When Josephine suggested that I write an Egyptian reference book for magicians, one thing she particularly wanted me to cover was the development…and degeneration…of Egyptian magical knowledge through time.
I have yet to reach a point where I can start writing that chapter, but I have already found some very interesting things in my research which seem to point the way to a somewhat surprising take on this subject.
The simplest story about Egyptian magic is that over time it degenerated from bringing through the powers of Creation and Destruction into trying to control them; at the same time as which it lost some of its deepest knowledge of, and access to, those powers.
However, in the course of my research so far there have emerged some interesting exceptions to this rule, which I will detail in my book. In particular, some of the last Egyptian texts seem to recapitulate some of the very oldest Mysteries, almost as though they were trying to download themselves into formats that would survive the next twenty centuries until the Egyptian language was rediscovered and the old signs, carved in stone, could once again speak for themselves.
When Plutarch wrote his Isis and Osiris in the first century A. D., knowledge of hieroglyphs had nearly passed out of living memory. The Library of Alexandria had been recently burned down by Julius Caesar in an act of military arson, and Christianity would soon wipe out any remaining oral knowledge of the Egyptian Mysteries that couldn’t be encoded in the new faith. Now, generally, Isis and Osiris is not considered an accurate guide to the really ancient Egyptian religious and magical knowledge, but from what I can see, everywhere that it counts, it is uncannily on point. For example:
When Nephthys gave birth to Anubis, Isis treated the child as if it were her own; for Nephthys is that which is beneath the Earth and invisible, Isis that which is above the earth and visible; and the circle which touches these, called the horizon, being common to both, has received the name Anubis, and is represented in form like a dog; for the dog can see with his eyes both by night and by day alike. . . . he generates all things within himself. . .
—Plutarch, Moralia: Volume V, p.107
This account is nowhere to be found in the Pyramid Texts, but the functions it describes are absolutely identical to ones which are. For example, concerning Isis and Nephthys:
You will go up and go down: you will go down with Nephthys, one of the dusk with the Nightboat. You will go up and go down: you will go up with Isis and rise up with the Dayboat.
—Pyramid Texts of Unis, Utterance 155
Plutarch then describes the horizon as the circle touching both Isis and Nephthys. This is the Akhet, which literally means “the place of becoming effective”…or as Plutarch says, “he generates all things within himself.” The Akhet is the place just below the horizon where creation is assembled (and disassembled). For Plutarch’s identification of the Akhet with Anubis, research Wepwawet and that god’s connection with Anubis.
There are other pearls of wisdom in this extract by Plutarch: pay particular attention to the two eyes that can see both by night and by day alike, and Isis treating Nephthys’s child as if it were her own. These perfectly draw out the relationship between the pair of goddesses Isis and Nephthys, the Eyes, and the function of each Eye as it relates to each goddess.
I half suspect that Plutarch, a priest at Delphi, felt which way the wind was blowing and did all he could to preserve the Mysteries from extinction in the coming Dark Age. Perhaps his Isis and Osiris was a joint project of his and Thoth’s…
What I suspect was not a joint project, however, was the way in which portions of the most ancient Mysteries ended up in a late Egyptian magical text known today, confusingly, as the Leiden Papyrus. (Confusingly because there seem to be an awful lot of Leiden Papyruses!)
Seeing the stronger one, Phobos stood against him and said: “I am older than you.” The other one replied: “I, however, uphold all things.” The god spoke: “You proceed from the noise, but he from the voice. The voice is better than the noise. Power will come from both although he appeared later than you; in this way, all things will be upheld. . . . He resolved, then, to share the honour with the other because he had been made manifest at the same time as him.
—Madeleine Mcbrearty. “The Leiden Papyrus: Introduction and Translation”. MA thesis. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Concordia University, 1986, p.77.
Here the names of the original Egyptian gods involved have not survived; though their identities are hinted at by the name “Phobos.” Now compare it with the Pyramid Texts of Teti, speaking of the gods Horus and Seth:
Teti will decide cases and part the two (assailants, Horus and Seth).
Teti will govern for the one who is older than he.
—Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, T 284, p.93.
This cunning little utterance works like a crossword puzzle. “The one who is older than he” could apply equally to Osiris (the father of Horus) and Seth (the uncle/brother of Horus). The Seth connotation is brought to mind by juxtaposition with the previous line, “Teti will decide cases and part the two assailants, Horus and Seth.”
As for “share the honour with the other,” see Unis, Utterance 148:
See me, as you have seen the forms of the progeny who know
their spells, the Imperishable Stars, and see (in me) the two in
the palace— that is, Horus and Seth.
—Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, W 148, p.31.
Here Unis declares himself to be the vessel (palace) in which the two gods “share the honour” of governing.
You can analyse for yourselves the meaning of the rest of the Leiden Papyrus’s extract, and I’ll detail it properly in the book…I haven’t time to go into it all here, but suffice to say that again, it too fits perfectly with the earliest surviving Egyptian Mysteries. If you are interested, pay particular attention to voice/noise, who was born when, and try to read a copy of The Contendings of Horus and Seth as well as the relevant parts of Plutarch’s Moralia, Volume V.
This edition lets you read the original Greek side-by-side with an excellent literal English translation with copious notes. Loebs are awesome.
The most up-to-date translation of the Pyramid Texts available, by James P. Allen, published in 2005. This is the edition you want, as a great deal of progress has been made in understanding the Egyptian language in the last few decades. Older English translations are not nearly so accurate: they are not worth buying.
Macbrearty translated this document for her MA thesis and wrote an extensive and interesting introduction to it. The thesis is available as a PDF for free online from the link provided. The papyrus is highly interesting for the picture it paints of the magic practised in Egypt in the first few centuries A.D..