Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation

Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation

by Henri Frankfort

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Fascinating book explores the underlying concept of the changeless as the basis of Egyptian religion, and how it unifies what scholars had believed to be an unrelated jungle of weird myths, doctrines, and practices generated by local cults. Relation of the idea of the changeless to moral and political philosophy, Egyptian government and society, literature and art. ".


Fascinating book explores the underlying concept of the changeless as the basis of Egyptian religion, and how it unifies what scholars had believed to be an unrelated jungle of weird myths, doctrines, and practices generated by local cults. Relation of the idea of the changeless to moral and political philosophy, Egyptian government and society, literature and art. ". . . one of the finest elucidations of these materials that we have anywhere." — American Historical Review. Chronological Table. Index. Preface. 32 halftones.

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Ancient Egyptian Religion

An Interpretation

By Enriqueta Frankfort

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1975 Enriqueta Frankfort
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14495-5


The Egyptian Gods


RELIGION as we Westerners know it derives its character and its unity from two circumstances: it centers on the revelation of a single god, and it contains a message which must be transmitted. The Torah, the Gospels, and Islam contain teachings sufficiently coherent for exposition. The Gospel and Islam must, moreover, be preached to the unconverted. In the whole of the ancient world there is only one religion with similar characteristics: the monotheistic cult of the sun introduced by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. And Akhenaten was a heretic precisely in this: that he denied recognition to all but one god and attempted to convert those who thought otherwise. His attitude presents no problem to us; we acknowledge a conviction too deep for tolerance. But Egyptian religion was not exclusive. It recognized an unlimited number of gods. It possessed neither a central dogma nor a holy book. It could flourish without postulating one basic truth.

We find, then, in Egyptian religion a number of doctrines which strike us as contradictory; but it is sheer presumption to accuse the ancients of muddleheadedness on this score. In a recent book the reason and the meaning of this apparent confusion have been explained. I can only summarize the argument here in a few sentences. The ancients did not attempt to solve the ultimate problems confronting man by a single and coherent theory; that has been the method of approach since the time of the Greeks. Ancient thought—mythopoeic, "myth-making" thought—admitted side by side certain limited insights, which were held to be simultaneously valid, each in its own proper context, each corresponding to a definite avenue of approach. I have called this "multiplicity of approaches," and we shall find many examples of it as we proceed. At the moment I want to point out that this habit of thought agrees with the basic experience of polytheism.

Polytheism is sustained by man's experience of a universe alive from end to end. Powers confront man wherever he moves, and in the immediacy of these confrontations the question of their ultimate unity does not arise. There are many gods—one cannot know how many; a small handbook of Egyptian religion enumerates more than eighty. How, then, are they recognized? Here we may well use the evidence collected by anthropologists among living believers in polytheism. It appears that superhuman powers reveal themselves sometimes in a curiously accidental manner. For instance, a West African native is on an important expedition when he suddenly stumbles over a stone. He cries out: "Hal Are you there?" —and takes the stone with him. The stone had, as it were, given a hint that it was powerful, and the Negro strengthened himself by taking possession of it. Under normal conditions he might not have taken notice of the obstacle that tripped him up, but the importance of the expedition had created the emotional tension which makes man receptive to signs of a supernatural order. Note that at the very moment that the stone reveals its immanent power, it acquires the quality of a person, for the native exclaims: "Are you there?" The next thing to observe is that such impact on a power in the outside world may be experienced as either of fleeting or of lasting significance It will be of permanent significance especially when the community accepts it as valid and a cult is consequently established. For instance, an Ewe Negro enters the bush and finds there a piece of iron. Returning home he falls ill, and the priests explain that a divinity is manifesting its potency in the iron and that henceforth the village should worship it.

It seems to me that these examples throw some light upon the fact that Egypt knew a large number of gods and an astonishing variety of cult-objects. But our examples do not answer the question why certain experiences acquired a lasting significance (the iron) while others (the stone) did not. They show that we need not expect to be able to answer this question in relation to Egyptian cults, and we should do well to retain from our excursion among modern savages a certain skepticism as to the value of symbols and sacred objects as indicators of the meaning which the gods designated may have had for their worshipers. If many of the sacred objects seem devoid of mystery or meaning to us, it may well be that they were originally connected with the cult in a loose and accidental manner, mere adjuncts to an emotional reality from which the cult continued to draw its life but which we can neither recapture nor reconstruct. On the other hand, certain sacred objects possessed a deeper, a truly symbolical significance, and in such a case the relation between the deity and the object is capable of being understood. This is so, for instance, when the name of the goddess Isis is written as if it simply meant "throne," while she is also depicted with the throne as her distinctive attribute (Figure 1).

We know that many peoples consider the insignia of royalty to be charged with the superhuman power of kingship. Among these objects the throne occupies a special place: the prince who seats himself upon it at the coronation arises king. The throne "makes" the king—the term occurs in Egyptian texts—and so the throne, Isis, is the "mother" of the king. This expression might be viewed as a metaphor, but the evidence shows that it was not (Frontispiece). The bond between the king and the throne was the intimate one between his person and the power which made him king. Now a power was not recognized objectively, as the result of an intellectual effort on the part of man. We have seen that the power reveals itself; it is recognized in the relationship of "I and thou"; it has the quality of a person. The throne which "made" the king is comprehended as a mother, and thus it may be the object of profound and complex feelings. If we should try to resolve the complexity, we should merely be falsifying the evidence. We can neither say that Isis was originally the throne personified, nor that the throne acquired a transcendental quality because it was conceived as a mother. The two notions are fundamentally correlated, and mythopoeic thought expresses such a bond as identity. The throne made manifest a divine power which changed one of several princes into a king fit to rule. The awe felt before this manifestation of power became articulate in the adoration of the mother-goddess. There is no question of any evolution from a simpler to a complex notion. Complexity is of the essence of the relationship between man and deity. As early as the First Dynasty a Pharaoh calls himself "son of Isis." We do observe a historical development, but that concerns not the goddess but her cult. Originally Isis was significant only in her relation to the king; subsequently—and especially through the myth of Osiris, which we shall discuss later—she brought consolation to all men, and three thousand years after the first appearance of her name in Egypt, monuments were being erected to her throughout the Roman Empire, up to its very borders on the Rhine and the Danube.

Our discussion of Isis illustrates one possible relationship between the gods and their symbols. Another possibility, as we have said already, is that the symbol lacks all deeper significance. This thought is especially disturbing because the symbols loom very large in our sources; in fact, they constitute in the case of many a god all—or almost all—we know about him. Moreover, since symbols are definite and distinct, they offer a delusive hold to modern research. And so one talks glibly of fetishes, sun-gods, ram-gods, falcon-gods, and so forth—as if the precision of those terms had any reference to the gods themselves! We must not generalize in this manner. Sometimes the symbol tells us something about a god, sometimes it does not; and mostly the evidence on hand does not allow us to decide one way or the other. But in any case the use of classificatory or generic terms in connection with the gods bars the road to understanding; for this can only be reached, if at all, by a circumspect interpretation of each individual case.


There is one generic term which is most difficult to avoid when we discuss Egyptian religion. That is the word "animal-gods." It should not be used, as we shall show in a moment. But we must admit—and the Greek, Roman, and early Christian writers too were struck by the fact —that animals play an altogether unusual role in Egyptian religion. We cannot evade the issue by referring back to what we said a moment ago, namely, that the origin of cults is beyond our ken and that we shall never know how certain gods came to be associated with certain animals. There are too many gods showing such an association and their cult is too widespread for us to pretend to understand Egyptian religion without at least a tentative explanation of this its most baffling, most persistent, and to us most alien feature.

It is wrong to say that the worship of animals is a survival from a primitive stratum of Egyptian religion. This view is often encountered and is supported by some plausible arguments. It is said that these cults are often of purely local significance; that they sometimes center on quite insignificant creatures like the centipede or the toad (Figure 6); and that we must therefore place the sacred animals on a par with certain sacred objects, like the crossed arrows of the goddess Neith, and consider all these symbols as mere emblems of—and means of promoting—tribal unity. Some scholars have even interpreted them as totems. But the characteristic features of totemism, such as the claim of descent from the totem, its sacrifice for a ceremonial feast of the clan, and exogamy, can not be found in Egyptian sources. Moreover, any treatment of the sacred animals which stresses their local or political significance at the expense of their religious importance flies in the face of the evidence. It is undeniable that there is something altogether peculiar about the meaning which animals possessed for the Egyptians. Elsewhere, in Africa or North America, for example, it seems that either the terror of animal strength, or the strong bond, the mutual dependence of man and beast (in the case of cattle cults, for instance), explains animal worship. But in Egypt the animal as such, irrespective of its specific nature, seems to possess religious significance; and the significance was so great that even the mature speculation of later times rarely dispensed with animal forms in plastic or literary images referring to the gods.

But there was nothing metaphorical in the connection between god and animal in Egypt. It is not as if certain divine qualities were made articulate by the creature, in the way the eagle elucidates the character of Zeus. We observe, on the contrary, a strange link between divinity and actual beast, so that in times of decadence animal worship may gain a horrible concreteness. Then one finds mummified cats, dogs, falcons, bulls, crocodiles, and so forth, buried by the hundreds in vast cemeteries which fill the Egyptologist with painful embarrassment—for this, we must admit, is polytheism with a vengeance. Nevertheless, these are grotesque but significant symptoms of a characteristic trait in Egyptian religion.

To understand this trait, we should first realize that the relation between a god and his animal may vary greatly. If Horus is said to be a falcon whose eyes are sun and moon and whose breath is the cooling north wind, we may think that this was a mere image to describe an impressive god of the sky. But the god was depicted as a bird from the earliest times and was apparently believed to be manifest either in individual birds or in the species (Figure 7). Thoth was manifest in the moon, but also in the baboon (Figure 3) and in the ibis (Figure 4), and we do not know whether any relations were thought to exist between these different symbols, and if so, what they were. The relation between the Mnevis bull and the sun-god Re, and between the Apis bull and the earth-god Ptah, was different again. Ptah was never depicted as a bull or believed to be incarnate in a bull; but the Apis bull was called "The living Apis, the herald*of Ptah, who carries the truth upwards to him of the lovely face (Ptah)." The Mnevis bull bore a similar title in connection with Re. We have to deal here, moreover, not with a species considered sacred, but with one individual identified by certain marks, not as the incarnation, but as the divine servant of the god. Other deities were regularly imagined in animal shapes but even in their case the incarnation did not limit—it did not even define—their powers. Anubis, for instance, was most commonly shown as a reclining jackal but he was by no means a deified animal. Already in the earliest texts in which he is mentioned, he appears as the god of the desert cemeteries. He ensured proper burial and when mummification became common he counted as the master of embalmment. The god was depicted in papyri and reliefs with a human body and a jackal's head (Figure 2).

Such hybrid forms are common in Egyptian art and the usual evolutionary theory explains them as "transitional forms," intermediate between the "crude" cult of animals and the anthropomorphic gods of a more enlightened age. This theory ignores the fact that the earliest divine statues which have been preserved represent the god Min in human shape. Conversely, we find to the very end of Egypt's independence that gods were believed to be manifest in animals. The goddess Hathor appears, for instance, in late papyri and even in royal statues as a cow (Figure 12). Yet she was rendered already in the First Dynasty, on the Palette of Narmer, with a human face, cow's horns, and cow's ears. This early appearance of human features was to be expected, for a god is personified power, and personification need not, but easily may, call up the human image. In any case, the gods were not confined to a single mode of manifestation. We have seen that Thoth appeared as moon, baboon, and ibis. He was also depicted as an ibis-headed man (Figure 5). To speak here of a transitional form seems pointless. There was no need for a transition. The god appeared as he desired, in one of his known manifestations. On the other hand, there was a definite need to distinguish deities when they were depicted in human shape, and in such an array the ibis-headed figure identified Thoth. I suspect that the Egyptians did not intend their hybrid designs as renderings of an imagined reality at all and that we should not take the animal-headed gods at their face value. These designs were probably pictograms, not portraits. Hathor, usually depicted as a cow (Figures 12, 25), a woman's face with cow's ears (Figure 11), or as a woman wearing a crown of cow's horns (like Isis in the Frontispiece), appears very rarely as a cow-headed woman (Figure 14); the meaning would be: This is the goddess who is manifest in the cow. The animal-headed figures are quite unorganic and mechanical; it makes no difference whether a quadruped's head (Figures 2, 14), an ibis' neck (Figure 5), or a snake's forepart emerge from the human shoulder. That again would be easily explained if they were only ideograms, and this interpretation is corroborated by the truly vital character of the few monsters invented by the Egyptians: Taurt (Figure 13), for instance, is convincing even though she is composed of incongruous parts: the head of a hippopotamus, the back and tail of a crocodile, the breasts of a woman, and the claws of a lion.

Our rapid survey of the various relationships between gods and animals in Egypt does not clarify the role of the latter. But the very absence of a general rule and the variety of the creatures involved suggests, it seems to me, that what in these relationships became articulate was an underlying religious awe felt before all animal life; in other words, it would seem that animals as such possessed religious significance for the Egyptians. Their attitude might well have arisen from a religious interpretation of the animals' otherness. A recognition of otherness is implied in all specifically religious feeling, as Otto has shown. We assume, then, that the Egyptian interpreted the nonhuman as superhuman, in particular when he saw it in animals—in their inarticulate wisdom, their certainty, their unhesitating achievement, and above all in their static reality. With animals the continual succession of generations brought no change; and this is not an abstract and far-fetched argument but something which suggested itself also to Keats for instance; in the "Ode to a Nightingale" he writes:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown ...


Excerpted from Ancient Egyptian Religion by Enriqueta Frankfort. Copyright © 1975 Enriqueta Frankfort. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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