Saturday, March 28, 2009

Write like an Egyptian

I've read an excellent book on Egyptian history and theological development by Jan Assmann, a German Egyptologist. The book is a bit more convoluted than I had hoped, but herewith is an outstanding excerpt that provides insight into the book, into the mind of Egypt, and into human nature generally.

Selected parts of an Egyptian hymn of the daily ritual, dating to the middle kingdom, ~2040-1650 BC:

The king
worships the sun god in the early morning
upon his emergence when he "opens his orb,"
when he flies up to heaven as scarab
he enters the mouth,
he emerges from the thighs,
at his birth in the eastern sky
His father Osiris raises him up,
the arms [of the air gods] Hu and Hauhet receive him.
He sets himself down in the morning bark.

The king knows
this mysterious speech that the "eastern souls" speak,
when they make jubilant music for the sun god
at his ascent, his appearance on the horizon
and when they open for him the wings
of the gates of the eastern horizon
so that he can voyage forth on the ways of the heavens in his boat.

He knows their aspect and their incarnations,
their mansion in God's-Land.
He knows their locations,
when the sun god goes forth at the beginning of his journey.
He knows that speech uttered by the crews
when they pull the bark of the orb of the horizon
He knows the birth of Re
and his transformation in the flood.
He knows that secret gate through which the great god came forth,
he knows him who is in the morning bark,
and the great image in the night bark.
He knows his landing places on the horizon
and your steering equipment in the heavenly goddess.

...

Re has set up the king
on the earth of the living for ever and ever
to speak justice to the people, to satisfy the gods,
for the generation of ma'at [good/justice], for the destruction of isfet [bad/chaos].
He gives the divine offerings to the gods,
and mortuary offerings to the transfigured.
The name of the king
is in heaven like [that of] Re.
He lives in joy
like Re-Horakhty.
The dignitaries rejoice when they see him.
The subjects give him ovations
in his role of the child.
...

Assmann comments:
This text enumerates everything the king must know for the worship of the sun god in the morning: the nature of the cosmic process, its various stages, its scenic and constellational arrangements, and its salvational meaning as rebirth; he knows the deities involved, their actions, their speech, the circumstances of their lives; and he knows the spatial framework of the process- heavenly gates, barks, landing places, steering equipment. The king must know all this precisely in order to be able to intervene effectively in the cosmic process with his worshipful speech. His fears are less that one day the sun might no longer rise than that the salvational meaning of the process might be lost or forfeited. The king, then, performs an officium memoriae. He must summon all his mnemonic power to keep this salvational knowledge present. The world thus maintained is a world of meaning, of language, of knowledge, of relations and reflections, an anthropomorphic reading of the universe with a correspondingly cosmomorphic image of human order. The hourly ritual bans cosmic chaos, and with it the chaos in man himself.

pp210-211, The mind of Egypt., 1996/2002


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