Sky Religion in Ancient Egypt: Temples and Magick - Part I
“In the beginning Egypt was not”
The Sky Religion in Egypt: Its Antiquity and Effects by G A Wainwright; published in 1938, is one of the classic enabling texts of Egyptology, and I am going to use this name as a porte-manteau for this thread.
The sky religion is, in my opinion, one of humanity’s oldest spiritual impulses. Its roots lie back in the mists of time. Wherever human remains are found, it’s shown the sky religion was practiced. It begins with the simple observation of the sky, although nothing is ever simple. It might, by extension, encompass acts of reverence, an infinite number of attempts to replicate things seen in the sky here on Earth. Or, the recognition in the landscape, of patterns on earth that have been seen in the sky. This is possible because, metaphorically speaking, the earth and the sky were thought to have been once joined; the imprint of one is to be seen on the other.
The Books of Ancient Egypt
The Egyptians told this story in various Books of the Sky, the most famous of which is that of Nut or Nuit.
Nut, goddess of sky and heavenly bodies in Ancient Egypt. ( Public Domain )
Of course when mentioning books, it may well evoke a certain idea in one’s mind, of an object printed on paper and sold in bookshops. Egyptian books, whilst sometimes written on papyrus or leather, were more often consisting of hieroglyphic texts and graphics carved in stone on the walls of sacred buildings. In a sense they were written in the environment, albeit a built one. Egyptian temples invariably contain several distinct books, arranged in panels on every available surface. One such book is that of Nut, the sky goddess.
Nut or Nuit was a sky goddess; Geb was the Earth god. This is a reversal of the commonest pattern of ancient thought, that of earth mother and sky father.
This is more than just a picture; it is a whole story, actually, a book.
In this book, we are to understand that Geb, the earth father, and Nut, the sky mother were once one flesh. In the book they are shown in the moments after another god, Shu, lord of the directions, has pushed them apart, raising Nut, the sky. There is a lot more going on in this book, to which we will need to revisit. We might validly infer that the imprint of the sky is on the Earth, and vice versa. This is an ancient iteration of the Hermetic ideal: “as above, so below”.
Caption of picture in book reads: "The God Seb supporting Nut on Heaven". 1904. The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. II, colour plate facing page 96, by E. A. Wallis Budge. ( Public Domain )
A World without Religion
Returning to the idea of the sky religion, strictly speaking, there is no word for “religion” in Egypt. We are going to have to use a term that was alien or unspoken as far as they were concerned. Such is the paradox of translation. “Religion” is a useful, perhaps indispensable concept, yet one for which there appears to be no equivalent used by the Egyptians themselves.
Our word concept comes from Latin, and was a Roman innovation. Part of its meaning is to bind together, with the same root as “ligature” – a cord wrapped around a bundle of different things. The Romans were no doubt keen to distinguish their religion, that which bound them together, from spiritual ideas from outside. The later Roman theologians were probably motivated by a desire to distinguish Roman religion from a more alien other world whose priests were “magi”, practitioners of magick.
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Top Image: Deriv; Inside Temple Edfu, (CC BY-SA 2.0 ) and stars ( CC BY 2.0 )
By Chris Morgan