The sincere and unprejudiced student of comparative religions comes at last to see that without the help of symbology no ancient Scripture can ever be correctly understood. No Egyptian papyrus, no Indian olla, no Assyrian tile, or Hebrew scroll, should be read and accepted literally. Besides, the symbology must be studied from every one of its aspects, for each nation had its own peculiar methods of expression. The point to which even the most truth-loving and truth-searching Orientalist seems to remain blind, is the fact that every symbol is a many-faced diamond, each face of which not merely bears several interpretations, but relates likewise to several sciences. Many myths which, on the surface, have only an astronomical bearing, conceal facts in regard to the evolution of rounds and races which are of the utmost significance.
One of the best known, at least the most frequently represented, is that of the sun. Ra made his passage across the heavens in a boat from which streamed a blue light—the “Sun’s son.” A first bark, the Saktit (Sakti?) boat, received him at birth and carried him from the Eastern to the Southern extremity of the world. Mazit, the second bark, received him at noon and bore him into the land of Manu, which is at the entrance of Hades; other barks … conveyed him by night, from his setting until his arising at morn. In the formulae of the “Book of Knowing that which is in Hades,” the dead sun remains in the bark Saktit during part of the night, and it is only to traverse the fourth and fifth hours that he changesinto another. Sometimes he entered the barks alone, and then they were magic and self-directed. Such is the bark of the sun in the other world, for although carrying a full crew, yet for the most part it progresses at its own will, and without their help. Sometimes they were equipped with a full crew, having a pilot at the prow to take soundings in the channel and forecast the wind, a pilot astern to steer, a quartermaster in the midst to transmit the orders of the pilot at the prow to the pilot at the stern, and half a dozen sailors to handle the oars. (Maspero, “Dawn of Civilization,” p. 90).
If we may be permitted to identify the boats with the Saktis, considered as the “principles”—whose powers they are, the above symbolism is most suggestive. According to Theosophical teaching, at each round or period of evolution, man enters a body or “boat” composed of the substance of that particular round. At “noon,” or the mid-point of evolution, man was borne into “the land of Manu, which is at the entrance into Hades;” Hades is the earth of physical existence, into which the “Manu,” or man, enters and becomes a seven-fold being having his “full crew” on board. The barks referred to in the “Book of Knowing that which is in Hades” at the fourth and fifth hours of the night, correspond at least to the fourth and fifth rounds, when man has donned his “coats of skin,” which after the fifth “hour” or round, will give place to more ethereal “barks” or vestures. After death the “crew” is of no use to the magic boat, for the lower principles which these useless sailors represent, die out and disappear.
The first-born of Ra by the goddess Hathor was Shu. He is solar energy. “The blossoms of Shu” are the sun’s rays. In Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead, Shu places the sky on top of the staircase in the City of the Eight. According to tradition earth and sky, or Seb and Neith, were two lovers lost in Nu, fast locked in each other’s embrace. On the day of creation Shu, coming forth from the primeval waters, stepped between them and seizing Neith with both hands lifted her above his head. Although the starry body of the goddess extended in space, her head to the West, her feet and hands touched the earth, forming the four pillars of the firmament. Usually these supports are referred to as the pillars of Shu. It was Shu who was depicted holding up the sky and possibly from him the Greeks derived their representations of Atlas.
Seb is the Egyptian Saturn, ushering in a new cycle of evolution. Esoterically he is nearer to Parabrahman than Brahma. He is called the “Great Cackler,” who laid the world upon his head, and is represented with a black swan or goose. Darkness, always associated with “beginnings,” is symbolized in all religions by black birds. Two black doves flew from Egypt and settling on the oaks of Dodona, gave their names to the Grecian gods. In Chapter LIV of the Book of the Dead Seb’s egg is referred to as the “egg conceived at the hour of the great one of the Dual Force.”
According to tradition the golden age of Ra had gone, for even the gods die. All of them were represented as mummies and in Chapter VIII, are the words, “I am that Osiris in the West, and Osiris knoweth the day in which he shall be no more.” The children of earth had become rebellious, bringing down upon themselves the wrath of Ra and their almost complete destruction by Hathor, whose hand was stayed by the repentant god, and a new race produced from mandragora plants. Afterwards mounting upon the back of a cow, Ra disappeared into the heavens. Shu and Tefnut (the double Lion-god) reigned in his stead. They represent the first differentiation of substance: as applied to Rounds and Races, the second in descending order. In this aspect, Seb ushers in the third and more material world, while his four children rule over the fourth.
This line of descent formed the basis of the Egyptian Enneads, or four pairs proceeding from the One. This gives us the ogdoad, or eight (the double cube of good and evil) of which Ra, or Tem, was the ninth, counting from below up. In the City of the Eight (Hermopolis) where Hermes was adored, Hermes was the One who contained in himself the double cube. Eight was the number of the caduceus or wand of Mercury, the figure being made by the intertwining of the two serpents of good and evil, or the joining of two cubes. There were as many Enneads as there were cities, but all are merely personifications covering the one general scheme or idea. Considering, then, a typical one, we have Tem (or Ra) who is said to have emanated Shu from himself; Shu and Tefnut; Seb and Neith; Osiris and Isis; Set and Nepthys—lower aspects of Osiris and Isis. Thus the exoteric system of the Egyptians, as H. P. Blavatsky has pointed out, dealt with but five planes out of the seven, the pairs having to do with the four lower ones.
Hathor was always represented as a cow, sacred also to Isis, the Universal Mother—Nature. Both goddesses were allied to the sun and the moon, as the disk and the cow’s horns (which form a crescent) prove. In the Vedas the dawn of creation is represented by a cow. This dawn is Hathor, and the day which follows—or Nature already formed—is Isis, for both are one except in point of time. Isis is cow-horned, the cow of plenty, and as the mother of Horus (the physical world) she is the “mother of all that lives.” The right eye of Horus, or the Sun, was called the cow of Hathor. In Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead, the cow Meh-urt, is called “the Eye of Ra;” while in Chapter CIX the sun is represented as a spotted calf when Sibu (Seb) its father was a bull and Hathor a heifer. The vignette to Chapter CLXX shows a cow wearing the solar disk upon her head and around her neck the symbol of life.
The symbol of life is the ankh or ansated cross of the Egyptians—the Tau with a handle. In illustrations of the Sunrise the sun’s disk is upheld by two arms emerging from the ankh, the ankh itself supported by the Tet or Didu or Osiris. This emblem is a short pillar or disbranched tree-trunk surmounted by four cross bars, reminiscent of the tree fabled to have held the dead body of Osiris. Might it not be the sacred Ashwatta tree which the Egyptian Avatar had cut down with the strong axe of dispassion? It was also thought to be the backbone of Osiris after he had been “reconstructed” and “set up” by Isis. In Chapter LXXVIII of the Ritual the deceased says: “He (Osiris) hath stablished my heart through his own backbone; he hath stablished my heart through his own great and exceeding strength.” This is evidence that the tree-like formation of the nerves radiating from the spine had not escaped the attention of the Egyptians, nor were they without their Trees of Life.
The sycamores planted on the edge of the desert were supposed to be inhabited by Hathor, Neith and other goddesses, and numerous vignettes represent the deceased as stopping before these trees to receive water and bread—the Water and Bread of Life—from the goddess whose body emerges from the sheltering foliage. The persea tree was the symbol of the “Sacred Heart” of Horus. The pear-like shape of its fruit, especially of its kernel, resembles the heart. It is sometimes seen on the head of Isis, the mother of Horus, the fruit being cut open and the heart-like kernel exposed to view. Here again we trace a form of worship, that of the “Sacred Heart” of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary by the Catholics, back to Egypt.
The use of these symbols seems fitting and justifiable, but why did the Egyptians worship animals? Why was the sun represented as a beetle? Why was the cat sacred to Bast, the jackal to Anubis, the hawk to Horus, the ibis to Thot? And how came Set to be incarnated in the fennec and Osiris and Ptah in the bull? The wise Egyptians never did worship animals, although as the true ideas were lost, the ignorant masses did. In “A Weird Tale” a hint in regard to this symbolism is given. It is stated therein that there was an occult reason back of it and that the ancient Egyptians never did anything unscientifically; that there are undoubtedly types (of forms and intelligences) and that forms having been once assumed and seen by the seers always repeated the same forms to those persons. Therefore having taken a certain view of invisible nature, every symbol was made to conform or be consistent with that view. This partial explanation might also be applied to the fairies seen sometimes by children and psychic persons. The form of the fairy, or of an idea for the matter of that, once seen or held by an individual repeats itself and may even be photographed, which picture is then taken to be the real form or the fact; but this form is very often merely in the imagination that fashioned it and may neither be true to the type of elemental seen or to the fact. It is true, nevertheless, that Nature has evolved certain patterns which she copies wherever feasible; and just as the tree pattern may be traced in the formation of certain crystals on up through the vegetable, animal and human kingdoms, so there are likewise types of sentiency and function found in the vegetable and animal kingdoms which are reproduced in man, for Nature is One. “All beings are the same in kind and differ only in degree.” If we realized the unity of all the kingdoms, if we saw, as the Egyptians did, the divine form of Amen-Ra in all forms, we would treat our younger brothers better—we would neither wantonly kill animals nor torture them in the perverted belief that thereby man is better served or benefited.
A passage from the Book of the Dead, (quoted in the Secret Doctrine, II, p. 635) reads: “I am the mouse.” “I am the hawk.” “I am the ape.” … “I am the crocodile whose soul comes FROM MEN.” This corroborates the teaching that “while the human monad has passed on globe A and others, in the First Round, through all the three kingdoms—the mineral, the vegetable, and the animal—in this our Fourth Round, every mammal has sprung from Man … not the form of flesh, blood, and bones, now referred to as Man,… but the inner divine MONAD with its manifold principles or aspects.” Furthermore, all animals are the cast-off clothing of man; for man impresses all the lives in his body by his thought and feeling, and these lives entering into the bodies of animals, give them their peculiar characteristics. Thus, in a sense, they become the mirror in which man may see his own features and have frequent occasion to scorn his own image. The types in the early periods of evolution, therefore, must have been brought over from a prior mankind. As might be expected, then, in Egyptian symbolism there is a correspondence between the characteristics and functions of the animals and of the gods.
The cat, associated with the moon, was sacred to the cat-goddess Bast or Pasht, and to kill one was to court death. The Egyptian word for cat is mau, meaning to see, and both the moon and the cat were seers by night. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so the cat was supposed to reflect the moon on account of its phosphorescent eyes. In the form of the goddess Bast the cat keeps watch for the sun, with her paw holding down and bruising the head of the serpent of darkness, the sun’s eternal enemy. In Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead, “The male cat is Ra himself, and he is called ‘Mau'” (Seer), while the illustrations represent him in action similar to Bast. The chief-priest of Amen-Ra was called “Oiru mau,” Master of Visions, he who beheld God “face to face.”
The sun is represented as a beetle in the solar boat—the “Boat of millions of years”—and is referred to as giving birth to beings in his name of Khepera. Khepera is the beetle or scarabaeus, the symbol of rebirth. The word is derived from the verb kheper, to become, to build again. Like the beetle the sun appeared to come up out of the earth and to ascend aloft as with wings. The winged globe is but another form of the scarabaeus and the egg, relating both to the rebirth of man and to his spiritual regeneration. No mummy is found without several of these green or blue beetles.
The jackal-headed god was Anubis, the “Opener of the Ways.” The jackal’s omniscience as to where any dead body is hidden, his absolute certainty of direction in the trackless desert, made him a fitting symbol of Anubis, who not only guided the dead along the trackless path of the underworld, but also led the reincarnating entity into the underworld of physical existence. Anubis is often identified with Horus and with Hermes, the Higher Mind; he is the knowledge on any plane which leads one whithersoever he has need to go. Anubis is also connected with the dog-star, the Sothis of the Egyptians.
The ibis, sacred to Thot, was held in the greatest veneration. It kills the land serpents and makes havoc among the crocodile eggs, thus saving Egypt from being overrun by these saurians. The black and white ibis was sacred to the moon, because this planet has a dark as well as a light side. Under the form of an ibis Thot watched over the Egyptians and taught them the occult arts and sciences. Maspero affirms that the word “Thot” means ibis. The ibis religiosa is said to have magical properties, in common with many other birds. At all events, he who killed either an ibis or the golden sparrow-hawk risked death. The hawk, the keen-sighted, was the symbol of the sun, of Horus and of the human soul.
The fennec is the Egyptian fox, appropriate symbol of Set whose craftiness conceived the coffin into which Osiris was enticed and confined, thus causing his death. Apis the white bull, sacred to Osiris and into which he was supposed to incarnate, was typical of the universal generative or evolving power in nature. Mariette Bey discovered near Memphis the Serapaeum, an imposing subterranean crypt containing the mummies of thirty sacred bulls. The mummification of various sacred animals would show that the Egyptians took the utmost care to conserve the “lives” in any highly evolved type or species. The bull is also the Taurus of the zodiac, connected with all the “First-born” solar gods. Christians associated this constellation with Christ. Here again, the Egyptians no more worshipped the bull than Christians worship the lamb. The ram is always a symbol of physical generation, the ram or the goat of Mendes being another symbol of Osiris.
Maspero suggests that the habit of certain monkeys assembling, as it were in full court, and chattering noisily a little before sunrise and just before sunset, may have justified the Egyptians in entrusting the apes with the duty of hailing Ra morning and evening. In the illustrations of the Sunrise previously mentioned, six apes hail the sun; the Papyrus of Hu-nefer gives seven. In Chapter C of the Book of the Dead, the deceased says, “I have united myself unto the divine apes who sing at the dawn and I am a divine Being among them.” The dog-headed ape was a Hermetic symbol, filling the same office in Egypt that Hanuman did in India. In Chapter XLII the defunct says, “I am the dog-headed ape of gold, three palms and two fingers high.”
The crocodiles in the Celestial Nile are five, and the god Toum calls them forth in his fifth creation. When Osiris, “the defunct Sun,” is buried and enters into Amenti, the sacred crocodiles plunge into the abyss of primordial waters. When the Sun of life rises, they re-emerge from the sacred river. In the Secret Doctrine the Fifth Group is said to be a very mysterious one, as it is connected with the Microcosmic Pentagon, the five-pointed star representing man. In India and in Egypt those Dhyanis were connected with the crocodile, and their abode is in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn. In Egypt the defunct was transformed into a crocodile—Sebakh or Sevekh, the “Seventh”—showing it to be a type of intelligence, a dragon in reality, not a crocodile. (S.D. I, 219; II, 580). The mummy donned the head of a crocodile to indicate that it was a soul arriving from earth. The instructions appended to Chapter CLXIII are that it should be read before a serpent with two legs, meaning thereby a Dragon of Wisdom, or Hierophant. The evil serpent, “the enemy of Ra” was Apep (Apophis) whose power was greatest at the full of the moon, his overthrow being the subject of Chapter XXXIX.
Chapter LXXIII is devoted to the transformation into the Bennu bird, the Egyptian phoenix, symbol of the cycle of rebirth. The deceased says: “I came (literally ‘I flew’) into being from unformed matter. I came into existence like the god Khepera. I have germinated like the things (i.e., the plants) which germinate, and I have dressed myself like the tortoise. I am [of] the germs of every god.”
In this incomplete list of animal symbols must be included a curious little insect called the praying mantis, the “diviner” who led the deceased unerringly to the underworld. It was greatly honored in Egypt, the Greeks attributed to it supernatural powers, and the Arabs declare that it always prays with its head toward Mecca. We might connote with it the state called manticism, during which the gift of prophecy is developed. (See chapter in Isis Unveiled, “Before the Veil.”)
The lotus was pre-eminently the flower of Egypt. The lotus seeds, even before they germinate, contain perfectly formed leaves—the miniature of the perfect plants they will some day become, thus showing how idea comes to be made visible, which is true of the birth of a world as of a man. Its roots growing in the mud, and its blossoms in the air typify the human nature—its body grown out of the lower kingdoms, and the soul belonging to the higher spiritual regions. In Chapter LXXI of the Ritual — making the transformation into a lotus, a human head springs from the flower, and the god exclaims: “I am the pure Lotus, emerging from the Luminous One… I carry the messages of Horus. I am the pure lotus which comes from the Solar Fields.” So the god Khnoom, the moist principle of life, sits on a throne within a lotus. Thot is often seated on a lotus. Finally, it is the goddess Hiquet, under the shape of a frog, who rests on the lotus. This undeniably most ancient of goddesses, on account of her amphibious nature, was one of the chief cosmic deities connected with creation. Because the frog comes to life after being buried for years under rocks or in old walls, it was typical of resurrection. A frog or toad enshrined in a lotus, or simply without the flower, was the form chosen by the early Christians for their church lamps, on which were engraved the words, “I am the resurrection.”
Was the general character of Egyptian religion monotheistic, polytheistic or pantheistic, is a question that has caused endless discussion. The epithet “the only god,” which on the surface might imply monotheism, was applied to several gods. In the Papyrus of Nesi-Khonsu, Amen-Ra is addressed as “the One One,” “the divine form who dwelleth in the forms of all the gods;” but this concept was held only by the educated and the priesthood. Then, as now, the true teaching existed: that behind all forms is a nameless, invisible Power, the source of all manifested life, expressed in such passages as this: “You look and you see it not—it is colorless; you listen and you hear it not—it is voiceless; you desire to handle it—you touch it not—it is formless.”
Budge says in the Collection of Moral Aphorisms composed by ancient sages are several allusions to a divine power to which no personal name is given. The word used to indicate this is Neter, translated “God” by him in the following examples taken from the Precepts of Kagema and the Precepts of Ptah-hotep, whose many instructions remind one of the Proverbs of Solomon:
“The things which God doeth cannot be known.”
“Terrify not men. God is opposed thereto.”
“When thou ploughest, labour in the field God (Karma) hath given thee.”
The Teaching of Amenemapht clearly shows, says this author, that the writer distinguished between Deity and the gods Ra, Thot, etc.
“Leave the angry man in the hands of God. God (Karma) knows how to requite him.”
“Take good heed to the Lord of the Universe.” (The Self).
“Truth is the great bearer of Deity.”
In the Teaching of Khensu-hetep, Budge finds a more intimate, personal Heavenly Being:
“It is God who gives thee existence.”
“The Deity is the judge of the truth.”
“The house of God abominates overmuch speaking. Pray with a loving heart, the words of which are hidden. He will do what is needful for thee, he will hear thy petitions and will accept thy oblations.” (The God within each being).
In Chapter CXXV of the Book of the Dead, the defunct says, “I have not cursed God” and “I have not contemned the god of my city,” showing the Egyptian admitted the existence of another Neter besides the god of his native place.
Whatever the Egyptian thought as to Deity or to the gods, he knew he was himself “of the germs of every god.” He never considered himself a poor worm of the dust, as do Christians, but ever declared,
“Thou, Ra, art in me and I am in thee; and thy
attributes are my attributes.”