23 Skidoo Part 4: The Shadow of Thutmose
A tale of two needles Part 2
Before we begin our examination of the obelisk itself, let us first quote verbatim a section from the first chapter of Susan Sorek’s “The Emperor’s Needles.”
The Cult of the Sun Stone: The Origins of the Obelisk
At some point in history, so long ago that it cannot be dated with any accuracy, the people of the Egyptian town of Iunu (Anu, meaning pillar), had as a cult object a stone that was thick at the base and tapered to a point at the top. Iunu is better known today by its Biblical name of On or its Greek name of Heliopolis, which is how it is referred to in this book. This early stone was called the Ben stone, and it is represented in texts of the sixth dynasty as a small obelisk surmounted by a little pyramid (pyramidion). This stone was the fetish of the primeval god Atum (the setting sun) and the god Rā or Rā-Harakhti (the rising sun). How the stone acquired its sanctity is unknown and it is possible that the ancient Egyptians had no clear idea of its origins either.
The Egyptian kings of the fifth dynasty (2465–2323 bc) built temples in connection with their pyramids at Abusir and Saqqara. They had a stronger allegiance to the sun god Rā and his priesthood than previous dynasties had, and in their temples the sun stone (or Ben stone) was the principal symbol of Rā, who was now represented in human form. This fifth-dynasty stone was a short thick obelisk structure standing on a base that resembled a truncated pyramid (see Fig. 2). On the east side of the stone was an altar where victims were sacrificed, and on the north side was a channel where the blood of the victims was collected in strategically placed alabaster bowls.
The apex of the stone was believed to house the spirit of the sun god, from where he could witness the slaughter of the sacrificial victims and accept the offerings that were made to him.
Consequently, the apex was the most sacred part of the structure; this was called the Benben (the Ben of the Ben).
The pyramids of the last kings of the fifth and the early kings of the sixth dynasty (between 2345 bc and 2181 bc) decorated the walls of their burial chambers with religious texts. These writings, known as the Pyramid Texts, were concerned with the deceased’s welfare. One text, confirming that the spirit of the deity dwelt in the Benben, reads:
O Atum, the Creator. You became high on the height, you rose up as the benben-stone in the mansion of the Phoenix in Heliopolis. (Pyramid Text no. 1652, Faulkner 1969: 242)
It used to be thought by Egyptologists that the obelisk developed out of the Ben stone by the addition of a long shaft, but the Pyramid Texts demonstrate this was not the case. These early ‘obelisks’— called tekhenu in the texts—had pyramidal tops like the Ben stone, but they were simply pillars that the Egyptians set up before the doors of their temples or shrines for ceremonial purposes. The meaning of the word tekhenu remains uncertain: although it appears on inscriptions as early as the sixth dynasty, it seems that even by then the word was an ancient one whose meaning may well have been long forgotten.
The tekhenu, symbolizing rebirth, was used initially as a funerary monument. The belief was that it brought into the tomb the reviving rays of the sun to allow the resurrection of the deceased. The small calcareous stone stelae found in the graves of the Pre-Dynastic and Archaic periods (c.3000–2575 bc) were resting places for the spirits of the dead when they came to the graves to partake of the spiritual parts of the offerings laid out for them. The much later New Kingdom wooden sepulchral stelae display wooden figures of human-headed hawks, indicating that the stones and tomb stelae, irrespective of the material from which they were made, were regarded as dwelling places of the dead. According to E.A. Wallis Budge, ‘The stelae found in the first- and second-dynasty tombs at Abydos (2920–2649 bc) are rough slabs of grey granite that only had one dressed face, ready to receive an inscription’ (Budge 1926: 5). These stelae were the precursors of the obelisk that appeared a little later, during the fourth dynasty (2575–2465 bc), when it became customary to place a pair of small stone obelisks on each side of a false door in the tomb.
It was the kings of the fifth dynasty (2465–2323 bc) who developed the idea of the obelisk. They erected pyramids to serve as their burial places, but the pyramid was only the focus of a large funerary complex that had a mortuary temple at the base of the pyramid, connected by a causeway to another temple. To demonstrate their especial reverence for the sun god, these fifth- dynasty kings added a gigantic tekhenu as the main feature of their complex pyramid structures, as a focus for the deity’s spirit.
From this point onwards, obelisks became free-standing structures, although there were still also funerary obelisks, developed to mark the entrances to certain tombs. Later, these obelisks became larger and heavier than the funerary stelae. It appears that obelisks did not supersede the Ben stone, but incorporated the Ben stone ideology: Rā was eternal and the obelisk symbolized stability and permanence, incorporating all the powers of rebirth and fertility that the god possessed. The top of the obelisk, the pyramidion, was still called the Benben.
In a much later inscription from the tomb of Seti I (1306–1274 bc), the god Benbeniti is said to be one of the seventy-five forms of Rā. It would appear that the Ben stone and the Benben of the obelisk symbolized the creative power of the sun god; the word ‘ben’ and all its variants indicate ‘virility’ and ‘reproduction’. It is also clear from the texts that, during certain dynastic periods, obelisks were believed to be occupied by a god and so entitled to offerings. Thus, Ben stones and tekhenu, both dedicated to the sun god, represent the various aspects of religious ideology that had evolved throughout the centuries.
On the obelisk in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano (13) Tuthmosis III is shown making offerings at his four obelisks, which included vast amounts of incense, myrrh and hundreds of different cakes. The inscriptions that accompany these vignettes make it clear that the pharaoh, who kneels before the god, owes his life, health, strength and stability to the deity.
It was during the New Kingdom, a time of empire building, that obelisks came to play a significant role as an architectural feature in association with temples. The kings of the eighteenth dynasty used them to adorn the temples of Karnak and other religious sites at Thebes, and the Ramesside kings of the twentieth dynasty (1196–1070 bc) fashioned obelisks for their new capital, Tanis, on the Delta. It was during this period that these stone pillars were endowed with supernatural significance; the belief that the obelisks housed the spirits of the deities meant that they merited special offerings and ceremonies. Tuthmosis III instigated new liturgies and practices for the obelisks that he erected at Karnak.
The obelisk occupies a powerful position within the collective Western imagination, a totem that forms the lynchpin of the Egyptian fever dream. When the obelisks were brought to the new world, a viral paranoia seemed to spread among the populace. A common belief was shared by the souls who now inhabited its shadow: that there was some wicked quality to be found in their phallic countenance.
Curses tend to stick to Egyptian antiquities, a metaphysical sudor of misfortune radiating from these exotic trinkets. The Curse of Tutankaman transfixed the public imagination for years, as the angel of death claimed the souls of the archaeologists who plundered these alien forms from the sand. Less is remembered today about the curses that seemed to possess Cleopatra’s Needles.
Let us begin our examination with the one in London.
And let us start with another connection to Mr Crowley and a strange ritual he held around it.
On December 22, 1936, portions of a prophetic book of Aleister Crowley's were read at Cleopatra’s Needle on the bank of the Thames in London, at 6:22 AM, as the sun entered Capricorn, by an Englishman, a Jew, an African and a Malayan. There was a short speech by Crowley as Priest to the Princes. With his disciple Gerald Yorke by his side, he proclaimed "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" to all the races of the world. He also proclaimed again the law of Thelema. He then gave each individual present a copy of his new book The Equinox of the Gods. Publicly, he stated that he had published three times, and that each time war broke out nine months later; that the might of this magick would burst out and cause a catastrophe to human civilization. Crowley said that if everybody would do what he told them, the catastrophe could be averted. This stunt would be repeated the following year with Gerald Yorke, almost to the day, again at Cleopatra's Needle.
-William Ramsay’s book Prophet of Evil
Crowley lurks over our the sprawl of history like a phantom, and the fact that he performed such a ceremony over one of the needles, leaves open the possibility he may have done something similar to the one in New York. But let us remain in London for now.
The transportation of the London Obelisk was marred with death from the beginning.
When it arrived at its location, things only continued to get stranger.