On the Creative Verb in Kemet

Ancient Egyptian verbal philosophy

of   (thought)
 (mind) and  (tongue)

its mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational stages & theologies

by Wim van den Dungen


1 In the Beginning was the Word.

  • 1.1 The Great Speech of the Old Kingdom.

  • 1.2 The generative command of the Feudal Age.

  • 1.3 Creative speech in the Age of Empire.

  • 1.4 The "heart", its "thoughts" and "double".

2 The Creative Speech of Ptah.

  • 2.1 The "logos" passus of the Memphis Theology.

  • 2.2 Line-by-line discussion.

  • 2.3 The importance for general philosophy.


associated papers : The Shabaka Stone - The Memphis Theology 


Shabaka Stone : line 53, retrograde writing
(hieroglyphs in red are reconstructed)


the genetical model on cognitive growth

To approach the literature of Ancient Egypt, I use an eclectical model on cognitive growth and its co-relative historico-psychological paradigm.

The work of Jean Piaget, the findings of neo-Freudian theory (Lemay), Kohlberg's research on moral development & recent theories on post-formal cognitive growth (Maslow, Tart, Wilber) yielded a genetico-cognitive model integrating the three main perspectives on the living human being, namely the cognitive (Piaget, Kohlberg), the socio-affective (Freud and his school) and the moral (Maslow and transpersonal psychology). These explain the stability, continuity and architecture of a system of cognitive relationships, structures & operators. What is the gist of this view ?

Living substances begin their existence with action, rooted in biological processes. Action implies the formation of cognitive structures, which -at first- are exteriorized in coordinated outer movements. After repeated actions, interiorization, permanency, invariant principles and imagination allow for the emergence of internal cognitive structures. So the following sequence appears : 

  • external actions (system) & reactions (environment) ;

  • interiorization and permanency ;

  • internal cognitive structures and auto-regulation ;

  • novel external actions.

These internal cognitive structures are being constantly transformed and regulated, in order to adapt the system to new situations. This process is recurrent, and so continuously, more complex cognitive structure emerge. Ergo, the ongoing emancipation of all possible cognitive forms of equilibriation (i.e. an always increasing cognition), is the pivotal notion here (cf. Piaget, J. : The Development of Thought, 1978). This increase is the natural result of successfull re-equilibrations, in which logico-symbolical functions play a major role.

Auto-regulation is the result of the interactions between the system and its environment. Hence, intersubjectivity is always essential in the construction of new and stronger cognitive structures. This implies that cognitive processes not only appear as resulting from psycho-organic auto-regulation (of which they reflect the essential mechanisms) but also emerge as differentiated organs of this regulation in the arena of interactions with the environment. Cognitio7n is the most differentiated psycho-biological organ of survival human beings have. 

The stages of this cognitive development may be defined by means of their typical cognitive events and acquired mental forms. This development is not a priori (pre-conditions), a posteriori (empirical) but constructivistic : the system has been, is and will always be (re)adapting and (re)creating new cognitive structures, causing novel behavior & different environmental responses, which may be interiorized and form new internal cognitive forms, etc. 

In this way, several strands, levels, layers or planes of cognitive texture unfold. The process may be analyzed as follows :

  1. the formation of new cognitive forms is triggered by the repeated confrontation with an unexpected, novel, original, eccentric action, set of events & happenings, which radically undermine the tenacity with which acquired ideas shape a particular, limited view of the world (universe, cosmos) and puts into place a framework or architecture of expectation, security & stability, which is challenged by the novel action ;

  2. action-reflection or the interiorization of this novel action by means of semiotic factors ; this is the first level of permanency or pre-concepts which have no decontextualized use ;

  3. anticipation & retro-action using these pre-concepts, valid insofar as they symbolize the original action but always with reference to context : the concrete concept ;

  4. final level of permanency : formal concepts, valid independent of the original action and context & the formation of permanent cognitive (mental) operators.

The foundation of this process is action itself, the fact that its movements are not random but coordinated. It is the form of this coordination, the order, logic or symbolization of the pattern of the movements which eventually may stabilize as a permanent mental operator. 

Three stages mark the genesis from myth to reason :

  1. the rise of semiotic factors defines the difference between the mythical stage and the pre-rational stage of cognition : the beginning of pre-rationality ;

  2. the ability to use concepts in a practical way & contextually marks the onset of demythification, still strongly represented in the pre-rational mode : the beginning of proto-rationality : 

  3. the ability to use concepts in an abstract & decontextualized way defines the difference between the early stages of cognition and its nominal stage : the beginning of the rational mind.

Each stage (mythical, pre-rational, proto-rational & rational) is characterized by matter (pragmatics) and the complexification of its biological operations, by information (syntax) or the synthetical symbolizations of these operations, and by consciousness (semantics) summarizing the meanings & intentions which occur as a result of the activities of a living substance (in casu quo the body).

the historico-psychological paradigm : static features

The historico-psychological paradigm used in these hermeneutical studies, is a synthesis of Piaget's genetical epistemology and the historical approach of civilization, seeking the general mental form or forms underscoring the economical, socio-political, scientific, artistic, spiritual and symbolical (codified, written) expressions of a given civilization in general and its overall, common cognitive structure (or cultural form) in particular (cf. Jaynes, 1976). Its main principles are :

  1. thought originates from action, i.e. coordinated movements. This coordination is a "form" which is : (a) executed by the biological organism at hand, i.e. its matter, (b) explained through the interactions with its environment or information and (c) given meaning by the unique identity or consciousness typical for each member of a species ;

  2. thought is based on an indirect, functional contact with the physical world, i.e. thought is always mediated by a third term (whereas fysiological processes are direct) ;

  3. thought is a finite process which is an integrated part of a particular living organism but simultaneously thought is also the extension with which consciousness may touch the universal, unconditional, infinite & absolute ; 

  4. the development of thought depends on the successive improvements of the variety of its abstract forms of equilibration, which is a historical process ;

  5. the construction of more stable cognitive forms becomes necessary to resolve the contradictions which characterize the previous stage, and so they are regulations of  regulations, etc.

  6. to explain the historical development of these equilibrations, both individual as environmental factors are to be taken into consideration. Society is a system of activities based on actions which influence each other reciprocally ;

  7. the rise and development of a cultural form, especially its cognitive features, is understood as a collective, historical equilibration on a higher, more stable level of civilization which allows for the construction of new inner operators (actional, affective, cognitive, intuitional) and novel outer behavior (as families, societies, cultures & civilizations), eliminating those tensions which disrupted the development of civilization in an earlier stage of its cultural development.

the historico-psychological paradigm : the dynamical features

This part of the model is "vertical", in the sense that it explains how cognitive structures stand erect as part of the architecture of evolution. Complementary to this is the approach of Ilja Prigogine, who investigated the horizontal, dynamical features, found to be irreversible.

So to complete this model, we need to consider non-equilibrium dynamics, i.e. the notion of irreversible processes as developed by Prigogine in the context of his study of complex, open, communicative & energy-consuming wholes, i.e. dissipative systems or organizations. 

In his important work, La Nouvelle Alliance (1979), Prigogine poses the question how highly intelligent systems escape the constant chaotic movements which continuously surrounds them ? Indeed, Piaget (psychology) focused on the forms of equilibrium which characterize the relative stability of a given stage of cognitive development. These forms represent order, structure or architecture (stability, conservation, repetition). Prigogine (physics), aware of the entropic qualities of physical systems with complex trajectories (initial position + dynamical process), emphasized the chaotic dynamics of the environment and is therefore impressed by the architecture of order evidenced by complex systems. The fact that crisis (decentration) is necessary to trigger re-equilibration, as well as the observation that crisis is initiated by interacting with the environment, were put into evidence by Piaget and are confirmed by the analysis of complex trajectories by Prigogine (cf. Chaos).

Both positions are complementary, and focus on a different functional horizon of complex systems. Prigogine studies the horizontal, dynamical characteristics of a system, the fact that they constantly reorganize to survive the entropic decay around them. Piaget investigates the vertical, static architecture of a system, the fact that it has a strong backbone which is the result of many years of evolution and uncountable trials & errors. 

Both acknowledge that systems move through crisis and both define auto-regulation (Piaget) and auto-structuration (Prigogine) as explicative for the continuous reorganization (permanent reformation) to which highly intelligent systems submit themselves, especially when the number of interaction with the environment is large (increasing the arrival of new input). Because fluctuations rise, more interactions increase the chance of crisis and trigger crisis (decentration). Only crisis will increase the survival-needs of a system and trigger auto-structuration, measured as :

  • matter (hardware) : a decrease of entropy or negative entropy (i.e. negentropy in a galacy largely composed out of entropic matter). Complex life is a refutation of the "black box"-model, of the "closed systems"-theories and behaviorist & scientist "stimulus-reflex"-psychology ;

  • information (software) : a more comprehensive database which allows for more information to be stored, assimilated and made to work to understand and solve problems ;

  • consciousness (userware) : a more coherent set of user choices, more able to attribute meaning to itself and the objects which are part of its horizon.

the early stages of cognitive growth

The details of these mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational stages of cognitive growth have been studied elsewhere. Let's briefly discuss them as they appear in schema-theory. 

Schema-theory is indeed part of genetic epistemology. The term is used to define a structured set of generalizable characteristics of an action. Repetition, crisis & reformation yield strands of co-relative actions. Ergo, different types of schemata emerge :

  • sensori-motoric, mythical thought : aduality implies only one relationship, namely with immediate physicality ; object & subject reflect perfectly ; earliest schemata are restricted to the internal structure of the actions (the coordination) as they exist in the actual moment and differentiate between the actions connecting the subjects and the actions connecting the objects. The action-scheme can not be manipulated by thought and is triggered when they practically materialize ;

  • pre-operatoric, pre-rational thought : object and subject are differentiated and interiorized ; the subject is liberated from its entanglement in the actual situation of the actions ; early psychomorph causality. The subjective is projected upon the objective and the objective is viewed as the mirror of the subjective. The emergence of pre-concepts and pre-conceptual schemata does not allow for permanency and logical control. The beginning of decentration occurs and eventually objectification ensues ... ;

  • concrete-operatoric, proto-rational thought : conceptual structures emerge which provide insight in the essential moments of the operational mental construction : 
    (a) constructive generalization ; 
    (b) the ability to understand each step and hence the total system (1 to 2 to 3 ...) and 
    (c) autoregulation enabling one to run through the system in two ways, causing conservation. The conceptual schemata are "concrete" because they only function in contexts and not yet in formal, abstract mental spaces. 

absence of a rational cultural form in Ancient Egypt

Insofar as Ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole is concerned, the decontextualization of meaning in an abstract theoretical form never took place. The language remained layered and archaic elements were sometimes introduced or copied to give the text a feeling of antiquity (for that reason, the Memphis Theology was long regarded as an Old Kingdom text). Pictoral representations elucidating the text remained in place (cf. the vignette), as well as a type of ideogram called "orthogram" or "calligram", which conveyed neither meaning nor sound but was written for aesthetic reasons & pleasure.

The cultural form of Ancient Egyptian civilization remained at the level of the concrete operations. This does not exclude that individual instances of rational thought emerged, nor that individual intellectuals reached that stage of cognition, become "nominal" today (Akhenaten and his New Kingdom theologians are examples, but even Old Kingdom Ptahhotep is fairly near).

Summarizing :

  • Archaic Egyptian = mythical : the myth of divine writing - single hieroglyphs as divine passage-ways to the divine - cartoon-like messages (pictures accompanied by logograms & phonograms). This phase ends with single inscriptions without grammar, culminating in loose pictoral narratives (tribal-talk) assisted by a few phonograms (Palette of Narmer).

  • Old Egyptian = pre-rational & early proto-rational : the actual initiation of writing - written monuments for practical purposes - the first pre-rational linguistic structures appear - single sentences with simple forms - the emergence of contextualizing determinatives - beginning of anticipation & retrospection - single word-images forming groups which convey a particular style - the differentiation of literary genres - sapiental writings. This phase ends (in the late VIth Dynasty) with sentences in a particular style, able to convey in a short and laconical way insights of incredible depth (Maxims of Ptahhotep).

  • Middle Egyptian = proto-rational : the formation of the classical form - interiorization leading to a stable, self-reflective first person singular - object & subject conceptually & relationally distinguished - verbal structures and the form of sentences allow for greater nuance and poetry - the explosion of literature and a further differentiation of the literary genres. This phase ends with sentences and styles which can compete with the classical literatures of all times. The classical form was flexible enough to change even further in the New Kingdom (Late Egyptian). However, proto-rationality was never superceded ... 

The particular "Egyptian" quality being linked with the pictoral signary and the consequent adherence to the mythical and pre-rational modes of thought which can be found interlaced in the Egyptian literature as a whole, with the brief exception of Amarna culture.

the philosophy part of the theology of Memphis

The theology of Memphis (found on the Shabaka Stone) is said to be the most important text of Ancient Egypt (cf. Breasted). In it, the "noetic" factor (the association of all things with the mind), is highly developed and carried through with great force. Hence, the Memphis theology is said to contain a philosophy (cf. Erman), in the form of a holistic & natural philosophy, a proto-rational logoic concept and a basic epistemology. The original, mentioned on the Shabaka Stone, was written during the New Kingdom, probably after the Aten cult, during the Ramesside era. 

Here we shall focus on the philosophy contained in the theology of Memphis. However, this theology should not be seen as an island isolated from the rest of Ancient Egyptian "didactical" literature or wisdom-teachings. Hence, the precedents of these thoughts shall be put to the fore. Our investigations suggested, the importance in Ancient Egyptian studies  -before engaging with comparisons- to distinguish between the above mentioned layers of thought (i.e. the stages of human cognition), and pose the question : Which type of cognition dominates here ?

These cognitive stages may be compared with Greek literature. Indeed, the patterns of thought characterizing Ionic & Eleatic philosophy, may be compared with the cognitive modes of thought which produced the literatures of the Old, Middle & New Kingdom. That Ionic thought is "philosophical" has been accepted. However, the idea that philosophy existed before the rise of the Greek culture, is -due to Hellenocentrism- more difficult to establish, but it is a fact. The difficulty being that Egyptian thought mingled the modes and even continued to do so in the advanced stage of proto-rationality. In Greece, we see a purgation of myth and pre-rationality and hence the rise of an untained rational model (although Heracleitos indeed still mixed myth with pre-rationality & proto-rationality, we read how Parmenides introduced the distinction between "being" and "non-being" in a poetical style (cf. the two ways), but devoid of contaminations from earlier stages and hence proposing a fairly untained proto-rational answer to the problem of being. This purification of thought will never take place in Ancient Egyptian literature, which remained loyal to the old pantheon and its "constellations" (Assmann, 2001).

the place of the theology of Memphis in Ancient Egyptian literature

Sethe proposed to classify the inscription on the Shabaka Stone as a "mystery play". Indeed, the largest part of the inscription is dedicated to the justification of the throne of Horus. The dialogal structures used, indicate that the whole stela depicts a religious drama or mystery play. The text has no real funerary connotations and hence is classified as devotional. Although the Pyramid Texts as a whole are clearly funerary (they are exclusively found in tombs), some sections contain rudiments of dialogue (between the deities or between the latter and Pharaoh) and hence could be classified as "mystery plays" too (albeit in a funerary context). The Shabaka Stela however, is a political drama. The plot being the murder of Osiris by his brother Seth and the subsequent revolt of Horus who receives the throne of the Two Lands and who is justified by the deities, especially Ptah, the patron of Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt and the place of the "White Walls", were Pharaoh was coronated.

The theology of Memphis was very probably intended to justify the justification of Horus (and hence Pharaoh) in a cosmo-noetical way. By showing that Ptah's creative speech was exhalted above all deities, and that Horus was his epiphany, the theologians were able to place the tenets of the mystery play on a broader basis, and to erect, on this noetical foundation, the traditional continuum between what happens "above" (the deities) and what occurs "below" (the throne of Egypt). Theology and politics (temple & state) were hence the manifestation of the same Ptah-on-the-Great-Throne, manifesting in many forms, but foremost as Atum-Re and Horus-Pharaoh.

In the process of establishing this unity between religion and politics, the Memphite theologians made use of philosophy ! In order to show that their solution was superior to that of Heliopolis, i.e. to place Ptah above the creator-god Atum, they did not rework the old myths and the pre-rational discourse of the Old Kingdom, but (in Old Kingdom style) developed the meaning of the "Great Speech" on a cosmological and pan-en-theistical scale. 

This "Great Speech" of Pharaoh (with which he established and maintained righteousness & truth - cf. Maat), was an authoritative speech and, foremost, a terrestial spirito-political power establishing & maintaining Maat. This was, together with the cult of Re and Osiris, the major contribution of the Old Kingdom to Ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole. As words as such were considered divine (or "neter medu"), the prefix "great" suggested a superlative, namely the fact that with his Speech alone Pharaoh maintained the order of creation.

In the New Kingdom, this "Great Speech" became the "creative speech" with which Ptah created everything. To define this speech, his theologians introduced a "logoic" process wherein everything was created by means of divine names or words, conceived by Ptah in his mind and uttered by means of his tongue (identified in Memphis with Thoth) ... This Memphite logoic process was associated with a rudimentary epistemology, which resembled that of Aristotle (cf. infra).

In what follows, we will first study the two preceding phases of this logoic process : the pre-rational authoritative command or "Great Speech" of Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom (Pyramid Texts), the generative command of the justified deceased "true of voice" in the Feudal age (Middle Kingdom - Coffin Texts) and the importance of the "heart" (mind) in the process of deification (New Kingdom - Book of the Dead). These preceding phases allow us to better appreciate & understand the philosophy of Memphis.

1 In the Beginning was the Word.

1.1 The authoritative Great Speech of the Old Kingdom.

from the "Followers of Horus" to the "son of Re"

The kings of Dynasty II (ca. 2800 - 2670 BC), unlike those of Dynasty I, were unable to maintain Egypt's unity. This Dynasty ended with Khasekhem, who reunited Egypt. With it, the archaic period ends and the royal Dynastic Era starts.

The transition to Dynasty III (ca. 2670 - 2600 BC) is marked (as is often the case) by a queen, who legitimized the new Dynasty by her connection with he old (cf. the sacred role of women). Queen Nimaathap was the daughter of Khasekhem, the mother of Djoser (ca. 2654 - 2635 BCE) and the wife of Pharaoh Nebka, who initiated Dynasty III and with it the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 - 2205 BC). With the death of Djoser (ca. 2635 BC), the second king of Dynasty III, the construction of pyramids began. 

In the first three "archaic" dynasties, Pharaoh had been deemed a "Follower of Horus", an incarnation of the god Horus, overseeing everything high up in the sky. The name of the sun god Re played, aside from one passing occurence in Dynasty II, no role in the royal names of those early kings. However, in Dynasty IV, Pharaoh Radjedef (ca. 2548 - 2540 BC) assumed the royal title of "son of Re", made part of the official royal titulary by his successor Khephren (ca. 2540 - 2515 BC). Re began to surpass the other deities, even Horus, the god of the sky and kingship. Re is a superlative of Horus. Re lights up the space in which Horus flies. Instead of the incarnation of the divine Horus in the king, a unique, filial relationship was initiated, and Pharaoh was seen as a god as was his father, Re. As Horus-Re, Pharaoh represented the eternal life of the united land, the everlasting existence of the created order.

the Solar religion of the Pharaonic state and the secret name of Re

The pyramidal form of the tomb was a symbol. Pharaoh was buried under the symbol of Re, which stood in the holy of holies in the temple of Re at Heliopolis. In mountainous proportions the pyramids rose for many miles above the royal temples & city below and the valley beyond. These white objects greeted the morning rays of Re glittering on their brilliant summits. The only inscription (graffiti excepted) to be found on the Great Pyramid of Khufu (ca. 2571 - 2548 BC - Dynasty IV) is a huge hieroglyph of the horizon ("akhet") above the original entrance. This absence of inscriptions would not last.

"The active engagement of the participants on earth consisted in large part of the correct enunciation of words. It was the words of the ritual that ultimately ensured the smooth continuation of the sun in its cosmic journey. These words were doubtless uttered in the company of ritual actions, and required prescribed material ingredients such as incense to sanctify the ritual environment. Nevertheless, the primary offering to the sun god was not the great table of food and drink offerings, which he also received, but the word, and above all the deified Egyptian word Maat 'What is Right'". - Quirke, 2001, p.41.

At the end of Dynasty V (ca. 2348 BC), the royal pyramids would be inscribed with the sacred words of the royal ritual. The first to do so was Wenis (ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE), the last king of Dynasty V, building his tomb in a period of theological reform. The walls of his tomb are decorated with the earliest theological literature of humanity : the Pyramid Texts of Wenis (Unas). The latest Pyramid Texts were inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Pepi II (Neferkare, ca. 2270 - 2205). These texts, some allowing glimpses into the predynastic mindframe, are remarkable and constitute a kind of small library of Ancient Egyptian (royal) rituals, literary styles, founding myths, spiritual practices, shamanism, magic etc. They are a tribute to the growing importance of inscriptions on a lasting media (the magic of divine words put into eternalizing writing).

One may mistrust a predynastic dating of the lost original of these Pyramid Texts (as proposed by Sethe). It is very probable (in view of the intrusion of Osirian theology in Heliopolitanism) some of these texts had already been circulating at the start of the Dynastic Era (ca. 3000 BCE), undergoing several redactions before being "eternalized" in these texts. At the time these texts were being actually inscribed in the royal tombs, at times hastily and with obsolete spelling, the influence of the popular Osiris on the Heliopolitan priests was already considerable. So we see the two-fold soteriological order already at work. But Re and Osiris were not yet one single deity.

While ascending to the sky to abide with the deities (headed by Re), these spells granted the monarch an ultimate protection. The Pyramid Texts contain the core theological concepts of this Solar religion of the royal state. At the end of Dynasty V, the dead king did everything the Lunar Osiris did, receiving heart & limbs as did Osiris (§ 364). He became Osiris himself to ascend to Re.

The importance of the secret name of Re, with which the creator-god fashioned everything with life, is again evidence of the importance of Re in the royal ritual. Finally the dead king ascended to the plane of Re, and sat in the god's bark.

"... tell the name of this Pharaoh to Re, announce this Pharaoh to Re, for this Pharaoh is bound for yonder distant castle of the owners of doubles who worship Re there ..."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 359 (§ 597).

For to know the "name" of something, gave power over the object or person so named. This principle, at work since prehistorical mythical tribal-talk (with its myths, legends, totems & taboes), remained one of the pillars of Egypto-Alexandrian Hermetism and is also evidenced in the Greek magical papyri (and their reliance on natural sympathy - cf. Stoicism). It can also be found in the Torah (cf. the secret name of God), and is found in Christianity (cf. the consecration words of the Eucharist). But already in the Old Kingdom, the importance given to names, naming and correct pronunciation is found to be firmly established. Even a deity was compelled by its own name (as it were limited by its own form and field of action).

Only the name of Pharaoh encompassed all names, he was the "son of Re" and so granted -during life- direct access to the sky of Re. After death he became Osiris and ascended to Re.

"O Pharaoh, live the life ! Live the life by means of this name of yours which is with the gods."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 665B (§ 1913).
"Live, be alive, O Pharaoh, in this name of yours which is with the souls."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 665 (§ 1899).

attempts to assimilate the mortuary cult of Osiris, the god of the common people

By the time of Wenis, the state theology of Re had for quite some time been competing with the popular cult of Osiris, the second major god of the Old Kingdom.  In the Pyramid Texts, Heliopolitan & Osirian theologies co-existed in the confusing cognitive constellations characteristic of pre-rational thought.

To translate the quotations from the Pyramid Texts, the standard edition was used : Sethe, K. : Die Altägyptischen Pyramidentexte, Darmstadt - Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1960 (4 volumes), the English translation (if so mentioned) of Faulkner, R.O. in : The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Oxford University Press - Oxford, 1969 and the French compendium published by Jacq, Chr. : La tradition primordiale de l'Egypte anciennne selon les Textes des Pyramides, Grasset - Paris, 1998.

Although the Solar faith of Heliopolis was a State Religion focused on Pharaoh, the Pyramid Texts evidence an ambiguous relationship with Osiris, the god of the common people and popular beliefs. The prehistoric Osiris cult, probably local to the Delta, involved a forbidding hereafter. Osiris was seen as a Nile-god and a spirit of vegetable life, a harvest-god. As a king of Egypt, he was killed by his brother Seth, recovered by his wife Isis (with the help of the secret name of Re) and resurrected by his son Horus, who avenged his father by overcoming Seth in a battle presided by Thoth. When Osiris migrated up the Nile from the Delta, he was identified with the old mortuary god of the South "Khenti-Amentiu", the "First of the Westeners". His kingdom was conceived as situated below the western horizon, where it merged into the netherworld or Duat. He became the king of the dead below the earth, the "Lord of the Netherworld", monarch of a subterranean kingdom. 

"... in the Solar faith we have a state theology, with all the splendor and the prestige of its royal patrons behind it ; while in that of Osiris we are confronted by a religion of the people, which made a strong appeal to the individual believer. (...) In the mergence of these two faiths we discern for the first time in history the age-old struggle between the state form of religion and the popular faith of the masses." - Breasted, 1972, pp.140-141.

Breasted noted there is nothing in these primoridal myths which suggests Osiris to have a celestial afterlife. Indeed, the Pyramid Texts evidence survivals from a period when Osiris was even hostile to the Solar dead. There are exorcisms intended to retain Osiris to enter the Solar tomb with evil intent. The dead king, a star in the sky, is thus addressed : 

"... look down upon Osiris when he governs the souls, for you stand far off from him, you are not among them and you shall not be among them." 
Pyramid Texts, utterance 245 (§ 251).

However, the popularity of Osiris among the common people forced the theologians to incorporate him into the Solar creed. In this way, Heliopolitan Solar theology got slowly Osirianized. The resurrection of Osiris by Horus and the restoration of his body was affirmed to be Pharaoh's privilege. The Osirian hereafter was celestialized. Osiris was now called "Lord of the Sky" (§§ 964, 966a) and Pharaoh was announced to Osiris in the sky precisely in the same way as he had been announced to Re in the Solar theology. Hence, we find Pharaoh ascending to the sky and then descending among the dwellers in the netherworld (§ 1164), implying the netherworld became somehow accessible from the sky. In the Osirian cult, the netherworld became the lower region of the sky, in the vincinity of the horizon, below which it also extended (Breasted). An important link between Re and Osiris was the former's death every day in the west, the place of the dead. The dead Pharaoh and the dying Sun corresponded well, as did the resurrection of Osiris (as king of the dead) and the dawning of the Sun (as a child which is the father of the king of the living).

The Pyramid Texts evidence the emergence of a composite mortuary doctrine.

"The fact remains, then, that the celestial doctrines of the hereafter dominate the Pyramid Texts throughout, and the later subterranean kingdom of Osiris and Re's voyage through it are still entirely in the background in these royal mortuary teachings. Among the people Re is later, as it were, dragged into the Nether World to illumine there the subjects of Osiris in his mortuary kingdom, and this is one of the most convincing evidences of the power of Osiris among the lower classes. In the royal and state temple theology, Osiris is lifted to the sky, and while he is there Solarized, we have just shown he also tinctures the Solar teaching of the celestial kingdom of the dead with Osirian doctrines. The result was thus inevitable confusion, as the two faiths interpenetrated." - Breasted, 1972, pp.159-160.

understanding, wisdom and the Great Speech in the Pyramid Texts

In the Pyramid Texts (end Vth and VIth Dynasties, ca. 2300 - 2200 BC), Re makes use of wisdom & understanding ("Sia"), i.e. the "perception" of what needs to be done. With creative, authoritative utterance ("Hu") or "annunciation" what needs to be done is made to happen through speech, an activity associated with the tongue.

"The Egyptians imagined the creation of the world in many ways ; each city had its own idea of it, in which the principal role, as is logical, was assigned to its local deity. One method of creation seems to have been common to nearly all these theologies, however, that in which the active force was the word. In the beginning, the divine agent had only to speak in order to create ; the beings and things evoked were born at the sound of the voice." -
Sauneron, 2000, p.123.

Let us first consider Sia, the deity of the sense of touch or feeling, considered to be the foundation of the empirical mind. 

"This Pharaoh, even this Pharaoh is recognition (Sia) at the right hand of Re, the proud heart, who presides over the Cavern of Nun."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 250 (§ 268).

"The Great One (*) indeed will rise within his shrine and lay his insignia on the ground for me, for I have assumed authority (Hu) and I have power through understanding (Sia)."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 255 (§ 300)..
(*) In this utterance the expression "Great One" is used to indicate the two crown of Egypt (feminine, singular and plural) but also Horus, the Lord of power (masculine, singular).

"Pharaoh assumes authority (Hu), eternity is brought to him and understanding (Sia) is established at his feet for him."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 257 (§ 307).

With Sia we touch upon the whole sphere of knowledge, both cognitive (understanding) and intuitional (wisdom). In the cognitive domain, Sia represented the perceptive mind with its empirical ego. Sia carried the sacred papyrus, whose contents embodied the areas of mental activity in which understanding had been achieved. Sia was also insightful planning and insofar as the inventive side of the latter was considered, intuitional elements joined the connotative field of the semantics of Sia. Hence, Sia was also wisdom and the sacredness of perfected understanding.

That Sia was important, is testified by the fact that in the company of the gods, Pharaoh was Thoth, the god of knowledge, (U611, 665c - §§ 1725, 1914), who spoke "this great and mighty word" (U577, § 1523) contenting all the gods, for in Thoth was "the peace of the gods" (U570, § 1465) and he was known in Memphis as the "tongue of Ptah". Knowing was in "front of the Temple" and behind Pharaoh (U554, § 1371), who united the minds (hearts - ab's) and all vital forces (ka's).This cogitation (by the mental energies of the "heart") was intimately related with sensoric perception and with intent. The presence of Sia near Re indicated that Re had an extraordinary "power of mind". 

Sia stood not alone, for Re had also authoritative utterance at his side. Hu, the deity of the sense of taste, personified this verbal authority associated with the Great Speech. Like Sia, Hu came into being from a drop of blood from the phallus of Re. Hu was the companion of Pharaoh, son of Re, when he had become a lone star in the sky.

"The tongue of this Pharaoh is the pilot in charge of the Bark of Righteousness & Truth."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 539 (§ 1306).

"Indeed, the lips of Pharaoh are as the Two Enneads.
This Pharaoh is the Great Speech."

Pyramid Texts, utterance 506 (§ 1100), my translation.

This utterance is interesting. Each of the lips of Pharaoh is compared with an Ennead, or company of deities. The "Two" Enneads being the company of Re at Heliopolis (focused on Atum-Re, and assimilating Osiris & Horus) and the company of Thoth at Hermopolis (focused on Thoth). The 18 flagpoles pictorally underline the fact all deities are fed by the words uttered by the mouth of Pharaoh

Indeed, by offering Maat through ritual words, Pharaoh called upon the deities, who abided in the sky, as well as established & maintained the order of creation on earth. The upper lip could then be seen as a simile of the sky (above), the lower lip as the earth (below). The movement of the lips, when words are spoken, as the creative act of Pharaoh, establishing order & truth and the unity of the Two Lands as well as the unity between the sky and the earth. This Great Speech was "as the Two Enneads", i.e. as the divine forces which created the world. This was the Great Speech heard daily in the temples of Egypt, spoken by priests who acted in the name of Pharaoh, who was the supreme high priest and sole reason for the deities to sent their doubles & souls to dwell in the inner sanctum of the temples and bless the land with this divine presence (like attracts like).

Offering Maat

Pharaoh's authority was creative. Because Pharaoh knew what to do (Sia) and spoke the words to do it (Hu), what he said happened without anything being able to stop or counter it (for the Great Speech had magic - cf. heka). 

The triad : thought - speech - action had not breaks in it, the flow from inner (Sia - mind) to outer (movement of the lips - action) was immediate, for nothing could stop Pharaoh's word of realizing itself. 

Hence, it was precisely because Pharaoh spoke, that Maat was maintained and offered to the creator-god Atum-Re. Without this Great Speech of Pharaoh, the Two Lands would be disunited and the primordial disorder (isefet) would surely return. Only the Great Word guaranteed the opposite, namely Maat.

The Old Kingdom developed three original notions. They would last during the Dynastic Era as a whole :

  1. the theo-political status of Pharaoh : as a "Follower of Horus" and "son of Re" : the unity of the Two Lands was guaranteed by the king who as a falcon oversaw all divisions of the earth and as a god maintained the unity (between earth & sky). This perspective may be summarized as the eternal life of Pharaoh during his existence on earth ;

  2. the mortuary status of Pharaoh : as the one ascending to the sky to exist with the deities, headed by Re and Pharaoh as the one who does what Osiris did. This is the eternal life of Pharaoh after his existence on earth, as son of the creator or king of the dead (in the Pyramid Texts this tension was not resolved) ;

  3. the innate justice of Pharaoh, both here and in the hereafter : truth & righteousness of the whole of creation and the unity of the Two Lands are realized because Pharaoh offers Maat to his father Re. This is the eternal order of life underlining creation and existence, both here and in the hereafter. Without Pharaoh everything would return to the original chaos of pre-creation (the Nun). The Great Work is his alone. In the Old Kingdom, he offered the Great Speech which sustained life and the cosmological & theo-political order of things. The priests kept this Great Speech secret by the practice of silence.

1.2 Generative command in the Feudal Age : the Coffin Texts

political & economical factors

At the end of the Old Kingdom the stable pharaonic system slowly broke down. During the nine decades of the reign of the last Pharaoh of the VIth Dynasty, Pepi II (ca. 2246 - 2152 BC) -the longest reign in history- the way was paved for the collapse of the Old Kingdom under the pressure of internal weakening. No serious dangers threatened Egypt from western Asia or Nubia, although attacks on Egyptian expeditions seems to have been more frequent. For this collapse only internal reasons prevail. One important factor was the increase in the number of cults freed by royal decree from taxes and other obligations, placing a burden on the royal treasury, diminishing is power and majesty (cf. the number of buildings built).

The weak administration was no longer able to run the country as a whole and the consequences were economical difficulties, famine and struggle for life itself, while Pharaoh made enormous gifts to the temples. Economic need occupied the center of attention in biographical inscriptions which emerged in this period. After Pepi II, the construction of pyramids stopped and in rapid successions at least a dozen kings resided in Memphis. What exactely happened is unknown (for this period is obscure), but Egypt was divided between the "kings" of two major nomes : Heracleopolis (IXth & Xth Dynasty) & Thebes (XIth Dynasty). The unity broke up and no great monuments were erected to consolidate the power of a unified state. These facts initiated the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2200 BC), which would last for about a century.

During this period, the rulers of Herakleopolis may at first have ruled Egypt nominally, but it was not for long before many of the Southern nomarchs started to build their provincial empires (the rise of Thebes of Amun). Military campaigns to conquer neighbours were frequent. The Theban ruling family assumed the royal titulary at about the same time as the nomarchs of Herakleopolis. Inyotef I, who initiated this Theban XIth Dynasty (ca. 2081 - 2065 BC), wrote his name in a cartouche, as did his successors. Around ca.1980 BC, after a century of disunity, Herakleopolis fell and all of Egypt was again under the rule of a single Theban Pharaoh, namely Mentuhotpe III (ca. 1945 -1938 BC), who took the title of "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" and who's death marks the end of the First Intermediate Period. 

Amenemhet I ("Amun is pre-eminent" - ca. 1938 - 1909 BC), who initiated the XIIth Dynasty and with it the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 - 1759 BC), moved the royal residence away from Thebes to the North, thus removing the centre of activity (Pharaoh) elsewhere. Thebes lost much of its political power but became the home of Amun, the "king of the gods". Amenemhet returned to the old forms, but invested with new meaning. More modest and less enduring than those of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom pyramids evidence the return to the traditional form of the royal tomb.

With this Dynasty XII, the "feudal age" started. It was a thousand years since the first pyramid had been built in that sixty-mile rampart of pyramids erected along the margin of the Western desert. The priesthood, left without support, had forsaken the gigantic monuments and temples. The cemetery lay encumbered with sand, hiding the ruins of massive architectures. Did this solid waste scene impress the descendants of these builders ca.2000 BC (i.e. only a couple of centuries later) with the transient nature of existence and the colossal futility of these ruins ?

a radical change of perspective

The collapse of the Old Kingdom (from Djoser to Pepi II, i.e. ca. 430 years) and the subsequent decentralization which eventuated, had put Egyptian culture in a state of crisis. This triggered in the population & the organs of the state a most rewarding re-equilibration. An internal "prise de conscience" regarding good & evil and the importance of the individual in the state came into effect. Ancient Egyptian literature was born.

From the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2198 - 1938 BC) onwards, and especially in the classical age (or Middle Kingdom), Pharaoh was no longer an absolute, sole justification & justificator. The collapse of the Old Kingdom heralded the beginning of Egyptian individualism. Before, morality had been based on one's place in the Pharaonic state and the just actions one had performed as a member of it. Its collapse caused rumination on the condition of man and the Egyptian state. How to guarantee the order of creation ?

This decentralization and final breakdown of the old pre-rational, pre-conceptual value system came as a shock and caused a deep crisis among the literate, intellectual elite of the country, as evidenced by the literature of the First Intermediate Period (cf. Discourse of a Man with his Ba) and the rise of a pessimistic, sceptical tones, which however, did not carry with them any large body of the Egyptian people.

As a result of the collapse of the Old Kingdom, three major changes in the cultural form of Egypt ensued  :

  • political & economical : local potentates acquired the necessary goods for themselves and their subjects. Raids on neighboring regions and the peasants were common. The latter therefore formed armed bands. Safety was lost. Art sank to a provincial level. But in the walled homes of the rulers of the nomes (the nomarchs) an urban middle class was formed, focused on the accumulation of private property. These "nedjes" (a pejorative word for "small") designated these new "bourgeois" who made the cities into political centers. Some became powerful enough to claim kingship for themselves, albeit nominally, for the division of the Two Lands remained a political fact ;

  • psychological, inter-subjective, social : the struggle against the terrible experience of returning to the banished chaos, triggered a flowering of literature such as Egypt had never produced before. With the decline of the monarchy, the identification of Maat with the Great Speech of Pharaoh broke up. So the questions : What is good ? What is evil ? became all important. For the intellectual elite of the First Intermediate, the divine shepherd had forsaken his human flock. Even the blessed afterlife was questioned. New ways to formulate thoughts were sought, especially to break away from the formulaic & archaic literary style of the mortuary cults. For the first time, individuality was expressed ; 

  • theological & spiritual : the cultic importance of Pharaoh as sole mediator between the sky and the earth became less important than the deities themselves. They stepped into the foreground and their temples & cultic requirements increased. Especially Osiris, the "king of the dead" and Amun-Re, "the king of the gods", and pharaonic Ptah of Memphis gained in worship from the Middle Kingdom onward. Osiris & Amun-Re were harmonized in ways no myth or pre-rational construction had ever done before.

Senior priests & top administrators, who were aware of recent history and the futility of the brontausoric building projects (for order had been disrupted anyway), were forced to fashion new cultural forms out of their shared memories of past sorrows (not shunning exaggeration and caricature) and posed the "great" question of order versus chaos. In doing so, they initiated the classical age of Egyptian literature.

This new form was made possible by the emancipation of cognition from the pre-rational to the proto-rational mode, i.e. from the pre-concept to the concept, albeit contextual & pre-formal. The concrete-operatoric operator came into being (cf. the standardization of the verb-forms in Middle Egyptian). The Old Kingdom became an ideal charged with nostalgia. It had been construed exclusively around Pharaoh and his temples. 

In the feudal age, Pharaoh left existing "dynasties" in place and created new ones. In this way, a "provincial" geo-sentimental approach to power rose, and Pharaoh had to maneuver to maintain his now foremost political role as "king of Upper and Lower Egypt" and maintainer of the cult. The temples could become and became powerful states within the state. Pharaonic exclusivity would only re-emerge in the New Kingdom. 

The Old Kingdom had produced an admirable pre-rational cultural form, rooted in mythical thought. Its destruction triggered a decentration, a crisis. Ancient Egyptian civilization entered the proto-rational stage when it discovered a stable first person singular and harmonized the unresolved tensions between Solar and Osirian theology, namely through syncretism. The pre-concepts were abandonned and contextualized concepts emerged. The great leap forward in language was taken, and Middle Egyptian was put into place.

the "democratization" of the immortality of ascension & resurrection

After the fall of the Old Kingdom, the whole constellation of interrelated concepts about immortality (Heliopolitan ascension or Osirian resurrection) were no longer royal, pharaonic prerogatives.

In the Old Kingdom, a revered, justified person "true of voice" was a moral being surviving in the tomb in the Beautiful West. A living god like Pharaoh, was an immortal being. His death only implied a transition, not a change in essence, for he was already a god on earth and he alone could thus ascend to reach the abode of his soul and the souls of all the other deities of the old pantheon. 

After the collapse of the Old kingdom, the commoners could also attain immortality, but not as a human being, but as a living god ! Although a human longed for immortality, he or she would never attain this as a human being. Hence, a change of essence had to happen, for a mortal human had to be changed into an immortal deity

With the coming of the Middle Kingdom, it had become the custom to append the epithet "justified" to the name of every dead person. In the Pyramid Text, this procedure had been exclusively used for Pharaoh and his royalty.

This important transition was conceptualized in the funerary literature (Coffin Texts) by naming every deceased "Osiris" and to conceive the deceased a king. Even in burials of simple people, royal insignia were laid beside the mummy or painted on the inside of the coffin. As the felicity of the departed was democratized, the masses took up and continued the mortuary practices of old, in which the cult of Osiris had played a considerable, if not dominant, role. But contrary to the commoners of the Old Kingdom, these were individuals aware of their individual ascend and resurrection, securing for their Bas (or souls) a way to exist in the afterlife among the blessed, in the company of the imperishable stars (cf. those around the North pole that do not set nor rise).

the popularity of the effectiveness of the uttered command

The belief in the effectiveness of the spoken word on behalf of the dead developed considerably since the end of the Old Kingdom and accompanied the popularization of the pharaonic funerary customs of the upper classes. Whereas at first only Pharaoh could benefit from this (being the one who spoke the Great Speech), the "heka" or "magic" of "divine words" was largely appropriated by the middle and official classes. 

New but similar utterances were created. They were identical in function but more suited to the needs of common people. These were written on the inner surfaces of heavy cedar coffins. Before these were put together, scribes filled the inner surface with pen-and-ink, with great carelessness and inaccuracy. Apparently, at times, the surface had to be filled up as quickly as possible and so the same chapter was written over twice or three times in the same coffin (in one instance the same text is copied five times in the same coffin). About half of these collections were taken from the Pyramid Texts

These so-called Coffin Texts superseded the Pyramid Texts as early as the VIIIth Dynasty, but their principal sources are the later cemeteries of the nomarchs of Middle Egypt in the XIIth Dynasty. The largest number of spells of this textual tradition was found in Deir el-Bersha, the cemetery of Hermopolis, the city of the god of writing, Thoth (who, in the Late Period, was identified with Hermes "Trismegistus", the father of Hermetism). These spells (1.185 of them) appear mainly on coffins of officials and their subordinates, but also on tomb walls, stelæ, canoptic chests, mummy masks and papyri. However, they are attested in one place only. This local element distinguishes the Coffin Texts from other corpora. The deceased was almost always spoken of in the first person singular. Red ink was used for emphasis and to indicate divisions. Important spells were entirely in red. 

The Coffin Texts eliminated the royal exclusivity of ascension. Every deceased was an "Osiris NN", although the principal group of people to make use of them were the nomarchs and their families of the Middle Kingdom. The tradition of these Coffin Texts came to an end at the end of the Middle Kingdom. They were transformed into the new Book of the Dead in the XVIIth Dynasty (Second Intermediate Period). Some important spells survived and were used in the New Kingdom.

In the Coffin Texts, we find the mingling of Solar and Osirian beliefs, which now completely coalesce (instead of standing next to each other as in the Pyramid Texts). As a result Re is projected in the subterranean hereafter and lights up the kingdom of Osiris.

"The course of events may be states in somewhat exaggerated form if we say that in the Pyramid Texts Osiris was lifted skywards, while in the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, Re is dragged earthward." - Breasted, 1972, p.277.

the generative command

The tendency rose to consider the Coffin Texts (and later the Book of the Dead) as a collection of charms regarded as inevitably effective in protecting the dead and securing for him any of the blessings which were desired in the afterlife. Thus the efficacy of the magic of the word was firmly established and eventually dominated the whole body of funerary beliefs. 

Indeed, the tendency to view the hereafter as a place of countless dangers & ordeals rose (mostly physical but also intellectual). If the correct charm was uttered at the critical moment, then the surest defence had been invoked. To assure the deceased had the proper spells to utter, they were incorporated in the coffin. For as divine image-words existing in the magico-artistic space offered by the medium, the commands had the power to assist the dead in the afterlife. 

They were the only commands which opened the gates of the netherworld and generated the state wished for.

No doubt the increase of the Osirian folk-religion (contrasting with the state cult of Amun-Re), stimulated the rising importance of the magic of words. The vistors of Abydos (now or in the afterlife) brought votive offerings and the pilgrims witnessed the dramatical & spectacular re-enactment of the "passion play" which summarized the incidents of the myth of Osiris. Furthermore, in the Middle Kingdom, wooden figures of the servants of the dead (the so-called "ushabti") were placed in the tomb, so that they could labor for the dead as they had done in life. These magical servants were "activated" through ritual words, usually painted or carved on the figure.

"O Hathor, may your hand be given to me, and may I be taken to the sky ; may I sit between the two great gods to give judgement, and I will say what is true, I will control the patricians and the plebs, who will come to me bowing. It is well."
Coffin Texts, spell 398.

To know the true name of the protecting deities was sufficient to be granted protection and to continue one's journey in the afterlife. To make statues alife, an increasing number of divine words were added, until the presence of the words became as important as the artistic form or image itself.

"O you seven knots of the celestial kine, I know you and I know your names ; may you make me hale, may you make my flesh hale, may you make my members hale, may you grant supports for my bones, may you save me from all thing evil ..."
Coffin Texts, spell 407.

"I recite his words to the living, I repeat his words to those whose throats are constructed, I give orders to the crew of Atum ..."
Coffin Texts, spell 438.

1.3 Creative speech in the Age of Empire : the Book of the Dead & the Memphis Theology.

political & economical factors

Politically, the New Kingdom (ca. 1539 - 1075 BC), initiated by Ahmose (ca. 1539 - 1514 BC), brought internationalization, which defied the particularism of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. From Myceanae, Knossos, Mitanni, Babylon, and from the Hittites, Assyrians, Libyans & Nubians gifts & trade goods were flowing in. The XVIIIthe & XIXth Dynasties produced great monuments of theocratic statesmanship.

Luxurious living in a setting of peace reached its climax under Amenhotep III, the "Dazzling Sun" and father of Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten. His reign was a period of stabilty and peace, the foundations of which had been laid by Tuthmosis IV, who had brought to end decades of military conflict between the two great powers of the era, Egypt an the kingdom of Mitanni, that struggled concerning control over northern Syria. 

The court of Amenhotep III became an international center visited by ambassadors of many nations. Even Asiatic deities such as Reshef, Astarte, Baal and Qudshu were worshipped. In the Book of Gates (fifth hour), the "wretched" Aziatics, Nubians & Libyans were placed under the protection of Egyptian deities ...  Amenhotep III never set foot in his Asiatic empire but acquired princesses for his harem and lavished gold on his allies.

The age of empire did not focus on power, wealth and luxury only. The intellectual horizon had also broadened. Curiosity and tolerance for foreigners rose. Scribes had to be bilingual and foreign languages were fashionable. Especially religious thinking had been affected by this internationalism. The gods were not only there for Egyptians, but for all of humanity.

The political system of the late New Kingdom collapsed under the Rameses of the late Ramesside period or XXth Dynasty (ca.1188 - 1075 BC). For after Rameses III, the last great Pharaoh able to repell the new invasions by the sea people (Philistines, Libyans), a rapid decay of internal order prevailed, leading to famine, strike, maladministration & the pilage of royal sepultures. 

The XXth Dynasty ends (ca. 1075 BC with civil strife and the split of Egypt). With it, the New Kingdom is over and the Third Intermediate Period starts. The chief priests of Thebes (in charge of the rocking barks & statues of the Divine Oracles of Amun-Re and hence all-powerful) become the hereditary monarchs (Upper), while the kings of Tanis wield power in Lower Egypt (the delta).

the Book of the Dead

Like the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, the corpora -collections of spells with no obligatory sequence- called Book of the Dead (originally designated "Book of Coming Out by Day") is a group of mortuary spells, of which the earliest are ascribed to the Middle Kingdom (coffins of Mentuhotpe, Herunefer and on a Brussels papyrus). They were to be used commonly by officials beginning with the reign of Tuthmosis III and started to appear on walls of royal tombs in the reign of Merneptah. Especially spell 125, which deals with the Judgment of the Dead, supplemented with other texts in the royal tombs of Dynasty 20, remained the most important one.

As a continuation of the Coffin Texts, this collection was available to everybody, and used a lot by royal officials and their families. Even after the development of new "books of the afterlife" (the Amduat, the Litany of Re, the Book of Gates), spells were adopted and used on royal tomb furnishings. At first, only a few special spells included a vignette, i.e. a pictoral representation summarizing the content or intent of the spell. In Merneptah's tomb,  only 2 of the 35 spells are illustrated, but by the Ramesside Period, few spells remained without a vignette. Later they are often used as abbreviation for entire spells.

In contrast to earlier corpora and contemporary books of the netherworld, the Book of the Dead focused on the general idea of the Judgment of the Dead. Sia appeared in the Judgment Scene among the deities who watched over the weighing of the heart ("ab" or) in the Great Balance, indicative of the relationship between being "true of voice" (or justified) and the cognitive functions, restored in the ritual of the "Opening of the Mouth" and spells 26 - 30, dealing with the "heart", which had to be in harmony with the deceased.

was the Memphis Theology originally composed under Merneptah ?

In the Ramesside period, the thirteenth son of Ramesses II, Merneptah, erected an important palace complex near the temple of Ptah and the old capital city of Memphis rose to renewed splendor with his aid. Was the original text of the inscription on the Shabaka Stone, which contains the Memphis Theology, written under his reign (ca. 1213 - 1203 BC) ? Contemporary egyptology suggests a date between ca.1188 and 1075 BC (the XXth Dynasty), i.e. the late New Kingdom.

Given the important theological crisis at hand after Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), namely the restoration of the "true religion" and the (incomplete) destruction of the rejected influence of the culture of Amarna and the theology of Akhenaten, a return to Ptah of Memphis could be argued as inevitable and rewarding to seal the completion of the restoration. The all-comprehensive nature of Ptah's creative thoughts is also suggestive of the New Solar Theology and the conceptual revolutions brought about by Amarna theology (like the rejection of the plural for the word "god").

After the death of Akhenaten (ca. 1336 BC), the capital remained only two years in al-Amarna before it moved (under Tutankhamun) to Memphis. In the period of restoration which followed his reign, the main goal was to maintain the unity of the Two Lands by allowing Pharaoh to make strong political statements of monumental proportions (cf. Seti I, Ramesses II). The choice of Ptah can thus also be attributed to the theo-political importance of Memphis as the place of coronation of the living god on earth, who again properly invited the deities who had left Egypt and who headed the temple cults of the old pantheon. The trinity of Amun-Re, Ptah and Osiris became the foundation of theology during the Ramesside era.
1.4 the heart ("ab") : its thought ("kat") and double ("ka"  

"This Pharaoh is over the ka's, who unites hearts - so says he who is in charge of wisdom, being great, and who bears the god's book, even Sia who is at the right hand of Re.
This Pharaoh has come to his throne which is over the ka's. This Pharaoh unites the hearts, O you who are in charge of wisdom, being great. This Pharaoh becomes Sia who bears the god's book, who is at the right hand of Re. 

O you who are protected by the hand Pharaoh, it is this Pharaoh who say what is in the heart of the Great One (*) in the Festival of Red Linen. This Pharaoh, even this Pharaoh, is Sia at the right hand of Re, the proud heart who presides over the Cavern of Nun."

Pyramid Texts, utterance 250 (§§ 267 - 268), (*) a goddess.

The "ab" (the heart) is lodged in the "khat" (living physical body). The word "ab", written with a single hieroglyph representing a heart + the determinative for "one" (a stroke) or as , means : middle, interior, intelligence, thought, attentions, intentions, disposition, will, wish, mind, ego. It occurs in expressions like : "heart of the soul", "the dictates of the heart", "heart's desire", "heart of my heart", "to eat the heart" (to be sorry), etc. 

"O my heart which I had from my mother ! O my heart which I had upon earth ..."
The Papyrus of Ani (30A - translated by Faulkner, R.O. in Wasserman, 1998 - British Museum n° 10.470 - Thebes, New Kingdom, XIXth Dynasty, around 1250 BC).

One could say that the "ab" is the state, quality or "mental" condition which the Egyptians associated with the physical heart (cf. "hâti"). This "ab" was a product of maternal education. The word "hât" means a member, the flesh of the physical body, the person in bodily form, a product of earth. 

Contrary to the "khat" and the "ka", the "ab" was a state of consciousness rather than a material vehicle or component of man. Its conservation was deemed necessary for the general mastery seated in the heart. The "ab" covers the main characteristics of what today is called "ego-consciousness", namely intention, mind, will & ego, associated with cognitive capacity, speech and the power of the word directed towards "body & belly". Many centuries later, depth-psychology described the coordinating influence of this personal center of consciousness. It is in the heart that thoughts were conceived. 

In the 26th chapter of the Book of the Dead is said that : 

"I will be in the sky, a command shall be made for my benefit in Memphis, I shall be aware in my heart, I shall have power in my heart, I shall have power in my arms, I shall have power in my legs, I shall have power to do whatsever my ka pleases, and my ba will not be fettered at the gates of the West when I go in or out in peace."
The Papyrus of Ani (26 - translated by Faulkner, R.O. in Wasserman, 1998, Plate 15 - British Museum n° 10.470 - Thebes, New Kingdom, XIXth Dynasty, around 1250 BC).

The "ab" appears as the place of awareness, coordination and mental control. The "ab" is also the mind. This cognitive features are explicit, as in : "thought of the heart", the "kat" (or ) meaning thought or meditation (cf. "kai", to think, to think out, to say).

The "ab" is the seat of the will and hence responsible for a person's evil deeds, which cause the heart to become heavy and dull (for everything said & done is recorded). In a good will, the heart steers the concert of physical, vital and emotional (imaginal) forces at work in the common human being well, and thus remains as light as a plume : flexible, strong but of nearly no weight. In a sick heart, coordination is lost and so consciousness has no strong focal point. The will is weak and one's expectations are spoiled by fear (cf. the Discourse of a man with his Ba).

In the Book of the Dead, the heart appears in the context of being without blame (i.e. in harmony with Maat). The deceased did not wish to loose his or her heart after judgment, for the "ab" was the seat of the "ba" (before it entered its "sâh"). Judgment came after the mummy has been reactivated, so that it could speak and adapt to its new environment.  

But to enter heaven, it was decisive to have passed the trial of the balance. A heart found to be heavier than a plume was devoured and with it the prospect of eternal life. Such a heavy heart (burdened by sin), only invited the remainder to be eaten by the monsterous "great devouress", the goddess Anmut

In the Book of the Dead, the process of deification of everyman implied a series of initiatoric events, starting with purification, then judgment and finally admission as a deity.  Hence, the heart was also a major "moral" center (cf. "conscience" or "super-ego" in depth-psychology).

During life, the heart was closely related with the "ka" and (also) represented the cognitive aspect of personalized existence (i.e. the mind). Hence, the importance of the words one had spoken during one's earthly life.

The heart had to be restituted so that the deceased received his memory and personal identity back, for perpetual existence also implied personal continuity. This notion is amply present in the Book of the Dead, elaborating on the restoration of the heart known in the Coffin Texts (and earlier, in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom ).

"O my heart, raise yourself on your base that you may recall what is in you."
Coffin Texts, spell 657.

"... my heart is not ignorant of its place, and it is firm on its base. I know my name, I am not ignorant of it, I will be among those that follow after Osiris ..."
Coffin Texts, spell 572.

2 The Creative Speech of Ptah.

2.1 The "logos" passus of the Memphis Theology.

On the right side of the Shabaka Stone, we find the inscription of the Memphis Theology, which has three subdivisions : 

  1. LINES 53 - 57 : logoism : the description of the logoic process with which Ptah created everything, including all possible deities and the reason why the theology of Memphis supercedes the Heliopolitan one of Atum. Rudiments of an epistemology are given ;

  2. LINES 57 - 58 : natural philosophy : and a holistic philosophy of nature ;

  3. LINES 58 - 61 : pan-en-theism : poetical affirmation that Ptah is everywhere & everything and that all is in Ptah. 

Here, we define the first subdivision (LINES 53 - 57) as the "logos section" because it contains the logoic process characteristic of the philosophy of the Memphite theology.

Hieroglyphs of section V

transcription from the Shabaka Stone - British Museum 498, Londen
a few signs are missing in the worn areas of the stone (used as a millstone in post-pharaonic times)
lacunæ reconstructed on the basis of stylistic & contextual elements

2.2 Line-by-line discussion of the "logos-section".

Shabaka Stone : LINE 48
"the gods who manifest in PTAH"

the logos-section : translation & commentary

53 There comes into being in the heart.
There comes into being by the tongue.

(It is) as the image of Atum. 

Ptah is the very great, who gives life to all the gods and their ka's. Lo, through this heart and this tongue.

LINE 53 initiates the text of the Memphis Theology. It starts with two parallel phrases : "there comes into being in the heart" (mind), "there comes into being by the tongue" (mouth). Both events occur at the same time. Then, in retrograde writing, "as the image of Atum" is added. At the end of the line, a short parallel text, again stressing "heart" and "tongue" closes this line.

Atum is the "image" or "form" used by Ptah to create, a blueprint of how the laws of actual existence are in Ptah. These "laws" involve : (a) the self-creation ("kepher"), spliting (Shu & Tefnut - cf. line 57) and manifestations of Atum (his Ennead) hand in hand with (b) the sacred eternal cycle of dawning, culmination, dusk, rejuvination (resurrection, ascension) and rebirth. Atum is hence the "form" used by Ptah to create everything by speaking divine words. 

These laws of existence, given form through the imagery of the cult of the Sun, became the Heliopolitan model of creation, rooted in mythical & pre-rational thought. But in Memphis, Atum & his Ennead are "demiurgic" deities in the mind of Ptah, who is the ultimate creator as exalted overseer of all, including himself, namely "on the Great Throne", encompassing the "Two Lands" and striking the absolute balance between all polarities (between creation & pre-creation, between sky and earth, between Upper and Lower Egypt) by means of creative speech. The whole Heliopolitan scheme is seen as an "image", a "form" or "metaphor", for Ptah is the very great, not Atum.

Those essential pre-rational factors, rooted in the specifics of the myth of creation associated with Atum, are taken as an "image" rising in the mind and by the tongue of the creator (see also line 55). Atum is not eliminated. On the contrary, his mythology is necessary to define the superiority of the Memphite scheme, which conceived the deities as epiphanies (Amun-Re), and combined this with the notion that creation exclusively comes into being as the result of divine thought in the image of Atum & the utterance of divine words. Atum is invoked, not as the real cause of creation (the mind), but only as the "image" preferred by the logoic creator, Ptah. Atum is the archetype of creation Ptah has in mind and which, when uttered, manifests.



54 Horus came into being in him ;
Thoth came into being in him as Ptah.

Power came into being in the heart and by the tongue and in all limbs, in accordance with the teaching that it (the heart) is in all bodies and it (the tongue) is in every mouth of all gods, all men, all flocks, all creeping things and whatever lives ; thinking whatever the heart wishes and commanding whatever the tongue wishes !

Again parallel writing is used. Horus and Thoth are introduced as the deifications of the logoic process itself, and namely of two of its main components : (a) thinking (Horus, the overseer) & (b) speech (Thoth, the scribe).

This line is very complicated, and eluded many translators. The essential equation is given in the two parallel texts of the two introductory lines of this theology, namely "heart" = "Horus" and "tongue" = "Thoth". In line 54, this play with the words "heart" and "tongue" continues. Contrary to Sethe, Junker translated the pivotal "wnt.f" ("that") as referring to heart and tongue, rather than to Ptah (as Sethe suggested). This solution is followed here. The Memphite author plays with the meaning of "heart", for the physical heart (as organ) and the wishing heart (as mind) are juxtaposed.

After the general statement in line 53, that Ptah, by means of the logoic process (i.e. the creation of everything using thought & spoken words), gave life to all deities, Ptah specifically manifests in two divine forms. Horus is an epiphany of Ptah's mind and Thoth of Ptah's tongue. 

The divine order of words thought in Ptah's mind & spoken by his tongue (both "in the form of Atum") have as their concrete objects : (a) the unity of the Two Lands, of which Horus was the ultimate deity (cf. the Old Kingdom "Followers of Horus" ; the confusion between Horus and Re ; Horus of Lower Egypt, avenger of Osiris, who is the justified Pharaoh of Egypt ; the four sons of Horus in ritual, etc.) and (b) the art of divine speech, connected with Egyptian magic, epiphanized as "Thoth", the god of writing, learning, wisdom, magic, healing arts etc. He was the secretary of Re and the brother of Maat, goddess of truth & justice. 

Horus as "heart" is Pharaoh's capacity as overseer, associated with his mind. The mind is therefore weighed at the Judgment of the Dead, for it is by means of the heart that Maat is offered to Re. Both Horus & Thoth (as all the rest) are created by Ptah in Ptah while in the material process of speaking his immaterial mind. No mythical event is invoked, but only the fact that Ptah thinks and creates when he speaks

The simultaneity of the mental (subjective) and material (objective) sides of the cognitive process, is indicated by the use of symmetrical writing. Horus and Thoth are the two sides of the divine logoic process. Horus determines the contents of what is said, Thoth conveys magical power to what is said. Both happen at the same time.

The "heart" of Ptah is not a "nous" devoid of context, i.e. an abstract, rational Divine (Platonic) Mind. Rather, the contents of mind (the divine words) simultaneously move Ptah's tongue. Formal and material poles come together in Ptah's continuous actions, the overseeing "Great Throne" of Ptah. The mental process suggested here is proto-rational, and aims at establishing a solid case for ongoing creative speech and the ontic supremacy of Ptah as "very great" (while allowing, consistent with henotheism, other deities to exist as such "in" Ptah). Furthermore, the fact that Ptah is unable to create without the "image of Atum", proves the point. In an abstract "nous", creation would be the outcome of thought & speech only. Hence, this proto-rational logos philosophy identifies Ptah with the source of the content of mind (Horus also comes into being as the image of Atum) and not with the abstract, formal, simple mind of rational logos philosophy (as found in Plato or Aristotle).







55 His (Ptah's) Ennead  is before him as heart, authoritative utterance, teeth, semen, lips and hands of Atum.

This Ennead of Atum came into being through his semen and through his fingers.

Surely, this Ennead (of Ptah) is the teeth and the lips in the mouth, proclaiming the names of all things, from which Shu and Tefnut came forth as him, and

In this section, the Ennead of Ptah is the main object of the theology. It is contrasted with the Ennead of Atum. The hieroglyphs define this latter company of deities by adding "Atum" (this happens once), whereas the Ennead of Ptah is mentioned without such an addition, and referred to as "his" or "this".

The components of the two theologies (Memphis & Heliopolis) are summarized. On the one hand, heart, authoritative command & teeth point to Ptah and, on the other hand, semen, lips & hand are suggestive of Atum. Indeed, the creative form of Atum was associated with "Khepera", arising self-engendered out of Nun. Consider this passage from a papyrus from the Late Period (ca. 312 BC), preserved in the British Museum :

"I am he who came into being in the form of Khepera. I became the creator of what came into being (...) Not existed heaven, not existed earth (...) I raised them up from out of Nun from a state of inactivity. (...) I, even I, had union with my clenched hand, I joined myself in an embrace with my shadow, I poured seed into my own mouth ..."

So Atum created the world for his own pleasure. His progeny are accidental and the whole issue revolved around his auto-erotic intent. The lengthening and becoming stiff of his penis refers to the emergence of the primordial hill (the risen land) and the solidifying of the waters of chaos. The reason why something came out of Nun is explained as Atum pleasing himself. By masturbating he ejected semen and by pouring his seed into his own mouth, everything came forth ...

In the Memphite scheme, this unnatural mythical procedure is superceded. It is only an "image". Contrary to Atum, Ptah creates everything by using his mind and authoritative command. As soon as the latter is expressed (lips & teeth), creation unfolds. The only part of the body which both have in common are the lips. Indeed, Atum brings his seed to his mouth. Likewise, only when the divine words are articulated will creation unfold. 

Indeed, they may indeed say in Heliopolis, that the Ennead is supposed to have come into being through the semen, lips & hands of Atum, but in reality, however, the divine Ennead came into being through the word, the teeth & lips in Ptah's mouth, which named all things. The most interesting advance lies in the attempt to explain creation in terms of the processes of thought and speech rather than in sheer physical activity. 

The latter is typical for the mythical & pre-rational mode of thought, whereas the former is the realization of proto-rational thought, able to work with stable concepts. These are not abstract or formal, for this proto-rationality remains rooted in the pre-rational "image" of Atum, who remains the mythical and pre-rational proto-type of (or context for) the physical aspect of creation. 

However, this aspect was not the cause of creation as such. Creation was not the result of the auto-erotical intent of Atum, but of the word in the mind of Ptah. This divine word was not "before" its physical manifestation, but simultaneous with it. Atum was not negated, but introduced as the "model" of creation risen in Ptah's mind. 

Had Ptah relinquished this "form", a concept of mind untained by its content would have arisen. This was not the case. The word of Ptah pronounced by his mouth created everything. To do this, Ptah needed the "image of Atum" to mediate in the act of creation. Likewise, Shu and Tefnut came forth from the logoic process. But not as themselves, but as Ptah. Nevertheless, the fact that the cause of creation is not some mythological physical activity but a logoic process (albeit simultaneous with physical events) is extraordinary. It indicates that Ancient Egyptian philosophy existed and that in it, the importance of thought and speech were omnipotent. Hence, the claim that the Greeks were first to invent the logos is refuted.







56 which gave birth to the Ennead (of Ptah).

The sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, and the breathing by the nose, they transmit to the heart, which brings forth every decision.

Indeed, the tongue thence repeats what is in front of the heart. Thus was given birth to all the gods. His (Ptah's) Ennead was completed.

Lo, every word of the god, came into being through the thoughts of
57 the heart & the command of the tongue.

In this line, the Memphite proto-rational theory of knowledge appears. 

It is made clear that the events recorded by the sense of hearing and the sense of sight in the living, breathing body are brought up to the mind. The notion of moving upwards is suggested by the determinative of the double stairway, leading to a high place. This elevated place is nothing less than the realm of the divine mind, the Memphite "nous", to which the impressions ascend.

Although the Aristotelian distinction between the passive and the active intellect is absent as such (for no formal, abstract concept has yet been established), it is clear that our author is aware of the registering faculty of the mind and knows that after registering, the mind produces "every decision". 

Hence, the two phases of the empirico-noetic process (registering and deciding) are put forward, albeit in a proto-rational scheme, i.e. without the power of abstraction the Greeks attributed to the First Intellect, a Divine mind or logos which is independent from that which it creates (hence, no empirico-formal knowledge is attained). For here, Ptah creates "in the image of Atum", and hence does not escape the contextual features of proto-rationality.

The faculty of speech is under the control of the mind and all deities were created through it, completing the logoic Ennead of Ptah. Our author reaffirms his main theme : every law of nature (the deities) and everything these laws operate were conceived in the divine mind and spoken by the divine tongue. Nothing can come into existence without the divine "nous" and its speech.

The presence of Atum does not imply our author wished to belittle the more physical story expressed in the mythical & pre-rational thought. The "image of Atum" is a genuine part of this theology. If it were absent, the theology of Memphis would have been the expression of a rational, metaphysical theory on the logos. Such an essentialist interpretation is not warranted. Although the theology of Memphis contains a "higher" philosophy than can be found in the Heliopolitan myth, it is given in pictoral terms consistent with the Ancient Egyptian experience.

Nevertheless, in this theology, the figural and analogical way of conceiving creation in the mythical and pre-rational mode of thought, is freed from its omnipresent physicality to the advantage of a logoic scheme. Although Ptah thinks and speaks simultaneously, one can not but conclude that our author reflected upon the cognitive faculties themselves. It is true that this reflection is not formal but mediated by the form of Atum. Nevertheless, the idea that everything (deities, nature & human beings) came into being as a result of divine creative speech, is unique and to some extent valid till the present day.

Although the accomplishment of this mentalizing proto-rational theology is impressive, the "form of Atum" proves also to be its ultimate limitation. For Ptah is unable to create the world without Atum. Although the "form of Atum" also exists outside creation "in the mind of Ptah", paradoxically, the "mind of Ptah" always creates "in the form of Atum". The concept here is concrete, not formal or decontextualized ... Atum is the "form" used by Ptah to create everything by speaking divine words. 

Not unlike what we know of Anaximander or Parmenides, the author of the Memphis Theology moves beyond mythical & pre-rational thought. Here we see proto-rationality at work, for both object & subject are distinguished, integrated and transcended by Ptah-Nun, a "Deus otiosus" (the divine inactive of pre-creation).

But it can not be said of this author that he (like Plato) contemplated a realm of "pure" thought, outside of the operations, conditionings or determinations of physical reality (a world of ideas, a "nous") or contextual limitations (like "the form of Atum"). We have to wait for Greek rational thought for that. But that this extraordinary Memphis Theology influenced the Greeks who visited Memphis, should not surprise us.








The succinctly composed text of this logos-section can be translated in a more fully detailed idiomatic way :

"In the mind of Ptah and by his tongue the image of Atum comes into being. Ptah is the greatest of all, for he gives life to all the deities and their Kas. All of this happens in his mind and on his tongue. As Ptah, Horus and Thoth came into being. In the mind and by the tongue, the power of life came into being in all limbs ; for the mind is in all bodies and the tongue is in the mouth of every god, all men, flocks, creeping things and whatever lives. The mind thinks whatever it wishes and the tongue commands whatever it wishes. Ptah's Ennead is before him as mind, authoritative utterance and teeth. Atum's Ennead is before him as semen, lips and hands. This Ennead of Atum came into being through his semen and fingers. But the Ennead of Ptah is the teeth and the lips in his mouth, proclaiming the names of all things,  bringing forth Shu and Tefnut, which gave birth to the Ennead of Ptah. Sight, hearing and breathing, they inform the mind, which then decides. Indeed, afterwards the tongue repeats what is on the mind. In this way all deities were given birth to. Ptah's Ennead was completed. Lo, every word of god came into being through the thoughts of the mind and the command on the tongue."

2.3 The importance for general philosophy.

the distinction between first (demiurgical) & ultimate (absolute) cause

Shabaka Stone : line 58

"(60) There came the saying that Atum, who created the gods, said concerning Ptah-Tenen : "He gave birth to the gods."  

Here Atum (as first, demiurgical cause) affirms that Ptah-Tenen is the ultimate cause. Atum still creates the deities, but seems no longer self-created & auto-erotical (as he is in myth and pre-rational thought). The distinction between "to create" ("kepher", the scarab) and "to give birth to" ("mes", three skins tied together at the top) is pertinent. Ptah gives birth and life to everything. Atum creates as does the Sun (in Heliopolis, Khepera was the self-creative aspect of Re). The creator-god Atum-Re of Heliopolis is not set aside. He is still the ever-spliting alternation-point between pre-creation and his Ennead (or set of laws fashioning creation). Everything is created "in his image", but the latter rises in the mind and by the tongue of Ptah, the ultimate cause of every thing.

"(60) From him every thing came forth : foods, provisions, (61) divine offerings, all good things. Thus Thoth knew and recorded that he is the mightiest of the gods. Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words."

pan-en-theism and logoism

The theology of Memphis makes use of the Heliopolitan scheme to position its own logoic view. In the Memphis Theology, Ptah encompassed both the pre-creational, creative and created phases of cosmogony (He is both Nun, Atum-Re and the Enneads). This pan-en-theist structure (Ptah is transcendent AND immanent) can also be found in the Ramesside Hymns to Amun-Re. But, contrary to Amun, Ptah creates everything with his word and creative speech. 

In the Old Kingdom, the Great Speech had been exclusively pharaonic. His speech established truth & justice. In the Feudal Age, when non-royals could also be deified, the generative command generated access, assistance & protection in the afterlife, as well as other magical assistance during life (healing, protection, blessings). This was no longer the exclusivity of Pharaoh (but of the priests) and its object was no longer the establishment & continuity of the pharaonic state, but the justification of the deceased. It was a command which, for those who spoke the proper words, generated its object .

Heliopolitan scheme :
Great Speech & generative command

Memphite scheme :
creative speech

Sia : thought in the heart thought in the heart
Hu : Great Speech & generative command Hu : creative speech
Heka : protection inherent in this creative speech
Maat : truth & righteousness
mythical & pre-rational thought proto-rational thought

thought, plan, device

In the Memphite Theology, Sia & Heka are not mentioned. The Memphites reduced the whole Heliopolitan scheme to the formation of thoughts () in Ptah's mind () and the creative speech by Ptah's tongue (), both in "the image of Atum". This creative speech was able to realize itself sui generis and establish the balance of the Two Lands. 

We can trace three stages in the cognitive development of the "logos"-theory in Ancient Egypt :

  • Old Kingdom : mythical & pre-rational identification of "Hu" as the Great Speech of Pharaoh, Follower of Horus, the sole son of Re, with which he establishes and maintains truth and righteousness in the Two Lands ;

  • Middle Kingdom : the pre-rational generative command enabling non-royals to repell the destructive forces (Apophis), to make statues come alive, to protect life and foremost to allow any deceased to open the "double doors" of the horizon, to declare innocence, and to travel safe with Re-Osiris as a deity for millions of years in the netherworld ; 

  • New Kingdom : proto-rational creative speech of Ptah, generating everything : deities, nature and humanity.

the impulse to liberate thought from myth is limited

Hegel wrote in his The Philosophy of History that the "Egyptian spirit" is sunk in nature and the impulse to liberate it. He also noticed a steadfast thoughtfulness. In his days, important discoveries concerning Egyptian had still to be made. The theology of Memphis was unknown. After two centuries of egyptological studies, a clearer picture emerges. It puts into evidence the magical importance of words and their creative power.

This emphasis on the mental can be traced back to the Old and Middle kingdoms, and culminated in the New Kingdom theology of Memphis. However, these cognitive features are not formal, abstract or rational, but belong to the earliest stages of cognition, namely the mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational modes of thought. This means the distinction between object and subject of thought is not operational but pre-conceptual, embedded in physicality and immediate coordinations between objects. In its early modes, the process of thought does not decontextualize its concepts. Thinking is always a posteriori or (as we read in the theology of Memphis) simultaneous with action (speech), but never a priori. Systematic discursive thought can not be found in Ancient Egyptian civilization.

It was typical for Ancient Egyptian thought, to include, in every important text, all three modes of thought. The "old pantheon" of the Old Kingdom was versed in the pre-rational and maintained inharmonious, contenting constructions for the sake of their "mythical" root and the "first time" they evoked. In the Middle Kingdom, proto-rationality broke through, and Egyptian individualism was born. With it, the age of its classical literature. In the New Kingdom, proto-rationalism was developed and the "old pantheon" demystified & naturalized (Amarna culture is an extreme example), with as a result the elaboration of pan-en-theistic theologies, like that of Amun-Re or Ptah. But even in this late development, the "old pantheon" is present, either in a henotheist constellation (Amun is One and Many) or as epiphanies (all deities are manifestations in Ptah). Although in the theology of Memphis, we see the impulse to liberate theology from its entanglement with the constellational pantheon and its physical myths, it is also true that this impulse is limited by the absence of an abstract mind, i.e. a clear, pure division between the constellational pantheon and thought, for Ptah still created in the image of Atum.

the discovery of an operational logos

Mythical and pre-rational thought is not operational, for pre-concepts are unstable. In these two early stages, the influence of circumstancial coordinations on thought remains large. Important conflicts in the process of thought arise. However, in this mode, they remain  unresolved (cf. the tensions between Heliopolitan and Osirian thought in the Pyramid Texts). Only with a stable first person singular is proto-rationality possible and can the operational arena of thought be reached. Let us summarize the functional aspects of proto-rationality :

  1. the distinction between subject & object of experience is grasped and is stabilized thanks to concrete concepts ;

  2. concepts and relations emerge and the interiorized actions receive the status of "operations", allowing for transformations. The latter make it possible to change the variable factors while keeping others invariant ;

  3. the increase of coordinations forms coordinating systems & structures which are capable of becoming closed systems by virtue of a play of anticipative and retrospective constructions of thought (imaginal thought-forms) ;

  4. these mental operations, instead of introducing corrections when the actions are finished, exist by the pre-correction of errors and this thanks to the double play of anticipation and retroaction or "perfect regulation" ;

  5. transitivity is mastered which causes the enclosedness of the formal system ;

  6. necessity is grasped ;

  7. constructive abstraction, new, unifying coordinations which allow for the emergence of a total system and auto-regulation (or the equilbration caused by perfect regulation) ;

  8. transitivity, conservation and reversibility are given ;

  9. the mental operations are "concrete", not "formal", implying that they (a) exclusively appear in immediate contexts and (b) deal with objects only (i.e. are not reflective) ;

  10. the concrete operatoric structures are not established through a system of combinations but one step at a time ; 

  11. this stage is paradoxal : a balanced development of logico-mathematical operations versus the limitations imposed upon the concrete operations. This conflict triggers the next, final stage, which covers the formal operations. 

The realm of mind or goes hand in hand with the contents of mind. A mind emptied of its contents is not arrived at in Memphis. In , (thoughts) arise. These are put into words which produce what they mean through  (the tongue). The of Ptah is not empty, but filled with the "image of Atum". This "form" is a total, imaginal system which explains in mythical & pre-rational terms the coming into being of everything. This of Ptah, is not a "nous" devoid of its objects or modifications. But, only a single step is necessary to realize this : eliminate the "form of Atum" and Ptah becomes God, i.e. the Supreme Being present before, during and after creation, who with His Mind and Divine Names manifests all beings (cf. the theory on being in Sufism). This fact alone, makes the philosophy inherent in the theology of Memphis part of the general philosophical traditions of humanity. Moreover, because this logoic philosophy puts all emphasis on the dynamics of words (their ability to do something), I call it "verbal". For not only are the words of Ptah actions, but without their verbalization they would remain dormant and ineffective.

initiated : 5 III 2002 - last update : 01 XII 2010

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2017.