Understanding Ancient Egypt
– Part 5 –
Many Egyptologists describe ancient Egypt as mysterious and magical, denoting that indeed many aspects and features of its life, and crucially of its religion, remain unknown to us. Indeed, two hundred years ago Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone and opened for us avenues through which to read the open book that is the drawings and carvings on the walls and ceilings of the temples and tombs all over Egypt. But our command over the language remains far from complete. There continue to be many symbols that have multiple interpretations, sections – or what we could think of as paragraphs – that have multiple contexts.
The Book of the Dead is one of the most prime examples. A big part of it is mere spells and incantations that ancient Egyptian priests recited for the souls of the departed to produce certain effects in the dead’s journey in the other world. For some scholars, it was not really a book of religion, but of magic. But throughout the book we find scattered short texts, that do not contextualise the incantations, and hardly explain the effects they supposedly result into. These texts are effectively invocations of values, particularly righteousness, justice, and truth – repeatedly put in that order.
To a large extent, the Book of the Dead is like the books of several other religions, full of rituals on how to worship the divine, how to attain to heaven and escape hell (irrespective of how these concepts were conceived of). But the values were there for a deeper meaning. Behind the rituals and details, there exists in the book the monotheistic tradition of ancient Egypt, and crucially its emphasis on elevating the human to achieve the potential of divinisation, not through rituals and incantations, but through behaviour. Indeed in this tradition, through righteousness, self-control, and discipline, the human would benefit from the inevitability of justice (which ancient Egypt saw as a natural law always applicable in life), and ascend to truth.
This tradition, not surprisingly, drives towards order in life and society. But perhaps surprisingly for some, it revolves round human agency. The success or failure in controlling oneself is here the determinant of one’s destiny, not to attain reward and eschew punishment, but to achieve the ultimate potential, transcendence towards divinity.
As discussed in the third article in this series, this was ancient Egypt’s idea of and route towards divinisation, which was the core of ancient Egypt’s conception of the divine, the human, and the true meaning and purpose of life.
This conception not only links the sacred and the secular; it connects the past with the present. Ancient Egypt was not a civilisation with self-contained beliefs, detached from what had preceded her and what came after her. Ancient Egypt was far from a civilisation that had existed on this land and then dwindled and disappeared. Those who believe in that view utterly miss the core ideas of ancient Egypt, as well as misunderstand or ignore how philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato viewed Egypt and her contribution to the flow of knowledge throughout human history.
In ancient Egyptian thought, and that of some of the most profound Greek philosophers who studied in Egypt, there is always a connection between the past and the present; there is never a cutoff in the flow of knowledge. In the tradition of ancient Egypt, that connection between the past and the present is the land. That flow of knowledge that has existed throughout human history – Plato’s higher ideas – settled in the land, or as Goethe directed us to think, became one with nature in this part of the world. These ideas – conceptions of the divine and of humanity and the link between them - were not exclusively Egyptian. They had been developed before ancient Egypt arose, and remained after ancient Egypt handed the torch to ancient Greece. Nevertheless, their becoming one with the land meant they have settled deep in the Egyptian psyche, becoming a link between what was before and what was to come. Here the land, geography, became not only a carrier of history, but part of it.
And so in this view, the land in the past was not an auxiliary background to the development and growth of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. And the land today is not mere natural pastel through which our eyes (windows of the consciousness) discern the marvels that that civilisation has left. The land is at the very core of that civilisation. The sand, the Nile, and the greenery of its banks are constituents of that civilisation. The land is Isis finding, gathering, and resuscitating the sacred – Osiris - that is scattered in and across it, in danger of being lost, unless there is a will, and an inspiration, to preserve it. In this understanding, the land of Egypt is the vessel containing the meanings that the ancient Egyptian civilisation created.
This form of understanding is what this series is about. It is a way of bringing back into our collective memory explanations of ancient Egypt that decades of ignorance, of exiling true Egypt, and of obsession with literalism squandered. It is also a reminder that, as Egypt now rightfully celebrates its ancient heritage, the celebration must be accompanied by innovative, imaginative attempts at delving beneath the simplistic views about the civilisation that have prevailed in popular culture in the past decades – views that neither explain ancient Egypt’s greatness nor revel in its grandeur. By revealing the ingenuity, depth, richness, and complexity of ancient Egypt, this series attempted to show how much we stand to gain by understanding what the civilisation of our land, and what our land itself, mean.