Introducing: The Book of Gates

About a month before we were due to finish the massive project that was the Quareia course, Josephine and I started chatting about what we might do after it was all done. She was just starting work on writing the final module, and I was about a module behind that in my copyediting.

Now, a couple of months previously, for my birthday, I received a very precious book: Erik Hornung’s definitive edition of the full hieroglyphic text of The Book of Gates, complete with his transliteration and translation. More on what, exactly, The Book of Gates is, below; but as I began to read through it, I got very excited, because it looked very much like an Ancient Egyptian priest had written their own version of the Quareia course.  (A fantastic example of the Mysteries being the same all over, with appropriate changes of costume.)

So as soon as I had spotted the strange similarities between Gates and Quareia, I rang up Josephine and told her as much, and I encouraged her to get her own copy of Gates by hook or by crook. (I think, in the end, that she got a copy for her birthday, too.)

So there we were, reading through the Gates and enjoying chatting about it as a sideline to our usual correspondence to do with wrangling the course into manifestation. Then, at about the same point, I decided that I wanted to do my own, personal translation of the Gates, Josephine decided that she wanted to write a book about its contents, and Stuart Littlejohn, who it turned out had been reading Gates over Josephine’s shoulder, decided that he wanted to illustrate some of its scenes. It seemed natural to combine all three projects into one book.

The Book of Gates is a fascinating text that does many different things at once. It seems to have been intended, partially, to aid in stitching Egypt back together after the chaos of the Amarna period—something Josephine treats in detail in her introduction to the book. But its main two uses were to guide the worthy dead through the Underworld, and to train the living to become, in the language of the Golden Dawn, “more than human.” It’s Underworld geography textbook meets manual for becoming an Akh—what in the language of the Quareia course would be termed a “full adept.”

For a modern mystic or magician, Gates can be used as a training manual to learn the general stance required to make a successful ascent, and also to learn the specific elements that come together to make up that stance. It does this by describing a hundred and thirteen scenes, of differing lengths, each of which illustrates both an activity taking place in the Underworld, and certain spiritual principles that must be mastered to complete that activity successfully. These scenes are purposefully memorable—indeed, one way of working with them might be to commit them to memory, as loci in a memory palace, then to interrogate them in vision, much as one might journey inside a memorized Tarot card to learn its secrets. (This method of working is not without its risks, because the Egyptian Underworld does not welcome casual tourism. Consider yourselves warned.  And just because such a journey starts inside your own skull does not mean that you’ll stay there…)

Why did I feel that I needed to make a new translation, when Hornung’s is itself pretty new, and Hornung himself is, justly, one of the most acclaimed scholars in his field? It is because a mystic’s approach to the text is very different from an impartial Egyptologist’s—and it must be. The best way to illustrate this is to pick a few examples from the text and show you what I mean.

Whoever offers to them their oblations,
Is a master of the rest of them
In the surroundings of this Lake.

Now, rendering what is theirs, their extension,
Means owning the surplus inside them,
Which is inside the circumference of this lake.

These are two perfectly literal translations of the same three lines from Gates. The first is Hornung’s, the second is mine. Here’s another:

They are outside the sanctuary of the Benben-stone.
They see what Re sees,
And they have access to his mysterious image which (Re) has revised.
They are those who send out messengers.

They exist outside the Benben Enclosure,
They look upon what Re is looking upon;
They enter into his governance of the Mystery of living on:
They are those who are sent out as conformists.

Again, the first is Hornung’s, the second is mine. And a third:

The god who causes the apportioning of offerings,
And the portions to the blessed dead.
Who weighs the affairs with the scales,
So that the evildoers and the damned cease to exist.
Who judges and protects the eye.

The god rendering the weighing of the temple bread,
The cakes/documents, namely the Radiant;
Bearing the words/ashlars/ones-to-be-installed-as-gods in the Scales.
(The Evil, the Mortal, are finished developing.)
Weighing the words/ashlars/ones-to-be-installed-as-gods
Is protecting the Eye.

(First is Hornung’s, second is mine.)

Those so inclined will see at once how this text speaks one way to an Egyptologist, and quite another way to a mystic. “Owning the surplus inside them…” “the Mystery of living on…” And the identification of the Radiant (Akhs) with temple bread, words, and ashlars, which themselves are all weighed in the Scales…

How could both these versions be literal? This is where the gnomic nature of the Egyptian language comes into play. Because Egyptian has far fewer words (attested) than English, many of its words have a far wider range of application than our bastard tongue. The verb jrj, for instance, spans three pages in Raymond Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Its basic meaning is “do,” but depending on its context it can also mean “create, beget, construct, put into writing, officiate for, appoint, treat an illness, lay out a garden,” and even “perform a miracle” and “garner corn.” And that is just a small selection of its possible definitions.

Or take the word Awt. It can mean “gifts.” But it can also mean “duration.” Or even “extension.”

Or the word Htpw. It can mean “peace.” Or it can mean “offerings.”

The sentence bA.f m Htpw.f could be translated, perfectly acceptably, as “his ghost is on his offerings.” But it could also mean “his soul is in its peace.”  The first is grave goods and offerings for the dead.  The second is samadhi.

The result is that context is everything when translating Egyptian. And a mystic’s context is quite different from an Egyptologist’s. What seems important to one is unimportant to the other, and vice versa. Their mental storehouses of images differ greatly. Their obsessions are different. Their suppositions about the function of a “funerary text” are particularly likely to differ a great deal.

What was translating Gates like? It was certainly an educative experience. It was my first experience with contacted writing, albeit within astoundingly controlled limits. My translation, it was made very clear to me by the “inner lot,” was to be as literal as I could make it from start to finish. Every single word had to be checked with a dictionary, even words that recurred many, many times in the text. I was not permitted to paraphrase at any point. And yet, within those limits I found myself developing strange hunches, knowing what was coming up, where things were going. Strange things were whispered in my inner ear; clues were dropped in my path to help me unpick various word puzzles in the text (explained at length in the book’s footnotes). When I did something the inner lot didn’t like, I couldn’t rest until it was undone. Where I misstepped in my translation, I was blocked from proceeding any further until I had figured out what I had done wrong. Several times I had to stop work entirely until some inner timing thing “clicked” and I could go back to work.

It also changed me as a person. Contemplating the Gates’s meanings forced me to some pretty tough self-assessments, and I was forced to face various aspects of myself from which I had hidden. The Gates is a harsh drill sergeant, but it is also a nurturing and loving companion.

What would the original authors of the Gates make of the version that I, Josephine, and Stuart have put together? I’d like to think that they’d be happy that it was still going strong after thirty-three centuries. On the other hand, they might be appalled that a highly secret text was now apparently out in the open for all to view.

Indeed, the Gates contains a warning on that very subject:

True of Voice is my father Seat-of-the-Eye against you!
True of Voice am I against you!
You, who decide to expose what is hidden,
Being in the peace of he who ejaculated me, who is in the Duat!
Rejoice, you who were Finishing. . .
At being finished!

It’s a curse that both Josephine and I fell foul of more than once in the construction of this book. Both of us have had to reign ourselves in, to deliberately not mention certain things, to wave vaguely at things which in earlier drafts were made far more explicit. We were given a free choice either to behave ourselves or…well. The alternative wasn’t good…

My translation by itself is perfectly literal, and the full meaning of the text really is right out there in the open for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. (And who are willing to make good use of the extremely extensive glossary, plus do their own legwork.)  However, Josephine’s commentary and my footnotes deliberately leave a lot unexplained. In this way, we were able to help the text reach a new, necessary audience without “exposing what is hidden,” instead hiding it in plain sight.

As such, this is a book that truly changes depending on the reader. You will find that it will speak to you in one way now, and in another way ten years down the line. This is a book that could journey with you all your life. It certainly will for me.

Further Reading

The Book of Gates: A Magical Translation, tr. Michael Sheppard, commentary by Josephine McCarthy, illustrations by Stuart Littlejohn.

The Book of Gates is a rich and epic magical translation of a little-known Ancient Egyptian funerary text that contains a wealth of mystical and magical secrets. Unlike its more famous cousin, The Book of the Dead, The Book of Gates was meant for the living as much as the deceased, and its deeply enigmatic verses lead the reader on a harrowing yet uplifting journey through the Underworld in search of ascent and true adepthood.

It is one of the most profound and transformative magical texts to have survived from the ancient world, yet today it is largely unknown. In 2016, adept magician and author Josephine McCarthy, along with translator Michael Sheppard, accidentally discovered layer after layer of magical knowledge hidden away inside its scenes.

The Book of Gates was sumptuously illustrated whenever it was copied onto tomb walls and royal sarcophagi, and this visual feast has been lovingly reproduced in this edition, in colour and monochrome, with photographs from the tomb walls, and reproductions by magical artist Stuart Littlejohn, where it is also joined by several of his original works.

Translated by Michael Sheppard, interpreted by Josephine McCarthy, and illustrated by Stuart Littlejohn, The Book of Gates offers the reader page after page of enigmatic puzzles, insights, and keys that reveal the timeless roots of alchemy, ritual, and magical vision. Quareia Publishing is truly proud to present a book so steeped in mystery, magical meaning, and ancient wisdom.

The Egyptian Book of Gates, tr. Erik Hornung

The Egyptian Book of Gates is the second large Pharaonic Book of the Afterlife after The Egyptian Amduat. The revised English translation is based on the German edition, edited by Erik Hornung. The hieroglyphs and transcriptions are given on the basis of a collation of the extant texts found in different tombs. The main illustrations of the text come from the sarcophagus of Seti I. The 100 scenes of the Book of Gates are furthermore represented with one or more colored illustrations, originating from different sources.

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

6 thoughts on “Introducing: The Book of Gates”

  1. Really looking forward to this. I can relate so much to translating as a magician over an academic or religious perspective.

    In my more ambitious moments I considered taking the Hebrew bible and translating it to a magicians perspective but it’s so big I could cry 🙂

    Thanks for this I look forward to it

    1. Yes, that’d be an enormous project! But a general book on the subject would be an amazing read…

      My translation of the Gates comes with a comprehensive glossary that links each English word to its Egyptian counterpart, sort of like Strong’s numbers. I was an absolute stickler for always translating the same Egyptian word with the same English word, which, surprisingly, actually worked very well. (It required days spent with my nose in a thesaurus, though, to find English words with similar enough connotation-clouds to their Egyptian counterparts. Thankfully English has a great number of words, and there was almost always something that fitted. Though I nearly ran out of ways of describing loaves of bread…I almost had to translate something as “bagel” purely to differentiate it from all the other sorts of buns that are present in the text.) Anyway, the result is that there’s an accessible English translation at the front of the book, and material at the back for people who want to dig deeper into the original text’s more hidden meanings, but who don’t read Middle Egyptian themselves.

      I wonder whether something similar could work for the Hebrew bible: is the mapping of Hebrew to English words sufficiently precise that you could write something explaining the background behind single important words, which would then cast large swathes of illumination across the Bible as a whole?

      In the case of Gates, for instance, there is a lot of punning that I’ve had to explain in footnotes, as there is no way I could see to repeat it in English. For example, there is a running gag on disembodied heads representing the “best” of something. (In fact this gag seems to have found its way into the visionary landscape, but its meaning only makes sense when you look at how its meaning is played with in the Gates. Much as some children today know the “save” icon, but don’t know it represents a floppy disc.) But if that word is always translated as “heads,” then you can make a mental note that the Egyptian word can also mean “best,” so every time you see “heads” you can mentally substitute “best” and see what other meaning it produces.

      So I wonder whether a book that just looked in depth at the meanings of common Biblical Hebrew words, and how they are translated in a particular English version, could achieve 80% of your goal of producing a magically literate version of the Hebrew Bible?

      1. The timing of the release of this book, much like the start of the Quareia course, is eerily perfect.

      2. When you say bagel it just shows how much Judaism drew from Egypt lol

        Yes the language could do a lot. If you simply research the word for snake and how it’s used and contextualise it historically you get a lot.

        I am more inclined to highlight magical dynamics and practices in the narrative and examine the language. Maybe one day with selected texts. Your way is probably better.

        1. Hehehe…who knew bagels were Egyptian, eh?

          No, I think your way would be a better way in; as you say, when you get down to the level of individual words, you already need an understanding of the more overarching stuff for that to rest on. I look forward to reading your future book!

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