What Ancient Egypt Can Teach Us

An obscure text has some surprisingly modern answers

Mitch Horowitz
Nov 8, 2017 · 5 min read
Egypt’s Ibis-headed god of intellect, Thoth

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“O Egypt, Egypt, there will remain of thy religion only fables.” — Hermetica

Does ancient Egyptian religion hold anything for today’s seeker? (Okay, if you finished that line, you know you’ve left the politics section.)

That question is more difficult to answer than it might first appear. Very little of the initiatory and mystery practices of the ancient world, whether in matters of astrology, rites, or rituals, have come down to us. For one thing, many primeval civilizations, from Egypt to Chaldea to Babylonia, preserved their esoteric beliefs in oral tradition and used written language in a more symbolic than expository manner.

When current New Age or occult groups claim to be harnessing the “mysteries” of ancient Egypt, whether in the form of tarot, movements, or ceremonial magick, they are often relying, either knowingly or not, on reimaginings of Egypt crafted in the occult revival of the late-19th century or sometimes on channeled material from the past century.

But one intriguing time capsule contains a few spiritual-psychological ideas that stem, at least partly, from an era where the closing chapters of ancient Egyptian history blended with Hellenic civilization, and centuries later got reintroduced to modern seekers. It is found in a curious and surprisingly powerful little occult book from 1908 called The Kybalion.

The Kybalion was written under the dramatic byline “Three Initiates.” All historical and documentary evidence points to a sole author, William Walker Atkinson (who identified himself as such in a 1912 Who’s Who entry), a brilliant and preternaturally energetic Chicago publisher and writer in the field of New Thought, the tradition of mind-power metaphysics, or what William James called “the religion of healthy-mindedness.”

Atkinson’s achievement in The Kybalion was to reprocess the so-called Hermetic writings. These were mystical tracts produced by Greek-Egyptian scribes in the city of Alexandria in the generations immediately following the death of Christ. Writing in Greek, the anonymous scribes codified certain Egyptian oral traditions, combined them with Neoplatonism and other late-Greek thought, and attributed the insights to the mythical man-god Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice-greatest Hermes, a Greek term of veneration for Egypt’s god of writing and intellect, Thoth. These magical tracts were later rediscovered in the Renaissance and, for a time, contributed hugely to the opening of the Western mind before they fell into relative obscurity.

Enter Atkinson, an incredibly productive and shrewd occult writer and seeker in the early 20th century. His genius was to mine the Hermetic literature, working from turgid Victorian-era translations, for psychological and esoteric gems of insight and to reprocess them, combined with insights of his own, for modern readers. And gems he found.

Atkinson divided his short but substantial book into seven Hermetic principles, the most powerful of which, and the key to working on a practical level with all the others, is the principle of polarity. The Kybalion explains it this way:

Everything is Dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.

Atkinson reasons — and this is an area ripe for personal experiment — that emotions are polarities. In an insight affirmed by poets and psychologists, there exists an intimate scale of connection between all passions: love/hate, exuberance/ennui, courage/fear, spite/compassion. If you can locate the opposite polarity of whatever you’re feeling — fear to courage is one example — you can, through the intimacy of connection between passionate states, “slide the scale” from one expression to the other, through force of will, determination, and what Atkinson called the principle of rhythm.

This Hermetic principle of rhythm is closely linked to polarity. The Kybalion states:

Everything flows, out and in; everything has its tides; all things rise and fall; the pendulum-swing manifests in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates.

Life is cyclical, something Ralph Waldo Emerson explored in his 1841 essay “Compensation.” This to-and-fro aspect of life, and of human emotion, can be witnessed across years, but at times appears within the space of a moment. If you can become aware of and harness the natural ebbs and flows within, and rest in the knowledge that they must occur, this can be a great help in applying the principle of polarity.

The book holds many other insights, which, on both macro and intimate scales, trace out the cycles and processes of the natural world and the world within. The Kybalion is worthy of a careful read.

Historically, The Kybalion has been something of an underground book, but its influence has appeared in surprising places. In 1982, TV Guide presented a rare profile of television star Sherman Hemsley, world famous as TV’s George Jefferson. Hemsley, who died in 2012, was intensely private and seldom gave interviews. TV Guide ran its piece under the headline “Don’t Ask How He Lives or What He Believes In: A Rare View of ‘The Jeffersons’ Star Who Works Hard to Hide an Unorthodox Lifestyle.”

The man who immortalized the cantankerous George obliquely credited a mysterious book and teacher with turning his life around as a young man. “Somewhere along the line,” went the profile, “he met ‘the man with the book’ — although Sherman won’t say which one. ‘Don’t want to advertise any book,’ he grumbles. He is also very mysterious about exactly who the man was.” Hemsley’s housemate, André Pavon, told TV Guide that the book was, in fact, The Kybalion.

“He gave me that and others,” Pavon said, adding, “It changed my life. He told me, ‘You got to read it, man.’” Though sometimes depicted as a recluse, Hemsley simply lived by a different scale of values — those he derived from The Kybalion, as well as from his interests in meditation and Kabbalah. Asked why he didn’t frequent Hollywood parties and restaurants, he replied: “Nothing goes on there. The most exciting things happen in the mind.” Although The Kybalion remained just off mainstream radar, Hemsley’s comments exemplified the depth of dedication the occult work inspired among its fans. The book is also widely read within Afrocentric circles today as a retention of ancient Egyptian wisdom.

The Kybalion brings us ideas, both ancient and recent, well worth discovering.

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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