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Introduction

EGYPTIAN

Ancient Egyptian civilisation emerged in the Nile Valley at about the same time as the Sumerian civilisation emerged in the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, circa 3500 BC. As in Sumer, the Egyptian state was virtually indistinguishable from the religion, and the people were in thrall to the Gods. Against the relative stability of the Nile backdrop, Egyptian religion endured for four thousand years in virtually unchanged form.

The defining feature of the Egyptian state and religion was the monarchy, which was said to have existed since the beginning of the world. Each king was believed to be the living image of the Creator-God in the sense that he embodied the spirit of the Great God. The king thus bore the title Horus after the God who had soared up falcon-like at the beginning of time – the Great God whose ‘eyes’ were the Sun and the Moon.

All religious ritual in Egypt was aimed at re-enacting the creation, so as to reaffirm the cosmic order (maat) which had been established by the Great God. The king, as the living image of the Creator-God, was ideally qualified to perform these magic rituals either directly or through his delegates, the priests. By re-enacting the creation, the Egyptians rejuvenated the great magic of creation, thus ensuring that the Sun and Moon would always rise, that the celestial vault would always turn, and that the Nile would always flood in its due season. 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. As one king replaced another, in an unbroken chain of succession, the era of maat would be continued for ever.

Whilst the key cities of Egypt were united politically, they were rivals religiously in that they worshipped the Creator-God under different names and forms and via different cult practices. In Heliopolis, the God was called Atum, Shu, Geb, or Re; in Memphis, the God was called Ptah; in Rostau, he was called Sokar; in Hermopolis, he was called Thoth; in Abydos, he was called Osiris; in Koptos, he was called Min; in Thebes, he was called Amun; in Hierakonpolis and Edfu, he was called Horus; and in Elephantine, he was called Khnum. In addition, the Great Goddess was worshipped at various cities under various names, such as Neit, Tefnut, Nut, Sakhmet, Hathor, Isis, and Mut. This is to mention only the most popular Gods and Goddesses.

Originally, each of these Gods would have been the Creator-God in his own right. But in later times many became specialised: Shu as the god of light, Geb as the earth-god, Re as the Sun-god, Sokar as god of the underworld, Thoth as the god of writing and wisdom, Osiris as god of the earth and the underworld, Min as the god of fertility, Horus as the sky-god, and Khnum as the god of the source of the Nile. As for the Goddesses, Tefnut became the Moon-goddess, Nut the sky-goddess, and Sakhmet the Sun-goddess, whilst others became identified with Mother Earth and the seat of kingship. Each of these specialisations represents a key aspect of the creation of the Universe.

Each cult centre in Egypt had its own myth of creation. Whilst the accounts are often brief and bear superficial differences, a template can be determined which is fundamental to them all.

The Egyptian creation myth is geocentric. Its starting point is a pre-existent proto-earth – a living being of body and soul – which has ‘died’ following an ill-defined, violent event. This living being is personified by the Creator-God (or strictly speaking by the duality of the Creator-God and the Creator-Goddess).

The soul of the Great God awakens from ‘death’, frees itself from its body – the proto-earth – and rises up into the nascent sky. At the same time, the proto-earth gathers itself together, rises up from the watery abyss, splits open, and ejects the primeval matter from which the sky-ocean, the stars, the Sun, and the Moon will be born. This is the myth of the separation of the heavens from the earth. Note that the separation takes the form of a cataclysm.

After a period of chaos in the sky, the Universe is created and order prevails. The Great God becomes manifest in the entire created Universe – the sky-ocean, the stars, the Sun, and the Moon.

In the final act of creation, the Creator-God turns back to embrace his body, the newly-risen earth, and infuses it with his ka, the vital spirit of life.

In short, the Egyptian creation myth describes the ‘death’ of an old Universe and its rebirth as a new Universe, this entire process being personified by the ‘death’ and rebirth of the Creator-God.

The creation myth thus provides the archetype for the death and rebirth cults that were so important in ancient Egypt – the death and rebirth of the Sun (daily, at the winter solstice, and at eclipses); the death and rebirth of the Moon (monthly, and at eclipses); the death and rebirth of the stars (daily, and at longer intervals, for example the reappearance of Sirius after seventy days spent below the horizon); the death and rebirth of the Nile and agriculture; and the death and rebirth of the king. All of these natural, recurring events were a perpetual reminder of the one death and rebirth that really mattered – the original one without which none of the other deaths and rebirths could happen – the death and rebirth of the Universe, personified by the death and rebirth of the Creator-God.

The true God of ancient Egypt was therefore not the Sun-god – whose death and rebirth were merely symbolic – but the Creator-God, who had manifested himself in the Sun (and the other celestial bodies) at the beginning of time.

Conclusion

Ancient Egyptian religion was not a Sun cult, as Egyptologists believe, but a ‘cult of creation’. The Great God and Great Goddess personified the proto-earth, the cataclysm of creation, and the formative Universe.

The Egyptian creation myth differs markedly from the Sumerian, despite sharing a common geocentric framework. Whilst the Sumerian myth focuses on a primary ‘fall of the sky’ in which the Great God and Goddess descend cataclysmically into the proto-earth as a prelude to the act of creation, the Egyptian myth begins with the proto-earth in crisis and focuses on the ensuing geocentric ‘big bang’. In doing so, it wraps the origin of the Divine Powers in a cloak of mystery, but explains a great deal about the separation of the heavens from the earth (an act which remains opaque in Sumerian mythology).

Reading List

A.F. Alford, ‘Pyramid of Secrets’, Eridu Books, 2003.

AF. Alford, ‘The Midnight Sun’, Eridu Books, 2004.

J.P. Allen, ‘Genesis in Egypt: the Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts’, New Haven, CT, 1988.

R. David, ‘Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt’, Penguin Books, 2002.

R.O. Faulkner, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead’, British Museum Publications, 1985 edition.

R.O. Faulkner, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts’, Oxford University Press 1969, reprinted by Aris and Phillips.

R.O. Faulkner, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts’, Volumes I-III, Aris and Phillips, 1973, 1977, 1978.

H. Frankfort, ‘Kingship and the Gods’, University of Chicago Press, 1978 edition.

H. Frankfort, ‘Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation’, Dover edition 2000 (first published by Columbia University Press, New York, 1948).

G. Hart, ‘Egyptian Myths’, British Museum Press, 1990.

E. Hornung, ‘Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt’, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1982.

E. Hornung, ‘The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife’, Cornell University Press, 1999.

D. Meeks and C. Favard-Meeks, ‘Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods’, John Murray, London, 1997.

J.B. Pritchard ed., ‘ANET’ (‘Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament’), Princeton University Press, 3rd edition, 1969.

E.A.E. Reymond, ‘The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple’, Manchester University Press, 1969.

R. T. Rundle Clark, ‘Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt’, Thames and Hudson, 1993 edition (first published 1959).

E.A. Wallis Budge, ‘Legends of the Egyptian Gods’, Dover edition, 1994.

E.A. Wallis Budge, ‘The Egyptian Heaven and Hell’, Dover Pubs., 1996 combined edition (first published by Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co Ltd, London, 1905, as 3 volumes in the series ‘Books on Egypt and Chaldaea’).

Copyright Notice

'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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