It is our pleasure to welcome Normandi Ellis, author of Awakening Osiris: The Spiritual Keys to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, as our featured author for June. Normandi’s book is a masterfully poetic retelling of the ancient spiritual wisdom in the Book of the Dead. Normandi transforms the stories told through hieroglyphs for modern readers and approaches the Book of the Dead as a profound spiritual text capable of speaking to us today, reminding us that the divine realm and the human realm are not altogether separate; and the natural world–the substance of our lives–is fashioned from the stuff of the gods. In her excerpt here, Normandi explores the history and creation of heaven and earth.
Interact with Normandi on our AoM Forum here.
“Normandi Ellis is a genius. Her years of study of the ancient Egyptian language, her deep understanding of the spiritual message of the ancient Egyptian texts, and her exceptional gifts as a poet combine to make Awakening Osiris the best and most beautiful interpretation ever offered of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead—which, of course, celebrates not death but life with all its joys and all its mysteries.”—Graham Hancock
“Awakening Osiris is a perennial, a classic in the combined realm of Egyptology, spirituality, and pure literary achievement.”—Kathleen McGowan, New York Times bestselling author of The Expected On
“Awakening Osiris is not only a translation and a book of Egyptian religion, but also a spiritual work that will serve many Pagans as a prayer book of sorts, a book of meditations—something not to be read and left on the shelf, but to return to repeatedly.”—Judika Illes, author of Encyclopedia of Spirits
IN THE LAND BENEATH I come and go and the earth bends over, wraps its legs around darkness. In black waters boats glide ferrying dead men, gods. It is quiet here, full of stars and boats that slice the water, slick river dripping from every oar. Men whisper, women . . . or are they only my selves? Is the world at ease? Do I dream it? I’ve come somehow through this veil of mist. This skin I wear is imagination. I take the shapes of light.
In the great hall, stone lotus pillars rise, light slants in through clerestory windows and incense curls through my beard. I sit alone playing senet, contemplating my path, slow to move one token across the board. I go forth by chance and design, uplifted by faith, beaten down by worry until I make an end to my passage.
I am a hawk with the heart and soul of a man. I fly through the smoke of incensers. I graze the bald heads of priests with lustral wings. I spin above a maelstrom of dancers. I fly up through sunlight. I’ve the handsome face of a man with black hair, a dark beard. I am a teller of tales, a divinity, a power, a presence.
At first a voice cried against the darkness, and the voice grew loud enough to stir black waters. It was Atum rising up—his head the thousand-petaled lotus. He uttered the word and one petal drifted from him, taking form on the water. He was the will to live. Out of nothing he created himself, the light. The hand that parted the waters, uplifted the sun and stirred the air. He was the first, the beginning, then all else followed, like petals drifting into the pool.
And I can tell you that story.
It was in a world out of time, for there was neither sun nor moon and nothing to mark the night from day until Atum reached down into the abyss and uplifted Ra. The sun shone on Atum’s bright face, day began and Ra lived with him from the beginning of time. That was the first day of the world. In gratitude, the sun raised itself and marked the days’ flow.
But on that first day, when Atum held the sun, a spark flew out from him. The globe he held caught and reflected first light. The light flew back and he saw the light was himself, he saw that he was god and only after Atum created Ra was he visible even to himself.
In the beginning the earth languished with the sky, nothing lay between them, neither height nor depth, and they were not separate. Each encompassed the other like a lover, and the power of life pulsed between. At a word, Atum parted them and they became heaven and earth so that the sun might move between, that it might ride over and under the bodies of two worlds giving both its light. There was space above and below and between and on all four sides so that all of the things Atum thought might take shape—beast and stone and season.
Yet because they had lain so long together, heaven and earth were still part of each other. Spirit manifested in matter and matter was infused with spirit. Between them ran three pillars of air, earth and water, and these were named thought, form and desire. The spark of his fire pulsed in all of them and this Atum called life. He created himself and his body burned, writhing with dark shapes. Out of himself he created everything else—in a word: the skies, the oceans, the mountains, the plants, the gods and men, and he named them. Of his fire, made of fire, each held fire of its own; therefore, they created and perpetuated life, a cycle of being without end. Man he gave the power to create himself, to name himself and his destiny and to be in it, living eternally in the company of gods. And Atum is with him.
Of fire returning to fire, he cannot be turned away, unless a man extinguishes his light himself, unless he casts out god. If he casts out god, he shall die. He shall be nothing, will be nothing, and will have been nothing. He shall have never existed.
But there is more to this story than the world’s creation. There is its destruction.
From fire, out of fire and into fire, Atum takes back what is given. One day he’ll destroy what he has created—from nothing returning to nothing. Time shall swallow itself, the lesser days and the eons. How can one remember what never existed?
But today, on this river bank the palm fronds are stirring, Atum lives in light, Ra rises up. There is time for wisdom, deed and possibility. There is yesterday, today and tomorrow. Though we pass quickly, the earth and heaven remain. Let us make something useful with our hands. Though time forgets us, let it not forget our passing. Grant that today we may do work that matters.
I know the future for us all and it is death. As we live we fight sluggishness. We gather our seeds. We put our hearts into the labor of our hands. We make children to live and remember us. We spend our lives preparing for death, for the moment when we offer up our days and labor, our sayings and doings, the sum of ourselves, and beg the gods to call it good.
Like the sun at day’s end, we pass west through the gap in the mountains. We go quickly or slowly toward Amentet, the stony plateau. It is only the darkness before light, the hidden place, the house of transformation. It is the slaughterhouse where matter is sliced from spirit, the place where gods are made, the place of fire, of bones, sinew, blood and meat. It is death, the struggle. It is nothing. It is Amentet that makes Ra stand and fight, the last blast of fire we call sunset. It is darkness that makes a man shine brightest. It is the destiny of things in the land of Osiris.
Do you know magic? Can you utter the name of your soul and bring yourself back to light? Can you speak your destiny, create life for yourself from yourself as Atum created Ra? From the light of your works do you know who you are?
I am a phoenix, a soul sparking, a tongue of fire burning up flesh. I consume myself and rise. I am light of the Light, keeper of the book of my becomings: what was, what is, what will be. I am Osiris, a god and the ashes of man. I am the skin he takes on and sheds. I am the cord that binds him from this world to the next. I am his excrement. I am his forms. I am Osiris forever, forever changing, eternal as day, everlasting as night. Can it be said more plainly? Life and death are one. Osiris and Ra.
I am the lightning bolt, the erection, the resurrection and the power of regeneration. I am Amsu, a hare nibbling lettuce. I am a man in love. I am Min, the enumeration of one in the nature of things. I am a child, the rememberer of my father. I am what lives on after the man.
Do you know the story of your birth, how it is like the story of Horus, how Isis wept over the corpse of her husband and her tears were magic and stirred the god’s member to rise? They mated and the child was conceived. He was life born out of death, carrier of his father’s wisdom. He was the living emblem of love. He was light triumphing over darkness, the first man, the miracle of nature. His was the power of a man to live again not only in deed, but also in the world. He was the healing of the wound. He travelled forth in the world telling the story of his birth, the glory of his father, the goodness of his death. And he was followed by magic. A pair of hawks circled above him. They were his mother Isis and her sister Nephthys. They dropped two plumes which he placed on his forehead, two gifts that fell from the sky—intuition and love, gifts from the goddesses—that he might walk toward heaven and his father and never lose his way.
We are like Horus. We are children of Osiris. We are light defying darkness. He was twice-born—once of sky, once of his mother; that is, once of spirit and once of matter. Having fought cunning and deceit, he came at last to the house of Osiris and was uplifted to heaven. The sun and moon became his eyes. He was light giving light, reflecting light.
That is one story.
Rise up, Osiris. You are an inundation, you are living water, the oar that guides the boat, the delta created by flood. You are the parts of yourself come together. Your child Horus has made an end to your exile. Rise up like corn and nourish the people in a land made fruitful by the word of Atum.
I am an Osiris, too, an old man ready for judgment. I left the city and crossed the plains. Entering the dark house, I cast off doubt and feebleness, I burned up fear, I lit candles and incense. I stand bold before gods, lusting neither for blood nor life nor flesh. I quit the petty concerns of day. It is the hour of my birth, my transformation, my coming into becoming. I anoint myself and rise from the lotus pool. I am changed—a new man, a lapwing among stars. My name is prayer. My spirit hawk flees the egg, leaves its shell. I am fresh as a fledgling in its mother’s nest. This life is my offering, what common men give gods.
I am like Ra, born of two worlds in endless space and time. I ride between water and air. I am a word escaped between two lips, desire and thought crystallized into form. I rise from two pools of natron and niter. I rise from the Neterworld. I am the purpose of god, infinite one, multiplicity of his forms. I rise from a green sea of Being; being infinite, I live a million years. I am the action of god’s action. I am many things lasting forever. Like Ra himself, I am a child of Atum.
I walked the road toward truth, toward the island between two worlds. I know its beginnings, how it was made, how the land built itself up one grain of sand at a time, how a man’s deeds become his fate. And I’ve seen truth piled up like the thin, worn-out husks of men, skins cast off at the door of the tomb. These burn up and their ashes become god’s truth. Blown by wind, the ashes fall and are carried in the stream of unknowing. They form a silt in the river that grows the food that feeds men. So a man’s life ended nourishes another; and, depending on his deeds, the food dead men proffer may be poison or nectar.
Some things Atum spoke remain always true: life and death, boundlessness and restraint, intuition and magic, nature and nurture, the earth and sky. His children last forever. The sun rolls ever onward. The doors of heaven open. They open. Light returns to light. The great knowing descends—genius and genesis. His lips part, breath blows over his teeth; the air moves over stones. He tells the story of being and it comes to be. This was the world in the beginning. The fire of god danced on two legs. A beetle rolled its ball over the dark sky. What Atum spoke is holy.
“When I became,” said he, “the becoming became. I have become the becoming. I am one seeing myself, divided. I am two and four and eight. I am the universe in diversity. I am my transformations. This is my coming together. Here are my selves become one.”
Corn and clouds and cattle are gods renewing. I am the god of myself. Lift me up. Imagination is creation, genius is genesis. The gods give us their hands. Imagination is the fact at the back of the head. I make my changes in secret like an insect in its chrysalis, like lead into gold, the man in his mummy, the sanity in madness. Transformation is intellect, will, purpose, desire. Die. Be born. Bring forth labors and love. Let the invisible be in the visible. Name yourself in your heart and know who you are.
A beetle wanders in the night tasting dust, smelling worms, feeling the ground. He pushes and pushes the seed of himself, a dried ball of dung. Insanity! What can be the fruit of such preoccupation, such slavish devotion to shit? Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he knows not what he is. He moves not by thought, but by instinct. Through the belly of darkness, he creeps, struggles with his burden, at first small and soft, now a large, hard, heavy stone.
It is one hour before dawn. In the beginning, the end is foretold, but we are not privy to it. We struggle on, strive to reach some end, the purpose of which escapes us, yet, whose purpose is simply that we strive for the end. It is desire that propels us. Process alone has significance. You are one when the question is its own answer, when the answer is the quest. Breezes blow. The ball of dung turns gold. In the light of day, the ball breaks; beetles fly into the sun.
That is Khepera. That is one way of becoming.
There is no creation without destruction. To make the pot to carry water, the river must give up its clay. To make the child, the father must give up his seed. To make love, one gives up the self. Creation is death. Sex is death. All the ways of making are sacrifice. So bit by bit those who create murder themselves, use themselves up, give labor their love.
I know the story of Ra, how in a frenzy of lust for flesh or blood, he cut off his cock with a knife. I know the story of perpetuity, how the death of one is the joy of many. I know the story of holy self-undoing. Salvation. Sacrifice.
There are two passages unto heaven. A seed is planted with the intention of harvest. Its truth is to know the touch of the sickle, to come at last to feed the hand of its reaper. This is the vegetal way of becoming, the law of nature, the way of change, blind function. As barley grows, its leaves open to heaven and its roots burrow deep in the ground. It clings to earth, it clings to life, its end forgotten, denied. The plant must be torn from the ground.
Knowing his end, a man may sacrifice himself, choosing death, rather than life. He feels tomorrow’s sorrow, but today’s joy; he looks toward heaven and lives without regret. His change quickens, he knows the sorrow of the knife, the ways of darkness. He weeps and clings to the stone near at hand. He lets go. He grieves; therefore, he is man. He becomes the heart and tongue of god. He creates of mortality something immortal. Pain and defeat follow his days, as do joy and passage.
Adapted, and reprinted with permission from New Page Books, Awakening Osiris by Normandi Ellis is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087