Taunting God

Why should a conversation turn into a competition?

“Free Archaeological display” said the sign on the trailer, so I wandered in. Before I had got to the top of the stairs a pretty woman in her twenties came over and asked how I was doing. The display is about Umchester, only a couple of miles away. There is a video and some display boards. What do I think? A man of about the same age followed her.

I tell her of the mosaic at the Lakes. Not a picture of a God, or anything, just an abstract pattern- but still quite impressive, we agree. I am interested, I say. I watch the odd documentary on the TV.

-Don’t believe everything you see. If it’s [name] switch off immediately. Later, it emerges that his documentaries are about alien beings building the pyramids. A little hurt, I protest that I can trust BBC4. Channel 5 is a little dodgy.

She works with the public engagement team in London. She does not know much about Roman Britain, she is an Egyptologist by specialisation. I feel the need to show I know a little, to move the conversation to a higher level.

-So if I dropped a name like- I don’t know how to pronounce it- Khasekhemwy…
-That’s early dynastic period, isn’t it? asked her colleague doubtfully.

She starts telling me of Unas. He had unique poetry in his Pyramid Texts, saying he would use the bones of the Gods to scour his pots if they did not obey him. I said I would Google, and I have:

397: Unas is the Bull of Heaven, who (once) suffered want,
and who has decided to live on the essence of every god,
who eats their entrails when they come from the Isle of Fire with their bellies full of magical charms (HkA.w).

398: Unas is a well provided one, who has absorbed his spirits (Ax.w).
Unas has appeared as this Great One, lord of those who are at hand.
He sits with his back turned to Geb.

413: Lo, their soul (bA) is in the belly of Unas, their spirits (Ax.w) are with Unas as the broth of the gods, cooked for Unas from their bones.
Lo, their soul (bA) is with Unas, their Shadows (taken away) from those to whom they belong.

Fuckyeah. Badass or what? I can’t think of any other literature about Gods treating them with such disrespect. “Later kings are back to grovelling,” she said. The ceiling of his tomb is covered in lapis [lazuli] with tiny golden stars for the night sky, she says, with the awestruck tones of one who has seen it.

-Does that survive in the Books of the Dead?
-No, they are very respectful. She quotes a bit. I should read Miriam Lichtheim, she tells me. She loved those works, with transliterations, literal translations word by word then prose translations. “Is it Licht [as in “loch”] or Lisht?” she asks her colleague, but he does not know. Her teacher said Lisht. I google again, and find these are substantial academic works.

I like Gilgamesh, I said. “There is nothing new under the Sun”.
-You can quote it? said the man, impressed. Well, it is a fascinating quote, “Nothing new” in the oldest story we know.

In London many of the objects unearthed are Victorian. She finds them quite interesting. Her colleague is not interested in anything newer than Georgian, he says. He drifts off.

I look down at the displayed objects. There is a coin, a black disc I would not have thought was metal without the context, and the broken pin of a brooch. “You should volunteer!” she says brightly.

-Mmm, in a ditch with a brush.
-Not really, a trowel more often. Though there might be human remains, we would use a brush then. Sometimes people use mattocks. It is very good exercise, she says, winningly. I imagine volunteers with mattocks and archaeologists like her with brushes doing the interesting stuff, sometimes showing it to sweaty, muddy volunteers.

I don’t know how this one started, but we were on Romans in Britain including black people, from Africa, and I remarked that there were Emperors from all over the Empire, but not from Britain. She said there were rulers in Britain. I made myself clearer: there were Emperors from North Africa, or Syria, Emperors of Rome, but none from Britain. She said Britain was a Roman concept, not a concept from before Roman rule.

-I don’t know how I am failing to communicate. There were Emperors from all over the empire, Emperors of Rome, from Syria or North Africa, but not from Britain.

She tells me that was about being closer to trade routes. And when I say that the tribes before the conquest had no writing she said just because none survives does not mean that Boudicca could not write her own language. On African soldiers on Hadrian’s wall, she says the concept of black slaves is a modern concept, we think of slaves coming from Africa; but I meant that the population could move around the empire, and would not all be white.

I want to share poetry with her so ask if she has heard of Hafiz. She has not. I quote some. It is translated by Daniel- but I cannot remember “Ladinsky”, his surname, until later. She goes to talk to a man who nearly fell on the stairs. “You could go down the ramp,” she says helpfully. He had not seen it.

Jewish translator, I say, but she is engaged elsewhere.

Coming forth by day

File:BD Ani before Osiris.jpg

Ptolemaic BD 1 Ptolemaic BD 2The Book of Coming Forth by Day is the Ancient Egyptian guide for the soul, coming into the radiance of Re the Sun, Creator and King of the Gods, after the death of the body. The first such spells are more than five thousand years old.

The earliest extant spells for the dead are the Pyramid Texts, first found carved on the wall of the burial chamber of King Wenis, last ruler of the fifth dynasty, around 2345 BC. One of the spells tells the king to cast the sand from his face, thought to be an allusion to burial in the desert, the practice in the Pre-dynastic period. Others indicate that the King will live among the stars, an earlier belief than life with the Sun.

From the Middle Kingdom, around 2000 BCE, the spells were carved into the coffins of the middle classes. Osiris takes the role of judge of the dead, and the deceased is referred to as Osiris[name]. It is suggested that the Judgment of the Dead was preached as a response to the breakdown of order in the First Intermediate Period, when the rulers of nomes, or regions, ceased to submit to a central King. These Coffin Texts portray an afterlife where the deceased had to work as peasant farmers, to grow food, as in life. To avoid the work, they had shabti figurines placed in the coffins, who would come to life and do it for them.

From the New Kingdom, 1550-1069 BCE, the spells were written on papyrus scrolls, and from the Late Period, about 664 BCE, the order of the spells and their number was fixed at 192. Some of these spells dated from the Pyramid Texts, including spell 174 resurrecting the spirit. In spell 177 the sky-goddess Nut praises the deceased as a Power whom the Nine Gods raise up with their hands. Spell 178 provides for his provisions: he shall swallow the Eye of Horus. Re the Sun commends him to the House of Bread, and takes the deceased with him across the sky, that he might eat and drink at Re’s feasts.

File:Osiris-padiamenet-2.jpgOther spells tell of the judgment of the dead. He passes through the Hall of Justice, where 42 named judges gulp down the blood of those who cherish evil. He justifies himself before each of those judges in turn: O Far-strider who came forth from Heliopolis, I have done no falsehood… O Doubly evil who came forth from Andjet, I have not disputed except as concerned my own property. Most of the accounts are denials, but the deceased also claims virtue: I live on truth, I gulp down truth… I have propitiated God with what he desires; I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and a boat to him who was boatless, I have given god’s offerings to the gods… I am pure of mouth and pure of hands. The spell invokes a blessing on the scribe, who shall be ushered in with the Kings to the suite of Osiris: a matter a million times true.

Source: Translation by R.O. Faulkner, introduction by Carol Andrews, Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Hymn to the Aten

stela of akhenaten and nefertiti

akhenaten worshiping atenHere is the Great Hymn to the Aten, translated by Miriam Lichtheim; also here.

God is the Lifegiver, and when God turns his face away, we are blind and incapable; then when God appears, we are enabled to live our lives.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the horizon, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

This is not literally true: in the night time, there is moonlight and starlight. Rather it is a picture of our dependence on God: without God, we are nothing, and can do nothing.

The trees and the birds depend on God. God makes us grow in our mothers’ wombs, and chicks in the egg. God rules all lands, and makes all that they need for them. God decrees that foreigners have different skin, and different languages; God cares for them differently, because God makes Egypt fertile with a flood from the Underworld, a flood from the Bust of Nefretiti, wife of AkhenatenNile, and foreign lands fertile by a flood from the sky, which is the Rain. This contrasts with the earlier idea that foreigners were the enemy, part of the forces of chaos against the Gods’ civilisation in Egypt.

God is the creator of all:

You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far,
and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns, fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create … alone, what you have made.

This is a hymn of praise, for God gives all we need. There is only one request in it: shine, and strengthen (all for) the king. At the end comes a description of the king, Akhenaten, the son of God:

Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.

I tend to think that Psalm 104 is independent of this, and no rip-off: a better analogy is convergent evolution. Both writers seek to praise God the ruler of the Universe and fount of all life. Akhenaten’s successors sought to expunge his beliefs, and razed his temples. Moses, traditionally associated with the Ramessid kings, was perhaps a henotheist: he worshipped only one God, but believed the gods of other tribes existed.

Monotheism in Egypt


AkhenatenAkhenaten, the first monotheist, had a belief and ritual system very close to that of his predecessors. His rule began around 1352 BC, when Egypt enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity. It had hegemony as far north as Canaan and an alliance with Mitanni to the north. Rather than seeing foreigners as the enemy forces of chaos, a view of them as also God’s creation was developing.

Akhenaten was at first the fourth king of the name Amenhotep, which includes the God-name Amun. Originally a local god of Thebes, Amun had become identified with Ra the Sun-god, portrayed as a man with the head of a falcon and the sun-disc above it. Osiris, God of the Underworld, was an aspect of Ra, and increasingly Ra was seen as the creator-God, with other gods aspects of him, or his created beings. Akhenaten’s god Aten was the sun, with the official name The Living One, Ra-Horus of the horizon who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disc, commonly shortened to The Sun-disc, or Aten.

Amenhotep III was seen as the son of Amun-Ra, born of the Queen-mother in a sacred marriage ritually reenacted annually. Burger_AkhenatenHowever, Akhenaten built his own capital city, Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten” where the Aten manifests itself daily. Aten was depicted as a disc emitting rays ending in hands touching the king and queen, Aten’s children, and their family. All other gods, even seen as emanations of Aten, were banned.

Akhenaten was depicted with wide hips, feminine breasts and an elongated face. This style of depiction, as was usual, spread to depictions of his subjects. Portraits showed the royal family kissing and embracing, which was unprecedented. The informality and freedom of expression was a lasting influence for centuries. No statue of the God Aten was necessary: Aten was visible in the sky. The light of the Sun nourished all things continually.

Daily, the King rode by chariot along the 3.5km Royal Road from his riverside palace to the seat of government, symbolising the rising of the Sun. Akhenaten was “the creative manifestation of the Aten” through whom the God did his work. The king demanded total loyalty and worship. The dead existed in the roofless temple with Aten and the king.

After Akhenaten’s death, his cult was expunged. The boy-king Tutenkhaten’s name was adjusted to contain that of the old god, Tutenkhamun. The court moved back to Memphis and the religious centre to Thebes. Akhetaten and its temples were destroyed. The Hittites had defeated Egypt’s northern ally Mitanni, and Egyptian armies in the north failed- a sign that the Gods had deserted Egypt. It is likely that Akhenaten’s body was removed to a small undecorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Here is a translation of the Great Hymn to the Aten, our source for Akhenaten’s doctrines. As before, this post is taken from the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Mummy portraitThere are records of Egyptian civilisation going back three millennia before the Roman conquest in 33BC, with nothing to say of the Flood, or the Tower of Babel, or the Exodus; and I write as an excuse to exhibit this gorgeous mummy portrait, encaustic from the third century.

Onywye. Bishop Ussher, and Answers in Genesis, put the flood at 2450 BC or 2348 BC. Other literalists put it as early as 3835 BC. By Genesis 11:10-32 there were nine generations between Shem son of Noah and Abraham, or 292 years after the Flood. Sometime in this, the Tower of Babel story happened (Genesis 11:1-9) though Genesis 10:31 describes separate peoples with separate languages as the descendants of Joktan, five generations below Shem. It is hard not to see contradictions in all this. Ussher put the Tower of Babel at 2242 BC, and claimed God appeared to Moses in the burning bush in 1491 BC.

3835 BC is in the Naqada 1 period of Upper Egypt, before writing. Naqada is a cemetery of three thousand graves discovered in 1892. The Fayum-13burials are simple: the body lies in the foetal position wrapped in animal skin, with simple offerings of flint knives, ivory combs, and pottery. The graves were dated initially by the pottery, which Flinders Petrie hypothesised evolved gradually from globular vessels with functional handles to cylindrical forms with decorative handles.

2348 BC is the Fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, when Unas was king. (Pharaoh was a title from the New Kingdom.) Egyptian dates may be fifty years out at this period, and Unas was the last king of the fifth dynasty, succeeded by Teti. Dynastic numbering comes from Manetho, a historian from the 3rd century BC. However Teti’s chief wife was probably Unas’s daughter, and the change in numbering may come from moving the site of the royal palace, rather than a Flood.Mummy portrait

In 1491 BC the king was Thutmose II. At this time Egypt, united and prosperous, had conquered the Mediterranean coast as far north as Syria, where the trade routes from Mesopotamia to Africa circled the Arabian desert. Fleeing, Moses would have had to go a lot further than the Red Sea to evade the king (still not a Pharaoh). Egyptian records are not noted for candour: they boast of conquests, with pictures of a huge king bestriding tiny corpses of enemies, even where context indicates defeat; but there is no indication of ten plagues, or the deaths of the firstborn.

Ramesses II built the new capital of Piramesse in the 13th century BC, thought to be the city named in Exodus 1:11. At the end of that century, the Merenptah victory stele has the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records.

What have I achieved: not just mockery of literalist Biblical interpretation, but contrasting it with patient reasoning from archaeological evidence. This post is worth seeing for those pictures, made centuries after the real events described: especially the first, whose painter well those passions read, which yet survive. I have taken facts from The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, and worthless gibbering from Answers in Genesis.

The Eloquent Peasant

Papyrus of the tale

Amenemhat_IIIThe tale of the Eloquent Peasant is a story from the Middle Kingdom, about 1800 BC. It is funny, thought provoking and affecting. Read it. It tells of a peasant, Khun Anup, whose donkeys and goods are stolen by a wicked servant, Nemtinakht. The peasant pleads, eloquently, for justice from the servant’s employer, the noble Rensi son of Meru, who shows him off to the Pharaoh, but eventually gives him justice. This is an older translation of parts of it.

The steward does not merely steal the goods. He lays his cloak on the path, so that Khun Anup must either trample it or drive his donkeys over the fields. A donkey eats a stalk of barley, so the steward takes the donkey. That is, rather than simply taking the goods and lying about how he obtained them or on what basis, he engineers a situation where he pretends to have a complaint against the peasant which justifies his theft.

The peasant’s speeches concern the relation of rulers and ruled, which is of mutual obligation. It is for the ruler to do right and give justice. The elites reading and hearing the story would laugh at the cheekiness of the peasant, and part of the joke is that peasants rarely have the gift of the gab, but would hear these persuasive arguments. The tale helps the powerful to know their obligations.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f2/P1070007_Louvre_S%C3%A9sostris_III_jeune_E12960_rwk.JPG/492px-P1070007_Louvre_S%C3%A9sostris_III_jeune_E12960_rwk.JPGFirst he pleads with Nemtinakht, who ignores him. Then pleads with Rensi the high steward’s other servants, and they say, well, so what? So Khun Anup approaches Rensi. He praises him as just, and tells of his misery. The King tells Rensi to ensure Khun Anup has enough to eat, but wants to hear further.

Khun Anup proclaims that when wrong is done, words lose their meaning and the world is upside down. If the governor orders theft, then no-one will prevent evil. So the governor who condones wrong is acting against his own interests. The peasant compares the lord to Gods, who maintain the world. If he does wrong, then no-one is safe.

Rensi orders that Khun Anup be beaten, but Khun Anup still pleads his cause. Not just the peasant is harmed, but Goodness itself. A wrong unpunished multiplies. The ruler who does not correct it is complicit in the wrong. If the judge does not punish evil, no-one will.

Your neglect will lead you astray, your avarice will befool you, and your greed will make you acquire enemies.

When you are buried in the earth, your goodness will be remembered. (This surprises me, as the Afterlife was so important.) Eventually, the peasant says that the one standing against the righteous pleader is a murderer: he will plead his case with Anubis, god of the dead.

Rensi sends men after Khun Anup, which terrifies him: he prays for death. But Rensi gives him justice against Nemtinakht.

A happy ending. Or- wait! Nemtinakht made up a ridiculous story that Khun Anup’s donkeys had trampled his fields and eaten his crop. But how do we know that?

Fragments of a story

File:Hierakonpolis khasekhemuy.jpg“The Two Lords are at peace in him.” How do we grope towards learning the meaning of that?

Most of the remains of the Early Dynastic period of Egypt are tombs. Has economics always been about waste? Now, Chinese make televisions which must be superseded and replaced every three years, and Britain spends on nuclear submarines, then craftsmen made beautiful things to bury in tombs, such as that of Khasekhemwy in the early dynastic period (before 2686BC) which had 58 rooms in a gallery 68m long and 39.4m wide at its widest point. The division between the Early Dynastic and the Old Kingdom is modern- the kings were related- but justified by King Djoser’s innovation in tomb architecture, his step pyramid, 109x125x63m and clad in polished white limestone.

Flinders Petrie in the 19th century proposed a way of arranging the chronology of the Naqada period, the fourth millennium BC, by the development of ceramics, and this has been supplemented but not superseded by dendrochronology, carbon dating and thermoluminescence. We can know so much: but writing begins to tell stories.

The earliest surviving writing includes the names of kings in the Serekh, as on the Narmer Palette. The serekh is at the top between the Goddess heads: the cone is the name, under a bird- we read back later symbols, and say this is the falcon Horus. The cricket-stumps to either side are colonnades, representing the palace. File:Edwin Longsden Long - Alethe Attendant of the Sacred Ibis in the Temple of Isis at.jpgWriting began in Naqada III, around 3200-3000 BC. Hieroglyphs survive on the seals of the king and his officers, their names and titles, and identifying goods and their places of origin. Texts ordered by grammar came later. From the middle of the first dynasty there are symbols for the year of the king’s reign.

Khasekhemwy’s predecessor, Peribsen, used a serekh surmounted by the hound or jackal symbolising Seth rather than the usual falcon of Horus. I thought Seth the Enemy, first from Doctor Who- The Pyramids of Mars– and then Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings. He sought to destroy his brother Osiris, but Isis collected Osiris’ body-parts and resurrected him as Horus. We know these stories from documents such as The Contendings of Horus and Seth, but that is 1600 years later.

An enemy God but a blood relation: in such stories Gods could symbolise tribes or individuals, as Robert Graves reports in The Greek Myths. In Khasekhemwy, the two lords- Horus and Seth?- are at peace. By reconciliation, or by conquest? By reconciliation, I say: it is my character to prefer reconciliation to conquest; but also in the Narmer Palette and elsewhere I see kings destroying their enemies, clubbing them, trampling their corpses, and there are those headless corpses carefully laid out for ritual- so, for conquest “The One Lord is Supreme” seems more likely to me.

“The Two Lords are at peace in him.” I know almost nothing of Khasekhemwy. I have taken much of this from The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, but my understanding, and my writing, is filtered through me.

The Narmer Palette

Here is the Narmer Palette, a marvel more than five thousand years old.

Narmer_Palette 1

The largest figure is of course the King, appearing as in Egyptian art for millennia after: the head is side on, one eye looking directly outwards; the torso faces us, and the legs walk to one side. Above him are two human-faced bovine heads, perhaps the Goddess Bat, whose horns provide the shape: between them is a Serekh of the King’s name. The falcon Horus with a human left hand pulls up the nose of an enemy. The King holds a kneeling enemy by the hair, hand upraised to strike. Men sprawl dead at his feet.


The King processes with standard bearers towards bound corpses, laid out ritually, their heads placed between their ankles. The ship, falcon and harpoon may be their city. The long necked lions are common in Mesopotamian art from 3500-3000 BCE, as well as ancient Egypt: I love the movement of their confrontation, contrasting with the circle- symbol of Eternity?- formed by their necks.

I saw it in Alastair Sooke’s Treasures of Ancient Egypt, and got the picture and much of the description from Wikipedia.

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Order and chaos

let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace

There are two creation myths in the Bible. In Genesis 1, God created the Heavens and the formless, dark Earth, and then made it as we see it, and human beings on the sixth day. In Genesis 2, God made Adam in a land without rain, but with rivers watering it, and without animals or plants. In both, God is in command entirely.

Other myths tell of creation from chaos in struggle. The Mesopotamian God Marduk killed the mother goddess Tiamat, and used her body to create the Heavens and the Earth. For the Egyptians, the Earth emerged from an infinite, lifeless sea, and then the first God, the Sun, emerged from the Earth; but there are many creation myths in Egypt, and in one, four male and four female gods in the primeval waters of chaos come together in a great upheaval, bringing forth the Earth. Or Ptah formed the world as an idea in his heart, which came into existence as he named it.

My source for the Greeks is Robert Graves, who recounts differing myths. Eurynome, the Goddess of all things, rose from the Chaos of the sea. Her dancing created the North Wind, which coupled with her. She laid the egg from which hatched all things: the Earth, the sun and stars, and all living creatures. Or the Wind courted the Night, who laid a silver egg from which hatched Eros, who created Earth, Sky, Sun and Moon. Or Gaia emerged from Chaos, and bore her son Uranus, who fathered giants and Cyclopes on her, and Chronos the father of the Gods.

The poet Ovid, born just before the end of the Republic, said Nature, or the God of All Things, appeared suddenly in Chaos, and created and ordered the Earth and the Heavens.

In the sagas, in the beginning was the Ice of the North and the Fire of the South, and in the middle a great Gap. A glacier from the north melted in the heat of the south, and the drips formed a Giant and a cow. The father of the Gods was freed from the ice, licked by the cow. The Gods defeated the Giants, and built the Earth. But Yggdrasil, the World Tree, covers and surrounds everything. It always was, and always will be.

For the People of the Book, Jews, Christians and Moslems, God is Eternal and beyond the Universe, and creates Order. We reach ordered lives obeying God. For these other myths, the Gods emerge within the Universe, and at Ragnarok the Gods will die in the destruction of all things.

In Plato’s symposium, Aristophanes tells how human beings originally had four arms and four legs, and two faces. We did not walk, we cartwheeled. There were three types: the Children of the Sun, who were male; the Children of the Earth, who were female; and the Children of the Moon who were half male, half female. But humans were uppity, and the Gods were afraid, so split each person in two. And ever since, the half-humans have sought their other half, and when they find each other they cling together and will not let go. Have a look at the song in the comments: Thank you, Guy.

More from that hymn:

 Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!