Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part one

Jeanine Miller – the UK

[The following article is from the Theosophical Encyclopedia, edited by Philip S. Harris, Vicente R. Hao Chin, Jr., and Richard W. Brooks (Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006), pp. 211-218.]

Egyptian Religion, Ancient [Part 1, pp. 211-214]

O Egypt, Egypt, the land that was the seat of divinity shall be deprived of the presence of the gods. There shall not remain more of thy religion than tales, than words inscribed on stone and telling of thy lost piety. A day will come alas when the sacred hieroglyphs will become but idols. The world will mistake the symbols of wisdom for gods and accuse great Egypt of having adored hell monsters.

Hermes Trismegistus

No prophecy has ever proved so true.

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For centuries Ancient Egyptian religion remained a mystery to the Western world, hidden in its hieroglyphs, yet spelled out in the imposing grandeur of Egypt’s monuments. Even with the decipherment of the hieroglyphs little was revealed of the Egyptian famed wisdom so praised by the Greek writers; Western scholars, conditioned by extreme rationalism, or Christianity, were completely unprepared for a totally different vision expressed through symbols which had lost all meaning. Thus to take a very simple example, who could understand such phrases of ch. 42 of the Book of the Dead as translated by Wallis Budge in 1899: “I am he who hath no power to walk, the great knot who is within yesterday. The might of my strength is within my hand.”

A more modern translation, from the French translation, at least gives a clue: “I am the motionless one, the great knot of destiny which lies in yesterday. In my hand lies the destiny of the present.”

The third level of meaning of the hieroglyphs which gave their spiritual significance was completely missed. Fortunately since the second half of the 20th century more “enlightened” Egyptologists, some acquainted with the Upanishads, others with the Rosicrucian tenets, or the Kabbalah, have penetrated somewhat deeper into the labyrinthine sanctuary of the ancient Egyptian mind.

Helena P. Blavatsky was in this respect, as in many others, a pioneer. Her remarks and hints on Egyptian religion are scattered through The Secret Doctrine, some in Isis Unveiled and various journals, and gathered together in the Collected Writings.

For clarity sake, we should keep in mind the several main sources of religious documents as they spanned long periods of development of civilization and thereby of religious interpretation, unfoldment and thinking:

1. The Pyramid Texts, the earliest inscriptions superbly engraved on the walls of chambers inside the pyramid-tombs of 5 kings from the 5th to the beginning of the 6th dynasty at Sakkara, which scholars date back to the Old Kingdom (from about 2300 to 2175 bce); these religious incantatory texts are thought to have been compiled from much older texts long before the unification of Egypt by Menes.

2. The Coffin Texts, or Books of the Justification for the Other World, which cover the sarcophagi of the Middle Kingdom (approx. 2200-2800 bce), forming the link between the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead, some of which have recently been recognized as initiation texts for the living in preparation for the great transition.

3. The Book of the Dead, misnamed for The Chapters of Coming Forth By Day, the greatest papyri collection of religious texts of which three versions exist. All treat of questions of life and death, of preparations for after death states.

4. The Shabaka Stone (preserved in the British Museum), a copy on a black basalt stone of an ancient drama played out by the gods, giving out the cosmogony and theology of Memphis wherein Ptah, the Creator God, creates by the power of thought what was conceived in his heart.

Other records such as the Book of “The Two Ways,” The Book of Am Dwat or “What is in the Beyond” and the so-called Wisdom Literature, bear witness to Ancient Egyptian religious philosophy.

The esoteric teachings in Egypt and India,” writes H. P. Blavatsky. in The Secret Doctrine “were identical” (SD I:672), and thus a knowledge of one helps to understand the other. It is the basic ignorance of the initiatic stand of most of the sacred texts and the inveterate habit of taking every text literally that has militated against a real understanding and thereby translation of Egypt’s spiritual message.

The exoteric dogmas may often have been altered, the esoteric never …

The Egyptian priests have forgotten much, they altered nothing.

Hence “. .. the sacred immutability of the primitive truths [was] revealed only during the mysteries of initiation.” The priests “... preserved in their rituals and dogmas the principal teachings of the secret doctrine” (SD I:312).

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The first steps in examining an ancient religion take us to its cosmogony. Here HPB tells us: “In the Egyptian Papyri the whole Cosmogony of the Secret Doctrine is found scattered about in isolated sentences, even in the ‘Book of Dead’... (SD I:674) Every ancient theogony ... from the Aryan and the Egyptian down to that of Hesiod — places, in the order of Cosmogonical evolution, Night before the Day (SD II:59)” — night representing the state of repose, undifferentiation, timelessness, hence The Secret Doctrine’s pralaya as in the Hindu texts. Of such a state before creation, which the Stanzas of Dzyan describe negatively in terms of what is no longer, the Egyptians also had an inkling, for anything that exists must have a beginning and therefore an end. The creation is referred to as the “first time” implying the first event in a series. Outside “existence” is a state of “non-existence,” limitless, timeless, unchanging which enfolds the limited, but ordered existence, a state which was described as “when ... had, not yet,” similar to the Babylonian Enuma Ellis: “When the heights of heaven and the earth beneath had not been named, when Apsu, their Father and Tiamat, their Mother, still mingled their waters when no field or marsh was formed and no gods had been called into being. ...”

For the Egyptians also there was a time when Earth and sky had not yet come into being and “there was not announced the name of anything,” etc. (Papyrus Berlin 3055), a view in full agreement with the first Stanza of Dzyan. Differences are perceptible when it comes to detailed analysis. For example, though the Non-Existent implies the undifferentiated oneness, it also means by comparison with the Existent, inertia, stagnation, unconsciousness. But as a living counterpart of the Existent, it can overflow, invade the Existent, for instance at the unconcious level, among human beings in sleep, in nature, in floods. Although it threatens ordered existence, it offers, during human sleep, an opportunity for revitalization, rejuvenation. The task of the gods and pharaohs is to keep the existent ordered, defined, active and organized and hold the Non-Existent at bay. All this was worked out by E. Hornung in his Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many, 1971 (translated from the German into English in 1983). The Non-Existent is obviously the inexhaustible pleroma, or Waters of Space of the Vedas, the Nun of Egyptian cosmogony.

For the initiated priests as for the esoteric doctrine, creation was an emanation, a transformation of the infinite matrix into a limitation, a measure of it; the emergent active deity, Atum is “within his limit” and, as described in a Pyramid Text, he is “the serpent whose coils delimit the creation,” so Rundle Clark expresses it in his Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (p. 51). Out of the primeval ocean of space (Nun), Atum arises, his “outer coils” being the limits of the world: “I am the outflow of the Primeval Flood, he who emerged from the waters. / I am the ‘provider of attributes’ serpent with its many coils. / I am the Scribe of the Divine Book which says what has been and effects what is yet to be. (Pyramid Text, 1146)”

Powerful archetypal images here encapsulate the significance of manifested existence. The Secret Doctrine’s Root-matter appears here in the “primeval flood,” Nun, in the “Provider of attributes,” i.e., of potentialities waiting to be realized; it pulsates in the “Scribe of the Divine Book,” the Logos or Word incarnate in matter that shapes this primordial substance and inscribes all things in the Book of Destiny.

One of the esoteric tenets of The Secret Doctrine whereby “... Deity ... is ... ‘the EVER BECOMING, as well as the ever universally present, and the ever Existing.’ ... a perpetual, never-ceasing evolution, circling back in its incessant progress through æons of duration into its original status — ABSOLUTE UNITY (SD II:545) finds an echo in Atum of the Heliopolitan cosmogony: ‘he who completes himself,’ who emerges from the timeless Nun to become the traverser of millions of years whose motion whirls chaos into creativity, whose manifestation heralds life, light, substance, consciousness, whose ‘becomings’ are symbolized by the scarab — khepri — to be fully expressed in the Solar Deity Re.

The Waters of Space were to be described in the Coffin Texts as “In the infinite, the nothingness, the nowhere and the dark.”

In the Hermopolitan theogony these were to be differentiated to assume the shape of Eight Genii of the Deep, four male, four female, who formed the primeval Egg of the universe from which emerged the Solar Deity. We should never take these archetypal images literally as most people do. The egg is both symbolic and representative of the universal egg-like forms from which life issues, of the human aura, and of those states of existence, unconscious, half-conscious, conscious, etc. (See SD I:359 ff on the symbol of the egg and p. 556 on the Golden Egg with its positive and negative poles.) The Solar deity Re is the Word manifested as his hieroglyph implies, hence LOGOS, hence the three symbols in one: Atum-Khepri-Re; Atum, the primal mover, its becomings, its full manifestation as the Word radiating light. This succinctly expressed the Egyptian idea of the manifested threefoldness of the divine Principle of Life, subsequently represented by the trinities of Father-Mother-Son in the theological centers — Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis, Thebes.

Heliopolitan Ennead

The Heliopolitan cosmogony is of fundamental significance to any understanding of Egyptian religion. Its gods enshrine in their symbols a host of ideas, functions and secret doctrines. From Atum-Khepri-Re unfold Shu-Tefnut, from these Nut (Sky) Geb (Earth) who give birth to Osiris and Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Each of these couples has a son: Horus and Anubis.

Shu and Tefnut, or the “Divine Twins” often depicted as the “Double Lion,” represent esoterically the expanding and the contracting forces of manifestation which HPB calls “... the dual Force or power of the two solar eyes, or the electro-positive and the electro-negative forces” (SD I:673 fn.). For HPB Shu is the “solar force,” she calls him “the god of creation” (SD I:75, fn). However, he came into his own hegemony only during the Middle Kingdom period, long after the unification of Egypt. Shu is very complex and so far no Egyptologist has fathomed out his nature. One sentence is quite clear: “I am he ... who transmits the word of the Self-generated demiurge to the crowds (Coffin Text 324a)” showing that the status of “transmitter of the Word” has now passed to Shu, while Re as Atum-Re remained the Presiding Deity. As agent of creation the Double-Lion becomes agent of resurrection, assimilated to the two pylons that guard the entrance to Egyptian temples where occurs the daily resurrection of Re.

But it is in his consort Tefnut, the lioness headed on whom HPB is silent, that the greatest mystery is concealed — the formidable cosmic power known to the Hindus as shakti kundalini. The epithet wpś (in its feminine form wpśt) signifying flame is frequently applied to Tefnut, goddess of flame. In the temple of Philae Tefnut is depicted as a uraeus with the head of a lion on top of which sits the solar disc flanked by the horns of Hathor. Strange but highly significant combination of occult symbols, it has never been fathomed, for it reveals while concealing Tefnut’s secret nature. Note that the uraeus is the Eye of Re which he sends among humans as avenging destructress in the legend of the near destruction of mankind. Tefnut represents the transformative, purifying but also destructive power of the great universal energy that underlies earth and human beings, that energy also embodied in Hathor, the “House of Horus,” the beneficent Hathor that suckles the pharaoh but is also capable of destruction, and in Sekhmet, the lioness headed goddess of war and of medicine. If we recall that (a) it is only when the kundalini-shakti becomes activated in a purified body and is raised through the various centers of power or chakras‚ destroying all impurities, to the highest chakra that cosmic vision is granted, and that (b) the human eye is the most occult of our senses, then the legend of Re’s Eye that sees and knows all and can destroy all, and the equation Eye-Uraeus-Flame may yield their esoteric significance. To these three symbols, plus the horns of Hathor in the temple of Philae iconography, are added the lion and the solar disc which bespeak power and cosmic rulership, the universal shakti power. The rajas quality of the lion implies activity, passion, rage; it stirs the static quality of matter towards a full expression of its potentiality. Esoterically, the solar lion is linked to the zodiacal sign of Leo, a tremendous powerful link which, so far as human beings are concerned, signifies self-assertiveness working towards self-consciousness working towards vaster horizons of supra-consciousness. All these symbols fuse in one mighty cosmic insight, wherein the Eye of the solar Deity appears as his Cosmic Power and his Cosmic Gnosis, forewarners of his Cosmic Will.

Nut and Geb represent Sky and Earth, contrary to most cosmogonies where Heaven is Father and Earth Mother. As starry vault Nut enfolds the universe like the heavenly vault. For HPB Nut is the feminine aspect of Nun, the ocean of space. A painting in a tomb shows the sun at dusk as having entered her body and the 12 hours of the night inscribed as 12 suns in it; at dawn Nut gives birth once more to the sun. Like all Great Mothers, Nut is the Encompasser who takes back into herself her children, as represented in the inside lid of a sarcophagus wherein the dead were laid to repose in her embrace.

Geb is the Earth, the impregnator, also time, as his sign, the goose, means time. This hieroglyph yields the sound gb‚ but there is another word for goose, sa as well; hence the derivation Geb, or Seb. Most Egyptologists favor Geb, HPB uses Seb. Sa as goose also means “egg” as well as “son of.” The egg, sa, in which occurs the mystery of life and, at the cosmic level, the birth of the universe, becomes sa, the goose, the “living heir” and “son” within the limit of time.

In a well known iconography Nut is seen arching her elongated body like the sky vault over Earth, Geb. She is held up by Shu in a gesture of separation. A detailed examination and interpretation of this highly symbolic representation may be found in Geoffrey Hodson’s Illuminations of the Mystery Tradition, 1992. Here Nut represents prakriti, the all containing, all-productive source of all universes, while Geb is purusha active within prakriti, hence Nut’s body arched over him. Shu is Fohat that binds and separates and both Geb and Shu are embraced within Nut, purusha being the inside and prakriti the outside of One principle, “Absolute substance” (op. cit. p. 50-1).

The myth of Osiris-Isis and their son Horus, is too well known to need retelling. However, certain aspects should be clarified. Osiris is a complex god, concentrating in himself divine, natural and human characteristics. The “dismembered fertility” god who “renews himself,” the god at the top of the stairs, the god of transformations and resurrection, the impulse to evolution, all these facets are embodied in Osiris: he who embraces life and death, birth and rebirth, is archetypal cosmic man, also reflected in Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, in Purusha of the Rig Veda.

Osiris, entombed in a coffin astray over the Nile, reached a tree that expanded around the coffin, was doubly entombed, until found by Isis who released the body, brought it back sufficiently to life to conceive a son, Horus. Seth, the adversary, represents matter’s (illusory) fixity, its tendency to confusion and disruption; he stands for storm forces and those forces of involution, resistance, friction, constriction that imprison the human soul. The symbols give away the meaning of the story. Seth finds the body and fragments it into 14 pieces which Isis and Nephthys find and reassemble. This sacrifice of the man-god, the fragmentation of his body, recalls the Purusha’s fragmentation, in the Rig Veda, that all might be. Osiris and Seth represent the polarities of the human being, spirit and matter; the sacrifice of divine life through embodiment in matter brings about the conquest of matter; a death and a becoming through matter and the ultimate triumph of the spirit. Osiris’s death shows the way to self-fulfilment, Osiris is man’s hope or resurrection, hence Osiris becomes the judge of human souls in the beyond and with him every justified soul must be identified. Through the gateway of the Still-Heart (Osiris) the soul must pass, divesting itself of veil after veil for thus only can it awaken to the higher consciousness. So the justified soul exclaims: “I have come to see him that dwelleth in his divine uraeus face to face. / Thou art in me and I am in thee and thy attributes are my attributes” (Book of the Dead. Ch. LXIV. 19, 20)

The ultimate end of Osiris, hence of all justified souls, is described in the Book of the Dead. “How long shall I live?” asks Osiris of Atum: the answer is: “You will live more than millions of years, an era of millions, but in the end I will destroy everything that I have created, the earth will become again part of the Primeval Ocean, like the Abyss of waters in their original state. Then I will be what will remain, just I and Osiris, when I will have changed myself back into the Old Serpent who knew no man and saw no god. (Book of the Dead, ch. 175)” — back to the primordial changelessness and oneness of the Absolute. To this Rundle Clark, in his Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, remarks perceptively: “When all differences have disappeared, he (Atum) and Osiris, the transcendent and the emergent forms of deity, will be reunited in the universal primordial form of life, the original Serpent, the form in which divinity existed before the coming of gods or men. The final fate, then, is to return to the primordial unity. Here we see Egyptian thought reaching out to a concept very like that of the Upanishads. (p. 141)” indeed to that of the ageless gnosis, which shows how “the esoteric teachings of Egypt and India were identical” as Blavatsky stressed.

End of part one, to be continued 

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