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The Death of Gods


The Death of Gods

by Jimmy Dunn

Osiris, wrapped in a mummy's bandages, stands beside a stylized tomb


There are actually many similarities between ancient Egyptian religion and our modern faiths, but one very distinct difference is that Egyptian gods had a finite 'birth' and 'death'. In fact, they could die, and then they could also cease to exist. What this means is that, like the Egyptians themselves, the gods could die and be resurrected, sometimes on a cyclical basis, but there would also be an end of time when they would permanently vanish from existence.

To a certain extent, it is interesting that the Egyptians really even thought in terms of a beginning and ending of time. Certainly they must have wondered, as apparently most mankind has throughout our existence, about where we and our earth originated and one might suppose that this lead to thought about its eventual end. Even today, modern religions do not contemplate the end of existence. Yet cycles were much more dominant in the Egyptian mind not only because of the rising and setting of the sun, but certainly also because of the Nile River and harvest cycles, when they watched their crops grow, die, be fertilized by the silt of the Nile flood, and grow once more.

In fact, to understand ancient Egyptian religion is to understand that, with the exception of some isolated statements during specific periods of Egyptian history, the Gods of Egypt were inherently vulnerable. In many respects, it is clear that ancient Egyptian gods were made in the image of mankind, rather than the reverse. They were not the "perfect god almighty", for most (if

not all) were born, or at least came into existence at a specific time of creation, they made mistakes, suffered emotions, many had wives and husbands to whom they bore children, and fought amongst themselves, sometimes with the greatest among them suffering defeat. Increasingly over time, the gods of ancient Egypt took on the weaknesses and limitations of their human subjects.

Osiris being morned by Nephthys and Isis on his funeary bier

Clearly, though the gods of ancient Egypt were not mortal, they could suffer death. Though Egyptian texts never specifically say that Osiris died, almost certainly because such a statement would be believed to magically sentence the god to that reality, they and later Classical commentators clearly show that he was slain at the hands of his antagonist, Seth, and that he was afterwards mummified and buried. Otherwise, the sun god Re was thought to grow old as evening approached and to die each night, though again, no specific mention of the god's death is made. Both Re and Osiris were also resurrected, though the circumstances of this become somewhat complex and really may define two very different concepts of death and resurrection. On the one hand, Re seems to have been a primeval god but also an early king who grew old and, upon his death, became the ruler of the heavens where he suffered death each night and birth each morning.

The winged Solar disk is swallowed by Nut, who will give birth to it once more in the morning.

However, Osiris was thought to have had a more normal early birth, to have ruled as king, and then to have been slain. He was resurrected (though myths vary and this is somewhat of a simplification) to rule the netherworld and while subject in his association with Re to the daily cycle, seems to have lived without cyclical death in the netherworld. Both gods lived at one time, but suffered death and were resurrected into the spiritual world. However, within that spiritual world, Re continued to suffer a cycle of birth and death.

In fact, the principle of divine demise applies to all Egyptian deities. Texts dating back to at least the New Kingdom informs us that the god Thoth assigned fixed life spans to both humans and gods, while Spell 154 of the Book of the Dead unequivocally states that death (literally, 'decay' and 'disappearance') awaits 'every god and every goddess'.

Scholars such as Francois Daumas and Ragnhild Finnestad have also shown that there were clues in late Egyptian temples that the innermost areas were regarded as the tombs of the gods. There are also clear references in certain temples such as Luxor to the "tombs" of certain gods being venerated as such from New Kingdom times at least, and considerable evidence

elsewhere that many of Egypt's gods had once walked the earth prior to their death. However, all of this evidence must be viewed in its proper contest, for death need not imply the absence of existence. The Egyptians believed that life followed death almost as surely as the reverse, and there is no compelling reason to think that they exempted their gods from this cycle. This idea was aided by the fact that the ancient Egyptians distinguished two views of eternity, consisting of eternal continuity (djet) and eternal recurrence (neheh). Hence, the gods could die yet remain in the ongoing progression of time. In fact, their very mortality appears to have enabled them to become young again and again.

Osiris sits in judgement of the dead in the Book of the Dead

However, just as ancient Egyptian religion varies from our modern faith in that the gods had a beginning, an entrance into existence, so too did they have an end. Egyptian mythology provides that only the elements from which the primordial world had arisen would eventually remain. In an important section of the Coffin Texts, the creator god Atum states that after millions of years of creation, he and Osiris would eventually return to 'one place', the undifferentiated condition prevailing before the creation of the world. This 'end of days' is more clearly described in the Book of the Dead within a dialog between Atum and Osiris. Within this conversation, Osiris mourns the fact that he will eventually be isolated in eternal darkness, while the god Atum comforts him by pointing out that he would join him so that just the two would survive when the world eventually reverts back to the primeval ocean from which all else arose. At this point, it is said that Atum and Osiris will take the form of serpents (symbolic of uniformed chaos) and there would be neither gods nor men to perceive them.

Hence, though there was seemingly and endless cycle of birth, aging, death and rebirth amongst the gods, they would nevertheless eventually perish in the death of the cosmos itself, after which there would exist only the potential for life and death within the waters of chaos.

A Footnote

We may read over and over again that Christianity bought an end to the ancient Egyptian religion. However, even though the Egyptians lost their ability to read their own ancient texts, the names of their most major gods were never forgotten, having lived on through Greek and Roman texts. It is true that the religion itself died with the coming of Christianity, but like the gods themselves, it has been resurrected by modern paganism. However, it never really ceased to exist, for many aspects of ancient Egyptian religion found their way into Christian traditions. Hence, the religion and its gods have, in some respects, imitated their mythology in the realities of our modern world.

Notation: In general, it appear that the ancient Egyptians believed their gods were either born or at some point came into existence and were capable of dying, though we must point out that the circumstances of their birth and death sometimes vary between myths. Furthermore, while we specifically use the examples of Re and Osiris, all gods of ancient Egypt (with certain exceptions) appear to have been subject to creation and death.


See also


References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion

Redford, Donald B.

2002

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-515401-0

Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2003

Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-05120-8

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

Hornung, Erik

1971

Cornell University Press

ISBN 0-8014-8384-0

Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A

Hart, George

1986

Routledge

ISBN 0-415-05909-7

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