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Virginia Woolf's Egyptomania: Echoes of The Book of the Dead in To The Lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse is many things to many readers and critics. Acknowledged as the most autobiographical of all Virginia Woolf's novels and an elegy for her parents, it is also seen as a confrontation with Freud's Oedipal theories anticipating a feminist psychology (Abel), an oblique satire of imperialism/colonialism (Seshagiri), an aesthetic debate of Moore versus Fry (Ingram), a battleground of materialism versus spiritualism (Gaipa), and a struggle against the negation of mental illness (Rubenstein). Part of the novel's staying power is that while all these characterizations can be true, the whole is always larger than the scholars' interpretive findings.

To the Lighthouse has yet another layer, imbued with images, symbols, characters, and narrative elements taken directly from Egyptian myth and from The Book of the Dead, a reflection of Woolf's classical reading and of the rampant "Egyptomania" of the 1920s. Woolf's overlay of Egyptian gods on the Ramsay family requires a re-examination of her treatment of Freud's Oedipal complex, a concept she resisted even while employing it. Further, Woolf's allusions to the matrilineal culture of ancient Egypt and the international cult of Isis demonstrate her search for an alternate discourse, less patriarchal than Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Freudian modes. Finally, there is the question--perhaps unanswerable--of whether Woolf's "Egyptianizing" of her novel during its writing constituted a private coding of the text for her literary friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

The Osiris-Isis-Horus Myth

Since Egyptian mythology is far less familiar than that of the Greco-Roman pantheon, the following paragraphs should serve to provide a basic overview of the Isis-Osiris-Horus-Set mythology that pervades To the Lighthouse. The characters in the Egyptian death-and-resurrection myth revolve around Isis as wife, sister and mother. After being betrayed and murdered by his brother Set, Osiris becomes the god of the underworld, akin to Hades/Pluto. The savior of Osiris is his sister-wife Isis, who uses her magic spells to assemble his scattered body parts, and to revive him, to a point. She then turns into a kite, and:
She made light [to appear] from her feathers, she made air to come into
being by means of her two wings...She made to rise up the helpless
members of him whose heart was at rest, she drew from him his essence,
and she made therefrom an heir (see Figure 1) (Budge, Osiris, 99).

The product of this necrophiliac mating is the falcon-headed god Horns, protected and reared in secret, raised to become his father's avenger. Young Horus has several setbacks, including a traumatic encounter with a black pig (Set in disguise), and death by scorpion bite; he is revived by his mother and the wisdom-god Thoth. Later, Horus captures Set and leaves him guarded by Isis; she inexplicably releases their enemy. Horus finally triumphs over Set, but only after losing and regaining an eye (the symbol of his life force). Set, although vanquished, continues to hold a place in the pantheon of Egyptian gods, warlike, Satan's prototype; he is even depicted riding in his own separate boat to the land of the dead, in the guise of a black pig (Budge, Osiris 42).

The text known in English as The Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day to Egyptians), was buried with every Egyptian wealthy enough to have it copied, a personalized scroll with the owner's choice from hundreds of available prayers, spells, and instructions (Goelet 14). This text, used alike for Pharaoh and commoner, relates the journey of Osiris to the underworld, or Land of Reeds, where he is judged, found blameless, and then becomes Lord of the Dead. The owner of the scroll expects to make a similar journey: if he is a Pharaoh, he becomes Osiris at the completion of the journey; other subjects use Osiris's spells to join the ranks of ghosts free to come and go among the living and the dead. The name of the dead subject becomes a suffix of Osiris, e.g., Osiris-Ani, Osiris-Ramses.

The journey, in a boat, transports the ba, the double of the physical body, and the ka, or spirit. The ba appears in Egyptian art as a mummy, immobile, its legs wrapped together; the ka is depicted as a bird-like figure. After a "negative confession" of sins not committed, the subject's heart is weighed on a scale against a feather. Judged by Thoth, god of wisdom, the good soul is freed; the bad soul is instantly consumed by Ammit, the Eater of the Dead, a creature conglomerated of lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile.

The journey of the resurrected god Osiris, surrounded by other gods and threatened by various monsters, is a simple allegory of the sun's daily journey above, and its night journey below, the horizon. As ritual, the symbolic text serves god, Pharaoh and Everyman. The text, despite its male-gendered protagonist, is generic: the subject can be man, woman or even a beloved animal. Isis stands as an undying mother figure for all, a literal mother in the case of a dead Pharaoh (McDermott 89).

Names and Allusions

The Lighthouse. The iconic symbol of Alexandria, Egypt's seaport on the Mediterranean, was the great Pharos Lighthouse, built by the Greek ruler Ptolemy II in 323-290 BCE (El-Abbadi 38). One of the wonders of the ancient world, the tower of the lighthouse stood for over a thousand years. Evelyn Haller connects the Lighthouse in turn to Mrs. Ramsay, suggesting, "Mrs. Ramsay is to be understood primarily as Isis Pharia, that is, as Isis as Guardian of the Lighthouse" ("Anti-Madonna" 100). The iconic nature of this lighthouse is conveyed by E. M. Forster, in a book published by the Woolf's Hogarth Press: "Never, in the history of architecture, has a secular building been thus worshiped and taken on a spiritual life of its own. It beaconed to the imagination, not only to ships, and long after its light was extinguished memories of it glowed in the minds of men" (Pharos 17).

Woolf names her lighthouse keeper Sorley, an allusion to Charles Hamilton Sorley, (1) a young soldier-poet who died in the trenches in 1915. Some of Sorley's most memorable poems evoke rain and wind, so much so that Robert Graves wrote a poem proposing to dash out into a rainstorm to meet Sorley's ghost (Graves 24). By employing Sorley's name, Woolf suggests that the rain- and wind-swept location of the lighthouse is inhabited by ghosts, compatriots to the Ramsays' dead soldier son, Andrew.

The Hebrides. The Ramsays' westward boat journey from the Hebridean island of Skye has an Outer Hebridean lighthouse as its destination. Woolf's choice of the Hebrides, instead of the actual Cornwall location of her childhood summers, presents another Egyptian connotation. The Outer Hebrides, the westernmost part of Scotland, are also known as "The Western Isles." In Egyptian myth, the land of the dead, and all burials, are in the west, the direction of sunset, Osiris, and death. In this way, Woolf places her novel at the near shore of the realm of the dead.

Mr. Ramsay. As first noted by Evelyn Haller, "Ramsay" sounds like "Ramses," the most famous line of Egyptian Pharaohs ("Anti-Madonna" 100). By using a Pharaonic name, Woolf invokes the multivalence of The Book of the Dead: a subject not commoner but Pharaoh. As stand-in for a king, Mr. Ramsay makes a journey toward death that is not personally tragic: he moves toward his apotheosis as Osiris-Ramsay, the justification of his life and work.

Woolf gives Mr. Ramsay an Egyptian code of ethics resembling her own father's stoic and agnostic philosophy, in a long paragraph that parallels an important ritual speech in the Egyptian negative confession. The description of Mr. Ramsay's code, "What he said was true. It was always true" ends with a reference to "the passage to the fabled land where...our frail barks founder in darkness" (TTL 4). Truth-telling is mandatory for the Egyptian: the dead subject, passing before the tribunal of the gods, must make statements including, "I have not done wrong...I have not stolen...I have not told lies...I was not sullen...I have not caused (anyone) to weep...I have not dissembled...I have not discussed secrets" (Budge, BOTD, 347-48).

Mr. Ramsay's metaphor of his philosophical career as an incomplete alphabet expresses frustration that he has only attained the letter "R"--his own initial--which he repeats obsessively (TTL 33-35). The isolated "R" is also the Egyptian phoneme for Ra, the sun god, making the repetition of "R" a ritual incantation. The boat-journey of the dead subject cannot commence without Ra's consent (Budge, Osiris 139). Mr. Ramsay envisions a Sphinx-like death as he stands "stock-still" by an urn: "Yet he would not die lying down: he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reachR" (TTL 35). His self-monumentalizing evokes the massive basalt statues of Pharaohs from the early dynasties; the urn refers to canopic jars inside which the organs of the mummified dead were placed. The sweeping prose that follows, citing "isolation and waste of ages and the perishing of stars" (36), suggests the dizzying 6,000-year span of Egyptian history. This alphabet fixation also echoes the A-to-Z abecedarium that Sackville-West included in a letter to Woolf sent from Egypt (Sackville-West 93).

Mr. Ramsay and his wife are denied Christian names throughout the novel, or, as Evelyn Haller puts it, have "an Egyptian-sounding surname without a Christian name" ("Anti-Madonna," 100): throughout the novel, they are simply "Mrs. Ramsay" and "Mr. Ramsay," and no one addresses them using first names. At the commencement of Woolf's holograph manuscript, the names "David" and "Lucy" head the names list (Holograph 3); "Dan" is crossed out once in favor of "Mr. Ramsay" (6); and Mrs. Ramsay might be "Sara" (6). The suppression of first names contributes to the elevation of both characters to a mock-royal or mythical status.

Mrs. Ramsay. At the heart of the novel is Mrs. Ramsay as the goddess Isis. The worshipful men believe that "she had the whole of the other sex under her protection" and despite her age, "she was now formidable to behold" (TTL 6). Mrs. Ramsay provokes a religious enthusiasm appropriate to Isis-worship, culminating with Lily Briscoe's ecstatic ghost-vision or memory: "Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! ...There she sat" (202).

Although Woolf explores the flaws and lack of communication in the Ramsay marriage, other characters idealize or even mythologize the couple's relationship. As Lily Briscoe sees it: "Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called 'being in love' flooded them. They became part of the unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love." (TTL 46-47). It is as though the happiness of the gods, demanding nothing, could inspire happiness by the mere contemplation of it. Briscoe makes this even more manifest as love "that never attempted to clutch its object; but like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain" (TTL 47). Of such raptures are made the descriptions of Mrs. Ramsay; Lily Briscoe concludes the near-apotheosis:
[T]here was Mrs. Ramsay...clear as the space which the clouds at last
uncover--the little space of sky which sleeps beside the moon....[S]he
imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who
was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the
tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could
spell them out, would teach one everything (TTL 50-51).

The long depiction of the dinner party with all its abrupt shifts of point-of-view, includes Egyptian references: Mrs. Ramsay imagines herself as a ghost returning to old friends elsewhere (like the Egyptian ghosts permitted to "come and go"), evoked by their memories of her (TTL 87); Mrs. Ramsay's matchmaking as a magic spell (101); and, most significantly, an instant during which Mrs. Ramsay assumes the Isis-kite form:
[She] hovered like a hawk suspended... [in] the still space that lies
about the heart of things...[she] could then, like a hawk...flaunt and
sink on laughter easily, resting her whole weight upon what at the
other end of the table her husband was saying (TTL 104-5).

In her survey of "anti-Madonna" figures in Woolf's fiction, Evelyn Haller finds even more Egyptian allusions in these domestic scenes in To the Lighthouse, including references to the sistrum, to Isis's association with fruit-bearing trees, and depictions of Isis suckling the figure of a full-grown Ramses ("Anti-Madonna" 101).

James Ramsay. The Ramsays' son James, who becomes Horus in this telling, cuts out pictures of household objects from a mail-order catalog. The tombs of the Pharaohs were crammed with household goods, full-size and models, to accompany the dead soul on its journey. James arranges the pictures in "his private code, his secret language," his hieroglyphics. Woolf describes the boy almost as a wall painting of a somber Egyptian king: "[H]e appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure" (TTL 3, 4).

Charles Tansley. Tansley is the name of an English village, but it also suggests an important Egyptian place name, Tanis (Hart, xiv). Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay's obsequious student, attaches himself as acolyte to Mrs. Ramsay, seeking her mother-goddess approval: "He would like her to see him, gowned and hooded, walking in a procession" (TTL 11) and despite her age "she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen" (14). He sees her with "stars in her eyes and veils in her hair," a matronly Isis (14).

Mrs. Ramsay subordinates Tansley as a sacrificial victim: "If her husband required sacrifice (and indeed he did) she cheerfully offered up to him Charles Tansley, who had snubbed her little boy" (TTL 16). If this seems out of tune with a conception of Egypt as too civilized for human sacrifice, one need only consult Budge, who documents horrific sacrifices of captives to Osiris in some of the earlier dynasties (Osiris, 197-210).

Minta and Paul Rayley. The guests Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, for whom Mrs. Ramsay plays matchmaker, are aptly named. "Min" is the Egyptian god of fertility, Woolf adds the final "t," an Egyptian female diminutive; Rayley refers to Ra (or Amon-Re), the sun god. After they marry, Minta and Paul raise hares, certainly a symbol of fecundity (TTL 174).

Lily Briscoe. The painter Lily Briscoe's name has two allusions, one of them Egyptian. "Lily" refers to the water lily, or lotus, the iconic Egyptian flower. Although the lotus is not, botanically, a lily, Budge conflates the two, and translates the flower hieroglyphic sign as "lotus/lily." Arthur Briscoe (1873-1943) was a noted painter and etcher of nautical scenes whose work was widely shown in London and featured in the Illustrated London News (IFPDA). (2)

William Bankes. Lily Briscoe's admirer, William Bankes, offers yet another link, this time to Egyptology. Woolf does not include the surname Bankes in her list of "Names to be used" at the beginning of her holograph manuscript (Woolf, Holograph 1.7). Bankes, not earlier mentioned as one of the house-guests, abruptly appears in Chapter 4 of "The Window," ostensibly to provide a conversation-partner for Lily Briscoe as she paints. Bankes, an elderly widower, imagines himself as a kind of mummy, "like the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century" (TTL 21), a resemblance Woolf repeats in a flashback about Bankes's interrupted friendship with Mr. Ramsay: "he must have dried and shrunk" (22).

As Heidi Stalla has observed, Woolf's choice of this name is a direct allusion to Egyptology: William John Bankes (c. 1768-1855) was one of the best-known early British travelers to Egypt, accumulating the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in private hands any where in Britain (Fagan 266), including the famous obelisk of Philae whose inscriptions in Greek and hieroglyphics complemented the Rosetta Stone and may have helped Champollion crack the Egyptian writing system (Usick 78). Bankes was also the first to record the inscriptions and paintings at Abu Simbel, the largest temple of Ramses II (Fagan 104).

The historical William Bankes may have been known to other members of the Bloomsbury group. Lytton Strachey would doubtless have known about the homosexual scandals that drove Bankes from England (Usick 171-75). Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, with their focus on art and interior decor, also may have known Bankes as a legendary Regency art collector who filled his Dorset mansion with antiquities and paintings, and anticipated their views about the primacy of the aesthetics of the home. The other source where Woolf might have encountered biographical information about Bankes is her father's Dictionary of National Biography (Benson, 124). (3)

Bankes, despite his periods of exile to Venice and other locales, continued to rebuild and decorate his English country home, despite being subject to an open arrest warrant: taking advantage of a loophole in British law, he moored his yacht offshore and visited home on Sundays from sunrise to sunset, hours during which he could not be arrested (Rowse 124-25). The weekly boat-journey "home" by Bankes, is also apt in the context of the Ramsays' interrupted boating trip.

In "The Lighthouse," Woolf describes Bankes as an art connoisseur, and though Lily "loved William Bankes," their relationship was apparently platonic, he a man of "disinterested intelligence" (TTL 176), and a case of failed matchmaking on the part of Mrs. Ramsay, who insists: "William must marry Lily" (104).

Quentin Bell speculates that the personality of Mr. Bankes was based on that of an eccentric classical scholar and family friend, Walter Headlam (118), whose gap in age with Woolf paralleled that between the fictional William Bankes and Lily Briscoe. Woolf's Bankes, however, seems more akin to the historical Bankes. He is flamboyant. He travels with a valet, and Briscoe's awed take on him, "generous, pure-hearted, heroic" (TTL 24), echoes the admiration the explorer William Bankes garnered (before his disgrace) from his schoolmate Lord Byron and from the Duke of Wellington (Usick 13, 156-57).

Augustus Carmichael. Another character in To the Lighthouse, the almost immobile Augustus Carmichael, has two Egyptian connotations. The Temple of Augustus at Denderah commemorates the birth of Isis (Hart 106); Carmichael echoes Karnak, another sacred site. The remaining clues about Carmichael come from his physical description. At the beginning of the novel he is "basking with his yellow cat's eyes ajar" (TTL 10). Ammit, The Eater of the Dead, matches the various descriptions of Carmichael that Woolf provides during the novel. This goddess (gender is irrelevant here) is an amalgam of lion, crocodile, and hippopotamus. She waits at the final judging, with reptilian patience, to swallow the souls found wanting. Carmichael is like this creature, "puffing and blowing like some sea monster" (191)" surging up, puffing slightly...looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair... swaying a little in his bulk" (208). Lily imagines that Mr. Carmichael's poetry is about "the desert and the camel... the palm tree and the sunset... it said something about death" (195). In the holograph manuscript, Woolf calls Carmichael "this gorged alligator who lay on her lawn" (Holograph 17). (4)

Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab. The two women who come to the empty house to supervise its cleaning in "Time Passes" are Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab. Although Bast is a perfectly respectable English name, it is also the name of the cat goddess Bast or Bastet. Bast, in particular, is associated with the beneficent, warming rays of the sun (Budge, Mummy, 288). Woolf writes: "Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot," carrying household objects into the sunlight to restore them. The author underscores the feline reference by adding, "George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats" (TTL 139).

The name McNab, although properly Scottish is also a compound of mak and nebt, two Egyptian words, which combined, mean, "Behold the Lady." Since the character is a charwoman, there is some irony here, although Mrs. McNab does have full dominion over the house, so long as it is untenanted. "Behold the Lady" could also refer to the charwoman as a voyeur of the Ramsays' domestic affairs; she uses a telescope and spies, unseen, as Mr. Ramsay approaches (TTL 139-40).

Children's Names. The Ramsays' son Jasper is named after a semi-precious stone prized by Egyptians for ornamental jewelry, and known as the "blood of Isis" (Hart 101; Budge, Egyptian Magic 43-44). Woolf's reduction of some of the children's names to monosyllables prompts a search for similar Egyptian words. Mrs. Ramsay's daughter is "Cam"--the ancient name of Egypt is "kem"; her other daughter is Prue--the phoneme "pr" means "house" (McDermott 21). (Vowels are absent in Egyptian writing, and some vowels are just educated guesses based on surviving Egyptian words in Coptic.)

"Time Passes": The Feather on the Scale

The weighing of the heart against a feather in The Book of the Dead is the climactic moment in the passage of a human soul from life to the world beyond. In "Time Passes," Woolf makes, and repeats, in two adjacent paragraphs, a reference to this Egyptian rite:
For now had come that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and
night passes, when if a feather alight in the scale it will be weighed
down. One feather, and the house, sinking, falling, would have turned
and pitched downwards to the depths of darkness...

If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the
whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of
oblivion. (138-39)

This twice-repeated clue is the cardinal point of Woolf's Egyptianizing. For the reader familiar with Egyptian mythology and The Book of the Dead, coming to these passages provides a thrill of recognition. The house itself, personified, sits at the moment of judgment before Thoth and the watchful Eater of the Dead.

In "Time Passes," the cataloging of the contents of the house, with wind, sand, and time working their slow decay, recalls Howard Carter's listing of the contents of Tutankhamen's tomb, an impersonal list of objects resisting entropy, becoming numinous by the act of rediscovery. Reading this part of To the Lighthouse with archaeological cataloging in mind adds a new context to the largely-depopulated central portion of the book. Here, Woolf inserts the names of the dead family members--Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew--inside square brackets, starkly brief descriptions of their passing. Typographically, they resemble editorial insertions by a hand other than the author's. In Budge's edition of The Book of the Dead and in his other works, missing and speculative passages are always shown in square brackets, a common practice in classical texts. The name-insertions also recall the personalization of each copy of The Book of the Dead.

The figure of Mr. Ramsay, reaching out with his arms to the absent spouse (TTL 128), also suggests the hieroglyphic of two extended arms, representing an embrace, or, if turned upward, representing the ka or spirit (McDermott 33).

A Doubting Freudian: The Shawl and the Skull

Because the Woolfs' Hogarth Press was the British publisher of Sigmund Freud's works, it is tempting to search for Freudian elements in To the Lighthouse. Woolf overtly employs the Oedipus complex in her portrayal of the hatred young James feels for his father, an emotion that reaches a reconciliation only at the end of the novel. Woolf, however, was not at that period of her life interested in Freud. In 1924, after glancing at one Freudian excerpt, she wrote, "these Germans think it proves something--besides their own gull-like imbecility" (L3 135). As late as 1932, Woolf insisted "I have not studied Freud or any psychoanalyst--indeed I think I have never read any of their books; my knowledge is merely from superficial talk. Therefore any use of their methods must be instinctive" (L5 36). Woolf searched for her own understanding of the child mind. Nigel Nicolson recalls being interrogated by Woolf in 1926, when he was a boy of nine years, about "What is it like to be a child?" (1), and speculates that he was part of her psychological research for the character of the boy James Ramsay.

Nonetheless, Woolf both employs and resists Freudian concepts in overlaying the Oedipal triangle of Mrs. Ramsay-Mr. Ramsay-James with the Isis-Osiris-Horus family triad. The mother-centered world of Isis resists patriarchy, and the details of the Egyptian myth undermine the primacy of sexuality and castration fear in Freud's theory. Woolf's characterization of James, however, forces her to displace and merge characters in the Egyptian myth, situating Horus and his nemesis Set, in more Freudian terms, as James's ego and infantile id.

When Mr. Ramsay approaches his wife for a gesture of kindness and sympathy, Woolf depicts his approach using curious language: "into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare" (TTL 37) and, later, "James, as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy" (38). This passage is rife with Oedipal conflicts (son against father); it is also written to include the approach of a god with his hawk-totem-head (beak of brass) to the life-giving tree which is Isis. Mrs. Ramsay responds to the approach of her consort in magical terms: "[T] here throbbed through her, like the pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation" (38). As Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay harmonize their minds together, Woolf reminds the reader of mortality by twice interrupting with the stand-in for The Eater of the Dead: "Augustus Carmichael shuffling past... Mr. Carmichael shuffled past" (38). Mrs. Ramsay guards James as the protective mother Isis guards her son Horus: "Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older!" (58).

While Woolf sets her human characters on a Freudian life-path, she interposes and, in effect, performs psychoanalytic work on the Egyptian myth. The author sets two counter-currents in motion in her explicit revelations of James's childish hatred for his father. She seems willing to let her plot explore this conflict and resolve it at the end of the novel, yet at the same time, the Osiris/Isis/Horus myth undermines many Freudian premises. In the Egyptian myth, the father has been dismembered/castrated/reassembled, and the son's struggle is against the fratricidal uncle (Set). The mother (Isis) is healer, mediator, opposing yet sparing her son's potential killer. Set makes a dramatic appearance in the Ramsays' house, when Mrs. Ramsay peeks in on her children at bedtime and uses her shawl to cover an animal skull, mounted on the wall, that alarms her daughter Cam: "[S]he quickly took her own shawl off and wound it round the skull, round and round and round" (TTL 114-15). Her son James, on the other hand, admires the deathly object and insists that it stay visible through the night.

By wrapping the skull but not removing it, Mrs. Ramsay hopes to placate both children. Cam will no longer recognize it as a monster, while James will know it is still there under the wrapping. Mrs. Ramsay then assures Cam that the skull, after all, only comes from a black pig, like the ones they had seen on a farm (TTL 114). In Egyptian depictions of the soul's boat-journey to the afterlife, Set is sometimes a black pig, riding in his own small boat. This brings us to Woolf's profound displacement of the Egyptian myth: James-as-Horus should be terrified of the black pig, which is the symbol of Set and the most-detested animal in the Egyptian mythos.

This displacement leads to the splitting of James/Horus's personality. The mythical figure of Horus is one of unalloyed virtue, as Set is of evil. At some moments, Mrs. Ramsay regards James as a figure of virtue, who will grow up to be a judge (TTL 4). Mr. Tansley, on the other hand, gives James the epithet of "the Ruthless" (22), and Mrs. Ramsay herself at another point confesses James and Cam "demons of wickedness, angels of delight" (58). The violent thoughts of six-year-old James against his father (4), to which the reader is privy but Mrs. Ramsay is not, and his continued ambivalence as an adolescent in "The Lighthouse," are not Horus-like: they are Oedipal. To make James a realistic character in light of Freudian psychology, the author gives him characteristics of both Horus and Set, of ego and of infantile id. To do this, she must contradict the Egyptian myth.

This joining of Horus and Set speaks to the most enigmatic episode in the Isis-Osiris-Horus narrative: Isis's decision to release Set from captivity, after the evil god was placed in her guardianship (Budge, BOTD, li). Woolf's penetrating insight, which she expresses by having James-as-Horus identify with the symbol of Set, is that there can be no Horus without Set, no Set without Horus: they are halves of the same personality. The ego withers with nothing to struggle against, no evil thoughts to repress; the id has no purpose or direction without an authority figure to subvert. Thus, Woolf performs an act of psychoanalysis on Egyptian myth, or, more provocatively, argues that the id-ego barrier is essentially and irreparably permeable.

The shawl and skull return in "Time Passes" (TTL 140), the shawl working its way free. This image, amid the cataloging of the empty house, calls to memory one of the most powerful photographs from the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb: the Anubis shrine, draped with a linen shawl (see Figure 2): "[F]astened around his neck was a long leash-like linen scarf... adorned with a double fillet of blue lotus and cornflowers...twisted into a bow at the back of the neck" (Carter Vol III, 41). The jackal sits on a golden chest covered with tyet symbols representing Isis (Reeves 133).

The Leg and the Foot

The leg is central to Egyptian myths of resurrection. A pivotal spell in The Book of the Dead, "The Chapter of Walking with the Two Legs, and of Coming Forth Upon Earth" (Budge, BOTD, 320) insures that the subject will regain mobility of the feet and legs, without which coming forth among the living and the dead would be impossible. In the famous "negative confession" the dead subject's demonic interrogators do not sit in judgment: almost all "come forth," and some have epithets such as "thou whose strides are long... whose legs are of fire...who dost stride backwards" (347-48). In the other Osiris texts, the mobility theme is reiterated in lines like "Thy leg is great, thy leg is mighty, it strides to the great throne" (Budge, Osiris, 141) and "Thy legs are thine, Osiris...his legs are to himself...He approaches heaven in his strides" (117). In hieroglyphics, the ideograph of two legs walking is an unvoiced determinative used with every verb expressing walking, running, or related actions (McDermott 33).

During her walk to the village with Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay pauses to watch a one-armed man ascend a ladder to put up a circus poster (TTL 11). This foreshadows the spectacle of amputees after World War I, but is also an indication that Woolf may have read the early versions of the Osiris myth, in which the revived god needs a celestial ladder, and a boost from Horus and Ra, to find his way to the land of the dead (Budge, Osiris 75; Egyptian Magic 51-53).

Woolf employs leg imagery as the "vast flapping sheet" of a circus poster (resembling a long papyrus scroll) shows animal and human legs first as it is glued onto a billboard (TTL 11). William Bankes stands awkwardly next to Lily Briscoe, studying her shoes (18). Mr. Ramsay "strides" (20); Mrs. Ramsay makes stockings for the lighthouse keeper's son and measures them against her son's leg (27-28, 30). Mr. Ramsay tickles, then prods, his son's bare leg (31, 32). Mr. Ramsay imagines he is on a horse while taking a long walk, although he has no horse (43-44). Lily, on the beach, imagines herself at Mrs. Ramsay's knees (51). Mr. Ramsay is angry, "marching up and down the terrace" (146), then "bearing down" on Lily (148, 150). The awkward interlude in which the tongue-tied Lily can only talk to the widowed Ramsay about his boots (153-54) acquires special poignancy in its Egyptian context: Ramsay asks not only for sympathy, but for the magic words to give him the power of mobility. James describes himself and his father as two sets of footprints, and poses a hypothetical question in which someone's feet are crushed (184-85). Mr. Ramsay leaves for the lighthouse with a "firm, military tread" (154), marching as in a procession (182), and finally, at the Lighthouse, "he sprang, lightly like a young man" (207).

It might be argued that a similar list of ambulation events could be compiled from almost any work of fiction. Yet aside from some splashes of eye-color and Lily Briscoe's inexplicable "Chinese eyes," and some general descriptions of physique, Woolf is sparing of other references to the body. Eyes, mouths, hands, arms, shoulders, breasts, hair, give place to this work's insistent iterations of legs and feet. Heide Stalla notes this, too, and compares Lily's apostrophe on Mr. Ramsay's boots to the monumental sculptural ruin in Shelley's poem, "Ozymandias" (Stalla 32).

The Knot

Lily Briscoe considers the problem of her unfinished painting, and uses the word "knots" in an intriguing way. Woolf's style might be called a knotted narrative, and there is an Isis association too: the symbol of Isis is a buckle in the form of a knotted ankh--like the ankh of Osiris except that the arms extend downward. This turned-upon-itself figure is called a tyet (Hart 101; Budge, The Mummy 256; Budge, Egyptian Magic 43). Lily's artistic problem is expressed thus:
There was something... she remembered in the relations of those lines
cutting across, slicing down, and in the mass of the hedge with its
green cave of blues and browns, which had stayed in her mind; which had
tied a knot on her mind so that at odds and ends of time, involuntarily
... she found herself painting that picture, passing her eye over it,
and untying the knot in imagination (TTL 157).

Then Lily Briscoe has a rapturous recollection of Mrs. Ramsay and how everything seemed to cohere and make sense under her influence, "Mrs. Ramsay saying, 'Life stand still here': Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent ... this was of the nature of a revelation" (161). In the book's very last gesture, as if to underscore Woolf's identification, artist to artist, with Lily Briscoe, Lily completes her painting: "With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished" (209).

Another photograph from Tutankhamen's tomb vividly conveys both the idea of narrative tied in "knots," as well as the idea of a structure divided by "a central line down the middle." It shows the unbroken seal of the tomb-shrine's door (see Figure 3). Seals, elaborate knots, and a length of rope are all that hold closed the two halves: the gap between the doors, the inky blackness inside which the king and all his mysteries rest, is a vertical line, a "central line down the middle." (5)

The Boatman and the Journey

Woolf conveys the Ramsays' boat-journey with unremitting, eerie parallels to the ancient text. Mr. Ramsay, piloted by a boatman named MacAlister, heads toward the Lighthouse. In The Book of the Dead, the boatman who carries the soul is named Maa-ha-f, "he who sees what is behind him." The ferryman is also given authority by Rato deny passage to manifestly unworthy souls (Budge, Osiris 134). MacAlister describes a shipwreck in the channel between Skye and the lighthouse (TTL 205-6), implying that not all travelers complete their journeys. Like a lighthouse, there is even a lamp waiting for the dead on the other side: "O thou his father Tem in the darkness...He has lighted for thee the lamp" (Budge, Osiris, 135).

The Egyptian book specifies offerings one must take, and Woolf asks, "What does one send to the Lighthouse?" (TTL 146). The dead subject receives ritual words for the boatman. James echoes this: "Now they would sail on for hours like this, and Mr. Ramsay would ask old MacAlister a question" (163) as if all that ensued was preordained. James resents the fact he and his sister are forced to take part, "carrying these parcels, to the Lighthouse; take part in these rites he went through for his own pleasure in memory of dead people" (165). Menacing fish, water animals, and serpents appear in The Book of the Dead; for lack of sea serpents, Woolf has the boatman's son catch a fish and cut it up (169). Cam looks back at the Skye shore, where, she thinks, people "were free to come and go like ghosts. They have no suffering there" (170). In The Book of the Dead, all the directions are invoked in the boat journey and there is a spell against getting the directions mixed up (Budge, BOTD, 106); Mr. Ramsay castigates his daughter for not having a sense of direction (TTL 167). Horus is at the helm of the mythical boat (Budge, BOTD, 248-49); Mr. Ramsay lets his son steer for most of the journey, and that act, accomplished and acknowledged, marks the Oedipal turning point of father-son reconciliation. Finally, Mr. Ramsay reads from a book throughout most of the journey, as though he were carrying and consulting his own coffin-text papyrus.

Woolf narrates the instant of arrival, and nothing more, but the feeling of ritual enactment is unmistakable, even though a Bloomsbury avowal of atheism is thrown in:
"Bring those parcels," he said, nodding his head at the things Nancy
had done up for them to take to the Lighthouse. "The parcels for the
Lighthouse men," he said. He rose and stood in the bow of the boat,
very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were
saying, 'There is no God,' and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into
space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a
young man, holding his parcel, onto the rock (TTL 207).

The Ramsay family's completed boat trip in "The Lighthouse" is a ritual without a clear set of rules: "What's the use of going now... What does one send to the Lighthouse?" (146). We are made to understand that it is a journey in memory of their mother's previous charitable gifts to the lighthouse keeper (151). In the Egyptian context, however, the journey is Mr. Ramsay's, who, like every subject in Egyptian thanatology, perishes alone and stands alone before the judges, accountable only for his own words and actions. Mr. Ramsay repeats "perished" and "alone" as a litany throughout "The Lighthouse." The reluctance to make the journey in the first part of the book, like the reluctance to move past the letter "R" is mortality denied. Under the spell of Osirian values, James's reconciliation with his father is the understanding that both their sets of footprints lead finally to the same place, to annihilation or rebirth.

Seen as a self-therapeutic dream-work employing myth, To the Lighthouse is Mr. Ramsay's own solitary journey to a private afterlife, and the author's letting-go of a perplexing and daunting father. The mother's death on the other hand (and despite Woolf's assertion to the contrary) is not resolved except through apotheosis, or, as Haller suggests, she persists symbolically as the Lighthouse itself ("Anti-Madonna," 100). If Mrs. Ramsay becomes Isis, she is a figure untouched by time, change, or death, hailed ritually by Lily Briscoe on the shore. In that guise, Mrs. Ramsay sits at the center of a matrilineal, mother-centered antiquity, contending against evil while knowing she cannot destroy it. Healing the good souls left behind on the near shore, she is the goddess, venerated, trusted, indestructible.

Woolf on To the Lighthouse

Did Woolf admit to any Egyptian content, overt or covert, in To the Lighthouse? Woolf's correspondence with Vita Sackville-West includes Egyptian references from Sackville-West, cues to which Woolf does not respond in her letters. Sackville West, after commencing an intense love affair with Woolf, wrote to her on 29 January 1926 from Luxor, Egypt:
I went down into the bowels of the earth and looked at Tut-ankh-amen.
At his sarcophagus and outer mummy-case, I mean. This is merely of
gilded wood. The inner one is at Cairo, (I saw it,) and is of solid
gold. You know, the Valley of the Kings is really the most astonishing
place. Tawny, austere hills with a track cut between them; no life at
all, not a bird, not a lizard, only a scavenger Kite hanging miles
high; and undiscovered Kings lying lapped in gold. (Sackville-West 94)

The letter expresses the wish that Woolf could see Egypt for herself, and includes a word game, a playful abecedarium (A-to-Z word list) of Egyptian images and names (93).

Woolf finished "Time Passes" on 25 May 1926 (Bell 122). Sackville-West returned from her Egyptian-Persian travels sometime in mid-summer, which may have provoked "a whole nervous breakdown in miniature" (123) at the end of July. The novel was not completed until early 1927, and was published on 5 May 1927 (127).

From May 1926 to January 1927, Woolf and Sackville-West saw one another intermittently, but passionately, based on their letters. Yet there is not a word in their extant letters about the content of To the Lighthouse. Sackville-West departed for a second journey to Persia in January 1927, and by February was imploring Woolf to undertake a journey to Greece, hoping they could meet up there. In February, Woolf writes somewhat disparagingly of her work-in-progress:
... laboriously correcting two sets of proofs. My goodness how you'll
dislike that book! Honestly you will--Oh but you shan't read it. Its
[sic] a ghost between us. Whether its [sic] good or bad, I know not:
I'm dazed, I'm bored, I'm sick to death: I go on crossing out commas
and putting in semi-colons in a state of marmoreal despair. I suppose
there may be half a paragraph somewhere worth reading: but I doubt it.
(L 3 333).

In May, Sackville-West was back in England, and Woolf sent her a bound copy of To the Lighthouse, with a mock inscription calling it the best work she had written: it was a "dummy" copy with blank pages--like an empty Pharaoh's tomb. By May 12, a week after the book's publication, Sackville-West had read the novel, and she wrote a letter to Woolf praising it, but there is no indication that she grasped any Egyptian references. Sackville-West is afraid of Woolf's "penetration and loveliness and genius" (196). Woolf's letter in reply only talks about the characters in the novel. If she hoped and intended that Sackville-West would see her playful use of Egyptian names and motifs as a personal response to the letter from Egypt, or the common passion they might have shared for things Egyptian, there is no clue here.

Woolf reveals even less to others. When Roger Fry writes to her, "I suspect for instance that arriving at the Lighthouse has a symbolic meaning that escapes me" (qtd Bell 129), Woolf answers, perhaps providing a fellow formalist with the answer best-suited to him:
I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down
the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all
sorts of meanings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them
out, & trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own
emotions--which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another
another. I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised
way. Whether its [sic] right or wrong I don't know; but directly I'm
told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me (L3 385).

Woolf here wishes to take credit for the plot structure and form of her book, just as Lily Briscoe wants to reduce the mother and child in her painting to pure forms, refusing to sentimentalize or symbolize her work's literal content. "A central line down the middle" explains structure as an architect might describe a keystone by drawing its shape without explaining what it does.

Since some of the Egyptian elements were already in place in To the Lighthouse prior to 1926-27, perhaps the most that might be said, then, of the Woolf-Sackville-West correspondence is that it may have served to intensify Woolf's use of Egyptian name allusions, and her exploration of the plot and character elements of the Isis-Orisis-Horus myth. An examination of Woolf's holograph manuscript, published in a typescript transcription in 1982, reveals that Woolf changed the names of characters as her work progressed. Near the beginning of her work, in March 1925, Woolf listed the names she intended to use in the book (Holograph 3). These already include the Ramsay family name, and "Araminta" Doyle is already nicknamed "Minta." The surname Briscoe is in place (sans "Lily"), but there is no sign yet of William Bankes, Paul Rayley, Augustus Carmichael, nor of Mrs. Bast, or Mrs. McNab. The children's names do not yet include Jasper or Prue. Mrs. and Mrs. Ramsay are "David" and "Lucy": Woolf would monumentalize the couple by using only their last names in the novel. Between March and September, the first 31 pages of manuscript were completed, sketching in Augustus Carmichael, Charles Tansley (changed from Tansy), and naming daughter Prue. On page 16, the name "Lily" is attached to Miss Doyle; Sophie Briscoe becomes Lily Briscoe between pages 29 and 30. Sometime between 21st and 26th January, 1926, Woolf makes a marginal list of all the Ramsay children, adding Cam and Jasper (48).

Woolf's silence about symbolic or allusive content in the novel might also constitute a conspiracy of one. Like the Dreadnought Hoax, in which Woolf donned blackface and passed as an Abyssinian diplomat (Lee 278-83), Woolf's Egyptian gods masquerade in plain sight as the Ramsays and their guests. Patricia Maika, making her own case for Greek and Isian allusions in Between the Acts, notes Woolf's admiration for Sylvia Townsend Warner's The True Heart, a novel based upon the story of Psyche and Cupid from Apuleius. Although Warner did not reveal the critically-undetected model for her novel until 1978, Maika postulates that Woolf did perceive it, and understood that "Warner's clues to the identities of her characters lay in their names... [an] ingenious game" (Maika 78). Is Woolf engaged in a similar game in To the Lighthouse, in which the reader's failure to detect the hidden content is her measure of success?

Another novel employing critically-undetected allusions to mythological figures is Rebecca West's 1918 The Return of the Soldier, which plays on The Odyssey. In West's novel, an amnesiac soldier does not recognize his "Penelope" on returning home to his wife, recalling only an earlier love, who is now "Mrs. Grey." Mrs. Grey, summoned to help, must choose to be either Calypso, helping him to forget altogether, or Athena, making him know the truth. Less overt allusions to classical literature underlay Ford Madox Ford's Promethean hero Tietjens, in his trilogy Parade's End (1924-26), modeled on the Roman poet and reluctant soldier Tibullus and his destructive lady-love Nemesis. Like Warner, West, and Ford, Woolf uses a palimpsest pen. The hieroglyphs peep out from beneath the English letters.


Egypt was not just on the minds of specialist scholars in the 1920s: it was one of the peak decades of "Egyptomania." (6) The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 by Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon, initiated a frenzy of popular interest in Egyptian art and religion, as well as a wave of Egyptianized design. After the electrifying discovery of Tutankhamen's gold-filled tomb, Egyptian images and design motifs exploded into architecture and monuments; the interior design of restaurants, nightclubs and theaters; clothing and accessories, cosmetics and perfume packaging (Curl 211). The entire Art Deco design movement owes a large debt to Egyptian archaeology of the period (Pantazzi 508-14).

The writing of British and Continental Egyptologists, much of it for non-specialist readers, had planted seeds of interest in Egyptian myth since the 1880s. Budge's 1895 translation of The Book of the Dead was followed by numerous other books, his own and those of Gaston Maspero (translated from French, 1901-1906) and James Henry Breasted. (7) Shaw's 1898 play, Caesar and Cleopatra, had its first London staging in 1907. Woolf dressed as Cleopatra for a fancy-dress party and attended a revival of Verdi's 1871 Egyptian-themed opera Aida in 1909 (Lee 235). Egyptian-themed dance came from Diaghilev's company (Cleopatre, Paris 1909, London revival 1918) and from individual dancers like Ruth St. Denis, Maud Allen and Sent M'ahesa, who staged Egyptian programs (Pantazzi 508). Egyptomania was much "in the air" among British literati of the 1920s.

Woolf's Egyptian Sources

The casting of Mrs. Ramsay in terms of Isis, given the adoration accorded her by almost all the novel's characters, male and female, invokes not just Egyptian mythology, but also the later, and long-surviving Greco-Roman classical cult of Isis. Isis worship spread across North Africa to Carthage, and Isian temples existed in Greece and Rome before either nation had occupied Egypt (Jones & Pennick 57, 73). Many of the attributes of Isis transferred directly to the later veneration of Mary in Catholicism, one of Frazer's most discomforting assertions (118-19).

Woolf, tutored privately in Greek, read Xenophon and Thucydides in the original (Lee 141, 217). The Greek sources for knowledge about Egypt, however, were Herodotus (An Account of Egypt) and Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris). Woolf may have read these authors in Greek as part of her studies, but both were also readily available in translation. Budge reprints most of the Plutarch text with his own annotations (Legends 198-248).

Herodotus limits himself to geography and political history for the most part, avowedly skirting issues of religion. By Woolf's time, Herodotus had been discredited as an authority on Egyptian history (Godley xxi). Plutarch presents the Isis-Osiris-Horus-Set story in detail, but does not describe the worship of Isis in practice. Plutarch anachronistically subsumes Egyptian deities into similar figures in Greek myth, even attempting to make etymological connections between Greek and Egyptian deity names.

The only other source of Isis lore from antiquity is the second-century CE North African writer Lucius Apuleius, whose Latin text, The Golden Ass, details the cult of Isis, the dress and habits of its believers, and offers a self-censored account of initiatory rites. The author, an Isian priest, writes from personal knowledge. The 1566 Adlington translation, still highly readable, was available in a new London edition in 1893. Woolf possessed a copy (Haller 118) of this book, in which Isis speaks thus:
I am she that is the naturall mother of all things, mistresse and
governess of all the Elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chiefe of
powers divine, Queene of heaven, the principall of the Gods celestial,
the light of the name, my divinity is adored throughout
all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many
names...Queene Isis. (Apuleius 233)

In Apuleius's text, Isis claims unity with Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina/Persephone, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, and Hecate, a syncretism with goddesses of love and fertility, lunar and seasonal change, the growing of grain, marriage, war, and magic. Apuleius's descriptions of Isian rites find their way almost verbatim into Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, where Isis is "the Great Goddess, that new rival, or 'double,' of ancient Venus" (105). Pater does not conceal his source: he cites Apuleius (106). (8)

The most conspicuous Egyptian-themed book found in London parlors in Woolf's time would certainly have been the sumptuous, elephant-folio size edition of The Book of the Dead. This lithographed color facsimile of one instance of the Book of the Dead, the "Papyrus of Ani" in the British Museum, was published in 1890. (9) The companion English translation by E.A. Wallis Budge was published separately in 1895. This made it possible for curious readers to pore over the mysteries of the art and hieroglyphs of more than 60 spells, prayers, and rituals that had come to be called The Book of the Dead. Budge's edition established the Egyptian text in the popular mind, however erroneously, as a fixed literary work. In reality, no two copies of The Book of the Dead were alike, with chapters tracing back to "Pyramid texts" as old as 2400 BCE, and later "coffin texts," which developed into a set of 192 (known) chapters that could be assembled to order for a burial (Goelet 14). In the context of modern "Egyptomania," Budge's romantically-titled translation--taking its name from Totenbuch, an 1842 German translation by Karl Richard Lepsius--provided the most coherent glimpse into the mythology of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and other Egyptian gods. This, and Budge's other books on Egyptian myth, magic, and mummies, have seldom been out of print since their original publication. In 1898, Budge published a 190-chapter version of The Book of the Dead in English, collated from numerous papyri, in the version known as the "Theban Recension" (10)

Travel literature about Egypt available to Woolf in 1927 included books by Lane (1835), Thackeray (1846), Florence Nightingale (privately printed, 1854), (11) and Lady Duff-Gordon (1866). Thackeray demotes the Pyramids to three oversize exclamation points (228). Fascinating as the travel books are, they contain little trace of the actual mythology, other than Duff-Gordon's thrilled discovery of surviving rites, and they offer little evidence of the appeal of Isis for hundreds of years into the Common Era. It must have been in some of this literature, though, that Woolf encountered the name and career of William Bankes, the first English Egyptomane to travel up the Nile to Nubia.

Matrilineal, Feminist Egypt

The work of French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero became more widely available to English readers in the 1903-1906 twelve-volume translation, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria, where the historian describes, with some horror, the early Egyptians' matrilineal society, where there was "no family, in the sense in which we understand the word, except as it centered around the mother...the woman, to all appearances, played the principal part. ...Children recognized the parental relationship in the mother alone" (64-65). Feminists would take interest in this female autonomy, including property inheritance, and separate homes for wives, a "room of one's own" indeed!

The self-command, power, and authority of Isis, and the flourishing of her cult, is understandable in a culture where women were not denigrated. Frazer asserts that this "archaic system of mother-kin...based on the example of Isis" lasted through the Roman occupation of Egypt (Adonis 213-14). Erman's 1894 Life in Egypt uses everyday Egyptian documents and artifacts to elaborate on this matrilineal (if not feminist) picture of Egypt, so contrary to the patriarchal impression made by tomb art.

Despite the Christian suppression of the Isis cult after 390 CE (Jones & Pennick 58), Lady Duff-Gordon, in her 1863 visit to Egypt, insists that Egyptian women, counter to Christian and Islamic strictures, still re-enacted ancient seasonal and funerary rituals:
Among the gods, Amun-Ra, the god of the sun and great serpent-slayer,
calls himself Mar-Girgis (St. George), and Osiris holds his festivals
twice a year as notoriously as ever at Tanta, in the Delta, under the
name of Seyyid-el-Bedawee. The fellah women offer sacrifices to the
Nile, and walk around ancient statues, in order to have children. The
ceremonies at births and burials are not Muslim but ancient Egyptian.
The women wail for the dead, as on the sculptures; a practice which is
directly contrary to the injunctions of the Koran. All the ceremonies
are pagan, and would shock an Indian Muslim (Duff-Gordon 94-95).

It is intriguing that an intrepid woman traveler discerns the persistence of pagan antiquity, while the estimable Edward William Lane, three decades earlier, reported that Egyptian Muslims regarded pyramids and temples with ignorance and superstitious horror:
The ancient tombs of Egypt, and the dark recesses of the temples are
commonly believed, by the people of this country, to be inhabited by
'efreets. I found it impossible to persuade one of my servants to enter
the Great Pyramid with me, from his having this idea. Many of the Arabs
ascribe the erection of the Pyramids, and all the most stupendous
remains of antiquity in Egypt, to Gann Ibn-Gann [son of the line of the
pre-Adamite Solomons], and his servants, the ginn; conceiving it
impossible that they could have been raised by human hands (Lane 226).

The misogyny of Classicists and Egyptologists resulted in the denigration of goddess-worship, and of Isis in particular. Evelyn Haller proposes that E.M. Forster's writings on Egypt, including a history of Alexandria that scarcely credits Isis, (12) challenged Woolf to make a stand for the long Isian tradition in her writing, "to set right, what she considered the misappropriation of the classics by Cambridge educated Apostles" ("Alexandria" 173-74). Since the Hogarth Press published Forster's second Egyptian-themed book, Pharos and Pharillon, in 1923, Woolf would have been well aware of Forster's lack of interest in pre-Hellenic Egypt, and his omission of any reference to the long survival of the Isis cult, even where he writes at length about the later syncretist Sarapis cult, in whose temples Isis was portrayed as that god's consort.

Prior Discoveries of the Egyptian Connection

Did readers notice Woolf's Egyptianizing? Finding allusions to myth in To the Lighthouse is not a new enterprise, but until the early 1980s it was limited to Greek and Roman associations, including the myths of Demeter and Persephone (Blotner) and Ovid's version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story (Goldman 40). Woolf's study of Greek language and literature was deep enough to assure that she could hold her own in this kind of symbolism. William Herman calls the classics "a matrix of patriarchal power" and proposes that Woolf "saw, in the depth of her imaginative being, that the classics could inform and empower her works" (258, 259).

The most persistent critic affirming the Woolf-Egypt connection has been Evelyn Haller. Writing in 1983, she traces Egyptian influences in Between the Acts, noting Woolf's reading of Pater's Marius the Epicurean; her tours of the British museum with its "tiers of Isis and Horus statues" (Haller, "Isis," 111); and Woolf's familiarity with other Egypt-related literary sources. In another article that year, Haller focuses intently on the Isis symbolism in To the Lighthouse, casting Mrs. Ramsay/Isis as "anti-Madonna," to wage "aesthetic war on imperialism, Christianity, and patriarchy" ("Anti-Madonna," 96). Patricia Maika also elaborates on the Isis allusions in Between the Acts in a 1987 study.

In 1988, Woolf biographer Hermione Lee suggests, "To the Lighthouse continually hovers on the edge of becoming a fairy tale, or, more ambitiously, a mythical or even Christian allegory, whose subject--a frequent subject of myth--is the conquest of death" (Lee "TTL Completed Forms" 19). Certainly, Woolf's vocabulary in To the Lighthouse support's Lee's observation. References to ceremonies, rituals, processions, royalty, and goddesses abound throughout the novel. This has a satiric effect when read against the characters' social status, locale, and period, but opens the book also to a symbolic reading. The characters seem to spend a great deal of their time imagining one another throned, robed and mitered, adored and adoring.

In 1998, Mitchell Leaska detects the Isis/Osiris marriage, dismemberment and coupling in The Years, and notes Woolf employing there the surname of Egyptologist E A. Wallis Budge (418-19).

In 2003, Evelyn Haller turns to the Woolf-Egypt connection in To the Lighthouse again, framing the novel's allusions to Isis and the Pharos lighthouse as Woolf's rebuttal to E.M. Forster's classically-blinkered, misogynist book about Alexandria, published in 1922. In Pharos and Pharillon, a volume of Egyptian essays and sketches the Woolfs published in 1923, Forster does not even mention Isis. Yet, as historian Peter Green asserts, "By the Graeco-Roman period Isis had become the most influential and emotionally potent deity known to the ancient world" (410). In 2008, the Egyptian connection to To the Lighthouse was opened further by Heidi Stalla, who spots Woolf's use, in To the Lighthouse, of the name William Bankes, the 19th-century British explorer and collector of Egyptian antiquities. Stalla speculates that more might be found. The dearth of subsequent studies of the Woolf-Egypt connection is startling, considering how good a foundation these critics laid. The case for deepening the connection between To the Lighthouse and Egyptian myth was there for all to see, like a pyramid uncovered in the sand.


I have attempted to demonstrate, using only sources available to Woolf herself, the presence, whether playful or serious, of connections between To the Lighthouse and the 1920s' cultural awareness of Egypt, Egyptology, and The Book of the Dead. Woolf gained a new kind of authorial empowerment by employing myths and symbols millennia older than those of the Greeks. Going beyond the mere use of symbolism (characters as stand-ins for gods), and deeper than the mere peppering of a novel with name- and place-allusions, Woolf's method is something different. Her un-self-conscious threading of Egyptian elements into the characters, relationships, psychology, vocabulary, and indeed, plot incidents, sound as an Egyptian voice, Memphis speaking in concert with Bloomsbury. If writers are the sum not only of their lives, but of everything they have read, could not Woolf have surrendered to a co-narrator, a created persona extracted from her study of Egypt, an alternate-discourse "I" to the "I" who protests she "meant nothing?" This is a fiction-writer's equivalent of the poet's "muse," the sense of writing with a second voice that seems already to know what it is going to say.

There is always the possibility that a too-close reading creates a scaffolding that conceals the cathedral. Jane Goldman grants some leeway in reminding us. "[E]very reader of To the Lighthouse is encouraged to curate, almost in the manner of an editor of a recovered ancient inscription, the text of the novel in all its numbered fragments, and parentheses, its frames within frames. Every such reading, every such curation, is unique" (32).

Doubtless some of the connections I have found are coincidental and speculative.

Considering how densely overlaid the novel is with these Egyptian allusions, however, it is hard to conceive of the novel's Egyptian layer as unintentional. That it is there seems certain; yet on this subject Woolf herself is as silent as the Sphinx. To the Lighthouse beams out with these Egyptian links and echoes, a triumph of palimpsestic concealment.


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(1) Sorley, Charles Hamilton. Marlborough and Other Poems. 1916. Cambridge UP, 1932.

(2) At the time Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse, Arthur Briscoe had acquired some notoriety for the inflated prices being paid at auction for his works (Salaman 3). In Woolf's artistic circle, Briscoe might have been resented and frowned upon as a traditional artist and dilettante, so that Woolf's use of the name is ironic.

(3) The Dictionary article skirts Bankes's more scandalous activities, and all that is said of his Egyptian adventures is that "he discovered an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the island of Philae, and had it brought to England for the purpose of erecting it in his own grounds at Kingston Hall" (Benson 124).

(4) Mr. Carmichael plays the role of Poseidon in a different mythological reading of To the Lighthouse, that has Mrs. Ramsay as Demeter and Lily Briscoe as Persephone (Barr). This is a further elaboration on the Persephone symbolism described by Blotner in 1956.

(5) Woolf meant "Time Passes" to be a connecting structure in the middle of To the Lighthouse, and this notion was derived from Roger Fry's "An Essay on Aesthetics" in his 1920 book, Vision and Design. Fry describes one class of simple paintings that can be analyzed using "a balancing of the attractions of the eye about the central line of the picture." But Fry immediately moves on to larger works, such as Chinese landscape scrolls, which can only be viewed in segments, yet which form a unity. "Such a successive unity is of course familiar to us in literature and music, and it plays its part in the graphic arts. It depends upon the forms being presented to us in such a sequence that each successive element is felt to have a fundamental and harmonious relation with that which preceded it." (21-22). Fry says that drawings can be viewed in this successive way, looking at parts of a drawing in succession without requiring the visual unity we expect of a painting (22). Where Woolf takes Fry's concept in this linear sense, Lily Briscoe takes the dictum literally: she does not see an imaginary line at the center of her painting, but instead draws a literal line there.

(6) Far from being a passing fad of the 1920s, Egyptomania has influenced Western art and literature in waves, initiated successively by the Roman annexation of Egypt, the Napoleonic invasion and subsequent publication of the monumental Description de l'Egypt (1809-29), the French and British protectorates that followed the building of the Suez Canal, and, finally, the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb. The literature of European art history has acknowledged the priority and significance of Egypt since Winckelmann's landmark study, History of Ancient Art (Geschichte des Kunst des Altertums) in 1764.

(7) Breasted, James Henry. Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest. London: Luzac, 1906. 5 vols.

(8) Biographer Hermione Lee notes that reading Pater was part of Woolf's preparation for her trip to Greece (VW, 22), but she does not specify the titles. Both the 1885 Marius and the 1895 Greek Studies were available to her.

(9) The Book of the Dead: Facsimile of the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum. London: British Museum,1890. A sumptuous full-color facsimile of the scroll with no translation.

(10) The Book of the Dead: The Chapters of Coming Forth By Day: An English Translation with Introduction, Notes, Etc. Translated by E.A. Wallis Budge. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898.

(11) Nightingale, Florence. A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850. 1854. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987.

(12) Forster, E.M. Alexandria: A History and a Guide. 1922. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1974.
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Author:Rutherford, Brett
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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