New Mysteries for Old

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.

Further Reading


Plutarch: Moralia Vol 5 (Loeb Classical Library)

This edition lets you read the original Greek side-by-side with an excellent literal English translation with copious notes.  Loebs are awesome.


James P. Allen: The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts

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.

Madeleine Macbrearty: The Leiden Papyrus: Introduction and Translation

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..

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

6 thoughts on “New Mysteries for Old”

  1. Very excited about this, since this is one of my main areas of study as well, for magic and alchemical work. Have you seen this website (really f-ing amazing): http://maat.sofiatopia.org/sitemenu.htm
    I would love to hear your thoughts on the Symbolique movement of Egyptology and the philosophy of Schwaller de Lubicz

    1. That website is amazing! The writer really knows his stuff. I wish I could say more about the symbolic approach and Schwaller de Lubicz, but I don’t know enough about it to form a decent opinion.

      In general, though, my approach is to try to be fastidious with the evidence in order to get into the skins of the ancient priest-magicians and understand what they were getting at. I try to minimize my own speculation and instead rely on really carefully reading the primary sources, letting the meanings of symbols — for example, the Eye — define themselves gradually as I research and read. I get suspicious whenever I see a system of interpretation that the evidence gets fitted into rather than emerging organically from letting the evidence speak for itself. I hope this doesn’t read as too much of a cop-out answer.

      I’ve been impressed of what Lubicz I’ve read (Symbol and the Symbolic), but I don’t think he thought much like the people who wrote the Pyramid Texts. I think ideally you want to be able to ‘run’ those ancient thought patterns on your own mind: it’s not enough just to be able to talk academically about them.

      What do you think?

  2. I’m glad you like the site, there’s a lot of material there!
    I have been reading a lot of this scholar’s work – Aaron Cheak (editor of Alchemical Traditions) as he focuses a great deal on de Lubicz and on Egypt, and he will be coming out with a book on him next year.

    Your point I think is very important, and was shared by Schwaller. While he wasn’t merely an academic (although he was a shameless intellectual elitist in the academic sense), and more of a mystic and alchemist, going right to the source and bypassing any modern interpretation is always the best practice. That being said, Schwaller’s own emphasis was on grasping and realizing the “mentality of the Ancients,” getting into their skins as you say. But I think you may be right in that he understood that mentality and its significance, but hadn’t quite realized it fully on an inner level, hadn’t “run” the thought patterns (I suspect to a certain extent, though). It’s likely his overemphasis on the intellect was an obstacle.

    Do you have any pointers or tips on how to do this? As an alchemist, I feel this is key, and is the principal challenge – replacing the scientific materialism and rationalism that has been conditioned into us, and replacing it with the mentality of the ancients. How do we approach our work? With what ingrained attitudes and perceptions? What sort of approach and attitudes is most attuned to the work at hand? The sense is that the ancients at a certain time in history were as deeply attuned as humanly possible. How can one begin to move back in that direction? Is this discussed in your book?

    1. I actually hadn’t thought to cover this in the book, but now you mention it, it may be a useful tool for people.

      My training is as an actor, so the method I use to “get behind” a text comes from that training. Essentially, you want to find a mental path through the text that mimics a natural thought process. Because the text is moulding the thought process, it greatly restricts what can and can’t be done, thought, and felt as you go speak the words. If you do this consistently, you find yourself ‘hypnotized’ into a very particular head space whose nature will be very different depending on whether you are acting, say, Shakespeare or Noel Coward.

      The method of doing this is described in detail in Peter Barkworth’s book, About Acting. See if you can get hold of a cheap second-hand copy. You need to get the technique into your body as much as possible when you are learning it, so that the changes of thought are marked by changes in movement. The changes of physical momentum force the mind to grab and move on from thoughts in time with the text. Each phrase (in more modern texts) ends with a mental ‘follow-through,’ which is one or more unspoken thoughts that link each phrase of text to the next. These follow-throughs are very naturalistic in modern text; in Shakespeare they are frequently rarer: less of the thought process is left unvocalized. In texts like the Pyramid Text, which are memorized recitations, they are nearly absent. (I’ll deal with this below.)

      Start by alternating between continuous walking and standing still on each thought, and gradually add in head turns, gestures, and so on and so forth. Refer to the book for detailed instructions.

      For much older texts without follow-throughs, you need a slightly different method, which I haven’t seen described in any book but which I learned from an American Shakespeare company. You need to go word by word. Utter each word one by one, and each time you utter it, mentally and emotionally colour it with a specific meaning. Do about three different specific meanings for each word. String the words together regularly as you go through the text. For example, for the word “be” you might utter it the first time as an imperative, “be!” the second time in a “well, it might be” tone of voice, and the third time as though you were talking about a honey bee. This method sounds absurd, but it not only inserts the lines of text deep inside you, but by giving the mind several different options for each word, you are more likely to stumble across the most natural mental path through those lines. If you combine this with lying on the ground with your feet up on a chair, which will deeply release your diaphragm, then your emotional body can come into play as well, which will root the utterances much more deeply inside you.

      So those are two techniques for deeply rooting text inside you, both of which construct patterns of thought that flow naturally from the text itself. The more of a text you learn in those fashions, the more your mind will discover about the mindset behind the text. (The second technique is also excellent for learning rituals quickly and accurately, and as it does not require thoughts between utterances to work, it doesn’t generate any mental patterns superfluous to the ritual.)

      Also look at secular works from the period. For instance, look at non-royal Egyptian Old Kingdom tombs, which contain autobiographies, and compare them with the Contendings of Horus and Seth. This will give you a hint about how the formality of the civilization changed over the span of its existence.

      Also try and read some things by Patsy Rodenburg. She will teach you a lot about utterance and how to connect naturally to it.

      Do let me know how much of this makes sense, and any follow-up questions: I haven’t ever tried to explain this to anyone, so I’m not sure whether I’ve done a decent enough job to get you started.

  3. Wow! Thank you so much! That is really, really interesting. I am actually a lover of the stage myself, although I have not had nearly the kind of training you have had. I will definitely have to grab that book and do some more research into this. I admit I do not understand what you mean by the mental “follow-through,” although I am sure this will become more clear through study. I wonder if this method would be effective for alchemical texts as well. That reminds me, I had actually read an alchemical text out loud once and felt that somehow it went deeper than just a regular reading.

    I really look forward to your book, and I’m really glad you will be adding in the above.

    BTW, if you are into it, here a couple really good looking lectures on the alchemical teachings of de Lubicz
    http://www.hieratica.org/lectures/

    1. Ah, yes, okay, follow-throughs. So you know how, when you start to meditate, there are thoughts that bubble up from nothing, and thoughts that follow from a previous thought, like a chain? The follow-through is a thought that occurs to you as a result of a previous thought. That previous thought might be vocalised as a line of text, or it might not. More modern writing tends to leave more left unspoken; so in terms of follow-throughs, there are more follow-throughs between each spoken line of text. Follow-throughs are the unspoken thoughts that join up the individual phrases of a soliloquy into an unbroken chain.

      My suspicion is that the second technique, going word by word, would suit an ancient text better than working with follow-throughs, but I don’t actually know.

      Thanks so much for the links to the lectures. You probably saw on my Facebook page that I’m looking at Plato’s Timaeus at the moment, and these lectures look like they fit rather well with that.

      The Rodenberg books you’re after are the Actor Speaks and the Need for Words. On Amazon at the moment there’s a copy of the latter going for two quid. They’ll teach you a great deal about how to connect deeply with words.

      Reading in ones head is actually a pretty recent skill. Queen Elizabeth I’s reading room didn’t have a single book in it: it had soundproof walls. Her ‘reading room’ was a secure, soundproof space to read state secrets…because she couldn’t read in her head. Apparently, the only person in Elizabethan England documented as being able to read in his head was Dr. Dee…yes, that one…and he used it as evidence of his magical powers. So it’s not surprising that reading aloud gave you a deeper connection to the text: it seems to be scaffolding built on top of the earlier, wholly physical skill. You’ll have been engaging your diaphragm, your tongue, your lungs, your voicebox…and the muscular commitment does let things drop in more deeply.

      Oh, in fact, if you look at Plato’s Timaeus, you’ll see that whoever wrote it seems to have considered the internal organs of the body, including the lungs and the tongue, as actually parts of a person’s soul. So from Plato’s point of view, you got a deeper connection because more of your soul’s organs could get involved! Have a quick look here: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekFeb2011&getid=1&query=Pl.%20Ti.%2070a and read from 69c.

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