by Ben Best
Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California has an Egyptian Museum. It is the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities on the Pacific Coast. Many comparisons have been made between cryonics culture and Egyptian culture, so I think it may be worthwhile to write a few things about the famed Egyptian quest for immortality through bodily preservation.
It has been said that ancient Egyptian civilization was the greatest "cult of death" humanity has ever known. For 3,000 years (ending with the death of Cleopatra) over half a billion people lived in a culture which emphasized mummification of the body -- and an estimated 50% of those people were actually preserved. Upon assuming office, pharoahs & nobles would immediately begin construction of their own tombs -- the greatest of which were the pyramids.
Why did the Egyptians believe the physical body is so important for an afterlife? Egyptologists speculate that it was because the hot, dry desert sand so effectively removed water and thereby reduced decay of hair, skin and soft parts of the body. Therefore, when early Egyptians saw such well-preserved corpses they felt that the personal identity of the deceased must have been preserved also. The association of preserved familiar features with the living person or animal was so deeply imprinted in the mind that it was easy to imagine that some part of the person was "still there".
It is only human to try to improve upon nature. Egyptian preservation of the body was based upon desiccation, not embalming. The Egyptians used sodium salt mixtures called "Natron" (from "netjeryt", meaning "divine", the origin of the chemical symbol "Na" for sodium) to hasten desiccation of the corpse. Natron is mostly hydrated sodium carbonate with slightly less than 20% sodium bicarbonate, plus smaller amounts of sodium sulphate & sodium chloride. Acidification by sodium bicarbonate inhibited bacterial growth. The drying process was hastened even further by removing the brain and the internal organs of the chest & abdomen -- and then filling these body cavities with Natron. The heart and other internal organs were preserved in special jars (but the brain was simply regarded as a waste material).
The Egyptians observed a 70-day ritual period between death and burial. During 40 of those days the corpse was being desiccated with Natron. After desiccation the bodies were annointed with hot, melted resins which would combine with the Natron salts to produce a brittle glass-like material.
Fifteen days were set aside for the meticulous wrapping of the body
in linen. Each arm, leg, finger & toe (and a male's penis) was carefully
wrapped. Wrapping was done very ritualistically, with the insertion of
annointed amulets ("charms") by priests who chanted or spoke "spells".
In some cases as many as several hundred amulets were wrapped in the
mummy's linen. The most important amulet was the scarab (dung beetle),
because it appeared to the Egyptians that these creatures emerged magically
from dung -- rather than from eggs.
Both the tone of incantation and the exact words of the spells were important. The spells were compiled in a text which the Egyptians called THE BOOK OF COMING FORTH BY DAY, which in modern times was renamed by Egyptologists to THE EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD. The most well-known scenario in the BOOK OF THE DEAD is judgment of the deceased, as pictured in the Papyrus of Ani (a scribe who died around 1275 B.C.). Ani and his wife are on the left, bowing as Ani's heart is weighed against the feather of truth by the jackel-headed Anubis, while Ammit ("Devourer of the Dead") looks on.
Several layers of coffins and encasements could be used to surrounded the mummy, and placing the mummy in each one was also a process involving enormous symbolism and ritual. ("Sarcophagus" is Greek for "flesh-eating", symbolizing the consumption of the body by the encasement.)
Egyptian religion, like most religions, evolved from pantheism. Animal-worship was emphasized in Egyptian pantheism, however, and as gods began to be depicted they were often represented with the head of an animal and the body of a human.
Thoth, the god of science & learning -- and the patron of the scribes -- was depicted as having the head of an ibis. (The ibis is a heron-like bird with a long neck & legs that wades in the marshes of the Nile "inquisitively" searching for food.) The Rosetta stone identified Thoth with the Greek god Hermes. The epithet "great great" (meaning "greatest" in Egyptian) probably led to the phrase "Hermes Trismegistos" (Greek for "thrice-greatest"). Thoth was regarded as the ultimate source of the Greek "Hermetic" writings on occult subjects & theology. Hermeticism influenced many Renaissance thinkers, including Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake in 1600). Not until the 17th century did scholars determine that Hermetical writings were written in the period after 100 A.D., rather than in pre-Christian Egypt.
The Greek scholar Plutarch relates the story of Osiris, a divine man (Pharoah of Egypt) who was was resurrected as a god. Osiris had been killed by his brother and his body hacked into 14 pieces, which were scattered about the land. Isis, the wife of Osiris, collected the pieces and brought him back to life. Osiris became the god of the Underworld, and his resurrection created the possibility of an everlasting life for everyone. Osiris had "paved the way", and others could "follow in his footsteps". Osiris was also regarded as a god of agriculture -- who gave fertility to the crops (which are periodically "born again" or "resurrected").
Osiris was often depicted as a mummy, with his arms crossed on his breast holding a flail in one hand and a crook in the other. Deceased persons faced a "Judgement Day" in the Underworld before Osiris and a "panel" of other gods. The heart of the deceased was weighed on a balance against the "feather of truth" -- and Thoth reported the result to Osiris. If the heart was "heavy with sin" it was thrown to a monster ("the devourer of hearts") and the deceased could not enter into the company of the gods.
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose contains a reconstructed tomb of an Egyptian nobleman. I was able to go on a guided tour of this tomb, which provided very graphic reference for Egyptian beliefs. The entrance to the tomb contains hieroglyphic threats to those who would rob & desecrate.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul is composed of several spiritual entities, known as the "ba", the "ka" and the "akh". The "akh" was a spiritual state attained only after death. The "ka" was most closely associated with the corporal body, although the "ka" could depart the body of a person who was sleeping or in a coma. The "ka" was the "life force", whereas the "ba" contained most of a person's character or personality. Upon death, the "ba" immediately departed the body. It was the "ka" that needed to return to the mummified body at night in order to have a place to sleep & rest. It was the "ka" that needed food, water, and other provisions in the tomb to sustain itself. Grave-robbers who had the pluck to ignore the hieroglyphic threats would take care to destroy the mummy so as to prevent the "ka" from taking avenge. Figures of the deceased in the wall of the tomb could attack robbers too, so these were often systematically obliterated.
The elaborate Egyptian mummification and burial ritual were designed to sustain & strengthen the "ka" so it could undertake the arduous journey to reunite with the "ba" and become an "akh". If the heart of the deceased was not heavy with sin on Judgement Day, the "akh" could pass into a land of eternal youth in the company of family & loved-ones -- a land where the "akh" of the dead lived among gods.
After touring the tomb & the rest of the museum, I visited the Museum Bookstore in search of some literature which might give me a clearer idea of what Rosicrucianism (AMORC) is all about. I think the most promising books in this regard are ROSICRUCIAN QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH A COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ORDER by H. Spencer Lewis and COSMIC MISSION FULFILLED (a biography of H. Spencer Lewis) by Ralph M. Lewis. I purchased & read the latter.
Although many modern Rosicrucians claim that their Order ("secret society") has had some kind of continuous existence for three-and-a-half Millenia, skeptical historians date Rosicrucianism from on, or slightly before, publication of the book FAMA FRATERNATIS in 1614 in Germany. This book depicts the journey to the Middle East of a mythical figure named Christian Rosenkreuz ("Rosy Cross"), who purportedly was initiated into the mysteries and who returned to Germany to found the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross in the 1400s. The book has a Hermetic-Cabalist-alchemist view which emphasizes the power humans can unleash from the "vital properties" of rocks & plants. The book made an appeal to the "learned and great of Europe" to join the Rosicrucian Order.
FAMA was probably written by a Lutheran deacon named Johann Andrea (whose family arms contained a rosy cross), but AMORC members claim that Sir Francis Bacon was the author. Bacon purportedly directed Rosicrucian activities in the early 17th century, but more likely Rosicrucian organizations did not come into existence until the 18th century -- in England, Germany, France and Russia. In 1909 the American H. Spencer Lewis was initiated ("Crossed the Threshold") into the Order Rosae Crucis near Toulouse, France. In 1915, he founded a branch of the Order in the United States, under the name Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (A.M.O.R.C.). Lewis was an advertising man who had a talent for simplifying occult ideas and packaging them with self-improvement techniques.
Lewis was something of a technophile, and in the early 1920s he introduced the novelty of a Sunday morning nonsectarian religious radio broadcast in San Francisco. In the early 1930s he was inspired by the demonstration in Munich, Germany of a new Zeiss instrument which projected a representation of the heavens on a domed ceiling. Under his direction, the first American-built planetarium was constructed for Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California. The planetarium was also unique insofar as it presented pre-Copernican (ancient Egyptian) astronomy, as well as the Copernican view.
The symbol of the Rosy Cross predates Christianity. For Rosicrucians the cross symbolizes the human body, and the rose represents the individual's unfolding of consciousness. For the Egyptians, the rose was a symbol of rebirth. For Zoroastrians, the rose was identified with the sun, the central element of their worship. For alchemists, the cross represented the four elements. The rose & cross occur in the symbolism of the Jewish Cabala. The seal of Martin Luther depicts a cross in the center of an open rose blossom. I have also heard the implication that the rose & cross represent the female & male genitals, although it is difficult to imagine this kind of symbolism being in the conscious awareness of so many pious religious people.
Rosicrucianism is based on a "mystical search for truth" which is non-sectarian -- independent of formal religion. Concerning religion, however, H. Spencer Lewis makes the statement, "Persons, however, who have no belief in the existence of God have a very weak foundation for the study of mysticism. It is better that they gradually become convinced of the existence of God through the church before joining our organization. However, if the individual does have a belief in God, the Order can start at that point and gradually develop in him a closer contact and communion with God and with all the divine principles and cosmic forces of nature."
Lewis regarded "Cosmic consciousness" as the pinnacle of mysticism -- a vision of a Transcendent Absolute that unites God with all persons. Lewis also firmly believed that reincarnation is essential for human justice, but he never required that AMORC members believe in reincarnation.
Rosicrucianism entails meditation & an "experiential learning" emphasis that reminds me of self-help seminars like EST. The emphasis on initiation as a basis of learning is the strongest connection to the ancient mystery religions (which began with Thutmose III in the 15th century B.C.). The Greek philosophers Thales & Pythagoras traveled to Egypt for initiation into the mystery schools. The Greek biographer Plutarch was an initiate of the Osirian mysteries. The Orphic & Eleusinian mystery religions of Greece undoubtedly were inspired by the Egyptian ones. The mysteries of Isis were celebrated in secrecy in Rome.
Rosicrucianism's connection with Egyptian beliefs is entirely associated with the initiation rites of the mystery religions -- and entirely dissociated with the Egyptian quest for immortality through preservation of the body. In fact, Rosicrucian tradition denies that the pyramids were built as tombs -- asserting that the pyramids were actually "places of study and mystical initiation".
In ancient Egypt the Temples were not open to the public. Only priests had access to the inner halls, and one's level of initiation governed access to the most sacred places. Priests came in contact with the "laity" primarily in connection with mummification & burial rituals -- or as physician priests. The temple initiations involved ritual use of "magic", music, symbolism, painting/drawing, incense, fire, etc., in the context of dramatic enactments of significant events or truths.
Initiation can be an emotionally impactful means of learning. When I was a student at the University of British Columbia I became fascinated with the history & ideas of Initiation. I studied the history of Freemasonry & other secret societies. Organizations that use initiations are secret societies almost by necessity, because surprise -- and the anticipation in wondering what will happen next -- can add much to the emotional impactfulness of the experience. I designed & executed/administered the Initiation for my college fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi. I went so far as to include an homage to the Sun God Ra (Re) from the EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.
Even secular society invariably ritualizes marriages & funerals. Secret societies ritualize passage from one "Degree" of learning to a higher one, with Initiation. (Freemasons have a degree known as the Rose Croix).
The Rosicrucians have developed a home study program which includes initiation ceremonies that the student performs at home. The student has the option of receiving more elaborate rites for the same initiations at a Rosicrucian Lodge in his/her region. The home-study lessons involve exercises & "experiments" aimed at awakening mystical consciousness, which purportedly facilitate more harmonious relationships, and increase self-mastery. I have not participated in this program, and have no intention of doing so in the near future.
Those interested in learning more about the Rosicrucian Order can phone (408) 947-3600 or write:
Rosicrucian Order, AMORC 1342 Naglee Avenue San Jose, California 95191 USA