Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part two

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. A few obvious errors have been silently corrected.]

Egyptian Religion, Ancient [Part 2, pp. 214-218]

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The religious and esoteric history of every nation was embedded in symbols. ... All the thoughts and emotions, all the learning and knowledge, revealed and acquired, of the early races, found their pictorial expression in allegory and parable” (SD I:307).

He who can penetrate into the heart of Egyptian symbolism holds the key to the ageless gnosis. A god, to the Egyptian, was a principle that could be named differently according to different spheres of influence and circumstances and could assume various appearances for his devotee.

Monotheism, as prevalent in the last two millennia, did not enter the conception of the Egyptians. In the Wisdom Literature, the repeated mention of “the God” led some scholars into the error of attributing a “special monotheism” to the wisdom teachers. This mention, as Hornung pointed out, could “... refer to ... any god the person being addressed might encounter in a particular situation or “the god with whom you have to reckon in the circumstances” (op. cit. pp. 57-8).

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Akhenaton chose one outer symbol, the solar disc, to make it the visible and conceivable symbol of the One Sole God, unacceptable to the initiated priests for, in concretizing the One Universal Supreme Cause, it would serve in course of time to degrade the Ultimate Cause of all, whereas the many symbols and manifestations of which no one could claim predominance and exclusivity, served to conceal and protect the Inconceivable Deity from human profanation. This is confirmed by HPB. “No Hermetic work written by Egyptians (vide ‘Book of the Dead’) would speak of the one universal God of the Monotheistic systems; the one Absolute cause of all, was as unnameable and unpronounceable in the mind of the ancient philosopher of Egypt, as it is for ever Unknowable in the conception of Mr. Herbert Spencer ... for the Egyptian in general. ... Every God was the ‘one living and unique God’ ... ” (SD I:674-5).

The Egyptians were wise enough to realize that human beings clothe and name “the God” with their own attributes, so they would never kill someone else for believing in a differently presented deity! As Hornung perceived, gods and men were to the Egyptian mind, in one sense “in the same boat: ‘man’s tongue is the ship’s rudder, and the Lord of All is its pilot’,” for man and god “navigate together” within the limits of the manifested world (op. cit. p. 196) until the end of time when all will dissolve in the Godhead (note ch. 175 previously quoted), a secret doctrine tenet. The gods’ imagery was thus highly symbolic, bringing together multiple levels of meaning lending themselves to different interpretation in which opposites find their place without creating havoc (note the iconography of Tefnut in the Temple of Philae).

The representations of Egyptian gods as humans, or with animal heads, or with animal emblems as head-dress, or simply as animals — e.g., Thoth as an ibis or a baboon, Hathor as a cow, or with a cow’s head — were not meant as illustrations of the gods’ appearance, but as alluding to their nature and functions. In their cosmic functions they are viewed in the human form; in their functional activity within the earthly sphere in animal form; if within the human sphere then the human form is shown with an animal head. Note on the walls of temples ibis-headed Thoth with falcon-headed Horus pouring over the candidate for initiation the waters of life, or ansated crosses. Symbols were also used for humans, e.g., the “crocodile” which HPB claimed was the Egyptian dragon and at the human level represented the fifth principle, manas.


This literature reveals the general frame of mind of the educated Egyptian. Intimacy with and trust in the Divine, a search for truth and wisdom show through the epitaphs and inscriptions in tombs. In Old Kingdom names given to persons there is revealed the relation between the person and the “Living One” (onkh), e.g., “The Living one is my Protector"; “I belong to the grace of the Living One.” The certainty that the life beyond is to be desired but worked for and is the acme of a well-spent earthly life, is the belief of the Wise Ones of the Old Egypt whose thoughts are found inscribed in their tombs, e.g.: “The West is the abode of those without fault. Happy is he who arrives there. But none enters therein whose heart is not right in the deed of Maat. There is no distinction there between rich and poor; he only counts who is found to be without fault when the balance and its burdens stand before the Lord of Eternity. None escapes from his verdict, when Thoth . . . sits upon the balance to make a reckoning with each according to what he has done on earth” (Inscription of the priest Petosiris).

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The priest Petosiris

This inscription is most instructive in revealing Egyptian beliefs and how these guided their lives. Human beings were exhorted to follow Maat, Truth-Justice-Righteousness-Order. The vision of Cosmic Order as embodied in Maat was also the vision of ancient India, and to a certain extent of ancient Greece. This vision was seen as forming the foundation of cosmos but also, by reflection, that of human society, at least in its ideal. Maat, embodied in the goddess Justice, had been established at the beginning of creation, and as the daughter of Re, outlined for him his daily path. Atum-Re, in the Pyramid Texts, is said to have emerged on the primeval hill “after he had put order, Maat, in the place of chaos.” So Maat rules over pharaoh and acts as a brake to his power, a constant reminder to him and to society of divine order, harmony, justice, these being pharaoh’s task to establish on earth. Pharaoh offers Maat as the token of his just rulership, speaks Maat — “thy speech is the shrine of Maat.” “Maat is good and its worth is lasting. / It has not been disturbed since the day of its creator / whereas he who transgresses its ordinances is punished, / It lies as a path in front even of him who knows nothing.” / (From Ptah-hotep Inscriptions)

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Surely this is the Egyptian idea of karma. Maat manifests in human society as justice, in maintenance of order; in an individual’s life as truth, integrity. To be true of voice was to live in accordance with Maat’s dictates: “Cool of mouth, friendly and silent, quiet of heart, harmonious of nature, free from passions.” Such was the sage of ancient Egypt. Thus, as Hornung puts it “Maat which came from the gods at creation, returns to them from the hands of men; it symbolizes the partnership of god and man which is brought to fruition in Egyptian religion. This partnership, this action and response, is the key to the otherwise inexplicable mixture we find of free will and predestination” (op. cit., p. 215).

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King Merikare

From the Instructions for King Merikare we learn that Egyptians believed in after-death life: “Man lives after death and his deeds are placed before him as in a heap. The judges who judge the sinner, thou knowest that they are not mild on that day when they judge the miserable one, in the hour when the decision is accomplished. ... Trust not in the length of years; they look on the duration of a life as but an hour. Man remains after death and his deeds will be laid before him. But eternity abides ... and he is a fool who considered the judges insignificant. But who comes to them not having sinned, he will be there as a god, free-striding as the Lord of Eternity.”

In the Book of the Two Ways (Coffin Texts VII, 462d-464f) which enumerates the Four Good Deeds which the Universal Lord contrived in his heart while still in the serpent coils (while still unformed), the third deed is of great interest for us humans: “I made every man like his fellow — it was not my decree that they should do evil, but it was their hearts which violated what I said.” Men are equal in value and potentialities and in their divine origin; wrong-doing is laid on them, on their desire-choice. This implies choice, hence free-will.

This also casts serious doubt on the supposed slavery prevalent among the ancient Egyptians which is, moreover, as good as refuted by the recent excavations (right to the 1990’s) of working men’s villages carried out around the Great Pyramid. Some 600 tombs were unearthed showing working men’s skeletons whose wounds had been well taken care of. A stone register revealed that they were free to take leave for family feast, sickness or other reason. The archeologists and medical team investigating concluded these were freemen, not slaves. Similarly, in a town now named Kahun, papyri archives revealed a highly structured society with people free to leave the city to go back to their original community. Some Egyptologists (e.g., C. J. Bleeker) have completely queried the supposed fact of slavery. The story of the eloquent peasant whose goods had been stolen and who could through his eloquence, reach out to one higher official after another, to Pharaoh himself, and who retrieved his goods, speaks in favor of free citizenship. In these findings and the various articles and books written in the 20th century, we have moved a long way from the contemptuous dismissal of pharaohs as Oriental despots and his ordinary subjects as slaves.


Nothing like the description of the creation of Adam in Genesis has been found in any of the Egyptian texts extant, only that the ram-headed Khnum (or Khneru) fashioned man and his “double” on a potter’s wheel, and that while the gods issued from the mouth of Re, so men came from the tears of his Eye! Men are the “herd of God” and their transgression of the moral order will be noted: “Life is given to the peaceful and death to the transgressor” (Shabaka Stone). Since we all have to die, the peaceful and the violent, death here must have a specific meaning. It could refer to the dreaded second death in the beyond.

The subject of the human principles as viewed by the Ancient Egyptians is too complex and subtle to have found a definite understanding among Egyptologists. Even in HPB’s writings there are marked divergences and her enumerations and meanings, in some respects, do not tally with what Egyptologists have made out. While reminding “those who try to show that the Ancient Egyptians did not teach reincarnation” HPB outlines what she understood of the Egyptian view. She thus claims that the papyri: “speak clearly of the seven principles or the ‘Seven Souls of Man.’ The Book of the Dead gives a complete list of the ‘transformations’ that every defunct undergoes, while divesting himself, one by one, of all those principles — materialised for the sake of clearness into ethereal entities or bodies” (SD I:227).

Thus the “Soul” which HPB calls the ego “is immortal, ‘co-eval with, and disappearing with the Solar Boat,’ i.e., for the cycle of necessity. This ‘Soul’ emerges from the Tiaou [the Dwat, the region of the beyond with its various zones] ... and joins the living on Earth by day, to return to Tiaou every night. This expresses the periodical existences of the Ego” (ibid., p. 227).

HPB explains the Tiaou (Old French transliteration of Dwat or Duat) as: “the path of the Night Sun, the inferior hemisphere, or the infernal region of the Egyptians, placed by them on the concealed side of the moon. The human being, in their esotericism, came out from the moon (a triple mystery — astronomical, physiological, and psychical at once); he crossed the whole cycle of existence and then returned to his birth-place before issuing from it again” (Ibid., pp. 227-8).

In The Path, New York, vol. 1, 1886, p. 189, HPB, referring to the Old Egyptian and Neo-Platonists, gives a clear enumeration of the human principles as envisaged by the Ancient Egyptians: “They divided man into three principal groups subdivided into principles as we do; pure immortal spirit; the ‘Spectral Soul’ (a luminous phantom) and the gross material body. Apart from the latter ... these groups were divided into six principles: 1) Kha, ‘vital body’; 2) Khaba, ‘astral form,’ or shadow; 3) Khou [Khu] ‘animal soul’; 4) Akh, ‘terrestrial intelligence’; 5) Sa, ‘the divine soul’ (or Buddhi); and 6) Sah or mummy, the functions of which began after death.”

In a footnote HPB draws certain parallels, thus: Osiris with whom the soul is identified after the judgment is Atma; Sa is Buddhi; Akh is Manas; Khu is Kama-rupa, the seat of terrestrial desires; Khaba is Linga-Sharira; Kha (now spelled Ka) is mentioned as the ab and hati which form part of the human heart, the most important aspect of the human constitution. Neither is the Ren or “name” mentioned which is all important as representing the being’s essence. In Isis Unveiled (II:653), HPB gives the various components of the human constitution as understood by Egyptologists. The whole question remains controversial and highly speculative.

The heart in the Egyptian religious philosophy, as in Indian sacred texts, plays an all important part, but it is not the physical heart, but what lies behind the physical aspect, the subtler counterpart, or heart chakra. Thus, in the Shabaka Stone cosmogony, the creator god Ptah conceives in his heart, his innermost consciousness, what his word expresses in creation. The heart was viewed under two aspects: ab the human link with the Universal Soul, and hati our animal nature; in theosophy we have higher manas, the higher consciousness which opens the door to Atma-Buddhi, and kama-manas which gives us the means of coping with the physical world but may drag us down to the mere level of earthly desires. At the judgment of the heart, hati, if unconquered, bears witness against the soul, when placed on the scales of Justice, Maat: “This my heart (ab) weepeth for itself before Osiris; it hath made supplication for me ... Let not this my heart (hati) be carried away from me ... Oh thou who joinest hearts together” (Book of the Dead, ch. 28). “I understand with my heart. I have gained the mastery over my heart” (ibid., ch. 26).

An instruction from Ptah-Hotep reads thus: “He whom God loves listens. He who listens not is against his God and the enemy of heart knowledge. It is the heart that decides whether its master shall listen or not. A man’s heart is his own God.”

What HPB writes in her Esoteric Writings (p. 457) is quite appropriate to elucidate this passage: “The Heart is the center of Spiritual Consciousness ... but this ... Consciousness cannot be guided by a person, nor its energy be directed by him, until he is completely united with Buddhi-Manas; until then, it guides him — if it can. ... Hence the pangs of remorse, the prickings of Conscience; ... these come from the Heart, not the Head.”

We think in terms of consciousness as placed in the head. This is our mental awareness; the soul consciousness which translates itself in intuition, conscience, deep feeling, etc., is centered in the heart, i.e., chakra. The heart that decides whether its master shall listen or not, is hati which wants its own way, until such time as it has “matured,” and “listening” to the ab’s higher aspirations and its voice of conscience, bears its fruits.


The idea of karma is implicit in Egyptian religion and referred to in some of the texts as though by the way, so that Egyptologists did not recognize it. Thus the translation of Wallis Budge of some lines in ch. 42 of the Book of the Dead given on the first page of this article, makes no sense and misses the intrinsic meaning of the lines. “... 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” (Book of the Dead, ch. 42. p. 179, line 25).

Yesterday’s karma is fixed (motionless), it is in the process of being worked out now; but now, in the present, lies my capacity to change my karma. So Kolpatchy translated: “I am the motionless one; the great knot of destiny which lies in yesterday; / In my hand rests the destiny of the present.” Another example with such a meaning may be seen in the following: “Hail ye who carry away hearts! . . . who make the heart of a man to go through its transformations according to his deeds; let not what he has done harm him before you” (Book of the Dead, Ch. 27; italics added).

Moreover renewal of life through the action of the waters of Nun as expressed in a hymn to Amun-Re could very well refer to the next stepping or stage before reincarnation, not just re-invigoration as a state of the beyond: “We are in renewal of life. We have entered into Nun and it has renovated (a man even) as when he first was young. (The one) has been stripped off, the other put on [i.e., the old man is cast off and the new man put on]. We praise the beauty of thy face. Seek out the way and lead us upon it, that we may count every day.”

In the Book of Am Dwat (what is in the beyond) an image shows the solar deity with his retinue of gods and souls enter as “old one, weak with age” into the body of a giant snake called “world encircler” (the boundary between the existent and the non-existent) and issuing out of it rejuvenated as “young children.” There is no end to life. But it also seems to refer to a re-embodiment.

The soul’s apotheosis is depicted in symbolic images in a 21st Dynasty coffin (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge): the mummy lies unconscious (without a head), enwrapped in the coils of the serpent; but the principle of transformation, as the scarab, crawls out. The soul remains unseen but implied. It is now Osiris, the embracer of life and death; it now sails on the age old solar boat with the hawk-headed deity and Maat holding the ankh of immortal life; it now sails on the back of Nut’s body arched over the earth, breaking away from the circle of manifestation; it now merges into the Bennu bird whose symbols embrace all polarities, soaring beyond manifestation in its song triumphant. (These are aspects of the soul’s journey depicted as tableaux which should be read from bottom up, not from the top to the bottom, in Rundle Clark’s Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, pp. 254-5 plate p. 240).

In Egypt’s temples are carved solemn rites of initiations, the meaningful gestures of which few do understand. Thus the scene of initiation at Kom-Ombo or Philae, where the candidate stands between hawk-headed Horus and ibis-headed Thoth, god of “wisdom and secret learning,” who both pour over the candidate the waters of life, the ansated cross as a stream of life. The same rite is seen at Karnak. There Ramses IV is offering a statuette to the goddess Amunet who holds the ankh of immortal life, perhaps the key to the mysteries of life and death, for she points this ankh right to that spot on pharaoh’s brow, between the eyebrows, called the ajna chakra. The statuette here offered comprises two figures, the child with his finger to his mouth (taken literally by Egyptologists, but most probably referring to the new initiate who has to keep silent); while behind the “child” stands the sphinx, Harmachis, or “Horus in the Horizon,” the illuminator, the Inner Logos (this Horus of whom Hathor is the “House” should not be confused with Horus, son of Isis).

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Egyptian Temple

So the soul triumphant could sing: “My soul is God, my soul is Eternity” (Papyrus Ani). “I am the Lord of the risings of the heavens, the great illuminer who cometh forth out of the Flame; the bestower of years, the far extending One, the Double-Lion God, and there has been given to me the journey of the God of splendours” (Book of the Dead, ch. 53).


Underlying ancient Egypt’s insight into cosmos and microcosm, of life and death and their everlasting rhythm, lies a message of wholeness emerging from the vision of Cosmic Order, Maat, to be reflected in a theocratic, socio-ethical society. To those capable of reading into the innermost of life, into the mystery of eternal renewal, ancient Egypt remains man’s gift of wisdom to the world, a wisdom hidden from the superficial gaze, yet depicted in hieroglyphs, sculptured in rock, for all to behold. It bespeaks a solemn soaring of the soul, a profound search for Truth and a finding of one expression of IT. The rituals of initiation inscribed on temple walls, pharaoh’s offer of Maat or of the Sphinx to the deity, the gestures of the gods and goddesses, so meaningful and so little understood, all spell in mute symbols Egypt’s insight into the mysteries of macrocosm and microcosm. In Egypt’s ancient temples can still be “caught” the echo of human longing to surpass one’s humanity, to reach to the inner depth of life and death, to plunge into the immensity of the cosmic vision.

End of part two

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