Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Gates of the Underworld

Although this was written as a meditation for the Spring Equinox, apart from Iris rising at the end, there are no obvious signs of Spring. One of my principal sources has been Pyramid texts and their transcriptions, and a number of the poetic segments are based on those, and the hymn to the Nile and the digging of the Canal are taken verbatim. The sequence by the monastery likeways uses texts from the Desert Fathers. The link of papyrus with the origins of human beings is a widespread mythology, not just in Egypt, but across many African peoples. There are also two allusions to C.S. Lewis Narnia stories; those I leave the sharp-eyed reader to spot.

Gates of the Underworld

It is night, a cold night, and I step slowly across the sands; behind, I see a trail left by my footsteps back across the dunes. The sun has long gone down, and the air is cold, but still. All around me I see the contours of the sand, shadows of grey curving away into the darkness.

Ahead of me lies my destination, just as I read in the fragment of crumbling papyrus which I hold in my hand. There ahead of me, between two dunes, is a black obsidian arch, its glassy surface shining in the moonlight. This is the first gate, the entrance to the underworld, and the start of my journey.

Beyond the gate is a darkness, and I cannot see what is the other side. A cool breeze comes through the gate, and I hear a voice intone:

O living who are on earth, as the King loves you,
Enter the hall, the visitor, and come on through;
Into the land of shadows, the past reborn, light,
An ancient King passed this way, into the night;
A thousand of bread, beer, oxen, fowl, his gift,
To the hall keeper, to pass through time's rift.

The First Gate -Blue

I step though the first gate, and it is daylight, and I am walking through the reed bed, by the river Nile, its blue waters flowing gently by; a heron is fishing nearby, and in a vivid blue sky overhead, I see a flock of Ibis flying south, following the river. I read on my papyrus the following words, a hymn to the Nile.

"Lord of the fish, during the inundation, no bird alights on the crops. You create the grain, you bring forth the barley, assuring perpetuity to the temples. If you cease your toil and your work, then all that exists is in anguish. If the gods suffer in heaven, then the faces of men waste away."

I know that this place is Uthlanga, the land of the reeds, the birth place, whence came the first human, the child of the gods, an orphan of the reeds, gazing at the blue river, aware of self. Here was the child Horus cradled on the flower of the papyrus plant, and here was the child Mosheh drawn out of the water. And from here came my fragment of papyrus itself, from the dawning of mankind.

A cool breeze comes over the waters, and I hear a voice intone:

Here two children born of dark and day,
From the reed bed, once came this way;
From great lakes, the river flows along,
And here we listen to creation's song;
In the beginning, from Africa we came,
Knew ourselves, and knew our shame;
And the guardians there, the crocodile,
Basking gently, slumbers in the Nile:
Sobek's children, from land of dead,
The breaking of the fragile thread.

As I walk along the banks, I see another stone arch, of purple rhyolite, and once more I step through it.

The Second Gate - Purple

I find myself on a Royal Barge, which is sailing down a canal, away from the Nile. Along the canal are white herons and egrets, wading in the waters. Beside me is a man, dressed in a white robe, and fine linen kilt, with white papyrus sandals. He is standing on the barge, looking ahead, but now he turns and says to me:

"His Majesty commanded the digging of this canal, after his finding it blocked with stones; a ship could not sail on it. He travelled North on it, his heart being glad, having slain his enemies. The name of this canal is Menkheperre, 'may he live eternally', and he is the one who opens the way as something perfect."

And in the distance, I see the Pharoah, in his rich purple robes, seated on a golden throne, waiting for his barge to arrive, with a retinue of servants and slaves around him, and a falcon flying him, circling round.

And a voice speaks softly in the wind

Ascend to the sky as a falcon in flight,
King Unis goes to the sky, to the light;
With feathers, he goes, soaring so high,
On the wind, on the wind, see him fly;
The soul, high it flies, like a bird,
Stairs to the sky, laid for him, upward:
The ladder of Re, rising up it goes,
And where it ends, no one knows.

As the barge slowly makes its way down the canal, I notice at one end there has been erected an arch of wood; here the branches of a sycamore have been entwined together forming a green arch. I stoop down, and go through the arch.

The Third Gate - Green

I am again walking across the desert sands, but then they give way to lush grasslands and date palm trees, with lagoons of cool fresh water. I have come to the oasis, a green haven in a scorching desert.

I draw nearer, and I can see the path made by the Bedouin traders, the tracks of their caravans in the sand. The dwellings have fallen into ruin, and on the outskirts of the oasis are undecorated rock-cut tombs which are almost completely buried by the sand.

And a voice speaks softly in the wind

Drink deep of the waters of Ta-Iht, land of the cow,
For the Goddess Hathor, blessed this land and now
She nurtures the weary traveller, on the long path,
To escape the desert sun, the Sun-God's wrath

Drink deep of the waters of Ta-Iht, land of the cow,
And the Goddess Hathor, makes you this true vow:
She will nurture you today, and on the final day,
When you leave the light to seek the darkest way

On the hillside before the stone tombs, I see a black cat, looking at me. And as I watch, it turns and walks towards the tombs. Each has a low arched doorway that opens into absolute blackness. The cat sat down by one archway, with its tail curled round its feet and gazed towards the darkness. There is broken statue by the arch, half buried in the sand, and an inscription over the arch, and I read:

"Though under Earth and throneless now I be,
Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me."

And I stoop down, and go through the arch.

The Fourth Gate - Orange

I am standing beside the Great Pyramid, and all around me are priests and priestesses in orange robes, chanting:

O worship the Aten, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love;
He nurtures the seed, and lightens the days,
The giver of life, the one whom we praise

He rises in morning, his rays to embrace,
His robe is the light, his canopy space,
But darkened his light, when thunderclouds form,
And dark is that path on the wings of the storm.

We children of dust, so feeble and frail,
The sunset is coming, and our day will fail,
At the close of the day, like the Aten descend,
Here is the dark path that we take at the end

I see an arch of white marble, and on either side are heavy tripods, each bearing a brazier of fire. Once again, I go through the archway.

The Fifth Gate - White

I am on a track which winds through a barren land; I see everywhere rocky ground with only the barest shrubs, and in the distance a circular wall enclosing buildings, a sanctuary in the midst of this wilderness.

A man is sitting on a large rock by the side of the track, dressed in a white robe, and I greet him. He tells me that I can see the Monastery of St. Macarius, which lies in the desert regions between Cairo and Alexandria. Here dwell the hermits of the deserts, who strive to follow the way of purity and wisdom.

He said, "They seek solitude, for the arrows of the enemy cannot touch one who loves quietness; but he who moves about in a crowd will often be wounded. And their rule is to welcome the stranger with hospitality and to send you away in peace."

He told me that they had among them men of letters and philosophers, and members of the aristocracy along with simple illiterate peasants. And he said to me that they worshiped the light which shines in the darkness, and sought to bear witness to that light:

"God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of all, of believers or unbelievers, of the just or the unjust, of the pious or the impious, of those freed from passions or those caught up in them, of monks or those living in the world, of the educated and the illiterate, of the healthy and the sick, of the young or the old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather which are the same for everyone without exception."

A wind is rising, and I see a dust storm blowing across the land. Within moments, I cannot see the path clearly, and the monk is lost from sight; I stumble with the dust irritating my eyes; the sky cannot be seen, only a purple hue shining above. And as I shield my eyes, I see ahead an arch of sandstone, and swiftly hurry through.

The Sixth Gate - Violet

I am in an observatory beside a large circular stone basin of water; this is in the middle of a great room, open to the sky above; gazing in the basin, I see the stars reflected in the purple twilight sky.

A man comes to me dressed in a rich violet robe, with a turban on his head. He tells me that I am at the School of Astronomy in Persia, where the Magi study the skies seeking signs.

He tells me that the time has come for the rising of the constellation of Virgo, the Babylonian goddess of love, who points away from the nearby stars into a boundless ocean of smaller stars; stars like dust, scattered in the cosmos. For her love enfolds the cosmos, lighting the way in the darkness with signs of hope.

He takes me along a corridor, into a room whose walls are painted with violet hues, and bows and leaves me there. It is silent. Then a voice intones:

I am the mother, Isis rising in the night:
The moon in her phases, reflected light;
I am wisdom, the opening of the eyes,
Glory of the stars, shining in the skies;
I am the womb, through me all was born,
The lovers entwined, a child I adorn;
Perfume of the flowers, honey so sweet,
I bring fruits of earth, good gifts to eat;
The star signs of birth, I set forth the way,
I nurture all life, until the end of the day;
I weep with the dying, withdraw my breath,
Give fragrance of myrrh, blessing of death

I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be;
and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised

At the end of the room, there are two braziers burning brightly beside an archway through which I see more stars, and the dim outline of pyramids against the night sky. I step through the arch.

The Seventh Gate - Black

I am alone in the desert, with a cloudy night sky, and the sand dunes sweeping away into the darkness. I look around, and I am beside the ruins of the Sphinx, the sand softly blowing over her body. I know that time of the Osirians is long past, and I am returned to my present day.

The clouds clear, and a full silver moon is shining from the sky; moonlight bathing the Sphinx with her radiance. I have returned from the Gates of the Underworld, and my journey is over. But I will not forget the memory of that enchanted time, and the spirit of Isis will remain with me always.

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