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Chapter 2: The Egyptian After-Life

Multiple souls and multiple after-lives

"The dead man is at one and the same time in heaven, in the god's boat, under the earth, tilling the Elysian fields, and in his tomb enjoying his victuals"

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The Great Egyptian Civilisation

Of all the great civilisations known at the present time, only ancient Sumer, which developed in the Mesopotamian basin in the fourth century before Christ, exceeds in age that of ancient Egypt.

Egyptian civilisation as it is known began when the King (or Pharaoh) Menes unified the separate Upper and Lower Kingdoms along the Nile in 3100 B.C.E.  Menes founded the first of thirty-one dynasties (this is the traditional number, according to the enumeration of the late (4th Century B.C.E.) Egyptian priest Manetho.  The precise number of dynasties - especially some of the minor ones - has however been disputed by modern scholars) of an empire that was to last until Alexander the Great's  conquest in 332 B.C.E., a period longer than that of any other known empire (see table 2-1).

From the sixth century before Christ onwards, during which time this mighty civilisation had already been in decay for several centuries,  Egypt served as the source of spiritual and occult wisdom for the more intellectually sophisticated world - the Greek civilisation of the North-West Mediterranian - much as today the more sensitive people of the materialistic and technological West look to India as the source of spiritual nourishment.  Philosophers, historians, and teachers - Pythagoras, Herodotus, Plato, to name just the better-known - journeyed there to learn the ancient wisdom and sciences, where they looked upon a civilisation as ancient then as the Classical Greek and Roman  period is to us today, and returned to the Hellenic world with their knowledge.

But the knowledge we are concerned with here - gleaned from the hieroglyphics of tombs and papyrii - dates from even before this period of Greek contact; from the time when Egyptian civilisation was still at its height.  In a fertile strip of land barely 20 kilometres (12 miles) at its widest, and 500 kilometres (300 miles) in length, nourished by the waters and nutrients of the life-giving Nile, the Egyptians built pyramids and temples to extraordinarily precise proportions - a precision that would be remarkable even with today's technology - and developed an incredibly sophisticated occult knowledge of the after-life state.

It is indeed no exaggeration to say that no other civilisation devoted as much care and attention to their dead as did the ancient Egyptians.  Their magnificent tombs, their elaborate funeral rites, their painstaking mummification technology, and their voluminous literature concerned with after-life existence, all stand as mute witness to this fact.

The literature itself can be divided into three periods, according to its mode of inscription.  First were the Pyramid Texts (ca.  2500-2300 B.C.E.), so called because they were inscribed on the interior walls of pyramids, which date to the fifth dynasty.  Then came the Coffin or Sarcophagus Texts (ca.  2300-2000 B.C.E.), of the sixth and the succeeding short dynasties of the First Intermediate Period.  Finally, the great eighteenth dynasty, with which commenced the New Kingdom period in the sixteenth century B.C.E., down to the end of the last remnants of Egyptian civilisation in the early Christian era, Papyrus scrolls were used, a copy of which was usually interred with the deceased to guide him the after-life; these were the famous "books of the dead".  It should be pointed out that the title "Book of the Dead" is a modern scholarly one; the actual title usually translates as something like "Book of the Coming Forth into Day, to Live after Death".

For the earlier period of Egyptian civilisation, it was apparently believed that only the Pharoah and his family continued after death, and became gods.  Hence the massive pyramids constructed during the fourth and fifth dynasties.  By the end of the Old Kingdom (sixth dynasty), post-mortem existence had been expanded to include nobles as well.  Finally, with the cult of Osiris, the slain and resurrected god, and a figure equivalent in many ways to the  Christian Christ, which appeared during the upheavals of the First Intermediate Period, the democratisation of post-mortem existence was complete, and all were assured of an after-life existence.  During this period, the deceased were first given the title "Osiris", a term which meant both the "soul" or surviving consciousness principle, and simply the departed person, like "the Late Mr Smith".  Thus the custom-made "Book of the Dead" papyrii address themselves to Osiris So and So (e.g.  "Osiris Ani").


Egyptian After-Life Metaphysics: A Study In Obscurity

With all the attention they paid to after-life existence, one would expect the Egyptian metaphysics to be clear and understandable.  But instead one finds a bewildering array of different psychic and spiritual principles, each of which appeared to a have a separate existence after death, and even during life.  Just consider the following (brackets describe the ideogram used):

 This bewildering confusion prompted one despairing writer to complain:

 "The precise meaning of ka, ba, ach (akh), `shm (sekhem), and so on is no longer clear to us.  Well-meaning scholars try again and again and again to force the Egyptian idea of the soul into our traditional categories without enabling us to understand even a little of it any better"
[J.  J.  Poortman, Vehicles of Consciousness - the Concept of Hylic Pluralism, vol 1, p.108, (The Theosophical Society, Utrecht, 1978, Adyar-Madras)]

The reason for this lack of understanding is not only the absence of esoteric-occult knowledge on the part of the scholars, but also the fact that we are dealing with a civilisation that spanned several thousands of years.  Throughout that long period, it is obvious that meanings would change, and new ideas and multiple schools of thought develop, so that the same word is used in a totally different context.  Compare for example the modern use of the words Soul, Spirit, Mind, Consciousness, and Psyche.  These words are given totally different meanings today than they - or their counterparts - were given 2000 years ago.  What is more, different religious, philosophical, and psychological writers, give widely differing meanings to the same term.  Even in contemporary occultism and esotericism, where one would expect a greater degree of precision, the meaning of technical terms such as astral, etheric, mental, causal, and Soul, varies dramatically.  Obviously, the situation was the same with the Egyptians.  So we would have a situation where the same term seems to describe several different realities, or alternatively where two terms describe the same thing.

In spite of all this, the Ancient Egyptian conception reveals great insight and sophistication concerning the nature of personality-existence after physical death, so much so that many of their ideas could be used to form a framework of understanding that is still valid today.  In this book I have attempted to do just that; to apply the occult  knowledge of the Egyptians to a modern-day under-standing of the nature of after-life existence.


2-iii The Egyptian Souls - An Interpretation

Perhaps the best way to begin would be to focus only on those soul-principles which are readily comprehensible.  For whatever their meaning may have been to the Egyptians themselves, the Sahu (Spiritualised body), Khaibit (Shadow), Sekhem (Strength), and Ren (Name) have little to indicate their meaning to us today.  But concepts such as the KA, BA, and AKH are of much usefulness, if we give them a specific meaning.  By Ka we could assume to mean that aspect of the disincarnate personality  which remains connected with physical existence, especially through the medium of the tomb.  The Ba would be the somewhat more refined aspect which can maintain its existence apart from the physical world, and, passing through many obstacles, finally attains to heaven.  It could perhaps be compared with the "astral body", the subtle vehicle of consciousness, of modern popular occultism.  The Ab or "Heart" - equivalent to the "Mind" or consciousness in the psychological sense - would constitute what the great early twentieth century psychologists such as Freud and even more so Jung would call the Ego, the principle of self-consciousness.  Finally, the Akhu is the principle which ascends into the celestial cosmos.  Admittedly this still sounds rather confusing, but hopefully the situation will be clarified in the following pages.

It should be emphasised that the above list does not refer to the successive stages a single soul passes through, as say the Spiritualist would assume, but rather the simultaneous after-life of the multiple principles that together in life make up the human personality.  As one Egyptologist puts it:

 "The dead man is at one and the same time in heaven, in the god's boat [Re, the sun- god's, celestial barge], under the earth, tilling the Elysian fields, and in his tomb enjoying his victuals"
[Lionel Casson, Ancient Egypt, p.81 (Time- Life Books, 1966)]

This concept of a multiple and simultaneous after- life follows naturally from the assumption, clearly held by the ancient Egyptians, of man/woman as a compound being.  Obviously, if the individual person is a compound being, and if these separate "pieces" survive death, it follows that each "piece" will have its own unique after-life fate.  This is in fact the central thesis of a number of different afterlife ontologies

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page uploaded 11 October 1998, last modified 19 September 2005