definitions of ritual may be formulated. Let us understand
"ritual" as a special event in time and space, organized in
terms of a shared sequence of symbolical, formal acts and utterances,
serving the goals, values and expectations of an individual, a group, a
society, a cultural form, or a world order, whatever these aims may be. In
this sensu lato, the "obsessive rituals" of the compulsive neurotic
In the specific, much narrower case of
religious rituals, these privileged deeds & words may involve : induction, consecration, initiation,
passage, commemoration, celebration, invocation, evocation, etc. They
always set aside a totaliter aliter, and are intended to link the
part with this larger whole. The latter is given a mental architecture
thanks to a set of symbols of transcendence and/or immanence. These may be
theist or atheist, monotheist or
henotheist, as in
In magical rituals, the intention is to pacify, to grow, to shield or
to destroy : protection, defence, lawful combat,
execration, healing, the restoration of
a state of affairs, the reversal of misfortune (caused by negative
energies), healing, natural evolution etc. are specific examples.
Magic aims at the Earth, religion at the sky. Magic is never without
religion, but religion may reject magic. In many ways, magic is what makes
religion possible. In all
Egyptian religious rituals, magic is a functional element, ascribed to
specific priestly functions and
magical instruments (cf. the "Ur Hekau",
a name for both a priest and a magical weapon to circulate the Sa).
Basically, through enactment, religious ritual realizes intention by
making use of the (visible or invisible) natural order (elements & forces), be it
to celebrate the
Divine (as in offerings, commemoration, thanksgiving, etc.) or in terms of a
particular request (votive ritual). Simply put : the ritualist acts and
the intention happens. Clearly, ritual and magic interconnect, although the
magician is not necessarily a priest, and so may bind "lower"
forces (such as elemental spirits or Earth-bound demons) to his trained
& focused will to achieve his personal goals. The priest can put magical forces
in action, but never without asking guidance from the Divine (cf. the
oracle) and considering their effect in the great plan of things. The
priest(ess) serves his (her) God. The magician serves his intention.
Ritual is a complex language composed of speech-acts & meaningful activities,
bringing it close to performance, dramatic
techniques, the standards of literary critique and various artistic
traditions. However, contrary to theatre, an audience and an applause are absent.
"At least, it is true to say
that the bulk of the surviving inscriptional evidence represents ritual
and ceremonial activities performed by the king."
Wilkinson, 1994, p.149.
Nobody doubts Egyptian religion was highly ritualistic, involving daily ceremonial activities (complex rituals celebrating the
Divine) and regular, popular festivals, or public celebrations,
with a pre-determined periodicity (daily, quaterly, monthly, yearly, etc.) cast
in a religious calendar, based on stellar (stars), astral (planets),
seasonal (Sun and Sothic cycle), monthly (the 4 quaters of the Moon) and
daily phenomena (decans and Earth-rotation).
Rituals synchronized with a series of natural events interwoven in complex
mythologies. But foremost, a theology of State defined Egypt's way of
worship. Pharaoh was the only high priest of Egypt, the sole
representative of the gods
and goddesses on Earth. Of course, royal festivals were also a way to strengthen the
prestige of Pharaoh, and the whole of society participated.
Pharaoh's core ritual was the offering of Maat to his father Re.
Maat had no sanctuary of her own, but was worshipped in all Egyptian
temples (there is a small ruined temple to Maat in the southern sector of
the precinct of Montu at Karnak). By maintaining the redistributive (pyramidal) order of life,
Pharaoh, as son of Ra, returned what had been received, completing the
circle and assisting Re in his eternal cycle (cf. the royal
"cartouche", the circumambulation of the "Sed" court,
the ambulatory around the naos in the temples, etc). Only Pharaoh could
open the bolts of heaven (on the two wooden doors of the central shrine)
and "see" the deity "face to face". This mystical
experience (cf. the testimony of
was ineffable, but conferred a higher understanding to the King, enabling
him to unite the "Two Lands". Indeed, he alone was a divine spirit
Let us distinguish between different cycles of ritual worship :
Diurnal rituals :
the rehearsal of life : These rituals only happened in the temples.
The hymns to the hours found in the books of the day, but also the
record of the liturgy, executed for thousands of years in the major
temples of Egypt, evidence a constant celebration of life and order
thanks to Pharaoh (or, in the post-Amarna period, Amen-Re, popular
since the Middle Kingdom). These ceremonies were initiated by the
"hour-priests" ("horologoi") on their watchtowers (the pylons),
recording the nocturnal sky and projecting their archetypal ideas on
the stars and the planets. Hours before the sun rose above the local
horizon, the whole temple domain comes awoke to prepare for the most
important of diurnal sacred service : the morning ritual (followed by
midday and evening rituals).
: the sacerdotal
rehearsal of the netherworld ? Most egyptologists stress the Solar
(the journey of Re at night) and funerary (protection through
knowledge and/or the sheer presence of sacred words) intentions of
those texts depicting the stages of the netherworld (for they were
found in tombs). Nevertheless, their this-life ritual
importance was noted by Hornung :
nocturnal jouney of the sun is the focus of all the Books of the
Netherworld, and consistent with this, it also furnishes the ordering
and creative principle for the spaces in the hereafter. This nocturnal
regeneration of the sun demonstrates, by way of example, that powers
of renewal are at work on the far side of death. At the same time, the
journey occurs in the spaces of the human soul, in which a renewal
from the depts become possible. That it is an odyssey of the soul is
emphazised by the Egyptians through the indication that the sun god
descends into the depths as a ba-soul (and thus is ram-headed,
since ba is also the word for ram) ; herein lie significant
antecedents of modern psychotherapy."
The presence of crypts, the Osireion, divination (oracles), as well as
the attested practice of allowing people to solicit the deities by
sleeping within the temple enclosure, and having their dreams
interpreted (cf. Late Period), point to the possibility of priestly
temple rituals dealing with a preparation for the afterlife as well as
initiations preceding or perfecting one's priesthood, in which the
renewal offered by these dark, nightly depths is sought.
the proto-type of renewal and fertility, because he was rejuvenated by
the wellness of the Eye of Horus, offered to him by his son Horus, allowing
him to escape a second death and finally spiritualize as the spirit of
eternal life itself.
: we know of a series of observances linked with the cycle of the
Moon, in particular the New Moon, the beginning of the cycle, the
First Quater, the Full Moon (or "Filling of the Eye") and Third Quater
or 20-day observance. These cycles were dedicated to the Mystery of
the Moon-god Osiris.
Festivals and processions
: The festivals were ceremonies (a network of rituals) returning very
year and intended to keep the order (maat) of creation active on
Earth. Hence, in principle, they were royal rituals in which Pharaoh
invoked the deities and (re)established his divine rule, affirming his
authority and drawing to him all the resources of the "Two Lands".
These Egyptian festivals had extreme dramatic intensity and could be
called gigantic ritualistic performances, wherein gods, goddesses,
Pharoah, the priests, musicians, dancers, etc. (re)enacted the myths,
with massive offerings ... In some rituals, the common people could
also join, and after all the food had been put "in front of" the
deities (for them to consume the Kas),
it was redistributed.
unlikely for a processional & ritual construction as the
Osireon not to have been used for a netherworldy Osirian mystery drama. As no other
evidence of the sort of papyrus Leiden 32 T has (yet) been found, no final
conclusions are at hand. But even if these Egyptian initiation rituals
historical, they differed from
Greek mysteries and should neither be confused with
Hermetic and other
cross-cultural syncretisms (like the cult of Serapis). In these, native Egyptian
Hellenized and modified to satisfy the Greek
"noetic" mentalities (just as the Torah was Hellenized).
Under the Ptolemies, the original, native context had been lost for over
eight centuries (namely at the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period,
ca. 1075 BCE), although the cultural pattern and its sacral core continued to remain operation
long after Pharaonic Egypt -in Greek guise- had finally come to an end
with the suicide of Queen Cleopatra VII (30 BCE).
Dramatic directions are sparse, but the fact they exist proves the
importance of this-life ritual in Ancient Egyptian religion. Many
representations are ritual high points frozen in space : foundation
rituals, libation, censing, opening the mouth, food offerings,
offering of Maat, execration, worship of the deity, to name the most
common. The vast literature of Egypt provides us with a variety of
ceremonial gestures (adoration, respect, repose, devotion,
supplication, rejoicing, triumph, healing, mourning, smiting,
harpooning), priestly functions (overseer, reciter, magician,
libationer, seer, overseer of the tomb, oracle, physician, guardian,
chanter, keeper of offerings, etc.) and magical instruments (hedj, was,
djam, seb-ur, ur-hekau, sekhem, ritual crowns etc.). The Egyptian deposit is a
vast storehouse of images,
magical practices, spiritual intentions and
wisdom teachings. It constitutes a broad cultural
pattern (stretching over three millenia), which has been a source of
wisdom and inspiration for all Mediterranean spiritual traditions, in
particular Judaism and Christianity (Islam was influenced via
Egyptian rituals in Late Hellenism, Scripture and the Renaissance :
Despite contemporary egyptology, a precise historical reconstruction of Ancient Egyptian rituals is impossible.
The dramatic line is lost. Even an educated reconstruction would
contain many "blanks", crippling the dynamics of the ritual. Such
information would only convey the basic ritual matrix of
speech-acts and gestures, nothing more. Moreover, because of
Egypt's multiplicity of approaches, no "standard" line is to be
sought, for every temple made adaptations serving its tutelary deity.
Hence, a reconstruction of Egyptian ritual "as such" is unthinkable,
for although there are overall patterns, there is no "theoretical"
model. We may reconstruct Heliopolitan or Osirian ritual, but never
Egyptian ritualism as a whole.
Before contemporary egyptology could do its work, Ancient Egypt was
the object of three major reconstructions :
Hellenistic reconstruction :
Ancient Egyptian religion, after having
influenced the Greeks, was eventually
Hellenized. The cults of Osiris and
Isis, as well as
Hermetism, evidence the survival of
Hellenized forms of the native Egyptian ways. But the Greeks
intermixed their somber views of the hereafter with the extended
Egyptian funerary rituals. Their extatic, "away from the body" mystery
traditions was escapist. The role of Anubis as "guide of the dead" and
initiator and Osiris as "king of the dead" was reinterpreted in terms
of the Greek religious attitude. The Egyptian mysteries were seen as
leading to another, better plane of existence, away from the
limitations and boundaries of the material plane (cf. Plato's analysis
of the realm of becoming and the body as a "prison" or "tomb" in
Plotinos' Enneads IV 8,3). The Greeks longed for a
contemplative life, devoid of material duties and suffering. Theory
was more appreciated than practice. Hence, material life on Earth,
feding the passions, had to be bridled and finally transcended. In
this perspective, death heralded the final disconnection with the
body, a state the Egyptians tried to avoid at all costs. Their
religious attitude was un-Greek and in no way theoretical or
abstract. In Egyptian religion, material life was spiritualized to
make it eternal. Death was rebirth in the afterlife.
Indeed, the Egyptian view on their mysteries and secrets was Oriental.
The Egyptians loved life and saw death as the gate to an even more
richer life. After purification in the Duat, the final
transformation of the soul takes place, initiating the spirit-state.
The rituals guaranteed a two-way communication between the
spirit-world and the material plane : the false door in the tomb is a
way to leave the tomb but also a way to return to it. In the
spiritual economy of the funerary temples of the Old Kingdom, this return of
the spirit to the tomb was crucial. Thanks to the funerary magic of
the tomb, the deceased could make his family benefit from his (or her)
invisible powers and liberty of movement, free of shadow and extremely
fast. In this way, magic could be accumulated and passed on to future
generations ... In contemporary African tradition, the spirits are
described in comparable terms.
In the Graeco-Roman mind, nobody returned to Earth, the escape was
final. Death brought rupture and disconnection. When, for literary
reasons or to close a play with a "deus ex machina", a spectre
of the dead or a deity appeared, then surely only vaguely and mostly
to announce something bad or worse. This stern and lifeless
vision of death (which befell all except the deities) is already at
work in Homer, who's poetry suggests Mycenæan roots (cf. the Mycenæan
Age, ca. 1600 - 1100 BCE). The "morbid" interpretation of the Egyptian
tradition is therefore largely Hellenocentric.
Scriptoral reconstruction :
the so-called "religions of the book" (Judaism,
Islam), introduced their own narrow
angle : Egypt as the home of taskmasters, idols & polytheists. In
their "revealed" scriptures, these religions condemned Egyptian
religion, although none of their protagonists were able to read
Egyptian (Moses is not of history but of memory). When Egypt turned
Christian, the old religious structures were destroyed and most
Egyptian deities transformed into demons (cf. "Amun" in Medieval
Goetia and Solomonic magic). The cult of Isis became the worship of
Mary, and the resurrection of Osiris was transformed into the
spirituality of the cosmic Christ, represented on Earth by the Pope
(the Christian Pharaoh). The old trinitarian concepts of Deity
developed in Egypt, became the "Holy Trinity" ... It is remarkable to
see how the canonized versions of these so-called "revealed"
scriptures were written decades after their founders had died (Moses,
Jesus and Mohammed wrote nothing). Moreover, although these traditions
rejected the Egyptian view of the world, they nevertheless continued
to cherish Egypt as the home of perennial wisdom, science, magic and
mysteries, albeit allegorical and Pagan.
Renaissancist reconstruction :
when the Renaissance started in Italy, and the work of the Arab
translators began to influence intellectual life in Europe, the
allegorical interpretation of hieroglyphs (initiated by the Egyptian
priests of the Late Hellenistic Period), brought a fictional approach
of the Egyptian heritage on stage. This would continue to do its job
despite Champollion cracking the code (in 1824) and showing the
hieroglyphs were not primarily allegorical but phonetical. Between the
XIIIth century (the end of the influential Templar movement with its
"magical" tenets, the invention of the new Jewish qabalah by Moses ben
de Leon - cf. the Sepher Zohar and the influential Solomonic
magic) and the XVIIth century (the start of
Hermeticism and the Rosicrucian
movements) the allegorical interpretation of Ancient Egypt initiated
egyptomania, a fictional approach of things Egyptian, devoid of any
appreciation of the basic ritual matrix (cf. the historical
reconstruction). These views became independent of their origins and
influenced Western Occultism, Theosophy and, in the last decades, the
LA-based New Age Movement. Egyptomania has a very narrow historical
basis and introduces gigantic phantasies involving Atlantis and a
stellar religion dated thousands of years before recorded history. To
produce their formidable hotch-potch, they add qabalah and Christian
Gnosticism to the mixture. Even today, these dubious claims are
2004, p.10 gives 50.509 BCE for the so-called emigration of the
"priesthood of Atlantis" to Egypt !).
the Hellenistic, Scriptoral and Renaissancist reconstructions are
flawed and rejected. The work of appreciating Ancient Egypt has to be
redone from scratch, which is precisely what egyptologists and other
scientists have been doing for the last two centuries (with an
increasing amount of technical data becoming available in the last
approaches are rejected in favor of a historical reconstruction. This
offers, for the first time since the demise of Egyptian culture,
interesting valid historical information concerning the
Egyptian ways, based on the direct translation of the vast corpus of
Ancient Egyptian literature and a contemporary perspective on the
symbolical features of its art (Wilkinson,
1992 & 1994).
"In esoteric circles,
people are too dependent on the old, outdated works of Budge and ought
to take into account more recent literature, which has much to offer
of esoteric interest."
Hornung, 2001, p.2.
Among egyptologists, most (if not all) aspects of this jealously guarded historical
of Ancient Egypt may be approached in four ways :
antiquarian : usually associated
with the beginnings of archaeological research from the 16th century onwards, it
refers to a pre-scientific approach of studying the past in which the emphasis
is on detailed recordings of the material evidence, as well as on ordering it in
typologies, implying relative chronologies, and in spatial groups, implying
the shared ethnic identities of their makers. Key concepts of antiquarianism include
the notion of historical progress and the ethnic interpretation of material
culture. The current market value of any piece is an important element, and a
factor undermining true care for the artefacts (a gold braclet may be saved, but
the arm to which it is attached not ...) ;
archeological : the application
of innovative methods of survey, excavation, analysis and synthesis of Pharaonic
and Predynastic sites, revealing a record previously regarded as relatively
uninformative, such as soil and seeds. Issues are : dating, technology, way of
life, settlement & society, the how & why of change etc. ;
linguistic : the study of all
written materials in terms of recent linguistic theory and our increasing
knowledge of the Egyptian language (out of over 110.000 objects in the British
Museum's representative collection of Egyptian antiquities, about a third are
inscribed with a text in some manner) ;
techno-scientific : the
application of alternative scientific methods to prospect sites, individual
pieces and papyri, including physical, chemical and biological techniques.
so-called "Kemetic reconstruction" (after "kmt", the "back" fertile
silt left behind by the receding Nile), if in accord with the basic
ritual matrix (unknown to Renaissancist Hermeticism and its
following), can be more than just (another) literary fiction.
This thematic reconstruction "fills in the blanks" of the
basic ritual matrix in such a way as to be faithful to what is known
of native Egyptian history. It outlines an itinerary of physical,
emotional, mental, soul-like and spirit-like growth and well-being
based on Ancient Egyptian teachings and practices.
Because these blanks are eliminated in
harmony with the historical reconstruction, the spiritual device or
psychological mechanism is liberated from Hellenistic, Scriptoral,
Renaissancist and egyptomanic ballast. This "purist" approach is
necessary. But is it truly possible ? Can the many unknowns be
genuinely defined ?
Kemetism : towards
a genuine Egyptian esotericism ?
In the sixth
century CE, the last Egyptian temple (of Isis at Philae) was officially closed. Egypt had
become Christian. The ability to read hieroglyphs was lost. Hermetism
was recuperated by Christianity (Clement of Alexandria and the later
Orientale Lumen) and Islam (cf. the Sabians of Harran). Because
nobody could read the original texts, egyptomania, a literary fiction
of Ancient Egypt, was inevitable. It was fed by the mythological,
allegorical and symbolical interpretation of the signs themselves,
suggestive of an ancient, secret knowledge of the most profound kind.
Egyptomania had and still has a tremendous impact. It puts into
perspective the universal appeal of the hieroglyphs, the "words of the
gods", magic and Egyptian art. These are the archetypes of the Egyptian view.
Kemetism, contemporary Egyptian esotericism, proposes a valid device,
but cannot prove its historical claims. The historical matrix is too
incomplete to provide us with enough information to eliminate all the
unknowns present in the ritual equation.