Memory, Medieval Bestiaries, and the Gates

What follows is speculative, but if you’re up for a bit of a ramble, you might find this post quite fun.

The Duat and the Zemit personified, from The Book of Gates, First Hour.
The Duat and the Desert personified, from The Book of Gates, First Hour.

You will, of course, be familiar with the old trope that in Egyptian art, everyone looks like everybody else, and that the only way of telling one person apart from another is to look at the caption.  There are many such examples of this in The Book of Gates, for instance the anthropomorphic personifications of the Duat and the Desert near the beginning of the text.  (The Duat is on the left, the Desert on the right.)  The only way of telling these chaps apart is to read their names.


To be fair to the Egyptians, you see much the same method of specifying different characters in, for instance, Greek black-figure pottery:

Achilles and Ajax play a board game. They are distinguished from one another by their captions.
Achilles and Ajax play a board game. They are distinguished from one another by their captions.

I should also point out that the Egyptians, just like the Greeks, were perfectly capable of characterizing through appearance.  See, for instance, the famous head of queen Tiy at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

Queen Tiy, Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo taken by Michael Sheppard, March 2015.
Queen Tiy, Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo taken by Michael Sheppard, March 2015.

Now that’s a woman who could be the dictionary definition of mother-in-law…

Nor do I think that the frequent lack of characterization in Egyptian art is likely the result of either a lazy or production-line mentality in Egypt’s artists.  The Gates, for instance, were predominantly a royal text (at least, they are found nearly only in royal tombs), and their illustration on those royal tomb walls was generally lavish and colourful.

So if the Egyptians could characterize in their art, and often did characterize in portraits of specific people, why the reliance on ANSI-standard human forms in religious texts?  Why do we not see anything approaching the degree of individuation in human figures that is present in say, scenes from the Elgin Marbles?

Here’s where the speculation starts.  I would like to propose that the long lines of identical-looking figures in the Gates and the Amduat, may be at least partially the result of, for want of a better phrase, mnemonic best practice.  They are exactly what you would draw if the text was designed to encourage memorization.

But wait, you say.  If those long lines of figures were meant to be easy to memorize, wouldn’t you expect more, not less, variety in their illustration?  What’s memorable about lines of identical figures?

Before I answer you, I need to talk a little about the Artificial Memory as it was practised in medieval monasteries, as it was my reading on that subject which got me thinking about the possible influence of similar Artificial Memory techniques behind the depictions of figures in Gates and the Amduat.

According to Mary Carruthers, in The Book of Memory (Cambridge University Press, 1990), in the middle ages, and also in the classical period, books were not thought of as being stored primarily on their physical pages.  The ‘real’ book was stored in the minds of those readers who had committed it to memory.  The “true book,” so went the received wisdom, was thought to be “five times removed” from the mere words inked onto the parchment.  If you had not memorized the book, then you had not truly read it, and in some way, the book did not truly exist for you:

“A thing is said metaphorically to be written on the mind of anyone when it is firmly held in the memory … For things are written down in material books to help the memory.”
— Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Psalm 69.28, “Let them be blotted from the book of life.” (p.8, The Book of Memory, by Mary Carruthers.)

Thomas Aquinas’s point of view is truly ancient, and is echoed in mythology: see the account in Plato’s Phaedrus of Thoth’s invention of hieroglyphs to help mankind’s memory, which I quote in full in this post.

“This [writing], said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”

—Plato, The Phaedrus

What if Plato’s point of view really was as Egyptian as the characters of his who speak it?  Would we not expect to see evidence of memory training in Egyptian texts?

But again, you say, if that was the case then we would expect each member of those long lines of human figures to be more distinct from his neighbours, not less.

And again, I must beg you to let me take you on another tangent.  Before I answer your objection, let me point out that we do, indeed, see some suggestions in Gates of systematic training in mental states that would promote, among other things, very accurate recall. Scene 58, for instance, appears to describe four groups of living students learning something very similar to Quareia’s Void meditation:

Swimmers in the Nu. The staff-leaning figure on the left bears the caption, "A Finished One of the Nu." From left to right, the groups of swimmers are described as "Diving," "Slack," "Swimming," and "Expanded."
Swimmers in the Nu. The staff-leaning figure on the left bears the caption, “A Finished One of the Nu.” From left to right, the groups of swimmers are described as “Diving,” “Slack,” “Swimming,” and “Expanded.”

The first group is described as “the Diving,” those who are just learning to dive into the Nu, the still, dark, silent waters preceding creation: the exact Egyptian analogue of the Void in the Quareia system.  The second group is called “the Slack,” those who are able to stay down there, relaxed and still, for some time.  The third group is called “the Swimming/Golden/Molten” (the Egyptian word can mean all three things), and the fourth is called “the Expanded.”  Magicians, mystics, and amateur meditators should all recognize to what those final two descriptions refer.

The text is at pains to point out that these groups of students are alive and on Earth; they are not dead and in the Duat:

“Your Presences, which are on Earth, they are at peace,
Meaning they breathe, and there is no destruction for them.”

Cultivating this sort of absolute mental stillness, apart from its magical results (the main reason for learning it), has all sorts of positive mental benefits, including greatly improved focus; something very necessary for practitioners of the Artificial Memory.

Compare this with the following quote, which comes from an account of St. Thomas Aquinas’s life, written by Bernardo Gui:

When perplexed by a difficulty he would kneel and pray and then, on returning to his writing or dictation, he was accustomed to find that his thought had become so clear that it seemed to show him inwardly, as in a book, the words he needed…he seemed simply to let his memory pour out its treasures…

(p.3, The Book of Memory, by Mary Carruthers.)

A similar “outpouring of treasures” is, in fact, also referred to in The Book of Gates, as a stage of development it calls “overflowing,” which comes just after the stage of “being empty.” Scene 45, which describes these stages of development, also contains some valuable advice for those students who are having difficulty sustaining their “emptiness” and “overflow.”

Now, it is well known that such creative outpouring often happens spontaneously when a student reaches a certain point in the Mysteries; but I am speculating here that just as medieval monks are known to have sustained such creative outpourings through well-trained Artificial Memories, so might have some Ancient Egyptian priesthoods.  And I am further speculating here that there is evidence of the Artificial Memory in The Book of Gates and The Amduat.

All right, all right, you cry; enough tangents, show us the beef!  Where is this evidence?

It’s the lines and grids of identical figures distinguished only by captions that occur frequently in Gates and Amduat, and indeed throughout Egyptian sacred texts.  Here is a small example from the Gates:

Four identical but individually named figures: “Presence,” “Union,” “Upend Resistance,” and “Quest.”   Scene 85, The Book of Gates.

And here is a more elaborate example from the Amduat:

Baboons from the First Hour of the Amduat, named: “Baboon,” “Acclaiming,” “Slack-bellied,” “Heart of Earth,” “Favourite of Earth,” “Worshipping,” “Parter of Earth,” “Who accesses the Earth,” “Beheld by Re.” (From Erik Hornung, the Egyptian Amduat, Living Human Heritage, Zurich, 2007.)

Now why does it seem to me that these figures, and particularly the captions, seem to have something to do with the Artificial Memory?  Three reasons.  First, the captions occur in a rigid order: in the first case a line, in the second case a grid.  This order is retained almost exactly in every instance of the book’s appearance.  Second, the captions evoke vivid mental imagery, particularly the Amduat’s captions.  Third, the lack of specificity in the accompanying illustrations forces the reader’s imagination to work on the captions.  Compare this with the pedagogical use of Bestiaries to train boys’ memories in the medieval period:

Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary is presented as a memory-book.  In each of its “pictures” of the animals, its verses admonish the reader to remember particular pieces of the description as well as the whole…the contents of this book were understood to be among the “puerilia” of a medieval education, and, along with the grid-layout described by Hugh of St. Victor, the Bestiary and the Calendar/Zodiac images were also elementary mnemotechincal tools…What the Bestiary taught most usefully in the long term of a medieval education was not “natural history” or moralized instruction…but mental imaging, the systematic forming of “pictures” that would stick in the memory…It is important to note that the Holmecultram Bestiary is not in fact illustrated – the “pictures” are entirely verbal, they are not drawn on the page.  This forced the students to make the pictures carefully in their minds, to “paint” mentally, thus learning one of the most critical of mnemonic techniques

(pp.126–127, The Book of Memory, by Mary Carruthers.)

My contention is that what applied to the Homecultram Bestiary might have applied just as much to the lines and grids of identical figures in these Egyptian “funerary” texts, texts that are known to have been studied in life.

If you wanted to ensure that your students learned such a book by heart, you would do the following:

  • Lay out its lessons and observations in a rigid order: division into vignettes, lines, and tables of beings.
  • Make the labels of the vignettes memorable.
  • Make the illustrations in the vignettes generic, so that the students must learn to create detailed mental imagery themselves, from the labels and the accompanying text.

This is exactly what we see with the Amduat and the Gates.

Let me pause for a moment and recap.  The Artificial Memory is known to go back at least as far as the Greeks, and Plato claims that hieroglyphs themselves were invented as a memory aid for knowledge rather than a way of writing down the knowledge itself.  This point of view, that written material is a memory aid rather than the book itself, which exists truly in the readers’ minds, not on the page, was still alive and well in medieval monasteries.

We have also seen that The Book of Gates appears to talk about a certain mental state, known to Quareians as the “Void meditation,” being taught to groups of students at various stages of advancement in its practice.  This meditation technique is known to aid recall and clarity of thought.  Gates also refers to the same sort of creative outpouring that saints such as Thomas Aquinas are known to have sustained through systematically training and using their memories.

Finally, the techniques taught to medieval boys by having them read and memorize their Bestiaries seem to apply equally well to the lists and grids of beings in Gates and the Amduat.

Let me also point out that it is a fine, fine line between training one’s artificial memory and training one’s inner vision, especially if one is doing the former by memorizing beings with a separate existence in the Duat. Were one to learn such lists of beings by heart, one could potentially acquire sets of “mental deity statues” that might be enlivened in ways analogous to how one might enliven a physical deity statue.

It now remains to test out Thoth’s claim that hieroglyphs are excellent mnemonic devices.  In fact, I have just completed such a test.  This blog article was composed mentally, using the hieroglyphic monoliterals as memory loci, before I ever began typing.  I composed the article’s structure while shopping at Aldi and doing the washing up, then had an hour’s break, during which I was chatting to my other half, and then finally sat down to write the article sentence by sentence.  I found my memory images perfectly fresh in my head, and it was much quicker for me to write the post than normal, as I had already got the framework entirely clear in my mind.

Below is a list of the memory images that I used.  I am typing that list up now, having written the blog post itself; I did not refer to it, except mentally, while writing the post. You may wish to refer to the article on memorizing the monoliterals, including their dictionary order, if you are not already familiar with them.

  1. Vulture wearing spectacles, with a line of little identical vultures underneath him. “speculative, about the lines of identical beings”
  2. Reed leaf, writing in hieroglyphs rn, the word “name/identity.” “captions define the individual identities of those beings in lines.”
  3. Arm, holding a bit of Greek sculpture. “The Greeks individualized their sculpture more than the Egyptians.”
  4. Quail chick with the Giza Sphinx’s head. “But the Egyptians were capable of portraiture, so why not with these lines of beings?”
  5. Legs up on…
  6. A beautiful, photorealistic renaissance painting instead of the footstool normally in this position. “The Egyptians weren’t lazy, and their artworks for royals were not done on a production line.”
  7. A horned viper coiled round a book shaped like a heart, with 5T on the title page. “Books are in the heart, not on the page.  The page is five times removed from the heart’s truth.”
  8. An owl sitting on an old book: this is also my general memory image for “the Art of Memory/Artificial Memory.” Here, it meant “quotes demonstrating its antiquity.”
  9. Water.  Associated this with the Nu, the primeval waters.  “Talk about the meditative training alluded to with the Nu Swimmers in Gates.”
  10. Mouth with heart in it. “The heart of the book is in the words, not in the pictures.”
  11. Wild beasts penned in a house.  “The medieval bestiary.”
  12. Hieroglyphs tied to a twisted rope. “Show how the Egyptian texts have similar mnemonic properties to 9.”
  13. Placenta. “Recap and muse.”  I thought of the placenta, in this case, as specifically in the belly, and associated this with the thought of turning things over in one’s gut.
  14. Udders, in the shape of the letter M, with hieroglyphs dangling off them. “Demonstrate how hieroglyphs are mnemonically useful, just by themselves, by listing out these memory images.”

You’ll see that I actually shifted points 11 and 12 around when I came to write the post, as it seemed to improve the flow a bit.  But otherwise, I basically obeyed the structure I had laid down mnemonically using the monoliterals as my loci.  Some of the points expanded more than others in the writing of them, but I basically was running on train-tracks, even though I was taking in the view at some points more extensively than at others.

I have just realized, however, that I neglected to plan out any sort of conclusion!  So to sum up, I’d say that hieroglyphs, as Thoth claimed, really are good for the memory in their own right, that at the very least one could work with Gates and the Amduat using some of the techniques of the Artificial Memory, and that certain properties of the structure of these texts seems to suggest that they may have been written to be memorized.

Okay, that’s it.  Next time I do this, I’d better put a summary on the folded cloth (15).

Further Reading


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 Book of Memory: A Study Of Memory In Medieval Culture, by Mary Carruthers

Mary Carruthers’s classic study of the training and uses of memory for a variety of purposes in European cultures during the Middle Ages has fundamentally changed the way scholars understand medieval culture. This fully revised and updated second edition considers afresh all the material and conclusions of the first. While responding to new directions in research inspired by the original, this new edition devotes much more attention to the role of trained memory in composition, whether of literature, music, architecture, or manuscript books. The new edition will reignite the debate on memory in medieval studies and, like the first, will be essential reading for scholars of history, music, the arts and literature, as well as those interested in issues of orality and literacy (anthropology), in the working and design of memory (both neuropsychology and artificial memory), and in the disciplines of meditation (religion).

The Amduat, tr. Erik Hornung

In the Amduat, the night-journey of the Egyptian Sungod is divided into twelve hours. The entire Amduat could be called the first ‘scientific publication’ of humankind describing or mapping the dangers, but also the regenerative capabilities of the night-world. Line-by-line translation of hieroglyphs, transliteration, and translation.

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

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