Which religion, ideology or worldview should predominate? Why not learn from the Ancient Egyptians and synthesize?

The ancient Egyptians are famous for synthesizing various powers or ‘gods’ into complex composite forms, such as Amun-Re or Re-Horakty, as well as combining deities into related dyads or triads like Osiris, Isis, Horus. The tendency to combine in this way resulted in such proliferation over the course of ancient Egyptian culture, that it can seem difficult to correlate with either the world’s monotheistic religions, or strict logic with its own linear reasoning. Yet ancient Egyptian ideology exhibits an ingenious flexibility of thought and expression that we can learn much from today.

Part of the problem with understanding ancient Egyptian ideology is in the very use our language, and the tendency of modern, western cultures to automatically separate and perpetuate a secular/sacred, science/religion split. In contrast, the ancient Egyptians did not even have a word for ‘religion’ per se, yet according to the ancient historian Herodotus were “religious far beyond any other race of men”‘ (Histories Book II, section 35.). But such an assessment reflects a bias and projection consisting of both a) his own interpretation and b) a Greek cultural construct, rather than an accurate understanding of ancient Egyptian thought and its underlying holistic philosophy.

'Re' setting on the horizon.

Re’ setting on the western horizon.
Photo credit Natalie Letcher.

The very word ‘god/god(s)’ commonly used to translate ntr/ntrw and address the apparent multiplicity of forms and ideas embedded in the ancient Egyptian worldview is incomplete and thus inadequate for a variety reasons. 1) it automatically relegates and limits such conceptions to our own perceptions of religion or myth 2) removes such ideas from the realm of early cosmology or philosophy which concerns natural phenomena to which they also belong  3) conjures up associations with polytheism, some of which are incorrect and irrelevant.

The very mention of the term ‘polytheism’ for some immediately signifies a lack of a unified understanding, which is then automatically discounted in the mind of the world’s monotheists. The New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten IV (ca. 1355-1335 BCE) is often excepted from such polytheistic judgment, for some give him status as the first monotheist. Yet the Heliopolitan cosmogony of a single supreme source from which all creation emerged and the ideology of the interrelation of all things was referenced two millennia earlier in the Old Kingdom. Although articulated in a variety of ways, this same theme continued to be perpetuated in other accounts of ancient Egyptian cosmogony, and precede various later developments of monotheism.
Isis & young Horus iconography. Bronze figurine from Late Period ca. 680-640 BCE.

Isis &  young king Horus iconography.
Bronze figurine from Late Period ca. 680-640BCE. Photo credit: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/27595/isis-with-horus-the-child/

For instance in the doctrine of Iwnw (called Heliopolis by the Greeks), the power of the sun was at the core of their ancient ideology. The name Heliopolis (the city of the sun) that we still use today, was the name assigned by the ancient Greek,s while Iwnw was referred to as ‘On’ in the Bible. Yet the sun itself which the Egyptians called ‘Re’ also represented the visible manifestation of ultimate power in the world. In contrast, Amun the primary acknowledged power in Thebes (southern Egypt) is the name of the invisible or hidden supreme source. The composite Amun-Re therefore references both.

The Osiris, Isis, Horus trinity signifies among other things the god-king/father, goddess-queen/mother and son of god/intermediary/pharaoh. Yet in addition to divinity, Osiris, Isis & Horus also incorporate such abstract conceptions as transformation, the power of the throne and rulership. In the other case mentioned above, Re-Horakty references both Re and the aspect of ruler (Horus, symbolized by the falcon) of the two horizons (Hor-akty). 

The projection of a polarized secular/sacred viewpoint is still commonly the way Egyptian ideas and beliefs are interpreted. Thus this ancient worldview is typically stamped under the general yet limited rubric of religion or myth – for we are all products of our own time and influenced by the dominant cultural milieu. Yet proceeding on this basis already indicates a major cultural divide and a huge gap in conception and perception, which can lead to artificially constructed biases that are not justified by the data. 
Certainly we are handicapped by both the enormous distance in time and cultural differences when investigating any long gone civilization. Yet the very act of being mindful of a modern tendency to compartmentalize and polarize in this way can go a long way toward opening our minds to different ways of ‘seeing’ things. And fortunately in the case of ancient Egypt, we are left with not only material culture in the form of architecture and artifacts, but also remarkable documentation written in stone, upon wood or papyrus, and offering us a unique window into their ancient worldview.
Carl Jung's classic text in a color, illustrated version.

Carl Jung’s classic text in a color, illustrated version.

Another difficulty in accessing the ancient Egyptian holistic worldview, is that concepts are also largely expressed in symbolic, relational terms, with its own mode of logic. Even though the hieroglyphs were deciphered in the 19th century, and with this accomplishment the ability to translate texts, the rigid, linear mindset of constantly segregating ideas into discrete compartments must be relaxed in order to enter the symbolic reasoning areas of the psyche in which multiple interrelations are drawn between things. 

However, the ability to think in symbolic terms is embedded in the psyche itself, as revealed by such disciplines as Jungian psychological theory and Joseph Campbell’s comparative literature, each of which drew upon other interdisciplinary multicultural disciplines including anthropological, archaeological and historic research. Together, all have contributed enormously to a better understanding of recurrent archetypal psychological themes and motifs as part of the inner language of the psyche. Such research has demonstrated that symbol/image making is a universal and inherent faculty of humankind, with multiple layers of meaning and a different mode of reasoning that must be investigated on its own terms.

While Egyptologists as specialists possess detailed knowledge and expertise on this ancient culture, there is still a tremendous general lack of awareness and understanding of ancient Egyptian ideology by the mainstream populace. In addition, an understanding of the underlying holistic philosophy of ancient Egyptian culture is rare indeed. For that matter, holism itself as an ideology has only begun to be rediscovered and popularized in modern, western cultures in recent decades. 
The ability to incorporate and synthesize what could otherwise be viewed as competing ideologies was one of the great strengths of ancient Egypt, and certainly contributed to the 3,000 year existence of this enduring culture. For while there were different primary cosmogony accounts that emerged from various parts of the country at different times, there remained a recognition of the same theme which they espoused. That is, postulated accounts of creation with descriptions of the process of things coming into existence from a single, initial source albeit called by different names. Thus rather than labeling alternate descriptions and belief systems as contradictory, conflicting accounts, such articulations can also be interpreted as complementary versions of the same phenomena.
Not without its own conflicts, ancient Egypt known as the Two Lands (Upper & Lower Egypt) also weathered its own numerous problems and changes over three millennia, including foreign rule over the nation multiple times. Even after the death of Alexander the Great (who was acknowledged as pharaoh by the Egyptians having freed them from Persian rule), the ancient Ptolemaic Greeks (although a foreign people) also ingeniously adopted traditional pharaonic customs and Egyptian iconography during the period of Greek rule of Egypt – and were an important link in perpetuating Egyptian culture. And amidst our own war-torn world we would do well to remember that even though a people or place may be dominated or conquered, neither loyalty nor peace can be gained by force but only by winning over hearts and minds and moving toward shared ideals and goals.
Sun setting behind & illuminating the pyramids.   /Users/natalieletcher/Pictures_/iPhoto Library/Originals/2013/Oct 24, 2013/10924747-pyramids20at20sunset20cairo20egypt.jpg

Sun setting behind & illuminating the pyramids. Photo credit http://www.prlog.org/10924747-pyramids20at20sunset20cairo20egypt.jpg, Memphis tours.

Might contemporary cultures not be willing to learn something and benefit from ancient Egyptian perspectives…an age-old culture which endured for an astounding 3,000 years, and which left monumental, amazing legacies that still tower over us today? Indeed, the Great Pyramid is the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World still standing. 

So why not learn from the ancient Egyptians, and combine or commute such ideas as God-Allah-Brahman or Energy-Kosmos-Nature across interdisciplinary and cultural lines of communication in an attempt to reach and establish common ground for discourse and understanding? Or after the tradition of ancient Egypt, maybe even build a temple or monument which includes texts as well as the symbolism or imagery of combined ideologies – a contemporary monument dedicated to acknowledging multiple ideas and beliefs in a gesture of peace, inclusion, and creating a shared vision? 

Establishing common ground for dialogue requires an openness to the views of others, an ability to empathize with the shared human condition and its plights – rather than making snap judgments – and of course the willingness to engage in and sustain philosophical discussion. Philosophy as a discipline mandates that terms must first be agreed upon, and concepts distinguished before intelligent discourse can even begin. This foundation is necessary to clarify what is being addressed, and is an excellent way of proceeding in any endeavor. Such practice could itself prevent much unneeded misunderstanding if only we would take the time to listen, analyze and judge others’ viewpoints more charitably, rather than automatically assuming our own perspective(s) are superior, correct and thus the standard by which to judge others.

The Ancient Art of Holistic Thinking is dedicated to a) unlock the holistic paradigm underlying ancient Egyptian philosophy b) revealing a dialogue with ancient Greek thought and c) demonstrating parallels with other multicultural holistic ideologies, ancient or modern. Far from being just ancient history, the holistic paradigm espoused in both ancient Egyptian & Greek wisdom is of utmost relevance to various concerns we have today.

If you’re interested in studying these ancient philosophies from a holistic perspective, the upcoming book release is due later this year, and online classes will be available in January. Sign up for the newsletter below to be notified first when registration for classes begins, as well as to receive special discounts. Explore the site further for more content or to learn more about the author or company.  Also, if you enjoy what you’re reading click like below, or leave a comment if any ideas or thoughts are sparked and you’re so inclined.  Thanks for visiting!

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your inquiry! I’m delighted to know people are interested in the text. Yes, the e-book will be available for pre-orders in July through major retailers as well as a sneak preview on Smashwords. Please see my latest post on the book update for more details. The print version will be published and available subsequently.

  2. We can learn so much from ancient civs. I’m planning on posting a couple more ancient theories, stories, and philosophies to my blog in the near future. Thanks for inspiring me! Follow me for more inspiration.

    • Thank you for your support, interest and response to the article Inspire One! I checked out your blog site too, and like your idea of drawing inspiration from myriad forms, wherever it is found. Look forward to seeing more posts from you, and you are welcome to peruse more here as well.

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