Ancient Worlds and Modern Consciousness

Egyptian Heads
Mummies of the World Exhibition
On loan from the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums, Mannheim, Germany
Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA

Imagine for a moment that you are in Egypt in the latter part of the 26th Dynasty in the Late Period of Egyptian history witnessing the burial rituals of Nespaqashuti, an Egyptian priest in the religious hierarchy. His body is being prepared for burial in an elaborate mummification process, that could take up to two months. According to the description in the exhibition catalog, the wooden sarcophagus in which this priest will be buried “is made from sycamore wood,” and is being painted with intricately beautiful hieroglyphics, which describe the priest and his “journey into the afterlife.”

Standing next to the coffin, intricately detailed with paintings depicting the stages of the “journey into the afterlife,” you can see the brush strokes in the thick layers of paint. Within the outer shell of the sarcophagus are other layers of equally impressive images hand-painted and symbolic of important concerns in the “afterlife.”

According to J.M.Roberts in his epic volume, “Ancient History,” the ancient Egyptians showed:

…a remarkably uniform tendency to seek through religion a way of penetrating the variety of the flow of ordinary experience so as to reach a changeless world most easily understood through the life the dead lived there. Perhaps the pulse of the Nile is to be detected here too; each year it swept away and made new, but its cycle was ever recurring, changeless, the embodiment of a cosmic rhythm.

Indeed, many of the mummies in the exhibit suggested that those who were preparing the deceased person for burial were not only concerned for the well-being of the person on their final journey to an existence which took place outside of the temporal world, but also their own destiny as well, preserving their bodies so that “their owner’s souls could live in them forever…transforming the dead person to an ancestor spirit.”

Viewing the exhibit, which provided “windows into past cultures and civilizations,” included fragments of a papyrus scroll of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” as well as mummified remains from all over the world. During my visit, I was struck by the respectful demeanor of my fellow attendees, recognizing not only that the remains were of real people who once walked the earth, but that the efforts to preserve them reflected a life-affirming notion, that we are more than our bodies and our brains…

At the very last stop in the exhibit, we were invited to share our thoughts in a logbook. Here is what I wrote:

The allure of this exhibit for me, aside from the link to humanity’s ancient past, is that throughout human history the notion has existed that there is good cause to consider the existence of a life after death.

John H.

4 thoughts on “Ancient Worlds and Modern Consciousness

  1. “Indeed, many of the mummies in the exhibit suggested that those who were preparing the deceased person for burial were not only concerned for the well-being of the person on their final journey to an existence which took place outside of the temporal world, but also their own destiny as well, preserving their bodies so that ‘their owner’s souls could live in them forever…transforming the dead person to an ancestor spirit.’ ”

    What a wonderful insight into relationship, other as self, self as other. I was remembering today – my childhood absorption of things I learned from my dad and how much I incorporate them as my own, to the point that it is possible to forget that he taught me by doing, talking, and loving. Not the intentional teaching that you might experience in school, but a relational transfer. Perhaps it is so that the self/other barrier is as much a fantasy noticed only by our reflections and is never really known except through our imaginings. Are we that different from the ancients, except for how we imagine the self we are and the other we experience primarily through reflection?

    1. Debra,

      How nice to read such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on a post I wrote two years ago! I stopped by your blog and decided to follow. You are a writer and a person with great potential and a solid foundation in life, and I’m enjoying browsing through your posts very much.

      Anyone who is fortunate enough to have the experience of absorbing the doing, talking, and loving of a parent or caretaker to reflect on, knows that there are both benefits and liabilities built into such experiences. What parents and caretakers do, say, and demonstrate as love are most often a benefit, but can be a challenge as well, depending on what form the doing and saying take. Having grown up in a home where both love and liability existed, I took great pains as a parent myself to maximize the benefits and avoid the liabilities as well as I could. All six of my children are all really great people so I feel fairly confident saying that they received mostly benefits in this regard.

      I was intrigued by your implication that the consequences of our “self/other” experiences are only noticed by our reflections and known through our imaginings. This is a wonderful insight that has sparked reflection in my own mind. We clearly gain by reflecting and imagining ourselves as the other, and searching for ourselves IN the other, but I never really considered it quite in the way that you framed it, until now.

      I loved your question about whether or not we are that different from the ancients, and would like to respond at length in a new post, but for now, I will respond briefly here.

      There are, in my view, a number of clear differences between us “modern” folk and the ancient peoples who inhabited our planet in antiquity, but I feel comfortable attributing those differences primarily to the astonishing disparity in accumulated knowledge, wisdom traditions, and the various technological enhancements that gave us the opportunity to “stand on the shoulders of giants,” as it were. I believe that human consciousness has evolved right along with all the other evolutionary changes throughout human history, from the earliest hominids to the modern Homo sapiens. We know so little really about the everyday lives of the earliest of the Homo sapiens even, and must use our imaginations and our accumulated knowledge and wisdom to conjure what it must have been like to exist as a person in ancient times. Most indications in the fossil record and in the earliest written or historical records are that we are far more advanced in our technologies and our intellectual powers, but not so far along as we would like to think in our tendencies for violence and cultural isolation from each other. We have much work to do still.

      Clearly, you have spent a great deal of time reflecting on this self/other question, and I would be glad if MORE people would spend MORE time reflecting as you have on these important issues.

      You are warmly welcomed here in my little corner of the blogosphere, and I hope you will find much here that interests you, and continue to communicate with me as the opportunity presents itself.

      Warm regards…..John H.


      1. Thanks so much John, for your kind words and for taking the time to read my blog and respond at length.
        I too have been fascinated by the ancients and consciousness. In many ways, I am grateful to live now, with so much abundance and relatively very little hardship.
        But, even so, we humans always manage to muddle things up. Maybe there isn’t any other way we’ll ever be?
        I have always had a strong interest in identity and who we are. It seems so bizarre at times just to be alive!
        The insight that we are very much reflecting back what we experience from others has become more evident to me as I get older. That experience of seeing myself in my parents (I don’t have children) shows me how primary my experience with them in my early years was.
        Recently it hit me like a ton of bricks to think that without any experience of otherness there wouldn’t be a way for us to absorb language, culture, emotion or even food and shelter. The absorption of otherness that we reflect back is immediate and so easy to take for granted.
        I do look forward to reading more of your posts as time allows.

      2. Debra,

        I think it is at least conceivable that we humans may eventually come to terms with our muddling, and may discover a way to minimize it at least. Being human is a messy business, and part of the appeal of BEING human is our tendency to muddle through things sometimes. We are adaptive and creative beings, and without the ability to muddle things up a bit, we might also be less capable of discovery. It’s a wonderful topic for contemplation, and I am so glad you thought to communicate with me.

        You might be interested in my post entitled, “Are We Out of Our Heads?” which reviews an important book by Alva Noe. In his treatment of the subject, he illuminates the importance of our experience of otherness, and explains how our environment, which includes all the others in the world, was an essential component for the development of language, culture, and emotions, along with all the practical developments for survival as well.

        You inspire kindness in me, and your writing and thoughtfulness makes communicating with you a pleasure, for which I should be thanking you….so…..Thank you!

        Warmly……John H.

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