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There is a quite different argument against abortion I have heard from several Pagan women.  I am more sympathetic to it than to the usual “fetus is human” claim that I demolished in my previous post.   Even so, I think it ultimately fails, though it does complicate a woman’s decision.

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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.

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Hail to you, Bull of the West!  So says Thoth, King of Eternity, about me. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_nut-night.jpgMost of the Pagan world in the Northern Hemisphere observed the feast of Samhain this weekend, drawing near to and honoring the blessed dead. 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_abydos-crop1small.jpgThe crafting of a life is an epic journey, the story of 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 all the land. This is the time of year when the flood used to peak.  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 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.  We know many of these today through the so-called Book of the Dead.

Traces of the Egyptian mysteries were preserved in the books known as the Hermetica, and the process shows up again in the work of the medieval alchemists. Our ceremony tonight is based on the Book of the Night, found in the Osireion at the Temple of Sety in Abydos. The goddess Nut, with her lapis-blue star-spangled body, spans the ceiling of a transverse chapel of the Osireion. There we see the sun in its solar boat beginning the 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, whom we will here call Ani, navigating through the dark in the solar boat. Whether a pharaoh or one of us, that soul begins the 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.

As we embark on another cycle through the dark time of the year, may your journey bring you to the eastern gates, transformed into an akh, a shining one.

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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.

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Whew! My wild and woolly semester at Cherry Hill Seminary just ended (yes, I'm a student, as well as staff).  A real treat was to get to write about my favorite ancient Egyptian religious texts for a final paper in Psychology of Religion, taught by Vivianne Crowley.  I thought readers here might enjoy a bit of that paper.  Please excuse the stuffy language, and any Egyptologists among you, please write me if you see a glaring error.

Pyramid Texts Overview

b2ap3_thumbnail_unasbc2_20140507-172026_1.pngA king called Unas ruled Egypt at the end of the 5th Dynasty (2375 – 2345 B.C.E.); he built for himself a large temple and pyramid complex at the royal burial grounds of Saqqara, near Cairo. The walls of the interior are covered with hieroglyphs, the body of which has come to be known as the Pyramid Texts. They are the oldest known religious writings in the world, comprising a liturgy which is assumed to be conducted upon the death of the king. (The title “pharaoh” was not used by Egyptian rulers until the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.), after the reign of Hatshepsut.)

The Pyramid Texts are a liturgical treatment of the afterlife journey of the soul, first through the Duat, then through transfiguration and ascent to the sky as an “imperishable star.” In this specific context the texts apply this journey, also made by the sun, the mythical embodiment of Ra-Horus-Osiris, to the afterlife journey of the king’s soul. Section III of this article describes the Duat, a sort of “world-between-the-worlds” which is the location of the afterlife journey.


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b2ap3_thumbnail_bookofgatesramesses1a.jpgBook of the Dead, Book of the Amduat, Book of Caverns, Coffin Texts, Book of the Night, Book of the Earth, Book of Gates - these and more comprise a group of ancient Egyptian texts which describe the journey of Ra through the night world and, by extension, that of the dead soul following his pattern. First discovered by Champollion in the Valley of the Kings in 1829, they were pretty much dismissed as priestly fantasies by subsequent Egyptologists, though Maspero and Lefébure worked on deciphering some of the books in the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did scholars like Piankoff and Hornung begin to really study this rich material.

But I can understand why some were initially put off. I even found myself commenting last week to a friend, “The ancient Egyptians were in their own way just as nutty as the early Christians!” (If you’ve read all the lately-translated apocryphal texts you’ll know what I mean.) Hornung’s The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife is a blow-by-blow description of what you see in the accompanying drawings. Page after page of embellishments, fantastical netherworld characters, and attempts to graphically illustrate esoteric concepts begin to make me a bit dizzy. I start to wonder just how much artistic license the different priest-artist-scribes employed while creating their masterpieces.

But I’ve reconsidered. Some say that pre-industrial people did not distinguish betweenb2ap3_thumbnail_hepetglyph.gif the physical and the realm of the soul, as we do now. Certainly, the written record indicates that Egyptians viewed every part of existence as infused with meaning and spirit. The books of the afterlife predominantly depict and describe these ideas, illustrated with a seemingly-endless pantheon of otherworldly deities and characters. Hence, a human figure with the head of an cobra can stand for the motherly protection for which the cobra was noted.  A floating pair of arms may denote protection, or the reverential passing of the sun disk from one place to another. Mummies are shown which have waked from the dead and turned over in their coffin, the implication being that they are about to rise and walk into a new life. And snakes - there are a lot of snakes, some of them a protective coil or ourobouros, and others represent the sinister Apep (or Apophis).

b2ap3_thumbnail_gates21.jpgEgyptian culture was one that valued dreams and the numinous. The Duat was nothing if not liminal, poised as it was on the edges between life and death and new life, between conscious and subconscious, between this world and the next. I can imagine that priests who were truly devoted to their practice and craft would birth fresh ideas in the course of temple life. No doubt, some also wanted to impress the client with elaborate products that might be perceived as better than the last client’s - though most of these works were found in tombs of pharaohs. The texts also span many centuries and several locales; given how different English communications now are radically different from only 400 years ago, I would likewise expect Egyptian texts to show some evolution.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Book_of_Gates_3rd_Hour.jpgThe afterlife books also remind me of the value of personal gnosis. Our scientific era has made this a dicey subject - how can gnosis replace so-called verifiable fact? But ancient Egyptians understood the importance of those insights which can only emerge from within, from the dark waters of the Duat, or from the watery interior of Nut’s body (through which the sun also passed during the night). Pondering the mysteries of the afterlife texts is like stepping into those waters and exploring, one foot in the conscious world and one in that of the soul.

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