November 8, 2012

The God-king’s Authority in the Pyramid Age

The God-king’s Authority
It is abundantly clear that the Heliopolis priests exercised a unique authority over the pharaohs of the Pyramid Age. Their Egyptian tombs  were symbols of the sun cult. They were enlarged versions of the sacred ben-ben or mound at Heliopolis where Atum-Ra the Sun-god was believed to have manifested himself. The Vizier Hemeon, who built the Great Pyramid for the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), was a ‘devotee of Heliopolis’. And after Khufu’s death four of his successors proclaimed their religious loyalties by forming their names of compounds of the Sun-god: Djedefre, Khafre (Chephren), Baufre and Menkaure (Mycerinius). The word ‘pharaoh’ did not mean ‘King’ in the Old Kingdom. References to the monarch were in such terms as ‘Great House’ (Per-0 from which ‘pharaoh’ is derived) or ‘Protected Place’.

The term implied the palace and its connected halls and chambers which housed the government departments. Thus the Great House had complete authority, both secular and religious. The officials in the palace were not the docile instruments of a monarch’s will but themselves vital cogs in the administrative wheel. The so-called absolute power of the pharaoh is only theoretical. Opinions have unfortunately been formed less on evidence than on the size and number of monuments. For instance, although the sole testimony to the autocratic power of Khufu (Cheops), builder of the Great Egyptian Pyramid, is his tomb, his personal power has all too often been measured by its dimensions, overlooking the evidence that it was the Great House that exercised authority over the provinces, monopolised mining and marketing and supervised building projects. There was, to be sure, a hierarchial political structure and a hierarchial pantheon of gods, but the God-king who stood at the apex of both was the vehicle by which the priests of Heliopolis exercised control.

The local deities, it will be remembered, were borne in their shrines by the local priests to attend the Heb-Sed Festival. Each had been given an incentive to witness the reassertion of the king’s sovereignty over the Two Lands and accept him as a god mightier than their own. The God-king returned the compliment. He not only visited the district priests and made offerings in the local shrines but took an active part in their temple construction. Inscriptions indicate that Khufu restored the temple of Hathor the cow-goddess at Dendera, embellished another at Bubastis where the cat-goddess was worshipped, and consecrated gold, silver and bronze statues to the shrine of Selket, the scorpion-goddess, Hapi the Egyptian Nile-god, and other deities. The part played by the Memphite Drama in anthropomorphisation should not pass unremarked: once a priest had dressed up as a god, or at least spoken and acted for a god, it was natural for the people to imagine their own local deities as men. In some cases the human figure was surmounted by their ancient ensigns, whether bird or animal. In other cases even the head was human but distinguished by ears or horns.

In the reign of Khafre (Chephren), builder of the second pyramid, magnificent cult figures of the God-king were fashioned. They described an immutable power that does not belong to mortals. The significant advances in the quality of royal statuary were not without purpose. They gave a feeling of strength, and permanency and helped promote the cult of the God-king. Menkaure (Mycerinius), builder of the third, smallest, Egyptian pyramid at Giza, was frequently sculpted as a member of a group. These were Triads composed of the goddess Hathor, the pharaoh and different local deities, both male and female, bearing the features of the queen. There must once have been as many of these Triads as there were important provinces, just as the number of shrines in Zoser’s Heb-Sed Court probably equalled the number of local deities who attended the festival. Religion cemented political unity, giving an inviolable character to the political system. Where gods were friends, men were united.

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