The Victorian age was marked by discovery!
Scientists and missionaries set off around the globe bringing back stories of far-away lands and ancient cultures. The discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone in the mid-19th century unlocked the secrets of ancient Egypt.
Advances in railways and steam ships meant that wealthy tourists could also sail the River Nile and see the newly discovered sites for themselves.
The elaborate Egyptian rituals for their dead struck a chord with Victorians and Egyptian symbols entered fashion and mourning jewellery. The new cemeteries being constructed, such as Highgate in London, incorporated Egyptian architecture and the wealthy built their tombs adorned with Sphinx, ankh and hieroglyphics displaying that they had visited the country and knew of its secrets.
With the architecture of this new land being so impressive, it was incorporated into Masonic history, and on some headstones, Egyptian symbols can be seen alongside Masonic symbology.
Most of these symbols are merely decorative, placing the same grandeur on the recently deceased as that granted to the ancient Pharaohs. Occasionally within Victorian cemeteries, one tomb will stand out as different, using more unusual Egyptian symbols and its layout seems to want to tell a story. We will look at one of those now that stands proud in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery on the Wirral.
Egyptian Headstone of Isaac Roberts
This is the tomb of Isaac Roberts who was a pioneer in astrophotography and noted for taking the first photograph of the Andromeda galaxy. He died in 1904, but his ashes were buried in this monument around 5 years later.
There are many Egyptian symbols emblazoned upon his tombstone monument and we will work from the bottom to the top:
Row of Ankhs
It was difficult to make out the meaning of this row of ankhs until I found a picture of an almost identical relief from the Temple of Horus in Edfu. The temple was discovered in the 1860’s so would have been well known at the time of this memorial.
These symbols read together, translates as ‘all power over eternal life‘.
- Ankh is a well know symbol of the key to eternal life
- Was are dog headed staffs that represent power
- Nebet means everything or all
Snakes and Staff
The image of the caduceus related to healing comes to mind here, but it is not quite right and also it was not an Egyptian symbol.The staffs are tapered, the snake has a sun disk above its head and it is not wrapped around a staff, but holding it with its tail.Further digging on the Internet produced wadjet. Wadjet was a snake goddess of protection and her sacred amulet was a papyrus stem.Looking at the staffs the tops look bushy like these amulets.
Wadjet held the power of life and death as her bite was the only thing that could kill pharaohs.
Pair of Galaxies
Pictured on the headstone monument are nebulae M41 and NGC 1499, the Andromeda Galaxy and the California Nebula.
They were first photographed in detail by Isaac Roberts.His wife Dorethea was also an astronomer and was born in California, so linking her to the monument.
Phrase in the Center of the Galaxies
The phrase ‘HEAVEN WITHIN US IS‘ appears to be enclosed by WAS (dog headed staffs). Above the phrase are two stars and the Egyptian cobra rearing up, the Uraeus, as in a Pharaoh’s headdress. The 2 stars represent Isaac and Dorethea. If you look closely at the very bottom of the lettering, you can see what looks like the number 8 on it’s side. This is a mathematical symbol representing infinity.
‘HEAVEN WITHIN US IS’ looks simple enough and the phrase isn’t taken from the bible. The quote can be found in Emanuel Swedenborg’s, Heaven and Hell:-
“for heaven is within us, and people who have heaven within them come into heaven.The heaven within us is our acknowledgment of the Divine and our being led by the Divine.”
Further research indicates that Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th century scientist who struggled with the link between scientific discovery and religious theories. He started writing after an enlightenment linking the opposing views and emphasised that one’s actions, and not faith, were the key to heaven. These works influenced new forms of religion such as Methodism, Theosophy and Mormonism that were flourishing in the Victorian era.
The two comet looking images above the text are representations of the sun. The upper image is being eclipsed by the moon. Isaac and Dorethea met and fell in love on a scientific cruise to observe a total eclipse.
The epitaph is bordered on each side by a column of stars. Written in the detail of the epitaph are words that provide an insight into the couple’s values.
“who spent his whole life in the search after TRUTH, and the endeavour to aid the happiness of OTHERS.”
Apparently the space below was left for when Dorethea died and her ashes were supposed to be interned in a recess in the monument, but she never joined him in death.
Winged Sun Gods
The images towards the top of the monument depict Horus as a winged sun disc with two serpents signifying his divinity.
This image is also copied from the Temple of Edfu. They are a form of protection with the wings representing the sky spread out over the world and apt for an astronomer.
Row of Owls
It’s hard to tell if the animals are cats or owls, but looking closely they do resemble birds. This is a bit confusing because we can’t find any Egyptian owl gods with a sun disk. With a bit of guess work that the sculptor took a bit of artistic licence, these animals could represent Horus as god of the skies. Instead of a falcon that is usually used to portray him, these have mixed metaphors and have used the owl for its association with learning and ability to see at night.
Reverse Side of the Tomb
On the monuments reverse, there is another somewhat art deco styled winged sun god, above what looks like a pyramid and a row of stars.
Then in English and Welsh the following is written: –
“Heaven is within us, and we have the power to dwell in it all the days of our life in full happiness, or we may decline and make ourselves miserable with `cibau gweigion ffol’ Bydded inni `ddewis y rhan dda.’.”
It finishes with another carved astronomical image. This time the Whirlpool Galaxy
Conclusion of Flaybrick Hill Cemeteries Egyptian Monument
The monument shows the value held by Isaac Roberts in both learning and astronomy. The ancient Egyptians were admired for their astronomy.
Both Isaac and Dorethea bequeathed large amounts to scholarships to improve the education of others and the advancement of astronomy.
The site as well could have some meaning. Isaac had moved from this area long ago, but his successful career as a builder funded his research into astronomy. One of his first projects after setting up his company was across the road at Birkenhead Water Works on Flaybrick Lane. Could this example of helping others with sanitation in the area be part of his legacy?
The welsh words on the reverse of the tomb is translated as “foolish empty vessels. May we choose the good part”
Foolish empty vessels can be seen as those who do not fill their lives with learning and worthwhile activities. The good part is used to represent the soul and everlasting life.
Although Roberts saw no place for religion in his observations, it implies that he still held that leading a good life, looking after others and the pursuit of knowledge was more important than faith in a god.
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