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Ani in the Underworld: A Journey of Transformation for All (Part 1)

I was asked recently to develop a talk which could be delivered as a sermon, using ancient Egyptian sacred texts and ideas.  Here is Part 1 of that talk.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Book_of_Gates_3rd_Hour_20140605-170414_1.jpgWe open this morning with words from the sacred Egyptian text called the Book of Coming Forth By Day:

[rhythmic shaking of sistrum]

“Oh my heart, my mother! My heart, my mother! Do not rise up against me as a witness, do not speak against me in the presence of the great god, lord of the west. Dua, ibi, hail to you my heart! May you say what is good to the gods. I go forth, not dying in the west, but becoming a spirit in it.”

The crafting of a life is an epic journey, a story which has been told around the world for as long as we have memory. For the ancient Nile dwellers, survival was exquisitely poised on the banks of that great river where the mysterious flood arose each year, bringing new fertility to the whole land. But the Egyptians also carried the understanding of how this life is linked to the next one, the deep mysteries of life, death, rebirth and new, transformed life.


The story of those mysteries comes to us from numerous writings that were preserved in the royal tombs and temples: the Book of Going Forth By Day; the Book of Gates; the Book of Caverns, the Amduat, and several other afterlife texts. Each of them is a variation on the 12-hour journey of the sun through the netherworld, or Duat. Each hour requires passage through a gate; each hour is a stage of personal transformation for the soul. The journey culminates with the re-emergence of the sun - the transformed life - in the brilliant light of dawn. In ancient times, priests of the temple played the role of the gods in the story, as well as reciting and chanting praises and prayers.

Traces of these Egyptian mysteries were preserved in the books known as the Hermetica, and the process shows up again in the work of the medieval alchemists. Temple Osireion holds a ceremony during the winter which is based on the Book of the Night, found in the Osireion building at the Temple of Sety in Abydos. The goddess Nut, with her lapis-blue star-spangled body, is painted across the ceiling of a transverse chapel of the Osireion. There we see the sun in its solar boat beginning the night-long journey through her body.

The afterlife books are filled with layer upon layer of myth and meaning, hundreds and hundreds of years of allegory and symbolism. Sometimes the dying and reborn god is Ra, and sometimes Osiris; the goddess may appear as Hathor or as Sekhmet. Sometimes the goddess Maat is the divine woman wearing a feather on her head, and sometimes maat is the abstract principle of truth, justice, balance, right living. But the central figure is the soul of the dead navigating through the dark in the solar boat. Whether a pharaoh or one of us, that soul begins its afterlife journey at the death of its physical body, is rebirthed in the Duat, and emerges as Horus, the powerful shining one who soars like a hawk across the daytime sky.

What must the soul, who we will call Ani, have thought about as he approached the mouth of Nut?

And if you consider yourself a seeker, if you consider yourself a pilgrim, someone traveling through life with a mission to learn about crafting a life, then I invite you to think of yourself as Ani as we follow him through his journey.

First, Ani would not feel alone, because at his last breath he would have been met by Anubis, also called Wepwawet, “Opener of the Ways.” Anubis is the caring companion (no, not the sinister villain of gaming videos!) who leads the soul by the hand to begin his journey through the Duat. Our sacred texts have Djehuti (Thoth) standing with Ani as he proclaims his solidarity with Asar (Osiris).

The priest then implores the gods, “I am the priest, I am the one who sees the mysteries in the earth. I read the rituals for the soul. I am the master craftsman. Oh you who cause the blessed dead to draw near, may you bring the excellent soul of Ani near with you to the House of Osiris. May he hear as you hear, may he see as you see, may he stand as you stand, may he sit as you sit. O you who open a path and open up roads for the perfected souls in the House of Osiris, open a path now for the soul of Ani.

May he come in freely
May he go out in peace
May he be vindicated
May no fault be found in him
May he go in favored
May he come out loved

b2ap3_thumbnail_anubis.jpgNow, the thing is, Ani is about to be confronted by a landscape of darkness, crocodiles, people walking upside down, a lake of fire and more. He must correctly name each goddess guarding one of 12 gateways, a sort of password. If he had money enough, he was buried with a book of spells and prayers that will help him get through this ordeal. Some of them are quite beautiful, addressing the gods, and others seem humorous to us today, like the one to ward off a singing snake. Obviously, we have a few thousand years’ of culture gap between us and the ancients, so we may never be sure what that singing snake was about. 

But the Duat is no purgatory. It is not a holding pattern or a place to atone for past sins before entering paradise. It is the next step of a life well-lived. Ani has prepared for this moment for his entire earthly life, and now looks forward to negotiating the twists and turns through the Duat, to purification by facing that lake of fire, and to vindication of his life by appearing in the Hall of Judgment for the weighing of his heart before Osiris.

In fact, someone who is familiar with medieval alchemy or the kabala may begin to notice a familiar pattern to Ani’s journey. He does a sort of personal inventory, then enters the Duat, Nut’s body, willingly embracing his own journey of transformation. He encounters Ra, the solar god, boldly claiming what he needs to proceed:

“I am your eldest son who sees your secrets. I have appeared here as the king in the solar boat, and I will not die again here in the realm of the dead! Weary, weary, are my arms and legs, but they shall not decay, for I am like Osiris, I am Osiris.
May I have power in my heart. May I have power in my arms. May I have power in my legs. May I have power in my mouth. May I have power in all my members.”

[End of Part 1 of Ani in the Underworld]

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Holli Emore is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the premiere educational resource for Pagan and other nature-based religions (www.cherryhillseminary.org), founder of Osireion (www.osireion.com), editor/writer for Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at Patheos.com, and serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Partners of S.C. (interfaithpartnersofsc.org).  She is co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table, www.paganroundtable.org, and author of "Pool of Lotus," available in print, or for Kindle or Nook, at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/holli1032

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