The Riddle of Ancient Egypt

By I. M. Oderberg

The ancient Egyptian civilizations is still strange to us after many decades of research into its features and history. It seems so contradictory and presents a life-style far removed in spirit from our own. Some sensitive writers who have lived there have confessed their bafflement. The riddle of the Sphinx -- symbol of the spiritual and material elements -- applies not only to the culture of early Egypt, but to the enigma of our own lives. The head stands for the inner man of intuition and higher mind (or, on a cosmic level, the Christos-Horus aspect), while the body betokens the animal side of man and nature generally.

Lately, many of the books dealing with old Egypt have tended to concentrate either on the art aspect or a restatement of certain historical events. However, most of these reappraisals leave us with an aftertaste of our own century's mores and psychology rather than with the distinctive flavor of a civilization vastly different from ours. Mere knowledge of the language does not automatically unlock the doors into how the Egyptians thought about man and the universe.

Among the new books are the sumptuously produced Art of Ancient Egypt by Polish Professor Kazimierz; Michalowski (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., N.Y., 1968. 600 pp. including 904 illustrations, $40.00.) and the much smaller but very valuable advance report on recent finds made by Egyptian Dr. Zaki Y. Saad: The Excavations at Helwan: Art and Civilization in the First and Second Dynasties. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1969. 207 pages, $6.95.) Both men are distinguished Egyptologists, and their works represent two approaches to the subject.

Professor Michalowski's text serves to link together the spectacular plates. The effect of the whole tableau is rich and stunning. However, the author's simplistic stance on the history follows the fashion of the day -- seeing events through lenses colored by the theories of modern political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and religious sectarians. The pictures speak to us louder than the text, suggesting the spiritual quality of a high civilization more successfully than the verbal speculation about it.

Nevertheless, the author makes some important statements. The sweeping generalizations of experts, he points out, are based after all only on paintings and reliefs from a few tombs out of the many there must have been during the three to four thousands of years involved. He calculates that those found belong to about 13 individuals per generation! How could anyone justly summarize our own civilization merely from information drawn from a similar number of individuals? He claims furthermore, that we must be confusing their chronology because the Egyptians themselves used three calendars simultaneously, each fulfilling a different purpose, which we may loosely designate as religious, civil and agricultural. They were based on cycles of the star Sirius (Sothis), the sun and the moon. These in turn have influenced the variations in dating the beginning of 'historic' Egypt: Borchardt offering 4341 B.C. as the first date of reliable observation of the recurrent appearance of the star Sirius, while Professor Flinders Petrie, on archaeological grounds, preferred 5000 B.C. (approximately) for the unification of the country under Menes. Later Egyptologists base their preferments for 3500 B.C. or 2850 B.C. on various considerations, and Professor Michalowski disarms us by admitting that his own choice of 3100 B.C. is purely arbitrary -- a compromise, as it were.

Then again, quite apart from treating kings and their reigns solely from the political aspect as our historians do with European history, there is some misunderstanding of the meaning and intent of Egyptian religion. This may be due in part to habits of thinking molded by many centuries of European theology. There is no question that ethical principles were deeply embedded in the religious aspect and reached throughout all phases of everyday life. Still, Professor Michalowski finds the available evidence insufficient to enable him (or anyone else!) to formulate a theory of the beginning of Egypt's beliefs. In one place, he says there was no uniform doctrine arising out of a single tradition or revelation as ours is, but there appears to be an accumulation of many, often dissimilar traditions. Further on, he states that it is possible to draw a completely different conclusion about the origin of Egyptian religion, "by assuming that it began as a coherent system, which, over the centuries, was altered and distorted by popular beliefs." A bold leap is made by his statement that even the priests themselves were incompetent to present a consistent system of ideas because the myths and legends were so many and diverse that confusion reigned even for them:

This theory was advanced by those who believed that the Egyptian religion originated in the mythical island of Atlantis; this explanation, mentioned in Plato's Critias, was suggested earlier by Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers who had come into contact with Egyptian culture. Later the Alexandrian Gnostics expressed the same view in a more obscure form.

It is conceivable that a cultural traffic existed between Egypt and other old civilizations far distant from its shores. If not, we must assume, as the Professor implies, a common parentage predating our historical records, and in a land that has long since disappeared. Whatever the case, there is much to support the contention. The ruined pyramids of Egypt are not unique -- for instance, Central America has its own pyramidal remains, much older than some scholars surmise. Certain religious and artistic motifs prevalent in these and other countries now separated by the oceans could conceivably have flowered on different branches from the trunk of a common ancestral tree. The legends of many ancient peoples tell of such an antediluvian continent with a far-flung civilization, of which Plato's Atlantic isle was but a remnant. This would account for some of the resemblances between Egyptian life and that of the Americas.

Many commentators have rejected, while others appear to have overlooked, evidence of the existence of a Sacred College or Brotherhood, called in different eras by various names. One tradition has it that the Egyptian fraternity, known as sekhemu, eventually retreated into Upper Egypt and elsewhere: into the 'silence,' as the popular civilization materialized. Late in its history, it is believed, a portion dispersed into other lands and became known by the Grecian name of the "Dionysian Artificers"-- the initiated architects, builders and artists who embodied in their crafts the symbols and tokens of a highly advanced wisdom-religion. The sudden transformation in Greek temple building and art into their acclaimed perfection has been ascribed to their influence. However different their expression and style, the underlying canons may derive from a common 'law.' It is known that the Pharaohs had their own skilled architects who occupied a leading place in the hierarchy of national governance, many of whom were famous as wise men in addition to their professional eminence. For instance, Im-hotep, who planned and supervised the erection of Zoser's pyramid at Saqqarah and later became the popular patron of medicine; or Amen-hotep, the son of Hapu, and Senenmut, architect of Hatshepsut's superb temple compound in the Libyan cliffs at Deir el Bahari.

Scattered throughout Professor Michalowski's study are such flashes as "the Egyptian temple is an image of Egypt's earthly nature," and "among the most interesting and least-known relics of the Predynastic Period are drawings incised or hammered into rock. . . . They represent boats and also animals, including some species that disappeared from Nubia thousands of years ago." There are allusions also to the temperate climate many thousands of years before recorded history, when forests of a semitropical kind covered some areas, and the description of trees not now found there appear in a few texts.

The Denderah Zodiac, as another example in point, shows three Virgos, which could mean that someone may have wanted to record the completion of three precessional cycles of more than 25,000 years each! Herodotus also noted the priests' claim to having records of the time when the Nile Delta was scarcely formed and the sea washed at the base of the Great Pyramid. This would date it as far older than the time of Cheops, in which case his name may have been associated with it because he altered, repaired or added to it. The Gizeh structure has been called a "stupendous hieroglyph." We have only to consider the subtlety of thought required to calculate how much the enormous weight of the pyramid would sink it into the softer stone beneath it, thereby deflecting its orientation slightly, and then equating this variation with the shift in the plane of the ecliptic over cycles of time, so that the orientation to the galactic North and South would remain true!

If we contemplate the general ruins, the priests of Egypt appear to have had a considerable knowledge of engineering and other sciences and technology. But we do not have any surviving texts dealing explicitly with such matters. Why not? It may be because they were concealed in some way, perhaps in the material that we do have. Until today, it was thought that stonework flowered suddenly in the period of the early 4th Dynasty (c. 2700 B.C.- c. 2600 B.C.) after a beginning not long before that -- the pyramid complex at Gizeh supposedly indicating the acme of such skill in use and dressing of stone.

The work of Dr. Zaki Y. Saad changes our whole outlook on Egypt before the period of the Dynasties, which commenced around 6,000 years ago. In his excavations at Helwan -- 20 miles from Cairo, on the eastern part of the Nile, opposite the remains of Memphis -- he has uncovered a vast necropolis which he identifies with the lost city Iwnw, the early capital before Memphis was designed and built on Menes' orders. These tombs are of 1st and 2nd Dynasty officials (3200-278013 B.C.) and, although many had already been ransacked for treasures, enough pottery and other artifacts were left intact to indicate an accomplished civilization of considerable aesthetic taste and sophistication. More important, however, are the facts that good stonework has been found in large blocks used for steps, walls and ceilings, and also inscriptions showing that the Egyptian religious myths familiar to us actually extend far back into the Predynastic period (some pieces were sealed with Predynastic emblems).

Dr. Saad is one of the few outstanding Egyptologists born in the country. He has been Director of Excavation at many important sites, including the earliest, such as those at Saqqarah. His work, therefore, overlaps Professor Michalowski's in that area, but offers different conclusions. He claims that the word Helwan is the Arabized version of the ancient Egyptian Her-Iwnw, the 'City above Iwnw' (the shift from r to l being common in many languages), and the latter word being the name of the capital preceding Memphis. Iwnw appears in a few very old texts, and Dr. Saad feels Her-lwnw was the residential suburb of high officials, about 3200 B.C.

Professor Flinders Petrie, the father of Predynastic archaeology in Egypt, found remains of three distinctive cultural types to which he gave a far earlier date than the 5000 B.C. he ascribed to Menes, the unifier of the historic state of Egypt. There is a suggestion that far back into the night of time, Egypt was originally one nation, but that the decay wrought by the ages eventually loosened the central control and eroded the fabric of the state. Various self-seeking splits were assumed to have resulted in two main sectors, now called Upper and Lower Egypt, which were eventually molded by the strong will of Menes into one. It is assumed the 'Double Crown' worn by the Pharaohs symbolized this event. There may be another more mystical explanation for this, however. For deeply rooted in Egyptian religion and philosophy was the recognition of duality -- of soul and body, spirit and matter, one the mirror-image of the other. Hence some of the place-names in the Pert-em-hru ('Book of the Dead') are located opposite to their position on the actual map of the physical country.

We have here barely touched on a few aspects of the Egyptian civilization and modern scholarship about it. In a subsequent article we hope to devote attention to the tree that produced the fruit, the roots of which tree drew sustenance from the human soul trained in the mysteries of life.

 (From Sunrise magazine, November 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)

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