November 12, 2012

Use of Local Cults to Establish Unity in Ancient Egypt

Use of Local Cults to Establish Unity
The development of local cults was undoubtedly part of the political development of the country. The term ‘local deity’ is, however, confusing. For though some of the ensigns on standards that had distinguished the tribal units of the early settlers of the Egyptian Nile valley came to represent heraldic images which gave names to the different localities, these were not fetishes, objects of blind devotion. Although the cow might be seen as the seat, or visible manifestation, of a godly force, it was slaughtered for meat. And the lion, though regarded as sacred in certain areas, was unhesitatingly killed in defence. These totems and sacred animals were at first a clan affair.

When Egypt became a single, unified nation, it followed that the totem clans would have to be brought into a mutual relationship with the governing power. A Ptolemaic inscription on a rock-face near the First Cataract records an oral tradition that survived from the 3rd dynasty and reveals, indirectly, how this may have been achieved. It tells of a terrible famine that struck the land in the reign of Zoser pharaoh. The Egyptian people were told that they suffered because the gods were angry with them for not providing adequate offerings. The pharaoh Zoser himself made special arrangements for regular supplies to be presented to the people to enable them to curb the anger of the gods. It was only when a totem or sacred animal was declared to be capable of anger and the people felt obliged to placate them with sacrifices that they developed into local ‘deities’. Once they inspired fear and awe they became the focus of acts of worship, hymns and prayers; sacred monuments were erected for them and local settlers, who later formed the local priesthoods, were recruited to maintain them. Plants and objects of the area then became the attributes of the newly evolved deity. It seems, therefore, that in order to bind together the settlers in far-flung areas, the governing power encouraged the develop

ment and practice of local cults by low-ranking local priests, but limited their function and bound together their energies under a Egyptian God-king whose Heb-Sed festival they attended, and whose divine nature they recognised. It was a policy of promotion and appeasement which served a dual purpose: it enabled a generous and tolerant pharaoh, who provided offerings for local deities to take credit for favourable conditions and, at the same time, it provided scapegoats for disaster the local gods were angry.

The effort to unify sun worship by creating a composite deity, alongside evidence of the development of local cults, evinces a movement towards both unity and plurality in the Egyptian Old Kingdom: one God (the ‘Great One’) and many gods (‘all the gods’). This should not be regarded as contradictory. To establish a unified politico-religious system the ruling power encouraged local religious identity and, by promoting a God-king whose commands had divine authority, limited the jurisdiction of the local priests and justified their own dominance. Unity was the purpose, plurality the method.

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