In theology, as in all important things in ancient Egypt, architecture is key to understanding. Grand temples typically have large courtyards, connected through an axis to different halls, overlooking a sacred lake, behind which is the sanctum sanctorum, the place of secrets, barred to all but a select few.
Temples were portrayed to the masses as houses of the gods. In reality they were houses of life. And nothing houses more vibrant life than humans. This is why ancient Egypt’s temples were in reality representations of humanity –metaphorically and literally.
Viewed correctly, Egyptian temples’ designs followed that of the human form - something many luminary architects applied, centuries later, in constructing grand Catholic cathedrals in Europe.
Metaphorically, the focus was on what forms a human, rather than what makes the human form functions.
This followed how religion was designed and practiced in ancient Egypt. The functioning was the exterior of the religion, the rituals presented to the masses to follow. The form, however, referred to the interior of the religion, the essence of the human.
Ancient Egypt believed the human to be the greatest living creature in existence – not out of hubristic sense of superiority to other living things, but because the human was believed to be a representation of the divine. This was the origin of the idea of man being created in the image of God. That is, the human contained within him/her a divine spark which made them a representation of that divine core.
Representation meant a link between the inner divinity and outer form that lives life, makes choices, and experiences the world.
The inner divinity is part of the divine whole, omnipresent throughout the universe, pervading all existence, including in every human. But, in this view, it is through choices and actions that each human represents the divine differently, uniquely actually.
This view catapulted humans to divinity, was some sort of apotheosis. It also put a colossal responsibility on every human being.
The apotheosis was in endowing every human with a divine self – an inner dwelling spark from (of) God, that by its mere existence connects every human directly to the essence of the divine. This veneration and spiritual elevation of mankind was a step-change in human history. Some of the most refined philosophical teachings that came later followed in the same direction.
The colossal responsibility was the result of having a cause and effect relationship between humans’ actions and representing the divine. Here, humans’ choices are not causes for rewards and punishment in the way many later religions taught. Ancient Egyptian theology reserved rewards and punishment for the masses who, the guardians of ancient Egyptian religion believed, were not able to conceive of the true conception of the divine. For those keepers of secrets, the reality was that each human, through his/her actions, was creating the life that the divine self in him/her experienced. In this way, humans’ actions determine not just the worth of their own lives, but crucially the merit – or the quality – with which they represent the divine.
This idea extolled goodness, but also achievement. Goodness, in ancient Egyptian theology was a route to human refinement. And refinement was crucial for truly representing the divine.
Achievement carried equal weight, for if human lives are routes for the divine to experience existence, then self-achievement is fulfilment of divine purpose – meaning: the divine realises the purpose of being in that human if that human realises his/her maximum potential. This is one understanding of the notion that achieving the maximum one can do – and can be – is the narrow gate to entering the kingdom of heaven within.
In this understanding, the inner divine spark, the divine self within, and the kingdom of heaven that is inside humans, are almost synonymous.
Ancient Egypt indeed emphasised that this road to the inner divine spark, the gate leading to self-fulfilment, is narrow. It is the idea of self-jihad (fighting one’s tendencies to excesses) that Sufists invoke as key to any “path towards knowing”.
Knowing was important in ancient Egypt. Knowledge was protected; the meanings of the temples’ designs were hidden; the ideas at the core of the civilisation’s understanding of divinity and humanity were veiled. And for the truths to be unveiled to someone, he/she needed to be a seeker, needed to pass the narrow gate and walk the difficult road. The more the discipline, the more the self-control, the more of achieving the most that the person can do and be, the more the unveiling, up to the point where knowledge and faith merge and ascend into knowing.
Ancient Egyptian mythology, at the apex of its refinement, presented a subtle image of this journey through combining the notions of Amun and Ra.
Amun was presented to the masses as the chief of the gods – akin, later on, to Zeus in Greek mythology. For the select, however, Amun was the undefined, not because he is undefined, but because human rationality cannot perceive true infinity. Amun was the unlimited, because the human mind always thinks in terms of the relative. This is why Amun denoted that which is beyond conception, the Absolute.
Ra was essentially light – fighting darkness every day, and roaming the sky protecting his realm from powers that fight dawn, that limit growth.
Through attempting to understand Amun, human beings connect with their inner divinity, though never fully comprehend the essence of divinity. Through attempting to emulate Ra, human beings fight their inner demons, pursue self-control, be on the road to illumination, though never truly achieve it, hence the repetition of the cycle of night and day, of death and birth.
Together, Amun and Ra connect man’s intellect, search for his/her essence, with the divine that resides at the core of that essence. Together they connect man’s daily struggles, primarily against his/her self, with his potential apotheosis to be a marvellous representation of his/her creator.