An Introduction to Egyptian Theology
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Posted: August 2nd. 2009
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Historians are divided as to which civilization comes first, Sumer (in Mesopotamia) or Egypt. Some theorize that the two are roughly contemporary to each other. There are some wonderful similarities that link the two: a largely theocratic government, the symbolism of primeval waters in creation and the role of a river, a written language, and amazing breakthroughs in science, art, and mathematics.
One of these points of similarity is also the reason why their cultures were also very different from each other. This similarity is the role of rivers (the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile respectively) and their flooding that brought fertility to the land and people.
The Tigris-Euphrates did not operate on a periodic schedule. Rather, its swelling came by surprise to all but the most astute observers (generally, the priesthood) . As a result, and inspired by several unscrupulous tyrants, the people perceived the cosmos as a great battle between chaos and order. Religion became one of placation and appeasement, while obedience to civil authority kept social evils away.
With the Nile's flooding operating on a regular schedule that coincided with the heliacal rising of Sirius, Egyptian society developed along more stable lines. They know where to build and patterned society after a cosmic clock. Chaos was recognized as an unpleasant part of life, but was but a brief stop on the pendulum's swing to order.
The Nisut (or Pharaoh) ruled as a first priest, whose duty was to uphold Harmony, Equilibrium, and Balance. This Equilibrium was known as the concept (and worshipped as the Goddess) Maat. Maat, as a Goddess, was frequently the daughter of the Creator. Yet, Maat was preexistent and independent, a force to which even the Creator must bow. Civil unrest was seen as Maat trying to reassert itself over corrupted order through positive chaos. Conversely, wise rulership was esteemed as necessary to keep negative chaos in check.
Cases can be made equally for the ancient Egyptians being polytheists, animists, monists, and symbolic monotheists. Certainly, many of the "rank and file" peoples approached the Gods and Spirits as individuals. However, from temple inscriptions, we find each Deity addressed by its worshippers as if They were (and are) the Supreme Creator and Upholder of Maat. Each city had its own cultus and body of legend.
Historians and philosophers have coined the term monolatry to describe the theology of ancient Egyptian religion. Monolatry is a specialized form of polytheism wherein the Gods and Goddesses are worshipped as sovereign entities. One school posits that these individual Deities are themselves subservient to a High God or Ultimate Force. In this sense, Maat comes to mind as this force. However, others feel that the numerous Deities are facets or emanations of the Creator. Taken further, all forms of life are facets or emanations of this Creator, seeking to "know its Self in all its parts."
The Saite Cosmogony
The city of Sais was held to be the oldest inhabited place of Egypt. The Goddess Neith was its primary Deity. Neith is a Great Mother, the Oldest of the Old, and ruled hunting, the arts, and (through identification with Nun of Hermopolis and Nuit of Heliopolis) the realms of ocean and starry heaven. Neith desired a place to stand, and caused the Primordial Mound to rise from the sea. There, Neith gave birth to a Falcon and a Crocodile. The Falcon was Ra-Harakhaty (the Sun God who ordered the cosmos) while the Crocodile was Sobek (defender of the Sun God and of Maat from evil) .
The Heliopolitan Cosmogony
Ra Kephera (or Ra Atum) is the Creator God worshipped in Heliopolis. Kephera means literally "I who have become!" The Creator manifests as a scarab beetle, a male infant in a lotus flower, or as an elderly man. He is accompanied by Maat. Through an act of masturbation, he created the First Gods. Namely, Shu (God of the Atmosphere) and Tefnut (Goddess of Moisture and Bringer of Justice) . Tefnut and Shu wed, producing Seb (Lord of the Earth) and Nuit (Lady of the Sky) . Nuit and Seb married but the Creator grew jealous, and - separating the two by having Shy lift Nuit up - cursed the Goddess that she could not give birth on any day of the year. Thoth (Lord of Knowledge) created five days outside of time (which mark the new year when the Nile floods) , allowing Nuit to give birth. Her children were named: Osiris (Lord of Death and Resurrection) , Isis (Mistress of Magic) , Nephthys (Protectress and Guardian) , and Set (Lord of Tempests and Storms) . Osiris and Isis fell in love in Nuit's womb, and the God Horus their Son was born as Isis emerged from the womb. After creating the Gods, the Creator cried in joy. Humanity arose from the tears.
The Hermopolitan Cosmogony
Thoth created the Cosmos by laying (in his form of an ibis or water fowl) a Golden Egg. The Odgoad arose from the waters of the ocean to protect the Egg and nurture it to term. The Egg cracked - the top half becoming Nuit and the bottom becoming Seb. In the center sat the infant Sun God, who declared Maat. The Ogdoad ruled Egypt as its first Kings and Queens. They then entered the Underworld and, from there, ruled the seasons. They are teachers of the great mysteries of the Gods.
The Ogdoad is comprised of: Nun and Naunet (God and Goddess of the Primordial Ocean) , Kuk and Kauket (God and Goddess of Darkness) , Huh and Hauhet (God and Goddess of Generation) , and Amon and Amaunet (God and Goddess of the Wind) . The ladies were frog headed while the lords wore the heads of serpents.
The Memphite Cosmogony
Ptah, the great Architect of the Universe, created by the Tongue (speech) and by the Heart (thought) . His wife Sekhmet was the Eye of Ra, Destroyer of Evil, and Goddess of Healing. Their Son Nefertum was a God of the Rising Sun, and taught the arts and sciences. In later times, Sekhmet was replaced by the gentler (and more orgiastic) Bast, while Nefertum grew eclipsed by the deified Imhotep (who came to rule medicine and writing) . Imhotep was held to have been Ptah's son by an earthly priestess.
The Theban Cosmogony
Amon "the Hidden", the Word or Breath of Life, floated upon the primordial waters of darkness. Mut, the Great Mother, was in and of that Dark Sea. Amon stirred the Waters and Mut conceived. Amon and Mut ordered the Cosmos and their Son Khonsu, the Reckoner, gave order and limit as Moon God and the First of the Planetary Rulers.
Fragments exist of other Cosmogonies. Some picture Isis or Hekat (a frog headed Goddess, divine midwife, and a master magician) giving birth to the world. In the Elephantine Nome, the ram-headed Khnumn fashioned the cosmos on his potter's wheel. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Gnostic lore blended into the Hermetic philosophy. The central teaching was that God is "all in all." The Creator formed the Seven Planetary Rulers. Then, s/he brought forth a Primal or Heavenly Man. This Man became the comrade of the Rulers, until he fell in love with Nature. Descending into matter, he took Nature to be his wife. Man is the Sun and Nature is the Moon. The central aim was and is to clarify this union and traverse the Planetary realms back into primordial unity.
Special thanks to Senut (Rev. G. N.) of the House of Netjer for her friendship and many enlightening conversations. Also, thank you to Kerry Wisner of Akhet Hwt-Hrw, whose works served as an introduction to my understanding of the Neteru. Lastly, thank you to my Craft Elders for illuminating the Hermetic arts in the Great Work of Absolute Good.
(Author Unknown) The Corpus Hermeticum
Joceylyn Almond and Keith Seddon. Egyptian Paganism for Beginners.
WE Budge. Egyptian Magic.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Stephen Edred Flowers. Hermetic Magic.
Eleanor Harris. Ancient Egyptian Divination and Magic.
Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.
* The phrase "to know itself in all its parts" derives from the Anderson Feri tradition, though similarities exist to maxims that self-knowledge is the first step to knowledge of cosmos.
* Modern Egyptian Reconstructionists vary in their theological approach. The first one i have been able to find mention of in America is the Church of the Eternal Source, which embraced a staunchly polytheistic approach, as does Akhet Hwt-Hrw. Others - beginning with The Ancient Egyptian Church and its schismatic Congregation of the Aten - favored a monolatrous approach. The most vibrant Kemetic or Egyptian organization i have found is the House of Netjer, which also maintains a monolatrous approach. As usual, individual practitioners and smaller groups may vary.
* The retellings of the various creation myths are my own, based on personal research, talking with modern worshippers of the Gods, UPG, and modern group gnosis substantiated by modern research and experience. As with the Greeks, legends change and adapt over time and with each retelling. The better to hide the essential core of Mythic truth therein.
* The resources list is by NO MEANS exhaustive and invites further research and learning on the part of you the reader.
Copyright: (c) 2009 Jonathan Sousa
Location: Norton, Massachusetts
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