We’re gonna take a little ride on the Solar Boat
Bring your scepter, bring your thunderbolt
We’ll see the eye in the canopy, the morning star
The edge of the void, it’s not too far…
Fascinated by the vivid colour, complexity and power of the ancient Egyptian bardo, as depicted on papyrus and stone, I did further research into this lost world. My most astonishing revelation was that the Egyptian paradise was not a fixed location but had undergone a radical transformation over the course of history.
Since Pharaoh is the Son of God, his exalted status must be recognized in the afterlife as in life. Instead of toiling with the peasants in the Field of Reeds, surely a more fitting destination is the abode of the Gods in the Stellar Realms. Of course he needs a suitable mode of transport and the most magnificent vehicle in existence is the barque of the Sun God Ra, who sails it every day on a round trip through the known universe.
Every morning the priests emerge into the chilly dawn and beseech the Lord Ra to shine the light of his countenance upon us. Ra duly obliges, summoning up his divine crew and setting out from the eastern horizon on his daily circumnavigation, under the protection of Nut the sky goddess. Maat the Goddess of Law and Order, who holds the world in balance (3000 years of strong and stable government!), keeps a steady hand on the tiller. Contrary to human perception, it is not all plain sailing. How boring would the drama be if the sun just rose and set, day in day out, with no conflict 🙂
Ra delegates the navigation so that he can charge out to do battle with his great enemy the serpent Apep. Ra is a shape-shifter, taking different forms at different stages of the celestial journey, and to fight the Serpent – (Spoiler alert: he always wins) – he takes the form of the Cat Mau (whose sacred Name all cats invoke daily, apart from Siamese cats who invoke Ra directly). The solar boat then moves on, sailing serenely, majestically, through the heavens, in an eternal cycle.
The embarkation point for the solar boat is the Field of Reeds itself, located on the eastern horizon, so the solution presents itself quite clearly: “ Your Majesty, how would you like to accompany the Lord Ra, your esteemed God Father, on his voyage through the Heavens?”
May my soul come forth to walk wherever it pleases…
May a place be made for me in the solar boat on the day when the God sails forth;
May I be received in the presence of Osiris in the land of truth of voice.
And so it happened that the aspirational reward for the Egyptian afterlife changed from an agrarian/democratic model of working communally in the Field of Reeds to an aristocratic/elitist vision of a cruise in the company of Gods in the Solar Boat. Originally the solar boat was reserved for Pharaoh alone but soon expanded to include favoured others: naturally his favourite wife, of course the chief priests, then the bravest generals and noblest courtiers, eventually open to all brave and virtuous souls who passed the tests. Maybe the two destinations ran parallel for a while or settled into an upstairs:downstairs model of the afterlife.
Talk about paradigm shift … Just imagine. One moment you’re chilling on the terrace of your riverside villa, playing senet with your mates. In the distance your shabtis are ploughing your fields while from the kitchen waft aromas of tonight’s roast beef. A household slave glides up with more cocktails. You’re feeling content, even smug – if this is eternal life, give me more of it.
Then you spot a new arrival, an old friend. “Hey, Mhotep, what’s up? Welcome to Paradise!” Mhotep’s face falls, and so does yours when he tells you why. All the cool kids have rejected this fine Field of Reeds. #notmyheaven Instead they are roaring off to OuterSpace in the Starship of the Gods. Suddenly you’re the ones left behind, feeling a bit flat.
If you can imagine yourself as a child, you can partly recapture that view of the sun as the single largest object, the greatest power and majesty in the whole universe. Riding with Ra in his chariot was equivalent to sitting with Jesus at high table as the highest honour possible, reserved for the favoured few. Another bonus was that it offered an escape from the Stygian gloom of the underworld, leaving the shades far below and ascending in glory to the dazzling colours of the upper world, soaring high and gaining a hawk’s eye view from the midday meridian at which Ra himself assumes his hawk-headed form: Ra-Horakhty.
If you could get together a group of your closest family and dearest friends, would you not sign up for a trip in the solar boat – the biggest, coolest ferris wheel ever? Nowadays of course we know our Sun, however magnificent, is only one among billions of stars and not even a biggie. Today’s equivalent voyage would be a round-the-universe tour in a starship, sailing past new planets, like watching Star Trek in 3D but better. Yet such a journey is almost too overwhelmingly vast and lonely to contemplate, and perhaps we could be content to simply revolve on the great wheel of the sun.
Three years ago, this book was inspired by an exhibition of ancient Egyptian art at the British Museum. This week we went to another brilliant exhibition there on Faith After the Pharaohs, which I would urge anyone interested in the history of religion to visit. After the defeat and death of the last Ptolemy Cleopatra, Egypt was absorbed as a province of the Roman empire. It therefore declined as a political power, but its art and spirituality continued to flourish. All three monotheistic religions co-existed in Egypt, not always peacefully but challenging and inspiring each other into new syncretisms. Egyptian temples were rededicated to Roman Gods, reconstructed as churches, adapted into mosques. Gods changed their names, dress, iconography.
Here is the Egyptian God Horus wearing a toga and battle dress: reinvented as a hawk-headed Roman Emperor; perhaps now representing a divine incarnation of the Aquila, the eagle standard of the Roman legions.
Daniel, adopted by the Romans as a hero, raises his hands in prayer, while guarded by the Egyptian-style lions he has vanquished.
Ankhs — Egyptian symbols of eternal life — morph into “handled crosses” (crux ansata) until they finally settle into the standard model Coptic cross.
As in art, so in song. You are listening to Psalm 104, clearly inspired by the Great Hymn to the Aten (discovered as an inscription in Amarna, formerly Akhetaten the “City of the Sun” in Egypt). The sublime Hymn to the Aten was composed by Akhnaten (Pharaoh and first prophet of monotheism); it was then adapted into a Psalm of David, and later still into an Anglican Song of Praise. Thus animistic sun worship segues seamlessly into the metaphor of monotheism.
It’s worth remembering that Akhnaten himself was doubly a Son of God in his own lifetime: biological son of the Pharaoh (incarnation of Amun); spiritual son of the Aten: the Sun behind the Sun, the emptiness that gives rise to the forms of all the Gods we worship including the Sun God Ra and mighty Amun (still remembered at the end of prayers in the Jewish and Christian “amen”, the Islamic “amin”).
Thou appearest in splendour on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aten, creator of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, radiant, and high over every land;
Thy rays embrace the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
Being Ra, thou reachest their limit;
Thou subduest them for thy beloved Son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.
(from Great Hymn to the Aten)
Art and poetry illuminate the fluid structure of “reality” on the material and spiritual planes. I also discovered that Egyptian eschatology was in line with Late Bronze Age developments: the upward mobility of the afterlife-as-reward from an underworld or exalted “middle world” address to an “upper world”/ stellar/ heavenly location. Yet our own maps of the bardo realms have not changed much in the last millennium, and seem flat, even dull compared to our multidimensional model of the cosmos in all its quantum quirkiness and infinite mystery. It is a long time since the further shore has been visited by mortals and if anything the maps have become more nebulous, the outlines less defined with the fading and fragmenting of ancient certainties. Detailed descriptions of clouds and palaces have been replaced with emotional but vague promises of reunion “in a better place”.
So what is truth?
I decided it could be interesting to investigate the bardo realms imaginatively and philosophically, with an open-minded but rigorous approach. My mission was to boldly go and explore strange new worlds in order to enable the (re)mapping of the terrain. I’m not a neophyte, indeed have form in the field of eschatology. I had already studied the wealth of data available from personal accounts and clinical research on near-death experiences and past-life regressions. I’d also had direct experiences, which I had integrated into a more systematic understanding through both scientific and spiritual training. I was now ready to embark on my own voyage of discovery.
Fair winds and following seas