The Radiant Thread of Egyptian Myth

By I. M. Oderberg

The ancient Egyptians believed that the numerous gods of their pantheon were emanations from the First Cause of all life which, before the moment of the new creation of the universe, rested or was potential in the primeval Waters of Space. It was through these individual gods that the qualities of the divine essence were manifested. They had their own name, figure and special share and duty in the management of the universe, presiding over the production of their particular orders of phenomena and ensuring their regularity. Each of these deities was represented in the vignettes and hieroglyphs in three forms:

1. the purely human figure with attributes peculiar to the god;
2. a human body bearing the head of an animal dedicated to the deity because of some symbolic or biologic resemblance to the powers possessed or expressed by the god; and
3. the same animal depicted with the attributes of the god.

Life, proceeding through the phenomena of birth, death, rebirth or resurrection, and immortality, was the thread connecting many symbolic stories that enriched the mythology of Egypt.

The creation myths bear inner and outer meanings, and although they might appear to differ among themselves, they actually form a single stream of thought. The secrets of their inner interpretation will not yield unless the right keys are applied to their locks, and these keys are to be found in an understanding of their religio-philosophical roots. The temples had a public section, and a private sanctuary comprising many rooms and corridors covered with hieroglyphs that both revealed and yet veiled their essential meaning. For the Egyptian Mysteries — alluded to in guarded fashion by Herodotus, Diogenes Laertius, Diodorus Siculus, and later by Iamblichus and others — imparted their instruction by degrees. But the light of understanding comes only after adequate training in character as well as intellectual comprehension.

The Egyptian myths of creation presented the many entities of the cosmos, world and man as being emanations from the one High God who was and is formless, concealed, unrevealed. In the Osirian cycle, he was the Dark Face of that god, so refulgent with light to lesser beings that he seemed dark, for they could not perceive or comprehend it. Creation thus was seen as a continuing process, and while the main myths dealing with it seem to derive from four rival religions based on the cities we know through their Greek-given names — Memphis, Heliopolis, Hermopolis and Thebes — there is enough internal evidence to suggest they were really phases of one grand ongoing theme.

This was the ensoulment of matter and the latter's refinement into spirit at the end of an age — "the millions of years." The Egyptians did not conceive of this present universe as the first one destined to endure forever. Various vignettes, glyphs and texts show, for instance, the symbol of the new Sun being raised at the dawn of creation above the quiescent matter (Nun) of Space (Neith, the ever-fecund Mother of all), regulated by Maat, the "Breath of Life."

The four main creation myths communicated their inherent message to the people as a whole through dramatic presentations of the cosmic and global development. As the priestly actors in their masks and robes moved in stately procession through the rituals and ceremonies conveying the story of the birth of worlds or men, it was easy for a spectator to project his consciousness into it and thus become identified with its meaning. Hence the importance of the lector-priests, who read the texts aloud and helped the celebrant to moderate the performance so the audience would respond inwardly and deeply.

The Egyptians conceived the universe not as a sudden production, but rather as being organized into existence from the subjective plan in steps, developing gradually into the multifarious operations and phenomena we perceive. The whole civilization was geared to the concept of orderliness, it being the duty of Maat — Justice, Truth and Order — to restore it in the cosmos and on earth whenever harmonious balance became disturbed. "She is the Presence of beginning and end, in all Times and all Worlds, . . ." (Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, Her-Bak: The Living Face of Ancient Egypt, pp. 334-44). Thus the land of Egypt and its people were represented as "organized in the image of heaven"; they were the reflection of the subjective realm of being, a paradigm of the whole planet and humanity.

The cycle associated with Heliopolis deals with the first glimmer of divinity in motion: out of the primordial Waters of Space — Chaos — rose Ra, the self-creating Sun; not the physical orb but its divine-spiritual essence. At his rising Ra becomes Atum, and in this aspect emanates the first duality, the twins Shu — both light and air* — and Tefnut, not defined but possibly the ideative aspect of Maat. (*The essences of the elements and not their physical counterparts of earth are meant here.)

"As light [Shu] separates the earth from the sky and as air he upholds the sky vault." (R. T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p. 45.) Shu-Tefnut produce Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky) by this separation, and Geb and Nut in their turn give birth to Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephtys. Set should be seen as the nether pole of Osiris-spirit. He was not the personification of evil as we know this term in Western culture. These last four represent those Neters — the causal powers — operating in nature. They, together with the younger Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, were born successively on the five intercalary days that were added to the ideal year of 360. The birth of these five Neters, taken from the Osirian cycle of myths, does not refer to time as such but to five cosmic planes of increasing materiality, commencing from the most subjective, in which each of them manifested or "ruled." The range of these planes collectively extended from the border of the Unmanifest into the most substantial realm, that of Set and Nephtys — our globe in the earth scheme, the observable universe on the larger scale.

The Egyptians thought of manifestation as taking place in three main gradations of crystallization that they called "worlds." There was the celestial world or heaven, the domain or condition of being of the Neters, the inherent qualities in nature. The second sphere was the Duat or Dwat, intermediate between the celestial realm and our more tangible earth. It has been described as the "moment between night and day." It is the condition when causal forces are in transition from the abstract phase to the material aspects of nature. Because of this it is really a duality, representing the state of an entity's 'becoming' into and 'emerging' from different sets of qualities or levels of experience. The third world is the concreted, material globe. "It is the world of Ptah — the innate fire of terrestrial matter — who created it, who is its secret motive force and the agent of its future development" (Schwaller de Lubicz, p. 341).

The "Memphite Theology" is a term given to one of the most ancient and profound formulations of creation we possess from Egypt, its origin has been attributed to the enlightened king reputed to have reunited a divided Egypt and known to the Greeks as Menes, or to the order he gave to the new priesthood of Memphis that he set up after he moved the capital from Thinis. This remarkable cosmogony, going back as it surely does to the First Dynasty, exists for us in the restatement commanded by Shabaka about 700 BC. It names Ptah the High God. He emerges out of the primeval Waters which are no longer so inert as previously, becoming the first subjective/objective manifestation. He projects his Heart (the elder Horus, brother of all the sequential gods, including Osiris), and his Voice-Mind (Thoth).

The subjective or concealed aspect of Ptah becomes the active, 'revealed,' creative Ptah, Fire "who is upon the great (i.e., Primeval) place" (Clark, pp. 60-1) known in Egyptian symbology as Ptah-Tatenen, the "Primeval Mound" and often depicted by a staff. This mount or mound represents the first appearance of highly subtle or ethereal matter above the Waters. Ptah had an Octad or a family of eight emanations, four pairs of Neters. As Ptah he is the creator of all on earth; as Ptah-Tatenen he is "the first Earth emerging from chaos." One of the Octad is Atum, "whose divine intelligence is Horus; and whose will is . . . Thoth" (Schwaller de Lubicz, p. 337).

At Hermopolis, Thoth was the Supreme God; he has come farther into manifestation, guiding it through his Octad of Neters, four pairs that produce the more materialized globe newly risen from the still unorganized space and substance that is Nun. This globe is in the form of an egg laid by the cosmic bird of time — a concept remarkably similar to the Upanishadic Kalahansa that also produces the universe in the form of an egg. In the latter case, the swanlike bird is associated with the Unmanifest Brahman, the ideative or architect-creator, as well as Brahma, the objective or active-creator in the form of hansa-vahana or vehicle of the swan. That it moves both in and out of time suggests the Egyptian sun-bird "who illumines the world" (Clark, pp. 56, 74.) and says:

I can see right through to the limits of the darkness, I can behold everything right through to the Primeval Waters. -- Leiden Papyrus (quoted Clark, p. 35)

The egglike globe has now come under the Sun, the essence of Ra and not the visible solar body, who organizes it into the physical world. In other words, Thoth speaks and Horus organizes the "ectypal forms" or facsimiles of the subjective spheres — the patterns of their entities and denizens.

Finally, the Theban version stressed the threefold aspect of the "Creative Principle," as "Amun-Ra-Ptah, the Three-in-One," divine, spiritual and material.

During more than fifty centuries, Egyptian ideas about the creation have percolated into other cultures in the Mediterranean area. We perceive their incidence, often under various terms and turns of phrase, in the religious heritage of that part of the globe. Their influence has even penetrated into our own, Westernized cultural patterns.

In addition to the four main creation myths enumerated here, we receive an extraordinary inheritance from ancient Egypt through Grecianized Alexandria. It is known nowadays as the Corpus Hermeticum* and consists mainly of Greek and some Latin translations of material attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes the "Thrice-Great," not a former philosopher-king but the god himself. A few of them long pieces, the rest are fragments our scholars have extracted from classic authors and also from early Church Fathers who bitterly opposed these writings and quoted from them in their attacks. Because some of the phraseology rings of Neoplatonic and early Christian expressions, such scholars as Festugiere, Ferguson, Scott and Walton dismiss these scriptures as a relatively late production, though they extol the contents. However, the kernel of the myths themselves shows unmistakable connections with the oldest Egyptian thought. When Ptolemy Philadelphus pushed forward the development of the Alexandrian Library, he called for translations of all the major cultural works into Greek from the non-Greek languages. We can reasonably assume this work continued until the Library was destroyed in the fifth century AD.

There is no wonder that at various times these texts have stirred students to a high pitch of enthusiasm — a word meaning for Plato the "inspiration" stimulated by a god, now interpreted as an ardent excitement or interest. Full of a sublime ethics and glowing picture of the causative aspect of life and its phenomena, the Hermetic writings give an unveiled insight into the creation of our world, and indeed the cosmos at large, through the mediatorship of Thoth. The benign god whose interest it is to raise mankind to a higher level of humanhood than it now manifests, was identified by the Greeks with their Hermes. He is represented as the Divine Mind, "incarnated thought," as one commentator describes him: "the living Word, the primitive type of the Logos of Plato and the Word of the Christians." He was the firstborn son of the Great God; at once the Divine Mind and Word whose instrumentality brought the cosmos into being. A very old text says in effect: In the beginning was Thoth; and Thoth was in Atum; and Thoth was Atum in the unfathomable reaches of primordial space.

In Egyptian terms, Thoth was considered

to be the "heart" and "tongue" of Ra the Supreme — that is, not only the reason and mental powers of the god Ra, and the means whereby they were translated into speech, but rather the Controller of the life and Instrument of the utterance of the Supreme Will; He was the Logos in the fullest sense of that mysterious name, the Creative Word. — G. R. S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, 1:44

The concept of all that Thoth stands for runs like a golden thread through all of the manifestations of the creative spirit contained in Egyptian mythology. He is the Divine Mind transmitted via the halls of the Alexandrian Library and its wise men into the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel as its Word, Logos or Verbum. The Pymander or Poimandres text of the Hermetica presents its uplifting description of the creation as an ongoing universal happening, clothing ancient Egyptian ideas in the then modern, musical language of Ptolemaic and post-Ptolemaic Greek. It also tells of man's sevenfold composition, each quality contributed by a deity; of the after-death journey when the soul sheds the elements composing its vestures, one by one at the relevant planetary stops until reaching the purificatory auricles of the spiritual Sun, clearing the ventricles for the return to earth, en route magnetically re-attracting the element-qualities that will compose its vestures again.

In the Mysteries, the culminating splendor was said to be the meeting face-to-face with one's Higher Self, and deities. In Pymander, the narrator, "son" of Thoth, has such a guerdon:

Once, when I had begun to think about the things that are, and my thoughts had soared . . . I thought I beheld a presence of immeasurable greatness that called my name and said to me: "What do you wish to hear and see, and to learn and come to know by thought?" "Who are you?" I said. "I," said he, "am Poimandres, Nous [Mind] of the Sovereignty [or Absolute Power]." I said: "I desire to be taught about the things that are, and understand their nature and know God. . . ." And he replied: "I know what you wish, for indeed I am with you everywhere; keep in mind all that you desire to learn, and I will teach you."
With these words, he changed his form, and suddenly everything was opened before me in a flash, and I beheld a boundless view, everything become light, a mild and joyous light. And I became enamored with the sight."*

Then he beheld the darkness of the Unmanifest, the stirring in the waters of substance, the birth from within the heart of Space of the energies matterizing to make the worlds. This exaltation of view transmuted and transformed the narrator so that he became the veritable "son" of the ensouled Wisdom of the spiritual side of nature. He had "Osirified" his previously barren existence with the green shoots of a new birth. He has Self-created himself.

[*I have melded the translations of Hans Jonas in his The Gnostic Religion (p. 148) and of Walter Scott in his Hermetica (I, 115). I have been greatly indebted to a number of other works, especially Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky; various works by Sir Wallis Budge; translations of the Pert em Hru (Book of the Dead), and the definitive edition of the Hermetica texts: Hermes Tresmegistus, text, translations into French and notes by A. J. Festugiere from A. D. Nock's edition.]

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)

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