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Open letter to science editors

Myth and the Science of Catastrophism:

A Reading of the Pyramid Texts

William Mullen

Editor's Note: Dr. Mullen has received a grant from Princeton University to provide a new translation of the Pyramid texts. He is currently in the classics department, University of California (Berkeley).  The paper published here was first read at the Velikovsky Symposium, Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon), August 18, 1972.

The student of Velikovsky's reconstructions, once he grants the possibility that they are accurate, has a sequence of responses.  His first is emotional.  Here is a story being told which commands awe.  His second is intellectual.  He is exhilarated that so many problems are being solved at once and so many disciplines being united to solve them.  Sooner or later, however, a third response comes in the form of a philosophical question.  Sooner or later he asks, what is the relevance of these reconstructions to man's existence in the world now?  It is like the public's successive responses to man's landing on the moon.  First there was awe at the feat, then enthusiasm about knowledge to be gained by the feat, but finally puzzlement about the value of such knowledge for the planet we inhabit.


Dr. Velikovsky's own training has led him to see the relevance of his work in psychoanalytic terms.  He has expounded often the Freudian notion that neurotics are compelled to reenact traumatic experiences whose real nature as past events they have repressed; and he has diagnosed man's present destructive behavior as the result of an analogous compulsion.  Freudian therapy calls for anamnesis, a patient's coming to consciousness of the events in his psychic history which the analyst reconstructs with his help.  If the patient can come to see these past events as external to himself, he can break free of the compulsion to reenact them.  Whether this therapy is possible for man at large is a strange question but one that must be asked.

Still, even granting that such therapy might work, it presents philosophical problems.  These lie in the nature of the anamnesis presupposed.  In Freudian analysis a patient frees himself from past events when he comes to see that they are not as continually threatening as his unconscious had imagined.  He then becomes able to do two things.  First, he can free himself from guilt because he sees that he was not ultimately responsible for what happened to him.  Second, he can free himself from "identification with the aggressor," a fantasy in which the victim of some form of aggression desires to practice that same form on someone else.

In Velikovskian analysis these terms are to be translated in the following way.  The traumatic real events which early man suffered were caused by disorders in the solar system of a purely mechanical nature.  Early man interpreted these disorders as actions of divinities with motivations that resembled his own.  His two prime reactions took the opposite forms of guilt and aggression.  He felt guilt insofar as he fantasized that the gods were destroying man to punish him, and he became aggressive insofar as he identified with the gods to the point of imitating them.  A case of the former complex would be human sacrifice—man felt that he had offended the gods so grievously that he could propitiate them only by offering what was dearest to him.  A case of the latter would be wars waged by a psychotic like Nebuchadnezzar, who explicitly identified himself with one planet after another in the course of devastating the countries around him with fire and destroying their populations.  These extreme cases may have laid down a pattern which succeeding generations have followed.  Liberation is to come when the purely mechanistic nature of the catastrophic agents is recognized.  Man will then see that there was no question of punishment or aggression because the agents were not beings motivated to punish or destroy.

It can be argued whether this analysis is valid.  I am concerned neither to defend nor criticize but to complement it.  The problem is that materialism would seem initially to be its necessary philosophical stance.  Therapy based on such an analysis will have to keep stressing that the actions of the future must be liberated from the myths of the past, because these myths about divine events are in fact misinterpretations of purely material occurrences.  It will have to keep casting our ancestors in the role of fools of the cosmos.  Early man suffered in ways we cannot fully imagine, but it is an old instinct to believe that through suffering comes wisdom.  Before abandoning ourselves to pity for them, then, we might remember that these same traumatized ancestors were the ones to forge everything we value in the spheres of metaphysics and ethics.

Materialism is a vague concept.  For a working definition I would describe it as the belief that to be happy man need only learn to understand the properties of matter and manipulate it to his ends.  The fault in this stance is that it will never satisfy man's instinct to order his ends in conformity with a transcendent first principle.  You cannot take matter as your first principle because, underlying all the patterns of order you may trace in its behavior, you keep finding random motion.  This is what physicists seem to be saying when they tell us that at the subatomic level man's instruments start altering the behavior they were devised to study.  Beyond that there are only "mysterious messages from the real world" (Max Planck's phrase).  Since there are potentially an infinite number of such messages, each equally undecodable, they are collectively without purport and show only that their senders are in random motion through the universe.  Matter does not provide any model for human action.

In itself, of course, a transcendent first principle provides no model either.  Whether you call it God or Being or Unity, it has nothing rational to say about existence in a world of plurality.  But since man's instinct to act in conformity with it is irreducible, he has from the earliest times known sought to bridge the gap by one set or another of non-rational symbols, that is, by myths.  He has found it necessary to do so. In the West Plato and Aquinas were both firm on this point; it is why the Timaeus and the Laws were written after the Republic, and the Summa Theologica after the Summa contra Gentiles.  Outside the West most cultures seem always to have taken it for granted.

Naturally the uncertainty principle does not alter science's goal of finding as many patterns of order in the material world as it can.  In its own sphere this goal is supremely desirable.  Transferred into the sphere of human behavior, however, it can have strange effects.  The scientist is used to the satisfaction of devising experiments whose results conform perfectly to expectations.  Often this attitude is extended to the social sphere, the hope of confirming a hypothesis becomes the hope of "saving mankind" by creating a rational utopia.  We should know the dangers of this hope from an age in which disastrous social experiments have been conducted as never before.  Somewhere there is a still small voice of sanity insisting that man cannot be saved, only helped.  In the realm of psychology that was the sanity of Freud, whose work stems from a long ethical, no less than a long scientific, tradition.

If a large-scale Velikovskian therapy were ever to be carried out, then, it would have to be contained by cautions something like these.  So contained, its task would ultimately be a simple one: to remind man that since he is living in a period of cosmic stability he should enjoy its blessings.  In my understanding this has always been Velikovsky's main point, and there is a humanistic tenor throughout his work which holds a firm mean between materialism on the one hand and mysticism on the other.

All I would like to add is that in the light of these cautions the science of catastrophism should be able to formulate a stance toward myth which retains some humility.  The integrity of myth is that it performs scientific, metaphysical and ethical functions at once: it seeks first to explain the causes of phenomena, second to relate these causes to a stable cosmic first principle, and third to deduce from the relationship a code of action.  If myth is a failure in the first attempt, its ends and methods in the second and third are still indispensable.


I would now like to use one specific set of catastrophic myths, those found in the Pyramid Texts of Old Kingdom Egypt, to ground these generalities.  Egypt is one of the most conservative and unified civilizations known.  In my view it was also, in its early phases, among the least riven by the split between matter and spirit which is now our danger.  For the Egyptians astronomy, the precise notation of heavenly movements, was inseparable from mythology, the theory of divine motivations, for the simple reason that all heavenly bodies were divine.  And mythology was equally inseparable from historiography, the precise notation of human actions, for the simple reason that all memorable human actions had divine imperatives.

This unity of thought has at least one concrete determinant in the institution of kingship.  Everyone knows the ethnological cliche that agricultural peoples dependent on a single great river-system need to secure political harmony over a wide area of it, in order that control of the river's flow in one part not disturb it in another.  This leads to the creation of an empire and the need for a human symbol by which its unity can be expressed, a single ruler.  Here catastrophism gives an old cliche new force.  Mythologies the world over imply that in the golden age before the deluge agriculture did not exist or was not widely used.  Tales of abundant food and eternal spring suggest that in antediluvian times the incline of the earth's axis was much smaller and thus seasonal change more negligible; only after the seasons brought periods of hunger was it necessary to sow and reap.

The specific mythology of Egypt implies that its empire was created in response to the deluge and shortly after it.  Hence Osiris, the divine king associated by Velikovsky with the deluge, is among other things a culture-hero who teaches agricultural arts.  And once the institution of kingship had related catastrophic mythology to the routine of yearly agricultural survival in a large political unit, its position as pivot for symbolic thought was secure.  In any case, without some understanding of the symbolism of kingship it is very difficult to interpret most of the Egyptian texts in which catastrophic lore is contained.

Most of our information about the first historical Egyptian kings is of late origin, but archaeological evidence supports it frequently enough to make it worth considering.  The two native Egyptian documents of greatest value for the establishment of a sequence of reigns are the Palermo Stone fragment, a list of kings compiled in the Fifth Dynasty, and the Turin Canon,. a tattered papyrus from the Nineteenth.  Royal names found on these tally at enough points with Manetho's lists to make us ready to listen to the brief catastrophic legends which he subjoins.  Finally Herodotus has a few words to say, and since Ages in Chaos has greatly revived our sense of accuracy in his reports from Egyptian priests on the New Kingdom, we can now reconsider what he has to say about the Old.

The Turin Canon and Manetho's list both state with calm belief that before Menes, the first human king, Egypt was ruled by a succession of gods.  Herodotus—in the passage where he quotes the priests as affirming that since the first king of Egypt the sun had changed its course four times—also gives the priests' opinion that since the time of that first king no god had ever appeared in human form (II. 142).

The sequence of ruling gods in the Turin Canon, which has only slight variations in Manetho, is that of the so-called Ennead of Heliopolis, the nine gods of the city of On (close to present-day Cairo), at which the king's court was centered and in whose name many pyramids are located.  The nine gods are arranged in five generations preceding the birth of Horus, who was identified with every living king.  Their story is the story of cosmic history leading up to the unification of Egypt.  After Horus comes a group called the Followers of Horus, in Manetho named demigods, and then, in both versions, Menes.

Herodotus says the priests gave this account: " . . . they told me that the first man who ruled over Egypt was Min [Menes], and that in his time all Egypt, except the Thebaic nome, was a marsh, none of the land below lake Moeris then showing itself above the surface of the water" (11.4).  In a later passage he credits Menes with the first acts of draining and diking the river (11.99).

The simplest possible interpretation of these various statements is that Menes' unification of Egypt was simultaneous with the first organized technological effort to make wide-scale cultivation possible after the deluge.  There is, of course, no way of saying how long the land had remained in a marsh-like state nor how long it took to organize human labor for a river the length of the Nile north of the first cataract.  The Palermo stone gives a list of several kings of lower Egypt before naming Menes as the first to unite the two halves of the country.  Nor can the deluge yet be dated precisely, but a date as low as ca.-3400 to ca.-3200, the current archaeological conjecture for unification of Egypt, is possible and has parallels in a number of other countries.

My main reason for suggesting that unification might have followed fairly directly after the deluge comes from the mythological data in the king lists.  Most of the gods preceding Menes as divine kings are associated with the Osirian deluge legend.  The fact that almost every king from Menes on identified himself with Horus, the planet Jupiter, suggests that when the celestial struggle had reached enough stability to allow for some kind of organized human government, this was carried out under the auspices of the planet that appeared victorious.  Examination of skulls and other physical evidence has led to the conclusion that "another race in addition to that represented by the remains found in all reliably dated Predynastic graves occupied Egypt in Early Dynastic times." (D. E. Derry).[1]  These invaders may well have been the Followers of Horus which the Turin Canon interposes between Horus himself and Menes; there would then be the familiar spectacle of a horde identifying itself with a planet and carrying out invasions under its name.*

*Evidence that both war and government were associated with planetary cults continues in the First and Second Dynasties.  Periodic interruptions in the regular succession of kings are accompanied by strong suggestions that the planetary struggle had itself not come to complete stability.  The simplest evidence lies in the names by which the pharaohs and their consorts styled themselves.  Menes himself has been identified with two different pharaohs whose existence has been archaeologically verified by inscriptions on objects found in or near royal tombs.  One is Hor-aha, whose name means "Fighting-Hawk," "Hor" being the same as "Horus."  The other is Narmer, whose consort was named Nithotep.  The huntress goddess Nit is identifiable as planetary in many mythological references, though her cult stood outside the Heliopolitan Ennead, and the name Nithotep, which means "Nit is in peace," probably celebrates the recent stabilization of a menacing celestial body.  The element -hotep has this meaning in a large number of other names and contexts, as I will try to establish.  That Nit was a concern of both of these first two pharaohs is clear from a wooden label found at Abydos recording Hor-aha's construction of a temple to her.  And that the cults of such deities was, a serious business is shown in a similar label from the time of the third authenticated pharaoh, Zer; it depicts a festival at which human sacrifice was performed.

There are strong indications that the First Dynasty was brought to an end by the continuance of the planetary struggle known to the Egyptians as the war between Horus and Seth.  Emery reports from his excavations that nearly all the royal monuments of this dynasty have been found obliterated by fire.[2] Manetho states that in the reign of Semerkhet, second to last of the dynasty's kings, "there were many portents and a very great calamity."  The founder of the Second Dynasty took the name Hotepsekhemui, which means "the two powers are at peace"; usually interpreted as meaning that upper and lower Egypt have been reconciled, the phrase could just as easily refer to a phase of apparent planetary stability, of which the cessation of factional war was merely a result.  The history of the Second Dynasty indicates that instabilities kept recurring.  Manetho says that in Hotepsekhemui's reign "a chasm opened at Bubastis and many perished"; Emery adds that this seems geologically authenticated.[3]  Four kings later in the Second Dynasty there is the strange spectacle of a pharaoh who in mid-reign ceased to identify himself with Horus and championed the cause of Seth instead; he changed his name from Sekhemib to Perabsen, and in the first of the three names in standard Old Kingdom titulary where a drawing of the hawk of Horus should appear he substituted the dog-like animal of Seth (a species now extinct).  Seth also appears on a seal found in his tomb which reads "the god of Ombos [Seth's cult centre] to his son Perabsen."  In this case, too, all the royal tombs were found badly damaged by fire.[4]  The next two kings for whom there is any archaeological authentication called themselves Kha-Sekhem and Kha-Sekhemui, which mean "Appearance of the power" and "Appearance of the two powers"; it is agreed that these names designate the reestablishment of order.  Kha-Sekhemui added as one of his other names the phrase "the two gods in him are at peace."  With the third dynasty a long phase of stability seems to begin that has no real interruptions until the great catastrophe that brought down the whole Old Kingdom.  This phase begins with the reign of Djoser, whose construction of the famous Step-pyramid inaugurated the series of masterpieces which comprise the pyramid age.  Gardiner points out that his "importance as the founder of a new epoch is marked in the Turin Canon by the exceptional use of red ink."[5]  About the achievement of the pyramids themselves it is enough to say that their builders, among the many other things they had in mind, were concerned to erect the stablest possible architectural form, which could survive anything.  In this they succeeded.

                                                        THE PYRAMID TEXTS

Let me now pass over the history of cultural achievements in the early period and go directly to the texts found in the pyramid of Unas, last king of the Fifth Dynasty, and in most of the pyramids of the kings of the Sixth, a period conventionally dated ca.-2300 to -2100.  These texts are spells describing the king's activities after his rebirth in his tomb; they are sometimes to be recited by him, sometimes by his cult of priests in the pyramid enclosure.  His prime activity, which takes innumerable forms, is to ascend to the sky and join the company of celestial gods.  Hence from the way these gods are invoked we can reconstruct a basic Egyptian account of the history of the planets.

One cause for the complexity of the account is that when the Nile valley was united in one kingdom, it consisted of many tribes, each with its own names for the planetary gods and its own stories about them.  After unification the cults of these gods were preserved and conflated even though in many cases one and the same planet was being worshiped under different names in different places.  Nevertheless there is one consistent set of gods which took primacy, the nine gods of On already mentioned, which I will now describe in more detail.

The first god was Atum, a word which means "the One who has been completed by absorbing others."  He was alone in the primeval watery abyss, called Nun, and he is sometimes identified with the first mound of land to emerge from it.  There he generated Shu and Tefnut, brother and sister.  From non-mythological phrases the word "shu" can be seen to mean "empty one," "dry one," or "sunlight," and the word "tefnut" simply to be the generic for "woman."  Shu and Tefnut together generated Geb and Nut; Geb is male and means "earth," Nut is female and means "heaven." (Frequent representations show Geb as the prone earth with Nut arched over him, her body covered with stars; Shu stands on Geb and holds Nut up, a posture suggesting he was simply thought of as "air.")

Geb and Nut together generated four children, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.  These seem to be the first generation of planetary gods, though it is far from clear that each represents a known planet in the present solar system.  The names of Osiris' brother and sisters are simple: Isis means "lady of the throne," Nephthys means "she who rules in the house," and Seth "the dog."  About the name Osiris we cannot be sure.  Its most common form consists of an eye written over a throne, and since the most common Posture in which he is depicted is sitting on a throne, at least this second element of the name must have a pictographic rather than syllabic value.  If both elements are pictographic, then the name must mean something like "the enthroned eye."  Since the eye is often used as symbol for a celestial body, the phrase could mean something like "the reigning planet" or "the planet that has taken its station," i.e., has become stabilized.

Horus, which means "the hawk," was generated by Osiris and Isis.  It is in the story surrounding his birth that the catastrophic account is contained.  Osiris was killed by his brother Seth; Isis accompanied by Nephthys sought for her brother's fragmented body; when she found it, she rejuvenated it by magic in order to conceive a child from it; the child Horus was born and set out to revenge his father by attacking Seth; in their fight Seth tore out Horus' eye and Horus tore out Seth's testicles; the fight was terminated by a trial in the divine court in which Horus was judged righteous; the vindicated Horus proceeded to enthrone his father Osiris as king of the dead and was himself universally acclaimed king of the living.  Every living pharaoh considered his dead father mystically to be Osiris and himself to be Horus; thus the link between planetary history and pharaonic unification of Egypt was secured.

Velikovsky has laid down the main lines of his interpretation of this myth.  He has identified Osiris as the planet Saturn, the Greek Cronos, and Horus as the planet Jupiter, the Greek Zeus.  Saturn was fragmented by some kind of collision with Jupiter, and those fragmentary bodies which it did not reabsorb into itself caused disturbances through the rest of the solar system, both immediately and long after.  The immediate disturbance affecting the earth was the deluge, caused by a watery cometary body of Saturnian origin.  The principal later disturbance was caused by the instability of Jupiter, resulting from its absorption of Saturnian fragments.  By a process of fissioning Jupiter generated the protoplanet Venus—in Greek myth Athene, and in the Egyptian Hathor (which means "house of Horus"), the goddess who over a millennium later destroyed mankind, as narrated in the principal Egyptian myth dealing with the events of -1500.[6]  Since Hathor is quite active in the Pyramid Texts, this is clear proof that Venus was visible and even menacing to mankind from a period not long after the deluge.  These are the basic facts we can hold on to. What is tantalizing about the Egyptian account is that, being much closer in time to the events than the Greek, it describes them with more complexity, that is, with a larger cast of principal characters than just Cronos, Zeus and Athene.  As envisioned by the Egyptians, the agent that attacked Saturn-Osiris was Seth, presumably a planetary body which, like Jupiter Horus, suffered a process of fissioning.  After his dismemberment, Osiris also attracted to himself two visible celestial bodies, Isis and Nephthys, who thereafter are always seen in his company.  Various identifications for these other characters ask for consideration.  We have at present no hypotheses about the recent history of Uranus, Neptune or Pluto; there is the unsolved problem of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, or for that matter the history of Mars before - 1500; and finally, closer to our starting point, the two outermost of Saturn's nine satellites, Iapetus and Phoebe, show irregular orbital movements.

The point about all these speculations is that they will not have the slightest value until our understanding of the behavior of planets in catastrophic circumstances has been set on a much firmer ground, that is, until a comprehensive theory of the interplay between electromagnetic and gravitational forces has been evolved.  The myths in themselves are too polymorphously perverse to take us further until we have better measures for what is physically possible.

The most mysterious figure in the Egyptian canon is the first, Atum.  His name, "the One who has been completed by absorbing others," recalls the Greek information that Cronos had been swallowing his children, absorbing what came out of him, before the time when he was attacked by his son, Zeus.  It is possible that Atum and Osiris were two phases of the same planet, one before and one after the deluge.  The Pyramid Texts make no mention at all of Osiris' existence before his dismemberment, apart from the fact that, like all planets, he was born of Heaven and Earth.  Velikovsky has suggested that as a result of disruption Saturn went through a short nova-like phase in which its light would have obscured everything else visible from earth: the deluge followed shortly thereafter.  If this is correct, then it is certainly imaginable that survivors would have been confused in identifying Saturn, when they next saw it, with its earlier form.  They would have grasped that there was a connection but would have had difficulty formulating it. Atum and Osiris are sometimes amalgamated into one god; more frequently they are portrayed sitting back to back.  A dialogue between the two points to the connection.  "When Osiris complained about his life alone in the darkness, [i.e. as king of the underworld, land of the dead], he was comforted by Atum that only the two of them, Atum and Osiris, would survive in eternity when the world would have vanished and returned to its primeval state as the ocean, Nun."[7]

This confusion between Osiris and Atum, expressed more abstractly, is a confusion between deluge and creation.  It has been said that there is no Egyptian myth of the deluge.  As a matter of fact the phrase "great flood" appears several times in the Pyramid Texts and it is quite distinct from the standard phrase for the annual inundation; usually it forms part of the longer phrase "the great flood which came forth from the great lady," Heaven.  The current diffusionist explanation of deluge myths,

"Catastrophes occur in time, and yet they also transform it, on the most literal level by changing the length of the year and the paths of the celestial time-markers.  The planetary agent of the change is then worshiped as lord of time or lord of the year.  Equally..... the planet is worshiped as lord of space or lord of the cosmos..... if a visible material body in the sky is worshiped as master of space and time, it requires only one more step for the mind to reach a transcendent theological conception."

which tries to account for their presence in regions far from the sea and never threatened by large river-inundations, is that they originated in precisely those countries like Egypt where the annual inundation may once have been so large as to generate a story about it.  The truth may be rather that the waters of the deluge are taken by the Egyptians as their starting point for every subsequent myth.  It may have been the experience of the Great flood that generated the concept of the primeval watery abyss, Nun.  Almost every ancient people believed that not merely the land-masses of the earth, but the entire visible heavens, also were surrounded by water.  When the heavens broke, the waters poured down through them, and this is how the deluge was commonly explained.  The obstacle to this interpretation of the Egyptians' deluge account has always been the belief that their story of Atum alone in the watery abyss was exclusively a creation myth, which for standard anthropological thinking must be in a different category from a deluge myth.  In fact many peoples believed that every time the world was destroyed it had to be recreated (as in the Mayan and Aztec accounts).  In Hindu mythology Brahma, originally the planet Saturn but later simply the one being that contains all others, is said to re-absorb all created being into himself whenever he destroys the world by water.


Yet this relation between creation and deluge is something more than a problem for anthropological solution.  It points to the essential process by which the mind of early man created categories transcending that of the catastrophic event.  Catastrophes occur in time, and yet they also transform it, on the most literal level by changing the length of the year and the paths of the celestial time-markers.  The planetary agent of the change is then worshiped as lord of time or lord of the year.  Equally, the planet during the course of the change often appears more brilliant than the sun; hence the planet is worshiped as lord of space or lord of the cosmos.  Space and time are the basic categories in which we think of matter existing.  If a visible material body in the sky is worshiped as master of space and time, it requires only one more step for the mind to reach a transcendent theological conception.  It requires only that the materiality of the body be conceived as manifestation of a spiritual entity.  It may then follow that all the other material beings over which that body is master can also be in varying degrees its spiritual manifestation.  And once this step is taken, the mind is freed from idolatry toward the agents that destroyed mankind.

It is paradoxical to talk about the origins of transcendent categories, that is, about the coming into being of a conception of Being in itself.  And it is presumptuous to suppose that man had no experience of transcendence before he developed concepts for it.  One can as easily say that the concept came into being only to reenforce an experience that was beginning to lose its power or its hold on the memory.  The only point I wish to make is that in the earliest texts that have survived, transcendent categories are expressed in myths which cannot be extricated from accounts of actual catastrophes.  If the name Atum, "the One who has been completed by absorbing others," can be interpreted to refer to Saturn before its fissioning, it can just as easily be seen metaphysically, as referring to Being in its undifferentiated state beyond all particular manifestations.  A look at the symbolism of the pyramids themselves and the structures of the texts inscribed inside will suggest that this second interpretation might have been as present as the first in the minds of the Egyptians who designed them. The pyramid's prime function was dual: as the king's tomb, an extension of his body, and as a symbol of the first mound to rise out of the watery abyss, a symbol of the body of Atum.  To transcend this duality, a whole series of phases in the pyramid-ritual were established to change the king's body into the body of Atum.  The most important phase is the identification of the reborn king with Osiris, whose undefined relation to Atum has been mentioned.  Osiris as king of the dead was thought to dwell in the darkness of the underworld, from which he sent up to the earth inundating waters of the Nile that fertilized the soil and made grain grow.  The annual inundation sent by him may have been seen as a yearly recapitulation of the deluge; certainly the specifically Osirian dramatic rituals at Abydos reenacting his passion, death and rebirth were performed in spring to ensure the grain's fertility.

There is no text which tells us how Osiris "is" Atum, but the spells inscribed in the pyramid tell us how the king as Osiris "becomes" Atum through a series of transformations.  Almost all of the stages involve planetary deities.  I would like now briefly to describe the main stages in order to set right the damage we do to the integrity of archaic thinking when we extract data from the form in which it occurs.  That there is a definite sequence in the spells is clear from their arrangement on the walls of the inner chambers, as has been established in Piankoff's publication of the pyramid of Unas.[8]  The spells begin on the entrance to an antechamber, then proceed through it and beyond via a passage to the sarcophagus chamber itself, where the final stage of transformation is described.

In the entrance to the antechamber the spells celebrate the king's rebirth in images of renewed fertility and potency.  He becomes a bull, a baboon, a crocodile emerging from the inundation; he makes the grass green and causes various plants to sprout; he reunites upper and lower Egypt and builds a divine city.

In the antechamber he begins his ascent to heaven, starting in the form of a bird.  The first heavenly place he occupies is the pole-star, symbol of security.*  He asks the gods of the four directions

*Several of the pyramids contain a long narrow chute, too small for a human body, rising from their inner chambers at a 30 degree angle.  Since the pyramid sites are all on the 30th latitude and the chutes  all point due north, they point directly at the pole-star; and it has been concluded that they were meant as the passage through which the king's soul escaped to heaven.  From the sequence of the so-called "ascension texts" it is also clear that the pole-star was meant as the first celestial place for the king's soul to occupy; from there he wandered to other starry and planetary stations.  The fact that the chutes point at the present pole-star of course does not invalidate Velikovksy's claim that it has changed several times since the pyramids were built due to shifts in the earth's axis; it only proves that since that time the position of the geographical pole has not changed, and therefore the evidence collected in Earth in Upheaval to show that the present polar regions must at some time have been in temperate or torrid zones must refer to earlier catastrophic events.  It is possible that the Egyptians, remembering the experience of seeing the celestial vault take on a new polar center, constructed the chutes in the pyramids to guarantee that the king's soul would always point at the position where the pole-star would be.  They would have known this would be true as long as Egypt did not change its latitude.

to give him the same raft made out of reeds which they gave Osiris when he first began to float up on the heavenly waters with his infant son Horus at his side.  The king then asks a daughter of Anubis and friend of Thoth—I tentatively identify these two gods as Mercury and the moon—to open a way for him.  The gods make a ladder for him to ascend, and they admire his coming.  He claims to the Sun that he comes for the Sun's city (On, Heliopolis), promises to protect the Sun when the agents of storm threaten it, calls upon it in the name of "the great flood, that came forth from the great lady," Heaven, and takes his seat at the prow of the Sun's barge.  He is then born as Osiris in heaven, and the gods ,celebrate this event in the following language:

Hail, Intelligence!

Earth engendered you, the Nine bore you.

Horus is at peace with his father now,

Atum at peace with his years,

gods of the east and west at peace

with the great thing that has taken place

in the bosom of Heaven, who bore the god.

The King then proceeds to "sail the road of heaven" through a number of constellations.  He threatens that if he receives any check on his way, he will curse Earth, dam the Nile and make its banks and nearby cliffs collapse on each other, and prevent the dead from coming forth by making the steps inside their tombs buckle.  Other transformations follow that also suggest threats: he will assume a fiery eye, described like the Eye of Horus, and strike off the arms of Shu who holds up heaven, if he is not given a place; he is a dust storm and a lightning-bolt that "burns before the wind to the limits of Heaven and Earth"; he clouds the sky and makes Earth tremble as he goes through Heaven eating his celestial fathers and mothers to gain their powers.

The passage from the antechamber to the sarcophagus chamber briefly celebrates the king's entrance into his coffin, which symbolizes Heaven, now conceived as his permanent home from which nothing can dislodge him.  Then on the walls of the sarcophagus chamber the spells begin to mention Atum with greater and greater frequency.  Each limb of the king's body is identified with that of Atum.  His messengers hurry to Atum and ask him to enfold the king in his arms.  The king heals the injuries of Horus and Seth and is born as the two of them united.  The waters of the stars of the underworld, that is, those stars which are seen to rise and set on the horizon where it merges into the watery abyss, make the king content and cool in Atum's embrace.

In a litany in which the priests address the Sun as manifestation of Atum, they say of the king: "This is the son of your body, eternally." The king addresses Osiris and says that he is weary of the nine gods, and that he has suffered more than Osiris and become more glorious than he; this is a way of expressing his desire to end his celestial wanderings in a final transformation.  The priests then tell Atum and all the other gods in sequence that the king lives and is enthroned as Osiris, judge of the dead.  Finally they tell the king to stand on the mound rising out of the primeval waters, where Atum stood when he created the world; to wash off all impurity and succeed to the thrones of the abyss; to rise and set with the sun forever.

You  have come into being, have gone up on high,
have become spirit.

Cool and pleasant for you it is
in your father's arms,
in the arms of Atum.

Atum, raise this king on high,
enfold him in your arms.

This is the son of your body, eternally.

These words are the telos of the pyramid spells.  Their progression is clear.  The king moves upwards in space and backwards in time.  He assumes the various catastrophic potencies of the planets; but finally he puts these behind him by entering into a state of quiescence indistinguishable from that in which all matter existed before creation.  He enters into the arms of the One who is complete.


So much for Egyptian metaphysics.  What I have to say about Egyptian ethics is much simpler and may be summed up in a single paragraph.  Among the last acts of the king before merging into Atum was to heal the injuries of Horus and Seth and rise and set with the Sun regularly.  This means to put the planets on stable orbits and establish an unvarying path for the body by which daily life is sustained.  The Egyptian hypostasis of such stability was the goddess Ma'at, "the personification of divine and political order, of law and individual righteousness."[9]  In the Pyramid Texts the four points of the compass "live on Ma'at."  She is seen as the food offered to the gods in thankfulness for their gift of stability by which men secure abundance for themselves.  And so we come round to the concept we started with: that human ethics rest on gratitude for the fact of stability, and acceptance of it as man's natural state.  Ma'at is related to Atum as his daughter.  This is expressed in a tale from the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts (II 34-35), which are less strictly ritual and more what we think of as the work of poets.  I quote a fragment of it: Then Atum said to the Abyss: "I am swimming in the water, very tired, for men are lazy in giving offerings.  My son Earth is the one who can lift my heart.  He will make my heart live when he has gathered together my limbs, the limbs of one who is very tired."  Then the Abyss said to Atum: "Kiss your daughter Ma'at, bring her to your nostrils and breathe her, to make your heart alive.  They will not leave you, your daughter Ma'at and your son Air whose name is Life.  So your daughter Ma'at will be your food, and your son Air will sustain you."  Here the relation of ethics to metaphysics is mythically established.

In conclusion, I would like to stress three points.  First, that this reading of the Pyramid Texts is very preliminary.  It is the outline of an approach: minor details have to be fitted into it and main details may have to shift their positions.  Second, that I am claiming no primacy for Egyptian myths as opposed to any others, except for the primacy of their closeness in time to the earliest catastrophe in human memory.  The approach outlined here, one that seeks not only to extract data but to honor unity of thought, should be equally useful for other archaic cultures.

Third and finally, I hope it is obvious that although I began with an attack on materialism, this does not mean I am advocating universal mysticism instead.  This paper is an approach to myth, and myth can as easily be a check to mysticism as a means to it.  Mysticism is for those who are constituted for it; myths are for everyone.


[1]   See A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 426.

[2]   W.B. Emery, Archaic Egypt (Penguin Books, 1961), pp. 71-73.

[3]   ibid. p. 92.

[4]   ibid.  P. 97.

[5]   Gardiner, op. cit.  p. 72.

[6]   The earliest appearance of this myth is in the tomb of Seti I; for Egyptian text, translation and discussion see E. A. Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians (1904, Dover paperback reprint 1969), Vol 1, pp.  363-71 and 389-99.

[7]   R. Anthes, "Mythology in Ancient Egypt", from Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. S. N. Kramer (Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1961), p. 50.  The dialogue is found in the Book of the Dead, Ch.  175; for translation and  discussion see R.  T.  Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (London, 1959), pp.  139-40.

[8]   A.  Piankoff, The Pyramid of Unas (Bollingen Series XL, 5, Princeton Univ. Press, 1968).

[9]   R. Anthes, op. cit.  p. 59.

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