Egypt’s conventional timeline dates predynastic Egypt to approximately 8,000 years ago, and what is termed the Old Kingdom dates to more than 5,000 years before the present. The Middle Kingdom period was about 4,000 years ago and the New Kingdom, the most familiar period that includes the famous eighteenth dynasty, lasted from about 1550 BCE to 1077 BCE, and included the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties. Ancient Egypt came to an end with the Roman conquest and suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BCE. However, although it is not yet acknowledged beyond alternative scholarship, the story is much older—three times as ancient.
People naturally imagine pyramids when they think of Egypt, but many are also fascinated with the diverse pantheon of deities that populated temple and tomb walls. Ancient Egyptian cosmology is complex, and except for the brief Amarna period during the eighteenth dynasty, the paradigm remained remarkably consistent over time. Ancient Egyptian funerary texts include the Pyramid Texts, the Amduat, the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, the Coffin Texts, the Litany of Re, the Book of Aker, the Book of Day, and the Book of Night.
All derive from the earliest Pyramid Texts and describe similar aspects of the nightly journey of the Sun and the deceased, traveling through the Duat. Gates marking twelve hours of night have been found in the earliest texts. The Duat was the underworld and the afterlife. The sun god’s journey through the twelve hours of this realm also represented the belief that the soul of the deceased pharaoh took the same journey to become “an Osiris” and live in eternity. The ancient Egyptians did not have a word for death—they used the expression “westing.” Just as the Sun set each day and rose again at dawn, the eternal soul was believed to likewise rise again in an ongoing cycle of rebirth and renewal.
In The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt, John Anthony West describes Egyptian funerary texts as “manuals of spiritual instruction” and says the Duat is the “field” in which the transformation of the soul occurs. The theme of transformation and reclamation also runs through other ancient mystery traditions. Many ancient gods were seen as solar fire, and many rites represented the redemption and regeneration of this spiritual energy. The ineffable mysteries they sought to unveil, and the hidden knowledge the rites contained, held and transmitted this wisdom. Manly P. Hall, in Secret Teachings of the Ages says, “Mysteries were the channels through which this one philosophical light was disseminated.”
The Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece took place from 1600 BCE to about 400 CE, although most scholars believe their origin is much earlier in the Mycenean period. They were contemporary with, and bear strong resemblance to, the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris. In the Greek mysteries the goddess Demeter, carrying two torches named “intuition” and “reason,” searched the world for her daughter Persephone, who represented the lost soul. She had to be rescued from the underworld, where she had been abducted by Hades, and reunited with her “mother.”
The Tibetan word bardo means ‘intermediate,’ ‘transitional,’ or ‘in-between.’ Bardo refers to the state of existence between two lives on Earth. The Bardo Thodol is a text from a larger body of teachings revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386) that are known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Although this work is modern, its origin is likely much older. It is similar to Egyptian funerary books as the text is intended to guide the soul through the experiences in the bardo after death. For those who are prepared, and who have been appropriately trained, the bardo offers a great opportunity for liberation. For others it can become a place of danger.
The Pyramid Texts are a collection of ancient Egyptian texts from the Old Kingdom; the oldest have been dated to 2400–2300 BCE. They were carved on walls and sarcophagi at Saqqara during the fifth and sixth dynasties. Unlike the later Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead, the Pyramid Texts were not illustrated and were reserved for pharaohs. Following the earlier Palermo Stone, the Pyramid Texts are the oldest known mention of Osiris, who would become the most important deity associated with the afterlife.
The Amduat, the Text of the Hidden or Secret Chamber, was written on the inside of royal tombs during the New Kingdom around 1500 BCE. The earliest known complete version was found in the tomb of Thutmose III in the Valley of the Kings (KV34). The text describes the twelve hours of night, and the sun god’s journey through underworld, beginning at sunset in the west and ending when the Sun rose again in the east. The Amduat, “What Is in the Duat,” names the gods and monsters that would be confronted along the way. The purpose was to provide names of these underworld denizens so the spirit of the deceased could call upon them for aid or use their names to defeat them. By knowing the names of the guardians the sun god, Ra triumphed over the challenges he faced.
The Book of the Dead, literally the Book of Coming Forth by Day, derived from the Pyramid Texts and dates from the New Kingdom to the Late Period, roughly 1580– 712 BCE. The text consists of 100 chapters of varying lengths found only on scrolls, or in mummy swaths, which were buried with the deceased. The Papyrus of Ani is a well-known version.
The Book of Gates is usually dated from the New Kingdom; however, Dr. Eric Horning, professor of Egyptology and author of several books including, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, believes the text originated during the Armana period with Akhenaten. Like the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates describes the passage of a newly deceased soul into the next world, corresponding to the journey of the Sun during the hours of night. The Book of Gates was painted on tomb walls and gave the name of the hour, its gate, and the part of the underworld where it was located. The scenes appeared in three registers: in the upper register, along the upper banks, were the “blessed dead,” and in the lower register were the “damned.”
The banks were also populated with helpers and hinderers, and the text implies that some people would pass through unharmed but that others would suffer torment in a lake of fire. Between the banks, the Sun and the soul of the deceased king traveled in a solar boat on the celestial river, which was a symbolic journey through stages of initiation and transformation.
A many-coiled serpent symbolized time, and the gate guardians were goddesses and daughters of the sun god Ra, who embodied the hours. They had different titles and wore different-colored robes, but they were identical in all other respects. Each was crowned with a five-pointed star. Most of the goddesses are specific to the Book of Gates and do not appear anywhere else in Egyptian mythology. The deceased in front of the gates pronounces a recurrent declaration, “Make way for me, since I know you, I know your name, and I know the name of the goddess who guards you.”
Some researchers believe that the Book of Gates originated as a system for determining the time of night with the goddess at each gate representing a bright star, or pattern of stars, appearing during the hour. These are very likely the Zodiac constellations. Egyptologist Dr. Thomas Mudloff believes one purpose of the gates was to accurately time sunrise rituals, celebrating the resurrection of the solar principle and to function as a celestial timepiece or yearly calendar. To accomplish this the rising, setting, and apparent motions of bright stars were noted through the year. Each star, or star group, marked the “gate” or “hour” for fifteen days before a new star moved into position due to Earth’s orbit.
Although the Egyptian Osiris was usually identified as the god of the afterlife and the dead, he is more appropriately the god of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. The Judgment Hall of Osiris occupied a critical moment in the funerary texts, just before the sixth hour, and halfway through the night. This was the turning point when the soul of the deceased pharaoh who had passed through the judgment became an Osiris—an illumined god. In a similar motif, mythologist Joseph Campbell described a universal theme in global myths that he called the “hero journey” that was characterized by a descent, a crisis, and an ascending return. Like the Egyptian pharaoh, the hero became a “god” at one stage of the journey.
Another theme running through mystery traditions ranging from Sufism to esoteric Christianity is described as the “Sun at Midnight.” This was symbolized in esoteric rituals by a brilliant light that emerged slowly from complete darkness at midnight and then grew to shine like the Sun. As the deceased pharaoh becomes an Osiris, this represented the turning point in spiritual development when the soul infused the personality. Sun at Midnight initiation rituals symbolized the awakening of spiritual light shining within the soul. Rudolf Steiner held a dramatic ritual at midnight on Christmas Eve for his students. After meditating in silence for several hours at the moment of midnight, a light slowly emerged from a sphere that represented the Earth and ordinary consciousness. Steiner said this was a moment of grace where the light of the Sun at Midnight blazed forth, and the person awakened to the reality of the eternal soul and the true nature of existence, experiencing a profound reorientation of consciousness.
Egyptian funerary texts proclaim that when the sun god arrives at the twelfth and last hour of the night, the miracle of rebirth occurs through the gate “with the mysterious entrance.” Poet Khalil Gibran said, “One may not reach the dawn except by the path of the night.” This is true, but there have always been those who hold lanterns to guide our way through the darkness to the mysterious entrance of initiation. We can take heart that this universal path of spiritual teaching has permeated spiritual traditions throughout time. Often called the Underground Stream, the spiritual wisdom of ages is always present, even though hiding in the shadows at times. Our job is to prepare ourselves to receive this knowledge.