All gods are three: Amun, Re and Ptah, whom none equals.
He who hides his name as Amun, he appears to the face as Re,
his body is Ptah.The hymn to Atum from Papyrus Leiden I 344 recto, circa 1990–1803 BC
Almost two centuries have passed since the genius of Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics. European science has rediscovered the fascinating history of this ancient civilisation. The interest of the educated public in Egypt led to the emergence of an entire science – Egyptology. Since then, researchers have made significant progress in the study of various aspects of Egyptian culture. Egyptian art is well studied, political history is reconstructed, many secrets of writing are revealed, yet the content of the religion of Ancient Egypt still causes fierce discussions among religious scholars. Some researchers consider it polytheistic, others incline to Egyptian monotheism, and some try to combine both these points of view.
First of all, we should not forget that any phenomenon is always more complex than the theory within which we seek to enclose it. Egyptian religion is immeasurably deeper than such artificial terms as monotheism and polytheism. These words are not labels that can be put on a religion and all aspects of it will immediately become clear. Those religions that are considered to be unquestionably monotheistic – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – have repeatedly encountered in their development what may well be called manifestations of polytheism. Islam fought the veneration of saints – “awliya” – which was seen as a violation of the principle of tawhid, which postulates strict monotheism. The Old Testament repeatedly mentions the deviations of the Jewish people from the veneration of Yahweh alone. In Christianity, the struggle against polytheism and idolatry took the form of iconoclasm and trinitarian disputes.
But why the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not a reason to consider Christianity a polytheistic religion, and the fact of the existence of a multitude of divine names in Egypt is necessarily for researchers as such, despite the repeated statements about a single god in Egyptian religious texts? This question can be answered as follows – Egypt never had what in Christianity is called “dogmatic theology“.
Christianity, having emerged from the Jewish tradition, immediately became the target of criticism, both from Jews and Hellenistic philosophers. In defence of their faith, the first Christian authors wrote apologia, in which they responded to outside criticism by ordering and systematising elements of the doctrine, using the terms of ancient philosophy where appropriate. From the Christian apologia Christian theology developed. The formulation of the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity was preceded by decades of intense theological polemics and struggle with Gnostics and heretics-antitrinitarians. But Egypt had never known anything like this; Egyptian religion had never become the object of criticism of other religious traditions. Greek philosophers treated Egyptian sages not as bearers of harmful superstitions, but as teachers. Egyptian priests never had someone, akin to who Celsus and Porphyry were to the Christians.
The extant Egyptian religious texts are not theological treatises, but sacred rituals frozen in hieroglyphs, which included cosmogony, soteriology and eschatology. At the same time, the Egyptian understanding of the sacred text was very flexible; the tombs of kings of one dynasty could contain texts with significant differences. If the Vedic tradition demanded a literal translation of the Vedas in an unchanged form, the Egyptians were not afraid to experiment and did not put form above content. Therefore, for an Egyptian there was no contradiction between the veneration of many divine names and the knowledge of a single God.
Polytheism and monotheism are not completely alien to each other. Rather, we can speak of processes of polytheisation and monotheisation within religion. When there were periods of deep crisis in Ancient Egypt, monotheistic tendencies weakened, giving way to the veneration of separate divine persons as gods as such, unrelated to the creator-god, the knowledge of which was present in Egypt from the deepest antiquity. When religious culture flourished, the priesthood again focused popular religiosity on the veneration of a single and hidden god, as was the case in the Middle and New Kingdoms.
The very terminological apparatus we use depends too much on the environment in which it originated and developed. The term “monotheism” emerged to refer primarily to the Abrahamic religions, which led to the fact that certain features related to doctrine, symbolic series and iconography came to be perceived as attributes of monotheism as such. The term “polytheism” for a long time was equivalent to the term “paganism”, which came out of the Jewish environment. In the current situation with terminology, we can speak of the existence of a presumption of polytheism for any religious system that does not go back to the Abrahamic tradition. Researchers who saw the contradictions between the meaning of the terms available to them and the actual content of religious texts were forced to create new categories to describe individual religious traditions – henotheism, monolatry, catenotheism, solar monotheism. These terms are much closer to describe the ancient Egyptian religion, but still do not correspond to it fully. Ancient Egyptian religion in its highest manifestations is a special form of non-Abrahamic monotheism, which quite admits the existence of independent, ontologically connected with it volitional energies of the One God, who himself is transcendent and is outside the created world.
This study attempted to carry out a phenomenological reconstruction of some aspects of ancient Egyptian religion based on a corpus of ritual texts, among them:
- The Amduat (various texts)
- The Book of Aker
- The Book of Caverns
- The Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (various texts)
- The Book of Gates
- The Book of the Heavenly Cow
- The Book of Traversing Eternity
- The Books of Breathing
- The Coffin Texts
- The Great Hymn to the Aten
- The Ipuwer Papyrus
- The Leyden papyri (I and X)
- The Litany of Re
- The Metternich Stela
- The Papyrus of Ani
- The Pyramid Texts
- The Westcar Papyrus