Ancient Egypt and / or Thelema?

“Powerslave” (Powerslave, 1984) famously tells the story of a pharaoh who encounters immortality, yet not in the way he may have envisioned it, but as a cursed mummy. What may look like a story written by Monty Python raises some questions when given a closer look. I argue that “Powerslave” is not only coined by Ancient Egyptian mythology, but also transports ideas of Thelema, the esoteric movement and religion founded by Aleister Crowley (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thelema). I think this is hardly coincidence, as Crowley is no other than the main character of the film Chemical Wedding (2008), penned by the same person who wrote the song: Bruce Dickinson.

Ancient Egypt: Immortality and the Cult of Osiris

Dickinson sends us in FC magazine #117 on the track of the cult of Osiris when talking about his inspirations for this song. (p. 31 ) The cult of Osiris is basically responsible for introducing the idea of life after death to Ancient Egypt. Whereas the forerunning cult, a religion based on the sun god, made immortality only available to nobility, Osiris opened up this option for everyone. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm) This shift of paradigm is simply based on different mythological stories. In the first scenario, the pharaoh is the son of the sun god and thus rises up after death to join his heavenly father. The second myth, however, is woven around the resurrection of Osiris himself, and his believers can evoke the same upon them by the means of magical imitation. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris).

To make sure that eternity does not fail, the body of the deceased had to undergo an imitation process of what happened to Osiris (I will come to this in a second) and had to be accompanied by the objects necessary to reach the hall of judgement safely, where Osiris would weigh the heart, the seat of intelligence, against a feather on a scale. Only when heart and feather had the same weight, the soul was free to go. Otherwise, you were fed to something between a crocodile, hippopotamus, and a lion. But this scenario required one more thing: constant care-taking of the tomb. In fact, in direct contrast to public myth, Egyptian grave inscriptions encouraged visits of the tomb as long as the intentions of the visitors were good, instead of threatening a curse. In case the visitors’ intentions were not so good, such as grave robbery, they would merely be warned that this may lead to a tipping of their scales in the hall of judgement. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm#) Despite all that was ever said about the tragic events following the opening of the grave of Tutankhamun (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutankhamun), Egyptian tombs were not inscribed with a curse. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm#) This is the first mistake we will find in the song, as the song basically hinges on this myth. You may say that the pharaoh becomes a ghost that lives in the mummy, instead of being a revived mummy, but I still argue that the threat of attack when opening the tomb harks back to this myth. A myth that does not exist and is thus not based on the cult of Osiris.

I said that the mummification process was meant to imitate what happened to Osiris, so, what happened to Osiris? Osiris was killed by his son Set, who dissembled the body and threw it into the Nile. There are many different versions of this myth, but the most common seems to be that he tricked Osiris into a box and threw it into the Nile. Accounts of when and where the body was dissembled vary, too. In some versions, he is killed twice and rises twice. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm# and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris) This is what we see in the song – Osiris has more than one resurrection. Osiris’s sister and wife Isis looked for the body parts and reassembled them at least once, binding them together with linen – this is where the imitation comes in. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm#) The body has to be taken apart and be covered in linen in order to qualify for a mummy. But in the end it is his other son Horus who restores the vitality of Osiris. Here, too, the details of the myth vary. Set battles Horus and in the process destroys or steals one of Horus’s eyes. Horus, however, is given back his eye by another deity, often Toth, and in turn gives it to his father to revive him. This is the story behind the famous Eye of Horus, a painting of a left eye with distinctive lines which is said to have magical qualities until this very day. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Horus) This may explain why you find so many references to tattooes when you google it. It looks like this:

Model Throw stick fragment, eye MET 23.3.82 EGDP010801
Model Throw stick fragment, eye (MET, 23.3.82), circa 1479 –1458 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.
Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

The Eye of Horus also covered sarcophagus’ of pharaohs. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Horus) And it is of course in the very first line of the song. But, it also appears elsewhere: the autohagiography of Crowley as one of the symbols of the magical cult Golden Dawn he has used for his own magical teaching. Here, the Eye of Horus is centred in a flaming pyramid. Crowley’s links to Ancient Egyptian deities are well-recorded. I will come to this later. See the new Eye of Horus here.

The Song Part 1

So now let’s have a look at the song under the lens of the cult of Osiris. What I find odd is that our pharaoh-narrator is afraid of dying. He shouldn’t be. The cult of Osiris promised eternal life to everyone, first and foremost the pharaoh. That is what the cult is about. If you think by now that all of this may smell a bit of Christianity, we will come to this in a second. What is important here is that the pharaoh should not doubt his right to live on. But, instead, he says exactly the opposite in the chorus.

The next problem is that our pharaoh does not rise. Not like he is meant to. He does not walk to the hall of justice to see what happens with his heart on a scale. He returns as a ghost, something which is much more common in the Western tradition, from Hamlet (1604) to Ghostbusters (1984), than traditionally associated with Ancient Egypt.

But there is a much bigger stumbling block reminding me of Western culture: the reference to blood and wine. It is believed that in Ancient Egypt red wine was meant to represent the blood of gods. It usually refers to the god Shezmu, who is the God of perfume and wine, but also murder and disfiguration. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shezmu) The combination of blood and wine represents the two sides of his character, merry making and killing. But, it does not really fit in that our narrator wants the blood of the next-in-line. Here, too, the song does not make much sense when interpreted in the context of Ancient Egyptian mythology.

I find this reference to blood and wine very striking, and it looks out of context to me. Together with a resurrected man and god, this points definitely to Christianity, to Jesus, the last supper, and his resurrection. During the last supper, Jesus told his disciples that the wine they were drinking stands for his blood, which would be shed soon on the cross. Jesus rises three days after his crucifixion. (see the four gospels in the New Testament: John, Luke, Mark, Matthew) This one line feels off and out of place in a song referencing the myth of old Egypt and inclines that we are not (only) looking at the resurrection of Osiris.

Crowley’s Teachings

Crowley had a supernatural encounter with an ancient Egyptian deity while in Egypt. One day in 1904, when he practised invocations of Ancient Egyptian deities in Cairo, his first wife Rose Edith Kelly started to murmur in an altered state of mind. During a later trance she would tell him that it was none other than Horus who wanted to get in touch with him. When they visited a museum, his wife led him unknowingly to an artwork depicting a high priest of Horus, which was catalogued as 666. (Mistlberger, 109) I kid you not. Crowley described himself as “666” and “the Beast.” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley) I still wonder if it is coincidence that all of this 666 / Beast – stuff started once Dickinson had joined the band… Back in Egypt in 1904, Crowley was then told that the voice heard by his wife belonged to Aiwass, a long deceased person and former embodiment of Horus. Long story short, Crowley was dictated The Book of the Law. (Mistlberger, 109-110)

So it is little surprising that Crowley explains his understanding of the fate of the world, so to say, with Egyptian deities. Crowley divides time into aeons. He called the first aeon Isis, the aeon coined by matriarchal religions. This makes indeed a lot of sense, as I have not told you yet that Isis reigned for some time alone before Osiris was murdered. (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm#) The second aeon was coined by Osiris and thus by religions dominated by male entities coined by self-sacrifice and resurrection, which is a badly disguised description of Christianity in my book. This, too, makes a lot of sense as it complies with the cult of Osiris, coined by resurrection and life after death. The moment of self-sacrifice, however, remains restricted to Christianity. Crowley considered this outdated and hoped for the next aeon, the aeon of Horus, the child god. This aeon should be coined by enlightenment of the individual. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeon_(Thelema))

What brought me on this track is indeed the Eye of Horus in combination with the abyss. You may remember the abyss from the film Chemical Wedding when Crowley, who has taken over the body of a professor of English literature, explains that Prof Haddo was not here any more. He was somewhere else. The abyss. We also encounter the abyss in “The Magician” (Accident of Birth, 1997). As this song of Dickinson talks about climbing a mountain and Crowley was a known mountaineer (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley), it is safe to assume that the song is about Crowley, too. That is why this weird combination of Eye of Horus and abyss got my attention.

Just for the record, in Ancient Egypt the abyss was represented by the deity Nu or Nun. He represents a realm filled with water. It gave birth to sun god Ra, who in turn would create the universe. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nu_(mythology)) But Nu is linked to the creation of life, not the end of it. What we encounter in the song, however, is death, not creation.

For Crowley, the abyss represents a “realm” which must be traversed by everyone who seeks enlightenment. The seeker has to

cross a divide in which we are, effectively, stripped of everything – of all attachments and identifications.

P. T. Mistlberger. The Three Dangerous Magi, Osho, Guardjieff, Crowley, 157.

This is necessary to find one’s True Will, a will that aligns with the universe and is, indeed, without any personal ambition and desire. (cf. Miltenberger, 100) Someone who falls into the abyss, however, is far from crossing it. I hope we agree that falling into the abyss makes little sense in the context of Nu and Ancient Egyptian mythology. In the context of Crowley’s teachings, however, we are talking about a Black Brother. The Black Brother

is best understood as a failure of commitment, to not pursue things to the end.

P. T. Mistlberger. The Three Dangerous Magi, Osho, Guardjieff, Crowley, 123.

In other words, it refers to an adept who fails to transfer the abyss. (Mistlberger, 455) It is someone who gets a relatively high level of self-development, but fails to relinquish the ego. (Mistlberger, 580) Instead, he takes advantage of others to feed his ego even more. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thelema)

What’s more, Crowley taught a certain “can do” attitude. The adept should be brave to be a master, because everything else leads to slavery. Fear makes you a slave. (Mistlberger, 113) And, in the end, this is what the song truly is about: the fear of dying.

The Song Part 2

Crowley says that it is the fear of potential dying that makes you a slave, in the rough meaning of “When I leave the house I may be hit by a bus, so I’d rather stay at home.” But in the song, our pharaoh seems to be at the brink of death. Still, the wording of the chorus seems to describe this kind of slavery quite well, too.

What interests me is the double meaning of the man and god. For Crowley, the aeon of Osiris encompasses Christianity and Jesus. He is a man / god and as said before, the reference to blood and wine points to him. I wonder if the successor here is not another pharaoh, but another aeon. The aeon of Horus. Probably the man / god associated with blood and wine stands for the aeon of Osiris, and his successor is thus the next stage of humanity. The problem here is that Horus was not meant to die, which is in direct contradiction with the following line. Or is this just a furious Osiris who does not want to part with his reign and thus claims that his successor is mortal, too? From what I understand, the aeon of Horus is not meant to last forever. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeon_(Thelema)) Are we only looking at pharaohs who will success each other or at deities representing aeons?

If this was, indeed, the aeon of Osiris, there should be a resurrection at the horizon. But our pharaoh does not believe in it. He is afraid. So, after all, he is a slave of the fear Crowley described. He lacks the faith necessary in religion, be it Ancient Egyptian mythology or Christianity; he lacks the faith that he will be given eternal life. Instead of an immortal deity walking to the hall of justice, he becomes a ghost. He only reaches immortality half-way. In this way, he is like one of those adepts who have not reached the final stage. Who become Black Brothers. And thus drop into the abyss.

Sources

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