October 29, 2009

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , at 6:01 pm by Jeremy

Hornung - Conceptions of GodConceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

By Erik Hornung

New York: Cornell University Press


Erik Hornung is one of the great modern Egyptologists, and this book is probably his most important.  However, it’s a fairly dense read, and I would recommend Jan Assmann’s The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, (written around the same time in the early 1980’s), as a more accessible in-depth view into ancient Egyptian thought.

Still, Hornung is clearly expert in his knowledge and applies it with a subtle mind.  His primary purpose seems to be to argue against previous generations of Egyptologists who thought they saw a monotheistic cognitive framework in ancient Egyptian thought.  Hornung’s argument is that, in fact, Egyptian cosmological thinking was polytheistic in its very essence.  He believes that it’s easy to misinterpret many Egyptian invocations to gods that, in effect, flatter the god in question by asserting that he’s “the only one.”  It’s a little like someone saying to his/her lover “To me, you’re everything.”  That’s not a statement you’re meant to take literally, but it can still be true on a different level.

Hornung, however, goes well beyond that particular point.  He describes Egyptian thought as pre-logical, a mode of cognition where if something is a, that doesn’t mean that it’s not also b.  This, he argues, is a mode of thought that’s virtually unattainable for Western minds brought up on Aristotelian logic.  If we could get there, he claims,

we shall be able to comprehend the one and the many as complementary propositions, whose truth values within a many-valued logic are not mutually exclusive, but contribute together to the whole truth: god is a unity in worship and revelation, and multiple in nature and manifestation.

That is, a god can be the only one in the cosmos, and at the same time be one of many.  Consequently, Hornung sees monotheism, not as a stage along a continuum from polytheism, but as a “transformation”, accompanying the cognitive revolution to Aristotelian-style logic, a world of binary opposites, where the answer can be “yes” or “no” but not “yes and no.”

Although Assmann states that he disagrees with Hornung’s view of Egyptian polytheistic thought, I see their views as largely compatible.  They both discuss the Akhenaten revolution – the short-lived imposition of true monotheistic worship on Egypt – as a hiatus utterly incompatible with the Egyptian worldview.  But more than that, I think Hornung’s view of monotheism as a “conceptual transformation” fits in with Assmann’s view of the transition in Egypt’s history towards a kind of “cognitive dissonance”, with a “pantheistic theology of transcendence” which set the stage for later monotheistic thought.  Under Assmann’s model, we’re still looking at a complete transformation between polytheism and monotheism  – Assmann, in my view, goes further than Hornung by describing the transformative phase of post-Amarna Egyptian cosmology.

The most valuable take-away I get from Hornung is his emphasis on seeing the shift from polytheism to monotheism as a transformative stage in human consciousness.  As he says, “Both of these worlds are consistent within their own terms of reference, but neither transcends historical space or can claim absolute validity.”  I think this is an important frame of reference, which I elsewhere categorize by stages of the pfc’s advance in its power over human consciousness.  In my categorization, there’s another shift from monotheism to scientific method, which has taken place over the past few hundred years.  And most importantly, I think our world is ready for the next stage in the development of our global consciousness.  But, that’s all material for another post…



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