visit the store Pyramids and the New Fire Ceremony
by Philip Coppens Are pyramids just tombs? Leading research, reported in my book “The New Pyramid Age”, suggests the answer is no. Instead, they seem to be the location where kings performed a ritual of rejuvenation, linked with the cosmic cycles of time. Evidence of this ritual has been independently found in Mexico and Egypt. Teotihuacan’s ground plan is eerily similar to that of the three pyramids of Gizeh. The sun and the Pleiades are important in the religious rituals of the New World and the Sun-Pleiades zenith conjunction marked what is known as the New Fire ceremony. Father Bernardino de Sahugun’s Aztec informants stated that this ceremony occurred at the end of every 52 year Calendar Round. The Aztecs and their predecessors had carefully observed the Pleiades and on the expected night the constellation was supposed to pass through the zenith, precisely at midnight, the New Fire ceremony was performed.
This story is in line with the legend that the gods gathered together at Teotihuacan and wondered anxiously who was to be the next Sun. The conclave occurred at the end of the previous World Age, which had just been destroyed by a flood. Now, only the sacred fire could be seen in the darkness, still quaking in the wind following the recent chaos. “Someone will have to sacrifice himself, throw himself into the fire,” they cried, “only then will there be a Sun”. Two deities, Nanahuatzin and Tecciztecatl, both tried the divine sacrifice. One burnt quickly, the other roasted slowly. Then Quetzalcoatl manifested himself and was able to survive the fire, ensuring a new World Age – ours. At Teotihuacan, a subterranean passage leads from a natural cave (a parallel with the Great Pyramid of Gizeh) under the west face of the Pyramid of the Sun. It is believed that this cave played an important role in the New Fire ceremony. The cave opening points directly to the setting sun on May 19 and July 25, the key dates for Teotihuacan.
The story of Teotihuacan fits within a lost Aztec Codex, written down by Martin Matz from Mazatec Indians, who orally transmitted it for several centuries within their community. The text is known as the Codex Matz-Ayauhtla, or the Pyramid of Fire, and describes a series of legends, from the creation myth to the New Fire ceremony, which is the finale to the initiatory spiritual journey that is encoded in the codex. The text underlines the essence of the Mayan’s religious experience, namely that life is a spiritual journey to ascension – a return to God, the One who created the universe. The text explains how the supreme deity, Tloque Nahauque, manifested itself as three forces – a duality functioning against a neutral background, from which the four prime elements (Water, Fire, Earth, Air) were created. Matz made the journey himself; he visited an initiatory site with his shamanic guide, where he took a hallucinogenic substance (in his case mushrooms), entered a cave at a specific moment in the calendar, and consequently was shown a landscape of pyramids, including one that was dedicated to the Moon. The initiate was then taught about the World Ages, the success of Quetzalcoatl, and how ascension and world ages were connected through the New Fire ceremony – and how they were performed every 52 years. The American author John Major Jenkins has described this as “the ultimate self-sacrifice that is the ritual death attending the mystic initiation into divine life […] in order to merge with Quetzalcoatl, which according to my reconstruction of the New Fire ceremony represents the Pleiades in the zenith with the sun at nadir”. It is clear that Teotihuacan formed a site where this New Fire festival was performed: the cave inside the Pyramid of the Sun, with its specific alignment, is primary evidence. But we also need to ask whether the pyramids of Teotihuacan were – could be – a visual representation of the hallucinogenic landscape that the initiates experienced; was Teotihuacan the materialistic representation of a dream?
What was this ceremony? Was it the literal burning of men, who died for ascension? Was it purely a religious, symbolical ceremony? It seems that it was a place where men tried to become one with the gods – which in Egypt was known through the myth of Osiris.
Osiris has been traditionally – though in my opinion mistakenly – identified with Orion. (In “The Canopus Revelation”, I proposed that Orion was linked with Horus, as was stated by Plutarch.) The Mayans were interested in Orion, especially Orion’s Belt, and specifically the triangle of stars below Orion’s Belt (Al Nitak, Saiph and Rigel), which they identify as a hearth, with the Orion Nebula as the fire. And it is this hearth that they stated had been lit on August 12, 3114 BC – the day of creation – the date of the first New Fire ceremony of our World Age. It is this calendar that is slowly running out of time – to end on December 22, 2012 AD. The name pyramid means “Fire in the Middle”, though there is little explanation why the ancient Greeks would have chosen such a name for this building, which at first sight seems to have little in common with fire. The link with the New Fire Ceremony in Mexico, however, should be an indication.
The Heb Sed festival marked the king’s jubilee and was celebrated no more than thirty years apart. The festival lasted five days in total and took place immediately after the annual Osiris rites, at the time when the Nile’s Flooding retreated, at the moment of the rebirth of the land, mimicking the creation of the world – and a new age. It is a clear parallel with the “New Fire ceremony” of the Mayans, for the five days preceding the Heb Sed festival, a fire ceremony called “lighting the flame” served to purify the festival precincts.
The main purpose of the Heb Sed festival was confirmation that the pharaoh was still “fit to rule”, but it is equally clear that his fitness was closely linked with the king’s preparedness to make a successful voyage after death – it was a test run for his ascension. The “fit state of mind” that the pharaoh had to be in was known as “akh”. Intriguingly, the pharaoh accomplished this state in a place known as the “akhet”, often translated as “horizon”, but which should be interpreted as a place of spiritual illumination, which Mircea Eliade labelled “an awakening” as well as “ascension”. Egyptologist Mark Lehner has suggested that this akhet is the Gizeh plateau and hence we need to wonder whether this state of mind or consciousness was attained in Gizeh. We quickly add that part of the ceremony was performed in a “secret chamber”, which possessed a bed or a sarcophagus. As it was here that the “state of akh” was accomplished, should such a chamber be located somewhere on the plateau too? If so, could it be the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid? Jeremy Naydler has titled one of the chapters of his book “The pyramids as the locus of secret rites”. He argues that the Heb Sed festivals were performed in pyramids. There is an obvious contradiction in the fact that the construction of a pyramid seemed to be abandoned as soon as a pharaoh died. When he was most in need of a tomb, all work on his tomb was stopped? Let us note that several pharaohs who did not live long enough, had no pyramids whatsoever. Djedefra, Khufu’s son, did not live very long and his pyramid was never completed – though he clearly died, the son of a dynasty of pyramid builders extraordinaire who could surely have spared some men to build at least a small or minuscule tomb for this king? If the successor was in his early twenties when he ascended to the throne, there was more than enough time left before he had to wonder about his own death, as the life expectancy of an Egyptian pharaoh was not too different from most of us today. But each time, work is stopped, as if the pyramid is no longer required now that the pharaoh is dead. In the “pyramid = tomb”-equation, that does not make sense.
From the little evidence available, it is clear that the Heb Sed festival is the key to unlock the true purpose of the pyramid. The Heb Sed festival was normally going to be held for the 30th year of rule of the king. Is it a coincidence therefore that Khufu was said to have taken ten years for the planning of his pyramid, which included the diversion of the river Nile; and a further twenty years of work on actually building the pyramids? According to Rainer Stadelman, two of the three pyramids of Sneferu were built between his 14th and 30th year of his reign. Coincidence, or evidence of a link with the Heb Sed festival? And whereas Sneferu had only one body and hence only the need for one pyramid, his exceptionally long rule, would have seen more than one Heb Sed festival. Mystery solved? In summary, Naydler has found evidence for the practice of this festival in most pyramids (including the non-violated pyramid of Sekhemkhet), but he – and we – will focus on the Zoser complex, if only because it is perhaps the best remaining evidence – and was after all “Egypt’s original pyramid”.
The walls of the Zoser pyramid complex are not blank as they are at Gizeh. Of all the possible scenes they could display, the texts and depictions show various stages of a Heb Sed festival; if they were tombs, why not show scenes from the Afterlife? To use Naydler’s own words: “As these are the only reliefs inside the pyramid, there could be no stronger evidence to demonstrate that the interior of the pyramid was as much associated with the Heb Sed festival as were the buildings and architectural spaces in its vicinity.” Let us also add that the causeway of the Great Pyramid also has scenes of Khufu’s Heb Sed festival. There is also the famous Heb Sed dance, in which the king circumambulated the courtyard, which represented the country of Egypt. Such large courtyards stand in front of the Pyramid of Zoser, but are also present at the Gizeh pyramids of Khufu and his successor Khafre. We can only wonder whether they are an Egyptian equivalent to the ball court of Chichen Itza or other squares, such as the Nunnery of Uxmal of the Mayan world. Every 52 years, the Mayans practiced a New Fire ceremony, in which all the fires throughout the Mayan lands were put out for one night, before they were rekindled the next day. To underline that this was a true cleansing of the past, even debts were erased. The ancient Egyptians had a similar “New Fire Ceremony”, which occurred at least every thirty years, in which the pharaoh underlined his ability to be able to unite the various dimensions and act as a mediator between these worlds.
In the New World, we find “the Vision Serpent”, known as Quetzalcoatl; this serpent shed its skin, like the Egyptian phoenix was reborn from his ashes. Quetzalcoatl was a “feathered serpent”, thus closely related to the phoenix bird, both linked with the star Venus.
These visions took the form of a giant serpent “which served as a gateway to the spirit realm”. The ancestor or god who was being contacted was depicted as emerging from the serpent’s mouth. The vision serpent thus came to be the method in which ancestors or Gods manifested themselves to the Mayans.
Schele and Friedel noted how “essentially the World Tree and the Vision Serpent, representing the king, created the center axis which communicates between the spiritual and the earthly worlds or planes. It is through ritual that the king could bring the center axis into existence in the temples and create a doorway to the spiritual world, and with it power.” One of the most common rituals associated with the Vision serpent involved invoking ancestral sprits. Especially during coronation rites, the kings would contact the spirits for guidance and blessings. It was the Vision Serpent that provided the medium for contacting these deities. Is it any coincidence that Lord Pakal’s sarcophagus lid has been described as “the single most comprehensive image which relates the Vision Serpent to Maya religion” – rather than the depiction of an ancient astronaut, as some interpretations propose?
In Egypt, we have the story of Kematef, the primordial snake. Kematef was said to have been the self-begotten or the creator of his own egg and can be seen as a variation of the Creator God Atum-Ra. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the coils of Kematef were seen as the stepped terraces that wound their way around the primeval hill – like the steps of the step pyramid? J.T. Fraser in “Time: The Familiar Stranger” wrote that “the Mayan civilization was based on a ‘chronovision’, a total absorption of the individual and collective life in the rhythms of nature, mapped into a mathematical system that had several cyclical counts running simultaneously.” Within these cosmic spirals of time, the Mayan kings acted as portals between different planes of reality. Through bloodletting, they conjured “the way” (the path) and the “ch’u”, the companion spirits and gods. Likewise, the balance of the universal world order in Egypt was known as Ma’at, which was, if anything, a state of mind… a state of balance, in which life was good and society was in balance. It was trying to bring Heaven down to Earth and it was the task of the pharaoh to accomplish this… inside the pyramid. This article appeared in Paranormal Magazine (UK) September 2007.