The heresy initiated by the pharaoh Akhenaten is often cited as an early form of monotheism that emerged in Egypt, which influenced the emergence of Judaism and/or other monotheisms. However, many scholars have cast doubt on this narrative. The way that the cult of Akhenaten worked was as a worship of Akhenaten himself! The Pharaoh Akhenaten was seen as the only mediator between the people and the Aten (the Disk of the Sun, which represented Completeness), so prayers had to be presented by the people before the Pharaoh, who would present the daily prayers of the people before the Aten. This is completely different from monotheism as understood by most people today.
On the other hand, we hear that the main enemies of the Aten cult were the priests of Amon, whose theology we know some things about from the Prayer to Amon:
Hail to thee, Amun-Ra,
Lord of the thrones of the earth,
the oldest existence, ancient of heaven,
support of all things;
Chief of the gods,
lord of truth;
father of the gods,
maker of men and beasts and herbs;
maker of all things above and below;
Deliverer of the sufferer and oppressed,
judging the poor;
Lord of wisdom, lord of mercy;
opener of every eye,
source of joy,
in whose goodness the gods rejoice,
thou whose name is hidden.
Thou art the One,
Maker of all that is,
the only One;
Maker of gods and men;
giving food to all.
Hail to thee, thou One with many heads;
sleepless when all others sleep,
adoration to thee.
Hail to thee from all creatures from every land,
from the height of heaven,
from the depth of the sea.
The spirits thou hast made extol thee, saying,
welcome to thee,
Father of the fathers of the gods;
we worship Thy Spirit which is in us.
The prayer to Amon is a fascinating insight into the theology of the cult of Amon, who was seen as “the most loving” Supreme Being. The fact that this prayer was published and has come down to us (when so much of what transpired inside the Egyptian temples was secret and only known by the priests who had access to the inner sanctum) must mean that the prayer was meant as a tool to teach their theology to common folk, and that it represents the exoteric and officially recognized expression of Amonism.
It gives us an idea as to why Amon’s priests were so powerful and their faith so appealing: Amon “delivered” the “sufferer and oppressed“, which basically meant almost everyone in the highly stratified society of Egypt. Amon, because his name meant “the Hidden One“, was able to hear the prayers of all. One did not need a statue. One did not need the mediation of a priest or of the Pharaoh, and so his cult was surprisingly democratic for Ancient Egyptian culture.
Notice particularly the portion that says “Thou art the One, Maker of all that is, the One; Hail to thee, thou One with many heads“. Here, we see a strong monotheistic tendency, if not full-blown monotheism. The description of Amon as “the One with many heads” (sometimes translated as “the One and the Million“) may refer to the idea that Amon takes on many Names and manifestations, or it may refer to the idea of pantheism–the belief that Amon is really the collection of all the sentient beings in the Universe, or that WE ARE all Amon. In fact, this monotheism is further explained as fully immanent, when the prayer says: “We worship thy Spirit, which is in us“. Amon, therefore, appears to be a personification of Father Nature, of all being.
Some versions of modern Kemeticism (revivals of the ancient religion of Kemet, or Egypt)–like Kemetic Orthodoxy–practice what they call “monolatry”, which they define as “One God, Many Names” because they feel that is the accurate understanding of the theology that prevailed in Egypt. They refer to the many Netjeru (gods of Egypt) as “Names“. This, curiously, may seem like a nod to the Islamic view that Allah has “the most beautiful names“, which is a quote from the Qur’an that is used sometimes by proselytizing Muslims to convince Hindus that many of the names of the Gods of Hinduism refer to Allah only. But among the epithets used for the Kemetic gods, we find “rich in names“. So this idea that Amon, or some other supreme God, was “the One and the Million” and that all the names referred to him, was native to Kemet (ancient Egypt) even if it also emerged elsewhere, and only later did the modern monotheists try to appropriate it in order to spread their beliefs.
While the cult of Aten was contrived in a single generation and did not succeed in gaining too many staying converts, the cult of Amon was widespread and expanded naturally in all directions, being even absorbed by other nations. Therefore, the appeal of the theology surrounding Amon is much better testified than whatever appeal the Aten heresy may have had, and Amonism is therefore much more likely to have influenced the monotheistic ideas of future generations.
Egypt, at different times during its history, was an empire. The project of empire-building frequently called for syncretistic belief systems of the kind that would favor these theological developments. The spread of monotheism has, similarly, frequently owed its success to imperial projects (the early Arab conquests after the death of Mohammed, or the late Roman Empire which cemented Catholic hegemony).
The Christ Before Jesus
In the past, I’ve written about how the cult of Antinous was a legitimate competition to early Christianity. But this cult was based on the Osirian prototype, which deserves its own focus here. Osiris was the Foremost of the Westerners who ruled the Duat, the Land of the Akhu (ancestors who were saved after their final judgment). This land was in the West because that’s where the Sun sets, and so all things progressed towards the West in the mind of ancient Egyptians. It was Osiris who judged, and then ruled over, the dead who lived in the Heavenly Kingdom–just as Christ later would.
It is hard to over-estimate the huge influence that the Osirian mysteries and imagery had on early Christianity, which spread initially among the Jews and Greeks of the Roman Empire (including in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt), and later to the rest of the empire.
Just as in the book St. Paul And Epicurus, Norman DeWitt claims that early Christians stole ideas from the Epicureans, it may also be said that they appropriated from the Greeks and Egyptians–in particular by incorporating ideas and practices from their mystery faiths into the Catholic sacrament of the eucharist and its related beliefs. Early Christianity was a Frankenstein monster made up of many ideas available in its day, just like Osiris’ many body parts which were put together by Isis magically.
When I was growing up Catholic, the litany of the Virgin Mary included many epithets that originally belonged to Isis, Osiris’ consort and the Great Goddess at the time of the spread of Christianity. For instance, Trono de la sabiduría (“Throne of Wisdom“) refers literally to the meaning of her name: Aset (Isis) meant “throne”. The imagery of Isis holding the child Horus passed, practically unchanged, into Christianity as Mary with baby Jesus.
Similarly, there are 14 Stations of the Cross in Catholic devotion. This is interesting, because the number 14 seems arbitrary until you understand that:
- in Christian piety, typically the numbers three (for the Trinity) and twelve (disciples, or tribes of Israel) is most often used, so that the number 14 must have been inspired in another source, and
- in the Osirian mysteries, which were the subject of very public passion plays that were performed every year throughout Egypt, the body of Osiris was cut into 14 pieces by Set and scattered through the world, and then Isis had to gather these parts and magically resurrect him. This is interpreted as a lunar number: 14 is the number of days that it takes for the full moon to become the new moon. The god Set, in this role, was called “the black boar who killed the moon“. The 14 Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) and the accounts it’s based on may have originated as a conscious reinvention of the Osirian mysteries by the people of the oral period of the development of Christianity (between the years 33-70 of Common Era) and later.
The Passion Plays of Osiris seem to have been a huge influence on early Christianity. While portions of the mysteries were private and only witnessed by priests or initiates, the Passion Plays themselves were public, dramatic, and appealed to the emotions of everyday people–not unlike the processions we see in many parts of Europe, Latin America and the Philippines where a man is literally crucified every year in memory of Jesus. Isis and Nephthys served as prototypes for the “three Marys” that are typically depicted as crying and lamenting the death of Jesus in the Christian Passion Plays. Nephthys was the Goddess of mourning and sister of Isis. During the Passion Plays, they (or, rather, actresses performing as them) would have gone through the lands crying and asking everyone the whereabouts of the scattered body of Osiris, and then dramatically finding them one by one in 14 “stations” or locations.
Try to imagine a large portion of the population of ancient Egypt united in the solemn observance of this spectacle, and you begin to have an idea of the importance of the Osirian mysteries in the lives of the people. Also, try to imagine what it would have taken to appeal to such a population with a new cult, and you can begin to see how the creation and enactment of a Christian version of the Osirian mysteries would have been advantageous to the early Christians who sought to promote their religion among them.
A special word must be said about the eucharist. Ancient Egyptians ate the body of Osiris (manifesting as the bread of life) during the spring festival which–like the Christian Easter–celebrated his resurrection. They would plant the wheat in the field during the death of Osiris (in the fall, less than two months before winter), and eat the bread from these specially consecrated fields of wheat during a festival of harvest in the spring. The Christian belief that Christ had to “die so that we may live” makes sense to anyone familiar with the Osirian mysteries because this is what the Egyptians believed about Osiris: the seed (the wheat berries) had to die with Osiris every year so that people would have life, would have food and abundance the following year. In the book Rebel in the Soul, one of the commentaries by author Bika Reed explains that the process of mummification was comparable to adding a husk that protects a seed: a corpse carried within it the seed that allowed for resurrection in the Duat (the West). Since Osiris is the prototype for the salvific ideas of his culture, accordingly the entire lower portion of the body of Osiris was mummified. His body was like a life-giving seed.
While in the Osirian mysteries beer and bread were given to the people, the Orphic mysteries included a eucharist of bread and wine. Orpheus was a reformer of the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine who “reigned at the right hand” of his father, Zeus. The Orphic eucharist was meant as a substitute for the goat flesh and blood that the Bacchae enjoyed, and so Orphism was a tamed or “civilized” development within the Dionysian cult. The Christian eucharist was completely familiar to both Greeks and Egyptians of the early Christian era as another version of the mystery religions which were popular in those days. In these cults, the initiates received the promise of salvation in the afterlife by ritual communion with the God-Man (Dionysus, or Osiris), who gave his life to the initiates.
Osiris returned every year, like the Nile that floods annually. This is why he’s depicted as green (vegetation) or black (fertile land, as opposed to the red land of the desert). Considering that the Egyptians believed that Osiris did not die, that he comes back every year in a new form, and that he travelled the world teaching the gifts of agriculture and wine, is it not hard to imagine that Christians were able to sell their god to the Egyptians by framing him as a new Osiris, just as the Greeks believed Dionysus was Osiris himself who had come to them under that form?
And so, for all these reasons, a few of the cults of henotheistic Egypt seem to be clear precursors to the familiar beliefs of contemporary monotheisms, and anyone who has participated in these monotheistic cults already has some idea of what participating in ancient Egyptian religion may have felt like.
Lion King and the Osiris Myth
Book Review: the Epic, Complex, and Incomplete “Evolution of God”