Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ancient Egypt in the Scottish Rite - 31st Degree

"We have sought, not to teach men the truth, but rather a way to the truth. Each must find it for himself."

The 31st Degree in the Scottish Rite is my favorite Degree. It used to be the 32nd but they changed it and I now like the 31st better.

Some people believe that ancient Egyptian Religion was polytheistic having many gods. I believe that it was monotheistic with the various so called "gods" being aspects of the One god. Whether or not you agree with me the Egyptian religion is fascinating

In this view, Thoth would be the aspect of Ra which the Egyptian mind would relate to the heart and tongue.

His roles in Egyptian mythology were many. Thoth served as a mediating power, especially between good and evil, making sure neither had a decisive victory over the other. He also served as scribe of the gods, credited with the invention of writing and alphabets (ie. hieroglyphs) themselves. In the underworld, Duat, he appeared as an ape, A'an, the god of equilibrium, who reported when the scales weighing the deceased's heart against the feather, representing the principle of Ma'at, was exactly even. (from Thoth - Wikipedia)
When I was in Egypt in 1976 I went to many ancient religious sites. I saw many tombs and temples and beautiful artifacts. I had always been interested in Egypt and used to pour over the National Geographic Magazine articles that showed the country of Egypt. When they decided to save the Abu Simbel temples when they built the Aswan Dam, I followed their progress with interest

To actually get to go there and to visit the Temple and stand in the great hall was an incredible experience.

But this is about their religion and how it is used in the Scottish Rite. Their religion predates the religion of Moses. In fact Moses was an Egyptian Prince and as such was an initiate in the Egyptian Religion. When he took the Hebrew people out of Egypt he had to give them a religion that they could relate to and understand. We have all heard the story of how the Hebrews took their gold and melted it into a golden calf to worship.

Needless to say "Mo" wasn't happy about that!

But being an intelligent man he realized that he had to give them something. Something that they would feel comfortable with. With an invisible God the people felt lost (and he took them on a 40 year long "lost in the wilderness" journey to get the idea of the Egyptian Gods out of their minds.

But as I said he had to give them something. So he took some of the trappings of the Egyptian religion and used them in his new religion. The altar with horns on it was definitely "borrowed" from Egypt. I think possibly that, with research you can find much that had its antecedents in the Egyptian Religion. Another parallel is the language in the Book of the Dead and the similarity to some of the Psalms. As you read the Book of the Dead you can't help but notice the similarity.

The ancient Egyptians were totally dependent on the ebb and flow of the Nile River the religion that grew up in that country was one of renewal. Their main God was dismembered and Thoth was also prominent in the Osiris myth, being of great aid to Isis. After Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris' dismembered body, he gave her the words to resurrect him so she could be impregnated and bring forth Horus, named for his uncle. When Horus was slain, Thoth gave the formula to resurrect him as well. Similar to God speaking the words to create the heavens and Earth in Judeo-Christian mythology, Thoth, being the god who always speaks the words that fulfill the wishes of Ra, spoke the words that created the heavens and Earth in Egyptian mythology. So you can see the Egyptian religion was one based on nature and in many ways there are parallels with the Hebrew Religion in form (but not necessarily in theology).

As the forms were borrowed from one religious practice to another so the Scottish Rite has also borrowed from the ancient Egyptians. It is explained thusly

First of all, the 31st, like all Degrees, is a play. It has a plot and characters like any other play. The candidate is playing the part of a character, like everyone in the cast. In his case, he is playing the role of an ancient Egyptian who has died and entered into the after life as conceived by his people. It is a play just as Macbeth is a play, and the actor playing the dead Egyptian is no more engaging in an act of worship of the ancient gods than the actor playing Macbeth is really plotting political assassination.

The 31st is the next-to-last Degree in the basic Degrees of the Scottish Rite. Pike wanted to make the point that the Mason should constantly examine his actions and motives, holding himself to the highest standards of honor and ethics. He wanted a story line which represented the ultimate judgment, when nothing is hidden. He was far too devout a Christian to use a play based on the Last Judgement as seen by Christianity -- he would have considered that sacrilege.

But there is another religion, now dead, which contain such a scene, and that is the religion of ancient Egypt. There are not practitioners of that religion left, and so Pike could draw on an old Degree, without fear of giving offense to a member of that faith. He did. But he did something more wonderful and subtle, and it a good example of the way the Rite teaches.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains a sequence usually called the "negative confession." The soul of the departed asserts that he has never moved the landmarks, he has never cheated in trade, he has never broken the law, etc. Pike uses that, but then tells the character played by the candidate that that is not enough. It is not enough to have avoided evil, one must have done good. It is not enough to have not wronged people, one must have helped them.

Pike is saying that productive living involves being active, helping, making a difference in the world. That's the message. One should no more get upset over the fact that the drama of the 31st is set in ancient Egypt than that the opera Aida is. In both cases, it's just a setting which helps to tell a dramatic and important story.
There are many degrees in the Scottish Rite. The 31st is described:

The central teaching of this degree is justice. To be free, a Mason must begin by passing judgment on himself. He presents himself for examination. By acting honestly in first giving judgment on himself within the principles of justice and equity, it should not be doubted when he shall do the same to his brothers.

The brother who finds mercy in himself, who has not been too lenient towards himself, or punished himself too severely, can also judge his brothers. In so doing, he can be certain that he has not acted contrary to his former obligations. He has freed himself.
Important lessons from an important degree.

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