The goal of this essay is not to challenge the origins story of the emergence of Speculative Freemasonry and the evidence that backs up that narrative. Rather, I want to take a closer look at the technology or techné of the Degrees themselves, particularly the 3rd Degree, to analyze how and why this technology works the way it does and its function in Masonic ceremonial. Finally, I want to see if these spiritual technologies, in this case those of Ancient Egypt, have precedent in the ancient world. We could just as easily look at the Greco-Roman, Ancient Persian, East Asian, Celtic, etc., and find similarities in the spiritual technologies being used to advance, instruct, and initiate their adepts.
Scores of prominent Masonic scholars over the last 300 years have produced studies like this and written books and cyclopedias about it. I am attempting nothing new. What I want to provide is an updated perspective based on the latest research and academic literature—which has come a long way in the past 30 or 40 years. I have taken Classics and Religious Studies courses at the professional level as I pursue a doctorate in these areas, and much of what I have learned resonates strongly with Masonic ritual. I think it is important for us, as Masons, to think about this material and contemplate the inherent similarities.
As stated in Part 1, my argument is not so bold as to suggest that Masonry emerged out of Ancient Egypt, but rather that the early Masons who codified and developed the content of the degrees were often classically trained intellectuals themselves who knew the material and culture of the ancient world better than we do today. And they deeply admired that culture. Thus, they worked these philosophies and practices into Masonic ceremonial. I am writing this essay based on a study at the academic level of the classical world, its remaining material and textual sources, not because I want to promote or instill some kind of “New Age” dogma. I seriously want regular Freemasonry to enhance its intellectual standards and capabilities—especially its literacy regarding the classical and ancient world, which very much includes Ancient Egypt—and I hope to assist in the process. In other words, this is about sustained Masonic education.
So on with the show…
It is important to review some basic aspects of Egyptian religion, which many of you will be familiar with. Egypt was known as Kemet by the ancient Egyptians, a word that means the “black land” or the “land of the black soil,” referring to the dark color of the silt and soil along the Nile—not to mention the complexion of the people inhabiting that land. Egypt is one of the purported origin points for the practice of alchemy, with many of the earliest extant Greek alchemical texts (ca. 100-300 CE) tracing the practice of alchemy and metallurgy to Egypt. It has been suggested that the word alchemy itself derives from the word Kemet by adding the Arabic prefix of al, which corresponds to the definite article in English, “the.” In other words, Al-Kemi = Alchemy. This scientific practice was eventually transmitted to medieval Europe, where its operatives started to be called alchemists. (Another potential origin for the word alchemy comes from the Arabic prefix al- and the Greek chemeia; al-kīmiyāʾ الكيمياء derived from the Greek “to pour together.”)
Egyptian life was focused along the banks of the Nile river, so the symbolic weight of their cosmology and religion stems from the importance of their environment. Egyptian society was organized around annual flooding and overflowing of the Nile banks, which was utilized for agricultural purposes. The water saturating the parched earth and generating new crop life was an act of fertility. The Egyptians symbolized this and other natural phenomena as living beings, as deities, and the machinations of the gods. The sky, Nut, was depicted as a female arcing over the world from one horizon to the other. Geb was a male god lying underneath Nut and represented the earth, while Shu, another male god, stands with upraised arms between them, represented the air separating sky and ground. In a key component of Egyptian cosmology, humans rebelled against the all-powerful sun god, Ra, and the goddess Hathor administered divine punishment against them in retaliation. The survivors of the attack were destined to always suffer by being separated from Ra, who remained in the sky upon the back of Nut. The consequence of humanity’s “fall” caused death and suffering to enter into the world and disfigure the divine unity of Creation.
Ra was the symbol of light, of order, of the good, and he was opposed by his opposite, the Apep snake, a symbol of chaos and evil. As the sun traveled from east to west, Ra entered the underworld or duat each night riding on his sun boat, or solar barge, and did battle with Apep to slay chaos and restore order—think ordo ab chaos. The duat was the realm of the dead, home to Osiris, Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Hathor, and Ma’at, and the place where people’s souls went for judgment after death. The regions of the duat were separated by gates, with each gate representing tests or challenges that the soul must overcome to pass through. The rituals and incantations associated with passage through the underworld were recorded in the Egyptian funerary text known as the Book of the Dead (ca. 1550-50 BCE), also translated as the Book of Coming Forth by Day and the Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. It is not a book at all but a bunch of papyrus scrolls and was often inscribed on inner tomb walls of pharaohs and kings.
The central exemplar of the Book of the Dead is Osiris, who, along with Isis and Seth, are among the primordial offspring of Geb and Nut. Osiris married his sister Isis and the pair became extremely important to the Egyptian people. The myth of Osiris relates the story of his being tricked to lie in a coffin by his jealous brother, Seth, who then slams the lid shut and casts it into the Nile. Isis is so grief-stricken that she causes the Nile to flood its banks with her tears, and she wanders around in distress, asking everyone she meets if they know where the casket and where her husband is. She eventually discovers the coffin off the coast of the Phoenician port city Byblos, where it has grown into the roots of a tamarisk tree (Plutarch calls it an Erica tree) and made into a pillar in the palace of the Phoenician king. Isis retrieves the coffin and brings it back to Egypt, but Seth seizes it again and cuts Osiris into 14 pieces and scatters them across the land. Isis painstakingly locates each piece and re-members her husband, yet the only piece she does not find is the phallus, so she fashions one herself. Through a complex magical rite of fornication, she installs the final piece to the body and brings her husband back to life through sexual union, the result of which is the birth of their son, the divine child Horus. Horus grows into a man and eventually exacts revenge on Seth by slaying him.
This symbol of resurrection associated with Osiris, and the myth of his ritual slaying by a brother, was the cause of the duat becoming his eternal home. In the underworld, the soul of the recently deceased was referred to as Osiris and had to identify itself as such at various gates. At each of these gates, ritual passwords and secret handshakes were exchanged with guardians. If the recently deceased got it wrong, they could be devoured by crocodiles or other fierce beasts. The mystery rites of Osiris involved the ritual slaying of the aspirant, who was then resurrected on the Lion’s Bed near the foot of an Erica tree—in keeping with the Osirian myth. Abydos was indelibly linked to Osiris, but it is Dendera that retains a powerful trace of these Osirian mystery rites through elaborate inscriptions compiled by Cleopatra VII. Egyptologists utilize these inscriptions to help them decode the sacred Osirian rites.
In Osiris: Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries (2015) by Franck Goddio and David Fabre—which is the massive and impressive program book I picked up for 25 euros at the Osirian Mysteries exhibit at the Museum Rietberg in Zürich—the authors go into great detail about the many ritual objects that were on display at the Rietberg and how those instruments were used. They describe how the Osirian rites of slaying, entombment, and spiritual resurrection were performed on those who were advancing in the Isiac and Osirian priesthoods.
On display at the Rietberg, for example, was the pastos or entombment container for the incubation of the aspirant (see Part 1 of this article). During these rites, a procession was formed by participants and carried out along the Nile to the Delta in a celebration of rebirth. The bulk of these never-before-seen artifacts on display are the remains of one procession from the sites of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, whole cities which had been submerged under the water in the 8th century in present-day Abukir Bay. The objects were recently uncovered and retrieved by the European Institute for Underwater Archeology (IEASM) and made up the bulk of the exhibit I witnessed in Zürich.
Goddio and Fabre explain that these recent archeological discoveries “bear witness to the existence of a religious feast celebrating the navigation of Osiris on the mythical barge that carried the sun across the night from a chapel at Thonis, the Egyptian name of Heracleion [i.e. a city under the divine auspices of Herakles], to the holy of holies of the Osireion—the ‘tomb of Osiris’—at Pe-Guti, the Egyptian name of Canopus” (31). This passage of the sun through the underworld to be reborn at the dawn and restore order was linked to both Osiris and to Ra, as the Resurrected One and the Sun God personified different aspects of the same supernatural process.
WORDS OF THE RITUAL PRIEST: You awake in peace, the incense rises in peace…. Your soul is alive you are mighty in peace among the gods … Osiris who presides over the Occident. (Goddio and Fabre, Osiris, 23)
The “Occident” here is, of course, referring to the underworld or duat, where, in the postmortem life of the soul, the recently deceased was required to identify itself as Osiris, utter the proper passwords, and perform the proper grips. The Osirian Mysteries, sacred parades, and processions were celebrated from the 12th to the 30th in the month of Khoiak. Many of the artifacts at the Rietberg were part of a procession making its way from Thonis-Heracleion to Canopus. The sacred barge carrying the ritual implements had, perhaps, sunk during the celebration. Among the ritual items present were the “Osiris végétant,” a type “grown” votive offering that parallels the alchemical tradition of creating homunculi. For these Mysteries of Osiris, “figurines of the god were modeled with sown earth still replete with the water of the new inundation [Nile flooding]. The germination of these ‘Osirises végétans’ provided an image of eternally renewed life as the ‘spirit’ of the god came to inhabit this replacement body” (Goddio and Fabre, Osiris, 25).
At Thonis-Heracleion, the basin for this vegetating process was discovered, an extremely rare artifact. The IEASM archeologists used the elaborate descriptions of the Osirian Mysteries at Dendera to assist them in interpreting the ritual objects they recovered. During the month of Khoiak, which is the month of Nile flooding, a figurine of the god was produced and “preserved” during the year and finally paraded on the nechemet barque to the tomb of the god, or the “sacred mountain,” to be ceremoniously interred:
These Osirian Mysteries unfolded like a sacred drama, “played” in the chapels where Osiris, protected from his brother Seth and helped by his sister-wife Isis, continued to return to life. Hieroglyphic texts explain how a silhouette in the shape of a mummy, made of barley and black silt doused with the water of the Nile flood, was placed in the “garden vat.” Sprayed with water until it germinated, the now green figure—the color of life, renewal and prosperity—symbolized the rebirth of the god…. Osiris was never [only] the god of the dead, locked into the bandages of a mummy. Dismembered then reassembled and animated, Osiris was brought back to life and extended the same promise to humans. It was a contract that depended upon the good will of Osiris, out of which grew the rites, gestures and words that integrated the people of Egypt into an orderly Osirian universe. (Goddio and Fabre, Osiris, 34; 41)
It should be noted that in addition to his roles as postmortem guide and initiatic exemplar, Osiris was seen as the great civilizer, bestowing the skills of arts, sciences, even agriculture to humankind. The ancient Greek author Diodorus Siculus (ca. 1st century BCE) recounts a tradition whereby Osiris “gathered a great army with the intention of visiting all the inhabited earth and teaching the race of men how to cultivate the vine and sow wheat and barley, for he supposed that if he made men give up their savagery and adopt a gentler manner of life he would receive immortal honors…” (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica I, 17, 1-2).
Osiris offered the promise of eternal life and initiatic spiritual resurrection. In the Late Period of ancient Egypt (664-332 BCE), the god became a kind of personal savior to the Egyptians, “the one who listened to prayers” and “the father of him who has no mother, the husband of the widow” (Goddio and Fabre, Osiris, 46). The offspring of Osiris and Isis, the divine child Horus, was known as “the son of the widow,” owing to the reenactment of the Osirian Mysteries, during which the slain Osiris was lost and searched for by the widowed Isis. Interestingly, the Persian prophet Mani (ca. 216–274 CE), the founder of the Manichaeism religious movement, who was skinned alive and perished in the town of Gondēshāpūr, was also known as “the widow’s son.” This is part of a larger historical tradition of the role of “widow’s sons” in Esoteric History, and it has an intimate connection with Freemasonry as well.
To be concluded in Part 3…