The Religion of Ancient Egypt
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1906
We must study religions from within, not from without. If we ourselves genuinely believe in spiritual life and spiritual law, and have some knowledge of the things of our immortality, we shall study to good purpose. If we are merely curious, without conviction, without faith, we but lose our time, and our work will be wholly valueless.
The world’s religions are the grand, successive chapters of the world’s Religion. If we come rightly to their study, we shall be repaid with ever-increasing light. We shall come to regard human history as a gradual revelation of divine life, and this world of ours as the anteroom of immortal realms.
There was a time when it was fashionable to hold that men came by their religious beliefs through fancy, making their gods from shadows and clouds, and hearing divine voices only in the lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain. We shall learn to set this light opinion aside, coming to the great truth that man’s belief in the soul springs from the soul itself; that he has faith in divine beings, because there are divine beings that he has set his hope on immortality, because the soul is immortal.
The knowledge of the soul and its realities is a science, to be learned by experiment, as are all sciences. The great central thought of all religions, the thought of sacrifice, is to be understood only through sacrifice. Humility and faith reveal their secrets only to humility and faith. We must pass in faith through sacrifice to knowledge, before we can speak with any certainty concerning religion.
The study of religions must be founded on facts, assembled with vigilance and untiring toil. But the facts it most imports us to gather are the facts of spiritual life. The field that must first be harvested is the field of our own souls. Holding as a clue the insight thus gained, we shall find our way safely through many a labyrinth of old-world faiths, where else we should meet nothing but bewilderment. And with this guide, we shall find among the ancient religions of the world many a land of promise, many an isle of the blest.
We shall come in time to divine in the great religions of the world an ordered revelation, and a veiled reminiscence, not complete in any land, yet with a certain unity in all; a memory going back to the spiritual dawn of mankind, in whose pure, quiet light move divine and august figures, each the guardian genius of a race; great ones, to whom the thought and love of later men goes back, drawing from their memory the faith in incarnate gods.
“The Egyptians,” wrote Herodotus, “were the first among mankind to teach the immortality of the soul.” This is not all the truth, for the knowledge of immortality is as old as man. Yet it is true that, among the august records of the past, as we now know them, Egypt stands first, the motherland of religious knowledge and of the Mysteries.
There is a certain stateliness and beauty in the land itself, which marks it as the fitting home of a great spiritual life. The rich ribbon of fertility, watered by the sacred Nile, is guarded on either side by the vast and silent desert, its wastes of rock and stone and sand shining under the sunlight, or veiled in the gloom of night. The long valley of the Nile, in its boundless fruitfulness, is a symbol of creative Nature; and the sacred river which brings it fertility, now flowing, now ebbing, is an image of the spiritual life that thrills through nature, coming from a secret source beyond the horizon.
The whole land is clothed in a veil of beauty, whether it be the rich greenness of the valley, the gold and gray of the bordering hills, or the deep blue, changing to purple, of the overarching sky. The sunrise is a glory, noontide full of splendor, and evening veiled in marvelous gloom. Night also speaks of revelation. The stars tell their secrets more plainly than in northern lands. As the sun dies out of the cloudless sky, brief twilight wanes into darkness, and within an hour the stars are shining, growing to colored gems of flame in the velvety dome of night. One-half of the whole starry sphere is thus seen, an hour after the sun has gone; and, as the night draws onward, the splendid dome of stars turns slowly on its almost level axis; till, when dawn draws near, another hemisphere of stars is already revealed. Thus comes it that, every night of the cloudless year, the whole glory of the sphere of stars is unveiled, save only on each night the narrow zone lit up by the evening and morning twilight; a zone equal to but one-twelfth of the whole celestial sphere.
Thus for those who watched in old Egypt it was easy to discern the mighty secrets of the visible heavens; to measure the movements of the moon, stealing backward among the stars, each hour moving a space equal to the width of her own disk; it was easy to note the place of the sun among the constellations, to follow his advance and withdrawal through the wide jeweled belt of the zodiac; as the dawn drew nigh, it was easy to mark the last moment when some bright star was lost in the sun’s growing light; and, noting this from year to year, thus to gain the precise measure of the earth’s rotation round the sun. The greater year of the pole’s precession through the stars might also be measured, many successive generations adding their knowledge and handing it down.
The spirit of the day of splendid sunshine and color, and the nights of solemn star-lit gloom breathes forth from the mighty pyramids and pillared temples of ancient Egypt. Full of grandeur and quiet reverence, nothing nobler has ever been conceived by the spirit of man, or built by human hand . These ancient shrines are penetrated through and through with the breath of consecration. The stones themselves seem to worship offering their testimony to the might and divinity of the over-shadowing Soul.
In the history of Egypt also, with its age-long dynasties of mighty kings, whose life and death are recorded in stately monuments, who alone among the rulers of men bear always a divine name as well as a human name, who follow each other in stately sequence, like some holy procession along the Nile, we have once more embodied the same spirit of majesty and quiet power. Nor have we yet approached completeness in our view of that great procession of kings. Every decade of study reveals new centuries and new dynasties of Egyptian monarchs, stretching ever farther back into the darkness. Beyond the utmost landmark of yesterday, we now see clearly the outlines of older times and wider cycles; and the revelations of today are already opening the way for the greater revelations of tomorrow.
THE LATER AND EARLIER KINGS.
Menes, who united the provinces of Egypt into a single empire many millenniums ago, was recently thought to be a myth, a fanciful figure of tradition. He now stands out, a fully historic person, whose acts and conquests are well known to us, whose very burial-place, with the tomb of his queen, every visitor may see. The reign of this conqueror Menes is now held to have been seven thousand years ago, and we may take it as a landmark in our view of Egyptian history. After Menes came thirty-one dynasties of native Egyptian kings. Early in that “dynastic” period were built the greatest pyramids, and the most splendid carvings were wrought out of the stubborn rocks. The beauty a grandeur of workmanship of the earliest dynasties has never been equaled by any later race of men.
Nearly five thousand years, it is held, were filled by the thirty-one Egyptian dynasties. Then, three centuries before our era, came invasion of Alexander of Macedon, whose officer, Ptolemy, founded a Greek dynasty, numbered the thirty-second. That dynasty perished with Cleopatra, and Egypt passed under Roman sway.
Seven thousand years ago, conquering Menes gathered together the provinces of Egypt, and formed them into the dual kingdom, the “two lands,” of Upper and Lower Egypt. His first capital was at Thinis, called by the Greeks Abydos, far up the Nile. Advancing his power northward, he brought Lower Egypt of the delta also under his rule, and founded Menefer, the “city of Menes,” called Memphis by the Greeks, close to the head of the delta, where the Nile separates into seven streams spread out like a fan toward the sea.
Seven millenniums of human history lead us back to Menes. Beyond Menes rise the figures of older kings, dim and majestic, and extending to a far remoter past. Ten kings who preceded Menes are already admitted to be fully historic, and they but bring us to the closing epoch of a great prehistoric civilization, which culminated not less than a thousand years earlier. Even here, we do not approach the beginning of Egypt, whether for sacred tradition or modern research. For we know today that the race of these ten earlier kings who preceded Menes was an invading race, coming by way of Koptos from the shore of the Red Sea; and finding a far older race already in possession of the great Nile valley. That earlier race, fair of complexion, skilled in the arts of life, workers in ivory and ebony, had its kin, perhaps, along the southern Mediterranean, towards Algeria and Mount Atlas, and certain tribes belonging to the same family are still hidden in the inner oases of the vast Sahara. Within a generation, it may well be, the history of that pre-dynastic race will be well-known to us; yet, when its secrets are penetrated, its periods measured and estimated, we shall still be far from the beginning. For even this race on its coming found not an empty land, but an older race and an already degenerate culture along the valley of the sacred river. That older race has its kindred, perhaps, among the Hottentots of southern Africa today; yet they once were numerous and powerful, and held a larger territory in Egypt than any later comers.
Egypt is now a rainless land. Years pass, along the upper reaches of the river, without a rainstorm or even a shower. Where Thinis stood, there may be rain once in four or five years. But in the days of that earlier race, of which we have just spoken, Egypt was a land of torrent rains, of wild storms and floods, drenching what is now the desert, which then may have been fertile land. How long ago this was, we can only guess. Perhaps it was when the wild sand wastes of the vast Sahara were still covered by the waters of an inland sea, till some great cataclysm raised and sank the ocean bed. But however long the ages that divide us from that great convulsion, we know that long before it Egypt was peopled by numerous tribes. Their knives and axes of flint still strew the desert hills beyond the fertile valley of the Nile; and many of these flint knives are worn and rounded by the waters of torrents that ceased to flow millenniums ago. Flint knives of the days of Menes have been found, still sharp and keen-edged, yet changed by time to a light orange color. Other flint knives of the far older race have, by time’s passage, been stained deep brown or black, so vastly more ancient are they than the days of Menes, now known to be seven thousand years ago.
THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF OSIRIS.
Thus far does modern research conduct us. We learn a like story from ancient sacred tradition. Before Menes, said that tradition, were ten kings of Thinis, whose reigns are now admittedly historic. These ten king were preceded by dynasties of heroes and demigods. And before these came two dynasties of divine kings. To the earlier of these, say the traditions of Egypt, belonged the great king Hasiri, whom the Greeks called Osiris.
Osiris is to be classed with certain great ones, of whom Krishna and Gautama Buddha may stand as types. They were, in one sense, men incarnate upon earth, and living as men among men. But they were, in a larger sense, divine and representative beings, the course of whose lives was symbolical, typifying the great laws of spiritual life. In all these lives there are two elements: a mission and a sacrifice. The teaching of Gautama is but the outcome of the Great Renunciation. The death of Krishna rounds and completes the disclosure of divine secrets to Arjuna. And so it was with Osiris, who belongs to a far earlier age, to the dim dawn of Egyptian tradition. It is true that the Buddha was regarded, and rightly regarded, as the visible presentment of the divine Avalokiteshvara, the Heavenly Host. Yet it is not less true that as prince Siddhartha, he lived in the city of Kapila, renouncing his kingdom to follow wisdom, and teaching his disciples in the bamboo garden. So it is true that Krishna was the avatar of Vishnu, who, in three strides, traversed the heavens, and who, with Brahma and Shiva, completed the holy Triad. But it is also true that Krishna was the prince of Dvaraka, the friend and charioteer of Arjuna.
In the same way, we may believe, Hasiri was born in remote days, in Upper Egypt. He ascended the throne of his kingdom, and reigned, it is recorded, for eight and twenty years. Even in life, he was surrounded with a certain divinity. His people looked on him as the teacher of all wisdom and knowledge, winning men to the arts of life by gentleness and goodness. He was full of kindliness, mildness and grace, a personality very winsome, though of royal might, yet humble and simple, who led men’s hearts captive by tenderness.
Such, they say, was Osiris. Towards the close of his reign, he left his kingdom, traveling to distant lands. And during his absence, his brother Set, whom the Greeks later called Typhon, conspired against him, to kill him. Hes, the consort of Osiris, called Isis by the Greeks, sought to frustrate Set’s evil plans, but without avail, for on Osiris’ return to Egypt, Set brought about his death, enclosing his body in a coffin of richly carved wood, and setting it adrift on the sacred Nile. The waters carried the chest with its sacred burden far, and at last by the Tanaitic mouth it passed through the delta to the sea. Isis sought the body of her lord, with grievous sorrow following every trace and clue, and at last discovered the coffin with her lord’s body enclosed in it. But even now she did not escape the enmity of Set, who found its hiding place, and tearing open the coffin, cut the body of Osiris in twice seven pieces, and strewed them through the length and breadth of the land. Yet once more did Isis gather together the scattered members of her lord with sacred care, burying them at Abydos, destined for long ages to worship him. By miraculous power Osiris rose again from the dead into a renewed and spiritual life, and, through his son Horus, vanquished his enemy Set. The beaten foe was given to Isis for safe keeping, but the bereaved queen in large generosity set him free, though Horus bitterly opposed her.
Thus lived and died Osiris. Thereafter in the hidden, spiritual world, he became the ruler of the dead, the judge in the Hall of Truth, and to his throne come all mortals to be judged. Thus far the narrative, which, we must believe, embodies the direct facts of Osiris’ life on earth, events as actual as Krishna’s friendship for Arjuna, or Buddha’s teaching in the bamboo garden.
Yet there is the other side of the life of Osiris. Like Krishna and Gautama, he stands for the Logos incarnated, and, after his death and resurrection, for the Logos made manifest in the heavens. It is said of him that Hes or Isis was at once his mother, his sister and his daughter, symbolizing clearly the manifestations of the one spirit in three worlds, each world having its proper vesture. The divine, the spiritual and the mental worlds are thus personified in the Eastern teachings; and in Set, the foe, yet the brother of Osiris, we see the symbol of the physical world. Paul spoke of a law in his flesh, warring against the law of his mind; and in just this sense did Set war against Osiris, in wide nature, as in man. As Osiris was put to death by Set, hidden in the casket of death, and then cut in twice seven pieces and strewn far and wide, so is the spirit buried in the material world, and, through the power of the material world, divided in many parts, strewn throughout the manifestations of life. Then Isis, the dutiful spouse, the pure spirit of aspiration, is set the task of once more assembling the fragments of Osiris, as spirit is drawn forth from matter, and once more perfected in one.
As in certain other lives, every part of the life of Osiris is symbolic. Witness that enclosing of the body in the casket as prelude to his miraculous rising from the dead, an event still celebrated in mystical rites.
THE WORSHIP OF RA.
Abydos was the center of the teaching of Osiris, and was specially associated with his name. When Menes carried his capital northward to Menefer or Memphis, another expression was given to the same teaching, and Memphis was bound up in tradition with the worship of Ra. Ra is the Sun, born of Ptah, the mystical, abstract light, and himself the father of Shu, the sunshine.
Yet Ra is something more than the visible sun of heaven. That sun is but the symbol of the hidden Sun “after whose shining all else shines.” Nor could any more fitting and beautiful symbol be chosen, especially in a land of such splendid light as Egypt. From the faint dawn, that touched the eastern hills with lines of gold and crimson, through radiant morning to perfect noon, when the sun stood at the crown of the azure dome; through the descending hours, till the sun once more touched the rim of the desert, flooding the hills with red and the sky with purple light, the whole day was a procession of magnificent beauty. And with that abounding beauty came every good and perfect gift to the life of man, all fruitfulness, the wheat that fed him, the life of cattle and birds that brought him riches. All came from Ra. All was the gift of Ra.
Nor is the symbol of the sunset less fitting and beautiful. As the visible sun touches the rim of the desert, and then sinks, a disk of splendid red, beyond the curtain of the hills, so sink all living things into the darkness. Then follow the long hours of mystical gloom, lit with the colored fire of the stars that move in majestic order across the dome of night. At last the sun returns, once more tinging the eastern hills, and pouring his glad light upon the earth; and so life returns, coming out of the hidden once more into the visible world.
No symbol is more universal, none more beautiful, than this which associates the hidden world of souls with the realm beyond the sunset. In all lands souls are thought of as departing to the west, whether we take the beliefs of Tibet or of New Zealand. And this from no vagary of fancy, but from the universal vision of a great truth, which in thought follows the sun beyond his setting to a hidden world that supplements the world of day. As lord of the hidden world the Egyptians paid honor to Amen-Ra, the hidden sun. Here is a version of one of their hymns:
“Hail to thee, Ra! Lord of truth, whose shrine is hidden; Lord of the gods, Creator, sailing in thy bark; at whose command the gods were made; maker of men, that supportest their works, that givest them life, that knowest how one differeth from another, that listeneth to the poor who is in distress; that art gentle of heart when a man crieth unto thee; thou who deliverest the fearful man from the violent, who judgest the poor and the oppressed; Lord of wisdom, whose precepts are wise; at whose pleasure the Nile overflows her banks; Lord of mercy, most loving, at whose coming men live, opener of every eye, proceeding from the firmament, cause of joy and light, at whose goodness the gods rejoice, their hearts reviving when they see thee!”
A few lines may be quoted from a verse rendering of the same hymn:
Son of Ptah, both fair and good,
Lo! the gods adore and love—
By the gods is honor paid—
To the God who all things made,
Things below and things above.
Lo, he passes through the sky,
Sailing in tranquility,
Blessing both the lands with light,
King of north and king of south,
Giving law with truthful mouth.
He who takes
The earth, and makes
It like to his divinity.
In his beauties gods rejoice,
To his praise they lift their voice
And adore his name,
When he comes from his abode,
Rising crowned with flame,
Glorious the two lands above.
He whose fragrances they love,
Incense-born and dewy-sweet,
When he comes from Araby,
When his feet
Over plains of Asia fly,
And his smile
Beams along the land divine,
Where the Red Sea waters shine,
Southward of the land of Nile.
At his feet the gods attend,
In acknowledgment they bend
To his awful majesty.
Lord of fear and victory,
Mighty one of will,
Master of the crowns, and king,
Making green the offering,
Giver of the holy food,
Pure and good,
We adore with salutation
Thee, who called into creation
Even the gods, and by thy skill,
In beneficence and love
Hast outstretched the heavens above,
And hast set the earth’s foundation.
Gracious ruler, rising bright,
Crowned with crown of silver white,
Lord of rays,
Great Creator of the light,
Unto him the gods give praise,
An he stretches from above
Hand of love to them that love.
Hail to thee, Lord God of law,
Thee, whose shrine none ever saw,
Sailing in thy boat along,
By whose word the great gods are,
Thee we hail in song,
Atmu, maker of mankind.
It is clear that with the visible sun is here blended the Logos, the spiritual giver of light and life, and that the sun is but one symbol of that for which Osiris is another symbol. As Osiris contended with Set the adversary and prince of this world, so contends the sun with the Serpent of Darkness; and so the light contends with the darkness in the heart.
THE SYMBOL OF THE NILE.
Other images were taken by the wise men of ancient Egypt, always to embody the same truth. Of these one of the most beautiful and fitting was the sacred Nile, like the sun a giver of life and sustenance to the whole land, a visible divinity bearing ever plentiful blessings. Here again Egypt was happy in possessing a symbol in all ways so fitting. For, like the spiritual power, the Nile was in its source recondite and mysterious, though very evident in its manifestations. From far beyond the rim of the known world it came, and entered the kingdom of Upper Egypt by the red granite gate of the first cataract at Syene, now called Assuan. Then for hundreds of miles it flowed through the long Egyptian valley, bringing fertility, till at last it spread into the seven streams of the delta, and was lost in the sea.
At the summer solstice the Nile grew turbid, flushed with the rains of far distant tropical lands, and then, for a fortnight, great masses of green water-growths were carried down from hidden equatorial lakes. Then the waters rose until the inundation, some two months later, when the Nile once more stretched from shore to shore of its vast ancient bed. At the autumnal equinox it reached its greatest height, covering the whole land with rich earth, washed over it by the waters. And then, for nine months, the mighty stream shrunk once again to its lowest level, resting there for a few days only, and then once again beginning to rise.
The summer solstice, when the river thus touched it lowest level, was a time of solemn rites and ceremonies, which, for the people, referred only to the visible Nile and the approaching inundation, but for those more informed, embodied the teaching of the Logos, and the working of spiritual power, the flow of the river of life through the hearts of men. We may give a few verses from one of the hymns to the Nile, which show this double meaning:
Hail, all hail, O Nile, to thee!
To the land thyself thou showest,
Coming tranquilly to give
Life, that Egypt so may live;
Amen, hidden is thy source,
Hidden thy mysterious course,
But it fills our hearts with glee!
Thou the gardens overflowest,
With their flowers beloved of Ra,
Thou for all the beasts that are,
To our fair fields ceaselessly
Thou thy waters dost supply,
And dost come
Through the middle plain descending,
Like the sun through middle sky,
Loving, good, and without ending,
Bringing corn for granary,
Giving light to every home,
O thou mighty Ptah!
THE JUDGMENT OF THE DEAD.
We can see the unity in spirit between these three forms of divine symbol, if we compare with the hymns to the Sun and the Nile these words of a hymn to Osiris:
“Manifester of good, full of goodness and truth, beneficent spirit, beneficent in will and words, mild of heart, fair and beloved of all who see him, he brings forth plenteousness and gives it to all the earth; all men rejoice because of him, hearts are in sweetness because of him, and bosoms are in joy; all men adore him and glorify his goodness, sanctifying and beneficent is his name!”
The teaching of Osiris penetrated deeper into the spiritual world, and with him was bound up the fate of the soul after death. At the birth of Osiris, it was said, a voice was heard, saying: “The lord of all the earth is born!” and after his death, as lord of the hidden world, he became the judge of all souls. Isis stood beside his throne in the Hall of Truth with two and forty angels surrounding him. Horus, his son, led forward the souls of the dead to judgment, and Anubis, “director of the weight,” brought forth the scales for the trial. In one scale was set the image of Truth, and in the other a vase containing the good deeds of the soul on trial, and Thoth stood with his tablets to record the result of the weighing.
If the good deed weighed the heavier, the blessed soul, purged by fire, entered the solar boat and was carried to the happy fields of Aahlu and the pools of peace. Dwelling there for thrice a thousand years, the soul was once ore born upon earth, to gain a new lesson in wisdom and life, when the cycle was completed, the soul, justified and made perfect, attained the crowning joy of union with God, absorbed into the divine essence and thus reaching the full perfection of being.
For above Osiris, above Ra, above Amen, there was always the ineffable ONE who was thus addressed in prayer:
“Hail to the One in his works, single among the divine powers, chief of all the divine powers. Father of the divine powers, Maker of the divine powers, Lord of Divine Powers, the One maker of existences, the One, alone, without peer, the true King of divine powers. Sole producer of all things, both in heaven and upon earth, Himself not produced of any, the only true living God, who has made all things, but Himself was not made!”
We find the sentences of this prayer echoed in later liturgies; and it is part of the mighty genius of Egypt, that her spirit served as an inspiration for younger lands and younger faiths. In the religion of the Greeks, and most of all, in the Mysteries, of Orpheus, of Eleusis, the voice of ancient Egypt is once more heard, and heard not for the last time. In later days, Synesius, Iamblichus and Plotinus brought a part of the sacred lore of Egypt once more to the light of common day.
Let us think, then, of the ancient religion of Egypt, the lore of Osiris, of Amen, of Ra, as a great flame burning in secret, from which were lit many lesser flames; a single spiritual faith, which brought forth many symbols, consecrating to its worship the splendor of sunrise and noon and evening, and the holy stream of the Nile with its gift of fertility, thus making all life a symbol of Life.