Waiting

Our bare limbs stretch across the sands
Desperate for distant Isis to return
As the great burning orb glares
At a land all too eager to breath once more

The servants of Maat, wills reviving
Daintily dip their shaven heads
Heavy words falling quickly from their lips
As one by one they approach the shore

“Rise!” the God our King commands
“Rise!” He proclaims as He casts
His declaration into the shallow Nile
His face stern as temple stone

And we – we the weary farmers
We the wary watchers, the mindful merchants
We the obedient slaves, the sullen soldiers
A thousand thousand of us, waiting

As one we watch the papyrus command
Float over the sluggish blood of Egypt
The Nile River from which all life comes
The heart of our once great land

We watch, we wait, praying for the waters to return
And despite my fear, I dare to look
Upon our King, son of the son of Ra
Who gazes ever heavenward, stolid, true

From bended knee I look upon him and wonder
As his hands begin to tremble and his eyes close
For the water refuses to rise beneath the angry sun
And the land grows drier and drier still

With a sharp glance at his High Priest
Our King turns away and begins his ascent
While my children, hungry and scared, look to me
“It’s alright,” I say, “we’ll try again tomorrow.”

confessions of nothingness

in truth was i
eviscerated long before
the priestly incision
that carved my flesh

industrious had i labored
at determined complicity
persistently pleading
for divine justice

my lips never failed
mechanically to mouth
mealy adorations
to ra, to maat, to isis herself

my steps never failed
to guide me armed with offerings
to the polished altar
of my mother’s mastaba

of my neighbors spoke i
never, not once i swear,
an unkind word, nor
denigrated i divinity

my voice dully ordained
have i never raised
in blatant anger nor
caused any man to weep

never did i turn away
from those in need
who knew me only as a man
upon whom they could depend

what remains now
of my desiccated body
rests forever entombed
that i may stand before you

o great god osiris
and confess that never
have i knowingly failed
in any of thy biddings

nonetheless

call forth the beast of hell
to devour my heart
as it sinks on thy scale
for this heaviest of sins—

that i, thy servant
have never known
what it means
to be truly alive

2013.05.28 D.C.Smithsonian 008

An ancient Egyptian mummy in the Smithsonian Museum

sacrifice

this was not the sound
i was meant to utter
not the voice matured
through honest discourse
and eager living but
imposed by a madman
pointing angry follicles
of lucid fantasies
at my terrified skin

this was not my voice
but his, commanding me
to restore dominion
to his failing faith
his words carving
metaphors into my flesh
his god demanding
one more sacrifice
to the gluttonous sun

 pharaoh

Egyptian funerary mask (c.600 BC), Smithsonian Institution

maat

i call upon thee
most glorious maat
queen of justice
divinely desired
she who strictly
renders truth through
ages of aguish want

cold your bosom
as i embrace you
warm your loins
angrily birthing
the reptilian regents
of wayward earth and
their amphibian consorts

in fairness commenced
your righteous reign
constraining even
the sovereign of chaos
amorphous conveyor
of utter lunacy
and anguished appetites

yet how could this be
what did possess you
to submit yourself
to the solar fool
who swiftly fled
from your emergence
to herald the dawn

how could you allow
your damnable twin
to spill his semen
throughout the heavens
inflicting his fetid folly
over a needful soul
so heavy with regret

there was a time
when you knew better

oh heartless mistress
of impartial truth

a time before man
ruled the earth

Salt Lake City 27 Mar 2013

aua hena-k

it is smiling Hathor who calls to me
her breasts full, her sun shining above

my spirit journeys joyous as Amun
within the green of Nu’s birthing waters

my Horus soul soars over the mists
perching on each bowing branch

dutiful Thoth records my passing days
on papyri in hieroglyphs of gold

careful Anubis weighs the purity
of my heart against an honest feather

that tips the scales of Maat’s truth
while knowing Osiris looks grimly on

and when my eyes open at last
i step into the eternal striding waters

and find my salvation

enfolded by the waves

of her love

From Egypt Came

Watch you now how at last the great beast rises once more,
from the shifting sands he rises, flexing pale shriveled limbs
held placid for countless ages as he slumbered on and on
oblivious to the shaking to and fro of his ancient kingdom.

Yet think you not that his weariness hints at demanding labor
for such work has ever been performed by the minions he abhors.
Nay, his sloth is but the outward show of pompous revelry,
carousing by night as his retinue rejoiced in undeserved wealth,
wallowing in pits of luxury and decadence and false assurance.

See you there how with fatuous fury he shakes his shabby mane,
his tattered cape trailing behind, barely touched by the angry winds
that swirl about sightless edifices encrusted with time and terror,
his lumbering steps grazing the harsh crystal bed beneath which
lie the desiccated dead of a spiteful nation’s so pernicious past.

Yet fails he to recall what generations have engraved in their hearts
from sad experience—Egypt never forgets, Egypt never forgets.

See how he swipes at the air, at the very fabrication of a mind bereft
of honest and careful dealing, insensible to history’s mindful lessons,
when all there is is but the scratching of ants crawling through cracks
seething, surging, bitterly biting at his dreary sun baked visage.

At last has he come, his feet firm, his head aloft, he raises his hand,
raises his hand over the still waters with ponderous magnanimity,
mouthing monumental words but to belie such ignoble tradition.

He speaks, speaks and waits, and in watchful silence nearly quakes
for naught occurs in answer to the wretched man’s empty plea.
The waters hold still, no sudden coursing evident, no mighty surge,
no rising beyond their eternal beds to bring fertile hope to the land.

And all at once a mumbling begins, ascending from the weary crowds
on the opposite bank, a mumbling that begets a grumbling that
forms into a shout here and a question there and a pushing and shoving.

And as pharaoh pulls back his quavering hand from heedless waters,
the hand of another is plunged into burning fire, shriveling in fury
even as pharaoh stumbles and shrivels into his worn weathered skin.

Yes, now the crowd cries to the heavens, calling on God Himself
to witness their suffering, to attend their anger, to amend their future,
while the mousy monarch, cowed and quivering, doffs his crown,
relinquishes his scepter and crawls once more into the stone sepulcher
from which it had been best he had never raised his loathsome head.

The lid falls over him with a crash that causes the very earth to tremble
and a crack appears, determinedly snaking its way through the sands to
I know not where. Yet God will surely know. And so approve.

Salt Lake City, 1 March 2011

Akhen-Aten, Ancient Egypt’s Monotheistic King

While Egyptians worshipped multiple gods for some 3,000 years, there was a brief moment in this vast span of history when at least some Egyptians converted to a monotheistic faith thanks to a rather unique pharaoh named Akhen-Aten. 

Upon the death of his father, Amun-hotep III, Amun-hotep IV ascended the throne as the next pharaoh of Egypt.  Physically, he may have seemed an unlikely choice, having an elongated body with abnormally long neck, limbs, and fingers, and somewhat rounded hips and prominent belly.  This was certainly not the stereotypical image of physical perfection that we have come to associate with Egyptian kings.  Certainly, we do not assume that Egyptian kings were really as perfect as their statues and images portray them to be, but nonetheless, there was clearly something odd about the appearance of this young king.  Modern researchers have in fact suggested that Amun-hotep IV may have suffered from a genetic abnormality known as Marfan’s Syndrome which lengthens the limbs and fingers in just this manner. It was once thought that Abraham Lincoln also suffered from this abnormality, although he has since been rediagnosed with multiple endocrine neoplasia. Likewise, the diagnosis of Marfan’s has been dropped from discussions of Akhen-Aten as of this year, 2010, when genetic testing proved that Tut-ankh-Amun was indeed Akhen-Aten’s son and that Tut lacked any genetic traces of Marfan’s.

However Akhen-Aten’s odd appearance may eventually be explained, it is true that Amun-hotep IV was different in other ways as well.  Even as a child and youth, he seemed less inclined to engage in physical activities and sport as other youth did, preferring a more contemplative life one filled with spiritual considerations, extensive periods of prayer and contemplation.  Still, upon his ascension to the throne, he showed no inclination towards any spiritual practices or beliefs outside of the traditional beliefs of the polytheistic Egyptians.  For his first few years as king, he honored the gods of his fathers and provided endowments to the priests of Amun at Karnak, where statues were erected in his honor portraying him in the physical perfection we have come to expect from Egypt’s divine kings. 

Despite the apparent adherence to tradition displayed by the new king, Egypt was clearly at a point in her history when a new god was just coming into prominence.  Durign the reign of Amun-hotep III there seems to have been a greater interest in another of the several sun gods – the Aten.  Egyptian polytheism, being a syncretic evolution of animistic gods derived from the natural world, tended to displayed its gods in human form with perhaps some remnant of their pre-human animal selves still present, for example, images of Horus as a man and Horus as a falcon, or Thoth [Djehuti] as a man with an Ibis head, and Thoth simply as an ibis.  But the Aten was different.  The Aten was the only significant deity to be portrayed purely as the natural element it was believed to be, in this case, the sun disk.  The Aten had no human or semi-human form.  All images of Aten display him as the sun itself, often with rays of light extending outwards with little hands at the end of each ray with which the loving god could carress and comfort its people as well as hold the traditional symbols of life and power. 

Down to his fifth year as king, Amun-hotep continued to use the name given him by his parents, a name which signified a special reverence for the ancient sun god, Amun.  However, in that year he began to refer to himself as well as “the first prophet of Ra-Harakhti Rejoicing in the Horizon in his name the sunlight which is Aten.”  At the palace, the new king began to replace traditional images with images of the sun disk.  This change of religious symbolism slowly extended outside the palace as well.  In the tomb at Thebes of the royal vizier, Ra-mose, who died during the early years of Amun-hotep IV’s reign, we see images of the new king in the traditional style, and of Ra-mose making offerings to the god Amun.  But then on the opposite wall are images in a new style of Amun-hotep IV and his wife, Nefertiti, bathing in the glow of the light of Aten.   

While records of the actual events transpiring at this very significant time in Egyptian history are missing, most likely deliberately destroyed by later Egyptians seeking to wipe away any evidence of what occurred, the archaeological record leads to the following conclusions.  In the sixth year of his reign, Amun-hotep IV decided to leave the old capital of his father and ordered the construction of a new capital city on the west bank of the Nile half-way between modern day Cairo and ancient Luxor.  This site is known today as El-Amarna, a name derived from the tribe of Banu Amran who inhabit the area, but the name given the new city by its founder was Akhet-Aten, meaning the Horizon of Aten.  The city, built in great haste and now completely destroyed, nonetheless reveals much concerning its founder and the revolution he sought to pursue.  It is also the site of one of the finest archives found in Egypt, now referred to as the Amarna letters, letters inscribed in cuneiform, among which is the earliest recorded reference to the Canaanite city of Jerusalem. 

In keeping with his new faith, Amun-hotep IV adopted a new name and a new image.  His new name was Akhen-Aten, which means “It is well with Aten.”  As for his new image, it was so very distinct from traditional images of Egyptian kings as to offer some of the most memorable images out of Egypt’s entire 3000 years of history.  Akhen-Aten has himself portrayed realistically, with every physical flaw intact.  Physical perfection is gone.  On the contrary, Akhen-Aten seems to revel in his realism.  Not only is he shown as he really was, but he is shown doing what he most likely really did in life.  No more stiff, inhuman poses for this king.  We see Akhen-Aten at dinner with his family or playing with his children, something no other pharaoh would ever be shown doing, whether or not he actually did so in real life. 

How extensive this new faith in the Aten was is impossible to tell, although it is safe to assume that the great majority of Egyptians had nothing to do with it.  Nonetheless, for Akhen-Aten faith in the Aten meant everything.  An inscription from the tomb of Ay, Akhen-Aten’s advisor and successor, has been attributed to Akhen-Aten himself, and expresses well his deep devotion to the one god: 

You arise beauteous in the horizon of heaven, O living Aten, beginner of life when You did shine forth in the eastern horizon, and did fill every land with Your beauty. You are comely, great, sparkling, and high above every land, and Your rays enfold the lands to the limits of all that You have made, You being the sun, and You reach their limits and subject them to your beloved son. Being afar off, yet Your rays are upon the earth.  You are in men’s faces, yet Your movements are unseen.  When You set in the western horizon, the earth is in darkness after the manner of death.  The night is passed in the bedchamber, heads covered, no eye can see its fellow.  Their belongings are stolen, even though they be under their heads, and they perceive it not.  Every lion is come forth from its lair and all snakes bite.  Darkness is the sole illumination while the earth is in silence, their maker resting in his horizon. (Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, 225) 

Initially, all that Akhen-Aten strove to accomplish with his personal faith in the Aten seems to have been fairly restricted to his immediate environment, particularly his new capital.  Indeed, he may have built his new capital with its strictly delimited boundaries in part to separate his faith from the old faith, while leaving the old faith intact.  However, at some point he clearly decided to eradicate the old polytheism of Egypt rather than leave it to spread its corrupting influence over the people.  He therefore sent workmen across the land to destroy images of the gods and to remove the names of the old gods from the temples.  In these efforts, they largely failed to do little but anger the priests and those people who directly benefitted from the old faith.  In the homes of the Egyptians, worship of the old gods probably continued as usual.  In the village constructed for the workmen employed on building Akhen-Aten’s new capital, even, shrines to the old gods have been found.  Far from leading a successful religious revolution, then, all Akhen-Aten really succeeded in doing was turning many people against him.  One important reason for this failure may have been the lack of a concerted effort to bring the new faith to the people.  Apart from closing the old temples and removing the names of the old gods, the new faith seems only to have been upheld in a couple of new temples, which could not possibly have reached the entire population with their monotheistic message. 

Involved as he was in the everyday affairs of his new faith, Akhen-Aten had neither the time nor the inclination to involve himself in foreign affairs.  Consequently, as uncovered in letters written to the capital by Egyptian outposts, hostile neighbors began to threaten the borders of Egypt, in particular the Hittites in Anatolia, who were just now coming into their own politically and militarily and seeking to expand southward into Palestine.  Letters from the Egyptian governor in Palestine attest to this fact, and paint a picture of a man desperate for assistance from Egypt against the growing threat, but receiving no answer from a king who had no interest in such earthly political matters. 

Towards the end of his reign, Akhen-Aten accepted his son-in-law Smenkh-ka-Ra, husband to the king’s eldest daughter, as his co-regent and heir to the throne of Egypt.  That he had no sons of his own compelled him to this end in acquiring an heir.  However, while Smenkh-ka-Ra may have been eager to become the next king of Egypt, he seems to have had no commitment to the new faith of his father-in-law.  This is indicated by evidence that he quickly left Akhet-Aten to take up residence in the ancient capital of Thebes.  Jilted by his son-in-law, Akhen-Aten was left without an heir.  There is even a suggestion that he may have been abandoned by his wife, Nefer-titi, in the end.  However it happened, we may assume that the monotheistic king of Egypy died an isolated and hated man.  His mummy has never been found, and indeed he may never have been mummified.  His very enemies, in keeping with Egyptian tradition, probably destroyed his body even as they destroyed his city after his death.  His tomb has been found, and his sarcophagus within the tomb, but the sarcophagus stands empty and evidence suggests that it never held a body. 

The curse of Akhen-Aten then descended on his only remaining male heir, husband to his last daughter, Ankhes-en-Amun.  This was the famous King Tut, well known in contemporary society for his remarkable tomb, but most significant in history because it was the boy king Tut who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, rejected the monotheistic revolution of his father Akhen-Aten.  Tut ordered the temples to the ancient gods reopened and generously gave to the priests, no doubt hoping thereby to win their support.  But it was too late for Tut.  Before he had even reached his 20th birthday, Tut died.  A popular theory, based on an early forensic examination of an injury to his skull, was that he had been murdered, most likely by his own chief advisor Ay, who coveted the throne for himself.  We know that Ay did indeed become pharaoh after Tut’s death, but only after he had apparently compelled  Tut’s widow, Ankhes-en-Amun, to marry him.  Thereby, Ay gained legitimacy for his own claim to the throne, although his death put an end to this most amazing dynasty and gave rise to one of the most renowned dynasty in all of Egyptian history – that of Ramesses the Great.  More recent examinations of Tut’s body, however, suggest that he more likely died from malaria or from an infection that had spread through his body following a severe injury to his leg, the kind of injury that might have been caused in battle or even from falling off his horse.

Funerary Traditions in Ancient Egypt

Regardless of whether the Egyptians were monotheists aor polytheists, they all agreed – hell was a very nasty place indeed, as awful as anyone could imagine today.  The following is a description of hell narrated in Egyptian texts by one who had actually been there, a mummy, who is being questioned by a priest:

When it became necessary for me to die, the Kosmokrator angels were the first to come round about me, and they told me of all the sins which I had committed, and they said to me, “Let him that can save you from the torments into which you shall be cast come hither.”  And they had in their hands iron knives, and pointed goads which were like unto sharp spears, and they drove them into my sides and gnashed upon me with their teeth. …at that moment angels who were without pity came and dragged my wretched soul from my body, and having tied it under the form of a black horse, they led me away to Amenti [Hell]. … I was then delivered into the hands of a multitude of tormentors who were without pity and who had each a different form. … And it came to pass that when I had been cast into the outer darkness, I saw a great ditch which was more than two hundred cubits deep, and it was filled with reptiles; each reptile had seven heads, and the body of each was like unto that of a scorpion.  In this place also lived the Great Worm, the mere sight of which terrified him that looked thereat.  In his mouth he had teeth like unto iron stakes, and one took me and threw me to this Worm which never ceased to eat; then immediately all the [other] beasts gathered together near him, and when he had filled his mouth [with my flesh], all the beasts who were round about me filled theirs. (E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion, 139-40)

In contrast, paradise for the Egyptians was a marvelous place, quite similar to this earth, with all the good things of this earth and without the bad things.  These were the Elysian Fields, where the soul could enjoy a very physical existence forever with his family and friends, playing cards, drinking beer, listening to music, fishing, all that he had most enjoyed in this life. 

That being the case, any Egyptian in his right mind would want to spend eternity there.  And so they took great pains to ensure that they had this opportunity.  But remember the lesson of Osiris – you can only enjoy eternal happiness in heaven if your body is preserved through the very process that Osiris was the first to undergo – mummification.

The process of preparing a mummy evolved over time in Egypt.  Initially, bodies were probably buried in the sand.  Over time, the wealthy came to have special burial chambers built for themselves, which also meant that their bodies required special preparation in order to preserve them.  The following were the steps generally required in this 70 day process:

1. Brain

As the Egyptians believed that the heart was the location of the soul and of human thought, they had no interest in preserving the brain (which is pretty sad, really, because that means that if the Egyptians had been right about their paradise, and the means of getting there, they had spent 3 millennia filling paradise with lobotimized spirits).  To remove the brain, a spike was hammered up through the nose to break through the nasal cavity and open a passage into the skull.  This allowed the priests to poke a long stick with a hook at the end through the cavity and into the brain.  Using the hook, they would wisk the brain into a thin mush, quite liquidy.  Tipping the head forward, then, the brain would seep out through the nasal cavity and ears.

2. Organs. 

Make an incision in the left side of the body.  Remove the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines through this incision. 

3. Canopic jars. 

Clean these organs and place them into caponic jars, which would stand near the sarcophagus in the tomb.

4. Heart

Remove the heart, cleanse it, wrap it, and return it to the chest cavity.

5. Dessication. 

Dry the body by leaving it covered in natron for 35 to 40 days.  Natron was a natural substance that collected along the banks of Egypt’s small lakes as the waters evaporated.  Composed of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride, it’s pretty much like covering the body with a combination of salt and baking soda, which leach the moisture out of the body.

6. Stuffing. 

Stuff the resulting body cavity with materials provided by the family, such as cloths used by the deceased during life which are soaked in gums, herbs, and oils.  In some cases of poorer mummies, researchers have found other less personal material used to stuff the dead, including straw and mud.

7. Cleaning. 

Cleanse and purify the body.  Various oils and perfumes were used, such as palm wine, frankincense, and mer, to provide the body with a pleasant aroma with which to come into the presence of Osiris, the Judge.

8. Wrapping. 

Wrap the body in cloth strips.  The body of a king would be carefully wrapped in the finest linen, while less noble bodies might be wrapped in strips made from their own clothing or bed sheets.  While the body was being wrapped, the priests would hide magical amulets within the layers of cloth to further protect the body from harm and assist the journey of the dead into the Underworld.

Death mask.

Assuming this to be an individual of some standing and wealth, then along with amulets, the priests would decorate the body with jewelry and ornaments of gold and precious stones.  And at the very end of the wrapping, a death mask would be laid over the face of the deceased.  All of which was far too compelling for thieves in Egypt to ignore.  After all, if you break into a tomb, hoping to become rich, the last thing you intend to do is leave the dead in peace.  You know the traditions.  You know there are valuable jewels and gold on or buried beneath the layers of cloth, and so thieves would tear apart the dead, ensuring that the entire purpose of mummification was not achieved.  The spirit could not live forever once the body was destroyed.

9. Coffins. 

Finally, the mummy was placed in one or more coffins or sarcophagi to further ensure its protection against the elements.  Remember, the ultimate goal of all this apparent obsession with the body is in fact to secure the survival of the spirit in the life to come.  Destruction of the body was believed to threaten the survival of the spirit, and everyone wants the chance to live on in the afterlife, right?  The Egyptians thus became masters at physical preservation for the sake of spiritual longevity. 

Not only did burial customs evolve over time in ancient Egypt; the place where the dead were buried also changed.  In the pre-dynastic period, before Egypt was unified as a single state and mummification became the funerary ritual of choice, the dead were simply buried in the sand, which was an extremely effective form of natural mummification in such a dry desert.  However, over time and with increasing wealth, the Egyptians began to construct tombs for their dead.  Or at least for the upper classes.

For those who could afford it, an increasingly common form of tomb construction was the mastaba, a term derived from the Arabic for “bench,” used to describe even today the table or platform on which the deceased are prepared for burial.  You can see a large number of mastabas clustered around the Great Pyramid of Giza. 

These pyramids became the symbols of ancient Egypt, and there were in fact more than most people know, probably some 100 pyramids in all.  Regardless of fantastic speculations about who built them and what they were for, the simple explanation is that they were tombs.  All excavatable pyramids in Egypt have revealed chambers for the burial of a pharaoh or, in the case of the smaller pyramids, a close relative of the pharaoh.

The shape of the pyramid has also inspired much conjecture.  From an architectural standpoint, the pyramid is far more durable than a rectangular building with vertical walls, at least in the pre-steel and pre-cement ancient world.  A monument of the massive size of the Great Pyramid with vertical walls would surely have collapsed.  However, there may have been another source of inspiration for the shape of the pyramid in Egypt – the primeval hill, Ben-ben.  Just as the gods emerged from the hill in the beginning of time, the descendents of the gods – the pharaohs – would return to the heavens through their own artificial hill, the pyramid.

The Gods of Ancient Egypt

If you recall what we said earlier about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, it was thanks to the works of Budge and other prominent Egyptologists that the history of ancient Egypt at last came alive.  Rather than trying to guess how the pyramids were built or why Egyptians mummified their dead, we could now simply read the sometimes lengthy explanations left by the Egyptians themselves to understand these phenomena, including their polytheistic beliefs.

Amongst the hundreds if not thousands of gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians was the pharaoh.  The term pharaoh is derived from the name given to the palace of the king of Egypt – the Per-o, meaning the “Great House.”  Egyptian kings or pharaohs were autocrats wielding absolute power.  In the reign of secure, confident, powerful kings, that power was unchallenged.  The power of the pharaohs of Egypt depended upon three things:

  • The people believed pharaoh to be a god, thus strengthening their loyalty to him.
  • Pharaoh was the ultimate possessor of all things on earth, including the people.
  • Pharaoh’s word was law. 

If these were the sources of pharaoh’s power, they could also be his undoing.  He could lose power if any one of these three sources was challenged, which happened a number of times in Egyptian history:

  • if the people stopped believing in pharaoh’s divinity, which could happen if the priests turned against pharaoh
  • if the all important fertile lands belonged to someone else, which happened whenever pharaoh rewarded loyal servants and generals with gifts of land
  • if the laws were written down, thereby giving the law a life of its own, a validity outside of pharaoh’s dictates

Among the many other gods, certainly one of the most significant was Ra, the Creator, maker of men, father of the gods, who was typically worshipped as the state god of Egypt.  Not surprisingly, he was associated with the the all-powerful sun, which would be recognized as the greatest of gods in a place like Egypt.  In the form of the sun, Ra rose over the earth every morning, sailing across the heavens in two boats (the first from sunrise until noon, and the second from noon until sunset).  As creator, recall, he first brought forth Shu, god of light, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture.

The children of Shu and Tefnut rose from the watery abyss together to become the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut).  According to one Egyptian myth, they embrace one another during the night, only to be separated every morning by their father Shu, son of the creator.  In this image you see the father Shu holding his daughter Nut high up and away from Geb, the earth.  In the end, their nightly embraces lead to children of their own, who grow up to form the core of Egypt’s most important myths.  As the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, Nut and Geb were also known as the Father and Mother of the Gods.

Osiris was the son of Nut and Geb.  He ruled over the earth until he was treacherously slain by his brother, Seth, after which he was resurrected to become King of the Afterlife and Judge of the Dead.  His wife and sister, known as the “Lady of Enchantments,” was Isis.  She was often depicted as the “Divine Mother,” suckling her baby Horus.  Hers was one of the most popular Egyptian cults, and survived the foreign occupations of Egypt to become a favorite popular cult in Greek and Roman cultures as well, with shrines at Delos and Pompeii.  In Greece she became associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, while in Rome she was known as Stella Maris – the Star of the Sea.  Because of the prevalence of statues and images of Isis seated with the baby Horus on her knee, she was later compared with the Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus, and it is common to think of her in Egypt as a mother goddess figure.

The sister and companion of Isis was Nephthys, and like Isis, she was a goddess of Magic who helped the dead to overcome the finality of death and the grave.  Her husband and the god of all that was Evil in the world, including the desert, darkness, night time, sickness, storms, and foreigners, was Seth.  Seth killed his brother Osiris to become king, and then waged war on the vengeful Horus even as the night battled the day for dominion over the earth.

Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis.  He became King of the World by defeating his uncle Seth in battle.  He was also the Guardian of the Pharaoh, and every pharaoh had a “Horus” name to indicate his special relationship to Horus.  His symbol was the falcon or hawk, which was often depicted in paintings and statuary guarding over the pharaoh.

The illegitimate child of Osiris and Nephthys (or the son of Ra), Anubis was a guardian of the afterlife who assisted in the preparation of the dead and guided the spirit of the deceased to Osiris, even as he assisted in the mummification of Osiris by embalming the dead king’s body.  The priests who labored over the preparation of mummies were known as the Priests of Anubis.  The apparent origin of Anubis as protector of the dead seems to stem from actual events in prehistoric Egypt.  Before the development of mummification, it is clear that the Egyptians would simply bury their dead in the Western Desert.  With the shifting sands of the desert, however, this meant that a dead body could fairly easily be uncovered and exposed to the jackals – the scavenging wild dogs of the desert.  According to belief, the first jackal to come upon such a body would guard over the body, snarling at other would be scavengers to scare them off, thus allowing him to eventually sit and enjoy his rather dry, tough meal by himself.  From this arose the belief that the jackal – Anubis – was the protector of the dead.  Because of the use of the west as a necropolis for the dead, Anubis came to be known as “the one of the West, lord of the sacred land.”

One of the most important of Egyptian myths concerns the central gods of Egyptian belief: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus.  Osiris was the king of the world.  He was a great king and a powerful god, and he ruled over the earth as a just king.  Unfortunately, Osiris had a brother, Seth, and Seth was very envious of his brother’s power.  Whatever it took, Seth was going to become king. 

Now ancient Egyptians were fascinated with death, so don’t be too surprised to hear that one day Seth brought a coffin with him to a celebration at the king’s palace.  But not just any coffin.  This was a beautiful, fantastic piece of work, and Seth had secretly had this coffin built exactly to fit his brother, Osiris.  So in walks Seth with the coffin, and he announces that it would belong to whichever god best fit into the coffin.  They all tried, but only Osiris could slip into the coffin nice and comfy.  And the moment he was inside the coffin, Seth had the lid of the coffin slammed down on top and nailed shut so that his brother could not escape.  Then he had the coffin thrown out the palace window and into the river Nile, where the coffin floated away and Osiris drowned to death. So now, with his brother out of the way, Seth was king.  But there was still Osiris’s widow, Isis.  You see, when she learned her husband had disappeared, Isis was so distraught that she vowed to find him.  She searched all over Egypt, and eventually she did find the coffin and managed to bring it back with her, but she couldn’t let Seth get ahold of it.  She had to protect her husband’s body, so that his soul could live forever, so she and her sister Nephtys took turns watching over the hidden coffin.  But Seth still managed to find the coffin, and this time he had his brother’s body chopped up into little bits, fourteen pieces in all, and he threw the pieces into the Nile River.  Now he could be king, knowing he was safe and his brother’s soul would die along with his body. 

Now Isis really had her work cut out for her this time.  But she didn’t give up, and once again she was successful.  She found the pieces of her husband’s body, well, not all of them, thirteen of them, and she brought these thirteen pieces back, and using her sister’s magic, she was able to put the pieces back together.  Now, working together, Isis and Nephthys prepared the body, cleaning it and wrapping it in linen, properly preserving it. 

And in this way, Osiris, the first mummy in Egyptian history, was resurrected from the dead to live and rule in the afterlife as King of the Dead, which was a pretty powerful position to hold, as you’ll see.

Now, Seth was still king, but he was not the only one to claim the right to the throne.  Osiris was now king of the dead, but he had a son – Horus.  If Seth wanted to be king, he had to get rid of his challenger.  While Horus was still a baby, Seth sent a serpent, which bit Horus and poisoned him.  While Horus was dying, his mother Isis pleaded with the chief god – Ra – to help her son.  Ra looked down on the baby and agreed, in a sense adopting him, so that when he saved Horus’ life, he was in essence agreeing to watch over all new kings. 

But Horus did not win the crown so easily.  Seth was determined to remain king, and when Horus grew up and claimed the throne for himself, a war began that lasted for years.  Neither side was able to defeat the other.  When Horus cuts off his uncle’s head, it simply grew back.  When he destroyed his uncle’s army, a new army replaced it.  And when it seemed the war would simply drag on forever, Seth asked for arbitration to end their dispute.  So Ra organized a council of the gods to listen to both sides and choose who would be king.  Both sides gave good arguments, and after about 80 years of this trial, most members of the council believed that Horus should be king since he was the son of the old king.  But Ra favored Seth, who was son of Nut.  Seth, he argued, was older and more experienced than Horus.  So even this council could not agree on who should be king. 

Seth and Horus therefore resumed their fighting.  Seth may have been the god of war, but he realized he could not defeat his nephew in battle.  So he tried a different tactic.  One night he went to bed with his nephew and the next morning, Horus was pregnant.  It’s a bizarre, yet worthy tactic, because if Horus was pregnant, then he could not have been a real man, and only a man could be king in Egypt.  But Horus wasn’t pregnant just anywhere; he was pregnant in his hand.  And his mother, Isis, wasn’t about to let Seth become king just because her son was pregnant.  So, she chopped off her son’s hand and threw it into the Nile River.  Now Isis tried the same trick with Seth, but Seth protected himself and so they were back to square one. 

By now of course everyone was sick to death of all this sickness and death.  The chief of the gods, Ra, could not seem to stop this, favoring Seth as he did.  And so they turned to Osiris, who was now, remember, king of the dead and the afterlife.  Naturally, Osiris said his son, Horus, should be king.  Ra disagreed.  He still wanted Seth.  But Osiris reminded Ra who held the power of life and death within his hands, who could send an army of the dead to steal anyone’s life from them, who controled the entrance to the afterlife – Osiris, of course.  And this was enough to convince Ra.  After all, nobody wants to be kept out of heaven, right?  So they all agreed, and Horus became King in the land of the living, while his father, Osiris, ruled in the land of the dead.  Good had triumphed over evil.