The Gods of Ancient Egypt -- The Role of the Pharaoh

The Role of the Pharaoh

"The totality of life and death was the mystery at the center of all mystery religions."

-- W.B. Kristensen, Aaebericht Ex Oriente Lux

It is theorized that the whole of human religion ultimately extends from two things: 1) that Man cannot comfortably live with the notion that he is temporary; and 2), necrophobia. In other words, we want to continue existing after we die, but we don't want the dead coming back here. Whether this is true or not, it certainly seems a logical conclusion after studying the ancient Egyptians. The lengths to which they went to prepare even the poorest of their dead for the journey into the afterlife are legendary.

One could generalize and say that the ancient Egyptian civilization was not much more than a widespread death cult. Not so. At the heart of all of their focus on death was a desire for eternal life and it was this that drove them as opposed to a mere obsession with death itself.

Central to Egyptian life was the pharaoh. In one person he encompassed both the secular and sacred, but to the Egyptians both were one and the same. The pharaoh was simultaneously the embodiment of the law and the chief priest. His duties varied from settling legal disputes to leading the people in the rituals that sustained all of Egypt.

Although such a state of affairs seems unusual to us, having gone through our Renaissances and our Ages of Reason over the centuries, to the Egyptians there was no better way. The pharaoh was not simply a priest-king. He was the upholder of the universal order called Maat. As long as the pharaoh and the people honored the gods and obeyed the law set down for them, Maat would be in balance and all would be well. But should the pharaoh fail, not only the people but the whole world would suffer, for Maat formed the basis of all things.

The power of the pharaoh was shown for all by the ritual vestments he wore. The symbols of the gods were his tools of office, showing the people his authority granted by the gods, and reminding the pharaoh always of his responsibility to the people and to Maat. The crook and flail, so famous after being depicted on many sarcophagi, represented his authority to reward the innocent and punish the guilty. On his head, the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt showed his power to rule over the two lands. On his brow were the symbols of divinity, most prominent being the Uraeus Cobra. It represented the Eye of Ra that saw all that the pharaoh saw, both good and evil.

Contrary to popular belief today, the pharaoh was not a god in and of himself. He was a god-king, an avatar, not an incarnation, and there is a subtle difference. The pharaoh was believed to have the spirit of Horus, son of Osiris, residing within him and guiding him along the proper path of Maat. He also had the spirits of all his predecessors who dwelt with Osiris in the afterlife to aid him as well. Yet even with this he was not deemed infallible, for they would only support him so long as he upheld Maat.

When the pharaoh died his spirit joined those of his predecessors together with Osiris. From there he guided his successors as he had been guided in life. Thus a continuous cycle was set up: the living honoring and remembering the dead, and the dead aiding the living from the afterlife, all of it connected through the pharaoh, the emissary of both worlds.

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