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How “African” Was Ancient Egyptian Spirituality? 2

Life offline has kept me from finishing pondering the “African”-ness of ancient Egyptian spirituality for over a month. At last I’m back at it. As with all of my posts on African culture and spirituality, my objective is merely to summarize the conclusions of others while injecting little of my own opinions or conclusions. My main source is the excellent article by Leonard H. Lesko in the Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade. This article is included with other Religion, History, and Culture entries from the Encyclopedia of Religion in a very handy form as Religions of Antiquity, edited by Robert M. Seltzer (page citations are all from this resource).

My main question remains: What distinctively African features, if any, can be seen in the orthodox consensus of the early church? In other words, if Thomas Oden is correct that Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, what specifically (pre-Christian) African intellectual or spiritual impulses can be discerned in the faith of African Christians of the patristic era. Since many of these Christians hailed from Egypt, and since we have a wealth of documentation of the pre-Christian spirituality of Egypt, it would seem fruitful to see what connections might exist between ancient Egypt and the broad-brush African spirituality others have attempted to describe.

These previous studies have highlighted nine specific aspects that seem to be present in African spirituality. To be sure, many of these aspects are also present in other cultures. I’ll simply restate each aspect (in italics) and indicate something with respect to the Egyptian evidence.

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.

In Egyptian, the word netjer (“god”) was used broadly to speak of all levels of divinity, “from the greatest gods to the justified dead” (50). According to Lesko,

Monotheism, if it ever existed in ancient Egypt, was never established as doctrine in any of the native religions. From almost all periods come texts that indicate the uniqueness of one or the other gods, usually some form of the sun god, but this monolatry or henotheism cannot be demonstrated to have the exclusivity necessary to fit the modern definition of monotheism. (50)

Whether they are more accurately portrayed as full-blown polytheists or as henotheists or even pantheists is a matter of scholarly debate. At various times in Egypt’s long history, the gods Amun and Re (not to mention Aten) seem to be depicted as aspects or emanations of a supreme deity. Lesko suggests the Egyptians arrived at a monolatrous or henotheistic theology by “syncretizing the names and aspects of various deities into powerful new gods.” By doing so, “the Egyptians widened the gap between the greatest god and all the rest” (50).

For example, the Book of Two Ways describes Re, the sun god, as “hidden, omniscient, provident, responsive, and just” (41)—precisely the characteristics Paris attributes to the supreme deity of African spirituality. And indeed, there are numerous references to “god” or “the god” in Egyptian texts, most frequently in reference to Re:

He is often called the neb-er-djer (“lord to the limit, universal lord”), and can indeed appear practically transcendent…. The only important point lacking here is a statement that no other god exists, but of course this can also be said of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. (50)

So apparently an African-style henotheistic arrangement of a supreme deity at the top of a hierarchy of lesser divinities and departed ancestors is not out of the question.

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.

The aforementioned Coffin Text known as the Book of Two Ways describes Re as the creator of all:

Provide for men, the cattle of God, for he made heaven and earth at their desire. He suppressed the greed of the waters, he gave the breath of life to their noses, for they are the likenesses of him which issued from his flesh. He shines in the sky for the benefit of their hearts; he has made herbs, cattle, and fish to nourish them. (40-41)

I am not aware of anything like the “vital force” in ancient Egyptian spirituality, but it is beyond question that there was a concept of non-physical dimensions of reality, namely, the locations generally translated as “netherworld” (imbt) or “underworld” (duat), where Osiris presides over the dead. These realms appear to have originally been in the sky. Egyptians also conceived of an “undersky” (nenet) and “a topsy-turvy afterlife, so that one of the terms (duat) seems to have been relocated later” (49).

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.

Egyptian society was clearly arranged in a hierarchial fashion, with the pharaoh at the top and a vast bureaucracy of viziers, priests, and provincial officials under him. Like an African tribal king, the pharaoh “seems to have been the principal intermediary between gods and men”:

He is shown making offerings, pouring libations, and burning incense before almost all the gods in all the temples. How much of the king’s time was actually spent in religious ritual is not known and probably varied from dynasty to dynasty and from one king to another. The large amount of civil authority delegated to viziers would have released time for more religious activities if that were desired. (55)

The social hierarchy spanned the divide between the living and the dead. Offerings and the expectation of communicating with departed ancestors also figured in Egyptian spirituality. As Lesko explains,

Many letters to the dead are also found, they were left with food offerings by living relatives to urge some specific action on their behalf in the spirit world. These usually mention past favors and show confidence in the deceased’s ability to effect change for righting the injustice (49-50)

Some individuals, even those who were not of royal birth, “attained a state of divinity far above the ordinary” (51), but of course we think most immediately of the cult of deceased kings with respect to the religious devotion Egyptians displayed toward their dead.

The deceased were also revered as part of the Osiris cult, in which

Every owner of a book of mortuary literature is given the title “Osiris,” and every deceased person named in tomb or stela has the epithet “true of voice” or “vindicated” with respect to the last judgment before this great god. (50-51)

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.

There is no reason to doubt that the Egyptians were as patriarchal as any other ancient Near Eastern culture. Egyptians generally had large families (on average about five children would survive to adolescence) and women employed various magical aids to conceive rapidly. Polygamy was certainly known in Egypt, and not just among royalty. It is uncertain, however, how common it was for men in general to have more than one wife.

As described above, the cult of ancestors thrived in ancient Egypt, forging a connection between the living and their deceased relatives.

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.

Egyptians conceived of human beings as possessing a number of non-material aspects. The ka is a replica of the physical body fashioned by the gods at birth, meant to ensure one’s survival into the afterlife. Later, sculptors and painters made ka-figures that could also be understood as “protecting genii” (49).

The term most closely approximating what we would call the soul was ba, which was thought to depart from the body at death. According to Lesko,

In at least one literary text, the Dispute of a Man with His Ba, this conscience or other self is present in life to be argued with and to help the person make up his mind after considering both sides of a question…. (49)

Another aspect of human nature was the akh or “spirit.” This is what remains apart from the body, or at least not limited by the body, after death. One’s goal for the afterlife is to become an “equipped spirit” or “perfect spirit” (akh aper).

Finally, there are the name and the shadow. The name (ren) was regarded as an essential element of every human individual, just as necessary for survival as the ka, ba, akh, and shadow. One’s name was assigned immediately at birth lest the person not come into existence. Egyptians imagined that a shadow (sheut) contained something of the person who reflects it. For this reason, statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as their shadows.

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.

In Egyptian theology, a child’s destiny was determined at the time of birth by the gods—either Mesenet (or Meskhent), the goddess of childbirth, or (from the New Kingdom on) by Shay, the personification of destiny, fate, or luck. Shay represents the span of years and the degree of prosperity a person may expect to enjoy. The Instruction of Amenemopet emphasizes the futility of pursuing riches by pointing out that no one can ignore what is fated. He is related to birth into this world and rebirth into the next.

The Egyptians must not have thought fate could never be contravened, however, for the abundance of magical aids and practices (see below) suggests that in some sense supernatural intervention could play a part in what outcomes one experienced.

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.

It should go without saying that the Egyptians had a robust conceptualization of the afterlife. Intricate preparations for the afterlife were, in fact, basic to their entire civilization. Beginning in the First Intermediate Period, the afterlife became an aspiration of all Egyptians and not merely the king. While kings continued to occupy a special place in the realm of the dead, the afterlife was now also open to others who could afford the necessary rites. Thus the concept of the afterlife became a kinder one, envisaged as the continuation of mortal life, with all its activities, pleasures and privileges.

Death was considered merely a staging point for one’s entrance into the abode of the dead, where one continued in some sense to commune with one’s surviving relatives and stood in a position to grant them favors based on one’s status among the netjeru (“divinities”).

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.

Accepted social behavior in Egypt was largely determined by funerary beliefs and cultic obligations. The concept of maat (“truth” or “harmony”) was central. Maat represented the original state of tranquility that existed at the creation of the universe, and may also be understood as the commonsense view of right and wrong as defined by the social norms of the day. Ethics was focused on communal obligations construed within the context of a hierarchial class structure enforced by an official religion and authoritarian laws. Egyptians were expected both to please their superiors and protect those who were under them.

Part of preparing for the afterlife involved spiritual rites, sacrifices, and the like, but part of it was also doing good works and avoiding evil deeds (59). Their motivation for ethics was tied to their understanding of being somehow connected to the divine, and this connection implied certain obligations with respect to other members of the community: “Men, who are created in the likeness of God, and for whom heaven and earth were created, must worship God, and provide for their fellow men” (41).

As a side note, Paris described improvisation, defined as “the creative use of received tradition, applying old wisdom to new challenges,” as an aspect of traditional African ethics (The Spirituality of African Peoples, 146). Similarly, Lesko identifies “syncretism” and “a multiplicity of approaches” as two characteristic features of Egyptian religious literature:

In the case of descriptions of the afterlife, the Egyptians could on the one hand place separate, mutually exclusive descriptions side by side without indicating that one is better or more accurate than another; on the other hand, they could combine in the same document aspects from different traditions in a new, apparently superior, composite, and theoretically logical entity. Perhaps this was one way of dealing with the problem of conservatively maintaining the old while also accepting the new. (59)

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.

Magic was clearly a significant aspect of Egyptian life. It was considered a gift of Re, and there are also references to books containing the secret knowledge of Thoth. Some Egyptian magic spells are preserved in the funerary literature. Egyptians relied on magic to prolong life, alter fate, help in romance, and combat physical and mental afflictions (52). Egyptian medical texts reveal that they relied on magical potions, poultices, or salves to treat the vast majority of human ailments (53).

Magic was also used to overcome one’s enemies, as is seen in the Execration Texts. As Lesko describes,

These bowls or figurines, inscribed with a fairly standard selection of the names of Egypt’s foreign and domestic enemies plus all even thoughts, words, and deeds, were deliberately smashed to try to destroy any and all persons and things listed thereon. (53)

Postscript: Survivals

Lesko himself addresses the survivals of ancient Egyptian religiosity in a brief section at the end of his essay (58-59). He notes, for example, the use of the ankh symbol and the udjat-eye in Coptic vestments and the birth of both cenobitic and eremitic monasticism in the Egyptian desert.

Among the more controversial possibilities Lesko raises are the cult of Isis as a possible influence on early Christian Marian devotion and the death and resurrection of Osiris as background to the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Both of these would, of course, be hotly contested by many Christians. Another controversial possibility is a connection between Egyptian triads such as that of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu and the later development of Christian ideas about the Trinity or the Holy Family. Finally, might Egyptian ideas about reward or torment in the afterlife have influenced Christian beliefs about heaven and hell?

Slightly less controversially, Lesko ponders “the question of Egyptian influence on the doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints,” including such enduring traditions still present in modern Egypt of “the use of mourners at funerals, visits to tombs, the leaving of food offerings, and the burning of incense at services” (59).


1 Comment

  1. mikelioso says:

    It seems Ancient Egypt left little impact at all on Christianity in genral or even Coptic Christianity. Christianity though, in the form of those Copts has preserved the last remnant of ancient Egypt though their language. The mourners, incense, and food offerings seem common to all the middle east, and the ideas of the after life, final judgment, and heaven and hell only come into importance after contact with the Persians, who had there own ideas on all these things. Christianity of course picked them up from Judaism. Thanks for the article.


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