For the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Ancient Egyptian mythology represented a mother-lode of symbolism. In particular, the whole drama of the death and resurrection of Osiris, far more than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, formed the essence of the order’s core myth. Following The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley carried this notion forward and developed some of the GD’s ideas on the netjeru, or Egyptian gods, well beyond what that order imagined.
The re-casting of these netjeru into new forms is an ancient tradition. Among the authors of antiquity, both Herodotus and Plutarch presented versions of the story of Isis and Osiris, and various others offered fragments. But we need to be aware that writers such as these were telling the story for an audience educated in classical Greek or Roman mythology, and everything changes when the concepts of one culture are explained using those of another.
The word netjer (the ‘u’ at the end makes the word plural) means ‘divine power.’ A netjer, above all, represented a principle or archetypal energy, rather than a character in a narrative. One reason Crowley found the Egyptian gods so attractive, from his GD says down to the creation of the Thoth Tarot 40 years later, was because of the sublime purity (his phrase) of their natures. They lack many of the ‘complexes’ of various Greek gods, for example.
Egyptian scriptural texts, from the Old Kingdom and the pyramid era right down to the age of the Ptolemies, tend to present information in didactic statements, not in a weaving narrative form as would have happened in the Hellenic realm. A simple analogy comes from the two societies’ sculpture. The Greeks often represented the human or divine form in a sinuous manner, flowing draperies especially reflecting this. In contrast, Egyptian art uses much more static formulae, even if a visit to a museum shows how the statuary, in particular, can convey serene power.
Egyptian religion was generally close in style to some types of shamanism. The myths were still present, and because the deities were close to the primal character of spiritual and human truths, the festivals were highly evocative and seem to have drawn out strong emotions in the populace. But there was always the consciousness, at last in the priesthood, that each netjer represented a reality that was fairly represented by the form of the god, but also transcended it, or pre-existed in an undescribable, primal form as well.
Thus, netjeru could fuse into composite deities, such as Amun-Ra or Ptah-Seker-Osiris, since what these apparent hybrids embodied were compatible or complementary energies or qualities. And this understanding meant that it was possible for the senior priesthood to develop a system implying much higher levels of consciousness than shamanic ceremonies might produce. We shouldn’t overstate how far that understanding went, but we do know that completely esoteric systems existed. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained a series of tablets, apparently using a secret language – they’re still untranslated – and including what look like magical diagrams of energy-centres or subtle entities in the human form.
We know there was no Egyptian equivalent to Qabalah in the sense of an all-embracing philosophy based on the netjeru, like a Nile Valley equivalent of the Tree of Life. But there was a well-developed sense of five major aspects or ‘bodies’ in each of us, from the ka, similar to the Qabalistic vital soul or nephesh, up to the akh, which was the most exalted concept of selfhood.
And the inherent fluidity of the system, and the number of gods, from national deities like Ra, Thoth or Ma’at down to minor ones with just a local temple to their name, meant that many permutations were possible. A metaphysical system, therefore, inherently underlay Egyptian religion, even if no-one (that we know of) ever wrote a text equivalent to the classic overviews of Qabalah by Dion Fortune, William Gray or Crowley.
Often, people protest that Crowley – or Aiwass – invented the deities of The Book of the Law. The goddess Nut was not the same as Nuit, it’s complained; the form of Horus known as Horus Behdety was never known as Hadit; and so on. This debate rather misses the point, though. The Thelemic pantheon is closer in spirit to the netjeru of ancient times than much of what is written about myths such as that of Osiris, as it has come down to us. Hadit and Nuit are both superbly elementary conceptions, while simultaneously having a luminous character for those who study them with any seriousness. That is right in line with the worship of the netjeru of old, just as Heru-Ra-Ha presents a classic composite deity.
Yes, it might be argued that what these Thelemic gods represent owes as much to Kant or Hegel as to the Maxims of Ptah-hotep or the Instructions of Amenemhat. Yet throughout Egyptian history, outside influences were being absorbed into the Nile Valley’s spiritual system, a process that continued down to Hellenic times and the end of Egyptian autonomy. We cannot ignore our cultural and philosophical heritage, so why should Aiwass when he dictated The Book of the Law?
The Egyptian system was above all mutable and dynamic. It renewed itself over and over through three millennia. If for no other reason, that dynamism commends it for use in a system that takes its very name, Thelema, from the Grek word meaning ‘will.’