I have long been fascinated by the Egyptian myths. They exist today in very truncated form, and my understanding of them is certainly tainted, at best, by modern constructs and philosophies, religious and otherwise (as well as by the haphazard nature of my study—I’m pretty sure I could study this stuff for the rest of my life and only understand in a flawed, inaccurate way a tiny percentage of what the mythology had to teach). The central myth of the Egyptian religion was that of Isis and Osiris. Osiris was a resurrected divinity who was killed by a greedy divinity and reanimated by Isis’s love and went on to become king of the afterlife. It was a death and resurrection myth, as would one might expect from a religion that completely focused on the resurrection of the dead.
According to the Egyptian religion, souls were tested and weighed after death to see if they had anything in them that was immortal. (The entire Book of the Dead was a sort of cheat sheet for the test, letting Egyptians know what they would face in the underworld, and what to do and say at each juncture of the test.) I have been unable to ascertain precisely what the tests were, but I know that there were twelve of them, and each phase of the test involved being allowed to enter a great hall. Two deities and a serpent stood at the gates to the hall. If souls failed to recognize and name the deities and serpent when they met them, they failed that phase of the test. If they got the names right, they were allowed to pass into that great hall, and undergo whatever horrific tests the hall had to offer, so they could pass onto the next phase of the test, meet more deities, name them, be tested, and on and on until they finally came to the Great Hall of Osiris for final judgement.
If they passed all phases of the excruciatingly difficult test, they were allowed to pass into the Egyptian version of paradise, ruled over by the glorious, beneficent Osiris. If they didn’t, they were fed to the soul swallower and completely destroyed. (Other instances of the soul having to pass through a fire to become immortal survive in the Egyptian mythology.)
Those that didn’t pass the test were greedly, loveless, hateful, lowbrow beings, entirely attached to the mortal world and driven by mortal longings. They were incapable of introspection and unable to recognize sacred things when they met them. Instead, they saw sacred forms only as tools to manipulate and use for temporal gain.
I wonder if this myth isn’t more accurate than some of our modern religious forms, which seem to point to immortality/salvation being achieved by meaningless rituals, without addressing in any way the true “cancers” that plague human souls. Cheap salvation doesn’t seem to me like it does much except make people arrogant. (I signed up with the right religion, so now I’m better than you. My entire life is still a lie, but the pretty varnish is all I really needed to be “saved.”)
To me, salvation is a much more complex, hard-won thing. If you live in perpetual torment, that is what you need to be saved from, and salvation is when that perpetual torment is healed and gives way to true peace. Heaven and hell are states the human soul exists in, whether in this world or another. You don’t change the state of your soul by slapping religious Band-Aids on it. At least, that’s never worked for me.
I resonate with the idea of the fire burning away things that kill us and leaving us truly whole, “saved” as it were. Because for me, that is truly the process I have gone through. Any authentic, long-lasting peace and healing I have found has been inspired and aided by God, yes, but involved an incredible amount of introspection, courage, humility, pain, and work on my part. I wonder if these Egyptian metaphors can be viewed as metaphors not only for the process one goes through after death, but the process one goes through during life.
I was pondering these myths while I hiked this morning, and when I came home, this poem came out. In it, I take the persona of Isis addressing souls who have failed to recognize her, and to revere the sacred power and profound meaning of immortal magic, attempting to use it for mortal, personal gain. I address the fire each of us must fall into/walk through to achieve lasting peace.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THOSE SNAKES YOU STOLE
You took them because their scales glittered
like jewels in the sun.
They were beautiful to behold, and when they hissed,
they kissed your mouth softly,
the most attentive of suitors.
You knew they would bring lovers to your bed.
You saw that when they coiled around my arms
they became wings
made me sing and fly,
and you said, “I want to touch the sky.”
Why wouldn’t you,
brown, bland, bloated things?
Why wouldn’t you want a shot at fame?
So you came in the night
and took them.
They writhed and screamed.
I cried then died.
(They were my heart.)
You kissed their lips.
My snakes bit.
You got what you were after
a trailer trash kingdom
a battalion of bloated lovers
wings to soar above the other mediocre things
hear them call you King for a Day.
What I didn’t say (or tried, but you bound me, gagged me, beat me, left me for dead):
THE FINE PRINT
Those snakes of mine
were resurrection reptiles.
The magic they bequeath is unbreakable,
It sparkles, it sings, it flings the bitten one
into the abyss of death,
and if there is anything in him worth saving
it resurrects a god.
It is the fire of Isis, and it burns.
While your bloated selves gloated,
the mortal me turned to ash.
The divine one fought back,
scrapped her way out of hell
Having done their work
my snakes leave you and return to me,
their fully realized mother.
We three will fly for eternity.
And now it’s time for my true magic to take its course.
Flames flicker to life.
licking at the corners of your mediocre minds
urging you to find something inside to save you.
I will not pray for you.
I will only say,
“May the Mother’s will be done.”
If there is one shred of you that is worthy
of rising into the sun
may it soar.
I would be surprised if you possess a fleck of immortality,
but that judgement is not up to me.
My feathered snakes and I sing and fly.
My Mother’s flames dance behind your startled eyes