Book Review

by I. M. Oderberg
Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred, by Jeremy Naydler, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT, 1996; 310 pages, ISBN 0-89281-555-8, paper $19.95.

This book admits us into the presence of ancient Egyptian civilization. It not only evokes the atmosphere of the myths, but recreates that all too rare relationship with them that enables us to understand what it means to be part of ongoing cosmic processes as sacred realities. Naydler, a philosopher, comes to his task with a thorough grounding in Egyptology. He takes issue with the belief that the West's cultural debt has two sources -- the old Grecian and monotheistic heritages -- stressing that there is an older and deeper heritage from the preceding culture of ancient Egyptian derivation.

Naydler takes his title from a passage in the Corpus Hermeticum, an Alexandrian collation of Greek and Latin translations of ancient Egyptian texts made some 2,000 years ago:

Egypt is an image of heaven, or to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and are active in heaven have been transferred to a lower place. Even more than that, if the whole truth be told, our land is the temple of the entire cosmos. -- "Asclepius" 3.29

There follows a prophecy pointing to a time when "the temple of the cosmos" will become desolate. Naydler relates this to our own time, when negative attitudes toward the all-pervading life-force have already resulted in decimation of the rain forests, pollution of the earth's waters, and other adverse effects. Furthermore, he suggests that the prophecy indicates a larger historical process that reaches into the immediate future: the destiny of Western civilization. However, there is a second part to the prophecy:

When all this has come to pass,... there will be a renewal of human consciousness of the sacred. Wonder and reverence will once again fill human hearts. There will be a general reawakening to the divine,... This will amount to a new birth of the cosmos, "a holy and awe-striking restoration of all nature." -- p. viii

In the author's view, a key to understanding what is involved here lies in looking at the Egyptian land itself, saturated with the sun and solar influences generally:

It is as if here, in this unique physical environment, one comes closer than anywhere else in the world to an experience of the universal forces of life and death, playing out their mutually antagonistic yet complementary roles. They vie with each other, they contend with each other, but there is also a kind of harmony in this perpetual tension and conflict of each within the other. Neither can drive the other one out, and so they exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium. -- p. 3

This process is illustrated in the myth of the eternal see-sawing of the neteru Set and Osiris. In many translations of the texts, the Egyptian word neter (plural neteru) has been translated as "god" or "gods" in the Western sense. They were, however, the divine "principles" or intelligent expressions of the energies of divine entities. Set was symbolized by the seeming sterility of the desert, while Osiris, greenfaced to represent fecund vegetation, was identified with the Nile as "maker" of the country and terrestrial counterpart of the Milky Way. This duality was held to be universal, so that man and cosmos both conformed to some basic design, with considerable variations possible in details derived from the inherent qualities lying dormant in each being.

This relates to another important topic in this superb study: space. All too often we tend to think of it as merely a container, but the ancients had an entirely different view. For the Egyptians space was not an abstraction; there was an inwardness involved with the thought that manifestation gestated within space and, therefore, out of its "heart" emerged a vast range of entities that human beings became aware of when their own innate potentials of mind began to effloresce in increasing fullness.

As Naydler indicates, humanity stands at the cultural threshold of a new "civilization" involving a realignment called forth by hitherto-nascent human faculties. The question before us all is whether we are ready to realign ourselves into a new world view. In his epilogue, Naydler states that

Two pitfalls in particular are to be avoided. One is that we succumb to a nostalgic longing for a bygone age and a mode of awareness that is no longer appropriate for us today. While it may be that we should be doing our utmost to nurture an awareness of the spiritual powers or neters, if this renewed awareness is at the cost of the freedom and psychic (1) autonomy, and hence moral responsibility, that defines the modern sense of self, then we undo the most important gains of the Western historical journey. The opposite pitfall to this is that we overvalue our own culture so much that we either project our modern presuppositions onto the ancients, assuming that they thought and felt in much the same way as we do, or else we look askance at the ancient culture, rejecting it as submersed in primitive beliefs and superstitions that we have long since outgrown. -- p. 282

While he does not recommend a reimmersion in the formal aspect of ancient Egypt, Naydler suggests there is much to be learned from its view that universal life is an ongoing process with which we are still intimately connected.

The importance of ancient Egypt today lies in its being a reminder that our modern culture has deeper roots than we may have suspected, deeper not only historically but also spiritually. In tapping these roots we go to a profound source of inspiration and guidance. But at the same time we should recognize that the restored temple will not have the same form as the temple that was desolated. -- p. ix

Naydler's recommendation is to have a dialogue with the Egyptian experience of the cosmos as being alive with entities at various stages of unfolding qualities from within themselves. In our realization of the need for this kind of dialogue we would recognize our own spiritual foundations. And, as he remarks, in "Recognizing these foundations, the real challenge is to build toward the future."

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1. In the sense of the Greek psyche, soul. -- IMO