In considering the confrontation between the two opposing concepts of the “unity” and “multiplicity” of the divine in ancient Egypt, we must begin with some of the intellectual modes of thought in that culture. To begin with, Egyptian religious philosophy did not employ abstraction but used a concrete vocabulary. It defined from the external and the global a reality—here, a divinity—with the aid of images that complete and correct each other. As a consequence, this mode of thinking is a stranger to the principle of contradiction and postulates simple identities. In ancient Egypt, the principle of “identity” had far wider application than in our culture, resulting in what Henri Frankfort called a “multiplicity of approaches.” Facts do not exclude one another, but are added in layers, doing justice to the multiple facets of reality. This art of combining rests on the capacity of an entity to manifest itself in different forms: one divinity may be taken for the manifestation of another. Finally, thought and utterance are seen as creative. In the Memphite doctrine, the operative mode of the creator god is thought, which resides in the heart, which in turn is informed by the senses—and thought is executed in language. This results in a creation, through the word of the elements of the world, which the god Ptah named after having perceived and thought them—an intellectual concept without precedent, completed by the creative value of the image. The image of the gods is an extension of reality that goes beyond representation. On the one hand, there is a plurality of meanings of images and objects; on the other, the performative character of word and image.

Concept of God.

The hieroglyph for “god” has been described as a “staff wrapped in cloth”—“whose extremity projects like a flap or a streamer.” Hornung (1986) specified that the “cult drape or curtain,” is doubtless a secondary form, and that the original model was rather a stick wrapped in bands or ribbons and thus charged with strength or power. This hieroglyph then suggests the veneration of inanimate objects or a representation of a cult object whose derivatives were drapes and other streamers. At the same time, there is evidence of the veneration of divinities in the form of animal figures perched on a staff. Several centuries later, the anthropomorphic forms of gods appear in depictions.

The application of etymology to comprehend the Egyptian notion of “god” (nṯr) produces hypotheses that are sometimes seductive but rarely convincing. It is more interesting to study the use of the word nṯr. The plural may refer to a limited group of gods at a specific location or region, or gathered into a particular theology, or to the totality of all Egyptian gods. The dual form was applied exclusively to divine pairs, such as Horus and Seth, “the two masters,” or to “the two ladies”—Isis and Nephthys or Nekhbet and Ouadjet—to designate the titular divinities of Upper and Lower Egypt. Important to an understanding of divinity is the use of the singular without reference to a particular god. The absolute form is found in the names of persons, in titles, and in Wisdom texts. Names including the word nṯr indicate a relationship between a person and a particular individual divinity to which the person giving the name to his child alludes. In the ecclesiastic title “servant of god,” the use of the word nṯr is so generic that it can also be applied to a goddess; it is used in a vague sense to designate certain specific divinities. In the Wisdom texts, we find a preference for the indefinite word nṯr instead of the names of individual gods. The reason for this is that the Wisdom texts were written for professional purposes, usually to instruct a son or a successor; far from being treatises that pose axioms and definitions, these texts are meant as practical advice for students. They contain descriptions of specific situations and detail the preparations necessary for entering into contact with a god, whose identity will depend on the locality where the apprentice official finds himself established. Thus, the word nṯr in the Wisdom texts is by no means to be interpreted as the unique God of monotheism; rather, this is the god that the student will encounter in his professional life.

Aside from this pragmatic polytheism, from the middle of the second millennium BCE onward the priestly elite made a genuine attempt to define divinity. The god Amun could be described both in his immanence as “prodigious in transformations” and also in his transcendence in a manner that recalls great monotheisms: unknown, distant, and unapproachable, Amun is “he who hides from the gods, his appearance is unknown, he is farther than the highest heaven” (Leyde Papyrus, end of the eighteenth dynasty). Derchain (1981) has shown that the sun hymns studied by Assmann, according to whom a “crisis in the polytheistic philosophy of life” occurred in the Ramessid era, were written according to a body of century-old archival texts. They did not constitute an “intangible canon” and became a reservoir from which the theologians drew to transform the initial concepts, by correlating and modifying expressions. The text engenders knowledge and allows one to move from familiar expressions to the formulation of a new conceptual apparatus in relation with history. Every divine quality remains open to new interpretation, which retroactively redefines the known qualities, making more severe the uncertainty with regard to the ultimate nature of the god.

Transcendent in his demi-urgic pre-existence, Amun is immanent in his manifestations. The paradox is important: it expresses the passage from non-time to time.

Multiplicity of the Divine.

Are the gods alone at the heart of the divine sphere? More precisely, is there a diversity of the divine—and what kinds of divinities are encountered among the Egyptian gods, the god-king, and the sacred animals?

From the first dynasties onward a cult developed based on the images of living kings and their predecessors. Ancestry and the veneration of the reigning king were used to reinforce the monarchy. In the Sinai during the twelfth dynasty, Senwosret II surrounded his statue with those of Montuhotep I, Montuhotep II, and Amenemhet I; in another depiction, an expedition leader offers pieces of turquoise to Amenemhet II wearing the crown of Soped, the god of the Arabian borderlands. These are revealing instances of commemorating royal deeds—note the divine nature which the turquoise confers on the king.

In the New Kingdom, the Akhmenu at Karnak is the building with the most complete ensemble of ancestral kings ever assembled by a living king: sixty-one. Thutmose III brings to them “the offering given by the king,” and they participate in processions inside the building as do the statues of the gods. The Great Sphinx at Giza, probably sculpted in the image of Khafre and restored by Thutmose IV, is given the name Harmakhis (“Horus-in-the-horizon”) Khepre-Re-Atum, a manifestation of its divine character and of the influence of the clergy of Heliopolis. The solar aspect of the sovereign, beginning with Amenhotpe III, leads to the veneration of the living king in colossi erected at either side of the temple entrance, in which the spirits that inhabit the king are incarnated; they carry the name of the king linked to that of Re: “Amenhotpe-sun-of-sovereigns,” “Ramesses-beloved-of-Atum.” Ramesses II, who established a cult to his own likeness, becomes of necessity a servant of his own image for the perpetual cult, thus engendering a functional dislocation in the person of the king. During the reign of Ramesses II, the image of the sovereign wearing the atef-crown merged with the dyads consisting of the principal Egyptian gods. The statue sometimes carries a name: “Living-image-of-Ramesses-beloved-of-Amun”—that is to say, image of himself. He is even identified (by osmosis, as it were) with Re-Horakhty in a relief above the entrance door to the temple of Abu Simbel, showing a falcon-headed figure crowned with the sun disk and holding a scepter (wsr) in one hand and the feather of Maat in the other, a rebus of the crown name of the king: User-Maat-Re (Wsr-mʒʿt-rʿ). On the one hand, the efficacy expected of the king is comparable to that of Re, the luminous god who repels the enemies of Egypt into the shadows; the king and Re collaborate in the magical protection of the lands of Nubia. On the other hand, the king, who is not the god, is the sign of the efficacy of the god's power, which requires royal intermediation to be actualized.

It must be understood that the “divinized” kings who created a cult of their deified images differ from the gods, in whom this dislocation between being and image does not exist. In this respect, kings can be likened to the sacred animals—not the species protected by a taboo, but the unique animals, chosen for veneration, which succeed their deceased predecessors in the same manner as royalty does. Enthroned, sometimes given grand funerals and rituals of passage like kings, they are equally depositories of the divine presence: the animal's body is the receptacle of divinity. In the end, however, the divinity of kings and animals alike derived from the gods and is therefore not original. If kings and sacred animals can be compared to gods, the resemblance lies only in the identity of their situations: both preside over the destinies of a world, but the worlds in question are not the same. Mortal kings and sacred animals are not confused with a god who is perpetually present, despite intermittency.

The representations of Egyptian gods and their names confirm the multiplicity of the divine nature. Anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, composite, the gods change form among many bodies, heads, and attributes; there is no canon of divine representation. With the exception of the iconography of Anubis as a dog and that of Taweret in a body composite of hippopotamus, lion, and crocodile, Egyptian divinities are “rich in manifestations” and “of numerous faces,” so the inscribed name frequently provides the only means of recognizing Isis or Hathor. The numerous forms of the gods are limited, though: Thoth never takes the form of a tree or a snake. The boundaries of the individuality of gods prevents infinite actualization and forbids certain manifestations so as to prevent a progression toward complete pantheism. This process of creating divine representations correlates with an “anthropomorphization of powers” (Hornung 1986) during the first dynasties, contemporaneous with the end of the practice of forming kings' names from animal names. Man passes from a world in which he does not live in opposition to nature—a universe that shares power with the animal, which was the highest referent of strength—into a world where man submits the universe to his capacity for organization.

The multiplicity of names for a divinity is another fundamental characteristic. Litanies are sung to Osiris under all his names. On the architraves of the first hypostyle hall at Edfu, the “Powerful Ones” taking the form of Hathor receive as many epithets as there are days in the year and, the astronomical calendar being divided in two parts, each epithet has two variants. The gods are “rich in names” and these are innumerable, as in the case of Amun, “whose number [of names] is unknown.” The names of the gods are open repertories, even if certain names—such as the “secret name”—enjoy an exceptional status, which protects one who retains it from any annexation of his power; by contrast, the formula “I know you, knowing your name,” protects the traveler in the underworld from demons. The multiple epithets of a god whom one invokes, far from being exclusive to that god, are transferable to other gods. The notion of identity is not limited by strict outlines and reveals itself as an expandable concept. A god may even leave his own “body” and temporarily inhabit that of another god.

Finally, a major question of the history of religion, and one not limited to ancient Egypt, is that of why and how a god from one location moves from his place of origin to other places. How do the specific attributes of an ancient god from one place change, allowing the accretion of new attributes and a new ubiquity for the god?

In local theologies surrounding the god of Athribis in the Nile Delta, a double effort at synthesis is made; this effort aims to unify the multiple local traditions in the sphere of the principal gods of the nome (province) and to give to the cult of these gods a sense of belonging to the mainstream of the “national” religion. The goal is to inform the idiosyncrasy and thought spread throughout Egypt. With time, this reveals itself not as the irreducible expression of a single protohistoric cult, but rather as a continuous speculative effort to express the power of local divinities, across temporal evolution and alongside other local divinities. In the act of adoration, power is concentrated in the chosen god whom one addresses, and any other gods become insignificant. In this sense, the god to whom one speaks is the “first”—hence the term “henotheism,” to describe the veneration of one god at a time, who is nevertheless not unique.

Ancient Egyptian theologians utilized the legend of the dismembered god Osiris to unify Egypt. Through the expedient word plays conflating geographic terms and parts of the human body, any nome might become a place where the divine body of Osiris, torn apart by Seth, and dispersed across Egypt, might be restored. This egalitarian and unifying point of view undoubtedly explains the extraordinary prevalence of Osirian mythology in Ptolemaic temples, one characteristic of which is to manifest Egyptian “nationalism.”

In addition to these pan-Egyptian theological reflections, an anthropomorphic concept of the structure of the world led the Egyptians to assimilate deceased persons with deities responsible for cows, milk, grain, or clothing, or otherwise connected to production. The domains of human activity are also personified; the spirit of fishing in a duck-headed body; Reneutet, the harvest goddess; or Hedjhotep and Tait, the spirits of weaving. There are gods of the administrative regions of Egypt, the forty-two nomes, as well as of other aspects of the physical world: Heb and Sekhet, the spirits of the marshes; Hapy, the spirit of water for agriculture; Ou, the arable soil of the nome; Mer, the canal or the portion of the Nile that crosses it; Pehu, the fringes or green parts of the marsh, refuge for fish and birds; Wadj-ur, the “Very-green,” that is the ocean; and the four spirits of the winds. These geographical personifications, derived from a taxonomy of the physical world, frequently appear on the base of temples, close to the fertile soil. This peopling of the invisible enabled Egyptians to enter into dialogue with the forces of nature and to tame them. Guilty of abusing nature, they asked for its consent to take from it what it contains.

Nontranscendence of the Divine.

The immanence of gods is especially noticeable in The Contendings of Horus and Seth, a long account of the succession conflict between Horus, son and rightful successor of Osiris, and Seth, Osiris' brother and a counter-claimant. Their rivalry for the royal role of Osiris is fought out in front of the tribunal of the Ennead, which, in its enlarged form, consists of some thirty divine members who are lazy, fickle, and prone to human frailties. This anthropomorphism also characterizes the gods as having an appetite for power and all its attendant vices, a viewpoint that extends to their physical aspect. The gods of this account are equipped with human bodies, although free of human weaknesses and limitations. The visibility of these bodies is the first hint that they lack complete transcendence: Thoth places on his head a disk of gold taken from the forehead of Seth. The battle equipment—Seth's “scepter of four thousand five hundred nemes,” Horus's “knife of sixteen debens”—demonstrates that the use of arms is an expression of the energy of the gods. The abilities of the gods, while exceptional, once again bring them closer to mankind, since they are described in terms of a human body: longevity, in a process that has lasted eighty years; the ubiquity of their adventures on Earth, from fields, woods, and mountains to the depths of the oceans and the sky; reversible wounds, without bleeding or scars, and short-lived amputations; tirelessness; and even triumph over death (the decapitated Isis reappears intact in a subsequent episode)—with the exception of Osiris. Finally, the appearance of the gods is a finely drawn evocation of human bodies that are not directly described. Horus and Seth are “mysterious in form,” and Horus appears in his veil of light on the day of coronation. Yet this heroic attenuation still makes reference to the human body: hands, semen, eyes, head, and the infirmity of Horus are mentioned. It makes reference to human behaviors and reactions: speech and tears, the greediness and brutality of Seth, the fury and weariness of Horus, the subtle intelligence of Isis, and the inertia of the creator god. The human body of a god is at times replaced by that of an animal—the hippopotamus for Seth, and the kite for Isis—as the god attempts to be elusive. The human body is also liable to metamorphosis through aging, as when Isis, “young girl of beautiful body,” changes into “a bent old woman” to aid the just cause of her son Horus through her deceptions; or through transsubstantiation, when Isis turns into a statue of flint, or when the dead god Osiris “feeds on gold and precious stones.”

The immanence expressed in the likening of gods to man is revealing, with regard to the divisions of the divine—that is to say, its fragmentation. The ontological approach to the problem of the one and the many in the cosmogony texts that elaborate on the Pyramid Texts provides a good insight into the struggles attendant on the hereditary transfer of the royal function. The “enemy brothers” Horus and Seth, in reality nephew and uncle embroiled in eternal conflict, reflect the “complementary duality of the world and the necessity for constant confrontation” (Hornung 1986). Ancient Egyptians held a negative view with regard to the natural course of human life, which took place in a world that was originally uninhabitable and could be made harmonious only through tireless efforts. There is no doubt that hereditary monarchy was the order intended by the gods, in order to establish maat, the correct order of the world. This myth was therefore a meditation on the relationships between force and right through the medium of the divine antagonists, Horus and Seth.

Two aspects of divine fragmentation include (1) the ancient formulation of the trinity of gods and (2) the underlying proto-arithmetic thought in constituting the Ennead of Heliopolis. The triad of Amun-Re-Ptah appears on the trumpets of the funeral equipment of Tutankhamun, but the Hymn of Leyde to Amun (end of the eighteenth dynasty) is the first known textual formulation of the trinity of these three gods: “All gods are three … His name is hidden as Amon. He is Re (before men). His body is Ptah. Their cities on Earth remain for ever: Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis, for all eternity.” The plural “all gods” is followed by a singular pronoun that carries a specific name, and the cult sites remain distinct. Yet the text does not say that “god reveals himself in three forms,” as is emphasized by Hornung (1986). In effect, there is no text in which the unique god is designated by the name of “god.” Undoubtedly, Egyptian thinkers came close to remaking the traditional religion, but they were not yet ready to unify that which appeared irreconcilable—the various manifestations of a unique sun god—in order to go beyond the models inherited from ancient times.

The Heliopolitan cosmogony, behind its genealogical presentation composed of three generations, contains the elements of a proto-arithmetic. When the autogenous demi-urge forms Shu and Tefnut, each of the gods becomes one-third of the universe: “When he (Atum) begat Shu and Tefnut, when he was One and became Three.” This reasoning by means of dividing the unity applies to subsequent generations, when Geb and Nut, the issue of Shu and Tefnut, and then their four children, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, each become one-fifth and one-ninth part of the world, respectively. The mathematical sequence 1–3–5–9 governs the first increments of the world. The multiplicity is seen, by giving preference to fractions with a numerator of one, as the decomposition of a sum, and thus the choice is made for an arithmetic of identity. The Egyptians were surely aware of the exponential sequence 1–2–4–8, etc., as the unlimited incremental law of the universe. After the demi-urge, Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, and their four children, “it was their children who created the crowd of forms existing in this world in the shape of children and grandchildren” (Bremner Rhind Papyrus). This sequence that doubles at each stage is an instrument indicative of the dynamic future, that of a universe in expansion. And yet, the ancient Egyptians preferred—in order to verify that their national state conformed to the initial intentions of the creator god—to use their knowledge of fractions to imagine the following result: Atum, uncreated and without beginning, takes Osiris with him into a distant future where nothing changes (Book of Going Forth by Day [Book of the Dead], chapter 125), that is, to the original point of departure.

All these are indications that the religious universe of Egypt is unlike the Cartesian system, wherein God is uniquely transcendent. The “absolute” was not a necessary attribute of the divine, even though Egyptian thinkers were able to perceive their gods as transcendent and to express this at certain stages of their history.

See also CULTS, the overview article and articles on royal, private, divine, and animal cults; DEITIES; DEMONS; KINGSHIP; MONOTHEISM; RELIGION; and articles on individual deities.


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  • Caquot, André. “Les découvertes de Ras Shamra.” Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Letres 19 (1983), 3–12. The author investigates whether Israelite monotheism may not in fact be a reformation of the ancient religion of Ugarit.
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  • Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation. New York, 1948.
  • Hornung, Erik. Les dieux de l'Égypte: Le Un et le Multiple. Monaco, 1986. An excellent synthesis.
  • Meeks, Dimitri. Génies, anges et démons en Égypte. Sources orientales, 8. Paris, 1971.
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  • Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. La vie quotidienne des dieux égyptiens. Paris, 1993. This work in two parts describes the daily tribulations of an agitated and querulous divine community (D. Meeks) as well as the fascinating rituals of the monarchy and the gods (C. Favard-Meeks).
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  • Van der Leeuw, G. La religion dans son essence et ses manifestations. Paris, 1970. This summary of religious sciences is intended for prehistorians, experts in the history of religion and liturgy, and anthropologists. Although quite old, the work is still a valuable reference book owing to its interesting and original approach to the phenomenon of religion.
  • Yoyotte, Jean. “La pensée préphilosophique en Égypte.” In Histoire de la philosophie, vol. 1: Encyclopédie de la Pléiäde, edited by B. Parain, pp. 1–23. Paris, 1969.

Marie-Ange Bonhême; Translated from French by Elizabeth Schwaiger