Egypt and Magic – some links

anubis3One 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:

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).

‘Mathers’… is that an Egyptian name?

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 🙂

9 comments

  1. Sarah · April 9, 2013

    Peregrin….Thank you so much for your kind words and the giant company you’ve put me with here.

    And huzzah to funny hats! Long may they live!

  2. Tarot Cirkel · April 9, 2013

    Again a very interesting blog! really yummy !
    I really like your down to earth approach and your sens of humor.
    So many references to reading material, this isn’t good for my pocket.

    Maybe I can also lure you to buy a book I recently read.
    A book with lots of images to satisfy the child in me.
    Egyptian Magic,The Quest for Thoth’s Book of Secrets
    Maarten J. Raven

    Just skip the last part in the book, it’s full of mistakes (Frieda Harris is a member of the Golden Dawn, etc.) The professor didn’t make his homework about recent magical organisations and is very biased.

  3. Pingback: Mysteria Misc. Maxima: April 12th, 2013 | Invocatio
  4. MvdV · April 15, 2013

    So P, you’ll be going to the Ancient Egyptian Exposition at the WA Museum in May then?

  5. Pingback: The Ancient Mysteries/ Makey | FIVEBLUEAPPLES
  6. SpidrGoddess · April 20, 2013

    Thank you so much for posting that. I co-teach a monthly “Egyptian” circle, and we are trying to educate the attendees about true Egyptian religion and not the bastardized Greek form. I appreciate your words and sources.

  7. SrSD · May 14, 2013

    Hi Peregrin, personally I disagree totally with Aaron comment that there are no Egyptian Gods in the GD, that they are really Greek, etc. Sorry, but merely changing the names of the Gods to their Greek versions does not automatically convert the Egyptian Gods into Greek Gods (or even Greco-Egyptian Gods). Coptic Deities? Those are just Egyptian deities whose names are spoken under a modified language. They are not a different pantheon. Anyone knows that Thoth is Tehuti. To say otherwise is to confuse Essence with Language. The Greeks had their own Gods and they were very distinct from the ones they called Isis, Osiris, etc. If the Golden Dawn doesn’t use Egyptian Gods, then how come even the Godforms and those of Enochian Chess take a visually purely Egyptian form and not a noticebly Greek form? Also, if the Gods were not Egyptian and really Greek how come we never find any paper written by Mathers or Westcott to explain this? Did they just forget mention it? If the GD wanted to use Greek Gods all they had to do was use Artemis for the Praemonstrator, in place of Isis (Iset/Aset), Hades in place of Osiris, etc. LVX

  8. gary p · May 24, 2013

    Regardie, in his ‘Golden Dawn’ mentions the four sons of Horus stationed at the ‘hidden’ quarters-but this was Stella matutina and not GD.

  9. Pingback: THE UNWRITTEN QABALAH | ageoflucidity.info

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