The name the ancient Egyptians gave to their abundant and fertile land was Kemet, the “Black Land”. We known this country today as Egypt, a name derived from the Greek mispronunciation of Hutkaptah, “The Spirit-Mansion of Ptah”(1), the most ancient and monolithic temple to one of Egypt's oldest gods, Ptah. Kemet was a kingdom of startling contrasts: Hard amber cliffs and bone-dry, rocky wadis gave way to rich, silt-laden farmlands supporting thousands of peasants and skilled craftsmen. Slipping through this sun-baked landscape of desert and dôm-palms was the precious Nile, the longest river on earth and the lifeblood of Egypt. For the Egyptians, daily life in their homeland was like living on a knife's edge. It was feast or famine, high Nile or drought conditions, teeming life suddenly overtaken by the shadowy realm of death. The average life expectancy in these conditions was thirty-five years(2), and it was because of this brief lifespan- and the often harrowing circumstances of nature and disease- that the Egyptians turned inwards, concentrating the bulk of their industries on the ethereal questions vexing the human condition.
The response the Egyptians gave to these questions was not arguably the most lavish and complex in human history. On the East Bank of the Nile arose the resplendent city of Waset (renamed Thebes by the Greeks), home to the largest places of worship ever built by the hands of man(3). For Waset was the sacred capital whose people could boast of enshrining the massive temples of Ipet-isut (“Most Select of Places”) and Ipet-resyt (the “Southern Sanctuary”, Karnak and Luxor respectively).
These were the mechanisms of creation, where rites established in primeval times were conducted by priests in the presence of gold-covered shrines, the secret houses of the gods on earth. These were the holiest places in the Egyptian state, where elaborate annual festivals were staged with imperial pomp and pageantry. Every year, after the life-preserving inundation of the Nile, the god Amun-Ra- whose home the temple of Ipet-isut was- made his pilgrimage from the holiest of holies in Karnak to the sanctuary of Amun-Kamutef at Luxor. Here, the king of Kemet performed the sacred rites that to the Egyptian mind frame would rejuvenate not only king and country, but the whole of the created world.
Much that concerns the Egyptian world view is wholly alien to people of the monotheistic West. Let us take, for example, the entire concept of the temple, which for the Egyptians was a microcosm of creation, and itself a machine through which the process of creation was perpetuated and thus the existence of humankind maintained(4). Today we define a temple as a place of worship, a place that, like church, mosque or synagogue, exists as a gathering place for the faithful. But in ancient Egypt the temple is a replica of the ordered world of creation, perfect and cohesive, an island of shelter in the midst of the ocean of chaos(5). In order for this creation to continue, the correct rituals for universal maintenance must be performed daily by the king of Kemet, or by those priestly deputies chosen by the king to represent his sacred person(6).
Such rituals were performed in every temple in Egypt, every day. Far from being simple worship in the contemporary religious understanding of the term, the rites of the temple were magical acts that not only honored the ka or essence of the god residing in the temple as a divine house (per-netjer), but, most significantly, repeated divine cosmological events, such as the rebirth of the sun-god Ra and the resurrection of the god Ausir (Greek Osiris) from the dead(7). Because the rebirth of Ra was the essential act permitting creation to continue, we can view the daily temple ritual as a body of rites whose very purpose was to replicate the original act of creation through which the god (netjer) had brought forth the ordered world and all its living creatures.
The heart of religion in ancient Egypt was the temple, not abstract theological thinking or staunch doctrine. Egyptian theology was absent of any authoritative holy book(8). Instead of these concepts- which predominate the major monotheistic religions- the Egyptians linked the ever-present reality of their gods to the solid ground of the temple, which for them was a concrete manifestation of the god's power resident in visible, tangible form(9). In the moment of its consecration, the temple was awakened by the king and his priesthood through a precise code of ritualized actions. Linking heaven and earth by conducting such consecrations at night, beneath the patronage of a new moon and stars of Ursa Major and Orion(10), the per-netjer or “house of the god”(11) was bestowed with a life that transformed stone, paint and sculptured images into living and organic forms(12).
We may choose to view temple images of gods and kings as decorative art forms, but the Egyptians saw them as living gods, living kings, possessed by a life-force that allowed the divine to be perpetually renewed within the material world(13). This was the most vital component of the temple in the mind of the ancient Egyptian. He was acutely aware of the existence of the divine because he saw the divine as a breathing and dynamic, creative power generated through the perpetually-charged stone of the temple. He did not need to accept a written doctrine or profess faith in an unseen god. His were gods that demonstrated their power directly to the people of Kemet in the very landscape of temples and their images. For the ancient Egyptians, seeing was believing, and believing was seeing.
What a world the dweller of Kemet had with which to evoke the presence of a seen divinity! The East Bank, the sacral realm of the rising sun, was a dazzling strip of silty, Nile-watered soil, from which sprung not only verdant fields of palm and papyrus, but also the massive state temples with their bekhnetu pylons soaring into the startling white heat of an azure sky. Though today so many of Egypt's temples read as tawny, monotonous structures of strange architectural temperament, they were in ancient times covered in scintillating waves of vibrant color; so vibrant, in fact, that one might be tempted to use such terms as garish or gaudy to describe their decoration. There are temples in Egypt- such as the temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu-where the original colors of the Egyptian palette may be seen in all their jarring splendor. Cobalt blue and turquoise green leap from sculptured reliefs that would make even Michelangelo Buonarroti red-faced with envy. These were a people who saw color itself as an incarnation of the divine world, so they used it to spectacular effect. Like so much else in their natural environment, the quality of color, and most especially that harvested from natural stones and minerals, became a manifestation of sacred properties(14).
It was during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) (15) that the East Bank of the Nile was transformed by the rapid growth of the monolithic temples and monuments that have come to embody the spirit of imperial ancient Egypt(16). The great temple of Amun at Ipet-isut, lavished with sphinx-lined avenues, expansive courtyards, colonnades, colossal statues and obelisks, was established by the grateful kings of the 18th Dynasty(17), who were eager to stretch their legs as pious monarchs in favor with the “King of the Gods”. Not since the time of the pyramid age had Egyptian kings braved construction on such a massive scale. But then theirs was a religion of accomplishment.
Unlike other belief systems saturated by contemplation or journeys inward, the religion of ancient Egypt was a journey from the inside out. The gods of Kemet literally came out of their dark temple recesses on festival days to commune with the masses via splendid, gold-bedecked ark-shrines mounted on the shoulders of shaven-headed priests(18). It was not through theological speculation or intense meditation that the Egyptian experienced the profound moment of his religion, but rather through doing concrete deeds expressed in stone and the elaborate rituals of the great state temples. This was primarily the realm of the elite priests, of course, not the common working-class Egyptians(19).
Though permitted into the outermost courts of holy places during the many and popular festival days of the sacred calendar, the hoi polloi of the Egyptian state were not witness to the daily rites of the cult performed for the eyes of the god in the innermost sanctuary of his temple. Once again we must broach a world view so different from our own, in the West where the sole purpose of a “house of God” is to summon the faithful to worship and fellowship within its walls. In ancient Egypt this concept of a holy place did not exist(20). In theory, every temple, being literally the dwelling place of the god(21), was a model of the primordial seat of the god that had been established near the time of creation during a mythical age(22).
This made the temple a product of that age of the gods, despite its having been fashioned by human craftsmen at the edict of kings. For it was not a house for mortal habitation, but a mysterious dwelling where the god in his cult statue (an image accessible only by the king and the uppermost echelons of the temple's permanent priestly staff(23) received the benefit of offerings that embodied the symbiotic relationship between humankind and the gods(24). Each temple was a replica of the ordered world as it had been perfectly arranged in the age of creation by the god. This process of creation had begun with the rising of the first mound of earth from the stranglehold of the primeval waters. It was upon this mound (the benben) that the netjer alighted- sometimes as a falcon, sometimes as the pre-pubescent sun-god born from the stamen of the cosmic lotus- and brought supreme order, Ma'at, to the created world. This began with what might appear to be a small gesture for such an important moment as the creation: the netjer safeguards the first mound by erecting a primordial shelter around it, and this was the first temple in the Egyptian cosmos(25).
It was the root of the Egyptian cosmological view within which the world of divine order, divine law, precedent, cohesion and continuity, were fixed by the advent of the temple as a protective dwelling. All of this emerged with the emergence of the temple mound from the primordial swamp. This marshy, watery world of creation, with its earth mound and lotus, was precisely the model for the massive temple complexes that flowered in New Kingdom Egypt(26). Recalling the original swamp in which the netjer built the first divine house, forests of columns crowned with lotus and papyrus-shaped capitals graced the processional way by which the god's statue emerged from his hidden sanctuary during the most hallowed state festivals. These were national events, the great feast days (hebu) like the Beautiful Feast of Opet, when Amun-Ra pilgrimaged to the temple of Ipet-resyt to visit his twin self Amun-Kamutef, and to sport with his wife the goddess Mut. The central mystery of such events was shared by the entire populace (not solely by priests, as was the case for the daily cultic rites), for the Feast of Opet was a cosmic event through which king, country and cosmos were rejuvenated(27).
Central to the elaborate rites of Opet (which evolved from eleven to twenty-seven days duration(28) was the repetition of the king's coronation ceremony, which in itself was a miraculous event manifesting the creation of universal order (Ma'at) from chaos. This was not merely the reassertion of royal power or prerogative, but a mass ritual event reestablishing and harnessing the regenerative power of the divine royal ka, the essence of spiritual power, on behalf of the created world(29).
Once again, we come back to the ideal of what the temple embodied for the religion of the ancient Egyptians, which clearly separates their mentality from that of the monotheistic West. A temple is a house of the god, literally and physically. The temple is not a symbol, meeting hall or act of faith. It embodies no prophetic doctrine. It is not abstract. It is an immediate and solid link between the power of the gods and the human condition. It is a machine, a mechanism holding the powers of life and death; for without its proper functioning the Egyptian cosmos would disintegrate, and existence would be plunged back into the primeval abyss of chaos out of which all things were born. The magic of these temples was not the hocus pocus of turning rods into serpents or parting waters, but the magic of repeating the original act of creation again and again, for as long as the temple stands. It is this focus on action, demonstration and constancy that creates distinction between the Egyptian experience of the sacred and that of religious traditions more familiar to the contemporary West.
Western religion was inherited from the prophecies of the Book; the Torah, Koran and Bible, holy books that assert the existence of a single omnipotent god, and a theology binding their respective adherents through the declaration of faith. Such assertions did not exist in the mind of the ancient Egyptian, whose link with the cosmic gods was not scripture or thoughtfulness, but ritual action and solidarity with a natural environment through which the gods were seen to manifest.
But why? Why did the Egyptians- who left a seeming over-abundance of texts, papyri, monumental inscriptions, lists, receipts, poems, love letters, and even pornography- never come close to embracing what could be called a “Bible”, an authoritative religious text? It certainly cannot be because they were lacking in substantial material to choose from. The Egyptian sacral world was populated by complex theological works: the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, the Amduat...the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates, the Book of the Earth, the Book of the Heavenly Cow(30)...and these are just the principal sources of what we could call Egyptian religious thought. Perhaps it is a question of literacy. John Baines has deduced that literacy in ancient Egypt during most periods encompassed only one per cent of the population(31), while Joyce Tyldesley is slightly less conservative in her citation of no more than 5 per cent(32).
Be this as it may, we know that literacy in ancient Egypt belonged primarily to a social elite- and nearly exclusively male(33)- composed of scribes or accountants working for the state bureaucracy, some artisans, the lector-priests (the priestly elite who were required to read directly from the sacred temple rolls in order to perform ritual correctly)(34), and members of the central administration. With the level of literacy so restricted in Egyptian society, is it any wonder that “books”, or rather written works, never achieved widespread dissemination amongst the common masses, to say nothing of written theological works.
We might also briefly note the attitude of the Egyptians regarding the written word, and any form of knowledge represented by it. In today's world we regard reading, education, the acquisition of knowledge as a basic right, and take literacy for granted. However, the Egyptians lived in a society where the reins of reading, writing and consumption of knowledge were held tightly by an elite few. Even amongst the priesthood, where one might expect to find the most learned and literate members of society, only the grade of priests known as “lectors” can be shown for certain to have been literate and/or “book” educated(35).
For the Egyptians, knowledge was power, and quite literally so, because they regarded their written language as a divinely-originated script (it was called medu netjer, “the words of the god”), possessing magical power and capable of its own inherent life(36). This script was later dubbed hïeros glüpho (or hieroglyphs), the “sacred writing”, by the Greeks, and is known to the popular imagination of today as “hieroglyphic”. Hieroglyphs have come to embody the very essence of ancient Egypt, for these evocative and artful signs cover the surfaces of so much that time has bequeathed to us from the people of the Nile Valley. Some may assume, therefore, that knowledge of hieroglyphs was a general rule in Egyptian society, and that surely “books” like the famous Book of the Dead were familiar to many Egyptians, such was the importance we know was invested in these magical texts. But such is not the case. As Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr points out, Egyptians who belonged to the strata of society who did have access to such texts recognized the power inherent in keeping these magical compositions restricted within their class(37).
It is here worth noting that the Egyptians made references to “secrets” or “secret things” belonging to the cults of the gods, and these were things, it is said, that should not be spoken of or passed on to others(38).
We have briefly touched upon two possible reasons contributing to the lack of authoritative scriptures in ancient Egypt, however, there exists another perspective that I believe is much closer to the actual situation. Our inclination in the West is to view monotheism as naturally superior to polytheism, and the Egyptians were at their core a firmly polytheistic society, despite some scholastic attempts to declare otherwise(39). The cosmological view of the ancient Egyptians was one of multiplicity and inclusion, one that left room for myriad explanations for the same phenomenon of divine manifestation(40).
1) Verner, Miroslav. 2002. Abusir: Realm of Osiris. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York. Pg 7.
2) Taylor, John H. 2010. Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press, London. Pg 16.
3) Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson Inc., New York, N.Y. Pg 154.
4) See Shafer, Byron E. 1997. “Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview” in Temples of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Byron E. Shafer. Cornell University Press, New York. Pgs 7-8.
Also Bell, Lanny. 1997. “The New Kingdom Divine Temple: The Example of Luxor”. Ibid. Pgs 132-137.
5) David, Rosalie. 1981. A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos. Aris & Phillips LTD, England. Pg 2.
6) Ibid. Pg 5. Also pg 58.
7) Ibid. Pg 58.
8) See Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. 2004. Gods and Men in Egypt. Cornell University Press, New York. Pg xii.
9) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pg 83.
10) Shafer, Byron E. Ibid. Pg 7.
Also Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pg 86.
11) Spencer, Patricia. 1984. The Egyptian Temple: A Lexicographical Study. Kegan Paul International, London, Boston, Melbourne and Henly. Pgs 17-20.
12) Shafer, Byron E. Ibid.
13) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pg 88.
14) For an excellent in-depth discussion of the use and symbolic significance of color in ancient Egypt, see Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London. Pgs 104-125.
15) I have used the dates provided by John Baines & Jaromír Málek in their Atlas of Ancient Egypt, 1980, published in North America by Facts on File, Inc., of New York, N.Y., which has become a standard amongst academic Egyptologists.
16) See Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Pgs 24-25.
17) Murray, Margaret. 2004. Egyptian Temples. Kegan Paul Limited, London, England & New York, NY. Pg 69.
18) See Shafer, Byron E. Ibid. Pg 27.
19) Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, England. Pg 4.
20) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pg 83.
21) Ibid. Pg 86.
22) Reymond, E.A.E. 1969. The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple. Manchester University Press, Manchester, England. Pg 4.
23) Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr. 1994. “A Commentary on the corpus of literature and tradition which constitutes the Book of Going Forth by Day”, in The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Translated by Dr. Raymond Faulkner. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, Ca. Pg 153.
24) Shafer, Byron E. Ibid. Pg 24.
25) Wilkinson, Richard H. Ibid. Pg 76.
27) Ibid. Pg 157.
28) Ibid. Pg 158.
29) Ibid. Pg 157.
30) For an excellent and comprehensive introduction to the major sources of ancient Egyptian funerary and religious literature, I recommend Erik Hornung's The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. 1999. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, new York.
31) Baines, John. 1983. “Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society”, in Man, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 3. Pgs 572-599.
32) Tyldesley, Joyce. Ibid. Pg 9.
34) Baines, John. Ibid. Pg 584-585.
See also Meskell, Lynn. 2002. Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. Pgs 9-10.
35) Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr. Ibid.
36) See Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Pgs 149-150.
37) Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr. Ibid.
38) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pg xi.
See also Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr. Ibid.
39) Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr. Ibid. Pgs 143-144.
See also the brief but effective discussion on the study of polytheism and monotheism in Egyptology by Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Ibid. Pgs viiii-x.
40) See Dr. Ogden Goelet, Jr.'s excellent remarks in these regards. Ibid. Pgs 143-144.
“…the study of Egypt as a civilization that existed in a factual geographic place and time…but this level is only a backdrop, or support, for another Egypt which might be defined as a “quality of intelligence.” This is Egypt as an evocation of a particular utilization and expression of a universal power of higher intellection. This Egypt is outside of chronological considerations; it is, rather, both an ever present and a recurring possibility of consciousness….we need to impose on ourselves the discipline of attempting to enter into the mentality of the people and the spirit of the time….we must also awaken in ourselves a living inner rapport with the material being researched and identify with it in a potentially self-transforming manner.”