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Henotheism and the Gods of Ancient Egypt
IV. Amun

IV. Amun


“None of the gods knows his true form. His image is not unfolded in the papyrus rolls; nothing certain is testified about him.

— Hymns to Amun, Papyrus Leiden I, 350, Chapter 200, ll. 22-24 [ca. 1213 B.C., during the reign of Rameses II]

“Absolute unity of Divinity outside continued existence, namely during the fugal transition between non-existence and existence.” (Hornung)


If Egypt is free of monotheism, what of the solitary Amun? In Ramessid theology: “Nobody knew the identity of Amun-Re; therefore, no revelation was possible; Amun-Re was a part of the world but remained invisible; the world was a part of Amun-Re but knew it not.” Some of this may be explained by the god’s abstract character (Rice: “The earliest divinities were abstractions, represented by objects that had acquired a special sanctity”), some by his indeterminacy (as in our first epigraph), some by ambiguity (as in our second). Wim van den Dungen: “We may conjecture that a tiny minority of specialists of the ‘mysteries’ or ‘secrets’ of Amun-Re had an abstract (decontextualized) concept of the unique, solitary & supreme god. This grew hand in hand with the pantheon, understood as a theophany of the various aspects, forms, images, manifestations & transformations of the One & Great God (mature, rational henotheism instead of monotheism). Moreover, this theology expressed its views in an iconical, pictorial & contextual language and God remained accessible to commoners and popular polytheism.”


Amun, then, depending upon the historical and the localized cult context, was a personal god as well as an austere, remote, cosmological creator. Our Dutch scholar locates him, for a moment, in the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina, whose votive stelae are inscribed with penitential hymns, in which “hymn and prayer merge, for the deity is praised in the traditional manner (hymn) but also prayed to in personal terms (his emphasis): ‘You are Amun, the Lord of the silent, / Who comes at the cry of the poor, / When I call to you in my distress, / You come to rescue me. / Give breath to him who is wretched, / Rescue me from bondage.” At the same time, he is, with Re and Ptah, one of the “self-created creators, the first cause or first number (with its Ogdoadic inertness rooted in Nun. . . . Hence the oneness of Amun-Re covers precreation, the creator and creation. It is an all-encompassing oneness, also to be found in the Memphite theology of the period.” “‘Oneness,’ according to Hornung, “is the condition of Amun before creation, and the ‘millions’ is the polytheistic world of reality after the creation.” Thus, in a sophisticated henotheism, Amun is both singularity and multiplicity, both One and Many.


“He is the many in that mysterious way,” adds Assmann, “at once hidden and present, which this theology . . . grasps . . . through the ba concept. . . . By linking [it] with the theology of the hidden, we understand how this formula goes beyond the traditional creation theology of . . . unity and plurality.” Wim van den Dungen: “Amun-Re, by creating the world, transforms himself into a totality of gods and goddesses, which operate creation and maintain the world. The complete pantheon is thus comprised in the One!” Amun is the precreation, the creator and the creation. He is also something to be kept secret. Our Dutch interpreter: “The Egyptians did not conceptualize the pre-creation as a passive nothingness but rather as an absolute, unlimited, pre-creational, pre-existent inertia in which the dramatical self-creative activity takes shape for the first time, namely the first occasion of the god of creation himself (Atum, as ‘father of the gods’ rising from the Nun). . . . Amun, then, is unbegotten pre-existence, doubly concealed in (1) transcendence and (2) immanence, i.e., unknown to the other gods and unknown to man.”


Let us shift to a more pedestrian view by taking a walk through history with Shaw and Nicholson. Far from having “nothing certain . . . testified about him,” “Amun is first mentioned in the 5th Dynasty Pyramid Texts, but the earliest temples dedicated solely to him appear to have been in Thebes again, where he was worshiped as a local deity as early as the 11th Dynasty.” “In the jubilee chapel of Senesrut I (1965-1920 B.C.) at Karnak he is described as ‘the king of the gods.’” “Amun Kamatef was part of the Ogdoad. “He was a creator god capable, in the form of a snake, of renewing himself by shedding his skin.” He also “took the form of an ithyphallic god.” As Amun-Ra he “presided over the expansion of the Egyptian empire, under Thebes.” Finally, the worship of Amun was renewed “under the 25th Dynasty Nubians.” The broad outline is of a primordial god existing before existence, a creator transforming a primeval world into the cosmos, himself elaborated in cult, magnified as the god hidden behind all other deities, replaced by Akhenaten’s Aten, and thereafter reinvested with a post-Amarna, Amun-Re theology.


To return to a generalized set of attributes: Atum is secret, inaccessible, difficult, secluded, august, noble and hidden (all translations of Egyptian terms). In precreation, according to Wim van den Dungen, “he is a passive nothingness (the Nun, zero) in which the active potential or principle of creation (Atum, the empty set of all possibilities) creates itself ex nihilo. Hence in ‘negative existence,’ the principle of creation only creates itself — established in a permanent ‘first occurrence’ — out of which ‘positive existence’ emerges during the split of the creation into Shu (sky) and Tefnut (moisture) and through them into a multiplicity (of deities), out of which emerge in turn the life and the order of the pantheon, nature and human beings. . . . By making the god stand before the space-time of creating, creation itself is superseded and made dependent on the creative command, which initiates a new creation.” In mythical thought precreation was segregated from creation. It has been said of the deity that he is secluded or segregated. Amun, however, no less than other gods, must also be viewed historically.


So in Ramessid theology, according to Assmann (1998), the sacredness of Amun is no longer realized by this spatio-temporal segregation (his essence being precreational), thus “temporal beyond.” Instead, Amun-Re as creator is the “summum bonum” and the “summum ens” (first cause), dwelling everywhere in his creation “behind” the screen of an infinite number of forms. All deities are subsequently thought to be the offspring of this original godhead, hidden, veiled and withdrawn. Hence henotheism has left behind an earlier polytheism, which invokes entities as idols, but it does not move towards monotheism (the exclusion of all deities but one). Egyptian henotheism had a lot in common with the Christian notion of the Trinity. . . .” In Amun, our Dutch scholar sees “(1) a hidden hypostasis of the primordial deities’ unity, (2) the primordial hill (‘ta-tenen’) emerging from Nun and (3) a god separated from those who came forth from him.” “In Egypt,” van den Dungen concludes, “instead of one trinity, there follows a cascading manifold of such triads,” as “in Gnostic Christianity of the 2nd century A.D.”


Q.: Why is Amum represented as an animal (a primeval goose, a ram-headed serpent, a ram, a ram-headed sphinx)?

A.: See Frankfort on the Egyptian devotion to animals:


“It would seem that animals as such possessed religious significance for the Egyptians. We assume, then, that the Egyptian interpreted the nonhuman as superhuman, in particular when he saw it in animals — in their inarticulate wisdom, in their certainty, in their unhesitating achievement, and above all in their static reality. With animals the continual succession of generations brought no change.”


Q.: What do we mean by “religion”?

A.: See Burkert’s 1981 definition (as cited by a contributor to Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion, ed. Michael Stausberg):


“That which cannot be verified empirically, being ‘manifest in actions and attitudes that do not fulfill immediate practical functions,’ but which nevertheless ‘manifests itself through interaction and communication’ in two directions: ‘toward the unseen and toward the contemporary social situation.’ Religion involves a ‘claim for priority and seriousness,’ a characteristic that makes it ‘vulnerable to laughter and derision.’ In the end, religion is to be understood as a hybrid between biology and culture, developing through adaptation to the landscape provided by the evolutionary process. . . .”


Q.: What do we mean by “ritual”?

A.: See Rappaport’s 1999 definition (as cited by another contributor to Stausberg):


“Ritual not only can claim to be socially or materially consequential but to possess logical entailments as well. [Rappaport:] ‘I will argue that the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers logically entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract, the construction of the integrated conventional orders that we shall call Logoi . . . ; the investment of whatever it encodes with morality; the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation; the generation of the concept of the sacred and the sanctification of [secular] order; the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, and the grasp of the holy; and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic.’”


V. Osiris, Isis and Horus