The following is excerpted from Embodying Osiris, the Secrets of Alchemical
Transformation, available from Quest Books.
Is the Middle East ready for
the hard work involved in establishing a form of democracy befitting their
needs and desires? How will Europe and the United States — despite its
rhetoric — accommodate wholesale democratic change in the Middle East? These are
a few critical questions facing this region as the old guard falls and the
promise of new governmental structures are in the offing. Events are moving
quickly, perhaps faster than these significant developments require. Revising
constitutions, forming transitional governments, establishing democratic
institutions in lands that are, for better or worse, not used to the workings
that insure lasting individual freedom requires more than a revolution.
Instead, there needs to be a gradual evolution in the consciousness of people;
old habits are hard to change.
Egypt is a country founded
on countless coups, foreign occupation and annexation. It is a country with a
rich cultural tradition that young Egyptians would do well to study and learn
from the remnants of their great history. Let us not forget that Egypt was the
cradle of civilization, a society that maintained continuous government for
some three thousand years. In ancient times, the pharaoh served not only as an
autocrat, in charge of virtually every aspect of society, but he also mediated
between the gods and his people. In many cases, the pharaoh was a god. We
witnessed this same sentiment in Mubarak's final speech in which he counseled
his children to go home to their mothers. The reaction led to his resignation,
a prescription that accords with an old expression, "the king must die in order
for the son to be born."
History tells us that the radical
pharaoh Akhenaton sought to change some 1300 years of tradition by suddenly
redefining the king's role. He simultaneously elevated the value of the
individual and the family while essentially demoting all their gods, save one.
Aten, the sun god, was installed as the one and only god above all others. This
radical change hinted at the beginning of monotheism in a land that had
practiced polytheism for thousands of years. This was not just a conceptual
shift, but one that basically dismissed familiar gods and long held religious
customs. It's easy enough to decree a change, but to win the hearts and minds
of people requires a time of adjustment and voluntary accommodation.
Even while granting greater
personal freedoms, ones never before enjoyed by common Egyptians, Akhenaten's
reign was met with ambivalence, suspicion and ultimately, sabotage. It was as
if god had released the people from bondage, but rather than jubilation, people
were disoriented; they missed their traditions, their old way of life, the old
gods. Not having taken the time to slowly introduce a revised mythology that
allowed people to gradually accept this new concept of individual freedom,
Akhenaten's experiment failed miserably. His reign lasted only seventeen years
and was quickly dismantled following his death. Still, the seeds of individual
freedom had been lodged in the collective psyche and after many thousands of
years they are beginning to bloom.
What follows is an excerpt
from my latest book, Embodying Osiris,
that describes the psychology of revolution/evolution that took place some 4000
years ago. Myth and history offer lessons to those in Tahrir Square. Penning
longed-for freedoms on a piece of cardboard amidst the surrounding revolt
certainly inspires and ignites the passions of a suppressed people. But it is
much more difficult to integrate these reforms and create institutions that
will maintain them. For all those
well intended people in that tent each has his or her own agenda — a diversity
that must ultimately reckon with the paradox of the One and the Many. A new
narrative is required, one that speaks to the people in their own diverse
language; a language that has a common voice. While the victory of revolution
is awe-inspiring, it creates an inflation that blinds its freedom fighters to
the potential consequences of rapid change.
Egypt, being a model for the
Middle East, needs wise leaders who understand the dynamics of cultural
transition. These are special people who know the old myths. They know why, for
instance, Seth — that fiery militant god whose claim to Osiris' throne was
rejected — was never killed. In the matrix of good governance both Seth and the
civil minded Horus are needed. Each has his place at the table; strength and
deliberation must be balanced. Otherwise, for all the excitement that the
overthrow of the old guard (god) has brought, chaos rather than democracy may
follow. The Middle East is at a tipping point where patience, good leadership
and insight into lessons learned from myth and history can tilt the scales in a
The new mythology that sprang up with Akhenaten's reign maintained that both living and dead simply sank into sleep each night and awakened
to the rays of the morning sun. In future, it was to be Aten, and sometimes
Akhenaten, to whom the living and dead would turn in prayer and adulation,
since the king and his god had become their eternal caretaker. This
revolutionary change had a disquieting effect on the people, and, for the most
part, Akhenaten's effort essentially failed. His failure was due in large part
to the fact that his mythology was incomplete.
As we now know, individuation is a process founded upon
integrating light and shadow, Self and ego, Osiris and Seth. "The concept of an
all-encompassing God must necessarily include his opposite," writes Jung, "the
principle of the coincidence of opposites must therefore be completed by that
of absolute opposition in order to attain full paradoxicality and hence
psychological validity." In this case, Self, in the form of
Aten, was given sole authority. Had Akhenaten figured the dark gods, like
Osiris, more prominently into his mythology it may have gained greater
acceptance. Although Akhenaten's reign lasted only seventeen years and old
traditions were quickly restored following his death, it had, I believe, a
lasting effect on the Egyptian psyche.
In Aldred's view, Akhenaten's "creed reveals an attempt to
rationalize beliefs that had developed accretions from prehistoric times. It
sought to establish the relationship of the dead with the living, and mankind
and all the natural world with a unique, invisible and self-created god." Rationalized beliefs were a modern concept that not only
contradicted the common belief in many gods, but now also called for individuals
to think for themselves. Gone was the underworld where the weight of one's soul
determined a person's fate. With Akhenaten we have the first stirrings of
conscience and with it the need for redemption. This complexity came by
proclamation, not through the gradual introduction of a new mythological
narrative. Aten was singled out as the ultimate celestial authority, and all
other gods were reduced in importance. Akhenaten took a bold step that
theologians before him had avoided: he declared the existence of one true God.
The Egyptians, says Siegfried Morenz, "avoided liquidating individual gods but
did not remain content with building up a hierarchical pantheon; they boldly
went on to advance the theory that behind the plurality of gods there was a basic
unity." Akhenaten named this unity Aten.
People were simply not prepared to make the leap, although surely
some blindly accepted Akhenaten, while others tolerated him and still others
feigned allegiance for monetary gain. Soon after the king's death came a flurry
of rededications aimed at reviving the old order. But a process had begun that
could not be changed. Today, we would refer to it as the individuation process,
which holds that in every man, woman, and child is an instinctive urge toward the
growth of individuality. No longer was assurance of physical survival and
evolution enough, for henceforth an unconscious process of involution had
seeded itself in the human psyche. A new dimension of personal, psychological
depth was added to the ancient eschatology of the Old Kingdom. With Akhenaten,
no longer was the world a mass of selfobjects, but instead
the possibility of an individual psyche emerged, one that was private and
separate from the collective, consisting of a conscious and unconscious domain.
. . .
I further contend that a critical evolution in cognitive
development, a gradual shift from concrete to abstract thought, explains the
emergence of an individual psyche. In alchemical language, abstract cognition
is the separatio that allowed
Akhenaten to isolate the one god from the many. This kind of sophisticated
symbolic thinking was far more than the average Egyptian was used to. While the
populous feared that many thousands of other gods would perish, the truth is
that this radical change represented an introjection of the gods into the
unconscious. In fact, they did not die; instead, a long process began in which
external gods transformed into interior archetypes. In a sense, the old gods,
like Osiris, had resurrected.
Many thousands of years would pass before the Osiris myth evolved
to the point that people came to understand the gods of the Ennead as
psychological entities rather than immortal deities. This shift in
consciousness began, I believe, with the fall of Akhenaten. Thereafter, the
Book of the Dead was no longer a guidebook meant strictly to serve the
deceased, but slowly became an instruction manual for the living. To be sure,
the myth of Osiris was never a static document, but rather changed according to
political necessity and, over the course of many thousands of years, responded
to the psychological exigencies of the collective unconscious. In the earliest
times, Osiris was a common god, as were all the gods of the Ennead. He was the
god of the dead; Horus the Elder, the herald of creation; Seth, god of storms
and thunder; and Isis, an aspect of the Great Mother. But, since individuation
involves movement from simplicity to forms of ever-greater complexity, these
gods could no longer maintain their singular place in the Egyptian pantheon.
The simple merging of gods was not sufficient symbolically to convey the
complexity emerging in the development of consciousness. For now, a shift was
occurring that required a calculus of change separating the individual from the
body politic. This shift involved a gradual redefinition of the person from one
viewed as a function of something other than him- or herself to someone having
all the vicissitudes of an inner world.
We are beholding mysteries that Egyptian priests worshipped and
alchemists intuited. We are embodying the kind of divine consciousness that was
formally possessed exclusively by pharaohs. The difference is that divine
consciousness today is not mediated by
heka [magic]; rather, it is accomplished through a combination of empathic
engagement with the gods (archetypes) and advanced psychological processes. A
whole new philosophy of embodiment has spawned areas of research that are
shaping today's world.
Much of these contemporary advances stem from the history and
mythology studied in this book. A wise old saying makes this
point: "Yesterday's magic is tomorrow's science." And, in fact, magic played a
crucial role in the radical transition from an unconscious collective to the
gradual awakening of individual consciousness. Early Egyptians must have marveled at the transformations appearing in plain
view when wheat and barley were changed into bread and the juice of the vine
into a spiritual elixir. This magic depended less on a god's favor than on the
knowledge one possessed in the kitchen. Channeling the Nile's floodwaters,
irrigating the soil, stockpiling seed, and strategic harvesting, all seemingly
simple tasks, were actions that replaced magical commands with a practical
means of marshalling nature's power.
Osiris and Isis taught people how to use the Nile to cultivate
their fields. This knowledge marked a significant advancement in the development
of consciousness. For with the means of producing one's own food, the gods
weren't something out there that came of their own will and in their own time
to provide for the people. What had been a divine power was now, to some
extent, in the hands of farmers, bakers, and cooks. With self-sufficiency,
people were less dependent on the state; filled storehouses established a
healthy market for trade and commerce. At the same time, one's spiritual
destiny was no longer a function of the pharaoh, but rather every person had
direct access to God (Aten) — a major change in how his or her fate in the
afterlife would be determined.
As a result, the great gods became increasingly more abstract and
their role in this alchemical process more important. Osiris had been a god of
the dead, but he now represents the god of change and becoming — an alchemical
god much in the likeness of Mercurius. Seth was no longer just the god of
thunder and storms; he now becomes the nightly slayer of Apopis, the serpentine
enemy of consciousness. Isis emerges not only as wife and sister, but also as mother
and even as a creator goddess who re-members and animates her dead husband.
Horus the Elder appears to merge with the younger Horus, together establishing
a vital new order on earth. Horus comes to represent the new man who rules with
an earthly authority founded upon his father's sovereignty in the underworld.
It is possible that the idea of the new man, the second Adam, derives from
Horus, for in him we find the seminal traits elaborated much later by other
groups: the Cabbalists with their concept of Adam Kadmon, the Gnostics with
their doctrine of the Anthropos, and the alchemists with their filius philosophorum, the first "man of
light" — Mercurius. More generally, what I am describing is the formation of a
psychological world where gods become archetypes and the dark underworld, the
earliest beginning of a personal unconscious.
Had Jung pursued his research in this area further, he would not
only have found evidence to support his theory of individuation, but would
certainly have discovered the earliest structuring of the human psyche. With
his genius, he certainly might have provided encyclopedic evidence that Ra is
the personification of the Self. No doubt he would have gone further and found
Horus to be the prototype for the ego archetype and Seth, the shadow archetype.
Osiris would prove to be the prima
materia that transforms from a passive, undifferentiated state to a
perfected image of the philosopher's stone. While Jung relied principally on
medieval alchemy, I believe he might more profitably have turned to ancient
Egypt where the Royal Art was born and cultivated. Consciousness is a continuous process of unfolding, punctuated by
dislocations and reunions; the Osiris myth marks many of the key points in this
evolution. Indeed, it is a priceless alchemical myth of existence given to us
by nature and sculpted by humankind.
Image by quinnanya, courtesy of Creative Coomons license.