The Egyptian Secret

Originally printed in the May - June 2003 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Stewart, William G. "The Egyptian Secret." Quest  91.3 (MAY - JUNE 2003):

By William G. Stewart, II

Theosophical Society - William G. Stewart IIDarkness. Deep in the stone mountain, in the tomb of the pharaoh Tuthmosis III, the sun does not penetrate; there is no natural light of any kind, day or night. Yet on the tomb wall of this king who died about 1425 B.C., someone has painted an elaborate mosaic of fantastic creatures and men that seems to tell a story. A story about what? A story to be read by whom in this utter darkness?


Today we know this mysterious painting as The Book of What Is in the Duat or the Amduat. It appears in other royal Egyptian tombs and is part of a great body of tomb "writings"that date back a thousand years or more before Tuthmosis III. Along with works like the more familiar Book of the Dead, this is the oldest known religious literature on earth. The Amduat made its appearance in the United States as part of the exhibit "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt,"which toured the country in 2002.

The word Duat is usually translated as "afterlife"or "netherworld,"that is, a realm beyond earthly life. The most common belief is that the paintings offered spiritual instruction to the soul of the dead king as it rose from the coffin.

The mural is divided into twelve panels that represent the hours of the sun's passage. Each panel is further divided into three or four rows of figures. Before the panels begin, there is a text in hieroglyphs that seems to explain what the painting is about. The meaning of this text is not wholly clear, but it refers to the painting as a manual of spiritual instruction.

Each "hour"is a very complex tableau jammed with figures representing the Egyptian gods. According to John Anthony West and others, these gods were manifestations or aspects of the one great and supreme God, Re (usually pronounced "Rah"), who created the universe. This concept may have been held by all early Egyptians or only by the priests and those initiated fully into the religion.

The Egyptians depicted each of the gods with a unique symbol. Sometimes a particular animal was chosen to represent a god. Re was depicted not only as a human figure, but also as the sun disc or as an eye. He was said to be self-created, all-powerful, supreme, One.

No one has fully decoded this fabulous painting. Many traditional Egyptologists, such as those who designed "The Quest for Immortality"exhibit, believe that the Egyptians worshiped the sun literally and that the Amduat represents the sun's nightly journey through the underworld. The interpretation made here is of an altogether different kind.

The text accompanying the painting reveals that it was meant to be mysterious even to the Egyptians themselves. At the end of the first hour, the writing declares, "This is the plan like the one drawn by the god himself. It is useful for him who is on earth. Very correct like their mysterious representations in painting"(Alexandre Piankoff's translation in West's Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, used throughout this article). Although the painting is mysterious, it can be interpreted in ways familiar to a present-day viewer—for one who is now on earth.


Marine Sergeant Steven Price, 23 years old and critically wounded, lay on a stretcher waiting to be taken into the operating room. He says that he became "totally detached"from his body and floated up near the ceiling. He turned toward the brick wall, which suddenly became a light. "The light was there and it had come to get me. The light is the brightest thing you have ever seen, yet it's not penetrating in any way. I can't describe the light. . . . It is a mother cradling her baby with love, only a million times more than that and that is all of the love there is"(as reported by Gerald Renner).

Sgt. Price's report is of a near-death experience or NDE, as it has come to be called. Such experiences are common in all cultures, and at least eight million Americans have had one. Reports often include going through a tunnel and meeting the light. Some who have had the experience report seeing suddenly what looks like the night sky filled with stars, and they realize the stars are souls. They may meet a dead friend or relative. They want to stay, but are told that they must return. Generally, when they do return, they are more spiritual and compassionate and are free from all fear of death. Price says: "You don't know what it is to live until you're not afraid to die."

When Price talks about the light, his eyes fill with tears: "It took me 20 years to be able to call the light God."The light did not identify itself as "God" or "Jesus" or "Buddha" or any other name, nor as male or female. He simply experienced it as overwhelming love.

Did the ancient Egyptians know about the light encountered in near-death experiences? Because the experience is so common in all cultures, it would be surprising if they did not. They certainly adopted the sun as their symbol for the creator god, Re, and they sometimes referred to souls becoming stars after death. It would thus have been natural for them to use the day's journey of the sun as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of the soul.


The central figure in the Amduat drama is Re—but the figure of Re is depicted as enclosed within a tabernacle or canopy. For the Egyptians a canopy symbolized the flesh, so the painting shows God incarnate in the flesh, that is, as a person.

In the city of Babylon, 900 years after the death of Tuthmosis III, a young Israelite priest named Ezekiel spoke of a strange experience. He said he was taken by the Spirit of God to a valley full of bones, where he was told to speak to the dry bones—to tell them that God was going to restore them to life. God explained to Ezekiel that the bones were the people of Israel, who had lost all hope. Ezekiel was directed to tell these people: "And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live."

More than 600 years later, a man named Paul, the disciple of another Hebrew prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, wrote to one of the new communities of the religion that was then called "the Way"and later "Christianity": "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?"(1 Cor. 3.16). And in the Svetasvatara Upanishad of ancient India, an anonymous sage wrote: "There is a Spirit who is hidden in all things, as cream is hidden in milk and who is the source of self-knowledge and self-sacrifice. This is Brahman, the Spirit Supreme."

The belief that God's Spirit dwells in the human being pervades the sacred texts of many great faiths. And the writers of those sacred texts believed, with the prophet Ezekiel, that without that Spirit active in human beings, they are no more than dead things, a heap of dried up bones on a desert floor. That was also the belief of those who painted the walls of the tomb of Tuthmosis III. Re was depicted within the canopy of the flesh. God is within the human being. Not only in the Amduat but in other texts as well, the Egyptians referred to "god who is in man"(Hornung).


The figure of Re-within-the-Canopy is borne on a boat, surrounded by various gods. In the first hour, the boat is launched as the beginning of the First Life in the spiritual journey.

Whenever a person accepts a relationship with God, even if hesitantly and with confusion and doubt, the First Life begins. The purpose of the First Life is to build a strong relationship of love and trust between the human and God. At the beginning (especially if it happens in adulthood), there may be very dramatic bonding experiences—like falling in love. But eventually these "tingling"experiences fall away and the hard work of relationship must take over. Slowly, clumsily, the human tries to redirect his or her life toward the ways of God, as they are dimly perceived. Communion takes place in personal prayer (simple talking with God, as with a friend), meditation, and the reading of sacred works, and perhaps participation in some religious community.

As Walter Hilton, a fourteenth-century English mystic, describes this laborious struggle, we are like wrestlers: one moment we are on top and in command of our nature, and in the next moment that nature is on top and master of us. We fight not only our own nature but the surrounding world—including the religious world—that is constantly trying to win us over or throwing obstacles in the path of our relationship with God and true spiritual progress. But we know that God is present, and we begin to see his activity in our life.

As the relationship matures, we suddenly find ourselves wanting simply to be alone with God. In a way, it is like falling in love again, but much quieter. There are no fireworks, just a desperate longing to be alone, in silence, with this God we now love deeply. Religious services and ceremonies and much talking can be excruciatingly painful and disturbing. They are in the way now, whereas once they might have been helpful.


Suddenly in the third hour of the Amduat, figures of destruction appear. The hour itself is titled "She Who Cuts Up the Souls."The text reads: "This is what they do in the West: roast and hack to pieces the souls, imprison the shadows, annihilate those who are not, who belong to this Place of Destruction."Everywhere there are symbols of Osiris, who is Re-within-the-Canopy, or God embodied, and whose story is the central myth of Egypt. The hieroglyph for Osiris was a combination of eye and throne—in other words, God and royalty (or perhaps God and humanity).

In the myth of Osiris, the good god was tricked and betrayed by his wicked brother, Set, who murdered Osiris and cut his body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered throughout the country. But Osiris's wife, Isis, searched for the pieces and gathered them all together again. Miraculously, she reconstructed the body of Osiris, but not his life. Yet Isis had intercourse with the dead Osiris, became pregnant, and gave birth to Horus, a sun god. When Horus grew to manhood, he defeated Set, who is similar to Satan, a Hebrew name meaning "adversary,"just as Set represents the opposition force to God, Re.

Having one's body "hacked to pieces"would be bad enough. But things get even worse for Osiris. In the fourth hour, he descends to the bottom, the pit, in darkness. It is the end. Set appears prominently in the top register of the panel. The text emphasizes that it is "mysterious"and the meaning "hidden."But within this "thick darkness,"a new life appears—Khepri, symbolized by the scarab beetle, who represents process and transformation. In the fifth hour, Khepri, assisted by the other gods, pulls the boat out of the depths of the earth by a towrope. The text celebrates a new life, the beginning of the return journey to the light. It declares: "In peace, in peace! Lord of Life! In peace. Thou peace of the West! In peace, thou opener of the earth. In peace, thou cleaver of the ground. In peace, thou who art in heaven. . . . Heaven is in peace, in peace! Re is bound for the beautiful West."

What is happening in these hours? In the spiritual journey of the soul, just when we feel most secure in our relationship with God, without warning, everything turns dark. It may begin with some life catastrophe"loss of a key relationship, career failure, illness, or many catastrophes all at once. All is dark. We feel abandoned and unwanted by God, betrayed. We begin to experience being stripped of everything that had supported us, even good and beautiful things. Nothing matters to us anymore. This is a spiritual experience that John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Senses. Others call it just "the darkness."We feel we have been delivered into the hands of Satan, the enemy of God and all goodness.

The old life, and the spiritual person, is being put to death. It is like the experience in shamanistic societies of the call to the healer. The shaman goes through a terrible death-like trial and emerges from it as a virtually new, reborn person—a healer. Walter Hilton calls it the gate through which all must pass to attain holiness. Teresa of Avila says of it: "The grief that is felt here is not like that of this world . . . such grief doesn't reach the intimate depths of our being as does the pain suffered in this state, for it seems that the pain breaks and grinds the soul into pieces."


After the fifth hour, images of weaving and of preparing a cocoon appear. Isis tows the boat of Re-within-the-Canopy solely by her magical words—it is no longer hauled laboriously. In the seventh hour, the Great God speaks to Osiris: "Thou art a soul, thy soul is made spirit on earth."The image of Horus appears. In the eighth hour, references are made to the "hidden forms of Horus, the heir to Osiris."

All the subsequent hours are filled with images of metamorphosis, transformation, and the spiritual rising out of the material. Horus pleads with the lost souls, "the drowned ones, the overturned ones, those who float stretched out on their backs, who are in the Abyss."

When the "death"of the Dark Night is completed (a process that can take years), we emerge gently, as if by a miracle, into the sunshine of the other side. We are as if new persons, in a new life, the Second Life. In this life, now stripped of so much worldly human baggage—especially our own ego—we draw ever nearer to God at a very deep, profound level of our soul. Now the struggle is less. Things progress as if by magic. The action of the Holy Spirit within us transforms everything in our soul. We are beginning to be liberated humans. As the Katha Upanishad expresses it: "When the five senses and the mind are still, and reason itself rests in silence, then begins the Path supreme." We begin to understand and live the words of Walter Hilton: "I am nothing; I have nothing; I want only one thing."What is that one thing?


In the final hours, Horus becomes celestial. He destroys the enemies of his father, Osiris (the principles of darkness). The last hour is one of triumph. The gods rejoice and cheer. A mummy is tossed aside, "the mysterious form of Horus in complete darkness."It is a painting of liberation.

When the advanced interior change reaches a critical point, we enter the second Dark Night: The Dark Night of the Spirit. John of the Cross describes this as the reformation of our soul at its deepest level. Everything we thought of as "God"is taken away as falsehood, and we discover God as he truly is, unlike anything we could have expected. All of our own falsehood is healed. We then experience what the mystics call "union with God."We are so totally united with God that the two beings are one. Teresa of Avila says it is like rainwater that has fallen into a river—the two things once distinguishable have become one thing, the river. John of the Cross writes: "So great a union is caused that all the things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation, and the soul appears to be God more than a soul. Indeed, it is God by participation."The Katha Upanishad summarizes it this way: "When all desires that cling to the heart are surrendered, then a mortal becomes immortal, and even in this world he is one with Brahman."

This is the true liberation, healing, and salvation. It is what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God, which he said was "within"(Stewart). It begins the Third Life, the life of holiness. The human now is the master of his or her nature and becomes a pure channel for God's Spirit to flow into the world as love, healing, beauty, and truth.


Now we can understand the Osiris myth. Osiris represents the human of the First Life, who is destroyed by Set in the Dark Night and who is reborn miraculously as a semi-pine human, Horus, in the Second Life. In the end, Set is defeated in the Dark Night of the Spirit, and the human becomes pine and reigns with God, the beloved Father.

The Duat is this life, not the afterlife or other world. From the pine perspective, this life is the underworld, the place where the transformation from natural human to pine human takes place. And the amazing thing is that at least some ancient Egyptians knew this Way long before the Bible was written and before Jesus taught the Kingdom of God in Palestine.

Was this chart of the Way placed in the king's tomb to instruct him as he rose from the dead in the pitch darkness? Of course not. The king already knew the text intimately and would have known that the text would be placed on the walls of his tomb, just as the Egyptian kings planned during their life for every detail of their own tombs. Furthermore, the Egyptians, from tomb robbers to priestly tomb inspectors, knew that they would not encounter any risen spirit reading texts in the king's tomb. It was not a description of the sun's nightly journey with the pharaoh tagging along. It was, rather, a statement of ultimate belief.


Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Trans.John Baines. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.
    John of the Cross, Saint. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Trans.Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973.
   Renner, Gerald. "The Out-of-Body Experience."Washington Post, January 18, 1990, B-5.
   Stewart, William G., II. The Lost Kingdom of God. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris, 2001.
Teresa of Avila, Saint. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Vol. 2: The Interior Castle. Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980.
The Upanishads. Trans. by Juan Mascaro. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1965.
      West, John Anthony. The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt. Wheaton, IL:Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 1995.