Shamanism and Ancient Egypt
In considering the relationships between Plato, shamanism and ancient Egypt, I am going to be questioning some deep-seated assumptions held both within Egyptology and in the history of ideas, which also extend to our current understanding of the western esoteric tradition. I believe these assumptions need to be questioned because the relationships of Plato, shamanism and ancient Egypt to each other are far more intimate and profound than one might at first suppose. By understanding the nature of these relationships, it may become possible to gain further insight not only into Platonism but also into that deep current of thought and spiritual practice known as the Hermetic tradition.
First of all, let me say that by ‘shamanism’ I mean a form of mysticism and mystical experience, typical of archaic spirituality. While of course shamanism may be approached as a sociological phenomenon of tribal societies, its specifically religious dimension is what concerns me here. Understood in this religious sense, not only is there a great deal in common between shamanism and ancient Egyptian religion, but a shamanic element could be said to be absolutely intrinsic to Egyptian religion.
For example, if we look carefully at the wide-spread experience of dismemberment in shamanic initiation rituals and then reflect on the Egyptian myth of Osiris’s dismemberment and reconstitution, we would be blind not to see the striking parallels between them, and foolish to deny their significance. The same goes for the journey of the soul through the underworld (the Egyptian Dwat) which we meet both in the shamanic literature and in so many ancient Egyptian texts. Likewise, the imagery of the soul’s ascent to the sky by, for, example, transforming into a bird or climbing a ladder, is both intrinsic to shamanic initiatory rites and also prevalent in sacred texts from all periods of Egyptian history.
Scythia and the Origins of Shamanism
In 1951, E. R. Dodds published a groundbreaking study of the ancient Greeks, The Greeks and the lrrational, in which he argued, amongst other things, that there was an influx of shamanic influences into the Greek world during the seventh and sixth centuries BC.
He believed that the source of these influences was to be found in the northern tribes of Scythia (to the west of the Black Sea) and Thrace, which themselves had come under the influence of the shamanic culture of Siberian tribes much further north.
His reasoning was that, during the seventh and sixth centuries, Greek colonies were being established and beginning to flourish all around the Black Sea. It was at this time that stories began to appeal of seers, magical healers and religious teachers all exhibiting shamanic traits, and all linked with the north. So, for example, out of the north came Abaris, riding on an arrow as did the Buryat shamans of Siberia. The arrow, it seems, was the Buryat equivalent of the witches’ broomstick.
Abaris was supposed to be so advanced in the art of fasting that he didn’t need to eat at all. He was also able to predict earthquakes and banish pestilences, and he taught the Greeks to worship a northern god, whom they called the Hyperborean Apollo.
Dodds also refers to a poem by a Greek devotee of this Hyperborean Apollo, named Aristeas, which relates how he (Aristeas) made a fantastical journey into the north that has clear shamanic features. Aristeas himself was credited with powers of trance, and his soul, in the form of a bird, was able to leave his body at will. This same ability to practise out-of-the-body flight was also attributed to another Greek called Hermotimos, from the Ionian city of Clazomenae (now Klazumen in Turkey).
According to Dodds, the opening up of the Black sea to Greek trade and colonization provided the crucial opening to the exotic shamanic culture of the north.
It led to a new conception of the human soul and of the soul’s capacities amongst the Greeks, which was then taken up in Orphism (Greek legend associated Orpheus with Thrace) and Pythagoreanism (later tradition, Dodds points out, brought Pythagoras into contact with Abaris). For Dodds, Pythagoras was a Greek ‘shaman’ type, and his practices and teachings were subsequently given philosophical formulation by Plato. As Dodds puts it: ‘Plato in effect cross-fertilised the tradition of Greek rationalism with magico-religious ideas whose remoter origins belong to the northern shamanistic culture.’
The Shamanic view of the Soul as Disembodied
Dodds pointed out that in the literature of shamanism we meet a quite different way of thinking about the soul. The shaman’s practice depended on an inner concentration of psychic energies, such that the forces of the soul, normally distributed throughout the psycho-physical organism, were gathered into a unity. It was then possible to experience the soul as an entity in its own right, quite independently of the body.
This was the basis of out-of-body flight or astral projection which, as we have seen, was practised by Abaris, Aristeas and Hermotimos. Far from being a vaporous image or eidolon, the soul was for these people a substantive reality and it was rather the body that was considered ephemeral and ultimately insubstantial. According to Dodds, this view, based on the spiritual practices of the northern shamans, was then taken up in Orphism and Pythagoreanism, where we meet the new formulation: the body is the ‘prisonhouse’ of the soul, or even its ‘tomb’.
This view of the soul implies a quite different relationship to the realm of spirit, which is apprehended no longer as the shadowy half-reality of eidola – phantoms or ghosts – but as a realm more real than the world of physical existence.
The central doctrine of Platonism, inherited from the Orphics and Plthagoreans, that soul or psuche is a reluctant prisoner of the body and is essentially divine, in contrast to the body’s transitory and corruptible nature, is the expression of a sensibility very different from that of Homer. It has been perceived as so ‘un-Greek’ that it was famously called by the German classicist Erwin Rhode ‘a drop of alien blood in the veins of the Greeks’.
Since for Dodds the source of this ‘drop of alien blood’ was in the shamanic cultures of the north, he naturally concluded that Platonism arose out of the Greeks’ contacts with the Thracians and Scythians during the late seventh and early sixth centuries. These ideas were then elaborated and developed in the milieu of the Orphic and Pythagorean religious communities that were later established in southern Italy and Sicily, communities with which Plato would subsequently come into contact. But while Dodds undoubtedly felt that he had satisfactorily answered the question as to the source of this ‘drop of alien blood’, there are factors that may cause us to think otherwise.
The Ba and the body: the Egyptian understanding of the separated Soul
When people talk about the ancient Egyptian understanding of the soul, this esoteric psychology is treated as if it were what everyone thought, but it was essentially a priestly teaching. The teaching was that the ba only comes into its own when the body is inactive and inert, which is usually either when the person is asleep or else dead.
In exceptional circumstances, the person could also be in a trance state, neither asleep nor dead. The central requirement was that the psycho-physical organism be stilled. The heart, belly and limbs must all be stilled, and thereby the soul-forces, normally distributed throughout the internal organs and limbs, could be gathered into a unity and concentrated into the form of the winged ba. If this occurred in a trance, then the person entered an enhanced state of consciousness in which their ba, as a concentration of soul-forces, was experienced as existing independently of the body.
Ancient Egyptian texts suggest that the ba needed to see the body inert in order to know itself as independent of it: the ba actually defined itself over against the body. And then it knew that whereas the body is subject to death and decay, the ba itself is not, but can exist separately from the body.
Ba is often better translated as ‘manifestation’ than ‘soul’ for it is a term applied to the manifestation of the gods in their perceptible forms: for instance, all sacred animals were seen as the ba of a deity, just as the wind was the ba of the air god Shu and the visible sun the ba of the sun god Ra.
What is portrayed here (Figure 2) is a dualism between body and soul that is only experienced in exceptional circumstances. It is nothing to do with normal daily experience. The key element here is that the soul in its form of the ba is liberated from the body, and thereby knows itself as an entity that has an existence independent both of the body and of the whole psycho-physical organism.
From such a standpoint, the body must appear to be a restriction on the soul which, experiencing itself as capable of existing separately from the body, knows that in essence it belongs to a different order of reality from that of the physical.
This understanding of the soul’s separability and essentially independent spiritual existence was re-expressed in doctrines (in all likelihood based on rituals) attributed by the Greeks to Orpheus. As we have seen, these were according to E. R. Dodds derived from northern shamanism. Plato refers to them in his dialogue Cratylus, where we learn that the Orphic poets held that the body (soma) is an enclosure or prison in which the soul is incarcerated.
From the point of view of the free soul or ba, this is how the body must appear. According to the Pythagoreans, to whom Plato alludes in the same passage, the body is not just a prison but should be seen as a tomb: it is ‘the tomb (sema) of the soul, which may be thought to be buried in our present life’.
Philosophy as the practice of dying: Plato and the Egyptian Tradition
Let us then turn to Phaedo, where we find the pursuit of philosophy portrayed as a spiritual practice. In the dialogue, Socrates describes the inner development of the philosopher as involving ‘purification’ or katharsis. This latter:
‘consists in separating as far as possible the soul (psuche) from the body and teaching the soul the habit of collecting and bringing itself together from all parts of the body, and living so far as it can, both now and hereafter, alone and by itself, freed from the body as from fetters.’ (Plato, Phaedo, 67c)
Since this experience is a precursor of what we must all experience at death, the practice of purification or katharsis is a preparation for death: ‘True philosophers’, says Socrates, ‘practise dying’ (ibid., 67e).
This, of course, is precisely what the religious literature of the ancient Egyptians, from the Pyramid Texts to the Book of the Dead and beyond – a literature usually referred to as ‘funerary’ – is all about. It is a literature concerned with the practise of dying. And one of the most important teachings it contains is to do with the separability of the soul or ba.
The shining Akh
If Plato had spent some time in Egypt studying with Egyptian priests, he would not only have learned about the separability of the soul. He would also have learned that there is a further component of the human being, concerning which he would have discovered nothing in Homer, though he might have come across it in Pythagorean circles.
This further component is luminous and divine, and constitutes our spiritual essence, whereas the ba or psuche is best understood as the manifestation of this luminous and divine essence on the soul level. This divine component of the human being was called by the Egyptians the akh or ‘shining spirit” and it was associated by them both with the sun and the stars, for its mode of existence is cosmic.
As the Pyramid Texts succinctly put it:
Akh to the sky;
body to the earth
– The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts
If the akh is the innermost aspect of the ba, its eternal core, then to become akh is to become divinized.
In Plato’s writings, the notion that there is an immortal core to the psuche is repeatedly expressed. Sometimes he refers to it as the daimon, sometimes as the nous, and sometimes as the logistikon. ln each case it is understood to be both immortal and to be that part of us by which we attain spiritual insight or wisdom. In both respects Plato’s conception exactly parallels the Egyptian notion of the akh.
The association of the akh with the sun is documented from the Old Kingdom onwards. Thus in The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts Unas approaches Ra-Atum as an imperishable akh, as does Ani in The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.
The association is particularly dramatic in the coronation text of Thutmose III, where the king rises to the sky as a falcon in order to be infused with the sungod’s akh-power. The association of the akh with the stars, of with becoming a star, is found especially in The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, for example lines 347-50 where we read: ‘Lo, I stand up as this star which is on the underside of the sky … for I have not died the death. I have become akh.’
Just as in the ancient Egyptian ‘funerary’ literature, wisdom (sai) is acquired only by that person who has crossed the threshold of death and stands in direct relationship to the spirit world, so in Plato’s Phaedo we learn that ‘the wisdom which we desire and upon which we profess to have set our hearts will be attainable only when we are dead’ (Plato, Phaedo, 66e).
The reason that Plato gives for this very radical view of how wisdom can be attained is that when we are dead the soul functions independently of the body. In this state, the soul is able to see into the world of spiritual archetypes which, owing to the soul’s association with the body during life, is normally concealed from it. If it were possible to accomplish such a separation of the soul from the body during life, then wisdom would be attainable during life, which is why he defines philosophy as ‘the practice of dying’.
How the Morning Star became the Sun God: Apollo, Ra, and the house of the rising Sun
For the Egyptians, the akh is intrinsically luminous. It is light-filled and radiant like the sun. But this was not just an analogy: there was felt to be a real inner affinity between the akh and the sungod Ra.
At the very heart of Egyptian religion, from the Old Kingdom through to the New Kingdom and beyond, the highest spiritual aspiration was to become united with Ra. In becoming akh, therefore, one realized this inner identity between the sungod and one’s deepest human nature. It is therefore not without significance that according to Strabo, the place where Plato studied with Egyptian priests was the cult centre of Ra – Heliopolis.
Here Plato would have learned that just as the akh is inwardly luminous like the sun, so the highest knowledge is only attained through coming into the presence of, and effectively merging with, the sungod.
Just as in the visible world the sun is the source of life and light, which both makes objects visible and gives the power of seeing to the eye, so in the intelligible world the Form of the Good is the source of reality and truth, which both makes objects of thought (the Forms) intelligible and gives the power of knowing to the mind (nous), for the sun was the visible manifestation, rather than the spiritual essence, of the god.
In the New Kingdom Book of What is in the Underworld (Am Dwat), as Ra passes through the regions of the Dwat, he illuminates them, thereby making it possible for them to be known. If Plato had studied with the priests of Heliopolis, it is not inconceivable that he would have learned of the night journey of the sungod through the Dwat. And if he had, then he would also have learned that if one is to come to know the spirit world, then one would have to travel in companionship with Ra, on his sunboat, for from this vantage point the spirit world becomes accessible to the light of consciousness.
The ancient Egyptians understood our nature as human beings to be essentially cosmic, and believed that if we are to become fully realized spiritual beings, then this must occur in a cosmic setting. Thus the conception of the spiritual goal was from the earliest religious texts pictured as involving the ascent of the soul to the heavens, either to become united with Ra, or to assume the form of a star. In this process, in whichever way it was conceived, the soul became akh – inwardly illumined. In one of the most memorable passages – a passage clearly related to initiation rites – Plato then describes the flight of the philosopher’s soul to the stars.
This is an edited version of ‘Plato, Shamanism and Ancient Egypt’ by Jeremy Naydler, from a talk given to the Temenos Academy. To read the full article please click here.