Did the Ancient Egyptians’ Gods and Goddesses Have Personalities?

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The Sun-God Re Riding in a Solar Boat

The idea of a god, or gods, imbued with a definite personality is concept that many premodern peoples employed in their religions and myths. Of course, the Greeks are among the best known in this regard, as they gave their deities frailties and foibles along with their immense powers. Some of the Greek gods and goddesses also had senses of humor, along with have some very negative emotions and personality traits, including pettiness, greed, and vindictiveness. The deities of numerous other premodern people, from the Norse to the Assyrians, and from the Japanese to the Aryans, all had myths that depicted their gods and goddesses with very clear personalities and traits that were very human. The deities of the ancient Egyptians, though, are generally thought of as lacking any feelings and clearly separated from humans in terms of their mental dispositions; but an examination of one particular Egyptian myth shows that this was not always the case.

An Egyptian myth known today as The Destruction of Mankind is interesting and important on many different levels. First, it is one of the few extant mythological narratives from ancient Egypt. Unlike the Greeks and other ancient peoples, most notably Indo-Europeans, the ancient Egyptians did not compose many narrative myths or myth cycles. The few known ancient Egyptian narratives were written in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1075 BC), although they were probably recited orally for several prior centuries. Aside from its theological-historical importance, The Destruction of Mankind is also useful because it gives a glimpse into how the Egyptians viewed their gods and goddesses.

Unlike the spells from religious texts such as The Pyramid Texts, The Coffin Texts, and The Book of the Dead, which present the Egyptians’ deities in a somewhat antiseptic and wholly utilitarian manner, The Destruction of Mankind demonstrates that the Egyptians actually viewed their deities not unlike how the Greeks viewed theirs. The Egyptian gods and goddess were full of foibles and sometimes had limitations, but as the myth shows, they also had a genuine sense of compassion.

The Power of the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

The Temple of the Goddess Hathor at Dendera

Before examining if and how The Destruction of Mankind myth relates personality elements of ancient Egyptian deities, it is important to know the attributes for which the gods and goddesses were imbued. To begin with, as mentioned earlier, most of the Egyptian deities had some very humanlike attributes. Most were born, or created, aged, and very often also died. Some, such as Osiris, were even murdered. The sun-god Re, arguably the most important of all Egyptian deities and the central figure of The Destruction of Mankind, was depicted as old and somewhat enfeebled in this and other myths. [1] Although these attributes placed the ancient Egyptian deities on a level with humans to certain extent, one would be wrong to think that the Egyptian gods and goddesses were physically, intellectually, or morally weak in any way and not superior to humans.

All of the Egyptian gods and goddesses had their own superhuman abilities. Some, such as Thoth, possessed superior knowledge and intellect, while Isis knew the secrets of magic. Other gods were credited for their creative abilities and many of the deities could be syncretically combined to incorporate multiple powerful attributes into one figure. For instance, Re was often combined with Amun, the New Kingdom warrior god, to create Amun-Re. In what is perhaps a peculiar or unique element of ancient Egyptian theology and myth, the powerful aspects of a deity could exist simultaneously with their weaknesses. Re could age, become enfeebled, and even die, but he was reborn daily and would ride a mystical solar barge. [2] The multi-faceted, complex attributes of the Egyptian deities were often not as apparent in the daily rituals of the religion, but they were on display in the culture’s few narrative myths.

As Egyptologist Jan Assman has discussed, the ancient Egyptian concept of a particular deity, which he termed “icon,” was more important to the Egyptians than any narrative in which the god appeared. He noted that Egyptian myths combined the idea of icons and stories in a way where there was really little distinction, unlike the Greeks. The fact that the icon of a god was paramount essentially fixed it in a static position, which prevented the development of a traditional myth cycle. [3] With that said, The Destruction of Mankind is one of the more effective Egyptian myths in terms of demonstrating the nature of several icons.

The Destruction of Mankind

Statue of the Goddess Sekhmet in the Louvre, Paris

The myth The Destruction of Mankind is known from inscriptions from New Kingdom nobles’ tombs. It is actually part of a longer myth known as The Myth of the Heavenly Cow and although it is in many ways indictive of the emergence of narrative myths in the New Kingdom, it was probably originally composed during the Middle Kingdom. [4]

The personalities of some of the Egyptian pantheon’s most important deities is revealed at the beginning of the myth. The enfeebled Re is somewhat of a cantankerous old man who grows tired of humanity for plotting against the gods.

“It happened [in the time of the majesty of] Re, the self-created, after he had become king of men and gods together: Mankind plotted against him, while his majesty had grown old, his bones being sliver, his flesh gold, his hair true lapis lazuli. When his majesty perceived the plotting of mankind against him, his majesty said to his followers: “Summon to me my Eye. . .” [5]

The “eye” in this case is actually the goddess Hathor. Hathor was usually depicted in Egyptian iconography as a human female, sometimes with cows’ ears. She was associated with sexuality, fertility, and beauty, but in this case she had a bit of a violent side. Keeping in mind the nature of ancient Egyptian deities, the gods and goddesses could have several attributes and be combined with other deities. As the Eye of Re, Hathor would transform into the ferocious lioness goddess Sekhmet. [6]

Although Re apparently took no pleasure in the task of punishing humanity for its transgression against the gods, Hathor-Sekhmet certainly did. In fact, she was quite efficient at her task, killing the greater part of humanity and drinking their blood in the process.

“The goddess returned after slaying mankind in the desert, and the majesty of the god said: ‘Welcome in peace, Hathor, Eye who did what I came for!’ Said the goddess: ‘As you live for me, I have overpowered mankind, and it was balm to my heart.’ Said the majesty of Re: ‘I shall have power over them as king by diminishing them.’ Thus the Powerful One (Sekhmet) came into being.” [7]

As Re witnessed the destruction that Hathor-Sekhmet had brought to mankind, he apparently began to feel remorse, which is a trait deities rarely expressed in the myths of most premodern, literate cultures. The sun-god then decided that he would save humanity from Sekhmet, so he used another one of his personality traits – ingenuity. Apparently confronting Sekhmet directly was out of the question, so Re employed his high-priest in Heliopolis to mix red ochre with 7,000 jars of beer, hoping that the goddess would believe the concoction was just more of the blood she was drinking.

“Re said: ‘It is good; I shall save mankind by it!’. . . The fields were flooded three palms high with the liquid by the might of the majesty of this god. When the goddess came in the morning she found them flooded, and her gaze was pleased by it. She drank and it pleased her heart. She returned drunk without having perceived mankind.” [8]

The Significance of the Myth

Statue of the Goddess Bastet Playing Sistra

The myth of The Destruction of Mankind is significant on many theological and historic levels, especially the manner in which it reveals much about the personalities and attributes of some of ancient Egypt’s most important deities. First is Hathor, who normally represents beauty and fertility. She is transformed from a sympathetic and human appearing figure into a bloodthirsty lioness, but through a ruse is changed once more into a friendly house cat that is usually associated with the goddess Bastet. [9]

Even more important, though, are the complex personality traits of the sun-god Re. Re is at first presented as feeble, in declining health, and also somewhat of a stereotypical angry old man: despite his immense power, he is angry at what humans are doing. The sun-god then then shows his immense power by sending his eye to destroy the humans, which also demonstrates his apparent lack of feeling for humanity. But then as all seems lost, Re shows that he does have compassion after all and along with plenty of resourcefulness and a bit of humor, is able to save humanity.

References

  1. Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), pgs. 143-154
  2. Hornung, p. 155
  3. Assman, Jan. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 112
  4. Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Volume 1: The New Kingdom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), p. 197
  5. Lichtheim, p. 198
  6. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), p. 181
  7. Lichtheim, p. 199
  8. Lichtheim, p. 199
  9. Hornung, p. 205