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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_osireionNut.jpgLast night an old friend came to me in a dream.  He has been a genuine soul-mate, both before and after his earthly passing.  Our affair of the heart was stormy, but in matters of spirit he always drew me to my best self.  I blocked him out for many years, but for a while now have been aware of his benevolent and supportive presence.  And he is not the only one.  On the periphery of my awareness there is a veritable cloud of witnesses, as one sacred text refers to those who have crossed over.  I don’t seek them out so often as I simply know them to be with me and part of me. 

Not unlike contemporary Pagans, ancient Egyptians had a complex set of ideas about the afterlife which often look like contradictions without study and reflection.  After the weighing of the heart in the Hall of Maat one might ascend to the sky as an “imperishable star” along with other ancestors.  Or one might face defeat by the monster Ammit should the heart be out of balance.  Most Egyptians simply hoped to live in comfort and happiness in a new world beyond.  Those of a more religious ilk imagined detailed journeys through the Duat, including encounters with all manner of beings and neteru (gods).  They understood this trip to be an alchemical sort of transformative process, describing the path of spiritual development. 

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

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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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.
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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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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

O King, the mouth of the earth is split open for you, Geb speaks to you.  May you be cleansed in the Jackal Lake, may you be purified in the Lake of the Duat.  Come in peace . . . (Utterance 697, Pyramid Texts, trans. Faulkner) 

We are approaching the time of year when many of the living things around us appear to die, when our spirits sag a little with the dwindling light and ebbing warmth. 

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