Devotion in Ancient Egypt

by Wim van den Dungen

In The Seach for God in Ancient Egypt (2001), the egyptologist Jan Assmann proposed to measure Ancient Egyptian religion (its activities and experiences) using three "dimensions".

These represent their conceptual horizon of contact with the divine, namely :

  • the cultic : the local, political residence of the deities, either as belonging to a particular place and/or as state deities functioning as symbols of the collective, political identity ;

  • the cosmic : the emergence, structure & dynamics of the sphere of their action ;

  • the mythic : the sacred tradition, or "what is said about the gods", their cultural memory as set down in myths, names, genealogies etc.

" ... there was no explicit and coherent explanation of Egyptian theology on the metalevel of theoretical discourse in Ancient Egypt any more than there were theoretical explanations in other areas, such as grammar, rhetoric or historiography. As is well known, the development of theoretical discourse, at least in the Mediterranean world, was an accomplishment of Greek culture." - Assman, 2001, p.9.

Assmann speculates there are multiple dimensions, some of which "are realized in dominant form in any given historical religion". The ones mentioned above were treated in a dominant fashion in Ancient Egyptian religion. In Assmann's reading, the Amarna religion assisted in the breakthrough of a fourth dimension in the era following it, called by Breasted "the age of personal piety" (1912). By closing the temples and banishing the deities of the old religion, Akhenaten had forced the worshippers to resort to internal gods & goddesses "placed in the heart" (mind).

Because, according to Assmann, the mystic "absolutizes the inner presence of the divine and takes satisfaction in it", he is reluctant to name this fourth dimension of "personal piety" truly "mystical". However, this holds only true if this loose definition of mysticism is accepted.

Mysticism is the direct experience of the Divine. On the basis of the provisional comparative form of the phenomenology of Hinduism (Classical Yoga), Judaism (Qabalah), Christianity (the Jesus-people, Orthodoxy) and Islam (Sufism of Al Junayd and Ibn'Arabi), arrived at by means of a comprehensive hermeneutical and participant observational approach, the more mature and unfolding architecture (form) of this radical experience is conceived as implying a bi-polar one-fold. The universal & fundamental structure of this experience, always reflects both the inner as well as the outer aspect of the Divine (cf. Divine bi-polarity). 

Negative theology puts the mysticism of un-saying in perspective, the fact the essence of the Divine is unknown, ineffable, incomprehensible and absolutely absolute. Positive theology affirms the Presence of the Divine in the created order. Like Bergson, I would like to suggest the mystics are the true founders of the religions. Also : mystical experience is a universal human factor able to manifest in formidable everyday experiences (orgasm, strong emotions, Aha, serendipity, cognitive paradox, synchronicity, inventivity, true love, creativity through service). See on these differences : Introduction to a Colorful Recital.

The mature mystic finds the Divine "in the heart" (inner, the seer) but he or she also unveils everything what can be experienced (outer, the seen) as the Self-manifestation of the Divine. This may explain their strength facing evil and their enthusiast theodicy

However, to consider the mystic as exclusively focused on the inner side of the equation is limiting mysticism by a theistic approach of the Divine, stressing the absent, transcendent and remote characteristics. All major traditions interested in the experience of the mystics themselves (exploring mysticism in an experiential way) are confronted with the "agonizing polarization" between manifest and hidden. All major mystic traditions have identified these two poles and were aware of the tension. It is typical for the mystics that although they identify the two seas (salty & sweet) they never eclipse the fact the water of life is one living water of Divine Presence (as Marguerite Porete so admirably synthesized in the character of "Loinprés", Farnear - a theme explicit in Amarna theology & later in Theban theology). The bi-polarity is a phenomenon taking place within a fundamental, implicit, unbreakable, eternal but unfolding unity (cf. "pan-en-theos" : all-in-God).

As Staal demonstrated, mysticism implies a structure of direct experience (between the mystic and the Divine, both inner as outer) and a superstructure which is a verbal thematization of the experience (as a solitary and/or as a group) which may lead to textualization and canonization. To limit the structure of mystical experience to being satisfied with a fusion with the inner, hidden & remote aspect of the Divine, is considered by mystics (in the East, Middle East and West) as a limitation and an incomplete experience of the Divine (cf. Ibn'Arabi on the paradoxical, wonderous perplexity of the "station of no station", and Sufi criticism on stressing Divine remoteness). It may even lead to insanity and heresy. The mature mystic has inner trance and outer sobriety (cf. Al-Junayd). Trance without sobriety is insanity. Sobriety without trance is utter darkness. Outer sobriety is also regulated by the idea of moral harmony (cf. Maat), i.e. symmetrical communication with other human beings aiming at establishing, sustaining & differentiating the common good (of nature, family, society, the planet, etc.).

In the Old Kingdom (and also thereafter), Pharoah was a paradoxical figure, for he was a "god on Earth" while the other gods & goddesses abided in the other world, present in their temples and images in a symbolical and subtle fashion only (they sent their doubles and souls while their spirits remained in the sky). Because religious activity happened between the deities (the temples do not mediate but were loci of the indwelling of the divine), the figure of Pharaoh, both "Great House" and divine king, was extraordinary. Hence, in the Old Kingdom, the overt manifestation of the mystical approach of the divine was an exclusive royal prerogative, or as the Pyramid Texts claim :

"Men hide, the gods fly away."

Pyramid Texts
, utterance 302 (§ 459). 

Does this royal prerogative of the mystical imply the common Egyptian had no direct religious experience ? Could he or she never experienced the "radical other" in their private domain, in the temple of their nome and in the regular festive processions outside the sacred precinct ? Officially, only Pharaoh had a direct experience of the divine (being a god himself) and thus he alone rose vertically to the stars, while all other Egyptians were barred from a direct contact with the divine, except within the confines of their own inner subjectivity.

"Although in all periods relatively few people were directly involved in the cult, the temples and the cult performed in them would have existed in a partial vacuum if they had corresponded with little in the lives of the other people. Apart from this general point, several literary texts become more meaningful if it is assumed that contact with the deity, or experience of the deity, was considered possible." - Baines, J. : "Society, Morality and Religious Practice", in Shafer, 1991, p.173.

In the private tombs of Sheshi (VIth Dynasty - Saqqara) & Harkhuf (VIth Dynasty - Assuan), a stylized catalog of virtues occurs. These virtues are not told in the prose of the narrative autobiography but were recited in an orational style. They suggest great intellectual and literary capabilities. Together with the Maxims of Ptahhotep, (Vth Dynasty under Izezi or Djedkare) they evidence interior reflection, wisdom and a search for true peace. Why would these individuals not have attained mystical states of consciousness ? Moreover, Ptahhotep is eager to relate that wisdom (with which no one is born) and the good (like wealth & peace) come by virtue of the deities. Apparently, they are not restricted to Pharaoh.

(139)     If You are a weakling, serve a man of quality, worthy of trust,
     (so) that all your conduct may be well with god.
(141)     Do not recall if once he was of humble condition,
(142)     do not let your heart become big toward him,
(143)     for knowing his former state.
     Respect him for what has accrued to him,
(145)     for surely goods do not come by themselves.
(146)     They are their laws for him whom they love.
(147)     His gain, he gathered it himself,
(148)     (but) it is god who makes him worthy,
(149)     and protects him while he sleeps.

Ptahhotep : Maxims of Ptahhotep, maxim 10, D175 - "they" and "theirs" refer to the deities

Hence, regarding the horizon of contact with the divine, devotion or piety, at least four elements seem valid :

  • cultic : the actual religious actions, expressions and manifestations of religiosity (in the temples of the nomes, in private homes and in state cults), intimately connected with the economical, social & political conditions at hand ;

  • nomic : what is said & written down about the divine, for example in the "House of Life" of the various temples ;

  • cosmic/social : the field of action of the divine ;

  • mystic/personal : the direct experience of the divine in personal piety.

Early Dynastic
Dyn.I - II

temple service in the nomes, each nome belonging to an indwelling deity

start calendar, writing - deities are mythical kings who dwell in a nome

the Nile
the Sun
the Risen Land
the Two Lands
the Residence

elements of a mysticism of nature linked with magic and the Horus power of Pharaoh

Old Kingdom
Dyn.III - VI

temple service in the provinces and major cultic activity (mostly around Memphis) for state gods as Atum-Re, Ptah, Thoth and Osiris

gods & goddesses have name & function - Atum-Re is the creator & Osiris Pharaoh is king of the dead

3 cosmologies : Memphis (Ptah),  Hermopolis (Thoth/Maat) & Heliopolis (Atum-Re) : the latter becomes predominant

Pharoah is the son of Re (a living god) - Sed-festival of renewal - the ascension of the deceased Pharoah to the stars - festivals outside the temples

Dyn.VII - XI

division of the land - Thebes & Heracleopolis are major nomes - simple monuments by local craftsmen and the start of inscriptions on  coffins of non-royal and well-to-do persons

Amun starts taking on the features of other gods like Re - first evidence of a unity of the divine beyond the uniqueness of the so-called "oneness" of each deity

Heliocentrism - leaders are local chiefs of the nomes - they assume pharaonic titles and prowess

the stela carries an autobiography and a memorial - start of individualism of both nobles & commoners - initiation of a more overt personal piety : commoner desired to rise to the sky too



unification of the Two Lands by the Theban dynasty - epithet of Pharaoh as "king of Upper & Lower Egypt" is then introduced - the spread of the cult of Osiris (Abydos) in Egyptian society as a whole

Amun-Re of Thebes is the "king of the gods" and also the "divine judge" which finalizes the pantheon of the "old religion", turning the early henotheism into a more mature henotheism (present in a latent form as Atum)

affirmation of the dogma of Pharoah's divinity and his cosmic role as well as his service to the gods, his endless leadership in war and sole keeper of the harmony of Egypt, the unity of the Two Lands

funeral auto- biogaphies of officials and artists, lists of virtues, prayers, hymns to the gods, problem of evil, to everyman his or her "ba", and the real ascension of others than Pharoah - the deceased as an "Osiris NN"



confused and ill-known period : nomadic tribes infiltrate eastern Delta -  invasions of the Hyksos who settle in Avaris

Hyksos take over Seth and they introduce horse, chariot & composite bow

Hyksos monarchs established, claiming Egypt with vassals in Thebes who eventually expell the Hyksos as far as Palestine

Egyptians adopt foreign forms, ideas, concepts & creativity - these pave the way for the flowering of New Kingdom humanism

New Kingdom

Ahmose unites Egypt from Sinai to Lower Nubia and reinstalls Thebes as administrative center & religious capital of Egypt - the ancient cults are flowering again hand in hand with a tendency towards their assimilation by Re

Amun restored as "king of the gods", then assimilated to Re and the emergence at the courts of a New Solar Theology and the Aten, however not against the other deities (yet).

the great gods are international  and for humanity - demystification of the old pantheon by naturalism - universalism based on the course of the Sun which exists hand in hand with the old religion - Pharaoh Amenhotep III confirms his own divinity

a new kind of literature : magical netherworld books supplied to the royal deceased - cryptographic writing - individual religious actions in the temples are attested

(between ca. 1353 - 1336 BCE)

temples closed and the name of Amun destroyed - Akhenaten leaves Thebes to erect the new City of Light "Akhetaten" - not all cults are abrogated - at the end other cults are allowed again

elimination of the pantheon - the Aten who gives the living light is the Sole One of Re - only Akhenaten as the son of the Aten knows & intuits the Aten

pre-creation and the netherworld are repressed - only the disk of the Sun (the Aten) creates all through its life-giving light alone - the afterlife is this life serving the Aten.

return of royal mediation : all direct contact via personal piety is absolished - only Akhenaten stands between the Aten and this world - the rest of humanity can only worship the holy trinity

Amun-Re fully restored - the best of Amarna incorporated - Amarna is soon forgotten - the  theocratic state with its center in Thebes - the collosal statues of Ramesses II worshipped - decay & chaos  at the end

Amun-Re (one who becomes  millions) is the Sole God of  the poor who hears the prayers of the commoners - the "god in the heart" drives personal piety to its peak - being hidden, the One God Amun encompasses everything.

restoration of netherworld (books of the sky, of the day, of the night) - synthesis of hidden & overt aspects of the cosmos - God is beyond (creation) but also present in creation as millions of forms (the gods & goddesses)

Tutankhamun's Restoration Stela states that during the previous period the gods had not answered prayers - Ramesside theology initiates the age of personal piety - a radical bi-polar synthesis of god, who is in the heart and on the throne



civil stife & double monarchy : a military dictatorship of chief priests of Thebes (Amun-Re is king) versus Kings of Tanis in the Delta - king Shabaka unifies Egypt again

Amun-Re head of theocracy based on oracular divination. Amun-Re guides all via these decisions - "Amun is king" accepted at Tanis

the synthesis reached during the Ramesside period becomes orthodox and is rigidly followed - the archaism which are developed pave the way to the Late Kingdom

personal piety and the experience of the divine "in the heart" is fully part of the experience of the commoner, ending the process which had started in Pharaoh - the will of the god becomes paramount

Late Period

in the Late Period, Egypt is occupied by Assyrians, becomes a Persian province, is freed, becomes Persian again and is finally liberated by Alexander the Great, but this return of the power of the Pharaohs is based on alliances with the Greeks

(*) dates are always approximate and vary by a few decades according to historians.
They become more precise around 500 BCE. All dates mentioned here are based on :
Hornung, E. : History of Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press - Cornell, 1999, pp.xiii - xix.

"Where our poets charts the possible and impossible, and scientists chase the dream of the exact, of certainties, the historian faces the task of assessing the most probable. (...) Our datings for the late Middle Kingdom depend not on grouping names of kings alone, but more solidly on a vast bank of data, such as typologies of coffins, analyses of alloys in metals, studies of handwriting, and study of archaeological finds in stratigraphic sections on excavation. Taken together, these widely varying source materials provide support of a 'most probable' time-line. The reader needs only to remember that a single discovery tomorrow could drastically change the entire carefully elaborated construction we have made of ancient time." - Quirke, 2001, p.12.

initiated : 2003 - last update : 27 XI 2010

© Wim van den Dungen