A Metaphysical Landscape

(from Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred by Jeremy Naydler)

Radiant Sun

The first thing that strikes one in Egypt is the sun.... The Egyptian sun commands the lower atmosphere, permeating it with its brilliance. It is a regal presence that dominates the whole country. So pure, so radiant is the light that issues from the Egyptian sun that the ancient Egyptians perceived in it the divine presence of a god they named Shu, of whom it was said that "he fills the sky with beauty."...

The influence of the sun spreads even into the night. The sun-inebriated air retains a purity that draws the stars close to the earth. Out of the towns, the Egyptian nights belong to the stars. The whole body of the heavens arches over the earth, covering it with a glittering embrace. This body belongs to Nut, daughter of Shu.

By night, the star-studded daughter of Shu is as powerful a presence as her father is by day. Indeed, it is Nut who gives birth to the sun each morning. Mythologically, there is a reciprocity in the relationships of Shu to Nut and of Nut to the sun god Ra who, though he is the father of Shu, is also born of Nut. The pervasive quality of luminescence that characterizes both day and night links these deities in a circle of interdependence.

But there can be no question of the ultimate supremacy of the sun. It is the sun that is the source of life and emblem of the creative spirit that permeates the whole world....

River and Desert

But it is not just the quality of light that has such a profound influence on the character of Egypt. There is also its unique landscape, which is made up of dramatic polarities closely juxtaposed, if not intertwined. Were it not for the Nile, Egypt would be desert. Yet because of the Nile, Egypt is a long, lush oasis with an exuberance of vegetation. It is true that the sun is the source of life, but the life-giving warmth and uplifting light of the Egyptian sun can only be appreciated in the region of the Nile valley. Once beyond the ambit of the river, the lord of life burns the land with the merciless heat of the desert. Egypt is, as Herodotus said, "the gift of the Nile."' It is the fertilizing waters of the Nile that transform the sun's intrinsic fierceness into a generous benevolence....

Thus Egypt plays host equally to the extremes of the overflowing life of the oasis and the intractable hostility of the barren desert. There is such a concentration of life, and at the same time such an unequivocally sterile expanse surrounding it, that one wonders at the peculiar destiny of this landscape that has to bear within itself, in such extreme degrees, both fecundity and desolation. It is as if here, in this unique physical environment, one comes closer than anywhere else in the world to an experience of the universal forces of life and death, playing out their mutually antagonistic yet complementary roles. They vie with each other, they contend with each other, but there is also a kind of harmony in this perpetual tension and conflict of each within the other. Neither can drive the other one out, and so they exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium.

The ancient Egyptians called their country the Two Lands. This is usually taken at its face value to refer to the Delta region on the one hand, and the rest of the Nile valley on the other. But the broad and fertile plain of the Delta—Lower Egypt—and the long, confined valley of Upper Egypt were themselves a reexpression of a deeper, underlying polarity. From the beginning, the Delta was the domain of Horus while Upper Egypt was the province of Seth, the great opponent from whom the imperiled life and fecundity of the Nile valley had annually to be won. Seth ruled the desert; the desert was Seth's land. And Seth was eternally opposed by Horus; eternally combatted and defeated. As much as the Two Lands of Egypt are the North and the South, they are equally the fertile Black Lands of the Nile valley, and the barren Red Lands of the encompassing desert.

But the concept of Two Lands goes further than any merely geographical distinction. In Egypt, the physical landscape has a metaphysical resonance of which the ancient Egyptians were keenly aware: the Two Lands are the two contending yet mutually interpenetrating realms of life and death, of the spiritual or heavenly world on the one hand, and the world of lifeless matter on the other. It is not without significance that the name Horus—in Egyptian, Heru—meant "He who is Above." Horus was representative of Heaven, while the domain of Seth was that of unspiritualized matter, chaos, and death. And so this landscape is both paradise and hell, at war with each other yet united in precarious balance and reciprocity.

The Egyptian sun, with its life-giving, translucent light and its searing desert heat contains the same polarity. The sun that shines benevolently upon the flourishing Nile valley is the same sun that scorches the desert. And so the deity whose visible manifestation is the sun, Ra, contains within himself all duality. He is source and progenitor both of the Above and the Below, of Heaven and Earth, and of Horus and Seth. Each night Ra acknowledges this by entering into, passing through, but finally overcoming, the domain in which the forces of Seth are rampant—the Underworld. Here Seth's power manifests as a life-denying opposition to spirit, but—as such—it is also the necessary precondition of the renewal of life and spiritual rebirth. Even Seth, who in so many respects is the archetype of negativity, embodies a certain duality; he was never thought of as unequivocally bad or evil, but rather as a necessary component of the cosmos viewed as a totality.

This ambivalence of Seth can be experienced in the Egyptian desert. It is indeed mercilessly hot, and there is nowhere to find shelter from the sun. But in this landscape of rock and silence, where no bird flies and no animal save the desert viper moves, there is a solitude that the Nile valley cannot offer. The Nile valley has an intensely social, as well as natural, fertility....

The valley is in its entirety given over to cultivation. There the human and natural spheres of existence are blended into a harmonious unity, as if all partake of the same social fabric. Men, women, and children work together with their donkeys and oxen, sit with their cows or herds of sheep and goats under trees. Even the egrets that gather—as they have always gathered—in the fields mingle with the workers as if they were domestic fowl. The gods of Egypt were the spiritual denizens of the cultivated land. They were part of the social fabric of the Nile valley. All of them, that is, except for Seth. Seth was always the outsider god, encountered when a person stepped outside the socially cohesive fertile land into the desert. In the eerie, fearful wastes of the desert, the wanderer might or might not stumble upon a venomous snake. But there was no avoiding meeting one's own solitude. It was here, in Seth's domain, far from the reassuring presence of the company of gods, that one could experience the utter deprivation of spirit that is the precondition of inner renewal.

In Egypt, one is constantly impressed by the balance and interplay of the opposites: life and death, abundance and barrenness, light and dark, day and night, society and solitude. Each is so clearly described that one sees that the ancient Egyptians could not but understand the world in dualistic terms. Their landscape teaches the metaphysics of the equilibrium of opposing principles. To maintain this balance of the Two Lands, of Horus and Seth, of the Above and the Below, was the central preoccupation of the Egyptian people, which devolved specifically upon the king. One of the titles of the king was "The Two Lords." In the office of kingship, and thereby throughout the whole country, Horus and Seth were embodied and held in equilibrium.

Flood and Drought

As much as the landscape was—and still may be—experienced as resonating with metaphysical import, so equally was the seasonal cycle that transformed the landscape each year. Today, because the flow of the Nile has passed out of the hands of the gods and into the control of human beings, we can only reconstruct this experience in our imaginations. The Egyptian year used to be governed by the influx and reflux of the Great River, as the Nile was called. The Great River was itself regarded, like virtually all landscape features of ancient Egypt, as the body of a god. His name was Hapi, and he was usually depicted as androgynous, for he was the nurturing mother of the abundant life of the Nile valley. Hapi was not merely a "personification" of the river; it was as if, in those days, people saw through the vivid landscape in which they lived to the energies, forces, and beings of which it was an expression....

The country on each side of the river was modified by the ancient Egyptians to accommodate and make maximum use of the annual inundation. Many dikes were constructed both parallel to the river and at right angles to it, dividing the valley into a vast network of basins descending in terraces from Upper Egypt in the south to Lower Egypt in the north. Each great basin formed the frame of a whole agricultural district, which in turn was subdivided into a crisscross of ditches and embankments, canals and dikes. The cycle of inundation and retreat thus acted as a principle of organization and division of the land as a whole; it conditioned the agricultural and political ordering of the Nile valley into a series of mutually dependent districts....

Occurring at the hottest time of the year, the inundation was yet another confirmation of the wise ordering of the universe that caused there to be equilibrium between opposing forces. In the months preceding the flood, the power of Seth would visibly grow. The land became increasingly parched, the earth turned to dust, the vegetation shrivelled. Animals and human beings became listless from the heat, and the Nile shrank ever smaller. It seemed as if the country would soon become absorbed into the surrounding desert. At the very moment in the year when the life-sapping, destructive power of Seth seemed closest to victory, then the Nile waters would miraculously begin to swell, "a wave spreading over the orchards which Ra made to nourish all who thirst, you [Hapi] give drink to the desert places....

The annual cycle of the three seasons: of Deficiency (Shomu) from April to June, of Inundation (Akhet) from July to October, and of Coming Forth or Emergence (Proyet) from November to March, dramatically represented the myth central to the Egyptian religious consciousness—that of the death and resurrection of Osiris. During the drought, Osiris was "lost" or "dead." It was at this time that his son Horus battled with Seth, the inundation betokening Horus's victory and Seth's defeat. It was on account of this that Osiris, the divine source of fertility and reproductive power, was enabled to rise from his condition of unconsciousness and impotence. The surge of plant life that followed the retreat of the waters was the physical corollary of the resurrection of Osiris's soul.

The seasonal cycle, however, did more than act out the phases of the Osirian myth. It recalled the very process of the creation of the universe. For when Egypt was submerged under the floodwaters, the whole land returned to the primordial condition of formlessness that prevailed before creation began. The sinking back of the waters and the reemergence of the land was a quite obvious reenactment, in the world of space and time, of what occurred (and eternally occurs) in the very Beginning, in the very first stages of the emanation of the spatiotemporal world, from the nonspatiotemporal, spiritual realm. The seasonal transformations that the landscape of Egypt underwent were—like the landscape itself—a reflection on the physical plane of metaphysical realities.


In Egypt, the directions of east and west, north and south, are never in any doubt. Through the whole six-hundred-mile span of the Nile valley, there is an almost unbroken constancy in the northward flow of the river. It thus divides the land equally into a western and an eastern half. This physical division of the country by the Great River is given symbolic meaning by the cosmic and divine event of the daily birth of Ra in the east, his journey across the heavenly Nile (of which the earthly Nile is but an image), and his senescence and descent into the realm of the dead beyond the cliffs of the western desert. East and west are thus not simply physical directions, they are mythical and metaphysical orientations. The symbolism of the sun's diurnal cycle deeply impresses itself upon the Egyptian landscape. The western side of the Nile valley has to be the side of the funerary complexes and mortuary temples, for it is there, beyond the western desert, that Ra descends into the Underworld. The east has to be the side of rebirth, of new life, for every morning the whole country turns east as it awakens to the enlivening rays of the newborn sun.

But just as the country is divided into easterly and westerly realms, as much mythographical as geographical, so also is it divided into the northern, low-lying expanse of the Delta, and the narrow Nile valley to the south. Looking southward, one can have the sense of gazing into another mysterious, metaphysical zone where, as with the east and west, physical geography blends into mythography. The source of the life-giving waters that flowed through the land was essentially mythic: the Egyptians said the sacred river came to the earth from the Underworld or Dwat. Now the Dwat (for which our "Underworld" is a somewhat misleading translation) was a region midway between the earthly and the spiritual worlds, and...was the source of all life, health, and fertility for the physical realm. Hence the connection of the Lord of the Dwat—Osiris—with the fertilizing power of the Nile's flood. And indeed not only Osiris but the whole Osirian myth rises up before one when looking to the south.

The ancient Egyptians quite literally saw Osiris appear in the southern sky in the constellation of Orion, in the period immediately preceding the flood. But the flood itself was directly heralded by the appearance of Isis in the iridescent star Sirius, some time after the first reemergence of Orion from below the southern horizon. The Nile's inundation was said to be caused by the tears of Isis for her stricken lord, tears that, as it were, came streaming from the rainbow hues of this star down into the emaciated river.

If in looking south one gazes toward the Dwat, then behind one are the stars of the north, the pole stars that never set and that for the Egyptians constituted a cosmic image of eternity. It was the uninterrupted circuit of these stars that the most blessed dead would join, the realm beyond the Dwat, the realm of pure spirit.

A person standing and facing south is in the "archetypal" position by which the ancient Egyptians oriented themselves in "the Beloved Land" (ta-meri). One of the terms for "south" is also a term for "face," while the word usually used for "north" is related to a word that means "back of the head." The word for "east" is the same as that for "left"; likewise the word for "west" and "right." In no other country are directions in space so clearly defined in the landscape. One feels "held" by this landscape as one does nowhere else in the world. In the fact that the directions in space were each felt to correspond to sides of the human body, one glimpses something of the rootedness, the absolute belonging, of the ancient Egyptian to this landscape. One understands how this landscape must have nurtured a great confidence in the orderliness of the universe: there is the Great River, there is the fertile Black Land, there is the desert, and there is the sun journeying from east to west each day. No matter where a person stands in the Nile valley, he or she is at the center of a cross whose axes are described by the Nile and its embankments on the one hand, and by the sun's course on the other. Wherever one is in the Nile valley, one can imagine how the ancient Egyptians must have felt to be always at the center of a metaphysical universe.

It is an interesting fact that the Egyptians regarded their land not only as being at the center of the world but also as being, in a certain sense, the whole world. Thus they called their country "that which the sun encircles," with the implication that it stood for the whole planet. It was not through ignorance of other countries beyond Egypt's frontiers; neither was it through a condescending or dismissive attitude toward the "foreign lands." Rather, it was due to a feeling that characterized the relationship of all ancient peoples to the earth: the feeling that in the part of the earth that they inhabited, the whole was present. But more than in any other country, because of its unique qualities of climate and landscape, in Egypt such a feeling could arise with the force of a self-evident truth.

from Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1996), pp. 1-10.

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Last modified on September 19, 2008 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)