The meaning of the Great Pyramid
From the tomb to the pyramid
At the time of the First Dynasty (about 3000 years before our era), the royal tomb took the shape of a mastaba (Arabic word meaning bench) or truncated pyramid and did not differ at all from a noble tomb:
The change appeared as early as the Third Dynasty under the influence of Imhotep, the grand priest of Heliopolis and the inventor of the stone architecture. The monument of King Djoser (about 2620-2600 before our era) shows how the Egyptians had passed from the truncated to the step pyramid located at:
The structure that extended horizontally until then took suddenly height and rose vertically. This passage from a terrestrial to a celestial vision is not without meaning. It was nevertheless not before the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (about 2310-2135 before our era) that the famous “Pyramid Texts” (engraved at that time on the inner Chamber walls) revealed the step utility. They should allow the King to attain the pyramid vertex, to reach Heaven and get access to the throne of Re, the Sun God.
The pyramid with smooth faces also appeared with the Third Dynasty and the reign of Seneferu (about 2570-2545 before our era) at:
The smooth and white surface made the pyramid visible from faraway, transformed it into a light symbol and let the King be the son of Re.
After the first project of the pyramid of Meidoum, the construction of the pyramids of Dahshur aimed at raising a pyramid with entirely smooth faces. The first of the two pyramids turned out to be a failure due to bad calculations and construction on a sandy ground. It was topped, in the middle of the construction, by a second pyramid with a lower angle (43° instead of 54°). Hence its name of “rhomboid pyramid”.
A second pyramid was built not far away from the first by taking up the inclination of the upper part of the “rhomboidal pyramid”. Known today as the “red pyramid”, because of its colour, it really allowed the construction of the classical pyramids built in Giza by khufu, son of Seneferu, and his successors Khephren and Mykerinos.
However, the way of constructing a pyramid with totally smooth faces involves more than a simple trim of a step pyramid. In fact, the white limestone blocks on the sides must be placed first to guarantee their perfect alignment. That precludes the use of an enveloping outer ramp leaning on the structure to take the blocks up. Indeed, two ramps were used for the structure construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza:
- A frontal outer ramp to raise the pyramid by the third of its height while using two-thirds of the required mass of stones:
- An inner ramp shaped as a spiral with straight angles to carry the last third of stones removed from the frontal ramp, when this ramp no longer had a use:
The work of the architect Jean-Pierre Houdin is only waiting for an ultimate green light from the Egyptian authorities to confirm the existence of this inner ramp in the Great Pyramid. This passage from an outer step vision to an inner smooth vision is not insignificant either.
It is commonly admitted that pyramids were built to be used as tombs. Does it mean so far that their construction met only this goal or use ? If this is the case, then why has no tomb ever been discovered in the Great Pyramid of Giza ? And even if there had been one, it would not have excluded the use of structure for other purposes, maybe even more important ones. It is also possible that a late funerary use had supplanted the original function dating back to the construction. And even if all pyramids would contain a tomb, should we understand it in the literal sense ? Could it not be a matter of symbolic meaning ? Let us only remember to the time needed by people to simply envisage the existence of an inner ramp in the Great Pyramid. It should be sufficient to show us how much we have moved away from the spirit and spirituality of the Egyptian master-builders. All the more so since all traditions evoke a universal symbol of which the pyramid is an image.
From the mountain to the cave
The mountain was traditionally a symbol of spiritual centre that has had different names: mount Meru for the Hindus, the Alborj for the Persians, the Qaf for the Arabs, the Olympia for the Greeks, the White Mountain for the Celts or Montsalvat in the legend of the Grail etc.
The mountain summit represented the contact point between Earth and Heaven, the place of truth, of passage between human or terrestrial states and supra-human or celestial states. Visible from everywhere, the mountain symbolized the truth accessible to everybody.
Nevertheless, the beings turned away from the quest for truth and plunged into the frantic quest of satisfaction of desires only. The search for the truth abandoned the summit to the ground and to become accessible to beings longing for knowledge only. Strictly speaking, the spiritual centre did not leave the mountain, but withdrew into the heart of it. The cave then became the most representative symbol of the spiritual centre, the hidden place forbidden to profanes and only reserved to beings initiated to mysteries.
The cave is an image of the cosmic world where the ground represents Earth and the vault Heaven. This is the heart of the development possibilities of the being. Plunged into the deepest silence (etymology of mystery), the initiated being will die in the obscure world of the current states to be re-born in the luminous world of the new states. If the access to the human being's states takes place in the heart of the cave, the realization of the supra-human or spiritual states corresponds to a way out of the cave, a resurrection. Such an exit can only be vertical to rejoin the sun at its zenith (consult the cosmic cave about this subject).
The mountain is outlined by a triangle resting on a side whereas the cave is represented by an inverted triangle resting on a vertex. As such, the cave symbolizes the goblet, the receptacle destined to collect the Knowledge. The triangle inversion could lead you to believe that the cave is a mountain reflection only. In most current representations nevertheless, the centres of both triangles coincide in order to underline that the reflected knowledge is in full appropriateness with the original Knowledge (for more details on the triangular representation, see the introduction to symbolism). The contact place between Earth and Heaven is then no longer the mountain summit, but the whole vertical axis linking the cave to the summit and beyond.
In the Egyptian tradition, the pyramid can only symbolize the mountain and the inner Chamber the cave rich of the related initiation symbolism.
From the profane to the initiated being
Not all who wished to be initiated were initiated. First of all, it was essential to possess the required aptitudes to let the knowledge penetrate; next, it was indispensable to be ready to undergo a deep mutation where the abandonment of the old man had to precede the appearance of the new man; at last, it was necessary to go through the test of the initiatory rite, bringing the being from the profane to the initiated state.
Even more, only beings deemed to be in charge of a sacred function could be initiated. That concerned craftsmen, work masters, scribes, priests, the vizier and the King. The different functions were not associated with distinct initiation rites, but various stages of the same initiation process. All the rites had to bring the being to discover a fundamental truth that was going to transform at once his life and his work.
The initiated being was called to distinguish the inner light within the outer darkness. He had to die from the current being's states to be re-born in higher states. And the pyramid wonderfully illustrated this progression. Every being's state could be depicted by a section parallel to the base of the structure and meeting the vertical axis with a point. This balance point between the different directions symbolized the centre of the concerned state. Having reached the centre of a state, the being was ready to attain a higher state and its centre. While progressing, the representative section of the corresponding state diminished and he succeeded in attaining more and more “centred” states. Then, he could follow his ascent until reaching the being' state centred within himself, the unified state associated with the pyramid vertex. This state corresponded to the accomplishment of all human possibilities and the return to the “primeval state”. Having reached the vertex, the qualified initiated being could follow his vertical ascent, attain the supra-human states related to Heaven and rejoin the throne of Re, the Sun God.
Thus, the celestial or supra-human way extended the terrestrial or human way:
- The realization of the supra-human states was reserved to the beings assuming the highest functions because before governing others, it was firstly necessary to govern oneself. It was essentially about the King and beings able to replace him, i.e. the grand priests officiating in his name and the vizier in charge of the government.
- The realization of the different degrees of the human states principally concerned craftsmen, work masters, scribes and other priests. In fact, the sculptor of Gods' representations had to be in a position to instil the divine within his works. Similarly, the scribe could not access the sacred texts without having been purified.
The building creation was a reply to a request expressed by a grand priest or the King. Given their knowledge of the celestial and terrestrial worlds, the grand priests were the only ones able to conceive the sacred monuments. They were formed and initiated in the temples by masters aware of the spiritual and technical knowledge required to accomplish such a function. There is no doubt that precise calculations allowed them to determine the essential characteristics of monuments and the required quantities of materials to build them. That excluded all major modification during alterations.
The construction itself was confided to the work master. Helped by scribes, he assured the recruitment of a team, the supply of materials and the work-site supervision. The vizier attentively followed the execution of the plans and informed the King about it personally.
A unique initiation path could only incite all the qualified beings to work together to create terrestrial structures made in the image of the celestial world.
From the literal to the symbolic meaning
The most intriguing aspect of the Great Pyramid of Giza is less related to its colossal size or construction secrets than to its inner structure with its three Chambers and its Grand Gallery.
The Great Pyramid structure
- Original entrance
- Subterranean Chamber
- Rocky basis
- Queen's Chamber (so-called)
- Grand Gallery
- King's Chamber (so-called)
- Relieving Chambers
- Air shafts (so-called)
According to what precedes, the spiritual initiation took place in the cave buried in the heart of the mountain and at the vertical of its summit. Now, only the (so-called) Queen's Chamber satisfies these conditions.
Besides, the passage from the terrestrial world of duality to the celestial unified world is underlined by the room ceiling. Does the top line of the pointed vault not symbolize the meeting of opposites depicted by both sections of the lateral walls ? Moreover, the room contains no sarcophagus for the King had to stand up in line with the pyramid axis to symbolically rise towards its vertex and beyond towards Re. As for the unfinished air shafts (so-called) and the granite stone blocking the access to the Chamber, they had among other aims to keep profanes away.
The (so-called) King's Chamber is noticeably offset from the pyramid axis and no technical consideration would be able to explain it.
The construction of a large room with a flat ceiling required in fact the laying of huge granite blocks (carried through the Grand Gallery) that had to support a considerable load of stones. That is probably why the construction of relieving Chambers topped by a pointed vault destined to carry on the sides a part of the mass of stones was undertaken. If it was really the case, why did they not foreseen this and build the Chamber directly in line with the pyramid axis and offset the Queen's Chamber if needed ? That would have avoided or at least limited the manifestation of cracks in the granite blocks due to an unequal distribution of the loads and this as early as the construction. Even more, why construct a Chamber with a flat ceiling when the Grand Gallery rises in a corbelled construction creating the most beautiful effect ?
Indeed, it is only when we bring technical and symbolic aspects closer that we better understand the function of the pyramids. First of all, the flat ceiling stresses the terrestrial character of the Chamber. Next, the presence of the empty “sarcophagus” evokes the coffin where Osiris was confined to the care of Seth. Where after Osiris let the terrestrial states of being die before rising. Finally, the Chamber offset south (and not north) underlines even more the triumph of light over darkness.
As for the subterranean Chamber, it recalls the funerary Chamber of the first royal graves shaped as mastabas.
It follows that the pyramid is not (only) a royal tomb in the literal sense of the word; it is above all a “sepulchral” place of terrestrial states (domain of Osiris) and of re-birth of spiritual states (domain of Re) 1.
Let us note that at the time of their construction, the air shafts of the south face were oriented towards the constellation of Orion for the King's Chamber and the star Sirius for the Queen's Chamber. As everything in the universe is the manifestation of Gods, Orion and Sirius were respectively associated with Osiris and Isis 2. Now, in the famous myth, Seth spreads the pieces of Osiris and Isis collects the scattered pieces. As it should be, the manifestation of the terrestrial diversity precedes the return towards the celestial unity. If it were needed again, that confirms the functional predominance of the Queen's Chamber over the King's one.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is not a tomb in the literal sense of the word. It does not properly contain a body, but the body of the doctrine of its master-builders. It is not a matter of written knowledge for no inscription or symbolic representations were discovered inside the structure. It is in fact inscribed within the construction structure itself, in its proportions, its inner and outer layout. This natural way of transmitting the doctrine was destined to continue as long as the initiation practice would be maintained. The temple of Angkor Wat provides a fine example of it.
Construction of the Great Pyramid according to Jean-Pierre Houdin
A film by Florence Tran, France 2008.
- René Guénon:
- “Traditional forms and cosmic cycles”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
- Notably, the chapter entitled “Hermes' Tomb”.
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
- More specifically, chapter 31 on “The mountain and the cave”.
1 back The King was a priest before being an autocrat. Far from acting on his own authority, he was above all the guardian of the Maat. It consisted in a principle meaning at once truth, cosmic and social order and justice in the sense of harmony. In short, it had to do with the rules ensuring the smooth running of the celestial and terrestrial worlds.
2 back The association Osiris/Orion and Isis/Sirius is linked to the annual cycle of both astral bodies. Each year, Osiris/Orion rises east followed by Isis/Sirius. Then, Osiris/Orion disappears for 70 days while Isis/Sirius continues to run. Finally, Osiris/Orion reappears followed by Isis/Sirius.