Pluralized Monotheism in Ancient Egyptian Religion

While skimming through William K. Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt, I noticed that several of the ancient Egyptian texts recorded in the book mention a singular being translated as “God” with a capital G. For example, The Instruction of Amenemope mentions this God multiple times:

So plough the fields, and you will find whatever you need,
And receive the bread from your own threshing floor:
Better is the bushel which God gives you
Than five thousand deceitfully gotten;
They do not spend a day in the storehouse or warehouse,
They are no use for dough for beer;
Their stay in the granary is short-lived,
When morning comes they will be swept away.
Better, then, is poverty in the hand of God
Than riches in the storehouse;
Better is bread when the mind is at ease
Than riches with anxiety.

We almost always reconstruct the ancient Egyptian belief system as polytheistic in the extreme, with a cast of hundreds if not thousands of gods, and but this and several other texts imply a condensation of all these characters into one larger entity addressed by a singular proper noun. The passage quoted above might even look like an extract from the Judeo-Christian Bible, yet I submit that this has less to do with the familiar Semitic religions than a conception of divinity widespread in ancient Africa.

The Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti characterizes the majority of traditional African belief systems as fundamentally monotheistic, conceiving of a singular Creator being he identifies as God. However, this God is not necessarily the only spiritual entity postulated by these religions. From Mbiti’s General Manifestations of African Religiosity:

There are, however, concepts that point to a plurality of God, even if people acknowledge the unity (oneness) of God. Some societies speak of, or acknowledge other spiritual beings that are closely associated with God. These may represent God in various activities or be manifestations of God.

One example of this pluralized monotheism in Africa is the Nigerian Yoruba conception of the orishas:

An Orisha (also spelled Orisa or Orixa) is a spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of Olódùmarè (God) in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system (Olódùmarè is also known by various other names including Olorun, Eledumare, Eleda and Olofin-Orun)…

The Yoruba belief in Orisa is meant to consolidate not contradict the terms of Olódùmarè. Adherents of the religion appeal to specific manifestations of Olódùmarè in the form of the various Orishas.

Did the ancient Egyptians have a similar idea of God as a singular entity with multiple manifestations? One Egyptian text states that:

All the gods are three: Amun, the sun, and Ptah, without their seconds. His identity is hidden as Amun, his face is the sun, and his body is Ptah.

In other words, the entirety of the so-called Egyptian pantheon can be merged into a single being with three named parts. You may have also observed from the same page that the creator figure Amun is characterized as hidden and unknowable. This is precisely how most African belief systems conceive of their God. Again from Mbiti:

African religiosity acknowledges the reality of God but does not define God. If anything, it confesses that God is unknowable. The Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania) name for God, Engai means (among others) “the Unseen One, the Unknown One”. Likewise, among the Tenda (Guinea), God is called Hounounga which means: “the Unknown”. People affirm that God is invisible, which is another way of asserting that they do not know God in any would-be physical form. Subsequently, nowhere in Africa do we find physical images or representations of God, the Creator of the universe. This is remarkable.

To be sure, the Egyptian artistic representations of Amun may appear an exception to that rule, yet we know from the Egyptian texts that nobody was supposed to know his true appearance. They did not literally believe Amun looked like a man with a double-plumed crown, or a ram, or however they may have symbolized him in their art. Like other Africans, the Egyptians thought of their God as a being without a form anyone could know for sure.

In conclusion, I interpret the ancient Egyptian religion not as full-blown polytheism as popularly imagined, but as a special form of pluralized monotheism. All the characters from Egyptian mythology we call gods today (e.g. Osiris, Horus, Set, or Sobek) would be better characterized as outgrowths of a larger divinity much like the Yoruba orishas. In this respect the Egyptian belief system shows a relationship not so much to modern Judeo-Christian or Islamic monotheism but to widespread religious trends throughout the African continent.

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One thought on “Pluralized Monotheism in Ancient Egyptian Religion

  1. “The God” usually refers to the creator (who could be Ra, Amun, Ptah, Khnum, Nit, etc). Sometimes it could also mean “the god of your district”, so Bast, Wepwawet, etc. It is NOT meant to refer to one god who is like the “prototype” of them all.

    It should also be noted that the word “god” is usually translated from the term “netjer”, for which a better translation is “divine power”. In ancient Egypt, gods were gods for the amount of netjer in them, as well as other constituents such as the ba or akh.

    I disagree, then, that ancient Egyptian religion is a “pluralized monotheism”. It’s more like henotheism, where one god is elevated above all others, without denying the existence or power of others. It should also be noted that, while we can’t speak for the common people, the priests were very, very careful to maintain the uniqueness of each god. In a pluralized monotheism, the priests wouldn’t necessarily do that. Contrast this with, say, Hinduism, where I could say Shiva = Surya (the sun god), and nobody would bat an eyelash.

    Some people say ancient Egyptian religion is monolatrous, where all the gods emerge from one, but maintain separate personalities and existence.

    If this subject interests you, I recommend Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt as well as Meeks & Meeks’ Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. That’s where all the above information came from.

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