Monday, December 1, 2008

Division in Ancient Egyptian thinking

One of the most interesting aspects of Ancient Egyptian religious thinking, to my mind, is that they were really more monotheistic than people think, and that they were not focused on death like some people characterize them. Often criticized by other ancient cultures for worshipping animal headed deities and a plethora of them few people really understand the nature of the Ancient Egyptian spiritual view.

To the Egyptian mind the pantheon of Netjerew (plural form of Netjer which I think is probably most accurately defined as ‘names of god’) are really just all aspects of the divine force that rules the universe. In other words Aset (Isis) is not a goddess in her own right but rather just a piece of the whole picture that makes up God. The reasoning here is that the human mind is unable to entirely encompass the whole of what makes up God. It’s just too much to grasp. So the divine, in effect, divides its self up into aspects that are easily comprehensible to the human worshipper and these different aspects or ‘names’ of God are then responsible for certain universals. For instance Het-Hert (Hathor) represents pleasurable aspects of life such as sex and music.

The idea that the Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death comes from the fact that their most enduring monuments are funerary in nature, but the fact is that the Egyptians believed in eternal life and much of their funerary practices were designed to sustain ‘life’ not to venerate death. There were five parts of the soul in AE thought: the ba, the ka, the akh, the name, and shewet (shadow). The ba is similar to what we would think of as the personality of a person, or even the ego. The ka is that ineffable essence that is probably what modern people would describe as the soul. The akh is something like the ba rejoined with the ka after physical life is done, but it requires the perfect balance of heart and ma’at (truth, justice). The akh is also the intermediary between the living and the dead. The name is the person’s name and must be remembered in order for the five parts of the soul to continue existence, hence all the inscriptions and the like in stone. Shewet really is the shadow of the person as in Peter Pan’s shadow having form.

As you can see the belief in the five parts of the soul is another case of the Ancient Egyptian dividing up something divine and hard to understand into easily digestible pieces. It might be harder for us to get our heads around because its alien to our thinking but its similar to the concept of the Holy Trinity which is three in one or the mental gymnastics one must do to understand the concept of Jesus as the son of God, and yet also God too when there is really only one God in Christianity.

(Thanks to Dan for his help with this, and to his Dictionary of Ancient Egypt for refreshing my mind!)

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