Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part II

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part II

This is the second post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here


There has been a long debate among Egyptologists regarding the degree to which ancient Egyptians considered the Pharaoh a god. The consensus at the moment seems to be that the ancient Egyptians viewed royal authority itself as divine. Thus, while recognizing that the Pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, the ancient Egyptians simultaneously considered him a god, because he was the incarnation of the divine power of kingship. In this role, he acted as intermediary between the people of Egypt and the gods. He was essential to upholding Ma’at, both by maintaining justice and harmony in human society, and by sustaining the gods with temples and offerings. For these Pharaoh-Thutmose-III-Luxor-Museum.jpgreasons, one of the Pharaoh’s jobs was to oversee all state religious activity.

The Pharaoh was also associated with many specific deities. He was directly identified with Horus, who represented kingship itself, and was seen as the son of Ra, ruler and regulator of nature as the Pharaoh was the ruler and regulator of society. By the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE) the Pharaoh was also associated with Amun, the supreme force in the cosmos. Upon his death, the Pharaoh attained full godhood. In this state, he was directly identified with Ra, and was also associated with Osiris, god of death and rebirth who was the father of Horus. Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.

The Journey of the Soul

The ancient Egyptians had intricate doctrines about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a ka, or life force, which left the body at the moment of death. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so they believed that, to live on after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still absorb. Each person also had a ba, which consisted of those spiritual and personality characteristics that were unique to each individual. Unlike the ka, the ba BaKaAkhstayed attached to the body after death.

Egyptian funeral rituals were designed to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that, together, they could become the akh (meaning “magically effective one”), which they conceived of as mind as a living entity. Nevertheless, it was also important that the body of the deceased be preserved, as the ancient Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to renew itself, before emerging in the morning as part of the akh.

In early times, ancient Egyptians believed the deceased pharaoh ascended to the sky and dwelled among the stars. However, over the course of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), he came to be more closely linked with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris, as those deities grew more important.

By the time the New Kingdom rolled around, ancient Egyptians believed that the ka and the ba had to escape an assortment of supernatural perils in the Duat (the realm of the dead), before submitting to a final judgment, known as the “Weighing of the Heart,” WeighingoftheHeartcarried out by Osiris and the Assessors of Ma’at.

This judgment consisted of, the gods comparing the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to Ma’at, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with the principles of Ma’at. If the deceased was judged worthy, his or her ka and ba were united into an akh. There were several coexisting beliefs about the destination of the akh. Frequently, the worthy dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasing land in the underworld. The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased akh traveled with Ra on his daily journey, was still associated with royalty, for the most part, but could be extended to others as well. Over the course of the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also visit the world of the living, and magically affect events there to a certain degree, became increasingly widespread.

Myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus

The most important of all ancient Egyptian myths was the story of Osiris and Isis. It is the tale of the divine ruler Osiris, who was murdered by his jealous brother, Set, a god often identified with the forces of chaos. Osiris’ sister and wife, Isis, resurrected him so thatEyeofHorusPillars they could conceive an heir: Horus. Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead.

After he grew up, Horus fought and defeated Set to become king himself. The association of Set with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful divine rulers, provided a rationale for the succession of Pharaohs and set up the Pharaohs as the upholders of order. At the same time, the death and subsequent rebirth of Osiris was connected to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the flooding of the Nile, and also provided a template for the resurrection of the human ka and ba after death.

Another important motif in ancient Egyptian myth was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. During the course of this journey, Ra would meet with Osiris, who served as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed. Ra would also battle each night with Apep – a serpentine god that represented chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris would ensure the rising of the sun the next morning, a daily event that symbolized rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.

Importance of Funerary Texts

Among the most notable and thoroughly preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that the deceased made it to a pleasant afterlife. The earliest of these are the Pyramid Texts. They are a loose collection of hundreds of spells, inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom, which were intended to magically provide pharaohs with the methods by which they could take their place in the company of the gods in the afterlife. The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and a handful of them appear in all of the pyramids.

EgyptainBookoftheDead

At the end of the Old Kingdom a new group of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began to appear in tombs, but these were primarily inscribed on coffins. This collection of writings, known as the Coffin Texts, was not reserved for royalty, but turned up in the tombs of non-royal officials. In the New Kingdom, various new funerary texts emerged, of which the most well known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier texts, it frequently features extensive illustrations, or little scenes. The Book of the Dead was copied on papyrus and sold to the common people to be placed in their tombs.

The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld, along with instructions on how to overcome its dangers. In the New Kingdom, this material inspired a number of “books of the underworld,” including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat. Unlike the previous loose collections of spells, these underworld books are organized portrayals of Ra’s passage through the Duat, and through metaphor, the journey of the deceased’s ka and ba through the realm of the dead. These texts were originally restricted to the tombs of pharaohs, but in the Third Intermediate Period (1069–744 BCE) their use was widespread.

To be continued…

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

I’ve long been fascinated by this picture, statue, or representation of “Death and the Maiden” as it relates to Freemasonry. I first saw the picture when I became a Freemason, in one of the many books that I was able to pour through. Masonic art in general has fascinated me because it is, generally, not only beautiful but also weird; it was weird in a way that made you ask “why does that bird sit on the oddly-shaped stone” or “why is that man holding the woman’s hair while carrying a scythe?” It spoke to me, begging me to figure out what it was trying to tell me. Still, today, I can sit for hours and look at paintings, engravings, and statues and wonder what their creators meant to impart.

Death and the Maiden isn’t a new concept. Artists as far back as Duerer, Baldung, and Beham in the Middle Ages were showing that “all human beauty is ended in death (Beham.)” Shubert and Dorothea Tanning created at least two pieces of their art around the concept of Death and The Maiden. Yet, the pictures attributed to the Freemason’s ideas of Death and the Maiden seem to be very specific and rich in symbolism.

The Freemason’s “Death and the Maiden” seems to be attributed to a 19th Century Freemason named Jeremy Cross. A student of Webb and follower of Preston, he taught and lectured on Freemasonry extensively at the beginning of the 19th Century. General knowledge about him seems to be all we can find, according to Phoenix Masonry scholars and articles, but it seems the idea of the entire composition is attributed to his genius.

The composition has been recreated by others, but the basic design is as you see it above. Some have the maiden holding specific tools with an evergreen and others have her holding a piece of Acacia and an urn. The latter is a modern invention as cremation is a relatively modern invention. However, for my purposes for this post, we will still talk about it. It’s important to reflect on how symbols may change but meaning remains the same – and in this case, the emphasis is to see death on one hand, and everlasting life on the other.

Ostensibly, the winged figure behind the Maiden is Death. Shown as an old man, long-bearded, with wings and a scythe, he seems to be, as one author put it, removing the tangles from her hair. When one looks at this picture, it appears that he is about to cut her hair; taking a purely Judaeo-Christian point of view, from the inventor, the inference is that this is about the moment before death, before life is cut short. Tearing of hair and cutting hair were signs of grief and distress to the Israelites, and even implied the whole destruction of a people. Women’s hair was grown long to distinguish them from men but hair overall was a sign of health, virility, and life. That Death’s scythe is not raised implies that death of the physical world is not imminent but it is on the horizon. Death prepares the youth for what may come at any time, as implied by the hourglass sitting beside the figures. As one is born and grows, Death is always behind them, preparing.

The broken column seems to be the main figure of the composition, and implies that it is a symbol of the Freemason who is viewing the piece. Why not “every man?” Because columns are, symbolically, the individual Freemason. Freemasons are columns to uphold that “temple not made with hands.” Freemasons are there to hold up the ideals for others to emulate and must be strong and sturdy enough to do so. As we age, we start to crumble, become weak, and eventually our “bent backs” signify the end of our contributions to Humanity. Again, the broken column sitting beside its foundation shows that while Death is not ready to strike, we must prepare for it by the time our moment draws near. Hence, what appears to be a book of sacred knowledge, of whatever kind speaks to us, sits beneath the Maiden’s hands. She is studying intently, in quiet contemplation and thoughtfulness. She is not distraught or upset. Both figures are somber and still and accepting.

Then what is the Maiden? The Maiden seems to represent the essence of Life, the Will, Wisdom, and Beauty that we all can tap into to do whatever work calls us. This work is not fixing plumbing or diagnosing code or mopping floors; this work is the Work that is remembered when our time is done, in the Service of Humanity. Someone may remember that we always cleaned up the dishes or swept floors, and in that memory they see the love and dedication we had to a principle. That principle might be as material as “cleanliness” or it might be more virtuous, such as loyalty or dedication, sacrifice and service. The floor will get dirty again but the memory of the work we put into keeping it clean is what we bring to the world. The memory of Service to Humanity. The Maiden represents the potential we all bring with us at birth.

The most interesting of the symbols is the acacia plant. There are many, many theories regarding the use of Acacia as regards Freemasonry. I choose to take a more practical approach, beyond the poor or convoluted translations of the word and speculation as to Acaciaits use as a sacred symbol to the mystery school of Freemasonry. It is, generally, a low shrub or tree that grows in all parts of the world but appears to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. It is evergreen with watering, and is still cultivated mainly in the Middle East, Africa, and Australia for its gum. Besides being an evergreen plant and symbolizing ever lasting life, its qualities as a gum make it far more interesting in relation to Freemasonry.

Since ancient times, the gum or sap of the tree has been used as a fixative. Powdered, the sap is a powerful glue that can be ingested by humans. It is used to combine, fix together, and generally adhere human consumables; this includes things like beverages, soaps, and icings and sweets. It is also used to combine and emulsify paints, slips for ceramics, printing inks, and photography. Thus, it is used to bring together individual components into a sooth solution, able to create works of art as well as feed the human body. Weird as that may be, these attributes show it is directly related to our Work as Freemasons – to bring together, to combine into a well-oiled “machine” to nourish the body, mind, and emotions of the Human Being.

Lastly, there is the myth of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother, Typhon, and his body being placed into a coffin, and the coffin being thrown into a river. Presumably, Osiris dies and the coffin is captured by low hanging Acacia plants by the river. Over time, the Acacia tree is cut down to create a column for a new temple, and in the cutting of the column, the body of Osiris is found by Isis and she uses her wings to breathe new life into her fallen husband. Many myths of Osiris’ death and resurrection are found, in parts or in whole, throughout literature and this is only one of those (Plutarch). What I find this particular myth explaining to me is that the physical form can be had once again, if the aspirant is understanding the nature of everlasting life and perhaps of the lessons that nature and Freemasonry have to teach us. In this, the column and the acacia seem to go hand in hand.

Thus, in one hand we have the energy of our lives holding onto the evergreen which brings us all together, and the ultimate symbol of our physical passing – the urn. In ancient cultures where the belief in the physical body’s transference to the Underworld was prevalent burning of bodies was not performed, namely China and Egypt. In general, however, bodies were burned using many methods, and the remains were sometimes kept in a funerary urn. Additionally, the remains of skeletons and internal body organs were also kept in urns as a sign of respect and reverence. The practice of cremation became even more prevalent in Western cultures after the creation of the first cremation chamber in 1873. For some, the urn is one of those symbols that is still a little vague as regards a deeper meaning. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it is simply the reminder of our physical passing, and the fact that we keep the ash-filled urns of our loved ones near us is a constant reminder of the transient nature of this mortal life.

Death and the Maiden is better for its whole than its individual parts. It is a story of humans who strive for better, only to be still chained and linked to the eventual death we all face. That the Maiden is not facing her Death but still working to better the world is hope to me. It is the hope we all bear that in our work as Builders and Creators, we have left Humanity a little better for our having been part of it. We leave behind our passions, our principles, and our virtues to be passed on to further generations of humans. Our ripples effect the ocean of Mankind. While I live, I can carry on the Work of those who have passed before me, and I hope I leave a good enough legacy that others may find their burdens lighter.


For Joy Cornell, who will always remind me to be Authentic, Passionate, Joyous, Lively, and Loyal to home and hearth. Thank you for your Light. And May Light Perpetual shine upon you, my dearest brother and friend.