The Amduat II: Unity of Opposites

…their philosophy, which, for the most part, is veiled in myths and in words containing dim reflexions and adumbrations of the truth, as they themselves intimate beyond question by appropriately  placing sphinxes before their shrines to indicate that their religious teaching has in it an enigmatical sort of wisdom.

—Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 354 C. tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb edition.

In the previous post, we began to look at the introduction to the Amduat using the PaRDeS method.  We also talked a bit about the Theatrum Mundi, and how the Duat can be thought of as the backstage area where things are prepared for the stage, and where old sets and costumes are put in storage.

Before we get on with it, a quick PaRDeS recap for those of us who may need it—basically, you are looking at a text in four different ways:

  1. Literal meaning
  2. Poetic meaning
  3. Dog-whistle terms
  4. Divine inspiration

All right, here we go.  In this post I want to venture a little further into the Amduat’s long, rambling title…venturing into lines four to seven, to be precise.  We’ll analyse them as we did lines one to three, and see what we come up with.

Line 4


The beginning is the horn of the West

Line four is only three symbols, and much can be extracted from each of them. HAt, “front,” is indicated by the front of a lion.  Looking it up in Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, we discover that it can also have, among others, the following meanings:

forehead, forepart (of an animal), prow, vanguard (of army), beginning (of region or book), foremost, chief, the best of…

—Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, p.162.

So much for the literal meaning.  Now for some poetic meanings.  The hieroglyph reminds me of Aker, the double lion who guards the horizon/limit.

Looking at the alternative meanings of the word, we see that it can mean “beginning” as in “the beginning of a book.”  In the beginning…might be a bit of a stretch, but we’re just letting any imaginative connections surface in our minds, at the moment.  There is also the connotation of the front of a face—the forehead—that part of a thing which faces us, which is its face…just store that away for later.

Let’s move on to wp, here rendered as “horn.”  Again, let’s look at other literal meanings in Faulkner, and see if it inspires any poetic connotations.  On p.59 of Faulkner’s dictionary, we see that the hieroglyph used here could be an abbreviation for several different words:

wpt: horns, top of head, brow, top of mountain, wpt tA top of the earth = farthest south, top-knot, headdress, zenith

wpj: open (the womb in childbirth, open the face i.e. enable one to see), open up (a district, a road, a quarry), inaugurate, part, separate, divide (goods), judge (contestants at law or petitioners), reveal (truth), discern (a secret), distinguish (by name), take (someone’s place), specify (details)

wpt: judgement

I have rather abbreviated these definitions for the sake of brevity: check the dictionary yourself if you want more details.

So we see again connotations that have to do with the face, and some magically and mystically interesting uses that have to do with the top of a mountain and the south/zenith as the start of the West: wpt tA, “the top of the earth,” means “the most southerly point.”  Notice that south is associated with height? From then on, it’s all downhill as we proceed West…just as a modern mystic would expect.

There is also the connotation of judgement—and here English has a phrase which uses exactly the same imagery as the hieroglyph wp: to be “on the horns of a dilemma.”

There is also the idea of birth or perhaps rebirth: opening a womb.

You can see how Egyptian priests may have got their reputation for irritating inscrutability.  Egyptian has rather a restricted vocabulary compared to modern English, but each word may have many avenues of meaning to explore. As Plutarch tried to tell us, and as modern linguists are now rediscovering, the Ancient Egyptian language’s richness was achieved through sphinx-like allusion rather than specificity of word choice.

Finally let’s look at jmnt, “West.”  Again, on p.21 of Faulkner’s dictionary, we see various concepts that the hieroglyph can represent (here, again, rather abbreviated):

Amaunet (a goddess), secret, secret place, the right side, the West, the West personified as a goddess

Several points of interest here.  The West is associated with things hidden, and with the goddess who is Amun’s counterpart in the Ogdoad, Amaunet.  (Amun meaning “the hidden one.”)  It is also associated with the right hand side—just as it is today.  (This should also let you figure out which cardinal directions the Egyptians generally associated with ahead, behind, and left.)

Returning to the inscrutability of the language, you will note that as well as the translation Erik Hornung gives of this line—“the beginning is the horn of the West”—the three words HAt wpt jmnt contain within them many other connotations, which may or may not make sense.  For instance:

“Foremost is the discerning of what is secret.”

“The beginning is the opening of the right side.”

Both of the first two words have meanings that have to do with the face.

Line 5


The gate of the western horizon

Straightaway you’ll notice the interesting point that the symbol for sbA, a star or possibly a starfish, can mean “gate.”  Let’s see what else it can mean (p.219):

star, door, teach, pupil, surveying instrument

By an astounding stroke of charity-shop fortune, I own Faulkner’s personal copy of his Middle Egyptian Dictionary, which has copious ballpoint annotations in his neat, copperplate hand.  As you will see, he has added the following definitions:

Faulkner’s later handwritten additions to his entry for sbA in his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.

gate, doorway, doorframe, school, sunshade

and with the related word, sbAyt:

learning, lore, punishment, chastisement

So here the theme of judgement, which was introduced in our discussion of wp, is counterpointed by introducing the notion of punishment or chastisement—bringing back into balance by something unpleasant but cleansing.  Notice that the hieroglyph for sbAyt (bottom of the page) is a man using a stick to give someone a good threashing?  Remember, we are looking at a process that happens in a westerly direction…

Also note that he has added some abbreviations that he has come across for sbAyt“written teaching,” as a curly-bracketed margin note, including, simply, sbA.  This would seem to suggest that on occasion, sbA could be read as an abbreviation for “written teaching, lore, learning.”

Interpreting sbA as an abbreviated word may be indicated by the dog-whistle of the next sign (point 3 of the PaRDeS method), the wiggly water-line that represents the letter n, and which here is an abbreviation for the word ny, “of.”  (It is commonly abbreviated in this fashion.)  So you would have one word, sbAyt, “lore,” which may be abbreviated to sbA, “gate,” followed immediately by the word ny, “of,” which definitely is abbreviated to “n.”

Notice that reading sbA as “lore” would create a nice continuation of one of the possible readings of the previous line:

Foremost is the discerning of what is secret,

The lore of the western horizon…

How often we still speak of education as a gateway!

In the previous post, I compared the Duat’s landscape to the human psyche to help readers conceptualize and, hopefully later, access the place by linking it to their preexisting mental structures.  Perhaps this sort of linguistic meditation on the Amduat’s opening lines can serve a similar purpose.

In any case, the mystical advantages of a restricted vocabulary communicated by symbols should be becoming very clear, now.  It’s a bit similar to what Hebrew kabbalists accomplish by comparing the numerological values of words.  I also hope I’m selling you on the benefits of owning a copy of Faulkner’s dictionary…

Also note that among the other words related to sbA, Faulkner has added:

sbAwy, the two blades used for ‘opening the mouth’

So again we reintroduce the “face” theme suggested with the first two words of the previous line.  These blades, thought originally to have been used to sever a baby’s umbilical cord, and/or to clear the newborn’s throat, became part of the opening of the mouth ritual by which the deceased regained the use of their mouth.  Again, there is the whiff of utterance.

The next symbol, of the sun between two hills, Axt, is sometimes simply transliterated into English as “Akhet.” Generally translated “horizon,” the word (which I will have to discuss at length in my book) has definite senses of liminality and gestation. The Sun spent several hours in the Western and Eastern Akhets after setting and before rising; Akhets are places that are neither the Duat nor the material world, “neither here nor there.”

Let’s see what Faulkner has to say about Axt (pp. 4–5):

what is good, profitable, useful; do good to; arable land, uraeus-serpent, eye of god, flame, horizon

Now in this context the term “horizon” is clearly meant, but the other meanings, indicated with other determinatives, still make for some interesting connections.

We looked at jmnt in the previous post, but observe how its spelling has been changed to an alternative, ending with two bread loaves.  File that away for later.

Line 6



The end is Unified Darkness

(note: should read kkw-zmAw, not kkw-zmzw)

And here’s the back of the lion from Line 4! pHwy, “end.”  Again, Faulkner provides us with some interesting other meanings and connotations (p.92):

hinder-parts, back of jaw, back of house, the back of a locality = its northern part, rear, rearguard of an army, stern of a ship, end (both concrete and abstract)

Again, do you see how the “face” subject comes up?  In the previous line we found a connection between sbA and the instrument used in the opening of the mouth; here we see a word indicating the back of the jaw.

Also, note the connection between pHwy and North.  Again, this should indicate to you how the Egyptians generally mapped the directions around them.

Also, the contrast between HAt, the vanguard of an army, and pHwy, its rearguard.

There is also the related word pHwyt, “rectum,” interesting for the fun metaphor of the Underworld as the universe’s digestive system, which here we discover “ends in Unified Darkness”…on which more now.

Unified Darkness is one translation of kkw-zmAw, where kkw is “Darkness.”  But let’s look at the other connotations of the words, before we draw together some of this line’s meanings.

kkw (p. 287). Faulkner has added some more really interesting things to kkw in his copy of his dictionary:

Faulkner's later handwritten additions to his entry for kkw in his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.
Faulkner’s later handwritten additions to his entry for kkw in his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.

kk, a plant; kk, be dark, of a child about to be born; kkw, twilight; kkw-smAw, primeval darkness.

Twilight, as ‘not-quite-darkness,’ is not a bad description of a stillness meditation: even at your stillest, there is still that spark that is you.  So even in the Egyptian word for utter darkness—and kk, Darkness, is one of the ‘chaos gods’ that preceded creation—there is still the connotation of light.  We also see that the phrase Hornung rendered as “Unified Darkness,” Faulkner preferred to translate as “Primeval Darkness”—so this journey through the Duat, which the Amduat describes, will take us right back to the start of creation, to the darkness experienced, in Faulkner’s explanation of kk, by a “child about to be born.”

zmAw (p. 225–6) also has interesting connotations:

Faulkner's later handwritten additions to his entry for zmAw in his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.
Faulkner’s later handwritten additions to his entry for zmAw in his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.

unite, alloy, temple (of head), union, branches (of a tree), cloth

Again we see the “face” connotation: zmA can mean the temple of the head.  Also interesting to mystics will be the meaning “branches” (of a tree).

Let’s move on to the final line, which is simply a repetition of line five, and which should help us draw together these four lines as a unit.

Line 7: Bringing everything together


The gate of the western horizon

So what we have here are two contrasting thought couplets (see previous post) which both end with the same line: “the gate of the western horizon.”  Notice how the alternative spelling of jmnt, with two breadloves at the end, visually picks up on the duality?

Here is the translation of lines 4–7 provided by Hornung:

The beginning is the horn of the West,

the gate of the western horizon,

the end is Unified Darkness,

the gate of the western horizon,

There seems to be a paradox here: both the “beginning” and the “end” are defined as “the gate of the western horizon.”  Logically, we might expect to read that “the end” of the Duat is the Eastern horizon—where indeed it is.

Is this another dog-whistle clue (3rd part of PaRDeS) that more is going on in the text than its literal meaning..?

The puzzle is how to resolve this paradox.  We could sort of resolve it by reading “lore” instead of “gate,” as I suggested earlier, and prefixing it with an indefinite article rather than a definite article—Egyptian having not much use for either until quite late in its development:

The beginning is the horn of the West—

—a lore of the threshold of the western horizon.

The end is Unified darkness—

—a lore of the threshold of the western horizon.

Let’s look at various other, rather less literal versions of these four lines, remembering that they are all potential subtexts that a literate Egyptian—or a dumb foreigner with a dictionary—might draw out.  They are not alternative translations; they are allusions contained within the words themselves.  Not all of the potential subtexts make much sense, though!  Those would be illusions contained within the words…

Foremost is the discerning of what is secret,

The lore of the threshold of the West;

Rearmost is the twilight of union,

The lore of the threshold of the West.


“The beginning is the judgement of the right side,

The chastisement of the threshold on the right side;

The end is a primeval darkness-preceding-dawn/(re)birth.”

—the school of the threshold of the west.


“The most southerly point is the opening of the West,

The gate of the western horizon;

The most northerly point is Unified/Primeval Darkness.”

—a survey of the western horizon.


The highest point is the opening of the West,

A gate of the western horizon;

The back room is Unified Darkness,

A gate of the western horizon.

Finally, here’s my attempt to bring out all the ‘face’ allusions—something is going on here, but it’s not clear what:

The forehead, the top of the head, is the secret,

A gateway to the Western horizon;

The back of the jaw is the darkness of the temples (of the head),

‘Opening the mouth’ of the Western horizon.

There is so much to chew on in just these four lines…and you can do the rest of your chewing yourself.  I’ve got to finish now, or I’ll never get this up today! I hope this post has served to show you the sheer richness of the Egyptian language, and how much is missed by reading translations, as they can only capture one dimension at a time of the wordplay and symbol-play that is possible by investigating the original texts themselves.

Below are the books you need to continue your journey.  If you are thinking of learning Egyptian, you might also have a read of this.

Suggested books

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.

Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, Raymond O. Faulkner.

Faulkner’s dictionary is the one you want.  Nothing else comes close in English.  Unfortunately—and incredibly—it appears to have just gone out of print.  Either snap up a copy before it’s too late, or hope it comes back in print soon.

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

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