This books gives us a vision of the underworld as a series of six pits, or caverns over which the sun god passes. Most of the underworld is illustrated, while the text primarily praises Osiris. It stresses the destruction of the enemies of the sun god, and references afterlife rewards and punishments. The dead King, in order to complete his journey through the underworld, must know the secret names of the serpents and be able to identify his guardian deities. We only know of a nearly complete version in the tomb of Ramesses VI, though it appears in the upper parts of others.
The Book of Caverns appears to have originated in the Ramessid Period (the 20th Dynasty). As an underworld book, it seems almost to emphasize that previous text had been too soft on those deceased who fail their judgment in the afterlife, while at the same time focusing also on the rewards of those who do. It is, in fact, one of our best sources on the ancient Egyptian concept of Hell.
The Osireion, a well known cenotaph of Seti I located at Abydos, along with his mortuary temple, has the first known version of The Book of Caverns that is nearly complete (having its upper register damaged. It is found directly across from the rendering of the Book of Gates within the entry corridor on the left wall. Hence, it appears to be a relatively late funerary text of the New Kingdom, not showing up at all until the 19th Dynasty, and not making it into the tombs within the Valley of the Kings until the following reigns. A deviated version of the final depictions are given a dominant position in the decorative theme of the sarcophagus chamber in the tombs of Merneptah (KV8), Tausert (KV14) and Ramesses III (KV11), so versions of this book may have also been inscribed on earlier gilded shrines around the sarcophagi. Unfortunately, these earlier shrines are lost to us, so that possibility may never be known.
In the third corridor of the tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2) in the Valley of the Kings, Ramesses IV employed the earliest versions of the first and second sections of The Book of Caverns, rather than the traditional Amduat passages, and then repeats these passages twice more in the room behind his sarcophagus chamber. By the reign of Ramesses VI (KV9), we find an almost complete version of the book, here as in the Osireion, opposite the Book of Gates in the front half of the tomb, though due to the limited wall space, some passages had to be continued on pillars and in the upper pillared hall as well. While in the tomb of Ramesses VII (KV1), we find a similar arrangement to that of Ramesses VI on the right wall, here only the first corridor is decorated, with a small excerpt from The Book of Caverns second section. Later though, in the Tomb of Ramesses IX (KV6), there were selections from the first four sections on the right wall of the first and second corridors. However, in the sarcophagus chamber we also find parts of the two remaining sections of the book.
Jean Francois Champollion apparently first described the version of the book in the tomb of Ramesses VI, and even provided some translations in his thirteenth letter he sent from Egypt. However, no scholars seemed particularly interested in the book until a century later when a second complete version was discovered in the Osireion. Henri Frankfort tried to compose the first translation of that text, assisted by Adriaan de Buck in 1933. However, it was not until the period between 1941 and 1646 that Alexandre Piankoff executed an edition of the text based on several versions which he translated into French. He also translated the text from the tomb of Ramesses VI into English in 1954. Not until 1972 was a version translated into German by Erik Hornung, and a synoptic edition of the text has never been published.
The name we give this text, The Book of Gates, is a modern invention based on the netherworld being divided into "caves" or actually "caverns" from the Egyptian "qerert", for no original title has ever been discovered. However, it should be noted that Piankoff translated qerert to mean "envelope" or "cocoon". Unlike the Amduat and the Book of Gates, this book is not divided up into regions of the night, though an attempt is made to follow the general divisions divided up between three registers. However, these registers often had to be staggered due to space limitations. In all, every version divides the two initial sections into five registers. We also end up with problems in the version of the book in the tombs of Ramesses VI and Ramesses IX, for apparently the initial design of these versions was meant for a left hand wall, but transposed on the right hand wall.
The Book of Caverns is divided into two halves by two large depictions of the ram headed sun god, and each half is further divided into three parts. Hence there are a total of six sections. The text of the first two sections of the book are separated from the representations, with the text placed after the representations, though this order is reversed in the version found in the tomb of Ramesses VII. Here, the sun god invokes the individual beings or groups of gods depicted in the representations within a long monologue. The remaining sections combine representations and captions, as well as a descriptive formula of the earlier books. Each section within the second half of The Book of Caverns is preceded by several litanies, with section five having a total of thirteen.
Like the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, with the exception of the final representation, divides the text into registers with further pictures. It should also be noted that it is more literary then previous funerary books of the New Kingdom, having a higher percentage of text to pictures. In section five, the depictions are of Nut and Osiris, with the image of Nut alluding to the theme of the Books of the Sky, which describes the nightly journey of the sun through the body of Nut.
The solar bargue is only found within the final representations. In sections three through six in which the damned and their punishment (occupying the lower registers) are not depicted, the individual scenes have a sun disk. The beings who are portrayed in the various caverns are often enclosed in ovals, while there are sarcophagi that enclose the bodies of gods and goddesses. In the single example found in the tomb of Ramesses VI, some two hundred remarks were added referring to the king.
The obvious theme of this book, like other such text, is the sun god's nightly passage through the netherworld. Interestingly, the distinction between Osiris and Re are clouded, and both actually seem to be viewed as attributes of a sole deity. A principle motif of the book is established primarily in section three. Here, Osiris, who is more prominent then in most prior funerary text, is encountered by Re as a corpse in his "coffer". In section four the god begins to regenerate. Less prominent is the battle with Apophis found in the Amduat and the Book of Gates.
At the very beginning of the book, two vertical strips depict the solar disk and Re as a ram headed sun god. This is "Re who is in the sky", and his mission is to enter the primeval darkness in order to defend and and provide care to Osiris. Afterwards, depictions of section one are divided into five registers. The separate text is a monologue of Re directing various groups of entities. Here, the three snakes of the Duat's first cavern guard the cavern entrance. Re faces Osiris with his hand extended to him in the third register. We see Osiris within his shrine, protectively surrounded by a serpent, as are his followers inside their sarcophagi. In the bottom register, Osiris' enemies are shown beheaded though still guarded by another three serpents. They are to be punished in the "Place of Annihilation", an ancient Egyptian concept of Hell, as Re condemns them to nonexistence.
In section two, Re must reach the various gods and goddesses in their sarcophagi who are guarded by several serpents. He meets various forms of Osiris in the second register and beseeches them to "open their arms to me...receive me". In the third register, Re encounters Osiris in his coffer, which sits aside the ram and jackal headed posts of the sun god found also in the Book of Gates. Other forms of Osiris are encountered in the fourth register, while in the lowest register, we again find Osiris' enemies who are bound and beheaded. Some of these figures are depicted hanging head first with their hearts torn out. Once again, Re condemns them to nonexistence, sending them to the Place of Annihilation where their punishment is carried out by guards with knives. Now, Osiris is told by Re that he will enter the "cavern where Aker is".
Hence, in the third section, Re enters the cavern that contains Aker and finds the ithyphallic body of Osiris lying beneath Aker, an earth god. Here, in the first register, Osiris is depicted as the dead king in his sarcophagus, which is guarded by several serpents. After that scene we find depicted several figures with the heads of catfish. They are the helpers of Aker who we will encounter again, and represent the deepest and darkest regions of earth and water. In addition, Re also finds other manifestations of himself within sarcophagi, while the end of the register is filled with divine sarcophagi "in the cavern of Osiris-Khentamentiu".
In the middle register of the third section, we initially encounter Re once again in his manifestation as the Eldest One, who leans on a staff. He addresses four forms of Osiris as the "lords of the Duat". The center scene in this register depicts Aker as a double sphinx surrounded by the gods of the Ennead. The next scene seems to stress the unity of Re and Osiris, with the corpse of Osiris in his sarcophagus, along with a Ram's head, and the eye of Re in sarcophagi. Surrounding all of this is a ouroboros. Next, Osiris is once again shown surmounting a serpent as "the one who has become two".
In the lower register of section three, we once again encounter those who are in hell. In this case, the "enemies" are all upside down and some have been decapitated. Here, in the first two groups who are pleading for mercy, we find for the first time, female enemies. Now the wicked are in the primeval darkness of the Place of Annihilation, and by the end of the register, even their ba (souls) are upside down, and thus being punished. Interestingly, the ithyphallic corpse of Osiris is also here among the enemies, but the sun disk sits above him, and he is protected by a serpent.
The second half of the Book of Caverns begins with section four. Initially we find an erect serpent named Great One on His Belly, with the solar disk and the ram headed sun god to either side. Here, the opening text in vertical columns consists of three litanies praising the sun god, praising his beauty as he illuminates the region of darkness. Re faces Osiris and his followers and makes a number of promises. In the upper register, we first encounter Isis and Nephthys who lift the body of Osiris so that he may be resurrected. This is followed by a scene depicting Osiris being cared for by his two "sons", Anubis and Horus and following this, Osiris is portrayed as the Bull of the West, accompanies by Horus-Mekhentienirty, a mongoose (ichneumon) who is his son.
The second register of section four begins with Re, one more leaning on a staff, facing the three forms of Osiris. This is followed by a scene depicting Horus and Anubis protecting the double corpse of Osiris, and another scene where they stand in a pose symbolic of protecting Osiris and his ba.
In the lower register, we once again encounter the enemies in hell, who are found and standing on their heads, which this time have not been cut off. However, between them are the "annihilators in the Place of Annihilation,". In this initial scene, the punishing demon is Miuti, the "cat-formed one, from whose clutches there is no escape". We are told that there bodies have been robbed of their souls, and that they can neither see nor hear Re.
At the beginning of the fifth section of the Book of Caverns, Tatenen, the litanies reveal a little known but important deity as both an earth god and the father of the gods, who rejuvenates the sun. The initial depictions portrays Nut, the goddess of the sky, who lifts the ram headed sun god and the solar disk on her upraised palms. She faces the three registers and is surrounded by motifs representing the course of the sun, including on one side a scarab pushing the solar disk, then a ram, a disk, a ram headed deity and a child, while on the other side, a series of crocodiles pushes a ram's head, a scarab, an utchat eye and a disk. There is also human headed, bearded serpents that rear up on either side of Nut. Her arms are stretched towards the heavens in order to receive the solar child. Here, Nut is called the Mysterious One and "she with the mysterious form."
The upper register of section five begins with Osiris, whose hands are extended out to Re, along with four human headed serpents. In the next scene, we encounter a representation of Tatenen, who is propped up by the corpses of Atum and Khepri. Next, we find two sarcophagi, one of which encases the two manifestations of Re as a child.
In the middle register, initially we find represented the four falcon headed mummies who are forms of Horus, which is followed by Anubis in his role as guardian and a coffin containing the scepter of Atum, which embodies the creative power of the sun god, and therefore "created the netherworld and brought forth the realm of the dead". At the end of this register, we find four unknown goddesses in sarcophagi.
The bottom register of this section opens once again with the ancient Egyptian concept of Hell, where a female deity who carries two stakes in her hand is about to punish two bound prisoners who kneel before her. In the following two scenes the enemies are being punished in large cauldrons. We see in the first cauldron their heads and hearts (which the ancient Egyptians thought of more as the mind), and in the second we find the decapitated, bound, upside down enemies themselves. A uraei fans the flames beneath the cauldrons, which are being held above the fire by the "arms of the Place of Annihilation.
The three registers of section five are interrupted by an image of Osiris, once again depicted in his ithyphallic guise, together with his ba that is symbolized by a bird atop his head. He is guarded by a protective serpent. As the registers continue, we first find an oval containing the four "flesh" hieroglyphs which refer to the corpse of Osiris. His corpse is now cared for by the light and voice of Re. Below this, the goddess Tayt greets the sun god and Osiris, which is followed by a scene depicting the head of Re in its ram manifestation being adored by Osiris and Horus. Another cauldron, in the lower register, contains the flesh, the souls and the shadows of the enemies of Re and Osiris. Once again, the arms of the Place of Annihilation hold the cauldron which is being heated by two goddesses.
It should be noted that the shadow held important connotations to the ancient Egyptians. It was considered to be a major component of an individual, as well as a separate mode of existence. We find the mention of shadows mostly in funerary text such as this, with early references appearing in the Coffin Text of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom.
Between section five and six, the final part of the Book of Caverns, there is a long text consisting of thirteen litanies which refer to the prior section (five). Here, Re addresses all the entities, including his enemies, portrayed in the section five. The sun god gazes upon his own corpse with the intent of effecting the resurrection of Osiris-Imenrenef, who is "he whose name is hidden".
The first scene in the upper register of part six depicts the funerary god, Anubis, caring for corpses ("the bodies which are in the earth") in their sarcophagi, which is followed by a second scene where Anubis tends to the sun god, who in his sarcophagus, is depicted as a ram with a falcon head. In the third scene, the sun god, in several manifestations is now being watched over by two goddesses, each of whom stand on the symbols for flesh. Here, he is presented with a ram's head, as a scarab and in his role as "he of the netherworld". In the final scenes of this register, Osiris-Orion leans over a mound containing a fettered and decapitated figure, followed by a god who prays before a falcon. Osiris is shown protecting Horus, his son, as well as the sun god who is within Horus.
In the middle register, initially we find a scene portraying a scarab beetle pushing the sun disk before it out from "between the two mysterious caverns of the West" (the mountains of sunrise). This cavern contains both Osiris and Re, who are met by four standing gods. Here, text addresses the rebirth of the god, which is heralded by the scarab. Yet, even now there remains a final threat, depicted as the great serpent encircling the solar beetle. This obstacle is overcome by the "two old and great gods in the Duat", who cut the serpent into pieces and place a spell upon it. While this serpent seems malicious, another represented in the third scene appears to regenerates Re, who emerges from the mound in a ram head manifestation, to sit upon the tomb of Tatenen. In a fourth scene, two sarcophagi holding falcon headed gods are encountered by Re, while in the next scene, he meets several gods who are headless. Re restores their head with his creative power.
The motif of the lowest register, consistently followed throughout the Book of Caverns, is once again present in this final part of the sixth section. Again, we find scenes of punishment in the place of Annihilation, where at first, goddesses wielding knives torture supine, beheaded figures with their heads set at their feet and who's hearts have been torn from their bodies. The accompanying text also explains that the soul and shadows of these enemies have also been punished. In the second scene, we encounter four bound female enemies who are guarded by two jackal headed goddesses. Re has condemned these enemies, once again, to the "Place of Annihilation, from which there is no escape". Next, four more headless, kneeling and bound enemies are guarded by a god and goddess, and finally in the last scene, the enemies are thrown head first into the depths of the Place of Annihilation, while Osiris rises out of the abyss.
A final representation after the sixth section of the Book of Caverns shows Re emerging from the "two mounds", which are each protected by a god. We also find the solar barque, towed out of the netherworld by twelve gods, while seven more rejoice to either side. While the boat is not yet completely revealed, we do see the ba, the scarab and the ram headed morning form of the sun god, and in front of the barque, we see a ram headed scarab beetle, along with the sun as a child. A symbolic representation of the route through the netherworld, consisting of two triangles, is sown leading to a large representation of the sun disk. The triangles each are half black (the netherworld) and half blue, representing water. In the end, we finally witness Re at the end of his nightly journey, entering the eastern mountains from where he will rise once more to provide light for the living world.