How to bleach linen: a Theosophist ‘explains’ Egyptian mythology

On a bookshelf in my home there are two books by G. A. Gaskell.  One is called A Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myths, and the other Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted.  In them G. A. Gaskell fits various myths into the Theosophist worldview.

Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted will be the focus of this post.

I really, really wanted to dislike this book when I began reading it.  It seemed to me that Gaskell was doing everything he could to jam one culture’s worldview into his, and sometimes some very round pegs were going in some very square holes.  But…he does have a real knack for pointing the way, even if you have to ignore many—though not all—of his explanations.

To give you an example of what, for my money, is a round peg forced into a square hole, here’s his explanation of part of Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris:

“Isis invented the Loom with the help of her sister, Nephthys, and was the first to weave and to bleach linen.”

Meaning :—The Loom of Isis was for the weaving of the warp and woof of the solar universe in relation to the matter of the physical plane (Nephthys).  The Divine Wisdom (Isis) devised the Web of existence formed of world-substance (linen), and the means for self-purification (bleaching), through the buddhic function in raising and transmuting the lower qualities of the soul.

—G. A. Gaskell, Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted, 1926, pp. 41–42.

Here, Gaskell is assuming that “bleaching linen” must refer to the purification of a ‘fallen’ human being; but not only have I seen no evidence in Egyptian mythology for a Fall, as such, but his quote does not support his argument.  Plutarch clearly says Isis and Nephthys are doing the bleaching, not empowering humans to do it.

So what is really going on?

The Egyptian Pyramid and Coffin Texts do contain quite a few references to ‘linen,’ and they back up Plutarch’s claim that the goddesses Isis and Nephthys have something to do with it.  So let’s look at a few quotes from these texts to come a bit closer to what the Egyptians, rather than Gaskill, may have meant when they spoke of ‘linen’ in this context:

Pepi is the red linen that came from Isis and the redness that
came from Nephthys. . . Pepi is the Sun’s replacement, and this Pepi will not die.

—James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, P 436, p.149.

In this text Pepi is identified with the linen itself and solar power.  However this does not really support Gaskell’s view that “linen” = matter/human and “bleached linen” = purified matter/human, for, just as the king is not always the Sun, he is not always the linen:

Horus has stood up that he might array this Pepi Neferkare with the woven cloth that comes from him, and this Pepi Neferkare has been provided as a god. . . .Horus has woven his booth over your head.

—Ibid, p.294 N 524.

While the linen is still associated with solar power—in this case Horus’s—Pepi, rather than being identified with the linen, is described first as wearing it, then as standing under it.

The clearest description I have found of the nature of this linen is given in Coffin Text 862.  (Renenutet, who Faulkner renders here as Ernūtet, is a goddess of fate identified with the uraeus, the Solar Eye.)

O N, take the Eye of Horus, that its perfume may be sweet on you! O N, take these pieces of linen which are in the Mansion of Ptah, which are great and mighty for this Ernūtet, Mistress of dread, greatly majestic, so that she may cause your foes to fear and dread, and so that you may be potent through her in her name of ‘Linen,’ fine garments which he who is in the temple brings to the Eyeless One for everything which Horus has given to his father.  Take it, N!  O N, take the Eye of Horus which combines your flesh and pulls together your members which are in the outer chamber of the tnnt-shrine…

—Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, part 3, p.40.

Here we see three different powers of the Eye of Horus—the Solar Eye.  First, it can deposit a sort of “perfume.” Second, as Renenutet/the uraeus it offers “linen,” which the dead person is tasked with taking to the “Eyeless One”—a form of Horus who lives in the Duat.  Third, it sustains the physical body.

There’s a lot more you can mine out of these quotes, but for now let’s just note that, taken together, they suggest that linen—a woven cloth—is something both given by and made of a solar fate goddess, through which the light of Creation passes on its way to manifestation as something physical. Coffin Text 779 sums this up marvellously:

O N, Horus has protected you, he makes you joyful by means of his woven Eye which he has allotted in every place.

—Ibid, part 2, p.305

It then suggests that one should seize one’s linen—accept one’s destiny—in order to live a happy life:

O N, take your linen, being what was given to Ernūtet who is on the brow of Horus, so that you may be cheerful and content.

—Ibid, part 2, p.305

We haven’t really touched on the parts Isis and Nephthys have to play in all this: that’ll have to wait for the book, as each goddess is a huge topic in her own right.

But I hope you can see why I feel so conflicted about Gaskill. The example we just discussed is typical of his work as a whole.  Gaskell has correctly identified twilight language in the text, and his explanation, really, is not totally wrong. But he used his finely-ground Theosophical lens to read his sources rather than trying to work out the point of view of their authors.  As a result, he got hung up on “bleached linen” as being a symbol of salvation from a fallen state, and forgot that the most ancient method of bleaching linen is sunlight.  The bleaching process described by Plutarch is the descent of the light, not the ascent of matter.

The diagram at the front of his book beautifully symbolizes the awful results that ensue when you view another culture’s magic and mysticism through an overly restrictive magical or cultural lens.  From personal experience, when this happens it will feel like your worldview has all the answers and can explain everything perfectly.  In fact you’re looking through a kaleidoscope, and most of what you’re seeing is the apparatus moving inside it, not the object you’re pointing it at, which is functioning only as a generalized light source.

Dial of the Night Sun, from G. A. Gaskell's Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted, 1926
Dial of the Night Sun, from G. A. Gaskell’s Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted, 1926

Gaskell is a regular bloodhound for twilight language in ancient texts.  He has a great nose for the stuff—but everything he sniffs smells, to him, like Theosophy, because of the kaleidoscope stuck on the end of his nose.  Certainly celebrate the offerings he brings you, but do your autopsies yourself.

Further Reading

There are the two books I’ve got of his.  As I say, I’ve found them excellent for pointing the way to interesting magical and mystical content, but his ‘meanings’ are at best filtered through heavy Theosophical smoked glass, and at worst just plain wrong.  They’re bloodhound books: use them when you get stuck, but don’t get stuck in them!

Egyptian Scriptures Interpreted, by G. A. Gaskell
The Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths, by G. A. Gaskell

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

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