I'm reading the most delightful book, Lisa Manniche's "An Ancient Egyptian Herbal," and just have to share this ancient recipe from page 42:
Stuffed Alexandrian Loaf...
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In 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....
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....
Book 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.
But I’ve reconsidered. Some say that pre-industrial people did not distinguish between 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).
Egyptian 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.
The 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.
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....
Ka, 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
Egyptians 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)
Rekhi 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.