Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The importance of reading the Pyramid Texts (death and rebirth -- during life -- in ancient Egypt)

In the previous post, we saw that Jeremy Naydler's revolutionary thesis in his 2005 publication Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt asserts that much of the language interpreted by conventional Egyptology as describing the journey of the soul after death should actually be understood to describe the shamanic journey of the consciousness while still alive, undertaken during a deliberate ritual in which the participant symbolically died and experienced realities beyond the ordinary material realm.

That post discussed the fact that such a thesis completely upends the conventional paradigm, and also threatens the Darwinian "cult of progress" which undergirds so much of modern academia and has for the past century or more.  It also noted that the shamanic connections that Dr. Naydler finds in the ancient Pyramid Texts which he believes are describing this mystical initiatory experience correspond to assertions made by de Santillana and von Dechend in their seminal 1969 examination of the evidence that ancient mythology preserves and transmits advanced and sophisticated scientific and esoteric knowledge, entitled Hamlet's Mill: an essay on myth and the frame of time (for previous posts on Hamlet's Mill see here and here).

Dr. Naydler's book provides readers with a detailed tour of the texts in the Pyramid of Unas, who reigned from 2375 BC through 2345 BC, and whose pyramid not only contains the first and oldest known collection of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts inscribed on the inner walls of a pyramid, but also the best preserved corpus of texts.  As Dr. Naydler explains:
Of the nine pyramids at Saqqara, four are so badly damaged that whole sections of text are missing from certain walls.  These four are the pyramids of Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, and Iby.  The pyramids of the three queens of Pepi II are also not in the best state of preservation, and they suffer, along with that of Iby, from the added disadvantage of being single-chamber pyramids and therefore lacking an inscribed antechamber.  Their texts are thus not as representative as the other pyramids, which all have antechamber texts.  this leaves the greatest body of extant texts in the pyramid of Unas and the pyramid of Pepi II.  Pepi II's pyramid is the largest and has by far the most utterances on its walls.  But it has also sustained some damage, so the texts of this pyramid are incomplete.  One might think that this is more than made up for by the greater amount of texts.  The impression one gets, however, is that Pepi somewhat indiscriminately crammed as many texts as possible into his pyramid, often overriding earlier conventions as to the placement of utterances on walls oriented to one or another of the cardinal directions.
We are left, then, with the pyramid of Unas, which is not only the best preserved but also the one pyramid for which we have a complete set of utterances. 152-153.
Fortunately for those of us born at a time that enables us to see a tremendous amount of information via the web that was more difficult to find in previous decades and centuries, the entire corpus of texts from the pyramid of Unas is available online at  sites such as Vincent Brown's outstanding Pyramid Texts Online.  Here, visitors can read the utterances of the pyramid of Unas as they were intended to be read -- as a sort of "three-dimensional book" in which the location of various utterances is extremely significant (as Dr. Naydler explains: "Unlike a modern printed book that can be more or less read anywhere on the planet, the Pyramid Texts are wedded both to the chambers and to the walls on which they are inscribed.  A north-wall sarcophagus-chamber text could not be transposed to the east wall of the antechamber without losing a whole dimension of significance" [165]).

Visitors can see a diagram of the layout of the chambers in the interior of the pyramid, and click on the different walls of the chambers to read the utterances that are found in each area.  As one goes through the pyramid of Unas, the text of Dr. Naydler is an essential guide, and his book contains excellent 3-D representations of the chambers as well as diagrams of each wall showing the partitioning of various utterances and their locations on each wall.  However, the Pyramid Texts Online site is also an essential supplement to Dr. Naydler's book, as it allows readers to peruse every single utterance in its entirety.

Further, the online tour of the pyramid of Unas contains viewable photographic plates of each inscribed surface of the interior chambers, allowing visitors to see the hieroglyphs themselves in full color -- Dr. Naydler describes the first view the visitor to the actual temple has of the texts themselves: 
At the end of the corridor, the first chamber of the pyramid to be entered is the antechamber.  The antechamber is right at the center of the pyramid.  The exact center of the pyramid is the center point of the antechamber ceiling.  Here it is possible to stand up, and to have the experience of being encompassed on all sides by the blue-tinted hieroglyphs, which seem almost tangibly to emanate a magical power and to saturate the chamber with a mysterious potency. 160-161.
The Pyramid Texts Online site enables the viewer to see a glimpse of this magical blue color of these earliest extant human texts.  The hieroglyphs themselves are beautiful -- a writing system that is a masterpiece of design.  As John Anthony West explains in his groundbreaking 1979 work, Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt :
The hieroglphyic system was complete at the time of the earliest dynasties of Egypt.  It continued in use for sacred and religious texts throughout the millennia of Egyptian history, and even beyond: the last recorded discovered hieroglyphs come from the island of Philae, just below the first Nile cataract, and date from the fourth century AD.  147.
Describing hieroglyphs carved into wood from the tomb of Hesire, vizier to the Third Dynasty pharaoh Zoser at Seqqara, he says: 
The hieroglyphs are already complete,and later Egypt will never succeed in carving them with more power or purity.  Still earlier hieroglyphs are no less complete, but in general less well executed.  nothing supports a postulated 'period of development.'  But it is possible that guardians of the ancient tradition required a number of generations in which to bring artists and artisans up to this standard.  14.
The beauty of the hieroglyphs in the Pyramid Texts of Unas is undeniable, and some measure of this beauty can be appreciated through the color photographic plates of the online site. 

Reading the texts of the pyramid of Unas online in their entirety helps one to grasp the power of Dr. Naydler's argument that these utterances describe a mystical experience undergone by the king during his life -- most likely during the very important Sed festival which was traditionally held during the thirtieth year of the reign of a pharaoh but which Dr. Naydler demonstrates could be held before that and could be held multiple times (it was not limited to once every thirty years).  For the celestial significance of the thirty-year cycle, see this previous post (among others).

For an example from the texts of the Unas pyramid which support the arguments of Dr. Naydler in his book, see utterances 223 and 224, from the east wall of the sarcophagus chamber.  Here, the king is urgently commanded to awake, to turn himself about, to stand up, and to "put on" the body again.  

Reading them in the Pyramid Texts Online site, the translations contain bracketed attempts to explain these commands in terms of speculation that they may refer to some kind of "courtyard circular procession (?)," because the conventional approach that these texts address the spirit of the dead king makes them somewhat confusing to the traditional translator.  

However, under Dr. Naydler's theory, they make perfect sense: the king (still very much alive) has undergone a profound and dangerous mystical experience in which his consciousness has taken leave of the body and journeyed into astral realms beyond the boundaries of ordinary human experience.  Now, the attendant priests are urgently requesting that he return, and again "clothe himself" with the body.

As Dr. Naydler writes on page 219 in discussion of these utterances:
Instructions to the soul to "put on" its body, or equally clothe itself, may have had a place in mummification rituals, but  in the present context they make considerably more sense if we assume that the king is not in a mummified state.  [. . .]  If the sequence of twelve utterances appears to end where it began, there may be a very good reason for this.  And that could be because the "return" at the end of the series of mystical and ritual episodes is to the very same place as that from which the "departure" began.  
All of this discussion has extremely important ramifications, not only for our understanding of ancient history, but also for our understanding of human consciousness.  If the consciousness can depart from the physical body, this has implications which suggest that the material world is not all that there is (contrary to the modern materialistic faith underpinning almost all of conventional scholarship today).  

Extensive evidence gathered from those who have undergone near-death experiences appears to bear this out, as Chris Carter asserts in his authoritative examination of the subject in his book Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death.

Further, this pattern of ritual mystical death and rebirth infuses the patterns of many ancient writings and traditions (including esoterism, Gnosticism, and Christianity, among others).  One of the experiences testified to within the Pyramid Texts is that of rebirth during the voluntary death-like experience within the sarcophagus, during which the pharaoh was baptized, suckled by divine goddesses such as Hathor or Iat.

All of these themes have powerful implications for us today. Although they are among the earliest texts in existence, they speak to us at the cutting edge of the present in the twenty-first century, "precisely because," as Dr. Naydler writes, "in the prevailing culture of the West (and increasingly the modern world), we suffer from chronic amnesia concerning spiritual realities with which the ancients were relating on a daily basis" (144).  

He concludes that, "Insofar as we are able to acknowledge cultures of the past, not only as part of our own history but -- as Eliade says -- as part of what lies buried within the modern psyche, and insofar as we are able to incorporate and integrate them into our understanding of who we are today, we may open the way to reconnecting with that lost part of ourselves and that lost dimension of existence that was so present to the Egyptians and has become so absent from our modern awareness" (144).