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Interesting ideas, but many forced symbolic connections
on August 10, 2009
With 'The Sacred Tradition in Ancient Egypt: The Esoteric Wisdom Revealed', Rosemary Clark presents an overview over the spiritual life of ancient Egypt. The book covers a wide range of subjects - creation myths and the pantheon of gods, Egyptian ideas of the relation between heaven and earth and the geometry of temples and their alignment to celestial bodies, the organization and structure of Egyptian temples, funeral rites and the ideas of the afterlife and finally Egyptian initiation paths. In dealing with these various topics, Clark tries to illustrate the common underlying themes and to show that the tradition of ancient Egypt forms a meaningful whole rather than disparate fragments.
The approach she has chosen for the book is not scientific - Clark correctly realizes that science, confining itself to what can be objectively proven and deduced with rational methods, gets one only so far in trying to understand religion. Instead, she follows what she refers to as the 'symbolist' approach. It is never really defined what the basis of this approach is, but judging from the book, she seems to mean that one lets the symbols speak to one's intuition which is trained by dealing with other systems of symbols, and let the intuition then fill the gaps between what can be known with certainty.
Ideally, this approach would let the symbols speak for themselves, and out of this, a coherent picture of what the whole means would emerge. However, the danger of this approach is that one distorts the meaning of a symbol in order to fit it into one's ideas of how the whole should look like. Untimately, the symbolist approach must be judged by the outcome - do the different symbolic themes fit together in a natural way, or are connections forced? Clark's book contains some of the former, and some of the latter. I will give three examples of what I consider forced correspondences in the following.
An important theme thoughout the book are the three initiation paths which Clark denotes as lunar, solar and stellar. She argues that the predominance of a path in Egypt corresponds to the astrological ages of Taurus (steller path), Aries (solar path) and Pisces (lunar path). However there is first the small matter that even according to her own timeline, astrology with 12 signs was not developed till hellenistic times, so the Egyptian priests in the Old Kingdom could not possible have known an age of Taurus, as Taurus wasn't known as a symbol. One might argue that it doesn't matter what name one gives to an archetypical theme, and they called it differently. But the more serious objection is that in astrological symbolism, Taurus is an earth sign, emphasizing roots, possessions and keeping together what one owns - it does not fit at all with the theme of the stellar initiation path of a destiny among the stars, which is the theme of transcendence expressed in astrology by the sign Pisces. Associating he solar initiation path under the protection of Heru (Horus) with Aries is a better match - but Clark otherwise associates Asar (Osiris) who is the protector of the lunar initiation path with Aries rather than Heru - so the symbolic correspondences here are quite a muddle.
A different example is found in Clarks treatment of Egyptian words. For example, in explaining 'sa' as a divine influence, she makes the connection with 'sa(t)' as 'son/daughter' and argues that therefore it also denotes a creative force. But these are two different words, written in a different way, just their transcription is the same (I consulted my Egyptian dictionary if there are overlapping writing variants, but it did not list any). This is as if someone would claim that 'carat' and 'carrot' are the same word because the pronounciation is the same (in fact, the two Egyptian words may even be pronounced in a different way, the vocalization is not known). More similar examples are found in the book.
Finally, sometimes symbolic correspondences are just unclear. In the context of the Sacred Anatomy, a table lists the lungs associated with the sense of hearing. I am rather sure that the non-sacred Egyptian anatomy was aware that hearing is connected with the ears (the hieroglyph writing of the verb 'sedjem' 'to hear' employs the sign of an ear), so I am possibly not the only reader who finds this association with the lungs puzzling. Even consulting other references, I could not find out where it comes from, and Clark doesn't explain. All in all, there remain several symbolic correspondences which are very puzzling in the book.
All this is unfortunate, since Clark in general shows interesting and meaningful connections between symbolic themes, and there is much thought-provoking material found in the book. One can get many interesting ideas and observations out of it, but one should not take every statement on faith value, but rather have other references ready to check if Clark's ideas really hold up in a particular case or not.