The Egyptian temple stood at the nexus between Sky, Earth, and Underworld; it was the interface between them. The material and spiritual worlds converged in the Egyptian temple and the unseen realms became tangible in ritual. Quite literally, the power of creation was tapped in the temples, chaos was bound, and cosmic order was renewed. Beings were transformed and could move between the worlds. The temple was the boundary line between human and divine, chaos and order.
Three great themes were played out in the temples: Original Cosmic Structure, Ongoing Cosmic Function, and Cosmis Regeneration. Within the sacred temples the world was continually being created, functioning, and being renewed, so that life outside the temples could share in the same sustaining and renewing magic. Yet the temple could not function alone; the temple itself had to be continually renewed through the ongoing human actions of ritual and symbol.
In addition to being an image of the Cosmos, the temple could also be an image of the body of the Deity to Whom the temple was dedicated. Enter into the temple, and you enter into Goddess or God. How’s that for a holy experience?
Temple and Creation
Since Egyptian creation myths are so key to the symbolism of the temples, I want to offer you a very generic form of the myth. This basic myth was elaborated upon and varied from place to place. The Creator Deity in the story was always the Deity of whichever temple you’re in.
At Creation, That Which Is came into being from the dark, inert, unbounded waters of the Nun, the Non-Existant, and it took many forms. At first, What Came Forth was in the form of a single Deity (different myths, different Deities), and then it multiplied; into Everything; into Cosmos. The newly created Cosmos existed in perfect harmony with the intent of the Creator. All was Mayat (Maat).
Yet the Non-Existant still lived and even now it can penetrate the boundaries of the Existant. Some aspects of it, like ground water and sleep, are beneficial and regenerative. Other aspects, like desert and darkness, are hostile, and represented Isfet, “chaos, disorder.” Isfet is the opposite of Mayet, that which is Right, that which is True.
Yet Isfet is a sacred power and cannot—nor should it be—completely overcome for it is a source of great possibility and vitality. Still, Isfet must be kept in check. Hence, in the temples, Mayet and Isfet are in a great, sacred dance….always.
Bryon Shafer, a modern Egyptologist who “gets it,” writes that in the sacred space of the temples, one is oriented to the Cosmos and immersed in the Primorial Order; one experiences truth and renews life. Such space, he says, appears unchanged and unchanging although it changes continually.
Shafer identifies the temples not only as Sacred Space, but as Sacred Time. Egyptian time was conceived of as a spiraled coil of endless rebirths, yet its purest moment was the First Moment: when Existance emerged out of Non-Existance. Nonetheless, Time is more vulnerable to Isfet than Space (after all, we see the passage of time and the many changes it brings). For the Egyptians, the reality of Time was of a series of continually renewing First Times. By repeating the First Moment, Mayet is maintained and renewed.
According to Shafer, the world was not in need of salvation, only of preservation. And it was everybody’s job to participate in that preservation.