The Theosophical Forum – July 1940

THE SYMBOLIC GEOGRAPHY OF THE ANCIENTS — L. Whellams and I. M. Oderberg

It will be apparent to all students of the Ancient Wisdom that in olden times one of the systems of teaching something of the Mysteries was the use of symbolic geography. As an example, in the account of the adventures of Horus of Edfu in the Egyptian religious ritual, (1) we have one instance of this system; for here is a dramatized story of the soul's descent in involution and ascent therefrom in evolution in the final return to its Source, wherein the great god Horus typifies the soul; and the country of Egypt, its towns, and the river Nile, typify the field of activity of that soul, and the Sutratman.

In reading the story of the Winged Disc, or the history of the Horus of Behudtet, we can see a picture of the mystical history of the land of Egypt, with the works of its gods and heroes, emblematic of the aspects and qualities of the soul, in conflict with Typhon-Set, or materiality, upon the arena or field of life (Kshetra, field or body in the Indian philosophy, cf. Kurukshetra in the Bha-gavad-Gita). (2)

This story of Horus can be interpreted as the emblematic or symbolic history of the true initiation of the Horus (or Christ) spark within himself. (3)

As Paul Brunton truly says:

We may understand, therefore, the real purport of ancient religions when we understand that their heroes also typify the human soul, and that their adventures typify the experience of that soul in its quest of the heavenly kingdom. Osiris therefore becomes a figure of the divine element in man, and a symbolic history of that element — its descent into material worlds and its reascent towards spiritual consciousness.

It is well worth rereading the story of Horus, keeping before one a picture of the country of Egypt. One should view this map facing the South, which was the position assumed by the Egyptian initiant, and then we see the Delta as a triangle with point uppermost, suspended from a thread, the Nile. Imagine the far South as the higher planes, with the Atmic ray falling downwards through the Buddhic, Manasic, etc., planes to the Delta in the North, which can be looked upon as the lower planes. Take the Lower Egypt as the plane of the lower mind or kama-manas, the "place of thick darkness," and the South land, or Upper Egypt, as the higher mental plane, or the buddhi-manas, the "country of light," and the Nile as the sutratman or stream of life from above bringing life, light and vitality to the soul, mind, and body. (4)

Keeping this picture in mind one can see how the adventures of Horus in each particular locality symbolize and conform with the ideas of soul development which we have given to us in Theosophy today.

We read how Horus, the soul, offspring of Osiris, Atman, and the "goddess of wisdom" Isis, or his buddhic aspect, his sister-wife, sailed down the river, bade farewell temporarily to his father, and does battle with Typhon-Set; and how, continuing the work commenced by Ra, he is assisted and sustained by Isis, and finally vanquishes the opposing force, Typhon-Set.

The whole of the details in the legend should be studied carefully, the place-names, the localities, whether on the hills or the water, the very weapons used: all these convey to the student of symbolism absolute conviction that here is true wisdom-teaching of the ancients.

"Heliopolis plays a great part in the religious inscriptions and also holds an important place in the mythological geography, which is by no means the same as the terrestrial, for there is also a mythological Egypt with its cities and sanctuaries. Of this Celestial country On is the capital, the outstanding city. It is consequently a mistake if we always interpret a geographical name occurring in a religious text in the sense that it bears in a terrestrial map of the country. We often find, for instance, Osiris named as being the god of Dadon, the city of Busiris in the Delta; and it is there inferred that Osiris was a divinity of Lower Egypt. But if we consult the Book of the Dead, we shall find that Dadon does not at all answer to a city in the Delta, but to a region in the East where Osiris is to be born and receive the breath of life, and where he is represented as the rising sun. Elsewhere Dadon is equivalent to the East, as Abydos is to the West." So says Naville in his book The Old Egyptian Faith.

In this aspect it is also instructive to read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and the gospel story of Christ-Jesus where the scene of his labors, in this symbolic light, becomes the mental plane, with Jesus the personality aspect and Christ the Individuality aspect of the soul. Compare also the descent into Egypt and the phrase "out of Egypt have I called my Son." Another example is of course the story of the wars in the Mahabharata, and the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.

These old myths were well known to the people at large, and formed the background of the exoteric religions of Egypt and elsewhere; yet, as we are told in Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy:

if you examine the literature, the symbology of the ancient literatures, philosophies, and sciences, with the understanding given to us by our own esoteric teachings, you will find that while the symbolism is exoteric because it has been published, it still remains esoteric because it is unexplained, its meaning is still hid.

Summing up, in the words of Blackden in The Ritual of the Mysteries of the Judgment of the Soul:

It is suggested that one of the methods by which the Ancient Priesthood strove to educate the people to a certain participation in the Mysteries was a system of Symbolic Geography, wherein the whole country was made to symbolise the Lodge, and the mountains, cities, and rivers, wherever locally possible, represented by their names the parts and furniture of the Lodge; the country's Mystic History was thus made emblematic of the true Initiation of the Soul.

And we are told that the mystic mason states that "the Lodge is Man."

The recent publication of The Glastonbury Zodiac excited no little interest and curiosity. While there is some justification for the conservative restraint towards the avenues of thought which it opens before us, the view that the Druids in England also used Symbolic Geography as a means of teaching the Celtic people is given further support by the fact that although the Road known as Watling Street is of Roman origin, the name Watling is derived from Wate, a starry divinity, and there is no little evidence that the Milky Way also was a "Watling Street." Does not this suggest an earlier road, the earthly symbol of the Milky Way (as we now call the vast group of millions of suns forming our galactic — or home — universe)? There are very good reasons for linking the two, and strange fields for speculation open out when we consider the derivation of the word Arthur, from Arturus, from Arcturus, associated with the Constellation of the Great Bear. Indeed, Arthur itself, in some quarters, is translated as "Wondrous or Great Bear."

But we must leave this field, and close with two interesting quotations. From a sixteenth century poem by Gawain Douglas:

Arthurys hous, and Hyades betaikning rane,
Watlingstrete, the Home and the Charlewane,
The fiers Orion with his goldin glave.

In the following two lines by Scott, "Arthur" is used for the whole constellation of Ursa Major:

Arthur's slow wain his course doth roll,
In utter darkness, round the Pole.

FOOTNOTES:

1. This is also known as the "Winged Disc Myth," and its similarity with the purpose and underlying meanings of the Bhagavad-Gita will be readily noted by all students making the comparison. (return to text)

2. In Plutarch's essay On Isis and Osiris, xi, he says: "When, therefore, you shall hear the fables the Egyptians tell about the gods — their wanderings, cutting to pieces, and many such-like mishaps, you ought to bear in mind what has been above stated (that is, that the Egyptians, and certain of the Greeks after them, wrapped their teachings in a symbolical, mysterious, and
enigmatical style), and not to suppose that any of them happened or was done in the manner related."

It is interesting, too, to remember what Dr. de Purucker says of Sambhala in his Occult Glossary, that it (Sambhala) "is a Sanskrit place-name of highly mystical significance." (return to text)

3. It should be remembered that Horus, as the other Egyptian gods also, was a symbol with a wide range of meaning. (return to text)

4. Incidentally, those interested in the Great Pyramid will note that this
ancient house of illumination stands on the West Bank of the Nile right on the dividing line of these upper and lower planes: the Neophyte enters from the North, or kama-manas regions, receives illumination and enters the buddhi-manas regions, takes a step to the left, the East in this case, and follows the stream upwards to its source. (return to text)


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