Friday, July 29, 2011

Disassembly and reassembly of the body in ancient Egyptian texts and ongoing shamanic ritual

We have previously quoted a passage from Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, in which -- drawing on the study of shamanic culture by Laszlo Vajda -- they explain that:
The real shamanistic initiation of the soul happens in the world of spirits -- while his body lies unconscious in his tent for days -- who dismember the candidate in the most thorough and drastic manner and sew him together afterwards with iron wire, or reforge him, so that he becomes a new being capable of feats which go beyond the human. 122.
Interestingly enough, John Anthony West sees a possible parallel between this graphic spiritual dismemberment and reconstruction of the (living) shaman and the spiritual dismemberment and reconstruction of the dead pharaoh described in the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (some of the oldest surviving texts from any culture on earth).

On page 146 of his indispensable book Serpent in the Sky, John Anthony West juxtaposes these most ancient descriptions in the Pyramid Texts with accounts of the beliefs of modern-day shamans of the Yakout tribe, living in eastern Siberia. First, citing Robert Lafont in Encylopedies des Mystiques, we learn:
A Yakout shaman, Sofron Zatayev, affirms that customarily the future shaman dies and spends three days without food and drink. Formerly one was subjected to a thrice-performed ceremony during which he was cut in pieces. Another shaman, Pyorty Ivanov, told us about this ceremony in detail: the members of the candidate were detached and spearated with an iron hook, the bones were cleaned, the flesh scraped, the body liquids thrown away and the eyes torn out of their sockets. After this operation the bones were reassembled and joined with iron. According to another shaman, the dismembering ceremony lasted three to seven days: during this time the candidate remained in suspended animation, like a corpse, in a solitary place. West 146.
Next to this description, Mr. West places a passage from the Pyramid Texts, from R.O. Faulkner's 1969 translation, in which the similarities are so remarkable that there must have been some cultural connection somewhere in the distant past:
I split open your eyes for you . . . I open your mouth for you with the adze of iron which split open the mouths of the gods . . . the iron which issued from Seth, with the adze of iron. . . This King washes himself when Ra appears . . . Isis nurses him . . . Horus accepts him beside him . . . he cleanses this king's double, he wipes over the flesh . . . Raise yourself, O King; receive your head, collect your bones, gather your limbs together, throw off the earth from your flesh . . . The Great Protectress . . . will give you your head, she will re-assemble your bones for you. . . join together your members. . . bring your heart into your body. . . O King, receive your water, gather together your bones. 146.
The similarities to the two experiences are obvious. Note in particular the prominence of the use of iron, as well as the details of the re-assembly of the body in both the shamanic and the ancient Egyptian passages. Note also that the shamanic initiate is in some sense "dead" when he undergoes this ordeal, just as was the ancient pharaoh.

From these passages, it appears that shamanic cultures have somehow preserved some of the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians (unless you wish to maintain that such details crop up all by themselves by some process of geographical necessity in widely removed cultures with no contact between them whatsoever, a belief that was particularly common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but which is clearly based on erroneous and somewhat ridiculous theories). Certainly, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend believed that shamanic cultures were the heirs of very ancient knowledge, as seen from a quotation cited in this previous post.

What other cultures inherited wisdom from ancient Egypt, or from some now-forgotten predecessor to ancient Egypt? Perhaps there are other cultures which display remarkable patterns of thought common to ancient Egypt but which conventional theory maintains had no possibility of cultural contact or influence. Could the importance ascribed to precessional numbers in many very old Chinese traditions, precessional numbers encoded into the pyramids and other ancient Egyptian monuments and mythologies, indicate some cultural inheritance bequeathed to China from the Egyptians as well?

These are all questions which John Anthony West raises by his insightful discovery of the parallels between shamanic tradition and the descriptions of the afterlife in the most ancient Egyptian texts.