O Egypt, Egypt, of your reverent deeds only stories will survive, and they will be incredible to your children! Only words cut in stone will survive to tell your faithful works, and the Scythian or Indian or some such neighbour barbarian will dwell in Egypt.
This haunting passage comes from the Corpus Hermeticum, the celebrated ‘Hermetic’ body of writings, believed to go back to Hermes Trismegistus himself, a semidivine figure associated with the Greek god Hermes and his Egyptian equivalent, Thoth.
These texts go back no further than the early centuries of the Common Era. The passage above hints at their purpose: to preserve something of the knowledge of Ancient Egypt as its civilisation began to decay. Here is a good place to start when looking at Egypt’s role in the Western occult tradition.
The Corpus Hermeticum was brought to Italy in the mid-fifteenth century by Greeks fleeing the collapsing Byzantine Empire. The great patron of the arts, Cosimo de’ Medici, had these texts translated into Latin almost immediately. Because scholars thought they went back to Hermes Trismegistus, believed to be a contemporary, and perhaps a teacher, of Moses, they were held in the highest esteem for almost two centuries. When their true date was discovered, they lost much of their prestige, and they have never quite regained it. Nevertheless, they have shaped the Western esoteric tradition in innumerable ways.
Consider Athanasius Kircher, a seventeenth-century Jesuit who, in the subtitle of Joscelyn Godwin’s recent book about him, was “the last man to search for universal knowledge.” Part of the knowledge he sought was the meaning of the hieroglyphs. Kircher’s interpretation, created out of his own imagination, was almost entirely wrong. But his mistakes are instructive.
The symbol that he regarded as the key to this knowledge is a human-headed scarab from a bronze tabletop known as the Bembine Table of Isis. The body of the scarab, Kircher says, is the Earth; its wings are the airy sphere; several concentric ovals set in the place of the shoulders are the planetary orbs; the head is Horus, or the Sun; and a crescent above the head is a moon. A winged disk floating nearby is the anima mundi, the “soul of the world.”
Kircher’s representation reflects, not some genuine knowledge of Egyptian religion, but the system of the Corpus Hermeticum. The Hermetic texts were seen as the embodiment of Egyptian teaching. Their actual relationship to what the Egyptians taught is a much harder issue to sort out, if only because Egyptian religion was multifarious. Scholars used to think they were a mishmash of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and early Jewish and Christian mystical teaching. But the title of the main treatise is the Poimandres, a bewildering name that has inspired many fanciful etymologies. Today scholars believe it is a Grecised version of the Egyptian p-eime-n-re or “mind of sovereignty.” At the outset, Poimandres – who is described as an “enormous being” in the Corpus – announces he is the “mind of sovereignty.” There may well be more of Egypt in these texts than people used to think.
The Corpus Hermeticum was not the only attempt to preserve Egyptian knowledge. Another is a Greek text dating to the fifth century CE, and attributed to Horapollo, a priest of Isis and Osiris. The Horapollo, as it is called, explains the meaning of the hieroglyphs.
Here is one example. One passage (in a nineteenth-century translation) reads: “When they would represent the universe, they delineate a SERPENT bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail; by the scales intimating the stars in the universe.” And in fact the image of a snake devouring its tail – the ouroboros – does go back to Ancient Egypt, the first instance being found in a text going back to the fourteenth century bce.
Whether or not the ouroboros had the meaning given by Horapollo may be moot; it has sometimes been said to symbolise, not the universe per se, but the formless disorder that encircles the universe. In any case, the Horapollo probably reflects some real, though garbled, knowledge of the hieroglyphs. In any event, its interpretation has echoed down through the centuries. Like the Corpus Hermeticum, it shows how Egypt has operated on the Western occult imagination.
Egypt touched the minds of occultists in other ways as well. The renegade seventeenth-century Italian monk Giordano Bruno harked back to Egypt as a way of reviving and purifying the degenerate Christianity of his time. Bruno’s Egyptian religion has little to do with the Egyptian religion dug up by archaeologists in the last two centuries. Rather it is, again, the doctrine of the Corpus Hermeticum, which in Bruno’s time was still believed to date back to the great age of Egypt. That Bruno wanted to revive the Egyptian religion wholesale may seem eccentric, but it’s understandable in light of the history of the seventeenth century, with its appalling religious warfare. For Bruno, Egyptian Hermeticism was a means of rising above these petty conflicts, a means of fostering tolerance and awakening a higher awareness.
The Catholic church, which did not see things quite the same way, burned Bruno at the stake in Rome in 1600.
But in no way has the allure of Egypt waned throughout the centuries. In 1781, the French polymath Antoine Court de Gébelin, in a work entitled Le monde primitif (‘The Primitive World’), said that the Egyptian priests had encapsulated their knowledge in a book of Thoth consisting of visual images. According to Court de Gébelin, this book made its way to Rome and into the hands of the church. When the papal court was removed to Avignon in the fourteenth century, the book was recast into a deck of playing cards, known today as the Tarot. Scholars today are not, for the most part, convinced by this argument.
The influence of Egypt on the Tarot remains. The Ryder-Waite deck, created in 1910, by far the most popular deck in the English-speaking world, abounds with Egyptian images: sphinxes with breasts; Isis with her crescent moon; the jackal-headed figure of the god Anubis. This is no accident: the deck’s creators, A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult order whose symbols and rites were replete with Egyptian imagery.
By the time of the Golden Dawn, which in its original form lasted from 1888 to 1900, the hieroglyphs had been deciphered by the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, so the Golden Dawn’s picture of Egypt was much more accurate than had been available during the Renaissance.
One of the most resonant evocations of Egypt came with the 1877 publication of the two-volume Isis Unveiled by the Russian occultist H.P. Blavatsky. Although it took its title from the name of the great Egyptian goddess, Isis was not principally about Egypt. Instead, it argued there was an ancient but unified wisdom tradition that underlay all religions.
In its way, Isis does present an updated Hermeticism, describing the human makeup in the tripartite fashion of body, soul, and spirit that goes back to the Corpus Hermeticum, the ancient Gnostics, and indeed primitive Christianity. Curiously, in light of Blavatsky’s later teaching, the book denies reincarnation. She would later change or recast her views to support reincarnation. She excused her inconsistency on the (not entirely convincing) grounds that reincarnation was a secret teaching that she had not been allowed to disclose before a certain point.
Reincarnation itself occupies an ambiguous place in the Western esoteric tradition. Christianity (at least in its conventional forms) has always avoided or repudiated it. In Judaism it is part of the esoteric tradition of the Kabbalah, although until recently it was almost unknown to ordinary Jews.
Did the Egyptians teach reincarnation? If you ask mainstream Egyptologists, they will generally say no. But Herodotus, the Greek historian from the fifth century bce, says exactly the opposite. In a comprehensive picture of Egypt that can be considered the first anthropological study in human history, Herodotus writes: “The Egyptians were the first to teach that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth.” He goes on to say: “Some of the Greeks, early and late, have used this doctrine as if it were their own; I know their names, but do not here record them.”
Here Herodotus probably means Pythagoras, who studied in Egypt and may have learned the doctrine of reincarnation (as well as the geometrical theorem that bears his name) from them. The Corpus Hermeticum speaks of reincarnation as well. Possibly reincarnation was taught among the Egyptians – but only as an esoteric secret passed down orally.
Reincarnation was an issue that divided the Western esoteric tradition from that of the East. So claimed the founders of an occult order called the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (or H.B. of L.). In 1884 it made its presence known with an ad reaching out to those disaffected with ‘Hindoo Mahatmas’ – an allusion to the hidden Masters that, Blavatsky claimed, were guiding her. The central teachings of the H.B. of L. include a denial of reincarnation, the use of magical and ritual work to attain higher consciousness, and the use of sexual magic as well. The lodge’s use of the name ‘Luxor’ indicates its claim of an Egyptian lineage.
The H.B. of L. dissolved after only a couple of years because of internal dissention, but it had an influence out of all proportion to its size or lifespan. Its teachings live on in C.C. Zain’s still-extant Church of Light. Some of the H.B. of L.’s sexual magic techniques may have also found their way into Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis.
Probably the best-known occult order of the twentieth century also traces itself back to Egypt: the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, founded by H. Spencer Lewis in 1915. AMORC has a strong and heavily emphasised Egyptian flavour; Lewis said that it went back to an esoteric lodge founded by Pharaoh Thutmose III in the fifteenth century bce. Today AMORC’s headquarters – Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California – contains a temple designed with Egyptian motifs as well as an Egyptian museum.
I could go on much longer. I could, for example, mention the Temple of Set, which in 1975 broke off from Anton Szandor LaVey’s notorious Church of Satan when some members of LaVey’s organisation decided that he was not serious enough about his Satanism. The Temple identifies Satan with Set or Seth, the slayer of Osiris in Egyptian myth. (Despite the similarity of names, scholars do not think the names ‘Satan’ and ‘Set’ are connected, ‘Satan’ coming not from the Egyptian, but from a Hebrew word meaning ‘opponent’.) The Temple of Set does not promote evil per se but advocates “creating an individual, powerful essence that exists above and beyond animal life” (in the words of its website).
Apart from organisations, there are the many people who are drawn to the mystical side of Egypt through some encounter with its art and architecture. Writers such as John Anthony West, author of The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt, and Normandi Ellis frequently lead tours to Egypt that focus on its mystical and occult aspects. As Ancient Egypt recedes further and further away from us in time, it remains vividly alive in the memory and imagination of the West.
Brian P. Copenhaver, ed. and trans., Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and an Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, Inner Traditions, 2009
Wouter J. Hanegraaff et al., eds., Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Two volumes, Brill, 2005
Herodotus, Translated by A.D. Godley, Four volumes, Loeb Classical Library, 1931
The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo Nilous, Translated by Alexander Turner Cory, sacred-texts.com/egy/hh/index.htm; accessed Oct. 30, 2014
David Reigle, “Isis Unveiled: A Perspective”, www.easterntradition.org/isis%20unveiled-a%20perspective.pdf; accessed Oct. 30, 2014
Richard Smoley, Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism, Harper San Francisco, 2006
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