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Author Topic: Historical Trends in Egypt  (Read 4766 times)
Darkhawk
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« Topic Start: May 11, 2007, 12:22:55 am »

One of my persistent thought patterns about how to go about this whole neo-reconstructionist thing is to look at the historical trends in Egyptian religion and see which direction the system was evolving as time went by.  It seems to me that running in the direction of established tendencies in the religious development is more justifiable than going counter to them.

So, these are some thoughts I got out of Rosalie David's Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt, thrown out for argumentation:

The Concept of the Nisut

In the Old Kingdom we see a very absolute monarchy: the king owns the country due to being the son of Ra.  Period, game over.  That power is diluted in part by giving sinecures to nobles or needing the active support of the Ra cult over time, but the basic concept remains the same.

After the economic collapse that goes into the First Intermediate Period, we have rulers who are still children of the regnal god, but they are selected by the gods for that position rather than axiomatically born to it, and their proof of rulership is in their acts: acting according to ma'at, keeping the granaries full and the irrigation systems working, defending from criminals and raiders, funding the development of temples, and generally proving that one is the legitimate king by acting as a legitimate king should act.  Wisdom literature begins to include advice to rulers that mentions things like the uselessness of the death penalty (more trouble than it's worth) and the property of widows and such.

Power conflicts happened frequently between king and nobles or king and major god's priesthood; there is some variation in which is in control of things.  The Amarna period can be argued, in part, as an attempt to reassert the sort of absolute monarchy/theocracy of the Old Kingdom.

Insecure kings and foreign rulers demonstrated their fitness for rule in significant part with temple construction and displays of apparent piety.  By the end of Egypt's history, the nation's wealth mostly was controlled by the foreign elites.

Afterlife Beliefs

There is evidence for some level of belief in a personal afterlife in the predynastic period, as the dead were buried with grave goods such as cosmetics (especially malachite) and pottery.  However, by the time the monarchy was established, the king appears to be the only person held to have an individual afterlife (though the beliefs of the common people are entirely unknown, and I believe the same sort of 'oval grave with goods at the edge of the desert' persisted throughout Egyptian history for the poor).  At the height of this period, nobles would have their mastabas built near the pyramid of the king in order to hitch a ride on his ascension.

With the development of the Coffin Texts from the Pyramid Texts, the afterlife became accessible to the wealthy as well as the king; the texts' major difference is addressing fear of death and deprivation rather than divine right to access to the afterlife.  As Wesir's cult grows stronger -- tied as it is with the kingship rituals and also appealing to ordinary people -- the sense of access to the afterlife increases, as it no longer depends on divine blood or wealth and begins to be considered a matter of right living (as recorded in things like the Negative Confessions).  "The justified" was added to the formula of titles of the deceased in Dynasty 11.  Many people took up pilgrimage to Abydos to get a personal in with Wesir.  (Possible theory for the strength of His cult: as a god of the Duat, He could not conflict with Those Whose governance was the living world, while Ra's position as supreme god of the living was frequently usurped depending on the preferences of the reigning dynasty for patronage.)

At the same time, people become less confident of the afterlife; the turmoils of the intermediate period shook their confidence in a well-ordered universe.  Thus, a thread of philosophy that is "what happens after death is uncertain and anyway nobody's come back to tell us what it's life; we should enjoy this life now as it is" developed in this period.  This philosophy persisted for the remainder of Egyptian history, becoming more prominent after times of turmoil and less so as people trusted more in the stability of the cosmos.

By the New Kingdom, the Books of the Dead had become common, with either individually prepared versions or somewhat slapdash 'fill in your name here' varieties commonly available.  The Amarna period attempted to abolish the established funerary procedures, but the Atenist theology did not have much in the way of acknowledgement of death, difficulty, or evil, and thus was not emotionally satisfying to much of the populace.  This disruption to the flow of things revived the pessimistic literature tradition of uncertainty about the afterlife significant.

By the Late Period, the concept of good behaviour and trust in the afterlife was replaced in tomb autobiographies with declarations of piety, probably because of the turmoil in the country, its general decline, and the loss of comfort in the security of afterlife beliefs.  Rather than going to ascetism or self-denial to prove one's worthiness for the afterlife, though, the belief that one should be merry now in order to be certain of some level of joy in the event that death didn't work out so great was the standard counterpoint.

Tomb preparations over the course of this time added new furniture, including representations of workers preparing various foodstuffs and the development of the ushabtis around Dynasty 9.  Boats were always common burials, often as models, and grew more so with the rise of Wesir and the democratisation of the afterlife, as they were not only used for passage in the Duat, but so that the deceased could make pilgrimage to Abydos.  Early tomb decorations were intended to create a comfortable microcosm for the tomb owner, complete with all of his needs and entertainments; by the later dynastic period, many of the tomb decorations were instructions for navigating the dangers of the Duat.

Personal Piety

The earliest temples were the 'fortresses of the gods', which were built as forts.  These were probably used in part as distribution points for the wealth of Egypt, storage of foodstuffs and similar things; the temples were always integrated as part of the tools of rulership.  (The Amarna shutdown of the non-Atenist temples did a real number on the economy.)

The temples eventually settled into a stable design, in which the fortress wall enclosed the outer zone in which there was some access allowed to ordinary people, with the roofed portions being the god's private quarters and becoming more holy and more restrictive as one progressed deeper.  (Not from Rosalie David: some festivals may have included bringing commoner witnesses deeper into the temple than normally permitted, but they were never permitted into the holy of holies.)

Starting in the First Intermediate Period, the gods were given credits for political matters.  Middle Kingdom kings and later would credit the gods with their successes.

Priesthood was originally a second job for most elite men; the priest as a permanent class of people came in in the New Kingdom, though most of the actual jobs remained part-time ones.  Also in the New Kingdom we have most of the evidence that survives for personal piety, which may indicate that it expanded in this period.  It may not, though, as folk practices are hard to track.

By the late period, we have a lot of interest in archaicism tied with nationalism, and a generalised desire to restore and maintain as much of the old ways of doing things as possible -- a standard Egyptian response to things.  Reliance on the gods for comfort is clear in tomb writings, rather than faith or belief in worthiness to enter the afterlife.  Some people would have personal statues put on temple grounds to gain access to the maintaining energies of ritual, as well as to give them a presence in the awareness of the god.  The Greco-Roman period includes festivals that touch on major theological concepts that are held at least partially with significant public participation.


In other words, my interpretation is that general trends tend to be the weakening of absolutism (and, eventually, power) in the monarchy over time, increased skepticism and worry about the validity of the afterlife, and increased development of individual, personal relationships with the gods by non-elites.
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jedmehdu
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« Reply #1: May 17, 2007, 12:39:53 am »

In other words, my interpretation is that general trends tend to be the weakening of absolutism (and, eventually, power) in the monarchy over time, increased skepticism and worry about the validity of the afterlife, and increased development of individual, personal relationships with the gods by non-elites.

Sounds good to me.  I see it as that whole empowerment thing.  (Yes, 'empowerment' is an overused word, but I don't know what else to call it.)  Personally, can't imagine what I'd need a nisut for.  OK - maybe a practical use, a la Mme Siuda: she reads heiroglyphics and I don't.  Beyond that, however, no.  Not interested in prostrating myself before anyone, or calling someone Your Holiness.

Can't I be holy, too?  Is 'holier than thou' simply in the eye of the beholder?  When I'm communing with deity doesn't that at least make me holy-adjacent?

And my goal is "...increased development of individual, personal relationships with the gods..."   Based on what I read on this forum, a middle-person, so to speak, doesn't seem to be necessarily required for that.

Can't say I'm skeptical about the afterlife, however.  I believe there is one, the exact nature of which is unknown to me, but I'm not concerned about it.  Personally, I feel it's along the lines of the movie "What Dreams May Come".  The afterlife (or Afterworld, as the Ancients would have called it) we first encounter is what we expect it to be, and after becoming acclimated we see it for what it really is.

But that's just me.

And thanks for a wonderful synposis of Rosalie's book!

JM
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sefiru
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« Reply #2: May 17, 2007, 09:20:39 am »

I had to go away and think about this for a while ... I think you pretty much nailed the general trends, so I'll just pick out a few points that struck me.

their proof of rulership is in their acts: acting according to ma'at, keeping the granaries full and the irrigation systems working, defending from criminals and raiders, funding the development of temples, and generally proving that one is the legitimate king by acting as a legitimate king should act. 

This seems like a useful attitude, in that it gives a *theological* stop to such things as cults of personality, absolutism etc. while not denying that leaders in general are neccessary. While I think we've already agreed that a Nisut as such is not what we want, I also think the "I have no boss" mentality in some neo-wiccish practices is questionable. If we chose to follow a leader because s/he clearly knows how to lead, that should not be a problem.

Quote
Tomb preparations over the course of this time added new furniture, including representations of workers preparing various foodstuffs and the development of the ushabtis around Dynasty 9.  Boats were always common burials, often as models, and grew more so with the rise of Wesir and the democratisation of the afterlife, as they were not only used for passage in the Duat, but so that the deceased could make pilgrimage to Abydos.  Early tomb decorations were intended to create a comfortable microcosm for the tomb owner, complete with all of his needs and entertainments; by the later dynastic period, many of the tomb decorations were instructions for navigating the dangers of the Duat.

For some reason I quite like the boat symbolism. If we ever work up a funeral or ritual for the deceased, this might be something to think about. As for the afterlife, eh, I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Quote
Priesthood was originally a second job for most elite men; the priest as a permanent class of people came in in the New Kingdom, though most of the actual jobs remained part-time ones.  Also in the New Kingdom we have most of the evidence that survives for personal piety, which may indicate that it expanded in this period.  It may not, though, as folk practices are hard to track.

part-time priests ... another great idea, and not very common in the world as far as I recall. Too bad there's so little on folk practices, those would be fascinating.
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« Reply #3: July 08, 2007, 01:14:57 pm »

One of my persistent thought patterns about how to go about this whole neo-reconstructionist thing is to look at the historical trends in Egyptian religion and see which direction the system was evolving as time went by.  It seems to me that running in the direction of established tendencies in the religious development is more justifiable than going counter to them.

Nothing like posting to a 2 month old topic - sort of a night of the living thread - it lives!

Anyway, I wanted to say thanks for the briefing on Rosalie David's book. This is one I had wanted to read and now I know it is one I must read.

For the reconstructionist religious trends are indeed a bit of a problem.

The festival of Sekhment (common spelling) may be something that was only done during the "good times", not a festival regularly practiced.

 htt://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15475319 (you'll have to over-look the Jerry Springer-ness of the article title and intro)

KMT Magazine had an interrestng article regarding the Amarna period. I think it was the summer issue of 2006 (but I will have to check on that) This article gave a convincing argument that the switch in religious views may have been more of a reaction to the severe plague happening at that time than anything else.

At any rate, it is pretty evident that religious beliefs, rites, festivals, etc. could fluctuate with various internal and external events.
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jedmehdu
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« Reply #4: July 11, 2007, 10:18:03 pm »

KMT Magazine had an interesting article regarding the Amarna period...  This article gave a convincing argument that the switch in religious views may have been more of a reaction to the severe plague...

I've always wondered why there were so many statues of Sekhmet in the Precinct of Mut.  Was She being propitiated 24/7?  Why?  And did Amenhotep III commission most (if not all) of them?  Two statues for each day, one for 12 hours of daylight and one for the night hours, equals 730.  (I've never read how many total statues they think were there but it was over 700.)  Talk about job security for the priesthood!

With the references in the article (Fall, 2006) to a plague, however, having that many statues of Her suddenly made sense to me.

(And reactivating a two-month-old thread on a 3,000-year-old topic?  Great!   Just shows we can have new information and more questions, and that there's still more to learn about the past.)
JM
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« Reply #5: July 12, 2007, 10:01:46 am »

I've always wondered why there were so many statues of Sekhmet in the Precinct of Mut.  Was She being propitiated 24/7?  Why?  And did Amenhotep III commission most (if not all) of them?  Two statues for each day, one for 12 hours of daylight and one for the night hours, equals 730.  (I've never read how many total statues they think were there but it was over 700.)  Talk about job security for the priesthood!

With the references in the article (Fall, 2006) to a plague, however, having that many statues of Her suddenly made sense to me.

(And reactivating a two-month-old thread on a 3,000-year-old topic?  Great!   Just shows we can have new information and more questions, and that there's still more to learn about the past.)
JM

I throughly enjoyed the article as well, it explained so much and without a big convoluted theory. My thought was if the "missing" (unrecorded) 8 years of Amenhotep III's reign could be explained by plague then could the same be said of the missing (unrecorded) 9 years of Horemheb's?  The plague (whatever it was) did seem to begin with Amenhotep III but didn't abate until the reign of Seti.  The loss of life and manpower (womanpower too for that matter) would have been tremendous.

To me this article just explained so many "mysteries" of that time period. I do believe you would be right about the statues.
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