Per Bastemhet

ante-rational henotheism

with one comment

I was reading this article about netjer  by Wim van den Dungen recently and found it to be one of the best explanations that I have found of the way that polyvalent logic functioned in Kemetic religious thought.  I have thought that there seems to be a divide in popular attempts to approach the divine, from the “Brahman” idea that all deities are (incomplete) manifestations of a God(head) (which you see in Kemetic Orthodoxy), to the idea that the deities are independent and self-sufficient beings from the creator deity but are always seen as part of a retinue or grouping (triad, ennead, etc.).

The second view is what I’ve prescribed to thus far.  I’m biased in the sense that I worship only Bast, and have occasionally worked with Seshat.  In antiquity one would have had not only familiar, but also Nome and state gods.  In this sense my approach is a very modern one, not entirely similar to what would have been common in antiquity.  I call my personal style of worship polytheism which is somewhat vague, but I cannot really call it hard polytheism.  The deities had more than one form, all of them considered the same being.  They did not have separate and distinct forms that never changed.

From what I’ve read, the Kemetic Orthodox stance says they are “monolatry”:

A monolatrous religion professes one divine force (Netjer in the Kemetic language, meaning "divine power") that is in turn comprised of other separate, yet interlinked aspects, like a team can be defined both as one entity (the sum of its parts) and by individual members themselves. The "gods and goddesses" of Ancient Egypt, while clearly differentiated from each other in some respects and not as clearly in others, also each represent an aspect of Netjer, as Its Names (after the practice of recognizing Netjer "in Its Name of…" in ritual invocations). The Names of Netjer are in addition to being individual entities, also representative aspects of the Self-Created One, and are parts of that whole Being. Each Name of Netjer, like the parts of the human body, has differing structure and function, yet each part is required to constitute the entire Person.

For some reason that description never sat right with me, and reminds me of Erik Hornung’s description of “vague solar-tinged pantheism.”  The reason being that there isn’t sufficient justification for not calling this monotheism.  For example, the Christian God manifests as three in the trinity but is still considered a one, sole being.  The differentiation that van den Dungen makes is that the Kemetic creator netjer was never alone.  Once Atum broke from his divine egg in the Nun (spontaneous act of the created coming from inert potentiality), spontaneous generation of the other deities occurred, even if it is described in generational terms, because once the act of creation began, so too everything was created at once.  Thus van den Dungen describes Kemetic henotheism as the idea of a single creator who is never without his company.  He interprets it as “intra-divine participation and cooperative effort,” which in itself does not necessarily limit the degree of individuality of the netjeru, while on the other hand Rev. Siuda in the above quote reduces the deities down to their roles.  I think it unfair to essentialize them, and I don’t know that that was her intention.  But I have my own contentions with her interpretation of the “in this your Name of” invocation.

Hornung in his book “Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many” says that the names of the netjer, for example Bast, were simply one of their epithets, and those being their roles, or domains of influence.  Bast itself means she of the unguent jar, which invokes her role of patroness of unguents which were used to prepare the dead.  She of course has other epithets that expand her areas of influence.  Many of the netjeru share some epithets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all the same being.  Rather I think it possible that they share roles (thus the lack of atomistic polytheism).

There are also problems with the word netjer itself.  According to Rev. Siuda’s understanding, netjer in the wisdom literature would be commenting on the transcendent Godhead in whatever form the creator god took, whether it be Atum, AmunRe, or Ptah.  I tend to see it, as proposed Hornung, as a place holder for whatever god the person reading the literature would have had to pay homage to at the time.  As the literature was practical advice for those going into politics, they would have had to be wary of how to conduct one’s self in places outside of their own homes or nomes which would have had their own particular netjeru.  Paying respect to others and being humble would have been of utmost priority, sensitivity to the deity of the area included.

I think that the misunderstanding lies in the wording of “parts of a whole being.”  This implies that individually the deities are incomplete.  Rather I think of it this way: they are never alone as they are grouped in triads, pesedjets, and so on and so forth.  This is how the ancient Kemetics would have understood them.  They are better understood while being compared and contrasted to other deities.  To apprehend them only singly is to limit one’s understanding of the deity.  To learn about who is connected to them and why is to appreciate them more fully.  This, I think, is what she is trying to get at when she makes the comparison of all of the beings together making a full Person.  The netjeru are rich and complex in and of themselves, and in relation to each other become even more complex.

The Ancient Egyptians conceptualized the Divine in ante-rational terms. This means that their patterns of thought were "concrete" and limited by a concrete context (place, time, person). In the whole of Ancient Egyptian literature, there is no theory, no definition, no abstract, discursive activity to be found. It is amazing what can be thought, said and done without formal thought…

Egypt’s ante-rationality meant a multiple approach, characterized by a remarkable mixture of mythical and pre-rational strands (pointing to Predynastic, Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom religious activities), held together by a concrete, proto-rational intention (contextual and local).

When I put this in the “theology” category I am pretty much saying a falsehood, and this quote would show why, though it’s more convenient to be able to organize it as such for others to be able to find what they are looking for.  As you can see what I have been saying (whether in this blog or not) is that they thought using polyvalent logic, but actually their ideas came about before logic did.  The Greeks were the ones who were the first to master rational thought.  I am still struggling with how to conceive of the deities in a non-rational way when modern society operates from the rational, logical p.o.v.  Science is founded upon it.  And of course, this mode of thought relies on the idea that systems can be predicted, which in practice, do not always conform to the rules.  Such are the limits of logic.

To further explain what van den Dungen meant by mythical, pre-rational, and proto-rational modes of thought, I found quotes on other parts of the cite:

  • sensori-motoric, mythical thought : aduality implies only one relationship, namely with immediate physicality ; object & subject reflect perfectly ; earliest schemata are restricted to the internal structure of the actions (the coordination) as they exist in the actual moment and differentiate between the actions connecting the subjects and the actions connecting the objects. The action-scheme can not be manipulated by thought and is triggered when it practically materializes ;

  • pre-operatoric, pre-rational thought : at last object and subject are differentiated and interiorized ; the subject is liberated from its entanglement in the actual situation of the actions ; early psychomorph causality. The subjective is projected upon the objective and the objective is viewed as the mirror of the subjective. The emergence of pre-concepts and pre-conceptual schemata does not allow for permanency and logical control. The beginning of decentration occurs and eventually objectification ensues … ;

  • concrete-operatoric, proto-rational thought : conceptual structures emerge which provide insight in the essential moments of the operational mental construction :
    (a) constructive generalization ;
    (b) the ability to understand each step and hence the total system, and
    (c) autoregulation enabling one to run through the system in two ways, causing conservation. The conceptual schemata are "concrete" because they only function in contexts and not yet in formal, abstract mental spaces ;

  • See?  Intense.  I love it.  If I come to any other new revelations, I’ll try to document them here, but I’m afraid I have waxed pedantic already.  Please excuse the dust during construction.

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    Written by Bastemhet

    September 9, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    One Response

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    1. […] Netjer God is just an approximate translation to the Egyptian conception. Netjer (which is translated as God for expediency) literally means "divine power." I’ve heard others compare Egyptian gods to the Japanese kami. One god can be more "divine" than others, so even things that we consider not-gods, like demons (although that is tricky too, since I can’t think of a being that was one-dimensionally malevolent in Egypt so much as our Western conception of demons) or spirits of specific places, were also considered gods. Netjer may also be translated as "power." *For a more extensive review on henotheism and its features, please refer to this post. […]


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