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.

Masonic Poetry

Masonic Poetry

Poetry is “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.” Poetry tends to be those written works which are short in phrase or sentence and long on emotion, wanting to evoke sympathy or empathy in the reader. Poetry may take stiff, rhythmic inflection or it may be flowing, more akin to prose. From Auden to Shakespeare to Solomon, poetry has struck a chord in human consciousness for thousands of years and its popularity has not waned in modernity.

Poetry, in a modern mindset, may not feel very relevant. We have, literature-wise, moved from very constructed and structured forms of poetry to the later 20th and early 21st century use of exploded syntax, compound words, and disjointed phrasing. Modern poetry uses the impact of singular language to convey emotions based on the listener’s personal experience. While this is true of all poetry, the poetry of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were far more lyrical and visual, wrapping the listener into not only the emotional impact of words but drawing them into a mindset where those emotions were relevant.

An example is the poem “Victor” by W.H. Auden. It is a ballad form to tell the story of one man’s life journey. It starts thus:

Victor

Victor was a little baby,
Into this world he came;
His father took him on his knee and said:
Don’t dishonour the family name.

Victor looked up at his father
Looked up with big round eyes:
Victor, my only son,
Don’t you ever tell lies.

This is a very rigid structure, true to Auden’s voice and style and while it does evoke very specific emotions, it does so in the context of a very visual story.

Over the past three centuries, there have been many writers who have joined the Masonic Fraternity: Robert Burns, Joseph Fort Newton, Manley Palmer Hall, Carl H. Claudy, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Walter Scott, Oscar Wilde, and Alexander Pope. Very few of these authors wrote directly about Freemasonry and even fewer were poets.

In reading some Masonic poems, it is clear that while there is form and structure, there are varying degrees of illustration. Brother Robert Burns, who wrote specifically about becoming a Mason, has a lyrical style and dancing emotion, with little meaning to the non-Mason:

A Mason’s Song (excerpt)

I cryed and wailed but nought availed
He put a forward face on
And did avow that he was now
A free accepted Mason.

Still doubting if the fact was true
He gave me demonstration
For out he drew before my view
The Jewels of a Mason.

Rudyard Kipling, known for his beautiful and insightful poetry, penned this, “A Pilgrim’s Way,” specifically about Masonry. The first stanza is below.

A Pilgrim’s Way

I do not look for holy saints to guide me on my way,
or male and female devilkins to lead my feet astray.
If these are added, I rejoice — if not, I shall not mind
So long as I have leave and choice to meet my fellow-kind.
For as we come and as we go (and deadly-soon go we!)
The people, Lord, Thy people, are good enough for me!

While I find such poetry easy to relate to as a Freemason, I struggle with the idea of Masonic poetry bringing about the same emotions as the actual experience of Freemasonry. Metaphysical or esoteric poetry of the Age of Enlightenment seems to be more fitting to stimulating the Masonic ideals that the ritual may provide. Think, John Donne or John Davies. Yet, there can be some Masonic Poetry which stirs the ideals in the listener, be they Freemason or not. Take this example, from 1915 by Freemason C. M. Boutelle, entitled “In Fellowship.”

In Fellowship

My foot to thy foot, however thy foot may stray;
Thy path for my path, however dark the way.
My knee to thy knee, whatever be thy prayer;
Thy plea my plea, in every need and care.
My breast to thy breast, in every doubt or hope;
Thy silence mine too, whatever thy secret’s scope.
My strength is thy strength, whenever thou shalt call;
Strong arms stretch love’s length, through darkness, toward thy fall!
My words shall follow thee, kindly warning, fond,
Through life, through drear death-and all that lies beyond!

Masons and non-Masons alike can relate to this kind of call of strength in character and love; however, the Freemason will find it particularly significant due to his or her experiences within Freemasonry. There are many beautiful examples of poetry of Freemasons which can be both affecting and lyrical, pleasant to the soul and to the ear. A good deal of Masonic poetry espouses the ideals of the Order in many ways which do not specifically discuss ritual. Even Albert Pike, a thorough ritualist and writer, brought a Freemason’s ideals to poetry. An example of one of his poems is below.

The Struggle for Freedom 

The Ancient Wrong rules many a land, whose groans
Rise swarming to the stars by day and night,
Thronging with mournful clamour round the thrones
Where the Archangels sit in God’s great light,
And, pitying, mourn to see that Wrong still reigns,
And tortured Nations writhe in galling chains.
From Hungary and France fierce cries go up
And beat against the portals of the skies;
Lashed Italy still drinks the bitter cup,
And Germany in abject stupor lies;
The knout on Poland’s bloody shoulders rings,
And Time is all one jubilee of kings.
It will not be so always. Through the night
The suffering multitudes with joy descry
Beyond the ocean a great beacon-light,
Flashing its rays into their starless sky,
And teaching them to struggle and be free, —
The Light of Order, Law, and Liberty.
Take heart, ye bleeding Nations; and your chains
Shall shiver like thin glass. The dawn is near,
When Earth shall feel, through all her aged veins
The new blood pouring; and her drowsy ear
Hear Freedom’s trumpet ringing in the sky,
Calling her braves to conquer or to die.
Arm and revolt, and let the hunted stags
Against the lordly lions stand at bay! —
Each pass, Thermoplæ, and all the crags,
Young Freedom’s fortresses! — and soon the day
Shall come when Right shall rule, and round the thrones
that gird God’s feet shall eddy no more groans.

Poetry specific to the Masonic experience can be found mostly in the 20th Century, and on several Freemasonry websites. The goals and ideals of Freemasonry can be found throughout these sites as well, and perhaps even more so in the actual writings of Freemasons, like Pike. It’s worth the journey to see what might speak to the modern mind.