The Cannibal Hymn forms a self-standing episode in the ritual anthology that makes up the Pyramid Texts, first appearing in the tomb of Unas at the end of the Fifth Dynasty. Its style and format are characteristic of the oral-recitational poetry of pharaonic Egypt, marked by allusive metaphor and the exploitation of wordplay and homophony in its verbal recreation of a butchery ritual. Christopher Eyre examines the text of the Cannibal Hymn in its performative and cultural context: the detailed mythologization of the sacrificial process in this hymn poses key questions about the nature of rites of passage and rituals of sacrifice in Egypt, and in particular about the mobilization of oral accompaniment to ritual actions.
The "Cannibal Text" (Frankfort) or "Cannibal Hymn" (Mercer, Faulkner) is an extraordinary literary document. It consists of two spells (Pyramid Texts 273 & 274) inscribed on the East gable of the antechamber of the tomb of Pharaoh Unis (Unas or Wenis, ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE, the last king of the Vth Dynasty (ca. 2487 - 2348 BCE) and his successor Pharaoh Teti (ca. 2348 - 2198 BCE), who initiated the VIth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 - 2205 BCE).
"The spells then drop out of the regular corpus, to reappear in the Middle Kingdom, when the Cannibal Hymn is included among the Pyramid Texts of the Middle Kingdom tombs of Senwosretankh at Lisht and of Siese at Dahshur. A reworked version appears as Coffin Text Spell 573, while a variety of phrases and themes from the hymn also recur in other Coffin Texts." - Christopher Eyre
The major theme of this text, the praise of Pharaoh, allows us to classify it as a hymn. Its main metaphorical and dramatical mechanism, namely Pharoah eating the deities, puts its acute poetical power into evidence. Degustation (like the spitting and masturbating Atum) is used as a material metaphor of transcendence. Pharaoh's consumption of the gods makes him akin to the precreational order of Atum (manifesting as Re, the father of the king). Some deities and the natural order of creation are left behind.
As a metaphor of unity, the divine king holds the division of the balance in harmony. His power is precisely mastership over the chaotic waters ("Nun"), actualized every year by a "good Nile" (an inundation kept between the extremes of too much or too little water - cf. the Balance of Maat). In the kinglist on the Palermo Stone (Vth Dynasty), the name of the king figures above compartiments recording, for each regnal year, the height of the inundation. The authority of the king was defined by his ability to sustain good inundations. Some argue that on the Scorpion mace-head (ca. 3000 BCE), we see the king, helped by attendants, ritually excavate an irrigation canal.
"The institution of kingship was projected as the sole force which held the country together, and the dual nature of the monarchy was expressed in the king's regalia, in his titulary, and in royal rituals and festivals. This concept -the harmony of opposites, a totality embracing pared contrasts- chimed so effectively with the Egyptian world-view that the institution of kingship acquired what has been called a 'transcendent significance'. This helps to explain the centrality of the institution to Egyptian culture, and its longevity." - Edward Wilkinson
In this exceptional hymn, synonymous parallelisms, in the form of resemblance, correspondence and similarity, are common, as well as a sixfold metrical scheme. The object of this song of praise, usually a deity, is Pharaoh, which is rather exceptional (although auto-deification is not unseen in Ancient Egypt). Although the confirmation of Pharaoh's excellence is consistent with the rest of the texts found in the tomb of Unis, and we indeed read how Pharaoh reigns over the deities and is feared by them, in the Cannibal Hymn a step further is taken : Pharaoh slays & eats the powers of the pantheon ! As "power of powers", he transcends every divinity of creation and is the eldest of the old. He is a god, who as a divine cannibal, metaphorically eating the other deities and gulping down their spirits ...
"Along with the Sumerians, the Egyptians deliver our earliest -through by no means primitive- evidence of human thought. It is thus appropriate to characterize Egyptian thought as the beginning of philosophy. As far back as the third millennium B.C., the Egyptians were concerned with questions that return in later European philosophy and that remain unanswered even today - questions about being and nonbeing, about the meaning of death, about the nature of the cosmos and man, about the essence of time, about the basis of human society and the legitimation of power." - Erik Hornung.