One of the most frequent comments I receive about my book By Names and Images concerns its cover, which is a lovely piece of art created by the amazing Rebsie Fairholm of Skylight Press. “Ooh, I love Egypt too” is the most common expression offered by folk who have not read the book, have little or no idea of western magic, but are excited because “Egypt’s so magical”. Very nice. And it goes to show a good cover is a useful selling tool 🙂
However, it also shows the continuation of a spiritual fascination for all things Egypt. This was particularly the case with the founders and many adepts of the original Golden Dawn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And not that the early GD folk were doing anything radical: virtually the entire magical and ‘alternative’ spiritual communities back then loved Egypt. Or rather, they loved their own spiritual projections onto Egypt. Australian Pagan academic and all round good person, Caroline Tully, explores this well in a few different papers:
- Samuel Liddell MacGregor-Mathers and Isis, chapter 3, Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon.
- Florence and the Mummy in Women’s Voices in Magic edited by Brandy Williams.
- Walk Like an Egyptian: Egypt as Authority in Aleister Crowley’s Reception of The Book of the Law in The Pomegranate 12.2 (2010)
Despite the Golden Dawn penchant for getting about in faux Egyptian headdresses and claiming spiritual lineage and connections to the ‘Egyptian Mysteries’, there is actually very little genuine ‘Egyptian’ magic in the Golden Dawn. In this context Aaron Leitch says it well:
…there are NO Egyptian Gods in the Golden Dawn. After dropping that bomb and telling everyone to pick up their jaws, I explain: The Godforms that are present in the Outer Hall of the Golden Dawn are not the ancient Gods of pharaonic Egypt. We do not have Tehuti, Ausar and Auseth in the Hall. Instead, we have Tho-oth (Thoth), Osiri (Osiris) and Iset (Isis). Those guys are actually GREEK entities – or, to put a finer point on it, they are Greco-Egyptian Coptic Deities. The Copts – forerunners of the Gnostics – viewed these entities as powerful Archangels, not as Pagan Gods (as we would use that term today).” (http://www.nick-farrell.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/gods-of-golden-dawn.html#comment-form).
This little statement also obliquely alludes to a very interesting fact. The fascination and projection of all sorts of myths and goodies onto ‘ancient Egypt’ is not a modern phenomena. It was going on during antiquity – the Greeks and the Romans were doing it as well as the best Victorian occult group looking for ‘ancient Egyptian wisdom’. A recent paper that explores this very well, in a specific context, and which also brings in Said’s theory of Orientalism is by another cool academic, Sarah Veale – Orientalism in The Mysteries.
Anyone wishing to explore the actual, verifiable use of the concept of ‘the Egyptian Mysteries’ within western magic, as opposed to the wonderful, powerful and beautiful mythic connections, would do well to read the papers linked here.
For example, while discussing McGregor Mathers, co-founder of the Golden Dawn, and his work setting up ‘the Rites of Isis’ in Paris, Caroline Tully writes:
It was this kind of not-quite-right approach to ancient Egyptian religion that characterised the Mathers’ reconstruction of the Egyptian Mysteries. Undoubtedly inspired by Herodotus’ application of the Greek term ‘mysteries’ to Egyptian religion (Histories. 2.171), Diodorus’ erroneous claim of an Egyptian origin for the Greek Mysteries of Eleusis when in fact it was the other way around (Lib. 1.29.2,4; Martin 1987: 78), Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (11.21–6), and Plutarch’s mention of Isis and Osiris initiations and mystic rites (De Iside. 2, 25, 28), the main problem with the Mathers’ attempt at creating this initiatory system was that there were no Egyptian Mysteries to begin with. (Samuel Liddell MacGregor-Mathers and Isis, chapter 3, Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon.)
She goes on to explain some of where Mathers’ view of the mystery of Egypt originated:
While there certainly were Graeco-Roman mysteries of the Hellenised Isis, the idea that there were ancient Egyptian ‘mysteries’ originated with Greeks like Herodotus misunderstanding the Egyptian cult of Osiris at Abydos and interpreting it as ‘mysteric’ because it was carried out by specially consecrated priesthood, unlike the part-time priests of Greece (Burkert 1987: 39–40; Lefkowitz 1997: 93). While access to the inner recesses of the Egyptian temple was limited to the priesthood, festivals were open to the public, not restricted to groups of initiates (Morenz 1973: 89–90). (Samuel Liddell MacGregor-Mathers and Isis, chapter 3, Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon.)
This is all really interesting and an antidote to some of the sillier ideas found within the ‘continuation of the Ancient Egyptian mysteries’ theme beloved of many magical groups. However, remember the historical is not the mythic: we can keep up with the latest academic research and wear the funny hats 🙂