The Egyptian Pursuit of Happiness


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 favorable direction.


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.