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Four Worlds in One: An Overview of Egyptian Culture and Spirituality
Christopher A. Tuttle
To write a brief overview of Egyptian belief and spirituality is a most daunting task. A coherent Egyptian culture existed for more than two thousand of its nearly three-thousand-year lifespan. Yet within the seemingly immutable coherence there were many variations of details, dictated by the rise and fall of different dynasties and their respective regional power centers, and ever increasing contact with external cultures. For centuries people have struggled with the difficult task of systematizing the many cultural fragments in order to comprehend the vast scope of Egypt's social, political, economic, and religious history. To complicate matters further, much of the foundational work in Egyptology, begun in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is now being revisited in light of new discoveries in archaeology and advances made in the theoretical models necessary for interpretation and understanding. In many ways the work of comprehending the complex Egyptian culture has only just begun. Given such a context, what follows is but the barest outline sketch of some crucial elements of Egyptian culture to assist in orienting the reader to the material that follows in this issue.
The basic geographic position Egypt held, isolated by protective deserts, mountains, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, allowed the culture to evolve with few threats to its development. The ancient kingdom was centered on the Nile river, with only a few sites situated inland near the occasional oasis. Life in ancient Egypt depended on the sustaining waters of the Nile. The annual flooding of its banks, the inundation, brought fresh, rich, black soil ideal for cereal crops; the abundance of grain produced in Egypt's rich soil played a fundamental role in creating and maintaining its power in the ancient world. To the ancient Egyptians, their land was known as Kemet ('black land'; Egypt derives from the Greek, Aegyptos), revealing an intimate understanding of the importance of the river's natural cycles in sustaining life.
Egyptian society throughout the Pharaonic period (ca. 3000-700 BCE) had a highly centralized authority vested in the person of the Pharaoh. He was at once the monarch, supreme judge, and high priest of the social ordereven when some or all of the functions of these offices where executed by subordinates. Stretched along the banks of the Nile, which facilitated traveling the length of the land, the cities, towns, and temples were easily administered by a centralized government. The centrality of the social order is reflected in the great works constructed during this period, most notably the Saqqaran pyramids, those at Giza along with the Great Sphinx, and the later great temples and mortuary complexes at such sites as Memphis, Thebes, and Karnak.
Yet within the absolute authoritarianism and tight centralization of the political society there lies the paradox of religious pluralism. The Pyramid Texts (ca. 3000-2150 BCE), carved on the inner walls of the early mortuary pyramids, introduce to us a complex pantheon of deities overseeing every aspect of life and death. Interpretation of these early sources hints at even greater prehistoric multiplicity spread throughout diverse regions and eras in the predynastic period (ca. 5000-3000 BCE) and earlier. With but two exceptions, through the entire span of Egyptian history there is little evidence that any concerted attempt was made at imposing a uniform system of belief or worldview. Extant literary sources are rife with paradoxes, contradictions, competing myths, and uncountable gods and goddesses whose responsibilities and powers may even clash or overlap.
The first exception is seen in the prevalence of Horus, the falcon god representing the national identity of the pharaonic state. As Ra was believed to be the first Pharaoh, so his son Horus followed him to the throne. Other myths simultaneously portray Horus as the son of Osiris and Isis. All subsequent pharaohs were viewed as the Living Horus, embodying the life force of the sun as the renewed progeny of Osiris in the physical form of the monarch. All regions within Egypt had their version of the falcon god, attested to by the many forms combining the pharaonic Horus with an earlier regional divinity. The second exception is the "Amarna Revolution" of Akhenaten (ca. mid-late 1300s BCE) who sought to impose a monotheism on Egyptian religion focused on Aten, the solar disk itself. The "revolution" lasted only during Akhenaten's reign, and was quickly stamped out by the priesthood of Amun-Ra who returned Egypt to its complex pluralism upon his death.
There is an element of reconciliation inherent to both the political and religious systems of Ancient Egypt. The unification of the "Two Lands" of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh Menes is depicted as being achieved not through success in battle, but through reconciliation between Seth and Horus, the gods of each land respectively. The story relates that Horus, as the son of Osiris and Isis, upon reaching maturity sought to assume the united throne of Egypt as his patrimony. He appears at the celestial court of Ra just as Tehuti/Thoth is presenting the sun god with the 'sacred Eye,' a symbol of justice and kingship in the cosmic order. The ever-rebellious Seth is outraged at Horus's effrontery and claims the throne for himself. Their dispute raged for eighty years and involved many other divine advocates on each side. In the end, through the mediation of Tehuti/Thoth, Ra is persuaded that the cosmic order was best served if Horus became pharaoh to rule the living as his father ruled the dead. In conciliation Ra honors Seth by placing him in the prow of his Solar Bark; thus Seth's great might aided Ra in the essential nightly battles against the chaos demon Apep/Apophis. Through this reconciliation Horus becomes the pharaonic link between the social and cosmic orders, and the disorder embodied in Seth is transformed into a positive force to combat the greater chaos.MYTH
Parallel to this reconciliation lies the carefully structured acceptance of numerous variations of myths, theologies, and ritual which are woven into the fabric of Egyptian spirituality. Respect for the original regional religions of the forty-two nomes which make up the unified "Two Lands" was assiduously maintained during the rise and fall of seats of political and religious power. This resulted in the many contradictions in myth and doctrine which appear in every recension of compiled texts: Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and Papyrus Texts. Such variability makes it difficult to comprehend the Egyptian mythos because "myths" rarely exist as narrations like the familiar forms of Greco-Roman mythology. Instead, we glimpse the Egyptian worldview through fragments of theses, explanations, epithets, and spells; only rarely are we afforded the luxury of a complete story.
Many shifts in political and theological power occurred during the nearly five thousand years between the predynastic period and the Persian conquest of Egypt (ca. 525 BCE) resulting in diverse cosmologies. Theological prominence in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2150 BCE) is derived from doctrines articulated by the priesthood based in the city of Heliopolis, scribal priests who created the first compilation of texts, the Pyramid Texts. The Great Ennead of Heliopolis (Atum[sun] Shu[air] - Tefnut[moisture] Geb[earth] - Nut[sky] Osiris - Isis and Seth - Nephthys) assigns the role of Creator to an aspect of the sun. A hermaphroditic Atum masturbates, and from his ejaculate rise his progeny. The contemporaneous Memphis theology portrays Ptah creating through pronouncing the names of all things in order to bring them into being. In the Theban cosmology, Amun (the 'hidden one') in his form of a goose lays the cosmic egg. By the New Kingdom political prominence had shifted to Thebes and Amun as the ram becomes conjoined with the sun into the primary god as Amun-Ra. Other variations attribute the act of Creation to the union of Geb and Nut who gives birth to the progenitive sun, or to Tehuti/Thoth who lays the cosmic egg in his ibis form on the primeval hill arising from the primeval generative waters of Nun.
Throughout Egyptian history, the warp and weft in this varied tapestry of deities were the gods Ra and Osiris. The sun god Ra, the supreme High God, dwelt in the heavens and gave the gift of life. Osiris was primarily the god of the dead, ruling that domain and lying at the center of the rites of the necropoli in the West. Tension, if any, between these two primary gods was reconciled through the myth that Ra travels in his Solar Bark throughout the underworld of Osiris during the night. Through this journey Ra continuously confers life to both the living during his daily traverse across the heavens and also to the dead by his nightly passage through the underworld. The unity of the forces represented in Ra and Osiris is seen in their roles in agriculture as well. Osiris is the seed that sleeps in death beneath the soil and grows into vegetation that is then cut down and returned again to the earth as seed or compost. Ra is the ever-renewing lifeforce which awakens the seed and feeds its growth so that it may be harvested and returned back into the cycle of life and death.
As Ra and Osiris, in their many forms and roles, can represent the warp and weft, several primary goddesses represent the loom upon which the tapestry of Egyptian deities is woven. These goddesses, Nut, Hathor, Isis, and Ma'at, all play crucial roles in creating and maintaining the cosmic and social orders. Goddesses provide both the foundation from which creation may arise, and also the support, sustenance, and protection necessary for its continuance. In Egypt the two sources necessary for life were perceived to come from the sky and the Nile, both of which are associated with goddesses.
The sky goddess Nut is frequently portrayed giving birth to the Creator sun (e.g., Ra, Amun) from her arched body which forms the starry heavens. In a paradox typical to the Egyptian mythos, it is difficult to determine whether Nut exists before or at the instant of the first Creation, or if she represents the source of the subsequent daily rebirth of the sun. It is also important to make explicit here that the Egyptian worldview was focused on the heavens rather than the earth. The "underworld" referred to in their myths is located in the heavens, not under the earth. Thus Ra's nightly traverse of the "underworld" of Osiris implies that the sun travels through the body of Nut to be reborn each morning, bringing life to the land. A variation of this theme depicts Hathor, the cow goddess of fertility, as the arched body of heaven which births the sun. In this mythic variant Hathor is also the mother of Horus, and thus of pharaoh, and is sometimes shown suckling Horus-pharaoh from pendulous breasts which hang from the firmament of heaven.
Both Nut and Hathor also provide protection and support for mortals in the cosmic order. The arched body of Nut/Hathor is frequently depicted on the lids of coffins and sarcophagi, a talismanic representation of the coffin/tomb as the very womb of the goddess from which the deceased will be reborn into the Afterlife, just as she daily gives rebirth to the sun. Some accounts also speak of Hathor giving milk to the dead to sustain them throughout the trials and the judgment of the journey. Protection of the deceased's body in the tomb/underworld is assigned to four goddesses (Isis, Nephthys, Selket, Neith in conjunction with the four sons of Horus: Imseti/Mestha, Hapi, Duamutef, Kebehsenuef), and images of them are often placed at the four corners of the coffin.
Isis is perhaps the most recognized Egyptian goddess. This is due in part to the Isian cult which spread across the ancient world during the Hellenistic period (ca. 325 BCE-31 CE) following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. However, the Isis of the Pharaonic period, while less universal in her attributes, was still one of the most dynamic goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon. One of the original eight gods borne of Ra in the Heliopolitan cosmology, she wielded great power in both the cosmic and social orders.
Both sister and wife of Osiris, Isis is portrayed as the mother of Horus in a widespread version of his birth myth. The story of her insemination reveals one of her major attributes: Isis was perhaps the greatest magician in the mythos, and is often described as "strong of tongue" implying her mastery over correct pronunciation and tone for the "words of power." Osiris has been treacherously killed by his brother Seth, and his dismembered body strewn throughout the realm. Toiling without rest, Isis locates all of his parts except the phallus, for which she substitutes one fashioned from gold. With the help of magic spells learned from Tehuti she tricks the creator Ra into revealing his most potent word of power. Isis then uses this word to restore Osiris to sufficient life that she becomes pregnant with Horus. In this act, Isis is responsible for awakening in Osiris sufficient life in death for him to become the lord of the Afterlife. By extension Isis also came to represent the force which awoke the agricultural seeds associated with Osiris so that the grain could grow under the outpouring of life from Ra. In this role she also caused the annual inundation of the Nile, the calling forth of Osiris into new life.
One symbol of Isis is a throne. This meant she was the foundation on which sat pharaoh during his temporal reign. Representations often show Isis seated with Horus-pharoah on her lap, or standing behind the pharaoh seated on his throne, encircled and supported by her vulture wings. It is these images of Isis which perhaps best convey the essential roles goddesses played in underpinning the cosmic and social orders in ancient Egypt.
This is a sample of Gods, Kings, Honored Dead and Mortals from issue No. 4 of Obsidian.
Christopher A. Tuttle currently lives in Maine and works in the emerging Integrative Medicine movement/industry. His academic background in classical, medieval, and religious studies focused on ancient religions, mystery cults, and the rise of Western magical traditions. He has been active in the NeoPagan community for fifteen years, presenting at gatherings and serving on the editorial staffs of Harvest, Tides, and Obsidian. He walks a Hellenistic path which blends the religion of Wicca with the science of a NeoPagan Qabbalistic ceremonial magical tradition.
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