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The Oracle in Ancient Egypt


The Oracle in Ancient Egypt
By Marie Parsons

In our modern world we hear a lot about psychic networks, we consult readers of tarot cards, we have personal psychic consultants, and we may have ourselves even placed a call to get a free reading. Why do we do these things? Could it be that we find some answers for what problems face us?


An Oracle Scene from Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians had their own ways of finding out answers to both big and small problems. Kings were chosen, nobles were appointed, thieves made to confess their guilt, legal disputes settled, crops were planted, sometimes by the "yes" or "no" from the Deity of choice. Could it be that the Egyptians found that their gods helped them as much as we today find help?

The Instruction for King Merikare contains the phrase "care is taken of men, the small cattle of god." The Leiden hymns to Amun contain statements that god "leads the people" or that "it is he who leads the people to every way."

There is evidence that the Egyptians felt they received divine guidance from within their hearts. In the Tale of Sinuhe, dated to the Twelfth Dynasty, Sinuhe describes his flight in this way: My body quivered, my feet began to scurry, my heart directed me, the god who ordained this flight drew me away. This sounds like a reference to an oracular pronouncement, or at the least, a belief in some divine guidance.

The heart was determined to be the place where decisions and ideas were formed, and the tongue made such decisions and ideas to be known. A high priest of Amun said of the god Khnum that he had steered his tongue. In the Instruction of Amenemope, man is warned against steering himself with his tongue because the Universal Lord is the pilot of the ship of human life.

An Oracle is not strictly a prophecy. Prophecy is when someone is inspired to foretell the future. There were few prophets of this kind in Egypt because the gods were not deemed to be omniscient. The Prophecy of Neferti is not strictly "Prophecy" since it was written after the events took place.

An Oracle is more limited and more practical than prophecy. An oracle was a request to a deity to answer some practical question through its public statue. Evidence for the use and belief in oracles comes from the many oracular decrees engraved on temple walls or delivered on papyrus to private persons who then wore the oracle as an amulet; references made in administrative or private records; original petitions on papyrus or ostraca and laid before the god; and statues and reliefs associated with oracles.

Oracles were most effective when a "yes-no" question was asked. Questions could include "who has done or will do something", or "what are the chances for achieving this plan." Kings and peasants alike sought oracles, the king to confirm a gods approval of a military campaign, or making a sensitive appointment to religious office. Farmers might ask oracles about whether to cultivate a certain plot of land and with what crop.

Hatshepsut claimed to have learned the best route to Punt by hearing the divine order at the Lord of Gods stairway, perhaps by sleeping by the barque of the god.

Oracles could be uttered by any processional image. There were many oracular gods attested throughout Egypt: Horus of the Camp, Horus-khau at el-Hiba, Seth at Dakhla, Isis at Koptos, the deified Ahmose at Abydos and others.

The statues either were hidden in a shrine, fastened to a portable barque or mounted directly on poles, or they were unveiled and visible to the public. The statue of the deified Amenhotep I of the west bank sat in an open palanquin. The "Lord of Gods" though, Amun of Karnak, remained inside the booth of his barque.

There are no documents prior to the New Kingdom regarding oracles, and most of these come from the Ramessid or Third intermediate Periods. It is possible that some omens or oracles have been documented as engraved in the tombs of some viziers in the early 18th dynasty, forbidding the settlement of field boundaries through the use of these oracles.

From the New Kingdom on, plaintiffs could come before an oracle with their case. During festival processions, like the one of Hathor in her sacred bark to wed Horus at Edfu, the cult-image would be placed in a miniature bark which would be carried by the priests. At such times the people could come their closest to the god, and yes-no questions would be put to the image while it was carried forth. Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis used the oracle to legitimize their rulership, and legal and social problems could also be resolved by this divine yes or no.

From Ramesses II onward, during the Opet festival, when the procession reached Luxor Temple the barques containing the cultic images entered the peristyle courtyard, by one or two entrances. It is believed that representatives of the populace were already present in this courtyard, Ramesses II constructed it in a space that previously had stood outside the temple precinct and had a tradition of public access. He probably had dismantled the Way station six that Hatshepsut had built, in order to build a triple shrine for the Theban triad. Then he had to admit the people so they could continue to experience the oracles and other manifestations of royal and divine power that had apparently already attended the station. The decorative motifs visible on the fragments from the way station, which were reused in the triple shrine, show that people had been able to approach the station. Also, small rekhyet, or common people, figures are carved on the large sandstone columns erected around the court, their arms and hands upraised in adoration.

Tomb-paintings sometimes included scenes of these processions, as in one scene from the tomb of a workman named Kha-bekhnet. The tomb owner is shown presenting offerings to the deified god-king Amenhotep during a procession. Eight workmen carry the statue of the god, while two others wave fans. A priest clad in ritual leopard skin walks along side.

During the Third intermediate Period, people wore a small cylinder around their necks, which contained a small papyrus upon which was written a decree passed by a deity at an oracle, guaranteeing the wearer protection against every imaginable evil. Sometimes a set of two documents, one with a statement and the other with its contrary, was put before the portable statue, and the god "took" one of them.

A pair of questions dated either 149 or 138 BCE was written in demotic, to the oracle of Sobek and Isis at Dimal or Soknopaiou Nesos in the Faiyum. The papyrus slips were placed before the god. The first reads: "Plea of the servant Teshnufe (son of) Mare, who says before his master Sobek, lord of Pay, great god, and Isis, perfect of throne. If my soundest course is to plow the bank of the lake this year, year 33, and I should now sow, let this slip be brought out to me."

Questions written to the Oracle of Sobek and Isis

Questions written to the Oracle of Sobek and Isis

The second slip is almost identical, and has the corresponding negative provision "if it is not my soundest course." And omits the reference to sowing.

There are texts on statues, which have been erected in temple precincts, to provide the public with intermediaries in approaching the deity. Two of these statues are of Amenhotep, son of Hapu, (not to be confused with the kings of similar name) who was a scribe of recruits during the reign of Amenhotep III. These statues were erected at Karnak, and the texts went as follows:

Ye people from south and north, all ye eyes that see the sun, all ye who come from south and north to Thebes to entreat the lord of gods, come to me! What ye say I shall pass to Amun at Karnak. Say the "offering spell" to me and give me water from that which ye possess. For I am the messenger whom the king has appointed to hear your words of petition and to send up to him the affairs of the Two Lands.

The other text reads:

Ye people of Karnak, ye who wish to see Amun, come to me! I shall report your petitions. For I am indeed the messenger of this god. The king has appointed me to report the words of the Two Lands. Speak to me the "offering spell" and invoke my name daily, as is done to one who has taken a vow.

There are two other statues of persons who held the rank of scribe of recruits. These persons must also have been considered as oracular intermediaries. One statue states: I am the messenger of my mistress Mut, I am going so that your entreaties may ascend. The other says: I am the messenger of the mistress of the sky, Isis of Koptos. I belong to her outer court. Tell me your petitions so that I can report them to the mistress of the Two Lands, for she hears my supplications.

It may be inferred that individual believers would journey to the appropriate temple for the purpose of submitting personal entreaties to the god through this intermediary.

Several kings were so popular that they were worshiped as gods and functioned as intercessors between the people and other deities. One such king mentioned earlier was Amenhotep I, who continued to be worshiped for centuries after his death; throughout the New Kingdom, many votive stelae were inscribed to him with prayers, and during the Ramesside Period, his oracle was often consulted in legal decisions.

He was especially revered in the village of Deir el-Medina, where his oracular involvement settled many legal disputes. Here is one example.

Year 27, first month of summer, day 19. This day, the workman Kha-em-waset reported to King Ameenhotep (life, prosperity,health) saying "Come to me, my lord! Judge between me and the workman Nefer-hotep. Shall one take the hut of Baki, my ancestor, that is in the Great Field on account of the share of Sekhmet-nofret, Oh, my Great Light?" And the god moved backwards emphatically. Then one said to him, "Shall one give it to Kha-em-waset?" And the god moved forwards emphatically. Witnessed by the chief workman Khonsu, the chief workman In-her-khau, all the bearers.

Tuthmosis III in a biographical inscription tells how he was chosen to be king. During the morning, the god in his sacred barque walked the northern hypostyle hall in Karnak and eventually settled in front of the young prince. Tuthmosis III prostrated himself on the ground and the god led him to the place reserved for the king (a procedure repeated by the august god to enthrone Ramesses IV 330 years later).

Oracles took place during public appearances of the god in statue form that would be carried on the priests shoulders. When the god was placed on its station, either along the processional way, or a temple barque shrine, this signaled the end of the oracular session.

To be successful, the oracular process had to be carried out without any influence along the route. Therefore the path had to be carefully prepared and protected, in order to be pure. Some precautions include the arrangement of processional avenues lined with sphinxes between Karnak and Luxor; during the 21st dynasty a "soil of silver" was used where oracles could be held; fan-bearers and censer-bearers surround the barque or shrine to keep away flies; and the time of each session was fixed.

The Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great Traveled to visit the Oracle of Amun

Not all Egyptians took their oracles as truth the first time. One man who was a thief consulted three oracles hoping to find at least one who would possibly declare him innocentbut alas, he finally had to admit his guilt.

Perhaps there was something to the oracle after all.

Editor's Note:

One of the most famous Oracles givers among modern people who study Egypt was, of course, the oracle giver at the Siwa Oasis. This is because it was to this Oracle that Alexander the Great went upon first entering Egypt to legitimize his rule of Egypt. This is a rather interesting story considering that Alexander need not have traveled so far in order to receive an oracle.

Sources:

  • The Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek.
  • Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myth and Personal Practice, edited by Byron Shafer
  • The British Museum book of Ancient Egypt ed. by Stephen Quirke
  • Temples of Ancient Egypt ed. by Byron Shafer
  • Egyptian Religion by Siegfried Morenz
  • Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
  • Village Life in Ancient Egypt by A.G. McDowell

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011

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