September 25, 2002 Boston, Massachusetts – In ancient Egyptian cosmology, after the moment of death there came existence in the afterlife where joys of earthly existence were duplicated. One of the “machines” to get to that heaven was the Great Pyramid of Cheops built 4,500 years ago for King Khu-fu in the 4th Dynasty on the Giza plateau near Cairo. Some have called the pyramid a launching pad for the King’s “ka,” or soul, to travel to the circumpolar stars in the north, known as the “imperishable ones,” and to the star Sirius and Orion constellation in the south where Osiris, King of the Dead, reigned eternal. In a paradoxical way, the Egyptians thought that whatever worked in this life would not work in the afterlife. So, in the burial chambers of noblemen, they carved doors out of stone with locks that no human could use, but the ka of the dead could move into and through the symbolic stone doors in a kind of Alice In Wonderland way to activate life in the opposite hereafter.
A scholar who has studied Egyptian concepts of life and death is one of America’s most respected, Egyptologists, Dr. Mark Lehner, Ph.D. Dr. Lehner directed the Sphinx and Isis Temple Project from 1979 to 1983; was Director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project in 1984; and is now visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and is a Research Associate at the Harvard University Semitic Museum in Boston. Yesterday I asked him to speculate about the function of the narrow shafts and discovery of two more small, limestone blocks or doors in the northern and southern shafts of the Cheop’s so-called Queen’s Chamber. (See Part I.)
Mark Lehner, Ph.D., Research Associate, Oriental Institute at University of Chicago and Harvard Semitic Museum, Harvard University, Milton, Massachusetts: “One suggestion which is perhaps one of the best going suggestions by Egyptologists is that these shafts are model corridors. The Pharaoh Khu-fu put his chamber so high in the Great Pyramid that in order for his soul symbolically to get up and out of the pyramid, he had to go down and then up in the actual passages, the ones that are big enough for people to first go down and then up into the burial chamber. So, some Egyptologists have suggested that rather than going down and then up, the Pharaoh’s soul wanted to get out of his sarcophagus, or in the Queen’s Chamber, get out of his statue that was probably in that chamber, and go straight up to the southern and northern skies. So, they had these little symbolic, miniature passages, and in the real passages that go into the burial chambers, there are what we call portcullis slabs just before the King’s Chamber. These are slabs (of stone) that slide in grooves. There are one, two, three of them.
In the film that was broadcast on the 16th, they had a nice computer graphic where you see the big sliding blocks going boom, boom, boom down in these sliding slots. Now, what these doorways Door 1 with the copper pins in the southern shaft and then Door 2, they may be little model portcullis slabs you know, these big closure slabs.
So, there could possibly be a third one if they are the modeling the portcullis slabs that are before the King’s Chamber. So, in other words, they are little model sliding blocking stones in a little model corridor for the King’s soul to ascend to the southern sky.
IF CHEOPS WAS BUILT AS A KIND OF MACHINE FOR THE KING’S IMMORTALITY, YOU MIGHT SAY, TO LAUNCH HIS KA INTO THESE DIFFERENT AREAS WHEREVER HE WAS PERCEIVING HEAVEN, THEN WHAT WOULD BE THE PURPOSE OF THE THREE LARGE SLABS AND THE SMALL DOORS AS THEY ARE CALLED IN THESE SHAFTS?
The purpose it’s a good question the short answer is we don’t know. We have to surmise. The problem we are facing is that these are very unique features. No other pyramid has them. That’s one problem. So, we can’t look at later pyramids where there is more hieroglyphic text, where they go further in explaining such things and say, ‘Oh, that’s what they mean later on, so this is what they must have meant earlier on when the Great Pyramid was built.’ We don’t have such parallels.
But in terms of the meaning of these shafts, clearly it seems a reasonable inference based on what we do know of the ancient Egyptians that these shafts are pointing up to the circumpolar stars on the north, both from the Queen’s Chamber and the King’s Chamber, that is to say the middle chamber and the upper chamber. It’s a reasonable inference that if they are symbolic passages, they are pointing the King’s soul towards the circumpolar stars, the stars that never rise or set. They go around the pole star. The pole star at 2,500 B. C. would have been Alpha Draconis, probably.
Now, the southern ones (shafts) point up at the southern sky and it’s very reasonable guess that the destination there in terms of the stars was the constellation Orion or what we know as the constellation Orion with the three stars in the belt. Orion was the symbol of Osiris, the Lord of the Dead. Or, the star Sirius which was a very important star for the ancient Egyptians because it was associated with the God of Isis. We know that because we have a tradition in later hieroglphyic text, religious text, that tells us about the King’s soul, or Ka, ascending to the circumpolar stars on the north and to Orion or Sirius in the south.
IF THERE WERE TWO DIRECTIONS, NORTH AND SOUTH, DOES IT MEAN THE KING’S KA HAD A CHOICE ABOUT WHICH DIRECTION TO GO? OR THEY PERCEIVED THAT THE KA COULD GO SIMULTANEOUSLY NORTH AND SOUTH AT THE SAME TIME?
I wouldn’t be surprised. They didn’t seem to have problems with contradictions. Probably both were destinations of the King as he basically communed with his brethren gods. The king was a god who ruled the Nile Valley as a god incarnate in human flesh, the god Horus. When he died, he became identified with Osiris. So, he became in one sense, one with Orion which is the stellar representation of Osiris. But of course, he could also go to the ‘imperishable ones,’ which is what they called the circumpolar stars. So he could go here and he could go there.
There are texts in the pyramid text I’m talking basically about the religious text in later pyramids where the first religious literature appeared spells, incantations some of which we know came later as The Book of the Dead. In the pyramid text which appeared in later dynasties on the walls of the burial chambers of pyramids, one of the things they talk about are the locks like a lock on a door that a king goes through when he ascends to the vault of the sky. So, it could be that these little doors, little portcullis slabs, little models of the closure slabs in a real passage that these are the locks that the King symbolically unlocks as his soul ascends, whether it’s to the south to be with Orion or to the north to be with the pole stars.
AND COPPER, COULD IT HAVE HAD ANY SIGNIFICANCE SINCE AT THAT TIME THERE WAS GOLD, SILVER, BRONZE AND COPPER. COULD THERE HAVE BEEN A SPECIAL REASON WHY THE HANDLES OR LOCKS WERE CHOSEN AS COPPER?
Copper that’s the neat thing what are these copper pins? One of the suggestions I thought of when thinking about the copper pins in the south and now also in the north is that they were U-shaped staples, or U-shaped nails. Why? Originally, were they U-shaped and then the U, the bend, broke and deteriorated and left what look like two pins that kind of droop down with age and deterioration and corrosion. The reason I thought of U-shaped copper staples is because the Egyptians made those and we have them in other contexts, including in the 4th Dynasty. I’ll mention one that is very well known, namely, Tutankhamen’s Golden Trines. You have a whole series of copper staples or U-shaped nails, probably to take ropes to tie the shrines to a sled. But it’s interesting that they also used these U-shaped copper nails, or staples. In the case of Tutankhamen, they were probably bronze because they had evolved to bronze from copper. They also used them as the deadbolts, you know the slots for deadbolts, on the doors of the shrine. That’s why when I read about locks and locks of metal in the pyramid texts that the King symbolically unlocks on his way to the vault of the sky, I find it more compelling that these copper pins could be the U-shaped nails.
I don’t know if a close look at the shape of the pins holds up that theory, but it’s the best thing I can imagine. One other thing in response to your question, I wonder if they are copper-coated iron because the Egyptians had very special beliefs about iron. In the Old Kingdom 4,500 years ago, we were not yet in the iron age. Iron did not come in a big way until some 22 dynasties later about 664 B. C. in a big way, where it is ubiquitous throughout the technical system. But in the Old Kingdom, iron was associated with the sky. As a matter of fact, the word for iron in one sense is ‘bia em pet,’ basically ”the metal from the sky.’
If the copper pins actually have a core of iron and are coated with copper because certainly there is copper there or it wouldn’t have the green corrosion. That would really add to these associations with the sky. And the reason they called it ‘the metal from the sky’ is because iron in the earliest period is meteoritic iron, iron from meteorites that the Egyptians apparently recognized as being from the sky and meteoritic iron from meteorites is distinguishable by the amount of nickel in it. It would be nice to get a little bit of one of those pins and do some x-ray diffraction or other kinds of analysis that would indicate whether there is any iron in there.
IT COULD BE METEORITIC IRON COMING IN FROM THE COSMOS SURROUNDED BY COPPER PUT ON THESE LITTLE SLABS FOR COSMIC REASONS?
Yeah, then it would begin to make sense. Although it’s all an inference none of this is proven. We can only go on what is more probable than not, with the iron ‘bia em pet,’ basically ‘the metal from the sky,’ the shafts certainly pointing to the southern and northern skies at an angle that makes them appropriate for the circumpolar stars and Orion and Sirius and the later traditions of text, pyramid text, that talk about the King ascending in those directions. I think that’s the best we can do in interpreting this.
WHY IN KHU-FU’S COSMOLOGY, WHY WOULD IT BE NECESSARY FOR THE SOUL OF THE KING TO EVEN HAVE TO GO THROUGH BLOCKS WITH THE COPPER OR POSSIBLY COPPER-IRON STAPLES?
One of the things they had in almost any tomb of any size was what Egyptologists call the ‘false door.’ And it’s called that because it’s not a real door. In each and every tomb of any size we’re talking about noblemen’s tombs, not the King’s – the false door was sometimes carved right into bedrock. Or it was just made into a slab of stone and it’s a dummy door. It’s a symbolic door. It’s kind of like a door in Las Vegas. It’s not real. Or it’s like a door in a Universal Studio’s set. Or Hollywood. It’s a series of panels, like a series of receding doors, and above the center door there is a drum roll a round kind of cylinder that is like a venetian blind, but all modeled in stone. On the sides of the door are the dead person’s titles. And on the drum roll, let’s say the dummy venetian blind rolled up is his name quite often and maybe his principal title and in a little plate or plaque above the drum roll there he sits at his table of offerings with the title.
That is exactly where his relatives would come and leave offerings on an offering slab carved in the shape of the hieroglyphs offerings and commune with the spirit of their dead relative. Probably the deceased head of their household. If it were a real door, it wouldn’t work.
The Egyptians actually made what you could call simulacra, or model doors, when they wanted to effect something in the afterlife. If it was a real door, it could be profaned by people walking back and forth through it and it wouldn’t work. It (solid stone) was a magical door. That is probably the best way to put it for a popular audience. it was a magical door. By making it as a model, you effected the magic that communed between this reality and the afterlife. So, you see if you transfer that same set of ideas from the ancient Egyptian mentality into the pyramid and into these shafts, you actually have to make a model door that is sort of a dummy door closed in order to and the proper pins, whatever role they played in order to effect the very act of the King going up and with his power opening doors and ascending to the southern sky or northern sky or both.
SO, IT’S AS IF THE VERY OPPOSITE IS WHAT IS NECESSARY IN THE AFTERLIFE. WHAT WOULD WORK HERE, WOULDN’T WORK THERE?
Right. There is an Alice In Wonderland kind of Through The Looking Glass kind of principle.
The shafts in the Great Pyramid seem to have been for a very similar purpose. And there was a dummy it has to be a statue, it has to be modeled in stone as you say, as a kind of non-functional thing in this reality to make it functional in the other reality.
This is sort of an ancient and very common principle, like in the Paleolithic caves making an image of the hunter killing the mastodon helps make the hunt successful. So, by making an image in 3-dimensions with a door with a passage to the vault of the sky with doors that are dummy doors make it happens, maybe with the copper pins as locks makes it happen that the king can unlock the locks, raise the doors and ascend to the sky.
DOES IT STRIKE YOU AS ALMOST A PARADOX THAT KHU-FU AND THIS GREATEST OF THE PYRAMIDS WOULD HAVE THE SMALLEST CHANNELS FOR THE KA TO EXIT WITH THESE SMALL, STRANGE LITTLE BLOCKS WITH THE COPPER PINS?
Egyptians were very fond of miniatures. All the tomb scenes in a nobleman’s tomb can be regarded in effect as sort of miniature models that help things happen in the afterlife. From the late Old Kingdom on into what Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period, the Egyptians carved little miniature models in wood of bakeries, of breweries, of butchery shops and buried them in tombs so that baking and butchering would happen for the deceased head of the household in the after life.
In later times in the New Kingdom in various materials, the Egyptians would carve little tableaus. There aren’t very many of them, but there are some in museums, little tableaus of the King with the gods or various things happening they were very big on miniature form. It’s almost this is sounding a little trite, but it’s almost like voodoo. You make the miniature form, you make the image, and the image has power and it has the power to make things happen. By making the image of the door in solid stone, you are in effect kind of creating a kind of conduit to the other side.
I would look at it that Khu-fu more than any other pyramid was so daring and experimental that he put his chambers higher in the body of the pyramid than any pharaoh before or since. From those chambers in order to go straight up to the cosmos, he had to have these symbolic shafts for the King to ascend. Because the actual passages leading up to his burial chamber are all going from the ground up. so, in order to go from that height in the pyramid even higher to the vault of the heaven itself, he had to have these symbolic passages. I would look at it as something like that.
THE KA WOULD NEED THESE PASSAGES LIKE LAUNCHING PORTS OF SOME SORT AIMED AT WHERE HE WANTED TO GO?
Something like that. That seems to be the image behind the statue of Djoser, for example, in his serdab attached to the north side of the stepped pyramid.
WHAT ABOUT THE SUBTERRANEAN CHAMBER AND THE ALLEGED QUEEN’S CHAMBER WHICH DOESN’T MAKE SENSE BECAUSE SHE HAD HER OWN BURIAL SITE? THEN THE KING’S CHAMBER WHERE NO BODY WAS EVER FOUND? WHY WOULD THERE HAVE BEEN THESE THREE PLACES ALL HAVING SHAFTS OFF OF THEM?
Well, I think the Queen’s Chamber is probably the statue chamber in the pyramid because it has a deep niche in the eastern wall that is pointed out in the film where it would have been appropriate for the King’s statue. I think all three chambers were planned together. What they mean again, we don’t know for sure. All we can do is make inferences that are reasonable or more probably based on what we know from the entire Egyptian culture and belief.”
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