: Osiris in shrine, surrounded by deities in caverns.

It is divided into only six sections, with the form of the sun god as a ram-headed man introducing the first four divisions. Bound enemies appear in the lowest register of the first five divisions, and two large figures of Nut and ithyphallic Osiris are found in the fifth division.

Book of Caverns, fifth division.

In the sixth division, the concluding scene shows the dawning of the sun god as a scarab and a child emerging from the watery realm of creation.

Book of the Earth

The earliest appearance of scenes from this book is in the burial chamber of KV 8 (Merenptah), but the fullest version is in KV 9. Other tombs of Dynasties 19 and 20 have some scenes and texts derived from this composition in their burial chambers, such as KV 14, KV 11, KV 1, and KV 6. The composition does not follow an obvious narrative progression as do other descriptions of the solar nightly journey. (Egyptologists have divided the composition in different ways: the system followed on this website is that of Piankoff, which distinguishes four parts, A-D.)

In the examples from KV 8, KV 9, KV 11 and KV 14, the same scenes recur on the side walls. Three registers on the left wall show the sun god Ra in his bark beneath a supine mummiform figure with overarching stars and sun disks. The bottom register shows an ithyphallic figure standing in a structure representing a water clock.

Book of the Earth, part A, scenes 2 and 8: extracts.

The ba of Ra in the form of a large ram-headed bird dominates the right wall. It lies beneath a representation of a reborn sun emerging from the waters of chaos (taken from the closing scene of the Book of Caverns). Beneath the outspread wings of Ra's ba, the sun god's boat is shown resting on the image of the double-headed sphinx Aker, the embodiment of the earthly entry to the netherworld, with goddesses representing hours facing toward Ra. The Book of Aker was a name given in the past to this part of the composition illustrating the sun god's boat resting on the back of Aker. Traces of other scenes can be found on the rear walls of the burial chambers of KV 8 and KV 11.

Book of the Earth, part A, scene 2: solar bark over Aker figure.

Book of Gates

The ancient name of this book is not known; the modern name derives from the depiction of gates and door leaves separating each of the twelve sections. The text has been studied in detail and translated by both Alexandre Piankoff and Erik Hornung, who have developed different numbering systems to designate the "divisions" as Piankoff calls them, or "hours" as designated by Hornung. Both systems are employed on this website, followed by a "P" in parentheses for Piankoff's system and an "H" for Hornung's.

The earliest examples of this composition survive as excerpts consisting of the first to fifth divisions (P)/second to sixth hours (H) in the unfinished decoration in the burial chamber of the tomb of Horemheb. The first complete version occurs on the calcite sarcophagus of Sety I. (There are also excerpts on the walls of his tomb.) A second complete version is found on the west wall of the first corridor of the Osireion, the cenotaph (fake tomb) Sety I constructed behind his temple at Abydos. Only one other complete version is known from the New Kingdom, on the south walls of the upper corridors and chambers (B-F) of the tomb of Rameses V and VI (KV 9). Certain chambers tended to be decorated with particular divisions of this composition. Thus, through the reign of Rameses III, pillared chamber F has the third and fourth divisions (P)/fourth and fifth hours (H).

Book of Gates, third gate and third division (P)/fourth hour (H), scene 18: preliminary sketch in red, with corrections in black, and partial raised relief carving.

Each section of this book except the last is also divided into three registers, with the sun god and his boat at the beginning of the middle register. The solar boat entering the western horizon is part of the prologue (P)/first hour (H). The enlarged fifth gate shows the Judgment Hall of Osiris, and the twelfth hour (P)/closing scene (H), shows the solar boat raised from the primeval waters by the god Nun at dawn.

Book of Gates, fifth gate, scene 33: Judgment Hall of Osiris; Greek visitors' graffiti (Baillet 1247-1267).


This composition first appeared inscribed on limestone blocks in KV 20, the tomb of Hatshepsut. It is divided into twelve sections that correspond to the night hours. Each section after the first is divided into three horizontal registers. The sun god, shown as a ram-headed man, stands in a shrine on his boat, accompanied by other deities on his nightly journey through the netherworld (Imydwat meant "what is in the netherworld" in the ancient Egyptian language).

Imydwat, seventh hour: solar bark.

Complete versions of the text are found in the tombs of Thutmes III (KV 34), Amenhetep II (KV 35), and Amenhetep III (KV 22). Subsequent occurrences of the composition are incomplete excerpts, although eleven of the twelve hours may be seen in corridors G and H of the tomb of Rameses VI (KV 9). In the Rameside period, some of these excerpts regularly appear at specific locations in the tombs. For example, from the reign of Sety I (KV 17) onwards, the fourth and fifth hours are associated with the walls of the third corridor that precedes well chamber E. These two hours deal with the descent of the sun god Ra into the realm of the Memphite necropolis god, Sokar. Their proximity to the well shaft has been interpreted to mean that the shaft was a symbolic tomb of Sokar and Osiris. The composition ends with Ra's boat been pulled through the body of a large snake and emerging on the eastern horizon in the morning as a scarab beetle.

Imydwat, twelfth hour: end.

Books of the Sky

In addition to compositions that describe the sun god's journey through the netherworld, several books are found on the ceilings of royal tombs that describe the journey of the solar bark across the sky, personified by the goddess Nut. This goddess is shown as an elongated woman covered in stars and apparently is associated with the Milky Way. The arms and legs of the goddess extend downwards to enclose the scenes and texts of the composition. Before the appearance of these compositions framed by the sky goddess, the ceilings of burial chambers in the Rameside period were decorated with images of personified stars and constellations.

Circumpolar stars.

Astronomical Figures

Beginning with KV 17, the vaulted ceilings of burial chambers in several Rameside royal tombs were decorated with figures representing constellations of the northern and southern horizons. Other figures represented the decans, the stars used to herald the occurrence of the three ten-day-long intervals into which each month was divided.

Circumpolar stars and decans.

Books of the Day and the Night

The arched figure of the sky goddess Nut frames texts describing the sun god's journey across the sky from sunrise to sunset and the nightly journey within the goddess's body (which begins by her "swallowing" him) until rebirth at dawn.

Book of the Night, twelfth hour: sun emerging from Nut.

Book of the Heavenly Cow

This text describes how Ra's daughter Hathor averted destruction of mankind. The principal image is a large cow supported by the god Shu. The first occurrence of this composition is inside the outermost gilded shrine of Tutankhamen. The best-preserved version in the Valley of the Kings is in side chamber Je of KV 17.

Book of the Heavenly Cow: Hathor as the Heavenly Cow.

Book of Nut

Other than in the Osireion at Abydos, this text is found only on the south half of the ceiling of the burial chamber J of Rameses IV (KV 2). The god of the air Shu is shown supporting the arched figure of the sky goddess Nut, separating her from the god of the earth, Geb.

Book of Nut.

Star Clocks

The measurement of time by means of celestial phenomena played an important role in funerary texts and decoration. One mechanism seen on the ceilings of royal tombs in the latter half of Dynasty 20 (KV 9, KV 1, KV 6) shows men kneeling beneath grids containing stars. Beside each figure is the name of the star that appears at a particular point on the human target at a given hour of the night. There is usually one image and name for each month of the year.

Star clocks, with human "targets."

Other Funerary Texts

In addition to compositions dealing with the sun god's journeys, texts of a non-royal nature also occur in the royal tombs of the New Kingdom and in contemporary private tombs.

Book of the Dead

During the Second Intermediate Period, a collection of spells appears that is known as the Book of the Dead, or by its ancient title, the Spells for Going Forth by Day. These spells first appear in private New Kingdom tombs, on coffins, and on papyri. Often, the spells were illustrated with vignettes that illustrated their subject matter. Over 190 different spells have been recorded from New Kingdom sources, but individual private tombs contain only a selection of these, and the number is even more limited in royal tombs. The spells are concerned with the solar journey, the final judgment, the portals of the realm of Osiris, and descriptions of the netherworld.

Book of the Dead, spell 151: Anubis attending mummy on bier with Isis and Nephthys as principal mourners at foot and head.

Book of the Dead spells are found on sarcophagi of the kings of Dynasty 18, but they do not appear in wall decoration until after the Amarna Period, in the tombs of Tutankhamen (KV 62) and Ay (KV 23). Many objects, such as shabtis and amulets, are connected with Book of the Dead spells.

Solar bark of the day; Book of the Dead, spells 144, 130, with Ay's cartouches in text intentionally erased.

Litany of Ra

The earliest version of this composition is found on two pillars in burial chamber J of Thutmes III (KV 34). It does not appear again until the tomb of Sety I (KV 17), where it decorates corridor B and stairwell C. It continues to be used as the decorative theme for this part of the royal tomb until the reign of Rameses IV (KV 2). An initial scene shows the sun disk with a serpent above and a crocodile below. A scarab (representing the god at sunrise) and a ram-headed man (representing the god at sunset) are contained inside the disk (representing the god at midday). Invocations to the sun in seventy-four forms are followed by representations of these forms. Another representation on the ceiling shows the soul of the sun god as a ram-headed bird flanked by Isis and Nephthys as kites.

Star pattern; Litany of Ra: ram-headed ba of Ra in sun disk, flanked by Isis and Nephthys as kites.

Opening of the Mouth Ritual

This composition first appears as part of the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, but does not appear again until Dynasty 18 in private tombs. In Dynasty 18 royal tombs, only the opening scene occurs, and then only in KV 62; fuller versions start to appear in royal tombs during the reign of Sety I.

Nut greeting Tutankhamen; Opening of the Mouth ritual, performed on Tutankhamen as Osiris by Ay.

The text consists of a series of spells concerned with restoring the body to life and with animating a statue or image with spiritual force. The spells are accompanied by images of priests performing these rituals before the deceased or his statue. Well-preserved versions can be seen in the lower corridors (G, H) of the tombs of Sety I (KV 17) and Tausert/Setnakht (KV 14), and traces can also be found in similar positions in the tomb of Merenptah (KV 8) and Rameses III (KV 11). In later Dynasty 20 royal tombs (KV 7, KV 6), only the scene of the priest purifying the king is found.

Star pattern; Opening of the Mouth ritual, scenes 33-35.

Enigmatic Compositions

This rather loose category includes several different compositions that occur only once or twice, primarily in Dynasty 20 royal tombs, such as KV 6 and KV 9. They are "enigmatic" because they either lack any accompanying text or because the text is written in unusual cryptographic hieroglyphs. The second gilded shrine that enclosed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen had a composition of this type on its outer sides. The right (southwest) wall of corridor D of the tomb of Rameses IX (KV 6) is decorated with two such scenes. The first represents the king offering to Ptah and Ma'at, followed by an ithyphallic figure of the god Osiris leaning against a sandy hill, protected by a giant serpent. Farther along the same wall is a composition in three registers. The top register consists of a series of sand-filled circles, each containing an inverted spread-eagled man. There is a solar bark bearing a scarab at the far end of the middle register and from it arrows fly to pierce serpents and goddesses standing on mounds adoring the sun.

Solar boat from end of middle register of "enigmatic" composition.

The bottom register features such unusual figures as a sun disk with scarabs emerging, a two-headed mummy, a leaning god holding a snake, four figures leaning backward, and four goddesses standing on serpents. The rear wall of the burial chamber in KV 6 has traces of a scene showing the resurrection of Osiris beneath a representation of the morning and evening solar barks. A nearly identical (and better-preserved) version decorated the ceiling of the chamber I of KV 9.

Rameses VI in the day and night solar barks.

The ceilings of both KV 6 and KV 9 have other unique and enigmatic scenes. These include different views of the solar bark and its occupants, figures standing on beds, and the Mehen-serpent. In KV 9, the ceiling of chamber H is decorated with different aspects of the sun god Ra, as well as the lunar crescent and disk. There is a scene perhaps intended to repel hostile forces in the area of the accidental breakthrough into KV 12 above gate I.

Enigmatic scene depicting destruction of enemies; patched area (left) covers ancient break into KV 12 .