© Valentin and Ellen Davydov (2022)

Phenomenology of Religion

This section of the website is dedicated to the History and Phenomenology of Religion, and especially to the research of the nature of the religious culture of Ancient Egypt in the context of the problem of matching the religious system that existed in Ancient Egypt with the terminology that has developed in religious studies for the qualitative characterization of any particular tradition. The established definitions of such categories as “polytheism” and “monotheism” originate from the Abrahamic religious tradition. If we consider Judaism and its derivative religions as the standard of monotheism, then a problem arises in determining the nature of more ancient religious systems, which have the idea of a single God, but have completely different symbological series and iconographic traditions.

The potential clue to the solution of this problem is the avoidance of reductionism in the use of such categories of religious studies as “polytheism” and “monotheism” and the application of phenomenological approach to the study of religion of Ancient Egypt, which allows us to consider unexplored aspects of the problem of typologization of religious systems. The civilization that emerged at the end of the IV millennium in the Nile valley created the most powerful cultural field, which in many respects determined the shape of all civilizations that later emerged in Europe and the Middle East. The legacy of Egyptian technology, art, theology, and philosophy had the strongest influence on the development of civilizations that culturally preceded the modern European civilization. If we think of the cultural links between civilizations as a great family tree, Egypt appears to be the seed from which the civilization of Ancient Greece sprouted.

The cultural exchange that began in the Minoan period, through Mycenae and the Classical Greece, laid many of the foundations of what we call ancient philosophy. Had it not been for Egypt, Plato’s dialogues and the Nicomachean Ethics would hardly have been written. Many thinkers of ancient Hellas visited Egypt, where they communicated with the priests, who kept many thousands of years of experience of reflection on what lies beyond human understanding – the essence of the divine and the nature of man. In the Hellenistic period the contacts between Greeks and Egyptians became even closer – liberated from Persian rule Egypt became a part of the empire of Alexander the Great, and after its collapse it became the possession of one of Alexander’s diadochos – Ptolemy, the founder of the dynasty that ruled Egypt for more than three centuries. A virtually syncretic cultural tradition emerged, where Greek and Egyptian elements are closely intertwined in a single matrix.

It was Alexandria of Egypt that became the center of science and culture of the Hellenistic period, where Ptolemy I founded the Mouseion, on the basis of which the famous Library of Alexandria appeared, where the greatest minds of their time worked – such as Euclid and Archimedes, Strabo and Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Aristarchus of Samos, where Manephon wrote his “History of Egypt”, and Sostratus built one of the wonders of the world – the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Would such a thing have been possible if there had been no highly developed civilization in the Nile Delta by the time of the Ptolemies, if Egypt had been only a remote periphery of the ancient world? It is hardly conceivable.

The thousand-year-old traditions of Egyptian monumental construction helped Sostratus to erect one of the greatest masterpieces of engineering art of antiquity, and the knowledge of Egyptian priests allowed Euclid to lay the foundation of the geometry of linear space.  And Christian theology, from the Roman period onwards, was largely shaped in Egypt. One of the first Christian educational institutions – the Catechetical School of Alexandria was dealing with the synthesis of the achievements of ancient philosophy and the essence of Christian doctrine. Within the walls of this school worked the greatest Christian thinkers – Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus the Blind, Athenagoras and Heraclius of Alexandria. In Egypt, a distinctive exegetical tradition based on allegorical interpretation of sacred texts emerges, which is extremely characteristic of the ancient Egyptian religion. The Alexandrian theological school made a great contribution to the development of Christological and trinitarian concepts. The tradition of Christian monasticism is also closely connected with Egypt – such revered ascetics as Athanasius the Great, Macarius the Great, Paul of Thebes and Pachomius the Great went to the barren deserts, where wandering hermits of seraphic cults had dwelt before them.

Ancient Greece and Rome, which was also not devoid of contacts with Egypt, is also succeeded by our modern European civilization, to the eastern part of which, no doubt, the history of Russian statehood and culture can be attributed. What is the main idea of that cultural paradigm, which was formed in Ancient Egypt and continues to live to the present day? To answer this question, it is necessary to look at those differences, which appeared at the early stages of formation of the first civilizations, which mastered written language and statehood.

Thus, anthropological representations within the European civilization are closest to the ancient Egyptian ones, which testifies to the presence of strong genetic ties between Egypt and later cultures of Europe. Egypt can be rightfully considered the first Western civilization, which laid the cultural foundations for the subsequent development of many peoples. A careful study of the religion of ancient Egypt allows us to see many units of cultural information, which are traditionally considered to be unique assets of much later traditions. The religion of Egypt is very complex, including a large number of seemingly mutually exclusive cosmogonic systems, complex symbolic series and unusual, multiple representations of the divine.

When trying to somehow typologize ancient Egyptian religion, to correlate it with Abrahamic traditions and other forms of religiosity, one gets a feeling of its fundamental otherness, dissimilarity neither to the Judeo-Christian tradition of monotheism, nor to the type of religious culture, which is usually called polytheism. The widespread idea of the polytheistic nature of the ancient Egyptian religion comes into sharp contradiction with the content of religious texts, which repeatedly indicate that the Egyptians were well aware of the category of a single creator-God. Is the indisputable fact of the existence of a multitude of divine names and personalities a contradictory correlate of the veneration of a single god? Through my research, I am trying to give an answer to this question.

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