Per Bastemhet

Conceptions of netjer: One? Many? And more importantly, when?

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While reviewing my post on ante-rational henotheism I realized that while there was a lot of dense information, it wasn’t necessarily formulated in a way that helped to explain clearly and to a well-formed conclusion.  There is also a discussion I had with a co-religionist in which speaking with him helped to formulate and coagulate my ideas and research on how the ancient Kemetics conceived of their own deities.  I’ll be summarizing my findings in this post in order to tie up any loose ends.

Since the KO ideology is popular and widespread, I think it’s important to differentiate between why I don’t think the word monolatry is viable as a description of ancient Kemetic practice itself.  Monolatry is defined as the recognition of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity.  There are a couple of ways to understand this.  There can be many gods, and only one of them you worship.  Or, there can be many gods, but all of them are facets of a One source, and it is only this source that you worship.  I think this is an inaccurate description of the current practice since many people, whether they’ve gone through RPD or not, have their deities that they worship; and there is no general consensus on considering the creator god the sole receiver of worship.  I think what Rev. Siuda was getting at was rational henotheism, as described here:

On the one hand, rational henotheism does not accept numerical monotheism (there is only one, single deity). It proposes many deities. On the other hand, all deities are considered to be theophanies, expressions, attributes of One God(head), hidden, veiled and withdrawn ("Deus absconditus"). Hence, henotheism has left polytheism, which invokes entities as idols, i.e. as all-powerful, independent beings (a divine mob), but does not move towards monotheism, the exclusion of all deities, except one (cf. the first part of the Islamic "shahada" : "there is no god, but The God").

However, we do see evidence of this One source as a source for all the millions of deities in ancient practice.

The One and millions formula you can find in Papyrus Louvre (3292) which reads "Hail to you, who brought himself forth as one and who created millions in their abundance," in Papyrus Leiden (I 344), we find : "The one alone, whose body are millions."  You find this formula in Theban theology late in the game, in Ramesside theology.

For the idea that the netjeru are but manifestations of Amun-Re, see Leiden Papyrus 1 (near the end of the reign of Ramesses II, ca. 1213 BE):

II Text in English
Chapter 80
1     80th Chapter.
       The Eight were Your first manifestation,
       until You completed these, You being Single.
       Secret was Your body among the elders,
5     and You kept Yourself hidden as Amun,
       at the head of the gods.
       You made Your manifestations in Tatenen,
       to accompany the primeval ones in Your first primeval time.
       Your beauty arose as the Bull of His Mother .
       You withdrew as the one in the sky, enduring as Re.
10   You returned in fathers, maker of their sons,
        to make an excellent heritage for Your children.
        You began manifestation with nothing,
        without the world being empty of You on the first occasion.
        All gods came into existence after You … [remainder lost]

This of course would be a departure from the differentiated polytheism of the Old Kingdom, which looks like an effort to create unification of theologies.  There was more than one creation myth, and thus more than one theology of how the world came to be and who was responsible for it.  The other theologies were the Heliopolis theology, the Memphis theology, and the Hermopolis theology.  Depending on which priests had more power at the time, their theology would be considered the mainstream and religious tendencies would reflect this.  Do note that power and religion changed throughout the period of at least 4,000 years.  Speaking of the Theban understanding is but a snapshot of what Kemetic religious thought was like.  Regardless of what was going on in the temples away from common eyes, the domestic practice continued with family netjeru being first and foremost in the eyes of the practitioners, which is basically a polytheistic practice.

Two very prominent Egyptologists that I often use as scholarly reference do not agree with each other on whether we can consider Egyptian religion as either a henotheism or a panentheism.  (Or is it possible that one or the other was referring to a certain time period and not an overall tendency?)  Erik Hornung sees this "Oneness" as existing pre-temporally, before creation.  Only in the Nun (pre-existence/creation) divinity was absolute and not spatial/temporal/differentiated.  After creation there was the multitude of deities only connected in the sense that Amun made them; that the divine expressed itself as a multiplicity once time and space existed.  The Oneness ended once time and space began.  This would be considered ante-rational henotheism.

However, Jan Assmann contends that the textual examples from the Ramesside period clearly point to an "aloneness" during the creation.

Amun-Re is also a "hidden power" or "hidden soul" in creation who is the source of the million-fold plurality in which he unfolds into the boundless. Not the world is "boundless", but Amun-Re himself, and this by virtue of the fact that Amun-Re transformed himself into the millions and the millions did not exhaust him nor did he cease to be One.

To Assmann the Oneness continued even in creation, which is affirmed by the One and Millions formula that there is ample evidence of.  The fact that the One has theophanies (a manifestation or appearance of god or a god to a person) makes it a henotheism, not a monotheism.  The difference is that Amun-Re is later on apprehended as transcendent:

He is the many in that mysterious way, hidden and present at the same time, which this theology is trying to grasp by means of the ba-concept. A common text even goes so far as to describe god as the ba of gods and humans, i.e. ‘the millions’. (…) By linking the ba concept and the theology of the hidden, it becomes clear in what respect this formula goes beyond the traditional creation theology of the opposition between unity and plurality. (…) In the context of this hymn, the concept of ‘all that is’ ntj nb / wnnt nbt  is then explained as the totality of living creation, from gods and humans to worms, fleas and mice.

In this sense Amun-Re becomes a supreme being that transcends all other beings, an all-pervasive, sacred unity behind all that is created.  Amun-Re manifests his creative energy as the various deities.  If we consider Amun-Re in this sense as analogous to the Stoics’ Logos, the "divine animating principle pervading the Universe," it becomes less difficult to accept that all is the differentiated, individual, manifestations of Amun-Re.  In pantheism God and his attributes are identical, and transcendence is undone.  Obviously this is not the case with Kemetic theology.  Amun-Re is both transcendent (existing in the pre-created) and immanent (existing behind all that’s created).  That would make this panentheist.  And here is the text to show it, in Praise of Amun in the Decree for Nesikhonsu, 6, XXIth Dynasty (the "Credo of Amenism"):

Every being came into being when His being began being.  There is nothing outside Him.

What I get from that quote is if there is nothing outside of him, then he is in everything.  Thus, the panentheism.

I want to note again that even in this point in time where it was becoming panentheistic, popular practice continued to manifest itself as a polytheism.  The new Theban theology is not likely to have had a popular following, nor was it generalized on all temple walls.  In hir own temple, each netjer remained supreme.*  Even if Amun-Re were recognized as the divine source, the local deity was just as important.  And no, this is not consistent, but that’s to be expected as we’re well acquainted with the peculiarities of Kemetic religion.

There have been many types of religion mentioned here.  We have differentiated polytheism from the Old to Middle Kingdom, and the development of the One and Millions formula began in Middle Kingdom and came to fruition near the end of the 19th Dynasty.  Right above we have a quote from the 21st Dynasty showing leanings toward panentheism.  How do we interpret this for our own personal practice?  One feature that was consistent in Kemetic practice is the value placed upon tradition.  Ancient Kemetics did not always seek to ameliorate inconsistencies and eliminate different theologies for the sake of simplicity.  Instead, they found that each theology was an expression of an underlying truth.  Whether you consider yourself a Kemetic hard polytheist or panentheist, the truth is not a one-dimensional thing.  I have a feeling that Djehuti, when advising a student, would say to hir, “Hm, you could also look at it that way.  Interesting.”


*Check my Conceptions of God post, specifically the Gods by hierarchy section for more details.



I’ve found another definition for monolatry:

MONOLATRY : One Supreme Being exists, but reversibly so.

From the Greek "monos" and "latreia", service.
A "Most High" is acknowledged, but not universally or irreversibly. In Ancient Egypt, especially in the Old Kingdom, various Supreme Beings were called "the Great" ("wr" or "aA"), and worshipped as such : Atum-Re and Osiris are strong examples (but any "god of the city" was also "the Great"). Only in the New Kingdom is a New Solar Theology at work, focusing, in the Late Ramesside Era, on the Greatest God before and within all beings (Amun). Then the provisional nature of oneness and greatness looses ground (although, to the affects, it was never lost).

Still not what Rev. Siuda described, but in this case the idea that more than one deity can be considered supreme but at different times is consistent with early Kemetic religious features.  It’s also consistent with how worship took place in temples; each temple would belong to a netjer, but other (lesser) netjeru also called that temple home.  First the main netjeru would be worshipped and considered supreme in that sense, and afterward the other lesser netjeru were tended to.  I can’t tell you, though, if this was a feature consistent throughout the entire religion, or even if all temples contained more than one netjer.  For the latter, I want to say yes, but I’ll consider this one small loose end that I will hopefully encounter the information for later.



This quote is taken from the HoN website definiting the term monolatry:

Monolatry is the belief that god (as the One) can manifest Itself into other aspects and manifestations (the Many) with Their own personalities and interactions between one another, without ever losing sight of the fact that They all spring forth from the initial One. To abbreviate it to four words: "One godhead, many gods and goddesses." The best example of this is to imagine the Nile and the branches it divides into as it nears the Delta region — many streams, each having their own name and location, but only one river. Monolatry is a form of polytheism, "many gods," but it also permits for a singular Godhead, so Kemetic religion as a monolatry is a modified or irregular polytheism. Sometimes monolatry is referred to as "henotheism," but as henotheism does not permit a singular Godhead behind many gods, it is not an entirely accurate definition.

Now, I may just be quibbling with words at this point, but it seems that they do not call it henotheism because it does not permit a singular Godhead, whereas in all the research I’ve done that’s exactly what it’s meant to mean.  I’ve also seen that monolatry and henotheism describe the same thing, whereas henotheism describes the belief while monolatry describes the worship.  Either way they’re probably too similar to meaningfully differentiate, considering they haven’t always been used consistently in academic writing.


Written by Bastemhet

June 23, 2011 at 5:23 pm

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