Symbolism in ancient Egyptian Art

An occult investigation of the hidden meaning to be found in ancient Egyptian paintings


This new investigation is a continuation of our exploration of the arts and sciences of ancient Egypt. The first and most important step in understanding the meaning and significance of ancient Egyptian Art is that it was essentially subjective, symbolic and sacred, not objective and secular. To see it as the Egyptians did we have to UNlearn many of the modern assumptions and preconceptions we have been taught about 'art.' Nowadays, 'art' may mean anything or nothing, as we explored in our article on the Magic of Art. 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 will know! In contrast to this, ancient Egyptian art was about nothing but meaning. Even the most mundane scenes of everyday life we can see on the monuments and in the tombs of the nobles and rulers of ancient Egypt, and in the great museums, are filled with meaning in every single detail as we shall see later on in this investigation.

The primary purpose of 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 so many people find Egyptian Art beautiful is the direct result of the scientific principles which underpinned it.

The second step in the process of understanding Egyptian Art is to jettison such modern notions as 'self-expression', 'style', 'originality' and 'social relevance.' Ancient Egyptian art was concerned with none of these things. The ancient Egyptian artist was firstly a highly trained scientist and a philosopher; secondly a consummate draughtsman and colourist who knew how to interpret and transmit Divine Truths through his paintings using the time-honoured methods of symbolism and allegory we discussed in our article on the Mystery Language. Before he was permitted to depict the Sacred Mysteries, he was required to study for more than 20 years in the Temple schools. In addition to the sciences we have mentioned above, the students in these schools 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 it 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.

In our customary afterword, guest writer Paul G. Vaughan interprets the meaning in a modern recreation of an 18th dynasty ancient Egyptian wall-painting depicting the afterlife journey of three Egyptians through the regions of Amenta — the Egyptian Heaven. The painting is shown below at larger size for those readers who wish to follow Paul's analysis in greater depth. We have also provided a literal translation of the hieroglyphic texts within the painting in PDF format. This document includes a reproduction of the painting. Please see the Further reading list at the end of the sidebar.

journey through amenta

Symbolism, allegory and mythology

It is for the reasons discussed in our introduction 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. 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 KEYS to a symbol, the lock will not open for us and the message will remain hidden. Regular readers may recall that we discussed this problem in the afterword to our investigation of the Mystery Language in which we explored the meaning of two of the most ancient and universal symbols: the Cross and the Circle.

ancient egyptian musicians

On your left we reproduce a painting of an Egyptian Music Teacher and his Pupil. Superficially it is a music lesson and nothing more. Egyptologists see nothing deeper in such pictures, just as they see nothing deeper in scenes of grape picking, sowing, ploughing and harvesting. To the modern, scholarly eye reared on a diet of secularism and scientific materialism such pictures are simply quaint depictions of Egyptian peasants going about their daily work. As we shall now see, this seemingly 'simple' scene of a music lesson tells an allegorical story that can be read on many different levels. Music was esteemed the greatest of all the arts in ancient Egypt because it was through the Holy Word of the Creator that the universe arose. If we look more closely at this picture we note that the student is tuning her instrument in response to the instructions of her teacher, whose left hand is covering his left ear. All this is a synonym for the process of learning to control the turbulent thoughts and emotions of the lower (left) self. Music also played an important role in the Temples and Colleges of Ancient Egypt where it was used not only for religious services and prayers, but also to teach and heal. The English Restoration playwright William Congreve wrote: "Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast...." And his predecessor, Shakespeare tells us that: "Their savage eyes turn'd to a modest gaze by the sweet power of music." Both these quotations demonstrate the power—we might even say 'magic'—of Music for good and evil. When Plato describes the antiquity of the music of the Ancient Egyptians, he says that this art, as well as poetry, had existed in Egypt for at least ten thousand years, and that these arts were of such an inspiring nature that only gods or godlike men could have invented them; we agree.

Symbolism was an exact science taught in the Egyptian Mystery Schools according to strict rules. Particular 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 the Egyptians derived the word ari, meaning 'to do', 'to make', 'create', and so on and so forth.

Among the multitude of zootypes the ancient Egyptians used to symbolize particular concepts, were the Vulture (motherhood); the Beetle (transformation and evolution); and the Falcon or Hawk (wisdom and spiritual sight). At first glance a vulture may seem an odd choice to symbolize motherhood, 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 do — that the Egyptians believed that their gods and goddesses had animal or birds heads! As we shall see later on, these were compound SYMBOLS, or emblems, intended to show the function or activity of specific deities. As such they present greater difficulties of interpretation than the symbols we have discussed so far. 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.

ancient egyptian lady and mirror

The next picture we have chosen to analyse depicts an Egyptian noblewoman at her toilet. This, like the previous picture, contains a wealth of symbolic meaning which is not obvious. Such details as the little girl and her pet monkey (symbolizing the lower self), the double square formed by the supports of the table (symbolizing the physical, material world), the items upon it, the ornamentation of the Lady's chair, the two lotus-crowned columns (positive and negative—light and dark, good and evil, etc.), and the door (portal to the higher dimensions), are all symbols that, taken together, reveal the proper conditions for Spiritual meditation. This interpretation may come as a surprise to some and seem far-fetched to those Egyptologists who refuse to see further than the ends of their noses (if that far!). Nonetheless, it was in just such seemingly simple pictures of everyday life that the ancient Egyptian Sages concealed their knowledge and wisdom.

The great difficulty for modern seekers after Truth is that not only do people 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 just some of the difficulties which confront the modern viewer of Egyptian art who wishes to discover its occult or hidden meaning. 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 this rich, largely unknown language of symbolism is taught nowadays? Frankly, we know of none! Nevertheless, it is possible to understand something of this symbolism as the examples we have chosen illustrate.

The depiction of deities

The representations of the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt to be found upon the monuments and depicted in wall-paintings were not intended to be viewed as any kind of likeness. On the contrary, as we said earlier, the statues and paintings of the Egyptian deities were wholly symbolical and allegorical. In this part of our investigation we shall examine the representation of three of the better-known Gods of old Egypt.

ancient egyptian god khephera

Our first example is the Egyptian God Khepera. He was commonly depicted as the sacred scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) clasping the disc of the rising Sun in its claws. Khepera represented one of the highest abstract principles of creation and transformation. The name is derived from the Egyptian word Khepher, variously spelled kheper, Khepri, etc., which means to 'transform, 'transmute' and 'evolve'. In these three words we find the keys to the hidden meaning of this emblem that was symbolized in the form of the humble scarab beetle rolling along his little ball of dung.

Now 'dung' may seem to be a rather indelicate object to symbolize the universe and all it contains, but it is not really so if we accept the concept that life feeds on life from the tiniest bacterium to the huge clouds of interstellar gas we can see in space that provide the raw materials for the birth of new galaxies without number. All material forms without exception are born, mature and die; to be reborn again in different forms. There is also an implied deeper meaning here; for it is through transformation and transmutation that the universe ultimately evolves into something higher and purer. Those of you who know something about the Mystery Teachings of ancient Egypt and other lands will understand that this process of transmutation is universal. We, ourselves, are not the same beings from one moment to the next. Even as you read this, you are changing, physically, mentally, and spiritually, though those changes may be so subtle that you are not consciously aware of them. Here we see the principle which Khepera represents at work, transforming, transmuting and evolving matter until it is perfected.

ancient egyptian god ra

RA is perhaps the best known but least understood of all the ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. This is not surprising when we consider the length of time He was worshipped and the many changes and developments that took place in the religion of Egypt during those millennia. What we can say is that RA was one of the most ancient Gods who was worshipped in Heliopolis from the very earliest times as the representative of the Life and Light of the Sun in its various manifestations. Although this function was later merged with that of Amen-Ra and other Gods, Ra never lost His supremacy as the Head of the Solar Race, from which almost every Pharaoh claimed descent. The hidden meaning of this Solar Race formed an important part of the Teachings of the Mystery Schools of Egypt.

The mythology of Ra may well have been the inspiration for the Biblical parable of feeding the five thousand. For in the Book of the Dead written many thousands of years before the advent of Christ, the deceased declares: "I am the Lord of Bread in Annu (Heliopolis). My bread in heaven is the bread of Ra; my bread on earth was that of Geb." Unlike the Biblical parable, which in transmogrifying spiritual truths into earthly events, distorts the meaning of the allegory, the original Egyptian teaching draws a clear distinction between material knowledge (the bread of Geb, God of the Earth) and spiritual wisdom (the bread of Ra). Sometimes this consists of seven loaves, at others of five, and each is significant. Five loaves are the bread of earth, and seven the bread of heaven, for five is the number of the man of earth, but seven the number of the man of Heaven, or liberated Higher Ego or Soul. In this we see one example of the rich symbolism associated with the depictions of the God Ra.

ancient egyptian goddess isis

Our third and final example of symbolism in ancient Egyptian Art is ISIS. This is the Greek rendering of her name which was written as AST in Ancient Egypt. From the earliest times she was associated with Motherhood in all its various types, from the purely human mother, through Mother Nature as the embodiment of the feminine principle that nourishes and protects every living thing, to the Divine Mother of all. It was in this latter guise that she represented the highest archetypal mother principle, without which creation is impossible.

In one phase of the mythos Isis was the wife and sister of Osiris (written ASAR in Ancient Egypt). Together with her son, Horus, this Holy Trinity was worshipped by the masses in Egypt as the type of the ideal human family. But there were many other, secret, attributes of the Goddess that were only revealed to Egyptian Initiates, and it is to these that Plutarch referred when he wrote: "I, ISIS, am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and no mortal hath lifted my veil." This is true, for the Mysteries into which the Greek philosopher was partially initiated in Egypt, transformed the mortal man into the immortal from whom no secrets were hidden. The cloak of motherhood in all its guises was for those outside the Veil; those within it beheld the naked Truth, which, as Plato remarked, "it is not lawful to divulge." Nonetheless, Isis remained the most beloved goddess in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon and the archetypal Mother principle which later was adopted by the Christian Church, as the earliest statues of the Virgin Mary testify, having been brought to Rome from Egypt. In some of these early statues Mary (or Isis) is cradling the infant Horus, not Christ, whose life and teachings were modelled to a large extent upon the character and mission of Horus as you can read in the excellent discussion of the Egyptian Resurrection in the afterword by John Temple to his excellent investigation of the esoteric meaning of Easter.

Books about ancient Egyptian symbolism

In addition to the examples given above, there are a number of books which explore and explain ancient Egyptian symbolism. One such is the aptly named Ancient Egypt — the Light of the World by Gerald Massey. When it was published in 1907 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 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.

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.

© Copyright and Paul G. Vaughan. Article published 17 April 2022.

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