The ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts form a corpus of ritual spells written on the inside of coffins from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1650 BCE). Thus accompanying the deceased in a very concrete sense, the spells are part of a long Egyptian tradition of equipping the dead with ritual texts ensuring the transition from the state of a living human being to that of a deceased ancestor. The texts present a view of death as entailing threats to the function of the body, often conceptualised as bodily fragmentation or dysfunction. In the transformation of the deceased, the restoration of these bodily dysfunctions is of paramount importance, and the texts provide detailed accounts of the ritual empowerment of the body to achieve this goal. Seen from this perspective, the Coffin Texts provide a rich material for studying ancient Egyptian conceptions of the body by providing insights into the underlying structure of the body as a whole and the proper function of individual part of the body as seen by the ancient Egyptians.
Drawing on a theoretical framework from cognitive linguistics and phenomenological anthropology, Breathing Flesh presents an analysis of the conceptualisation of the human body and its individual parts in the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. From this starting point, more overarching concepts and cultural models are discussed, including the ritual conceptualisation of the acquisition and use of powerful substances such as "magic", and the role of fertility and procreation in ancient Egyptian mortuary conceptions.
Rune Nyord is the Lady Wallis Budge Fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge, and the author of Breathing Flesh, also published by Museum Tusculanum Press.