“Dealing with the Invisible: Experiencing Egyptian Mythology” Garry Shaw (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Garry Shaw came to the Essex Egyptology Group to give a talk about Egyptian mythology. We’d originally had another speaker booked, but she’d had to cancel at fairly short notice (because she got an opportunity to do some work in Luxor) so Garry Shaw stepped in and gave us a talk related to his new book (The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends which is out on March 17).

He started by explaining to us that the point of his book is not to retell the major myths or list the major gods of the Ancient Egyptians, but instead it is to look at how the Egyptians used their mythology to explain the world around them. And to try and provide a window into the worldview of your average Ancient Egyptian. The book is divided into three sections – “what happened before I was born?”; “how do I explain the world around me?”; “what will happen after I die?”. In this talk Shaw was concentrating on the middle section, and telling us about how Egyptians explained natural phenomena and everyday events using their mythology.

First he talked a bit about the nature of the Egyptian gods. He stressed that the gods were not omnipotent, nor were they omniscient. They are also generally not considered to be present in the world with people. He quoted some bits from Egyptian texts that talk about occasions when the gods were actually present, and that always comes with fairly major physical effects. The pictures of the gods that we’re used to where they are represented as humans, animals or humans with animal heads are not actually supposed to be what the gods look like. Instead these are symbolic representations of the god in question. Although not actually present in the world (most of the time) the gods do manifest in the world – for instance the sky is a manifestation of the goddess Nut (but is not Nut herself). Pretty much everything in the world around an Ancient Egyptian was seen as the manifestation of one god or another. Each god has a responsibility or sphere of influence – for instance Osiris is to do with regeneration, Min is to do with fertility. And the gods can combine when they need the powers of other gods – for instance Amun-Re is the combination of Amun (god of hidden things) and Re (god of visible things) and is therefore very powerful as he has dominion over all classes of things. But this is not a fusion, it’s more like a chemical compound – the gods are the atoms, and the compound can be split back into its atoms at any point.

The stories about the gods are full of drama and conflict, and are all about relationships between the gods or between gods and people. As well as being entertaining these stories explain something about the world (via the manifestations of the gods that the story was about) or something about the rituals of the Ancient Egyptian religious festivals. They also provide “divine precedents” for the magical part of Egyptian life – if you do this thing it will cure that illness or bring about the thing you want because when a god did it this is what happened.

The main part of the talk was about the Egyptian ideas about cosmology. The Egyptians thought that the created world was like a bubble floating in the endless ocean (a manifestation of Nun). So the answer to “why is the sky blue?” is that you’re seeing through the sky to the waters beyond. And if something was to go wrong with the manifestation of Nut that is the sky then the disorder of the ocean could come flooding in to drown the order of the created world. Another question is “How does the sun move across the sky?” – and obviously the sun gets in his day boat and sails across the ocean. The Egyptians had stories about rebellions or attacks against the sun, and these correspond to different parts of the day. The story about Sekhmet being sent to kill off all of the people of the world, and being distracted by beer, is one of those stories. Some of these stories correspond to the beginning of the day when the sun is newly born, some to the end when the sun is getting old and vulnerable. And others to that point in the very middle of the day when the sun almost seems to pause in the sky. So obviously Re is dealing with a rebellion at that point.

The stars too were thought to sail across the sky in boats. They also talked about a winding river across the sky, which we now think is the ecliptic, and the planets sail along that. At the end of each day Nut swallows the sun, and in the morning she gives birth to it again. At the end of each night Nut swallows the stars, and in the evening she gives birth to them again. Shaw told us a part of a story about Geb (the land, Nut’s consort) being upset that Nut kept swallowing his children – and he’s told not to worry because she will give birth to them again in due time. The moon was thought to be the sun’s vizier or assistant – after all, when the sun is otherwise occupied it’s the moon who sails along the sky to keep an eye on things. It was therefore associated with Thoth who plays the vizier role in various myths. The phases of the moon lead to it being associated with myths about gods being broken into pieces and reassembled – it is both the eye of Horus (which gets split into 6 then mended by Thoth) and Osiris (who gets split into 14 pieces and then reassembled before impregnating Isis with Horus).

An obvious question about the heavens that’s not yet fully answered is “where does the sun go at night?”. After Nut swallows it and before it’s reborn the sun sails on his night boat through the Duat. This is a part of the created world that is just as real as the world you live in while you’re alive. Shaw said that where precisely it exists varies from myth to myth but that it’s best thought of as a real place that’s just very far away – you can’t travel there because it’s too far away, but you will get there once you’re dead. Sometimes it’s thought of as within Nut (or rather within her manifestation as the sky), sometimes it’s thought of as under the land as a mirror of the sky above the land. The Book of the Dead (and other texts of this sort) are like Lonely Planet guides to the Duat – they tell you where and what things are, who you might meet and what you should eat and drink. Shaw spent a bit of time telling us about some snippets of the stories of the awful inhabitants of this land.

The land itself is a manifestation of Geb, and was disc shaped. Egypt was seen as a narrow stripe of black fertile land (Kemet) down the centre of the disk. This was surrounded first by desert (the red land) and then beyond that were the lands of the foreigners. The desert was where bad things came from – animals, demons, foreigners.

So the Egyptian world was full of beings, not things. The Egyptian calendar was full of commemorations of things that these being did – perhaps you should not leave the house till after dark on a particular day because this was the day when messengers were sent to Re in a particular story and they didn’t arrive till evening. And natural phenomena were explained in terms of the interactions of the gods, so if two gods fight then their manifestations will also be in opposition somehow.

Given that the world is made up of manifestations of different gods there might be times when you want to contact the gods to help your life in some way. You might assume that a temple would be the place to go to do this, but Shaw stressed that temples weren’t places for ordinary people to worship instead they were houses for the god. Most people didn’t get very far into a temple (if at all), and because the gods aren’t everywhere that means you wouldn’t get close enough to a god for him or her to hear you. Instead you made your petition via making offerings to intermediary statues in the precincts of temples, or maybe in your household shrine. You could also make your request via a stela of ears dedicated to a particular god – the ears would hear and would carry your words to the attention of the god. Gods were also sometimes restricted to particular geographical areas, so you might pray to a different god for the same things in different towns. If you didn’t know the god of a particular region then you would make offerings more generically to “the god of the area”. But the influence of the gods could be extended using their cult statues – these were regarded as vessels that the god could choose to inhabit, which would let them move outside their area of influence.

One very important reason to interact with the divine was in case of illness. Egyptians believed diseases were caused by demons, sometimes sent by gods, sometimes not. You could lure these demons out of you with foul things (like dung) or protect yourself with sweet things that the demons would find abhorrent. A lot of Egyptian medicine involved going to a lector priest who would perform some sort of spell. Many of these made use of stories where Horus had been ill, and Isis cured him in a specific fashion – and the priest would tell the story and provide the medicine, and it was the two things together that cured you using the divine precedent.

Ghosts were another common point of interaction with the invisible. Because of the belief that the dead lived on in another part of the created world (that you just couldn’t travel to as a living person) then it was clear that they would still be real and potentially interactable with. So people would write letters to their deceased relatives, and many otherwise strange (but minor) occurrences would be explained as ghosts interacting with the living world.

This was a fascinating talk, and I think Garry Shaw did a good job at showing us the world from this rather alien viewpoint.