The Egypt of the Eternal Return

(from The Passion of Isis and Osiris: A Union of Two Souls by Jean Houston)

The Essential Egypt

In the predawn call of the muezzin, in the late afternoon playing of a flute in the marketplace, I have heard the melody that ripples across the friezes in the tombs of ancient musicians. On the curved lips of merchants in the night bazaar, I've noted the same beatific smiles as those that appear on the granite faces of the kings in Karnak.

The same dawn that bespoke the moment of creation to the ancient priestess washes across the faces of countless Egyptians the lightskinned young businessmen in Cairo crossing the street, the dark Nubian children of Aswan weaving garlands, the sun-bronzed bedouin camel drivers walking through the smoke of campfires below the dusty yellow plateau of Giza, and the almond-eyed gatekeepers smoking cigarettes outside the temple of Edfu.

At the heart of the Great Pyramid, I've spent the night staring into the darkness, hearing the echo of ancient cantors, and feeling the timeless pulse of the universe. On the edges of the desert, at the foot of the pyramids, I have looked up and seen the vibrant stars that are the gods in hiding, the souls waiting to be born. As the wind blows across the desert sands, I can imagine the shushing sounds of the bare feet of dancing tribal women as they make supplications to their goddess.

Egypt is not only a culture that existed in a certain time and place, with a certain history, geography, and economy, Egypt is also a state of being that exists eternally in archetypal realms. The historical Egypt was but a backdrop for the essential Egypt, the Egypt of the eternal return. In this view, Egypt did not have, but rather was, a quality of intelligence.

In ancient Egypt, at least for a period of time, substance and essence bloomed simultaneously. The pattern of primary essence that resonates through archetypal Egypt through the Egypt of our psyches represents the creative potency of universal form and power. It is that which unfolded into what we know as the historical, exoteric Egypt.

It is my belief that this template of essential and archetypal reality, along with the concept of the gods and goddesses, created the charge and possibility for the pattern that became ancient Egypt. (pp. 87-88)

"The First Time," or How the Gods Created the Universe

The story of Isis and Osiris is a story about time. It begins before the birth of the universe. It begins inside the dark and empty belly of the serpent who is the Great Abyss where nothing yet exists not men, not Earth, not the gods, not even time or space. It is almost too impossible to think about this circular, ourobouric asp with neither head nor tail, beginning nor ending, since we cannot fathom the concept of what never existed. Life, the dream, the illusion of Being, happens in the midst of the great serpent's belly. Before that, there is only desire, the will to exist, the great hidden progenitor of the universe whom the ancient Egyptians called Atum. From him the world sprang in its great cosmic combustion of energy, expanding whirring gases and contracting matter into stars. And to him all will return at the end of time like a black hole in the universe, sucking in matter that disappears.

But between the beginning and the end, there is time and space. There are men and women, gods and nature. All these spring from the first creation. First came Light, whom the ancient Egyptians named Ra. In the light of consciousness of time/space there came into being Nature, or the "neters," as we call the gods of ancient Egypt. Time and space, as we know it, came into existence when the gods were born, gathered together from the cosmic dust of Heaven (from Nut, the goddess) and the matter of Earth (Geb, the god).

The myth of Isis and Osiris is about primordial time, The First Time, as the ancients called it. Isis, the goddess of Heaven and Earth, measures archetypal time, what we might call the "durative realm," the everlasting. Her dying and renewing husband Osiris is the measure of cyclical time, the eternal return, as well as the seasons and the recurrent patterns of life.

When Seth places Osiris in the wooden coffin, he traps the god in time. He fragments the god's time into years and months by hacking the lunar body of Osiris into pieces. He further attempts to confine and control Isis (durative time) by trapping her inside his spinning mill. Yet she transcends this realm by tapping psychically into the eternal and durative realm of Osiris. She enters the land of the dead in trance and dream and brings back her vision of time eternal through the conception of the divine child, Horus.

Ever after the death of Osiris, the pregnant Isis now lives in three times: what happened previously, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future. This knowledge of both the temporal and the eternal realms allows her to transcend the limitations of time and create a renewed vision of Egypt. When we say that the goddess has become Queen of Heaven and Earth by the story's end, we also mean that she operates in full glory in both the durative and the temporal realms.

Horus, son of Isis and Osiris and heir to both durative and cyclical time, is the hero of this myth. Horus performs the action of the hero by walking in both worlds one foot in eternal time, the other in cyclical time. It is Horus who becomes the pattern of a man that the ancients emulated. If we view the myth this way, we begin to understand bow the Egyptians divided their story of becoming into three realms: the time of gods, the time of heroes, and the time of men. (pp. 88-89)

Exploring the Durative Realm

It would be tempting to think of these realms as historical eras first came gods, then heroes, then men. But in fact, the ancient Egyptians perceived these separate realities as occurring simultaneously Every sunrise revealed the story of creation. Each dawn and dusk reenacted the battle of Horus and Seth. Every day a man lived and breathed, his life and his death recurred from waking to sleeping.

As Sir Alan Gardiner noted in his Egyptian Grammar, the ancient Egyptians had only two verb tenses. These revealed either the singleness of an event or its repetition they recognized only the "present" or the "eternal present." Although the "present" could have happened today or yesterday, the significant distinction in the two verb tenses was revealed in a difference in whether perceived events occurred in man's time or in the gods' time.

This dual notion of time permeated all of ancient Egyptian life. The mud brick and thatch houses of the people were temporary affairs, never meant to last, for the Nile floods came annually and washed everything away. But the houses of the gods, the temples, were built of stone. They were to last for eternity, the lifetime of a neter.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a divine spark resided in every human being. Although the mortal shell of flesh and bone disappeared at death, the spiritual self remained. The Egyptians lived full lives, planted corn, birthed children, and enjoyed music, but they focused on what was eternal. They existed not within the temporal time of men, but within the eternal present time of gods. (pp. 89-90)

One can imagine what would happen in America if each year around July 4, in addition to hot dogs and firecrackers, we suddenly dropped our boundaries of space and time and received Thomas Jefferson into our midst, declaring our independence over again with the same fervor as in 1776.

On a much larger scale, the ancient Egyptians were constantly invoking sacred time. As one sees from ritual funerary papyri, as well as in the wonderfully colorful friezes of sacred festivals, Egyptians used the three critical turning points of the year (the flooding of the land, the retreat of the Nile, and the time of drought) as opportunities to bring the eternal, changing patterns of durative, archetypal Egypt into punctual, everyday Egypt. Their agricultural, festival, and personal lives centered around no less than three calendars.

The lunar calendar kept cyclical time. As the oldest measure of time, it was the instrument of the moon goddess and the record of her patterns. When passive hunting and gathering gave way to agricultural concerns, the solar calendar evolved, including the five epagomenal days honoring the five great gods of Egypt. Solar calendars kept more accurate agricultural time. The Sothic calendar marked the helical rising of the Dog Star, Sirius (or Sothis), which every June 21 heralded the arrival of the Nile inundation. In addition, there were gods and goddesses of the epoch, of the season, of the month, of the day, and of the appointed hour.

After the birth of Isis and Osiris, historic time in Egypt was also a part of the gods' time. From 3000 B.C. onward, every June 21 the goddess Isis shone her brilliant face upon the thirsty land of Egypt, blessing it in her form as the rising star Sothis. Every June 21 the god Osiris rose up from his underworld depths, appearing as the swollen river Nile, and flooded the land with his life-giving waters. Every June 21, then, Isis and Osiris blessed the people of Egypt and gifted them with their life-sustaining powers. The star rose, the river overflowed its banks, and the fields were made fertile. In the punctual realm it was the New Year festival; in the durative realm it was the dawn of eternal creation and regeneration.

Egyptian civilization lasted thousands of years. One wonders if the present ephemeral lives of countries would endure longer if they, too, received the great greening thrusts of energy and renewal that came from regularly tapping into the durative realm, for it is there in the deep patterns of perfect harmony and knowing that the dynamic purpose of the relationship between the land, humanity, and the gods eternally resides. (pp. 90-91)

The importance of these mythic origins is that the Egyptians believed absolutely in their own antiquity and divinity. They accomplished all they did because they believed they were descended from gods. All art and culture, all science and agriculture were possible because the laws governing them were handed down by the gods communicating through the higher minds that inhabit those of ordinary men and women.

Believing themselves to be born into this world from divine dimensions, the ancient Egyptians unequivocally accepted an eternal spirit. They dedicated their lives to religious devotion to the ancestors and gods, planning continually for the moment of their return to their spiritual source. They lived like gods, thought like gods, built a high culture worthy of the gods' wisdom, and erected cities, temples, and monuments on a divine scale. Even their collective memories were the memories of gods. (p. 92)

The ancients made no distinction between myth and history. These people endeavored to conduct their lives according to the great unfolding story of their gods, mythic heroes, and archetypes....

Durative Egypt

Durative Egypt is outside local space and time: it exists in time/space and is available now, an ever-present and ever-recurring possibility of transformative consciousness. Perhaps this explains the deeper levels of fascination that many have felt for Egypt for thousands of years, a fascination that transcends its obvious mysteries and aesthetic glories. In Egypt we have a still-living metaphor for the deepest creative impulse in ourselves. If we could gain from within ourselves but a fraction of what caused historical Egypt to flourish, then our lives would be extraordinary cocreative partnerships with evolution.

Egypt cannot be explained as the product of an earlier high civilization. Nor was it a leftover colony of extraterrestrial visitation (as some of my more interesting friends profess). It is, I believe, an example of the magnificent achievement that can be attained when a culture taps into its durative base. The Egyptologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz...suggested this when he stated that, in order to understand the heightened state of mind that was durative ancient Egypt, we have to enter into its mind, and psyche, and spirit.

Schwaller de Lubicz took the Egyptologists who preceded him to task for succumbing to the seductive lie inherent in theories of evolution that species were always moving upward toward a state of perfection and that new development in a culture meant "improved" intellectual and spiritual development. This is not necessarily the case. Hitler, for example, was arguably not more highly civilized or evolved than the ancient Egyptian sage Ptahhotep simply because Hitler was born nearly four thousand years later. It is dangerously presumptuous and egocentric to base one's knowledge of a past civilization on a comparison to our own. Evolution, Schwaller de Lubicz said, was merely a study of the stages of transmutation:

Past civilization is held to be inferior to ours since it has preceded us! In fact, neither time nor space separates [changes in consciousness] profoundly. In order to obtain true [separation], there must be a difference in mentality. The state of mind separates or unites; we must search the state of mind for the mainspring of all behavior.

Many Egyptologists have hoped to enter into the ancient mind in part by learning the language and its symbols. But that is not enough. Indeed, it may not even be critical to understanding that state of mind. What is essential is awakening to a living rapport and identity with durative Egypt so that it takes up residence within us. This means more than immersing ourselves in the myth, and the inscriptions, and gazing upon a few artifacts. It means entering an Egyptian state of mind, allowing for the simultaneous existence and experience of all things in motion, and recognizing their synchronistic functions for a brief but eternally absolute moment.

One reaches these states through love, attunement, and fully conscious incarnation. This doesn't mean that we have to drop our present psyche and history, but rather that we expand our awareness by attuning first to the durative aspects of ourselves, then to the realm of the durative that is eternal Egypt. This necessitates journeying from our daily time/space consciousness through the gateway of the eternal mind of the neters. Yogis know that each breath, each heartbeat, is surrounded by emptiness, that all is transitory. They live each moment in its time a breath, a second, a heartbeat, a life thus moving through the doorways of space and time. This knowledge, this expanded existence, is available to us as well.... (pp. 101-03)

It is not uncommon for people who travel to Egypt to come away with a sense that they have changed, their hearts opened, their spirits rejuvenated, their possibilities extended. How can we explain such miracles, except that the sacred temples even the earth beneath one's feet still reverberate with ancient power, charged by five thousand centuries of conscious invocation, prayer, incantation, and meditation. We are not talking about average Sunday churchgoers; we are talking about a people for whom every animal, plant, and stone embodied the divine, a people for whom daily life vibrated spiritual meaning, for whom the mere act of waking from sleep was a resurrection from death, akin to Ra being reborn each morning.

When we view the world as sacred when every beast, grain of sand, molecule of air, tree, seed, and river is viewed as being empowered with neters then the world views us as sacred, too.

It is true that the Colossus of Memnon no longer sings, that the Nile no longer overflows its banks, that the paint is now flaking from the tomb ceilings, that ancient glyphs crumble every day to sand, and that these losses are deeply felt. And still the power thrums beneath the sand and under the blue sky, the light of heaven pierces the hearts of those who come to revere this place. While traveling through the Egyptian countryside, I once met an old peasant farmer. The fellahin said to me, "The gods want you here. They need someone to speak their names." (p. 160)

Because Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations, and perhaps because its highly spiritual culture was charged daily by chanting priests and peasants for four thousand years, Egypt itself has entered into the collective unconscious. It provides a limitless fount of images that flow from the unconscious and are available to today's dreamers just as much as to ancient ones. (pp. 173-74)


Jean Houston, The Passion of Isis and Osiris: A Union of Two Souls (NY: Ballantine Books, 1995). For more information on the author and her works, see Jean Houston.

See also Infusing the Body with Neters
and Straightening the Spine and Raising the Djed Pillar.


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Last modified on February 16, 2005 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)