Chapter 15. Origin of Egyptian Symbolism

Those difficulties require for solution the same divinely wise Muse. I desire, beforehand, however, to interpret to thee the peculiar form of the theologic system of the Egyptians. For they, endeavoring to represent the productive principle of the universe and the creative function of the gods, exhibit certain images as symbols of mystic, occult and invisible conceptions, in a similar manner as of Nature (the productive principle), in her peculiar way, makes a likeness of invisible principles through symbols in visible forms. <sup>1</sup> But the creative energy of the gods delineates the genuine reality of the forms through the visible images. The Egyptian priests, therefore, perceiving that all the superior races are gratified at the resemblances of the inferior tribes to themselves, and desiring to supply the latter with benefits through such representations, so far as possible, do themselves bring into use for them as may be expected, a mode of initiation into the mysteries which is appropriately concealed in the symbols.

Listen, therefore, to the spiritual interpretation of the symbols, according to the conception of the Egyptian priests, dismissing from thy imagination and hearing the phantom-likeness of the symbols themselves, and bringing thyself upward to the spiritual reality.

By “ilus” or slime, then, recognize everything of a corporeal nature or belonging to the realm of matter, or that is nourishing and procreative, or such as is a material form belonging to the realm of nature and borne along with the never-still currents of the realm of matter, or such as the river of generative existence contains and which sinks with it, or the originating cause of the elements and of all the powers relating to the elements, which subsisted before in correspondence to a foundation. <sup>2</sup>

It being of such a quality, God, who is author of all generation and production, and of all elemental forces, as being superior to them, immaterial and incorporeal, exalted above the realm of nature and likewise begotten and undivided, entire of himself and concealed in himself, is supreme above all these and embraces them all in himself. And because he contains everything and gives himself to all the universe, he is made-manifest out from them. Because he is superior to the universe, he is spread out over it by himself, and is manifested as separate, removed, high in the air and unfolded by himself above the forces and elementary principles in the world. <sup>3</sup>

The following symbol likewise attests this: For the one “sitting above the lotus-blossom” expresses enigmatically an exaltation above the slime, and likewise denotes spiritual and empyrial supremacy. <sup>4</sup> For everything pertaining to the lotos, both the forms in the leaves and the appearance of the seed, is observed to be circular. This very energy is akin to the unique circle-like motion of the mind, manifesting it in like manner according to the same forms, in a single arrangement, and according to one principle.

The god himself, however, is seated alone, above any such dominion or energy, august and holy, filled abundantly, and remaining in himself without change, as the figure of one sitting is intended to signify. <sup>5</sup>

The one “sailing in a Boat” <sup>6</sup> sets before the mind the power that directs the world. As, therefore, the Pilot, being apart from the ship, has the control of its rudders, so the Sun subsisting separately has control of the helms of all the world. And as the pilot from above at the stern, giving forth from himself the first brief beginning of the course, directs everything, so by an infinite priority of rank, the God from above, imparts without division from the first principles of Nature, the first-operative causes of motions. These things, therefore, and still more than these, are denoted by One Sailing in a boat.

Every department of the sky, every sign of the zodiac, every celestial course, every period of time according to which the world is put in motion, and all perfect things receive the forces which go forth from the Sun. Some of these forces are closely interblended with these, but others are superior to any commingling with them. Accordingly, the symbolic mode of expression also suggests them: “Assuming a shape according to the Signs of the Zodiac and changing forms according to the Season.” It likewise manifests his unchangeable, constant, unceasing and generally universal and abundant giving to the whole world.

The different receivers, however, are variously affected with regard to the indivisible boon of the divinity, and they receive from the Sun powers of many kinds according to their peculiar impulses. In this way the series of symbols coming in succession, is designed, through the multitude of gifts, to make manifest the One God the Sun, and through the manifold powers exhibited, to cause his one power to appear. Hence, also, it sets forth that he is One and the Same, but that the changes of shape and the transformations are taken for granted among the recipients. <sup>7</sup>

On this account it is affirmed that the Sun changes “according to the sign of the zodiac and according to the season,” because these manifestations are diversified with respect to the god, according to the many forms of his reception.

The Egyptian priests make use of such prayers to the Sun, not only at the Autopsias, but also in the more public prayers which have an interior sense, and are offered to the divinity with reference to such a symbolic initiation into Mysteries. <sup>8</sup>

Hence it is not permitted that anyone shall offer any explanation.

But the enquiries which follow, if we are to go through with them sufficiently in detail, require more information. Yet it is equally necessary in replying to bring out the truth in relation to them in few words. Thou demandest: “Why are terms preferred that are unintel1igible?<sup>9</sup>

They are not “unintelligible,” however, as thou hast thought. Nevertheless, let them be unknown to us, or let some of them be known, with reference to which we receive solutions from the gods; they, certainly, are all of them significant to the gods in a manner not divulged. Nor can they be significant and also oracular with human beings through imaginings, but either spiritually by the mind which is at once divine and human, <sup>10</sup> or in silence, or to express the conception in a better and simpler manner, by a mind united with the gods. <sup>11</sup>

We should, therefore, set aside all conceits and logical quibbles in regard to the divine names, and should, likewise, pay no attention to natural resemblances of speech which are closely akin to objects in the realm of nature. In the same manner, then, as the symbolic token of the divine likeness is spiritual and divine, the same thing is to be taken for granted in the names. Indeed, although we may not know it, this very thing is the most august in the case, for it is too grand to be classified for the purpose of being made known. In regard to those, however, of which we have received the skill to interpret the meaning, we possess in the name, the knowledge of the divine essence, power and order. Moreover, we guard care-fully in the soul the mystic and ineffable image of the gods; and through this we lead the soul upward to the gods, and having exalted it as far as possible, we ally it with the gods.

But you ask, “Why of names that are significant, do we place foreign ones before those of our own language?” <sup>12</sup> The reason for this, also, is connected with the Mystic Rites. For the gods have made known that of the Sacred Nations, like the Egyptians and likewise the Assyrians, the entire dialect is suitable for sacred places. Hence, we believe that we ought to address our communications in speech native to the gods; and because such a mode of speaking is primitive and ancient, and most of all, as those who learned the first terms relating to the gods, mingled them with their own language and transmitted it to us, as being proper and suitable for these things, we have always preserved the law of tradition till the present time inviolate. For whatever else pertains to the gods, plainly the everlasting and unchangeable is kindred to them.

It is then objected: “If the one who hears the voice gives attention to the signification, it is enough that the concept remains the same, whatever the term may be.” The fact, however, is not as thou imaginest. For if terms had been fixed by conventional agreement, it would make no difference if some should be used instead of others. But if they are closely allied together in the nature of the things that have being, <sup>13</sup> those the more like it will be most assuredly the more agreeable to the gods. From this fact it appears agreeable to reason that the language of the sacred nations has been adopted in preference to that of the rest of mankind. For terms when they are translated do not always preserve their meaning the same as before; and besides, there are certain idioms with every nation that are impossible to express to another in intelligible speech. Accordingly, though, it may be possible to translate them; they no longer preserve the same force. “Foreign terms,” likewise, have great emphasis and much conciseness, and contain less ambiguity, diversity and varied shades of meaning. For all these reasons they suit the Superior Races.

Away, then, with conjectures which deviate from the truth: such as this, whether “the divinity that is invoked is Egyptian in race or makes use of the Egyptian language.” Understand instead that the Egyptians were the first of mankind that were allotted to communion with the gods; <sup>14</sup> and the gods that are invoked delight in the Egyptian customs.

Suppose, then, “these are all of them artful contrivances of jugglers,” how is it possible that these things without which no sacred performance takes place successfully, which in the highest degree conjoin us with the gods, and combine us with them, and which possess powers almost equal to those of the superior races, should be only figments of the imagination? On the other hand, is it not true that “these are disguises that have their origin in the passive conditions about us through being attributed to the divine agency?” For it is not from what we have experienced, but on the contrary, from what are peculiar attributes of the gods, that we are aroused and ad-dress to them naturally the expressions proper for them. Nor do we form “conceptions of the divine nature contrary to what it actually is.” On the other hand, wherein it is natural, and as they who first established the laws of holy religious worship have come upon the truth respecting it, so we continue in them. For if anything of different customs of a religious character harmonizes with them, it is what does not change. And it is necessary with the ancient prayers as with the sacred places of asylum to preserve them inviolate and in the same manner, neither taking anything from them nor adding anything to them from any other source. <sup>15</sup> For this is perhaps the reason why at the present time everything is going to decay, and both the occult terms and the prayers have become without efficiency. They are constantly undergoing changes through the innovating disposition and the lawlessness of the Greeks, and nothing remains as it was. For the Greeks are by nature fond of innovation, and they are carried onward rushing eagerly in every direction. They have no ballast in them and they do not preserve what they received from anybody; but letting it quickly go, they remodel everything according to a never-ceasing fluency of words. But the foreign priests are steadfast in their customs, and continue firmly with the same words; for which reason, making use of the words grateful to them, they are themselves beloved by the gods. Nevertheless, to change them in any way is not lawful for any human being.

This much we have answered thee in regard to the words which are called both unutterable and barbarous <sup>16</sup> or foreign, and yet are becoming in holy rites.



  • 1. See //Herodotus//: II, 60. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 18, and throughout.
  • 2. This definition of ilus or slime applies also to hulê, the foundation-principle of everything denominated “material.” It is a concept of the mind, and not a something that can be weighed, measured, or perceived by the senses: and if the term has any intelligible meaning, it may be designated as passive, negative or objectified force.
  • 3. The representation of the winged disk, so common in Egyptian symbolism, is here denoted. The description also applies to the figures-of Assur and Ahuramazda of the Assyrian and Persian temples floating in the air above the Sacred Tree and the adoring King and priests.
  • 4. The lotos or Nymphæ was anciently esteemed as the queen of the world of blossoms. Each of its numerous species seems to have been regarded as sacred in some of the ancient nations, and the same veneration is still maintained in China and India. The American pond-lily is of the same family. It has been conjectured to have received its distinction from the analogy of its seeds, which sprout in the capsule of the plant and begin to grow till they burst the pericarp and float away to take root in the slime by themselves.

The Egyptian priests were accustomed to exhibit simulacra of the gods in circles and globes as symbols of the uniform principle of life. Hermes Trismegistus compared Divinity to a circle, and the sublime description will be remembered, that its centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. The Pythagoreans regarded the circle as sacred, and considered it as the symbol of the highest spiritual truth. It also represents very aptly all human progress, which is never in straight lines, but in circles returning on themselves as if advancing in ascending spirals or retrograding in vortexes tending downward.

  • 5. Horus as Har-pocrates was depicted as sitting on the cup of the lotos-blossom, with a finger on his mouth, contemplating the circle, and was the divinity here signified.
  • 6. Porphyry: Cave of the Nymphs: “The Egyptians represented the Sun and all the daemons as not connected with anything solid or stable, but as elevated on a sailing vessel.”
  • 7. In this way, the Sun and Moon, though always of the same dimension, vary in apparent size and color, owing to accidents of the position of the earth, and the conditions of the spectator's eyesight.
  • 8. Porphyry in his //letter to Anebo//, interrogated him directly about these matters. “For this is said to be seen at the Autopsias,” says he, “and they unwittingly attribute to that divinity a peculiar incident of their own imagination. If, however, these expressions are uttered figuratively, and are symbolic representations of his forces, let them tell the interpretation of the symbols. For it is plain that if they denote the condition of the Sun, as in eclipses, they would be seen by every one who looked toward it intently.”

The Autopsia was the final experience at the Initiatory Rite, when the candidate became an epoptes or Beholder. It was at once a view of one's own interior self and a vision of the Divinity. “Such a one,” says Pindar, “knows the end of life and its sources from God.” Paul the apostle is a little more explicit. “Such a man,” says he, “was rapt into Paradise and heard ineffable things which it is not permitted a man to repeat.” Hence Abammon declines to grant Porphyry's demand.

  • 9. The terms to which this reference is supposed to be made, are such as were enumerated by Alexander Trallianus: “Men, Thren, Mor, Phor, Teux, Za, Zôn, The, Lou, Khri, Gr, Ze, On.” By these words, Trallianus declared, the sun becomes fixed in the heavens. He adds also others: “Iax, Azuph, Zuôn, Threux, Ban, Khôk.” Very likely these as well as the famous Ephesian “spells,” belong to an archaic language, which remained as a dialect of priests after having passed out of common use. The Latin language used in the Roman worship, the Hebrew in the Jewish, and the Sanskrit in the Brahman are analogous examples. Diodoros affirms that a barbarous or foreign dialect was used in the Samothrakian arcane rites. The expression, “Konx om pax,” at the Eleusinia has perplexed scholars for centuries. Mr. Robert Brown, Jr. however, has traced it to the Akkad origin, and shows it to be a profession of the Supreme Truth of existence.

There has always been a “language of priests:” the ancients called it “speech of the gods.” Homer gives us names in that dialect as well as those given by “men.” The monarchs of Egypt and Assyria took divine names in addition to their family designations, and the practice has been followed for many centuries by the Popes of Rome, when taking office, to adopt a saint's name for their official title.
The Mystic Rites were accompaniments of the Sacred language. They were observed in every ancient nation that had a literature, and seem to have been derived from the country of the Euphrates. It was esteemed sacrilegious to divulge them, and the holy name of a divinity was not permitted to be uttered outside the temple. See Exodus xx: 7.

  • 10. In other words, we comprehend first principles by simple intuition.
  • 11. This was called a visible manifestation of divinity. A philosopher remarks: “From the clearness of the mind and the refulgence of divine splendor, the presence of Divinity is perceived at once.
  • 12. As Assyria is the chief Semitic country, the languages of Chaldaea and the Israelites are included under the designation. But whatever his dialect Abammon declares that Man is sacred everywhere. V, xxiv. There is a change of terms, however, in the question from those found in the //Letter of Porphyry to Anebo//, as will he seen by comparing.
  • 13. Proklos considered that there were three classes of divine terms: the principal of which was for the gods themselves: the second was devised for the daemons, and the third was employed by sagacious men in relation to matters of their own devising. The former of these were considered as possessing energy and power.
  • 14. The extraordinary antiquity of the Egyptians and their modes of worship is everywhere recognized. They were an archaic people and were highly civilized when they first became known to other nations.
  • 15. Proklos speaks of these prayers as follows: “The purifying petition is the one which is offered for the purpose of averting diseases of the character of plague, and other contagious: we have such inscribed in the temples.” Porphyry has preserved a petition somewhat like one in the Gospel according to Luke. “O Lord, the Sun and you other divinities, the dispensers of life to human beings, accept me and commend me to the immortal gods as your servant. So long as I have lived I have always worshipped the gods whom my parents taught me should be venerated.”

After the adoption of the Bacchic rites from Asia into Greece, the prayers or hymns to the new divinity were as numerous and almost as diverse as the States. The worshippers were principally women and the Eleans had a shout of which this is a translation:
     ”Come Lord Dionysos, Lord Most High,
     Into thy holy shrine, the shrine ready for thee
     Frenzied, and with feet of ox,
     Bull worthy of our praise, worthy Bull.“
Hero,“ here rendered Lord, and Alioun, Most High, are archaic terms.

  • 16. The term barbarous, used in Greek for alien and foreign, seems to have been formed from the Egyptian term Barbara, the archaic designation of the Egyptian peasantry.