The ancient Egyptians conceived man and kosmos to be dual: firstly, the High God or Divine Mind arose out of the Primeval Waters of space at the beginning of manifestation*; secondly, the material aspect expressing what is in the Divine Mind must be in a process of ever-becoming. In other words, the kosmos consists of body and soul. Man emanated in the image of divinity is similarly dual and his evolutionary goal is a fully conscious return to the Divine Mind.
*Space, symbolized by the Primeval Waters, contains the seeds and possibilities of all living things in their quiescent state. At the right moment for awakenment, all will take up forms in accordance with inherent qualities. Or to express it in another way: the Word uttered by the Divine Mind calls manifested life to begin once more.
Growth is effected through a succession of lives, a concept that is found in texts and implied in symbolism. Herodotus, the Greek historian (5th century B.C.), wrote that
the Egyptians were the first to teach that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth; and after passing through all creatures of land, sea, and air (which cycle it completes in three thousand years) it enters once more into a human body, at birth.
The theory of reincarnation is often ascribed to Pythagoras, since he spent some time in Egypt studying its philosophy and, according to Herodotus (bk. ii, § 123), "adopted this opinion as if it were his own."
Dr. Margaret A. Murray, who worked with Professor Flinders Petrie, illustrates the Egyptian belief by referring to the ka-names* of three kings; the first two of the twelfth dynasty: that of Amonemhat I means "He who repeats births," Senusert I: "He whose births live," and the ka-name of Setekhy I of the nineteenth dynasty was "Repeater of births." (The Splendour That Was Egypt, 1949; p. 211)
*The ka-name relates to the vital essence of an individual.
Reincarnation has been connected with the rites of Osiris, one of the Mysteries or cycles of initiation perpetuated in Egypt. The concept of transformation as recorded in the Egyptian texts has been interpreted in various ways. De Briere expresses it in astronomical terms: "The sensitive soul re-entered by the gate of the gods, or the Capricorn, into the Amenthe, the watery heavens, where it dwelt always with pleasure; until, descending by the gate of men, or the Cancer, it came to animate a new body." (1)
Herodotus writes of transmigration, i.e., that the soul passes through various animals before being reborn in human form. This refers not to the human soul but to the molecules, atoms, and other components that clothe it. They gravitate to vehicles similar in qualities to their former host's, drawn magnetically to the new milieu by the imprint made by the human soul, whether it be fine or gross. It is quite clear from the Book of the Dead and other texts that the soul itself after death undergoes experiences in the Duat (Dwat) or Underworld, the realm and condition between heaven and earth, or beneath the earth, supposedly traversed by the sun from sunset to sunrise.
The evolution of consciousness is symbolized by the Solar Barque moving through the Duat. In this context the "hours" of travel represent stages of development. Bika Reed states that at a certain "hour" the individual meets the "Rebel in the Soul," (2) that is, at the "hour of spiritual transformation." And translating from the scroll Reed gives: "the soul warns, only if a man is allowed to continue evolving, can the intellect reach the heart."
One text recently translated as part of a doctoral thesis by Leonard H. Lesko is entitled The Ancient Egyptian Book of Two Ways. Not only does this scripture deal with rituals assumed to apply to after-death conditions — in some respects similar to the Book of the Dead — but also it seems quite patently a ritual connected with initiation from one level of self-becoming to another. Lesko regards his work as a pioneering effort. He found his difficulty in translating and interpreting the texts compounded by the inclusion of "earlier material which often degenerated through the errors of copyists" (p. 3). Nevertheless the picture that emerges is that of the "deceased" or candidate for initiation reaching a fork offering two paths called "The Two Paths of Liberation" and, while each may take the neophyte to the abode of the Akhu (the "Blessed") — a name for the gods, and also for the successful initiates — they involve different experiences. One path, passing over land and water, is that of Osiris or cyclic nature and involves many incarnations. The other way leads through fire in a direct or shortened passage along the route of Horus who in many texts symbolizes the divine spark in the heart.
In the Corpus Hermeticum,* Thoth — Tehuti — was the Mind of the Deity, whom the Alexandrian Greeks identified with Hermes. For example, one of the chief books in the Hermetica is the Poimandres treatise, or Pymander. The early trinity Atum-Ptah-Thoth was rendered into Greek as theos (god) — demiourgos or demourgos-nous (Demiurge or Demiurgic Mind) — nous and logos (Mind and Word). The text states that Thoth, after planning and engineering the kosmos, unites himself with the Demiurgic Mind. There are other expressions proving that the Poimandres text is a Hellenized version of Egyptian doctrine. An important concept therein is that of "making-new-again." The treatise claims that all animal and vegetable forms contain in themselves "the seed of again-becoming" — a clear reference to reimbodiment — "every birth of flesh ensouled . . . shall of necessity renew itself." G. R. S. Mead interprets this as palingenesis or reincarnation — "the renewal on the karmic wheel of birth-and-death." (Thrice-Greatest Hermes, 1: 94; 2:55.)
*The Corpus Hermeticum or Books of Hermes are believed by some scholars to have been borrowed from Christian texts, but their concepts are definitely ancient Egyptian in origin, translated into Alexandrian Greek, and Latin.
Let us look at Walter Scott's translation of Poimandres. (Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, 1:517.) Book 1, § 24 states that "At the dissolution of your material body, you first yield up the body itself to be changed," and it will be absorbed by nature. The rest of the individual's components return to "their own sources, becoming parts of the universe, and entering into fresh combinations to do other work." After this, the real or inner man "mounts upward through the structure of the heavens," leaving off in each of the seven zones certain energies and related substances. The first zone is that of the Moon; the second, the planet Mercury; the third, Venus; fourth, the Sun; fifth, Mars; sixth, Jupiter; and seventh, Saturn. "Having been stripped of all that was wrought upon him" in his previous descent into incarnation on Earth, he ascends to the highest sphere, "being now possessed of his own proper power." Finally, he enters into divinity. "This is the Good; this is the consummation, for those who have got gnosis." (According to Scott, gnosis in this context means not only knowledge of divinity but also the relationship between man's real self and the godhead.)
Further on, in Book X, § 17 the Poimandres explains that the mind and soul can be conjoined only by means of an earth-body, because the mind by itself cannot do so, and an earthly body would not be able to endure "the presence of that mighty and immortal being, nor could so great a power submit to contact with a body defiled by passion. And so the mind takes to itself the soul for a wrap" (Scott translation).
In Hermetica, Excerpt XXIII, Isis to Horus, there is the statement:
. . . . For there are [in the world above, two gods] who are attendants of the Providence that governs all. One of them is Keeper of souls; the other is Conductor of souls. The Keeper is he that has in his charge the unembodied souls; the Conductor is he that sends down to earth the souls that are from time to time embodied, and assigns to them their several places. And both he that keeps watch over the souls, and he that sends them forth, act in accordance with God's will.
There are many texts using the term "transformations" and a good commentary on the concept by R. T. Rundle Clark follows:
In order to reach the heights of the sky the soul had to undergo those transformations which the High God had gone through as he developed from a spirit in the Primeval Waters to his final position as Sun God . . ." — Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, 1959, p. 31
This would appear to mean that in entering upon physical manifestation human souls follow the path of the divine and spiritual artificers of the universe.
There is reason to believe that the after-death adventures met with by the soul through the Duat or Underworld were also undergone by a neophyte during initiation. If the trial ends in success, the awakened human being thereafter speaks with the authority of direct experience. In the most ancient days of Egypt, such an initiate was called a "Son of the Sun" for he embodied the solar splendor. For the rest of mankind, the way is slower, progressing certainly, but more gradually, through many lives. The ultimate achievement is the same: to radiate the highest qualities of the spiritual element locked within the aspiring soul.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)
1 . Quoted in Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, by James Bonwick, 1956 reprint; p. 80. (return to text)
2. Rebel in the Soul, a sacred text of ancient Egypt, trans. and commentary by Bika Reed of the Berlin Papyrus 3024, 1978; pp. 10, 114. The text was first translated by Adolph Erman (into German) in 1896 as "A Man Tired of Life in Dispute with his Soul." Dr. Helmuth Jacobsohn, a Jungian psychologist and Egyptologist, examined the text critically and in Timeless Documents of the Soul (1968), published his own translation and commentary as "The Dialogue of a World-Weary Man with his Ba." He concluded that the author of the text rejected suicide rather than taking that course as some Egyptologists had claimed. Written in the hieratic or priestly language, Dr. Jacobsohn indicated the scroll was really about the unio mystica or "mystical union" of the soul with a god. Bika Reed perceives the scroll to be an "initiatic text." (return to text)