Out of Egypt an Other Son

Script for a Video Lecture by Karl W. Luckert, Portland, Oregon, 2002 Edition






While no land is holier than any other, there appears to be nevertheless one place on Planet Earth that qualifies as having been the religious and intellectual birth-place of Western Civilization. This place in ancient history was the city of Junu, in Egypt, dedicated to the Sun deity and named “Heliopolis” by the Greeks.[1]

The stones that formerly were assembled here for the sanctuary of Atum-Ra are scattered now. They were re-used among generations of later structures. So little is left of this place, that no travel office could show me a picture of it. I had to come here and see for myself.

The ancient Sun temple that stood here, in Heliopolis, is known to have contained the bnbn-stone. And this sacred stone is believed to have been the prototype of all subsequent Egyptian obelisks. It symbolized the rising of the sun-god Atum-Ra at the moment of creation.

It is somewhat unlikely that this only surviving obelisk, here in Heliopolis, is the original one that stood in the main temple. But this being the only one that remains, its presence at this site is enough of a coincidence for me to feel inspired to quote from an ancient Pyramid Text that reminisces the first sunrise at the moment of creation (1652-55) -- according to the ancient Heliopolitantrinitarian” theology.[2] The process begins with light and proceeds to the creation of life:

"O Atum-Khoprer, you rose on high, you rose up as the bnbn-stone in the Temple of the Phoenix in Heliopolis, you spat forth Shu, you expectorated Tefnut, and you put your arms around them in an act of ka-giving, that your essence -- your life -- might be in them."

And who am I to compete with loudspeakers of four large mosques that, on this holy Friday noon, suddenly decided to call the faithful to prayer!

Atum, as primeval Hill, rose from amidst Nun, the watery chaos “of darkness and of gloom.” “Nun” was the closest concept that the ancient Heliopolitans had to signify “nothing” -- or rather, an inconsequential “watery mess.”

The power that emanated from Atum was polarized as male and female manifestations -- as Shu and Tefnut. Shu represented the phallus dimension of Atum -- the rising mountain and the obelisk. Tefnut represented the enclosure, the hand or vagina dimension of Atum. So, at this second level of divine emanation we are aware of three divine names -- Atum, Shu, and Tefnut (Father, Son, and Daughter). There is one triune God and Creator -- one process of procreation and creation.

Atum-Ra’s own creative energy, the soul of Shu as air and breath, was released as an ejaculation of radiant light and life. Shu was rushing to fill the space -- fill the realm that was delimited by the cosmic womb of Tefnut who, thereby, became a realm of living creatures. This goddess represents order. She is the boundary that delimits and contains.

And so Tefnut holds back the waters of Chaos overhead. Her function corresponds to the “firmament” that is mentioned in the creation story in the book of Genesis (1:7-8, 14). To the extent that in ancient Egypt the All-God was envisioned as a prolific Father, Tefnut and her spacious womb, wherein all life is being gestated, clearly emerges as the divine Mother. Those who are unrelentingly opposed to such feminine theology are free to think, instead -- as the ancient Egyptians also did sometimes -- about Atum’s self-pleasuring, all-surrounding Hand.[3]

Atum is the power that creates the world. When he rises in the east, as Atum-Ra, he radiates life-giving splendor with each new day of creation.

The meaning of obelisks, as symbolic hill or phallus of Atum’s creation, was obvious at Heliopolis. But the problem of a mortal pharaoh was how to rule forever as the virile Son of God that he pretended to be. The perceived solution was to wrap oneself into a geometric abstract symbol -- into something like Atum’s obelisk.

Accordingly, King Snefru tried to build a taller superstructure than Djoser. We do not have the tip that was built or intended, so we cannot tell for sure that it culminated like an obelisk. However, we know what was on his mind, because his later so-called “Bent Pyramid,” approximates some rise as well as the upper slants of an obelisk.

Subsequent pharaohs were satisfied with letting only the tips of their gigantic egos protrude from the ground. The biggest of these protrusions belongs to Kufu, Snefru’s son. A human likeness, less than three inches tall, is all that remains for us to contemplate, of the remainder of his person.


2. Memphis

Not much remains of Memphis, the oldest imperial city in Western Civilization. Five thousand years ago the city stood and functioned at this place. A few monuments, statues, and a sphinx have survived from later times when ambitious Memphites were hoping and plotting for a renaissance.

The most impressive thing nowadays, at this site, is an unfinished colossal statue of Ramses II. This most vainglorious among the pharaohs had statues of himself placed all over Egypt -- four colossal statues of himself just at this one temple front, in Upper Egypt. He knew his Egyptian history and concluded that Memphis, the first imperial capital, was a significant enough place where to leave a colossus of himself.

Deified vanity, in Memphis, also has inspired very serious intellectual activity. Some 2800 years ago, a king named Shabako had a monument carved to preserve an ancient version of Egyptian political theory and theology. When looking at a theocracy one must remember that political theory, law, and theology are the same thing. The Memphite writer reveals much about how statecraft and religion were interrelated. He tells about the unity of divine words and pharaonic commands, and about the absolute power that the deified pharaoh claimed over the life and death of his people.

The Shabako monument is now exhibited in the British Museum. Apparently the stone had been put to ordinary uses for a while, as a grinding stone. So, we are fortunate that not everything political and theological has been milled off the surface. The text speaks for the primacy of the city of Memphis over other Egyptian cities, and for the supremacy of the Memphite All-god, Ptah, who has absorbed every attribute that had been ascribed to deity in other cities by other imperial theologies.

 “There came into being as the heart and there came into being as the tongue (something) in the form of Atum…”[4] This short theological sentence is all it took to incorporate the most ancient imperial cult, the one of Heliopolis, into “Ptah” theology of Memphis. The existence of the great Atum was not denied in Memphis, but henceforth the All-God of Heliopolis was acknowledged only as a vague apparition on the heart and on the tongue of Ptah -- whose name was to be exalted in Memphis.


3. Thebes and Sinai

More than a thousand years before the time to which the Abraham saga refers, Egypt has become an empire that was on its way to define Western civilization. Later culture centers, like Jerusalem and Athens, are heavily indebted to the ancient Egyptian influence.

It is said about Moses and Aaron, the alleged founders of the old Israelite religion, that they spent their formative learning years in Egypt. Then, here at Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses and identified himself merely as “the one who is” -- Yahweh. No theological innovation or surprise is implied. Back in Egypt, Moses could have studied the religion of the All-God of Thebes, who was known as Amun, the Hidden One. Not only was Amun hidden beyond his images, he also kept his name hidden from everyone. So the Yahweh revelation to Moses, in the Sinai story, conformed nicely to Egyptian theological expectations.

Here at Karnak (the site of ancient Thebes) are the impressive ruins of the central sanctuary of the Amun religion -- of the God who answered the prayers of all who earnestly approached him, and who bestowed extra blessings on those whom he loved. These temples all are marked by a progression of spaces, leading from an outer court to an inner Holy of Holies chamber. Back there used to be the Holy of Holies at Karnak.

Here is the temple of Isis, on Philae Island. Seen from the lake, its holiest chamber is situated to the right. Also in the well-preserved temple of Horus, at Edfu, one finds the Holy of Holies still enclosed -- minus the divine statue, of course.


4. Monotheism: Amun versus Aton

During most of the New Kingdom era the designation “Amun” referred to the supreme Godhead. A brief interruption in the history of Amun religion was caused by the pharaoh Akhenaton. Scholars have hailed him as the world’s first monotheist. But his religion was more an aberration of Egyptian monotheism than a good example of it. Aton, the Sun-deity, whom Akhenaton addressed in hymns of praise, appeared focused essentially on the wellbeing of his “only beloved Son, Akhenaton.” The deity’s goodwill just barely included the king’s wife. Aside from the legitimization of despotism, there was little that would support his fame as a reformer.

Of course, the Theban cult of Amun was not a bastion for religious purity either. But during the New Kingdom period, temples of Amun were being built far and wide. Amun religion has broadened its theology to accommodate the hopes and fascinations of people in all walks of life. The Amun cult has become an organization, a sort of Check and Balance system against the ambitions of individual pharaohs. Akhenaton tried to reverse this trend of losing power to the priests -- and to the people. But he failed. He lost his shepherd’s crook to the priests of Amun and, like his statue, he stood as lonely despot, only holding a whip. Before Akhenaton, Amun was the high-god of Egypt, and after Akhenaton the God of Egypt was Amun, still.

Of course, a singular deity, such as Amun, even though he is the Hidden One, has revealed himself unabashedly in certain procreated forms. So for instance, here at Thebes, the God of Egypt can be seen wrapped in symbolism that is almost Christian. While he is not exactly a Lamb of God, he appears nevertheless as Ram of God. Manifest with impressive multiplicity, Amun is guarding here the smaller images of pharaonic protégés. But one must look a little closer.

While indeed, one can find in the British Museum, and elsewhere, some genuinely hoofed Amun-Ram figures that guard the human pharaohs, those here at the Karnak temple are quite unlike rams that would cohabit with sheep. They have the paws and bodies of lions. They are ram-headed imperial sphinxes. The lion bodies indicate that we are here still in a temple domain controlled by pharaohs -- by men of predatory power.

Nevertheless, the fact that faces of rams -- on these sphinxes -- have replaced the faces of pharaohs, and that pharaohs are portrayed as small humankind, indicates that the egos of deified emperors were being constrained by priests and theologians.

Monotheism in Egypt is as old as the empire. During the Old Kingdom, when the All-God of Egypt had not yet gone into hiding as Amun, here at Thebes, Egyptian religion was defined by theologians at Heliopolis.


5. Heliopolitan Theology

Every schoolbook tells us that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun. This statement is true, but superficial. It would be better to say that they recognized the sun as life-giving and life-sustaining entity, and for this reason they learned to think, and to explain, everything in terms of light and shadows cast by the Sun. The Sun became their key to understanding the remainder of what exists and lives. Creation reoccurs with every sunrise -- as the world around us reappears anew.



Atum rises as primeval hill and sends forth Shu, to fill Tefnut’s space with life. You cannot see Shu, but you can rise with him, at sunrise, and breathe his air. You cannot see Tefnut, but you benefit from how she keeps Chaos away. She sees to it that clouds do have an underside, and that there is space for you to live underneath.

Saying the same thing a little more abstractly, Shu and Tefnut are radiated, or emanated, from the original Source, Atum. His rays continue to travel far away from the Source until they arrive at the low intensity level where we live. We live in a realm between light and darkness -- between life and death.[5] In our boundary region, where light and shadows interplay, there we “live and move and have our being,” for a while. Yes, by the grace of the radiant energy of Atum we appear here for a while.

“Degrees of focus” are the key word for understanding Egyptian cosmology. We are able to focus on light-and-shadow play with our eyes. And because our minds are being furnished with what the eyes provide, our minds can go on with focusing until they see more than the eyes can see. What no eyes have seen, that the minds of ancient Egyptian priests have focused upon, until they were able to paint images of what they saw. There is only one deity -- Atum -- who is putting on this entire polytheistic show.

From Atum come Shu and Tefnut, and their offspring are Geb and Nut. It is up to human intelligence to discover the Many in the One -- and it is for human mystic contemplation to see the One that embraces the Many.

Atum, Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, Osiris and Isis with Nephthys and Seth together make up the “Ennead,” which is a Ninefoldness -- something like Trinity Squared!

The masculine line of Atum-Shu comes into clearer focus as Geb (which is the land E-Geb-t). Geb lies under Tefnut who, meanwhile, has come into better focus as her daughter Nut -- or Lady Sky!

But keep in mind, these are not two gods interacting. Atum is moving in both his male and female dimension. These two dimensions (of sexual “dualism”) reverberate all the way down to creatures that temporarily live along the light and darkness boundary. [6] 

Most people today would insist that Lady Sky is evenly blue -- also that the cloud ceiling that we see is not being held up by a lady called Tefnut. But the fact that today we teach molecular theory without referring to Tefnut or Nut, has not stopped the priests of Atum from seeing her. The mystery of why things are what they are, and why they are not different than what they are, can never be fully explained either mythically or scientifically.

Place masculine and feminine together, and you get more life mysteries. In the case of Geb and Nut, their union resulted in the birth of a next generation of divinities.

Down in our realm, still unseen by most -- but inferable from their activities -- the twin pairs Seth and Nephthys, and Isis and Osiris, are doing their thing. Seth causes death and Nephthys, embarrassed by her brother’s violence, soothes pain by helping her sister Isis in the funeral proceedings. These two pairs of divine twins, at our level, thereby account for our mortality and our salvation. They make mortals die and point the way for souls to travel home -- to the divine Parent, to be again “nearer to the heart of God.”

Back in the early Egyptian days, such grand salvation was reserved for the God-king when he returned as soul to the divine ancestral Source. The earliest Heliopolitan story of creation, as we find it in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, was intended to support divine imperial destiny, rank, and continuation of the dynasty.[7] It defined the begetting and conception, the birth, the death and resurrection of every new pharaoh, as a Son of God.

Whenever a pharaoh died, a next Son of God, a successor Horus-Falcon, was begotten by God the Father. For his act of begetting, the deity was present as Father Osiris -- as transubstantiated corpse of the deceased pharaoh. When the embalmed Osiris was laid to rest in the sarcophagus, his sister Isis was positioned to hover above him.[8] Merneptah, when he commissioned carving his coffin, like many pharaohs before him, was thinking on a large scale. The lady under the lid is speckled with stars and represents Nut. Whether Isis or Nut, they are both one in Tefnut. Isis is Nut downscaled from her mother’s cosmic dimension -- in order to participate in the divine-human political theater of imperial succession.

From the perspective of the gods, the pharaoh’s burial signified the wedding night for Isis and Osiris. And in the darkness of their wedding chamber Isis conceived the next ruling king, a Horus-Falcon child.[9]

The new Horus is born on his day of coronation. For that event, Isis becomes visible as Mother Throne, guarded in the back by four cobras that are poised to strike.[10] But there is more. The pharaoh is seated upon the lap of Isis, as a young Horus-Falcon, situated between two lions. These lions are the “Ruti pair” and represent Shu and Tefnut. The two winged serpents, outside each armrest, probably point back as far as Atum. In either instance, this means that the ruler’s birth upon this throne participated in the first moment of creation -- somewhere between Shu and Tefnut, at the very crotch of Atum. Every ancient pharaoh therefore was born as “a singular begotten Son of God” and he was promptly “resurrected” to God-Father status when he died.

While imperial status was theologically and sanctimoniously confirmed, there was plenty wiggle-room for political hype. Ramses II, for instance, has dated back his Horus status far into early childhood. “I was born and nursed to rule,” this statue says.


6. Ka, Ba, and Resurrection

Now briefly something about Ka and Ba -- in order to prepare for understanding the later Christian doctrine of Resurrection.

The ancient Egyptians called the invisible life force, the spark of life that energetically manifests itself from within, the ka.[11] They named outward manifestations that register in human vision and perception the ba. Both ka and ba are what we might call soul. But these soul-aspects differ according to their progress along the path of divine emanation. The ba, appearing along the outer reaches of divine emanation, is a shadow-tainted estranged unit of ka and it is therefore “material” and visible. Those among us, who have studied so-called Neo-Platonic philosophy, already know these two soul concepts as “high soul” and “low soul.”  For the ancient Egyptians they were ka and ba.[12]

Everything visible of a person -- body, mummy, artistic image, or ghost -- is ba. Once the ka-soul has left a body, in order to return to its primeval Source, its shadow-dependent visible ba remnants begin to shrink and disappear.[13]

The ba has sometimes been represented as a human bird in a state of flux -- a primitive angel of sorts, half human and half animal -- availing itself of wings that enable it to fly upward in the direction of light where its ka has already gone. This figurine represents the ba of a prominent official; it was found in his tomb. The ba of Nebseny, depicted on papyrus, still clings to its mummy, while a little farther along the ba of Ani seems adept at using its wings as it hovers above its mummy.

No doubt, this bird symbolism owes its existence to the Horus and Isis mysteries.[14] Homeward bound souls loved to identify with the winged imperial Horus-Falcon.  The Osiri-zation of the body, and the homeward flight of ka, have been celebrated in ancient Egypt over millennia. Theirs is probably the mythic lineage by which biblical angels, later on in Christendom, gradually grew wings.

 But the Christian gospel story subscribed to the Egyptian ka and ba model before wings were envisioned on angels. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is narrated as a flash of overwhelming light -- at Easter sunrise. Afterward the Lord continued appearing to his followers. Only weeks later did his apparitional body ascend to Heaven. In Egyptian terms this means that his ba has followed in the direction of his ka.


7. Dualism in Athens

Up north, in Greece, the gospel of Christ’s resurrection was initially rejected, because the mode of thinking there called for a simple distinction of spirit and matter.  Perhaps the best example of Greek dualism can be found in the words of Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedo.[15] For Socrates the experience of death, and even the pursuit of philosophy, amounted to a separation of soul from body.[16] For contrast one may consider an encounter of the Apostle Paul on Areopagus, a rocky hill seen from the Acropolis in a northwesterly direction. Because of the prevailing dualistic orientation of his listeners there, Paul had to retreat from discussions about “resurrection.”[17]


8. Alexander of Macedonia

Soon after his arrival in Lower Egypt in the year 331 B.C.E., and welcomed as Egypt’s liberator from the Persians, Alexander of Macedonia came to Memphis to be crowned pharaoh of Egypt. He learned about the pomp and circumstance that over three millennia has provided continuity and rhythm -- if not political stability -- to the pharaohs.

Had the primary sanctuary of the “Hidden God,” Amun, been still functioning here at Thebes, surely, Alexander of Macedonia would have petitioned to be blessed and legitimized here, in Upper Egypt.  But when he was looking for Amun’s most prominent priest, this Vatican lay already in ruins and had ceased to function. Alexander needed not to come here.


9. Alexander at Siwa

In the western Egyptian desert there is a place that existed from ancient times. It is the oasis-town Siwa. There the religion of Amun has survived the two centuries of destruction by Persian overlords. Here at this former temple of Amun the path of Western Civilization was quietly altered one day, by Egyptian influence. When Alexander of Macedonia came here, in 331 BCE, the priest of Amun greeted him with the words -- “O Paidios” -- which means “O Child of God!”

Spoken to the de facto pharaoh of Egypt, this salutation acknowledged that Alexander was a legitimate Son of Amun. So, from the moment that he accepted this title, the style of Western imperialism was Egyptian-ized. Not until Theodosius the Great, seven centuries later, has an emperor explicitly abolished this sacerdotal imperial system -- including the high-priestly office of the Pontifex Maximus.

The Ptolemaic rulers who inherited Alexander’s empire, as well as the Roman emperors who followed them, availed themselves of the religious legitimization that Alexander has obtained.

Did Alexander think of this approach himself, of playing Egyptian Son of God as a foreigner? It does not appear that way. Over a period of two centuries, prior to the great Macedonian’s arrival, the Persians invaded and occupied Egypt twice. Almost all Persian overlords set out to destroy the country and to loot its temples -- with one notable exception. Darius the First has benevolently developed Egypt. For his reward Amun, and the people, awarded him Son-of-God status and blessed him with a prosperous reign of thirty-six years. He succeeded because he ruled as a traditional Egyptian Son of God. Alexander had the wisdom to adopt the policies of a wise ruler from among the ranks of his enemies.


10. Alexandria

During the Hellenistic Period, this bay in Alexandria was one of the world’s busiest harbors. The harbor facilities meanwhile have sunk into the sea. Here, at this city the learned Philo Judaeus took Egyptian emanation “philosophy” and filtered it through the Judaic Torah.

Ammonius Saccas taught here the principles of his common-sense philosophy to Clement, and later Clement reconciled that Egyptian worldview with Christian theology. Ammonius also taught Plotinus, from whose hands we took these teachings to be some new variety of Platonism.

Here Clement and Origen drew up the outlines of what became orthodox Christian doctrine. Then Athanasius, another Egyptian, summarized their thoughts as official Christian credo, for the Council of Nicaea.

Christian founders and Neo-Platonic philosophers achieved their formulations from within the ancient Egyptian worldview -- concerning the All-God who reveals himself by a process of emanation.


11. Jesus of Nazareth

Two millennia ago a Jewish boy named Jeshu, latinized Jesus, grew up roaming this countryside. The parents of Jesus lived in Nazareth, Galilee, over there, along the bottom of the hill. He became the founder of the Christian religion. So, in light of what we learned about religion in Egypt, what could have been some of his motivations?

Early in the history of their religion, Christians became engrossed with their personal destiny after death, with salvation as a transfer into a heavenly state of being. Nevertheless, this “individualistic” craving for salvation appears to have had much broader socio-political roots. Afterlife status of the dead is what defines the status of the families of descendants.

Gradually over three millennia, commoners in Egypt have succeeded in usurping the “resurrection” status of their imperial masters. The time was getting ripe for a new kind of Horus to appear -- one that would redeem the awakening masses from their subjugated status. Christianity has spread not primarily because people became scared of dying, but rather, because it lifted its followers to a new political and social status as children of God.


12. Crucified in Jerusalem

When Jesus was about thirty years old he was arrested down south, in Judea, at this slope facing the city of Jerusalem. Some churches have been built at this place since then, in his honor.

Jesus was then taken across the narrow Kidron Valley into the city. Back in the days of Jesus, at the place were now stands an Islamic prayer-center, stood the temple that King Herod had built to fortify his hold on the land and on the people of Judea.

Apparently the Judaic religious authorities apprehended Jesus for causing turmoil and for pretending to be Son of God -- or at least, for not having rejected such public acclaim. The appellation “Son of God” was quite meaningless to those who arrested him -- their God was not known to procreate human sons. The Roman emperor, whose authority to reign was legitimized by his title “Son of God,” would have been equally illegitimate by the logic of Judaic religion.

Nonetheless in Judea, under Roman occupation, Jesus could be arrested for undercutting the emperor’s unique divine status -- or at least for staging a Jewish parody at the expense of Roman authority. He could be bound over for trial to the Roman procurator who lived some distance behind the temple area, at the far side of the city.

Yes, Pontius Pilate probably resided here, at this citadel. And Jesus of Nazareth in all likelihood was tried and sentenced somewhere behind this tower and these walls. Jesus was condemned to die by the Roman method of crucifixion -- a cruel procedure reserved for executing non-Romans. The body of Jesus was deposited in a tomb that may have looked like this one.[18]

The first version of this Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been built already in the year 325 by the emperor Constantine -- because, in all likelihood Jesus was crucified and buried around here.

The revolutionary claim of Jesus being “Son of God” -- to which his followers confessed -- was an affront to the three thousand years of theocratic imperialism and of so-called “civilization” that had befallen Planet Earth. The pharaohs of Egypt, the Ptolemies who imitated Alexander, and Roman emperors beginning with Augustus, ruled as “sons” of God. Here is the Roman emperor Augustus playing his Egyptian role.[19] He even included “Son of God” in his Latin title -- Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus.

Jesus was executed for committing high treason against the imperial order. The governor Pontius Pilate condemned the accused as a pretender, guilty of a somewhat lesser crime. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” read the indictment that was attached to the cross. It was a Roman diatribe against the subjugated Judaic people. A Roman governor could hardly have published the indictment that to him mattered most -- “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God.” Every Jew would have understood this to be a diatribe against the Roman emperor.

The story of the crucifixion of Jesus -- of the “commoner Son of God” -- and of its aftermath has become well known. His followers proclaimed their Lord’s “resurrection” from among the dead. Thereby they usurped the process by which ancient emperors, at death, would be resurrected to divine status. The celebration of Christ’s ascension into heaven eventually became more popular than the pagan “apotheosis” that was being done for Ptolemaic and Roman rulers.

Certainly, Jesus was not the first thinker who thought that people were children of God. But he was unique in that he stubbornly accepted the full consequences of his conviction, to a bitter end -- here at this Place of Skulls.

Three and a half centuries later a Roman emperor declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire. The title Divi filius from then on officially belonged to the commoner who was crucified here on a Roman cross -- during the reign of Tiberus, an imperial Son of God.

Nearly two thousand years after the crucifixion, the secular offspring of redeemed Christians, no longer convinced about the need of being equal children of God, nevertheless insist on the Jeffersonian formula of equality among all the children of humankind. Moreover, the vestiges of Egyptian civilization continue to reverberate even in the far west of Western Civilization.


13. Coptic Cairo

Saint Mark suffered martyrdom in Alexandria, but for better strategic positioning, his tomb has been moved to the Coptic cathedral, in Cairo. This is one of those places where, before entering, one takes off shoes without being told.

A week from today will be Easter Sunday, and upon this throne will sit His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Church. He will be seated here -- flanked by the two pharaonic lions, Shu and Tefnut. Here in Egypt -- in the land where our Western imperialism and monotheism began -- why not!

What did ancient Egyptian religion sound like? What was its language and its music? Coptic Christianity has preserved a goodly measure of the ancient Egyptian language. I have no reason to suspect, therefore, that they have intentionally thrown away the ancient harmonies and rhythms. Today is Palm Sunday, this Coptic sanctuary is filled to overflowing. But if one succeeds in worming along the back wall, one can witness an easily recognizable Christian ritual.

The melodies and harmonies take us back millennia, and the priestly attire is reminiscent of the ancient imperial courts. These contemporary Christians are still going about their business of miming and usurping ancient imperial ritual -- changing it in a process that elevates commoners. Priests now wear the headpieces and crowns of the rulers. Bishops have appropriated the shepherd’s crook, which was one of the emblems of pharaonic authority -- and noticeably discarded the flail.

Keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth founded this church by miming and usurping the status of the dying Horus. And by rising as Christ he rendered Osiris obsolete. Christianity inherited the desire of Egyptian commoners for democratized salvation, and the proof of the Christian gospel lay in the fact that it would effectively raise the status of the downtrodden.

We are challenged to leave this ritual and to visit the squalor of Cairo’s garbage collectors, in Moqattan village. There one can observe the Christian Church of Egypt, still engaged in its original business of raising paupers to the level of being children of God. Extensive sanctuary projects in the quarry caves, next to their village, demonstrate the Christian gospel method -- of salvation by status redemption.


14. Heliopolis: The Virgin’s Tree

We will end our journey to Egypt where we began, in Heliopolis. If Christ ever was brought to Egypt as a child refugee, then from the Egyptian perspective the place to which he came must have been Heliopolis. There, nowadays, flourishes a church that for all these reasons is dedicated to the Holy Nativity. And there is more.

This old tree is called the Virgin's Tree. According to legend, it shaded the holy family -- Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus -- when they came here after fleeing persecution in Palestine. Of course, this tree is not that old, and the original would take us several sycamore-tree generations back. But such quibbling misses the point. The story of Christ's flight into Egypt was not told to establish a tourist site. Matthew 2:15 says precisely why this story was told. "…to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet (Isaiah and Hosea), "Out of Egypt I have called my son." But why were the words of these prophets relevant?

Heliopolis is the place where the story of emanational monotheism, the rational structure of Christian salvation, began to take shape five thousand years ago -- three thousand years before Jesus was born and before his gospel story exploded in Jerusalem.


15. Out of Egypt -- an Other Woman

And then, another miracle of quiet transformation has happened. As divine mother of the imperial Horus Falcon, and as conveyor of homeward-bound souls, Isis became accustomed to wearing wings. Because she was a daughter of the celestial Nut, whom Egyptian farmers envisioned as a Cow, she took to wearing horns.

When the Horus Child upon her lap revealed himself as Baby Jesus, who was not about to be a bird of prey, she gave back her wings to the ba-birds and angels. When she realized that he did not like horns, her own horns were diminished -- and later given to Michelangelo, who placed them on the head of Moses.

So, out of Egypt, God not only has called forth an Other Son, but also an Other Woman -- Mary, mother of Christ, to be exalted in heaven alongside her divine Son. The ancient emanation theology of the first three manifestations of Atum's Ennead  -- Father, Son, and Daughter/Spouse -- was replicated by Christendom over time.

Christianity is a universal salvation religion, endowed with Hebrew scriptures that enshrine a herders' tradition of sacrifice, and that engendered a Kingdom-of-Heaven reaction against the tyrannies of theocratic imperialism. But Christianity also has been given the ancient Egyptian presence of a Son of God, together with emanation logic that invites mortals to participate in resurrection -- that also has enabled Western Civilization to develop enduring structures and egalitarian democracy, and that invites children of humankind to belong to the universal Family of God.



[1] Junu, or Heliopolis, is named “On” in the Hebrew Bible.

[2] All English quotations in this video lecture, from the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, are from Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 1969, and The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, 1973.

[3] As for example in Pyramid Texts 1248-49: “Atum is he who gave pleasure to himself in On. He took his phallus in his grasp that he might create orgasm by means of it, and so were born the twins Shu and Tefnut.”

[4] John A. Wilson, trans., in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. James B. Pritchard, 1969, pp. 4-6.

[5]A nice allusion to this light-and-life oriented worldview can be found in the prologue to the Gospel of John. The “Fourth Gospel” happens to be the “most Egyptian” of the four.

[6] To start getting Atum’s masculine and feminine dimensions into better focus, see Pyramid Texts 1817-18 and references in Luckert, Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire, 1991, pp. 54f, 66f, 81, 83f, 87f.

[7] Of course, the very existence of later and similar non-royal “coffin texts” shows that imperial legitimization was being diluted.

[8] Much of this reconstruction is based on general archaeological data, and on a later myth by Plutarch. See also R. T. Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, 1959, and elsewhere.

[9] New Kingdom stories, about Isis recovering the body of Osiris, and creating a new phallus for the corpse of Osiris, are an instance of demythologizing the more basic mystery of how Isis is supposed to conceive the new Horus. How Isis got to know the secret name of Amun belongs to the same genre of narratives. They all provide entertaining elaborations that add a fresh Hurrah to the rise of Egyptian feminism. 

[10] Most gilded images, and the throne shown in this section, along with the golden sarcophagus earlier, were filmed in the Tutankhamun Section of the Cairo Museum.

[11] What follows here in line of a summary of ka and ba, has already been published in greater detail by Luckert, 1991, Ibid., pp. 44ff, and elsewhere. This line of thinking is heavily indebted to the work of Adolf Erman.

[12] The similarity between Heliopolitan theology and Neo-Platonic philosophy dawned on me, years ago, while lecturing on Egyptian religion. Then later, in the course of writing the book Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire …, I discovered that much more of Greek philosophy, as well, was indebted to ancient Egyptian emanational thinking. See Part Three of the book, “The Wisdom of Greece,” pp. 179ff. In any case, the philosophy of Ammonius Saccas and of Plotinus turned out to be far more Neo-Egyptian than Neo-Platonic.

[13] Some readers of this script may judge my last words at this point to be a risky overstatement. They represent an echo projected backward from Plotinus’s Fifth Ennead. Of course, the grand egos of living pharaohs, while building their almost eternal edifices of stone, would probably not have admitted the gradual disappearance of everything abandoned by ka-energy. But then, was it not the very same threat of temporality that has saddled these pharaohs with their building-frenzy?

[14] Coffin Texts allude to the journey as a soul “swimming” or “flying” homeward, against the currents of divine emanation and creation. Identifications with Horus and Isis are frequent. See Luckert, 1991, Ibid., pp. 90-93. The trend among images of Isis, showing her increasingly endowed with wings, probably was necessitated by the logic of her giving birth to Horus, who was visualized as Falcon. Winged beings generally are procreated by winged parent stock.

[15] Concerning the question What is dualism? In theological and philosophical discussions, pertaining to Hellenistic or Gnostic worldviews, the term “dualism” often is used ambiguously. I personally limit the term “dualism” to a worldview that distinguishes two ontologically defined essences. A mere upside end of light, or of life, spatially distinguished from a downside direction of darkness or death -- no matter how “good” the former or how “bad” the latter may seem -- does not qualify ontologically as “dualism.” The Egyptian ka essence that emanates is but one reality, no matter what it looks like near its high-intensity Source or along its outermost limits of emanation. It is and remains a ka monism.

[16] Contemplating his own impending death, Socrates realized how his dying has been prefigured dualistically in his lifelong pursuit of philosophy. He saw philosophy as a process of “separation of soul from body.” In E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds., Collected Dialogues of Plato, 1963.

[17] The Apostle Paul was doing fine, preaching emanation theology in Athens, as long as he stuck to the vocabulary of Epimenides and Aratus (see Acts 17:28). However, his “resurrection” terminology of Egyptian imperial monotheism earned him ridicule on the Areopagus (Acts 17:32). Areopagus is a rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis, in Athens -- the place where the high court of justice used to meet. Another reflection on this confrontation can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:12ff, and 35ff.  Verse 44 proposes Paul’s synthesis to the Greek spirit-and-matter dualism -- a “spiritual body.” For Paul this was not a “synthesis.” For him it was probably a natural monism that had never been split.

[18] The tomb shown here, in the video, is located in the Syrian section of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

[19] These Egyptian “Caesar Augustus” displays can be found on a temple gate at Aegyptisches Museum, in Berlin.