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Egyptian Religion: Myth, Intellect and Grass Roots

written by: Stanley Wilkin



‘S. Morenz………has pointed out that the Egyptian language has no words for ‘belief’, ‘religion’ and ‘piety’, concepts which are constitutive not only for modern religious thought, but for every religious-historical investigation. Of course ‘religion’ did exist in ancient Egypt. The lack of terms for it is instructive in two respects: apparently the Egyptians had not yet attained that stage of self-reflection in which general concepts are formed, and furthermore it would seem that the structure of their religion differed from that of ours.’[1]



ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: Egyptian Religion - Myth, Intellect and Grass Roots by Stanley Wilkin at Spillwords.com

‘The model of progress of religion from fetishism to theriomorphic (in the form of animals) polytheism to anthropomorphic  polytheism to (true) monotheism should be set aside as a dangerously ethnocentric interpretation of the way that human beings seek to represent the forces of nature.’




  1. Egyptian Religion
  2. Literature and Religion
  3. Egyptian Literature
  4. Egyptian culture and the YHWH cults.


Although this paper will consider the earliest Egyptian literature, its central concern will be the utilisation of symbolic thinking and representation in understanding the world and the construction of a universalist Egyptian religion that occurred in the New Kingdom at the period of an expanding Egyptian empire.[3] This was emphasised by Amenhotep IV who raised the sun-god Aten-physical disc of the sun and Ra/Re aspect-to single prominence. Although this belief was extinguished upon the king’s death, religious universalism remained a potent force, particularly in Palestine and Syria, which was already equally affected by the national gods of Mesopotamia, which assumed universalist qualities under conquering states. Also, the influence of Egyptian religion and literature on Judaism and Christianity will be considered; the influence of Egyptian Instruction literature on religious ideas of good and evil; the importance of Egyptian ideas on the rest of the Mediterranean basin.

Bleeker (1973: page 4) asserts that, in agreement with H. Frankfort[4], Egyptian literature lacks epic and dramatic motifs and that Egyptian strengths are most closely seen in songs, hymns and short stories. According to Bleeker, most texts had a cultic significance. This notion will be examined as well as Bleeker’s argument (1973) that the ancient Egyptians lacked abstract ideas-palpably untrue, as what they had in that vein was simply, and enjoyably, different from ours. The quarrel over the use of myth in Ancient Egyptian religion, begun by Assmann in a 1977 article, [5]whereby Assmann concludes there was little use made of narrative writing to describe the gods’ instructive adventures until c1350 BCE, and others argued in response that genotext existed behind Ancient Egyptian phenotext, known but not often referred to, can be solved by understanding how symbols were employed to transmit vital information.


Egyptian Religion:

Ancient Egyptian society possessed no words for piety, belief and religion, suggesting therefore a different religious response to the present and recent past.[6] Indeed ‘belief’, so elemental and fixed a part of Abrahamic religions, meant nothing to the Egyptians. According to Vincent Arieh Tobin[7], Egyptian religion was a system or systems of cult and ritual, which constantly affected the human person and environment through myth and mysticism (Tobin: page 5). It constituted experience not constant interpretation of the world through creedal formulae based upon myth, reinforced by revered holy books and priests. Henri Frankfort[8] saw this as evidence of Egyptian religion’s multiplicity of approaches, considered below, its capacity to accept many possibilities.

The emergence of gods/goddesses appears to reflect the early population’s original home in what is now the Sahara Desert before it suffered desertification at around 5000 BCE. Then, the power of animals would have had greater importance than in the later urban society and the fusion of animal and human qualities appears with animal-headed gods and goddesses engaging in human behaviour, and expressing human emotion. Egypt, as will be seen, was a culture of images, where ideas were manifest in symbols. The image or written name of a deity expressed the essence of ‘the actual power it represented’ although equally the power could be manifest in the image.[9]Silverman (1991) holds that the recognition of ‘some supreme force was the first step in an attempt to distinguish between the individual and the world in which the individual lived,’ a concept he picked up from Siegfried Morenz (Egyptian Religion: page 17).[10] In fact, it is likely, or just as likely, that the concept of power, seen first in large and dangerous animals, became abstracted through attempts to identify and harmonise with what was on the one hand a discernible property and on the other hand distant and rarely imitated. Once concepts of power-and force-were constructed these could be or were reflected in images of power. Although Silverman also considers later religious developments as consequent to a concern with cosmic forces, as with many other cultures, this may have primarily been a priestly or/and intellectual phenomenon not necessarily a popular experience except, as with the Nile’s regular flooding, when it affected people directly. The tripartite structure of Egyptian religion, of heaven, earth and underworld, can be found in Neolithic cultures, reflecting known topographical states and seen in many other early religions-although not all. Although essentially a polytheistic construct, it has been adopted by the Abrahamic monotheistic religions and provided with a greater moral dimension.

Jan Assmann[11] asserts that the religion evolved as a consequence of the creation of the Egyptian state through force by the lords of Naqada, and that the state was an institutionalised form of a religion of which the primate was first its incarnation and then its son, the very image of the supreme god. Assmann considers Mene or Narmer the Egyptian Moses, an idea that will be considered in later papers. Referencing the Horus-Seth myth whereby the two deities fight for the throne, Assman further asserts that this references the destruction of a polycentric system of city states, leading to the subjection of rival princes. The distinction between an official religion and local worship practised by the majority of the population, which may have preceded the Egyptian state, was evidenced by, in the former, maintenance of places of worship, the splendour attached to them and bevies of priests.[12]

Stephen Quirke provides a reasonable assessment of the widely derided Egyptian use of animal representations, as well as the habit of mummifying animals such as cats. Pointing to human representations, statues and paintings, he testifies to their serene expressions, the absence of human emotion. According to Quirke emotion was expressed through dramatic recourse to an ‘external non-human stock of symbolism.’[13]The symbolic nature of the animal parts of a deity expresses more powerful conceits than the human parts, and involves the deity with the wider universe as well as with the human beings who worship it. According to Quirke these remained artistic conventions-but surely of course ones that fully delved into and represented the forces allied to a god or a pharaoh. In a sense, these comprised the Egyptian’s alternative reality, one both complex and easily referenced and communicated. Egyptian religion helped flesh out abstract ideas and ways of being, in the existentialist sense, rather than dramatizing human personality development as with the Mesopotamian religion with its throng of myths based on human relationships.

Each major city advanced a god/goddess, advertising the cult practices of that deity. Egypt from its beginnings consisted of a number of regions with its own gods, traditions and customs. In fact, returning to the Horus-Seth myth above, the creatures mentioned in the myth could have been totems of city states before or during the evolution to godly status. The totemic value of godly representations may be a variation on an image, denoting tribe or city, now forgotten. 

Local cults developed, through time, links with each other[14] replicating political syncretism. The result appears, but only appears, to have been confusing and contradictory, with death and rebirth dramatized within a paradigm of immortality, triads of gods replicating nuclear families, in which rituals expressed a deities daily life, and symbols signified not just a deity but a thought or assemblage of thoughts with ideas bouncing between these symbolic objects like light beams transferring knowledge and ideas. A grand but unlikely construct? Perhaps not! A company brand in the present day expresses a variety of intellectual properties, for example capitalism, or one form of capitalism, power, wealth, constructs of company creation and processes. That brand is recognisably similar to another brand even though the commodity created is different. The brand can be made flesh as with Colonel Sanders/McDonalds in some ways mythical founder.  We intuitively understand the nature of the brands without recourse to writing down lengthy explanatory analysis, and many of us can make connections with other constructs such as status or alternative expressions of wealth and power. Further, pursuing the business theme, a part of a large company, for example customer service, may have its own brand, similar in colour and design to the company itself, expressing thereby other paradigms connected or not connected to the company. Originally, the customer service section may have been a separate, much smaller company bought-up by the larger company.


The Evolution of deities:

ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: Egyptian Religion - Myth, Intellect and Grass Roots by Stanley Wilkin at Spillwords.com

PTAH: The creator god whose creation-technique resembles YHWH

The major gods of Egypt tended to be local gods who were promoted over time, sometimes through the process of syncretism.  For example, Ptah the creator god originated in Memphis, Amun from Thebes and Ra, the Sun god, from Heliopolis. The prominence of a god was sometimes due to their city of origin becoming the national capital. The process of godly advancement could often be complicated, not straightforward, and only partly due to politics. Stephen Quirke (1992: page 73) holds that the Egyptian pantheon was visible in the 4th millennium and was not subject to evolution, each already having its own characteristics, although he appears to concern himself with the possibility of different religions accrued to each deity while no one surely considers that possibility?

At the time of Narmer (Menes), conventionally considered the first ruler to combine Lower and Upper Egypt, important deities were Neith, Hathor and Horus. The last of these probably came into prominence as a consequence of unification, and the mythological conflict between Horus and Seth may reflect those beginnings, [15]although while Silverman (page 44) agrees that Osiris and his family are visible in very early Egypt the myths connected to them in their most complete forms date from New Kingdom and Roman Times. Hathor appears on the Narmer palette, where she appears in bovine form either side of the name of Narmer. Tobin (1989: 12) asserts that she here personifies the Royal House and the king’s godly mother. Further, Tobin holds that this indicates the early beginnings of Egyptian divine kingship. This meeting of politics and godliness would have been crucial in forming state security, exemplified by the later use of Ra, for example, to the same effect. As with Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Christian and Islamic religion human politics was and remains the key.

Animal power was first expressed through animal symbols and totems (probably found in many early pre-urban societies) before, as society developed gaining anthropomorphic calibrations, expressing thereby societal forces. Horus, an early deity, was identified as a hawk and in the Delta was a sky god and god of kingship, exhibiting in his god-cycle different ages, for example, as Haroeris, the elder Horus. As Hardakhty he was the sun god,[16] Horus of the Horizon, and as Harpocrates, Horus the child, and Harsiesis, son of Isis. The hawk god as Monthu was local to Thebes, becoming the king’s god of warfare in the New Kingdom when Thebes was the national capital. As the Jackal, Anubis presided over mummification and lord of cemeteries, while the Jackal as Wepwawet was the local god of Asyut, also god of cemeteries, associated with Anubis and with the Osiris cult at Abydos. Thoth, the god’s scribe and messenger, was simultaneously the Ibis and Baboon and worshipped at Hermopolis in Middle Egypt. He also functioned as a moon god. Khonsu was also a moon god, frequently portrayed as hawk headed and also venerated at Thebes as the son of Amun and Mut (Thomas: 1986: 12). Although apparently confusing, the system was an expression of ideas, see above.

As the goddess of love and sexuality, expressed in Mesopotamia by Inanna, Hathor appears as a mother-goddess, but here that role is likewise filled by the ‘primitive Delta goddess’ Neith (Tobin: 1989: 13). Tobin warns of not reading too much into these mother-goddesses as unlike Mesopotamia, the earth in Egyptian mythology was considered male. Unless Hathor, Mut, whose name means Mwt, or mother, is selected as a mother-goddess, thereby predating the eminent male creator-gods, representing as she does, or did, a number of female roles, some archetypal, the suspected mother-goddess beginnings of Mesopotamian religion appear absent in ancient Egypt. Probably Neith has the most appropriate claim as she was addressed as Mother of the Gods (Tobin: 13). While female attributes are scattered around a number of Egyptian goddesses the Egyptian deities’ origins in abstracts and nature make such a supernatural being unnecessary. The power of a hawk, for example, resided in both genders. Egyptian religion did not appear to be deeply concerned with human beings either, but was more focussed upon the largest questions of existence-amongst which was cosmic order, in which, true, humankind participated.



Tobin (1989) perceives Egyptian religious experience as about cults, preserving cultic rituals and ensuring that correct procedures were adhered to. It was certainly the duty of scribes to scrupulously maintain each ritual in order to ensure the maintenance of Ma’at, see below.

ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: Egyptian Religion - Myth, Intellect and Grass Roots by Stanley Wilkin at Spillwords.com

Narmer Palette

Also, unlike later Mesopotamian religion, Egyptian religion kept a balance between male and female deities, respecting the generative force and power of both. It never truly constructed a dominant masculine drive evident not only in Mesopotamia but also in Judaism, Christianity (although less so), and certainly in Islam, although male deities occupied the most influential positions.

Throughout Egyptian history the striving for prominence amongst the cults, providing with it wealth and power to the various priesthoods, no doubt affected the mythic corpus, with scribes at times busy translating the competition into stories. Tobin (1989: 15) tells of a struggle between two sky religions for prominence (pre-Pyramid texts), on the one side Ra of Heliopolis and on the other side Osiris. The antipathy towards Osiris in both the Pyramid and Coffin texts provide possible evidence of this ancient, if resolved, feud. An attempt by the Ra priesthood in the 5th dynasty to influence the throne led to enhanced prominence for the cult. Tobin (page 14) identifies also the growth of the Amun cult at Thebes during the 12th Dynasty as even greater political involvement in the evolution of Egyptian religion, occasioning the rise of Amun as a minor Egyptian god to Amun-Ra/Re King of the Gods.


What was it all about?

David P. Silverman[17] perceives Egyptian religion as both complicated and sophisticated, concerned with a highly developed concept of the divine that had developed early in Egyptian history.  For Silverman the Egyptian concept of the divine was fully realised in concrete form (page 13) even though it was composed of abstract or transcendental concerns. The representational form, whether of animals or human beings or, as likely, a combination of both signified a higher idea of the divine. A force, because in a final analysis this was what the divine was, therefore would have ‘multiple images, traits, and descriptions, each of which referred to any or all of its numerous mysterious aspects’ (Page 17). According to Silverman (pages 17-18) this construction of the divine created a force that permitted some control over nature, one outside and beyond themselves that could be harnessed and manipulated through worship and ritual. The forces eventually transmuted by the Egyptians into the divine appear beyond natural forces of animals, floods, sunshine and darkness but express the power of such phenomena. It is the power not the source of power, power as an abstract, as can be seen, feeding on itself.

Maintaining and revitalising that force was expressed through Ma’at (a device and mechanism), with reference to the damage to creation wrought by Seth in the murder of Osiris, was the responsibility of the king, who represented the sun-god (Stephen Quirke: 1992: 70), raising Ma’at to him. Once this was achieved through ritual, human beings could more easily preserve the Cosmos by acting according to Ma’at. This approach constituted a belief in the fragility of the universe, one threatened with possible imminent oblivion, requiring upkeep and substance to sustain its physical reality. This fragile being employed the forces in the divine, transmitting such forces into other abstracts. While the worship consisted of words-lamentations for example-it also meant the provision of food, drink and clothing-visible also in Mesopotamian religion-to ensure the deity’s survival. Quirke (70) describes temples as machines for the preservation of the universe, and a ‘technical operation that requires technical staff and knowledge’ which thereby exudes the great majority of the population in order to make sure no mistakes are made. Such an operation compares with mosques that serve to gather together, confirm and enhance the ordinary Muslim, where confirmation of individual and group identity is essential, and churches where confirmation of belief and affirmation of life-style are important.

For Quirke (70) all the people and gods were bound together in this universal project, and the confusion that appears to lie at the centre of Egyptian religion is simply a mark of its efficiency, commanding all nuances in the greater task.

ANCIENT FICTIONALITY: Egyptian Religion - Myth, Intellect and Grass Roots by Stanley Wilkin at Spillwords.com

Yet, it seems likely that this grasp of the universe as power-based, composed of named and un-named forces, was the result of the earliest state formation[18]. The coming together of a single large, indeed for those times huge, state with immense resources, capable of achieving remarkable organised feats of construction, surely awed much of the population? Describing that force through concrete representation involving anthropomorphic entities must have soon evolved, especially amongst the intelligentsia. Although this is a likely explanation for the peculiar nature of Egyptian religion, this idea or ideas were, unlike Mesopotamian religion, carried through symbols other than text. Communication of its exploration of force and power was done through its buildings, statues, fetish objects, funerary rituals than necessarily through writing. The added myths or legends aided comprehension by the priestly groups, providing the context required by the literate. For many Egyptians, unable to clearly see the means by which the state functioned, religion provided a concrete way of ensuring its continuance. The multitude of gods worked in harmony with the people, keeping the colossal machinery oiled. In all, it remains an astonishing achievement, much admired in ancient Greece.

As fairly common in ancient societies, in fact in all cultures past and present, Silverman (page 28), holds that naming was crucial in the development of a concept of divinity-or force-and a god’s name was integral to their personality, and equally to a human being. Inscribing someone’s name on clay, and then smashing the clay object obliterated the person, associating naming thereby with magic. In this respect, writing gave greater actuality to the everyday and in addition enabled exploration of, for example, both the human body and cosmos.



The Egyptians, not unlike the Mesopotamians, had several cosmogonies created from the various major religious centres-such as Thebes, Kynopolis, Memphis, Akhetaten, Heliopolis, Philae. The narratives of creation, which appear indifferent to the creation of man except where Khnum, a creator and potter god, creates human beings from clay, expressed an understanding of the divine, an involvement primarily in abstractions.



Silverman (1991: 33) demonstrates that before creation could take place, not always the preserve of senior gods, three powers had to be present, representing the energy necessary for creation. These were Hu (divine utterance), Heka (magic or divine energy), and Sia (divine knowledge). Before creation could begin, primordial water, represented by Nun, was required. In many aspects therefore, creation followed the course of Mesopotamian religion with its belief in the life-giving powers of water-apsu-although not concerns about water’s destructive power-the flood narrative. Formlessness pervades until the button is pressed that sets off creation- as in Mesopotamian religion, where the past before creation is both un-generative and unknown, in Hebrew religion, where all is unformed. The swirling movement of tidal water provides the connection to chaos.

The establishment of material reality was perceived of differently according to the cult. These are perhaps priestly and scribal notions, removed from the general population.

The Heliopolitan creation myth was solar, linked with the city and the sun god. Out of the formlessness came a self-created god, Atum, who was ‘all or nothing’, the original sun god of Heliopolis and later seen as the creative aspect of Ra/Re (Thomas 1986: 35). Through splitting or masturbation Atum produced two children, male and female, Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture or fire)[19].  As representative of the creative process, Atum is singular without predecessors or effectively antecedents.[20]All properties, for example fire and air, result from the functions of his humanised form. This single nature is reflected in kingship, of the marriage of brother and sister. Shu and Tefnut in turn brought forth a male and also a female child, Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). While at first united, Geb and Nut were later separated by their father, but while together their union produced four children, two sons, Osiris and Seth, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. According to Thomas (page 35), in later accounts Seth is replaced by Horus or Thoth, although she remarks that Thoth is not usually placed within the family of Osiris. The nine gods thus formed made up the Heliopolitan ennead. Its doctrines first appear in the Pyramid texts, gaining in complexity in the Middle Kingdom Coffin texts, with further developments in the New Kingdom in the Book of the Dead, of Amduat and of Gates.

At Heliopolis the mystery of creation was defined through Atum, the One, the unique Power, who will become the Creator or Demiurge. Atum means both All and Nothing, the potential, unformed totality of the world which must distinguish itself from Nun, destroying the latter in the process. Nun is here identified as primordial water from which all material, including the gods, sprang, chaos, as in the Bible, or the infinite, eternal source of the universe. Geb and Nut initiate material reality, as Atum originates the forces or powers of the universe. The eight Primordials were called the mothers of fathers of Ra (Re), not a sun god but the force that initiates the sun’s light. Ra is all:

I am he who made heaven and earth, formed the mountains and what is above,
I am he who made the water and created the celestial waves…..[21]

Hermopolitan cosmology was connected to the city of Hermopolis/Thebes and Thoth. It begins with the waters of chaos. From here, Thoth’s voice summons four primordial gods-Nun, Heh, Ket and Amun-in the form of male frogs representing nothingness, infinity, darkness and formlessness, together with their consorts Naunet, Hehet, Keket and Amunet in the form of four female snakes. These eight were the Hermopolitan ogdoad, who appeared on an island rising from or out of chaos. They created an egg which brought forth the sun, who then fashioned mankind and gave order to the world. In other myths the sun was described as being born from an opening lotus flower on the island, suggesting earlier narratives than those where Ra/Re dominates from the 4th dynasty onwards.

Thoth (Lamy: 10) was another god associated with ancient intellectual skills (writing, numbers, measurement and time) whose creation myth reiterates again that of Atum and Ptah. Sethe [22]believes that it was from this priestly class that the eight primordial gods existed prior to creation. The cult of Thoth came later.

At Memphis the substance of creation was achieved by Ptah, whose myth reiterates Atum’s myth, who manifests himself as tongue, forming the material around us, as with YHWH of the Bible, through words. Like YHWH, Ptah gives a name to everything thereby bringing it into existence. From a great distance, this, as with the YHWH myth, suggests a scribal conceit. 

At Hermopolis the Primordial Eight form a single entity. Here Amun and Amunet, representing four couples of serpents and frogs in a swampy mire, logis of creation, were sometimes replaced by Niau and Niaut, called thereby the void. Lamy (page 10) sees this as not like the void in the Biblical story of creation, primal chaos that had to be supplanted, but as a source of creativity from which all emerges.

Clearly, both the gods’ formation and the family group or dynasty they exist within are similar to Mesopotamian god formations. There is a leading god, Atum/an, who generates a dynasty of gods, although in the Egyptian myth Atum creates himself while an was, in some myths, spawned by a mother-goddess. Except perhaps in the myth of Osiris, Isis, Horus and Seth, the extended family, where else it exists, reeks of artificial intentions. In both birth and subsequent interactions the Egyptian gods appear not to emulate human behaviour, but act according to form.

Surging out of the cosmic waters as a primordial hill, Atum spits out Shu, the Principle of air and space, and expectorates lion-headed Tefnut or fire. [23]In another myth, Atum creates himself from imagination/will/masturbation through some previous existence or from his own heart, suggesting the plastic nature of time, bringing forth eight principles-including Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nepthys. These were entities of cyclic life and renewal, death and rebirth. Creation thereby stems from the male reproductive systems or liquid. Lamy (1981: 9) believes the above version of metaphysical creation stemmed from early Egyptian understanding of sexual reproduction, which also forms, according to Lamy, the basis of Egyptian mathematics. They understood, through the process of halving, how the sperm and ovum formed the person.

The Memphite creation narrative, linked to Memphis, involves Ptah-tenen, patron of all crafts, who was a sole creator (resembling YHWH in this capacity), connected to chaos or birthed from chaos and also the land rising out of chaos-thereby both the material and divine aspects. According to Thomas (1986: 36), he embodied within himself eight other Ptahs bearing the names of other gods, amongst which Atum was his thought, Horus his heart and Thoth his tongue, representing within himself ideas, emotion and the physical world. Ptah created the world through concept (thought of his heart), word (pulled into reality by his tongue through the power of his word). Functioning thus, Ptah’s creational initiatives predate YHWH, and are in essence the same. Both myths bear the scribal hallmark. Thomas (page 36) believes that, although Ptah became an important deity from the First Dynasty when Egypt was ruled from Memphis, the above construction may have been devised in response to the rise and popularity of the Ra/Re myths.

As other gods were representatives of Ptah, then in a more complete fashion, Ptah, compared to Atum, was a singularity from which everything emerged, as in the Atum myth the gods created by Atum enjoy a separate existence. Here, there is no separation except when humankind was made. The later YHWH had elements of both gods in his make-up, the singularity of Ptah with his conceptual creation of the universe, and Atum’s creation of other supernatural beings-in YHWH’s case angels, Satan, etc. Both originated the material world.

Tobin (1989: 8) states that ‘Egyptian religion was not designed to satisfy intellectual curiosity or to provide speculation regarding the origin of man and the universe.’ In effect, it deified both the state and the power of the state, not in the modern sense but through religious expression. Through the maintenance of Ma’at, both goddess and abstract principle, cosmic order was maintained and the state’s stability and power-in the abstract-was constantly renewed and secured, reflecting stability within the universe. Humankind were expected to perceive the divine order of the universe, Ma’at, living and acting in accordance with it to ensure the stable continuance of state, universe and human community.

From the above, it can be seen that Ma’at was a symbol, an abstract principle and a personal goddess, each experience of Ma’at informing the other. Although a symbol, Ma’at, according to Tobin (1989:77) was the reality it symbolised, representing the true foundation stone (Tobin: 77) of the stability of Egyptian religious thought. It represented the unity of all things, or was within that unity-the binding force. Tobin describes Ma’at (page 77) as the basis of cosmic order, political order, morality, life itself, art and science, and etiquette in every day affairs. Ma’at reflected the balance, which was the binding ideal in Canaanite thought infusing justice and political stability, and the positive forces that preserved continuance against fracture and instability. All ancient developed cultures had some idea close to Ma’at that could be commonly appreciated and understood-which made reliable sense of the world. The Mesopotamians had me, which while originating with the gods (in fact Enki/Ea) did not appear to possess the divine attributes of Ma’at but personified the skills and attributes of civilisation. For modern societies, this can be symbolised, to some extent, by the cross, by reading and adherence to the Qur’an, or through submission to the state. It can also be understood through sense of community, wholeness and oneness produced by political and religious ideologies. By and large it is not contained within a discrete image.


Early effects on cosmology:

Pre-state cult developments, as much a part of unification as military and political initiatives, occasionally involved competition and conflict, seen in the myths that consequently or subsequently developed. Tobin (page 14) points to the pre-Pyramid Texts struggle between a sky religion centred around Ra of Heliopolis and the Osiris cult. Much earlier, and unrecorded conflicts realised through military competition, must have occurred with relatively new or newly-promoted deities emerging through syncretistic processes. As elsewhere, might was right, confirming the superiority of both god/goddess and whatever ideologies it expressed.[24] This can be seen also in the Bible, where military might is imagined rather than authentic, and the Qur’an where conquests are seen as confirming Allah’s preferences.

Conjoining of deities in new forms or myth probably occurred from the beginning of Egyptian history. King Menes or Narmer, founder of the first dynasty was a follower of Horus, the falcon-god, who established his first capital at Abydos where Osiris the fertility-god dwelt. His palace was built close to the centre of the sun-cult, Heliopolis, with myth thereby connecting all three into a series of relationships. The old Memphite earth deity Tatenen seems to have become subsumed within Ptah, creating a new deity called Ptah-Tatenen (see above), creating thereby new characteristics for Ptah. The most common form of syncretism was the conjoining of Ra with other deities (Tobin: 15), although one of the more famous instances of Osiris and Ra may, according to Tobin, be of conjoined symbols not the creation of a separate deity. The late confluence of Amun-Ra did not mean that a new god had been created from two formidable deities but a new mythic symbol, both Amun and Ra/Re enjoying separate identities as before.

Tobin asserts that many gods achieved their final form through syncretism, although this can be said of many others deities in the ancient world including possibly Inanna and YHWH, combined through either cultish embellishments and/or political change. Marduk’s Babylonian form was the result of the god assuming the characteristics of other gods such as Enkil and an, but was primarily the result of political change, not in order to extend understanding. Osiris clearly gained his character from the absorption of other deities such as Andjety of the Delta and Khentiamentiu of Abydos, both of which remained comparatively innocuous. Of greater consequence, according to Tobin (page 14) was the growth of the Amun cult in Thebes as a result of political changes through the rule of Amenemhet during the Twelves Dynasty. Amun, it appears, rose from a minor deity to eventually assume the role of Amun-Ra, king of the gods-almost achieving the role of universal god by the Nineteenth Dynasty.

Tobin (page 17) notes the effect of the Egyptian Empire on religious thinking, especially ‘during and after the Eighteenth Dynasty.’ The foreign tribute thus acquired by Thuthmose III enhanced the Amun-Ra cult providing it with universal status as the conjoined god was considered to hold sway over conquered areas. As Tobin puts it, if the Egyptian Pharaoh is the acknowledged ruler of the world (sic) Egyptian gods must be universal gods. As chief god, therefore, Amun-Ra must be the controlling ultimate world force. As a sun god Amun-Ra easily assumed such prominence.


King as god:

This construct was essential to both religion and state, although they were not separate in Egyptian minds, formulated from the beginning or even prior to unification, providing authenticity and justification to political institutions but not eliminating dynamism from their day to day functions. Although already part of the cosmic order, the state was owned by the king, who was from the earliest times a deity. Sustaining this, the royal throne was personified as Isis and there is evidence that this was her original role (Tobin: page 8).

Over the 3,000 years of Egyptian history, from the pre-dynastic to the beginnings of the Christian era, perceptions of kingship and its relationship to the divine changed. Silverman (page 59) details these changes from the early epithet netjer (ntr), which directly referred to the king as a god, or referenced the king as a descendent of a god, usually son of Re (Ra), later terms such as tjt, image of a god were employed, and pr, referencing the palace, thereby kingship as corporate. At times kingship or kings were referred to as like (mj) a god. According to Silverman, these epithets were related to specific kinds of documents. When kingship emerged upon unification, although there were no doubt other prior examples related to smaller political units, it aided the king’s rule to be related to deities, not simply as an expression and confirmation of power, but also to enable the population to identify themselves with and within his person. Assuming godliness also enabled the population’s internalisation of the state as a geographic construction and force.

The connection between kingship and divinity was therefore never static and at times may have been routinely acknowledged without being accepted. Silverman (page 60) demonstrates that the successful Pharaoh Ramesses II, who had a cult worshipping him while he was alive, was referred to as ‘the general’ in a letter during his reign, and Hatshepsut (a rare example of a female pharaoh, was depicted engaging in sexual activity. According to Silverman (page 63), the king had to earn immortality was required to maintain ma’at, in that fashion functioning as a good king, presenting ma’at to the gods in order that they could live on it-connecting thereby human behaviour to godly survival, seen in the later Abrahamic religions where god (YHWH or Allah) becomes inordinately obsessed with all aspects of human activity, focussing narrowly upon worship of them and sexual activity with one another.

Mythic symbolism held that kingship had been established at the time of creation, when the sun god Atum-Ra/Re first became king of the universe making kings legitimate successors of the creator deity, kingship coming immediately after the reigns of Osiris and Horus. Into this myth, Re/Ra brought his daughter, Ma’at, who personified truth, justice and nature’s and society’s order. As above, he was succeeded by the great gods of the Ennead. When Egypt became united, c3100 BCE, kings’ names were preceded by the title Horus (Thomas: 25), thereby each king was considered the living Horus and a god on earth. From the Fourth Dynasty, kings added ‘Son of Re/Ra’ to their names and by the end of the Old Kingdom, with the expansion and influence of the Osiris cult, kings were seen as Horus, son of Osiris. Henceforth, when a king died he became Osiris and his son/or other claimant and successor became Horus. Divine births, whereby a god, temporarily transformed into the king, and the queen produced a future king, although this may have been a later convenience (Thomas:25). Tobin (41) mentions the connection of the king and Atum, the primaeval deity of Heliopolis later identified with Ra/Re, who represented wholeness, male/female together in a single generative force, the oneness of the divine life force and the life force itself, and the ascent of the new king, whereby the verb ‘to rise’ is employed both for Atum’s emergence from the primaeval waters and the kings assumption of power. The accession ritual of a new king became a repetition of the original creative act.

The divine nature of Egyptian kings put immense emphasis upon their health and wellbeing, representing the wellbeing of the state. Thomas (page 26) believes that in the early periods kings may have been killed when and if their health deteriorated, and, although abandoned in the Dynasty period, may have been symbolically retained in the Heb-sed or Jubliee period. Although king-sacrifice may have occurred in Mesopotamia, it was until the Akkad Empire the king’s fertility or sexual performance in a relationship with Inanna that was considered important. In each case, performing rituals correctly was crucial to their position.

As a god, the king could communicate with all other gods and acted as high priest for all the cults. He was the sole officiant in Temple or official rituals, although often a priest would represent him. Such practices have continued in monarchies up to the present where a king or queen represents a church. In theory, the king owned all the land, as opposed to Mesopotamia where ownership was assigned to the national god (s). In Egypt, the king usually assigned land to Temples and individuals (Thomas: 27).  

Although Tobin (page 89) considers the assassination of kings as abhorrent and profoundly unsettling to the Egyptians, the myth of Osiris’s murder either prepared them for the odd occurrence or allowed for the legitimate possibility. The myth can be seen as the state dismembered, its parts separated, being brought together again as a whole, thereby asserting the lingering possibility of revolution, usurpation and/or anarchy.

The above myths may have been subject to foreign influence, especially where family interaction replaces the transmission of ideas or the identification of cosmic or human-made forces. The king, as in Mesopotamia, was identified with fertility and was required to observe jubilees of revivification in order to ensure the land’s fertility and therein may lie mythical integrity unblemished by Sumerian-based corruption.



Tobin (1989) considers that Egyptian myths, in comparison to Greece, remain largely unknown although many ancient Egyptian texts contain references to myths. These have not come down to us. Tobin believes that an Egyptian reluctance to write myths down in their entirety demonstrates a desire to preserve the fluidity of religious concepts and not pin them down conclusively. Also, as ancient Egyptians ascribed immense power to words, the suspicion prevailed that reality could be constructed from their usage-particularly in story-telling. These papers placed under the single title ‘Ancient Fictionality’ concur with this view, demonstrating how the so-called holy books, subjected to processes of memory embedding and group identity enforcement through priests, prayer and ideology, provide an alternative reality that many vividly respond to.  

The only full account of the Osiris myth was apparently provided by Plutarch, and may therefore reflect Greek concepts of myths, not Egyptian. This may correspond to the desire of Egyptians to leave religion to symbolic interpretation, and that rationality, its properties of comparison and reflective response contained within writing, were not necessary. Contradictory myths prevailed, dependent upon location, reflecting different aspects of reality and adding to a complex understanding of the world. Myths were the imaginative response to rituals regarding fertility and the Nile, and introduction and demotion of gods/goddesses connected to ritual. Ions (1982: 11) describes Egyptian religion as not fixed or static, but requiring each believer to employ their imagination. Ions (page 11) believes that the enactment of a ritual was a reminder of a myth connected to the gods, and any deviation from the known ritual occasioned an alteration of the myth. Egyptian religion was symbolic, shifting and abstract conveyed through paintings, monuments, song, dance and writing.

Tobin (page 23) sees Egyptian myth as not taken nor to be taken literally, although this might be the case for all myths. Although Hebrew culture probably had myths, now mainly lost, early religious stories were believed upon transformation into history, embedded thereby in time combining reverence for ancestors and power of infinity.

Tobin holds that the concept embodied in a myth is believed not the symbol, which he considers the ‘articulation and expression of the concept.’ He points, as an example, to the myth of the goddess Nut, as cow or vulture, holding up the sky. This was not believed as a literal representation but accepted as part of nature’s mystic and divine order. It represented the divine creative force. But also surely Nut accounted for the physical nature of the phenomenon of atmosphere, not then identifiable in any other way, and the space between earth and sky. Placing this observation into deities elucidated the concept more, as it offered the observation within shared divine relationships of connection and dependency. Tobin suggests that the deities chosen reject any possibility of conflict or instability as Nut was a mother goddess, mother of Sun, Moon and heavenly bodies and Geb an earth god. Geb was portrayed as the second king after Atum-Ra/Re, both of which were symbolic of procreation and regeneration.

Relationships were equally apparent in the physical world, where gods/goddesses interacted with each other to create reality-or one popular form of it. The sky, see above, for example was seen as a goddess, a cow standing over the earth or a long woman held up by Shu, the wind or air. Beneath the sky-goddess was a circular sea in the centre of which was Geb, the earth-god. Waters from both the sea and the Nile flowed into the underworld. The sun-god had many names, as the disk he was called Aten, as the rising sun Khepri, a scarab beetle rolling the sun before him, at the sun’s zenith it was called Ra, turning into an old man as it set called Atum. At times, when associated with Ra, he was called Horus, the youthful sun creeping along the horizon. Other myths were mixed up within this thoughtful image of the known world in which every alteration is named and connected to other alterations.

A myth entitled ‘The Deliverance of Mankind’ or ‘The Destruction of Mankind ‘was discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb on the wooden wall surrounding his sarcophagus and also in the Valley of the Kings. It was it seems employed as a magic incantation to protect the king’s body and prevent desecration (Thomas: 36). The narrative begins after Ra/Re had created the world and also, from his tears, mankind. In his old age (end of the day), the god realised that humankind had begun to conspire against him and promptly summoned a council of all the gods. Nun, the primordial deity, urged Ra/Re to use his Eye, the Sun, to exact vengeance on the rebels, sending the Eye in the person of, unusually given her usual nurturing, peaceful nature, Hathor. The goddess took to her assigned task with apparent gusto, killing even those who fled into the desert. At this point, Re/Ra relents and, in order to stop Hathor’s murderous activity, has red ochre scattered over Egypt by the High Priest of Heliopolis. Completely deceived by this ruse, Hathor began drinking until she became so drunk humankind’s treachery was soon forgotten.

While this was a relatively new origin myth for Egyptian culture, combining (Thomas: 37) Hathor with alcohol, it appears to have been taken from or influenced by Mesopotamian cultures, bearing more than a slight resemblance to Enkil and the flood stories contained within The Epic of Atrahasis, and involving the common Mesopotamian connection between drunkenness and the gods.

Thomas (37: 38) notes several other myths allied to the above. After the detailed events above, Re/Ra begins to feel old and Nun bids Nut, the sky goddess, in the shape of a cow, to transport him above the earth, causing light’s division into day and night. As Nut began suffering from vertigo, Re/Ra made pillars to hold her up instructing Shu, the air, to stand between her and the earth-thereby providing support. Interposed is the myth on Re/Ra’s time in the underworld.

Within a considerable number of myths, there are a number that are pertinent to these papers. In addition to the attributes of the above creator myths, Heliopolis may be where priestly religion, distinguished by monumental buildings and writing, first developed, dating from pre-history. Here perhaps the concept of Nun originated, although it looks remarkably like Apsu, except in gender.

Other myths were probably employed by Hebrew writers in constructing YHWH. In one instance this involved the power of Re/Ra’s divine/secret name, an essential part of the YHWH myth. Re/Ra possessed many forms (seen wisely as symbolic interpretations and paradigms) and names. Seventy-four were listed in the Litany of Re/Ra. Also he possessed a true name, known only to himself-an ‘I am who I am.’ Isis, in this particular myth, was an ordinary woman who wished to increase her magic powers and become a god, joining the Egyptian pantheon(s) in order to rule over them (Thomas: 40). In order to achieve this, she decided to learn Re/Ra’s secret name, thereby acquiring at a stroke his immense power. At this time, Re/Ra, ruling on earth, was living in his Heliopolis palace.

Each day, Re/Ra went out in his boat with his scribe to tour Egypt to make sure all was well, staying for an hour in each province. As he was getting old he had a tendency to slobber. Isis, lingering nearby, collected some of his saliva from the ground and constructed a serpent. When Re/Ra came out the following day the waiting snake bit him. Re/Ra fell to the ground in immense pain and none of the other gods could help him. Isis stepped into the breach, which she had herself made, offering to help him but only if he told her his secret name. Re/Ra thereby reeled off epithets he employed as a creator god. Absorbed in his pain, he relinquished his true name and all his power passed into Isis. Re/Ra informed her that she could pass-on his name to her son, Horus, only. From that point on, when the solar god was in the sky Horus became the living god, the ruler, on earth.

Any analysis of this myth is subject to guesswork, nevertheless four possible points can be made, 1) the myth further clarifies the association of Horus and Isis with kingship, 2) indicates anxiety over powerful women in court and also asserts the traditional seniority of men, 3) may allude to conflict between the Re/Ra cult, seen as the state religion, and that of Osiris, as the cult of the people, an apparently common perception but as the Osiris cult was linked to burial practices of the rich and powerful may in fact indicate early political rivalries. F.W. Read, writing in Egyptian Religion and Ethics[25], references the conflict between the Osirian and Solar faiths (although cults would be a better description as neither contained the belief systems of present faiths), which he notes as arising in prehistoric times. He follows Breasted in assigning state faith to Re/Ra corpus and the Osiris cult that of the people. Evidence suggests that Osiris had become an accepted state cult by the 19th Dynasty.

Osiris was in some text considered the great-grandson of Re/Ra, grandson of Shu, and the first son of Geb and Nut. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is shown as the king after Geb, marrying Isis, his sister. According to the myth, Osiris was a good king who organised agriculture, religious and secular life for his subjects, and who, assisted by Isis, his vizier Thoth and officials Anubis and Wepwawet (both previous gods of the dead) made peaceful (?) foreign conquests (Thomas: page 43). Seth, his younger brother, motivated by jealousy, desired Osiris’ power and privilege. When Osiris returned from a trip abroad Seth organised a banquet, and inviting Osiris, manned it with seventy-two accomplices. A beautifully decorated casket was introduced into the feast and Seth proclaimed that whoever could fit into it could take it as theirs. Of course, it fitted Osiris neatly, as it was made to do. The casket was immediately closed and fastened down securely. It was thrown into the Nile, to be carried out into the Mediterranean Sea and hopefully lost forever. The casket landed on the Syrian shore near the city of Byblos, by a tamarisk tree, which absorbed the casket inside its trunk. Noticed by the king of Byblos the tree was cut down and made into a column to support the hall roof of his palace.

By then Isis, hearing of Seth’s appalling act, went in search of her husband. Eventually she removed the palace column, returning with it to Egypt. She hid it in the marshes of the Nile Delta. One night Isis left Osiris’ body unattended and it was discovered by Seth who promptly cut it up into fourteen pieces, creating thereby Osiris’s mummified form, which he placed throughout Egypt. Isis and Nephthys, Seth’s wife, who disapproved of his actions, searched for the body-parts finding all except, according to Plutarch, his penis that had been devoured by Nile fish. Magically, Isis created a substitute. Two separate versions have 1) Osiris’ body-parts buried where each was found and 2) re-joined to create a mummy, performing rites that gave Osiris eternal life. As he was no longer truly alive, Osiris became permanent ruler of the dead.

Horus eventually revenged his father and after a number of awful battles defeated Seth and took the throne. The Triumph of Horus over his Enemies can be seen in relief on the inner face of the great girdle wall of Horus’ Ptolemaic temple, copied from papyri dated back to the New Kingdom, and perhaps even further back to the Third Dynasty. The Edfu inscriptions served as a religious drama acted outside of the temple.

The myth can further be described as 1) the aetiology of the spread of the Osiris cult, 2) of the dislike of Seth, the lord of desert, mists, darkness and sandstorms, 3) the vibrant nature of rule, 4) an introduction to notions of good and evil as opposite spectrums of infertility and fertility.

According to Bojana Mojsov,[26]the myth of Osiris can be placed at the heart of ancient Egypt, can be traced back to prehistory, and represents fertility and the Nile. The sacrifice of the king, ‘Son of the Nile and Father of the Tribe’, (Mojsov: 2005: xii),  reflects Egyptian dependence on the Nile in a land of low rainfall. Osiris was buried when the Nile flood abated, before ploughing began, and at harvest time Isis breathed life back into his body and together they engendered a son. According to Mojsov, Horus was the Saviour Child of light born, with the sun, at the winter solstice-precursor of Christ and Christian concepts of both death and understanding. Osiris’ growth in popularity increased his roles. Every year in Abydos his death and resurrection after three days (Christ’s precursor yet again) were celebrated. Isis came to be worshiped as the Primordial Virgin and Horus as the Saviour of the World.

Seth was in many ways Osiris’, Isis’ and Horus’ opposite- for where they created, Seth brought darkness and infertility. He was the Satan to the Father god of Jesus and the Jesus figure himself.  The Nile became a divinity, presented as Hapi, portly with sagging breasts.



Mojsov (2005: xii) holds that it was in Egypt between 30 BCE and 394 AD that the Christian religion was formed, created by Egyptian, Greek and Jewish philosophers upon the paradigms of Osiris-described it seems by Carl Jung as ‘the Patriarch of all the Near Eastern saviour-figures.’ In this approach, Jesus can be viewed as Horus, while Mary (barely mentioned in the Gospels) fills the role of Isis. God is thereby Osiris. This can perhaps only be taken so far, no matter its clear merits, as the Gospels, if the wizardry of Jesus is put aside as a likely redaction, mainly record a preaching career. Muhammed’s doing away with theology left nevertheless ambiguous symbolism based upon the here and now of political events. Yet, clearly the Saviour construct appears fully formed in Osiris, Isis and Horus, with Jesus exampling each, the good king (also to be seen in Gilgamesh), the shepherd (also strongly relevant in Mesopotamian secular ideas), with Jesus, like Horus, epitomised as the light in the darkness-his antithesis Seth or Satan. Jesus too examples the resurrected god, dying in order that others can live. Jesus as with mummified Egyptians kings retains his complete body in death, it neither lacks body parts or is subject to corruption, prophesying through his later acolytes’ that all who believe in him can anticipate resurrection of the complete body. As with the Egyptians, the difference between life and death is merely separation through words and time. Examples of this process of death and resurrection were the Mesopotamian Dummuz and Phrygian Attis, and, of course Re/Ra who grew old and died each day.   

The god of the Hebrews and Christianity, although they are actually very different and are alike only in their monotheism, or apparent monotheism, can be likened to Ptah and Atum in that he creates from his own will and is at one point material and at another precedes his material form. In fact, like Ptah YHWH conceives the material world both within and without, being clearly substance in an environment seemingly without substance. He, like Ptah, is a god of thought bringing the material world, fauna and flora, into existence through words. Except for after the flood, YHWH appears to do nothing more and is simply a deity that shapes the tribes attached to him to his, often unedifying, will. It is interesting that the Abrahamic gods are normally nasty, while the Egyptian gods rarely are but, equally, they do not have the same connection to human kind, primarily concerned with the universe requiring humankind only to contain it.



The crucial impact of symbols on Egyptian thinking, which, according to Lamy (1981) resembled a science, goes hand in hand with the Egyptian evaluation of writing as perceived by Jan Assmann.[27]Quirke[28] calls this process poetic metaphor employing the lion-headed woman symbol as an example of Ra/Re’s fury (2015: 32). Quirke holds that written sources were employed to interpret the visual forms-symbols. For Quirke, the cow form can be linked to maternal love as the hieroglyphic (33) ‘writing of the verb ames,” to care for”, ends with the hieroglyph of a cow turning to lick the calf at her udder’ identifying not behaviour, thought and feeling  the force behind each. As the force expresses the divine, in Hathor the quadruple statue-referencing all such phenomenon whether in plastic or one dimensional form-a construct found in several Egyptian temples (Quirke: 2015: 33), involves the single name, Hathor, displaying subsets of meaning, while in Creator gods the multiple is merged into a single, opening up the possibility of fusion. One example is Amun-Re/Ra. Quirke provides Horus as an example of one becoming many, resulting in a number of revered deities indicating evolved divine forces. The reader must bear in mind that these divine forces are transmissions or transmitters of information and knowledge, not just playful metaphors leading only to constructs of worship, they lead instead to association with other forces thereby revealing identifying thought processes requiring only, in some extreme instances, decoding.

A few tweaks can demonstrate the similarity between Egyptian communication of intellectual energy and that of the present day, if a symbol was produced for science, for example, and then additional subsets of science produced symbols associated with the core symbols. These would express a shared concept of science, with the subsets expanding that core concept. We merely add additional data, referencing that and other data in a manner akin to Mesopotamian communication and understanding.

In the construction of literature, Assmann singles out a group of early Egyptian priests charged with reciting sacred texts for a royal and non-royal death cult. These texts, he states, are transformative and intended to bring into a state called akh. If these texts were recited with strict accuracy, expressed correctly, by a ritually prepared, pure, and authorised speaker then transfiguration occurs. In effect, Assmann explicates the inherent symbolism of religious performance, with for example ritual cloaking (in his terms sensus literalis-according with literal perception, a cloak-is-a-cloak according physical functions that are easily understood) and its sensus mysticus meaning-that the cloak is an embrace. The sensus mysticus he places on a higher level, although why is not really clear, except observers require instruction in ritual. Such behaviour is not unusual to Egypt but can be seen in Palaeolithic humans too and also in present human behaviour. The wafer and wine in Roman Catholic ritual represents the flesh (odd surely) and blood of Christ doing so in sensus literalis and sensus mysticus, being both actual and not.  In Assmann’s fully justified view, a donning of the robe within the cult of a death-cult becomes the embrace of a god or dead father. Relationships become ritually enacted. According to Assmann (page 15), the recitation of the text, combined with its sacramental explication, provides two spheres of meaning.

Assmann then embeds his case (page 15), not in effect difficult to prove, by referencing dialogues, discovered in the coffin texts. Assmann notes that these are ‘initiatory interrogations’ expected within any cult.

Religio Duplex determines that two meanings, in different language styles, can be found in religions. In a church, meaning for example, tends to be provided by a vicar/pastor/preacher in well-chewed clichés that can be understood and assimilated. They are a world away from the intellectual insights of the Fathers and of more recent Christian theorists. When a preacher, for example, intones that ‘God is Love’ the congregation repeats the assertion back, feel commendably warm, but not truly understand all the possible interpretations. They feel in fact a good father’s love and care, the nurturing, a rich paradigm that comes from Mesopotamian kingship. A sense of being protected. The psychological consequence of positive thoughts and feelings. But Assmann means more than that, as for him the words in rites and rituals were perhaps wholly separate from more populous versions of worship, as they contained powerful thoughts and ideas involved in the preservation of the dead, of the sun and of society. In Egyptian religion, secrecy, the unspoken had immense, enduring power.   

We arrive tentatively here at the matter of Egyptian literature, of the sacred and magical texts employed able to promote cosmic harmony and balance, keeping chaos at bay, of how literature was regarded as a source of cosmic or solar energy (Savage, 2014). In Egyptian religion, Ptah created the world with words, and words thereby are each powerful in the construction and containment of reality. Hieroglyphics means ‘divine word’, and represents the language of the gods.

As this section comes to an end it is worth before doing so to consider the apparent lack of a systemic belief system in ancient Egyptian religion, although the idea of forces underpins most of the symbols, certainly compared to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In all these religions the belief system represents narrow ideologies based upon power with a single figure-head-although Christianity is considerably more complex. Monotheism tends to provide a single point of reference often unmediated by other reference points but instead reflected upon and refreshed by endless writings. Subsets nevertheless can be seen in all three, reflected in literary variety, Mary mother of god, John the Baptist, Muhammed, Qur’an and Arabic national identity, each of which reflects aspects of the core ideology. Nevertheless, these papers assert that the belief systems are not necessarily a good thing, but in fact have caused immense misery over many thousands of years and are still doing so. It is worth comparing in this vein Egyptian ethics, secular in nature, with that of the Abrahamic religions, sourced as the latter often are from priestly ideologies of power, rejection of common sexuality and paradigms of control.

Here is an example of Egyptian ethical standards, containing indeed the precursor to Abrahamic ethics from which those religions borrowed extensively claiming after that each was god’s words or wording. From the Teaching of Amenemipet, a literary composition extant from the early first millennium BCE.

Do not mock the blind, or torment the dwarf,
Do not inflict hardship on the lame.
Do not torment one who is in the hand of god,
Or become angry with him for his slips.
People are clay and straw-god is the builder.

These ideals of love and acceptance, seen within Christianity (which probably obtained it from Egypt), but seen only conditionally within Islam and Judaism, expresses ideas that supersede all three while preceding all three. The impetus behind these instructions may have been the otherness of the afflicted within Egyptian culture based upon the physical ideals underlying cults of the next world, there is debatable evidence that some were excluded and bullied (Quirke: 2015: 49), but still it shines like a powerful light in an otherwise brutal world that lay beyond Egypt. 





It was in the three hundred and sixty-third year of the reign of the God Ra-Horakhti[30] upon earth that the great war happened between Horus and Set.

The Majesty of the God Ra, whom men call Ra-Horakhti also, was in Nubia with his army, a great and innumerable multitude of soldiers, footmen and horsemen, archers and chariots. He came in his Boat upon the river; the prow of the Boat was of palm-wood, its stern was of acacia-wood, and he landed at Thest-Hor, to the east of the Inner Waters. And to him came Horus of Edfu, he whose name is Harpooner and Hero[31], seeking for that Wicked One, Set,[32] the murderer of Osiris. Long had he sought, but Set had ever eluded him.

The Majesty of Ra had gathered his forces, for Set had rebelled against him, and Horus was glad at the thought of battle, for he loved an hour of fighting more than a day of rejoicing.[33] He entered into the presence of Thoth, the twice great, god of magic, and Thoth gave him the power to change himself into a great winged disk, a disk that glowed like a ball of fire, with great wings on either side like the colours of the sky at sunset when the blue shades from dark to light, and is shot with gold and flame.[34] Men try to copy these hues when they carve the winged disk above the temple-doors, or make it into a breast-ornament of gold inlaid with turquoise and carnelian and lazuli.

Thus Horus, as a great winged disk, sat on the prow of the Boat of Ra, and his splendour flashed across the waters and fell upon his foes as they lay in ambush. Upon his glorious wings he rose into the air, and against his crafty enemies he made a curse, a curse terrible and fear-striking, saying, "Your eyes shall be blinded, and ye shall not see; and your ears shall be deaf, and ye shall not hear."

And at once, when each man looked at his neighbour, he saw a stranger; and when he heard his own familiar mother-tongue it sounded like a foreign language, and they cried out that they were betrayed, and that the enemy had come among them. They turned their weapons each against the other, and in the quickness of a moment many had ceased to live, and the rest had fled, while over them flew the gleaming Disk watching for Set. But Set was in the marshes of the North Country and these were but his advance-guard.

Then Horus flew back to Ra, and Ra embraced him and gave him a draught of wine mixed with water. And to this day men pour a libation of wine and water to Horus at this place in remembrance.[35] When Horus had drunk the wine, he spoke to the Majesty of Ra and said, "Come and see thine enemies, how they lie overthrown in their blood." Ra came, and with him came Astarte, Mistress of Horses, driving her furious steeds; and they saw the corpse-strewn field where the army of Set had slain one another.

Now this is the first encounter in the South, but the last great battle was not yet.

Then the associates of Set came together and took counsel, and took upon themselves the likeness of crocodiles and hippopotamuses, for these great beasts can live under water and no human weapon can pierce their hides. They came up the river, the water swirling behind them, and rushed upon the Boat of Ra to overturn it. But Horus had gathered together his band of armourers and weapon-smiths, and they had prepared arrows and spears of metal, smelted and welded, hammered and shaped, with magical words and spells chanted over them. When the fierce beasts came up the river in waves of foam, the Followers of Horus drew their bowstrings and let fly their arrows, they cast their javelins, and charged with their spears. And the metal pierced the hides and reached the hearts, and of these wicked animals six hundred and fifty were slain, and the rest fled.

Now this is the second encounter in the South, but the last great battle was not yet.

The associates of Set fled, some up the river and some down the river; their hearts were weak and their feet failed for fear of Horus, the Harpooner, the Hero. And those whose faces were towards the South Land fled fastest, for Horus was at their back in the Boat of Ra; and with him came his Followers, their weapons in their hands.

At the south-east of Denderah, the city of Hathor, Horus saw the enemy, and he rushed upon them with his Followers, while Ra and Thoth watched the conflict as they waited in the Boat.

Then said the Majesty of Ra to Thoth, "See, how he wounds his enemies! See, how Horus of Edfu carries destruction among them!" And afterwards men built a shrine in this place in remembrance of the fight, and the Gods in the shrine were Ra and Min and Horus of Edfu[36].

Now this is the third encounter in the South, but the last great battle was not yet.

Then quickly they turned the Boat, and swiftly was it carried downstream, following the fugitives, whose faces were towards the North Land. For a night and a day they followed after, and at the north-east of Denderah Horus saw them. And he made haste, he and his Followers, and fell upon them, and slew them. Great and terrible was the slaughter as he drove them before him.

Thus was destroyed Set's army in the South in four great encounters, but the last great battle was not yet.[37]

Now the allies of Set turned their faces towards the lake and towards the marshes of the sea. Horus came behind them in the Boat of Ra, and his form was the form of a great winged disk; and with him came his Followers, their weapons in their hands. Then Horus commanded silence, and silence was upon their mouths.

Four days and four nights were they upon the water seeking the enemy. But none did they find, for their foes had turned their shapes into the shapes of crocodiles and hippopotamuses, and lay hidden in the water. On the morning of the fifth day Horus saw them; at once he gave battle, and the air was filled with the noise of the combat, while Ra and Thoth watched the conflict as they waited in the Boat.

Then the Majesty of Ra cried aloud when he saw Horus like a devouring flame upon the battlefield, "See, how he casts his weapon against them, he kills them, he destroys them with his sword, he cuts them in pieces, he utterly defeats them! See and behold Horus of Edfu!" At the end of the fight Horus came back in triumph and he brought one hundred and forty-two prisoners to the Boat of Ra.

Now this is the first encounter in the North, but the last great battle was not yet.

For the enemies, who were upon the Northern Waters, turned their faces towards the canal to reach the sea, and they came to the Western Waters of Mert, where the Ally of Set had his dwelling. Behind them followed Horus, equipped with all his glittering weapons, and he went in the Boat of Ra, and Ra was in the Boat with eight of his train. They were upon the Northern Canal, and backwards and forwards they went, turning and re-turning, but nothing did they see or hear. Then they went northward for a night and a day and they came to the House of Rerhu.

There Ra spoke to Horus and said, "Behold, thy enemies are gathered together at the Western Waters of Mert, where dwell the Allies of Set." And Horus of Edfu prayed the Majesty of Ra to come in his Boat against the Allies of Set.

Again they travelled to the northwards, where the never-setting Stars wheel round a certain point in the sky, and on the banks of the Western Waters of Mert were the Allies of Set, ready for battle. Then Horus of Edfu delayed not a moment, but rushed upon the foe, and with him came his Followers, their weapons in their hands. Death and destruction they dealt to right and to left till the enemy fled before them. When the conflict was over, they counted the prisoners; three hundred and eighty-one were taken, and these Horus slew before the Boat of Ra, and their weapons he gave to his Followers.

Now this is the second encounter in the North, but the last great battle was not yet.

And now, at last, Set himself came forth from his hiding-place. Fierce and savage he is, cunning and cruel; in his nature like a beast of prey, without ruth or pity; and men make his image with the head of a wild beast, for human feeling is to him unknown. From his hiding-place he came forth and he roared terribly. The earth and the heavens trembled at the sound of his roaring and at the words which he uttered, for he boasted that he would himself fight against Horus and destroy him as he had destroyed Osiris.

The wind bore the words of his boasting to Ra, and Ra said to Thoth the twice great, Lord of Magic and Wisdom, "Cause that these high words of the Terrible One be cast down."

Then Horus of Edfu sprang forward and rushed at his enemy, and a great fight raged. Horus cast his weapon and killed many, and his Followers fought also and prevailed. Out of the dust and the noise of the combat came Horus, dragging a prisoner; and the captive's arms were bound behind him, and the staff of Horus was tied across his mouth so that he could make no sound, and the weapon of Horus was at his throat.

Horus dragged him before the Majesty of Ra. And Ra spoke and said to Horus, "Do with him as thou wilt." Then Horus fell upon his enemy, and struck the weapon into his head and into his back, and cut off his head, and dragged the body about by the feet, and at last he cut the body into pieces. Thus did he treat the body of his adversary as Set had treated the body of Osiris. This took place on the seventh day of the first month of the season when the earth appears after the inundation.[38] And the lake is called the Lake of Fighting to this day.

Now this is the third encounter in the North. but the last great battle was not yet.

For it was the Ally of Set whom Horus had slain, and Set himself was still alive, and he raged against Horus as a panther of the South. And he stood up and roared in the face of heaven, and his voice was the voice of thunder, and as he roared he changed himself into a great snake, and entered into the earth. None saw him go and none saw him change, but he was fighting against the Gods, and by their power and knowledge are they aware of what comes to pass, though no man tells them. And Ra said to Horus, "Set has transformed himself into a hissing snake and has entered the earth.[39] We must cause that he never comes forth; never, never no more!"

The associates of Set took courage, knowing that their leader was alive, and they assembled again, and their boats filled the canal. The Boat of Ra went against them, and above the Boat shone the glory of the great winged Disk. When Horus saw the enemy gathered together in one place, he drove at them and routed them and slew them without number.

Now this is the fourth encounter in the North, but the last great battle was not yet.

Then Horus of Edfu remained in the Boat of Ra upon the canal for six days and six nights, watching for the enemy, but he saw none, for they lay as corpses in the water.

And to this day men make ceremonies in remembrance of the Battles of Horus on the first day of the first month of the inundation, on the seventh day of the first month of the appearing of the earth after the inundation, and on the twenty-first and twenty-fourth days of the second month of the earth's appearing. These days are kept holy at Ast-abt, which is at the south side of Anrudef, where is one of the graves of Osiris. And Isis made magical spells round Anrudef that no enemy might come near it; and the priestess of Anrudef is called "The Lady of Spells" to this day in remembrance; and the waters are called "The Waters of Seeking," for there it was that Horus sought for his foe.

And Horus sent out his Followers, and they hunted down the enemy, and brought in prisoners; one hundred and six from the East and one hundred and six from the West. These they slew before Ra in the sanctuaries.[40]

Then Ra gave to Horus and his fighters two cities which are called the Mesen-cities to this day, for the Followers of Horus are Mesenti, the Metalworkers. In the shrines of the Mesen-cities Horus is the God, and his secret ceremonies are held on four days in the year. Great and holy are these days in the Mesen-cities, for they are in remembrance of the Battles of Horus which he fought against Set, the murderer of Osiris.

Now these enemies, they gathered again in the East, and they travelled towards Tharu. Then was launched the Boat of Ra to follow after them, and Horus of Edfu transformed himself into the likeness of a lion with the face of a man; his arms were like flint, and on his head was the Atef-crown, which is the white diadem of the South Land with feathers and horns, and on either side a crowned serpent. And he hastened after his enemies, and defeated them, and brought of prisoners one hundred and forty-two.

Then said Ra to Horus of Edfu, "Let us journey northwards to the Great Green Waters, and smite the foe there as we have smitten him in Egypt."

Northwards they went, and the enemy fled before them, and they reached the Great Green Waters, where the waves broke on the shore with the noise of thunder. Then Thoth arose and he stood in the midst of the Boat, and he chanted strange words over the boats and barges of Horus and his Followers, and the sea fell calm as the sound of the words floated across its waves. And there was silence on the Great Green Waters, for the wind was lulled, and naught was in sight save the boats of Ra and of Horus.

Then said the Majesty of Ra, "Let us sail round the whole extent of the land, let us sail to the South Land." And they knew that Ra was aware of the enemy. They made haste and sailed to the South Land by night, to the country of Ta-kens, and they came to the town of Shaïs, but until they reached Shaïs they saw naught of any enemy. Now Shaïs is on the border of Nubia, and in Nubia were the guards of the enemy.

Then Horus of Edfu changed himself into a great winged Disk with gleaming pinions outspread, and on either side of him came the goddesses Nekhbet and Uazet, and their form was the form of great hooded snakes with crowns upon their heads; on the head of Nekhbet was the white crown of the South Land, on the head of Uazet was the red crown of the North Land.

And the Gods in the Boat of Ra cried aloud and said, "See, O Thou who art twice great, he has placed himself between the two goddesses. Behold how he overthrows his adversaries and destroys them."

Now this is the encounter in Nubia, but the last great battle was not yet.

Then came Ra in his Boat and he moored at Thest-Hor, and he gave commandment that in every temple throughout the Two Lands men should carve the Winged Disk, and on the right and left of the Disk should be Nekhbet and Uazet as great hooded snakes with crowns upon their heads. And the temple at the point of Thest-Hor is called "The House of Horus in the South" to this day in remembrance, and a great offering is made there to Ra and Horus. And Ra gave to Horus the province of the House of Fighting, and Ast-Abt, and the Mesen-cities of the East and the West, and Edfu of the North, and Tharu, and Gauti, and the Sea of Sailing, and Upper Shasu, and Edfu-of-the-House-of-Ra. And from the lake south of Edfu-of-the-House-of-Ra they bring water to the two Houses of the King on the day of the Sed-festival. And Isis carried Ar-stone of sand to Thest-Hor—Ar-stone of the Star was it; and in every place in the South Land to which Horus went, there is Ar-stone found to this day.

Now some say that the last great battle is still to come, and that in the end Horus will kill Set, and that Osiris and all the Gods will reign on earth when their enemy is utterly destroyed. But others say that the battle is already ended and that Horus slew the great and wicked Foe who had wrought misery and calamity to all.

And this is what they say: After months and years Horus the Child grew to manhood. Then came Set with his allies, and he challenged Horus in the presence of Ra, And Horus came forth, his Followers with him in their boats, with their armour, and their glittering weapons with handles of worked wood, and their cords, and their spears.

And Isis made golden ornaments for the prow of the boat of Horus, and she laid them in their places with magic words and spells, saying, "Gold is at the prow of thy boat, O Lord of Mesen, Horus, Chieftain of the boat, the great boat of Horus, the boat of rejoicing. May the valour of Ra, the strength of Shu, power and fear be around thee. Thou art victorious, O son of Osiris, son of Isis, for thou fightest for the throne of thy father."

Then Set took upon himself the form of a red hippopotamus, great and mighty, and he came from the South Land with his Allies, travelling to the North Land to meet Horus of Edfu. And at Elephantine, Set stood up and spoke a great curse against Horus of Edfu and against Isis, and said, "Let there come a great wind, even a furious north-wind and a raging tempest"; and the sound of his voice was like thunder in the East of the sky. His words were cried from the southern heaven and rolled back to the northern heaven, a word and a cry from Set, the enemy of Osiris and the Gods.

At once a storm broke over the boats of Horus and his Followers, the wind roared, and the water was lashed into great waves, and the boats were tossed like straws. But Horus held on his way; and through the darkness of the storm[41] and the foam of the waves gleamed the golden prow like the rays of the sun.

And Horus took upon himself the form of a young man; his height was eight cubits; in his hand he held a harpoon, the blade was four cubits, the shaft twenty cubits, and a chain of sixty cubits was welded to it.[42] Over his head he brandished the weapon as though it were a reed, and he launched it at the great red hippopotamus which stood in the deep waters, ready to destroy Horus and his Followers when the storm should wreck their boats.

And at the first cast the weapon struck deep into the head of the great red hippopotamus and entered the brain. Thus died Set, that great and wicked One, the enemy of Osiris and the Gods.

And to this day the priests of Horus of Edfu, and the King's daughters, and the women of Busiris and the women of Pé chant a hymn and strike the drum for Horus in triumph.

And this is their song: "Rejoice, O women of Busiris! Rejoice, O women of Pé! Horus has overthrown his enemies!

"Exult, dwellers in Edfu! Horus, the great God, Lord of heaven, has smitten the enemy of his father!

"Eat ye the flesh of the vanquished, drink ye his blood, burn ye his bones in the flame of the fire. Let him be cut in pieces, and let his bones be given to the cats, the fragments of him to the reptiles.

"O Horus, the Striker, the great One of Valour, the Slayer, the Chief, of the Gods, the Harpooner, the Hero, the only begotten, Captor of captives, Horus of Edfu, Horus the Avenger!

"He has destroyed the wicked One, he has made a whirlpool with the blood of his enemy, his shaft has made a prey. Behold ye, see ye Horus at the prow of his boat. Like Ra, he shines on the horizon. He is decked in green linen, in binding linen, in fine linen and byssus. The double diadem is upon thy head, the two serpents upon thy brow, O Horus the Avenger!

"Thy harpoon is of metal, the shaft is of the sycomore of the desert, the net is woven by Hathor of the Roses. Thou hast aimed to the right, thou hast cast to the left. We give praise to thee to the height of heaven, for thou hast chained the wickedness of thine enemy. We give praise to thee, we worship thy majesty, O Horus of Edfu, Horus the Avenger!"


Other Horus and Seth myths:

In the Pyramid Texts, Horus takes his uncle’s testicles, representing his power, as Seth takes one of Horus’ eyes, representing Horus’ Falcon vision and clarity of thought. After, all offerings in the Horus’ cult can be seen as replacing his lost eye. In one section, Seth rapes Horus, an act of dominance and superiority sometimes done to surrendering enemy soldiers, and Isis tricks her brother into eating his own semen. When Seth attempts to demonstrate to the divine tribunal his power over Horus by making his semen visible, it appears on Seth not Horus, thereby humiliating himself.

The battles take place all over Egypt in identifiable landmarks, similar to the story of Abraham where the sites reference places of interest to its probable 4th century writers.

[1] Bleeker, C. J. Dr. Hathor and Thoth. Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. 1973. Leiden. E.J. Brill. Page 3.

[2] http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterFive/AncientEgyptianDynasties.htm

[3] Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: Vol.11 The New Kingdom. 1976. University of California Press. Page 3.

[4] Ancient Egyptian Religion. 1948. P. 124.

[5] Delved into by Stephen Quirke in Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt, 2015, Wiley Blackwell, page 113.

[6] Bleeker, C. J. Hathor and Thoth, Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. 1973. Leiden E. J. Brill. Page 3.

[7] Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. 1989. American University Studies. Series VII Theology and Religion. Vol. 59. Peter Lang. Bern. Frankfurt am Main.Paris

[8] Ancient Egyptian Religion. 1948. Columbia University Press.

[9] Silverman. David P. Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt, Byron E. ed. Religion in Ancient Egypt. Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. 1991. Cornel University Press. Ithaca and Methuen-London. Pages 16-17.

[10] Cornell University Press. 1973. Trans. Anne E. Keep.

[11] The Mind of Egypt. Trans. Jenkins, Andrew. 1996. Metropolitan Books. Henry Holt and Company. New York. Page 74.

[12] Thomas, Angela P. Egyptians Gods and Myths. Shire Egyptology. Shire Publications. Aylesbury, Bucks. Page 7.

[13] Ancient Egyptian Religion. 1992. British Museum Press. Page 16.

[14] Thomas, Angela. P. Egyptian G ods and Myths. 1986. Shire Egyptology. Shire Publications. Aylesbury, Bucks. Page 7.

[15] Tobin, Vincent Arieh. Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. 1989. Peter Lang. New York-Bern-Frankfort am Main-Paris. Page 12.

[16] Reflecting elements of the sun, he was also Re/Ra.

[17] Divinities and Dieties in Ancient Egypt. 1991. Shafer, Byron E editor. Religion in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press.

[18] Anthes, R. Egyptian Theology in the Third Millenium BC. JNES XVIII (1959) : 168-212.

[19] Lamy, Lucie. New Light on Ancient Knowledge. Egyptian Mysteries. 1981. Thames and Hudson. Page 9.

[20] Lamy, Lucie. New Light on Ancient Knowledge. Egyptian Mysteries. 1981. Thames and Hudson. Page 9.

[21] Lamy: 11.

[22] Kurt. Amun and the eight primordial gods of Hermopolis: an investigation into the origin and the nature of the Egyptian king of the gods. 1984.  H. Abraham.

[23] Lamy, Lucie. Egyptian Mysteries. New light on ancient knowledge. 1981. Thames and Hudson. Page 9.

[24] Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. 1982. Hamlyn publishing group ltd. London-New York-Sydney-Toronto. Page 8.

[25] Watts and Co. 1925: page 85.

[26] Osiris Death and Afterlife of a God. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.


[28] Quirke, Stephen. Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt. 2015. Wiley Blackwell.

[29] http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/ael/ael11.htm

[30] A Re/Ra and Horus syncretisation showing Re/Ra as his kingly materialisation. The name means the light of the sun on the horizon, or its materialisation, linking Horus to Re/Ra’s earthly materialisation in kingly form.

[31] Physical aspects of Horus specific for that event or for the battle as a whole.

[32] Set’s designation as ‘wicked’ presents a new paradigm. Here the best way of describing it is within the dichotomies of destructive/constructive, fertility/infertility. As Horus represents the state, threats to the state are ‘wicked’.

[33] One aspect of Horus.

[34] Manifestation of force.

[35] Explaining the origin of a ritual.

[36] Perpetual presence or aspects.

[37] Clearly appears to recollect early civil war or war of unity.

[38] Evidence of ritual to do with Nile flooding.

[39] Associated with serpent in Eden and snake in Gilgamesh.

[40] Perhaps memories of human sacrifice.

[41] Phenomenon associated with Seth.

[42] Of course, another aspect of Horus-as young man. As with many ancient Mesopotamian epics, there is a superhero quality to the ancient gods and heroes.

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin is a freelance lecturer and education consultant working in London
Stanley Wilkin

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