When Men Could Be Gods; Life, Culture in Ancient Egypt

Article excerpt


Few monuments have had such a lasting effect on the imagination as the pyramids along the Nile, or the great Sphinx, which to the ancient Greeks represented all that remained mysterious to them about ancient Egypt, its grandeur, its complex religion, its uncanny ability to exist outside of ordinary time. The Greeks supposed that hieroglyphics were symbols, each representing an idea. They saw Egyptian rituals and supposed them to be initiation rites, like their own "mysteries."

In the 18th century the Freemasons used Greek and Roman reconstructions of Egyptian "mystery rites" as the foundation for ceremonies. They had no way of knowing that the Egypt they had taken such pains to "revive" was in fact not authentic, but an imaginary reconstruction, based on misinterpretations and speculations of Greek and Roman travelers. It was not until after 1822, when hieroglyphics were deciphered by the French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion, that scholars began to be able to learn about the ancient Egyptians from the ancient Egyptians themselves.

Since then the patient work of many scholars has revealed that Egyptian religion and theology is much richer and much more complex than the Greeks had supposed. In Greek religion, a clear division was made between the lives of gods and men, and the souls of humans after death could look forward only to shadowy, insubstantial existence. But the Egyptians saw the world very differently. The great king could represent and embody a god, or vice versa. What one did in this life mattered, because one would be judged by the gods after death, and rewarded for having lived a just life, not just for what glory one might have won during one's lifetime.

A human being would spend much of his or her life preparing for death and the life hereafter. It was unthinkable not to have planned one's tomb or memorial, and the outward forms of bodies were preserved by bandaging and desiccation. The dead person could be spoken of as Osiris, the god who died and was brought back to life again. Income from estates was used to maintain both the living and the cults of the dead.

It is by no means easy for anyone raised in a monotheistic tradition to get a basic understanding of Egyptian thought. Before we can begin to do so, we must overcome our objections to "idolatry," and try to think about death in positive way, as a transition to a new life, and opening to new possibilities. In "The Mind of Egypt: History and the Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs," Egyptologist Jan Assmann shows us that we must begin to think of history and time not in linear terms, but as recurrences of cycles. For the ancient Egyptians, the past was recreated in the present, and it was from the past that what happened in current time acquired its lasting meaning.

A pharaoh did not seek to conquer particular individuals, but sought to impose order upon chaos; what mattered was not who one was but what one represented. Memory and myth are more important than a mere recital of facts. A Greek historian would describe the reactions and achievements of individuals, and give credit, wherever possible, to the accomplishments of the enemy. An Egyptian account of a battle offers the pharaoh's action of his victory, and describes his actions in mythic and general terms. A father will give his son general advice about life, which could be understood and followed through many generations by other fathers and other sons.

Because it was important to see oneself in terms of what happened in the past, traditions in literature, architecture, art varied relatively little over a long period of time. …