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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in ancient egypt

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_goddesseye.jpgIn the early days of Egyptology scholars took the attitude that a transcendent experience was only expected after death in ancient Egypt.  This fit well with the predominant Judeo-Christian background of virtually all of them, as well as the desire to demonstrate their new profession could be as scientific as any others.  But the record is plain as day that mystery schools flourished in at least the Late period, influencing other mystery cults all around the Mediterranean.  Contemporary Egyptologist Jan Assman even goes so far as to assert that ancient Egyptians could not have developed their own mysticism because that it would not have been based on lived real-life experience.  Really?! 

I do love Assman’s writing, but as an unabashed mystic myself I am all too aware that close encounters with another kind of reality, one we often call “god” or “the divine”, happen all the time.  It seems far more likely that Egyptians encountered this numinous, liminal reality enough times that they began to form, first mythologies, then theologies, around it. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_Pached1.jpgWhat I find so intriguing about Egyptian myth is how it is used to shape one’s personal narrative.  By experiencing the mysteries of Osiris, for example, one can prepare for inevitable mortality.  But at the same time the initiate uncovers layers of his own psyche, depths of meaning about the here and now. 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Holli Emore
    Holli Emore says #
    Isidora, I love Naydler! I also heartily recommend Rosemary Clark's books. She worked for the Oriental Institute at University of
  • Isidora Forrest
    Isidora Forrest says #
    Hi, Holli...couldn't agree more. I rather like Jeremy Nadler's take on it in Temple of the Cosmos.

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Awake in beauty - rsi m nfr
Awake in peace - rsi m htp
Awake my soul in beauty and peace
Awake in beauty and peace, Great Ones in the Boat of a Million Years
Awake in beauty and peace, ancestors, guides, spirit friends and elements
Dua!  Iti m htp - Hail and welcome!

This is the beginning of my daily morning devotional, based on an ancient Egyptian prayer. As I light a candle* while offering this prayer, I imagine myself in my wholeness as if my soul is waking to a renewed awareness of its immortality.  I remember the great continuous thread of existence of which I am a part.  I rebirth myself into the present moment, ready to bring the gifts of the past and future into my day.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Abu-Simbel-video-capture.jpg (click photo to watch the sun rise at Abu Simbel)

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b2ap3_thumbnail_bookofgatesramesses1a.jpgBook of the Dead, Book of the Amduat, Book of Caverns, Coffin Texts, Book of the Night, Book of the Earth, Book of Gates - these and more comprise a group of ancient Egyptian texts which describe the journey of Ra through the night world and, by extension, that of the dead soul following his pattern. First discovered by Champollion in the Valley of the Kings in 1829, they were pretty much dismissed as priestly fantasies by subsequent Egyptologists, though Maspero and Lefébure worked on deciphering some of the books in the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did scholars like Piankoff and Hornung begin to really study this rich material.

But I can understand why some were initially put off. I even found myself commenting last week to a friend, “The ancient Egyptians were in their own way just as nutty as the early Christians!” (If you’ve read all the lately-translated apocryphal texts you’ll know what I mean.) Hornung’s The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife is a blow-by-blow description of what you see in the accompanying drawings. Page after page of embellishments, fantastical netherworld characters, and attempts to graphically illustrate esoteric concepts begin to make me a bit dizzy. I start to wonder just how much artistic license the different priest-artist-scribes employed while creating their masterpieces.
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But I’ve reconsidered. Some say that pre-industrial people did not distinguish betweenb2ap3_thumbnail_hepetglyph.gif the physical and the realm of the soul, as we do now. Certainly, the written record indicates that Egyptians viewed every part of existence as infused with meaning and spirit. The books of the afterlife predominantly depict and describe these ideas, illustrated with a seemingly-endless pantheon of otherworldly deities and characters. Hence, a human figure with the head of an cobra can stand for the motherly protection for which the cobra was noted.  A floating pair of arms may denote protection, or the reverential passing of the sun disk from one place to another. Mummies are shown which have waked from the dead and turned over in their coffin, the implication being that they are about to rise and walk into a new life. And snakes - there are a lot of snakes, some of them a protective coil or ourobouros, and others represent the sinister Apep (or Apophis).

b2ap3_thumbnail_gates21.jpgEgyptian culture was one that valued dreams and the numinous. The Duat was nothing if not liminal, poised as it was on the edges between life and death and new life, between conscious and subconscious, between this world and the next. I can imagine that priests who were truly devoted to their practice and craft would birth fresh ideas in the course of temple life. No doubt, some also wanted to impress the client with elaborate products that might be perceived as better than the last client’s - though most of these works were found in tombs of pharaohs. The texts also span many centuries and several locales; given how different English communications now are radically different from only 400 years ago, I would likewise expect Egyptian texts to show some evolution.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Book_of_Gates_3rd_Hour.jpgThe afterlife books also remind me of the value of personal gnosis. Our scientific era has made this a dicey subject - how can gnosis replace so-called verifiable fact? But ancient Egyptians understood the importance of those insights which can only emerge from within, from the dark waters of the Duat, or from the watery interior of Nut’s body (through which the sun also passed during the night). Pondering the mysteries of the afterlife texts is like stepping into those waters and exploring, one foot in the conscious world and one in that of the soul.

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

O King, the mouth of the earth is split open for you, Geb speaks to you.  May you be cleansed in the Jackal Lake, may you be purified in the Lake of the Duat.  Come in peace . . . (Utterance 697, Pyramid Texts, trans. Faulkner) 

We are approaching the time of year when many of the living things around us appear to die, when our spirits sag a little with the dwindling light and ebbing warmth. 

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The Pyramid Texts urge the recently-deceased king along in his journey towards eternity.  Egypt’s risk for seismic activity is lower than many parts of the world, so the idea of the earth splitting open for the king may not carry memories of destruction as it would in many parts of the world.  Instead, it represents the welcome  of the earth deity, Geb, and the opportunity to be cleansed in the lakes of the Duat.  

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_ba2.jpgKa, double, khaibit, ba, sahu - what a confusing complexity of terms for what moderns simply call “soul.” Everything we know about the ancient Egyptian concepts of non-physical being come from writings like the Pyramid Texts, the Book of Going Forth, Coffin Texts, etc. These do not define terms that must have been an accepted part of the culture, but we can derive a sense of their meaning from the context of what they do, where they live, and to what they are attached. Reams and reams have been written about Egyptian ideas of the soul, but I will only give as very brief summary here, as best I understand.

shat - this is the living body; a corpse or mummified body is the khat.
ba - shown in art as a bird with a human head, I think of this as the personal identity, the personality. The ba is restless and longs for the next life, but is attached to and continually drawn back to the shat, then the khat.
ka - source, life force, “higher self,” the group spirit or energy of one’s ancestral group.  
akh - the being of light that one becomes as a last step in spiritual development after death, often translated as “shining one,” or “imperishable star.”
sah - a spiritual body, sah is to akh as ka is to ba

Some people also add some more concepts to this group:

ren - one’s true name; to speak the true name of a person or any thing in the world gives one power over it.
ib - the heart, seat of individual existence, conscience, intellect.
sekhem - personal power or will
hau - unified whole of all aspects of one’s existence

b2ap3_thumbnail_ba3.jpgEgyptians also located different qualities of the soul in various parts of the body, for example:

heart - seat of being
legs - strength
arms - ability and efficiency
genitals - creative power
mouth - entry and exit point of life
eye - inner strength, protection, knowledge
ears - understanding, compassion

Somehow, western culture began to view existence in a binary or polarized pattern, about the time the Egyptian civilization was dying. Many will not accept the veracity of anything that is not physical; others exalt the non-physical as a superior state. Egyptian cosmology, however, is all about the cycle of life, death, transformation and rebirth. Each aspect of the self is a facet of being, a step along the way of growing.

One thing the current age seems to be getting right is to recognize the hau, the whole self. But I also like the nuances of the Egyptian terms, which honor the parts of our self, defining the underlying purposes of each.

I have passed through the Duat
I have seen my father Osiris,
I have scattered the gloom of the night . . .
I have become a sah,
I have become an akh,
I have become equipped,
Oh, all you gods and akhs,
make a way for me . . . (Book of Going Forth By Day)

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_shemsudjehuti_20130707-220353_1.jpgRekhi ketu tjen, rekh kua renu then
I know you, I know your names,

Emek ui ua em tjen
Behold, I am one of you.

To know a name (ren) gives the magician or priest power over the thing named. Many spells of ancient Egypt make use of this principle in order to harness the power of one or more deities. Gods had many names, and some of them were secret except to initiated priests. A spell might direct the priest to write the name of a deity on an amulet and then recite it, usually a specific number of times. Conversely, the name of someone you wanted out of your life could be inscribed on, for example, a wax image, then melted or burned in a fire. The primary reason we see defacement of royal cartouches (the image containing the names of a pharaoh) is because later rulers wanted to dissipate the power of their predecessor.

To name something you have come to understand in your own life likewise gives you new power over yourself. As I come to recognize certain factors at work in my relationships with others, or my relationship with various aspects of my life, I am able to name the factor, suddenly giving me fresh insight. Insight about myself or others empowers me to move more easily in the world, live more effectively, and avoid wasting my time wondering about things I may or may not be able to fix. In modern psychology, we call this being self-aware. But I like the Egyptian ritual language. I know you, you are no longer a secret from me. I know your names and I will use them as needed. Look at me, I cannot be ignored, because I now hold knowledge - I am one of you.

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The warm scent of sandalwood has filled this room and is working its way out through the rest of my house, dispersed from essential I have warming on an electric incense burner. After working in the yard for a while, amidst the tang of cut grass and a brewing summer storm, I walk back into a dreamy sandalwood sanctuary. The very smell turns my thoughts to the sacredness of life, the peacefulness of meditation.

b2ap3_thumbnail_offerings_20130627-001859_1.jpgOur ancient Egyptian friends put a great deal of their effort and money into perfumed oils and incenses. In the temple, the image of a god was wakened, washed, dressed and anointed with fragrant oil or ointment each morning. Ointments and oils were regular offering items, scented with selections from the profusion of flowers and plants that grew along the Nile, or valuable imports like frankincense and sandalwood. 

And speaking of flowers, it was customary to greet guests for dinner at your house by placing around their neck a garland of fresh flowers. A touching element of undisturbed tombs found in modern times is the now-dried fresh flowers which were the last thing left on the casket, much like our custom today at a cemetery burial ceremony.

Cinnamon, cassia, myrtle, balsam, myrrh, honey, sweet flag, juniper, sage, cypress, iris, rose and, of course, lotus were all ingredients prized for their scent. Still more natural ingredients were used medicinally, including acacia, camomile, basil, dill, celery, cumin, fenugreek, lily, mandrake, pine and rue. Servants circulated at dinner parties with cones of goosefat mixed with perfume for guests to put on their heads. During the course of the evening the fat melted down through those heavy wigs, releasing the scent into the banquet hall.

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The psychological effects of association with a particular smell are by now well known. Take advantage of that powerful tool by using your favorite scent whenever you meditate or do other work at your altar. True essential oils are a nice break from the smoke of burned incense, particularly if you are allergy-prone or have a respiratory illness like asthma. Just a drop in a much larger quantity of almond oil will allow you to breathe in the benefits of that plant.

And if you really want to treat yourself, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, by Lise Manniche, is a deliciously aromatic read, plus a gorgeous coffee-table book.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_stela1-100dpi.jpgThe ancient, sacred city of Abydos hosted an annual ritual drama about the mysteries of Osiris.  Along a processional way the festival crowd re-enacted the abduction and murder of Osiris by his brother Set, and inside the temples, priests conducted uber-holy rites away from the public eye.  Every good Egyptian hoped to go on pilgrimage to Abydos at least once in her life. Nearly as good was to have a tablet (called a stela, plural is stelae) set up on the processional route stating your name, titles, a statement of offering (and usually an offering picture) and a request for passers-by to stop and recite the offering prayer on behalf of the deceased.  Many thousands of stelae have been found in Abydos, which was also the burial site of predynastic and First and Second Dynasty kings. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_stela2.pngIn Abydos Osiris is most often known by the name of a jackal-headed god who came from that locale and eventually took on Asar’s identity, Khenti-amentu, “first of the Westerners.”  Any mention of the west was an oblique reference to having died (like the sun, which sets in the west).  Stelae like the ones at Abydos came to be used at lots of pilgrimage sites, as tomb markers (just like our modern tombstones), and even inside burial chambers.  The picture usually shows the deceased standing in front of an offering table piled with bread, beer, geese, the leg of a bull, alabaster and lengths of linen.  A typical inscription, known as an “offering formula” among Egyptologists, might say something like:

"An offering of thousands of bread, beer, meat, fowl, alabaster and lengths of linen, and all good, pure and beautiful things, which Pashed gives to the great god (neter aa) Khenti-amentu, first among those at Abdju, for the soul of Pashed."

b2ap3_thumbnail_stela4.jpgLast week I was worrying a little about how the whole world get to enjoy ancient Egyptian heritage because moderns have basically robbed thousands of graves.  Then I thought about how the Egyptians counted on their descendants and/or priests to perform rituals, “say the prayer,” for them in perpetuity.  Obviously, that system broke down in the same centuries that brought Christianity then Islam to Kemet.  And yet, here we are all these centuries later, reading and admiring the stelae, contemplating the original owner, pondering what his or her life was like.  If you are a student of hieroglyphs like me, you find yourself reciting the offering formulas over and over again in lessons.

To me, that is part of the power and mystery of hieroglyphs, that somehow they have emerged from a time almost before memory to continue to remember the ancestors and honor their wishes.  I wish I knew more about people like Pashed, but it’s clear that what he wanted most after his death was to be remembered as constant in his devotion to Osiris.  May I be at least in part as dutiful in my respect for those who came before me.

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Only weeks after I began studying hieroglyphs last year I started to notice that my mind was working differently.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Something about reading words and sentences which can go backwards or forwards, in circles, or hopscotch around the space inside an oval or square will do that to you. 

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The medu neter (words of the gods) of the Egyptians took an iconographic form, rather than alphabetic.  The standard Gardiner list gives 750 signs, but there are far more than that.  Some of these represent ideas (ideograms), some actual things (pictograph), and some of them are phonetic (phonogram).  Mastering navigation of this lush subtropical written jungle took ancient scribes a fair number of years.  The journey is even more daunting for the modern student since we do not live with most of the items that were common visual parlance for the Egyptians.

Yet, the more I learn of these medu neter, the more I see.  It’s that whole-brain b2ap3_thumbnail_hathorglyph.jpgthing kicking in.  A daily life hawk becomes the glyph (hor) for a ruler, and next thing you know, the ruler is a hawk, a god soaring high in the sky in golden noonday brilliance.  After that, the hawk denotes strength, authority, power and protection.  Then the glyph itself becomes powerful, especially as an amulet, perhaps a bit of turquoise or carnelian set in electrum.  This one (at right) is actually a glyph for Hathor.  The hawk is inside the glyph for house or temple.  Thus, the goddess' name means, "house of Horus."

A step further and we easily realize that a human with the head of a snake is not a biological fantasy, but the symbol of a person or entity with the ferocious protective impulse of a deadly cobra.  A segmented pillar with arms (djed) is not just a cartoonish rendering of Osiris, but a statement about the integrity of someone represented by a backbone.  Everywhere you look in Egyptian art, the glyphs turn up, from the positioning of dancers’ arms to a temple roof which is actually the glyph for the sky.

b2ap3_thumbnail_sedgebee.jpgGoose, garment fringe, body parts, jars, stars, water ripples, feathers, mountains, burning lamps, even a stylized placenta – all of these pictograms are meaning extracted from daily life.  When used as hieroglyphs the process has spiraled around to impose still more layers of meaning onto the life that we experience.  It is in the interstices between these layers, achieved in meditative, altered and reflective states, where we discover the divine. 

You don’t have to read hieroglyphs to find inspiration.  Notice your own sacred symbols. Get down your personal medu neter in colored pastels, stones, musical notes, or movement.  Bypassing the left brain temporarily can stir your soul to as-yet undiscovered joys.  Your life will begin to look more like art, art with beautiful deeper meaning.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs

 

When I was a kid, I devoured books on ancient Egypt. I was fascinated by the Gods and Goddesses and mythology and great temples and pyramids -- and especially by stories of female Pharaohs such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. While my spiritual path eventually led me to Hellenismos, rather than Kemeticism, I continued to remain intrigued by that land and its culture. As a result, I ended up with a nice collection of books about ancient Egypt, a number of which are aimed at kids (and the young at heart). Below are a few of my highly recommended favorites, in order roughly according to reading level.

Tutankamen's Gift by Robert Sabuda (ages 5+) is a wonderful, uplifting tale. A small, frail child, Tutankhamen loves the beautiful temples of Egypt. He is greatly saddened when a new Pharaoh comes to power, outlaws the worship of the Gods, and begins to dismantle the sacred sites. Gorgeous papyrus illustrations accompany the simple text; I particularly love the scene in which the Gods, in the form of the wind, whisper to Tutankhamen. A great introduction to an important Pagan historical figure.

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