On the Politics of Ancient and Modern Religion
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Wayne Philips
For anyone interested in religion on almost any level, the study of ancient Egypt can be a revelation. Certainly there were religions prior to that of the Egyptians, but they are not nearly so documented, nor are they so central to many of today's modern religions. Further more, it is a grand topic, who scholars have documented, but philosophers have hardly touched. This can only be a brief overview, but in frankly we wish to create inspiration and more dialog on the subject. In this respect, we will limit our discussion to some comparisons between the Christian and ancient Egyptian religion, as those are the two religions that are most familiar to us. Christianity is considered monotheistic, meaning that Christians worship a single god, while we refer to the ancient Egyptian religion as polytheistic, meaning that they worshiped a number of gods. This is the comparison that is dictated to us from formal traditional thought, but how true is it really.
The Origin of Gods
At the dawn of civilization, city states were more common than nations, and in many instances, society grew up around and were somewhat isolated to individual villages. In Egypt, each of these usually had a principal god prior to the merger of societies. Certainly there may have been more than one god for a particular village or city, but very often there was an overwhelmingly important god that was supreme. It was probably not so much religion that forced people to worship more than one god, but rather politics. Throughout the ages, as men combined political entities, first cities, and then regions and finally merging all of these into nations, religious compromises were made. Perhaps this is most evident, or at least documented during the rule of the Greeks in Egypt, when many Greek and Egyptian gods were combined.
No better example exists than Serapis, a new god that was politically created in order to present a deity that would be familiar to both the Egyptian and Greek cultures. This god combined the aspects of the Greek gods Zeus, Askelepios, and Dionysys with the Egyptian gods Osiris and the Apis bull cult. Serapis represents, perhaps in its truest form, the religious complexities created by politics that were not present in the earliest times. Most Egyptians at the dawn of the dynastic period usually worshiped a specific supreme deity in any one specific area or city, though there were certainly a lot of deities throughout Egypt worshipped. It was most certainly politics, and the need for powerful men to gain control that forced these individual gods together in order to accommodate the religious beliefs in each of their holdings. Basically, my point is that for any individual, and for early settlements as a whole, religion started out with a tendency to be somewhat monotheistic, just as most modern religions are today. Politics, for the most part, created polytheisticism. In fact, at one point we will see that the Egyptians created one of the most monotheistic religions ever devised. Akhetaten, better known as Akhenaten, was called the Heretic King, because he abandoned all gods in favor of only one, Aten, the Sun God. To Akhenaten, this god was all powerful, and we know of no truer form of monotheisticisim that has existed before, or to the current day.
But there is More to Polytheisticism
Many people would argue that these ancients worshipped objects and animals. This is a common view of polytheisticism. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun, or a type of bull, but this is truly a misconception. Statues, animals and physical objects such as the moon or the sun were only representative of gods, their true form being much more mystical. Certainly the Egyptians may have seen the sun as a physical embodiment of Aten, for example, but they gave many more attributes to this god than simply being bright, or providing light.
Christians and Monotheisticism
While the early Egyptians may not have been as polytheistic as many believe, Christianity may not be as monotheistic as we would like to believe. The questions that begs answering, is what exactly is a god. Correctly, Christians refer to their "god" as a supreme being. This is because there are, in Christianity as well as other religions, a number of supernatural beings. There are angels and demons among others, and of course the devil himself. And while Christians certainly do not worship the devil, Christian dogma does give that particular supernatural being some real control over a domain, making him supreme, if only in the realm of evil. Even in ancient Egypt, at any one time, and particularly in any specific part of Egypt there was usually considered to be a deity that was superior to other "gods" and there are scholars that will argue that these other gods were more closely related to the Christian concepts of an angle. In this respect, the difference between Christian and ancient Egyptian religion begins to become cloudy. Certainly Christian angels operate and obtain their power and duties from the Supreme Being, but likewise many of the Egyptian "gods" also operated under the influence of a principal god.
Saints and Deified Humans
We also know that ancient Egyptian's sometimes deified humans. A classical example of this is Imhotep, an early physician and architect. He was "deified" by later Egyptians and said to be worshipped. But do we truly know the means in which he was worshipped, and can we say that it was altogether different than the more modern concept of saints? Most Egyptians who "worshipped" ancient ancestors and other deceased humans called upon them for some sort of help or aid in one manner or another, and isn't that very similar to practices associated with modern saints?
The Politics of Christianity
Christianity has also employed politics to enable its growth, in much the same way that more secular politicians have used religion to cement their territories. Of course, secular leaders bought together gods from various regions to solidify their holdings. But Christianity, having specific beliefs in a supreme being, most often bought together religious customs rather than multiple gods. Just as secular leaders made gods of various regions their own, so Christianity soaked up local customs and religious practices as its own. Examples of this abound, and as missionaries attempt to create conversions even today the practice continues. Easter comes to mind very easily in this regard, particularly in connection with Egypt. All Christians are familiar with this celebration, but what do eggs and rabbits have to do with the resurrection of Christ? Well, eggs and rabbits were symbols of renewal in ancient Egypt (and probably other ancient religions) and this polytheistic belief was easily adopted into the Christian church. But modern combinations of Christianity and local superstition, for example in areas where voodoo has been practiced, lead to some rather bazaar modern Christian practices. This is all very explainable, however. Very early Christian missionaries quickly discovered that it was far easier to make conversions by adapting local superstitions, therefore making the process more familiar and comfortable to the local populous, just as ancient secular leaders found it easier to solidify their subjects by embracing each region's gods, rather than forcing their own upon them.
In fact, most readers must realize that there was considerable physical proximity of the Christian and the Egyptian polytheistic religion, and no one knows exactly the extent to which the Christian faith (as well as others) were influenced by the Egyptian religion. Egyptians often occupied the very heartland form which the Christian faith sprang, and was itself deeply involved in the faiths development. There are more than a few similarities between the Christian faith and the ancient Egyptian faith.
Probably the most obvious is the story of Osiris, Isis, Horus and Set, or at least their final positions, along with some of the surrounding icons. I will not repeat the story itself, but in the end, Osiris becomes the god of the heavens while Set is outcast as the evil lord of the underworld. Isis is the mother of Horus, who in tern becomes a living god in the form of the pharaoh.The associations of Osiris and the Christian supreme being, Isis as the Mother Mary Horus as Jesus and Set as the devil are obvious, and ancient icons depict Isis suckling Horus almost exactly as Mary would later be shown suckling the baby Jesus.
This is but one similarity. Perhaps another even more intriguing parallel is the Christian bible's mention of early sons of Gods who walked the earth:
Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. And the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Genesis Chapter 6, New Kings James Version
Interestingly, in the Palermo Stone that documents early kings of Egypt and is important to Egyptologists for details of the early dynasties, it also documents several thousand years when mythical gods ruled, prior to the god Horus finally handing the rule of Egypt off to Menes, a human. Even were it not for this particular similarity, Genesis Chapter 6 is interesting in relationship to ancient religions.
The final analysis
In the end, many may call this analysis heretic, but in fact, the study of ancient Egyptian religion has strengthened my belief in the basic concept of modern religion. Mankind, and specifically individuals, have almost certainly always worshipped a supreme god, regardless of the name they might have called him, and there have always been "helpers" performing specific functions surrounding this deity, whether we refer to them as minor gods, or angels. But in the end, this is probably not the most scholarly article on this topic, but I hope that it simply makes people think, and understand the intrigue involved in the study of the ancient Egyptian religion, not simply placing it in the realm of archaic knowledge without real implications to our modern religions.
Last Updated: June 20th, 2011