Early Northwest Semitic Serpent Spells in the Pyramid Texts

Early Northwest Semitic Serpent Spells in the Pyramid Texts


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The earliest connected Semitic texts known to modern scholars are usually thought to be East Semitic texts from Mesopotamia, written in the cuneiform script. In this monograph, Richard C. Steiner deciphers Semitic texts that are even earlier--Northwest Semitic texts in hieroglyphic script that have been "hiding in plain sight" among the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom.

The Semitic texts are embedded in two series of Egyptian spells designed to protect the king's mummy against snakes. They are orthographically distinct from the rest of the Pyramid Texts, characterized by exceptional phonetic spelling reminiscent of the "group writing" used to write foreign names and texts in later times. Most editors of the Pyramid Texts have considered them unintelligible.

The Semitic and Egyptian passages in these spells are mutually elucidating. The Egyptian context contains phrases that reveal the meaning of corresponding Semitic phrases as well as clues that reveal the origin of the texts. The Semitic, in turn, helps to clarify the Egyptian, bringing a degree of cohesiveness and order to a group of spells that previously seemed like a hodgepodge. As Robert K. Ritner writes in his foreword to the monograph: "We have thus gone from a string of isolated invocations, many of them gibberish, to a coherent logically constructed, tripartite ritual with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. This seems to me a remarkable advance."


Harvard Semitic Studies - HSS 61

Publisher's Version

Last updated on 08/29/2014