Pagan Paths

Out of the deeps rises the mysterious lotus. Stop in for refreshment, heka, and reflections from the sacred waters of ancient Egypt.

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Afterlife Journey Through the Duat

Here's another section of that paper I wrote for class in April.

b2ap3_thumbnail_hepetglyph_20140605-165400_1.gifEvery Egyptian expected to make an arduous journey following physical death. Escorted by Anubis, the soul would enter a complex and frightening place called the Duat. Though neither above nor below this world, the Duat is often referred to as an underworld. Rather, it is an afterlife region of transition from death to transformation and rebirth into a new life as an akh, or transfigured spirit. In the Duat, the soul encounters a series of gates for which s/he must be prepared to give a password, as well as strange creatures, a lake of fire, and other often-fearsome things. Most of this is navigated by boat on a winding waterway beneath which lurks a giant menacing serpent. Upon passing successfully through the Duat, the soul appears before Osiris for the weighing-of-the-heart ceremony.

b2ap3_thumbnail_bookofgatesramesses1a_20140605-165627_1.jpgThere are other ancient Egyptian texts which describe pictorially what the soul might expect to encounter, and provide spells for use in achieving the goal of transfiguration and eternal life. They include: the Coffin Texts; the Amduat; the Book of Caverns; the Book of the Earth; the Book of Nut; the Book of the Heavenly Cow; the Book of the Night; the Book of Nut; the Book of Gates; and the Book of the Dead. These texts, or parts of them, are found on innumerable tomb walls, coffins, stelae and papyrus scrolls buried with their owner, although some were reserved for the king, e.g., the Pyramid Texts.

Although the afterlife journey begins in darkness with the setting of the sun, it is a journey which results in emergence, or “Coming Forth By Day” (the actual title of the so-called Book of the Dead). (Naydler, 1996) It was not a place of punishment, for it was not a permanent location for anyone, but rather a sort of proving ground for regeneration. The sun, as embodied by Ra, traveled through the Duat each night. The soul which was successful in making the same journey could anticipate a similar rebirth at dawn.

Several primal deities take part in the cosmic drama of the Duat, and are later shown to unite, their fusion suggesting that each deity is an aspect of the others. In simple terms, Kheper is the sun at dawn (the word kheper is the verb meaning “to become”), Horus is the sun at noon, at the height of its powers and lifespan, and Ra is the elderly, declining sun as it sets in the west. The west is thought of as the place of the dead. Cemeteries were typically situated on the west bank of the Nile, e.g., Giza and Saqqara, and the deceased were said to have journeyed to imentet, the place of the west.


The classical mystery religions have been attributed to Hellenic culture, but may well have originated in Old Kingdom Egypt, as evidenced by the Pyramid Texts. (Assman, 2001) Many scholars assert that the transcendent experiences described in the Pyramid Texts could only take place after death (Piankhof, Morenz, Hornung, Assman, Mercer, others). But this attitude is an artifact of the early days of Egyptology, when practitioners sought to legitimize their profession by distancing themselves from any hint of mysticism.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Book_of_Gates_3rd_Hour_20140605-170414_1.jpgOthers have suggested that the journey through the Duat was not exclusively funerary, but represented a mystical understanding of ancient Egyptian religious thought. (Naydler, 2005) Certainly, this way of thinking would find a new manifestation in the Christian religion, Jesus and Osiris often being compared. Mystery religions are typically concerned with the idea of regeneration and rebirth after physical death as a metaphor for spiritual regeneration. But that a highly religious society would configure itself as postponing all mystical experience until after physical death seems unusual. Naydler theorizes that the Pyramid Texts encapsulate a sort of “shamanic wisdom,” making the afterlife journey of the soul a motif for spiritual development during physical life. (Naydler, 2005)

To understand a mystical interpretation of the Pyramid Texts as applicable to a living person, one must look at the ritual tradition of ancient Egypt. Daily temple rituals were marked by assiduous repetition of words, gestures and actions, such as opening the naos, sweeping the floor, washing the god statue, etc. (Reidy, 2010) Seasonal rituals were marked by public festivals, with limited outside participation by the temple priests. The re-enactment of ritual was a constant throughout ancient Egypt’s history, from the 4th millennium B.C.E. to the 4th century C.E.

[more on ritual in subsequent posts]


Assman, Jan, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1996.

Assman, Jan, trans. By David Lorton, The Search For God in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 2001.

Naydler, Jeremy, Temple of the Cosmos, Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont, 1996.

Naydler, Jeremy, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts, Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont, 2005.

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Holli Emore is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the premiere educational resource for Pagan and other nature-based religions (, founder of Osireion (, editor/writer for Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at, and serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Partners of S.C. (  She is co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table,, and author of "Pool of Lotus," available in print, or for Kindle or Nook, at


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