Monday, March 26, 2007


The Egyptians long resisted monotheism. Perhaps they felt that it was too simple a concept to account for the complexity of the universe. When the New King­dom pharaoh Akhenaton (reigned c. 1379–1362 B.C.) banned all cults save that of Aton, the Sun disk (for­merly an aspect of Re-Horus), his ideas were rejected as heretical and abandoned soon after his death. Akhen­aton has been seen by some writers as an early pioneer of monotheism, but little reason can be found to be­lieve that his views had much influence either in Egypt or elsewhere. Akhenaton’s greatest legacy was probably artistic, for he and his queen, Nefertiti, were great pa­trons, and the art of the Amarna Age, named after the new capital he constructed at Tell el-Amarna, was magnificent.
Of the many facets of Egyptian religion, the one that most intrigued outsiders was its concern with eter­nal life. The funerary cults of the pharaohs, the practice of embalming, and the adoption of similar practices by men and women of lesser status have been noted, but a full description of Egyptian lore about the hereafter would require volumes. Broadly speaking, the Egyptians thought of eternal life as a continuation of life on Earth, spent somewhere beyond the “roads of the west” (see document 1.3). They also believed that, like the pharaoh, the virtuous dead would merge their identities with Osiris. This was possible because the human soul had many aspects or manifestations, including the akh, which emerged only after death. The fate of the wicked was not reassuring. Their sins were weighed in a scale against the feather of ma’at, and if the scale tipped, their souls were thrown to the monstrous, crocodile-like “de­vourer of hearts” (see illustration 1.6).
The richness and complexity of Egyptian belief ex­tended beyond religion to astronomy, astrology, and natural magic. The works attributed by Greek scholars to Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice-Great, or Thoth) may be a compilation of ancient Egyptian sources on these subjects, though their origins remain the subject of controversy. Indisputable, however, is

An Egyptian Mortuary Text
This prayer or incantation was found on coffins during the Middle Kingdom. It provides not only a vision of the here­after, but also a sample of Egyptian religious imagery. The Eastern Doors mark the entry into paradise. Re is the Sun god, and Shu is the god of air who raised Heaven above the Earth and planted trees to support it. A cubit measures between seventeen and twenty-one inches.
Going in and Out of the Eastern Doors of Heaven among the Followers of Re. I know the Eastern Souls.
I know the central door from which Re issues in the east. Its south is the pool of kha-birds, in the place where Re sails with the breeze; its north is the waters of ro-fowl, in the place where Re sails with rowing. I am the keeper of the halyard of the boat of the god; I am the oarsman who does not weary in the barque of Re.
I know those two sycamores of turquoise be­tween which Re comes forth, the two which came from the sowing of Shu at every eastern door at which Re rises.
I know the Field of Reeds of Re. The wall which is around it is of metal. The height of its barley is four cubits; its beard is one cubit; and its stalk is three cubits. Its emmer is seven cubits; its beard is two cubits, and its stalk is five cubits. It is the horizon dwellers, nine cubits in height, who reap it by the side of the Eastern Souls.
I know the Eastern Souls. They are Har-akhti, The Khurrer-Calf, and the Morning Star.
Pritchard, James B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament, vol. 1, 2d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955.
that the Greeks admired the Egyptians for their wisdom and would borrow heavily from them, especially after the establishment of a Greco-Egyptian dynasty by Ptolemy in 323 B.C.
Yet Egyptian culture, for all its concern with the unseen world, was at another level deeply practical. Its institutions, like its engineering, held up well. Conser­vative, inward-looking, and less aggressive than many empires, it served as a bridge not only between Africa and Europe, but also between historic times and an al­most unimaginably distant past. Growing involvement with the outside world after about 900 B.C. was in some ways a tragedy for the Egyptians. The country fell to a succession of foreign rulers, but most of them, whether Persian, Greek, or Roman, were content to preserve Egyptian institutions. Only the triumph of Islam in the the seventh century A.D. brought fundamental change. By this time much of the Egyptian achievement had been incorporated, often unconsciously, into the devel­opment of the West.

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