The Royal Arch and Ancient Egyptian Ritual

Everett R. Turnbull & Ray V. Denslow

This paper is presented to my companions of the Royal Arch, not so much as an attempt to show that our degree owes any past of its legend to Ancient Egypt, but to point out some remarkable coincidences, and to raise a question for some more expert and zealous companion to answer.

I have been browsing through Sir E. A. Wallis Budge's English translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, when my attention was caught and held by the following words,

"This chapter was found in the city of Khemennu upon block of iron of the south, which had been inlaid (with letters) of real lapis-lazuli, under the feet of the god during the reign of His Majesty, the King of the North and South, Men-Kau-Ra," triumphant, by the Royal son Heru-ta-ta-f, triumphant; he found it when he was journeying about to make an inspection of the temples. One Kekht (?) was with him who was diligent in making him to understand (?) it, and he brought it to the king as a wonderful object when he saw that it was a thing of great mystery, which has never (before) been seen or looked upon."

Every Royal Arch Mason will at once recognize this description of the finding of valuable and mysterious writings, so I began to re-read the book more carefully.

The Book of the Dead, or to give it its name literally translated "The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day" is a collection of magic texts, religious hymns, and ritual, into which were contained the beliefs of the Egyptians; their hopes of a future life; and the means of attaining it. These chapters have been found on papyrus, on temple walls, and painted on coffins, in the picture writing we call hieroglyphics, and are of so remote an antiquity that their origin and authorship were unknown even to the Egyptians themselves, who ascribed them to Thoth, the God who typified to them the divine intelligence.

Approximately 150 Chapters have been collected and translated, but it is the 64th Chapter which interests us most. Its title is "The Chapter of Knowing the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day in a Single Chapter", and the Egyptians seem to have deemed it the most important of the whole Book, it being the essence of all that is contained in all the Chapters. If the deceased knew this chapter, "a great and divine protection," he was sure of eternal life. This then, was the Chapter, or Book of the Divine Law, as we might name it, which was "found" in such peculiar circumstances.

Now, these Chapters are written in this manner.

First, as a heading, is a vignette, or a picture to illustrate the Chapter; then the Chapter itself; and lastly a rubric, or explanation of the Chapter.

The vignette for Chapter 64 shows the deceased adoring the sun's disc, which shines down on to a tree.

The Chapter itself begins with the words, "I am yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" and follows with the titles of the Divine Being, with whom the dead person identifies himself.

There are several versions of this Chapter, and it is in the rubrics that the explanation of their finding is given. The one quoted is from the Papyrus of Nu, the oldest copy now known to exist on papyrus, but in another version in the same Papyrus the finding is thus described :

"This Chapter was found in the foundations of the shrine of Hennuby the chief Mason during the reign of His Majesty, the King of the North and of the South, Sempte-Hesep-ti, triumphant, who carried (it) away as a mysterious object which had never (before) been seen or looked upon."

The Rubric of the Papyrus of Mesem-reter says it was

"discovered in the foundations of the shrine of the Divine Hennu " boat by the Chief Mason in the time of the King of the North and of the South, Hemte (or Hesepti) triumphant."

Chapter 30, usually recited as a complement to Chapter 64, is stated to have been

"found in the city of Khmennu under the feet of (the statue of) this god. (It was inscribed) upon a slab of iron of the south, in the writing of the god himself, in the time of the majesty of the king of the north and of the south, Men-Kau- Ra, triumphant, by the royal son Heru-ta-ta-f, who discovered it whilst he was on his journey to make an inspection of the temples and of their estates."

Chapter 130 has for vignette a picture of the deceased standing between two boats of the sun. This Chapter is intended to make his soul live forever. In the Rubric (Saite Recension or revised text) it is stated,

"(This Chapter) was found in the large hall (?) of the Temple under the reign of His Majesty Sempte (Hesepti), triumphant, and it was found in the cavern of the mountain which Horus made for his father Osiris Un-nefer, triumphant."

From all these extracts therefore, we see that there existed a tradition that something in the nature of "V.S.L."" and giving the names and titles of the Deity, was discovered beneath a temple, inscribed on a block of iron, in mysterious characters, which the finder, whether the chief mason or royal son (a traveller or sojourner visiting and inspecting the temple) was unable to read without the assistance of a learned scribe, and which was revered and treasured as the ritual for insuring eternal life: (These writings being those which enabled Osiris, the god king, who suffered death and mutilation at the hands of his enemies, to be raised to everlasting life.) Prominence was also given to the Sun, whose rays are darted to illuminate the writings.

Now, the question is this: Can the Royal Arch Degree be said to have adapted this story, when it is known that the Degree was instituted somewhere about 1750, whereas these Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were not deciphered until 1850, a hundred years later, and that even as far back as early Roman times the meanings had been lost?

The coincidences of the two stories is remarkable, and it may be that the story of the Degree in some part goes much further back in time than the rebuilding of the Second Temple at Jerusalem.

The thread of connection between the Royal Arch and the Book of the Dead may be a thin one, but that a thread exists, I feel sure. What say you?

History of Royal Arch Masonry Vol. 1