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by Philip Coppens We all know the story that the very name “alchemy” is supposed to be derived from the land of Egypt: “Al-Khemit”. Egypt itself was a symbol of alchemy, the outcome of a transformative substance: the Egyptian soil, deposited by the Nile, allowing farmers to grow their crops and feed the nation. Now wonder that the Nile was considered to be at the origin of all life; for the ancient Egyptians, it was.
We also know how our modern chemistry is derived from medieval alchemical practices. It seems that what was held as science were those aspects of alchemy that were clearly and without any doubt repeatable and demonstrable.
What is less known, is that at the very heart of ancient Egypt, at the centre of their knowledge, was “the Book of Thoth”, one of the first, if not the first, “alchemical manuals”. This “body of knowledge”, for a book, such as the Corpus Hermeticum, was literally seen as a “body” of the god, whether Hermes or his Egyptian equivalent Thoth, consisted out of two parts. Part one was a manual containing magic for the heavens, the earth, etc. Part two was a manual to attain knowledge of immortality – and perhaps the latter may not have been radically different from the so-called Book of the Dead, which was all about attaining immortality. The Book was nothing more than a set of instructions, which is what magic is all about. The heart of the cult of Thoth was Hermopolis. Hermopolis was located on the west bank of the Nile, about midway between Thebes and Memphis, across the Nile from Akhetaten, the new Egyptian capital founded by the rebel pharaoh Akhenaten. The Ancient Egyptian name of the city, Khmun, means the “8-town”, after the group of eight deities (Ogdoad) who represented the world before creation. The name Khmun, of course, is close to Khem; or should we read “alchemy” as al-Khmun?
Thoth’s cult, like all others, championed its own creation myth. On the Island of Flame, four elements had come into being at the same time. Together with the unnamed creator, they were the Great Five – the Fifth Element. The Pyramid Texts said that “the Waters spoke to Infinity, Nothingness, Nowhere, and Darkness” and creation began. The four became eight – male and female. Out of the union of the eight came the primeval egg and out of the egg came the light of the sun. Already, with its emphasis on the four elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air) and its numerical sequence of multiplication, we are very close to the core of medieval alchemy. In a Ptolemaic papyrus, we read how Thoth wrote the book with his own hand and in it was all the magic in the world. “If you read the first page, you will enchant the sky, the earth, the abyss, the mountain, and the sea: you will understand the language of birds in the air, and you will know what the creeping things in the earth are saying, and you will see the fishes from the darkest depths of the sea.” Such promises are clearly linked to shamanic powers and as the Egyptian civilisation developed out of a native shamanic culture, we should not at all be surprised. “If you read the other page, even though you are dead and in the world of ghosts, you could come back to the earth in the form you once had. And besides this, you will see the sun shining in the sky with the full moon and the stars, and you will behold the great shapes of the gods.” Amen. A Book of Thoth has recently been found, written in demotic and dated to the later stage of Egypt’s existence. It contains a conversation between Thoth, Osiris and a student. By its very presentation, it is clearly inspired by the Greek Ptolemaic civilisation that ruled Egypt from the 3rd century BC onwards, as such dialogues (or trialogues) were a Greek obsession. In it, Thoth imparts information on the netherworld, ethics, the sacred geography of Egypt, the secret language and the mysteries.
As several scholars continue to not accept that the ancient Egyptians had mystery schools (which would make them a noticeable exception on the ancient world map), the text has been labelled largely “Greek” in nature – even though it is written in the Egyptian language. Interestingly, in one instance, the name of Thoth is qualified by the triple adjective “wer”, meaning “great” and thus equating him with Hermes Trismegistus – thrice great. The Book of Thoth was said to contain all the knowledge of the universe. As a consequence, it was a very prized possession. The priests of Thoth must have been in a very privileged position, as no doubt many considered them to have access to precious knowledge.
It is therefore not surprising that in ancient Egypt, there were many stories of people going in search of the book, trying to unlock its power and its knowledge. Most often, the protagonists of these tales were princes – a setting very similar to the medieval Grail legends, in which the protagonist is Perceval, a cousin to the king. Indeed, one could argue that there are several parallels between the legends of Perceval and his quest for the Grail and the Egyptian princes’ quest for the Book of Thoth. One such Egyptian legend has it that an old priest had told prince Naneferkaptah that there was an iron box on the bottom of the river Nile. Inside was another coffer, of copper, containing a series of further boxes, until finally a golden one, containing the Book of Thoth. The boxes were guarded by serpents and scorpions and thus presented a veritable challenge for anyone going in search of it. Furthermore, we note how the sequence of metals (iron, copper, gold) mimic key imagery that is found in medieval alchemical literature.
The rest of the story can best be described as an Egyptian – and thus original – version of Perceval’s Grail quest. The prince left in search of the book, battling his way towards his goal. Using magical spells and rituals, he kept on defeating the serpent, to finally find the book.
In fact, dare we say that this Egyptian rendition clarifies some of the unspoken attraction of the Grail? In Parzival, the Grail is considered to be the panacea of all things, but Wolfram von Eschenbach, its authors, is scarce on details as to what the possession of the Grail allowed. In ancient Egyptian sources, what the Book of Thoth accomplished was carefully written down. After reading the first saying, prince Naneferkaptah was able to speak the language of the animals, the birds and the fish. After the second saying, the gods of the sun, moon and stars appeared to him in their true form. Naneferkaptah was clearly on his way to becoming all-knowing. And if we were to project this onto a shamanic setting, we would argue that each of these steps is still reflected in the shaman’s path to mastery of this world and the beyond. Like the tribal shamans, the prince had a prize to pay for this knowledge. Unfortunately, this Grail quest ended in failure.
After a series of tests, the prince drowned himself in the Nile and was buried, together with his precious book. Thus, it showed that knowledge of “everything” was not only a difficult quest, once found, it was for many impossible to continue living with the power and knowledge, opting for suicide – but at the same time informing the reader that if he or she so wanted to, he could himself go in search of the body of prince Naneferkaptah, where he would find the Book of Thoth, and could partake of its knowledge. Should we see certain parallels with the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz? The Egyptian series of “Grail quest stories” does not end here. Like Wolfram von Eschenbach would inspire others to continue writing about the Grail quest, such as The Younger Titurel, so would this Egyptian story inspire other accounts. One of these was Setne Khamwas, son of Ramses II, who also wanted to find the Book of Thoth. (It is assumed this Setne character was often used to feature in allegorical stories, for if all factual, he was the original Indiana Jones!) He discovered the tomb of the prince, but was stopped by the spirit of the prince when he tried to remove the book. They decided to settle the contest with a game of chess. Setne lost three matches and was almost totally buried in sand, but due to magical spells and amulets given to him by his father, he was able to release himself and eventually leave with the Book.
Setne kept the book in his possession and organised readings from it, even though his father Ramses II did not approve. Then, one day, Setne was blinded by the sight of an astonishingly beautiful woman. He murdered his children and gave away his possession to be able to spend just one single night with her. But when that night came, he saw her disappear as if she was a phantom. Setne was dazed and confused and when Ramses found him in this state, he convinced his son to return the book. It was clear that Setne was not ready to partake in the knowledge – and the events that could befall him. When Setne agreed, he immediately realised that the entire incident about this beautiful woman and the murder of his children had been a dream, but still decided to return the book to the tomb of Naneferkaptah, resealing the tomb – where once again it would remain in wait for those who felt drawn to this knowledge.
The actual story finishes as such – taking it up when Setne reaches the site where he needs to bury the book into the tomb of Naneferkaptah: “A house had been built on the spot, at the edge of Waset, and Setne bought the house to pull it down. When the house was demolished by Pharaoh’s soldiers, Setne had the men dig beneath it. Soon they came to a rock-cut tomb, deep in the earth. Inside the tomb lay the bodies of Ahura and Merab. The old man suddenly transformed, and he turned into the ka of Naneferkaptah and faded from sight. Setna then took the bodies back, and buried them with great ceremony in Naneferkaptah’s tomb.
Then at Pharaoh’s command they heaped sand over the low stone shrine where the entrance to the tomb was hidden; and before long a sandstorm turned it into a great mound, and then levelled it out so that never again could anyone find a trace of the tomb where Naneferkaptah lay with Ahura and Merab and the Book of Thoth, waiting for the Day of Awakening when Osiris shall return to rule over the earth.” The story also has remarkable parallels to both Christianity and its Apocalypse, underlining that there is seldom anything new under the sun. Both stories are warnings, in which both princes are like Perceval’s character in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story: fools. They feel that they are both of sufficient nobility and capability to find, read and keep the Book of Thoth. In the case of Perceval, there are repeated references that he feels himself more than worthy to be a member of the Grail Brotherhood, as there are few better knights than he. But on his first test, Perceval fails. The same fate befalls Setne, though in both instances, it is not fatal, as is the case of Naneferkaptah. In all cases, it are human shortcomings that will end the seeker’s quest – though Perceval will have another opportunity, when he has realised his earlier mistakes; he is given a second chance, and then succeeds.
Both Wolfram’s account and the Egyptian stories also show that though many feel called to belong to the Grail and have this knowledge, in truth – says Wolfram – the Grail itself calls by name those whom it feels will serve. This is underlined in the Egyptian accounts, which are clearly Grail quests performed by princes who were not ready, and thus failed… The story of the Fisher King, another key ingredient of the Grail stories, is that of the ruler of the land, who is maimed by an evil opponent. This results in his inability to reproduce, whereby Perceval is looked upon not only as the initiate that will heal the king, but also will become his successor.
Why this king is nicknamed “Fisher King” has been the centre of great speculation. To some, it is merely a reference to Jesus, a fisherman, whereby the fish was a symbol of the early Christian church. To others, it is nothing more than the fact that Perceval first meets the king when he is fishing and only later does he realise that the fisherman is actually the king.
This is a piecemeal approach, rather than taking the story as a whole. When we do the latter, it is clear that this story resembles the myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris, the most famous of all maimed divine rulers. In that Egyptian account – which had a close relationship with the Book of Thoth, for the story of Osiris’ resurrection was interpreted as the “evidence” that part two of the book of Thoth “worked” – we have the ruler of Egypt, the god Osiris, invited to a banquet – a ceremonial meal, not unlike the meal that is held inside the Grail Castle.
During the meal, Osiris is murdered by his evil brother Seth – from which derives the name Satan. Osiris’ body is scattered across Egypt, but through love (of his wife Isis) and magic (the core of the Book of Thoth), he is reassembled again. However, the fish of the Nile have eaten his penis. Isis thus has to fashion a wooden phallus, to produce – to even more magic – offspring. The story has many parallels with the Grail legend: a king impossible to reproduce, one who is called “Fisher King”, the other where fishes have been responsible for the problem. The search for a successor, Perceval and Horus, who will guarantee the succession of divine – enlightened – rule over the country is also there. With so many parallels, it becomes clear that the image of the Fisher King also has its origins in ancient Egypt. And the question which deity and divine king has a specific affinity with fish would have solved the problem of the origin of the name of Fisher King.
Weston, without referencing Osiris, commented on the Grail account: “I hold that we have solid grounds for the belief that the story postulates a close connection between the vitality of a certain king, and the prosperity of his kingdom; the forces of the ruler being weakened or destroyed, by wound, sickness, old age, or death, the land becomes Waste, and the task of the hero is that of restoration.”
It is clear that when we look at Perceval, we are merely creating new characters in a story that was known and formed the backbone of the Egyptian religion. In short, the origins of the Grail can be traced back to Egypt… The Grail is Egyptian.