Psychological Commentary on the Hall of Judgment Scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
John S. Uebersax
I have been trying for months to write down some ideas about the psychological interpretation of the Papyrus of Anhai, an Egyptian funereal papyrus dating from c.1150 BC. The interest began when a modern reproduction of the papyrus came into my possession. A photo of the reproduction is shown below. Also shown is a mosaic image of the original.
(Note. You might find it helpful to open two windows, one displaying the first image for reference as you read the remaining material).
For some strange reason, I've felt like this came into my possession for a reason -- as if it's my responsibility to attempt a modern psychological interpretation of this ancient work. Perhaps it's is mere foolishness, but as the notion has not gone away, I find it simpler to confront it directly. I propose here, then, to present my ideas in outline form, and as a series of short statements. This brief format is probably easier for the reader, anyway.
Many other famous examples of such papyri exist. Likely best known is the Papyrus of Ani, now at the British Museum, and made famous by the noted Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge. There is remarkable similarity in the scenes and details of the various examples of this genre.
I believe, based on consideration of religious mythos of various traditions, that themes of resurrection, rebirth, etc., can be interpreted at a dual level. First there is whatever literal, religious significance they may possess. Second, they are also symbolic of the process of psychological rebirth, regeneration, or transition from a "fallen" psychological state to a superior or "redeemed" one. This view basically agrees with the theories of psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Again, to emphasize the point: to suggest a psychological interpretation to religious mythos is not to deny it's traditional religious meaning. The two issues are, to some extent, independent.
While the term "archetype" (a Jungian term) is overused and in need of a scientific definition, there does seem to be some basis for the idea. That is: (a) the human psyche does seem to be organized around basic structural patterns or "archetypes"; (b) to a significant extent these patterns are common to all people; and (c) many gods and goddesses of ancient religions seem to correspond symbolically to archetypes of the psyche.
In religious mythos or iconography, a basic interpretative rule I apply is that each figure corresponds to some part, division, or process of a person's psyche. This is exactly the same rule that one applies in dream interpretation.
There is perhaps some affinity between my "depth psychological" level of interpretation of Egyptian religious mythos and the Jewish Kaballah. The suggestion, for example, that Egyptian gods and goddesses correspond symbolically to various levels or states of human consciousness would probably not seem unusual to a student of the Kaballah.
As with dream interpretation, one is allowed to be subjective in interpreting religious art and mythos. The idea is that, within the depths of ones subjectivity, ones greatest creative potentials reside. Conjecture, even wild speculation, is not only permitted, but encouraged. It is only required that conjecture not be confused with fact. We are generating hypotheses, not conclusions.
We probably do well at the outset to remind ourselves that, in any case, we are dealing with a sacred artifact of traditional religion of a living culture -- that of Egyptians. We therefore appoach the subject respectfully, just as we would deal with sacred artifacts of, for example, Native Americans. (I wonder if I'm the only one who cares about such things; forgive me if I'm being too scrupulous or sanctimonious.)
One might also respectfully suggest, without being critical of the British Museum, that these artifacts are the rightful property of the people of Egypt, who are the living descendants of the ancient Egyptians. The disposition of such religious artifacts is the Egyptians' to decide. In time and with patience this will likely all be sorted out in an amicable way.
On the other hand, the presence of these artifacts in Western Europe promotes their modern study, thereby honoring the memory of the ancient Egyptians, and helping to insure that their ideas are preserved and communicated. In other words, these artificats can be rightly viewed as both the heritage of Egypt and the heritage of all humankind. For now, we may accept that perhaps the people of Egypt may kindly consent to an indefinite, but temporary loan of these artifacts to the British Museum and other such institutions.
The scene shown here, the Hall of Ma'at, is just one of many scenes of the entire papyrus; but it is one of central significance.
The action in the scene proceeds from right to left.
At the literal level, the art depicts the soul of Anhai (fig. 3), as it proceeds through the after-life existence, passing through a phase of judgment, and reaching, hopefully, a paradisiacal existence (the Elysian Fields).
We should also mention that Anhai was a historical figure. Some believe she was a princess or priestess; others suggest she was a highly esteemed court singer or dancer.
Anhai appears twice in the scene (figs. 3 and 10). She is being led by a bird-headed figure (fig. 4). Some suggest that this is the Egyptian god, Horus; I favor the view that this is her personal guardian spirit who leads her through the underworld (Cf. the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic 10.620 ff.). (A compromise view is that the spirit guide is not Horus per se, but has some affinity with that deity).
The first figure on the right (fig. 1) is the great Egyptian goddess, Ma'at. We could not possibly do justice to her significance in ancient Egyptian religion in a short amount of space. It would be difficult to exaggerate either her importance or the complexity of ideas associated with her. At present, we are concerned with Ma'at as a manifestation of the principles of balance and harmony. This connection is partly shown by the many feathers (from headband, in hands, dangling from arms) associated with her.
To me, Ma'at suggests a metaphysical and psychological view that (a) all reality consists of tensions of opposites; and (b) these opposites can either be of conflicting, or in a more relaxed and harmonious relationship to each other. The latter is greatly to be preferred.
When psychological opposites (e.g., duty vs. pleasure) are balanced, then three important things happen. First, one is not identified with either pole of the opposition; one may, in a sense, transcend the conflict, rather than in identifying exclusively with either pole. Second, when things are completely balanced, it is like a finely tuned stringed instrument: it can make music; it can harmonize with other tensions of opposites. This seems like a very Pythagorean notion (and indeed, Pythagoras reportedly gained some of his ideas from Egyptian priests). Third, if opposites are completely balanced, then very little effort (a 'feather touch') is needed to move in either direction along the dimension produced by the two poles.
The small figure supporting Ma'at is Isis (fig. 2).
There is indeed a strong physical resemblance between the Anhai and Ma'at images. But they are definitely different individuals. If no other way, this is made completely clear by considering other papyri in which the counterpart of Anhai is male and no such confusion occurs. Also, there is a degree to which Anhai is intentionally represented as "Ma'at-like" -- it corresponds to her purification.
The soul of Anhai, led by her guide, approaches a set of scales. This is the so-called 'weighing of the heart' scene. If the heart of the deceased is found to not outweigh a feather, then they may pass. Otherwise, the heart is given to the crocodile-dog monster, Ammut (fig. 6), who devours it.
The jackal-headed figure who does the weighing is the god, Annubis (fig. 5).
The god, Thoth (fig. 9) records the results of the weighing.
The baboon sitting in a rather detached or bemused way atop the scales is also associated with the god, Thoth.
Above the scales are ten seated gods who judge the weighing (fig. 7).
Other papyri show twelve gods. For example, here are the corresponding gods from the Papyrus of Ani.
There is sufficient detail here to identify the individual judges with their respective Egyptian gods. Note above that in two cases two gods are seated as a pair.
The idea of twelve judges seems of basic and perhaps universal archetypal significance, as the motif is found so often in ancient religion. These seem different from the twelve zodiacal signs. Rather, they seem especially associated with judging, and, symbolically, ones judging ones own actions and meting out rewards or punishments accordingly.
That is, I am speculating that, somewhere within the psyche, there exists a set of parts, structures, or complexes, approximately twelve in number, associated with self-judgment, reward, and punishment.
A heart "light as a feather" undoubtedly relates in some basic way to the principles associated with the goddess Ma'at, in whose Hall all this takes place. One possible interpretation is that this means a person is in a state of equipoise or indifference relevant to all the tensions of opposites in their existence. (Cf. the Greek philosophical concept of apatheia; and the Buddhist idea of non-attachment).
Figure 8 is Isis.
The soul of Anhai passes the judgment and proceeds to the throne of Osiris.
Anhai, I suggest, represents ordinary ego consciousness, and Osiris (fig. 11) a much deeper level of ego consciousness. The entire scene, then, depicts a progression of the ordinary ego to this thing one might call, lacking a better term, "deep ego consciousness" or perhaps the state of "purified ego".
In other words, Anhai already is, in a sense, Osiris, but has forgotten her true nature by becoming identified with material things. She is returning to a purer level of self-identification and understanding of her true nature. This corresponds to the stage of purification in the life of a contemplative or religious mystic; it is a necessary prelude to the subsequent stages of illumination and union with the Divine.
Symbolically, attachment or identification with worldly things is "death" or "incarnation"; severing this attachment is like spiritual rebirth, returning to ones true nature.
The kind of awareness represented by Osiris is best exemplified by the state the mind in contemplation or deep meditation. It is still "ego", because it retains a sense of personal identity, intention, and agency. However, it has withdrawn all attention from the sensory realm or from worldly concerns. For present purposes, we could also call this Osiris consciousness.
Actually, here my interpretation splits into two versions. In interpretation A, 'Osiris consciousness' is something one would experience only in deep contemplation. It is intermediate between ordinary ego consciousness and contemplative union with God.
In Catholic mysticism, this is sometimes called a state of deep recollection, meaning that one has gathered the soul into itself, withdrawing attention from all external things (Cf. the Prayer of Recollection in the Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Avila or St. Teresa of Jesus). But this is just the base from which the soul may then extend upwards (or inwards) to experience God, or perhaps divine levels of the soul beyond the ego. We could call this interpretation that of contemplative redemption, because it relates to the process of purification a soul must undergo to move from the state of ordinary ego consciousness to 'Osiris consciousness'.
The second view, or interpretation B, we could call that of existential redemption. Here the goal is not contemplation, but to relate to the external world with a purified or otherwise redeemed ego. This is one of the main desiderata of the mystical life, consisting of interaction in the world without the ordinary subject-object distinction. I prefer to pursue interpretation A here but wish to at least make note of interpretation B.
To summarize then, we have suggested that the scene portrays the journey of the ego as it attempts to move beyond ordinary ego consciousness to the state of deep contemplation, represented by the figure of Osiris. Let us examine more closely the details of the Osiris figure.
Osiris (fig. 11) is seated on a throne of gold, and in a posture that suggests a great sense of composure and repose.
Osiris, we should add, is in Egyptian religion closely associated with the idea of resurrection and rebirth.
Standing behind him, touching him, are Isis (fig. 13) and another goddess, Nephthys (fig. 14.). On the throne, to the right of Osiris, is the falcon god, Horus (fig. 12).
Both goddesses have elaborate, abstract, and highly symbolic headpieces. The system and meaning of these headpieces is a fascinating characteristic of Egyptian art.
Floating or suspended above the head of Osiris is a red solar disc. This suggests to me the higher part of the soul the ego gains connection with through contemplation.
Recently I ran across the following passage from Plutarch (fl.100 AD) in his tractate, De genio Socrati, which seems potentially relevant:
|"Every soul doth not mix herself after one sort; for some plunge themselves into the body, and so in this life their whole frame is corrupted by appetite and passion; others are mixed as to some part, but the purer part still remains without the body, - it is not drawn down into it, but it swims above, and touches the extremest part of the man's head; it is like a cord to hold up and direct the subsiding part of the soul, as long as it proves obedient and is not overcome by the appetites of the flesh." (Plutarch, Moralia, " A discourse concerning Socrates' daemon")|
Plutarch, incidentally, in addition to being an outstanding historian of antiquity, a major Platonist philosopher, and the high priest of the Delphic Temple, wrote extensively about ancient Egyptian religion.
Osiris, like other figures in the scene, has the traditional cobra forehead ornament (uraeus). Also, along the edge of the canopy above the throne of Osiris are about 30 uraeus-like hooded cobra designs, each with a solar disc above its head.
It's hard to avoid noticing the parallel between these two things, the solar disc above the crown of the head and the forehead-cobra, and the two uppermost chakras of kundalini yoga, the sahasrara and ajna chakras, respectively.
If this is a valid association, it could suggest (a) transmission of ideas from India to Egypt; (b) transmission of ideas from Egypt to India; (c) transmission of ideas to both Egypt and India from some place else (e.g., Persia); or (d) independent formulation based on commonality of phenomenological experience.
It is also intriguing to consider connections between these images and Christian artistic motifs of the halo, nimbus, etc. For example, in Renaissance Christian art, we may discern two distinctly different kinds of "halos". One surrounds the entire head of a religious figure. Another is more like a disc that hovers above the person's head.
In front of Osiris is a sacrificial calf, with a small amount of blood dripping from it. I do not understand the significance of this image. The most I can say is that, personally, it seems to elicit a sense of poignance or gravitas in the scene.
It seems natural to regard the entire throne of Osiris, and all the figures there, as a unit. That is, together, I think they represent some distinct state of the psyche.
H ere are a couple more pictures from other funereal papyri to help convey the numinous quality of the enthroned Osiris figure, and to support the interpretation that it represents some very profound level of human consciousness.
We might make some interesting conjectures about the significance of Isis, Nephthys, and Horus here. What might these represent in terms of depth psychology? John Van Auken (2002) wrote:
|Isis is the power to hold the thought of the Throne of God within one’s mind, whether it be only a faint memory or a vivid image. She is often depicted with the Throne of God on her head or mind. Nepthysis [sic] is the magical power to know that the unseen forces are more powerful than the seen, despite the appearance to the contrary.|
but where he gets these ideas -- whether they are his own or from some other source -- I cannot say. The remarks concerning Isis, at least, seem to fit.
Concerning Horus, a falcon flies above things and has keen eyesight. (Indeed, the 'Eye of Horus' is itself an important and tremendously significant inconic image in Egyptian art). These two features suggest a faculty of the psyche which is able to see all other things going on in the mind and convey this information back to Osiris, or what we've called "deep ego consciousenss".
There's really a great deal we could say about these figures, but just not here and now.
The Throne of Osiris suggests to me a possible meditational exercise, something like what Jungians call "active imagination." It is modeled after certain Tibetan tantric practices wherein a person meditates on a picture, such as a mandala, and imagines oneself in the scene. The exercise, then, would be as follows:
Sit down comfortably on a chair. Close your eyes and imagine yourself to be Osiris as in the picture. Imagine also the goddesses Isis and Nephthys behind you, and the falcon god Horus seated to your right. Imagine yourself completely detached from all worldly concerns; at the same time, you are in complete, kingly command of all material things -- Lord of the material world; and it is precisely for this reason that you need not attend to worldly things. Then, completely composed and recollected, try to imagine your attention being drawn upwards, making contact with God, or perhaps a Higher Self.
That's the basic idea. From there you can improvise and follow your instincts. All I can say is that I've experimented with this a little and it seems comparable in efficacy to other kinds of active imagination exercises and tantric meditations.
This concludes my present interpretative effort. Perhaps it contains some small element of truth -- my experience is that intuitions are seldom completely wrong. But I allow that it might be almost completely idiosyncratic, or even just plain wrong. Perhaps it will at least suggest some new ideas to you, or otherwise help you to formulate a more personally relevant interpretation. In any case, I would encourage people to look for the depth-psychological symbolism of such art, and of ancient Egyptian mythos in general.
Uebersax, John S. (2007). "Psychological Commentary on the Hall of Judgment Scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead". Online article. Retrieved from http://john-uebersax.com/plato/anhai.htm on mmm dd, yyyy.
Faulkner, Raymond. O. The Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead. London: British Museum Press, 1985.
Rossiter, Evelyn. The Book of the Dead: Famous Egyptian Papyri (Papyri of Ani, Hunefer, Anhai). Miller Graphics / Editions Minerva, 1979.
Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism, 12th ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1955. (First ed. 1910)
Van Auken, John. " Egyptian Gods as Metaphors". 2002. Online article. A.R.E. Website. Retrieved 17 May 2007.