AN INTERVIEW WITH NORMANDI ELLIS
Normandi Ellis is the author of Awakening Osiris, her haunting translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead. She has also written Dreams of IsisA Woman's Spiritual Sojourn, a collection of short stories, Sorrowful Mysteries, Desperate Measures, a play produced by the University of Kentucky Women Writers' Conference, and, most recently, Voice Forms, a collection of prose poetry, and Feasts of Light: Celebrations for the Seasons of Life Based on the Egyptian Goddess Festival Calendar. She conducts workshops on creative writing and the ancient Egyptian concept of spiritual bodies. Ellis also teaches creative writing in middle schools, high schools, and elementary schools as an Artist in Residence in the State of Kentucky.
How did you become interested in ancient Egypt in the first place, and what led you to translate The Egyptian Book of the Dead?
Since there are no accidents, I've come to think of it as ancient Egypt becoming interested in me. Why I'm not sure. What happened is that I had a friend who had been studying with the Rosicrucians, and I had not seen this fellow for several years, though we had grown up down the street from each other. In the meantime, the Vietnam War had happened, and he had been drafted. His father was a doctor and had gotten him into a medic unit, but when he found out he was going to go, he got a call from a man somewhere in Ohio who was a Rosicrucian, who said, "I understand you're going to be a medic in Vietnam and you'll be assisting souls in transition, so I'm going to teach you what I know." So he went and studied with this man.
He came back from Vietnam, and I ran into him several years after that. We started talking about metaphysical things in general, and he said, "Have you ever read The Book of the Dead?" I said "no," and he said, "You must read it." In fact, he was so convinced that I should read it that he walked me across the street to a bookstore and stood in front of the shelf and said "Here it is. Buy this book." So I bought the book. It was Budge's Papyrus of Ani, the one which had Budge's translation in it with the hieroglyphs above. It's the one most people are familiar with. He had to go, but he showed up later that night at my house with this box of books, a whole bunch of stuff. He said, "I just found out I have to move out of my apartment and leave for my work tomorrow, so I'm taking everything to my parents' house except these books, which I really don't want them to know I have, so I'm going to leave them with you to keep." I said, "Okay, what are they?" He said, "They're all my Rosicrucian notebooks, all the teachings. You're really not supposed to show them around, but you might find these interesting if you take a walk through them." I said, "Okay." He took off, and the long and short of it is I never saw him again.
Several months later, I moved to Colorado, and I still had his stuff. So I thought, I'll just take it with me. He knows where my mother is and he can ask her, and then I'll send it back to him wherever his new address is. A year went by and I was visiting my family in Frankfort when I opened the newspaper up and saw an article saying that his body had been found at the bottom of a lake. It looked as if he had been murdered. I still don't know how and why that happened. I was devastated. I thought it was really strange that this man had given me these texts and now I didn't know what to do with them. So I started reading them and taking much more interest in what they actually contained.
In the meantime, I was getting a degree in English literature at the University of Colorado where I had moved. In the process of getting the degree, I took a translation workshop and worked in Spanish for awhile. Then, halfway through the semester, the teacher said, "Now go to your second language and pick a text that you want to translate." I was chagrined, sheepishly telling my professor, "I don't have a second language." He said, "Just pick a language that looks interesting," so I thought, well here are these hieroglyphs. They look pretty interesting. I pulled the texts out again. I got myself a good grammar dictionary, variant translations to compare. After I started working with it, I really got into itI was studying mythology; I was studying history. I was making all these cross-connections and having these incredible dreams. It was as if I had entered some ancient mystery school. I was doing this stuff in my sleep. I was dreaming in hieroglyphs. The semester went on, then ended. I got my degree, and I was still translating the glyphs. I was going to make it from one end of this book to the other. And I did.
After I translated it, I thought, there's so much to this language that I still don't think I have it right. So I went back to the beginning and started translating it all over again. I translated that book three times in the process of actually writing it. It was like three different versions of the exact same glyphsbut they were three completely different versions. I kept thinking, there's so much to it. You translate it word for word and it's not right because an abstract language can never touch what these words are doing. They're playing with sound and they're playing with image and they're playing with metaphor and all of the myths, which were never written down by the Egyptians themselves. All the myths are embedded inside the glyphs themselves, if you start to study them. The exact pronunciations began to fascinate me because there aren't any vowels in it. I became in love with this text. I became in love with this culturein love to the point that it was almost like having a mistress. I wanted to spend all my time on it, and it began to get in the way. I had gotten married, had a baby, was trying to work and still translate these glyphs. I had myself hypnotized so I could get up at 4:00 in the morning and work for two hours before the baby woke up, before I had to get dressed, and before I had to go to work. It really was obsessive. But the text had me so deeply that I didn't want to do anything else.
A time came when I said, this is crazy. I've this other life. I really need to pay attention to it. My husband at the timewe later got divorcedwas feeling left out, and he said, "You know, you should just forget all that stuff," and I said, "Yeah, you're right." So I picked up all of the books that Robert had given me, I picked up my manuscript, which was tons of paper by this time, all of my notes, everything, The Book of the Dead, and I put it all in a box. It was the middle of the night and we had had this big argument, and I finally said, "You're right. I'll get rid of them." I was taking them to a dumpster. So I put them in the back of my car, and I was driving through town. I look in the rearview mirror of the car as I'm driving up the hill toward the dumpster, and there's Robert in the back seat of my car. He didn't look like the Robert I remembered on earth. He looked distinctly priest-like with his bald, shaved head and this white linen robe. But it was definitely Robert. I knew it was him. I thought, naaah. This must be the power of suggestion or something. I'm not going to pay any attention to this. So I just kept driving, and just as though Robert knew that I did need to pay attention, he reached out and grabbed my shoulder. I've never experienced anything like this in my life. It was as if I had stuck my hand in an electrical outlet. I just started shaking. There were quivers of electricity all up and down my body, and I sort of lost consciousness. I remember screaming. It wasn't a scream that sounded like a scream from a Hitchcock movie. It was like a scream that was outside time, that stretched way outwaaaaooooaaaaoooo Somehow I managed to stop the car. When I stopped the car, I looked in the rearview mirror again, and he was still there. I just kept looking at him and looking at him. Then I said, "Goddamn it, Robert. Don't you ever do that to me again. You scared the hell out of me!" And the minute I said that, he was gone. He justboomdisappeared. I sat there for awhile and I looked at the stuff in the box, then I turned the car around and went home. Then I finished translating the book for the third time, and by the time I was almost finished with it, a fellow came to me and said, "Hey, I understand you have this manuscript. I'd like to take a look at it." That was David Fideler from Phanes Press. So, when I say that somehow Egypt got me, it really did. I feel like it pointed its finger at me and said, "You will do this."
And it didn't let you go.
It would not let me go. Ever after, every event in my life has been that finger pointing"You will do this." So that's my story about how I got interested in the glyphs. But more than the glyphs, it taught me just how deeply we need to be shocked to be awakened, because I was asleep. Even though I had this stuff right in front of me, I was still asleep, until that moment when Robert stepped into the back seat of my car.
This is a sample of Normandi Ellis's interview from Obsidian's issue No. 4.
Visit Normandi Ellis's web site.
Visit the Awakening Osiris webpage at Phanes Press.
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