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Understanding Ancient Egyptian Religion


The Nature of Egyptian Belief

What did the Ancient Egyptians believe? Contrary to popular recounting, the Egyptian religion was not Polytheistic until the Late Period when it fell under the influence of foreign powers. For most of its 4000 year history, Egyptian Religion was Panentheistic.


Panentheism is a three-part word with the following meaning Pan = all – en = in – theism = god(s). It means that the divine essence (expression of the presence of god or gods) pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe. Vaishnavism is a modern extant example. A Panentheistic religion is a religion that recognises multiple avatars for the presence of god in the natural world. It holds that each of these avatars is a manifestation of the divine essence and characteristics of god or divine presence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism ).


The ancient Egyptians understood that almost anything could be an expression of the divine essence of god, including people, animals, plants and things. Furthermore, the essence of a specific expression of the presence of god could take on multiple identities or forms (Wilkinson 2003). Thus, the essence of the power of Kingship, which was recognised as divine from very early on, could be expressed in multiple identities: the Bull, the Crocodile, and the Lion being the most common (Baines 2014). The nuances of each of these might be expressed thus: the Bull was the quintessential expression of male potency, the Crocodile of strength, the Lion of fearlessness in battle, all three of these being essential characteristics of successful kingship embodied in divine form.


The fluidity of identity is expressed very clearly in Pyramid Text spell 152 (Unis) where Unis as Osiris is given the identity of multiple gods (Allen 2005). This interchangeability of divine beings demonstrates very clearly that the Egyptian religion recognises not individual deities but manifestations of the divine in multiple forms. Quintessentially all of these divine beings are made up of the same stuff: the essence of divinity. They are expressions of different aspects of that divinity operating in specific circumstances. The reason for this specificity, is to ensure the efficacy of divine intervention in the matter prayed for. Like applying the right tool to the job.


The Egyptian religion took this even further though, in dissecting and defining the nature and characteristic behaviours of the divine essence. Correlations with ancient Mesopotamian, modern Eastern religious beliefs and concepts from modern physics will help us to understand this complex and sophisticated belief system.


In ancient Mesopotamia, there was a concept call the Melam, which was the glamour or appearance of the presence of the divine essence of a god (Kramer 1963). An equivalent in ancient Egypt was Heka or the Ka, lifeforce or energy of the being (a person, god, animal or plant, all have lifeforce or energy). The modern Eastern equivalent of this idea is Chi or Ki. It can be demonstrated that the origin of this concept is Ancient Egyptian. The most ancient rendering of the word in Chinese being three wavy lines, which is the hieroglyph for water Mw in Ancient Egyptian. Water on the palms of the hands of the Goddess Hathor in the Temple of Abydos is one of the manifestations of the presence of Heka. Other common hieroglyphs demonstrating the presence of Heka are the Ankh, the Was Sceptre and the Djed Pillar. The hieroglyph for Heka itself is the U-shaped raise hands. These signs are some of the most ancient of the Egyptian hieroglyphs to be found.


Other components vital to an understanding of the Egyptian belief system are the Ba, the Ka, the Khat and the Akh. Where the Ka is the lifeforce or spirit of a person (or god), the Ba is the astral body or soul, the part imbued with the personality of the individual. The Ba is able to leave the body (the Khat) during life (when asleep, when in a trance or when unconscious). Thus it is represented as a bird, the saddle billed Stork in the Predynastic (Darnell 2017). The Khat or body, was considered a vital part of the equation in sustaining the Ba or Soul after death. Thus, the need to mummify the body and provide Ka statues, through which the body could be sustained while the Ba travelled through the underworld to be reunited with the Ka in the place of transformation: Iaru, the field of Reeds in the Eastern Horizon. Here the Ba and Ka, after a period of 70 days and nights separation, would ideally be reunited and transformed into the Akh, the risen being or immortal form of the deceased. The Akh was represented by the Ibis.


The gods, like humans, had a Ba and an Akh form. The Egyptians believed that the gods used their avatars (animals or two and three-dimensional representations created by their worshippers), to inhabit with their Ka (lifeforce) on the human plane where they could be interacted with by human intercessors (Priests). In this way the gods enjoyed what was tantamount to immortality, although they were known to be able to die (Osiris) and did age (Atum) (Wilkinson 2003).


References

Allen, James P (2005) The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Society of Biblical Literature

Baines, J (2014) Ancient Egyptian Kingship Lectures in Ancient Egypt 2013-2014 https://journals.openedition.org/asr/1226

Kramer, Samuel Noah (1963)The Sumerians: their history character and culture, Unviersity Chicago Press

Wilkinson, Richard H (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, American University in Cairo Press


The above is an extract from The Geo-temporal Gazetteer of Ancient Egyptian Deities, by Catherine Campbell, publication pending.

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