Kings and Messengers

I have been making my way through Jeremy Naydler’s books on ancient Egyptian religion, magic,  and cosmology. His Temple of the Cosmos is a compelling book, but I recognized that Naydler collapses distinctions between Old, Middle, and New Kingdom thought even as he expresses a teleological belief that Egyptian thought “matured” over time into its “fullest” expression in the New Kingdom. It is also a more immediately “mystical” book, as well, and in reading it with magical eyes, I can glimpse some of the more modern magical or theosophical parts Naydler seems like he’s used to think with the Egyptian material. I can’t really fault him in that regard, as I have the same project in general.

In comparison, The Shamanic Wisdom of the Pyramid Texts is by far more academic in its tone and in its nuance. Naydler has a doctorate in religious studies, and Shamanic Wisdom often reads like a doctoral dissertation. He argues that the traditional interpretation of ancient Egyptian religion as being exclusively funerary in orientation is founded on faulty premises. The prevailing view holds that the Egyptians were a “practical,” “primitive,” “materialist” people without “mysticism,” unable to accept the “brute fact of death,” so they envisioned an afterlife little different than that experienced while alive. Naydler situates this orthodox Egyptological perspective in its historiographic context, as a Christian and materialist reaction against earlier eras’ recognition of Egypt’s spiritual, magical, and intellectual prowess while relocating the genesis of European, Western, modern belief to the Greco-Roman world. Naydler reminds readers that the Greeks and Romans historically viewed the Egyptians with awe and reverence for their accomplishments and wisdom, in sharp contrast to early Egyptologists’ infantilization of ancient Egyptians.

Instead, Naydler argues that, in many cases, the Egyptological funerary thesis rests upon almost tortured readings of the Pyramid Texts. Indeed, at times, Naydler hits home with the absurd turns in interpretation that the traditional view must perform to make the texts conform to their readings:

Thus the pharaoh who has “departed alive” is the dead pharaoh and the term living (plural ankhs) is best interpreted as “giving an affirmation about the glorified dead.” But while the Egyptians did use the ankh to refer to the dead, they also used it to refer to the literally living. In accepting possible equivocations in the use of the ankh, we have also to accept that it must sometimes have meant the literally living, or else it would no longer have retained the meaning “living,” and would have always simply meant the dead. In order for a word to be used equivocally, it must sometimes mean what it says. So we cannot be sure whether “the living” in this particular passage are in fact the dead—it depends on our interpretative stance. Likewise, when it comes to the king being alive or dead, it is not clear-cut, for we notice that the ankh (in the singular is contrasted with the word for “dead,” met, and it is explicitly stated that the king has not departed dead (met) but alive (ankh). In this case, it is surely perverse to claim that the king who has “not departed dead” really is dead on the grounds that he is referred to as having “departed alive”! Once again perhaps we should ask ourselves: What if the Egyptians wanted to convey that the pharaoh really was alive, and not dead. How else could they have done it, other than by writing the word alive and explicitly contrasting it with the word dead?[1]

Naydler offers an alternative: the living king is Horus to the departed king’s Osiris, and the living king as part of the lead up to coronation rites must undergo a ritualized “death” experience and vision of the Dwat, Osiris, and the Throne of Osiris. That is, Naydler argues, ancient Egyptian royal practice has far more in common with “shamanic” practices across the world, and Naydler draws on Eliade and other scholars in that regard while also comparing the Egyptian Pyramid Texts to mystery traditions with similar “near death” or “shamanic death” elements in their initiations. The living king becomes Egypt’s “shaman” king who negotiates and navigates the terrains and powers of the Dwat in order to, as in other traditions, bring “the vitalizing energies that are mediated by the dead into the world of the living.”[2] In what Naydler argues is a mystery and initiatory context, this sacred kingship entails the living king becoming empowered by his connection with the dead king(s)—now associated with Osiris as King of the Dwat/Spirit World:

[Osiris] has given his throne to you,
And you give orders to those whose seats are hidden,
You lead their august ones,
And all the spirits follow you.

Naydler argues that, while this passage can be read as saying that the dead king has become “’king of the dead’…the text does not itself say that the king is dead.”[3] I also note, though, that it is all the spirits who follow the king. For Naydler, the living king undergoes this spiritual, mystical, “shamanic” trial and initiation to gain the same authority as the Lord of the Dwat holds.

I want to consider this thesis in relation to spirit dealings within the context of negotiating hierarchies. I think about the Headless Rite (or the “Stele of Jeu the hieroglyphist”) wherein the magician invokes the Headless One:

I summon you, Headless One, who created earth and heaven, who created night and day, / you who created light and darkness; you are Osoronnophris whom none has ever seen…I am the messenger of Pharaoh Osoronnophris…I am the headless daimon…[4]

Betz glosses Osoronnophris as “equivalent to the Egyptian Wsir Wn-nfr, ‘Osiris the Beautiful Being.’”[5] The magician identifies themselves as, in addition to Moses, the messenger of Osiris, King of the Dwat and Lord of Spirits, and “the headless daimon,” where we can consider daimon here as messenger and mediator of Osiris’s power into the world.[6]

None of this is particularly new, but I want to compare this Egyptian and Alexandrian thread to the Solomonic method and legend. Solomon is a king, a royal magician, and he too has a mystical experience that precedes the authority he will ultimately wield over the spirits. Per The Testament of Solomon:

Now when I Solomon heard this, I entered the Temple of God, and prayed with all my soul, night and day, that the demon might be delivered into my hands, and that I might gain authority over him. And it came about through my prayer that grace was given to me from the Lord Sabaoth by Michael his archangel. [He brought me] a little ring, having a seal consisting of an engraved stone, and said to me: “Take, O Solomon, king, son of David, the gift which the Lord God has sent thee, the highest Sabaoth. With it thou shalt lock up all demons of the earth, male and female; and with their help thou shalt build up Jerusalem. [But] thou [must] wear this seal of God. [emphases mine]

Solomon is a king who, as “son of David” and through the action of a divine king with authority over all spirits, gains that authority in the world of the living. Solomon accomplishes this end through extended prayer within a sacred space. In a similar manner, Naydler argues that the living kings in Egypt would go through their own mystical experiences within the pyramids (thus the Pyramid Text) in order to gain the authority of Osiris as Lord of all Spirits.

Now, I want to link these royal authorities with related magical procedures that have been highly conserved for centuries. The Ring of Solomon and his seals and more recur throughout the various versions of the Solomonic method. I think many practitioners have often viewed the consecration and use of these tools and regalia in terms of performing or passing as Solomon and similar spiritual, royal authorities. Where “actual” royals can consecrate and wear gold and jeweled crowns, scepters, and seals, the magician (like a player or actor) prepares—and consecrates—“props” that, performed correctly, constitute a poorer person’s enacting of that authority. (Is it false authority if it accomplishes what actual authority could?) The spirits, hopefully, don’t notice that the magician’s crown and garments are made of parchment rather than gold and silver, and there’s something to argue that the spirits more often perceive our world metaphorically in the first place—as do we their world in turn—so what is to us a metaphorical crown acts as a literal crown to them. Nonetheless, the magician appropriates, usurps, or recreates that royal, spiritual authority.

In comparison, the magician in the Headless Rite identifies themselves as messenger of the king of spirits, and something similar occurs in some versions of Daoism. In offering a brief history of fu craft, Bennebel Wen notes that

Shamans were viewed as messengers between worlds, granted authority from Shang Di, a heavenly emperor, to issue sacred decrees that ordered lesser deities and spirits to carry forth certain instructions, such as vanquishing demons, summoning benevolent spirits to protect the king or malevolent spirits to curse the king’s enemies, or calling upon nature gods to bring rain. The shaman was in effect a messenger granted divine authority by a higher deity, typically Shang Di, to command instructions to a lower spiritual entity.[7]

That is, these “shamans” or Daoist sorcerers were representatives and agents of the crown—or they passed/acted as such. I wonder then whether we might view the priests of ancient Egypt, who facilitated the ceremonies by which the pharaoh himself were initiated but who otherwise probably needed the authority he procured through those rites to act as his courtiers and agents. With that in mind, and given the nature of the far less shamanic-ordeal consecrations for tools like the Ring of Solomon, I wonder if western magicians operating in that mode might instead think of themselves less as becoming Solomon than as becoming Solomon’s agent. The consecrated Ring and Seals may demonstrate to the spirits (or those spirits who recognize Solomon’s and Lord Sabaoth’s authority) that the magician acts in his stead, with his privy seals and signet, as it were.[8]

The Christian tradition has similar logic. With Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and with Christians empowered to have authority over spirits through his authority, Christians can conceivably exercise that authority via exorcism: exorcising spirits away from or into their presence.

Of course, we should consider how does one wield such authority and how does one enact it? If Naydler’s thesis has validity, then the pharaohs had to undergo rites that put them into direct contact with not only their ancestors but also those archetypal powers of authority and rulership that the pharaohs had presumably tapped into back perhaps in the Neolithic period. Having had such an experience, probably involving a ritualized and controlled Near Death Experience with curated spirit contact and entheogens culminating in the experience of “shamanic death” and rebirth, then the pharaoh would quite literally have been to the Dwat and gained the dead king’s/Osiris’s blessing and royal authority. He could then quite literally designate his priests and nobles as his agents, messengers, and heralds in the worlds of the living and the spirits. So, too, in theory, could a divine king pact with a deity for similar authority, delegated to a priesthood, but so could practitioners presumably seek out similar points of contact—and similar ordeals. Ultimately, while most practitioners probably will not have the chance to become “divine kings,” they may be able to find their way into their court as  messengers. And in this sense, especially if one works with spirits of place and their ancestral lines, I think it’s interesting to consider where this line might lead with contexts like Arthuriana and the British Brutus legendarium or the neolithic tombs and circles across Europe or the mounds of the Americas–or her living cities.

Still, remember, a true messenger or headless daimon does not plead or beg or grovel, save perhaps to his headless king.

Featured Image: “Roger II of Sicily receiving his crown directly from Jesus Christ, mosaic from Martorana, Palermo“

[1] Jeremy Naydler, The Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2005), 64-5.

[2] Naydler, 57.

[3] Naydler, 63. The quote comes from Utterance of Pyramid Texts (via R. O. Faulkner’s The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts).

[4] I’m quoting the PGM version: PGM V.96-145 (page 103 in the Betz edition).

[5] Hans Dieter Betz, editor, “Glossary,” in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 337.

[6] I would note that the identification of the magician as Moses—a prophet—points to this messenger role, as well, and it is always interesting to consider the influence ancient Egyptian belief may have had on diasporic Judaism.

[7] Benebell Wen, The Tao of Craft: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2016), 40 (emphases mine).

[8] I wonder whether such logic—that magicians are not claiming Solomon’s power per se but his authority by acting as his messenger—may offer a workaround in the context of Islamic approaches to jinn magic, such as found in Jinn Sorcery.

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