The Pyramid Texts: Evidence for Hypnosis and Trance
There has been a long history of Egyptologists denying that the Egyptians had any mystical doctrines and practices connected with the world of the living, despite everything to the contrary said about them by the ancient Greeks. Thus, pretty much everything they discovered about Egyptian religion was automatically interpreted as being funerary in nature. As unlikely as that sounds, this pretty much remains the case today; but in his book Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, author Jeremy Naydler provides convincing evidence that at least some of these texts are unlikely to have been funerary at all.
The Pyramid of Unas in Egypt, where the ancient Pyramid Texts were found. (Olaf Tausch / CC BY 3.0)
Instances of Trance Induction in the Pyramid Texts
First discovered in 1881 by Gaston Maspero, the Pyramid Texts were found engraved on the interior tomb walls of kings beginning with Unas—the last pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty (around 2345 BCE)—and continuing through the kings of the 6th Dynasty and all the way up to the reign of King Igby in the 8th Dynasty. Before Unas, there were no texts on the walls of any Egyptian tombs; nor were any to be found inside the Great Pyramid (around 2550 to 2490 BCE). But even though they first appear on the walls of King Unas tomb, it is most probable that they appeared in oral form much earlier on, possibly in pre-dynastic times.
Not only are the Pyramid Texts notable for being the first examples we have of ancient Egyptian literature, they are also the oldest example of extended writing found anywhere in the world.
For a span of 180 years or so, versions of the Pyramid Texts were engraved, not just on the walls inside the tombs of kings, but sometimes within the tombs of their wives as well (although their respective versions differed somewhat). However, the version found inscribed inside the tomb of King Unas is unique in that it is the only complete version of the Pyramid Texts that has ever been found—all other surviving examples are either fragmentary or incomplete.
King Unas. (Author provided)
The contents of the Pyramid Texts of Unas have been well-studied since they were first discovered by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero in 1881, and they have been grouped together by Egyptologists into roughly 750 “utterances,” many of which begin with the standardized formula djed medu—“words spoken.” The numbers assigned to the utterances are for modern identification purposes only, referring to their respective locations on tomb walls, and not the sequence in which the Egyptians may have recited them.
These utterances appear to be magic words and divine names that were needed to equip the pharaoh for his journey through the many obstacles he would face on his way to the land of the dead. Although the texts are the oldest known to have been written in Old Egyptian, they are surprisingly translatable because of their close similarities with the vocabulary already well-known from Middle Egyptian, the “standard” version of the language most familiar to and studied by Egyptologists. There are a few words that only appear in the Pyramid Texts and therefore remain elusive, so their true meanings can only be guessed at; but on the whole, they are relatively coherent and understandable at least as far as their vocabulary and grammar is concerned, especially given their extreme antiquity.
The French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero within the funerary chamber of the tomb of Unas in 1881. (Public domain)
It is fortunate for us that the best-preserved (and oldest) version of the Pyramid Texts was the one found in the tomb of Unas, as his tomb has since been identified as having a special canonical status, the spells from which continued to resonate throughout the long history of Egyptian religion. Over many centuries, there was a gradual “democratization” of these religious texts. They were originally purposed only for the Pharaoh, who had a unique divine status that belonged to no one else; but over time, many of the same utterances began to appear on the coffins of nobles and others of high rank as well (the Coffin Texts, c. 2134 to 2040 BCE). Even later than that, in the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 BCE), many of the same utterances were included in the so-called “Book of the Dead” (the proper name for which was really "The Book of Coming Forth by Day"), which any commoner with enough money could purchase and place in the tomb with him as a guide book for the afterlife ahead.
During my time studying ancient Egyptian at UCLA, one of the interesting things we did in class was to follow a particular utterance found in the Pyramid Texts through its appearance much later in the Coffin Texts, and all the way to its final inclusion in the Book of the Dead. A most interesting feature of one particular utterance our professor chose for us to look at, was that at some point it had become so corrupted that the scribe trying to copy it had to modify it just for it to make sense, which ended up changing its meaning entirely (a common hazard back then when copy machines had not yet been invented).
“O Unas, you have not departed dead, you have departed alive to sit upon the throne of Osiris…”
—Utt. 213 Pyramid Texts
The burial chamber discovered within the tomb of Unas with its wall covered in engraved Pyramid Texts. Were these inscriptions ancient spells or trance incantations? (Sailingstone Travel / Adobe Stock)
Yet despite these changes in meaning, the Pyramid Texts contain recurrent phrases along the lines of “Unas has not died! Wake up Unas!” and the quote above. These certainly don’t sound like the kind of things one might say to a corpse or a mummy; but they do sound like the kinds of things that might very well be addressed to a "revivifying" king who is ritually rehearsing his death by way of deep trance.
“Awake! Turn yourself about! So, shout I. O king, stand up and sit down to a thousand of beer…”
—Utt. 233 Pyramid Texts
In fact, some of the utterances addressed to the king, like the one cited above, sound suspiciously like what a hypnotist would say to a patient just emerging from a deep and protracted trance: “On the count of three, you can emerge from trance—One, two, and three! Now open your eyes, shake off your drowsiness, and have something to eat!”
The king is told “Awake!” but it sure doesn’t sound as if the person addressing him (presumably the officiating priest) meant anything like “awaken from sleep.” Rather, it seems fairly obvious here that the priest’s efforts to rouse the king were to help him get back to normal after coming out of a lengthy trance ritual disoriented and very, very hungry.
“O King, raise yourself up to me, betake yourself to me…”
—Utt. 223 Pyramid Texts
If so, how could utterances addressed to a living pharaoh end up alongside others, which are clearly funerary in nature, on the same walls of his tomb? The answer probably has to do with the important “Sed” festival and jubilee, which was celebrated at thirty-year intervals (and sometimes more often) by the King during his lifetime. As this was a memorable occasion for any king as well as for the entire country of Egypt, it appears that some of the rituals he performed during the Sed festival included his “rehearsal” of death and dying by way of deep trance, possibly with the help of mind-altering drugs.
“It [utterance 223] is concerned with awakening the king from what would appear to be a trancelike state, and ensuring the return of his spirit to the body…”
—Jeremy Naydler, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, p.14
Of course, some Sed festival rituals were kept super-secret as they were sacred rites meant only for the king (and for the few elite high priests who administered them). Although not many exact details are known about the sequence of events that happened at the Sed festival, enough has survived to give us some clues as to what the Pharaoh did and experienced during its celebration.
“I am Horus, my father’s heir. I am one who went and came back.”
—Utt. 260 Pyramid Texts (Italics added)
Hieroglyphic Pyramid Texts discovered on the walls of the tomb of Unas. Were these actually spells or trance-inducing incantations? (rninov / Adobe Stock)
Some of the rituals were physical tests of strength (running four times around the boundaries of the festival temple’s field, for example); but among the things the king was required to do during his Sed festival was to also, apparently, participate in ritual trance experiences designed to renew and revitalize both his divine status and the entire country as a whole. Along with trance-induced celestial journeys, visits to speak with the gods, and trips to the netherworld, the whole festival served as an ordeal intended to reassure the King’s subjects that he was still “large and in-charge.” By successfully completing all the required rituals of the Sed festival, the king proved to everyone that he remained physically and spiritually fit to rule, maintaining his status as god-king for the Egyptian people. At the end of the Sed festival the King was re-crowned, as he had been rejuvenated and confirmed worthy to resume his reign for years to come.
Scenes depicting this memorable event in the life of any pharaoh, and the country of Egypt as a whole, would surely deserve to be included along with the other, more funerary utterances inscribed on the walls of the king’s tomb; and it would indeed have made sense that utterances associated with the king’s ritualized rehearsal of dying—which was performed during his Sed festival—would stand alongside those concerned with his actual death.
“…if a given religious text appears to be concerned with post-mortem experiences, we need to look at it very carefully, because it could be describing mystical experiences of the living that parallel those that a person will undergo after death.”
—Jeremy Naydler, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, p.51
These mystical experiences could only have been brought about by way of induced trance, whether aided by the use of psychotropic drugs or not.
- A Day in the Life of an Ancient Egyptian Priest
- Book of the Dead: A Magical Guide to the Egyptian Underworld
We can only speculate as to what kind of trance states may have been induced to facilitate the king’s out-of-body mystical experiences. If the king was guided through the visions and their imagined geographies by a priest reciting from a text used as a hypnotic script, and the king was intended to be able to recall his trance journeys afterwards, then that would most likely rule out the kind of super-deep trance states characterized by amnesia and lack of any response to outside stimulation (such as the Esdaile state and Ultra Depth). The need to rouse the king back to wakefulness afterwards rules out hyperempiria (since in that case he would already be very much wide awake). That leaves us with the closest modern analogs—somnambulism, or maybe Ultra Height.
“The type of mysticism that existed in ancient Egypt is perhaps best described as ‘visionary mysticism.’ It entailed direct experience of the spirit world through states of consciousness in which the soul left the body in an ecstatic flight, to encounter ancestors, gods, and spirits, and to experience an inner rebirth.”
—Jeremy Naydler, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, p.8
It’s also possible that the Egyptians devised religious inductions, trance experiences, drug-trance combinations, and exotic trance states that we remain unaware of. Our modern tradition of intentionally inducing trance only goes back some 250 years or so; whereas ancient Egypt had thousands of years to develop and perfect their religious rituals, trance inductions, hypnotic suggestions, and other trance-related techniques—making it unwise for us to underestimate them in this regard. But what is obvious is that the ancient Egyptians were well aware of trance techniques, the nature of which remain unknown, millennia before Mesmer made his famous discovery.
This article is an extract from the book, Ancient Hypnosis Volume 1: Hypnosis, Exotic Trance States, and Psychological Phenomena in Antiquity by Ron Nodvik, and has been republished with permission.
Top image: The Pyramid texts discovered within the tomb of Unas at Saqqara in Egypt. Source: EvrenKalinbacak / Adobe Stock
By Ron Nodvik