Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not

(1) The car that bears me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, which leads the man who knows through all the towns.  On that way was I borne along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way.  And the axle, glowing in the socket—for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end—gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.

There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone.  They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them.  Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.  Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other.  Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car, and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spake to me these words:

Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers!  It is no ill chance, but right and justice that has sent thee forth to travel on this way.  Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men!  Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.  Yet none the less shalt thou learn these things also,—how passing right through all things one should judge the things that seem to be.

But do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit by its much experience force thee to cast upon this way a wandering eye or sounding ear or tongue; but judge by argument [Logos] the much disputed proof uttered by me.  There is only one way left that can be spoken of…. R. P. 113.[1]

 

Such is the opening of the one and only treatise attributed to Parmenides, one of the most prominent and influential of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who flourished in the late 6th and early 5th century BCE from Elea, a town in Southern Italy which became one of the centers of philosophical development in the Hellenic world in antiquity, the so called Eleatic School.  The poem is believed to have been almost 800 verses in length, and although it only survives in fragmentary form through quotations and excerpts from later authors, it is believed that much of it – and specifically the part that pertains to the mode of inquiry which is to have a such a significant impact on subsequent philosophical development in and around the Mediterranean for centuries afterwards – has been preserved.[2]

In this passage above, Parmenides describes his journey on a chariot up to the gates of heaven led by the maidens of Sun god (Helios) up to the halls of Night, i.e. the realm of the dead, which is guarded by Justice herself.  The whole treatise therefore is rooted in ancient Mythos that is reflective of the general belief systems that permeated the Mediterranean at the time.  The language of the work entitled On Nature is Greek hexameter verse, the same linguistic form of the epic poems of Hesiod and Homer, speaking directly to the continuity of tradition, at least at this period of philosophical development in the Hellenic world, of the form of “inspired” writing and poetic verse which was a legacy of pre-historical antiquity.

The entire treatise in fact, is hinged ancient pre-historical language and terminology, not just with respect to language it is written in, but also in terms of the overall narrative which is steeped in references to the gods and goddesses which were so reflective of the prevailing Mythos of the time.  We have the abode of Night, and the very goddess who was so instrumental in establishing order and justice in the Orphic Theogony as the very same goddess who “reveals” the Way of Truth to Parmenides, and even a reference to the role of Eros as one of the primary forces of nature which speaks directly to the heritage of Hesiod’s Theogony.[3]

In particular, we see this notion of change explored in some detail, couched in what can only be deemed pre-historical terms of the assimilation and interaction of opposing forces – in this case dark and light and male and female, quite reminiscent of the mode of inquiry and metaphysical foundation of Far Eastern thought as reflected in the Yijing.

 

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.   And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour. R. P. 119.

Mortals have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which they should not name, and that is where they go astray from the truth.  They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have assigned to them marks distinct from one another.  To the one they allot the fire of heaven, gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other.  The other is just the opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body.  Of these I tell thee the whole arrangement as it seems likely; for so no thought of mortals will ever outstrip thee. R. P. 121.

Now that all things have been named light and night, and the names which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other. R. P. 123, 124

The narrower bands were filled with unmixed fire, and those next them with night, and in the midst of these rushes their portion of fire.  In the midst of these is the divinity that directs the course of all things; for she is the beginner of all painful birth and all begetting, driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female. R. P. 125.[4]

 

We can see in these different fragments and quotation from the work, not an altogether dismissal of the belief in the nature of the universe and its becoming into existence as the mixing and interaction of opposing forces, forces which emerge from and have their ultimate source in some divine being, a precursor to Plato’s Demiurge.  We see Parmenides elucidating (and not ignoring or dismissing) the existence of the basic elemental forces of dark and light, male and female, but a hint of a different perspective on how these basic universal attributes should be looked at if one is trying to understand the basic nature of reality, i.e. the nature of change.

For if nothing else, On Nature represents one of the first attempts in the Hellenic intellectual tradition to try to describe the attributes of “what Is” (to eon), a precursor to Aristotle’s notion of “being qua being”, as well as the process by which one can come to an understanding of “true reality” (alêtheia), i.e. reason or Logos, each of which comes to represent the basic hallmark characteristics of the Hellenic philosophical tradition – a tradition which we understand today as it is reflected primarily in the works of Plato and Aristotle and through later interpretations of their works by subsequent “philosophers”.  Both Plato and Aristotle in fact each alludes to and refer to Parmenides as one of the early expounders of philosophy, even if again his ideas are looked upon as incoherent or lacking insight or clarity in certain matters.  In the case of Aristotle in particular, it is Parmenides’s notion of change and its relationship to the definition of “reality” which he takes issue with, the detailed and systematic description of which represent the overarching purpose and themes of Aristotle’s works of course.[5]

Once Parmenides has been allowed into the abode of Night, the goddess begins to teach him the way of true knowledge, in language that is cryptic and full of contradictions that is reminiscent of the language and way of understanding that is presented by Laozi in the Far East actually.

 

(4, 5) Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of.  The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion.  The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all.  For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. R. P. 114

(6) It needs must be that what can be spoken and thought is;    for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.  This is what I bid thee ponder.  I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander two-faced; for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind.  Undiscerning crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same and not the same, and all things travel in opposite directions! R. P. 115[6]

 

Here Parmenides describes “what Is” (to eon), as being related to that which can be thought or spoken of.  Here we have some of the beginning aspects of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry presented with respect to the relationship of thought (which eventually morphs into Plato’s Forms), as well as the presentation of language, or speech, as the expression of thought (which becomes a key part of the Stoic epistemological tradition for example) herein established as the foundations upon which knowledge – that which can be known and in turn that which can be said to “exist” or is “real” – are put forth.  So while Parmenides presents his treatise in very pseudo-Orphic, illuminary context, i.e. that knowledge itself is “revealed” rather than “understood” or “taught”, he still nonetheless espouses the doctrine that a way of truth, as determined by reason, again Logos, does in fact exist and can, and should, be used to help define “true reality” (alêtheia).

While later interpretations of Parmenides’s thought are couched in terms of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry, there are clearly significant remnants of pre-historical Mythos that permeate the work.  It should be kept in mind that the bulk of extant fragments from the poem that have been preserved have been done so to either prove or disprove various perspectives of philosophical inquiry by later authors, all of whom had some sort of axe to grind so to speak but regardless of which axe is being grinded they all are trying to prove or disprove certain points or aspects of philosophical inquiry.  Even in the modern academic literature, Parmenides is viewed in terms of the role he play in the development of classical Greek philosophy per se, not necessarily as a bridge between pre-historical Mythos – and the divine revelationary aspects to which it is fundamentally related – and Logos, which provides the intellectual foundations for all subsequent philosophical development.

In this context Parmenides and his poem On Nature does indeed represent one of the early milestones on the intellectual evolutionary journey of philosophical development in ancient Greece.  And despite the strong undercurrent of mythological and illuminary themes, the work does nonetheless represent a significant break in the Hellenic intellectual tradition by expounding upon the mode of inquiry into how an understanding and comprehension of true reality is to be arrived at from which the foundations of knowledge itself upon which it is based should be constructed.  This method of inquiry, what came to be understood as Logos, which was the standard method which was used to ascertain the properties of change which was never challenged as the ultimate property of material existence, was to be a hallmark of the philosophical tradition in the Hellenic world.

 


[1] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[2] See Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.

[3] “(13) First of all the gods she contrived Eros. R. P. 125”.  From Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[4] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[5] For Aristotle’s perspective on Parmenides’s “philosophy”, see Cael. 3.1.298b14–24; Metaph. 1.5.986b14–18, Ph. 1.2.184a25-b12.  References from Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.  With respect to Plato’s perspective on the “philosophy” of Parmenides, he dedicates an entire dialogue to the topic, i.e. the Parmenides, where a discussion between Parmenides and Socrates is narrated and Plato’s Theory of Forms is defended at length through a series of lengthy deductive arguments.  See Rickless, Samuel, “Plato’s Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/plato-parmenides/&gt;.

[6] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

Orpheus and Dionysus: The Mystery Cults of Ancient Greece

While Hesiod’ Theogony remains the standard, orthodox version of Theogony, the origin and genealogy of the gods, from Greek antiquity, there exists an alternate tradition attributed to pseudo-historical and somewhat mythical figure of Orpheus, a character whose life is shrouded in mystery and tales of great heroic journeys.  According to some legends and tales surrounding his life he is the son of the Muse Calliope and the god Apollo, the patron deity of the city of Delphi where the famed temple of the Oracle at Delphi was kept. Orpheus was a famed lyric poet who supposedly gained his lyre from a chance meeting with Apollo in the forest one day in his youth, Apollo having been greatly charmed by the boy’s voice.  It was there supposedly that Apollo initiated him into the great “mysteries” to which many of the practices and rites of the esoteric “mystery cults” of ancient Greece were associated.

But perhaps Orpheus is best known for his lyrical voice and the poetry which bears his  name, i.e. the Rhapsodies, a voice and music was known to tame even the most savage of beasts.  He is perhaps best known not only for his role in the tale of the Golden Fleece as the poet who tames the Sirens on their epic journey, but also his great love for the nymph Eurydice for whom he travels to the realm of the dead to save, only to have her lost forever when he turns his head to look back to her to make sure she is following him.[1]

With respect to the life of Orpheus, what we know comes to us down as legend and tales of old that speak of a child who is singing in the forests one day in Thrace who is found by Apollo who is charmed by his sweet voice.  As the legend goes, Orpheus was taught music (the lyre) by Apollo himself and was ultimately initiated into the “cult of the mysteries”, or divine knowledge, by him.  After a life of singing and divine inspiration, he fell in love and married the nymph Eurydice, who was his ceaseless companion and close confidante.  She, after being pursued through the woods by the god Aristaios, a deity also associated with Dionysus and Zeus, was killed by a poisonous snake and killed.  Orpheus was grief stricken, and with the assistance of the gods who empathized with his plight, travelled to the underworld to try and save his beloved.  He journeyed through the land of the dead and reached the throne of Pluto (Hades) and Persephone and begged them to let Eurydice live again.  Again his true love and plight was empathized with and they granted his wish, but under one condition.  He was not to look back at his beloved until they had completely left the realm of the dead, a test of faith as it were.  Orpheus, in one of the great tragedies of Greek mythology, looks back to be sure his beloved is behind him before leaving the land of the dead and so she is lost to him forever.  Orpheus is then said to have wandered the woods by himself and only sang to men after that, singing always about his lost love for Eurydice. There are different tales of his death but one story has him slain by Thracian women, (Mainádæs), women associated with the cult of Dionysus again, for luring their men away with his sweet music.  Orpheus is also associated with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (the Golden Fleece) and is said to have saved the crew from the deadly Sirens on their journey with the charm of his music.

The religious practices and rites surrounding Orphism are closely associated with the life and legend of the mythical figure Dionysus, or Dionysus Bacchius or Zagreus as he was sometimes referred to.  Dionysus in mythical lore was the son of Zeus and Persephone, or sometimes Demeter or Semele depending upon the mythical variant.  As the legend goes he was murdered as a small child at the behest of Zeus’s jealous wife Hera.  His heart however was saved by Athena before he could be killed forever, and through this act of kindness and empathy he is born again.  This notion of rebirth and salvation was a main theme surrounding the worship of Dionysus and most certainly echoes themes we find much later in the life and teaching of Jesus.

The god, or cult, of Dionysus in ancient Greece – and through Roman times as well where he was worshipped as Bacchus – is closely associated with death and rebirth and divine ecstasy, which in turn was closely associated with wine, which in turn was associated with fertility and the spring, again rebirth.  Hence his, and less directly Orpheus’s, association with not only Persephone, the goddess of the underworld (death and rebirth), but also the goddess of the harvest and the spring, Demeter.  The close affiliation to the “divine mysteries”, to which the worship of Dionysius is closely associated with in antiquity, and to which Orphism in turn is also closely associated with, is evidenced by the many parallels and intertwined myths surrounding the two figures – Orpheus’s trip to the underworld and back to save his love Eurydice and Dionysus journey to the underworld to save his mother Semele for example.

 

What we know of the life of Orpheus as a historical figure, if in fact he did exist as an actual historical figure, is not much.  However, he is closely associated with the region of Thrace, both from stories around his birth and death, a region which lies just to the North of classical Greece and the Near East, lying in modern day Bulgaria which would explain why the stories and poems of his life were not integrated into classical Greece mythology until after Homer and Hesiod.  In many respects one can look at the historical figure of Orpheus just as one looks at the historicity of the Hebrew Moses.  In fact, the two traditions surrounding these two “prophets”, if we may call them that, come from basically the same period in ancient history albeit from two different, but closely related, regions. Moses from ancient Palestine/Middle East and Orpheus from Thrace/Greece/Near East.

Little is known about the life of this pseudo-mythical figure other than it believed by modern and ancient scholars alike that he was in fact an historical figure, the notable exception being Aristotle, who – depending upon how you interpret the quotations from later authors from whom Aristotle’s opinion is summarized – doubted not only his existence but also his authorship of the poems, the Rhapsodies, that bear his name.  Aristotle however, given his reputation as a scholar and the access he must have had to historical records and accounts from Greek antiquity is worth mentioning as a skeptic but having said that he was skeptical of the old mythical tradition from antiquity in general so perhaps it is not surprising.

According to later authors who are by all accounts are likely quoting from the same passages in Aristotle’s lost work De Philosophia, it seems likely that Aristotle believed at least that the compilation of hymns that bear the name of Orpheus was done by an Onomakritos, a scribe and counselor from the court of Pesistratos from the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE who ruled Athens from 561 to 527 BCE.  As the story is related by Herodotus (who does not mention Orpheus specifically but indirectly as it related to the poems of the Muses) he tells us, consistent with Aristotle in fact (or perhaps Aristotle’s reference is from Herodotus) that these poems of the Muses (Musaios) were actually the works of Onomakritos, who inserted his own “forgeries” into the poems themselves and was therefore banished from Athens by the son of Pesistratos, Hipparchos.  After the family of Pesistratos was banished to Persia, Herodotus tells us that is by using the works Onomakritos that the great Persian king Xerxes I was convinced to lead an invasion into Greece.[2]

The earliest literary reference to Orpheus in the historical record is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC lyric poet Ibycus who simply refers to Orpheus as “the famous Orpheus”.  We also however find references and attestations to not only Orpheus himself but also the traditions surrounding the cult of mysteries or aspects of worship and initiation which were such an integral part of the tradition surrounding Orpheus from Herodotus as well as the tragic Greek playwright Euripides (The Bacchae), as well as Plato among others.  Plato in particular in one quotation from the Apology places Orpheus in the same category as Hesiod and Homer, as well as the Muses themselves, as having knowledge of divine mysteries as well as being objects of reverence.[3]  Having said that, with respect to what can be known about the historical figure of Orpheus if he did indeed exist, it is perhaps worth quoting a modern day scholar (and arguably a modern day “devotee”) on the subject, whose words sum up the situation quote nicely:

This alone may be depended on, from general assent, that there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, whose father was Œagrus, who lived in Thrace, and who was the son of a king, who was the founder of theology, among the Greeks; the institutor of their life and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets; himself the offspring of a Muse; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perpetual and abundant fountain, the divine muse of Homer, and the philosophy of Pythagoras, and Plato, flowed; and, lastly, who by the melody of his lyre, drew rocks, woods, and wild beasts, stopped the rivers in their course, and ever, moved the inexorable king of hell; as every page, and all the writings of antiquity sufficiently evince. Since thus much then may be collected from universal testimony, let us, pursue the matter a little farther, by investigating more accurately the history of the original Orpheus; with that of the great men who have, at different periods, flourished under this venerable name.[4]

 

Leaving aside the obvious questionable attribution of the inspiration and source of the works of Homer, Pythagoras and Plato being from Orpheus himself, this quite eloquent view of the figure of Orpheus does represent the view of the “inner circle” of Orphic believers in antiquity however, reflecting not only the great influence that his life and works were believed to have had, but also the “secret” nature of the “mystery cults” and rites that were so closely associated to the figure himself.  What we do however know for certain is that there existed a theology and “mystery cult” tradition surrounding the pseudo-mythical figure of Orpheus that was very influential on the development of not just theogony but also in turn philosophy in classical Greece.

Our primary textual evidence is from not only from the hymns which bear his name which survive for the most part intact, having in all likelihood been compiled in the last few centuries BCE, but also from references to the practices and rites surrounding Orphism in Herodotus as well as Plato and Aristotle (despite the latter’s noted skepticism regarding Orpheus as an historical figure) and prominently in the more recently discovered  by the Derveni Papyrus.  All of these point to a tradition that was not only widely known and practiced in classical Greece, but also one that was on par, albeit independent, from the Homeric and Hesiodic poetic/historical traditions which represented more “orthodox” Hellenic theological and mythological beliefs.  Notably however, Orpheus is not mentioned in either the works of Homer or Hesiod, speaking to an independent theological tradition, at least in the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE after which it was clearly integrated and synthesized into Hellenic mythological and cultural lore.

The Derveni papyrus was discovered in 1962 and is believed to have been compiled in the 5th century BCE.  While it’s a fairly damaged papyrus scroll, the bulk of the text has been recovered after much painstaking research and it consists of a running commentary on Orphic theogony, giving us insight and corroborating evidence of Orphic theogony proper, but also of a fairly early tradition of theo-philosophical interpretations of theogony in general, this one most likely coming from a school associated with Anaxagoras given the prominent role of “Mind” throughput the text.  The papyrus was discovered in a burial site from the 3rd century BCE around the time of the reign of Phillip II of Macedon around the area of Thrace/Macedon, a region closely associated with the stories surrounding the life of Orpheus.  This archaeological find allows us to date Orphic Theogony and cosmological narratives – and in turn practices associated with the tradition undoubtedly – to at least the time of classical Greece.  This material and belief systems reflected in the papyrus however, are undoubtedly representative of a theological and mystical tradition that is of much deeper antiquity, a tradition which bears many similarities and resemblances to what we know of ritual and theological traditions of Egypt, as well as those spoken of in the earliest Vedas and the Avestan lore, and one which was clearly of interest to the early Greek philosophers.[5]

Orpheus was believed to be the founder and prophet of the “Orphic mysteries”, as well as credited with the authorship of the so called “Orphic hymns”, a somewhat late Hellenistic compilation of poems addressed to the various gods and goddesses that were pre-eminent in the Orphic Theogony, a somewhat alternative representation of the divine order of the universe than presented by Hesiod.  The Orphic hymns include poems and commemorations to the gods and goddesses of Night, Heaven, Fire, and unique to the Orphic mythological tradition to the protogenital human, or Protogonus (Phanes).  Within this poetic compilation we also find verses dedicated to major “naturalistic” concepts that played an important role in early Hellenic philosophy such as Law, Justice, Equity, Health, etc. no doubt speaking to the interplay and interchangeability of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology and the principals or “ideas” which they represented.[6]

Regardless of whether or not he existed as an actual person in history however, the life of Orpheus is not only very closely embedded in and related to classical Greek mythology, but also very closely associated with the so called “mystery cults” of ancient Greece.  These cults were closely affiliated with the with rites of initiation and rituals and the worship of Dionysus, worshipped as the “savior” of mankind through which the mysteries of divine union could be realized.  While these practices were shrouded in mystery and closely guarded within the “Orphic” community as it were, the Derveni Papyrus in particular reveals some insights into how these mythological narratives were interpreted by those within the tradition itself, a tradition which the author of the Derveni Papyrus was clearly intimately familiar.

Given Orpheus’s close connection with mystery cults and divine ecstasy which was closely aligned to the cults of Dionysus (not just in classical Greece but also in Roman times under the name of Bacchus) by studying Orphic theogony we can get a glimpse perhaps into a more archaic and alternative theological and shamanic tradition than the more structured and literary version presented by Hesiod.  For the Orphic theogony by definition carries not just a much more esoteric and “secret” meaning, but one which perhaps points to much more ancient origins given its close affiliation with ancient rites and rituals and initiation, very much reminiscent to the practices and rituals that are laid out in more detail in the Avestas and Vedas assuredly.

 


[1] Parallels to the story of Orpheus looking back upon his love as they leave the land of Hades can be drawn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the city of Sodom is destroyed by the Lord for its wickedness but Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction of the city and was reduced to a pillar of salt.  Genesis 19.

[2] See Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.  Paus. 1.22.7 and Herodotus Histories Book VII Chapter 6 from Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D22%3Asection%3D7 and http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126:book=7:chapter=6&highlight=onomacritus respectively for references to the account of Onomakritos in the court of Pesistratos and See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie, Princeton University Press 1993, pages 13-14 for the story of Onomakritos in Herodotus and pgs. 57-59 for his analysis and conclusions regarding the beliefs of Aristotle regarding Orpheus as interpreted from the excerpts of the (much later) Greco-Roman authors.

[3] While Aristotle reflects a more skeptic view of the Orphic tradition as well as the historicity of its founder, Orpheus, we find from Plato’s Apology the following quotation speaking to the high regard at least Plato had for the pseudo-mythical figure.  “Or again, what would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?” Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  Apology, verse 41a from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D41a

[4] The Hymns of Orpheus, translation and Introduction by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/

[5] The analysis of the text is fascinating and revealing into not only Orphic beliefs from the period of classical Greece but also an early commentary on “mystery cult” mythological and esoteric beliefs in and of themselves.  See The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation by Gabor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004 for a very detailed overview of the archeological find, a translation of the scroll (what can be recovered), a good summary of the analysis of the conclusions that can be drawn from the text itself as well as a reconstructed (Orphic) theogony which is embedded in the scroll.  Why it was buried with what appears to be a great and well respected warrior and aristocrat remains a mystery.

[6] For a complete translation of the ancient text/fragments, see Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/

The Theogony of Hesiod: Order (Cronos) from Chaos

One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with.  You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture.  One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into modern day English given its more direct relationship to the Latin.

Prior to looking at the mythological creation narratives that were prevalent in classical Greece, it’s worth pointing out some of the terminology that we use today that originated with the Greek language, the Greek poets and philosophers, that has come down to us in English, through the Latin translations, that we use to describe these intellectual traditions.

The words “theogony” and “cosmology” specifically actually both come from their Greek counterparts which in English have very similar meanings but in the Greek have different definitions, definitions that are symbolic of the intellectual tradition which each in turn belonged.  Theogony, or thæogonía (θεογονία) means the study of the origin and genealogy of the gods whereas “cosmology”, or kozmogonía (κοσμογονία) denotes the study of the origins of the universe, the latter term coming into use as the philosophical tradition arose, “kosmos” first being attributed to Pythagoras in fact circa 5th century BCE.  Theogony signifying, as in the case with Hesiod for example, the mythological narrative that described the creation of the gods of the pantheon and their successors.

While thæogonía (theogony; Gr. θεογονία) is the origin and genealogy of the Gods, kozmogonía (cosmogony; Gr. κοσμογονία) is the origin of the universe. In Hellenic polytheistic religion, these two terms are closely related and cannot actually be entirely separated, for the phenomenal universe is itself divine and the personal deities are intimately connected with its origin and both emerge simultaneously.

The etymology of thæogonía is Θεοί (Gods) + γέννα (birth), hence, the birth or origin of the Gods.  The etymology of kozmogonía is kόσμος (order, to put in order) + γέννα (birth); the word kόσμος only later came to mean the entire universe, but its original meaning has some bearing on how we understand our world, as the view of Orphismós sees the birth or origin of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) as having a form and order, what Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) called diakózmisis (diakosmesis; Gr. διακόσμησις), the orderly arrangement of the universe.[1]

Having clarified this subtle but important distinction, in particular as we look at this time period of ancient Greece where philosophy begins to take precedence over mythology – logos over mythos – the analysis and study of the theogonies of Hesiod and the one attributed to the pseudo-historical figure of Orpheus actually shed much light on the transition, or at least the precursors to the transition which start with Pythagoras and Plato and come to a more solid, rational, foundation with Aristotle.

To the Greeks, and in particular t the tradition associated with Hesiod, it is Chaos that was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe.  Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek.  It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek Cosmology.  Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.

In the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in the works of the Neo-Platonists and other historians of philosophy from Cicero to Diogenes Laertius to Plutarch and others, it was the “first principles” of things that were the topic of the early Greek classical authors such as Hesiod and in turn Orpheus, who was the attributed author of various hymns and poems devoted to the gods that spoke of an alternative theogony, through which later philosophers viewed and interpreted these first principles and through which these later authors juxtaposed and defended the Hellenic philosophical tradition in the face of impending Christianity which took over the theological beliefs of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples a few centuries after the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire by Constantine.

In modern times, the arche is the word used by Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious mind through his psychological practices.  To Jung these basic symbols and images that he found present in the modern mind bore striking similarity to primitive mythological motifs, motifs that are found in virtually all of the mythological traditions that we are studying and analyzing within the context of this work.  Jung called these symbols archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which Joseph Campbell indirectly leveraged to explain the commonality of mythical themes and stories across all pre-civilized man across the globe – as presented in his Hero with a  Thousand Faces for example.  In essence this notion of arche to the Greeks represented the establishment of the basic universal building blocks, the first principles of abstract thought and ideas, upon which was superimposed Greek theogony as it was formulated in order to establish a more rational basis upon which the cosmological world order was maintained and was to be understood.  This transition is typically referred to in the academic literature as logos over mythos but we can view it here within the context of theogony to cosmogony.

 

The orthodox version of creation mythology from classical Greece is from a poetic work attributed to Hesiod called the Theogony.  Compilation of the text is dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, somewhat contemporaneous to Homer, and representative of the height of literature to the Greeks even by the classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle among others that followed in their footsteps..  The Theogony, or again literally the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.

Hesiod markedly begins his work with an attribute to the divine Muses, the great daughters of Zeus who in the Hellenic world were the masters of mystery and the keepers of the divine mysteries through which any true knowledge or truth could be known.  It is through the Muses themselves that Hesiod relates his tale, speaking directly to their source through which his tale, his Theogony, is related and written.

(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing (1) Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)[2]

We see here not just the invocation to the Muses, in fact the allusion to the very source of the material being the Muses themselves who speak through Hesiod, but also the purpose of the work as explaining the existence of the Greek gods and goddesses that we know all too well even from modern renditions of Greek mythology – reference to Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, and even Cronos, the older parent of the Greek pantheon who is to play such an important role in the Theogonic tale that Hesiod is to tell.

A few verses later Hesiod provides us with his account of the first initial principles or gods from which the pantheon emerges from, the initial cosmological account of creation as it were.  The reference to the first beings that were ever created from which the pantheon of Greek gods originated and from which his story of rulership, succession, betrayal and the ultimate establishment of order is unfolded.  In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from this initial state of disorder, from which the word still carries the same meaning even in modern English today, the universe comes to life and order begins to manifest.

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[3]

 

So here in the work of Hesiod lie the beginnings of some of the basic principles, or framework at least, from the transition from theogony to cosmology, the primordial arche as it were upon which the Greek pantheon emerges.  We are presented at the beginning of the genealogy with the notion of Chaos, or disorder as the term is still used today, that represents the primordial substance that forms the basis of all creation.  In Hesiod’s account Chaos is a pseudo-anthropomorphic being, a being that although not anthropomorphic per se, i.e. it is without gender or form, and yet it is the primordial substance form which the primary first generation deities and their offspring come forth from.  According to Hesiod out of Chaos emerge Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus – Mother Earth and the Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world of being inhabited by human souls.  And then, perhaps surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, is a primary force which then acts to create the rest of the first generation of gods and goddesses and from which the realms of Heaven and Earth and all the basic natural principles and their anthropomorphic counterparts are created and established.

Next in Hesiod’s Theogony, also out of Chaos came Erebus[4], representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night.  Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day).  Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky/heaven), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea).  Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born and the next generation of gods are born, the greatest of which is Cronos and from which the tale of the next generation of gods and the overthrow of Chaos by Cronos (time) is told.

These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks.  Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures.  Here we can find in this subsequent generation of gods, much like the Egyptian creation mythology, the generation and establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.

Hesiod then goes on to tell the tale of the overthrow of the evil ruler Chaos by Cronos, the greatest of the first generation of gods at the behest of his mother Gaia, Mother Earth.  Herein we find the great mythical narrative of the manifestation and establishment of order upon chaos, a tale that is gruesome and graphic no doubt in its details, and speaks to a consistent tradition of castration of the first principles of creation upon which the second generation of order is established.

(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.

(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her (7).

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae (8) all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9) because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.[5]

From the seed of the of Chaos then, intermingled and spread about across the earth and sea and land, the other great first primordial creative principles of the first generation of gods, the second generation of deities comes forth as Cronos takes the reins of power from his father and bears children with Rhea, his sister.  But the graphic tale of deceit and disorder continues though, and with this next generation of gods we finally come to the great Zeus, the god of Thunder and Lightning who finally restores balance and order not only to the immortals but to the world of man as well.

As the tale is told Cronos knew he was to be overthrown by one of his seed and therefore after Rhea bore each child, Cronos swallowed them whole to ensure that his reign would last forever.  But Rhea outwitted her spouse and when Zeus was born she hid him from his father in a deep and secret cave, replacing him with a stone and outwitting him in order to fulfill the prophecy and no doubt so that her children could be reborn and live.  In a story that bears much resemblance to the pantheonic struggles so well documented in Egypt between Osiris and Set, who is overthrown by the progeny of Isis and Osiris, namely Horus), Hesiod tells us that Cronos is convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods.  He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea after which Rhea and Cronos in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, finishing the major Olympiad as it were.  After a long struggle steeped in myth and graphic tales of mischief and brutality, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronos.

(ll. 453-491) But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.[6]

Zeus then revives his brothers and sisters that his father has swallowed and takes over the rulership of heaven, defeating and killing his father like his father had done before him, and establishing balance and harmony in the heavens and on earth.

(ll. 492-506) After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men (20). And he set free from their deadly bonds the brothers of his father, sons of Heaven whom his father in his foolishness had bound. And they remembered to be grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightening: for before that, huge Earth had hidden these. In them he trusts and rules over mortals and immortals.[7]

 

This great mythical tale that Hesiod spins for us, from the direct inspiration of the Muses which are so closely associated not only with the lyric poetic tradition of of classical Greece but also the mystery cults of the Greeks as well, bears much resemblance to the mythical narratives to the East and West, each of which tell the tale of a first generations of gods or first principles that are born out of chaos, a watery abyss, from which emerge Heaven, Earth, Sea and Sky.  And then from this initial creation, the great Mother Earth (Gaia) produces the next generation of gods with the greatest of her siblings, Cronos, or Time (order, i.e. the Maat of the Egyptians), henceforth establishing order from the initial chaotic abyss.  And then the next generation of gods is brought forth and there is another (symbolic) overthrow of the reign of the gods and goddesses to a second generation, where Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, takes the throne from his father after an epic battle between the older generation of gods (the Titans) and the new generation born of Earth.

Interestingly, the attributes of Thunder and Lightning which are so closely associated with the Greek god Zeus, the head of the Olympic pantheon as it were, are also closely associated with the Sumer-Babylonian god Marduk, who as we learn from the Sumer-Babylonian theogony of the Enuma Elis also comes to power via the overthrow of the second generation of gods ruled by Tiamut through another epic battle of the forces of good (represented by Marduk) and the forces of evil as represented by Tiamut.  Even more interesting perhaps are the parallels that can be drawn between Zeus and Marduk of the Greek and Sumer-Babylonian pantheons respectively to the role of Thunder and Lightning as a fundamental creative principle, a cornerstone of the cyclical process of universe creation as it were, in the mythos of the ancient Chinese as depicted in the notion of Zhen (Thunder) as one of the eight primary trigrams of both the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences of bagua from the Yijing.

 


[1] http://www.hellenicgods.org/orphiccosmogonyandtheogony

[2] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[3] http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (ll. 116-138).

[4] Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”.  Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

[5] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  Book II verses 167-206.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[6] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[7] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

 

 

 

Creation Mythology in Antiquity: Order out of Chaos

Introduction: Creation Myths in Antiquity

Any cursory study of Egyptian and Sumer-Babylonian creation mythology yielded parallels and similarities, but was much less clear and open to debate was whether or not these similarities, these mythemes as it were, pointed to a common source – whether or not the two cultures “borrowed” from each other, or whether or not there was a collective human psychological force at work along the lines of what Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung might suggest; Campbell with his Hero myth theme that he saw across almost all civilizations across the globe and Jung with his theory of the collective unconscious which he saw evidenced in his psychoanalytic work. 

But what about the cosmology of the Greeks, the civilization which perhaps had the closest connection to our modern day culture, at least from a mythological perspective?  How did they think the world was created and what did they think about the reason why we were here?  What did it say about the meaning of human existence from their perspective if any, and were there any parallels that could be drawn to the stories of the Egyptians if any?  His search for cultural borrowing as it related to ancient theology had gotten stuck somehow on the creation myths of the ancients, what had civilizations borrowed from each other?  Was there something more significant at work here beyond simple borrowing of myth?

When Charlie was a kid, he remembered reading Greek mythology.  He loved the stories.  Jason and the Argonauts, the story of Persephone and Hades love for her, the Clash of the Titans, etc.  All of these stories were epic, and they fascinated Charlie when he was younger.  It tapped into a world of fantasy, just integrated enough and based enough in the world of reality, that it was truly gripping.  And the heroes, you just had to love the heroes.

So now he began to look a bit deeper into Greek mythology, particular at their myths of creation, to see how they compared and contrasted with the Egyptian and Sumerian creation myths, and to see how and why this “mythology” transformed into something more scientific – into philosophy and Reason itself.

 

The Cosmology of the Ancient Greeks: Hesiod’s Theogony

One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with.  You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture.

One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into the words of modern day English given its more direct relationship to Greek and Latin.  Given Charlie’s general avoidance of anything that required memorization or hard work in general, the elegance and purity of the translation was nice, as it made it made the meanings of key words and phrases much less open to interpretation.

The main source for Greek Cosmology or creation myth was the work of Hesiod called Theogony, dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE.  Theogony, or literally the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greeks, and the term can also be used to describe the origins of gods in any culture.  In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from that the universe comes forth.

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all (4) the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether (5) and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[1]

Chaos was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe.  Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek.  It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek cosmology.  Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.  In modern times, the term is used by the likes of Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious, symbols and images that he found strikingly similar to primitive mythology.  He called them archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which he and Joseph Campbell to a lesser extent, used as rationale for the commonality of mythical themes across pre-civilized and ancient civilizations.  The cultural borrowing of Jung and again to a lesser extent Campbell, lie in the collective unconscious that provided for the ground of the psyche of all humankind.

So here in the work of Hesiod lie some of the semantics of the theo-philosophies that were to follow it, particularly in the work of Aristotle.  Arche was a subtle, fairly nuanced concept, but important in the development of Reason and Science, which Aristotle so greatly influenced.  In essence it established at some level the building block of abstract thought which was superimposed upon the Greek cosmology myths and then carried forth by later philosophers who sought to break from the mythological tradition.  Charlie saw it, saw the germ of something and made a note of to follow up on it.

Back to the Theogony though, you had this Chaos that represented the primordial substance that formed the basis of all creation, a pseudo-anthropomorphic thing, something without gender and without form and yet from which all things came forth from.  And from this Chaos emerged Gaia and Tartarus – the Earth and Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world around us.  And then surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, was a primary force.  Leave it to the Greeks to place Love so high in the cosmological order of things.

These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks.  Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures.

Next in Hesiod’s cosmology also from Chaos came Erebus[2], representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night.  Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day).  Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea).  Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born.  Charlie could see in this next generation the establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.

And then true to form in the quest for power, Cronus was convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods.  He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea.  Rhea and Cronus in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.  After a long battle, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronus[3].  This battle of the first generation of gods had a somewhat analogous construct in the Sumer-Babylonian tale, cultural borrowing perhaps or evidence of a tale that came from deeper history that was fashioned and molded to the respective cultures?  Every page Charlie turned seemed to yield more questions.

 

The Creation Story of the Romans: Ovid

What about the Romans?  Could anything be gleaned from their cosmology and mythology with respect to borrowing in ancient civilizations?  They were closely related to their Greek predecessors from a socio-cultural perspective, this was pretty well accepted in the historical record.  For example almost all of the Roman gods had almost direct Greek counterparts – Zeus to Juno, Poseidon to Neptune, Aphrodite to Venus, etc.  The Romans were a civilization that clearly borrowed from its predecessors in many respects, their geographic boundaries at their height spreading to the realm of the Persians to the Near East, the Egyptians to the South and of course the Greeks and Macedonians which were their neighbors in the Mediterranean.  But what about their creation story?  They borrowed many of the myths from the Greeks, incorporated them into their own mythos, but what about the underlying creation story, was it the same?

The cosmology of the Roman/Latin civilization is probably best captured in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem authored sometime in the early part of the first century CE in in dactylic hexameter, the same poetic framework as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, speaking quite specifically to its Greek roots and heritage.  The Metamorphoses contains 15 books and covers over 250 myths, starting with the creation of the world, the first few generations of gods and goddesses and then in turn to the popular mythology (Jason and the Argonauts, the myth of the Minotaur, the story of Daedulus and Icharus, Hercules, etc) and then extending all the way through to the works of Pythagoras into the present day rule of Julius Caesar, connecting the mythological with the historical and political as most other ancient works of its kind.  From this perspective the impetus of the work could be seen somewhat in the same light as the Enuma Elis and some of the Egyptian cosmological narratives, establishing the connection of the ruling class, or Roman Emperor in this case, to the reign of the gods and the birth of the universe.

Ovid has his own version of creation though, and although it shares some basic elements of the Greek “orthodox” version from Hesiod, it had some altogether different characteristics, perhaps more Judeo-Christian (Genesis) than Sumer-Babylonian, Egyptian or even Greek in character:

Bk I:1-20 The Primal Chaos

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.

Before there was earth or sea or the sky that covers everything, Nature appeared the same throughout the whole world: what we call chaos: a raw confused mass, nothing but inert matter, badly combined discordant atoms of things, confused in the one place. There was no Titan yet, shining his light on the world, or waxing Phoebe renewing her white horns, or the earth hovering in surrounding air balanced by her own weight, or watery Amphitrite stretching out her arms along the vast shores of the world. Though there was land and sea and air, it was unstable land, unswimmable water, air needing light. Nothing retained its shape, one thing obstructed another, because in the one body, cold fought with heat, moist with dry, soft with hard, and weight with weightless things.

Bk I:21-31 Separation of the elements

This conflict was ended by a god and a greater order of nature, since he split off the earth from the sky, and the sea from the land, and divided the transparent heavens from the dense air. When he had disentangled the elements, and freed them from the obscure mass, he fixed them in separate spaces in harmonious peace. The weightless fire, that forms the heavens, darted upwards to make its home in the furthest heights. Next came air in lightness and place. Earth, heavier than either of these, drew down the largest elements, and was compressed by its own weight. The surrounding water took up the last space and enclosed the solid world.

Bk I:32-51 The earth and sea. The five zones.

When whichever god it was had ordered and divided the mass, and collected it into separate parts, he first gathered the earth into a great ball so that it was uniform on all sides. Then he ordered the seas to spread and rise in waves in the flowing winds and pour around the coasts of the encircled land. He added springs and standing pools and lakes, and contained in shelving banks the widely separated rivers, some of which are swallowed by the earth itself, others of which reach the sea and entering the expanse of open waters beat against coastlines instead of riverbanks. He ordered the plains to extend, the valleys to subside, leaves to hide the trees, stony mountains to rise: and just as the heavens are divided into two zones to the north and two to the south, with a fifth and hotter between them, so the god carefully marked out the enclosed matter with the same number, and described as many regions on the earth. The equatorial zone is too hot to be habitable; the two poles are covered by deep snow; and he placed two regions between and gave them a temperate climate mixing heat and cold.

Bk I:52-68 The four winds

Air overhangs them, heavier than fire by as much as water’s weight is lighter than earth. There he ordered the clouds and vapours to exist, and thunder to shake the minds of human beings, and winds that create lightning-bolts and flashes.

The world’s maker did not allow these, either, to possess the air indiscriminately; as it is they are scarcely prevented from tearing the world apart, each with its blasts steering a separate course: like the discord between brothers. Eurus, the east wind, drew back to the realms of Aurora, to Nabatea, Persia, and the heights under the morning light: Evening, and the coasts that cool in the setting sun, are close to Zephyrus, the west wind. Chill Boreas, the north wind, seized Scythia and the seven stars of the Plough: while the south wind, Auster, drenches the lands opposite with incessant clouds and rain. Above these he placed the transparent, weightless heavens free of the dross of earth.

Bk I:68-88 Humankind

He had barely separated out everything within fixed limits when the constellations that had been hidden for a long time in dark fog began to blaze out throughout the whole sky. And so that no region might lack its own animate beings, the stars and the forms of gods occupied the floor of heaven, the sea gave a home to the shining fish, earth took the wild animals, and the light air flying things.

As yet there was no animal capable of higher thought that could be ruler of all the rest. Then Humankind was born. Either the creator god, source of a better world, seeded it from the divine, or the newborn earth just drawn from the highest heavens still contained fragments related to the skies, so that Prometheus, blending them with streams of rain, moulded them into an image of the all-controlling gods. While other animals look downwards at the ground, he gave human beings an upturned aspect, commanding them to look towards the skies, and, upright, raise their face to the stars. So the earth, that had been, a moment ago, uncarved and imageless, changed and assumed the unknown shapes of human beings.[4]

Certainly the notion of order out of Chaos can be found, along with the watery abyss nature of the universe before the realm of the gods or the basic components of the habitable universe were created.  The emphasis after this initial substratum of the world was created shifted from the generations of gods and their ensuing conflict and quest for dominance to the creation of the basic elements – earth, air, fire and water – displaying more of a Greek philosophical bent in this regard than the cosmologies of prior civilizations.  Then comes the emphasis of the creation of mankind, in the likeness of the gods and having dominion over the earth, themes that come to dominate the creation stories in the Old Testament no doubt.

 

Creation Mythology in Antiquity: A Comparative Perspective

As Charlie stopped to reflect about this creation mythology, these stories that clearly reached back at some level or another into the pre-civilization times of the societies within which they emerged, there were clearly some similarities.  They all seemed to share this common theme of the world emerging from a watery chaos, and then from this cosmic soup as it were, the basic elements or components of the universe – the earth, sky, oceans, stars, etc – emerges, providing the foundations upon which mankind and civilization itself could spring forth and flourish.  But there were a subtle differences in these traditions despite their similarities.

The Greek tradition for example was unique in that a) Eros, or the creative principle, was one of the key gods emerged first out of the underlying chaos, and b) there was no political motive or establishment of authority that was implicit in the mythology.  This was a distinct characteristic of the Greeks in general and Charlie would dig deeper into this theme as he looked into the philosophical contributions of the Greeks.

In the Egyptian, Sumer-Babylonian, and even Roman traditions, there clearly existed reference points and patterns of the use of mythology to establish a clear line of authority to the existing rulers, and in the Enuma Elis as well as the Theogony you saw the generation of gods clearly delineated out of chaos and the ensuing conflict to establish power, this was absent from the Roman and Egyptian themes.

Outside of the fact that it was not clear what if any cultural borrowing occurred between these geographically and culturally connected societies, what intrigued Charlie was with the Greeks, the society more so than any other that contributed toward the birth of Reason, was this subtle yet important pivot away from political motive or authority to their cosmological narrative.  Their philosophical tradition seemed to originate from, or perhaps better put was liberated from, this emphasis on authority and power.

For the Greeks were the first to establish the supremacy of reason and logic and in turn verifiable truth over mythology, or what you could loosely term theology to the ancients.  This subtle distinction, this separation of church and state so to speak, turned out to be the most important break from earlier traditions as it turned out, for it was this separation of mythological tradition from politics or royalty, attributing the mythological account to divine inspiration as it were, that laid the foundation for the creation of philosophical traditions that formed the basis of reason and science.

Much of the mythology of these ancient peoples, the rituals and the priesthood, was intended to bifurcate society into those that knew god, and those that didn’t.  And this established order or authority of the one class of people over the other.  Even with the Greeks, the priesthoods had power and represented established authority to some extent, although with the advent of their democracy, which to some extent grew hand in hand with their philosophy and the evolution of their world view, they moved away from this old guard of authority which had its source in the priesthood and worship of the gods.

Most certainly with the Sumer-Babylonians and the Egyptians this connection was there as the leadership relied on the authority of these priests to maintain their power.  And it was the people’s belief in the existence of the gods, and the priests’ direct communion or connection with these deities that established the natural order of things and established the stratification of society of those who held power and those that did not.

Charlie thought you could extend this use of religion to establish authority to many of the societies of modern day as well, this very powerful tool was not limited to the ancient civilizations.  Christianity over the years, the Church specifically, used the same methods to establish their authority and power over people.  Many of the societies of the Middle East today also have their religion and government mixed together, the one establishing the authority of the other.  And of course this can create problems as clearly many untoward things can, and have, been done in the name of religion to protect the established authority.  Hence the beauty and elegance of the American Democracy which legally separates Church and State as a founding principle, establishing the supremacy of merit and will of the people over religious authority and dogma.

But this separation of Church and State, which was a necessary step for the birth and faith in Reason and Science as the only harbinger of truth, had to come from somewhere.  It was a revolutionary concept and it has its origins at some level with the Greeks, as reflected in the Hesiod’s Theogony.  From this core separation emerged the idea that Truth could only be established by Reason, empirical study, and in turn science, or more accurately put knowledge itself.  This was clearly a radical notion, rebellious in nature and did not evolve without conflict.

Charlie thought you could see this friction which drove the break between religion for authority’s sake and that for personal liberation, liberation based upon reason and the individual mind, in the life of Jesus some centuries after the advent of Greek civilization.  What we do know about his teachings is that he taught that “you and the Father are one”, that you can commune directly with the divine without having to go through the established authority of the priesthood, upon which the authority of government rested and relied.  Christ’s contribution to modern thought should be looked at from this viewpoint, Charlie believed.  Christ was a radical thinker, he taught that God was our very own, and that he lived within us, and before us, and we did not need a gatekeeper to have his company or take refuge in him.  Christ was in fact the first rebel, the first radical who proffered the notion that our salvation rests in our own hands, and we were not to be judged by our alignment with the thinking and practices of authority, whose primary goal was to remain in power and reinforce the structure of established authority.

But at the same time Charlie could see the parallels between the three traditions and the emergence of order from chaos that was clearly reflected in each of the respective cosmologies.  All of these cultures felts compelled to answer these basic questions – who are we and from whence we came.  The emergence from chaos out of the watery abyss, and the establishment of the underlying order of the cosmos which provided for the ground of humanity, was a shared construct for all of these ancient peoples.  There was chaos, and from this chaos emerged order.

There was also the common theme of deities that existed as basic principles which drove the creation of the cosmos and its contents.  Gods that were human, albeit immortal. These gods were different for each of the ancient civilizations, and they were created in different orders and had different relationships with each other, no doubt reflecting the different underlying importance of the principles which they represented for each of the respective societies.  But these deities were a key part of the establishment of the world order nonetheless.  Or perhaps better put mankind was made in the likeness of these deities, albeit mortal.

There was no doubt that each of these ancient civilizations had an inherent need or desire to understand how order and in turn humans themselves emerged from nothingness, or the eternal void.  Clearly all of these ancient civilizations had a yearning to understand or formulate some sort of coherent story line that explained how the world was born and how mankind came to be, and each of these ancient civilizations shared many of the same ideas, or pieces of the same story line, as to how things came about.  Was this cultural borrowing?  Was it Jung’s collective unconscious at work, i.e. that each of the cosmologies was born independently out of the collective psyche of its people?  Interesting questions, or so Charlie thought but still no real definitive answers to guide his thesis unfortunately, more work was needed and worse yet he seemed to be straying away from this idea of cultural borrowing to more broad themes about the nature of reason and faith…


[2] Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”.  Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

[3] There is an alternate creation stemming from the tradition of the great poet Orpheus but this mythological tradition does not deal as specifically with the origin of the universe as Hesiod’s account.  In Orphic cosmogony Cronus produces Aether and Chaos and made a silvery egg in divine Aether from which appeared the bisexual god Phanes, identified by the Orphics as Eros, who becomes the creator of the world.

[4] Metamorphoses Book I (A. S. Kline‘s Version).  http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph.htm

Egyptian Mythology: The Bedrock of Western Theology

Judaism and Zoroastrianism clearly represented some of the earliest forms of monotheism in the civilized world, and both faiths had their respective prophets which each set of followers believed had had their respective laws, or truths, handed down to them by the one and only God himself – the Yahweh of the Jews and the Ahura Mazda of the Zoroastrians.  But both religious systems were also clearly designed, or used, not only as a tool of realization and connection to the divine, but also to unite their people and consolidate power.  Underlying the spiritual and religious intent of the two religions/theologies, there was clearly a political motive behind their propagation and proliferation as well, this much seemed pretty evident to Charlie and this characteristic was certainly shared by the monotheistic religions that followed them, most notably Christianity and then Islam.

But where did these monotheistic tendencies or traditions come from?  The hunter gatherer societies that preceded the advent of civilization seemed to all be characterized by shaman like priests who professed direct access to and direct realization of the divine, and from these priests or shamans came various ritualistic practices and prayers – the hymnos of the Greeks, yasna of the Zoroastrians and yajna of the Hindus/Indo-Aryans – some of which even survived down to modern times and were captured in the various languages and scriptures of each of these powerful and lasting religious traditions.

So Charlie seemed to be struggling with the fundamental question as to how and why monotheism in its present day form emerged.  Was it simply a natural progression, an evolution as it were, of theological systems as civilizations emerged in the Mediterranean and Near/Far East in the second and first millennium BCE?  Was it a truly a more advanced form of theology and was the religion of the ancients a pagan system of worship that was to be shunned and abandoned?  Furthermore, the question of where these monotheistic traditions came from seemed to be not so straightforward?  Was there an element of cultural borrowing at work?  Did these traditions emerge from some previously established belief in a single, unified anthropomorphic creative principle from which the cosmos and in turn mankind emerged or did each of them evolve independent of each other?  The answers to these questions were crucial to Charlie’s thesis, as the extent of cultural borrowing as it related to the development of theology, religion, in ancient times, had become the essence of his thesis and he needed to explore the concept further to try and establish some semblance of order and progression, if possible, of the emergence of monotheism in the West.

And to shed some light on this evolution of monotheism which was so prevalent and ubiquitous in the modern world, Charlie had to turn back to the earliest known civilization in the ancient world, Ancient Egypt, a civilization where religious beliefs permeated all aspects of life, from which the King himself was looked upon as a manifestation of God on earth and where the journey of the soul in the afterlife, and the notion of last judgment, was the cornerstone of their civilization.

As looked upon the eyes of modern historians, the religious traditions of Ancient Egypt appeared to be bereft of monotheism, in the modern sense of the word.  But once which as Charlie dug deeper into the mythology and cosmology of the Ancient Egyptians, there appeared to him to be present some of the basic building blocks of later monotheistic traditions.  As Charlie peeled back the façade of Egyptian mythos and their polytheistic tendencies, their obsession with very specific rituals and practices associated with the care of the soul in the afterlife which so notably marked this great civilization, there appeared to be some of the core building blocks of the monotheistic traditions which succeeded them historically.  For based upon the archeological and historical evidence, it was quite clear that the civilization and religious beliefs of Ancient Egypt were far older than even the oldest monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Zoroastrianism, and of course Christianity which was an even later development but emerged from the same region.

Ancient Egypt was a land conquered by many ancient civilizations over the centuries, and yet one with a deep and rich history itself, one steeped in the rule of the Pharaohs in the land of the North African Nile River Delta valley, an area inhabited by mankind since as least as far back as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, and one which developed a rich and unique mythos and social structure which rested on the firm belief that their leader, their King or Pharaoh, was the human manifestation of the divine on earth, directly connecting the established authority and governance of the people with their worship and belief in god, which for most of Ancient Egyptian history was associated with Atum, or Atum-Ra.

Although various gods and myths were professed and crafted over the millennia in the Egyptian delta region of ancient history, there is one religious development in particular that has drawn much speculation and thought by later scholars, specifically Sigmund Freud, with respect to its relationship to the development of monotheism and its possible connection to Judaism as professed by Moses.

In the 14th century BCE, the King Amenhotep IV attempted to consolidate and synthesize all worship around a single god Aten, subsequently referred to as Atenism, who had historically been a relatively minor entity in the Egyptian pantheon and had been associated with the sun disc of the Egyptian god Ra.  Although all kings and pharaohs prior to Amenhotep IV had previously adopted a single deity as their royal patron as it were, there had never been an attempt to establish a single god as the supreme God of the state coupled with the enforcement by law of worship of just one single deity to the exclusion of all others, very much akin to the Jewish tradition where all other gods other than Yahweh were banned from worship as reflected in the ten commandments given to Moses by Yahweh himself on Mount Sinai as the story is told in the Old Testament.

It is this shared concept of exclusive worship bound by law, along with the strong Egyptian influence on Jewish history which is well documented in the Old Testament and the contemporaneous dating give or take a century or two between the life of Moses and the development of Atenism that led Freud to hypothesize that Judaism was simply an offshoot and transfiguration of Egyptian Atenism, morphed and transformed to fit the Jewish people and their history rather than an independent invention as professed by the Torah and Moses[1].

Atenism was surely a unique and distinctive departure from classical Egyptian polytheistic traditions no doubt, and a state authorized and sponsored monotheistic faith did appear on the face of it to share many of the same characteristics of Judaism, and Jewish history clearly was very tied to Egypt, but the direct association of Moses with Atenism seemed to be a stretch to Charlie, although perhaps both movements (if you could call them that) did originate from a single underlying monotheistic tendency, one which forked off the Jews as a separate people as they migrated out of Egypt and one which was ultimately rejected by the Egyptian people whose polytheistic tendencies were clearly just too deeply rooted to be carved out by law, no matter what divine authority it came from.

But to understand what this Atenism truly was, and how it fit into this melting pot of the rampant polytheistic forces that so marked ancient Egypt, and to understand why it was ultimately rejected by the Egyptian people, Charlie needed to get a better grasp on the socio-political, and ultimately theological and mystical, context within which it emerged.  And with Ancient Egypt especially, given its long history in the Nile River delta coupled with its deeply rooted religious socio-political system, a society which worshipped the King as a manifestation of God himself and the priesthood was extremely powerful and embedded in every part of society, one must have a bit of background on Egyptian history, some of the characters and narratives of Egyptian mythology, and of course as much of an understanding of the cosmological beliefs of this ancient people as possible, beliefs which as with all ancient civilizations underpinned their entire world view and social structure.

Before Ancient Egypt was conquered and ruled by foreigners starting with the Persians in the middle of the first millennium BCE, then followed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, then the Romans in 30 BCE for some 5 or 6 centuries and then the Muslims/Arabs for some thousand years plus thereafter, it was one of the most sophisticated and first of all ancient civilizations, with a system of writing and architecture that dates back to the 4th millennia BCE, making it one of, if not the, oldest civilization of mankind.  The beginning of Ancient Egyptian civilization is typically marked by the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by its first pharaoh[2] in the latter part of the 4th millennia BCE, what modern historians have come to call the Predynastic Era which succeeded the Neolithic period in the Egyptian delta.

This period of unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is also the time period associated with the emergence of Egyptian forms of writing as well, at first with hieroglyphs which we find inscribed on the tombs of pharaohs from this period, and later in the tombs of the upper and middle class as hieroglyphic inscriptions became more common and the hieroglyphics evolved to include not only ideograms and logographic (picture) elements, but also alphabetic elements to capture specific pronunciations and annunciations of spells designed to capture the specific annunciations and words used by the Egyptian priesthood for specific ceremonies and rituals, most notably of course the burial of the dead.

Alongside the development of hieroglyphs which evolved for some two millennia (and was still used up until the 3rd and 4th centuries CE after Egypt came under first Greek then Roman rule), a sister script called hieratic[3] also emerged which although closely related to hieroglyphics was character and phonetic/alphabet based.  Hieratic was easier to write than hieroglyphs and like its sister hieroglyphs, was initially only used by priests and scribes to transliterate specific rituals and spells.  Eventually, in the middle and latter part of the first millennium BCE, hieratic evolved into a Demotic, a script designed for more secular use that in most instance was used to capture the language of the period of the same name, i.e. Demotic, which succeeded Middle and Late Egyptian which had been the language spoken by Egyptians for the preceding few millennia in some form or another.

The Egyptian Demotic language (not to be confused with the modern Greek language with the same name, i.e. demotic which is typically written with a lower case “d”) and the script that supported it that is referred to with the same name, i.e. Demotic, was prevalent in the middle and late first millennium BCE and was used for almost a thousand years up until the 5th century CE or so[4].  Both hieroglyphics and hieratic script are used throughout Ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period (c 3100 BCE) all the way through the 6th century CE or so and it is through these writing systems, and the languages transcribed therein, that we can get a glimpse of the theology and religion of Ancient Egypt[5].

Our current historical view of categorizing Ancient Egyptian history into dynasties, typically marked by roman numerals, is derived from the first Egyptian historian Manetho, a 3rd century BCE priest and historian from Egypt who authored a three volume treatise of the history of Egypt entitled Aegyptiaca, or “History of Egypt”, a period of Egyptian history when it was under Greek, or Hellenic influence hence the use of Greek to author his work.  Manetho, according to later historians and excerpts of his work that do survive, gave a detailed and Egyptian perspective on the history of Egypt, beginning with the period of Egyptian societal consolidation under the rule of a single unified King or Pharaoh which he calls Menes circa 3100 BCE.  His work is presumed to have been motivated by providing an Egyptian perspective on the history of Egypt in contrast to the one provided by Herodotus several centuries prior, whose perspective was not only foreign but also lacking with respect to a proper chronology and depth of coverage.

Later, more modern Egyptian historians (aka Egyptologists) break down the periods of Ancient Egyptian civilization into different successive periods, each earmarked by the transition from one dynasty to another, where a dynasty doesn’t necessarily represent a blood lineage from one ruler to the next but some cultural or societal break in Egyptian history that denotes the transition into different period.  All Ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions fall into one or more different periods, and Egyptologists typically use the dynastic classification to denote the period within which a particular text, form of writing, or inscription is found so in order to have proper context of the time period and socio-political context of a given theological text or inscription, it was important to be able to classify it in the appropriate dynasty and/or period.  The list below summarizes the periods briefly, covering some 4 thousand years from circa 3100 BCE up into modern times where Egypt came under Islamic influence[6].

  • Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100-2686 BCE).  Dynastic period begins with the first King or Pharaoh Menes (aka Narmer).  Covers Dynasties I and II.
  • Old Kingdom Egypt (c. 2686-2181 BCE).  III-VI dynasties.  Capital in Memphis.
  • 1st Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2055 BCE).  VII-XI dynasties.  Marked by conflict between Thebes in South and Heracleopolis in North.
  • Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 2055-1650 BCE).  XI-XIV dynasties.  Period of (re)Unification.  Osiris becomes ever more important as a deity.  Capital in Thebes in XI dynasty and then and el-Lisht from XII to XIV.  First versions of Book of the Dead date from this period.
  • 2nd Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BCE).  XV-XVII dynasties.  Marked by foreign rule, or rule by “Hyksos”, or “heqa khaseshet” in Egyptian which is roughly translated as “ruler(s) of the foreign countries”[7].
  • New Kingdom Egypt (c. 1549-1077 BCE).  XVIII to XX dynasties.  Also referred to as Egyptian Empire Period where Egypt attained its greatest territorial extent to the south into Nubia and North into Near/Middle East.  Amenhotep IV (c. 1352-1335 BCE), with whom Atenism is associated is a King from the XVIIIth dynasty, roughly from the middle of this period.
  • 3rd Intermediate Period (c. 1069-653 BCE). XXI-XXV dynasties.  Marked by political instability and fractured rule.
  • Late Period Egypt (c. 664-332 BCE).  XXVI-XXXI dynasties.  Last period of Egyptian independence until Persian conquest – 1st Achaemenid Period 525-404 BCE and 2nd Achaemenid Period 343-332 BCE – until conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE after which Egypt falls under strong Hellenic influence.
  • Ptolemaic Period (c. 332-30 BCE).  Dynasty of Hellenic descended pharaohs begins, Alexandria is established as the capital and becomes the intellectual epicenter of the ancient world with the creation of the Library of Alexandria under Ptolemy I.  Period lasts until Roman conquest in 30 BCE.
  • Roman & Byzantine Egypt (c. 30 BCE-641 CE).  Egypt falls under Roman and subsequent Byzantine rule and influence.
  • Egypt under Islamic Influence (639 CE-18th century).  Islamic invasion and conquering of Egypt during the Muslim conquests in 639 CE.  Egypt falls under Islamic influence for over a thousand years until modern times.

The dynastic period of Egypt lasting some three thousand years or so reaching far back in antiquity is characterized not only by a rich and unique pantheon of gods and their associated mythology (and ritual) that not only emphasized the belief in their ruler as a manifestation of god on earth whose authority derived from divine provenance, but also by a marked with what can only be call an obsession with the transmigration of the soul and the belief in an afterlife, emphasis that perhaps derives from the context within which almost all of this material and inscriptions survive down to us, namely first through Pyramid and Coffin (sarcophagus) inscriptions in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE, and then later on papyrus documents as the literature become more widespread and prevalent in society, and more standardized as what is known today as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

This extant material, inscriptions in hieroglyphics within pyramids, tombs and on sarcophagus and then later in hieratic and hieroglyphic script on papyrus, indirectly refers to and incorporates their cultural and spiritual belief system and worldview, corresponding to what today we would call religion.  All of this material was in fact crafted and designed specifically to protect, guide, and preserve the bodies and souls of the Egyptians into their journey into the afterlife, perhaps better translated as the netherworld, giving rise to their practices of mummification and pyramid and tomb building which were attempts to preserve the body, and its soul, for its journey beyond life into the afterworld.

The incantations/spells/utterances which we find as part of this literature were designed for this purpose were initially reserved only for the Kings and Pharaohs in the early dynastic period and Old Kingdom, what has become to be known as the Pyramid Texts, and then later adopted by the Egyptian aristocracy as well during the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, known as the Coffin Texts, and then finally in its most mature and standardized form which was adopted more broadly by the general population in the New Kingdom dynasties through the Ptolemaic Period as the Egyptian Book of Dead which existed in a variety of renditions and began to be written down on papyrus scrolls and buried along with the dead[8].

Egyptian mythology is undoubtedly best known for this association, perhaps more aptly described as an obsession, upon the burial and rituals associated with death and the extensive steps taken to prepare the soul (most commonly associated with the Egyptian term Ba) for its journey into the afterlife, and it is from this context surrounding death and the afterlife for the most part from which we gain insight into Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.  Therefore Ancient Egyptian religion is closely associated with these sophisticated and wide ranging spells and incantations and their associated mythology surrounding death and the journey of the soul in the afterlife.

The Egyptian notion of Ba was somewhat different than our conception of the soul, perceived to be the aspect of the individual in toto which was permanent and persisted beyond death, perhaps best described as the fundamental essence of the individual which was deathless and timeless.  Ba was also used in reference to inanimate objects as well, denoting the more broad meaning of the word in Egyptian to describe the essential nature of a thing, either animate or inanimate, with perhaps a close correspondence to Aristotle’s notion of being qua being, or that which characterizes the primary essence of a thing and defines its existence, which he outlines in his Metaphysics.

Furthermore, as reflected in the Book of the Dead which represents the most mature form of the Egyptian religion/theology as it stands from the latest part of Egyptian antiquity, special importance was given to not only the individual’s name which was given to them at birth, ren or rn, which the Egyptians held supported the continued existence of the soul as long as it was kept alive and spoken, but also special significance was given to the heart, ib or jb, which was looked upon as the seat of all human emotion, feeling, thought, will and intention and was used in the Egyptian Weighing of the Heart ceremony where the individual’s heart was weighed/balanced against the feather of Maat which represented truth, justice, or order; the outcome of such balance determining the ultimate fate of the individual.  It was interesting to note that this ceremony as depicted in the Coffin texts and then later encapsulated in the Book of the Dead most certainly has parallels to the Christian moral framework based upon the notion of last judgment.

Clearly Ancient Egyptian religion, as reflected first in the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom, the Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom, and then further structured and canonized in the Book of the Dead in its various forms which persisted into the latter part of the first millennium BCE and into the Common Era (CE) even after Egypt came under foreign rule by the Persians, Greeks and then Romans, their relationship and perception of the divine was complex and multifaceted and characterized by the worship of many different deities in a variety of forms, each reflecting some aspect of nature and/or some anthropomophocized (or pseudo-anthropomophocized as the case may be) aspect of God, consistent in fact with almost all of the middle and late Bronze age contemporaneous cultures and civilizations in the Mediterranean region and even into the Near and Far East.

But to what extent was Egyptian cosmology or theology adopted by its sister cultures and peoples to the North and East?  Interestingly, Herodotus in fact actually points to a very direct relationship, and ultimate source, of at least some of the Greek pantheon directly from Egypt.  From his Histories from Volume I Book II, verses 50-53, we have:

50. Moreover the naming of almost all the gods has come to Hellas from Egypt: for that it has come from the Barbarians I find by inquiry is true, and I am of opinion that most probably it has come from Egypt, because, except in the case of Poseidon and the Dioscuroi (in accordance with that which I have said before), and also of Hera and Hestia and Themis and the Charites and Nereïds, the Egyptians have had the names of all the other gods in their country for all time. What I say here is that which the Egyptians think themselves: but as for the gods whose names they profess that they do not know, these I think received their naming from the Pelasgians, except Poseidon; but about this god the Hellenes learnt from the Libyans, for no people except the Libyans have had the name of Poseidon from the first and have paid honour to this god always. Nor, it may be added, have the Egyptians any custom of worshipping heroes. 51. These observances then, and others besides these which I shall mention, the Hellenes have adopted from the Egyptians; but to make, as they do, the images of Hermes with the /phallos/ they have learnt not from the Egyptians but from the Pelasgians, the custom having been received by the Athenians first of all the Hellenes and from these by the rest; for just at the time when the Athenians were beginning to rank among the Hellenes, the Pelasgians became dwellers with them in their land, and from this very cause it was that they began to be counted as Hellenes. Whosoever has been initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiroi, which the Samothrakians perform having received them from the Pelasgians, that man knows the meaning of my speech; for these very Pelasgians who became dwellers with the Athenians used to dwell before that time in Samothrake, and from them the Samothrakians received their mysteries. So then the Athenians were the first of the Hellenes who made the images of Hermes with the /phallos/, having learnt from the Pelasgians; and the Pelasgians told a sacred story about it, which is set forth in the mysteries in Samothrake. 52. Now the Pelasgians formerly were wont to make all their sacrifices calling upon the gods in prayer, as I know from that which I heard at Dodona, but they gave no title or name to any of them, for they had not yet heard any, but they called them gods ({theous}) from some such notion as this, that they had set ({thentes}) in order all things and so had the distribution of everything. Afterwards, when much time had elapsed, they learnt from Egypt the names of the gods, all except Dionysos, for his name they learnt long afterwards; and after a time the Pelasgians consulted the Oracle at Dodona about the names, for this prophetic seat is accounted to be the most ancient of the Oracles which are among the Hellenes, and at that time it was the only one. So when the Pelasgians asked the Oracle at Dodona whether they should adopt the names which had come from the Barbarians, the Oracle in reply bade them make use of the names. From this time they sacrificed using the names of the gods, and from the Pelasgians the Hellenes afterwards received them: 53, but whence the several gods had their birth, or whether they all were from the beginning, and of what form they are, they did not learn till yesterday, as it were, or the day before: for Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more, and these are they who made a theogony for the Hellenes and gave the titles to the gods and distributed to them honours and arts, and set forth their forms: but the poets who are said to have been before these men were really in my opinion after them. Of these things the first are said by the priestesses of Dodona, and the latter things, those namely which have regard to Hesiod and Homer, by myself.[9]

From Herodotus’s perspective then, there was clearly some cultural borrowing that had taken place between the Greek and Egyptian cultures, one that clearly grew more integrated and synthesized as time passed and the Greek and Egyptian (and Later Roman and Byzantine) cultures became more closely tied and interwoven.  Over the centuries, particularly in the last half of the first millennium BCE into the Common Era when Egypt came under Greek and then Roman rule, its mythos and pantheon become merged and synthesized with their Greek and Roman counterparts, perhaps best exemplified in the Greco-Egyptian god who came to be known in the Roman era and into the Middle Ages as Hermes Trismegistus, a pseudo-mythical figure to whom the Hermetic doctrine was attributed who represented a synthesis and consolidation of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.

The Corpus Hermeticum, which represents the core of the Hermetic doctrine, became a fairly widespread and popular philosophical system throughout the Mediterranean in first millennium CE, in many respects akin to Gnosticism which emerged in the Mediterranean at around the same time.  Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes Thrice Great, was so called because he was said to have mastered the three great pillars of ancient wisdom or knowledge; namely astrology, alchemy and theology or as stated in the Poimandres, one of the initial chapters in the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes was the greatest philosopher, the greatest king and the greatest priest.

The complete doctrine surrounding Hermeticism, originally written in Greek somewhere between the third and fifth centuries CE and then later translated into Latin in the 15th century, includes not only the Corpus Hermeticum but also The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus and The Perfect Sermon or the Asclepius.  The doctrine reflects many Greek philosophical, Neo-Platonist, Gnostic and even Christian influence reflecting the prevailing pseudo-mystical, religious and theo-philosophical traditions that were emerging at that time in history in the Mediterranean a few centuries after the death of Christ as Christianity was in its infancy and before Christianity took full root in the Mediterranean in the latter part of the first millennium CE.

Hermetic doctrine as outlined in the Corpus Hermeticum speaks to the mystical and philosophical secrets of mankind that are taught to Hermes himself by a mythical figure named Poimandres who is identified with God, the form of the work in many respects resembling Platonic dialogues, where teachings and discourse, a form of dialectic, are used to convey meaning to the reader rather than a revealed scripture of sorts reflecting the Neo-Platonic influences on the tradition.  The treatise also includes a pseudo Gnostic cosmology which describes the establishment of the world order via Logos and Nous, Reason and Intellect respectively, displaying not only Gnostic characteristics, a contemporary philosophical movement that was one of the early competitors to Christianity, but also clear traces of of the philosophy of Anaxagoras, which are also seen in the Derveni papyrus, with its prominence of the role of Nous in the underlying structure and shape of the cosmos.  Speaking to its precursors to chemistry and science, Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing from which our modern image of two serpents encompassing a staff comes from, plays a prominent role in the Corpus as a disciple of Hermes to whom the teaching is originally passed down to.[10] 

From the early dynastic period of Egypt as reflected in the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, and then later in the New Kingdom as reflected in Book of the Dead, we see a prominence of the notion of the importance of the protection and preservation of the established order of the universe, or Maat, that existed in eternal conflict with evil, or darkness, typically drawn as a serpent or snake in the earliest texts, and then later coming to be referred to as ı͗zft, or Isfet, which meant “injustice”, “chaos”, “violence” or was even sometimes used as a verb meaning “to do evil”.

By the VIIIth dynasty onward, this serpent which represented the forces of darkness and evil became personified as the god Apep, and his battle with the forces of good played which played such a prominent role in New Kingdom Egyptian mythology as reflected in the epic battle between Apep and the sun god Ra, who represented the forces of light and good, which were believed to struggle each night as the Sun passed down through the horizon into the underworld, the place where Apep lie in waiting.  In this context Apep, who eventually was replaced by Set in later Egyptian mythological tradition, came to represent the god of the underworld, or the Hades of the Greek tradition.

We see even in a Coffin Text inscription[11] specific reference to the requirement of the dead being cleansed of Isfet in order to be reborn in the netherworld, or Duat, speaking to the fundamental and very old Ancient Egyptian notion of the universe being a battleground of the forces of good and evil, light and darkness, both at the cosmic level and at the spiritual or individual level.  These very same themes can also be found in the Zoroastrian tradition of the Indo-Iranian/Persian peoples to the East where Ahura Mazda and his band of angels are in constant struggle with Angra Mainyu and his band of demons (devas) who represent falsehood, darkness and evil, as well as of course in the Christian tradition, where God and his counterpart the fallen angel Satan are also portrayed as opposing and dueling forces of the world.  Another interesting Christian parallel to the Egyptian Isfet can be found in the Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden story where it is the serpent who tricks Adam and Eve into eating from the Tree of Life, plunging mankind out of the Garden and into the mortal world of endless toil, death and suffering.

But despite the different creation myth variants and different versions of the Egyptian pantheon that can be found throughout dynastic Egypt as the capital shifted between Memphis, Thebes, Heliopolis, and then later in Hellenic Alexandria, there was always present this firm belief in the in the importance of order. Maat, in the world, and its epic struggle with chaos and evil, Isfet or Apep, that defined the universe as well as the internal world of the spirit.  We see these same themes and notion of eternal struggle not only with Zoroastrianism and Christianity, but also with the Greeks as well, reflected in the epic battle between Zeus and the Titans in the Theogony, whereafter the Titans were forever bound and chained within Tartarus, the realm of the dead overseen by the Greek god of the underworld Hades, corresponding almost precisely to the Egyptian netherworld Duat and its presider Apep.

And amongst the foremost Cottus and Briareos and Gyes insatiate for war raised fierce fighting: three hundred rocks, one upon another, they launched from their strong hands and overshadowed the Titans with their missiles, and buried them beneath the wide-pathed earth, and bound them in bitter chains when they had conquered them by their strength for all their great spirit, as far beneath the earth to Tartarus. For a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth: and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth. Round it runs a fence of bronze, and night spreads in triple line all about it like a neck-circlet, while above grow the roots of the earth and unfruitful sea. There by the counsel of Zeus who drives the clouds the Titan gods are hidden under misty gloom, in a dank place where are the ends of the huge earth. And they may not go out; for Poseidon fixed gates of bronze upon it, and a wall runs all round it on every side. There Gyes and Cottus and great-souled Obriareus live, trusty warders of Zeus who holds the aegis.[12]

So at this point Charlie was starting to see many of these Ancient Egyptian mythological themes, deities and underlying cosmic principles in many, if not all, of the civilizations of its neighbors with which they clearly had some form of contact, either via trade and travel or in later times through war, and subjugation.  We also see explicit reference to the borrowing and renaming of Egyptian gods by the Greeks from Herodotus, a fairly objective and reliable source of Ancient History for the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians in the Mediterranean from the middle of the 5th century BCE.

Furthermore, Charlie also saw a clear Egyptian influence on later, mostly Hellenic/Greek, theo-philosophical traditions which emerged in the Mediterranean during the time of Hellenic and then later Roman/Latin influence in Egypt as evidenced by the clear Greco-Egyptian tradition associated with Hermes Trismegistus which had Greek philosophical undertones throughout and yet at the same time was associated with the Egyptian god of wisdom, learning and knowledge Thoth.  We even have perhaps the most widely used and prominent translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, i.e. the Septuagint, commissioned and taking place in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE after he conquered Egypt which subsequently became the intellectual capital of the ancient Mediterranean for some four or five centuries, pointing quite directly in fact to Egyptian influence on the Judeo-Christian tradition that was to dominate the religious landscape of the Western world for some two thousand years.

But Charlie remained curious as to how strong these monotheistic tendencies were within Egypt, forces that no doubt had some level of influence on the monotheism movement started by Amenhotep IV in the XVIIIth dynasty (circa 1340 BCE), Atenism, as short lived as it was, and forces that undoubtedly at some level shaped the formation of the religion of the Jews via from Moses who if he lived, lived no more than one or two centuries removed from Amenhotep IV’s rule over Egypt and who clearly had strong ties to Egypt as so well documented in the Old Testament.

Was there a thread of monotheistic thought and belief that evolved from and within Ancient Egypt that spread to the East or was Atenism simply a fluke espoused by a deranged King that was fundamentally rejected by an uncivilized, pagan and primitive populace?  Was monotheism as reflected in the Judeo-Christian (and Zoroastrian) traditions borrowed from the Egyptians, as Freud would have us believe, or was it an independent invention given to Moses by God himself on Mont Sinai as the Jews, and Christians, have been teaching us for some 2500 years?

Although the connection could not be directly established, Charlie did see a lot of evidence for the origin of much of Western and Near Eastern civilization mythos, and to a lesser extent perhaps Hellenic philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology, from Ancient Egypt given that their mythological tradition could be traced much deeper into antiquity (as seen in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts from circa 2500 BCE and then the Coffin texts from a few centuries later) and given the evidence of social and cultural contact and exchange that clearly took place between the Egyptian and their direct neighbors to the North and East, namely the Canaanite/Semitic people, the Greeks, and even the Persians, from the second millennium BCE onwards.

What was clear however, was that something very interesting and unique in Egyptian socio-political and religious history occurred under the reign of the XVIIIth dynasty King Amenhotep IV, who ruled sometime during the second half o the 14th century BCE (~1350-1330 BCE).  And although its influence and prominence lasted but a decade or two, it did represent one of the earliest documented forms of monotheism in the ancient world and one that shared the fundamental and distinct characteristic of modern day monotheism as prescribed by Moses and the Jews which forbid the worship of all other gods except the one true God – which in this case was Aten, a mythical figure that was associated with the Egyptian sun god Ra.

Ra, or Re, had always held great significance and relevance to the Ancient Egyptians, he was one of the principal gods in the Egyptian pantheon even from early Old Kingdom Egypt (he is prominently portrayed in the Pyramid Texts for example) and represented the force of light and good in the world and was the protector of Maat, or the world order.  Prior to the reign of Amenhotep IV, the sun god was worshipped as in the temple of Heliopolis, an ancient Egyptian city dating back to Old Kingdom Egypt which was, according to Herodotus, an intellectual and historical center of Ancient Egypt as well.  In later Egyptian history, as it entered into the Middle and New Kingdom, Ra also became also associated with Amun as Amun-Ra, and Atum as Atum-Ra in various competing pantheons from the different centers of worship in Ancient Egypt.[13]  Ra however, sometimes written as Re, in all the traditions was looked upon as one of the most revered and most powerful gods of the entire Egyptian pantheon, whose daily struggle against the forces of darkness as he set on the horizon each day was one of the most prevalent and powerful mythological themes of the ancient Egyptian people.  Aten, which historically was associated with the disc of the sun itself, had not been much of a player in Egyptian mythos up until Amenhotep IV’s rule, certainly nowhere near as prominent as Ra himself.

But in the early part of Amenhotep IV’s reign, for reasons that can be looked upon as socio-political, i.e. as a means to perhaps consolidate his power, Amenhotep IV established what has come to be known as Atenism as the official religion of the state, and proclaimed that Aten be worshipped to the exclusion of all other gods, not only outlawing the worship of all other gods even in individual homes, but also even going so far as to oversee the systemic destruction of idols and all other references to other gods in the Egyptian pantheon throughout the land, gods and goddesses that had been worshipped for millennia, making it one of the earliest forms of monotheism in all of mankind’s history.

This development marked a significant divergence from standard Egyptian policy and practices that preceded it which had, like almost all ancient civilizations in antiquity to some degree or another, accepted the various gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon permitted religious freedom of worship throughout the kingdom, as long as of course the King himself was looked upon as the penultimate manifestation of the divine on earth.  Amenhotep IV not only forbade the worship of all other deities other than Aten, he changed his name to Akhenaten, or “one agreeable to Aten”, and constructed a new capital city called Akhetaten in the deities’ honor, modern Amarna.

An excerpt from a hymn to Aten found in identical form in five ancient Egyptian tombs illustrates at least some of the basic monotheistic conception of Aten that was proselytized by Amenhotep IV, mainly associating Aten with the characteristics historically associated with Ra but somewhat unique nonetheless in the forced worship of Aten and the exclusion of other forms of worship.

Splendid you rise, O living Aten, eternal lord!

You are radiant, beauteous, mighty,

Your love is great, immense.

Your rays light up all faces,

Your bright hue gives life to hearts,

When you fill the Two Lands with your love.

August God who fashioned himself,

Who made every land, created what is in it,

All peoples, herds, and flocks,

All trees that grow from soil;

They live when you dawn for them,

You are mother and father of all that you made.[14]

Unique to Atenism relative to the other ancient monotheistic faiths is of course is it’s socio-political features, i.e. there is no revealer of truth or scripture to which it adheres as is the case with other monotheistic traditions that emerged from ancient Western civilization, outside of Amenhotep IV himself.  Atenism is simply the decree of truth from the ruler of the day in what can perhaps best be looked at as an attempt at the consolidation of power by Amenhotep IV, a decree which was subsequently overturned, and the destruction of all temples of Aten ordered, under the ruler Horemheb who followed Amenhotep IV to power.  But there are uniquely monotheistic traits to Atenism as it was professed and doled out to the Egyptian people, and to this extent it is worth consideration and study within the context of the development of monotheism historically, and of course as pointed out by Freud, its relationship with to Judaism, although it cannot be directly established, Charlie could not completely ignore either.[15]

Although the Egyptian cosmology of the various temple cults and traditions that existed in Ancient Egypt can be inferred and deduced from the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, and even from the much later more canonized Book of the Dead, the first, and only in fact, real coherent cosmological tradition of Ancient Egypt can be found, exist in two similar variants from a single papyrus found in Luxor (ancient Thebes) in a papyrus authored or commissioned by a priest named Nes-Menu or Nes-Amsu, written in Late Egyptian in hieratic script.  The papyrus dates to the Ptolemaic Period, as it refers directly to Alexander the Great, and deals specifically with spells and incantations that are designed to guard against the evil god Apep, its insertion into the papyrus implying perhaps to the secret potency and mystical powers that were believed to be contained within the creation story/cosmology as well its relevance to the ultimate protection against the forces of darkness and evil.

The initial narrative, which is somewhat shorter than the second one, is included in full below and one of the most marked characteristics here to Charlie at least was that there was in fact a single creative principle that was called out from within which the universe emanates, a god called Neb-er-tcher, according to Wallis Budge one of the most preeminent Egyptologists of the modern era, becomes associated with the Judeo-Christian God in Coptic literature from later Roman/Latin times.[16]

[These are] the words which the god Neb-er-tcher spoke after he had come into being: “I am he who came into being in the form of the god Khepera, and I am the creator of that which came into being, that is to say, I am the creator of everything which came into being. Now the things which I created, and which came forth out of my mouth after that I had come into being myself were exceedingly many. The sky (or heaven) had not come into being, the earth did not (exist, and the children of the earth, and the creeping things had not been made at that time. I myself raised them up from out of Nu, from a state of helpless inertness.  I found no place whereon I could stand. I worked a charm upon my own heart (or, will). I laid the foundation [of things] by Maat, and I made everything which had form. I was [then] one by myself, for I had not emitted from myself the god Shu, and I had not spit out from myself the goddess Tefnut; and there existed no other who could work with me. I laid the foundations [of things] in my own heart, and there came into being multitudes of created things, which came into being from the created things which were born from the created things which arose from what they brought forth.  I had union with my closed hand, and I embraced my shadow as a wife, and I poured seed into my own mouth, and I sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut.  Said my father Nu: ‘My Eye was covered up behind them (i.e., Shu. and Tefnut), but after two hen periods had passed from the time when they departed from me, from being one god I became three gods, and I came into being in the earth.’  Then Shu and Tefnut rejoiced from out of the inert watery mass wherein they and I were, and they brought to me my Eye (i.e., the Sun). Now after these things I gathered together my members, and I wept over them, and men and women sprang into being from the tears which came forth from my Eye.  And when my Eye came to me, and found that I had made another [Eye] in place where it was (i.e., the Moon), it was wroth with (or, raged at) me, whereupon I endowed it (i.e., the (second Eye) with [some of] the splendour which I had made for the first [Eye], and I made it to occupy its place in my Face, and henceforth it ruled throughout all this earth.  When there fell on them their moment through plant-like clouds, I restored what had been taken away from them, and I appeared from out of the plant-like clouds. I created creeping things of every kind, and everything which came into being from them. Shu and Tefnut brought forth [Seb and] Nut; and Seb and Nut brought forth Osiris, and Heru-khent-an-maati, and Set, and Isis, and Nephthys at one birth, one after the other, and they produced their multitudinous offspring in this earth.”[17]

Here we find then, in the latter part of the first millennium BCE after Egypt had come under direct Greek influence, not only a more structured and standardized creation myth, but also the insertion, or at least explicit documentation, of a single, creative divine pseudo-anthropomorphic principle, a cosmology that in many respects was similar to its counterpart in Greece as reflected in Hesiod’s Theogony or in Orphism, albeit in a different style of prose, with a different pantheon of gods, and a different cultural context.

The cosmology outlined in the papyrus of Nes-Manu however, with the carving out of a single divine creative principle from which the universe, the gods of the Egyptian pantheon, and then ultimately mankind, emerges does represent the early stages of monotheistic theology in some respects, although perhaps in a less evolved form and of course absent of the legal mandate of a single form of worship that was such a prominent characteristic of Judaism and then later Christianity.  Atenism however, as failed as it was due undoubtedly to the resistance it met by the people and priests who did not ascribe to Aten as the one and only true God, did in fact display these same restrictive, and politically motivated tendencies.  Whether or not the Jews (Moses) and the Christianity as it was adopted by the Romans borrowed Amenhotep IV’s methodology remained an open question of course.

What Charlie could surmise however, and what did seem clear, was that in Ancient Egypt, similar to the ancient Sumer-Babylonian, Persian, and Greece civilizations, there existed an implied and esoteric and mystical monotheistic tendency that was reflected in their respective cosmological narratives, while at the same time there was an accepted localization of beliefs that allowed for the worship of specific deities with specific modes of worship in each town or city, as long as they adhered to a basic pantheonic structure which was characteristic of the civilization as a whole.

This structure of religious authority which allowed for independence at the city or town level, while still adhering to what could be called state sponsored religious practices that were mandated or practiced by the governing authority, the King in the case of ancient Egypt, is in many respects similar to how the United States is set up, with some powers given to the States to mandate and enforce, whilst other powers – like the power to hold an army and defend the nation – is mandated and enforced at the federal level.  Our model is wholly secular of course but the analogy seemed pretty clear to Charlie at least.


[1] Freud’s Moses and Monotheism originally published in 1937 in German and subsequently published in English in 1937.  In it, Freud hypothesizes that Moses was not a Hebrew or of Semitic descent, but was in fact an Egyptian nobleman and perhaps even a follower of Atenism.

[2] Menes, aka Narmer is the first pharaoh said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt.  It is notable that the Ancient Egyptians did not use the term pharaoh; this word is taken from the Old Testament context and then later applied to Ancient Egyptian history.  King is a more appropriate term but we will use King or Pharaoh interchangeably throughout.  For more information on the etymology and history of the term pharaoh see http://ashraf62.wordpress.com/ancient-egypt-knew-no-pharaohs/.

[3] The word “hieratic” was first used by the Christian theologian Saint Clement of Alexandria who lived and wrote in in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE and is derived from the Greek word hieratika which literally means “priestly writing”.

[4] Demotic, the language, was succeeded by Coptic, which was the most common Egyptian language spoken up until the 17th century CE.

[5] Demotic was succeeded by the Coptic writing system/alphabet (and the Coptic language which it is designed to render) which started to take root in the 3rd century CE and is still in use in some Egyptian churches and other places today.  The Coptic alphabet is based upon the Greek alphabet with strong Demotic influence.

[6] The primary source for the Dynasty, Kingdom and Period list included here is from the History of Egypt section of Wikipedia.  For more detail see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egypt.

[7] Hyksos were a Canaanite/Semitic people of supposedly Indo-European descent with some notable Hurrian influence as well.  Hyksos were known for practicing horse burials and having a chief deity who was storm god, later associated with the Egyptian god Seth.

[8] The Book of the Dead in Egyptian is actually titled, in Egyptian, rw nw prt m hrw which is more accurately transliterated into English as the “Book of Coming Forth by Day” rather than the more popular name it has been given by modern scholars and historians, the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

[9] Excerpt from THE HISTORY OF HERODOTUS, translated into English by G. C. MACAULAY, M.A. from an edition dated 1890, published by MacMillan and Co., London and New York.  Note that the term Pelasgians is used by Herodotus in this context to denote the precursor Hellenic populations that lived in the area of ancient Greece prior to classical Greece in the time before the Trojan War or so, circa 1200 or 1300 BCE.

[10] Hermeticism later transformed into the pseudo-science of alchemy during the Middle Ages, becoming more associated not with spiritual transformation and knowledge but the manipulation and transformation of material objects, specifically into gold, out of which emerged modern day chemistry in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  Notable scientists who were influenced by the Hermetic/alchemical tradition include Isaac Newton from whose work with alchemy is believed to derived inspiration to his creation of the modeling and notion of gravity, as well as Carl Jung who looked to alchemy to provide a language and framework for the transformation of the soul, or individual psyche, into its full potential, a process which he referred to as individuation.

[11] Coffin Text 335a, reference from Rabinovich, Yakov. Isle of Fire: A Tour of the Egyptian Further World. Invisible Books, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isfet_(Egyptian_mythology).

[12] From  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.  The Theogony of Hesiod, (ll. 713-735).  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.

[13] Amun being associated with the centers of worship in Thebes and Atum being associated with Heliopolis, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_creation_myths for more details.

[14] Translation from M. Lichtheim. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Vol. 2, pp. 91-92.  Taken from https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/prec/www/course/egypt/274RH/Texts/ShortAtenHymn.htm

[15] The stark contrast of Atenism relative to the Egyptian religious precepts which preceded it, as well as the timing of Amenhotep IV’s rule which coincides within a century or two of Moses’s exodus from Egypt, has given rise to considerable scholarly debate as to whether or not the monotheistic principles embedded in Atenism were a foreign construct that was borrowed and adapted by Amenhotep IV from some outside influence, or perhaps even (as was suggested by Sigmund Freud), that Atenism was the source from which Judaism’s monotheistic tradition sprung.  See Freud’s 1937 work Moses and Monotheism where Freud theorizes that Moses was in fact of Egyptian descent rather than Jewish, and that he borrowed the principles of Atenism in his formation of Judaism.  For more details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_and_Monotheism,

[16] Source: E. A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Egyptian Gods.  Originally published in 1912 by Kegan Paul, Trench and Tribner & Co. Ltd, taken from new 2008 edition, published by The Book Tree.  Introduction pg. xviii.

[17] From http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/history_of_creation.htm.  Source: E. A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Egyptian Gods.

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