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History of Philosophy
Egypt
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)


Up to the present time Egyptologists have failed to reach an agreement as to what was the primitive form of religious belief in ancient Egypt. In the first place, the chronological difficulties have hitherto proved to be insurmountable; and in the next place, the diversity of religious systems in the different nomes, provinces, into which ancient Egypt was divided, renders difficult every attempt at forming a theory as to what, if any, was the one religion which prevailed throughout Egypt at the dawn of history. Historians are content with dating the period the seventh century B.C. by dynasties rather than by years, the first dynasty being placed about the fifty-fifth century B.C. Menes, who established the first dynasty, found already a hierarchical system of deities, to each of whom some city was dedicated. But what was the primitive religion Egypt, from which this hierarchical system of gods was evolved? Monotheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Henotheism, Totemism, Sun-Worship, Nature-Worship, -- these are the widely different answers which modern Egyptologists have given to question. [5] Scholars are equally at variance as to the origin and significance of Animal-Worship among the Egyptians. When, however, we come to the period of the great gods, chief whom were Ra (the sun), Nut (heaven), and Set, or Typhon (the earth), and to the legends of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, there seems to be very little room for doubt as to the essentially naturalistic character of these divinities. "The kernel of the Egyptian state religion was solar." [6]

[5] Cf. De la Saussaye, Manual, p. 396.

[6] Sayce, The Ancient Empires of the East, p. 58.
With regard to the speculative elements of thought contained in the mythological conceptions of the Egyptians, mention must be made of the doctrine that everything living, whether it was a god, a man, or an animal, possessed a Ka, or "shadow," which was in each case more real and permanent than the object itself. This notion was present in the practice of animal worship; for, although there is by no means a unanimity of opinion among scholars in favor of reducing animal worship to mere symbolism, there is no doubt that the Egyptian mind was dominated by the idea that every Ka must have a material dwelling place. Similarly, when the abstract notion of the divinity presented itself to the Egyptian mind and was identified with each god in turn, and when, at a later time, there appeared the notion of a pantheistic divinity in whom all the great gods were merged, the dominant idea was always that of the Ka or soul, whose dwelling place was the individual god or the universe. Another conception which may be traced very far back in the history of Egyptian civilization is that of the magical virtue of names.

The idea of "shadow" and the belief in the magical virtue of names determined the Egyptian cult of the dead and the doctrine of immortality. From the monuments and the relics of ancient Egyptian literature, especially from the Book of the Dead, [7] it is clear that deep down in the popular mind was the belief that the continued existence of a person after death depended some how on the preservation of his name and on the permanence of the dwelling place which was to harbor his Ka, or shadow. Hence, the Egyptians considered that the houses of the living were merely inns, and that the tombs of the dead are eternal habitations. In the philosophical traditions of the priestly caste there grew up a more rational doctrine of the future life. According to this doctrine, man consists of three parts, the Khat, or body, the Khu, or spirit, which is an emanation from the divine essence, and the soul, which is sometimes represented as a Ka dwelling in the mummy or in the statue of the deceased, and sometimes as a Ba, or disembodied soul, which ultimately returns to its home in the lower world. [8] It is this Ba, or disembodied soul, which after death appears before Osiris and the forty-two judges, and is weighed in the balance by Horus and Anubis while Thoth records the result. The souls of the blessed are eventually admitted to the happy fields of Aalu, there to be purified from all earthly stain and made more perfect wisdom and goodness. The souls of the wicked are condemned either to the various torments of hell, or to wanderings long and arduous through the regions between heaven and earth, or to transmigration into the bodies of various animals, or, finally, to annihilation. The fate of the soul is determined partly by the good and evil which it wrought during life and partly by the amulets, prayers, and gifts by which it secured the favor of the gods. But whatever may be the immediate fate of the soul, it will ultimately return to its body, and on the great day of resurrection soul, body, and spirit shall be once more united.
[7] For texts, date, etc., cf. Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians (New York, 1897), p. 244.

[8] Mention is also made of Osiris, or that part of man's immortal nature which has such close resemblance to the god Osiris as to be called by his hame. Wiedemann (op. cit., p. 244) maintains that in the different designations, Ka, etc., we have to do with different conceptions of an immortal soul, which had arisen in separate places in prehistoric times and were ultimately combined into one doctrine, "the Egyptians not daring to set any aside for fear it should prove to be the true one."
From the chapter on Judgment in the Book of the Dead and from the Ethical Maxims of Kakimma (third dynasty) and Ptah-Hotep (fifth dynasty) it appears that the ideal of conduct among the ancient Egyptians was practical, of a high order of purity, and essentially religious. In these documents charity, benevolence, prudence, chastity, social justice, clemency, and the love of intellectual pursuits are ranked among the foremost virtues. And not only external morality is inculcated but also be morality of thought and desire.
For bibliography, cf. De la Saussaye, op. cit., I, 88, and the Manual above referred to, pp. 374 ff.


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