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Henotheism and the Gods of Ancient Egypt
II. Egyptian Henotheism as Grounded in Cosmotheism

II. Egyptian Henotheism as Grounded in Cosmotheism

Jan Assmann
Jan Assmann

To find our way through the maze of Egyptian Henotheism, with its geographical, historical, cultural and political dimensions, I turn for help to the German Egyptologist, Jan Assmann, professor at the University of Heidelberg, author of Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt and, preeminently, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, originally published in German under the title Äegypten: Eine Sinnegeschichte (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1996) and reissued in English translation (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 2003). I quote from his chapter, “Cosmotheism as a form of Knowledge.”

Polytheistic religions worship not one single god but a world of gods. This divine world is not merely a chaotic jumble of various deities but a specific structure. In Egyptian religion, three structural parameters imposed order on this collectivity. First, language, through the narrative structure of the myths, placed the gods in systems of kinship and related their actions and destinies to each other. Second, the cosmos itself represented a model for the collective agency of various powers. Third, the organization of the polity assigned the gods divine rule in temples and cities and interpreted the human exercise of power as a form of divine rule by proxy.

Wim van den Dungen, another student of Egyptian Henotheism, informs us that the system “understood existence as the result of the activity of a single creator together with his company” and that this underlined the phenomenon of intra-divine participation, the cooperative effort of all the forces and elements of existence.” He has concluded that during its long history “Egypt moved from a loose henotheism to a strict henotheism, never relinquishing the pantheon, nor the sacred pictography of divine words, nor the essential fact that divinities only interact with other divinities.” Assmann, however, goes further by defining henotheism’s belief in the cosmos itself as the Supreme Being, taking for his point of departure “cosmotheism”

as unifying the ancient, particularly the Stoic, worship of God as the universe. I adopt [he says] Malesherbes’ term in a broader sense, one that encompasses polytheistic religions that worship the cosmos as the collective manifestation of various deities. In the religious history of the new Kingdom, [it] materialized in three different forms: traditional polytheism, revolutionary monotheism (which acknowledged the sun and light as one sole divinity but in doing so remained within the framework of cosmic worship), and finally pantheism, which regarded the supreme god . . . as the embodiment of all other deities and as the oneness of the universe.

Assmann notes that the gods “had names, genealogies and a mythically revealed spectrum of roles; they had a ‘portfolio,’ a sphere of cosmic or cultural competencies; and finally cult locations from which they exercised their earthly rule.” Eventually I will turn to individual gods but would first like to consider the triads and dyads among them. Before I take up their genealogies, I will examine their “portfolios.” Before I take up their competencies, I will summarize the principal Egyptian creation myths (as both a significant diversity and a prolegomena to the “triads”). Finally I will touch upon the cults and their locales. In other words, I will reverse the terms’ order to read political, cultural, historical and geographical.

The sociologist Talcott Parsons [to resume Assmann] refers to these polytheistic communities with the blanket term “cosmological societies.” A cosmological society lives by a model of cosmic forms of order, which it transforms into political and social order by means of meticulous observation and the performance of rituals [a kind of “participatory observation”]. The Mesopotamian model (like the Roman and the Chinese) was divinatory; the cosmos was observed for signs in which the will of the gods manifested itself. In divinatory cultures, signs are exceptions to the rule. . . . In ancient Egypt such phenomena were passed over in silence.

In this reverse order the second of our terms is “cultural.” Parsons the sociologist, and Assmann the Egyptologist following him, are discussing cultural implications of cosmotheism. “The ritual enactment of the cosmic process,” notes the latter, “was designed not only to adapt the order of the human [i.e., cultural] world to that of the cosmos but also, and indeed primarily, to keep the cosmic process itself in good working order.” The cultural for the ancient Egyptian was inseparable not only from the political but also from the cosmic order. Assmann now turns his attention to the historical order, noting that “the Egyptians regarded the cosmos less as a well-organized space than as a functioning process,” that is, one occurring within time.

Creation, however, was not over and done with on the seventh day but continued indefinitely. Cosmogony began not so much with an intentional act of creation as with a kind of initial ignition, a ‘First Moment’ that the cosmic process everlastingly reiterates. The First Moment separates preexistence from the cosmogonic process of cyclical time, not from a perfect, complete cosmos. The cosmogonic process, though cyclical, must be constantly reinforced by unremitting efforts that wrest the cosmos from its persistent gravitation toward chaos. This is the task of the gods, above all of the sun god. The rites performed on earth make their own contribution.

History for ancient Egyptians was not our secular, linear time but rather a sacred, cyclical time. Each dynasty began afresh, renumbering itself as the year 1. Ian Shaw makes an intriguing observation: “The title nesu-bit has often been translated as ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt,’ but it actually has a much more complex and significant meaning. Nesu refers to the unchanging divine king (almost the kingship itself), while the word bit describes the current ephemeral holder of the kingship: the one individual king in power at a specific point in time. Each king was, therefore, a combination of the divine and the mortal.” A king also persists after his death, so “the king lists were not concerned so much with history as with ancestor worship.”

[Assmann:] In Egypt there are no chronicles that detail or analyze consecutive history such as we have, say, in Mesopotamia. The Egyptians had relatively little engagement with their own past [despite monuments, annals and king-lists]. This is continuity and permanence as constituted by the state. Historical awareness and an interest in the past, only manifest themselves when continuity is disrupted and cracks and fissures become apparent. Examples of such ‘cracks’ are the significance for Mesopotamia of the conquest of the Sumerian realm by the dynasty of Akkad and its ultimate demise, or the significance of Babylonian exile for Israel.

[Assmann again:] Egyptian history is full of disruptions of this kind: the collapse of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, the Second Intermediate Period and the reign of the Hyksos interlopers, the monotheistic revolution of the Amarna Period, the establishment of a theocracy in the Twenty-first Dynasty. But in Egypt one searches for such a retrospect in vain. The Egyptian state and the culture as a whole were manifestly not interested in elevating such discontinuities to the level of general awareness, for to do so would have been to admit the idea of a terminal point from which the past could be conceived in a narrative form.


III. The Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths