Sacred Kings of Mesopotamia

Tigris River outside Dyarbakir, Turkey. photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen.
Tigris River outside Dyarbakir, Turkey. photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen.

Mesopotamia, which means “land between the rivers” encompassed the fertile geographical area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq and parts of Syria,Turkey and Iran. Referred to as the “cradle of civilization”, it gave rise to a succession of cultures—the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, Kassites, Assyrians, and Chaldeans before finally falling to the Persians in 539 BCE.

Mesopotamia was inhabited long before the rise of these historical civilizations however.  Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in the Zagros mountains and  sporadically dwelled in the lowlands until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 BCE.

Female statuette from Samarra. 6,000 BCE. Louvre.
Female statuette from Samarra. 6,000 BCE. Louvre.

Around 7,000 BCE, Neolithic settlements based on agriculture such as Jarmo, Samarra, and Tell Halaf arose in northern Mesopotamia roughly during the same period as the cities of Jericho in the Levant and Catalhoyuk in Anatolia. The first farmers settled in southern Mesopotamia around 5,400 BCE bringing with them the Samarran culture from the north. They built mud-brick buildings and canals using sophisticated irrigation methods which allowed them to practice agriculture in the marshes of the Euphrates river.

The Neolithic Mesopotamians worshipped deities of nature: the celestial gods of sun, moon and venus, as well as earth gods and chthonic deities. Some of these were associated with animals—the sun with the bull, the air with the eagle, and underworld gods with snakes. Cults of dying and resurrected chthonic gods were practiced which survived into the early historical period according to Assyriologist F.A.M. Wiggerman. This suggests that the Sumerian myth Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, previously mentioned in this blog, may have prehistoric origins. Inanna’s Descent

The city of Eridu was established close to the Persian Gulf and the mouth of the Euphrates River. The Sumerians are found there around 3,500 BCE during the Uruk period. Eridu in Sumerian means “mighty place”, an appropriate name for the seat of the first kings of Mesopotamia. Soon after its founding, other Sumerian cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Larsa were established—the world’s earliest “city-states”. The origin of the Sumerians is a mystery and most linguists insist their language is unrelated to any other, though some words in Sumerian vocabulary bear similarities to Eurasian languages, possibly the result of early contacts between cultures.

Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer aptly titled one of his books History begins at Sumer, noting that the first system of laws, taxes, as well as love songs were recorded there. The Sumerians are also credited with revolutionary inventions such as writing, mathematics, the calendar, kingship, wheeled carts, and metalwork with bronze which laid the foundations for civilizations to follow.

Standing male worshipper. Alabaster, shell and limestone. Sumeria 2,750-2,600. BCE. photo: Rosemania.
Standing male worshipper. Alabaster, shell and limestone. Sumeria 2,750-2,600. BCE. photo: Rosemania.

The earliest towns in Sumer were agricultural settlements which grew up around temples of a local god. These eventually expanded into city-states in which private property, a class system, and governments ruled by elites were established. The earliest ruler was a religious leader—the en—who was in charge of the city’s temple, a role that was later assumed by the sacred king. The king however owed his authority to the patron deity believed to rule the city, whom he served as vice-regent. He needed to continually discern the will of the ruling god or goddess, surrounding himself with priests who specialized in divination, religious ritual and magic to assist him in this task. The sacred kings of Mesopotamia, and their supporting priesthoods, became the mediators to the divine world—assuming roles similar to those of shamans in tribal cultures. The shaman’s symbols and powers as well as his duties now fell upon the king, according to historian Thomas McEvilley. The stories of otherworldy exploits of shamans of the past were retold as myths of the kings of the city-states, legitimizing their spiritual authority.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king of the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh, is given a magical drum made from the mythical Huluppu Tree, similar to the Siberian shaman’s drum made from the World Tree. In another story Gilgamesh descends into the underworld in his quest for immortality, traveling through a long, dark tunnel before reaching the garden of the gods. Likewise the goddess Inanna descends to the underworld where she is killed then magically resurrected, reminiscent of shamanic initiations.

Akkadian cylinder seal of Etana carried to heaven on an eagle. 2,250 BCE. British Museum.
Akkadian cylinder seal of Etana carried to heaven on an eagle. 2,250 BCE. British Museum.

A celestial ascent occurs in the Epic of Etana where an early Sumerian king flies to the heavens on the back of an eagle in search for the “plant of life”, similar to the visionary journey of the tribal shaman who ascends to the sky with the aid of his animal helping-spirit to gain healing remedies. Mesopotamian deities and kings were associated with the bull as totemic beast, wearing crowns of bull horns symbolizing their authority. The bull was also a common spirit-helper of shamans, first appearing in Paleolithic cave paintings of men shapeshifting into bison. All these myths and symbols have parallels with shamanistic narratives and mythic motifs as discussed in previous posts of this blog.

The shaman’s societal role as spiritual visionary who communicated with the otherworld was assumed in Mesopotamia by the king. An example of this is the Sumerian king Gudea (2144-2124 BCE) who received the following dream instructing him to build a temple for the warrior god Nigirsu :

In the dream there was someone who was as enormous as the heavens, who was as enormous as the earth. His head was like that of a god, his wings were like those of the Anzud bird, his lower body was like a flood storm. Lions were lying at his right and his left. He spoke to me about building his house, but I could not understand exactly what he meant, then daylight rose for me on the horizon. Then there was a woman…She held a stylus of refined silver in her hand, and placed it on a tablet with propitious stars, and was consulting it. There was, furthermore, a warrior. His arm was bent, holding a lapis lazuli tablet in his hand, and he was setting down the plan of the house. The holy basket stood in front of me, the holy brick mold was ready and the fated brick was placed in the mould for me.” 1

Statue of King Gudea. 3rd millenium BCE. Drawing D. Nez
Statue of King Gudea. 3rd millenium BCE. Drawing D. Nez

In subsequent dreams Gudea was even given specifications for the size of bricks to be used. He ritually made the first brick and supervised the building of the temple. According to McEvilley: “he was functioning like a medium or shaman who communicates directly with the deity”. The Mesopotamian king became responsible for sacred dreaming as a way of communicating the intentions of the gods, his dreams interpreted by priests and diviners.

1) Translation by ETCSL Project, faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford.

Egyptian Book of the Dead

Symbol of the House of Life. Osiris stands in the center surrounded by the primordial deities of the elements.
Symbol of the House of Life. Osiris stands in the center surrounded by the primordial deities of the elements.

The Per-Ankh—the “House of Life”—discussed in the previous post, served as the library of Egyptian temples. There various texts were transcribed and kept by scribes, including the “books of the dead”. According to Jeremy Naydler, the House of Life was also a center of esoteric training where students may have undertaken a course of spiritual development, resulting in initiations into “various degrees of symbolic death and rebirth”.

Fragment from Book of the Dead. ca. 1075-945 BCE.
Fragment from Book of the Dead. ca. 1075-945 BCE.

Instructed by funerary texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, initiates may have engaged in visionary journeys to the duat—the underworld—thereby acquainting themselves with its spiritual realities. Naydler insists that familiarity with the underworld was essential knowledge for the Egyptian priest-magician, and mastery of its psychic energies was necessary on the path of spiritual attainment. Funerary texts served not only as guides for the dead but also for the living—they were “training manuals” preparing them for the afterlife experience, so to speak. By studying them initiates could cross the threshold of death while still alive, leading to spiritual rebirth. This may have been achieved in a state of deep trance, perhaps similar to an “out of body experience”.

Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch recognizes the magical and shamanistic qualities of the texts: “Some of the Pyramid Texts do have a visionary and ecstatic quality, giving an impression that they are records of journeys into a spirit world…when spoken, or more likely, chanted aloud, the many repetitious passages would have had an almost hypnotic effect.” She proposes these writings developed from even older shamanistic traditions: “There could have been a long period of oral transmission before this. It has been suggested that the earliest Egyptian rulers were advised by shamans and that some funerary texts could have developed out of their rites”.

Coffin Text painted on panel of sarcophagus.
Coffin Text painted on panel of sarcophagus.

Among the oldest literature of Egypt, the Pyramid Texts were originally inscribed on the interior walls of pyramids and intended exclusively for use by the pharaoh. During the Middle Kingdom, funerary texts such as the Coffin Texts were painted on sarcophagi. They continued in the New Kingdom as the Book of Coming Forth by Day—popularly known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These were commissioned by the wealthy and deposited in their tombs. They serve as guidebooks to the afterlife, providing prayers, hymns, magical formulas and maps of the territory of the duat to assist the soul in its postmortem journey.

Sarcophagus with Coffin Texts inscribed on them, including a map of the underworld. ca. 1985-1795 BCE.
Sarcophagus with Coffin Texts inscribed on them, including a map of the underworld. ca. 1985-1795 BCE.

These books of the dead describe the fantastic topography of the underworld: its marshes, rivers, lakes of fire, pylons and other sights to be found there. During the journey souls were required to pass through a number of gates, caverns and mounds. The journey through that realm was a hazardous and demanding one, requiring knowledge of many magical spells to enlist the help of the gods in overcoming obstacles along the way. These include incantations to subdue the monsters and demons that are encountered there, as well as of the names of gatekeepers who need to be addressed before they allow the traveler to continue on their way.

The following is a spell for repelling the demonic serpent Apep, the personification of evil, by by identifying oneself with Ra, the god of light, who overcomes all darkness:

“Get back! Crawl away!

Depart from me you snake!

Go and be drowned in the Waters of Nun,

at the place where your father

has commanded that you shall be slain.

Depart from the divine birth-place of Ra!

You tremble with fear,

for I am Ra at whom all tremble,

Get back you fiend, before the arrows of his light!

Ra has overthrown your words.

The Payrus of Ani is a version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, written for Ani, a royal scribe. It describes the series of pylon gates that must be passed through in transit through the underworld, reminiscent of the gates of Egyptian temples. Each pylon has a guardian who challenges the soul’s right to pass, threatening to burn them in fire, or cut them into pieces. They have terrifying names such as “She Who Repeats Slaughter”, “Lady of the Knife Who Dances in Blood” and “The Purifier of Sinners”. Ani is required to give the name of each guardian-doorkeeper to pacify them.

Eventually Ani arrives at the “Hall of Two Truths” where his final and most important trial occurs—the “balancing of the scales”, where his heart is weighed in the balance against the feather of truth. The heart was believed to contain the record of the deceased’s actions in life, and without it there was no memory, or chance for eternal life.

Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.
Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.

If the heart weighs heavier than the feather in the scales there is always the danger the soul might be devoured by the monster Ammit–part lion, crocodile, and hippopotamus, who waits nearby. Judged worthy by the forty-two assessor gods, Ani is led by the falcon-headed god Horus into the presence of his father Osiris, ruler of the underworld and god of rebirth and regeneration. Osiris welcomes Ani to his kingdom as one of the “living ones”—the blessed dead. Following this, righteous souls may choose to dwell in the paradisiacal Fields of Reeds, or ascend to accompany the sun-god Ra on his daily journey across the heavens in his Boat of Millions of Years.

Worshipping Ra upon his rising. Book of Ramose.
Worshipping Ra upon his rising. Book of Ramose.

Naydler writes that the Egyptian underworld is primarily a psychic experience, similar to a dream, where the soul exteriorizes its contents, finding itself in environments which reflect its state. Progress through this realm consists in purging the part of the soul known as the ba, roughly equivalent to the subconscious mind, of all that is impure and spiritually disharmonious. According to Naydler, the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the metamorphosis of the ba-soul into the akh-spirit, during which it becomes united with the source of spiritual light—dwelling in the heavens as a “shining one”, a star. The ba is associated with the realm of Osiris, and the akh with the sun-god Ra, so this apotheosis occurs as the center of consciousness transitions from the underworld to the heavenly world, resulting in spiritual illumination.

Visions of death and the afterlife are also part of the training of the shaman. Mircea Eliade writes that during their initiations, shamans have ecstatic experiences involving: “…dismemberment of the body, followed by a renewal of the internal organs and viscera; ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods or spirits; descent to the underworld and conversations with spirits and the souls of dead shamans; various revelations, both religious and shamanic.” There are many parallels between passages in the books of the dead and shamanic narratives of initiatory journeys to the underworld, with similar themes of purification of the soul, magical transformations, and rebirth.

Shrouded tekhenu being pulled into tomb.
Shrouded tekenu being pulled into tomb.

Another Egyptian funerary tradition that may have retained elements of pre-dynastic shamanism is the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual. According to Egyptologist Greg Reeder, during this ceremony a funerary sem-priest known as the tekenu was shrouded in cloth while kneeling in the fetal position, and pulled on a sledge by other priests into the tomb of the deceased. While the body of the tekenu was seemingly lifeless, he entered a deep, cataleptic trance-like dream state. During this time he travelled to the spirit-world and located the soul of the deceased, before being awakened, according to Reeder.

Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun.
Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun.

This “soul retrieval” enabled the priests to perform the next phase of the ritual, during which the mouth of the mummy was opened using various implements, magically restoring its ability to see and eat in the afterlife. Through this act the ka or spiritual body of the deceased was believed to be reawakened. The role of the tekenu is remarkably similar to that of the shaman, who as “psychopomp” or guide of the dead enters into an altered state of consciousness to lead souls to their new home in the underworld.

The Egyptians were not the only culture to produce books of the dead. The Tibetan Book of the Dead has a similar purpose of guiding the consciousness of the deceased through the afterlife experience, and is studied by Buddhist monks to prepare them for dying. In medieval Europe, Christian monks wrote the Ars Moriendi, which were read to the dying to ease their soul’s passage to the afterlife.

Illustration from Ars Moriendi showing demons tempting dying man with a crown--a symbol of pride. Woodblock ca. 1460
Illustration from Ars Moriendi showing demons tempting dying man with a crown–a symbol of pride. Woodblock ca. 1460

Psychologist Stanislav Grof agrees that these books were written not only for the dead, but also to guide the living. He insists they are not products of superstition and primitive imagination–but are instead accurate descriptions of the experiential territories traversed in non-ordinary states of consciousness, based on countless personal experiences, and many centuries of careful observation.

The Magician’s Tomb

Attached to larger Egyptian temples was the library known as the Per-Ankh—the “House of Life”. Here texts were kept and studied by magician-priests called kher-heb or “lector priests”. These were learned scribes who determined the texts to be written on temple walls, clarified religious texts, maintained the temple’s collection of magical papyri, and wrote magical spells. On a wall of the House of Life in the Temple of Edfu the following list of magical books are recorded:

The Book of Appeasing Sekhmet, The Book of Magical Protection of the King in his Place, Spells for Warding Off the Evil Eye, The Book of Repelling Crocodiles, The Book of Knowledge of Secrets of the Laboratory, The Book of Knowing the Secret Forms of the God.

Chief Lector Priest Ka-Aper--fifth dynasty.
Chief Lector Priest Ka-Aper–fifth dynasty.

Kher-heb priests in their official duties recited incantations and hymns during temple and state rituals. They were also well versed in magic and the interpretation of dreams. Laymen would come to them in the House of Life if they needed a spell or amulet, to have dreams interpreted, to cure illness or seek protection from malign sorcerers, demons or ghosts. When not serving in the temples, the kher-heb “moonlighted” as magicians in the community.

Fragments of four ivory magical wands carved with images of protective demons found in Magician's Tomb. Drawing from Quibell 1898.
Fragments of four ivory magical wands carved with images of protective demons found in Magician’s Tomb. Drawing from Quibell 1898.

Evidence of their practices comes from the discovery of a shaft burial known as the Ramesseum Tomb or “Magician’s Tomb” dating from the Late Middle Kingdom (1773-1650 BCE). In it was found a magician’s box—a “tool-kit” containing twenty-three papyri and numerous reed pens. The image of a jackal, associated with the jackal headed god Anubis, is sketched on the lid of the box. This identifies its owner as an official who had access to “cultic mysteries”, according to Egyptologist Robert Kriech Ritner.

Cobra wand from Magician's Tomb. Copper alloy. ca 2055-1650 BCE
Cobra wand from Magician’s Tomb. Copper alloy. ca 2055-1650 BCE

Along with these objects were found ivory wands (see above illustration) and broken knives used for magical protection as well as an assortment of beads, and amulets. Among these was a bronze Cobra or uraeus serpent which may have been used as a magic wand, found entangled in a mass of hair, as well as several female figurines.

One of these is a doll-like figure of a lion-headed woman with articulated arms, holding a serpent in each hand. Some experts have conjectured she may be a female version of Bes, the lion-headed god of protection. My guess is that she could just as well be a representation of the goddess of magic Weret Hekau—sometimes depicted as a woman with lion’s head as well as in the form of a serpent. As mentioned in the last post, Heka the god of magic is depicted holding a serpent in each hand.

Female figurine found in Magician's Tomb.
Female figurine found in Magician’s Tomb.

The papyri found in the box are mostly magical, consisting of hymns and rituals. Others are magico-medical, and literary in nature. The beads and amulets were used for healing and protection, the knives were intended to magically protect infants from demons, while the statues were of protective deities, according to Ritner. The hair was perhaps used along with the charms for protection rituals. Ritner writes that the owner of the tomb was a magician with competence in general medicine, feminine fertility, protection from serpents and demons, childhood ills, and agricultural magic.

Ritner proposes the papyri and pens were probably used to write amuletic charms, while the literary texts imply the owner of the box combined the roles of storyteller and entertainer with that of magician. This suggests the figurines and other objects may have been used during healing and protection rituals. These same arts—magic, storytelling and performance–have been practiced since time immemorial by tribal shamans as part of their communal healing ceremonies.

In ancient cultures, illness was believed to be caused by evil spirits or demons, and physicians used magical rituals as part of the cure. Spells were recited over medicinal prescriptions to activate their curative powers. There was obviously more than superstition involved here since these practices endured for millennia. In fact modern medicine is rediscovering the power of the so-called “placebo effect” in which the patient’s belief in the healing power of the physician plays a significant role in their recovery.

According to modern researchers, shamans in their healing rituals induce altered states of consciousness in their patients through hypnosis, suggestion, and guided imagery. These techniques decrease anxiety while strengthening the immune system of the patient, resulting in the alleviation of a wide range of psychological problems and physical diseases. Similar shamanic approaches were likely used by ancient Egyptian healer-magicians.

The goddess Sekhmet. Temple of Mut, Luxor. New Kingdom 1403-1365 BCE.
The goddess Sekhmet. Temple of Mut, Luxor. New Kingdom 1403-1365 BCE.

The priests of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, often specialized in medicine and magic. Sekhmet was also the bringer of plague and disease, and had to be propitiated by her clergy. The scorpion goddess Selkhet also had her own magician-healers who specialized in curing the bites of scorpions and snakes.

In one such spell for curing snakebite the magician created a small sculpture of the god Horus which he placed on the head of the patient, accompanied by this spell: “Flow out, poison! Scatter yourself on the ground! Horus curses you, he wipes you out! He grinds you underfoot!… You creep away, And you are not seen again. So speaks Horus the Great Magician!”

Demons with foreign names derived from Semitic languages spoken in Syria and Palestine are common in Egyptian magical texts, and were blamed for various kinds of sickness, fevers, and infectious diseases. A technique for dealing with demonic possession was to find a spirit powerful enough to drive the demon out—or negotiate with it. Along with demons are the bau of deities—their divine manifestations—which could also threaten mankind. A person might offend a god and experience their displeasure as an illness or panic attack.

Egyptian magicians invoked strange composite deities to combat the bau of the gods. One of the most notable of these was Tutu, known by titles such as “he who keeps enemies at a distance”, as well as “great of strength”. He had a sphinx-like form consisting of the head of a man and body of a lion with snake’s tail. Tutu was considered the chief of the demons who could also harness their forces. He was  prayed to and given offerings to protect against bad dreams.

God Tutu, depicted with human head, lion's body and tail of a cobra. photo: Keith Schengili Roberts
Tutu, depicted with human head, lion’s body and tail of a cobra. photo: Keith Schengili Roberts

The practice of magic in Egypt was not exclusive to the priesthood, or to men. Wise women known as rekhet, meaning “female knower” were thought to have the ability to communicate with the gods and the dead. They were consulted as seers, and their clairvoyant abilities were apparently passed down through families.

The rekhet exercised powers similar to modern “mediums” and were able to reveal which bau of the gods had placed a spell on a person, causing them misfortune. An ancient text reads: “I have gone to the wise woman and she told me the manifestation (bau) of Ptah is with you”. They also found out what the grievances of the dead were against the living and how they might be satisfied, since it was believed the “restless dead” or angry ghosts–those who had died in an unhappy condition or hadn’t received a proper burial–could bear grudges against the living and torment them. It was thought such wise women could diagnose which evil spirit or deity was responsible for causing the illness of a sick child.

Metternich Stela. Isis, Horus and Thoth are shown subduing poisonous snakes and scorpions. ca. 380-342 BCE.
Metternich Stela. Isis, Horus and Thoth are shown subduing poisonous snakes and scorpions. ca. 380-342 BCE.

The goddess Isis may have been associated with the rekhet. A stone tablet from the thirtieth dynasty, the Metternich Stela, records Isis as saying: “I am a daughter, a knowing one (rht) in her town, who dispels a poisonous snake with her oral powers. My father has taught me knowledge.”

On the stela are recorded numerous spells and rituals for healing of snake and scorpion bites. Water was poured over the stone and collected and drunk by persons  as a means of magical healing.

Heka-Egyptian Magic

In ancient Egypt there was no word for “religion”—the closest thing to it was heka–magical power. Heka literally means “the activating of the ka”, the ka being the spiritual “double”–or life force within the human body which survives it after death—and also the vital force shared by mankind and the gods. It is the universal life energy, the creative power circulating through the spiritual and physical worlds which makes creation possible. Thus magic preceded the creation of the gods and was believed to be even more powerful than them. In the Pyramid Texts the magician’s power is extolled: “The sky quivers, the earth quakes before me, for I am a magician, I possess magic”. 

Heka holding serpent staffs.
Heka holding serpent staffs.

Heka was personified as a god of magic, associated with the power of the written and spoken word as well as medicine and healing. He accompanied the sun-god Ra on his barque during its daily journey through the heavens, along with the gods Sia (divine perception) and Hu (divine speech). He was depicted as a man holding two serpents crossed over his chest. Heka’s female equivalent was the goddess Weret Hekau, meaning “Great of Magic”, or the “Great Enchantress” who was often depicted in the form of a cobra, as were several other Egyptian goddesses. Egyptian magicians in their ceremonies carried cobra shaped bronze staffs, possibly associated with Weret Hekau.

Ishtar holding double serpent wand. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BCE.
Ishtar holding double serpent wand. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BCE.

Serpents symbolize fertility, rebirth, and immortality and are associated with magic and shamanism world-wide. The caduceus wand of the Greek god of magic and healing, Hermes, consists of two serpents symmetrically entwining a staff. Its earlier prototype can be found in the double serpent wand wielded by the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, which likely is a form of the  serpent god Ninghishzida,  a Babylonian  fertility deity.

Similarly in Hindu Tantrism, dual serpents symbolize kundalini–the psycho-spiritual force awakened by the yogi at the base of the spine which rises up the spine and chakras leading to enlightenment. Serpents also served as the helping-spirits of shamans. The Kalevala epic of ancient Finland tells of Sami shamans who shapeshift into serpents during their otherworldly journeys. Andamanese and San shamans ascended in visionary flights to the heavens on the back of rainbow serpents.

Thoth holding serpent staffs.
Thoth holding two serpent staffs, perhaps related to Weret Hekau.

Egyptian magicians summoned the power of heka through the use of sacred words, images, and rituals. Using the principle of sympathy—“like affecting like”—they attempted to influence the course of the cosmos through magic, circumventing ordinary laws of cause and effect. All things on earth were believed to be linked to their divine archetypes, therefore by using their corresponding words or images in magic the power of the neters or gods could be invoked to manifest the will of the magician. The word was believed to have power to manifest that which existed on the causal-spiritual level, especially when spoken with intention and proper intonation. Words gave life to the things they represented, exemplified by the god Tehuti, or Thoth—inventor of speech who brought the world into existence through the power of his words.

Hieroglyph of god Heka.
Hieroglyphs spelling the name of the god Heka.

Hieroglyphs, called mdju netjer--words of the gods– were also believed to be inherently magical as they possessed the indwelling presence of the deities. They were regarded as living things imbued with the life of that which they signified. Besides their use in temple inscriptions, hieroglyphic signs and images of gods were also used for practical magic, sometimes drawn in ink on the skin of a person for healing or protection.

Writing was considered a magical act. The written word is one of the characteristics distinguishing magic from shamanism, which is predominantly an oral tradition. The earliest magical literature of Egypt, the Pyramid Texts, likely codified older shamanistic rituals, in the opinion of Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch. Likewise some of the most important Egyptian deities probably date from prehistoric shamanism. Animal deities and theriomorphic animal-headed humans, typically found in the paleolithic and neolithic, are preserved in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. In contrast to the shaman who sought their own visions and spirit-helpers, however, the literate Egyptian priest-magician worked with deities and knowledge established by religious tradition—and to a large degree transmitted through written texts.

Spell from Book of the Dead--Papyrus of Ani with four sons of Horus. ca. 1275 BCE.
Spell from Book of the Dead–Papyrus of Ani with four sons of Horus guarding the deceased. ca. 1275 BCE.

Besides the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other funerary texts, much of the archaeological evidence for Egyptian magic is in the form of written spells on tomb walls, coffins, and inscriptions on monuments and statues. Writing was also used for amulets and healing spells, like those written on a piece of papyrus then hung around a patient’s neck, or worn on the afflicted part of the body. In the Greek Magical Papyri dating from Greco-Roman Egypt, spells were written in myrrh-based ink which was washed off and the mixture swallowed, a practice which still exists in Arabic magic to this day.

Statue of Sekhmet in small chapel near the temple of Ptah in Karnak. The statue is illuminated only by a small hole in the ceiling, adding to the mysterious atmosphere of the shrine.
Statue of Sekhmet in small chapel near the temple of Ptah in Karnak. The statue is illuminated only by a small hole in the ceiling, adding to the mysterious atmosphere of the shrine.

Magical statuary played an important role in the religious and magical practices of Egypt. Cult-images of the gods were placed in the innermost chambers of temples and cared for by “oracle priests” who presented them with food and incense several times a day, clothing them in the morning, and sealing their chambers in the evening. This was essential as the ba or soul of the patron god was believed to inhabit its statue. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch writes: “The daily liturgy was designed to persuade deities to manifest themselves in the statues kept in the holy of holies and to bestow blessings on king, people and country.” During important festivals cult-images were removed from their shrines and carried in procession where the public consulted them as oracles, and in some cases put on boats and sailed along the Nile.  It is likely these effigies of the gods became powerful “magical talismans” in their own right. I can attest from personal experience that some of the large statues of Sekhmet the lion-headed goddess continue to emanate power to this day.

Statue of Bes.
Statue of Bes, protector deity.

Statues also served as guardian figures, such as those of the dancing dwarf god Bes which were placed around temples as well as households to protect during childbirth and ward off demons and bad luck. Bes can be traced back to pre-dynastic times and his cult is thought to have originated in Nubia in present day Sudan. The four sons of Horus (see above illustration) were represented in Canopic jars placed in tombs which guarded the internal organs of the deceased.

Ushabtis from British Museum. photo: Jack 1956
Ushabtis from British Museum. photo: Jack 1956

Tombs contained numerous ushabti— magical figurines of otherworldly servants—made from a wide range of materials such as mud, wax, dough, wood or stone. These were animated by magical spells for the purpose of waiting on the needs of the deceased in the afterlife.

Wax figures were frequently used by magicians for spells. The practice of making wax models of “enemies of the state” and then destroying them was common practice in Egyptian temples, used as a means of holding the forces of chaos at bay. The ancient Greek writer Pseudo-Callisthenes chronicles the use of wax figures by pharaoh Nectanebo II (360-342 BCE) the last native ruler of Egypt, which he used to protect his kingdom from invasion by sea:

“…he retired into a certain chamber, and having brought forth a bowl which he kept for the purpose, he filled it with water, and then, having made wax figures of the ships and men of the enemy, and also of his own men and ships, he set them upon the water in the bowl, his men on one side, and those of the enemy on the other… and uttering words of power he invoked the gods who help men to work magic, and the winds, and the subterranean demons, which straightway came to his aid…the figures which represented his own men vanquished those which represented the enemy, and as the figures of the ships and men of the hostile fleet sank through the water to the bottom of the bowl, even so did the real ships and men sink through the waters to the bottom of the sea.”

Nectanebo II. photo: Rama
Nectanebo II. photo: Rama
Spell to assume the form of a horned snake. Papyrus of Ani. ca. 1275 BCE.
Spell to Assume the Form of a Horned Snake. Papyrus of Ani. ca. 1275 BCE.

Egyptian magicians also performed spells of magical transformation into the gods, identifying with them for the purpose of acquiring their power—similar to the shaman’s use of shapeshifting into animal-helping spirits. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, spells of transformation into hawks, phoenix birds, the Eye of Horus, and various deities are recorded. A spell to assume the form of a horned snake reads: “I am a horned snake, long of years,/lying down, born every day…”

Jeremy Naydler proposes that many of the ritualized poses depicted in Egyptian artwork transformed the priest-magician into a human hieroglyph—an icon of the god—causing the divinity’s heka to manifest in them. A similar technique known as the “assumption of god-forms” is practiced by modern ritual magicians. This involves visualizing oneself in the form of particular deity and assuming its identity. By doing so, the magician aspires to a transcendent state of consciousness through which the powers of the deity can manifest, while still remaining in conscious control, in contrast to states of “possession”.

Deities such as Thoth, Isis, and Sekhmet were believed to be great magicians, but through the power of heka the human magician could coerce even the gods. Egyptian magical spells sometimes plead with or command a god to carry out the magician’s desires—even threatening them with punishment if their demands are not met. This was not due to irreverence or disrespect for the gods, but was rather based on an understanding of the symbiotic relationship of the divine and human worlds. The deities were sustained by the worship, rituals, and offerings of the magician, just as her or his well-being was dependent on their benevolence.

Pharaoh as Shaman

In this post we continue to explore ancient Egyptian magic—looking at possible parallels between the pharaoh and tribal shaman.

King Khafre 2,650-2480 BCE. photo: Jon Bodsworth.
King Khafre 2,650-2480 BCE. photo: Jon Bodsworth.

The Egyptian king, or pharaoh, who served as political and religious leader of his people was believed to be a living god. He was seen as the incarnation of the deity Horus—the son of Osiris—and representative of the gods on earth. He was responsible for maintaining ma’at–the rule of cosmic harmony and order—and defeating the powers of chaos. Accordingly, the king was believed to be the greatest magician of the land, serving as mediator between the spiritual world and his people—similar to the tribal shaman, according to philosopher Jeremy Naydler.

South African Modjadji or Rain-Queen, believed to have the power to control clouds and rainfall.
South African Rain-Queen Makoso Constance Modjadji VI, believed to have the power to control clouds and rainfall.

Egyptologist Cyril Aldred proposes the Egyptian king’s role was inherited from the prehistoric african rain-maker, whose duty it was to keep his people and their animals in good health. Like the rain-maker, the pharaoh was thought to sustain the fertility of the land through his magical control of the annual Nile flood upon which all life depended.

Rain-maker kings and queens have existed into modern times among tribes in the Sudan as well as South Africa and are held responsible for bringing rain in times of drought as well as maintaining social harmony. This is similar to the role shamans play in many cultures as weather-wizards as well as mediators of tribal disputes.

The pharaoh was also the high priest of all state sanctioned temples. His duties included the building and maintenance of temples, as well as the performance of religious rites. One of the most important of these was the Heb-Sed Festival, a jubilee usually celebrated after thirty years of his reign, and every three years thereafter. It is thought to have originated in predynastic times and was first recorded in the Pyramid Texts, dating back to the Old Kingdom around 2,400-2,300 BCE. The central episode of the Heb-Sed was the ritual death and rebirth of the king, as his revitalization, assured continued harmony between him and the universe.

King Djoser performing the sed dance. Saqquara 2,670 BCE.
King Djoser performing the sed dance. Saqquara ca. 2,670 BCE.

As part of the festivities he performed the sed dance, demonstrating his physical vigor by circumambulating around a large courtyard, running between sets of hoops and cairns symbolically representing the boundaries of his kingdom.

Following this, a coronation was celebrated in which the king was crowned with the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. By doing so, he symbolically united the two lands, embodying the energies of Osiris the god of the underworld, and his son Horus, the lord of the living. Jeremy Naydler proposes that by participation in these magical rites, the king united not only the physical but the spiritual realms together, assuring the fertility of the entire land.

After the public ceremonies, the king undertook a solitary initiatory ordeal which Naydler proposes may have taken place in a chamber inside the pyramids. There he apparently laid on a bed or in a sarcophagus, entering a state of deep trance. This resulted in the awakening of his ba or subtle body, according to Naydler, by means of which he entered the otherworld of the duat in visionary consciousness.

ba-soul hovering above mummy
ba-soul hovering above mummy

The ba was often depicted as a human headed bird, and possibly in this form the king ascended to the sun-god Ra in the heavens and experienced visions of the deities. A passage of the Pyramid Texts describes the king’s celestial ascent: “…I will ascend to the sky to you, Ra, for my face is that of falcons, my wings are those of ducks…O men, I fly away from you.” This ritual bears striking similarities to the shaman’s visionary ascent through the heavens, often facilitated by shape-shifting into a helping spirit such as a bird, for the similar purpose of communing with the Supreme deity and celestial gods.

Naydler writes: “the role of the shaman…is paralleled in ancient Egypt by the Egyptian king”. He insists that shamanic themes such as initiatory death and dismemberment followed by rebirth and renewal, transformation into a power animal, ecstatic ascent to the sky, and communing with the ancestors and gods are all to be found in the Pyramid Texts.

Air shafts of great pyramid oriented to stars, based on diagram of R. Bauval
Air shafts of great pyramid oriented to stars, based on diagram of R. Bauval

Upon the king’s death the Opening of the Mouth ritual was performed on his mummy. According to authors Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert in their book The Orion Mystery, the ceremony was based on the Osiris myth. They propose it may have taken place within the chambers of the Great Pyramid, which served as an instrument of rebirth for the departed king. Researchers speculate that the so-called “air shafts” leading from the Queen’s and King’s chambers to the exterior of the pyramid had a symbolic function as channels for the soul of the departed king, and were oriented towards specific stars in the heavens. As mentioned in a previous post of this blog, the star Sirius was associated with the goddess Isis, and the constellation Orion with Osiris.

Bauval and Gilbert propose the ritual began in the lower Queen’s Chamber of the pyramid where the king’s mummy was positioned in front of the shaft pointing towards Sirius. There, the deceased king (identified with the dead Osiris) was symbolically revived by the goddess Isis, associated with Sirius.

Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun. The priest holds an adze shaped like the constellation Ursa Major identified with eternal life.
Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on mummy of Tutankhamun. The priest holds an adze shaped like the constellation Ursa Major identified with eternal life.

The king’s son, playing the role of Horus, used various tools to touch the eyes and mouth of his father’s mummy, magically restoring its sight and speech and enabling it to eat and drink in the afterlife. Through this act the ka or spiritual body of the deceased king was believed to be reawakened. The mummy was next taken to the King’s Chamber and placed in front of a shaft pointing to the constellation Orion (associated with the resurrected Osiris) preparing the king for the magical ascent to his new home in the heavens—in the constellation Orion—where he would dwell as a star throughout eternity. In the Pyramid Texts it is written:

“…O king, the sky conceives you with Orion, the dawn bears you with Orion…you will regularly ascend with Orion from the eastern region of the sky, you will regularly descend with Orion in the western region of the sky”.

King Amenhotep I from his funerary cult.
King Amenhotep I from his funerary cult.

From his new dwelling place in the sky the deceased pharaoh, identified with Osiris god of the dead, continued to play an important role in the life of his people. His earthly tomb became the center of a royal funerary cult in which his statue received daily offerings. Dead pharaohs became deities, some displaying characteristics of local gods. For example, king Amenhotep I (1525-1504 BCE), was worshipped as the patron deity of the town of Deir el-Medina where he was consulted as an oracle by local people.

Male ancestral figure-Igbo.
Male ancestral figure–founding ancestor or warrior. Igbo people–southern Nigeria. Early–mid 20th century.

The pharaonic cults of ancient Egypt could arguably be traced to prehistoric ancestor cults in sub-Saharan Africa. Ancestor worship, in which the dead serve as mediators of spiritual power and guidance for the living, continues not only in modern Africa but also in the diaspora of the New World in religions such as Vodoun, Santeria and Candomble. It also appears in different forms among cultures practicing shamanism worldwide.

Egyptologist E.A.Wallis Budge writes: “…Egyptians, like so many modern African peoples, worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, and Osiris became the great ancestor of all Egypt and was worshipped as such…”

Osiris as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.
Osiris, King of the Dead as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.

Tep-Zepi–Prehistoric Roots of Ancient Egypt?

“Narmer Palette” showing the king smiting an enemy. 3,100 BCE.

In this post we will take a more in-depth look at the prehistory of ancient Egypt.  According to modern historians, the earliest dynasty of Egypt began with the reigns of the proto-dynastic pharaoh Narmer or perhaps his predecessor King Scorpion who united the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3,100 BCE. The ancient Egyptians, however, saw their origins in the mythic Tep Zepi—the “first time”—believed to be the golden age when the gods lived upon the earth. Was the Tep Zepi a distant memory of their prehistoric ancestry?

Alternative historian Robert Bauval in his book Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt argues that Egypt grew out of a sophisticated African civilization that existed for millennia prior to the civilization of the pharaohs. This theory is not new—it was first proposed by 19th century European explorers as well as the eminent Egyptologist Sir Wallis-Budge in 1911 who wrote that the religion of ancient Egypt was derived from the indigenous peoples of Northeastern and Central Africa.

Budge found numerous similarities between ancient Egyptian and modern African religion and magic:  ancestor worship, veneration of animals and cattle, funerary customs, pantheons of gods, use of fetishes, etc. He reasoned that since many of the African tribes he surveyed had probably never had contacts with the Egyptians, cultural influences must have originated with them and spread north up the Nile. Budge’s colleagues dismissed his theory as impossible, instead espousing the theory that invading Caucasoids conquered Egypt and founded the first dynasties.

Likewise, Bauval’s critics, mostly mainstream archaeologists and Egyptologists, also reject his theory—having their own academic turf to defend. In my opinion evidence of the African origins of ancient Egyptian culture is compelling.

Bauval hypothesizes that prehistoric hunter-gatherers from sub-Saharan Africa were forced northward by a warming climate and vanishing game to became pastoral herdsmen in the Sahara during the Holocene Wet Phase (7,500-3,000 BCE) when the rainy climate supported savannah grasslands. These people gradually developed a more settled lifestyle based on animal domestication, agriculture, sign writing, and timekeeping using the sun and stars. During the Middle and Later Neolithic periods around 6600-5100 BCE they began to build large organized settlements and structures.

Reconstruction of Nabta Playa
Reconstruction of Nabta Playa “Calendar Circle”. Aswan Nubia Museum.

The most remarkable of these is the megalithic monument of Nabta Playa in the southwestern desert of Egypt, near Abu Simbel. Nabta Playa is a circle of upright monoliths—standing stones—arranged according to sophisticated astronomical alignments. Built around 4,500-4,000 BCE, it predates Stonehenge by one thousand years and is one of the earliest examples of megalithic monument building that would spread around the world during the Neolithic.

Astroarchaeologist J. McKim Malville proposes Nabta Playa was a ceremonial center, a place where geographically dispersed peoples gathered periodically to conduct religious ceremonies. It was originally built on the shoreline of an ancient lake which has since evaporated and become desert. The structure consists of ten large stones and a circle of upright slabs, some of which are nine feet tall. There are also two slab covered tumuli, one found to contain the remains of a long-horned bull, suggesting it was part of a religious ritual. The twelve foot diameter stone circle contains four sets of vertical stones—two sets of which were aligned north-south, while the other pair is directed toward the summer solstice horizon. Alignments have also been found to the brightest stars in the night sky during the 5th millennium BCE: Arcturus, Sirius, Alpha Centauri, and Alnilam—one of three stars in the belt of the constellation of Orion.

Many of the megaliths at Nabta Playa are sculpted and seem to have anthropomorphic form, suggesting they represented the dead. Elaborate burials have been found nearby, and the site seems to be a “necropolis” or ancient cemetery. Malville notes the shaped stones and human and cattle burials face the northern region of the sky, revealing an early symbolic connection to the heavens. He points out that the northern circumpolar region of the sky was associated with eternal life in later pharaonic Egypt. During the summer and autumn seasons the stones would have been partially submerged in the lake, serving as ritual markers for the onset of the rainy season. Malville believes these objects created a symbolic geometry that integrated concepts of death, water, cattle, sun, and stars.

Malville, Bauval and other researchers propose the astronomical symbolism of the Neolithic Nabta Culture contributed to the development of the culture of pharaonic Egypt that built the first pyramids over a thousand years later. The Egyptians practiced an astral religion, and in common with Nabta Playa they venerated the constellation Orion, Sirius, and the circumpolar stars in pharaonic burial rituals. Cattle worship discovered at Nabta Playa was perpetuated in Egyptian deities such as the cow-headed Hathor and the Apis Bull.

Paintings of animal- headed men from Mark Borda Cave. Gilif Kebir/ Jebel Uwainat, Libya. photo: Robert Bauval.
Paintings of animal- headed men from Mark Borda Cave. Gilif Kebir/ Jebel Uwainat, Libya. photo: Robert Bauval.

Some form of shamanic ceremonialism was practiced by these nomadic peoples according to Bauval who visited numerous caves on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan where he found rock paintings left by Neolithic herders. He reports seeing images depicting humans merging with or “morphing” into animals—typical of shamanic art. He also found paintings of humans with cow-like heads eerily reminiscent of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, as well as images he claims bear a striking resemblance to the god Set, an Egyptian god of desert regions.

Possible Neolithic prototype of Egyptian sky goddess Nut with gods Geb and Shu standing beneath her. Cave of Swimmers, southwest Egyptian desert, ca. 5,000 BCE. Drawing D. Nez.
Possible Neolithic prototype of Egyptian sky goddess Nut with gods Geb and Shu standing beneath her. Cave of Swimmers, southwest Egyptian desert, ca. 5,000 BCE. Drawing D. Nez.

Egyptologist Miroslav Barta has studied the cryptic Neolithic rock art of the remote “Cave of the Swimmers” and the “Cave of the Beasts” in Southwest Egypt. He claims the paintings there portray deities who are precursors of the Egyptian pharaonic divinities, as well as primordial versions of Egyptian iconography and mythological concepts. Most strikingly, Barta identifies a painting of a large arched female figure, beneath whom stand two smaller male figures. He proposes this painting is an archaic version of the well known motif of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut arched over the earth, accompanied by the male gods Shu and Geb who are usually shown standing beneath her.

Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky with gods Shu and Geb beneath her. Drawing D. Nez.
Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky with gods Shu and Geb beneath her. Drawing D. Nez.

Bauval claims the Neolithic nomadic peoples who painted these scenes and built Nabta Playa were forced by an increasingly arid climate to migrate north again, this time into the fertile Nile Valley. There they settled to become the progenitors of ancient Egyptian civilization.

There were likely other cultural  influences on the early Egyptians–most notably Mesopotamian architecture, pottery and artistic motifs. But these were later additions to the prehistoric African heritage of myths, religious iconography, astro-ceremonialism and shamanic practices.

And just when I thought I had finished this post I stumbled across an interesting juxtaposition of images while invoking the god Google….possible shamanic associations?

Northern Nigerian hunter wearing a hornbill headdress to stalk game. photo: Major A.J.N. Tremearne 1913.
Northern Nigerian hunter wearing a hornbill headdress to stalk game. photo: Major A.J.N. Tremearne 1913.
Ibis headed Egyptian god Thoth.
Ibis headed Egyptian god Thoth.

Etana’s Heavenly Ascent

Etana and the eagle. Akkadian cylinder seal. 2334-2150 BCE.
Etana and the eagle. Akkadian cylinder seal.
2334-2150 BCE.

In previous posts we discussed the myths of Inanna and Orpheus which feature descents to the underworld. These were compared to shamanistic narratives of journeys to the land of the dead to retrieve souls as well as undergo initiation ordeals.

Shamanic lore also speaks of visionary ascents to the “upperworld”– the heavenly realm–where the shaman communed with god and the celestial spirits, receiving prophecies and healing remedies. The earliest literary account of a mystical ascent through the heavens is the Sumerian Epic of Etana, recorded around the 3rd millennium BCE. It’s protagonist, Etana, was a historical figure, one of the earliest kings of the city of Kish in Sumeria. His adventure to the heavens on the back of an eagle clearly recalls the shaman’s flight to the upperworld:

In the beginning an eagle and serpent inhabit a tall poplar tree—the eagle nesting in its branches and the serpent in its roots. The two become friends, swearing an oath before Shamash the sun-god to share their prey with their young. However, one day while the serpent is out hunting, the eagle betrays their trust and eats the snake’s young. The serpent in his grief complains to Shamash, who counsels him to trap the eagle while it is feasting on prey, then cut its feathers and imprison it in a pit.

Meanwhile, Etana, distraught that he has been unable to produce an heir, approaches Shamash, asking his help to find the magical “plant of birth” that his wife may conceive. The god advises him to search for the eagle who will help him with his quest. Etana finds the trapped bird, feeds it and nurses it back to health. As a reward, the eagle offers him his friendship, saying: “ask of me whatever you desire and I shall give it to you”. Etana tells him of his wish to ascend to heaven to find the “plant of birth”. The eagle agrees to help, saying:

“…Come, let me take you up to heaven,

Put your chest against my chest, Put your hands against my wing feathers,

Put your arms against my sides”. He put his chest against his chest,

He put his hands against his wing feathers, He put his arms against his sides,

Great indeed was the burden upon him. When he bore him aloft one league,

The eagle said to him, to Etana: “Look my friend, how the land is now,

Examine the sea, look for its boundaries. The land is hills…

The sea has become a stream”. When he had borne him aloft a second league,

The eagle said to him, said to Etana,“Look my friend, how the land is now!

The land is a hill.”When he had borne him aloft a third league,

The eagle said to him, said to Etana, “Look my friend, how the land is now!

The sea has become a gardener’s ditch”…

Etana and the eagle continue their climb, soaring further above the earth, entering the heavenly realms of the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea. They pass through the gates of the gods—the moon god Sin, Shamash the sun god, and Adad the god of storms. They finally come to a heavenly palace where Etana finds the beautiful young goddess Ishtar seated on a throne under which lions crouch. Etana then asks the eagle to take him home. On the way back he falls off the eagle however, plummeting towards the earth, but is rescued by him in mid-flight. Unfortunately, due to a missing portion at the end of the tablet, the tale remains unfinished, leaving us in suspense…

Etana apparently did find the “plant of birth” though–perhaps given to him by Ishtar, the goddess of fertility–since according to the Sumerian king list he indeed had a male heir.

Thunderbird transformation mask. Namgis, Vancouver Island, 19th century.
Thunderbird transformation mask. Namgis, Vancouver Island, 19th century.

The Epic of Etana, featuring magical flight through the heavens on the back of an eagle shares many similarities with shamanistic narratives found world-wide. The eagle is a well known spirit-helper of shamans. In Siberian myths the first shaman was born from the mating of a woman and eagle, and eagles figure prominently in shamanic initiations and costumes. The Native Americans see the eagle as a powerful medicine animal, the messenger between humans and the Creator. In a legend from the Pacific Northwest, the Thunderbird carries a man to his home in the sky and befriends him, eventually returning him to the earth where he becomes a great shaman.

Ydrassil with bird perched on crown. From rune carving, Sweden ca. 1,000 CE.
Ydrassil with bird perched on crown. From rune carving, Sweden ca. 1,000 CE.

Returning to the Epic of Etana, the tree in which the eagle and serpent dwell bears an uncanny similarity to the Ygdrassil Tree of Nordic mythology, in whose upper branches an eagle dwells, while the serpent Niohoggr gnaws on its roots. Ygdrassil spans the worlds, joining them together and providing nourishment for all creatures, similar to the World Tree of shamans.

Clan generation tree of Siberian Namay people
Clan generation tree of Siberian Namay people

In fact, the mythic motif of World Tree inhabited by bird and serpent (or dragon) can be found in myths as widespread as the Near-East, Persia, Siberia, China, Indonesia, Mesoamerica and elsewhere. The serpent is usually associated with the powers of the underworld, while the eagle represents the heavenly realm. These two creatures appear together in many other myths as well, symbolizing the opposites of height/depth, light/dark, heaven/earth, etc.

ba-soul hovering above mummy
ba-soul hovering above mummy

A similar account of a king’s ascent to the heavens can be found in the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt (2,400-2,300 BCE) where the pharaoh is instructed to shapeshift into his ba—soul, imagined as a human headed bird, then ascend to the sky to reunite with the sun-god Re and eventually be reborn as a star.

The heavenly ascents of Etana and the pharaoh anticipate by millennia the visionary ascents through the seven-heavens by mystics of late antiquity: the Hermeticists, Gnostics, Theurgists and Jewish Merkabah riders. During their ascensions, some of them imagined passing through palaces of each celestial sphere where they encountered angelic guardians, similar to Etana’s journey. These imaginal ascents were usually performed  with the intention of attaining the unio- mystica, or mystical union with divinity, and were believed to “divinize” or transform the mystic into a god or angel.

Tree of life diagram from
Tree of life diagram from “Portae Lucis”, 1516.

Modern kabbalistic magicians continue the practice of visionary ascent using the technique of “pathworking” on the Tree of Life. This is a symbolic road-map of the cosmos in the form of an abstract tree diagram consisting of ten sephirah (spheres) and twenty-two paths connecting them, associated with the four elements, planets, zodiacal signs, angels and deities, etc.

During a pathworking, the Tree is ascended in imagination by the magician, starting at its base in the sphere of Malkuth—the material world. The various paths are traversed in sequence, each associated with its particular archetypal symbols and transformative experiences. The journey eventually culminates in the first sphere of Kether, the crown of the Tree of Life, symbolizing the god-head. This process is described by the modern Jewish kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi as an inner spiritual journey in which the aspirant climbs the Tree of himself, continually balancing and perfecting himself at each stage. He writes; “In this way the ascent is safely made from Earth to Heaven while the man is still in the flesh”.

Assyrian Sacred Tree. Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud 865 BCE.
Assyrian Sacred Tree. Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud 865 BCE.

The concept of the kabbalistic Tree of Life was possibly influenced by the ancient Mesopotamian Sacred Tree which appears as early as the fourth millennium, according to assyriologist Simo Parpola, who notes the many parallels between Mesopotamian esotericism and the Jewish Kabbalah. According to him, the Sacred Tree was used by the Assyrians as a symbolic diagram representing the “world order” upon which the deities or divine powers were placed—similar to the Tree of Life. The Mesopotamian tree-motif as found in the Etana myth clearly seems to have been influenced by the World Tree of prehistoric cultures which symbolized the axis-mundi or world-axis connecting the worlds together.

Likewise the modern magician’s visionary ascent of the paths of the Tree of Life could be compared to the shaman’s ecstatic ascent up the branches of the World Tree into the heavenly realms—and is driven by the same archetypal quest for wisdom, healing and spiritual transformation.

blog Flammarion

Inanna’s Descent

We previously discussed shamanic initiations which involved visions of descent to the underworld. There the candidate experienced ordeals of death and dismemberment prior to rebirth and attainment of shamanic powers. This age-old drama of spiritual catharsis and transformation has uncanny parallels in the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, the oldest recorded myth of a journey to the netherworld, composed sometime between 1900 and 3500 BCE.

 Ishtar/ Inanna, as fertility goddess. Sumerian period.
Ishtar/ Inanna, as fertility goddess. Terracotta–Sumerian period.

The goddess Inanna derives her name from the Sumerian words nin-anna meaning “queen of heaven”, and she was aptly associated with Venus, the brightest planet in the heavens. Embodying the contrasts of nature, Inanna was a goddess of love as well as war, the alluring goddess of fertility and sexual passion who also delighted in stirring up rage on the battlefield. In her appearance as the evening star on the western horizon, Venus/Inanna assumed her role as gentle love goddess. However when she appeared as the morning star heralding sunrise, she became the fierce goddess of war. One of the most popular and beloved goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia, people could identify with Inanna’s all too human passions and swings of behavior—her tenderness, promiscuity, jealousy, anger, and hubris, described in many stories.

In the myth of Inanna’s Decent to the Underworld, the goddess decides to journey to the land of the dead, ruled by her sister Erishkegal, to participate in the funeral rites of Erishkegal’s husband, the Bull of Heaven. This is a bold act, perhaps prompted by Inanna’s ambition to extend her rule to the world below. Inanna knows full well that none who descend to the netherworld ever return. Accordingly she instructs her trusted messenger Ninshubur before her departure that he should go and “weep” before the gods, so they will come to her rescue should she not return after three days.

A goddess, likely Inanna, in the underworld flanked by demons. Cylinder seal impression--c. 2330-2150 BCE.
A goddess, likely Inanna, in the underworld flanked by demons. Cylinder seal impression–c. 2330-2150 BCE.

After a long journey Inanna arrives at the gate of her sister’s palace in the land of the dead. She arrogantly bangs on the door, even threatening to break the bolts if she is not let in. Angered by her brashness, her sister Erishkegal instructs her doorman to open the gates for her. She is told she can enter only on the condition she surrenders one of her “divine powers” at each of the seven gates: her turban, her lapis measuring rod, jewelry and clothes. By the last and seventh gate Inanna is stripped bare. Naked and bowed low she enters Erishkegal’s palace where she attempts to sit on her sister’s throne. Enraged by her arrogant behavior, Erishkegal calls for Inanna’s death. She is judged by seven judges, the Anunnaki gods, then struck and killed by Erishkegal. Inanna’s corpse, like a piece of rotting meat, is hung on a hook on the wall.

As previously instructed, Inanna’s messenger approaches various gods for help, including her father Nanna the moon-god. Nanna ignores his pleas, stating that those arrogant enough to crave the divine powers of the underworld must remain there. Finally, Enki the god of wisdom and magic takes pity on Inanna’s plight and agrees to come to her aid. He creates two figures named Galatur and Kurgarra from the dirt under the fingernails of the gods. They are told to go to the palace of Erishkegal and “enter the door like flies”. When they arrive there they find Erishkegal moaning and crying like a woman ready to give birth, and appease her by expressing concern for her suffering. In gratitude, she asks them what they want in return. Without hesitating they ask for Inanna’s corpse, which they then sprinkle with the magical “water of life” and “life-giving plant”, given to them by Enki. Inanna is revived, and flees from the underworld back to the world of the living. The demons, however, chase after her demanding a replacement.

Inanna returns home to her palace to find her husband Dumuzi sitting on her throne. In fact, during her absence he didn’t even bother to mourn her loss. Enraged at his lack of concern, she gives the ungrateful man to the demons to take. Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna steps forward and volunteers to take his place. Brother and sister agree to alternate, each living in the underworld for half a year, and on the surface world the other half.

“Ishtar Queen of Night”, possibly representing Ishtar/ Inanna or Erishkegal. Author’s rendering of clay relief from Old Babylon period 1,500-1,550 BCE.

Historian Goeffry Ashe stresses the shamanic motifs of the myth. He points out that the story is similar to the trance descents to the underworld performed by Altaic shamans or shamanesses: “Inanna dons a septenary outfit with septenary magical gear. On the way she passses through the ordeal of the seven gates, just as the shaman passes through the seven pudak, or obstacles.” The seven pudak Ashe refers to are the seven levels of the underworld, similar to the seven gates entered by Inanna. The basic structure of the older shamanic myth—the underworld descent—followed by the ordeal of death, then rebirth and return of the shaman to the world of the living was preserved by the Mesopotamians, yet altered to accommodate their agricultural mythos. The shaman’s role is now played by fertility deities—Inanna, as well as her husband Dumuzi—who becomes the sacrificial victim demanded by the powers of the underworld.

Inanna and Dumuzi as lovers.
Inanna and Dumuzi as lovers.

Dumuzi as the husband and lover of Inanna was called the “shepherd”, who helped the sheep multiply and the grain grow. He personified the yearly cycle of natural growth. It was believed his mating with Inanna in the spring caused the earth to blossom. During the heat of the summer when the crops withered and died it was thought he had descended to live in the underworld. During the period of Dumuzi’s confinement there, he was mourned by funeral rites as the sacrificial Wild Bull. This practice was so widespread that the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel witnessed it at the temple in Jerusalem, scornfully commenting: “…behold, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz”. Tammuz/Dumuzi was reborn and returned to the world every autumn, along with the life giving rains, bringing fertility to the crops. His joyful reunion with Inanna was widely celebrated in the ancient Middle East.

We can see here the reiteration of the myth of the goddess and the bull, mentioned in previous posts, which was widespread throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age, in which the  bull-god, lover and husband of the goddess, is sacrificed to sustain the world. Savior gods of the ancient Mediterranean world such as Dionysus, Osiris and Attis all have associations with the sacrificial bull. They were “dying gods” who were sacrificed and resurrected, symbolizing the mystery of nature’s eternal cycle of death and regeneration. According to Joseph Campbell, both Inanna and her sister Erishkegal can be understood as two sides of one goddess—representing her powers of life as well as death. As Inanna’s body hangs lifeless on a hook, Erishkegal groans in childbirth—from death springs new life. Paradoxically, as well as being the realm of death, the underworld is also the source of regeneration and life.

Eight pointed star of Inanna representing the planet Venus as Morning or Evening Star.
Eight pointed star of Inanna representing the planet Venus as Morning or Evening Star.

There is an astronomical dimension to the myth as well that was clearly understood by Mesopotamian astronomer-priests. The planet Venus, a manifestation of Inanna, always travels in close proximity to the sun as seen from the earth. It leads or follows the sun in the sky—never more than forty-eight degrees apart from it. Venus sets after the sun during certain phases of its orbit as the Evening Star, and rises before the Sun as the Morning Star during other phases. When Venus closely approaches or “transits” the Sun it disappears into its light—vanishing from sight. This can last from a few days to as long as three weeks. This period of Venus’ disappearance was understood as Inanna’s confinement and death in the underworld. Eventually Venus would be seen rising on the opposite horizon to which it was last sighted, which was interpreted as Inanna’s rebirth and return to the land of the living.

Inanna’s descent can be viewed as an allegory of individual spiritual awakening that is as relevant today as in ancient times. Writing about the myth, assyriologist Simo Parpola states: “…the goddess plays the role of a fallen but resurrected soul, thus opening the possibility of spiritual rebirth and salvation to anyone ready to tread her path.” Without descending to the depths—becoming aware of one’s “shadow” or unconscious self—ascent to the light cannot genuinely occur. To quote Carl Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”. Inanna and Erishkegal—the light and dark sides of the goddess—are inseparable aspects of the alchemical process of transformation of the soul.

The Mysteries of Osiris

Osiris as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.
Osiris as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.

In the previous post we looked at the myth of  Dionysus Zagreus in which that god was murdered and dismembered by the Titans. The Orphics believed that as a result of this act mankind was created–and we inherited the spark of immortal spirit from Dionysus. It is likely the Greeks borrowed elements of the myth from the story of the Egyptian god Osiris–who suffered a similar fate of being murdered, dismembered and resurrected. Osiris was one of Egypt’s oldest and most beloved gods, and his cult gained in popularity down through the centuries. His sufferings could be related to by ordinary people, and he offered them the hope of resurrection after death. As well as being a god, Osiris was also thought to have been the first king of Egypt. Here is a well known version of the myth of  the Death & Resurrection of Osiris:

Osiris was the son of Ra the sun god, and Nut the sky goddess. He grew up to become a wise and powerful king, bringing civilization to his people, teaching them agriculture, animal husbandry, laws to live by and worship of the gods. Egypt prospered under his rule. Set, the brother of Osiris and god of desert and chaos, was envious of him. He schemed against Osiris, devising a plot in secrecy with seventy-two other conspirators. He invited Osiris to a feast and set out a beautifully decorated box which he had made to fit the exact measurements of Osiris’s body. Set offered it to anyone whom the box fit. One guest after another tried to fit in the box until it was Osiris’s turn. As he innocently laid in the box Set and the conspirators slammed the lid it on it and nailed it closed, throwing it into the Nile river. When Isis, Osiris’s wife, heard of this she was grief stricken. She set out to find the body of her husband, knowing the dead could not rest until they had a proper funeral. Searching far and wide she found nothing, finally learning that the coffin containing his corpse had floated out to sea to the land of Byblos. There it became lodged in a tamarisk tree which had miraculously grown to enclose it within its trunk, which the king of Byblos cut down and made it into a pillar for his palace. Isis travelled to Byblos to recover her husband’s body– asking to have the pillar in which the corpse of Osiris was hidden. Her wish granted, she returned to Egypt with the pillar, cutting it open and exposing the coffin. She wept over her dead husband, joined by her sister Nephthys. She hid the coffin but to no avail–that night while hunting Set found it, and enraged at the sight of Osiris, tore his corpse into fourteen pieces, scattering them throughout the land of Egypt. Learning of this, Isis set out once again to find her husband’s remains. She recovered all the pieces except for his phallus which had been swallowed by a fish. Instructed by the god Thoth, she used magic to reassemble the body of Osiris, resurrecting him briefly to life. She magically reconstituted his phallus, and hovering over his body in the form of a falcon was impregnated by him, giving birth to their son Horus.

Isis with Horus the Child.  600-643 BCE.
Isis with Horus the Child.
600-643 BCE.

Horus grew to manhood, and was it was decided by a tribunal of gods that he was the rightful heir to his father’s kingdom. Set was unwilling accept this verdict and surrender the throne. Osiris appeared to Horus and urged him to avenge the evils committed by his brother. Horus challenged Set to a dual and a great battle ensued between the forces of good and evil. During the battle Horus lost his eye and Set lost his testicles. In this story good triumphs over evil, and some day Horus will be victorious and Osiris will return to rule the world of the living.

The mysteries of Osiris were popular yearly ceremonies in ancient Egypt, celebrated with passion plays at Abydos, the cult center of Osiris—the earliest recorded examples of theatre. They recalled the life, death, and resurrection of the god and lasted for many days. Leading roles were assigned to priests wearing the masks of various gods they represented, while extras in the drama were played by community members. After these performances, a mock battle was staged between the followers of Horus and Set. A procession also took place in which statues of Osiris, made from precious metals, were carried from the temple and set up in public places where people could gaze on the image of Osiris “The Beautiful One”.

Seeded grain
Seeded grain “Osiris Bed”.

Osiris was originally an agricultural deity associated with the seasonal cycle of nature—the growth of the crops as well as the yearly Nile flood upon which all life depended. The annual Khoiak Festival was celebrated from mid-September to mid-October as the Nile flood waters receded exposing silt covered fields ready for sowing. During this time seeds were planted in “Osiris Beds”—molds in the form of the mummy of Osiris–and watered until they germinated, symbolizing the resurrection of the god, as well as magically enhancing the growth of the crops. The festival culminated with the ritual raising of the djed pillar, emblematic of Osiris’s backbone, bringing about his restoration.

Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.
Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.

Over the centuries Osiris came to be viewed as the ruler of the land of the dead, who presided over the weighing of souls in the Hall of Judgement. If the deceased had lived a life based on the precepts of Maat, goddess of truth and righteousness, they were welcomed by Osiris into his kingdom. In fact, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead “Osiris” became the synonymous title for the soul in the duat–the otherworld. While the living pharaoh was thought to embody Horus, his deceased father became the new Osiris dwelling in the underworld. Their relationship exemplified the close connections felt by Egyptians between the living and their departed ancestors, with the understanding that from the invisible realm of death emerges life and renewal. Through the myth of Osiris, the worshipper was also able to identify with the immortal god within their own being—the part of their spirit which was resurrected in eternity.

Sahu--the soul (ba) of Osiris/Orion glancing back at Isis/Sirius in the form of a cow.
Sahu–the soul (ba) of Osiris/Orion glancing back at Isis/Sirius in the form of a cow.

The myth also has an astronomical/calendrical dimension. According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, the Egyptians associated Osiris with the constellation Orion, while Isis was symbolized by the brilliant star Sirius, in close proximity to Orion in the sky–the two forming a natural pair. Orion disappears from view every year from the spring equinox until mid-summer–blotted out by the sun’s rays as it transits through the area of the sky occupied by the constellation. Vanishing from sight at this time, it was thought Osiris/Orion had died and gone to the underworld. His absence coincided with the summer season of hot-dry southern winds which brought drought and sandstorms, associated with Set, the murderer of Osiris, and the Nile was also at its low ebb during this time of year. Set was believed to rule the land until late summer, when Isis-Sirius ascended again on the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Sirius’s “heliacal rising” heralded the Nile floods that restored life and fertility to the land, and the Egyptian New Year was celebrated at this time. The flooding of the Nile was believed to be caused by the tears of Isis weeping for her dead husband Osiris. Accompanying Sirius, however, Orion was again visible in the eastern sky before dawn—believed to represent Osiris resurrected and returned from the underworld.

The Osiris myth has clear parallels with the symbolism of the shaman’s initiation suggesting its prehistoric origins. Historian Gloria Emeagwali writes: “This motif of death and resurrection resembles elements of shamanic initiation in north Asia and elsewhere: ritual dismemberment of the initiate’s body and subsequent rebirth as a fully fledged shaman.” The other clearly shamanistic element in the myth is Isis’s shapeshifing into the form of a hawk in order to be impregnated by Osiris.

Winged isis & Osiris
Winged isis & Osiris

The mysteries of Osiris, Isis, and Horus may have been a model for initiation rites among cultures of the Mediterranean world, according to Masonic historian Albert Pike. He notes that ancient writers believed the mystery religions of Attis and Cybele celebrated in Phrygia, and Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Greece were copies of the mysteries of Osiris and Isis. Pike writes that the deities were also equivalent: “the Ceres of the Greeks was the same as the Isis of the Egyptians and Dionysos or Bacchus was the same as Osiris.”

The Osiris legend has endured as one of the core myths of modern western esotericism. It appears in Freemasonry during the third degree initiation where candidates undergo a symbolic death, burial and raising similar to Osiris. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Osiris symbolizes the element of “spirit”. During the Adeptus Minor ceremony of that order, the Chief Adept identifies with Osiris saying: “I am Osiris Onophris…the Lord of Life triumphant over Death.”  Like the shaman, initiates of the mysteries gain direct knowledge–gnosis–of spiritual realms and states of consciousness transcending the material world, and are thus assured of the continuity of consciousness after death.


“Orpheus and Eurydice”. Edward Poynter, 1862.

In this post we turn to the ancient Greek poet, musician and magician Orpheus. According to historian Ake Hultkranz the well known legend of Orpheus and Eurydice originated from a shamanistic myth which can be found in different versions across the world from Greece, Eurasia to Japan, Polynesia and North America.  Although the details vary from culture to culture, the basic scenario of the myth is the same: a journey is taken to the land of the dead to retrieve the soul of a deceased spouse or relative in an attempt to bring them back to life–which usually fails due to the breaking of a taboo. Here’s the Greek version of the myth as told by the Latin poet Virgil:

On their wedding day Eurydice, the lovely young wife of the poet Orpheus, was bitten by a snake and died. Overcome by grief, Orpheus resolved to descend to Hades to retrieve her. Arriving there he charmed the guardians of the underworld with his mournful music, moving Persephone the queen of the dead to release Eurydice to him—on the condition he did not turn back to look at her on their return trip. Almost reaching the surface world, Orpheus forgot and glanced back at his wife. To his dismay, she vanished from sight, returning as a pale shade to Hades forever. Orpheus in his mourning retired to the mountains to devote himself to the worship of Apollo. One day he was approached by a band of wandering Maenads–female worshippers of the god Dionysus. Rejecting their advances, they became enraged and killed him–dismembering him, tearing him limb from limb. They tossed his head into a river and it washed ashore on the island of Lesbos….where it continues to deliver prophecies.

Orpheus encircled by animals. mosaic, Palermo, Italy.  photo: Giovanni Dali'Orto
Orpheus encircled by animals. mosaic, Palermo, Italy.
photo: Giovanni Dali’Orto

Orpheus was the subject of many legends.  He was said to be the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the muse Calliope. Other tales said he was the son of the god Apollo who gave him his lyre, while the muses taught him verses and magical incantations. Through the power of his music, Orpheus, like shamans from time immemorial, could enchant wild beasts and even made the rocks and trees move to follow his songs. He was an adventurer who travelled the world, accompanying Jason and the argonauts on their voyage to find the Golden Fleece–protecting his crew mates from the Sirens’ bewitching songs with his own incantations. Orpheus was also a culture-hero, bringing the cult of Dionysus from Thrace to Greece. Legend has it he also travelled to Egypt and studied the religious customs and sacred rites of that land, introducing them to the Greeks.

While scholars still debate whether Orpheus was a living man or legendary figure, the mystery religion based on his teachings –Orphism—had a profound influence on Greek philosophy and spirituality. According to the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus: “All the Greek’s theology is the offspring of the Orphic mystical doctrine”. Several pre-Socratic philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles were probably initiates of Orphism and influenced by its ideas. Many of Plato’s philosophical doctrines originated with Orphism. It was the Orphics who introduced the notions of the soul’s immortality as well as transmigration of the soul—or reincarnation–to the western world.

Dancing maenads. Callimachus, 1st cent. CE
Dancing maenads. Callimachus, 1st cent. CE

Orphism was a reform religion that grew out of the cult of Dionysus, and like it, attracted many female worshippers as well as priestesses. It focused on individual spirituality, as opposed to the wine drinking and collective ecstasies of the followers of Dionysus–the intoxication sought by the Orphics was the “enthusiasm” of union with the divine. Peter Kingsley writes: “Apollo’s ecstasy was different from the ecstasy of Dionysus. There was nothing wild or disturbing about it. It was intensely private, for the individual and the individual alone”

Orphic initiation rituals were thought to involve the reenactment of the myth of the god Dionysus Zagreus, the infant child of Zeus and Persephone. The rebellious elder gods, the Titans, jealous of Dionysus, lured him out of his cave then murdered and dismembered him, devouring his flesh. Upon discovering their crime Zeus became enraged, hurling a lightning bolt at the Titans and incinerating them. Mankind, however, was made from the ashes of the Titans, who had in turn consumed Dionysus–thus we inherit our bodies from the Titans while our souls contain the immortal spirit of Dionysus. During initiation rituals, candidates consumed the raw flesh of a bull, symbolizing Dionysus, thus partaking of his spirit. Following this, they adhered to a vegetarian diet for the rest of their lives.

The Orphics believed the body with its appetites and passions–inherited from the Titans–is the source of evil, distracting the soul and plunging it into the world of matter. They saw the soul  as a spiritual being fallen from a higher realm into the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation on earth. It was thought to transmigrate through plant and animal existences as well as human lifetimes—incarnating on earth to learn certain lessons and undergo purification for past transgressions. In order for the soul to return to its original state they practiced virtuous actions, asceticism, purifications, religious rites and initiations to eliminate traces of the Titans “original sin”. By living three virtuous lives in a row and being initiated into the mysteries they believed they could earn a blessed afterlife—and be released from the cycles of rebirth.

With its emphasis on asceticism, vegetarianism and reincarnation, Orphism resembles aspects of Indian philosophy and Yoga. Indeed historians have speculated Orphic doctrines were influenced by the Hindu Upanishads, perhaps introduced to the Greeks by Jain missionaries. Like Yogis, some Orphics were wandering ascetics who lived a life of voluntary poverty, practicing celibacy and purification rites. Orphism also seems to have borrowed Egyptian notions of eschatology concerning the soul’s afterlife fate—such as its final judgement by the gods and its sojourn in paradise–the Elysian Fields–similar to the “Fields of Reeds” described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

There is also the possibility shamanistic ideas of the soul’s afterlife stemming from ancient Thrace, the homeland of Orpheus, may have influenced Orphic doctrines. According to Hultkrantz, who studied hundreds of versions of the myth of Orpheus from around the world “…the Orpheus tale was from the outset inspired by shamanistic experiences.” He proposes it narrates the shaman’s journey to recover a lost soul in the land of the dead. In shamanic cultures it is believed illness can result from a person’s soul being stolen by spirits of the dead. The shaman must journey to the underworld, find the lost soul and bring it back to restore the person to health. The character of Eurydice may have originally portrayed such a seriously ill person, perhaps in an unconscious state, treated by a shaman for soul-loss, according to Hultkranz.

The myths of Orpheus and Dionysus certainly share similarities with narratives of shamanic initiations. These involve visions of descent to the underworld and ordeals of death and dismemberment–followed by rebirth of the shaman into a spiritual state of consciousness. Perhaps the candidate of Orphic initiations may have undergone a similar transformative ordeal during the sacrifice, dismemberment and eating of a bull’s flesh–symbolic of Dionysus–with the anticipation of the rebirth of the god’s immortal spirit within their souls.

Orphic Gold Tablet. Thessaly, 350-300 BCE.
Orphic Gold Tablet.
Thessaly, 350-300 BCE.

Historian M. Owen Lee proposes Orpheus and Eurydice might have originally been a “charter myth” for the cult of Orphism, in which Orpheus brought back secrets of life and death from the underworld which he revealed to his followers. Lee notes that the name “Eurydice” can be translated as “she who gives justice far and wide”–far more descriptive of Persephone, the queen of the dead, than a living woman. The Orphics believed  their souls were judged in the afterlife–during which time they would meet Persephone in person. The Orphic Gold Tablets, their version of a “book of the dead”, prompts the initiate to tell the goddess: “I am a son of earth and starry heaven, but my race is of heaven”, proving they have renounced the earthly for the spiritual. If their souls were found pure they could go on to dwell in the Elysian Fields—the blissful abode of heroes and philosophers.

Christ as Orpheus. Mural in catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro, Rome. 4th cent.
Christ as Orpheus.
Mural in catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro, Rome. 4th cent.

Orpheus as archetypal poet, musician and magician, is a seminal figure of western esotericism. The influence of Orphism on another mystery religion—Christianity—cannot be denied. Artwork depicting Orpheus as the “good shepherd” was found in early Christian catacombs, and he was one of the few pagan philosophers honored by Christians. Author Linda Johnsen notes that Christian liturgy was modeled on the rites of Orphism, such as the Last Supper in which the savior is symbolically consumed–resembling the Dionysian feast of the Orphics. Even Dionysus’ power of transforming water into wine was attributed to Jesus.

Carl Kerenyi aptly said: “Mythology, like the severed head of Orpheus, goes on singing even in death and from afar.” The myth of Orpheus & Eurydice  continues to live through the ages, inspiring over sixty operas, countless poems, songs, and paintings over the past few centuries–as well as movies and rock operas to this day. 

German movie poster for film
German movie poster for film “Black Orpheus”.
Helmuth Ellgaard 1959.