Hermes and the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt
16 February 1911, Dornach
Translated by Walter F. Knox
While it is of vital importance in Spiritual Science to study the whole spiritual life of humanity as it advances from one epoch to another, rising slowly to the surface from hidden depths, it is perhaps of still greater significance to study the culture and civilisation of ancient Egypt. We realise this the more strongly when we try to penetrate deeply into this ancient Egyptian spiritual life.
The echoes sounding to us across the ages seem at first to be as full of mystery as the Sphinx itself, standing there as a memorial of the civilisation of ancient Egypt. The mystery grows deeper still when we find that even external research has recently been compelled to go back to ages more and more remote in order to explain the culture of later Egyptian times of which certain physical evidence is still available. According to external research the prime of Egyptian culture must be dated at least seven thousand years before our era, perhaps even earlier still. This may be one reason for the great interest evinced to-day in Egyptian culture, but another is that man of the present day feels, whether he likes it or not, that there is a mysterious connection between this ancient civilisation and his own aims and purposes. It is not without significance that Kepler, at the very dawn of the development of modern Natural Science should have spoken of the achievements of Science up to that time and his own contributions to knowledge, in words like these: “When I have endeavoured to unravel some of the mysteries of the course of the planets round the Sun, I have tried to peer into the secrets of cosmic space. And it has often seemed to me as though I have actually penetrated to the mysterious sanctuaries of the Egyptians and brought their holy vessels into our modern age. I have felt then that the significance of my message to the world will only be understood in the future.” So strongly did one of the greatest minds of modern times feel himself related to ancient Egyptian culture that he could only express the keynote of his knowledge by speaking of it as a renewal of the wisdom given to the disciples in the secret sanctuaries and places of learning in ancient Egypt, although it was clothed, naturally, in different words. It must therefore be of great interest to us to understand how these ancient Egyptians themselves conceived of their whole culture, of their whole nature as human beings.
A certain very significant incident has been preserved by Greek tradition. It indicates not only what the Egyptians themselves felt but the way in which Egyptian culture was regarded by the civilised world in general in olden times. An Egyptian sage once said to Solon: “You Greeks are still children. All you know is the outcome of your own contemplation and vision; you have no ancient traditions, no wisdom hoary with age, and children you will remain.” Wisdom hoary with age — the significance of this expression only dawns upon us when the light of Spiritual Science is cast upon the whole mode and nature of Egyptian thought and feeling.
In the successive epochs different forms of consciousness have unfolded in humanity. Our consciousness to-day, the way in which we grasp the outer world by means of our senses and the combining of intellect and reason, in short, our scientific mode of thought, has not always been in existence; consciousness has ever been subject to the laws of evolution. Not only is the external world of form subject to these laws but man's qualities of soul and consciousness also. This is an indication of the fact that we can only understand ancient centres of culture if we begin by admitting what Spiritual Science tells us, namely, that in olden times, in the place of our present intellectual consciousness, men possessed a clairvoyant consciousness unlike our waking consciousness and yet unlike the complete absence of consciousness during sleep. Traces of this consciousness of prehistoric man are now only retained atavistically as a waning heritage, in the picture world of dreams. But whereas our dreams are chaotic and meaningless in ordinary life, the picture consciousness of the Ancients was “clairvoyant,” although, indeed, of a hazy, dreamlike nature. The pictures referred not to the physical world but to the spiritual world behind. In reality, all clairvoyant consciousness, that of prehistoric man, as well as the clairvoyance acquired by true discipline in this age, works in pictures and not in the concepts and ideas of outer physical consciousness. The pictures must be related to the spiritual realities lying behind the sense-realities of the physical world.
The marvellous pictures that have come down to us in the mythologies are not merely phantastic concepts of Nature, as materialistic consciousness imagines to-day. On the contrary, these pictures indicate an actual vision of the spiritual world. If we study the old mythologies and legends — not with the materialistic consciousness of to-day, but with a true feeling for man's spiritual achievements — the strange stories related in the mythologies will reveal a wonderful connection with cosmic laws higher than our laws of physics, chemistry and biology. A note of spiritual reality permeates the old mythologies and religious systems.
Now it must be clearly understood that the several peoples built up this world of pictures in different ways, according to their own nature, temperament and race. These picture-worlds represented, to the several peoples, the higher forces underlying the purely external forces of Nature. We must also realise that in the course of evolution there have been many transitional stages between the old clairvoyant consciousness and the objective consciousness of modern man. The ancient clairvoyance grew dim and gradually faded away. Clairvoyant powers decreased little by little in the different peoples and the pictures arising before the souls of those still able to gaze into the spiritual world contained less and less of spiritual force. The higher worlds gradually closed their doors until only the lowest stages of spiritual activity were perceptible to lower clairvoyance. Then, so far as humanity in general was concerned, the old clairvoyance died out entirely. Waking consciousness was limited to the physical world around and to ideas and conceptions of physical phenomena. Thus arose our modern science. The old clairvoyant powers gradually faded as the development of present-day consciousness proceeded — although of course the process varied in the different peoples.
All that we know from olden times, even what external documents have told us in recent Egyptian research (if we understand aright) proves the truth of what Spiritual Science asserts, namely, that the mission of the ancient Egyptian people was to look back to still earlier times when their leading Individualities were able, with their wonderful powers of clairvoyance, to gaze into the spiritual worlds. In the people of Egypt a somewhat feebler clairvoyant power was preserved on into relatively late times. The later Egyptians — down to the last millennia before the Christian era — knew from actual experience of another mode of vision besides that of ordinary daily life, a vision enabling man to see into the spiritual world. But they only knew the lowest images of the realm of which this vision made them aware, and they looked back to olden times when their Priest-Sages were able, in the golden prime of Egyptian civilisation, to gaze into the very depths of the spiritual world.
The mysteries of the spiritual worlds were preserved, more especially by the earlier Egyptians, with great piety and reverence for thousands of years. Those who lived in the later Egyptian epoch could say: “Even now we can still perceive a lower spiritual world; vision of the spiritual world is possible and to doubt it would be as senseless as to doubt that our eyes can behold the external world.” These later Egyptians had, it is true, only a dim perception of the spiritual worlds, but they felt that there had once been an age when their predecessors had gazed more deeply into all that lies behind the physical world. And this old Wisdom-teaching — of which the Egyptian Sage spoke to Solon — was preserved in wonderful scripts in the Temples and on the columns, bearing witness to deep and all-embracing clairvoyant powers in days of hoary antiquity. The Being to whom the Egyptians looked up as the embodiment of the primal glory of that old clairvoyant wisdom, was called by the name of HERMES. And when in later times a man came forth with a message which was to renew the ancient wisdom, he also (according to the custom of Egyptian sages) called himself “Hermes,” and his disciples, believing that he had revived the primeval wisdom of the old Hermes, called this first Being, “the Thrice-Greatest,” “Hermes Trismegistos.” (It was of course, only the Greeks who called him Hermes; among the Egyptians he was known as Thoth). We can only understand this primeval Being if we realise what the Egyptians, under the influence of the later teachings of Hermes or Thoth, took to be the true Mysteries of the Cosmos.
Such beliefs as have been handed down to us from Egyptian times by external evidence seem very strange. Various Gods, of whom the most important are Osiris and Isis, are represented in forms not wholly human; we often find human bodies and animals heads, or an amalgamation of human and animal forms. Wonderful legends of this world of Gods have come down to us and there is something very remarkable in the Egyptian animal-worship, the worship of the cat and so forth. Certain animals were even recognised as being sacred animals; deep veneration was paid to them for they were regarded as the embodiment of higher beings. It is even said that cries of lamentations were uttered at the death of cats. Again, we are told that if an Egyptian saw a dead animal, he dared not approach for fear of being accused of having killed it, in which case he would have been severely punished. It is said too, that in the age when Egypt was subject to Rome, any Roman who had killed a cat was in danger of death, because his act aroused such fury among the Egyptians. This animal-worship is an enigma in the sphere of Egyptian thought and feeling. And again — what a curious impression is made on modern man by the Pyramids, standing on their four-cornered bases, with their triangular sides! Strange indeed are the Sphinxes and everything that is being continually excavated and brought to our knowledge from the depths of Egyptian civilisation. And now we will ask ourselves: of what nature was the life of feeling and ideas among the ancient Egyptians? What had Hermes taught them? How did they acquire all these strange conceptions?
We must realise that all these Legends, especially the more significant, contained a deeper wisdom and their purpose was to convey in picture form, knowledge of definite laws of spiritual life, laws higher than those of external Nature. The Egyptian legend of the God and Goddess, Osiris and Isis, is a case in point. According to the legend, Osiris was a Being who lived in dim primeval times in regions later inhabited by human beings. Osiris is represented in the legend as the benefactor of humanity under whose wise guidance Hermes or Thoth gave the Egyptians their ancient culture. Osiris had an enemy, for whom the Greek name was Typhon. Typhon pursued Osiris, killed him, dismembered the body, hid it in a coffin and threw it into the sea. Isis, the sister and spouse of Osiris, sought unceasingly for him who had been torn from her by Typhon or Seth, and when at length she found the fragments of his dismembered body, she buried them in different places in the land where Temples were then erected. Then, after the death of Osiris, Isis gave birth to Horus. A spiritual ray descended upon Isis from Osiris, who had meanwhile passed into another world. The mission of Horus was to conquer Typhon and, in a certain sense, to re-establish the dominion of a life, which, proceeding from Osiris himself, was again to stream into mankind.
Such a legend must not be analysed merely in the sense of allegory or symbol. It should be used as a means whereby we are led into the whole world of feeling and perception of the old Egyptians; for only so can our understanding of such figures as Osiris and Isis become really living. It is not right to state crudely that Osiris is the Sun, Isis the Moon and so forth. An astronomical interpretation of this kind leads men to believe that the legend only contains symbolical images of certain occurrences in the Heavens. This is not the case. Rather must we go back to the feelings living in the ancient Egyptians and envisage the nature of their upturned gaze to super-sensible, invisible Powers underlying the world of sense, and typified in the figures of Osiris and Isis.
Let us try to conceive what the names of Osiris and Isis conveyed to the ancient Egyptian. He said to himself: “Behind man there is a higher spiritual essence, which does not proceed from his material existence. This spiritual essence has ‘condensed' into material, human existence. The real evolution of man has proceeded from a more spiritual existence. When I look into my own soul I realise that I have a longing for the Spiritual, a yearning towards the spiritual wellsprings of being from which I myself have descended. The forces from which I came forth are still living within me. My highest powers are inwardly related to these primordial Osiris-powers within me, bearing witness that I was once a super-sensible being dwelling in other worlds, in worlds of Spirit. And although this being of Spirit has but a dim and instinctive life, although it had perforce to be clothed with the physical body and its organs in order to perceive the physical world, yet in days gone by this being lived a purely spiritual existence.”
According to the ancient Egyptian conception, human evolution must be regarded as a duality, consisting of the Osiris-forces and the Isis-forces. “Osiris-Isis” — this was the duality. Let us consider our own being, as we now exist. The idea of a triangle, for instance, must have been preceded by active thinking. After having been active in soul, we may then be passive as regards the result of our thinking and conceptual activity. Ultimately we perceive in our soul the form that has been built up by our active thinking. Now the act of thinking bears the same relation to the final thought, the conceptual act to the final concept, the active principle to the product of the active principle there before us, as Osiris to Isis. In short, activity per se is a Father-Principle, a masculine Principle. The Osiris-Principle is male, active — filling the soul with thoughts and feelings. The old Egyptian said to himself: “Man as he stands here to-day has within him substances living in his blood or forming his bones, but these substances were not always within his blood or bones, they were spread over cosmic space. This physical body is a combination of substances which have now passed into the human form, whereas they once filled the Cosmos. The same is true of the powers of thought. The active principle of thought has become the power of ideation in man. Just as the substances in the blood now live in the human form but were formerly spread over cosmic space — so the Osiris-power now living within us as the active principle of thought was once spread over the spiritual universe as the Osiris-power that permeates and weaves in the Cosmos, pouring into human beings, just as in the case of the substances composing blood and bones in the bodily nature of man. Into the thoughts and ideas there flow, from out of the Cosmos, the living and weaving Isis-Powers.” — This is how we must envisage the attitude of soul in the ancient Egyptians towards Osiris and Isis.
This old consciousness could find no expression for such ideas in the world surrounding physical existence on Earth; for everything here was known to be of the world of space and it could offer no outer image of the super-sensible world. And so, in search of some form of language, some kind of script in which to clothe such conceptions as “the Osiris-Power is active within me” — men reached out to the script placed by heavenly bodies in cosmic space. They said: “The super-sensible power of Osiris may be envisaged as the active power of light proceeding from the Sun, living and moving through space. Isis may be seen in the sunlight reflected by the dark Moon — just as the soul is dark when the active principle of thought does not enter. The Moon awaits the light of the Sun in order to reflect it, even as the soul awaits the Osiris-Power to reflect it back as Isis-Power.” But when the old Egyptian said — “The Sun and Moon out there show me how I can best picture the activities of my soul,” — he knew at the same time: there is no mere chance connection between the Sun with its outpouring light and the reflecting Moon, but this radiating and reflected light has some inner connection with the super-sensible forces I feel within my soul.
Although we would not describe a clock as something that drives its hands with the help of little demons, but as a mechanical contrivance, we realise, nevertheless, that the thought of the inventor, the thought proceeding from the soul of a human being is at the back of the construction of the clock. Something spiritual, therefore, is responsible for its mechanism. Just as the hands of a clock are interrelated and dependent upon each other, so did the Sun and Moon appear to the Egyptians as the expressions of a mighty cosmic clock. When we gaze at this mighty clock in space, it seems at first sight to be subject to mechanical laws, yet in the last resort it is subject to those laws which a man felt in his soul when he spoke of the powers of Osiris and Isis. The old Egyptian did not merely say: “Sun and Moon are images of the relation between Osiris and Isis.” He also felt: All that lives in my being was once subject to the mysterious relationship between light and the Sun and Moon.
Again, a relation similar to that between Osiris and Isis and the Sun and Moon was seen to exist between the stars and planets and the other Gods. The Egyptians saw in the positions of the Heavenly Bodies, images of their own super-sensible life, or of traditional experiences of ancient Seers, but in these expressions of the mighty cosmic clock they saw a portrayal of forces within their own souls. Thus the great cosmic clock, with the movements of its stars and the relation of its moving stars to the fixed stars, was a revelation of underlying spiritual, super-sensible forces — forces which had determined the positions of all the stars and had created in a cosmic script, an expression of super-sensible activities.
Such were the feelings in regard to this higher world, feelings which had been handed down to the Egyptians by their traditions of ancient clairvoyance. They knew of the existence of this spiritual world because they themselves still possessed the last remnants of ancient clairvoyance. But now they said: “We have descended from this spiritual world and we are now placed in a world of matter manifesting in physical phenomena, physical processes. We come from the world of Osiris and Isis; the highest qualities within us, the qualities which make us strive towards higher perfection, came forth from Osiris and Isis. These qualities live invisibly within us as energy and power. The physical part of man's being is derived from external circumstances, is taken from the outer world. This physical part of man is but the vesture of Osiris-Isis.”
Now this conception of primeval wisdom was the one dominating feeling in the soul of the old Egyptian; it filled his whole life of soul. A man may imbue his soul with abstract ideas and yet remain untouched in his moral and ethical life; his sense of destiny or his happiness may be quite unaffected. Abstract and mathematical concepts of Natural Science may be so deeply absorbed that a man can discuss electricity and other forces of a similar nature without feeling any need to concern himself at the same time with problems of destiny. Now the feeling of kinship with Osiris and Isis, the vision of the spiritual world existing in ancient Egypt — these things could not be conceived of apart from thoughts of destiny, happiness and moral impulses. For the ancient Egyptian said to himself: “I bear a higher Self within me, but since I have entered into a physical body this higher Self withdraws to the background and is at first not wholly manifest. Osiris and Isis are the primal source of my being; but Osiris and Isis belong to the archetypal worlds, to the golden, holy ages of long ago. The Osiris-Isis nature is now subject to the forces which have condensed outer physical substances into man's body. Osiris and Isis are fettered within the corruptible body, and this body is subject to decay even as the outer forces of Nature.”
The legend of Osiris and Isis must thus be interpreted in terms of the inner life. Osiris, the higher power in man, spread over cosmic space, is overcome by forces which are subject to destruction in the realm of human nature. The Osiris-power living in man is fettered by Typhon — fettered within a form that is the “coffin” of the spiritual nature of man. Into this coffin the Osiris-nature in man disappears and is invisible to the outer world. The mysterious Isis-nature remains, in order that in future ages, after it has been permeated by the power of the intellect, it may again reach the well-springs of man's being. Thus there lives in man a hidden quality which strives to bring Osiris to life again. The Isis-power lives in the human soul in order gradually to lead man back again to Osiris. So long as man remains a physical being he cannot of course be separated from the world of matter, yet it is the Isis-power which enables him, while he remains a physical being in the outer physical world, to maintain in his inner being a striving towards a higher Ego. And according to every true thinker, this higher Ego is there, deeply concealed in all the powers of man. This being — who is not the outer physical man but the man who has an unceasing urge to rise to the light of spirit, who is ever impelled by the hidden Isis-forces — appears as the earthly son of One who did not arise in the earthly world. He is the earthly son of Osiris who remained in the spiritual worlds. This invisible being — the being who strives to reach the Higher Self, was known by the name of Horus, the posthumous son of Osiris.
Thus the old Egyptians looked up with a certain sadness to the Osiris-origin of man, but at the same time they gazed into their innermost being, saying: “The soul has retained something of the Isis-power and this Isis-power gives birth to Horus who has the urge to strive towards spiritual heights. In these heights man finds Osiris.” Man can attain to Osiris in a twofold way. The Egyptian said: “I came forth from Osiris and to Osiris I shall again return. Osiris, my spiritual origin is within me: Horus will lead me back to Osiris his Father; but Osiris can only be attained in the spiritual world. He could not enter into the physical nature of man. In the physical nature of man he was vanquished by the Typhon-forces which are subject to decay because they are forces of external Nature.”
Osiris can therefore only be reached along two paths. One is the path leading through the Portal of Death; the other is the path through the Portal leading not to physical death but to Initiation. The Egyptian therefore said: When man passes through the Portal of Death and has passed the stages of preparation, he comes to Osiris. When he is freed from the sheaths of his earthly body in the spiritual world, the consciousness of his kinship with Osiris awakens within him. The dead man feels that in the spiritual world he may himself be called “Osiris.” And so, after death, everyone was an “Osiris.”
The other path to Osiris — the other path into the spiritual world — is through Initiation. To the Egyptian this path was a means whereby man could learn to know the Invisible, the Supersensible in human nature — Isis, or rather the Isis-power. In the knowledge gleaned from everyday life man does not penetrate to the depths of his soul, he does not reach the Isis-power. Yet there is a means whereby he can pierce through to this Isis-power, whereby he reaches the true Ego and realises that it is enveloped in physical matter. If we follow this path we reach the spiritual home of the Ego. This, then, was the teaching of ancient Egypt: Man must descend into his own innermost being; there he first understands his physical nature — the expression of his Ego. He must force his way through this physical nature. He beholds the outer world, the creation of spiritual, super-sensible Powers, in the three kingdoms of Nature: in the stones with their forms based on mathematical laws, in the plants with their life-filled forms which are the dwelling place of Divine Powers, and in the animals. But when he beholds Man he must penetrate through the outer form to the Isis-powers of the soul.
Part of the Initiation into the Isis-Mysteries, therefore, consisted in showing man how he was clothed in matter. The processes enacted when a man thus plunged into his own nature, were practically the same as occur at death but they were enacted in a different way. The aspirant had to pass in actual life through the Portal of Death, to learn of the transition from physical to super-physical vision, from the physical to the spiritual world — in short the transition experienced in actual death. He had to follow this path of descent into his own inner being, to learn what can only be experienced there. And in this region he learnt, in the first place, how the blood, the physical instrument of the Ego, is formed from Nature. Now the system of nerves is the physical instrument for the soul-activities of Feeling, Willing and Thinking and the instrument of the Ego is the blood. If a man would descend into his instruments — so thought the old Egyptians — he must descend into his physical-etheric sheaths, into the etheric qualities of soul. He must learn to be independent of the forces in his blood upon which he otherwise depends, and, after having first freed himself from these forces, he must then enter into the marvellous processes of his blood. He must learn to know his higher nature in its physical aspect. This he can only do when he is able to contemplate himself as he contemplates an outer object. Now man can only know an object as object if he himself is outside it; thus if he wishes to perceive himself, he must stand outside his own being. That is why Initiation develops forces which enable the soul-powers to have real experiences without making use of physical instruments. The physical instruments are there objectively before man, just as after death his spiritual being looks down at his physical body.
And so the pupil in the Isis-Mysteries was first taught the secrets of his own blood. He passed through an experience which may be described as an approach to the Threshold of Death. This was the first stage of Initiation into the Isis-Mysteries. The pupil had to behold his own blood, to behold himself as object, to plunge down into the sheath that is the instrument of his Isis-nature. In the sanctuaries of Initiation he was led to two Portals, where he was shown in picture form the processes taking place in his inner being. Two doors stood before him, one open, the other closed. These teachings, echoing down to us across the ages, harmonise most wonderfully with what man believes at the present day, although he now gives a materialistic interpretation to everything. The old Seers of Egypt said: “When man is in the underworld he comes to two doors; through two doors he enters into his blood and his inner being.” The modern anatomist would speak of the two entrances lying beside the valves of the heart. If the pupil wished to penetrate into his body he would have to pass through the “open” door, for the “closed” door is there to prevent the blood stream from taking a wrong path. These anatomical phenomena are material images of what the ancient sages experienced in clairvoyant form. The forms were of course not so exact as the structures confronting the modern anatomist, yet they represented what clairvoyant consciousness perceived when it gazed at the inner being of man from without.
The next stage of the Isis-Initiation may be described as follows: The pupil was led through the tests of Fire, Air and Water — that is to say he learnt to know the nature of the sheaths around his Isis-nature. He learnt to know Fire as it courses through his body, using the blood as its instrument; he learnt to know how air enters the body in the form of oxygen; he learnt to know his watery nature. Fire, Air and Water — the warmth of the breath, the fluidity of the blood. And his knowledge of the sheaths, of Fire, Air and Water purified him until he finally attained to his Isis-nature. This again may be expressed by saying: Only when the pupil reached this stage did he feel that he had really “come to himself,” realising his spiritual existence, no longer limited to the human faculties pertaining to the outer world but able to gaze into the spiritual world. In the outer world we can only see the physical Sun by day; at night it is hidden from us by matter. In the spiritual world, however, it is not so; in the spiritual world man beholds the spiritual Powers at the very time the physical eyes are not functioning. In the Isis-Initiation it was said: When a man is purified he beholds the spiritual beings face to face; he can see the Sun at Midnight. That is to say, when darkness prevails, the spiritual life and the primal spiritual Powers behind the Sun are visible to those initiated in the Isis-Mysteries.
Such was the path of the soul to the Isis-powers, the path which might be traversed by those who while still living sought to energise their deepest forces of soul. There were still higher Mysteries — the true Osiris-Mysteries. In these Mysteries man learnt how through the Isis-power he might find himself one with the spiritual super-sensible Power whence he himself had come forth. — He knew Osiris and Osiris arose within his soul.
Now when the old Egyptian wished to depict the relation between Isis and Osiris, he used a script drawn from the movements of the Sun and Moon in the Heavens; he used the relationships of the other starry bodies to express the activities of the other spiritual Powers. His script was drawn from the Zodiac in its condition of comparative rest, and from the Planets moving across the constellations. In all the mysteries thus revealed, the ancient Egyptian saw a spiritual script. He knew: Nothing that is on the Earth can help me to express what man experiences if he goes forth to seek Osiris with the Isis-power within him. The starry constellations themselves must be the script.
Hermes, or Thoth, the mighty Sage of antiquity, was revered by the Egyptians as having had the most profound insight into this relation of man to the Cosmos. It was Hermes who expressed with the greatest sublimity the relation of the stars to these spiritual Powers and to events in the Cosmos. The language of Hermes was the language of the stars themselves. The relation of Osiris to Isis, for instance, could be explained exoterically to the people in the form of legends. Those who were preparing for Initiation were taught in greater detail of the light proceeding from the Sun, its reflection by the Moon, and the marvellous processes enacted by the light passing from the new Moon through different phases to the full Moon. The primal forms of writing were derived from processes taking place in the Heavens. Man little knows to-day that the consonants are images of the Zodiacal constellations, of a cosmic element that is at rest; the relations of the vowels to the consonants are images of the connections between the moving Planets and the Zodiac. The earlier forms of the letters of the alphabet were in this sense derived from the Heavens.
The ancient Egyptians felt that the great Hermes had himself been taught by the Powers of the Heavens and that he expressed, in his own being, the deepest soul life of man. All that was expressed in the deeds of man, even in daily pursuits where mathematical sciences, geometry (which Pythagoras afterwards learnt from the Egyptians), land-surveying and the like, were needed — all these things were traced back to the wisdom of Hermes who had seen the processes and phenomena of Earth to be reflections of heavenly activities as expressed in the stellar script. This script was brought down by Hermes into mathematics and geometry and he taught the Egyptians to find, in the stars, the counterpart of earthly happenings.
Now we know that the whole life of Egypt was deeply bound up with the floods of the Nile, with the deposits swept down by the Nile from the mountainous lands in the South. And we can realise how necessary it was for the Egyptians to know in advance when these floods would occur. They reckoned time according to the stellar script in the Heavens and when Sirius, the Dog Star, was visible in the Sign of Cancer, they knew that the Sun would shortly enter this Sign and that its rays would charm forth all that the flooding of the Nile bestowed upon the soil. They said: “Sirius is the Watcher; it is he who tell us what is to come.” And they looked up in gratitude to the Dog Star, to Sirius, for it was he who enabled them to cultivate their land aright and provide for the needs of their daily life. They looked back to ages of hoary antiquity when mankind had first been taught that the movement of the stars is the expression of the mighty cosmic timepiece.
Thus did the Egyptians take counsel from the stellar script. Hermes, or Thoth, was the great Spirit who, according to the oldest traditions, had given the original script of the Cosmic Wisdom and with the inspiration flowing into him from the stars, had built up the alphabet, had taught men the principles of agriculture, geometry, land-surveying — in short all they needed for their physical life. Physical life, however, is but the body of a spiritual life, a cosmic spiritual life whence Hermes drew his inspiration. Thus all culture and civilisation came to be bound up with the name of Hermes, and indeed the Egyptians felt themselves connected with him in a still more intimate sense.
Suppose, for example, that an Egyptian living in the year 1322 before our era, were looking up to the Heavens. He would behold a certain constellation. The ancient Egyptians had a convenient method of reckoning time-conditions, convenient, that is to say, for purposes of calculation; twelve months of thirty days each, with five additional days — making three hundred and sixty-five days in the year. They had reckoned thus for centuries, for the method was really a mathematical convenience. After three hundred and sixty-five days a year had run its course. Now as we know from Astronomy, this leaves a quarter of one day unaccounted for; that is to say, the Egyptian year fell a quarter of a day too early. If you reckon it out, you will see that every successive year began a little earlier than the last. So month by month the year receded until, after a lapse of four times three hundred and sixty-five years it returned to the beginning. Thus it always happened after a period of one thousand, four hundred and sixty years that the heavenly relationships were readjusted with the earthly calculation. In the course of one thousand, four hundred and sixty years the year receded through a complete cycle. If you reckon this back three times from the year 1322 before our era, you have the epoch to which the Egyptians ascribed their holy primal Wisdom. They said: “In those ancient times men possessed the very highest clairvoyance. Each of the great Solar Years denoted a stage in the waning of clairvoyant power. We are now living in the fourth stage. Our culture has reached a point where we have only traditions of the teaching of antiquity. But we look back through three great Cosmic Years to an age when the greatest of our Sages taught his pupils and successors what we to-day possess — though in much changed form — in writing, mathematics, geometry, the science of land-surveying and astronomy.” At the same time the old Egyptians said: “Our human calculations — which adhere to the convenient numbers of twelve times thirty plus five supplementary days — bear witness how the divine-spiritual world must correct our affairs, for our intellect has estranged us from Osiris and Isis. We cannot reckon the year accurately. But we look up to a hidden world where the Powers guiding the stars correct us.”
Thus even in their Chronology the old Egyptians looked up, as it were beyond the feeble quality of the intellect, to spiritual Beings and Powers living in hidden worlds, who in accordance with deeper laws, supervised protected and watched over all that man has to experience on Earth. And in Hermes, or Thoth, they revered the Being whose inspiration flowed from these watchful Powers of Heaven. Hermes was not only a great Teacher, but a Being to whom the old Egyptians looked up with feelings of deepest gratitude and reverence, saying: “All that I possess comes from Thee! Thou wert there in days of old and lo! Thy blessings stream into the world for the healing of men through those who have been Thy messengers.” Thus both the original source of Power — Osiris — and Hermes, or Thoth, — the Guardian of that Power — were not only known to the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, but their souls were filled with a deep moral feeling, a feeling of reverence and gratitude. All external evidence shows that the wisdom of the Egyptians (especially in very ancient times, and later to a less and less degree) was permeated with religious feeling. All human knowledge was bound up with feelings of holy awe, all wisdom with piety, all science with religion. In the later Egyptian epoch this no longer appears in its purest form. For just as in the successive epochs it is the mission of the several peoples to express the Spiritual in different forms, so do the several civilisations begin to fall into decadence when their prime has been reached. Most of what has been preserved from ancient Egyptian culture belongs to the period of decadence and one can only surmise what lies behind the marvellous pyramids, for instance, and the strange animal cults. The Egyptians knew: The age when wisdom itself was working was preceded by another, when all beings — not only man — descended from divine-spiritual heights. If we would understand the innermost nature of man we must not look at his outer form, but penetrate to his inner being. What we see externally are stages at which primordial creation has remained stationary; such stages are to be seen in the three kingdoms of Nature. The first stage is the world of the minerals and stones — the forms of which are expressed in the Pyramids. The second stage is the world of plants and the inner forces of this world are expressed in the Lotus flower. The third stage is represented by the animal forms, strewn, as it were, along the path to man. Divine forces which have not attained to the human stage have poured and crystallised into the different animal forms. Such were the feelings of the old Egyptian when he beheld the retarded forces of the Gods. He looked back to primeval ages when all creation sprang from Divine Powers. He felt that Divine Powers had remained at an earlier stage of development in the beings of the three lower kingdoms of Nature and had finally risen to human form in his own being. We must always be mindful of the feelings, the consciousness of the old Egyptians, for then we shall realise that their wisdom had a moral effect in their souls. Their conception of the Divine world and Supersensible forces gave rise to a relation to the animals, which only assumed a grotesque form when Egyptian culture entered upon its period of decline. The imperfections of later Egyptian culture were not there at the beginning when it was filled with spiritual revelation. We must not — as is so often done to-day — ascribe primitive and simple conditions to the early stages of civilisations. On the contrary, primitive conditions belong to periods of decadence which set in after the original spiritual treasures have been lost. Barbaric conditions are not to be regarded as the original states of civilisation; they are in reality the result of the decadence of civilisations which have fallen from their spiritual prime.
Such a statement may be a cause of irritation to the science that describes all civilisations as having originated from old primitive conditions such as survive in savage tribes to-day. Primitive states of culture still in existence are to be regarded as stages of decadence; at the beginning of human life on Earth the early civilisations were directly inspired from the spiritual world by the Spiritual Beings standing behind external history. This is what we are told by Spiritual Science.
Again it may be asked: Does the science of to-day, representing as it does, the heights of modern culture, come into collision with this statement of Spiritual Science? I should like here to quote from a recent work by Alfred Jeremias, The Influence of Babylon on the Understanding of the Old Testament, which shows that outer research too has found its way back to an ancient culture permeated with sublime and far-reaching conceptions and that the so-called barbaric civilisations must be regarded as the outcome of decadence. This point is clearly made in the book:
The oldest records, as indeed the whole cultural life of the Euphratean civilisations, postulate the existence of scientific and at the same time religious conceptions not only in the secret lore of the Temples but according to which the State organisation was regulated, justice declared, property administered and protected. The further back we go into ancient times, the more do we find the domination of these conceptions; only when the ancient Euphratean culture enters on its period of decadence do other forces make themselves felt.
External science is here beginning to open up paths which can unite with what Spiritual Science has to introduce into modern civilisation. If it advances along these paths it will gradually abandon the dead image of primitive conditions at the starting-point of human civilisations and will come instead to the Great Individualities. And they appear before us in all sublimity because it was their task to transmit to men who still possessed the power of clairvoyance, the greatest blessings in every branch of culture. And so we look back to mighty figures — to Zarathustra, to Hermes — who appear so sublime because they were the first to give the great spiritual impulses to mankind in those remote ages of which the Sage spoke to Solon. Hermes stands there as a great Guide of mankind. As we contemplate these great Individualities, we feel a strengthening of our own powers. We realise that the Spirit not only lives in the Cosmos but flows into cosmic deeds, into the evolution of man himself. Our own life is fortified, we have greater confidence in our own actions, our hopes and purposes are strengthened by the contemplation of these great Individualities. We who are born in after ages look up to Them, seeking the fulfilment of our own existence in Their mighty powers of soul, understanding our own actions in the light of the eternal Spirit pouring into humanity through Them.