That a book on the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt has been favorably reviewed by the New Yorker is surely a sign of a significant cultural shift, but if you take the time to read this extraordinary book you will quickly see why. Susan Morrow’s rigorous scientific scholarship comes blended with a remarkably intuitive poetic sensibility, revealing a truth and a life that we today can share with those who invented writing and indeed started Western civilization on its long journey. The struggle to reconnect with that truth and that life now is common to both scientists and those on a spiritual path, as it was four thousand years ago.
Does the following fragment of an ancient poem, decoded and translated into English by Dr. Morrow, not touch you?
Pure energy, the nature of light, underlies all. We emerge from and dissolve back into this radiant ground. Not only can you know this—you are this.
It seems to me that Max Planck, the founder of quantum mechanics, was trying, towards the end of his life, to convey the same deep insight. “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”
Dr. Morrow is careful to explain that her deep insights are the result of thirty years of hard work as a scholar, dissatisfied by the contrived attempts of the reigning Egyptologists to unlock real meaning from the treasure trove of hieroglyphs found untouched in the Saqqara pyramid dedicated to Unis. Before disclosing what her unlocking of the texts has brought her, she takes the reader through her difficult process of discovery, shows us hieroglyphic fragments and how she made use of classical Greek and even modern Arabic to trace meanings and secret practices that can be found persisting today in Tibetan Dzogchen using the same words inscribed four thousand years ago. The words tantra and powa are examples.
“The hieroglyphic name for The Egyptian Book of the Dead is the Am Duwat, literally, ‘Among the Stars at Dawn.’ Yet the obvious fact that the primary work of literature and religious philosophy in Egypt is astronomical has been completely missed. Part of the reason for this is simply the mistaking of poetry for prose. Poetry predates prose. It is telegraphic and fragmentary by nature. Poetry is dynamic…. Prose is static.” Western Orientalists, following in the footsteps of Max Muller, have written in prose. Morrow discovered that the Pyramid Texts are poems.
“The task of this book,” Morrow explains, “is to demonstrate that far from being alien and incomprehensible, religious thought, and with it writing as high art in deep antiquity, is superbly lucid. That far from being ugly and stupid, it is supremely intelligent. The plan is…to talk about the natural history of the hieroglyphs themselves, the poetic devices used, and to track throughout the presentation of…truth: What is life on earth, how does it relate to time and the interrelationship of all things, what is death, what survives death? This is what written language…is for: to capture and conjure a reality that stands outside of time. The Pyramid Texts are…a sophisticated, multifaceted device, meant to work on different levels at once, not simply a method of note taking that emerged to preserve a long-standing oral tradition, as is generally taught.”
As an example, she takes this poem from one of her old note books:
Death is before me today
Like the smell of myrrh
Like sitting under sails in the wind
Death is before me today
Like the smell of lilies
Like sitting on the shore
Of a drunken land
Death is before me today
In this primordial memento mori, there is no fear, almost a sweetness, potentially a hope. For me, it is reminiscent of the advice Gurdjieff offers at the end of Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson: “The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ like Kundabuffer, but this time of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of their existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them that has swallowed up the whole of their Essence and also that tendency to hate others which flows from it, the tendency, namely, which engenders all those mutual relationships existing there, which serve as the chief cause of all their abnormalities, unbecoming to three-brained beings, and maleficent for them themselves and for the whole of the Universe.”
Writing of his own experience as a boy listening to his father recount the legend of Gilgamesh, Gurdjieff says in Meetings with Remarkable Men: “When the beneficent result of the impressions formed in my childhood from the narratives of my father finally became clear to me—a result that crystallized in me a spiritual factor enabling me to comprehend that which usually appears incomprehensible—I often regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand they really have.”
We can all be grateful that Susan Morrow has made it easier for us to understand “the immense significance” of ancient Egypt for our civilization today. As she discloses later in her book, the hieroglyphic word for Truth is Ma’a, and their word maa means “to see.” So, for them, to see is the Truth and the Truth is to see. Similarly, the Pyramid Texts tell us “existence is movement, (the hieroglyphic word) wn, (is) both to ‘run’ and to ‘exist;’ so ‘to be’ is to be in motion.” Can we begin to feel that, to sense these aphorisms intentionally, and not just think about them compulsively?
When we see in our cathedrals a sculpture of the Mother of Christ holding her child tenderly in her lap, can we feel just behind her the image of Isis holding “the falcon, the sky that holds the rising star Sirius in the east, the hinge of the year”? For “Mary, the passive participle of the Egyptian verb mr, ‘to love,’ is ‘the Beloved,’ the all-embracing ultimate reality of all things.”
Morrow’s book is wonderful in its presentation of a hieroglyphic view of life on earth, and how it relates to time and the interrelationship of all things, but I was disappointed by her treatment of her further question of “what is death and what survives death.” She says flatly “the one thing that survives death is writing.” And yet, later on, she translates a text as if what she calls a “disembodied intelligence” can persist in the face of the total “emptiness” of physical death. Could she agree that we could call that free-arising intelligence “consciousness?” Is this “the eye in you (that) is you, your essence, your child, the falcon…the eternal nonduality of knowing as being”?
I am no scholar of ancient Egypt, but I have seen, in the Louvre in Paris, a radiant image of Horus holding an ankh to the nose of a young pupil, and I have read (from the Pyramid Texts in Pepi I’s burial chamber), “you shall feed on the god’s food on which they feed,” on the air. (Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, translated by James P. Allen and Peter Manuelian, 2005, p. 105). In a more conscious state of awareness, as Gurdjieff tells us, we humans can feed on active elements in the air to help us form, little by little, a second or finer body that may be able to endure the death of the physical body. I have seen in Egypt a number of sculptures combining their symbol of immortality, the ankh, and their symbol of a second body. That symbol, recognized by any Egyptologist, is of a standing man, arms stretched sideways and forearms bent upright, with palms forward. In our current scientific paradigm, I can understand why a modern scholar would hesitate to refer to a second or spirit body for this symbol, but to affirm that only writing can survive death is, for me—looking at ancient Egypt as a whole—reductionist. For ancient Egypt can indeed give us rational grounds for the hope of consciousness that is so lacking today.
In ancient times in all cultures, they respected the injunction “sacred is secret.” Today, in our culture, we seem to have lost almost all connection with the sacred. Our Internet makes all the old “secrets” available—and ineffective, because they are given before a sacred community has prepared the pupil to be able to receive them with feeling and sensing, as well as thinking. The ancients protected their secrets from the casual reader, and some secrets were transmitted only directly from teacher to pupil, never in writing. As Morrow discovered, the key words in the Pyramid Texts, like their word ankh for “immortality,” were spelled backwards. Our science tells us that everything is interrelated. If we lived as if we were all interrelated beings, sharing, with all of Nature and with each other, a sacred source energy with each heart beat, we could not behave so violently and destructively as we do, to the point of threatening our very survival within a few generations. ♦
James George is a retired Canadian Ambassador and author of Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual/
Ecological Crisis (1995), The Little Green Book on Awakening (2008), and Last Call: Awakening to Consciousness (2016). He lives in Toronto with his wife, Barbara Wright George.