In ancient Egypt it was a long journey to the Two Halls of the Maati, i.e., Truth. There were many vicissitudes on the way, described in varying detail in the sacred ritual enacted for the dead and for aspirants undergoing special training. In this training, the soul sought to penetrate the veil between earth life and the next phase beyond it. It passed through the "Opening of Hathor," and after experiencing a deep probe of its character it entered the Double Hall, to be irradiated by the Light therein and the newly awakened light within itself.
Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, tells us that the Egyptians had a most noble and secret wisdom concerning the nature of the Divine, contained symbolically in the mythic accounts of their "gods" which he termed fables and allegories -- not in a demeaning sense but to indicate that profound inner truths about the cosmos were imbedded in them. The Egyptian Neters were impersonal principles operating throughout the cosmos, not "gods" as we understand the term. The Neter Maat, for instance, referred not to a goddess but to the intelligence, the principle, we call Order, Balance, Truth, Duty, etc.
While the people of Egypt's far past may have entered more fully into the inwardness of the myths than those of the later centuries who only treasured the stories as such, there were some among the latter who were concerned with meanings. A graded course of instruction was presented in the so-called Book of the Dead, in the Coffin Texts (writings inscribed on the coffins of certain high dignitaries and priests), and in the Pyramid Texts and paintings on the walls of tombs such as that of the Pharaoh Unas.
The story of Horus, in some respects the Egyptian Christ, is similar in intent and metaphor to the quest adventures associated with the old romances woven around King Arthur, his knights, and the search for the Holy Grail or Truth. While Horus' experiences may seem to be on a high level as compared with the events of our daily life, they are parts of the same soul drama. If Horus faced mythical creatures to overcome them, so do we have to face and decide between today's hedonist pattern of living and the more refined association with the uplifting processes of the universe.
Ancient Egyptian religion looked upon birth and death as doorways into and from the earth, for death was seen as but a change in the continuity of Life: a sustaining energy was inherent in everything everywhere. Apparently a continuum operated forever in the past, through the present, and would do so forever into the future. This is the concept implied in elder Neters and younger: Hathor, as vast unlimited Space, was the mother of the elder Horus who was like the Greek Eros: the oldest deity and the driving energy propelling the cosmos forward. Impersonal Love, Eros was the heavenly source of the earthly Eros; similarly Horus had his earthly counterpart.
The ideal Egyptian year was 360 days, to which were added five days associated with the birth of the younger Neters: each day the following were born: Osiris, Isis, their son Horus, Thoth, Nephthys, and Set. This Osiris was the divine in mortal form; Isis the creative power in earthly feminine form; Horus, the aspiring human soul; Nephthys, a reflection of Isis and intimately connected with her; and Set, the nether pole of Osiris: unevolved matter. The five added days symbolized the cosmic planes of energy/substance extending from the divine source through ethereal matter to our physical plane, representing the gradual emergence of the Neters into the manifesting world.
The Egyptians were a pragmatic people who used concrete illustrations even for their profoundest metaphysical conceptions. Using the Nile as a symbol for the emergence of spirit out of primordial matter in its inert or unevolved state, the fertility of the river and the barrenness of the nearby desert served to focus attention upon the duality of earthly existence. In some of the myths Osiris represented the Nile and, according to Herodotus, the priests' records indicated that at one time the river had ended close to the site of modern Cairo, and the region to the north of it was a large swamp. This was supposedly when red Set, standing for the desert, had usurped Osiris' "throne" and ruled over a large territory, the Nile having shrunk to a mere wisp of what it once was and rebecame later. Osiris as the river overcame Set, the desert, and gradually the region north of the Cairo district came into being, culminating in the Delta.
For the priests to have known this pushes back the antiquity of civilization in the Nile valley by many thousands of years beyond our accepted date for the foundation of Menes' "dual kingdom," perhaps as much as 50,000 years, or even more. Since so much in the Egyptian culture was symbolic, the duality of the early kingdom of Narmer or Aha (Meres) may allude to the polarity of human nature: the blending of the personal and the impersonal, or the outer man with the inner.
That the Egyptian scriptures had to do with a symbolic geography is evident from a comparison of the texts with the sites as they appear on maps. For example, the capital of the mythological country was On or Onnu (Heliopolis), and Osiris was the god of Tettu (Mendes, Busiris) in the Delta. This would make Osiris a divinity of Lower Egypt. But the Book of the Dead refers to a Tettu that is not a city in the Delta but a locality in the east where Osiris is to be born and receive the breath of life. It is there that he symbolizes the rising sun, Tettu therefore representing the east, just as Abydos, sacred to Osiris in another aspect, stands for the west. What we have is a "heavenly" country of which the earthly is a mirror image, a device used similarly to refer to a "heavenly Jerusalem" as distinct from the physical city.
The academic examination of religion per se and religions generally tends to concentrate upon their intellectual expression. This approach can hardly be expected to reach much beyond the first layer of "skin" of any religion, but within this layer are other "skins," plus the original revelation or presentation. Further inward the fullness and joy of participation in the soul and spirit of a religion are accessible only to the committed individual.
The Egyptian texts that seem to present a glorification of kingship as a ruling authority governing the country had other connotations. R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz has penetrated to the essence of what it represents. Instead of royalty as such, what is involved is the principle of royalty within each human being. The "king" is the image of man's possible accomplishment, he is the "royal man," the exaltation of the species, very remote from modern ideas of kingship. De Lubicz assumes that it is this principle that is capable of transmuting all the kingdoms of nature: minerals becoming gold and every individual becoming a pharaoh (that is to say, per-ao, "great house," meaning the shrine of a divinity). This process of transmutation was the sacred science in Egypt. The inner significance of the scriptures, with vignettes and paintings illustrating them, becomes evident only in the light of such a course of instruction.
The vignette of the Weighing of the Heart (or soul) that has become well known through the publication of the Papyrus of Ani, and the similar texts of Hunefer and Anhai, represent an important stage in the efflorescence of the inner man (Ani was a Royal Scribe and Court official; Hunefer was Pharaoh's Overseer; Anhai a high priestess) The soul is weighed in the balance against the feather of truth, Maat. Before reaching that stage it must pass through lower experiences and only then through the Double Hall of the Maati of Upper and Lower Egypt, where the Weighing Scene is located. Maati means more than the two shrines erected to the Neter of Upper and Lower Egypt. If we look at Egypt from the north we perceive the intended orientation, for the south was Upper Egypt, the source of the Nile from which came the life-giving waters that made the land fertile. This was an admirable symbol for the outpouring of the divine principle from the invisible worlds of the cosmic Neters. The northern part of the country, receiving the rich silt from the south, was represented as Lower Egypt, the "physical body." The term Two Maati was surely applied to the truths of the inner and outer cosmos and man.
The individual had two courses before him: the first, to continue along the slow way of evolution until the innermost splendor could manifest. In the time of the New Kingdom, especially during the 18th and part of the 19th dynasties, this was known as the (cyclic) way of Osiris. The second course was a much shortened journey in time, represented by the adventures of Horus as indicated in The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Two Ways. The longer journey is over land while the second is through fire in some texts, over water in others but separated from the longer route by fire. In symbolism, fire stood for the higher mind, nous in Greek philosophy and water for nonphysical substance, commonly referred to these days as the "astral plane."
The experiences gained on the shorter way are related in the myth of Horus of Behutet (Behdety) inscribed on the walls of the temple at Edfu. Also known as the Winged Disk myth, it tells of the contest in which Horus, as Neter of Light, overcomes Set. In predynastic times the "combatants" were unarmed, but in the later version Horus was armed with weapons of iron (see The Gods of the Egyptians, E. A. Wallis Budge, 1, 475-6). That the Egyptians did not personify evil as we have done in the West is illustrated by a vignette of a human figure with two joined animal heads representing Set, god of darkness, and Horus, god of light. This shows Horus, god of light. This shows the duality of human nature, and also that Set was merely the polar opposite of Osiris.
So in the Horus cycles the Neter stands for the human soul who has to overcome and transmute lower attributes into higher. That is what the papyri of Ani, Hunefer, and Anhai are all about: the personality is tested and purified. In the vignettes accompanying the texts, each is seen standing beside a table of offerings -- soul qualities -- facing the shrine of Osiris.
All these texts represent both the slower course of evolutionary experience and the more rapid progress of candidates "initiated" into new levels of themselves. The ceremonies are not the actual achievements, only the recorders of them.
Each individual was expected to live daily life in accordance with the laws or rules of Maat if he or she wished to become fully humanized. It is only after dedication to this course of development that the transformations are achieved. The great business of life is to realize the truth in oneself. Recognition of the truth of the cosmos must follow since we are made of the stuff and qualities of the universe, and its laws govern our life, our growth, our very being. "From the All-soul come all those souls which are made to revolve in all the cosmos. . . ."
To summarize: the path to Maat was represented in ancient Egypt as the path to kingship over oneself. The king of the realm exemplified a Truth-bearer, while passing through the Hall of the Two Maati meant experiencing the universe as it really is.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu