Invoking the Scribes of Ancient Egypt: The Initiatory Path of Spiritual Journaling
Normandi Ellis and Gloria Taylor Brown
Bear & Company, 2011
xii + 307 pages
reviewed by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
This book has an intriguing concept, and in its scope it attempts to provide (at least) four things to potential readers: a travelogue of an especially inspirational pilgrimage to and tour of Egypt; a series of writing exercises; a group of thematic rituals and guided meditations; and personal accounts by various participants in the pilgrimage and tour that don’t necessarily have to do directly with what occurred on the trip, but may relate to their earlier experiences, or particular reflections on lessons learned as a result of the trip and the writing exercises done on it, often including short poetic compositions. To entitle this entire collection both “Invoking the Scribes of Ancient Egypt” and “The Initiatory Path of Spiritual Journaling,” however, is a bit of a stretch in both cases, unfortunately.
Information on scribal practices in Egypt is not as plentiful as many of us might hope, but it is far more extensive than is indicated in this book. While both the scribes of Egypt and the participants in this tour and pilgrimage were both “writing in Egypt,” the similarities somewhat end there. To suggest that what exercises are given in this book—however useful or profound they might end up being for some readers and writers—is in any sense a continuation of ancient Egyptian practices any more than any other type of writing done in Egypt today, or done anywhere else in the world by anyone, would need to have better lines drawn to indicate such than what is presented in this book. Further, to refer to the practice of keeping a journal of one’s spiritual exercises and reflections (which is, undoubtedly, a useful and enriching practice) as an “initiatory path” is also an overstatement. Initiation is a far more serious, intense, and dedicated spiritual practice than keeping a journal is, and many individuals keep journals as assiduously as (if not more so than) some spiritual practitioners, and yet to call one “spiritual” simply by virtue of some of the topics addressed in it is likewise an exaggeration, at very least.
For those who take the existence of the Egyptian deities seriously, some of the writing exercises might not be very palatable. Writing an “I Am Isis” aretalogical poem, for example, may strike some as impious, since that formulation and the goddess are being used as a projection screen for one’s own self-exploration.
Some of the rituals given in this book—including those at the beginning and end of the pilgrimage—are not Egyptian-specific, and in fact draw upon an eclectic range of spiritual traditions, including various Native American concepts (though no singular people or culture is named, only vague notions of totem-type animals and their desirable characteristics). In both rituals, which have a directional (East, South, West, North, Above, Below, Center) focus, ending with the phrase “…all our relations” and then “Ah ho” is the format followed. I don’t know the cultural background or training of the main ritualist amongst the group, but I can’t help but feel that doing this sort of North American indigenous tradition-inspired practice as a beginning and end to a pilgrimage in Egypt is inappropriate at best, and culturally appropriative at worst.
Egyptian tradition is not my primary area of familiarity, but even I know that some matters are rather inaccurately portrayed. The Great Sphinx is addressed by some participants as a female (p. 47), and even though the gender of the statue is not entirely certain, the Egyptians of antiquity considered it male. The Egyptian goddess Satis is called the “goddess of satisfaction” at one point (p. 57), but the etymologies of the name “Satis” and the word “satisfaction” are not at all connected (and originate in two entirely different, non-cognate languages!), and Satis herself has no direct connection to such a concept. In reference to Imhotep, the architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara (amongst many other venerable accomplishments), Gloria Taylor Brown writes “[He] is the only example of which I am aware where a historical man has been added to the pantheon of Egypt” (p. 245). Brown’s biography in the book suggests she is a lifelong student of Egyptian studies and teacher of Egyptian mysteries. Thus, it is rather upsetting that she doesn’t seem to know about the possibilities for deification of humans that are present in a great deal of ancient Egyptian religion, nor the further examples of it, including Petesi and Paher (whose temple is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and which continued through to the early second century of the current era as well with, at very least, Antinous. Granted, few amongst the pharaohs, even, achieved renown as great as Imhotep, but he is far from the only example.
For readers who are not interested in a close study of Egyptian precedents for spiritual practice, and who don’t mind a fair bit of New Age material (including references to Edgar Cayce, Omm Sety, and various other New Age-Egyptian connections), as well as spiritual traditions from a variety of other cultures, being mixed into the ever-intriguing cauldron of Egyptian “mystery,” this will be a very satisfying book. What I found the most interesting and useful about it was the photos and the two principal authors’ narratives about some aspects of the various sites that were visited on the tour. The type of writing exercises offered here are found in many other places, and if approached outside of the specific Egyptian tour and pilgrimage context, may be just as effective to pursue for those who wish to do so.
Two pawprints out of five.