Ancient Egyptian Worldview I

Approaching ancient Egyptian thought from the lens of holism takes a unique philosophical perspective, revealing holistic thinking as a most ancient art and the underlying foundation of ancient Egyptian philosophy.

Map of Egypt at  Oriental Institute

Map of Egypt at
Oriental Institute

Such an investigation incorporates not just history but inspiration, for we are entering an ancient mindset…and using not just perception from which to view ancient artifacts and texts, but vision to learn to see through an ancient window of thought. Toward this end, on The Ancient Art of Holistic Thinking website text, visual imagery, art and music will all be employed to engage your senses and help you take this ancient journey. Check the footer section below to enjoy ambient music while you read this blog.

Within the context of blog posts on this site, Egyptological data is being presented for the purpose of providing a context for readers to pursue an in-depth study of holistic thinking in ancient Egypt, whether through the upcoming book or online course.  

The field of Egyptology itself incorporates a broad variety of specialized yet related areas beginning with archaeology, which includes a survey of political structure, religion, cultural trade, myth, art, architecture, etc., and finally the language of the hieroglyphs written by the ancient Egyptians themselves. 

However, having a basic understanding of the physical environment of Egypt provides a key starting point to unlock and become familiar with the ancient Egyptian worldview, and gain insight into various recurring symbols used. This provides both a) a background for studying Egyptian philosophy, and b) allows us to reflect and engage with how we relate to our own natural environment today, which is vital to holistic thinking.

Some of the natural patterns ancient Egyptians reference in their worldview and philosophical model are universal, while others are specific to the geography of the nation. One example of both a universal and specifically Egyptian referent is the Nile river. Life itself depends upon water for its existence and as this need is universal, river civilizations can be found in all times and places. Likewise, the Egyptians were dependent upon the Nile for their subsistence. However, the way in which the Egyptians of old referred to this life-giving river is also culturally specific.  

Limestone Fragment painted with pigment.  From Luxor, Tomb of Mentuemhet, Third Intermediate Period to Late Period,  Dynasties 25-26, ca. 690-660 BCE

Limestone Fragment painted with pigment. From Luxor, Tomb of Mentuemhet, Third Intermediate Period to Late Period, Dynasties 25-26, ca. 690-660 BCE

In ancient times the Nile was called the ‘gift of Egypt’ and uniquely informed the ancient Egyptian orientation to their environment. For the directional flow of the Nile represents an unusual geographical instance in that it flows south-north rather than north-south as is typical. For example, it is often confusing that the ancient Egyptians referred to the northern part of their land as ‘Lower Egypt’, and the southern portion as ‘Upper Egypt’ – which is completely opposite to how we moderns perceive these directions. Yet once you realize that the very lifeblood of Egypt flowed from the Nile which for them originated from the south and flowed in a northerly direction, their orientation can be understood. ‘Upper Egypt’ therefore refers to the region located upstream. Correspondingly, ‘Lower Egypt’ lies downstream.  

In other words, the description of the Two Lands (an ancient name for the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt) follows the pattern of the Nile river flow from its ‘top’ (Upper Egypt in the south) to the ‘bottom’ (Lower Egypt in the north). The Nile’s journey cuts through the whole length of Egypt, branching into various tributaries in the Delta and Fayum (oasis) regions, ultimately emptying into the Mediterranean Sea as shown in the above map.

The cyclical floods of the river provided the Egyptians with a long, ribbon-like stretch of arable land fertilized on both sides by the rich black silt from the annual flood of the river, and this same process had occurred and recurred since ancient times. (That is, before the modern Aswan dam was built in the 1960’s and changed this millennia old cycle forever. Unfortunately the building of the dam also submerged precious artifacts along with it, precipitating a tremendous effort to save the magnificent rock-cut temples of the Rameses era and relocate them at Abu Simbel where they stand today as a top tourist attraction. The original rock-hewn monument was cut, disassembled into puzzle pieces, relocated and reassembled again).

This recurrent annual cycle, called ‘the Inundation’ in ancient times, resulted in an abundance of crops in a region that would otherwise largely consist of barely habitable desert land. 

Indeed, the very name of Egypt by the ancient Egyptians themselves was Kemet, meaning ‘the black land’ (where the population lived primarily in the Nile Valley (Upper) or Delta (Lower) regions). Kemet was contrasted with the arid, outlying desert land that lie far beyond the reach of the nourishing, rising Nile and the rich natural resources it offered. The word ‘desert’ itself that we still use today is derived from the ancient Egyptian word ‘dsrt‘ or Red Land written in Egyptian hieroglyphs below. The last sign in the group representing a series of mountains, is the glyph also used to identify ‘foreign lands’ thereby contrasting the ‘other-ness’ of such lands or people who live in them with Kemet itself, and offering another example of the geographical orientation and worldview of the ancient Egyptians.

dsrt

In addition to supplying water for agricultural development, the Nile also provided fish as another food source, water for both livestock and human needs, as well as transportation via boat up and down the river, whether for travel between distances such as by the king in his barque, or used for moving goods.  The great gift that the Nile was to the people of ancient Egypt was acknowledged in numerous ways, such as sung in hymns, represented in artistic visual forms, and honored in texts.

Oarsmen in boat, Limestone fragment ca. 690-664 BCE

Oarsmen in boat, Limestone fragment ca. 690-664 BCE, photo by Natalie Letcher

Such appreciation and reverence for the bountiful gifts of nature is a quality that modern man has much to learn from, and is part and parcel of a holistic worldview regardless of how it is expressed and articulated.

This is the beginning of a blog series designed to provide some background information to people new to Egyptology, yet are interested in studying philosophies of Holism in Ancient Egypt & Greece through the upcoming book or online course. The second part of this article on Ancient Egyptian Worldview II is next, and an article on Exploring Egyptology follows.

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