The Amduat, or, Backstage at the Theatrum Mundi

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

—Jacques, As You Like It, Act II Scene 7.

Print, based on Hollar's 1644 Long View of London, of the 1614 second Globe Theatre.
Print, based on Hollar’s 1644 Long View of London, of the 1614 second Globe Theatre.

In this post I want to share some long, rambling thoughts about the long, rambling title of a very strange ‘book’ painted on the tomb walls of some eighteenth- to twentieth-dynasty kings, the first of whom was Hatshepsut.  The book is known today as the Amduat, which means “What is in the Duat,” though its original title seems to have been “A Treatise of the Hidden Chamber.”

We might think of the Duat as the backstage area of the Theatrum Mundi. It contains the machinery by which the universe is continually recreated; it also is where the boxes are kept of the stuff that isn’t used any more: the old costumes, bits of set, and so forth.

And since as above, so below, we can also look for a parallel to the Duat in our minds. This is in no way intended to psychologize the Duat.  Rather, finding mental parallels to the Duat is a preparation for work out in the real territory, and the Duat is an area you don’t want to go without sufficient preparation!

If you asked Plotinus where he might put the Duat in his map of creation, I suspect he’d have associated it with the area of the universe he called its ‘mind.’ (Above the universe’s ‘mind’ is its ‘breath’; below it lies the material world.)

My thoughts in this post are largely inspired by a way of analyzing a sacred text known as the PaRDeS method.  It is generally used to analyse the Torah, but as a mental and spiritual practice it can be performed on any text, really.  If the text is uninspired, using PaRDeS on it will still generate interesting ideas.  If the text is inspired…well.  Suffice to say it’s rather more useful.

Briefly, when you use PaRDeS, it is as though you look at a text with four eyes, each of which sees a different thing.  Your first eye picks up the literal meaning.  Your second picks out poetic meanings.  Your third looks for hidden codewords—think dog-whistle politics.  And your fourth eye looks to heaven for divine inspiration.

I’m doing PaRDeS considerable injustice in the above paragraph, so please do your own research if it interests you.  I’m just riffing on the method in this article, really…

Right.  Let’s get to work.  The first line of the Amduat’s long, rambling title:

Line 1.


A treatise of the hidden region.

The literal meaning (Eye 1) is that this is simply a guide to jmnt, the Egyptian word for the West, or the Underworld.  But there is very much a poetic sense at work here (Eye 2), whose presence we may be warned about by the dog-whistle spelling (Eye 3) of jmnt. Here, imnt is not spelled using the glyph most associated with the the West/Underworld (as in Line 4, for example) but with a phonetic spelling and the papyrus-scroll determinative generally reserved for abstract concepts.

And perhaps there is another linguistic clue that we should pause and reflect on this phrase before moving on. Egyptian literature tended to be written in a sort of blank verse whose basic pattern is couplets, where the first and second lines of the couplet reflect on each other.

As Allen says:

The basic unit of composition was what has been called the “thought couplet.” This is two lines of verse that form a coherent thought, in which the second line mirrors, complements, contrasts with, or expands on the first.”

—Middle Egyptian Literature, p.2.

Well, this first line isn’t part of a couplet, because the next two lines clearly belong to each other: “the positions of the bas, the gods, / the shadows, the akhs, and what is done.”

So where’s its partner?

Let’s practise being inscrutable Egyptian mystics, and expand the meaning of this line ourselves.  Do you remember how, in an earlier blog article, I provided a method of quickly and accurately learning lines?  That method relied on creating several connections in your mind to each word of the speech to be memorized.  It is as though you secure the speech with several grappling-hook ropes lodged in different parts of your mind, keeping the word itself stable.  And by linking every word to several parts of your mind, you open yourself to the whole text on a very deep level, allowing it to speak to you far more profoundly than more superficial methods of line-learning allow.  This really has to be tried to be understood.

In the same manner, if we fill in the second, missing line of the couplet ourselves, by linking it with other things already in our mind, then we start a process of opening ourselves to the text, and increase the chances of Eye 4—divine inspiration—opening.

Here’s a transcription of the rather impenetrable scrawl of what I came up with in my journal: your connections will be different.

A book about the things that are hidden. A guide to things that are unknown. Valuable because rare: most people’s models of the universe say more about them than the universe. E.g. the Scott Adams / Stephan Molyneux interview to do with ex post facto justifications for why something worked. The socially acceptable, ego-boosting explanation is talent, focus, passion, etc. The real explanation may well be sheer dumb luck.

Finding the hidden regions and documenting them—even of mundane matters—is magical work in a literal sense: in the sense of knowing oneself by knowing the outside world, it is magical work even as it is good business sense.

Well, jump through that, dearies.

So, we have begun the process of opening ourselves to the text by providing some sort of complementary second line for the lonesome first line of the thought couplet.  In my case, I’m linking it mentally to a YouTube video that’s useful for my day job, and some musings I had with my partner about the straight dope, on any matter, being rather rarer than one might think.  You’ll do rather better.  Let’s move on.

Lines 2 and 3.

What hidden region does the Amduat treat of? Lines 2 and 3 give a summary:


The positions of: the Bas, the Gods,


The Shadows, the Akhs, and what is done.

The Bas are the spirits, including our spirits. The bas to be found in the Duat are mostly the souls of beings who are not in manifest existence at the moment, but some of them may be souls of the living. How do you think these maps of the Egyptian Underworld got back to us in the first place?  In the metaphor of the Theatrum Mundi, they are actors who are, for the moment, offstage—and therefore in some ways are more themselves than when they are onstage…

The nTrw are, in Quareia terminology, deities and angels.  In the metaphor of the Theatrum Mundi, they are the stage managers, the technical crew, the director, the author…

The shadows.  The Egyptians used the term Swwt to describe, as well as ‘shadows,’ statues of people.  People slowly fossilizing in the Underworld…patterns taken out of existence and put in storage.  It’s the boxes of old costumes and props.

The Akhs are souls of the dead who have managed, by hook or by crook—ahem—to stick around rather longer in the afterlife, and without completing the normal death process, than one might consider altogether reasonable.  You do not automatically get to be an akh; you have to work at it.  Salvation, one would hope, through work, rather than grace…

What is done. Is history compressed in the Underworld?  Is this the prompt book?  Is this the records of past shows?

Now let’s open our second eye.  Since in the first line we made mental connections to open ourselves up to the text, let’s continue the process here, and see what mental analogues we may find for the five things we can expect to find in the Duat.  Remember, we are not psychologizing the Duat: we are providing mental links to help open ourselves to the text.

  1. The bas. In the Duat, these are the spirits of (almost always) the dead.  In our minds, we might consider these our thoughts.  Most of them are dead inasmuch as we rarely think original thoughts, but a few of them look around inside our minds and report back with new material.
  2. The gods. In the Duat, these are the deities who make sure the show goes on.  In our minds, they are the processes that support our perception of the world, both inside and outside our heads.  In a very dark room, you can pick out hardly any detail, but you will find that you can pick out far more lines than you might expect, given the vastly reduced resolution of the image that you are seeing.  This is because part of your vision process looks for lines and actively draws them in.  In terms of our Duat-mind metaphor, there is a god of lineart living in your head.  He/she is not a thought (a ba), but an intelligent process that supports thought/ba creation and maintenance.  The god of lineart is one of the mental ‘gods’ that lets you perceive the shape of things; and a thought representing, say, a dining table, is sustained in part by the god of lineart drawing in the mental sketch of the chair’s appearance.  Our mental ‘gods’ are very much Duat-dwellers, because we are so much more focused on the thoughts dancing around in our heads than the processes that sustain them: the god of lineart lives very much behind the curtain.
  3. The Shadows are memories.
  4. The Akhs are promoted bas: thoughts that have become projected back onto reality, opinions that have become facts.
  5. What is done could be the weight of experience, or fossilized encrustations that take us off balance and need dealing with.

Again, I am not trying to psychologize the Duat. I am applying a Hermetic principle to think about how the Duat—a real place in our universe—might be echoed in ourselves, who are echoes of the universe.

Regarding dog-whistles—third eye—knowing the various definitions of Swwt proved very helpful in unpacking the lines.  I had come across Swwt as a word meaning “statue,” which added the notion of fossilization, which reminded me of an Underworld process that should be pretty familiar to the Quareia lot.  I am not saying this is the intended definition of “shadow” here, as far as the Egyptians are concerned; I am only saying that it makes sense as a definition when interpreting these lines.

And regarding Eye 4, divine inspiration, my hope is that the process illustrated in this blog article at least improves the odds of lightning striking.  By opening the first three eyes, you greatly increase the number of mental connections you have with the text, and so, if you’ll excuse another awful metaphor, you have more chance of providing your helicopter of inspiration with a helipad within its fuel range.

I am going to have to break the blog article here.  Originally I had intended to cover all seventeen lines of the Amduat‘s title, but I’ll never get the post out today if I do that, so expect the next installment to cover lines 4, 5, 6, and 7…and probably to be about the same length!

 Further reading

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.

Ennead: Bk. 4 (Loeb Classical Library)

If you’re going to read only one book of Plotinus’s Enneads, this is the one for you.



Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works Of The Middle Kingdom, by James P. Allen

A companion volume to the third edition of the author’s popular Middle Egyptian, this book contains eight literary works from the Middle Kingdom, the golden age of Middle Egyptian literature. Included are the compositions widely regarded as the pinnacle of Egyptian literary arts, by the Egyptians themselves as well as by modern readers. The works are presented in hieroglyphic transcription, transliteration and translation, accompanied by notes cross-referenced to the third edition of Middle Egyptian. These are designed to give students of Middle Egyptian access to original texts and the tools to practise and perfect their knowledge of the language. The principles of ancient Egyptian verse, in which all the works are written, are discussed, and the transliterations and translations are versified, giving students practice in this aspect of Egyptian literature as well. Consecutive translations are also included for reference and for readers more concerned with Middle Egyptian literature than language.

The Society of Mind, by Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky—one of the fathers of computer science and cofounder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT—gives a revolutionary answer to the age-old question: “how does the mind work?”  If you were tickled by the God of Lineart, read this book to find out a bit about the other ‘gods’ of your mind.

Author: Michael Sheppard

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

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