An Egyptian Tree of Life


Greetings. There has been some speculation amongst occultists that the sacred Hebrew tradition termed the Qabalah may have been informed, in its early stages of development, by the wisdom of ancient Egypt. There are some similarities amongst certain concepts and teachings, but rather than these indicating a definite connection between the two traditions, they are more supportive of the proposition that "truth, being everywhere eternal, does there always originate where it is understood."

Despite the fact that there is little historical, archaeological, or even anecdotal evidence that the Tree of Life has its roots in Egypt, one may make profitable use of the Tree of Life in studying the spiritual principles of the Egyptian tradition. This is true of most of the Western traditions in their various cultural manifestations, primarily because the Tree of Life is a superb system for the classification of archetypes and spiritual energies. When we attempt to distribute the Gods of any pantheon along the Sephiroth, we find that we are better able to interpret the significance of those Gods in light of what we already know about the Tree, finding it easier to recognize the interplay of various symbols and themes in mythological accounts. This is no idle intellectual pursuit, for there are allegorical mysteries enshrined in a great many of the myths of the ancients. And though these mysteries be profound, yet are they also intensely practical to those that take the trouble to unlock their meaning through meditation and attentive reflection.

For this reason, apprentice occultists are advised to learn well the mythological traditions of at least two ancient cultures. Learning a single tradition alone is useful, but two or more are better in order that the student may have some basis for comparison in evaluating what is purely a cultural manifestation and what a part of the drama of a specific spiritual potency. Even if one has a poor memory, and cannot remember the stories or symbols sufficiently to analyze them in meditation, the practice is still a useful one inasmuch that the subconscious mind will file away all information gleaned from the study, develop the principles underlying the myths, and later reveal them to the student's conscious mind during meditation. Moreover, the practice is useful in "stretching the mind" such that it more easily grasps what occultists term "the Alphabet of the Mysteries." We hope to write on this Alphabet at a later time.

The first step in learning a mythological tradition is to read all that one can on it. This process, itself, should be taken slowly. A myth should not be read purely for intellectual information, but the tone of the story must also be absorbed by the reader's emotional nature. One of the useful ways of doing this is to actively use the creative imagination as one reads, visualizing the scenes being played out in the mind's eye. A kindred practice, though not always applicable to the myth under study, is to think over one's past life circumstances to evaluate whether one has had any experiences that have raised emotional currents similar to those being conveyed by the story. Reviewing the story during meditation, in a way that uses active visualization is also extremely helpful, as is assuming the role of one or another character in the story as one plays out the scenes in meditation. This latter is inordinately useful in connecting with the myths on an emotional level.

Assuming that one has made a study of a mythological tradition, and feels sufficiently emotionally attuned to it, the next step would be to commence assigning various gods, heroes, etc. to the Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. Here we propose to illustrate this method with the Egyptian tradition.

The ancient Egyptians had hundreds of Gods, many of them very minor or bare personifications. Therefore, an attempt at classification cannot be exhaustive. Fortunately, a comprehensive classification is not necessary, for even just studying some major Egyptian deities in this way, one may come to a better understanding of both the gods, as well as the Tree of Life, which an ancient Egyptian initiate might have called "Kow Natara" -- a comprehensive glyph constituting the "Craftsmanship of God." To give some support to my classifications, I have, where possible, referred to ancient Egyptian myths, hymns, and prayers dealing with the Gods being classified.

Kether:   What deity could we possibly assign to this "Primal Glory"  so-called, according to the Yetziratic text, because "no created being can attain to its essence"? We must look for an Egyptian cognate that is the wellspring of manifestation -- a Creator or Creatrix. The Egyptians symbolized this resource of Spirit as the god Nu or Nun. Nu is portrayed as the "primal waters" from which everything is manifested. He fits well within the Qabalistic titles for Kether - "the Ancient of Ancients," "the Ancient of Days," and "the Vast Countenance." Moreover, associating the source of all things with water is not unknown in occult philosophy. The alchemists, for instance, continually refer to the Prime Substance of the Universe as "our Water."

Another possible classification here is the god Ptah -- a Creator god. In the temples of the ancient city of Memphis, it was believed that Ptah and not Nu was the original Creator of the Universe. By the beginning of the New Kingdom period of Egypt, Ptah ranked very high amongst the Gods as the god of architecture, masonry, and craftsmanship. Thus, we may postulate a kinship of spiritual potency between Ptah and the One, who in Masonry is termed "the Great Architect of the Universe." The animal sacred to Ptah is the bull or the ox. Given this, it is easy to make a parallel between the meaning of the Hebrew letter to which Spirit is assigned. This is Aleph -- which means "bull" or "ox." Aleph is assigned to the 11th path of the Tree (and the Fool of Tarot). As Aleph proceeds from Kether, so does the Ox proceed from Ptah, symbolically speaking.

Chokmah:   The Sphere of the Zodiac, and the Circle of Stars. Also, the Archetypal Masculine principle. One choice here could be the Egyptian god of fertility -- Min. Min, very appropriately, is often depicted with an erect phallus, which led the Greeks to identify him with Pan. Though the worship of Min was popular throughout Egypt over a long period of time, not much is related about him in Egyptian mythology. This is likely because he was often considered an aspect of the god Amun, who does frequently appear in texts.

As the Archetypal Masculine principle, it might seem very odd to classify any goddess with Chokmah (although, technically speaking, Chokmah is "receptive" to the influx of energy from Kether). And yet, the goddess Nut, who is the goddess of the starry heavens, seems appropriate to place here because of Chokmah's association with the Zodiac and the fixed stars. According to one hymn to Nut -- she is not just the goddess of the heavens -- she IS the heavens, and the Milky Way flows from her breasts.

Binah:   Being the Archetypal Feminine principle, one could place any goddess here. But Isis, the Great Goddess, beloved by man for thousands of years, might be the best deity to place in Binah to serve as a comprehensive symbol for all goddesses. Indeed, the Egyptians themselves thought of Isis as a composite figure of all goddesses. In a Hymn to Isis, the ancient writer Isidorus addresses the goddess:

"All mortals who live on the boundless earth call you by your beautiful name each in his own tongue. But the Egyptians call you Thiouis, the  Only One, because you alone are all other Goddesses named by the races of men."

Isis corresponds to Binah for another good reason. An alternate Qabalistic title for Binah is Khorsia, "the Throne." The Egyptian name for Isis is "Aset" ("Isis" is actually the Greek form of this name) also meaning "the Throne." In Egyptian sacred drawings, Isis is often pictured with a small throne atop her headress, and the first hieroglyph in her name is also a stylised throne. From this, we might conclude that the Qabalists and ancient Egyptians had similar thoughts of Matter or Form (also attributable to Binah) serving as the Throne of the Divine.

There are other correspondences between Isis and Binah as well. Saturn is attributed to Binah, and one of the traditional incenses of a Saturnian nature is the gum resin Myrrh. One hymn to Isis addresses the Goddess as: "Princess, great one of praise, lady of charm, whose face enjoys the trickling of fresh Myrrh." This same hymn also addresses Her as "the Rain-Cloud that makes green the fields when it descends." This also comports very well with the idea of Binah as the Great Sea, the repository of primal moisture.

Chesed:   the Sphere of the benevolent ruler to which Jupiter is assigned. Although Osiris could fit in several different Sephiroth, he works well in Chesed. Although most of the Egyptian hymns and prayers speak of Osiris as the Lord or Judge of the Dead, or as a solar-figure, some speak of him as the "civilizer of Egypt" -- having brought the rule of law to the land, abolished the practice of cannibalism, and united the the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt (symbolised by Osiris wearing the White Crown and the Red Crown of Egypt -- fitting them together in one piece to make one crown).

Chesed and its assignment of Jupiter are particularly connected with law and judgement -- as is Osiris. And not just in the sense ofjudging the Dead, either. Osiris's Egyptian name is "Asar" (pronounced close to oo-ZAYR-ah), and the root of this name was also the root for the word "judge" in Egyptian -- judges that settled legal disputes, that is. In fact, the ancient Egyptian word for "judge" passed into Arabic in a modified form at a much later date. The Moors later brought it to France, where it became "vizier." The word vizier has now passed into English, and currently refers to a high government official or counselor -- usually in Arabic countries.

Geburah:   the Sphere of Mars, associated with fire, war and destruction. Since we have Osiris in the "seat of Mercy," it makes sense to have Osiris's brother and arch-rival Set in the opposite "seat of Severity." Technically speaking, Set is not a god of fire. Since Egypt was an arid country, he symbolises the principle of dryness, or destruction through heat. Thus, it is natural for him to be the god of the desert. Plutarch, in his essay on Isis and Osiris confirms this by speaking of Set as the principle of destructive heat -- the god that parches the land and causes all things If to wither.

Set's mythology is fraught with acts of destruction -- even from his birth. Set was not content to be born from the womb of Nut like his brothers and sisters; instead, he burst out of his mother's side! Later on in his life, he dismembered his brother Osiris and scattered the pieces throughout the world, causing no end of grief for Osiris's beloved, Isis.

In the city of Memphis, in later Egyptian times, Set was said to be the husband of Astarte, whom the Egyptians thought of as a goddess of war, which also identifies Set's nature with Geburah.

Some have speculated that the name Set is related to the name of the Christian god of evil -- Satan. There may be some truth to this. Set is often depicted with a forked tail, as are many popularized images of Satan. Scholars are also fairly certain that the meaning of the name "Set" is "he who dwells below." The support for this is that in Coptic (a very late form of the ancient Egyptian tongue) the word for "below" is "set." This notion has further support from the fact that the name "Horus" means "he who is above," and many Egyptian texts indicate that Horus and Set are in perpetual opposition.

Tiphareth:   the Sphere of the Sun. Here one may assign Horus, the Divine Child of Isis and Osiris. Horus is like the "Christ-figure" of Egyptian myth, given his semi-miraculous birth and associations with light. Isis was fertilized by a golden phallus magically attached to the reassembled Osiris, since she could not find the dismembered phallus that Set had hidden (one account states that it was thrown into the Nile and consumed by a fish; that species of fish was considered damned by the Egyptians and none would eat it; there is an important esoteric teaching in that account, if one takes the time to think it out). It is interesting to note, too, that gold is the metal associated with the Sun and Tiphareth.

Many hymns to Horus speak of him as a solar figure:

"Thou art the beautiful Sun-Disk that illuminates all with thy rays, and who chases away the darkness. O Great Light! Resplendent Brightness! Our souls crave thy light!"

Another hymn proves even more interesting -- but it needs a little background information. Qabalah teaches that the Chaioth ha-Qadesh, the Four Holy Creatures (the Heavenly Eagle, Lion, Man and Bull) are the Choir of Angels of Kether. In Malkuth, these heavenly principles manifest as the Four Elements. This makes sense given that Qabalah also teaches "Kether is in Malkuth, and Malkuth is in Kether, though after another fashion."

Since Tiphareth is halfway between Kether and Malkuth, it makes sense, too, that these four principles are found in Tiphareth. And in fact, they are. The Kings of the Elementals, as the Elementals manifest in Malkuth, are actually of the order of beings known as the Malachim, the choir of angels of Tiphareth. And even though the Egyptians probably didn't think in these Qabalistic terms, it is interesting that this second hymn to Horus states:

"You come to Life in beauty, O Falcon of the Morning, O Lion of the Evening, O August Spirit, O Bull of raging potency. " The hymn actually identifies Horus with the Four Holy Creatures of Kether (roughly speaking, if we consider the Falcon cognate with the Eagle, and the Spirit with Man), and by analogy, with these principles in Tiphareth and Malkuth.

Netzach:   The sphere of Venus, relating to art, music, beauty, joy and love. The Egyptian goddess that deals with these areas is the cat-goddess Bast, sometimes spelled Bastet or Bashtet or even Pasht. One of the sacred implements used in her rites is the sistrum -- often adorned with the head of a cat.

Scholars speculate that the Egyptian word root in "Bast" actually comes from an ancient Semitic root "bes" or "pes" -- meaning "fire." Some might not immediately see the connection between Fire and Netzach. It is this: under one system of patterns on the Tree of Life, Chokmah is called the Root of Fire, and its potency is reflected into Geburah, and thence reflected into Netzach -- making Netzach a "Fire Sephirah." Bast is also sometimes combined with the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet -- and named Sekhmet-Bast. Sekhmet is another very fiery goddess, whom one battle-prayer addresses as "the Sun-Goddess in the circuit of the Sun-Disk."

Herodotus, in his accounts of Bast's mysteries at the center of her worship in Bubastis, relates that Bast was the twin-sister of Horus, born after him. Since Netzach follows Tiphareth in the Lightning Flash on the Tree, it is interesting to note that Bast follows Horus in this classification. Another goddess, Hathor, who could also be assigned to Netzach in some regards, also has connections with Horus (some say that it was she who was the twin sister of Horus, and not Bast). Her name means "the House of Horus."

Hod:   As the Sephirah governing magic, the Mysteries, Truth, writing, books and knowledge and to which Mercury is attributed, an obvious choice here would be the god Thoth. The Egyptian term for written hieroglyphs was "mowda Natara" -meaning the "words of God" -- "God" referring to, in this instance, Thoth, whom the Egyptians accredited with teaching them to write. One prayer addresses Thoth thus:

"Hail to Thee, Lord of Divine Words, who presides over the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth! Thou art the Primordial One, inventor of words and writing!"

One of Thoth's lesser-known functions is as the god of boundaries and measurement. This is also a function of the Greek god Hermes, whom one could also place in Hod. Piles of stones were often placed at boundaries in ancient Greece, and these were termed "herms" after the god Hermes. Unlike Hermes, however, Thoth represents the "principle of boundaries" in many different areas. The prayer just quoted above goes on to refer to Thoth as the God "who gives each God his Divine Role" [referring to the assigning of cosmic functions or "behavioral boundaries" to the rest of the pantheon], "who gives each profession its Laws" [referring to the boundaries or rules which the members of these professions could not overstep], "who gives each country its borders," and "who gives each field its boundaries."

The principles of boundaries and measurement also apply to most of the functions o Hod. Writing and books are the delineation of ideas. Magic might be partially defined as an act of taking one's consciousness beyond its normal limits. Truth (in the Egyptian tradition, personified as the goddess Ma'at, and who is occasionally referred to as the wife of Thoth) is the measurement of WHAT IS, and the Mysteries seek to take the measurement of WHAT MIGHT BE. That is also true of divination, which is essentially a spiritual act of measurement.

Yesod:   the Sphere of the Moon. Isis, as a lunar figure, could obviously fit here quite well. But since we have used her already in Binah, the jackal-headed god Anubis may be assigned here. Anubis was variously termed the Guide of Souls or the Opener of the Ways in Egyptian texts. Each of these titles relates to Yesod. As the Guide of Souls, Anubis is the first god to meet the newly-departed of Earth. When one leaves one's physical body in Malkuth, the path travelled by the soul is the 32nd path (which is filled with Underworld themes, appropriately enough) up  to the next sphere on the Tree, Yesod. The "Ways" referred to in the second title above may, in one sense, be the Paths and Roads of the astral levels-- which Yesod rules as part of being the "Treasure House of Images."

There is also another connection between Anubis and the Moon/Yesod, based on occult anatomy. Anubis, in the microcosm of man's body (as opposed to his cosmic functions) rules the stomach and the process of digestion. This is confirmed by the fact that representations of the jackal-headed Son of Horus (a different god altogether, named Duamutef) adorned the canopic jars that stored the stomachs of the newly-deceased. Additionally, the Egyptians observed that the jackal would bury its kill in the ground for several days to let it rot slightly before it would eat its meal. The Egyptians found a parallel between this rotting and the processing and digestion of food in the stomach. What has all this to do with the Moon and Yesod, you ask? The connection is that the Moon, through the sign Cancer, astrologically governs the stomach and the process of digestion. The Moon itself is said to govern appetite.

One final relationship between Anubis and Yesod is hinted at in an Egyptian prayer to Anubis as the Opener of the Ways, in which the god is referred to as "the giver of rivers and waters," which the Moon/Yesod rules through the tides it exerts on the earth. Since Egypt was a dry land, water was a valuable commodity. Consequently, the Egyptians conceived their Otherworld as having plenty of water, lakes, and rivers. Because Anubis guided the soul to the Otherworld, in this sense he is the "giver".

Malkuth:   the Sphere of the Earth. The Egyptians had a god of Earth -- namely, Geb. Not much is known about Geb, other than that he was the husband of Nut, and the father of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Set and Thoth by her. One hymn to Geb refers to him as the "Lord of the Whole Earth, the Sustainer of the Gods" and that he "nourishes and revitalises the Gods when They are ill." Later on, the hymn calls him "the Champion of the Forces of Life". And like his wife Nut, who IS the heavens, Geb IS the Earth -- not just the god of the Earth.

Though one may classify Osiris in Chesed, one cannot overlook the fact that he works well here, too. Osiris was the Lord of Vegetation, and is often depicted with green skin. He is not only the God of death and rebirth in human lives, but also in the lives of plants and crops. During the state dance at the yearly Festival of the Inundation (which celebrated the coming waters of the Nile that would make fertile the soil), a hymn to Osiris was sung. It dealt with the sleeping plants springing from the darkness of the soil to reach the Light of the Sun, just as humans pass from the darkness of death and climb into the Light of a Higher World. Osiris is exactly this principle of the continual reawakening of the land and of the human soul. The "green-skinned Osiris" is also an important symbol in ancient Egyptian spiritual alchemy.

This ends a simple classification on the Tree of just some of the major Egyptian gods. Of course, many of the Gods can go in several Sephiroth. Isis fits in Netzach as the goddess of Nature, and also fits in Yesod as a lunar goddess. Osiris is also a solar figure, so he could be placed in Tiphareth. Thoth, who was originally a god of the moon, could also correspond to Yesod. In short, the above classifications are not the only valid ones. Any major deities not assigned above, you can classify yourself. For instance, the goddess Nephthys might be classified as the "Dark" or "Ama" aspect of Binah, with Isis being the "Bright" or "Aima" aspect.

What does one do with all of these classifications? What good are they and how can they bring greater understanding of the Tree and the Egyptian Gods?  When you have your classifications set in your mind (remembering that you must be flexible, since a single deity can fit in several different Sephiroth), draw a diagram of the Tree and write them in. Start examining their relationships in light of what you know about the Tree and what you have read of Egyptian myths. You are sure to have many interesting insights.

Another good exercise is to write in on your diagram the Tarot correspondences of the Paths of the Tree. Look at a Path between two Sephiroth, note the deities you have assigned to the two Sephiroth, and note the Tarot card assigned to the Path between them. Do the two deities have any interaction with each other in mythology that is consonant with the nature of the card? Here are some examples, using the correspondences given above, on how to make these connections:

(1) Osiris is in Chesed. Horus is in Tiphareth. The path connecting them (the 20th path) has the Hermit assigned to it. In the mythology, Osiris was the father of Horus. Osiris was alive just long enough to impregnate Isis. The lantern of the Hermit might symbolize Osiris passing on the Light of the World to his son Horus, before Osiris takes up his role as Lord of the Underworld. The Hermit is also assigned to the zodiac sign Virgo, and the Hebrew letter Yod. For those that are familiar with astrological associations to the human body, here is fertile ground for some truly stunning realizations.

(2) Set is in Geburah. Horus is in Tiphareth. The path between them (the 22nd path) has Justice assigned to it. Above we have stated that these two gods are in constant opposition. What does their cosmic interplay bring about? Balance, or Justice.

(3) Nut is assigned to Chokmah. Isis is assigned to Binah. The path between them (the 14th path) has the pregnant Empress assigned to it. Nut was the mother of Isis.

(4) Isis is assigned to Binah. Horus is in Tiphareth. The path connecting  them (the 17th path) is the Lovers, assigned to Gemini, the Twins. Myth states that Isis gave birth to twins by the golden phallus of Osiris -- Horus and Bast or Horus and Hathor.

(5) Set is in Geburah. Nephthys can be assigned to Binah. Set and Nephthys are the parents of Anubis. What does the Chariot (between Binah and Geburah, on the 18th path) have to do with Anubis? The Chariot is assigned to Cancer, ruled by the Moon. We have assigned Anubis to the Moon/Yesod.

By thinking along these lines, you will come to some great realizations. What you know about the Tree will shed light on what you don't know about the Egyptian gods. And what you know about the Egyptian gods will shed light on what you don't know about the Tree. However, keep in mind that the Egyptians were not Qabalists. What you are doing is essentially comparing two maps. The Tree of Life constitutes a map of the relationships between different spiritual potencies. Many of the Egyptian myths also constitute a map of relationships between spiritual potencies, as represented by the interaction of the various gods in the myths. The potencies are the same, although how they are embodied and symbolized in the two cultures is different. Analytical comparison is only a springboard for you to achieve your own realizations with regard to these spiritual potencies.

One need not stop with the Egyptian pantheon. Move on the Graeco-Roman, Celtic, Norse, Amerindian traditions, or whatever else appeals to you. In time, I hope you will realize that this "Kow Natara" we call the Tree of Life is truly an inexhaustible mine of knowledge.

From Solomon Issue 5, 1996
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