This concept of duality, life and death, chaos and harmony, coloured much of the ancient Egyptian way of thinking and can be seen in the history of Egypt.
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Friday, 19 September 2014

Duality of Ancient Egypt

Duality of Ancient Egypt.

This concept of duality, life and death, chaos and harmony, coloured much of the ancient Egyptian way of thinking and can be seen in the history of Egypt. If you think of the history as a series of peaks and troughs, with the peaks representing life and the troughs as death.

So life would be the Old Kingdom, the time of the unification, the Pyramids, and the foundations of its religious beliefs, this was always considered by the Egyptians themselves to be their golden age, and in later periods often copied the Old Kingdom model. Then we have the First Intermediate Period, with its time of unrest, civil wars, invasions, and political insecurity so this I see as being the death aspect of Atum-Ra.

Next comes The Middle Kingdom, again a period of life, expansion, stability and prosperity, followed by another period of instability in the Second Intermediate Period. The New Kingdom (the Empire Period) again is a period of life and stability and expansion, which is once again followed by a period of decline in the 21st-25th Dynasties (sometimes called the Third Intermediate Period), there followed a brief period of the former glories of Egypt in the Saite Period (26th Dynasty). After this Egypt is ruled by Foreign Kings.

Sunset on the NileThe Nile could be seen in a life/death aspect, for as Heredotus quotes “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”. I would probably take that further, in that the Nile represents the lifeblood of Egypt. I would also say that the civilisation that emerged from the Nile valley could never have happened without the Nile. Yet the Nile itself as well as being a thing of life could also be destructive and a bringer of death, such as crocodiles, the hippopotamus and the river itself. The Nile displays this dualistic quality that the ancient Egyptians saw in all things, too much or too little in the annual floods would represent a life or death situation.

The actual land of Egypt also reflects the two aspects of Ra, from the life giving silts deposited each year, the cultivated strips of land either side of the Nile (The Black Land) and the desert (Deshret the Red Land), a place of inhospitable terrain, a place of emptiness, it was also the places were the dead were buried, as the land that the people lived on was required for the growing of crops. So the desert is in contrast to the busy and ordered world of the ancient Egyptians.

There are places in Egypt were it is possible to stand with one foot in the desert and the other in the cultivated area, so this aspect of Ra was clearly visible throughout Egypt, this contrasting view of the land of Egypt most certainly helped to shape the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. These ideas of life/death were inseparable for the ancient Egyptians whose view on life was coloured by the very landscape itself.

The life and death aspects of Ra can be seen through the various cosmologies, the primeval mound was where the sun was born, with the association with Atum, Re-Atum is said to be the coming of the light to disperse the darkness of the Nu. The course of the sun during the day could be seen as the life of man, when it sets in the west, it begins its travels in the Underworld, which could be seen as man’s death and the journey in the afterlife.  Re was the sun god who travelled through the skies in a boat, sinking down into the Underworld each night in the West before emerging in the East at dawn to bring light. The deceased is sometimes thought to join with Re on his sky barque and become one with the endless cosmic cycle.

Many symbols were used by the ancient Egyptians, some of their associations and meanings are totally lost to us, but others such as; In the bird of light, the Benu Bird, the Ibis, the lotus flower, the temple lakes, scarab beetles etc show that they were acutely aware of the dual aspects of all creation, life and death. The scarab beetle was perhaps the most favoured of all amulets; the sacred beetle symbol represented all of the mystical connotations and links between earth, death and resurrection.

The tombs and monuments were built to last forever, literal Houses of Eternity, and as such were built in durable materials such as stone. Everything else, the Palaces of the King, nobles and homes of the general populace was considered replaceable and were built in materials that were easily reusable, such as mud
bricks and wood etc.  They also reflect the ancient Egyptian belief of what they had in life so they would have in the afterlife; the concept of eternity gave rise to the mortuary rituals and to the religious philosophy.

So much of our view of the ancient Egyptian way of life is coloured by what buildings and monuments survive. We know more about the Egyptians in death than we do about their lives. Yet eternity was not a vague place, they believed they would dwell in paradise, in areas graced by lakes and gardens, one ancient name for it was nuheh, but it was also called shenu. Such a belief in eternity gave the ancient Egyptians such exuberance for life that even foreign travellers such as Heredotus and Plutarch commented on it.

This symbolism of life, death and rebirth is also acted out each day, in the Rite of The House of Morning, which was conducted each day. Priests and courtiers would attend and the king was washed in water from the local temple lake to symbolise his primordial rebirth. 

This duality also existed within political structure of ancient Egypt; it was also divided into two separate areas; The North, Lower Egypt – The Delta Area, which comes from the Greek, faces the Mediterranean, is feed by two main branches of the Nile; and The South, Upper Egypt, is hemmed in by the desert.  Before the unification of Egypt, there also existed 2 kingdoms, the Red Land (the Delta) and the White Land (The South), these were political entities, not to be confused with the Red Land – The Deshert and the Black Land. The Northern Kingdom is Lower Egypt and the Southern Kingdom is Upper Egypt.

Egypt is a country of contrasts between the cultivated areas and the deserts and between the North and South. The political contrasts in Egypt can clearly be seen, during the Heb Sed festivals, mock battles took place between the Followers of Horus and the Followers of Set, probably based on the early dynastic struggles between the two Kingdoms.

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