Notes on Egyptian Religion

I. Notes on the Great Myth
We see the religion of ancient Egypt through the filters of the royal cult and the theology of immortality. Consequently, much of the marginally related, but nonetheless significant, material has been lost or overlooked. The Great Myth, the mythological framework in which Egyptian Theology functions and gains expression, was unstated; perhaps because it was secret, jealously held by the temple initiates, or possibly because it was so well known as to be universal. Recovery of this lost Great Myth supplies a pattern in which the chaotic pieces of Egyptian mythology can be comfortably accommodated.
To discern the Great Myth, we must first examine the different theological systems co-existent in Egyptian religious thought. The ancient Egyptians never codified their myths into one orthodoxy; mythology for them was a sub-set of philosophy or natural science, not a revealed truth. Therefore, the Egyptians’ creation myths read like anthropomorphised versions of cosmology texts. In fact, the great intellectual feat of the Memphite Recension was the insistence that these concepts are abstract images, not concrete, placed-in-time events. Humanity has seldom formulated a more inclusive and subtle statement of ontological and eschatological concerns than the Memphite theology. Its inclusiveness points up the lack of orthodoxy by accommodating several other traditions within the metaphor. Atum-Ra, Tehuti and Osiris are seen as forms of the Great Design, Ptah. As such, they are complementary, not antithetical.

In this spirit, we can begin to look for the threads of inter-relationship that define the boundaries of the Great Myth. We shall examine this question from three perspectives: 1) the five great traditions and their relationships, 2) the mythic structure derived from these relationships, and 3) the nature of myth as language.

1) The Five Great Traditions – These traditions can be sub-divided into the three traditions based on temples and localities: the Memphis/Hermopolis/Heliopolis, the Theban and the Edfu/Dendara of Upper Egypt; and two non-local traditions, that of the Great Goddess and Osiris.
a) Memphis/Hermopolis/Heliopolis – Because of its political clout in the IVth through VIth Dynasties, the tradition of Heliopolis is the best known of all the Egyptian theologies. It was also extremely influential in the development of all the other traditions. The myths of Heliopolis form one portion of the bedrock on which the Great Myth rests. Only slightly less influential are the traditions of Hermopolis. These very esoteric myths are the intellectual underpinning of the later Memphite Theology. Tehuti, Thoth of the Greeks, was never assimilated as were Atum-Ra and Ptah. He remained as the Divine Ambassador no matter who was High God. Tehuti’s peculiar relationship to all the traditions is an important clue to the structure of the underlying myth. We will return to this point later. At some time during the late Vth or early VIth Dynasty, the priest of Ptah in Memphis produced a unitary version of the creation myths that tried to gather both Hermopolis and Heliopolis into the same mythic form.
b) Thebes/Luxor – The Egyptian city of Waset attained political prominence at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Its creator deity, a fragment of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad known as Amun with the attribute of invisibility, did not become the state deity until the New Kingdom. Amun, said to be simultaneously created by the spirits of Hermopolis and Ra the Sun God, was a composite, and ultimately political, tradition. The ancient local deity of the nome was Montu, the falcon-headed warrior god related to the Edfu/Dendara tradition. As Amun, the Hidden One, seen as an ancient serpent god who formed the world and then retreated, evolved during the Middle Kingdom, Montu became Khonsu, the Moon God; while Sekhmet, as Mut, became the Sun Goddess. This Theban Triad became a syncretic focus for the official religious expression of the New Kingdom.
c) Edfu/Dendara – This tradition spans the whole range of Egyptian history, from the pre-dynastic murks to the last flash of Ptolemaic splendor. Focused on the myths of Horus the Elder and Hathor/Sekhmet, this tradition presents a somewhat revamped cosmology, although it agrees in outline with the basic Heliopolitian position. This tradition holds the divine right by which the King held office. The union of the disk, a new year ceremony, was an Edfu tradition that was celebrated in every temple and affirmed the authority of Horus as Divine King. The sacred marriage of Horus and Hathor, celebrated at both Dendara and Edfu, commemorated an important but almost overlooked moment in Egyptian mythological history. The Edfu traditions were overshadowed by the Cult of Amun, but managed to retain a degree of political power until Roman times. The Goddess myths of Dendara survived as a component of the Great Goddess Tradition.
d) The Great Goddess Tradition – The Isis cult formed a core for a large collection of goddesses. She was Isis at Philae, Hathor at Dendara, Neith at Sais, Mut at Thebes, Sekhmet at Memphis, and Ejo at Buto and Nekhabit at El Kab; these last two the goddesses of Lower and Upper Egypt whose union was symbolized by the snake and vulture crown of the King. The Goddess tradition supported the various political and traditional arrangements, but was most closely identified with Osiris and the Younger Horus.
e) The Osiris Tradition – Osiris is the theological glue that holds the Egyptian system together. Traces of the Osiris cult are found in pre-dynastic cultures, surviving until the Arab conquest. The Osiris tradition emerged in the late IVth Dynasty as a component of the Heliopolitian “orthodoxy.” This was a brilliant stroke of theological politics, and perhaps formed the basis of the Heliopolitian influence. The matter of Osiris bridged the mythological gap between cosmology and human history. Osiris was worshipped in many places, even Karnak, the Egyptian Vatican, has its Osiris chapel. Busiris in the Delta and Abydos in Upper Egypt were both important cult centers.

2) Mythic Structure – We can think of the Egyptian myths as episodes in a vast cosmic drama that stretches from the creation of the universe to the founding of Kingship by the followers of Horus. This drama is played out in five great acts: 1) The Creation and Emergence of the High God, 2) the Departure of the High God and the Separation of Earth and Sky, 3) the Reign of Osiris and the Fall of Set, 4) The Great Conflict between Horus and Set, 5) the Salvation of Osiris and Kingship of Horus.
1) Creation and the Emergence of the High God – At the beginning of all Egyptian creation myths there is only Nu, the primeval water of the universe. This can be pictured as an active void or a field of potential order. In this water, this field, the original Spirit moved. Heliopolis thought of this spirit as Atum, who self-generated the first twain, or pair of dualities, Shu, moisture, and Tefnut, heat and dispatched his eye, his sentience, to survey the void. In Hermopolis this was pictured as the union of the Negative Qualities to form the Cosmic Egg of existence. The sages of Memphis imagined this as the Original Spirit, here called Ptah, designing and braiding together the pattern of the future.
The Original Spirit emerged from the primeval waters as a mound, or a point of stability in a universe of undifferentiated movement. This emergence was variously imagined as a flower opening, a serpent rearing, a pillar rising or even a child emerging from the flower. The Spirit then re-called his Eye, and flying up like the Primeval Bird, tamed his sentience, his Eye, as his daughter and embraced her. Her tears of joy became the small fragments of sentience that spread through the universe as human consciousness. The Original Spirit became the High God, and the first Golden Age began.
2) Departure of the High God and the Separation of Earth and Sky – The High God, after a while, retreated from his creation. This is a key theological point in Egyptian mythology. The absence of the High God supplies a transcendent void in which the evolution of sentience unfolds. As The High God departs, Shu and Tefnut give birth to Geb and Nuit, the Earth and the Sky. The stars, our local universe, were created by another act of separation. Shu separates his children, literally opens up space/time, and gives birth to the stars. The body of Nuit becomes the river of stars and Geb swallows the seven cobras that form the ring of the world. Geb, matter, becomes the pattern through which Nuit, time, flows.
3) The Reign of Osiris and the Fall of Set – Nuit also gave birth to the Five: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys and Horus the Elder. Osiris became the overseer of the High God, and taught mankind the skills of civilization. Another Golden age ensued. But Set grew jealous of his brother’s authority and plotted against him. The Fall of Set introduced evil into the world: the will to power overcame the will to be compassionate. Set murdered Osiris and dismembered his body. Isis, with the help of Tehuti, (Thoth) gathered the pieces and magickally impregnated herself. Isis and Nephthys sat vigil over the body of Osiris while Set ruled the world in confusion and fear. Set fought the serpents of Geb, seeking to gain power over the earth itself. Isis went to hiding in the Delta and gave birth to Horus, the re-incarnation of Osiris.
4) The Great Conflict between Set and Horus – Horus survived a series of childhood adventures in the Delta and the desert. As a young man, Horus set out to avenge his “father.” He challenged Set to a series of great battles that came close to destroying the world. Tehuti called upon the Council of the Gods to settle the dispute. Horus is eventually judged the victor and given the Kingship. Set is demoted to a being of storms and made to serve the Divine Boat.
5) The Salvation of Osiris and the Reign of Horus – Horus the Elder brought the news to Osiris in the Duat, the netherworld, that Horus had avenged him and become King. Osiris was liberated to become the judge of the afterlife, and Horus the Younger became the living God on earth.
Soon however, Horus the Younger grew unstable. His conflict with Set had poisoned him with violence. He soon joined Osiris in the Duat. Horus the Elder became King, but the Council of Ra decided that the contagion of Set was too pernicious for humanity to survive. Ra dispatched his Eye to destroy mankind. Tehuti and Horus the Elder outsmarted the Eye: the fiery lion-goddess became the nurturing cow. Horus and Hathor dwelt in Upper Egypt until the forces of Set emerged again. In the war against Set’s monsters, Horus and Hathor passed their divine DNA onto a group of human sages, the Shemsu Hru, or the Followers of Horus. From this group came the organization that created the first King of a unified Egypt.

3) The Nature of Myth as Language – For the Egyptians, myth was a language, one that expressed great wisdom about nature and the mind of man. The cosmological myths describe mathematical processes; for instance Ptah can be understood as Phi, which can be derived from the hieroglyphs used to spell p-t-h. Ptah can be seen as the master weaver, braiding the future course of evolution into our DNA. The Children of Nuit are different. They are more metaphorical than mathematical. Osiris can be seen as the force of compassionate order; Set as the individualistic impulse to power. The Fall of Set creates a mythic politics that explains the nature of evil. The ongoing mythopoetic drama continues into history; King Aha/Menes, founder of the Ist Dynasty who united the Two Lands, was the son of Horus and therefore not separate from the mythological past, but a continuing part of it.
The mythic language of ancient Egypt provided an incredibly high level of civilization. Society had meaning that was deeply embedded in the structure of the culture itself. The Great Myth was the thread on which the interplay of intellectual components was strung.

II. Notes on the Priesthood
It is important to remember that the priesthood was a civil function in ancient Egypt. Recruited from the local population, the priests served three months at a time then returned to their daily lives. A small core of superior priests, or adepts, served the temple full time. During the New Kingdom, every temple, no matter how small, had at least one resident priest. The function of a priest was to maintain the universal order as dictated by the Gods in the Zep Tepi, or the First Time, the original Golden Age of the High God. To this end, their primary function was to perform the rituals of the Divine Drama, the Great Myth, at the appropriate time and in the correct way. By involving a large portion of the local population in its services, the temple became the center of local culture.
The initiation, or installation, of a priest was essentially the same in all temples. A baptism in a sacred pool, symbolic of the waters of Nu, the Cosmic Ocean, washed away all evil. Then the candidate was sprinkled with oil and water as purification, led to the statue of the Goddess and instructed in the secret ways of touching and working with the statue. The candidate then undertakes a ten day fast, at the end of which the mysteries are revealed by some sort of psychic/shamanic experience.
Within the temple structure, there were classes of priests. The administrative officials in the large temples, such as Karnak, functioned as a separate group, one not too concerned with religious perspectives. They took care of the business end of the temple and its property. The religious establishment also had its classes. The temple of Amun had five different priestly sections, each with its own sub-divisions. The High Priest of Ptah at Memphis was called “the great chief of all artisans,” as all crafts were under the protection of Ptah. These first and second “prophets,” mis-translated by the Greeks from the Egyptian “servants of the God,” were mostly royal appointments and could be chosen from any level of society. They led the higher ranks of the priesthood in the ritual functions of the temple.
The upper ranks of the priesthood were drawn from the class of priestly specialist. This included: The Stolists, who dressed and cared for the divine image; scholars and scribes; timekeepers and astrologers; and the musicians, dancers and singers. Of these, the scribes and scholars were the most diverse.
Below the specialists were the “purified ones,” the low clergy who acted as the participants in the rituals. They carried the lesser cult objects, the standards and the banners of the God or Goddess. Among this group could also be found the public oracles and interpreters of dreams.
III. Notes on Priesthood of Memphis in the Early XVIIIth Dynasty
In the early New Kingdom, Memphis was still a great city, even though no longer the political capital of the country. The Hewet-ka-Ptah, the Palace of the Spirit of Ptah, dominated the city, which spread from the Nile banks to the hills of Sakkarah. The main function of the Temple was the regulation of all industry. The specialists of Ptah include a master of every known craft. We known little of the ritual structure of the temple, but portions of its cosmology have survived on the Shabaka Stone. From this we glimpse a rarefied atmosphere of philosophical speculation, from which the practical crafts of Memphis grew.
Within the temple complex was the smaller House of Sekhmet. This was tended by both men and women, but the High Priest and most of the specialists would have been women. Drawn from the local nobles, admission to the house of Sekhmet’s priesthood would have been available to an outsider only through the specialists. Most of the major specialties, time-keeping and so forth, would have been shared by the entire temple, but Sekhmet would have had some specialties all her own. From the oblique hints we have left, these seem to have been: 1) skill with animals, including possibly shape-shifting or totemic shamanism, 2) dancing and 3) trance skills.
As Ptah was the protector of crafts and craftsman, so Sekhmet was the ruler of all animal life, huntress and the creator in a way of domestication. Osiris is credited with domesticated the animals of the field, but Sekhmet is said to have made a pact with the wild animals, the cats and the cobras, to protect the grain of Egypt. Shape-shifting would have been a part of the Sekhmet festival that re-enacted the Eye of Destruction. There is some suggestion that the priestess of Sekhmet had the ability to become a lioness and render judgment, particularly on the servants of Set.
Dancing was an important component of the Sekhmet mysteries at Memphis. Little has survived of these dances, though we can suppose that they demonstrated the geometric principles of the Memphite cosmology and were based on Phi and the square root of 5. The trance skills were related to the oracular specialties, some of which involved allowing the Goddess to take possession of a body and speak through it, much as the state oracle of Tibet does to this day.
Politically, this period was a turbulent one for the priestly caste. The Precinct of Amun at Thebes emerged as the state religion and its high priest became the “chief of all prophets of the South and the North.” This “pontificate” ruled the religious environment and eventually became a rival to the royal power. The smaller precincts, such as Memphis, retained some political power, but were essentially caught between the power plays of Thebes and Heliopolis. The Servants of Ptah and Sekhmet would have occupied an uneasy neutral ground, and they would have been careful to support who ever was in power. We know that they supported Hatshepsut, just the Heliopolitian tradition supported Tutmose III.

© 1996 Vincent Bridges