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How “African” Was Ancient Egyptian Spirituality? 1

In this post and the next I want to examine the religiosity of ancient Egypt in order to see to what extent it may reflect the world view discernible in much later cultures of sub-Saharan Africa.

Christians and Africa

In How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (InterVarsity, 2007), Thomas Oden writes,

There is an enduring pre-Christian traditional African religious past in the north of Africa during the entire first Christian millennium: Pharaonic, proto-Nubian [sic], Libyan, Capsian [sic] and Ghanian, reaching far back into African prehistory. It remains indigenously African even while being militarily forced to adapt to multiple colonial coercions. Early Christianity had to deal with these deeply ingrained traditional African cultures in the isolated villages of the Maghreb and Nile, not only with Greco-Roman civic religion. It was the strength of that traditional African religion transformed by Christianity that stood up to idolatrous Roman civic religion. The study of comparative metaphors makes clear how the motifs of ancient Pharaonic religion (such as spiritual ascent and eternal life) were echoed and included in the works of Origen, Athanasius and Pachomius. (65–66)

I am not sure what Oden means by reference to the Capsian culture, which I understand to be a Mesolithic culture located around present-day Gafsa, Tunisia, and which disappeared around 4000 BC. “Proto-Nubian” is also a bit of a head-scratcher, given that Egyptians had almost constant contact with fully developed Nubian kingdoms as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000 BC). The patristic-era kingdom of Meroë was Nubian, not proto-Nubian. It is safe to say there were no stone-age Capsians or proto-Nubians around during the first thousand years AD!

These minor terminological issues not withstanding—and they’re probably due to my ignorance, not Oden’s—I am willing to believe that Oden is right about the African cultural influence on the Christian beliefs and values of the likes of Cyprian and Athanasius, but it is frustrating that he puts so little meat on those bones! It is precisely this paucity of detail that has inspired me to learn a bit more about African cultures, particularly in terms of religion and spirituality, in an attempt to grasp more accurately what Oden is attempting to prove.

Egypt and Africa

Oden is certainly correct that a number of different indigenous African cultures existed along the southern coast of the Mediterranean in the first centuries AD, and that early Christianity intersected with these cultures. Oden’s contention is that this cultural cross-fertilization helped produce the consensual orthodoxy of the patristic era.

Furthermore, these North African cultures were connected by trade with their sub-Saharan neighbors. And where there is trade, there is cultural (and often genetic) cross-fertilization. It is therefore relevant to Oden’s thesis that trans-Saharan trade between the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa existed from prehistoric times. The Berbers of North Africa extended in antiquity from Siwa Oasis in Egypt all the way to Morocco, Mauretania, and even the Niger River valley, the eventual site (by about AD 400) of the kingdom of Ghana in West Africa. At the other end of North Africa, Egypt was connected to the Nubian kingdom of Meroë and the later kingdom of Aksum (in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea) by means of a maritime trade route that followed the Red Sea down to the Arabian Sea, thus connecting the Mediterranean world with India. This route was being used a hundred years before the birth of Christ. Needless to say, there are also far older connections between Egypt and Nubia in present-day Sudan. The land of Punt, Egypt’s long-time trading partner mentioned in several ancient texts, was almost certainly a place located somewhere south of the Sahara, perhaps straddling Africa and the Arabian peninsula near present-day Ethiopia.

We are therefore justified in trying to situate the religiosity of ancient Egypt within an African cultural milieu. We must be careful, however, not to minimize the great cultural diversity of Africa. To claim that ancient Egypt was “African” is not to claim that ancient Egyptians and modern-day traditionalist Nigerians or South Africans would see eye to eye on every issue. But they would, perhaps, recognize each other as (distant) spiritual kin. Contemporary scholars of African culture are thus quick to point out the limits of any discussion of “generic” African culture, even when they insist that common values, beliefs, and symbols exist across the continent. For example, Osadolor Imasogie writes,

This author is very much aware that Africa is a large continent with diverse peoples and culture. In that case no one may be so presumptuous as to claim to describe African religions and world views in the singular. However, in spite of the differences, there is a core of Africanness that runs through their cultures and religions. In view of this one may speak legitimately of an African world view, the local peculiarities notwithstanding. While the writer concedes that his perception of the African world view bears the stamp of the part of Africa he experiences, he is convinced that the rest of Africa is not too far off from his description. (Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa [University Press, 1986] 53)

Likewise, in The Spirituality of African Peoples [Fortress, 1994], Peter J. Paris writes,

Undoubtedly, many will argue that the immense diversity of cultures there prohibits any generalizations whatsoever about Africa. Yet in my judgment respect for the rich diversity of African cultures need not lead to such a conclusion. Rather, as certain generalizations can be made about Americans or Europeans without implying widespread uniformity among them all, similar generalizations can be made about African religious and moral understandings without violating either the integrity or the particularity of tribal groups. Calling some things European or American or Asian is analogous to calling other things African. Since we do the one with impunity, why not the latter? (27)

An African World View

Based on the work of Paris and Imasogie, I propose to evaluate ancient Egyptian spirituality in terms of the following “ennead” of world view issues:

1. God. Africans generally have a henotheistic belief system in which one supreme deity exists at the top of a vast hierarchy of lesser divinities. This supreme deity is the creator of the universe, is not capricious but just and caring, and for the most part remains transcendent from his creatures because it would not be safe for them to encounter God in God’s fullness.

2. The Universe. The supreme deity created the world and all that is in it. The universe consists not merely of the material world perceived by the senses but of various unseen dimensions populated by various spiritual forces, from the neutral and impersonal “dynamism” or “vital force” to the realm of malevolent spirits to the realm of benevolent ancestors and sub-divinities. The presence of harmful spiritual forces suggests that the world is in some sense “fallen”; it is not entirely as the supreme deity planned it.

3. Community. To be human is to belong to the whole community, which is understood as a vast hierarchy including the supreme deity and all the lesser spirits, deceased ancestors as the principle link with the spiritual realm, the tribal king and other important leaders, down to the youngest members of the community. All of these exist in a vast network of reciprocal relationships in which everyone is enculturated to understand his or her responsibilities.

4. Family. The family is the central institution of human existence. One cannot know how one should relate to a fellow human being without some recognition of how closely one is related through kinship ties. The family is structured in a patriarchal hierarchy from the oldest living male—who is thus closest to rising into the realm of the ancestors—to the youngest child. Furthermore, kinship is construed far broader than the modern “nuclear family” to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even the entire village. The main purpose of the family is to produce children; doing so ensures that one will eventually become an ancestor whose memory is guarded even after one’s death.

5. Human Nature. Humans have not merely a physical body but various invisible aspects which Imasogie describes as a “tripartite soul.” Each of these aspects has a particular function in how a person lives out his life. Furthermore, human personhood is always construed in terms of membership in a group (family, tribe, etc.). Personality is dyadic, not individualistic.

6. Human Destiny. Humans exist on earth in order to actualize a destiny they chose for themselves pre-natally. Although there is no concept of “original sin” as such, it is possible to inherit a “bad destiny,” and in any case, one’s destiny is not set in stone—it is possible to overcome a bad destiny or to thwart a good one through personal choices and supernatural intervention.

7. Death and the Afterlife. Death represents the transition to the realm of the ancestors, where the departed continue to serve as patrons of the family and community of which they were a part in life. As such, the dead are given elaborate funerary rites and are continually propitiated through various sacrifices in order to secure their favor.

8. Ethics. The summum bonum is the well-being of the community, and an individual’s moral development is geared toward actualizing this goal. A good moral character includes such virtues as beneficence, forbearance, practical wisdom, improvisation, forgiveness, and justice.

9. Spiritual Warfare. The world is a dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirit beings and human occult practitioners who harness impersonal “dynamism” and consort with spirits for destructive ends. Divination, sacrifices, and protective talismans can protect a person from spiritual assault.

It should be noted that many of these factors exist in somewhat different forms in other pre-industrial cultures the world over. To claim that any of them is distinctly African is not to deny that other cultures have arrived at a similar place. Distinguishing, for example, between an African conceptualization of dyadic personality and a Semitic or Far Eastern one may well be an exercise in futility. Some of these factors may end up proving more diagnostically powerful than others, and certain specific expressions of some of these values may prove more significant than the broad-brush descriptions I have provided. Any input, correction, or clarification from my longsuffering readers is thus heartily welcomed! Still, I’m hopeful that a survey of Egyptian spirituality according to the rubric I’ve suggested will be instructive despite its limitations.

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