The Pyramid Texts … constitute the oldest corpus of Egyptian religious funerary literature now extant. Furthermore, they are the least corrupt of all such collections of funerary texts, and are of fundamental importance to the student of Egyptian religion …
— R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts
Alexander Piankoff, a translator of the Pyramid Texts … was seriously opposed to the present trend of using the religious texts primarily for the search of dates and the accumulation of separate facts … [he] aimed at letting the writings speak for themselves and thus evoke the symbols and prototypes of religious thoughts … the Pyramid Texts were aimed at insuring the same rebirth for the dead king as that of the god Osiris-Orion …
— Jane B. Sellers, The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt
I The Day of the Jackal
Hidden inside some of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids are the oldest religious writings yet discovered in the world. These, for obvious reasons, are known as the ‘Pyramid Texts’. Given their extraordinary antiquity, it seems strange that they are not better known to the public. Most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are from a much later epoch (c. 100BC) and much less interesting documents. It is curious that the Pyramid Texts have been so neglected by most people, a mystery in itself.
When I first came across them in 1979 I was astounded and wondered why hadn’t I heard of them before. Talking with friends in Cairo, I discovered that many Egyptians were ignorant of their existence. I was convinced that they were far more important than we had been led to believe, and decided to examine them more closely. I soon perceived that everything about these ancient texts is mysterious, even their discovery, which happened in a most curious way.
During the winter of 1879 a rumour was circulating in Cairo that ancient inscriptions might exist inside the small and unexplored pyramids at Saqqara. The rumour gathered momentum and aroused the usual mixture of scepticism and excitement until it reached the ears of Professor Gaston Maspero. He had recently arrived in Cairo to take charge of the Mission d’Archéologie Française and was eager to further his career in Egypt. An experienced archaeologist and brilliant philologist, Maspero knew only too well that the biggest archaeological finds often begin with just such a rumour, a whisper in the markets, and this one had a feel of truth. It seemed to confirm what he had secretly suspected about the otherwise silent pyramids of Egypt. He decided to investigate.
Apparently, a jackal or desert fox had been spotted at dawn immobile near a crumbled pyramid in the necropolis of Saqqara. It was as if the animal were taunting his lone human observer, a reis or head workman, and was almost inviting the puzzled man to chase him. Slowly the jackal sauntered towards the north face of the pyramid, stopping for a moment before disappearing into a hole. The bemused Arab decided to follow his lead. After slipping through the narrow hole, he found himself crawling into the dark bowels of the pyramid. Soon he emerged into a chamber and, lifting his light, saw that the walls were covered from top to bottom with hieroglyphic inscriptions. These were carved with exquisite craftsmanship into the solid limestone and painted over with turquoise and gold. The reis had stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the late nineteenth century and the coded messages which eventually led to the resolutions of the mystery of the pyramids.
There is a certain irony that the discovery was made by following a jackal. In Ancient Egypt there were two jackal gods, though they were probabaly different aspects of the same divine archetype. The first and best known was Anubis, who in Egyptian funerary paintings is always shown supervising the ritual ‘weighing of the heart’, the dreaded final reckoning of the dead that decided whether or not a soul could enter into the court of Osiris. Wooden sculptures of Anubis were also made and placed as guardians inside the tombs of pharaohs; a beautiful example of one of these (now in the Cairo Museum) being the ever-watchful guardian found in the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun. The other jackal was Wepwawet or Upuaut, the ‘opener of the ways’. It was after him, of course, that the German team named their famous robot.
The distinction between Anubis and Upuaut is not clear from the ancient texts, but, as Robert Temple pointed out in The Sirius Mystery, Anubis was seen as linked with Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (the Great Dog). Upuaut seems to have been connected with the northern constellation which we now call Ursa Minor. (The jackal is also involved with our quest for solution of the Orion Mystery and I was to encounter ‘my’ jackal at Giza just before making an important discovery.)
II Parlez-vous Français?
The Discovery of the Pyramid Texts is shrouded in controversy. The late 1870s were, admittedly, a confusing time in Egypt. The mood was of imminent civil disturbance and even of civil war, and there were signs of revolt against foreigners and the puppet khedive, Tewfik Pasha.1 A military fleet was preparing to sail from Britain to intimidate the rebels and their leader, Ahmed Arabi, who had been threatening the khedive’s authority and harassing and murdering Europeans in Cairo and Alexandria.2 Amid the political instability the rumour of the jackal’s find added worry and confusion for the foreign archaeologists in Cairo, who were concerned with safeguarding their livelihoods as well as archaeological treasures.
The credit for the discovery of the Pyramid Texts is generally given to Gaston Maspero, but the true sequence of events that led to the discovery are far from clear. It is well documented that he was the first to enter the pyramid of Unas on 28 February 1881, but there can be no doubt that two other text-bearing pyramids had already been secretly explored by Auguste Mariette (1821–81), director of the Egyptian Anti-quities Service.3
The story goes that the Arab reis, probably disappointed at not finding any ‘real’ treasure inside the small pyramid, reported his find to the authorities responsible for antiquities, which meant Auguste Mariette, the most senior Egyptologist of his day, who had donned the title of pasha. Mariette was a native of Boulogne, and had been in Egypt since 1851. He had become famous a few months after his arrival in Egypt, when he had discovered the Serapeum at Saqqara, a huge labyrinth of underground galleries containing dozens of the massive sarcophagi of the sacred Apis Bulls of Memphis. This made him a good friend of Khedive Said and later of his son, Ismail, which gave him considerable influence in Egypt. Mariette founded the Services des Antiquités, the prototype for the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, and the Boulag Museum, which eventually became the Cairo Museum and moved to its present location in Tahrir Square. Mariette became the first director of the Services, then a position of power in Egypt, since it controlled the trade of antiquities and the concessions to foreign bodies wishing to excavate.
By 1880, when the Pyramid Texts were discovered, Mariette had become a household name and his reputation as an archaeologist was immense. He had also a reputation for stubbornness and authoritarianism which, on more than one occasion, caused political trouble with his mentors.4 His star was setting; he was tired and sick, and had lost his wife and a child in an outbreak of the plague in Egypt. Mariette brooded over what he regarded as his private empire, the Memphite Necropolis where, among other treasures, he had discovered the Serapeum.
It was well known to all that Mariette had been something of a rebel in his youth. He had originally been sent to Egypt by the Louvre, not to excavate but to look for Coptic manuscripts, which he was given funds to purchase. Instead, relying on his intuition, Mariette used the money to carry out unauthorised excavations at Saqqara. Luckily, his hunch proved right, and he discovered the Serapeum. The Louvre’s curators forgave him and sent him more money to carry on with excavation work.5 However, this was all bygone days; now, as an old and tired man, he refused to allow his younger colleagues the freedom he had once enjoyed. When the rumours concerning the pyramid were brought to his attention, he refused to follow them up or let anyone else do so. In spite of entreaties by Maspero and others, Mariette maintained a rigid and patronising stance, claiming that it would be a waste of time and money to enter these unexplored pyramids. His argument was that as pyramids were tombs they could not ‘speak’; they were obviously muettes (mute), and he insisted that they could not possibly contain inscriptions. His colleagues, including Maspero, decided it was best to let matters stand.
On the face of it, Mariette seemed to have a valid point. It had to be admitted, even by the optimistic Maspero, that all the pyramids opened so far, including the great pyramids of Giza, contained no contemporary inscriptions whatsoever. The only writings found inside were graffiti of no great value.6 There was no reason to believe that the smaller pyramids at Saqqara would be different. There was only the jackal rumour and, though Maspero took it seriously, Mariette was not impressed and reiterated his objection by asking ‘If the pyramids contained texts, they would not be just tombs, would they?’7 Maspero said later: ‘One knew quite well the opinion of Mariette on this subject of pyramids: in the preface to his unfinished work on the mastabas, he wanted forcefully to prove not only that they contained no texts, but that they never had contained any inscriptions and that it would be a waste of time and money to want to open them …’.8
Early in 1880, however, the money problem at least had been solved. The French government made a generous donation to the Antiquities Service of 10,000 francs, on the understanding that at least one of the unopened pyramids at Saqqara should be explored. Maspero had been urging that the funds be sent in the hope of softening Mariette’s opposition. It worked, but not in the way Maspero had hoped:
The work, started in April 1880 under the guidance of the Reis Mohamad Chahin, resulted in the discovery of two ruined chambers and a corridor, covered with hieroglyphs. The imprints of the inscriptions, carried out by Mr Emile Brugsch-Bey, were handed to me by Monsieur Mariette, without indication of their origins, asking me to examine them and translate them. A first glance made me recognise texts which came from the pyramid of Pepi I.9
Maspero claimed that Mariette insisted these texts were not from a royal pyramid but from the large mastaba tomb of a nobleman:
Monsieur Mariette was so biased in favour of his theory of ‘dumb’ pyramids, that he at first did not want to admit that the tomb the inscriptions had come from was a pyramid, and that it had entombed Pepi I: according to him they had only found a mastaba of large size belonging to a common individual …10
At last, on 4 January 1881 Mariette relented. This, after all, could be his last chance to be privy to the secrets of the pyramids. Reluctantly, he gave instructions to his German assistant, Emile Brugsch, to investigate this irksome ‘jackal rumour’.
A few days later Brugsch reported to Mariette that the reis’s story had been correct. It was in a pyramid and not a mastaba that the inscriptions had been found.11 But by now the great archaeologist was on his deathbed and, ironically, never saw the texts. On 19 January 1881 Mariette died at Boulag, near the famous museum he had created, and his embalmed body now rests inside a sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. A bronze statue of Mariette dominates the scene, with a plaque, ‘A Mariette Pasha, L’Egypte Reconnaissante’.
Maspero was Mariette’s obvious successor, and was immediately appointed Director of the Services des Antiquités. It was clear to everyone what his first move would be: with the official authority his new position brought, the full exploration of the neglected small pyramids in the Memphite Necropolis was on a secure footing.
Thus it was that in the second week of February 1881, under a glorious winter sun, Maspero embarked upon the operation with quasi-military zeal. He decided to ‘attack along the whole front of the Memphite Necropolis, that is from Abu Roash [Ruwash] to Lisht …’12 The pyramids of Pepi I and Merenre had already been opened by Brugsch and now ‘rapid success was to follow. Unas was opened on the 28 February, Pepi II and Neferirkara on 13 April, and Teti on 29 May …’ Excavations went on until late in 1882 on other pyramids with no further inscriptions found, but Maspero was proud to report that ‘in less than a year, five of the so-called “dumb” pyramids of Saqqara had spoken …’13
This was more than he had ever dreamt would be found; literally thousands of lines of hieroglyphs had now been discovered. One can feel Maspero’s excitement as he explains the quantity of writings involved. ‘The result’, he wrote, ‘is considerable. The inscribed pyramids at Sakkara have given us almost 4000 lines of hymns and formulae, of which the greater part were written originally during the prehistoric period of Egyptian history.’
His conclusion as to the date of their original composition, even by conservative estimates, brings us to a period around 3200BC, which is almost two millennia before the compilation of the Old Testament and over 3400 years before the first Christian gospels were written. The Pyramid Texts are certainly the oldest religious corpus of writings discovered anywhere in the world.
Of the five pyramids involved, the one which was to yield the greatest number of texts was that of Unas, last of the Fifth Dynasty kings (c. 2300BC). The pristine texts in this pyramid were not only the finest in the collection but the oldest. Maspero was the first person to enter the chambers of Unas and see the texts. He had to crouch as he made his way through the low, descending passage until he reached the sarcophagus chamber with its wonderful pitched ceiling. Here he (like Adrian and I a century later) gazed with awe at the wonderfully cut hieroglyphs inscribed on the walls.
Maspero now had the difficult task of translating and interpreting what he had discovered. He wrote, ‘The texts which cover [the walls] are of three kinds: ritualistic texts, prayers and magical formulae.’14 It was an unfortunate choice of words, for comments like this were to undermine the significance of the find. This was one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries ever, but by labelling the Pyramid Texts little more than grimoires of pagan superstition, he made them seem inconsequential. Maspero failed, like many others after him, to detect the astronomical content of the writings and the expression of a potent esoteric wisdom.
It took the best part of five days for Maspero, with the help of Emile Brugsch, to copy down the texts from Unas’s pyramid; within a few weeks he had a rough translation ready for publication in the official journal of the Mission Archéologique d’Egypte. He wrote later:
I do not hide the fact that this tentative translation was rather rash, and I perhaps should have waited longer; I none the less thought that Egyptologists would be more grateful to me for a quick publication rather than waiting for an in-depth study, and would therefore forgive me the errors in interpretation in favour of the importance of the texts.15
Maspero’s confession proved necessary, because he was precipitate in his interpretation of the Pyramid Texts. Unfortunately a great deal of misunderstanding about them was caused not only by him but by other Egyptologists in the early part of the twentieth century. In their enthusiasm to bring out translations and commentaries, they depended as much upon gut instinct as anything else and this tended to be loaded with Christian bias.
The greatest culprit was an American Egyptologist named James Henry Breasted, who made a serious attempt at interpreting the texts in 1912. Breasted was to see in the Texts something that was not there at all: the remnants of a solar cult versus stellar cult rivalry, with the stellar cult in decline and there only for nostalgic reasons. He was thus to write:
stellar notions have doubtless descended from a more ancient day when the stellar notion was independent of the solar … it is evident that the stellar notion has been absorbed by the solar … the solar beliefs predominate so strongly that the Pyramid Texts as a whole and in the form in which they have reached us may be said to be of solar origins.16
Breasted concluded that the stellar cult deserved little attention; all his attention went to what he saw as the principal theme of the Pyramid Texts, a solar cult. The inevitable result was that the pyramids were allocated a solar pedigree by Breasted; such a conclusion put a solar stamp on them and their symbolic purposes that was going to be very hard to shift, for Breasted was no ordinary Egyptologist. By the end of his ‘brilliant career’ his list of credentials and titles filled two pages, and he was dubbed ‘the real founder of Egyptology in the New World’.17
Breasted (1865–1935) came from ‘sedate Mid-western stock and had once planned to prepare himself for the ministry’; his interest in ancient peoples eventually drew him to the study of ‘Bible lands’, although he always ‘retained a strong sense of mission’.18 He began his working life as a clerk in local drug stores, graduating in pharmacy in 1882. He then went on to study Hebrew in Chicago and moved to Yale University in 1890–1. There he was drawn to the study of Egyptology, which remained his life-long passion. In 1892 he went to Berlin and studied under the German philologist, Dr Adolf Erman. He gradually made a name for himself and attracted the attention and friendship of J. D. Rockefeller Jr., who, in 1924, gave him a grant which Breasted used in part to found the Oriental Institute at Chicago, America’s first Egyptological seat. Further gifts from Rockefeller allowed Breasted to turn the Oriental Institute into the leading Egyptological institute of the New World, commanding the deep respect of scholars and students alike.19With this status and academic authority, few would have dared to challenge his established views.
There is no doubt that Breasted’s contribution to Egyptology is immense, but this does not alter the fact that his biblical bias and his personal vision of a monotheistic solar religion which he sought to graft on to the Pyramid Tests nearly closed the door to a fresh interpretation of them. There were many who sensed that something was adrift in his interpretations, and that the astronomical and stellar aspects of the Texts deserved closer scrutiny, but with the solar theory gaining the support of other Egyptology heavyweights, Breasted’s views remained unchallenged for a long time.
He was fascinated by the mystery of the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. In his popular book, The Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, he took it upon himself to show how, in his view, the development of Egyptian religious ideologies had occurred. The Pyramid Texts were the revamped product of ‘successive editors almost at haphazard’.20 ‘What is the content of the Pyramid Texts?’ he asked, and offered his wide and attentive audience this reply:
… it may be said to be, in the main, sixfold:
1) A funerary ritual and a ritual of mortuary offerings at the tomb
2) Magical charms
3) Very ancient ritual of worship
4) Ancient religious hymns
5) Fragments of old myths
6) Prayers and petitions on behalf of the dead king21
He reduced the Pyramid Texts to the mumbo-jumbo of archaic and superstitious magician-priests with weird ideas about the afterlife problems of their dead kings. Hardly a religion at all, put in those terms. True religious thoughts, Breasted believed, came much later, during the epoch of the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Ahkenaten (c. 1350BC).
By now, in Breasted’s view, the solar cult was ready to become a solar faith with hints of a monotheistic concept. This was supposedly instigated by the new Aten cult introduced by the philosophical and gentle pharaoh, Akhenaten.22 Breasted saw in Akhenaten’s famous ancestor, the great Thoth-Moses III, a leader of a ‘national priesthood as yet known in the early East, and the first Pontifex Maximus’ under the god Amon. With Thoth-Moses III thus branded as a sort of pharaonic pope, whose office Breasted termed ‘this Amonite papacy’, his American audience began to conjure an almost Judeo-Christian idea of Thoth-Moses III’s strange great-great-grandson. Much in Breasted terminology wishes to see Akhenaten as the precursor of a monotheistic religion with the sun, or rather sun disc, as the symbol of the One God, the ‘Word’.23
This was not surprising to his audience, since Moses was believed by many to be a contemporary of Akhenaten and, some claimed, a main participant in the developing and blending of the monotheistic Hebraic faith with the religion of the pharaohs.24 Nagging in the background, however, was the stellar cult which testified to Babylonian polytheistic star worship and was therefore unacceptable to Hebraic idealism. The stellar element was evident in the Pyramid Texts, and Breasted, as all others before him, felt uncomfortable with it. He cast it as a half-baked theory which blemished the pure solar ideologies of the Pyramid Age.
Because of these flawed early studies, one of the most important keys to a true understanding of the texts — their use of allegorical astronomy — was nearly lost, buried under the mountain of academic verbiage which followed Maspero’s publications. The astronomical key might have disappeared for ever but for a fateful discovery in 1982, a century after the Pyramid Texts were found. We will discuss this in later chapters, but let us now examine what the texts really are, and their relationship to the better known Egyptian Book of the Dead. This was a corpus of similar writings, recorded on papyrus scrolls in later times. Armed with this basic knowledge, we will be ready to approach the core of our mystery, the role of Orion in Egyptian religion.
III The ‘Old Testament’ of Ancient Egypt
We have seen that the Pyramid Texts are hieroglyphic writings carved on the internal walls of one of the Fifth Dynasty pyramids and four others from the Sixth Dynasty. They can thus be dated to a period between the earliest (Unas) c. 2300BC and the most recent (Pepi II) c. 2100BC. However, even these, the oldest religious writings in the world, are not the originals, but derive from some lost and more ancient archetype. We are fortunate in one respect though, that since the time when they were carved on the walls of the pyramids, they have not suffered from further corruption at the hands of editors and scribes, which cannot be said for other sacred scriptures from the distant past, including the Bible. It is sad that the Texts have been so neglected in recent decades by scholars of comparative religion and history of philosophy.
Considering the well-developed theology and mythology they contain, and the fact that they were used specifically for royal ceremonies and rites during the great epoch of the Pyramid Age, we can be sure that the copies which survived on the walls of the pyramids were indeed taken from older sources which have not themselves survived. How much earlier than the time of Unas was the original source material written?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to see how their discoverer, Gaston Maspero, and other scholars, Egyptologists and translators after him, perceived the Pyramid Texts. In a lecture Maspero gave soon after the discovery, he described them as ‘4000 lines of hymns and formulae, of which the greater part were originally written during the prehistoric period of Egypt’. Now ‘prehistoric’ Egypt, even by modern new chronological dating, places them around 3200BC at the latest — a date which Maspero and his contemporaries would have found very conservative indeed.
In 1912 Breasted was to write of these texts:
Contrary to the popular and current impression, the most important body of sacred literature in Egypt is not the Book of the Dead, but much older literature which we now call the Pyramid Texts. These texts, preserved in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids at Sakkara, form the oldest body of literature surviving from the ancient world and disclose to us the earliest chapter in the intellectual history of man as preserved to modern times.25
Since Breasted wrote those words, further confusion has been caused (particularly among investigators outside scholarly circles) by the common practice among Egyptologists of the first half of the twentieth century of referring to the funerary liturgy and many other texts of ancient Egypt collectively as ‘The Book of the Dead’, with the Pyramid Texts considered as the oldest version. This was a trend promulgated by, among others, Professor Wallis-Budge:
The history of the great body of religious composition which form the Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians may conveniently be divided into four periods, which are represented by four versions: I. The version which was edited by the priests of the college of Annu (the On of the Bible, and the Heliopolis of the Greeks), and which was based upon a series of texts now lost … is known from five copies which are inscribed upon the walls and passages in the pyramids of kings of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties at Sakkara, and sections of it are found inscribed upon tombs, sarcophagi, coffins, stelae and papyri from the Eleventh Dynasty to about AD200.26
II. The Theban version, which was commonly written on papyri in hieroglyphics and was divided into sections or chapters, each of which had its distinct title but no definite place in the series. The version was much used from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasty.
III. A version closely allied to the preceding version, which is found written on papyri in the hieractic character and also in hieroglyphics. In this version, which came into use about the Twentieth Dynasty, the chapters have no fixed order.
IV. The so-called Saite version, in which, at some period anterior probably to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the chapters were arranged in a definite order. It is commonly written in hieroglyphics and in hieratic, and it was much used from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty to the end of the Ptolemaic period.
Budge’s divisions are far from adequate. His versions II, III and IV, though similar to one another in many respects, differ markedly from the Pyramid Texts. Not only that, but the Pyramid Texts are lumped together with much later writings such as the Coffin Texts.
This banding together of Egyptian sacred writings and labelling them as ‘Books of the Dead’ has tended to cloud scholars’ judgements concerning the Pyramid Texts and disguise their uniqueness. Budge did, however, go on to say that they ‘bear within themselves proofs, not only of having been composed, but also of having been revised, or edited, long before the days of King Mena (c. 3300BC) …’27 Dr Edwards, another former Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum and author of the definitive work on the pyramids of Egypt, reaffirmed this position when he wrote in 1947, ‘For the most part the Pyramid Texts were not the invention of the Fifth or Sixth Dynasties, but had originated in earlier times …’28 We can find no reason to doubt this assessment; indeed we believe that the Pyramid Texts and the star religion they contain predate the Fifth Dynasty by many centuries.
The final and definitive translation of the Pyramid Texts has proved an arduous business. After Maspero’s hasty effort, German scholars were the most active in this field. Dr Kurt Sethe’s epic version (1910–12) is foremost among them. During the 1950s and 1960s some English translations were to follow, the first by Samuel B. Mercer, Professor of Semitic Languages and Egyptology at Toronto University, then another by Alexander Piankoff based only on the Unas inscriptions.29 Finally in 1969 the eminent and respected British philologist, Raymond Faulkner, produced what is considered the definitive translation. Published by Oxford University Press under the title The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts,30 Faulkner’s translation is still regarded as the best. Eventually, in 1986, just over a century after their discovery, the publishers Aris & Phillips reissued Faulkner’s book as the first paperback edition of the Texts, and this was reprinted in 1993. Faulkner, impressed by the antiquity and content of the inscriptions, described them thus:
The Pyramid Texts … constitute the oldest corpus of Egyptian religious and funerary literature now extant. Furthermore they are the least corrupt of all such collections of funerary texts … They include very ancient texts among which were those nearly contemporary with the pyramids in which they were inscribed …’31
It is quite clear from all this that we are dealing with texts of which the greater portion originated well before the Fifth Dynasty. I felt safe, therefore, in assuming that, although the earliest copy was found in the pyramid of Unas, last king of the Fifth Dynasty, the Texts refer to a religion and rituals in existence during the Fourth Dynasty — the period during which the gigantic pyramids of Giza and Dashour were constructed. In projecting the texts back one dynasty, from the Fifth to the Fourth, I believed I was not contradicting scholarly opinion. Indeed, all the Egyptologists involved with the Pyramid Texts, from their discoverer to their definitive translator, saw them as including very ancient material from beyond the Pyramid Age.
I was soon to discover, however, that while Egyptologists were prepared to agree to a greater antiquity for the Pyramid Texts than the Fifth Dynasty, they complained that there was no hard evidence of this. This seemed very odd to me; you could not have it both ways. Either it should be accepted, at least on philological grounds, that the texts contain very old ideas and material, or that they applied no earlier than the Fifth Dynasty. It was obvious that the ideas in the Pyramid Texts did not happen only during Unas’s reign, and that they might have taken several centuries to develop into the royal state religion. Yet archaeologists wanted hard evidence, and that was not yet possible. Many scholars dismiss the philological evidence, which ought to be enough in such cases, and will not agree to the Texts being projected back before the time of Unas, not even to the Fourth Dynasty.
This paradoxical attitude created a scholarly impasse, which some more intrepid researchers have since challenged.32 Many scholars preferred not to deal with the Pyramid Texts at all rather than risk embarking on the sort of controversy which could negatively affect their careers. The study of ancient texts was, it appeared, the běte noire of Egyptologists. Not many wanted to sink themselves in archaic texts said to be a ‘haphazard’ compilation of ‘magical spells and hymns’ of little or no consequence for the understanding of ancient ideas and ‘sciences’. And anyway, enough had already been said about the Pyramid Texts by Breasted and others.
Regarding the projection backwards of the content of the Texts to earlier dynasties, or at least to the Fourth Dynasty, it is, in many ways, the same as saying that the Christian gospels (the earliest dating from the fourth century) should not be ‘projected back’ to the time of Jesus or even to the third century, when we know very well that Christianity was flourishing in both the east and in Rome. Unlike the prolific study of ancient Christian texts in hundreds of establishments around the world (not including the clerics), there is, as far as the Pyramid Texts are concerned, a curious academic seizure, a kind of intellectual catatonia which has struck many Egyptologists. A good example of this was expressed in a letter written to me by Professor Cathleen Keller, Senior Egyptologist at Berkeley University in California, who felt that a problem was raised by the fact that the versions of the Pyramid Texts which we possess date from the end of the Fifth Dynasty (at the earliest), somewhat later than the construction of the Giza monuments. She therefore thought that we should be cautious when projecting the texts back into the Fourth Dynasty.33
But Dr Keller did admit that ‘many colleagues do not share this caution and frequently discuss the Giza complexes in terms of Pyramid Text rituals’. Yet what she did not make evident is just what is meant by ‘some caution is called for’. I regarded a projection back to the Fourth as very cautious indeed, especially when it is recognised that the bulk of the Pyramid Texts in our possession were based on older originals.
Yet the well-known Professor of Egyptology, R. T. Rundle Clark, had warned in 1959 that ‘Excessive caution leads to complete misunderstanding … It is in interpretation, however, that courage is needed.’34 Here at last was an Egyptologist who was agreeing that ‘the religious literature cannot be understood without some sympathy for the outlook of its authors’.35 Rundle Clark saw the Pyramid Texts as the supreme achievements of their time and asked his colleagues to ensure that they were ‘to be explained as such and not as a chance collection of heterogeneous tags put together to justify the pretensions of rival priesthoods’.36 He emphasised that the more the texts are studied the greater appears their ‘literary quality and intellectual content’, and asked scholars to treat them with greater respect.
I soon realised what Rundle Clark meant when he said that courage is needed if you want to interpret the Pyramid Texts: the vague warning given by Dr Keller was nothing compared with a letter from a Swiss professor in Cairo who told me in no uncertain terms to leave things to the ‘experts’ and to go about my business. He advised me to ‘abandon this subject and become a good engineer’.37
The more I investigated, the more it drew a mixed reaction from academics. Some felt that they could not comment on the ‘mathematical’ or ‘astronomical’ aspects of my thesis, others were nonplussed and most, at least in the early stage, simply could not be bothered to reply. I had the impression that not only was I treading on taboo territory, but that astronomy and the study of the Pyramid Age were anathema to Egyptologists: the two do not mix for them. Dr Keller summarised the problem when she wrote that many serious Egyptologists felt uncomfortable about the relationship between astronomical phenomena and ancient Egyptian architecture. They do not like to admit that the Ancient Egyptians were motivated less by scientific curiosity than by religious considerations in their understanding of the skies.38
The result of all this caution and antipathy about anything astronomical is that today, more than a century after the discovery of the Pyramid Texts, few non-specialist readers have even heard of them; fewer still are aware of the star religion or astronomies they contain.
We need now to re-examine what happened to the Texts after their discovery in 1880 and to explore their contents in the context of their allusions: the pyramid structures, the Nile Valley near Memphis and the sky above the two.
IV The Wrong Program for the Files
Anyone who has worked with a computer knows that calling up a file using a word-processing program not compatible with the one being used, means a garbled version of the text appearing on the screen.
This is more or less what happened (and in many ways is still happening) with the Pyramid Texts and the pyramids of Egypt. We believe that the wrong program for reading them has been used. We are not talking of the translation from the hieroglyphic language to modern languages; we have the utmost faith in the work of Faulkner and others like him. We are referring specifically to the interpretation put on these texts by Egyptologists. We believe that the proper program or decoder exists and needs to be understood before we can properly decode the Pyramid Texts and extract their real, esoteric meaning. But let us first see how the orthodox consensus became established, and why it may be the result of using the wrong ‘program’.
Although Maspero published large portions of the Pyramid Texts piecemeal from 1884 to 1894, these were distributed only among fellow scholars, as often happens with new archaeological finds of a textual nature. For example, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the 1940s, have only recently been published for the general public. Likewise, the Pyramid Texts were given little, if any, public exposure when they were first discovered. In 1910 Kurt Sethe produced the ‘first standard edition’. This turned out to be a bulky work in three volumes which, apart from its high cost, was almost inaccessible for non-Egyptologists. (As a matter of interest, it was Sethe who coined the term ‘utterance’ to denote small chapters, sometimes only a few lines, in the main body of texts.)
The first sign of recognition that the star cult in the Pyramid Texts deserved closer attention came in 1946, when the prolific and tireless Dr Selim Hassan, an indigenous Egyptologist, gave his extensive interpretation of the Texts in a volume of his massive work entitled Excavations at Giza. Though Hassan was by no means in any mood, or position, to challenge Breasted’s established solar contentions, he did pay far more attention to the stellar elements in the Pyramid Texts. He noted: ‘At some remote period in the history of Egyptian religious thought, there was a belief that after death the soul of the King became a star among the stars of Heaven …’.39
Why Hassan saw this belief as being from ‘some remote period’ and not contemporary with the Pyramid Age is unclear. He drew his conclusions from what he read in the Pyramid Texts and not, as his statement implies, from religious material from ‘some remote period’. There is no religious material more remote than the Pyramid Texts. What Hassan meant was obvious: he saw in the Texts the elements of a star religion, but assumed that it came from a remote period because Breasted had said so. Breasted’s reputation was now waxing in Egyptological annals, and his views had become academic dogma, not easy to dislodge. But the first crack in the solar theory was showing, and Hassan recognised that there were many references to the stars and the stellar destiny of pharaohs in the Pyramid Texts.
In 1952 Mercer produced the first English version of a manageable size and price. It came in four volumes, three of which were devoted to interpretations.40 Mercer also paid more attention to the stellar doctrines of the Texts and, unlike Breasted and Hassan, began to recognise that hidden behind the liturgy was a primitive astronomy, expressed in poetic allegories and symbolism. He was perhaps the first to regard the Pyramid Texts as something other than a bulky compilation of ‘hymns and spells’ put together by some careless scribes. His analysis, though complex at times, was the first sign that someone was recognising in them elements of religious rituals which could be better understood through their stellar and astronomical content.
This, of course, conflicted with the established view, and Mercer was pilloried for being rash and far too bold in his interpretations. It was also said that his translations did ‘not represent current knowledge of ancient Egyptian’,41 which was not entirely true. Mercer’s study must have its place in the anthology of the Pyramid Texts, and his boldness may yet prove to be a good thing. (However, I soon discovered that quoting Mercer on the Texts was frowned on by academics.) He did much to highlight the fact that the Texts contain allegories about the stars and their movements and recognised that an astronomy mingled with mythology and rituals needed to be extracted from them. He showed that the principal theme was the powerful belief that the dead king would be reborn as a star and that his soul was believed to travel into the sky and become established in the starry world of Osiris-Orion, the god of the dead and of resurrection:
The Dog Star was identified with Sirius; Orion was identified with Osiris.… It is not surprising to find an identification of Osiris with Orion … [for] one of the central themes of the Pyramid Texts was the complete identification of the dead king with Osiris …42
8. Sahu-Orion followed by Sothis-Sirius and three stars in the Dally Procession of the Heavens
Mercer also believed in the great antiquity of the cult found in the Texts: ‘The worship of Osiris is, no doubt, prehistoric … by the time of the Pyramid Age it was a well-established cult’.43
The starry world of Osiris was called the Duat, and Faulkner, after the careful and meticulous analysis required to translate the Pyramid Texts, concluded that the Duat was not a part of the sun but often considered a ‘part of the visible sky’.44 Two years before he published his translation, Faulkner explored the star religion in the Texts and published his views in the prestigious Journal of Near Eastern Studies.45 I am indebted to Dr Edwards for drawing my attention to this important article back in 1986 when the ‘Orion Mystery’ was still dragging its heels.46 Faulkner quoted a large number of passages from the Pyramid Texts which mention the stars in connection with the soul of the dead kings and their afterlife destiny. Yet he ignored hundreds of other passages which also refer to the astral destiny of the kings, without specific reference to the word star, and more which drew attention to the stars by allegories and metaphors.
This is obvious from the way the dead king is identified with Osiris, who is identified with the constellation of Orion, as Mercer pointed out.47 Faulkner also noted that the constellation of Orion was one of the afterlife dwelling-places of the souls of departed kings who became stars.
It was now becoming clear to me that observational astronomy and its material expression in the symbolic architecture of the pyramid structures and their orientations needed to be carefully examined. I discovered that I was not the only one who felt that a fresh review of the Pyramid Texts was imperative if progress were to be made in solving the mystery of the Egyptian pyramids.
The first serious complaint which called for new and unbiased review of the Pyramid Texts had come in 1948 from the eminent orientalist Dr Henri Frankfort, Professor of Oriental Archaeology at the University of Chicago and director of the Warburg Institute in London. Frankfort attacked Breasted’s views as being ‘biblical’ and complained that no serious attempt was being made to extract the true meaning of the Pyramid Texts.48 Two years after Mercer’s publication of his commentaries on the Texts, a broadside came from another quarter, this time from a respected philological source. Alexander Piankoff, who had also translated part of the Pyramid Texts from the Unas pyramid, lamented:
The approach to the study of Egyptian religion has passed without transition from one extreme to another. For the early Egyptologists this religion was highly mysterious and mystical.… Then came a sudden reaction: scholars lost all interest in the religion as such and viewed the religious texts merely as source material for their philological-historical research …49
In 1992, while Adrian and I were in the process of writing The Orion Mystery, another, more forceful call for a new appraisal of the Pyramid Texts — this time with due application of scientific astronomy — came from Jane B. Sellers, an Egyptologist who had been studying the astronomical contents of the Pyramid Texts for nearly sixty years.50 In her recent book, The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt,51 Sellers airs the many complaints about how the Texts, and Egyptian religious texts in general, have been treated by scholars.52 She quotes Henri Frankfort53, who openly contested Breasted’s stranglehold on the study of the Pyramid Texts:
[James H. Breasted] described in 1912 a ‘development of religion and thought in ancient Egypt’ towards ethical ideals which pertained to biblical but not to ancient Egyptian religion. Since then interpretation (of the Pyramid Texts) has lagged … The most prolific writers … assumed towards our subject a scientist’s rather than a scholar’s attitude; while ostensibly concerned with religion, they were really absorbed in the task of bringing order to a confused mass of material.54
Sellers added a few comments of her own: ‘Frankfort pointed out that men of this school have dominated the subject since the 1920s, and he accused them of both being responsible for the widely accepted view that religion was always a consequence of political power, and of being unable to see the wood for the trees.’55
Long before Jane Sellers’s refreshing openness, I too had come to the conclusion that no one could really comprehend the Pyramid Texts by translating and interpreting the words without a background knowledge of observational astronomy. It was obvious that without this, and without a general appraisal of architectural symbology, they would remain unintelligible. There could be no doubt that they were documents to be taken with the utmost seriousness and not be treated as the haphazard work of frivolous scribes. They showed evidence of being composed by a group of initiated priests-cum-astronomers who controlled the state religion of kings who were deemed gods and whose afterlife destiny was as established star souls in the world of Osiris.
But why build those massive pyramids to achieve this stellar destiny? What made them imagine that by taking the embalmed corpse of their king to ‘his’ pyramid in the Memphite Necropolis his soul would join Osiris in the sky?