The Two Faces of Egypt

I. M. Oderberg

The resurgence of life during the vernal equinox has been celebrated by all peoples who have inherited from remotest antiquity the meaning of what occurs in nature at that period. The many Saviors associated with the legends that have come down to us imbodied the myth of the cosmic spirit incarnating into matter, imparting something of its essence to the entities slowly evolving there, and then returning to its divine state. In the ancient Mysteries, symbolic geography was often used to teach both cosmic and human values. An example of this practice is the system of the ancient Egyptians.

The ritual adventures of Horus of Edfu — known also as the Winged Disk myth — dramatizes the soul's descent into matter and, through purification and self-conquest, its re-ascent to its source. Horus typifies the soul, and the country of Egypt, its towns, terrain, and the river Nile, the field of activity of that soul. We can thus visualize the mystical history of Egypt, the deeds of its gods and heroes standing for mans qualities in conflict with Typhon-Set or materiality.

If we read this account of what ensues in the arena of life in conjunction with a picture of the country of Egypt, we should look at the map facing the south, the position assumed by the Egyptian neophyte, and then we see the Delta as a triangle with point uppermost, suspended from a thread, the Nile. Imagine its source as representing the higher ranges of consciousness, with the divine ray falling downwards through the spiritual, mental, emotional and energic levels, to the Delta, the material realms. We now see Lower Egypt as the field of operations of the lower part of the mind, the "place of thick darkness," while Upper Egypt is the higher or more refined mental plane impinging on the intuitive level, called the "country of light," with the Nile as the stream bringing from above life, light and vitality to the soul, mind and body. There was a celestial Nile, distinct from the terrestrial.

Keeping this image in mind, we can see how the adventures of Horus in each particular locality symbolize and conform with the idea of soul development. Indeed, the whole of the legend with all its details of place names, localities — whether on the hills or the water, even the very weapons used — conveys to the student of symbolism the following story: Horus, the offspring of Osiris, the divine element in the universe and ourselves, and of Isis, goddess of wisdom and the spiritual chalice of that godspark, sails down river, after bidding farewell to his father, and does battle with Typhon-Set — material life and the egoism it engenders.

If we compare the names of physical sites with the geographical description given the same words in those religious texts where they occur, we often find their locations do not match each other. For instance, as Edouard Naville has pointed out, (The Old Egyptian Faith.) Osiris is referred to as the god of Dadon, supposedly the city of Busiris in the Delta. This implies he was a divinity of Lower Egypt. But the Book of the Dead (The correct title is Pert-em-Hru, Coming Forth by Day (or: of Light) clearly locates Dadon not in the Delta but in a region to the east where Osiris is to be born and receive the breath of life. He is represented there as the rising sun.

Some of the most valuable material about the culture of ancient Egypt published in the last 30 or 40 years has been the least noticed in specialist circles. We refer to the fruit of the labors of the French Egyptologist R.A.Schwaller de Lubicz and his wife Isha. His magnum opus, The Temple of Man, in three massive volumes, is a thorough examination of the small temple of Apet south of Luxor, and indicates a profound study of the inner aspect of the Egyptian civilization. M. Schwaller de Lubicz took the grid used as a canon for drawing the human figure and superimposed it upon a ground plan of the unusually shaped temple of Apet (a birth goddess), and in the process discovered much of interest about the knowledge of the Egyptians and the way they preserved it while veiling its essence. His wife's contribution bears the same vein of gold — her immense learning and remarkable insights finally being imbodied in two works, the English titles being: Her-Bak, the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, and Her-Bak, Egyptian Initiate. (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1954 and 1967 respectively. The original French editions of both books contain large appendices beautifully illustrated and richly documented, but unfortunately the English edition of volume 2 lacks these.)

Her books are a melding of Egyptian texts and an exposition of their meaning, threaded together by a story involving a farmer boy who is recognized to have latent capacities for training in the Sacred College of Initiates. The work deals with Her-Bak's education, the first volume treating of the normal school experiences leading into the "Lesser Mysteries"; his response to intimations of a higher teaching brings him to the doors of the "Greater Mysteries," the subject of the second volume. There the unfoldment of knowledge about life, the universe and man's self results in wisdom and understanding. He is tested all along the line to ensure that he may be entrusted with knowledge about natural forces — that he will not use the information gained for selfish purposes — culminating in the recognition that Altruism is the mark of a superior being.

In the course of this, the boy has learned that life is a manifestation of the divine presence, obscured for man only by his own self-centered pursuits. As he gains in knowledge, he is told that ambition "does to intuition what a weevil does in a granary," and that the Egyptian sages have seen the phenomenal world as stages of consciousness in a process of becoming. Her-Bak learns at last that the aim of his training was self-knowledge. "All is in yourself. Know your inmost self and look for what corresponds with it in nature." Further, that the path of progress through temple-training revolves also around the meaning of 'ternple,' which to the ancient Egyptian imbodied the whole of science, knowledge and wisdom. The living temple is man, himself a replica of the macrocosmic principles and functions, the "Neters."

Mme. Schwaller de Lubicz spent 15 years in Egypt, living among the ruined temples and steeping herself in the ancient culture. By her empathy as well as technical knowledge, she seems to have entered into and understood the idiom of the old times. Only when she felt she had achieved this did she embark on her effort to share her understanding of the overall method used in the Egyptian Mysteries to train the character of the neophytes. Her monumental books correlate the architecture of certain temples where initiations took place, with the 'blueprint' of cosmos and the nature of man. Initiation means a new 'beginning,' an inner change — not a ceremony that by itself confers a change, for such would be an empty ritual without the prior interior unfoldment of faculty and quality.

Egypt acquires a different face when considered against this background. It was called the Two Lands, not primarily to commemorate a historic event when the warrior Menes unified the divided country, but rather to denote the duality of spirit and matter: on earth, the subjective and objective spheres of activity; in man, his higher and lower selves.

Egyptologists often exclaim about the lack of a nationally coordinated religion in Egypt, stating that there were many sectarian systems of belief derived from various, unconnected sources. May it not be that what the Egyptians visualized as taking place in the cosmos at large they also saw reflected in the history of their nation? From this standpoint, what we regard as the megalomania of Rameses II in his claim of a great victory at Kadesh — really just an indecisive battle — or in the creation of his colossal statues, could be a misreading of what these represented on the solar and human scales: the materialization of cosmic life processes. Or we can take the so-called Memphite Theology, a cosmogony that could well be the prototype of the birth of a universe — or that of a civilization — in the subjective realms of Being, materializing through different epochs as the evolving forces become denser, more involved with matter. In this context, the Pharaoh (literally the 'Great House' or vessel of a particular quality prevalent at the time) was a living symbol representing something that as a person he may or may not actually have imbodied in himself. Behind him stood the members of the Sacred College, supervising the 'buildings' sealed by the emblematic name they chose for him when he became king.

The brotherhood of wise men provided that remarkable continuity of pattern, design or expression, that has been noted by so many scholars and laymen alike. Their communal identity, continuing through the ages, enabled the Egyptian inheritance to survive invasions and other vicissitudes during its long history. The names of the gods prominent in certain places at various times, which later merged with others, in the beginning designated several aspects of the original cosmic divinities (seen to be intelligent forces), now and again wearing the guises of the new times and conditions.

The Egyptians rejected our own kind of physically-based concept of evolution, claiming instead the ongoing unfoldment of quality and faculty from within: the evolving aspect being "the spiritual factor in creatures, the causes of becoming." In short, the inherent essence of any entity expresses itself in increasingly more perfected vehicles, the latter resembling the clothes we take off and cast aside when they are worn out. Thus the central emanator of quality, the magnet drawing together the material atoms, was described as "the impersonal being whose voice is the intelligence of the heart." Or as another author expressed the thought: the self in the center of each entity constantly influences the innermost structure of matter throughout aeons of time, and is that which led (and leads!) to the life forms on every rung of the evolutionary ladder.

The psychology of the Two Lands symbol, or the inner and outer selves of the cosmos and man, may seem a strange distillation from ancient Egyptian history — the use of an event in time to represent a timeless, profound concept about the essence of Being and its manifestations. It may also sound odd to regard temples of stone as seats or dwelling places of cosmic principles, "a projection on Earth of some aspect of the cosmic organism." But it is not so strange if we bear in mind that each hieroglyph was not only a letter in a word, but also an ideograph, containing meanings for every facet of man's nature and activities. In this light, the "rhythm of Osiris" was the rhythm of becoming, in which its opposite, that of disbecoming or return is latent.

Her-Bak stresses that the open-hearted see the principles by living the life that unfolds the qualities of the many selves in man — aspects of body, soul and spirit. These aspects of the mythic gods represent qualities in us all, processes we may help forward by orienting to the spiritual north: the center within the heart.

There is a glyph of Osiris as the god at the top of a series of steps; and a text that says: "it is his own ladder that a man must climb" — he must ascend his own nature. If we remember that everything is evolving, and that a divine spark is at the core of every entity, we shall recognize the common bond that binds together all on earth. Altruism is indeed the mark of the superior being, who renounces personal salvation in order to shed light upon all, remaining with mankind until that day when everyone will have grown to be a transparent imbodiment of his own inner Osiris. There is a purpose in every important act of Nature, whose acts are all cyclic and periodical.

(From Sunrise magazine, April 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

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