Real Gods of Egypt

The Pharaonic period of Egypt lasted for about 3000 years. During that time, much can change. It is therefore impossible to propose a definitive form for Egyptian religion. To do so would make as much sense as to say that there was a definitive form of Christianity that applied to both the early Byzantine church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian religious belief and practice changed radically through time as one temple or another, one city or another, gained power. There were attempted revolutions such as that of Akhenaten. In the last few hundred years of the Pharaohs, however, the changes were much more radical.

In 525 BCE the Persians conquered Egypt. I’m not a great expert on their rule, but they were adept at absorbing many different cultures into their empire. My guess is that they will have left Egyptian religion mostly alone, though it will not have escaped unscathed. However, in 332 BCE Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. One of his generals, Ptolemy, was put in charge of Egypt and became Pharaoh in 305 BCE. His descendants ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE which resulted in the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire.

Rule by a Greek dynasty caused major changes in Egyptian religious life. The Ptolemies were keen to show their commitment to local culture, but at the same time they wanted to bring in a lot of Greek ideas. Let’s start with the chap pictured above. You might think that he doesn’t look much like an Egyptian god, and you’d be dead right, but he is one. His name is Serapis. It is not clear whether he existed before the Ptolemaic period, but it is clear that his worship was either invented, or massively promoted, by the Ptolemies. He continued to be popular through the Roman era.

That’s a very imperialist approach to merging cultures, but there is another option. Syncretism is the process of finding links between two different religions and building on that basis. You could take the view that two cultures worship the same god, but each has their own prophet whom they deem the sole arbiter of that god’s word, in which case they must fight for all eternity to see whose prophet is right. But you could say, look, your god Khonsu is a bit like our god Herakles. Both of them are mighty young warriors who defend their people. Perhaps they are the same god seen through a different cultural lens. Let’s build a friendship based on that. This sort of thing happened a lot, both in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.

I came home from London yesterday with a new goddess for my home. This one.

Isis-HorusThis is Isis and her son, Horus. Images of Isis nursing Horus were common in ancient Egypt (though Horus does seen a little big for breastfeeding — perhaps he grew very quickly).

The image of the nursing Isis is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it is very similar to the image of Mary and Jesus that is so well known in Christianity. Secondly, those of you who know a bit about Egypt will have spotted that Isis is wearing the horned crown of Hathor. By the time this statue was made the cult of Isis has absorbed that of the older mother goddess, Hathor the Cow.

What attracted me about this statue, however, is that it has a significant difference from most Isis and Horus images. In fact it doesn’t appear to have been taken from either of the Isis & Horus statues found in Thonis/Heraclieon and Canopus. Rather it is based on this one, which is in the Knust Museum in Vienna.

The difference in the statue is the throne on which Isis is seated. It is flanked by lions, and that’s something more often seen elsewhere. Here, for example.

That’s Cybele, an Anatolian goddess with strong links to Ishtar who ended up in Rome as their Great Mother. Cybele was the patron goddess of trans women in Rome.

I know very little about gender in Egyptian society, but I am starting to turn up some very interesting stories about Isis. Some sources I have seen mention that the Phoenicians connected Isis to Astarte, their local version of Ishtar. Others mention a connection between Isis and Cybele in Rome.

There is no temple to Cybele in Pompeii. There is one in Herculaneum, and there is a lot of evidence of Cybele worship in Pompeii, including a number of paintings in people’s homes. What Pompeii does have, is a big temple to Isis. A while back I came across this master’s thesis suggesting a syncretic relationship between Isis and Cybele in the Roman Empire. Images Isis seated on Cybele’s lion throne would seem to confirm this.

2 thoughts on “Real Gods of Egypt

  1. Beautiful.

    Some women breast feed for years. I know someone who breast fed until her son went to nursery school at four. She worked form home as a copy editor so access wasn’t a problem.

  2. He’s not big for breastfeeding. Milk teeth are called milk teeth for a reason, and they don’t start to drop out until about seven years.

    Breastfeeding (as it’s part of a control of a woman’s body) is cultural: mothers ‘do’ what the norm they are told, is. So areas will breastfeed happily in demand and without restriction for years, in order to build strong children, and others will restrict breastfeeding and state it will weaken the child past a certain age. Be that six days, six weeks, six months of six years.

    By being seen to breastfeed her son as he grows, she’s being seen to carry on giving him strength and wisdom.

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