I was brought up to be some kind of Christian. I don’t think, though, that the religion ever did make sense to me. The basic tenet seems to be that the world was redeemed through the crucifixion of Jesus. I’ve never had the least idea in what way this event was supposed to make anything better. I don’t think that I even understand (or ever understood) what redeemed can mean in the context of the world was redeemed. I can understand that when I behave badly I can redeem myself by doing something especially good. But if the world was to be redeemed in this sense, surely the whole world would have to do something especially good. That is because to redeem (in this sense) seems to be a very unusual verb in that the subject and object are, of necessity, the same. I can redeem myself. You can redeem yourself – but I can’t redeem you, or you me. And, come to that, what has the world (as such) ever done wrong? People behave wrongly – and may or may not be able to redeem themselves afterwards, but the world? As far as I can see, the concept just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Another sense of redeemed seems, at first, to make even less sense: that of redeeming a pawn ticket. Well – a life as the price of retrieving the world from some kind of cosmic hock is comprehensible as an idea. I could even imagine three of the planets forming the pawnbroker’s sign. (Or three of Jupiter’s moons, when correctly aligned?) But who is the cosmic pawnbroker? – some kind of deity, I suppose. More puzzling is the question of who placed the world in hock. It seems to require a second deity to perform such a feat. And what would the deity have received from the pawnbroker in return for pledging the world? Somehow, in contemplating such transactions, one might expect more than a single life to be necessary to redeem so large an object as the world. And does the resurrection business mean that the cosmic pawnbroker was bilked? That sense of redeemed turns out not to make a lot of sense, either – but it may, in spite of first appearances, make more sense than that of redeeming oneself after behaving badly.
Near the tail end of a large book by Jan Assman, I found something that might throw some light on the business of redemption:
If the Egyptian encounter with Hellenism was particularly fertile, the confrontation with Christianity could not have been more devastating. The demise of Egyptian civilization as a semantic universe was a direct result of the advent of the redemptive religions. To the very end the unshakable convictions that informed Egyptian theology – especially in its Greek forms of hermeticism, Neoplatonism and alchemy – were that man is at home in the world, that human participation is essential to the divine scheme of sustaining the world, and that the unending task of reconciling the human and the divine is the true source of worldly coherence and continuity. The longing to be redeemed from this world instead of being piously incorporated into it was completely alien to Egyptian thought.
– Jan Assman The Mind of Egypt Harvard University Press paperback, 2003. pp 424-425
The longing to be redeemed from this world instead of being piously incorporated into it is completely alien not only to Egyptian thought but to mine as well. What Jan Assman has to say on this matter does little, if anything, to help me comprehend the redemption business. It does, however, confirm that this issue is central to my inability to comprehend Christianity.
I have tried to make sense of stuff that Christians seem to accept without question, and not made much headway. If I can’t make head nor tail of Christianity, it is not the religion for me. But I wouldn’t wish to present the choice of the Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) religion as a negative one. Someone viewing the altar of Hat-hor in my bedroom asked what’s wrong with Buddha? I’m not sure that anything’s wrong with Buddha, but the Buddhist path does not feel to be one that I have been called to tread. I found myself drawn to (called by?) the ancient deities of Egypt long before I knew anything much about them. I knew a quite a lot about the deities for a long time before their religion started to make sense for me. It took the acquisition of a certain maturity before I was able to understand that a myth can be true – but not true in the sense that the laws of physics are true – or that accounts of past events are true. (Indeed, accounts of past events are not true in the sense that the laws of physics are true – there are many kinds of truth.)
My first encounter with the Kemetic deities came when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. I was certainly of junior school age. An old lady who lived up the road presented me with a stack of issues of a part work published in the 1920s and entitled Wonders of the Past. Or at least I have, over the years, thought of her as being an old lady who lived up the road. Thinking carefully now, I am not sure who she was. Indeed, looking back, this event – which was to have a profound effect on my life and my thinking – is surrounded with mystery. Who was my benefactress? I can’t recall seeing her before or since the presentation of her gift. Why did she select me as the recipient of the gift rather than one of my siblings – or another child on the street? Looking back on this, more than half a century later, it takes on a supernatural air. Could the old lady have been a goddess? Perhaps she was one of the seven Hat-hors, presenting me with part of my fate.
Amongst the articles in Wonders of the Past was one entitled The Gods of Ancient Egypt by W M Flinders Petrie.
That, I suppose, was my first introduction to Kemetic religion. This article has been in my possession for most of my life, but I’ve never actually read it. My failure to read it is, I feel sure, no loss. I don’t think that even Professor Petrie’s greatest admirer would claim that he was an ideal choice to write on that subject. He was a good surveyor – and made the first accurate modern survey of the pyramid field at Giza. (I include the word modern in the last sentence as it is clear that the area must have been accurately surveyed before and during the construction of the pyramids.) Professor Petrie was also a fine deductive archaeologist whose achievements included devising the sequence dating method for prehistoric Egyptian pottery. This sequence dating incorporates the principle that features pass from function to decoration, but not vice versa. Pots with serviceable handles that incorporate indentations for the fingers are, therefore, earlier than ones in which this feature has turned into what seems to be a purely decorative wavy line.
Turning from Professor Petrie’s strengths to his weaknesses… His talents did not include an ability to comprehend, interpret or comment upon belief systems at odds with the curious mixture of Christianity and science that passed for English thought in Victorian times.
While I have not read the article, I have read the captions to the illustrations – and they do not inspire much confidence. I think in particular of photographs of three goddess statues.
The caption tells us that they represent Isis, the Egyptian moon goddess. There is, for a start, no reason to regard Isis as a moon goddess. In fact, there is no evidence of any moon goddess from pharoaonic Egypt. My guess is that the confusion arises from the statues being crowned with a disc. Perhaps Professor Petrie considered that this must be either the sun or the moon. Hellenic mythology has a sun god and moon goddess – Egyptian mythology, too, has a sun god – therefore the disc on the head of the goddess must be the moon. If that is how Professor Petrie reasoned, he was in error. The disc crowning these goddess statues was most certainly the sun. Moreover, at least one of the statues is clearly not Isis – the photograph is sufficiently good to read the name of Hat-hor on the base. A second statue is unlike any image of Isis of which I am aware and almost certainly also represents Hat-hor. The third one could possibly be of Isis, but it is more likely to be yet another Hat-hor statue.
There is something paradoxical in an article I never read having much influence upon me. The misleadingly captioned pictures render it even more paradoxical. The major part of the influence came, no doubt, from the pictures themselves – my introduction to Kemetic iconography. Immediately, from first viewing, the images seemed neither alien nor bizarre. They not only felt familiar, but had a certain rightness. It was as though I had come home – or, at least, taken the first step on my homeward path.
Some features of the religion were immediately apparent from the images. One such feature is the clear conception of multiple deities. I can now conceive, in a theoretical way, that everything may be – ultimately – one. That you, me, my cat, the goddess Hat-hor, everything in the universe may all be aspects of one all-spirit. However, if this is so – that we are all one in a single being – then such an all-encompassing, and overriding, entity is ultimately unknowable and (in human terms) quite inconceivable. To predicate anything to that all-spirit would be blasphemous. (I suppose that predicating things to an all-spirit is exactly what such religions as Christianity and Islam are about.) Such is my mature view. As a child, I could not form such a conception in even a theoretical way. A multiplicity of deities, each of conceivable scope, made a great deal more sense.
A second point visible in the illustrations was the presence of both female and male deities. This agreed very well with what I knew of the world. The natural world – which is (surely) the same as, or some kind of reflection of, the divine world – is divided into female and male. One doesn’t have to live very long in this world to observe that much. The concept of a single male deity presented by Christianity as I understood it didn’t make sense.
Predictably, a further point to strike me was the animal or animal-headed forms presented by Kemetic iconography. These accorded well with a sense I already had of divinity within animals. I suppose I had conceived the idea that divinity resided in the natural order – although I might not have articulated it. Of all the creatures on the earth, we are the least natural. If nature is divinity, we must be, by that token, the least divine creatures. I suppose that this is the reason Christians are anxious to distance the deity from nature – but this is one of the aspects of Christianity that has never made sense to me. I may not always have formulated the feeling clearly, but it has been my continuing conviction that such divinity as we have is a function of what we have in common with the rest of the animal kingdom – not what separates us from it. Certainly, as a child, I had yet to conceive such ideas with any clarity – but I had a deep love of and respect for animals. From the start, the presence of animal forms in divine iconography felt right.
I think, here, of a tarot card – the nine of swords, named Cruelty. When I painted my pack, I depicted the nine of swords as a scene of cruelty involving a man (standing for the suit of Swords) and an elephant (standing for the number Nine). Eight of the swords have been thrust deep into the elephant’s bleeding wounds. The elephant, for its part, has impaled the man’s arm on a tusk and has lifted him off the ground. The man has the ninth sword in his free hand and is preparing to strike another futile blow.
The point of the card is not to do with blood-lust – it is to do with the frequently met human inability to let go. Where an animal would break off the conflict and depart, or at least attempt to depart, we all too often continue to strike blows. It is an essentially intellectual card: nature is often bloody, but not truly cruel. Cruelty encompasses a range of human behaviour that has to do with establishing and abusing power. It embraces playing politics (the establishment of power over our fellows) and (as an extreme example of the abuse of that power) the setting up of death camps. No other member of the animal kingdom indulges in such abominations. There is an irony in the way in which we call people animals for doing things that only a human being would do.
It seems to me that the low regard given to animals – and our animal selves – is part of a more general low value placed on the physical. There is a sense that, in some way, spirituality is better than physicality. This is the subject of Dory Previn’s fine song Mythical Kings and Iguanas which puts it much better that I have. The point is encapsulated in the couplet:
Cry for the soul that will not face
The body as an equal place
I am uncomfortably aware that there is a paradox in my endorsement of that point of view. My main remit, in writing this, is to examine ideas and spiritual issues. Perhaps I should, instead, be writing about sex, dinner and other such important physical matters. In my defence, it seems to me that Kemetic religion assigns more importance to the physical than do most belief systems – and the aspects of the physical to which it assigns importance include dinner and, most certainly, sex.
Sex is so central to Kemetic religion that it needs to be addressed as a separate topic. The importance of food and drink is emphasised by the frequency with which the Egyptians used them (or their depictions) as religious offerings.
Also on the subject of physicality, it occurs to me that tenuous things can be physically important. The less solid and touchable something is, the shorter time we can manage without it. A healthy person can, I believe, survive several weeks without food (solids). The length of time we can survive without liquids is much shorter. Without air, we can live for only a few minutes. Exposure to the total absence of heat (absolute zero temperatures) is as near to instant death as we can measure. We cannot conclude that, because we are unable to grasp something physically, it is not physically important.