What Can The Egyptian Book of the Dead Teach Us About The Masonic Life?

What Can The Egyptian Book of the Dead Teach Us About The Masonic Life?

While Freemasonry is known for secrecy, it’s no secret that we trace the origins of our rituals and teachings to the ancient mystery schools of Egypt; many masonic writers, such as Manly P. Hall, have publicly stated this. While there is disagreement among academic historians about the true origins of the Order, Freemasons do tend to believe in this ancient source of the mystic teachings, and we can also be relatively certain that the esoteric wisdom traditions which are the antecedents to speculative masonry, such as Hermeticism and Alchemy, are connected to the ancient Egyptian mystery schools.

This means that, in  my opinion, anytime we look at something from Egypt, we should try to look at it masonically; that is, we should try to interpret the inner meaning of it, to see the truth behind the symbols.

One of the most fascinating writings we have from the ancient Egyptian traditions is known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Alternatively translated as The Book of Emerging Forth Into the Light, or The Book of Becoming Light, this book of “spells” is thought to have been written by many priests over a period of perhaps 1,000 years, as a guide for death, to be read aloud to the dying. There are different versions, with different combinations of spells, and 192 total spells are known, from all versions.

A Guide to the Initiation Beyond Death

Egyptian AfterlifeWhile having a guidebook to read to a dying person to lead them through the afterlife is an interesting concept in itself, what may be more profound is to examine the book and what it might tell us about life, and perhaps even the masonic life.

It may help here to have some context of the Egyptian conception of life, the universe, and magic. To the ancient Egyptians, magic permeated the world, and words in themselves were inherently magical. Consequently, to the Egyptians, there was little difference between written/spoken words and magic. All writings were essentially magical. Likewise, knowing the name of something was thought to give power over it. There was not such a stark line, in Egyptian thought, between the ordinary world we experience with our senses, and the invisible worlds of spirit. All the layers of existence were thought to overlap, and interweave.

The story of the Book of the Dead is that of a soul passing through death, into eternal life. To do so, he must pass through the underworld, or Duat, and overcome various supernatural creatures by charming them with magic incantations, in a sort of trial of initiation into the afterlife. At the end of the trial, if the soul hadn’t first been consumed by one of the creatures, or destroyed by Osiris’s minions, then he would be weighed by Osiris against the Goddess of Truth and Justice, Maat. In other words, the soul was a candidate and had to pass tests and trials in order to prove him/herself worthy to live among the immortals.

The Initiatory Model for Life, Death, and Beyond

Egyptian Book of the DeadMuch of this should sound familiar to any Freemason, and it seems clear that there is an element of this Egyptian ritual in those which are preserved in Freemasonry, at least in their essence. Clearly there is an allusion to death and immortality in both, but how does this “model” of initiation, so-to-speak, relate to what Masonry teaches us about life?

Essentially, life is a series of initiations, or one large initiation with phases, if you will. We are perpetually confronted with situations which challenge our integrity, our determination, our wisdom, and our compassion. Virtue is not magically granted from the sky, it is honed, it is earned, it is built from the ground up. Becoming the best man or woman that we can be is hard work, and requires sacrifice and difficulty. Particularly when we choose to follow the path of the initiate, life has a way of throwing even more trials our way, because karmically (many believe), we have chosen an accelerated path, by seeking initiation.

Throughout life, much like the soul entering the Egyptian underworld, we are faced with various situations, most of which are actually in our minds. Of course, the outer circumstances must serve as props, but the real monsters to be charmed and pacified are within us, they are the baser aspects of our own nature, and a large part of masonry is indeed overcoming these creatures within us. There may even be something to be said about the Egyptian concept of using the magic of words to charm these creatures, especially considering the insights of NLP, hypnosis, and similar methodologies, but that’s a subject for another post. More symbolically, we can view the magic of the spoken word as the creative and expressive capacity within us.

Initiation as Evolution

burialegyptianmsoul11Does this also pertain literally to the afterlife? As someone who takes an interests in Near Death Experiences (NDEs), in my opinion, it is reasonable to think so. Based on what we have learned from NDE research, it does indeed seem that we may sometimes have to pass through a realm of astral darkness, which depending on our own state of mind may contain monstrous beings or obstacles, before arriving at the Light. When people get to the light, they almost invariably go through their entire life in a flash of holographic memory, where they experience everything they ever did, and also how it affected other people. Essentially, this is a weighing of the scales, a measurement of our life’s actions against justice, or what was right. In this way, I believe that there is an element of literal truth in the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth Into the Light.

The subtler truth, however, is even more interesting to me. Because, in a way, it is grander. Even if this process is literally what we experience when we die (approximately), what about when we are born again? Is the goal of the reincarnation process that our soul will one day weigh perfectly against the scales of justice, to avoid rebirth into the physical, i.e. to have no karma? If we take a Vedantic perspective, the answer would be yes. In that context, even multiple lives, much like the many experiences we have in one life, are really just phases of a larger initiation, into something even greater. Is there any end to this initiatory process?

I suppose it’s possible, but for my money, I would say probably not. I think the process of creation/initiation goes on indefinitely, infinitely, forever. We are always becoming something more, whether slowly or quickly. Essentially, this is the process of evolution. By choosing Freemasonry, we’ve simply opted for the catalyzed reaction – the accelerated evolution. As such, we must face each catalyst that comes our way with steadfastness, equanimity, willpower, compassion, and the magic of creativity, intuition, and divine communion, if we wish to be worthy of being freed from, or perhaps more accurately, to complete the initiation of the life/death cycle. 

 

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

“Why do you care whether there is a God, or extraterrestrials, reincarnation, or any of that? What relevance does it have to your life?”

This is a question which I have often heard, in one form or another, when bringing up topics related to the mysteries of life, from those who are not typically inclined to ponder them. Personally, I have always found the mysteries irresistible, so this common refrain has always been somewhat baffling to me. How could you really not care whether there is a God, or extra-terrestrial life? Such apathy toward the ultimate questions of life seems unfathomable, to me.

Indeed, those who find themselves involved in Freemasonry are generally those who are inclined to explore these questions, and this is part of what draws us to the craft, esotericism in general, and what is often referred to literally as The Mysteries. This is also why the fellowship of a brotherhood of truth seekers is so precious to those who find it, because our kind so often feel alone in a world full of those who care more about their bank balance, newest electronic gadget, or mundane interpersonal dramas than the quest for ultimate reality.

So, like a fish trying to describe the ocean, for a long time it was difficult for me to articulate why these things matter to me so much when this question arose. However, I eventually did manage to create some semblance of an explanation, which I would like to share with you now. Perhaps by reading this, you will have a new answer in your repertoire the next time someone asks why you seek truth.

The short version is: I care about the mystery because the mystery is the ultimate context of my existence, and context is absolutely everything; the context of a thing defines that thing and gives it meaning. Allow me to explicate.

The Universal Existential Constant

VitruvianManThe human condition is defined by a finite or limited conscious existence, and a mystery beyond it. In fact, I believe that this is probably the condition of not just humans, but any entity, since any finite consciousness is always limited, by definition. If it had no limits, it would not be an “entity,” it would be infinite.

In other words, there are things you directly experience, and there are things beyond that, with a gradient boundary between them. Regardless of how far your awareness may expand, there is, a priori, always a boundary to it and always something beyond that boundary, which to you is a mystery.

The only possible exception to this would be if our awareness became infinite, perhaps, but we cannot really imagine that. Barring the hypothetical exception of infinity, there is always a boundary to conscious existence, and therefore, a mystery beyond it.

This would presumably also be true for any self-aware finite entity, from the lowliest worm to the most vast super-intelligent species, or even advanced spiritual beings. If they are not infinite, then it seems to me that their existence must have this structure: the known, the unknown, and the boundary between.

The Existential Island in an Ocean of Mind

9d5f825306d964f0b1fe99d921e05627One helpful metaphor is to think of our existence as a sphere, like a planet. That planet has its basic substance or ground, which for us is our direct sensory awareness. These are the things we are most certain of, because we directly experience them, and in this metaphor, they are our ground or earth, which also relates to our colloquial sayings about being “grounded” in reality. This is the reality to which we refer, our most certain, sensory reality, the bedrock of our experience.

Then, there is another layer which is beyond the ground of sensory experience, but which is near enough to be relatively certain; you can liken this to the atmosphere of our metaphorical “planet” of existence. For us, these would be facts outside of our senses, but nevertheless trustworthy, thanks to evidence and logic (to put it briefly).

For instance, I can be relatively certain that oxygen exists, a faraway country like Russia is really there, and that I have a liver, even though I’ve never truly seen or experienced any of those things. Thus, there are things I have not directly experienced, yet of which I am relatively certain. Here is where the boundary begins.

Finally, beyond that of which we are relatively certain, there is the larger Mystery, about which we ponder, and upon which we weave the fabric of our beliefs, by combining reason with imagination. To continue our planet metaphor, this would be the vast starry expanse in which our planet is suspended. Just as the cosmos is the context of a planet, whatever is beyond the boundaries of the ground and atmosphere of our existence forms the context of it.

Thus, the mystery is the context of our existence, and is experienced purely in the realm of imagination, hopefully tempered by reason. Regardless of what is actually “out there” beyond what we know with varying degrees of certainty, our experiential existence floats in a cosmos of mind and imagination because we can only imagine and reason about what is beyond the boundary of our experience and certainty.

Not only that, but no matter how far we expand our knowledge and experience, it always will float in an ocean of imagination and mystery, because that seems to be the inherent structure of any finite, experiential entity. How else could it be?

Context is Everything

a52f2b4eede4932789bf0d916be16850So, “Fine,” you might say, “the mystery is the context; why should the context matter to me?” My answer to this is that the meaning of anything essentially is derived from its context. Let’s take a very concrete example: a bar fight.

Let’s say that you witness a fight break out between two men in a bar. If you know absolutely nothing about the context of this fight, it will mean very little to you; perhaps you may have some thoughts about the volatility of alcohol and testosterone when combined in too great a quantity. In other words, to you, it is a relatively meaningless occurrence.

Let’s say that you now expand your knowledge, when someone tells you that the reason they fought is that one man was sleeping with the other’s wife. Now, to you, this is a very different bar fight, is it not? Yet, it is the same bar fight; it is the context of it in your own mind and imagination that has changed. Let’s say that you hear from yet another person that the reason the affair occurred in the first place is that the husband was abusing her; yet again, another vastly different bar fight.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your spiritual “third eye” suddenly opened, and you were able to see that this was an unfolding of karmic patterns through time that had been in motion for thousands of years between these two souls, as they weave a pattern of flesh-bound experiences in and out of various bodies and lifetimes, trying to find a balance and transcend the illusory nature of this physical reality, for their ultimate mutual enlightenment. Yet again, a totally new bar fight, with a totally different meaning.

Why? Because with every expansion of your knowledge of the context of the fight, your experience of the fight transforms. The same is true of your entire experiential existence, the same principle is in operation every time you learn, and explore the mysteries.

That, my friends, is my answer to the question of why the mystery matters. To me, this is like something I had always subtly known but for the longest time had difficulty articulating. Perhaps it may strike you the same way, as almost obvious, yet novel in it’s explanation; or, perhaps you somehow disagree, in which case I would love to hear your perspective.

Either way, I hope that you have enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!