Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

This is the third post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here and Part two can be read here


Temples were a part of Egyptian history from the very beginning, and could be found in most towns at the height of Egyptian civilization. There were both mortuary temples designed to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs, and temples dedicated to patron deities, although the difference wasn’t always clear because the concepts of divinity and kingship were so intimately intertwined.

For the most part, state-run temples were not meant to be places for the general public to worship. Instead, these temples functioned as houses for the deities, whose physical images, like statues, acted as their surrogates, and were cared for and given offerings accordingly. These services were considered necessary to sustain the deities, so that they, in turn, could maintain the universe itself. Thus, temples were fundamental to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, which included both large estates of their own, and donations from the monarchy. Pharaohs often expanded temple estates as part of their obligation to honor the deities, which resulted in many temples growing to enormous size. However, not all deities had temples dedicated to them, as many deities who were considered important in official theology were only minimally worshipped otherwise, and many household deities were the focus of universal reverence rather than temple ritual.

The earliest Egyptian temples were small, short-lived structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms they became more elaborate, and were increasingly built out of stone. By the New Kingdom, the standard temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to a sanctuary, which housed a statue of the temple’s deity. Admittance to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. In addition to the actual temple itself, temple complexes also included workshops and storage areas, and a library where the temple’s sacred writings and everyday records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning.

In theory, it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, since he was Egypt’s official representative to the deities. In reality, priests almost always carried out these ritual duties. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. It was not until the New Kingdom that professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests remained part-time. Temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters for temple ceremonies. Outside the temple itself were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple’s needs, and farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple’s income. As a result, large temples were very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.

Egyptian Temple Rituals 

State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a particular deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a celebration and ritual renewal of the pharaoh’s strength that took place after he had held the throne for thirty years, then every three or four years after that.

Temple rituals included rites that took place all across Egypt, and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single deity. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or occasionally. The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or sometimes the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the deity’s statue before presenting it with offerings. Once the deity had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were distributed among the priests.

There were still quite a few less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often went beyond simple offerings to the deities, and could involve anything from reenactments of particular myths to the symbolic destruction of the forces of chaos. Most of these events were likely celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually entailed a procession carrying the deity’s image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other meaningful sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners would gather to watch these processions, and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the deities on these occasions.

Sacred Sites, Magic, and Oracles

At many sacred sites, the ancient Egyptians worshipped individual animals, which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were chosen based on specific sacred markings, which were believed to demonstrate their suitability for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were chosen for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation.

The ancient Egyptians used oracles to ask deities for knowledge or guidance. These oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom onward, although it’s likely they appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the pharaoh, asked oracles questions and, especially in the late New Kingdom, their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. The most common way to consult an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and then interpret an answer from the barque’s movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing straws, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently channeled. The means of discerning the deity’s will conferred a great deal of influence onto the priests who channeled and interpreted the deity’s message.

Popular religious practices included ceremonies marking important transitions in life, such as birth – because of the danger involved in the process – and naming, because the name was believed to be a crucial part of a person’s identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul’s survival beyond it. Other religious practices sought to discern the deities’ will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpreting of dreams, which could be viewed as messages from the divine realm, and the consulting of oracles. People also attempted to affect the behavior of the deities, in order to benefit themselves, through magical rituals.

The word “magic” is the closest translation of the ancient Egyptian term heka. Heka was considered a natural phenomenon, the force that created the universe and which the deities used to work their will. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans could also use heka, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were considered to be magic. Individuals also frequently used magical techniques for personal goals. Although these purposes might harm others, no form of magic was considered harmful in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative occurrences.

Freemasons in The Trenches

Freemasons in The Trenches

I recently attended an M.P.S. Meetup where the topic was “Has War Ever Led to Good?” The presenter had a distinctive bent: absolutely not. The viewpoint was of a passionate pacifist and could only see the negative in war time situations. I felt I should be looking at the bigger picture – how war affects humanity – and the smaller picture – how it affects the individual. While many see the horror of war, there must be something good to also be found, right?

After this M.P.S., I attended a bluegrass festival, John McCutcheon played “Christmas In the Trenches,” based on a letter written by a WWI English private named Edgar Aplin, this song depicts a moment in a bitter and bloody war where two sides came together for a beautiful moment of humanity. John’s song brings about that moment of clarity that everyone thinks about: we’re killing other humans that are just like us. In a tragic war that left millions affected, there is a humanity that we can remember. The lyrics to the song are found here.

Prior to the recent M.P.S. meeting above, and then again after hearing this song again, I looked for incidents of this occurring amongst Freemasons; after all, who else thinks about humanity and the perfecting of it more than Freemasons? Not many. There are many ways in which Freemasons make it known that they are brothers, and perhaps there are moments of “truce” that exist, even if they are not as famous as the U.K. Sainsbury Ad that idealizes the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Some of the most deeply moving stories of Masonic fraternity are from the American Civil War. Author Greg Stewart has written a wonderful article on the American Civil War and Freemasons, found on the Sojourners website. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in history or Freemasonry to read it. He does cite his sources, which is helpful.

In short, the American Civil War tested our country’s ability to fight for what we believed in and at the same time show compassion to our fellow human beings. While it brought out some of the worst fighting, it also inspired the greatest passion to ease the suffering of individuals. Masons strive to erase that which divides us as people. For the fighting Brothers of this war, the inner turmoil must have been great.

The annals of WWI do not have much to say about Freemasonry’s involvement. In an interesting article on skirret.com, we have one author’s exploration into the world and Masonic view of the War. In the article we are given much about how the Lodges felt about the war, but we see little in the way of anecdotal evidence that the war was anything but divisive within the Fraternity. From the loss of recognition to the outright revoking of charters and hostility, even within Lodges in America, we see the seeds of bureaucratic response to the war rather than a human response.

During WWII, Freemasons were one of the persecuted groups under the Nazi regime. A truly wonderful article on this is noted here. Not only does it talk of the secret meetings of Freemasons, after the disbanding of traditional Freemasonry in Germany, but it also describes one of the Lodges that existed within the wire fences of a concentration camp. Another paper, titled “Masons At War: Freemasonry During World War Two,” by Mark Stanford, also documents the Masonic Service Centers that came into being during the war, to care for Service Members at home and overseas. Freemasonry has solidly moved to the larger good works of caring for the members of the armed services, but we rarely hear about the individual’s experience. While acts of heroism show up in small ways by European Freemasons, some documented in various places noted above, the North American experience seems small in comparison.

In looking toward Vietnam, the only real evidence of Freemason’s involvement has to do with, again, the care of wounded soldiers and care packages to military overseas. Military Lodges having long been either frowned upon or banned altogether, there seems to have been very few during WWI and none during the Vietnam era.

From Vietnam forward to today, there seems to be no further evidence of widespread Masonic response to war time situations, either in the form of relief for troops or support of overseas military. While they undoubtedly exist, there is little to record their greater-than-local involvement in war efforts.

A first thought was that the Morgan Affair changed how Americans view Freemasons. It certainly changed how Freemasons viewed themselves and their fraternity. However, we find evidence of individual Masonic charity examples all over the American Civil War, which took place after the Morgan Affair. While anti-Masonic sentiment was still high at this time, it did not seem to affect the person relationships that each man had with Freemasonry and how it affected his actions during the war. Freemasonry overcame bitter rivalry and hatred, and still burned an ideal in the hearts of these men.

Co-Masonry has been in existence in one form or another since the end of the 19th Century, beginning in France and spreading throughout the world. While the numbers were high in its first few decades, Co-Masonry began to decline by the start of WW2; in fact, the decline might have been there for all of Freemasonry. During the war, when Freemasonry was persecuted in Europe, many different Orders originating in Europe found themselves under scrutiny. Those Orders established in France had gone into hiding and Le Droit Humain, a co-Masonic order, was one of these Orders. After the war, Co-Masonry had found itself taken deeper root in countries outside of France and there was an interest in its alternative thought: women could be Freemasons along with Men.

The world was and is decidedly different since WWII. Women in American culture and perhaps in all cultures around the world are more often included rather than excluded. A balanced mindset, toward gender and equality, was perhaps creating a different view of what was needed in the perfection of humanity. In the cultural and societal churn that might be called the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” the world may be looking for new types of leaders who are finally inclusive of all humanity.

Warfare itself has changed. Gone are bayonets and buckshot, hand-to-hand fighting where the soldier met the face of their attacker. Warfare has become impersonal drones sending air strikes on faceless dots on a pixelated screen. While Freemasonry is perhaps becoming more inclusive while war is becoming more impersonal: a struggle perhaps looking for balance?

It seems we find ourselves at an interesting point in history: where the facelessness of war impacts our ability to counter it with “good.” Freemasons may need to look beyond the conventional methods of the Craft employed in the past to not only support humanity but find those things which unite rather than divide human beings. Freemasons perhaps need to look beyond the “care package” or “pancake breakfast” for the troops and train for “civil disobedience.” I do not disparage the good works for the service men and women that many fraternal groups supply. They are necessary and selfless, and inspire hope when there is none. However, perhaps Freemasons can do more. As seekers of Truth and proponents of education, they are uniquely suited to combat ignorance, fanaticism, and hatred which is the heart of war.

There will be another war. We are humans, after all. It seems to be as yet in our nature. Deciding to be a pacifist will not stop it. Deciding to hide from it or ignore our leaders will not stop it. The question is how can we prepare for it and will Freemasonry be there to shed Light? Learning to speak Truth is a far greater skill that may be necessary to counter modern military thinking. Perhaps learning to be wise philosophers is more important to stopping war before it starts.

Freemasonry and the Individual Collective

Freemasonry and the Individual Collective

In a recent conversation with a long-time Freemason, she mentioned that people misunderstand the meaning of being a Freemason, and what Freemasonry is really doing in the world. Deeper into the conversation, what she was talking about was the current trend of all this “personal journey” hubbub. A lot of people join Freemasonry to find a way to enlightenment or expand their consciousness or become a better person. When people join Freemasonry, they want to find something – spiritual awakenings, meaning, purpose, secrets, a way to some secret treasure, power, sometimes even a business partner. Some people want to join to find a mate or get rich. Yes, there’s every type of something out there that people are seeking. Yet, that’s not why Freemasonry exists. The tenets, rituals, symbols of Freemasonry do not speak to these personal journeys.

Freemasonry doesn’t exist for the individual. It exists for the individual collective. Taken another way, Freemasonry doesn’t care about your personal journey. Your personal path and reason for joining Freemasonry doesn’t matter. Really. It doesn’t.

Freemasonry’s goal is not to perfect the human. One stone a temple does not make. Freemasonry’s goal is to “perfect humanity.” To perfect humanity, it needs a group of individuals that are willing to work and abide by its principles. Freemasonry’s principles are not those of a specific individual, religion, or philosophy. These principles are moral and ethical in nature; morality and ethical behavior are for the collective and affect the collective. Religion, politics, civil obedience – these are preferences which affect the individual. There is a reason that individual preferences are kept out of the Lodge room; the individual ego and desire doesn’t have a “special snowflake” place within Freemasonry.

I hear the rustling in the columns now: “No, just hold on. We’re asked for opinions and thoughts. We are supposed to express our individual thoughts and develop our own ideas and strength of mind.” True enough. However, we are asked in a context of opinion to be shared with the whole, and discussion and healthy debate, which in turn illumines the mind. A mind stuck in dogma or rigid behavior finds a difficult path in Freemasonry. Dogma and rigidity are the ego speaking through the personality. They are not the collective working through the individual but the individual trying to work through the collective.

Another Freemason that I know is fond of saying “Freemasonry is an individual path in a group setting.” In discussing this idea, he thought I was crying foul on this statement. Actually, I’m not. What I am saying is that the individual path does not effect or affect Freemasonry. It is a fixed set of landmarks and rituals with guiding principles that the individual may interpret and apply to their own life. The individual’s life and purpose for joining the group does not impose itself on Freemasonry.

This is not to say that Freemasons should be automatons and blindly follow leadership. Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite: they should feel comfortable enough in their individuality to share it with the whole, taking what works for them and discarding, but img_0176-1not dismissing, the rest. Yet, in the end, they work toward the good of the collective, which in turn, works towards the good of Humanity.

The individual Freemason struggles sometimes to see himself as a part of something greater. Perhaps it gets easier as one progresses in Freemasonry, when the message is provided again and again about humanity, not the individual. We cannot divorce ourselves from being individuals – that is physically, emotionally, and mentally impossible. However, we can see ourselves as part of the greater society, taking our mind and emotions outside of our own comfort zone and do what is necessary for the greater – good, Lodge, group, whatever.

I was struck by a recent commercial for a popular TV show. The show was about police officers, and their dedication to their city, country, and community, to the point of putting their lives on the line for any and all of those things. Not all of us can do police work, or be fire fighters, or doctors and nurses. There is a deep dedication in these people that goes beyond a nine-to-five job. We applaud those people because they actually save lives – regardless of danger, pain, or even their own death.

But, who is to say something like Freemasonry is any different? Bold statement, to be sure. Yet, what happens if Freemasons, through their Lodge or Order, strive to make the world a more educated, thinking, devoted, and aspiring place? If that striving for education produces one more doctor where perhaps there was none before, haven’t we made humanity better? What if the work of an Order creates a publishing company, and one of those books inspires a young reader to go on to a career in science, and they create a cure for a devastating disease? What if a Lodge has an outreach campaign to their older members and they are able to bring some bright light to their fading days? What if their family sees this and recognizes compassion, and in turn, creates a foundation to help others with the same disease?

Sure, the individual can do all these things. In fact, these examples are all accomplished by individuals working with a collective mind, a collective heart, and a collective intention. The Lodge is an entity of individuals but it too is “a single mind.” It is an individual collective, like a brain filled with firing neurons. It is not the Borg, there is no assimilation or lack of individuality; it is a melting pot. It is a collection of living stones, all in the process of perfection to create something greater than themselves. We are not stones that stand alone. There is no purpose in that. It’s in the group, the collective, that we can build that place that “shelters humanity” and provides a place of advancement for the entire human race.

The Holy Qur’an

The Holy Qur’an

In a recent blog post, we discussed what a sacred text might be. In conversation, the idea that the West view the Qur’an as suspect deserves some further introspection. Most people is North or South America have not read nor understand what the Qur’an is, and make assumptions about different interpretations of texts. Christians should not have any trouble struggling with the idea of different interpretations of texts. As of this writing, Wikipedia lists 108 completed versions of the Bible in English and dozens more partial and unfinished versions. That’s just English. That does not count the different languages and their own idiosyncrasies of language which may change subtle meanings. Let’s just say that there is a wide variety of translations, interpretations, and commentary on meanings contained within the Bible, perhaps more so than any other “sacred text.”

Be that as it may, the Qur’an is a relatively new piece of literature in the consciousness of Western peoples, mainly due to global conflicts and media hype. The Quran or Qur’an is one of the world’s newer religious texts, having thought to been revealed to Muhammad beginning in 609 C.E. over the course of 23 years by the Angel Gabriel. The book itself is considered a miracle and is considered to be one of the foundational reasons for Muhammad’s prophethood. Margot Patterson, in her book “Islam Considered: The Christian View,” states: “The Quran is of inestimable importance in Islam, more important to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians, even fundamentalist Christians.”

Because of the timing of its delivery and the beginnings of wider literacy amongst people at that time, the Quran was completed in written form within 20 years of the Prophet’s death, by the third caliph, Uthman, in 654 C.E. Even with its relatively new nature, there are slight variations that have to do with the spread of Islam in the years after the Prophet’s death, especially as it moved throughout Arabia, Persia, and eastward.

The meaning of the word Quran is “that which is recited” or “the recitation.” The whole foundation and working of the Quran is complicated and challenging. While there are many, many translations into languages other than Arabic – upwards of 112 in 2010 were counted – there seems to be lesser variation on Arabic texts than there are for Biblical translations. Muslims generally believe that to understand the true meaning of the Quran, one must learn Arabic and, even better, ancient Arabic. This would not dissimilar to learning Aramaic to understand the original translations of many of the works attributed to contributing writers of the Bible. To be clear, when using the term “Bible,” the meaning is both the old and new testaments.

The recitations, or lessons, contained within the book trace from Adam through to Muhammad, all of which are told with a specific type of prose language. Indeed, when reciting the Quran for prayer, there are different, codified ways to recite the text, with different emphasis given to each method. The Quran is organized into chapters called suras but they are organized in no particular order. Even though it covers the revelations to Moses and Jesus, both considered to be Allah’s Prophets, they are not necessary sequential. One does not generally read the Quran from beginning to end.

All of this information is easily obtained and digested by the serious investigator. What is a little more difficult to digest is the differences in meaning between the Quran and other religious texts, like the Bible. The Bible is viewed by Christians as generally being the influence of the divine on its individual writers, all conveying the message as they understand it. It is divinely inspired, for the most part, but not actually divine itself.

Because the Quran is generally a single Prophet’s words, an illiterate Prophet, the words are seen as purer, as divine as if the hand of God had grasped a pen and wrote them. Christians see that God became manifest in Jesus. While Muslims do not see God manifest in the actual Quran, it’s as close as one might be able to get to having god speak to them directly. This difference, subtle as it may be, is profound when it comes to understanding how the words of each are held in regard.

Additionally, because of nature of the texts, the directives given therein, the challenge ongoing for humanity, Islam believes, is to incorporate the Quran’s doctrine into humanity’s ever changing Earth. This leads one to the discussion about Sharia Law. Christianity and indeed, the Bible, are not structured in such a way as to govern a community.

The Christian Church is the last living legacy of the Roman Empire, a government in and of itself. Judaism and Islam have both created a law-giving structure built off religious, sacred texts, in which to govern a community or far-flung communities. They were not tied to a central government much as the Christian Church was since its inception. It’s difficult for many modern Christians to get their heads around; many typically see religious law as a kind of impingement on their freedoms. What one must understand is that many people feel a higher judgement above the laws of man; many would submit themselves to religious laws before they submit them to an independent government, one which may not have the sanctity of their after-life in mind.

Halakhah and Sharia have many similarities. The word sharia comes from the word halakhah, the Jewish canonical law. The difference between Christian canonical law is that it generally comes from a single source – the Pope. In this community based law system, rabbis or imams are responsible for interpretations and their interpretations stand unless a council may be called to help with judgments. The misunderstanding comes from most American’s belief that Muslims or Jews in America would prefer canonical law rather than the country’s legal judgments. This is generally untrue. An excellent article on this is located in the Jewish Observer, here: https://thejewishobserver.com/2013/04/16/afraid-of-sharia/. While there outliers across religions – yes, there are Christians who oppose American law as well – observant Jews and Muslims follow the laws of the country in which they live, even if these laws impinge on their religious freedoms. As the article states, polygamy is legal under sharia but even in Arabic countries, it is still rarely practiced. It is not practiced in the United States because it is illegal here, for every religion.

There have been many interfaith conferences between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders. There will most likely need to be more. While this continues, the onus is on the rest of us, the believers of whatever faith we have, to learn more about the other people in this world, what they believe, how they act, what they find important. As the article in the Jewish Observer relates, we should not be afraid of any religion. We may need to work hard to understand the nature of religions and under and when something is mainstream and when it is fundamentalism. Just like political extremists, there is a great difference between the far ends of the spectrums of religions and a great deal in the middle. The edges is where extremists and fanaticism reside. This is where most people begin to go sideways in their understanding: believing the fundamentalism is the entirety of a religion.

Fundamentalism spans the globe. There are fundamentalist Buddhists, after all. Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to irreducible tenants of a religion. An example for Christians is the virgin birth of Jesus. In many cases, other Christians would not be seen as Christian because they do not necessarily believe in a virgin birth. Included in fundamentalism is the general literalness of translation. It is not enough to believe that Mary was “metaphorically” virgin; fundamentalist Christians believe that she was actually a virgin. There is no symbology in the meaning. The words of the sacred texts are interpreted literally, not symbolically. In general, fundamentalists are not militants unless they feel a fanaticism that is above all else. Militancy to faith also spans religions and it is born more from fear than from the religion itself. “Religious fanaticism is defined by blind faith, the persecution of dissents and the absence of reality.” In his book “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk,” Neil Postman states that “the key to all fanatical beliefs is that they are self-confirming….(some beliefs are) fanatical not because they are ‘false’, but because they are expressed in such a way that they can never be shown to be false.” One cannot confuse Fundamentalism, Fanaticism, and Faith. They are very different and cannot be singularly tied to any one religion.

The best way to combat fanaticism is understanding and knowledge. The Freemason knows that there is a fundamental law that underlies human nature, and these texts really seek to make that divine law accessible to all human beings, regardless of where, when, and to whom they are born. The Quran is piece of that understanding. We might be seen as the generations that demonized Islam, much as other generations and countries have demonized Judaism and Christianity. Do we have to be? Seeking to learn is what sets the discerning, intelligent human apart. We can’t develop a better humanity if we can’t understand what is important to all of us, not just ourselves. There is beauty, grace, and knowledge everywhere, if we can be strong enough to listen.