"It is well known that in Egypt there were Hieroglyphics, and that these
were inscribed on the pillars and walls of the temples, etc. and it is
known, likewise, that no one at the present day knows what things were
signified by them. But they are nothing else than the correspondences of
natural and spiritual things, which were cultivated by the Egyptians in
their times more than by any of the people in Asia. The earliest inhabitants
of Greece composed their fables according to these correspondences, and
the most ancient style was none other than this.
"I shall add here this new information, that all the things which appear
before angels and spirits in the spiritual world, are nothing else than
correspondences. For this reason also the whole of the Sacred Scripture
was written by correspondences in order that by means of it, and because
it is such, there may be a conjunction
of the men of the church
with the angels of heaven. But because the Egyptians -- and with them others
in the kingdoms of Asia--began to turn these correspondences into idolatries,
to which the children of Israel were prone, therefore the latter were forbidden
to recall these for any use among themselves, as appears clearly from the
first precept of the Decalogue.
" 'Thou shalt not make unto thee the sculpture of any figure which is in
the heavens above, or which is in the earth beneath, or which is in the
waters under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve
them, for I am Jehovah thy God' (Deut. 5: 8, 9) besides many other things
"From that time the Science of Correspondences fell into oblivion and,
indeed, gradually to such an extent that scarcely anyone at the present
day knows that there ever was such a science, or that it is of any importance.
But as the Lord is now about to establish a New Church, which is to
be founded on the Word, and which is meant by the New Jerusalem in the
Apocalypse, it has pleased the Lord to reveal that science, and thus to
open the Word such as it is interiorly in its bosom, i.e., in its internal
sense. This was done through me in the Arcana Coelestia, published at London,
and afterwards in the Apocalypse Revealed, published at Amsterdam.
"Inasmuch as this Science of Correspondences was the Science of Sciences
among the ancients, whence their wisdom was derived, it is of importance that someone of your Academy
should devote labor upon this science, which
may be done especially from the correspondences disclosed in the Apocalypse
Revealed and there demonstrated from the Word. If it should be so desired,
I am willing to explain the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, which are nothing else
than correspondences, and to publish the explanation.
(Signed) em. swedenborg 1769"
Modern scholars say the tradition of thinking allegorically, incanting
spirits of another world, belief in magic, all began in Ancient Egypt.
This should be no surprise to us, for the Writings teach that the Ancient
Church was in Canaan, Syria, Assyria and Egypt and that the people of that
church thought and wrote in correspondences.
Erik Iversen, a Dane, who recently wrote a comprehensive book on the allegorical
tradition in Western thought, says the history of the study of hieroglyphics
through the ages has been a kind of barometer of the interest in magic,
myth, and allegory. Although his whole thesis is that the allegorical interpretation
of the hieroglyphics has been a fake and a fraud through the ages, and
has only served to postpone the translation of the hieroglyphics, which
he says have been purely phonetic from the start, still much of
what he says, because he is scientific and objective, seems to give more
evidence to support our thesis. He complains about how the Egyptians and
then the Greeks and later Renaissance man persisted in their allegorical
interpretations when anyone can plainly see from the outcome that the hieroglyphics
have always been merely phonetic! Listen to his description of the Egyptian
mind and thought:
"It is obvious that the Egyptians had exactly the same means, and the same
abilities, for empirical observations of the objects and the phenomena
of their world as we have in ours, and fundamentally seen their mental
faculties were neither inferior nor different from those of the Greeks
or our own, but they had, due to their all-pervading belief in the magical
nature of things and in magic as a basic and ever active force of nature,
an entirely different conception of the dynamic processes of the cosmos.
"They were perfectly able to follow empirically, and to account for, any
ordinary sequence of cause and effect, but the ultima ratio, the dynamic
force which originated any process, was in their conception, always
magical in its nature, and this basic belief influenced the very chain
of their reasoning and made it dependent on laws of logic which are incompatible
with ours and those of the post-Platonic Greeks from whom we have inherited
"The difficulties arising from these fundamental divergencies are accentuated
by another peculiarity of Egyptian thought: its reluctance to form and
use abstract concepts, and its characteristic use of concretions, that
is tangible concrete words and pictures, to express what we should consider
abstract notions and ideas, which again resulted in its dependence on concrete
mythical representations in all efforts to form and express a theoretical
conception of the nature of things.
"Every object and creation had to the Egyptian mind beside its ordinary
existence in the material world a mythical existence of its own, dependent
on the object or being with which it was identified and the explanation
of it expressed in the appropriate legends, and only as mythical manifestations
did the material things to the Egyptian mind reveal their true nature."
It is thrilling to me how often we find
in recent studies of the religion of the ancient Egyptians, traditionally
viewed as gross, external, death-preoccupied, a sudden insight into the
true nature of the Egyptian religion.
One scholar, describing the various gods,
comes to Maat, the goddess who wears a single feather as her crown. We
can picture the frown on his face as he states in a wondering sort of way
"This Maat, she's not a goddess at all, she's a pure abstraction, simply
the personification of truth!"
The myriad weird animal deities, cat cults,
strange combinations of animal parts are a nightmare until we read the
description of Swedenborg's visit to the Heaven of the Silver Age:
"We descended the hill to cross the valley,
and we saw here and there on either side images of wood and stone carved
in the likeness of men, and of various beasts, birds, and fishes. I asked
the angel What are these? Are they idols?
"He replied, 'Certainly not! They are figures
representative of various moral virtues and spiritual truths. With the
people of that age there was a knowledge of correspondences; and as every
man, beast, bird, and fish corresponds to some quality, therefore each
sculptured form represents some aspect of virtue or truth, and a number
of them together represent the virtue or the truth itself in a general
comprehensive form. These in Egypt, were called hieroglyphics!' "
Real scholars, like Prof. Layard when he
uncovered the great winged sphinx at Nimrud, seem to see the truth when
their search is sincere.
"I used to contemplate for hours those
mysterious emblems, and muse over their intent and history. What more noble
forms could have ushered the people into the temple of their gods? What
more sublime images could have been borrowed from nature by
men who sought, unaided by the light of the revealed religion, to embody
their conception of the wisdom, power, and ubiquity of a Supreme Being?
They could find no better type of intellect and knowledge than the head
of a man; of strength than the body of a lion; of rapidity of motion than
the winged bird. These winged, human-headed lions were not idle creatures,
the offspring of mere fancy; their meaning was written upon them."
And the horrors of 7000 different deities become beautiful when you see
them through a New Church student's eyes: "the ancient Egyptians in all
their meticulous, scientific care recording and categorizing 7000 different
aspects of the One God, 7000 different ways He appears to men!"
Just as the ancient Hebrew scholars were meticulous about copying every
jot and tittle of the Hebrew Word, so were the ancient Egyptians meticulous
and faithful for millenia to the copying of symbols like the anch, symbol
of eternal life, always the same. Later the same serpent, uraeus, becomes
symbol of Egypt. And think how consistently the Writings speak
of Egypt as representing the sensual, the ultimate scientific. Think again
how consistently the Writings mention the serpent as representing
the sensual. As far as I know the Writings don't directly connect the serpent
with Egypt, but miraculously, after Swedenborg's time, when most of the
Egyptian treasures were uncovered, most male divinities and pharaohs were
found to have Uraeus, the serpent, uppermost in their crown. One
New Church lady suggests that perhaps we could date the decline and fall
of the Ancient Church by discovering when the serpent was raised to the
highest point in the crown, for the decline of a church occurs when the
sensual dominates. Egyptians, meticulous and faithful to the accuracies
of their symbols, were probably faithful even to the very death of their
"And in Greece they turned correspondences
Isolated in the pristine purity of their sun drenched, wave-washed islands,
the Greeks were able to watch the horrible fall of the Ancient Church in
Asia. Separated from the active perversions, they were able to watch objectively
as Ishtar of Babylon descended into hell and the snake goddess of Crete
writhed and danced for the last time. They turned the correspondences into
myths and the allegorical thinking of the Egyptians into philosophy.
Those who write about the history of philosophy today say that the concepts
of dualism and the ideal world started with Plato. Swedenborg would therefore be called a Platonist
or, because Christianity was mystically intertwined with his system, a
neo-Platonist. But we know that Plato was a johnny-come-lately on the scene
of systematic, allegorical thinking.
How great was the purity of thought of the Ancient Greeks and how complete
has been its perversion, I think is dramatically characterized by the complete
reversal of meaning of the word myth. In Homer's time mythos and
meant the same thing, what Word means to us, Truth itself. Later Logos
grew to mean the inward constitution, as well as the outward form of thought,
and consequently became the expression of exact thought--which is exact
because it corresponds to universal and unchanging principles. Later in
Greek history mythos, from meaning Truth itself, came to mean the telling
truth. Now in our modern world, where the existence of Truth itself or
Absolute Truth is usually denied, logos means merely an exact science,
a far cry from Truth in its Essence, and mythos has suffered a far worse
fate. From meaning Truth itself, it became the telling of truth; now it
false belief. Please don't let me hear anyone say
"it's only a myth."
So to the very ancient Greeks the myths were not only true they were the
truth. This was their idea of correspondences. Let's see what Iversen
says about it:
"The tenacity with which the classical authors stick to their erroneous
interpretations and as it were deliberately disregard all evidence which
could conflict with their preconceived allegorical ideas is indeed astonishing."
Although Iversen asserts that there was
continued and lively intercourse between Hellas and Egypt in the 7th and
6th centuries B.C. and that the Greeks claimed complete dependence on Egyptian
thinking; still he says "the Greeks did not understand Egyptian writings
and refused to acknowledge that they were phonetic."
In fact, the Greeks were certain that it
was allegorical. Diodorus--1st century B.C.--says:
"The Egyptian writing does not express
the intended concept by means of syllables joined one to another but by
means of the signification of the objects which have been copied and by
its figurative meaning which has been impressed upon the memory by practice.
For instance they draw a picture of a hawk and that signifies everything
swift and a crocodile signifies everything evil."
According to Plutarch the hieroglyphics were not ordinary writing at all
but "pictorial, rebus-like expressions of divine ideas and sacred knowledge."
According to Plotinus, 3rd century A.D., "these pictures were not merely
ordinary images of the things they represented but were endowed with certain
symbolic qualities which revealed the ideal world of the soul."
An Alexandrian scholar named Claireiron wrote a treatise on hieroglyphics
in which he says the allegorical method used in writing the hieroglyphics
was the same as the method used by Homer.
During the first few centuries A.D., really the height of the Christian
Church, ancient Egypt became just a dark memory. But one wonders if the
ancient truth of one God, which surfaced in Egypt at the time of Achnaten,
again surfaced to help the people of the early Christian Coptic Church,
centered in Alexandria, to build the Monophysite doctrine which tried to
explain the nature of Christ, that He was the supreme manifestation of
the Logos and essentially God.
The next scene in the history of correspondences opened in Florence, 1439,
where Cosimo de Medici founded the Platonic Academy in order to encourage
the historical approach to scientific and philosophical problems. Here,
according to Iversen, "the Egyptian wisdom, Neo-Platonic philosophy and
the humanistic studies become in this way consecutive links in an unbroken
chain of tradition joined together and united with Christianity by their
common aim, the knowledge and revelation of God."
Latent interest in Egyptian matters was kept alive in French humanist circles
by the strong wave of Neo-Platonism which spread from Italy to France during
the 15th century. The French revived Coptic studies. Francis Quarles, in
the early 17th century, said "before letters God was known by Hieroglyphics
and indeed what are the Heavens, the Earth, nay even creation, but Hieroglyphics
and Emblems of His Glory!" This reminds us of Baudelaire who said much
more recently, "Everything is hieroglyphics."
Discussions on the original race and language of mankind caused several
Swedes to claim the existence of a system of symbolic and hieroglyphic
writing with the ancient Scandinavians. One interesting title, by Michael
Maier, in 1622 was Arcana Arcanissima Hoc Est Hiero-glyphica. Olaus
Rudbeck wrote a treatise on the subject, called Atlantica published
at Upsala 1698.
Perhaps the most interesting writings, to us, would be those of Athanasius
Kircher, German scholar of the 17th century, whose system, Iversen says,
represents one of the last deliberate efforts to combine the total religious, philosophic, and scientific
knowledge of a whole period into a grandiose vision of a living cosmology,
still governed by the doctrines of Christianity.
Leibnitz, Wolff, Locke, Newton, most of the enlightened philosophers, were
deeply involved with allegorical systems for interpreting the universe.
Certain metals, signs of the zodiac, mythological characters tied in with
their systems. And then:
"If God died in the 18th century" Iversen says, "one of the greatest symptoms
was the demise of neo-Platonism. In abolishing the influence of Neoplatonic
thought, which until then had permeated its religion, its philosophy, and
its science as an often hidden and disguised but always inspiring and dynamic
force, European culture severed one of its strongest traditions and one
of the most immediate bonds connecting it with its own origin and classical
past. A new world was born, revealed truth was replaced by scientific truth.
As hitherto the hieroglyphic studies reflected the change."
The Rosetta Stone was found, the hieroglyphics were deciphered in 1822
and found to be a phonetic language. An all-time low for the idea of correspondences!
But we have news, God didn't die in the 18th century. He was born again,
and the story of the science of correspondences was retold, sparking an
endless chain of inspiration of poets, artists, psychologists, philologists,
and a small group of men and women who were forming the nucleus of the
In preparation for this retelling a lonely Swedish nobleman pondered hard
and long about how to break through to gain knowledge of the soul; perhaps
he could develop a mathematical philosophy of universal concepts. It would
not be enough, he said, unless we could achieve such a high level of understanding
that all branches of science could be combined in a universal science,
with the help of which all particulars could be restored to their universals.
Again he says:
"Nature mounts through degrees to the highest region of the body where
the soul resides. There is no mortal language to describe the essence of
the soul, therefore one should evolve a universal mathematical philosophy
to express what words cannot--such a philosophy, correctly interpreted,
could become the science of sciences." Later he hints that this universal
philosophy would be identical with the language of the angels.
He shifts, in his search for this language, from a mathematical system
verbal system and talks of using the sort of images we see
in our dreams, the parables and fables "like
those of the period immediately after the Golden Age." And, he says, "it
will then be the task of the mind to interpret obscure sayings of the oracle,
communicated by the Pythian priestess from the Delphic tripod."
He believes that ancient Egyptian wisdom embraced a similar theory of correspondences
and that these correspondences designated hieroglyphics which could express
not only natural phenomena but at the same time spiritual
He outlines four kinds of correspondences: harmonica, allegorica, typica,
and fabulosa. The harmonic correspondences are those which have a relationship
between their functions, like light, intelligence, and wisdom; the allegorical
correspondences are like the Biblical parables; typical correspondences
are, as I understand them, like the archetypes of Jung--prototypes or prophetic
parables: as the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac is prophetic of the
crucifixion of the Lord; fabulous correspondences would be like those involving
myths and poetry.
It is very likely from Swedenborg's third kind of correspondence, correspondentia
typica, that several modern psychiatrists and mythologists have received
their inspiration. The archetype of the priest-king, the lost child, the
maiden goddess, the hero who slays the dragon; these, they say, are in
our nighttime dreams and our unconscious minds, as well as in our legends.
They say the modern child, whenever he wants to touch home base for security,
to find out where he came from, goes through a process of "grounding,"
best described by the German word
"begrunden." The process he goes
through, the pictures he draws, are the same processes and pictures described
by the ancients when they grounded or founded cities.
The distinguished Hungarian scholar, Karoly Kerenji sounds as if steeped
in correspondences when he talks of the symbology of the founding of ancient
cities, which were originally the dwelling places of the gods. They were
little universes, microcosms, drawn in a circle first, then quartered within.
The circle, he says, represents infinity, the quartering represents the
uniting of that infinity. Cities were laid out this way, ancient amulets
are found inscribed with this design, and modern children draw this picture
when they are searching for their origins.
What food for the New Church man's thoughts when coupled with the latest
theories about the Stonehenge and Avebury megoliths. Now it is theorized
that those great stones were carefully placed at exact intervals, pillars
of great astronomical observatories, giant computers, which could tell
countless things about the positions of the sun, moon and stars, built
by people long predating the Druids and of inestimable scientific ability. Perhaps these were not just for learning
natural science, perhaps they were some sort of symbolic microcosms built
by the ancients for much more interior purposes than we can imagine.
Out there, in the Church Universal, scholars are thinking deep, deep thoughts
about these things. Are we equipped in any scholarly way to join hands
with them and share what we know?
The final revelation concerning the science of correspondences has within
it the potential for endless scholarship and inspiration. Many stalwarts
in the early days of the New Church were set afire with this knowledge
that a new key had been given for higher understanding than had heretofore
been possible. And many, only inspired through permeation have put us to
The early magazines of the Convention and Conference, from 1812 on, were
filled with articles on correspondences in nature, in myth; why we
should study them, how we should study them, the imperative need
to do research in these areas.
One of our early giants, William H. Benade, made some amazing studies of
Egypt, Palestine, and Assyria. Right at about the time he became acquainted
with the Writings he gave a series of talks to the American Philosophical
Society meeting in Philadelphia in 1842 and 1843. One talk was on Egyptian
Ethnography. Some of us may think we are scientific, but just hear this:
Bishop Benade wanted to know who these Ancient Egyptians really were before
he started studying their culture. Having a warm friendship with the United
States Consul to Cairo, he persuaded the Consul, a Mr. Gliddon to commence
a search to Nubia as far as the second cataract. Mr. Gliddon procured 137
human crania, of which 100 belonged to ancient inhabitants of Egypt.
At the instance of Mr. Gliddon, 17 of these crania were sent to William
H. Benade by the distinguished surgeon in chief to the Viceroy of Egypt.
"Some were sent in original wrappings first opened by me." (W.H.B.). There
follow careful charts in Bishop Benade's beautiful handwriting: "55 from
the catacombs of Thebes, 4 from Abydos, 2 heads of lunatics; so many Semitic,
so many Negroid, so many Caucasoid."
Much later, on a trip to Turin in 1878, where the latest Egyptian finds
were being catalogued and organized, Bishop Benade made arrangements to
buy the famous Lanzone collection of Egyptian mythological artifacts. He
mentioned, in a letter to Mr. John Pitcairn that if Mr. Pitcairn didn't
think we could buy it, he was sure his friend Mr. Drexel of Philadelphia
would buy it and we could use it. At the time it was considered to be the finest mythological collection in
America. The collection is in our museum; Bishop Benade's lectures are
in the Archives; but I haven't been able to locate the 17 crania anywhere!
Some of the most exciting work done in the General Church on the mythological
implications of correspondences was done by the Rev. Carl Theophilus Odhner.
As a writer to the new church herald wrote: "I am impressed indeed with
the almost uncanny ability with which Mr. Odhner conjures the latest idea
out of figures and fables seemingly too grotesque to contain any: he is
an alchemist and transmutes dross into gold."
The ancients told profound truths in story form. Most of us today pride
ourselves in our ability to think abstractly, but sometime try the correspondence
key to an ancient myth and see what abstract doctrine comes to life like
Athena out of the head of Zeus. But always, as C.T.O. advises, use the
correspondences as your key and the rational doctrine as your guide. There
are so many beautiful examples of decodings done by C.T.O.; and since this
paper has been about the traditions handed down through the Egyptians from
the Ancient Word, I would like to give you some confirmation, including
more recent data, of his interpretation of what scholars call the Hermetic
C. T. Odhner says the ancient Egyptian God Thoth represents the Ancient
Plato tells in Philebus
that Theuth was the first to observe that
the "infinity of sound" could be divided into distinctive categories, vowels,
consonants; he became the discoverer of the concept of letters. The Phaedra
says the same thing, Thoth was an ancient Egyptian god, the one whose
sacred bird is called the Ibis. He is also called the Egyptian Hermes.
Remember him with his writing tablet and pen and described in a recent
Encyclopedia of Mythology--"Lord of Holy words, endowed with complete knowledge
and wisdom, rules 3,226 years, sails in the boat of 10,000 years; invented
all arts and sciences, arithmetic, surveying, geometry, astronomy, soothsaying,
magic, medicine, surgery, music with wind instruments and strings, drawing,
and above all
without which humanity would have run the
risk of forgetting his doctrines and of losing the benefit of his discoveries."
His disciples boasted that they had access to the crypt where he had locked
up his books of magic and they undertook to decipher and learn these formulas
which commanded all the forces of nature and subdued the very gods themselves.
It is because of this infinite power that he is called, Thoth, Three Times
Very, Very Great--which the Greeks called Hermes Trismegistos. He was the
keeper of the divine archives and at the same time the patron of history.
He was the clerk or scribe of the gods. "Ra has spoken, Thoth has written." The texts often couple him with,
guess which goddess out of many thousands: Maat, the goddess of truth and
Marcilio Ficinio, who lived and wrote at the Florentine court of Cosimo
de Medici, said Hermes Trismegistos was a sage in Egypt at the time, or
a little before the time, of Moses and that his knowledge even surpassed
that which was revealed by the Hebrew prophets. (Recall that it was Moses,
undoubtedly in Egypt, who copied the first eleven chapters of Genesis from
the Ancient Word.) Pythagoras had become acquainted with his teachings
while in Egypt and through his intermission they had been transmitted to
Plato who had based his own philosophy on the doctrine of Hermes Trismegistos!
The Greeks said Thoth was their Hermes.
Hermes. Remember Thoth's pen, Maat's feather, now consider Hermes,
sometimes called Hermes Logos, feather wings on his cap, wings on his sandals,
messenger from God to man, the Word. Recall his caduceus, symbol of medicine
and healing. "The Son of Man comes with healing in his wings."
We depart from C.T.O.'s ideas now and embark on our own speculation:
The Greek Hermes becomes Mercury to the Romans. Caesar describes the chief
god of the Celtic Gauls as being like the Roman Mercury. Tacitus equated
the Teutonic god of spiritual life with their
Odin. Mercury: Woden was the magician--god of the other world. In the
far North Woden was called Odin, god of intelligence, who spoke with such
ease and eloquence that all he said seemed true to those who heard him.
He liked to express himself in verse; he ordained the laws which ruled
human society. God of wisdom, poetry, and rules of conduct which he taught
men. He knew the magic formulas which cured illness; he was lord of
the runes which he invented. He got his wisdom from Mimer's fountain.
He had to give up one
in exchange for wisdom. (One of my students
suggested that it was probably the right eye he gave up and the
left eye he retained.) There are wings on his cap, his birds were thought
and memory. Remember Pegasus, the winged horse, breaking open the fountain
with his hoof? Think of the meanings of intelligence, wisdom, eyes, wings,
fountains, words, horses.
The last of C. T. Odhner's books, the Mythology of the Greeks and Romans
published after his death. The several reviews of that book in new church
life, now look like obituaries of a once great study in the New Church.
Our General Church theologians have made magnificent studies using the
science of correspondences to draw doctrine from the Old and New Testaments
and those parts of the Ancient Word which are in Genesis. But since CTO the search has stopped there.
They have done an unparalleled job of shouldering an essential responsibility
of the Church Specific, keeping doctrine pure. But let's not forget the
profound power of that earliest Word, the Ancient Word. Surely it
would have the same effect on the human race as those earliest remains
of good and truth have on the individual. What is the Ancient Word? Where
is the Ancient Word? Let's find it and read
I think we're afraid to because we think it is vague and unscientific;
and yet how can we ignore the clear teaching of the Writings that it is
not only science, but the science of sciences. When I think of the magnitude
of the challenge we are not accepting, I can only weep with Asclepius at
this prophecy of Hermes Trismegistos, translated in 1924.
"There will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians
honored the deity with heartfelt piety and assiduous service, and all our
holy worship will be found bootless and ineffectual. For the gods will
return from earth to heaven. Egypt will be forsaken, and the land which
was once the home of religion will be left desolate, bereft of the presence
of the deities. Do you weep at this Asclepius? There is worse to come.
Egypt herself will have yet more to suffer--O Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion
nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time
to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only
the stones will tell of thy piety. And so the gods will depart from mankind."
Quoting Swedenborg's letter about heiroglyphics again:
"It is of importance that someone of your Academy should devote labor upon
[Author's Note: Much of the material
for this paper was taken from:
The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition, by Erik
Iversen, Gad Publishers, Copenhagen, 1961.
Swedenborg, by Inge Jonsson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., N. Y. 1971.
on the Science of Mythology, by Jung & Kerenji, Princeton University
Press, 1949, Paperback 1969.]