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Introduction

EGYPTIAN RELIGION

To define ancient Egyptian religion is not easy for, as Egyptologists have been at pains to point out, the religion incorporated a bewildering range of practices, from the worship of the Sun, the Moon and the stars, to Nile worship, animism, fetishism and magic. Nevertheless, modern scholars, yielding to the natural urge to impose order on chaos, have identified the religion as basically a Sun cult, framed against a hotchpotch of coarse, superstitious and primitive beliefs. And this Sun cult, in the eyes of many, was nothing less than a monotheism in which the Sun-god anticipated the One God of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions. In the words of E.A. Wallis Budge, one of the founding fathers of Egyptology:

The Egyptian in his hymns called many gods ‘One’, but these gods were all forms of the Sun-god, and, as I understand it, he was a monotheist pure and simple as a Sun-worshipper.

Today, Egyptologists tend to avoid the term ‘monotheism’ in cognisance of the view, held by many, that the Egyptians practised polytheism. To use the m-word is to stoke up a passionate and ultimately non-productive debate. Nevertheless, the impression is given in Egyptological literature that the Sun cult was the only religion of consequence in ancient Egypt, and that the Sun-god (Atum or Re) was the creator of all things. Whether or not the m-word is used, Egyptian religion is regarded substantially as a Sun cult for the latter two thirds of its four-thousand-year history, and it is this view which has informed modern opinion on the significance of the pyramids, the temples, and the tombs.

But did the Egyptians really worship the Sun per se? Or did they rather worship the Sun as a symbol? Did the Sun in fact manifest a more fundamental idea in Egyptian religion – the mystery of the creation of the Universe?

In my books ‘Pyramid of Secrets’ (2003) and ‘The Midnight Sun’ (2004), I argue that Egyptian religion was in fact a ‘cult of creation’, i.e. a cult whose primary aim was to celebrate and re-enact perpetually the myth of the creation of the Universe.

What do we know of the creation myth? What exactly does it mean to speak of the act of creation?

To ask this question is to embark on a most difficult investigation, for there is no one Egyptian myth that sets out a clear, logical and connected account of the creation, at least not in a language that the modern mind can comprehend. Instead, what we find, for the most part, is a plurality of creation myths from different religious centres, each rendering the key events in its own idiosyncratic way, using brief and obscure terminology, as if the story was too potent for outright telling. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the sparse and fragmentary information that we possess is scattered across the texts of some three thousand years. As the eminent scholar Henri Frankfort explains:

The Egyptians were so little prepared to dwell on any change that they did not even describe in any orderly and continuous fashion the supreme change which took place at what they called ‘the first time’. We are obliged to reconstruct the creation story from allusions which are frequent and from certain learned commentaries...

The creation story has indeed been reconstructed by Egyptology, but not in a satisfactory way. I shall now summarise the orthodox interpretation, as deficient as it is, in order to demonstrate why scholars have dismissed the creation myth as an inconsequential product of primitive minds.

The starting point, in all Egyptian creation myths, is an abyss of water called Nun, which seemingly stretched in all directions to form a kind of mini-Universe or proto-Universe from which the created Universe would emerge. The exact significance of this primeval ocean remains a mystery to Egyptologists, who cannot understand how, on the one hand, it could be attached physically to the earth (it was the source of the Nile), whilst, on the other hand, it formed the celestial ocean of the sky. In any event, all sources agree that the Nun had given birth to all things – the earth, the sky, the stars, the Sun, and the Moon.

But how exactly did this happen?

Here, the creation myths are reasonably consistent. In the darkness of the Nun, the creator-god (regarded in some cases as the personification of the waters but in other cases as an independent entity) had stirred from his ‘sleep of death’, conquered the forces of darkness, and emerged as a soul, or spirit, from the primeval ocean. According to this monodramatic version of the myth, the creator-god had created himself, no other being having been present at the time. As the god emerged from the waters, so too did the first land, providing him a place on which to stand. This risen earth is known to scholars as the ‘primeval hill’ or ‘primeval mound’.

The primeval mound was the focal point of creation. It was here that the creator-god defeated the forces of chaos, and ordained the birth of the stars, the Sun and the Moon. But how did he bring these celestial bodies into being? Here, the myths are at their most opaque. There is talk of the stars ascending to the sky; of the Sun and Moon rising up from the earth, or being conceived and born in the sky; and there is mention of a time when the sky was separated from the earth. None of these allusions are understood by Egyptology, which assumes that the stars, the Sun and the Moon were simply magicked into existence by the creator-god as he stood triumphantly upon the primeval mound.

Such is the creation myth, as conceived by modern scholars. What is to be made of it?

According to Egyptologists, not a lot. In their view, the story of Nun and the rising primeval mound was inspired by the flooding and receding of the Nile. In other words, there is nothing to this part of the story but a mundane agrarian phenomenon. Meanwhile, the rest of the creation myth is dismissed as a ragbag of imaginative and contradictory ideas on the origins of the Universe, which, far from containing any profound wisdom or esoteric insight, reflect the idle speculations of a simple and primitive people.

Unable to see any merit in the creation myth, Egyptologists have made it subordinate to the Sun cult on the grounds that the functions and titles of the Sun-god included that of creator-god. As they see it, it was the Sun-god who stirred in the watery abyss; the Sun-god who raised himself onto the primeval mound; and the Sun-god who created himself, the Sun, and the other celestial bodies. The Sun was thus the self-created creator of the Universe, and no other creator existed beside him. Granted, this is a preposterous story, but scholars are troubled not a jot, since the myth of creation is, after all, the product of crude and primitive minds.

To be fair, the second half of the 20th century saw Egyptology display a more positive attitude to the creation myth, particularly in the books of Henri Frankfort and R.T. Rundle Clark. Many scholars now accept that the discrepancies in the various creation myths represent, as Frankfort put it, ‘a multiplicity of approaches’ and ‘a meaningful inconsistency’; in other words, the Egyptian philosophers used a diverse range of images and allegories to describe a single ineffable mystery. Furthermore, in his ‘static universe’ theory of the Egyptian culture, Frankfort put forward a theoretical framework for the importance of the creative act:

In a static world, creation is the only event that really matters supremely, since it alone can be said to have made a change. It makes the difference between the nothingness of chaos and the fullness of the present which has emerged as a result of that unique act.

Unfortunately, this bold insight did nothing to dislodge the idea that the Sun was the creator. With the sole exception of Clark (‘Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt’, 1959), no Egyptologist has rendered the creation myth in anything but a solar context. Clark, it should be noted, did present the creator-god as a mystical and metaphysical phenomenon, but he stopped short of advocating his primacy over the Sun (or even his independence from the Sun). In short, neither Frankfort, Clark, nor any other scholar, has questioned the assumption that Egyptian religion was primarily a Sun cult.

In order to challenge this assumption – for the Sun-god to yield primacy to the creator-god – it is a minimum condition that the myth of creation be viewed not as a ‘simple folk tale’, as Egyptologists maintain, but as a logical, consistent and profound account of the origins of the Universe. It would then follow, arguably, that the true God of ancient Egypt was the creator-god; that the creator-god had manifested himself in the Sun (a created object); and that the Sun-god Re was a creator-god first and foremost.

Whilst this might sound like a subtle difference, it actually opens the door to a fundamental re-evaluation of Egyptian religion.

In my books ‘Pyramid of Secrets’ (2003) and ‘The Midnight Sun’ (2004), I argue that the Egyptian creation myth indeed represented a coherent theory of the origins of the Universe, albeit conceived in a way that is the veritable antithesis of modern science and religion. (Its fundamental concepts include geocentrism, duotheism, cataclysm, and body-soul duality. A full explanation of these ideas is reserved for readers of my books).

The key conclusions are as follows:

• Ancient Egyptian religion was not a Sun cult per se, but a cult of creation, i.e. a cult whose primary aim was to celebrate and re-enact perpetually the myth of the creation of the Universe. The creation of the Universe was the one great mystery of Egypt from the beginning to the end of its mighty civilisation.

• The true object of worship in ancient Egyptian religion was not the Sun-god but the creator-god, who personified the creation of the Universe.

• The Sun was a created body in which the light of the creator-god had been made gloriously manifest. The rising of the Sun signified the first light of creation. In its daily cycle, the Sun re-enacted the death and rebirth of the creator-god, i.e. the death and rebirth of the Universe.

• The pharaoh was not a Sun-king, as Egyptologists believe, but rather a creator-king, who embodied the spirit of the creator-god (known variously as Horus or ‘the son of Re’). The beginning of kingship can be traced to the beginning of the world, when Horus, the falcon-god, had flown up from the abyss, alighted on his perch, and been crowned with the Sun and the Moon.

• All Egyptian ritual was aimed at re-enacting the creative act in which the creator had established right order (maat) at the beginning of time. Every city the king established was ‘the first’ city; every temple he commissioned was ‘the first’ temple; every obelisk he raised was ‘the first’ obelisk, or Benben; and if he built a pyramid, it was ‘the first’ pyramid. By means of magic rituals and spells, performed on an annual, seasonal, monthly, and even daily basis, the power of the creator-god was rejuvenated and the forces of chaos were reshackled. The king himself – as an incarnation of both Horus and Seth – personified this ongoing struggle. With the king at the helm, the sky would never fall, the Sun disc would never be hidden, the Nile would never run dry, and the land would never sink into the abyss.

• Each major city in Egypt claimed to be a microcosm of the primeval mound. The city thus paid tribute to the fundamental importance of the creation myth.

• The Egyptian temple was a simulacrum of creation. The floor of the temple was the primeval mound; the ceiling was the sky; and its pillars and obelisks froze the mythical moment when the sky had been separated from the earth. Beneath its floor lay the primeval ocean and underworld, whilst outside, the enclosure wall symbolised the celestial ocean that bounded the Universe.

The Benben meteorite at the Temple of the Phoenix, Heliopolis

• The Egyptian obelisk was a phallic symbol, its pyramidal apex representing the seed of creation, otherwise known as the Benben Stone. The erection of the obelisk re-enacted the moment when the creator-god had inseminated the sky-goddess for the conception and birth of the stars, the Sun, and the Moon.

• In death, the king underwent the same transformation as had been experienced by the creator-god at the beginning of time. Or, otherwise said, the death and rebirth of the king re-enacted the death and rebirth of the creator-god, i.e. the death and rebirth of the Universe.

• The Pyramid Texts – such a puzzle to scholars – make sense as a ritualistic re-enactment of the events of creation, in which the king played the part of the creator-god. The king’s body was thus mummified and revivified, just as the creator-god had been reassembled and brought back to life at the beginning of time. At this, the king’s soul separated from its body and ascended to the sky, just as the soul of the creator-god had originally done, and brought the Universe into being in all its diverse splendour. The various afterlife destinies of the king in the Pyramid Texts – the celestial ocean, the stars, the Sun and the Moon – are thus not contradictory, as Egyptologists imagine, but rather represent complementary ideas in the myth of creation.

• The true pyramid was a symbol of the creation, its capstone, benbenet, recalling the insemination of the sky for the conception and birth of the stars, the Sun, and the Moon. (Hence the solar, stellar and lunar aspects of the pyramid’s symbolism, which are not contradictory but complementary.) To build the pyramid was to re-enact the creation, the miracle of the one reflecting the miracle of the other.

For an expansion of these ideas, and a complete decoding of the myth of creation, please see ‘Pyramid of Secrets’ (chapters 1 and 5) and ‘The Midnight Sun’, which may be purchased from the on-line Bookshop.

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'These pages are the copyright of Eridu Books 2004. The images and diagrams are the copyright of Alan Alford or of other photographers, where indicated. Eridu Books welcomes the reproduction and dissemination of these pages, in original, unaltered form, for non-commercial purposes, but permission must be sought for any other usage, other than 'fair dealing' quotations.'

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