Different kinds of knowing, each having their own veracity and value, are to be cultivated and used appropriately. However, there is one kind of knowing we should avoid as much as possible: belief.
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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.
Though my people are Methodists on one side and Baptists on the other, I was not raised in either church. I got formal religious training from a parochial Lutheran elementary school and my own intellectual curiosity. Friends and neighbors invited me to visit their churches with them and I sometimes did--giving me an interesting smattering of all kinds of ceremonies and observances. My grandmother sang in the choir of a small Methodist church and I sometimes went to church with her and my grandfather. I sat in the second row between him and a former mayor of our little town and I was very well-behaved. Of course.
I have never been christened or baptized because I grew up "unchurched," as we say in the South. One of the best parts of that sort of upbringing is that I don't carry around a load of anger or fear or resentment for my treatment at the hands of a monolithic institution like The Church. And I got to make macaroni picture frames in vacation bible school and I was a sure winner at the Sword Drill....
Most of us grew up listening to song lyrics that proclaimed a lack of satisfaction. Here in mid-life I find myself increasingly satisfied, peaceful and content, or hetep – a fitting mood for today’s annual holiday of Thanksgiving.
The word hetep was also used in the classic “offering formula,” a standardized epithet placed on stelae commemorating the dead, on tomb walls and numerous other inscriptions. The formula started with the phrase hetep-di-nesu, “a gift the king gives.” Since the king was the priest for all of Egypt, any offering was thought of as offered by the king, even if it was just you ordering up a monument for your mom and dad.
Here’s what hetep-di-nesu looks like:
And here’s a whole offering formula for a guy named Ky:
The Wild Gods I love the word wilderness. It conjures up images of windswept moors and heathland, dark tangling forests and craggy mountaintops. That spirit of the untamed, the uncivilised, that spark that humanity cannot touch, much in the same way as deity is traditionally viewed. For many Druids, that wilderness is deity – it has the power to give or sustain life or the power to kill. It has not and, in many places, cannot be touched by human hands, existing without any human interference. I like to think that same dark spark exists within our own human souls as well, offering us the sanctity of the wilderness within.
The concept of the “untouched” wilderness is an interesting one. I rather wonder if it has anything to do with secular religious views that have crept into our culture predominantly for the last thousand years or so. The concept of the virgin forest, the virgin wilderness – I have to say, I really dislike the term. It is nice to think that there are places in the world where humans have never been – but still, it’s the terminology that is rather uncomfortable. I have been to places where humans have lived with the landscape, and who live there no more – the wilderness has returned. Where stone buildings once stood, nature has reclaimed it, slowly destroying it until nothing remains but the songs on the wind. Virginity cannot ever be reclaimed – and in this regard, I find the term does not work within the context of the natural world. As it works in cycles, what happened once can be undone....
There's just something about a November sky.
For many, November can be a month of hard coping, with the clocks changing, the nights drawing in, the colder air and wetter weather. Yet we often miss the beauty of this month, lost in our own solipsism. Looking around us, we see that there is so much more than our own worlds, than our own lives. As Bjork said, "nature is ancient and surprises us all"…...