A radical reinterpretation of the Pyramid Texts as shamanic mystical wisdom rather than funerary rituals
• Reveals the mystical nature of Egyptian civilization denied by orthodox Egyptologists
• Examines the similarity between the pharaoh’s afterlife voyage and shamanic journeying
• Shows shamanism to be the foundation of the Egyptian mystical tradition
To the Greek philosophers and other peoples of the ancient world, Egypt was regarded as the home of a profound mystical wisdom. While there are many today who still share that view, the consensus of most Egyptologists is that no evidence exists that Egypt possessed any mystical tradition whatsoever. Jeremy Naydler’s radical reinterpretation of the Pyramid Texts--the earliest body of religious literature to have survived from ancient Egypt--places these documents into the ritual context in which they belong.
Until now, the Pyramid Texts have been viewed primarily as royal funerary texts that were used in the liturgy of the dead pharaoh or to aid him in his afterlife journey. This emphasis on funerary interpretation has served only to externalize what were actually experiences of the living, not the dead, king. In order to understand the character and significance of the extreme psychological states the pharaoh experienced--states often involving perilous encounters with alternate realities--we need to approach them as spiritual and religious phenomena that reveal the extraordinary possibilities of human consciousness. It is the shamanic spiritual tradition, argues Naydler, that is the undercurrent of the Pyramid Texts and that holds the key to understanding both the true nature of these experiences and the basis of ancient Egyptian mysticism.
The walls of the pyramid of Unas are inscribed with 228 Utterances. The Utterances are the organic basis of the Pyramid Texts. The texts are to be found in the sarcophagus chamber, the antechamber, the passage between the two chambers and at the end of the entrance corridor nearest to the antechamber. Unlike a modern printed book, which can be read more or less anywhere on the planet, the Pyramid Texts are wedded both to the chambers and to the walls on which they are inscribed. A north wall sarcophagus chamber text could not be transposed to the east wall of the antechamber without losing a whole dimension of significance. The texts that a wall hosts derive an important dimension of meaning from the chamber that they are in and from the orientation of the wall on which they are inscribed. Furthermore, between north and south wall texts, and between west and east wall texts, there exists a powerful dynamic, and the same thing goes for other walls: texts on one wall will often relate in significant ways to texts on walls opposite, adjacent to or even on the reverse side of them, as we shall see.
The Sarcophagus Chamber Texts--South Wall (Utts 213-219)
(1) Utt 213: Departing Alive At the western end of the south wall, nearest to the sarcophagus, the priest addresses Unas with these words:
“O Unas, you have not departed dead, you have departed alive to sit upon the throne of Osiris.”
As we have seen in Chapter 3, this statement is usually interpreted as a pious denial of the reality of the king’s death. However, not only is the king said to be sitting on the throne of Osiris, he is also said to be grasping hold of a scepter in either hand.37 The Utterance clearly implies a kingship ritual, quite possibly a coronation ceremony, celebrated by the living king.
This ceremony involving the throne of Osiris and the grasping of scepters is said to enable the king to give orders on the one hand to “he living,” and on the other hand to “hose whose seats are hidden,” i.e., the dead. The contrast here between the living and the dead is so clearly stated that it would seem perverse to interpret the word “living” as meaning anything other than what the sentence suggests: namely, the living as opposed to the invisible dead, “whose seats are hidden.”38 Since the ability to give orders implies that the king is in some sense “present” in the domain in which his orders are given, we may assume that there is an inner, or mystical, event that lies behind the king’s taking up the throne of Osiris, and the extension of his authority into the realm of the dead. This mystical event must surely be what is referred to in the sentence that appears at the beginning of the Utterance:
“O Unas, you have not departed dead, you have departed alive.”
If this were any normal departure, there would be no reason to state so explicitly that the king was departing alive and not dead. It would seem that the destination of the king is the realm of the dead, but he is journeying into it alive.
Journeys into the realm of the dead by the living form part of a long and universal tradition, attested in a great many cultures all over the world. What is implied in such journeys is that the soul is capable of separating itself from the physical body, and “traveling” independently of it. The experience of becoming aware of oneself in a consciousness independent of the physical body--what we would today call an “out-of-body experience”--is the first step in the process of cosmic ascent referred to in Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic mystical writings. It is also well attested in shamanism. Eliade has pointed out that one of the characteristics of shamans is that they
are able, here on earth and as often as they wish, to accomplish “coming out of the body,” that is, the death that alone has power to transform the rest of mankind into “birds”; shamans and sorcerers can enjoy the condition of “souls,” of “discarnate beings,” which is accessible to the profane only when they die.
Eliade’s reference to the soul’s bird-like condition in the out-of-body state is peculiarly apt for, as we shall see, in the very next Utterance, Unas is transformed into a falcon.
Before this occurs, however, the physical body of Unas must be protected. This is achieved through a sevenfold identification of its different parts (arms, shoulders, belly, etc.) with the god Atum, with the exception of Unas’s face, which is identified with Anubis. Significantly, the Utterance ends with a reference to the king having “encircled” the realms of Horus and Seth. “Encircling” was a very ancient magical ritual, attested from archaic times to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. A ritual circumambulation of both fertile land (the realm of Horus) and desert (the realm of Seth) was an integral component of coronation rites, and was repeated during the Sed festival.
This Utterance concerning the “departure” of Unas therefore has both ritual and mystical elements. The ritual elements can be seen first in the reference to an enthronement ceremony in which the king’s authority over the realm of Osiris is confirmed, second in the protection ritual, and third in the ritual circumambulation that the king enacted in order to secure his power over the realms of Horus and Seth. The main experiential counterpoint to these rituals must have involved the projection of the king’s consciousness into the realm of the dead. In shamanic terms, his soul journeys beyond the confines of the physical world.
Jeremy Naydler, Ph.D., is a philosopher who specializes in the religious life of ancient cultures. He is a Fellow of the Temenos Academy and author of Temple of the Cosmos, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, The Future of the Ancient World, and Goethe on Science. He lives in Oxford, England.
“Erudite, rigorously developed, impeccably supported, observing all scholarly ground rules, yet revolutionary in its implications. This book should engage serious readers the world over.”
– John Anthony West, author of The Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
“A splendid melding of fine scholarship and passionate engagement with themes that are vitally important to us today. It is must reading not only for lovers of Egypt, students of shamanism and religion, and modern practitioners of soul travel, but for all of us who hunger for the real history of humanity’s encounters with the more-than-human.”
– Robert Moss, author of Dreamgates: An Explorer’s Guide to the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and
“A fabulously convincing piece of work.”
– Normandi Ellis, author of Awakening Osiris
“This is an important book for it places our focus for understanding these ancient texts where it should be, upon profound human experience.”
– Michael Baigent, Caduceus, Issue #66
". . . the Pyramid texts are revealed as initiatory texts that give voice to a potent shamanic wisdom, which provides the key to understanding both the true nature of these experiences and the basis of ancient Egyptan mysticism."
– The Journal of Esoterica, July 2006
“A model of how to engage with religious literature and, still more widely, with the sacred dimension of life. . . . Serves as a mirror to our own consciousness, reflecting back to us objective spiritual realities which have fallen out of contemporary discourse, and waking us up to deeper layers of our own humanity. . . . An essential book for all of us who long to experience the greater possibilities of the human psyche.”
– Jules Cashford, Temenos Academy Review
“An invaluable contribution to the dialogue about the mysteries of ancient Egypt.”
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