Egyptian initiation

by Wim van den Dungen

see the god
in the hall underneath the trees

the Egyptian temple

"In ancient Egypt, festivals were celebrated (completely or partially) in temples. These were pure and sacred places, where (some) humans could approach the deities. Thus, it is very important to be clear about the character that the temples possessed as single entities separated from the world. This special character is acquired in the mythical foundation, because they are located in the lands that first emerged."
Serrano, 2002, p.1.

No other ancient culture constructed temples in such number. Beyond the physical stone of these temples, "we may still sense much of the symbolic nature of these structures, the deeper reasons for their construction." (Wilkinson, 2000, p.6). They have been described as mansions of the deities, models of Egypt and the universe, focal points of worship, portals to the divine, islands of order amid the ocean of chaos, spiritual engines etc.

In functional terms, there were two types of temples : (a) the houses of the gods, serving their patron deities and (b) those serving the royal cult of the "son of Re" (before -for his Sed Festivals- and secret rituals and after he died, i.e. in his mortuary cult). Throughout Egypt's history, a thick curtain of silence was drawn between the sacred, pure temples and the outside, profane world.

"Never go about revealing
the rituals You see, in all mystery, in the temples."
Chassinat, 1928, p.361, line3 - temple of Edfu - Late Period.

The earliest traces are Predynastic (ca. 6000 - 6500 BCE - Nabta Playa), whereas the last temple (of Isis at Philae) was closed by Emperor Justinian in 535 CE (Theodosius in 384 CE had decreed the closing of the temples of Egypt, officially ending the Pagan Era).

"Within the walls of most of these monuments, sanctuaries and treasuries, offices and palaces, slaughterhouses and schools might be found. Not only were many of the religious complexes centres of government, economy and commerce, but also within these temples ancient science and scholarship thrived and the nature of existence itself was pondered by generations of learned priests."
Wilkinson, 2000, p.7.

Egyptian versus Greek initiation

Egyptologists like Morenz, Piankoff, Mercer, Frankfort, Faulkner, Assmann, Hornung or Allen have good reasons to stress the difference between the Greek and the Pharaonic perspective on initiation (from the Latin "initio", introduce into a new life). The Egyptians maintained a series of rituals aimed at "a constantly renewed regeneration" (Hornung, 2001, p.14). At best, the Greeks induced the point of death in order to glimpse into its darkness, to "see the goddess" and renew. But they had no "science of the Hades" as in the Amduat. The active continuity between life and death found in Egypt, contradicts the closed and separated interpretation of the Greeks, fostering "escapism" (the "body" as a "prison" out of which one needs to escape). In Egypt, no "new" life was necessary. Death could bring "more" life. For both life and the afterlife depended on identical conditions : offerings ; either directly to the deities through Pharaoh or indirectly to the Ka of the deceased. If dualism fits the Greeks, triadism is Egyptian.

In their exclusive funerary interpretation of the religious literature of Ancient Egypt (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Coming out into the Day, Amduat, Book of Gates), these great scholars evidence a Hellenocentrist prejudice. Although the Platonic philosopher "preparing for death and dying" is like the initiate of the Eleusinian mysteries (cf. Phaedrus and Phaedo), and may come to the point of death to see into the invisible (spiritual) worlds, he knows he will never find wisdom in all its purity in any other place than in the next world ... So, according to these authors, sustaining the Hellenistic approach of contemporary Egyptology regarding religious experience in Ancient Egypt, the initiatic, this-life experiences of the king, of his priests and of his worshippers, found in the religious text and on the monuments of Egypt, do not reflect direct spiritual experiences, but are imaginal constructions and wishful thinking about the afterlife. The dogma being : Ancient Egyptian religion was funerary and mortuary. This position is rejected. It is not because a text is found in a tomb that it is necessarily funerary. In Egypt, Pharaoh encountered the deity "face to face" every day. He was a god on Earth, in the Duat and in the sky. His energy had no limitations and with it he sustained creation by offering the right order of nature. There was no question of initiation being linked with the separation caused by physical death. Physical death (of Osiris) was the gate to a resurrection for the benefit of the living (Horus). But the living king (Horus) could also ritually die (as Osiris) to resurrect (himself and Egypt).

"As we have already seen, it is perfectly feasible for the same pyramid to have been use both for the Sed festival, 'secret rites' and then subsequently as the tomb of the king."
Naydler, 2005, p.109.

Indeed, the validity of an exclusive funerary interpretation of the Pyramid Texts (or for that matter the complete corpus of religious texts, such as the Coffin Texts, the Book of Going out into the Day and the Amduat), popular in egyptology the last 50 years, has to be addressed : is there a mystical dimension or direct experiential contact with the divine beyond the first three studied by Egyptology (Assmann, 2002) ? To wit :

  1. the cultic : the local, political residence of the deities, either as belonging to a particular place and/or as state deities functioning as symbols of the collective, political identity ;

  2. the cosmic : the emergence, structure & dynamics of the sphere of their action ;

  3. the mythic : the sacred tradition, or "what is said about the gods", their cultural memory as set down in myths, names, genealogies etc.

  4. the mystic : the direct experience of the deities or the objective spiritual realities encountered by the divine king, his priests and worshippers.

In the context of the New Solar Theology in general and Atenism in particular, the question whether Egyptian religion had religious subjects besides the dead has already been answered affirmatively, whereas the role of Osirian initiation was touched upon (cf. the Osireon). Akhenaten's return to the "pure" form of Solar worship allows us to work out the inner dynamics of the this-life mysteries celebrated by Pharaoh, "mysticism" being defined as the direct experience of the Divine. Atenism rejects the "hidden" and the "dark", and so cannot exist together with Osiris and Amun. It eliminates the "hidden" side of Re, returns to the exclusive worship of the lightlands of the horizon of both East and West (cf. Ra-Horakhety), and rejects all possible netherwordly interpretation by eliminating the Duat and bringing the sky on Earth, namely in Akhetaten, Akhenaten's City of the Aten. This is the Solar economy pushed to its limits. Its sole mooring-post being the king.

And the people ? They secretly continued to worship Osiris, even in Akhetaten, and likely elsewhere. Did they remember the failures of kingship (namely at the end of the Old Kingdom) ? Did they disbelieve Akhenaten ? If so, they still obeyed. Perhaps, for their own hearts, the certainty of a good place in the kingdom of Osiris gave greater comfort than the "new" heaven of Akhetaten ? Indeed, the second-best, Lunar heaven of the commoners had not lost its alluring power. But, touching Osiris, the issue of the mystic dimension is "demotized" : how could commoners directly experience and "see" the deities ? For Moret (1922), the mystery in Egypt revolved around the concept of "voluntary death", experienced before the actual physical death of the body. This "dead posture" preludes spiritual rebirth or "peret-em-heru" : going out into the day ... For Wente (1982), the New Kingdom Amduat and Book of Gates bring "the future into the present", so that rebirth "could have been genuinely experienced in this life now". And this, most likely through festivals, pilgrimage & personal piety. In these latter contexts, Osirian faith allowed non-royals to have direct spiritual access to the Duat, the world of magic and of the dead. The Books of the Netherworld are usually very explicit about this, but Egyptology has yet to take them serious.

"He who know these words will approach those who dwell in the Netherworld. It is very very useful for a man upon Earth."
Amduat, concluding text of the Second Hour.

"The mysterious Cavern of the West where the Great God and his crew rest in the Netherworld. This is executed with their names similar to the image which is drawn in the East of the Hidden Chamber of the Netherworld. He who knows their names while being upon Earth will know their seats in the West as a contented one with his seat in the Netherworld. He will stand among the Lord of Provision as one justified by the Council of Re who reckons the differences. It will be useful for him upon Earth ..."
Amduat, introductory text of the Ninth Hour.

How can these texts not point to a this-life occult knowledge ? And once we acknowledge the presence of a mystical dimension, we beg the question of how to operate the magic ? Is there a particular series of rituals enabling one to experience the objective spiritual realities behind three thousand years of spirituality today ? Of course, the first thing to do is to lift the funerary restrictions put on the available corpora. Although found in tombs, they move beyond funerary concerns (cf. Wente, 1982), but also show us an initiatic and experiential register, albeit in ante-rational terms. But, in order to clarify our categories, we first will have to distinguish between psi-experiences (parapsychology), occultism (knowledge of the invisible worlds) and mysticism (direct experience of the Divine). Although in the earliest forms of meta-nominal experiences (outside the ordinary realms of sensoric awareness) these phenomena merge (cf. Shamanism), I do avoid adjectives as "shamanic" or "shamanistic" (cf. Naydler, 2005), and prefer "ecstatic", which is more neutral and devoid of the historical connotations implied by Shamanism (the art & science of controlled trance). In Ancient Egypt, the variety of ecstatic experience covers personal piety (offerings, prayers, festivals, mystery plays), magic (psi-events), the occult (entering and leaving the Duat) and mysticism proper (the spirituality of the king and his high priests, meeting the deity "face to face" or transforming into one). I definitely strongly disagree with my most rewarding source of inspiration, Erik Hornung, who wrote about the Egyptians :

"... any sort of ecstasy appears quite alien to their attitudes."
Hornung, 1986.

Elsewhere, the reader may find my epistemological survey of mysticism. In the context of this paper, the term "ecstasy" (from the Greek "ex" or "out" + "stasis" or "standstill" ; "statikè" or "art of weighing") is defined as the class of events pertaining to rapture, the ravishing experience of sublime delight, bliss and joy, accompanied by very strong emotion and (stages or stations of) trance. One moves outside the "nominal" ego and "enters" the realm of a Higher Self, i.e. a witnessing focus of consciousness allowing for the direct perception of objective spiritual realities, hidden from ordinary consciousness as is dreamless sleep from waking (so far indeed for Socrates to compare the former with physical death). This realm can directly influence the immediate context in which events emerge and may be classified as psi-phenomena (cf. strong telekinesis and remote viewing), the manipulation of invisible realms of reality (cf. the occult, magic and necromancy) and the direct experience of the objective spiritual realities invoked by the religions of humanity (cf. mysticism in all its forms). The presence of magic, the study of the Duat, Temple ritual and funerary concerns highlight the highly ecstatic naturalism of the Ancient Egyptians.

Egyptian initiations, unlike the Greek, were not meant to release the applicant from the solid chains of the world and its destiny, quite on the contrary. The initiate entered the invisible Duat at will and was free as a bird to stride and experience. He also returned, completing the standard cycle of human spirituality en vogue since the Cro-Magnon. Although the Egyptians, like other cultures contemporaneous with Pharaonic Egypt (like the Minoan, Mesopotamian, Hittite), understood that plunging into the spirit-world revitalized consciousness, they particularly focused on regeneration both in this life and in the afterlife. This happened by an "embrace" of objective spiritual principles projected upon recurrent natural cycles (like Horus and Osiris in the myth of Osiris, or the Ba of Re and Osiris in the Solar myths).

The verb "bs" ("bes") has two nuances : inductive and secretive :

  • inductive : to introduce, bring in, install ;

  • secretive : to initiate, reveal ;

What is revealed should never be said. It is a secret, or "bs"  again, but with one more determinative added (that of a papyrus scroll, indicative of words related to writing and thinking). The "secret of secrets" was the secret image of the deity or "bsw" ("besu").

"I am a priest knowledgable of the mystery,
who's chest never lets go what he has seen !" 
Chassinat, 1966, pp.11-12.

With the verb "bes", Middle Egyptian points to the Egyptian initiate as someone who had seen the hidden image of the deity "face to face", triggering a secret experience. Transformed, he or she had received more life-power, and had become more complete. The Egyptian initiate was prepared for the afterlife. He had faced judgment, had been regenerated and transformed on Earth as he would be in the afterlife. 

Clearly then, the "initiates" were foremost the divine king and those Egyptian priests who belonged to the higher priesthood. Only they were allowed to enter the sanctuary of the temple and perform rituals there (the offering hall, the ambulatory, the inner sanctum). Only one member of this higher priesthood saw the deity "face to face", enthroned in its naos at the back end of the inner sanctum. This high priest was the representative of Pharaoh, the divine "son of Re" and the "Lord of the Two Lands".

Another word for "secret" is "StA" ("Shtah"), also meaning : "secretive, mysterious, inexplicable, hidden, hidden away." "Shtahu", in epithets of divine beings, refers to the mysterious secrets themselves. In Greek, the word "mustikoi" (root of "mystic, mystical, mysticism") also means "hidden".

In the Greek mysteries, the afterlife was depicted as a realm of shadows and any hope of individual survival was deemed ephemeral. Nobody escaped destiny, except the deities and the lucky few elected. The latter "escaped" from the world and its sordid entropic fate, misery and possible "eschaton" : a world-fire invoked by these wrathful deities themselves, unforgiving of man's tragi-comical sins, but able to recreate the world in a whim ! Escape from this fated comedy was offered through the mysteries. They would erase the cause of the heaviness of the soul and its attachment to Earth, and end the cycle of metempsychosis, the successive return of the soul in other physical bodies.

"... what appears in the fifth century is not a complete and consistent doctrine of metempsychosis, but rather experimental speculations with contradictory principles of ritual and morality, and a groping for natural laws : the soul comes from the gods and after repeated trials returns to them, or else it runs forever in a circle through all spheres of the cosmos ; sheer chance decides on the reincarnation, or else a judgement of the dead ; it is morally blameless conduct that guarantees the better lot or else the bare fact of ritual initiation that frees from guilt."

Burkert, 1985, p.300, my italics.

The Greek spiritual experience was rational (decontextual). With the end of the Polis States, a great fear had taken hold. Late Hellenism was flooded by astral fatalism and Oriental mysteries adapted to Greco-Roman standards. Demons or deities were invoked to erase a preassigned fate. If the Greek initiate was deemed "liberated" from the world, then the Egyptian initiate was "deified" by the world.

The Egyptian initiate was not introduced to get rid of guilt, break away from the cycle of reincarnation or leave the Earth without ever returning. Neither did he enter the sanctuary with a confused concept regarding death. He did not believe life on Earth was better than the afterlife, and although he might have feared the "second death" (annihilation of his soul in the afterlife), the Egyptian initiate had a long-standing tradition of moral precepts and rituals to assure this would not happen. Indeed, his initiatoric rituals intended to prepare him for what was bound to happen in the afterlife. Thanks to a "general rehearsal" of what would happen, the adept would have no surprises in the afterlife. Indeed, the laws of life (the deities) were operational in the afterlife as well as on Earth, and the spirits of the deceased existed together with the living, albeit on another plane of existence (cf. hylemorphism).

In the "holy of holies", the highest Egyptian initiate (the high priest of the temple) came "face to face" with one of the divine hypostases of nature's elements & forces, namely the deity of the temple in its central shrine. 

Only Pharaoh or his direct representative could offer Maat to the deity and thus return the given life to its source (to receive new life). This key ritual in Egyptian monarchical religion, is not focused on reception & the receiver (cf. "to receive in order to bestow" in Qabalah), but on the source of both (cf. "to present in order to receive"). On an individual level, this was a transforming experience insofar as the person was chosen from the higher priesthood. In that case, the confrontation "face to face" left a tremendous imprint on the heart of the individual.

"(Akenaten) :

The words of Re are before thee, (---) of my august father, 
who taught me their {essence}, (...) them to me. (...)
It was known in my heart,
opened to my face, I understood (---)

(Ramose) : 

"Thy monuments shall endure like the heavens, for thy duration is like Aton therein. The existence of thy monuments is like the existence of the heavens ; thou art the Only One of {Aton}, in possession of his designs."

Breasted, 2001, §§ 945-946 - tomb of the vizier Ramose - original lost - Akhenaten justifying Atenism to Ramose by referring to his personal & exclusive mystical experience - Beasted notes : "These accompanying inscriptions are directly below the upper row, depicting the decoration, and belong with a lower band connected with the same incident. They are only in ink and very faded ; I believe my copy of them is the first made. They have never been published." (p.389)

As a temple ritualist, the Egyptian initiate, in order to be transformed and "see" the deity directly, never left his physical body behind in a passive, trance-like state (compare this with what happens in the Poimandres or in Classical Yoga). Fully awake, he enters into a deeper, more profound, mysterious layer of reality and contacted this plane directly, alone and without intermediaries, except for the doubles and the souls. His ritual actions made his body fully participate in this experience.

The contrast with the Greek mentality is marked : the Greeks had assimilated a rational distinction between the conditions of becoming and those of being, between potentiality and actuality (cf. Plato and Aristotle). In general, matter was perceived as "gross" and more in tune with the world of becoming. Concepts, ideas and their contemplation were deemed of a "higher" order, which meant done for their own sake. Linear order was the standard of Greek concept realism and the afterlife was envisaged as a gloomy land of no return, alien to the living.

"The living are not at the mercy of the dead ; the shades are without force and without consciousness. There are no ghostly terrors, no imaginings of decomposition, and no clatterings of dead bones ; but equally there is no comfort and no hope. The dead Archilles brushes aside Odysseus' words of praise, saying : 'Do not try to make light of death to me ; I would  sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much to live on, than ruler over all the perished dead.' In the dreary monotony everything becomes a matter of indifference."
Burkert, 1985, p.197, my italics.

The regular movements of the planets followed precise geometrical conditions. These were suggestive of the "perfect forms" of the world of ideas (or those perceived by the "active intellect"). Hence, in the Greek mysteries, astrology was used to divinate destiny and fate ("heimarmene" and "ananke"). Magic was addressed as a means to overcome one's preassigned fate, wiping out unluck, etc. Finally, theurgy came into being. A decisive release from the forces of fate & mortality was invisaged by working directly with the Deities. In Gnosticism, which had many branches, a "special knowledge" was aimed at. Again the material world appeared in negative, depreciative terms (cf. evil as "privatio boni" in Neoplatonism and Roman Catholicism on original sin and the cause of evil).

"And when, by drawing on repressed or non-Greek traditions, mysteries began to feed on the hopes of individuals with universal speculation and sought to overcome the chilling isolation of man in death, this was for a long time more a complement than a dangerous rival to the Greek system."
Burkert, 1985, p.203.

In the Egyptian conception, commoners sought a happy life to satisfy their souls (cf. the Discourse of a Man with his Ba), while priests were consecrated in (local) induction rituals (leaving the "ultimate" experience to the high priest). Is it possible the higher priesthood also participated in the Osirian mysteries of death and resurrection, held in major temples of Egypt, like those of Abydos, Busiris and Karnak ? Such ritual activity would prepare them for the afterlife and transform them into "initiates" on Earth (adepts "justified" while alive) ?

"Follow the god as far as his place,
in his tomb which is found at the entrance of the cavern.
Anubis sanctifies the hidden mystery of Osiris,
(in) the sacred valley of the Lord of Life.
The mysterious initiation of the Lord of Abydos !"
Griffith, tombe I, 238, lines 238-239, ca.XIIth Dynasty.

But Egyptian and Greek initiations had this in common : both involved a confrontation with a symbolical death, followed by a new state of being alife.

"to die, that is to be initiated"

funerary literature

Although the first mortuary corpora (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts & Book of the Dead) have distinct literary features, these utterances or spells have their recitation accompanied by rituals. Some Egyptologists conjecture that during the funeral, rituals took place in the various chambers, corridors and courts through which the procession passed on its way to the pyramid (Schott, 1950). 

Indeed, the tomb of Unis displays this care for rhythmical, procession-like spatialization, which -if we may believe the evidence from the Late Period- continued to be an essential part of Egypt's temple ceremonialism (cf. the walls of the Temple of Horus at Edfu). The dynamical notion evoked by a procession, is symbolical at many levels : it is the Nile, the eternal movement of Re in the sky, dynastic succession, the ordered sequence of existence and the principle of the adjacent probable (each figure focused on the one ahead).

The Temple of Horus at Edfu

In the Coffin Texts, as well as in the so-called Book of the Dead, remnants of "this life" ritual activity may be found. The Book of Coming out into the Day, as the latter corpus was named, has been called the "Egyptian Bible". Not for any literary resemblance with the historical Bible (there is hardly any to none), but because it was so dominant in funerary archeology, literature, anthropology & Osirian theology.

In the phrase "prt m hrw", the crucial word "prt", "coming out", or "going forth", also implies a ritual procession, an appearance of the deity (like the Heliacal rising of Sothis - Sirius) by day ("m hrw"). 

Chapter 17, a synopsis of the whole Peret em Heru, starts with the following enigmatic words :

"Here begin the praises and glorifications,
going out and in the domain of god,
having benefit in the beautiful West,
coming our by day,
taking any shape he likes,
playing at Senet, sitting in a booth,
and coming out as a living soul.
After he has arrived in port, 
Osiris, the scribe Ani, said :
It is beneficial to him
who does it on Earth.'"
Book of the Dead
Chapter 17 (Ani & Nebseni), my italics.

Already during his lifetime did the archetypal Ani praise and glorify god and his company. It seems unlikely some of these texts would not have been used in certain priestly rituals (cf. the "great mix" of ante-rational cognition), although most spells seem to serve the purpose of providing & protecting the deceased (or of Pharaoh during the Sed Festival ?). Perhaps some scenes were enacted (in ante-rational memorization - cf. the vignettes that accompany certain spells). That some spells were also intended for the living is however obvious :

"As for him who knows this chapter, he will be a worthy spirit in the domain of god, and he will not die again in the realm of the dead, and he will eat in the presence of Osiris. As for him who knows it on Earth, he will be like Thoth, he will be worshipped by the living, he will not fall to the power of the king or the hot rage of Bastet, and he will proceed to a very happy old age."
Book of the Dead, chapter 135.

induction versus initiation

Admission to priestly office was based on hereditary rights, cooption, purchase, royal appointment and induction. The induction rituals, unknown in details, seem to have implied a presentation in the temple, purification, anoitment of the hands and beholding the deity.

"I was presented before the god, being an excellent young man while I was introduced into the horizon of heaven (...) I emerged from Nun, and I was purified of what ill had been in me ; I removed my clothing and ointments, as Horus and Seth were purified. I advanced before the god in the holy of holies, filled with fear before his power."
Sauneron, 2000, p.48 - statue - Cairo museum 42230.

Because induction involved the assumption of an office in a particular temple, it was a form of initiation, for it implied being introduced to a new kind of religious activity. However, did it aim at transforming consciousness ? Was this initiation also soteriological besides being consecrational ? 

It is clear induction must have had an impact on the person consecrated. Perhaps the increased proximity to the deity automatically conferred certain new states of consciousness, a more deeper prehension of the divine ground of existence ? Indeed, after consecration, the new priest would have access to the most remote, secret and darkened areas of the temple and at times witness the presence of the deity from very nearby. It is impossible this experience did not affect the spiritual awareness of those installed. Hence, at every "level" of the temple hierarchy, it is fair to assume that consecrational initiations took place. 

But induction was foremost aimed at assuring the continuity of the service payed to the deity (or the deceased). That it had an impact on the consecrated priest does not seem to have been the primary target, although it surely must have been a welcome side-effect. Did Egyptian religion develop "mysteries" which had a soteriological aim, i.e. which had the sole aim of -after having being performed- transform the consciousness of the priest permanently ?

We know "seeing" and "being near" the statue of the deity was also the main event when popular festivals were organized. During these popular manifestations the statue of the deity was moved around, either in the temple or to pay a visit to another deity (cf. the Opet festival). During these processions, commoners praised, worshipped and prayed. Being near to their deity enabled them to make their concerns heard and solved (cf. like the trance of enthusiasts glimpsing their idol, whether a pop-star or the Pope).

"Such processions were anything but rare. The religious calendars preserved in several temples demonstrate that according to the season, each month contained five to ten outings of this sort, devoted to one or another of the deities of the place. The route would vary according to the destination of the procession and the temple where the night was to be spent."
Sauneron, 2000, p.95, my italics.

Osirian initiations ?

the Osireion (the roof has gone)
Abydos -  XIXth Dynasty

The original temple of Osiris in Abydos is destroyed. It has been suggested the construction erected by Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1290 - 1279 BCE) in the XIXth Dynasty is a copy of this original, and has been called "the Osireion". Although supposedly a cenotaph of Seti I, later graffiti suggests it was dedicated to the cult of Osiris (cf. "the secret place of the netherworld", "Hail to thee, Isis, in the place of birth !"). Its architecture and inscriptions underline this. 

(after Wilkinson, 2000, p.36)

The construction was originally completely subterranean (underneath a hill with trees) and accessed via a long (128m) corridor (decorated by Pharaoh Merneptah on the left wall the Book of Caverns and on the right the Book of Gates), which gave access to a large hall filled with water. In the middle of this basin emerges a rectangular island bordered by heavy granit pillars, to which two staircases grant access (while there is no staircase to enter the basin). 

(after Frankfort, 1933, plate II)

Did the two rectangular cavities hold the "sacred image" of Osiris, his bark, head & funerary bed ? On the Eastern side of the construction is a large, empty rectangular room (like those found as chapels in the Old Kingdom Saqqara tombs).

"(the ritual), I know it, 
for I have been initiated into it by the Sem-priest, 
and I have not spoken to anybody,
neither repeated it to the god(s)."
Coffin Texts, spell 156.

We conjecture (together with Stricker and Guilmot) that between the popular, festive "seeing" and the sacerdotal "deification" (of the high priest "face to face" with his deity), a soteriological (salvic) Osirian initiation existed. In it, the higher priesthood was confronted with the passion, restoration and resurrection of Osiris, the popular Egyptian ecstatic par excellence : murdered, resurrected and Lord of Dead and the magic of the night. By enacting the stages of this myth, the initiate would "consecrate" his own priestly state and be better prepared for the afterlife, as well as realize a personal transformation in consciousness in this life.

 the architect Amenhotep - XVIIIth Dynasty

"(...), but into the divine book, 
I have been initiated.
Of Thoth, I have seen glory,
and among mystery, I introduced myself."
 Statue of Amenhotep, son of Hapu

This Osirian initiation was accessible, ex hypothesi, to the permanent higher priesthood, as a "consecration" of their task to serve the light of the deity by offering Maat. Hence, this initiation had salvic intentions and involved initiatoric mysteries performed in conjunction with popular festivals honoring Osiris and Isis, popular in all historical periods. Special chapels were erected for these mysteries at Denderah, Esna, Edfu & Philae and Osirian mysteries were celebrated in Busiris, Karnak and, of course, Abydos, "land of justice, island of the just, exempt of lies". They allowed the priests to experience the different phases of the Osirian drama for themselves, including the restoration and resurrection of the god. In this way, they had been prepared on Earth for what was going to happen to them in the afterlife.

"(...) as for the Island of Maat, it is Abydos !"
 Book of the Dead, chapter 17.

An essential element in this intiation was justification and the declaration this had happened, so the adept was called a "maakheru" or "true of voice", a title ordinarily only given to the deceased after a favorable judgement of the balance (in the "Hall of Maat").

"(Anubis) : Numerous are (your) good actions,
(yes) numerous are (your) good actions,
which are placed in the Balance !"
 East Wall of central hall of Osireon

That this was a title given to initiates, can only be confirmed by fragments and circumstancial evidence. The vow of silence reigned. But it would not be surprising, if such were the case. If so, the so-called "cenotaph" of Seti I may be understood as the netherworldly stage for the "grand finale" of the annual Osirian mysteries, as well as a permanent service payed to Osiris, both events visited by the higher priesthood of Egypt. But nothing is certain.

"You shall say to Horus
that I was rejoiced
at his 'voice-becomes-true.'"
 Louvre Stela C 10 - Gardiner, § 329.

Several papyri were found in the tomb of Horsiesis, a priest of Amun-Re and "Conductor of the Mysteries", who was fifty years of age when Jesus was crucified. Papyrus Leiden T 32 contains his catalogue of Osirian initiations or proclamations of piety. In it, standard language is used (also found on early stelae and papyri) to convey, albeit in an "idealized autobiography", initiations which he himself might have experienced during his lifetime in Abydos, Busiris and Karnak. Egyptologists have argued these experiences are literary fictions. However, the correlation between the text and certain spatial characteristics of the Osireion at Abydos, as well as scattered fragments about such initiations, allow for reasonable doubt.

"You reach the central hall under the trees.
Near the god (Osiris) You arrive
(the god) who sleeps in his tomb.

His venerable image
rests on his funerary bed.
(Then), in the holy place,
you are accorded (the title) :
Maakheru !

Your body is purified
in Ra-Anedjeti
your whole flesh is purified
in the basin of Heket."
 Papyrus Leiden 32 T - IV

A late papyrus (Papyrus Leiden 32 T) makes it clear that three fundamental events were enacted : justification (Judgment of the Balance), rejuvenation (Sacred Lake) and illumination (Opening the Doors of Heaven).

continuous ritual

Life was the cornerstone of Ancient Egyptian theology and philosophy. Life was deemed to be the origin of order and not vice versa. The creator evolved himself because of the activity of his life in the primordial egg hidden in the limitless waters. Life is the active polarity of limitless inertia, darkness and chaos. It is chaos reversed by what it harbored as absolute complement of itself. When the cosmic egg hatches, Shu, the god of life, springs forth together with order, his spouse. Light (Atum), Life (Shu) and Order/Moist (Tefnut) were the first generations of gods.

"I adore your majesty with choice expressions and prayers,
that magnify your prestige in all your great names
and in all the holy forms of manifestation,
in which you revealed yourself in the first moment."
 the morning invocation at the quaters in the temple of Edfu

The cult of Re is fundamentally a diurnal cult of life, whereas Osiris is the nocturnal cycle (the regenerative power of the netherworld, of sleep, dreams and death). Life and order were in the company of the creator before anything else was born, but life was first, most active, airy & verbal.

Let us distinguish between different cycles of rituals :

  • Diurnal and Nocturnal rituals : the rehearsal of life : the hymns to the hours, in the books of the day and the night, refer to the temple liturgy executed every hour of the day and the night in the major temples of Egypt for thousands of years. These rituals were orchestrated by the "hour-priests" ("horologoi") on their watchtowers (the pylons) ;

  • Temple rituals : of the king (royal cult) and of the deities ;

  • Festivals : ca. 10 major festivals a year and many minor every month ;

  • Pilgrimages : to major cult centers like Abydos ;

  • Netherworld rituals : the rehearsel of the afterlife.

It seems unlikely a processional & ritual construction as the Osireon would not 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 are historical (which to me seems likely), they differ from the intent of the Greek mysteries and should neither be confused with Hermetic and other highly syncretic rituals (like the cult of Serapis). In these latter ceremonies, native Egyptian thought was Hellenized and modified to satisfy the Greek "noetic" mentality.

initiated : 04 VII 2003 - last update : 28 VI 2016

© Wim van den Dungen