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.

2 thoughts on “Pharaoh as Shaman

  1. :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.”

    What was the Egyptian name of the Ursa Major constellation? This constellation is very prominent in Babylonian magic, lore and astrology.


    1. Good question! I believe the Egyptians called it the “Leg of Set” or the “Bull’s Thigh”.The latter name may have been derived from the leg of the sacrificial bull which was offered the mummy during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony? In one myth Set was said to live in Ursa Major. Set, despite his dark reputation, protected the sun-god Re from the serpent Apep (who was truly evil) during his nightly journey through the underworld, and was thus associated with immortality and rebirth, as was the constellation Ursa Major. As you point out, Ursa Major was also revered by the Mesopotamians.It was known as the “Wagon” constellation that moved around the northern sky. They associated it with the god Enlil who ruled the city of Nippur, their oldest city and religious capital. It was also associated with Ishtar and was believed to emanate the influence of the planet Venus.


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