Flagging Down a God

Netjer is the word for god, pronounced like Nature, a modern concept with similar nuance, as in “Mother Nature.” The icon for a god is a flag on a pole, spread out by the breeze; a flag is the inanimate animated by invisible force; in other words, the wind uses flags to dance just as Osiris uses flesh to dance. The earliest known Egyptian temples had flag poles standing in front, and flags were a welcome sight in that world, visible from a distance as a signal of human activity in a dying landscape; the Horus falcon perched on a flagpole is also an icon for a god, a sacred presence descended from the sky at the call of a human voice.

Differing descriptions of ancient Egyptian spiritual philosophy can be found from different generations. They themselves had no word for “religion” as such; neither did the neighboring civilizations in Mesopotamia, and some modern languages still don’t. The earliest recorded use dates only to the first century BC. The ancient Greeks wrote that the citizens of the Nile were the only ones to bring the gods down to earth. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century BC, said that Egyptians were more pious and spiritual than any other peoples. Christian leaders in the fifth century AD considered the knowledge of Egypt so dangerous and ungodly that they banned the language and closed the temples; despite this, Egyptian spiritual art and practices had considerable influence on the forms and calendar of Christian worship. Masons and alchemists in the Age of Enlightenment used Egyptian iconography in their own secret systems of art and writing, seeking the meaning behind the metaphors. Victorian scholars described Egyptian beliefs as primitive, “African,” confused; according to them, Egyptians worshiped animals and believed in multiple souls. Some scholars still claim that the people themselves could not understand their own beliefs, and vague terms such as “creative principle” are used to confine the ancient concepts within modern religious forms. Their unique cultural continuity is seen as stagnation and lack of creativity; they “had no philosophy.” Then, in 1971, Egyptologist Eric Hornung described the journey of the Sun as “an odyssey of the soul,” saying that the ancient Egyptian system demonstrated an understanding similar to modern psychology.

The nature of Duat and its presence, forces and influences in spacetime comprised the value of the Egyptian term netjer in all its grammatical forms, which is why demons, devils and ghosts were also identified as netjer; Egyptians understood the source of these beings, and they knew how to use a metaphor.

Because the netjer/god reflected the personalities of the specific groups they served, each town and province had their own variations; just as the pharaoh had five names, each an aspect of his multi-faceted and time-factored identity, the gods had many names, each an aspect of their functions and powers; these names or aspects sometimes evolved into separate entities, but people understood the variations as metaphors for the nature of Duat, thus were able to evolve and adapt the attributes. Over time, these groups merged with the national identity and were more formally acknowledged as analogies to the national gods. By whatever names, however, from predynastic times until Roman emperors decreed their final end, Re, Horus, Osiris, and Isis were the supreme gods of the Nile, and their stories reigned in the hearts of every citizen.

The gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt are among the oldest and best documented in the world. Their ancientness has made them attractive in modern times; we feel their compelling humanity even as we are amazed by their strangeness. Their art, icons and poetry radiate a magic that activates our deepest potentials and focuses our intentions. Surely the people’s personal superstitions were no different from our own; they feared what we fear—loneliness, boredom, pain, depression, despair, grief, rage, delusion, madness, and they wanted what we want—love, family, friends, pleasure, entertainment, position, respect, peace of mind.

In their own metaphors, they tell us what their gods meant to them and that they are archetypes of reality personified. For example, Osiris is the nature of the soul’s mysterious substance; Re is the mysterious nature of consciousness; Isis is the nature of love, the soul’s bonding integrity; Horus is the nature of the ego, and Suty is the nature of the unconscious and so forth. These images sprang out of universal human nature and, at the same time, they show the personal natures of the people and are vibrant with the living energy of their times. Egypt’s art has the breath of naturalism, yet shows clearly the nature of their fascination with abstract expression.

In the ancient view, humankind was born as a function of the universe itself. We sculpted the land to our bidding, chiseled deep into bedrock for hidden tombs and reached up to the sky with solid stone. Even the muddy deluge of the Nile was shaped by human hands into fertile lands and the bounty of an empire. The “religion” of Egypt revolves around the love of man and woman for each other, their devotion to their children, their families, their life under the Sun. There is strife, betrayal, even murder in these stories, but they are still human stories, imbued with the magic of eternity. These are the gods of Egypt.

A Pot of God

The gods are often encountered in groups or families, known as Paut, translated variously as “Ennead, the Nine Gods, Company of Gods, Primeval Substance, Host, Pantheon.” Its source is the word for bread, although bread is only the beginning of the metaphor. After the Sahara sands had buried their previous world, farming was the only salvation and, for many centuries, Egypt was the breadbasket of the known world, suppliers of grain for the ovens of the Mediterranean; every ritual, ceremony and private meal in Egypt involved bread. The hieroglyph for hotep, to give offering/to be at peace, is a loaf of bread on an offering tray. Bread is the ultimate bounty of the buried Corn God, Osiris.

Company of Gods comes closest because company is, literally, “with bread,” based on the time-honored tradition of breaking bread together as a sign of unity, a primary gesture of civilized life; the bread metaphor is very old, and there is more to bread than the eating. Bread is a beautiful symbol of human cooperation, the first reliable benefit of an evolving farm community. Fire is natural, spontaneous magic; it can create itself, rain down from the sky or burst out of the ground, a metaphor for natural forces only nominally under human control, but bread is a different magic. Bread is entirely human. Grass nourishes only animals, thus grass, like fire, is natural; grass seeds, however, will feed humans and flour made from seeds is a new substance, not like grass or seeds. When water is mixed with flour it becomes remarkably like flesh, yielding and warm to the touch; it grows. Bread can be molded to any shape and, once baked, holds that shape, becoming “of one flesh.” Baked bread is not like its parts, not energy like fire, not wet like water, not dry like flour, yet these are transformed by the union of opposites into something wholly other, something wholly human.

The same is true of pottery, shattered and whole, wet and dry are combined by heat into one flesh. This cohesion is strong, yet when broken, it is as permanently broken as it was whole. Broken pottery cannot be remolded; broken bread cannot be re-baked; dead flesh does not rise. This potent coherency is the concept behind Paut, the gathered forces of the gods that are humanity and our universe.

The division of inside of you and outside of you continues with the Paut of Gods, which is organized into two groups known as the Great Paut and the Lesser or Small Paut, each comprised of nine gods. The Great Paut and Lesser Paut were not the only families or hosts of gods, and various other combinations are more frequently encountered, except in funeral material, where the they had their main stories and iconography.

The Great Paut were Osiris, Horus-Ur and Suty, Isis and Nephthys, Shu and Tafnut, Nut and Geb. Re Atum is the chief, and these are the essentials of Duat, the primal stuff inside you. This is the Inner Paut.

The Lesser Paut are variable, depending on individual need and preference, but most often they were Thoth, Amun, Ptah and Khnoumos, Bastet, Hathor and Sakhmet, Neith and Mut. Amun Re is chief of the Minor Paut, and over the centuries he became Nesu Netjeru, King of the Gods. Also appearing in the Lesser Paut are Apophis and Sobek, Min, Seshat, Sorqet, Bes and Taueris. The Lesser Paut are the essentials of human interaction in spacetime, the foundations of human society and architects of their civilization. This is the Outer Paut.

The Great Paut, the collected forces of the Duat inside your skin, is the greater because it is entirely your responsibility and a heavy burden to carry; consciousness is pain, compassion hurts and enlightenment puts much of life’s pleasure into shadow. The Lesser Paut, the collected forces of spacetime outside of your skin, is the lesser burden because it is a shared burden, all of us doing this together; nature carries the rest.

The Pauts were not the only gods in their pantheon, which by some counts number up to 1,500—a name for every need—but the Paired Pauts were central to daily life, as well as the ones most often represented in surviving materials, which are, by the nature of things, predominantly funeral related. The groups of gods who ruled in your home, every day and all night long, were father-mother-child groups; this was Egypt’s fundamental trinity. Energy must have two poles between which to flow, otherwise it is only static, grounded in one place, mere potential. Your mother and father were two poles of potential biological energy, their love was the activation and you are the living manifestation of Duat-energy flowing between them. The mystery of existence itself was the core mystery in Egyptian stories, and at the core of the mystery were Osiris and Isis and Horus. The members of these family trinities varied among households, villages, cities and temples, according to the needs of the people, time and place; they had many names, but the conceptual metaphor behind them all was the same.

Ramona Louise Wheeler