The Shamans of Egypt
The following is excerpted from The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, available from Steiner Books.
In Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt, the writer Jeremy Naydler argues that there is good reason to believe that Plato and other Greek philosophers journeyed to Egypt in order to receive some form of initiation. In Plato's case, according to Naydler, this led to his philosophy -- to which, as Alfred North Whitehead remarked, all subsequent western thought is merely a footnote, which suggests that a book on The Egyptian Roots of Western Philosophy remains to be written. Exactly what Plato and the others received may not be absolutely clear, but Naydler believes that by trying to understand Plato's relationship to Egypt, we can gain a firmer grasp, not only on Plato's ideas, but also on "that deep current of thought and spiritual practice known as the Hermetic tradition."
Naydler argues that some form of shamanism was involved in ancient Egyptian spiritual practice. Naydler points out that the central narrative in Egyptian mythology is the story of Osiris' dismemberment at the hands of his evil brother Set and his resurrection by his consort Isis, and argues that this is paralleled in the dismemberment motifs in shamanic initiation rituals. He also argues that the journey of the soul through the underworld -- what the Egyptians called the Duat -- as described in the Book of the Going Forth By Day, otherwise known as Egyptian Book of the Dead, can be found in shamanic ritual, as can be the idea of a spiritual ascent, which is another Egyptian theme. In both shamanic and Egyptian religious accounts, this ascent to the sky takes place via wings or a kind of ladder, and it should come as no surprise that a parallel idea appears in the Hermetic notion of a journey through the planets to the "Eighth sphere." That Plato described a version of this stellar ascent too, suggests for Naydler that his version and the Hermetic one stem from the same source.
Predictably, for 'official' Egyptology, Naydler's ideas put him the lunatic camp, as most mainstream Egyptologists reject the notion of Egyptian shamanism. They reject it because, Naydler argues, they are fixated on the funerary interpretation of Egyptian religious texts, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of hymns, spells, incantations, magical 'power words,' and instructions used to guide the soul of the deceased in the after-world; unlike the Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is much older, is an often wildly heterogeneous assembly of writings, gathered over millennia, and is not really a book at all, at least not in the modern sense. Its earliest 'chapters,' known as the Pyramid Texts, were written on the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs circa 2350-2175 BC, but originated in sources much earlier; the practice of mummification and concern for the afterlife can be dated to at least 3100 BC, and according to the occult scholar Lewis Spence, an inscription on the sarcophagus of Queen Khnem-Nefert, of the 11th Dynasty (circa 2500 BC) states that a chapter of the Book of the Dead was discovered in the reign of Hosep-ti, the fifth king of the 1st Dynasty, "who flourished about 4266 BC."
We may take Spence's remark with a grain of salt, but the fact remains that the material making up the Book of the Dead is at least five thousand years old. Later parts of it, circa 1700 BC, came from what are known as the Coffin Texts, writings found on the sides of wooden coffins, or contained in scrolls placed with the dead. Although originally reserved for the pharaohs, this sort of Rough Guide to the afterlife gradually became available to anyone who could afford a scribe to copy it out. Perhaps the most well known version is the Papyrus of Ani, a copy of the Book of the Dead made for the scribe Ani circa 1240 BC, which contains the famous illustration of the god Anubis weighing Ani's heart on the scale of Ma'at, the goddess of justice. Late versions appeared with blank spaces for the names of individuals not yet dead. Initially the privilege of an elite, the spiritual rebirth associated with the journey through the underworld became over time something more democratic.
Yet while the funerary aspect of the Book of the Dead was certainly made use of, Naydler argues that the text had another, more central use. It was, he believes, a manual on how to "practise dying," a method of learning how to experience the separation of the soul from the body, which normally happens only in physical death, while still alive. Naydler argues that as this was also the aim of Plato's philosophy -- the Phaedo famously argues that philosophy is a "preparation for death" -- there is good reason to believe that rather than merely picking up an idea that was 'in the air,' Plato learned it at first hand from the priests at Heliopolis. The belief that one's nous, or mind, was immortal while one's body was subject to death and decay was, as a central theme of the Hermetic teachings, and this suggests that, rather than repackaging Platonic ideas - as some have argued the Corpus Hermeticum does -- both it and Plato's philosophy originated from the same source.
Body and Soul
As anyone who has studied them knows, ancient Egyptian religious ideas are complex and often seemingly contradictory, with gods appearing in multiple forms and new gods often being worshipped alongside old. Creation myths, for example, vary and often seem the result of competing priesthoods vying for ascendancy. And it's understandable that a reading of the Book of the Dead, with its many demons and monsters that the soul must overcome, can give the impression that the Egyptians were a morbid, superstitious people. Yet what may seem contradictory on the surface can present a different aspect when viewed as the Egyptians themselves may have viewed it, that is, symbolically. If, as the Egyptian scholar R.T. Rundle Clark remarks, "it has come to be realized that Egyptian art is nearly all symbolism," one can expand this and say that for these "deeply God-conscious people," their myths were symbolic too.
The Egyptians, Rundle Clark argues, "used their myths to convey their insights into the workings of nature and the ultimately indescribable realities of the soul," and were not, as some more mainstream Egyptologists suggest, a superstitious people who believed in animal-headed deities, although, to be sure, the common people may have had rather simple ideas about religion, just as some Christians might still believe that God is a white-bearded old gentleman on a throne. That is, the Egyptians used myths and symbols to express ideas. And according to Rundle Clark, they seemed to concentrate on two central themes: to explain the structure of the universe and how it came into being, and to describe the origin and development of consciousness.
One of the most complex aspects of Egyptian religion is their notion of the soul, or, put more precisely, the physical and non-physical components making up a human being. According to the Egyptians, human beings are made up of nine different but related entities, each of which has its own form of afterlife. The khat is the physical body, which must be kept secure after death, hence mummification. The ka is a kind of 'astral' double, that inhabits the body during life, but which is freed in death, and can enter other forms, like statues or representations of the deceased. The ba is what we would consider the soul, or inner identity or consciousness. The sekhem is a kind of life force, what in theosophical terms we can call the 'etheric' body, which animates the matter of the khat. The ab is one's moral consciousness, the sahu the intellect and will, and the khabit is a kind of shadow, like the ka but different. But perhaps the most important part of the soul is what the Egyptians called the akh. This is our divine essence, an incorruptible spiritual body which has the potential to escape from the earthly realm entirely and dwell among the stars, and even to pass beyond them. While each of the other parts are subject to certain limitation, the akh, which is also the means by which we acquired divine insight and wisdom, is likened to the gods. So, in essence, in our akh, we too are gods.
The ba is usually depicted as a bird with a human head, hovering over the body of the deceased; to modern eyes these depictions resemble accounts of ‘out-of-the-body-experiences,' which suggests that the body depicted may not be dead at all. The human headed bird symbolized the idea that for the Egyptians the soul resided in the head - an idea, Naydler points out, that they shared with the Greeks -- and that it could rise above the body, that is, could be separated from it. Naydler remarks that this notion of the ba was not, as most Egyptologists believe, a common belief, but was reserved for the priests; that is, it formed part of the esoteric, rather than exoteric, religious teachings. The ba can separate from the body during sleep or at death, but it could also be separated during a third state, of trance, or deep relaxation. For the ba to rise above the body, Naydler argues, "the central requirement was that the psycho-physical organism be stilled." "The ba only comes into its own," he writes, "when the body is inactive and inert." This is strikingly similar to the state the sage Hermes Trismegistus was in when he received gnosis from Poimandres, the Universal Mind.
Naydler points out that for the ancient Egyptians, as for the Greeks, consciousness wasn't, as it is for us, located solely in the brain. For both the Egyptians and the Greeks, consciousness was located in different forms in different parts of the body. Naydler refers to Homer's account in the Iliad and the Odyssey, where he speaks of waking consciousness being located in the chest, and of other forms of consciousness being dispersed throughout the rest of the body, in the limbs, heart, hands, etc. This suggests that for the Homeric Greeks, the body wasn't perceived as a unity, but as an association of different parts, each with their own consciousness. Naydler points out that these Greeks had no singular word for the living body, but usually referred to it in the plural, and that soma, which means ‘body' in our sense, was used to refer to a corpse. While the Egyptians shared this notion of a multiple bodily consciousness with the Greeks of Homer's epics, they had a very different idea of the soul, or psyche, than the Greeks. For the early Greeks, the psyche was rather more like our modern idea of a ghost, a kind of insubstantial wraith or eidola, a faint image of the deceased that is released on death, and that has a reduced form of existence in the underworld, as Ulysses discovered during his sojourn there. The dead Ulysses meets are like vapours rising from a swamp, and long to return to life. When we speak of someone being "a shadow of their former self," we are speaking of them as early Greeks did the soul. For these Greeks, physical reality was paramount, and any kind of afterlife was an unsatisfying shadowy affair.
For the Egyptians the ba had a more 'concrete' existence, to speak metaphorically about something purely spiritual. While the body was active, its noise and demands obscured the ba. But when the body was silent, the ba could be known. In order to experience the ba consciously -- that is, while awake and alive -- it was necessary to withdraw consciousness from the limbs and inner organs, and to concentrate it, to gather it into a unity in the head, which seems rather like the "godlike concentration of consciousness" that Hermes tells his disciples must be attained before they can receive the "knowledge of God." When the soul forces were thus concentrated and the body quiet, the ba could awaken, and the ‘I' could feel itself to be an independent entity, not dependent on or restricted to the body's limitations. As the ba is our inner self, our sense of identity, what this means is that we, who usually associate our self with our body, become directly aware of our independence of it. We inhabit a body, but during these states of profound physical relaxation and inner concentration, we realize that 'we' are not 'it.'
One result of experiencing the ba's independence is the recognition that consciousness can exist outside of a physical body and brain, which suggests that it is not necessarily subject to the body's decay. Or, to put it another way, that a part of us isn't subject to death. Yet, paradoxically, to arrive at this insight, one must "practise dying." Naydler suggests that this was the secret of the Egyptian Mysteries, or one of them at least, and given that, as is the case with the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries of Greece, we have very little information about exactly what went on in these, he may very well be right. The Greek historian Herodotus, who tells us he witnessed the Egyptian mysteries at Sais, is infuriatingly coy, and after keenly piquing our interest about them, decides to keep mum. Naydler argues that after his initiation, Plato developed these ideas into his own philosophy, and that dialogues like the Cratylus, the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, and the Republic all contain important elements of the Egyptian mysteries, elements that can also be found in the Corpus Hermeticum. One is that, with the recognition that the ba or soul can exist independently of the body, and that the way of realizing this is to "practise dying," paradoxically, the body itself is seen to be a kind of tomb.
As Plato says in the Cratylus, the body (soma) "is the tomb (sema) of the soul, which may be thought to be buried in our present life." That Plato refers to the Pythagoreans as the source of this knowledge is for Naydler strong evidence that its origin is Egyptian; Pythagoras, too, tradition has it, went to school in Egypt. That the authors of the Corpus Hermeticum may have had the same teacher -- or at least the same lesson -- is suggested by Book VII, where it is said that in order not to be carried away by the great flood of ignorance, the seeker of gnosis must "strip off the garment" he is wearing, the body, which is referred to as the "sentient corpse" and "portable tomb." It is in this sense that Socrates, in the Phaedo, declares that "true philosophers practise dying," and it is in this sense that the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Naydler argues, is concerned with dying, and not solely in the literal way that proponents of its funerary use argue.
Another Egyptian idea that Naydler finds in Plato, and which can also be found in the Hermetic books, is the notion of the akh. The akh, as mentioned, is that part of our inner being that can be considered divine. It has the potential to escape entirely from earthly and even cosmic limitations, and it is through the akh that we can receive divine wisdom and insight. Once the ba is seen to be independent of the body, then it is possible to come to know the akh, which was seen by the Egyptians as luminous and associated with the sun, and which, after death or through the ritual of the mysteries, found its place among the stars. Naydler argues that the akh found its equivalent in Plato's philosophy in the form of the daimon, or, as Plato sometimes refers to it, nous. And as for the Egyptians, one who has realized his akh, or, more accurately, become akh, is filled with divine wisdom and can find his place as a star in the cosmos, for Plato, the philosopher who comes to know the Form of the Good -- the highest knowledge possible -- also rises to the stars.
From this vantage point, Plato writes in the Phaedrus, he "stands on the back of the universe" and can perceive through nous -- not his senses -- the unmanifest Reality "behind" or "before" the cosmos. Naydler suggests that an illustration from the tomb of Ramses III of the pharaoh looking out beyond the stars while standing on two entwined serpents that encircle the cosmos, is a depiction of Plato's account of "standing on the back of the universe." The similarity between these two ideas and that of the Hermetic ascent to the Eighth and Ninth spheres should be apparent, and in the Asclepius, Hermes Trismegistus tells his students that "there is a place beyond heaven where there are no stars."