Light of Egypt — Ancient Egyptian symbolism in art
ancient egyptian symbolism in art

Symbolism in ancient Egyptian Art

Ancient Egyptian Art was symbolic and sacred. To understand it we have to UNlearn many of the modern assumptions and preconceptions we have been taught about 'art.' Nowadays, 'art' may mean anything or nothing, In the case of some of the more extreme examples on display in picture galleries around the world, meaning has been entirely eliminated, as anyone who has ever stared in perplexity at canvases covered in random daubs of paint can testify! In contrast to this, ancient Egyptian art was about nothing BUT meaning. Even the most ordinary pictures of everyday life that we can see in the monuments and tombs of ancient Egypt, and in the great museums, are filled with meaning in every single detail.

ancient egyptian god ra

Far from being 'simple' scenes of smiling peasants harvesting grapes, or pretty maidens dancing, Egyptian art was intended to reveal specific aspects of the hidden material and spiritual laws of Nature. As such it was essentially religious in intent and expression. But 'religion' in ancient Egypt did not mean what it does today. Religion in Egypt was what we might call 'universal science.' It not only encompassed all that we now know as the physical sciences of mathematics, chemistry, physics, geometry, astronomy and biology, but also what we may call the SPIRITUAL sciences of philosophy, ethics and metaphysics. The reason that we find so much Egyptian Art beautiful is the direct result of the scientific principles which underpinned it.

To understand ancient Egyptian Art we must abandon such modern notions as 'self-expression', 'style', 'originality' and 'social relevance.' In ancient Egypt art was concerned with none of these things. The ancient Egyptian artist was firstly a scientist and a philosopher; an interpreter and transmitter of Divine Truths through art. He or she studied for more than 20 years in the Temple schools. In addition to the sciences we have mentioned above, the students were taught who and what Man really is, where he came from, whither he is going, and the real purpose of life on earth; questions which modern science still argues about more than 5,000 years later. The fundamental principle of these Teachings was that Man was a 'son of the gods' in his higher nature whose destiny was to return to the Divine source from which he first emerged.

This principle was embodied in the Mysteries of Osiris; the man-god, who descended into earthly life to gain experience and wisdom and who rose again in a spiritual body. Once we understand that Man is a Divine, spiritual being incarnated in a mortal, material body we realise that the ancient Egyptians' so-called 'preoccupation with death and the afterlife' is exactly the opposite of what it seems to be; that is, a preoccupation with Spiritual, as opposed to merely material, physical Life, in its deepest sense.

Symbolism, allegory and mythology

It is for this reason that ancient Egyptian Art makes so much use of symbolism, allegory and mythology. For the higher, spiritual life cannot be understood by 'logic', 'facts' or intellectual reasoning alone. Only through the language of symbol, allegory and mythology can its hidden truths be revealed, recognised and ultimately understood. In short, the whole tapestry of Egyptian Art is nothing but a series of manifold, interrelated symbols, or we might say, emblems (an emblem in this sense being a compound symbol), deliberately and carefully constructed to communicate certain natural laws and universal principles in pictorial form. We explain some of these laws and principles in the notes accompanying each of the limited edition art prints on this website. These notes contain many valuable hints to help the discerning reader discover the deeper meaning concealed in all ancient Egyptian artwork — not just the few prints we have published. The problem for the modern viewer is that a symbol has no meaning unless we know (or have been taught) what it represents. An obvious modern example is the American dollar bill. We may think we know what the symbols of the pyramid and 'all seeing eye' mean, but what they meant to the Founding Fathers of the Republic, to the artists who designed it (and those who instructed them), may be something quite different. In other words, unless we possess the KEY to such symbols, the lock will not open for us and the message will remain hidden.

ancient egyptian musicians

Symbolism was an exact science taught in the Egyptian Mystery Schools according to strict rules. Such symbols were carefully chosen from the natural world to express or embody a certain natural law, force, principle, or material or spiritual function or concept. An example of such a symbol which occurs over and over again in ancient Egyptian Art is the eye. Whether it is the Eye of Horus, or Ra, or any other god that is depicted, its essential meaning is always connected with sight, illumination and creation. So here we have a symbol which can (and does) refer to the Sun, the Moon (both 'eyes' that illuminate our world, one directly, and the other by reflected light), to spiritual illumination, and creation in all its various manifestations, at one and the same time. From the same symbol is derived the Egyptian word "ari", meaning "to do", "to make", "create", etc.

The ancient Egyptians used a wide variety of common zootypes to symbolize particular concepts, such as the Vulture (motherhood); the Beetle (transformation and evolution) and the Falcon or Hawk (wisdom). The vulture may seem an odd choice to symbolize motherhood at first glance, but the zoologists among our readers will know that this bird is remarkable for the extreme care and protection it lavishes upon its young. No one who has ever watched a falcon soaring aloft in utter freedom, or seen it dive like an arrow straight to earth in pursuit of its prey, can be in any doubt why the wise Egyptians chose it to symbolize the highest spiritual faculties in Man. But do not imagine as some ignorant Egyptologists still do, that the ancient Egyptians believed that their gods and goddesses had animal or birds heads! As we have seen, these were compound SYMBOLS, or emblems, intended to show the function or activity of specific deities. As such they present greater difficulties of interpretation then the more simple symbols we have mentioned. For we are then confronted with several different symbols combined together to form an emblem. The well-known Sphinx at Giza is perhaps the best example of such a compound zootype, combining animal and man and god in one enigmatical image which can never be 'unriddled' by the unaided intellect.

The great difficulty for us is that not only do we no longer think in symbols, but the principles which Egyptian Art was intended to explain, such as 'Soul', 'Mind', 'Life' and 'Light' have very different meanings now than they had then. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that any given symbol can and did have several different meanings depending upon the context in which it was employed and the era (or time) of its original conception. For, during the long history of ancient Egypt, such symbols and emblems underwent many modifications and changes, so that it is impossible to provide a definite meaning for any particular symbol which will be correct under all conditions. These are some of the difficulties which confront the modern viewer of ancient Egyptian art. They are also the main reason why so few Egyptologists are able to penetrate into the real, inner meaning of ancient Egyptian artworks. By their very nature, such artworks, from paintings, through jewellery and sculpture, to sacred architecture, contain a wealth of manifold symbols. To truly understand this rich symbolism requires knowledge that can only be acquired after MANY years of dedicated study of the material and spiritual laws of Nature: laws which modern science has barely begun to investigate, notwithstanding its very great progress during the last few centuries. Where are the universities and schools in which such occult scientific knowledge is taught nowadays? Frankly, we know of ONLY ONE.

Ancient Egyptian symbolism books

Nevertheless, it is possible to understand something of this symbolism IF we make the effort to learn the basic principles. There are a number of books which explore and explain ancient Egyptian symbolism if we can recognise those books when we come across them. Such is the aptly named Ancient Egypt — the Light of the World by Gerald Massey, first published in 1907, when it was met with a truly orthodox conspiracy of silence which has been maintained to this day. It is no exaggeration to say this is the most masterly exposition of the esoteric meaning of ancient Egyptian symbolism, religion and mythos ever written.

We would also recommend John Anthony West's Serpent in the Sky. This is a scholarly and very readable summary of the work of the inspired Egyptologist and Mystic R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz that confirms all that we have said in this article. For those who prefer to go directly to the source, Schwaller de Lubicz' magnum opus The Temple of Man (originally published in French as 'Le Temple de l'homme') is a very detailed analysis of the esoteric symbolism of ancient Egyptian art, science and philosophy. But at 1,024 pages (spread across two volumes) it is not a book to be taken up lightly — nor is it particularly cheap! Yet we know of no other book that explores ancient Egyptian symbolism with such depth and understanding.

ancient egyptian artist

For those seeking more information about ancient Egyptian religion and philosophy we cannot recommend the very many books written by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge highly enough. Budge is now sadly out of favour among Egyptologists for reasons best known to themselves, but that in no way diminishes the very high regard in which we hold him and his writings. His literal translations of 'The Book of the Dead' and other ancient Egyptian texts are what makes them particularly useful to those who wish to go beyond the 'letter that killeth' to the Spirit within. Budge's Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, first published in 1911 and now back in print after becoming quite scarce, remains the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Osirian Religion we know of. The book is especially valuable as Budge drew on Plutarch's 'Concerning the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris' — a unique source of information on the Egyptian Mystery Teachings — for much of his material.

Finally, we cannot end this article without mentioning Winged Pharaoh by Joan Grant. First published in 1939 to critical acclaim, this is one of those rare novels that bears the unmistakable stamp of truth on every one of its inspired pages. Although it does not deal specifically with ancient Egyptian Art, there is a great deal of 'art' in it, not least in the detailed descriptions of the work of ancient Egyptian sculptors, architects and jewellers. The book can be read on many levels; as the story of a remarkable woman's journey from childhood to Initiation into the Mysteries, as a true account of life in ancient Egypt during the 1st Dynasty, as an allegory of a spiritual journey from ignorance to enlightenment, or simply as a very exciting and romantic adventure.

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