Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Biblio File

Far Memory: Ancient Egypt Through Western Eyes


Thoth Trismégiste, le premier Hermès, Hermès Trismégiste., Digital ID 39132, New York Public LibraryThoth Trismégiste, le premier Hermès, Hermès Trismégiste., NYPL Digital ID 39132Ancient Egypt has long held a fascination for the West. The idea of Egypt was transmitted to Roman culture through Greek accounts, and after Late Antiquity, existed in the European imagination as an exotic and ancient location in the Bible's Old Testament account of the 6th century BCE Israelite diaspora.

The Western Mystery Tradition had its earliest beginnings in the cult of Isis, which reached Rome in the first millennium BCE. Initiation, an important practice in the tradition, can trace its origins to ancient Egypt's initiation societies. The Christian iconography of Virgin and Child is said to be a reflection of the goddess Isis and her infant Horus. In Late Antiquity, the Egyptian world view provided a foundation for other religious philosophies, such as Gnosticism and Hermeticism

During the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, European tourists returned from their Egyptian travels with stories and artifacts, creating a wave of interest in all things Egyptian. In 1798 Napoleon commissioned the first studies in Egyptology and established l'Institut d'Egypte outside of Cairo, employing hundreds of scientists and artists to discover and document Egypt's history. Their findings were published in the Description de l'Egypte (1809-1829). 

In 1922, Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered Tutankhamun's tomb, garnering world wide publicity and sparking the West's renewed enthrallment with this ancient culture. The architecture, fashion, jewelry, furniture, and graphic design of Art Deco draws upon this influence. Even now, ancient Egypt continues to fascinate.

My first exposure to the idea of ancient Egypt came in grade school, with Lucile Morrison's excellent The Lost Queen of Egypt (1937), now, sadly, out of print. This book allowed me to understand that the best historical fiction evokes a distant time and place in a way that feels true. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I had the great fortune to stumble upon the works of Joan Grant, and, as they say, one thing led to another.

Joan Grant (1907-1989) lived an extraordinary life (or, if you believe her claim to have lived before, many extraordinary lives). Winged Pharaoh (1937), a "far memory" in the guise of historical fiction, is a beautifully written evocation of ancient Egypt and a tale of the highest moral order. In her autobiographies, Far Memory (1956) and Many Lifetimes (1968), she describes how the training she received as priestess Sekeeta in Winged Pharaoh enabled her to remember subsequent incarnations. Two other accounts of lives in ancient Egypt are Eyes of Horus and Lord of the Horizon, also published as fiction in 1942 and 1943. In Speaking From the Heart (2007), a collection of notes and journal entries, Grant writes, "Looking back to my childhood, or down a vista of millennia, I see no change in the principles of benign living. What are these basic principles? That every individual is entirely responsible for his behavior, and for his reaction to circumstance. That physical age is irrelevant. The wise are born wise and the sour old person will become a sour baby, unless he changes his attitudes before death, or during the excarnate period. Those labels of rank, or class, or nationality, or race, or creed, or sex, are so transitory that in the long run they are trivial. And that character, which has nothing to do with intellect or skill, can evolve only by increasing our capacity to love, and to become lovable. These basic principles are implicit in a belief in reincarnation; and it is the privilege of all of us to help each other to put them into practice."

Initiation (1953) was another popular past-life account of an Egyptian incarnation, written by the founder of the first yoga school in Europe, Elisabeth Haich (1897-1994), at the request of her students. In this book, she relates her apprenticeship with a high priest named Ptahhotep, and describes exercises in yoga, meditation, and telepathy. She shares esoteric information about the origins of human life on earth, as well as her understanding of karma and reincarnation. This book, translated into 17 languages, was an international bestseller. 

René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961) is best known for his study of the art and architecture of the Temple of Luxor. His book The Temple of Man (1957) argues in great detail for an understanding of an Egyptian world view founded upon Pythagorean number mysticism (the theory that numbers have innate meaning) and sacred geometry. His student and wife, Isha, lived in Egypt for 15 years among the temples and tombs of Luxor and Karnak, where she strove to unearth the secret symbolism of the hieroglyphs. She applies this knowledge to Her-Bak (1978), a two volume work of fiction that traces the progress of an Egyptian initiate through various stages of self knowledge and cosmic understanding. From Her-Bak: Egyptian Initiate: "When the governing class isn't chosen for quality it is chosen for material wealth: this always means decadence, the lowest stage a society can reach... Two tendencies govern human choice and effort, the search after quantity and the search after quality. They classify mankind." 

John Anthony West is the leading proponent of the "Symbolist" school of Egyptology. In the 1970s, he was asked to translate the works of R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz from the French. Impressed and inspired by the wealth and depth of knowledge contained in this body of work, he wrote Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt (1979), which allows the ordinary reader access to Schwaller de Lubicz's rather difficult concepts. John Anthony West is at the center of the controversy surrounding the age of the Sphinx. A throwaway observation by R. A. three years before his death, in which he mentioned the water erosion around the base of the Sphinx (something that would have been impossible if traditional archeological dating of the Giza plateau was correct), sparked West's interest. He has subsequently spent decades investigating the theory that ancient Egyptian culture is the product of an earlier, lost civilization, or is, at the very least, far older than mainstream Egyptology claims it to be. West hosts several guided tours to Egypt each year, and his Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt: A Guide to Sacred Places (1996) is a classic in sacred sites travel guides. 


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Post new comment