At the heart of symbolism

The meaning of the Great Pyramid


Giza's pyramids

The plateau of Giza

No monument has raised man's curiosity as much as (Egyptian) pyramids. Their shape, their mass, their meaning and the secrets of their construction arouse interrogations among beings in quest of knowledge and put the shrewdness of the archaeologists to great tests.

The task is all the more difficult since the pyramids of the Old Kingdom (about 2680-2260 before our era) were not isolated structures, but only the dominating elements of vast places of worship.

In general, the pyramid was surrounded by an enclosure and smaller pyramids sometimes. Its eastern face adjoined a funerary temple (“higher temple”) devoted to the daily worship of the defunct King. This temple was linked, by a long covered causeway, to the valley temple (“lower temple”) destined to collect the remains for their embalming. The access to the tomb as such went through the northern face of the pyramid whereas the inner funerary chamber was oriented east to west.

It follows that pyramids are oriented according to the compass points 1 and constructed alongside three axes:

  • The horizontal north-south axis, parallel to the Nil's flow from its source to the see, symbolizes the passage from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge. The entry through the northern face corresponds to a return to the source;
  • The horizontal east-west axis, parallel to the daily run of the sun, symbolizes the perpetual cycle of rebirth and death;
  • The vertical zenith-nadir axis represents for the being the World Axis linking Heaven and Earth, Divine and human, celestial and terrestrial influences.

At the beginning is Nun, the chaos, the “Primeval Waters” containing all possibilities at a potential state. Standing up above waters, Atum, the great demiurge, symbolizes the vertical Axis linking all the plans of manifestation and of non-manifestation. Undifferentiated, Atum generates the first sexual couple Shu (“Air”) and Tefnut (“Humidity”). The latter generate in turn Nut (“Heaven”) and Geb (“Earth”). It follows that Shu represents the intermediary world separating them. From the latter couple, two well known other couples are born: Isis and Osiris, Seth and Nephtys. Risen from the dead, Osiris symbolizes regeneration, renewal and can only reign on the dead Kingdom. His posthumous union with Isis gave birth to Horus.

All these Gods constituted the great Ennead of Heliopolis, the city of the Sun, for Atum manifests his own creative power under the appearance of light arising from darkness and symbolized by the Sun God, Re (or Ra) 2:

  • In the East, the morning Sun is born (Khepri);
  • In zenith gleams the noon Sun (Re-Horakhty); it crosses the space on the “daylight barque” and goes through the stellar world when apparently motionless in the sky;
  • In the West, the evening Sun becomes, in a way, Atum again. It climbs into the “night barque” and regenerates itself at the source during the crossing of the darkness world (Kingdom of Osiris), before being re-born.

The solar cycle expresses a constant series of triumphs of light over darkness, of cosmic order over chaos. This harmony will go on as far as man is living in accordance with this order; otherwise, the world will return to chaos. Now, the human being possesses the immense privilege of standing at the centre of the apparent Sun orbit. He stands at the balance point between light and obscurity (sunrise/sunset, noon/midnight etc.) and it is up to him alone to maintain this balance by integrating the order that governs the world in his life style, spiritual fervour, rites and constructions.

Light coneGreat PyramidAll the Sun power is manifested at the zenith. Then, the Sun draws, with the horizon plan, a light cone (for more details, see the position on the celestial sphere). Now, the circle figure does not privilege any direction in contrast to the square one. This is the reason why the first is generally associated with Heaven and the second with Earth. The equivalent terrestrial representation of the celestial cone of light consists of a (upright) pyramid with a square base oriented according to the compass points. This figure offers the advantage over the cone of putting more emphasis on the balance between light and shadow (east/west, south/north etc.). The Egyptians understood this well for they represented the world creation as a mountain shaped as a pyramid.

As a terrestrial image of the celestial light, the pyramid wonderfully symbolizes the links between Heaven and Earth.

The alliance of Heaven and Earth

Khufu's dimensionsThe links between celestial and terrestrial worlds, circle and square figures, seem particularly underlined in the construction of the Great(est) Pyramid of Giza itself. If we start from the vertical (celestial) and horizontal (terrestrial) dimensions given in royal cubits:

height = h = 280; base = b = 440.

The pyramid gradient is defined by the seked:

2h/b = 560/440 = 14/11

It follows that:

2b/h = 22/7 = 3 + 1/7

Now, this is an approaching value for π and 2b/h ≅ π or 4b ≅ 2πh. In other words, the pyramid perimeter is very close to the circumference of a circle, the diameter of which is twice the pyramid height. This relation between the height seems more accidental than deliberate, for the Egyptians did not know the calculation of the circumference. Nevertheless, it evokes the “squaring of the circle”, a symbol of the alliance of Heaven and Earth.

The harmony between Heaven and Earth also explains why the unit of measure used for the construction of the Great Pyramid referred to the number 7:

1 royal cubit = 7 palms = 28 fingers.

Moreover, the number 7 perfectly characterizes the pyramid with a square base. The vertex symbolizes the unity manifested as polarities when linked to two of the four corners of the basis. As it can be linked to two of them in six different ways, the number 7 represents at once the unity (1) and its dual manifestation (6) 3.

1 back The Fact that the Great Pyramid is the only one to be exactly oriented does not necessarily result from the master-builders' carelessness. The variations in comparison with the compass points could just as well reflect the use of other markers linked to different eras or traditional forms.

The perfect balance of the pyramid between lit (east/south) and comparatively dark (west/north) faces leads one to think that the Egyptians derived the orientation of their structures just as well from the sun as the stars. As no archaeological document relates the method(s) used by the Egyptians to orient their pyramids, we will stick only to facts and avoid choosing between different possibilities, all as likely as each other.

2 back Note that in Egypt no God, as powerful as he could be, supplanted the others for two reasons essentially:

  • Firstly, the fact that several cosmogonies linked to the great spiritual places (Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis, Thebes) were living together was a reply to local or temporal requirements;
  • Next, all Gods found their source in Atum, the undifferentiated principle manifesting “himself” under different facets. If ancient Egypt is polytheistic in its manifestation, it is nevertheless “monotheistic” in its principle as testified by the annals of the priests of Karnak: “I saw Amon [creator God of Thebes] in its horizon, in the perfect room, the moment he went out of the east and I understood that Gods are only his images”. Akhenaton's reform was therefore not surprising at all, but it particularly challenged the privileges of the priests.

3 back This symbolism of the number 7 can also be found in the Genesis and the world creation. The world manifestation from the divine Principle occurred in six days and ended with a seventh, a so-called “resting” day. The last day was not really a resting day outside the creation, but rather its final crowning symbolized by the return towards Unity.

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