The Religion of Ancient Egypt

A handful of passages from one of the best books on religion I’ve ever read, Erik Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. His eloquence on religious ideas foreign to so many of us today is astounding. As he asks rhetorically at one point: “Did the Egyptians think wrongly, imprecisely, or simply in a different way?”


Everywhere and at all periods the gods thrive on an abundance that tolerates no dogmatic restrictions. (86)


We shall find repeatedly that Egyptian deities do not present themselves to us with as clear and well defined a nature as that of the gods of Greece. The conception of god which we encounter here is fluid, unfinished, changeable. But we should not impute to the Egyptians confused conceptions of their gods… It is evidently unnatural for Egyptian gods to be strictly defined. Their being remains a fluid state to which we are not accustomed; it escapes every dogmatic, final definition and can always be extended or further differentiated. The combinations gods form with other gods are transitory in many respects and can be dissolved at any time. This fluidity leaves no room for monotheism, which bases itself on unambiguous definitions. (98-99)


But none of these animals, plants, and objects that are related to the manifestation of deities gives any information about the true form of a deity. According to the the texts the true form is “hidden” and “mysterious”; the Coffin Texts tell us that only the deceased may know the true form of a god. No thinking Egyptian would have imaged that the true form of Amun was a man with a ram’s head. Amun is the divine power that may be seen in the image of a ram, among many others, as Horus shows himself in the image of the hawk whose wings span the sky and Anubis in the image of the black canine (“jackal”) who busies himself around the tombs in the desert. Similarly, Christian saints, especially the four evangelists, may be shown in animal form or with the head of an animal.

      None of these images shows the true form of a god, and none can encompass the full richness of his nature—hence the variable iconography of Egyptian gods, which is seldom reduced to a fixed, canonical form. Every image is an imperfect means of making a god visible, characterizing his nature, and distinguishing him from other deities. (124-5)


Even the creator of all cannot pass this farthest boundary…. Nor is knowledge of the gods boundless; strictly speaking, even the most powerful creator god is not “omnipotent.” (169)


The fundamental characteristic of everything that exists—this diversity—renders it impossible to credit the gods with absolute qualities or absolute existence…. The large number of the gods is itself an aspect of their diversity. The essence of the primeval god is that at first he is one and then, with creation and the diversity it brings, he is many. In the New Kingdom, “the one, who made himself into millions” is a common epithet of the creator which renders this characteristic explicit. “Millions”—enormous and unfathomable but not infinite multiplicity—are the reality of the world of creation, of all that exists.” (170)


[The Egyptian gods] are neither immortal nor omnipotent, and this remains so until the end of Egyptian religion. The development I have sketched never, therefore, leads to an absolute control of events by the will of god; there is always room for human initiative, which in ancient Egypt is never subject to anything like the Islamic in shā allah “God willing.”

      Since the Egyptian gods are unable to transcend the boundary of the existence, the problem of theodicy [the problem of suffering] does not arise. There is no need to justify god in the face of the injustice and evil in the world. Evil is inherent in the nonexistent and hence is older than the gods and present in the world from the beginning. The gods cannot be made responsible for it, but are the very powers that combat evil and continually drive it out from the existent world. “I did not ordain that [mankind] do wrong (jzft); their hearts disobeyed what I had said,” says the creator god in the Coffin Texts, in the celebrated justification of his work of creation. It is the fault of human beings, but also the consequence of their origin in blindness, that they leave space for wrongdoing in their hearts (the organ that determines action). (212-13)


Whenever it is possible to see gods making their appearance in history, we find that their nature is complex from the beginning of their attestation and that the geography of their worship is correspondingly complex…. The rich and complex nature of the gods cannot be accommodated to the excessively simple conceptual categories that we devise; no god can be caught in such a coarse-meshed net. (224-225)