Per Bastemhet

Conceptions of God

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I’m going to be condensing this from a 10 page essay I wrote for my Ancient Egypt class. If you feel like there are some things that aren’t explained, let me know and I can add more stuff in.

Theological Approaches
First, we define the words we’ll be using. Henotheism is the belief in many deities which were generated from or ruled over by a single overarching deity. Monolatry is the belief that there are many deities, but only one worth worshiping. Hard polytheism is the belief that all deities are unique individuals.
I will go ahead and say that the ancient Egyptians were henotheistic, but it’s really not that simple.

Gods by hierarchy
There were state gods, which were the official gods of Egypt. Then each nome had their patron god/dess. Temples would be dedicated to the nome god, and then would also have statues of other deities that were worshipped after the patron god/dess was given worship. Then there were family gods (that may or may not be the same as the state gods), and then gods that people worshipped depending on their craft. There were at the least 1500 various deities in the history of Egypt, just not all of them were well known or widely worshiped. Many gods were particular to certain nomes or areas.

As far as who the state gods were, that depended on the time of Egyptian history (which spanned roughly three to four thousand years!) as well as the politics in play. As you can see, Egyptians were henotheistic in that there was a creator deity that auto-generated, whom then created the other main gods. These are known as the Pesedjet.

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.

The gods are both present in the physical world, and in the spiritual world. They can manifest themselves through physical phenomena, such as storms, wind, scent, bright light, etc. They can also manifest themselves through thoughts and feelings that they evoke in the supplicant.

Gods have limits. The gods are not omnipotent nor omnipresent. Their travel from one area to another can be facilitated by bringing a cult statue which has been prepared for the god to suitably imbue some of their presence in, but the gods are not thus limited. (see Story of Sinuhe) Rather conception of time and space varies depending on whether they are manifesting to us on the physical plane, or on the spiritual plane. Gods can age, and gods can die. (see myth of Osiris/Ausir)

The names of the gods that we know, such as Isis, Osiris, etc., are not actually names. What they are are titles. Their names are held in secret, since knowing their names would give whoever knows them power over them. Epithets for gods are numerous, as for every additional epithet, that god/dess gains an additional area of influence and capability.

Now that we understand the concept of god, syncretism might make sense.

Syncretism is when one god/dess instills hirself within another god/dess in order to function in that other god/dess’s capacity, or share in power, a.k.a. "indwelling." (though it is not limited to only two) This is what is meant when two names are connected with a hyphen, e.g. Amun-Re. Another reason why this would occur is when one god/dess is recognized within the function or capacity of another god. e.g. Amun is recognized in his creative capacity as Re, since Re is a creator god. This formula typically goes, "DeityX, in this your name of DeityY." Syncretism is not necessarily for forever, as deities are recognized in their syncretized form at the same time that they are recognized in their original form. No individuality is lost in syncretism.

A good way to think of it is by comparing it to Power Rangers. There are a few individuals who join together to make one more powerful individual, even though they retain their individual consciousness at the same time. Once a task is accomplished, they dissolve back into their singular forms.

A reason why this did not just revert into pantheism is because gods clearly had their limits. Though gods shared many epithets, this is no reason to equate one with another. For example, Thoth was associated with the moon, an ibis, a baboon, a man with the head of an ibis, and as god of knowledge and writing. These are many ways to apprehend this god, but though he might share an association with the moon with the god Khonsu, this does not mean they are equivalent, as the other roles of each god can be readily apprehended as well.

"God" in texts
The mention of God in the singular in the wisdom texts are not to be confused with a monotheistic conception of the divine in ancient Egypt. Rather, these wisdom texts were written as practical advice for students whom in their professional/official life might be expected to travel to different nomes or even neighboring countries. Each nome would have had a different patron god/dess, as well as each country their own gods. God, then, would have been a placeholder for any god that the student must be respectful of or pay homage to as a guest in a foreign nome or country.

While I’d like to say that Egyptian religion is hard-polytheistic, the syncretism would make this description obsolete. However, I would not call it a soft-polytheism either, since the gods are apprehended as individual and yet "one" at the same time, (only during syncretism) which is not a function of hard polytheism. Henotheism as a descriptor will have to do, as well as a discussion on the peculiarities of Egyptian religion. This should serve as a lesson as to how complex this religion really was- and to merely skim the surface and assume one thing or another to serve one’s own purposes would be a disservice to all.

Assmann, Jan. "The Search for God in Ancient Egypt."
Frankfort, Henri. "Ancient Egyptian Religion."
Hornung, Erik. "Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt."
Meeks, Dimitri and Christine Favard. "Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods."


Written by Bastemhet

January 13, 2011 at 7:53 pm

One Response

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  1. I commend you on writing this and all of the time it took for you to condense your essay into a journal entry. Thank you for sharing.


    January 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm

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