The Egyptian (Kemetic) pantheon and religion

Like men, the gods die, but they are not dead.  Their existence – and all existence – is not an unchanging endlessness, but rather constant renewal.

Erik Hornung Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt

hat-hor-sculpture British Museum - The Egyptian (Kemetic) pantheon and religionSo – since junior school days – I have found the goddesses and gods of ancient Egypt particularly appealing.  No doubt there are a number of reasons for this attraction – quite apart from the things I have already considered.  One aspect is the complexity of Kemetic deities.  People have asked me what is Hat-hor the goddess of?  If she were, for example, an Hellenic goddess I would probably be able to give a short meaningful answer (albeit necessarily an incomplete one).

Question: What is Aphrodite the goddess of?  Answer: Love.

By and large with the Egyptian deities, and certainly in the case of Hat-hor, such an answer would be more misleading than helpful.  The complexity, for me, reflects the way the world is – and the nature of divinity in that world.  If there are easy answers, they are (in my experience) frequently not worth having.  Intricacy also means that one can relate to a deity and never fathom all that is there.  One can know a person for years and still be surprised by them.  If this is true of a person, how much more true should it be of a divinity?  There is, too, the matter of mystery.  In the end, the world – and divinity within it – is inevitably a mystery which we can never fathom.  I see in the Egyptian deities, and their complexity, a celebration of this mystery.

This is a real religion, a faith that endured and satisfied many people throughout a long period.  The world of late antiquity turned its back on the old traditions.  Thereafter, these religious forms were forgotten or misrepresented – or both.  The Victorians made great strides towards re-discovering such modes of viewing the world, only to place them in a cabinet of curiosities.  It feels to me time – and past time – that old time religion was brought out of the cabinet and treated with the reverence it deserves.

Unlike later religions, the Kemetic faith is not a religion of the Book.  There is no holy text, no word of God to hold us inflexibly.  There are, of course, religious texts.  Without these, we would not know enough of the Kemetic beliefs to regard them as forming a comprehensible religion.  The point is that the texts make no claim – and never did claim – the status of such books as the Bible and the Koran.  The Kemetic texts are in the service of religion, rather than the religion in the service of the texts.  An important point, here, is that deities may create birds, beasts, plants, mountains, seas and stars – but they do not create books.  Books are written by people – and people are fallible.  If it comes to that, I am by no means certain that deities cannot be fallible.  Even if a text were the work of a deity, that would not place it beyond all question.  That, no doubt, is a key factor in Kemetic religion sitting (surprisingly?) comfortably with rationalism.

It is also a religion that acknowledges and honours femininity within the divine order.  It acknowledges the importance of sexuality in creation, and interprets divine creation as an essentially sexual act.  My feeling is that the low status accorded to sexuality in Christianity (and, no doubt, in other religions too) serves to foster misogyny.  If there is no place for sexuality in the divine, there is no place for two sexes in divinity.  As religious texts are mostly written by men (or, certainly, have largely been written by men historically) they take maleness as a default.  The divine, for this reason, is presented as a male preserve.  From that proceeds the idea that holiness resides in maleness – but not in femaleness.  Religions with an exclusively male clergy (and an exclusively male viewpoint) follow naturally from this.  Kemetic religion, by contrast, encourages a respect for sexuality – and cannot be properly celebrated without honouring the female.

Deities – and the world in general – are not constant or unchanging.  They are renewed, and the process of renewal is essentially sexual – and requires both sexes.  Not to change is not to exist.  Not to have sexual processes is not to exist.

Those are plain literal truths, but – for the most part – the truths that this religion yields can be viewed either as poetic, or as one set of values in a system of multi-valued logic.  They do not pretend to the coarse overly literal status fundamentalists claim for the books of more modern religions.  For example, the sky is sometimes represented as a sacred cow with the stars along her belly.  This does not tell us anything about astronomy, nor should we seek astronomical truth in the image.  It may tell us something, however, about the way divinity is in the universe.  Contemplating the image, seeking the outermost parts of its meaning, can reveal something of godhood: gems the grasping of which call for patient work.

The sky provides a handy example of the way in which the truths of Kemetic religion cannot be understood other than as poetic – or each as one set of values in a system of multi-valued logic.  (How different those possibilities are is a matter open to question.)  According to one myth, the sky is Hat-hor in the form of a cow with the stars along her belly.  Another myth views the sky as another goddess, Nut, in the form of a woman arched over the earth.  She swallows the sun in the evening and gives birth to the sun in the morning.  A third myth depicts Nut as a sow who gives birth to her piglets (the stars) in the evening and devours them in the morning.  Nor is the myth that the sun passes through Nut’s body the only one to do with the sun by night.  Another myth depicts the sun as making a perilous journey through the underworld, subject to attack by the serpent Apophis.  We cannot construe this underworld as being the same place as the interior of Nut.

Conventional – single valued – logic would preclude holding as true all of these views (of the sky, and of the sun by night).  It is an axiom of single valued logic that, if two assertions are contradictory, they cannot both be true.  A system of multi-valued logic can assign separate values to each of several sets of assertions, so that they can co-exist.  Adding more sets of values presents no problem – so the values proper to mythology and science can also co-exist.  The values assigned to myths may or may not be regarded as poetic.  It depends on how we define poetic truth.

At all events, the question of whether or not these things are true (in whatever sense) is an important one.  Truth is sacred, and must be respected.  It is, for example, no argument in favour of a belief that it is socially (or otherwise) useful for people to believe it.  Upholding what we know to be false, for however fine-seeming reasons, is a form of holding that the end justifies the means.  This is a road into the abyss.