Heliopolitan Path and the Theban Triad - Part II
Generally speaking, the Egyptians could be classed as religious but never mystical simply because their belief system was strictly utilitarian - a reverence for those two natural forces that made their existence possible: the Sun and the Nile. In fact, according to F. Gladstone Bratton (A History of Egyptian Archaeology) their entire religious and cultural history was determined by these two forces. “They have left us little or no abstract thought. Their belief was defined by the dualism of light and darkness, aridity and fertility, night and day, life and death. Just as there was no twi-light in Egypt, neither was there any middle ground of thought.”
This observation, however, is refuted by T G H James (BM - Collections) who finds that between the simple religious beliefs of humble Egyptians and the elaborate theological doctrines of the great state-cults, there is a further level of religious thinking which can occasionally be glimpsed through rare personal tomb inscriptions and literary compositions. James believes that these examples, which appear in Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara, offer an insight into the most ‘profound religious thinking manifested in ancient Egypt’, particularly those discovered in tombs of certain high officials of Dynasty VI. These ‘new’ ideas of responsibility and retribution appear as Egypt was facing its first major social and political upheaval; the unnamed Great God, invoked as part of the funerary rites, illustrates that the Egyptians could think about divinity ‘without investing it with concrete form’.
In the years since Bratton’s book was published in the late 60s, however, the cults of Ptah and Amun have been found to show a distinctly more mystical approach to religious thought. Both were originally regional gods whose worship remained constant until the great surge of popularity towards the end of the pharaonic dynasties. These are the deities to appeal to the intellect since they offer intellectual concepts rather than religious personification but for the ordinary ancient Egyptian who preferred more clearly defined expressions there was nothing to write home about. James also identifies the First Intermediate Period as the time when a new attitude to religious matters developed and the first ‘semi-philosophical texts were composed’.
As Emery explains, although the cult of Ptah sought after a higher level of religious thinking and spirituality, originally he was widely regarded as the protector of artisans and artists, and inventor of the arts. He was at the same time designer, smelter of metal and builder. His high priest at Memphis bore a title analogous to the ‘Master Builder’ of the European medieval cathedrals. It was Ptah who directed the architects and masons during the construction of a temple and appears to have retained the same characteristics from Dynasty II right down to later times. He is usually represented as a bearded man with a blue skull cap, wrapped in a shroud-like garment carrying the symbol of stability. As Ptah-Seker he represents the union of creative power with that of chaos or darkness.
After the extinction of the New Kingdom rulers, Ptah became the third most important deity in both stature and wealth. His new-found glory elevated him to the position of ‘the Universal Demiurge who had with his own hands fashioned the world, the other gods being mere personifications of aspects of Ptah’. He was said to have saved the city from attacking Assyrians by raising an army of rats, who forced the enemy to flee, having gnawed their bowstrings, quivers, and the leather thongs of their shields—a myth later found in the Old Testament.
His more human attributes give him the appearance of a Buddha-like figure and his worship is more concerned with the building and perfection of the temple, i.e. the mind and body that earthly pursuits. The Adept who leans towards the mystical rather than the magical may find an ideal focus in the concept of Ptah, the universal architect. His name in the Tarot and the Tree of Life signifies ‘admirable or hidden intelligence’ - the four aces which represent the roots of the four elements. He is The Hierophant or The Universe and Yesod (the Foundation).
The local goddess of Bubastis but she became the great national divinity when the city became capital of the kingdom in Dynasty XXII. With Ptah and their son Nefertum they formed a triad. She personified the fertilising warmth of the sun, represented by a cat, or cat-headed woman. Like Hathor she was a goddess of pleasure, music and dance and was often shown with a sistrum.
She also gave protection against contagious diseases and evil spirits. Her devotees buried the carefully mummified bodies of cats which, during their life-times, had been venerated as animals sacred to Bast - see below. Her festival took place in April and May and is celebrated with dancing, drinking and song. Like Isis and Hathor she sits in the sphere of Netzach and can be represented by The High Priestess in the Tarot.
Depicted as a woman standing or sitting on her heels, wearing an ostrich feather on her head, which is the symbol of her name - truth order and justice. In reality, Ma’at was a ‘pure abstraction deified’ but in the Book of the Dead she becomes a beautiful woman presiding over the weighing of the heart in the Hall of Judgement. Her name means ‘that which is straight’ and among the Egyptians it implied anything that was true, genuine or real. In the Old Kingdom the name referred to national order under the dominance of the sun-god; in later times it meant moral order, the realm of universal values.
She can be attributed to Adjustment or Temperence in the Tarot and her name can be used in an oath or promise that can never be broken. In later times she was named as wife to Thoth, or as the female embodiment of his attributes.
Probably another localised vegetation god before he became the god of the dead in the Memphis necropolis. Usually depicted in the form of a greenish hawk-headed mummy, he was worshipped in the sanctuary called ro stau - ‘the doors of the corridors’ which communicated directly with the Underworld. His worship was quickly submerged within the Osirian cult although he continued to be worshiped at Memphis as Seker-Osiris. In later times he became the great funerary divinity as Ptah-Seker-Osiris despite the fact that he belongs very firmly within the Memphian cosmogony.
One of the most important but enigmatic gods in the Egyptian pantheon; his worship having a close alignment with the higher spirituality of the Heliopolitan Path than the purely devotional Hermopolitan Path. Originally, he was the principle god of Thebes and a member of the Ogdoad, the group of eight primeval deities worshipped at Hermopolis.
His name, means ‘what is hidden’ and although classed as one of the primeval gods of Egypt it wasn’t until much later that his votaries began to exercise the enormous power, which they finally wielded throughout the land. He was first mentioned Dynasty II Pyramid Texts and later Dynasty XI texts imply that Amun is a god who cannot be viewed by mortal eyes, invisible and inscrutable. It is worth noting that the Cairo Calendar makes no mention of Amun and the Theban triad since these gods only came to prominence during the New Kingdom.
In Dynasty XII, in the process of re-organising the kingdom and solidifying its control of the entire country, Amun was transformed from an obscure god into a national and dynastic divinity; calling on the powerful solar theology of the Memphian dynasty of ancient Egypt as an obligatory step’ (Hierogylphics). Lewis Spence suggests that it isn’t “difficult to see that the conception of such a deity would speedily win favour with a priestly and theological class, who might strain after a form of god-head less crude than the purely symbolic system that held sway in the country.”
When the princes of Thebes rose to power, Amun rose with them and became the prominent god in Upper Egypt. Osiris, as the popular god, could not be replaced but Amun as the more spiritual being fused with Ra; the high-priest of Amun-Ra was raised to royal power instituting Dynasty XXII, or the dynasty of priest-kings, the influences spreading far and wide into neighbouring countries. His temple at Karnak is the best surviving religious complex of the New Kingdom. He is represented in human form wearing a high double crown, or either as a ram or a goose. The Romans later worshipped him as Jupiter-Amon and consulted oracles at his temple. An apt Tarot symbol could be The Hanged Man or The Wheel of Fortune, signifying all the various changes and sufferings undertaken before emerging triumphant.
The female counterpart in this amalgam was the ‘world-mother, lady of heaven and queen of the gods’ who was attributed with all the female attributes of the mother oriented goddesses in Egypt and represented by a vulture. With their son Khons, they comprised the Theban Triad. Khons is a moon-god usually depicted holding a sceptre and flail and wearing the Sidelock of Youth with a lunar head-dress. The triadic structure (or structural element) was used in Egypt to answer the problem of divine plurality and unity (Journal of Egyptian Archaeology - Vol 57).
According to H. Re Velde in Egypt the triad was an extremely suitable structure for connecting plurality and unity, “because the number three was not only a numeral, but signified the indefinite plural. Thus the triad was a structure capable of transforming polytheism into tritheism or differentiated monotheism”. The third card in the Tarot, The Empress would be an ideal focus for Mut.
The Triad was often a convenient means of linking together three formerly independent gods of an area, and seems to have been a primarily a theological development of the New Kingdom. Although the Osiris-Isis-Horus family grouping fits into the triad principle at first glance, the Theban Triad is a much more exalted form of worship, best suited to mysticism and the Mysteries than the religion of the common man. Of all the gods in the Egyptian pantheon, the concept of Amen-Ra is probably best suited to 20th century since it does not require an acceptance of all the trappings of legend and mythology to produce a precise identification on god-head.