THE STRUCTURE OF THEOCRACY
AND THE EURO-WESTERN SCHOLASTIC TRAUMA
Towards an Egypto-Judaeo-Christian Anthropology of Religion and Theology
by Nold Egenter
"[Ptah] created the gods, he made the settlements, he founded the provinces, he put
the gods on their cult places,... he made their bodies equal to that, what made their
hearts content." (Monument of Memphitic theology)
The expression 'anthropology of religion' is a relatively new concept, in anthropology
as well as in religion. Or, more precisely, it existed for quite some time as a subfield
of cultural anthropology, but it was not taken seriously into consideration. <1> It has never attained the importance of the sociology of religion in continuity to
Durkheims 'The elementary Forms of religious Life' (1912). However, sociology always
remained synchronical in its basic outlooks, describing social behaviour related
to religion from an essentially contemporary view. Thus, religion itself was not affected
theoretically by sociology, because the historical sources constituting religion
are located outside of its synchronical views.
The evident inability to approach religion 'anthropologically', that is, definitely
from the human dimension, is inherent in the idea of religion itself. It was scholastically
blocked, rested metaphysically on the absolutely spiritual on one side. On the other, human side there was the concept of 'belief'. Since the beginnings of Christian
conversion, this arrangement was relevant in terms of religious politics and remained
so until today. It supposed the value-scheme of 'high religion' and' primitive religion', which was basic in regard to the legitimation of conversion. It also was,
and is, ethically involved, supporting the supreme values of Eurocentric Western
ontology. Thus, metaphysical views basically defined the perspectives of the 'science'
of religion and the same is valid for the above mentioned subfield of cultural anthropology.
Concepts like 'transcendence', 'belief' in 'supernatural powers' etc. always remained
at the basis of any reasoning or interpretation related to religion. Cultural immanence of religion was therefore not taken into consideration scientifically.
Mircea Eliade, for instance, has explored very important spatial and temporal structures
of the religious in many, very different cultures, but basically interpreted them
metaphysically, as mimetically and micro cosmically reproduced transcendental orders.
In contrast to this, 0. F. Bollnow's anthropology of space (1963) provides a new theoretical
basis in the framework of what we call 'habitat-anthropology'. It allows to put the
cultural immanence of religious phenomena into the foreground. The close relation of the evolution of human space perception and space organisation with the evolution
of the human settlement naturally suggests to reconstruct the evolution of religion
in parallel with the evolution of the human settlement. The main argument to support this close relation emerges from O.F. Bollnow's discovery that the perception of
macro cosmically wide, universal spaces is a very late development in human culture
(Europe: 14th century). < 2> In ancient Greece the contents of 'cosmos' were close
to 'cosmetics' (Kerschensteiner 1954).
The present study and its culturally comparative outlooks are based on inductive phenomenological
'settlement research'. 'Settlement' as a fundamental term of cultural research is
important to us above all for its precision. In contrast to the endlessly escalating generic term 'culture' with its Eurocentric disciplinary apriori-projections,
settlements can be described in different cultures quite precisely and objectively.
They are discussed as human orders in space and time. Correspondingly, in the intercultural comparison, the term 'religion' is avoided. It always apriori implies Eurocentrical
outlooks, the value scheme of 'high' and 'primitive' religion. Therefore the neutral
term ontology in the sense of 'world-view' is used.
Surprising new visions are produced by the method of 'habitat anthropology', particularly
in view of the conventional concept of religion, which is dominated by the interpretation
of written history. But now, an evolutionary process is revealed, which in its beginnings was legally and topologically closely bound to local territory and cyclic
time, then was extended spatially with early states and empires, transformed itself
through monumentalisation, developed new spatial (imperial, universal) and temporal
dimensions (linear time, eternity). < 3> Through written fixation this process freed
itself from its primary cultic and topological conditions, gained a highly abstract
form, which - later - greatly increases diffusion, but can also be manipulated, as
we will show later. In other words, the complex, which we call 'theocracy' and which was
conventionally dealt with historically in the narrower sense, is combined here -
in the framework of habitat- anthropology - with a substructure of evident prehistorical,
or predynastical roots, a traditional substratum structured as 'culture' of highly
autonomous agrarian, or (economically) other villages. Surprisingly this bilevelled
image produces a rather unusual view. What we call early or 'primitive' religion
unveils its fundamentally immanent habitat-character, its dominantly territorial and constitutional
The following study should - for the time being - merely be taken as a working hypothesis.
In spite of this restraint, the far-reaching consequences of this approach can be
2. THE CONSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN RELIGION
Strongly contrasting with recent popular New Age trends to mystify the historic sources
of ancient Egypt, recent Egyptology emphasises its distance from 'classical' Egyptology,
which was essentially based on dynastic myths, spiritual powers and belief.
In his excellent and systematic report on the present state of research into the Egyptology
of religion (Enc. delle religioni, 1970) Alfonso M. die Nola indicates that classic
views are refuted today. The concept still defended by Brugsch, according to which myths, beliefs and cults had formed a continuous and homogeneous medium of belief
in Ancient Egypt, can not be maintained anymore. It is replaced today by historically
dynamic concepts, which put evolutionary viewpoints into the foreground. Nola follows mainly Calderini's phaseological divisions and methodological attempts, particularly
his important differentiations of 'official religion' and 'popular religion', of
'universal gods' and 'local gods' and their cults. They favour the anthropological
approach. Nola remains, however, undecided in regard to genetic relationships (which is
primary: local or universal?). He merely comments on the different concepts of different
authors (in regard to the classification of deities). Of course, this is legitimate
in a report.
In this connection Hermann Kees' study of ancient Egyptian religion is of fundamental
importance. He emphasises the strong influence of 'ethnological methods' in the domain
of Egyptology of religion at the beginning of the 20th century. It led very positively to intensified detail-research in the field. In direct relationship to Sethe (1930),
who supported the primary significance of physically represented local gods in connection
with the then vehemently discussed 'worship of fetishistic gods', Kees describes the system of Egyptian gods very much related to topological and environmental
Maspero already, Ed. Meyer and "the best connoisseur of ancient religious texts",
Sethe, opposed the religio-historical concept of a universal heavenly god maintained
by former egyptologists. Maspero emphasised that the autonomous character of local
cults in Egypt had been enormously underestimated. He consequently postulated the detailed
study of each local god. And Ed. Meyer presented the regions and their deities as
a manifold of forms and kinds and put them at the beginning of the development. No
indicator can be found which would suggest any political unification preceding the provincial
states and no common deity on such a higher level could be found. Maspero: A divine
feudalism is the primordial fact of Egyptian religion!" Consequently, Sethe too reconstructed Egyptian religion not from myths, but focused his research on the cultic
sources of the land. "Based on the multitude of provinces and provincial gods, he
describes their development towards the association of provinces, to the two halves
of a state and then to the unified state of historical times, ...." Sethe says: The most
ancient and most primitive type of veneration of gods in Egypt is shown in relation
to local gods."
Kees puts himself clearly into this line. Not beliefs or myths count in his descriptions,
rather the local habitat. In considerable details he describes the local cults with
their local gods, the cult places and their social and political implications. All his descriptions are based on archaeological, iconological and historical sources
in the narrower sense, that is to say, of text sources of local validity. Most important
is the fact that all these Egyptian deities are physically present and can be identified (animals, plants, other holy objects as signs, mounds, stones, pillars etc.).
<4> They are localised clearly, are 'documents' in view of their territorial and
political functions. In the approach of Kees, cosmological ideas and development
of myths are attributed to a higher layer of "speculative development" within Egyptian culture.
Further, under the title 'principles of formation' Kees presents the essential forces
of the territorio-semantic system of Egyptian gods. They provide the static and dynamic
factors in the political development of Ancient Egypt. The heritage of predynastic times is present in the field of tensions between the autonomy of the local cults and their superseding by the state cult. How the images of
gods have to be read is clearly indicated. Superposition of figures implies political
dominance or subjugation respectively. Similarities of forms of deities indicate
syncretisms and political unifications. Important is analogy as a means of association or
identification of polarly structured circumstances. <6> Important are also the tendencies
for spatial extension immanent in these godly systems. Kees describes the genetical conditions, the genealogies that support circles of certain gods. The pair of oneness
and manyness provides hierarchical orders, the names of the gods are of great importance.
In short, Kees thus gives insights into the 'structural conditions' of territorial politics in Ancient Egypt, describing the Egyptian system of local, provincial
and imperial gods somehow as a historical archive of settlement history. Consequently,
gods are documents of territorial politics in Ancient Egypt.
The history of the Egyptian monarchy can be described fairly well as a development
which evolved from a predynastic substrate of village cultures and their locally
maintained gods, cults and celebrations. Kees clearly favours the local as primary
versus the universal. His discussions present deities in their specifically physical form within
a topologically rooted system, as nuclei of an archive motivated by territorial politics.
It presents itself in a coded system, which can be read in the context of forms, names, cults and corresponding social participation. The history of state formation,
the development of an imperial constitution, both can thus be reconstructed with
materials, which were associated conventionally with religion. And, in fact Kees's
book on religion in ancient Egypt reads like a political history. A thoroughly objective
and very plausible study.
Hermann Kees' evolution theory and its predynastic roots are also supported archaeologically.
The temples of this very advanced civilisation are not at all newly emerged creations,
they are merely a material transformation. Perishable forms developed among farmers are transsubstantiated into lasting materials, mainly stone. In the framework
of its famous architectural research into the Near East in the thirties, German archaeology
has strongly emphasised the 'metabolistic' characteristics of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, particularly in the area of temple architecture and in regard to symbols
representing deities (Andrae, 1930, 1933, Heinrich 1934, 1957). Numerous form data,
like early reed temples, the 'Djedpillar', the Egyptian 'bundle-columns' [as tributes to the imperial temples and other sanctuaries], Ishtar signs in Mesopotamia, point
to a village substrate, in which perishable (fibro-constructive) signs and symbols
- as essential part of a cyclically renewed semantic system of highest ontological
validity - were closely related to their territorial history. In this framework the 'metabolistic
transition from a cyclically renewed perishable material culture to a monumentally
and durably represented system, illuminates numerous structural traits of the culture of Ancient Egypt, particularly the three functions united in the role of the
pharaonic kings: their absolute ruling power over their territory, in which divine
laws are valid, at the same time their role as supreme priest. The basic formula
of this theocracy is simple. The chief/duke/king 'owns' the deity. The deity - as a sign -
'created' and protects the land. The chief/duke/king rules the land. The cohesion
of the whole is provided by the continuity of cyclic cults and their topological
In short, Kees renders the subject 'religion in Ancient Egypt' plausible in very unexpected
ways. What we call religion today, shows to be the essential structure supporting
the constitution of Ancient Egypt. It is clearly functionally structured. It rests on physically represented systems of deities and their semantic characteristics
in regard to specific territories. It is thus clearly - and essentially - also part
of the object culture in Ancient Egypt. And finally, it indicates a constitutional
evolution which originates in predynastic villages, then develops to larger settlement clusters
(provinces), finally supports the early imperial systems and centralised states.
3. THE OLD TESTAMENT: RELIGION OR CONSTITUTION?
In cultural anthropology it is most natural to compare cultures that are geographically
and temporarily close. In the anthropological view, culture can not be isolated from
its contemporary environment like any arbitrary scientific object. Cultures influence themselves mutually. They are to be understood only in close connections. If a
fundamentally constitutive element is thus discovered in the development of religion
in Ancient Egypt, it is very natural to question a historically well documented system,
which has its roots in the same cultural domain. We ask about structural similarities
in the Old Testament. <7> The Old Testament places itself with its key figure into
the New Kingdom. Moses life and what is described in his five books plays around
the middle of the 13th century, in the time of the Ramessides. It is closely related to the
political conditions of that time (Egyptian captivity of the Hebrews). Further Moses
name is derived from Egyptian language (like Thut-moses). A further important point:
he had received his training in the pharaonical administration. Accordingly, we give
a short outline in the following.
The New Kingdom
The New Kingdom differs fundamentally from his predecessors, the Middle and the Ancient
Kingdoms, which both were strongly absorbed by their internal buildup. In the New
Kingdom, Egypt reached an international level. Ahmose had expelled the Hyksos from
Egyptian lands to Palestine. His successors Amenophis I. and Thutmoses I. undertook successful
expeditions to Asia (Euphrat) and Nubia (3rd cataract). Egypt gains great power.
Under Thutmosis III. (1480- 1448) the Egyptian empire reaches its largest expansion. It extends from the Euphrat up to the 4th Nile cataract. The Syrian-Palestinian
coalition is smashed at Meggido around 1480 with support of mercenary armies and
horse-drawn carts. Phoenicia and Palestine are conquered, the empire of Mitanni is
now neighbour state.
Amenophis III. unfolds strong diplomatic and trade relations with Mitanni, also with
Babylonia, Crete, Cyprus, Assyria, and further with the empire of the Hethites and
with the Aegean islands. Amenophis IV. (1377-1358) reacted very well adapted to the
new extended spatial perspectives. He dissects the constitution from conventionally topogenetically
bound godly systems ('heretic king') and moves his residence to Echeaton (near Tell
el Amarna). On a spatially extended level he identifies the disc of his god 'Aton' with the sun disk. The time was not yet mature, however, for these spatially
expanded ideas. His successors return to Thebes, continue the big-power politics
of the New Kingdom under the old requirements. The period of Amarna is negatively
codified. In the 19th dynasty (1345-1200) Sethos I. (~1305-1290) and Ramses II. (~1290-1223)
fight against the Hethitians, win Syria back in the battle of Kadesch (1299). Around
1275 a treaty of friendship between Ramses II. and the king of the Hethites Hattusilis
III. is established. The new imperial residence of Egypt is now the city 'Ramses'
situated in the delta region. Later Meremtah fights in Palestine (Israel-stele: first
mention of the tribe Israel) and against the Libyans. Ramses III. (1197-1165) repeatedly manages to withstand attacks of various people from the Mediterranean sea (mainly
Greeks and Philistines). Prisoners are settled in the delta area. Under the successors
of Ramses internal turmoils develop, Palestine and Nubia were lost, the country impoverishes.
Moses as empire founder
This short outline may lead us easily to conclude that Moses was not - as generally
assumed - so much a founder of religion, but fundamentally - and essentially - a
state founder. And, in fact, his books can be read essentially under this point of
view. The story is about a people and its future country. The central theme is the exodus
of the Hebrews leaving their precarious situation in Egypt and migrating to their
new settlement in the then (Syrian-Palestinian) intercivilisational 'corridor' between
Egypt and Assyria. <8>
Moses as state founder, empire founder! The motive fits. The Hebrews were suppressed
by the Egyptians. Moses led them out from Egypt and at the same time to a new place,
to the location of their future state. This well established reasoning, however,
neglects that this process shows also a particular form, the discussion of which should
The structure of the Egyptian theocracy
Let us shortly go back to Kees and let us try to present the Egyptian constitution
somewhat more systematically.
Synchronic elements: We have found a polytheistic theocracy, which defines the structure of territorial
property on three layers, on the level of local settlements, provinces and on the
imperial level. The vertical hierarchies are fixed by genealogies of deities, all
being derived from primordial situations or foundations and gaining their legitimation from
this divine lineage. However, these systems of gods are not abstract, they can be considered as a physically
represented semantic system. The specifically characterised deities and their temples
are strongly related to a particular place. They reside in domains of highest value within the nucleus of the settlement's environment and stand for the corresponding
territory, which they protect. This semantic system too finds itself derived from
primordial situations, from 'primordial heaps' or from gods placed at an 'elevated
place'. < 9> This objective system supports a social one in three layers: People, nobilities
and leadership, whereby leadership stands both for king as well as for village chief
and provincial dukes. The lower levels have preserved their autonomy. The units are structured analogously. The social legitimation is - essentially without script -
supported traditionally by the cult. Besides the relatively late monumental godly
figures and temples, the cults related have preserved the predynastic cyclic tradition
of the dissolution and reinstitution of the semantic instrumentary (sacrifices, embellishments,
journey of the gods etc.). Since the cyclic character of the cults originated with
the foundation, it legitimates analogously on the local, provincial, and imperial levels the village chief, the provincial duke and the imperial king in analogous
ways as the particular founder of the territory in question. The union of three functions
in one person as territorial ruler, supreme priest and person of highest jurisdiction is a result of this evolutionary process. The nobility primarily stands closely
to the founder line and, with increasing extension of the territories takes over
functions of administration and power delegated by the king. The population functions
only as the content of the territory in this theocratic system. It usually has, however,
an interest in the conservation of the territoriality concerned. It is primarily
subject to the divinity, then also to the social leadership and maintains the cult
system through participation at the cults and through sacrifices, tributes and donations. The
legislation is based on the cult tradition, is of the sacred type and is imposed
and interpreted - also in its own interest - by the leadership.
Diachronic elements :
Evidently cults and the deities changed considerably through large periods of Egyptian
history (monumentalisation, anthropomorphisation), but their lineage to primordial
conditions remains constant through all changes. The formation of myths emerges from
the circumstance, that the early 'primitive' conditions of such foundations with their
quite realistic terms like 'primordial heap' or 'elevation of the ground' etc. are
not understood anymore from the developed views. These primordial terms in the oldest
layers, however, indicate clearly, that the territorio-semantic element shows great
continuity and that the territorial component since the origins was one of the most
important traits in these cults. Thus, these genealogies of gods - for instance those
of the provincial temples - were not simply 'nice stories', or 'irrational contents of
beliefs', they were rather politically of an eminent significance, they regulated
the structure of political power in the provinces and their relationship to the empire.
If the king suffered from losses of power, the provincial dukes emphasised the autonomy
of the genealogies of their provincial gods. Whether in a village, in a province
or on the level of the empire, one knew exactly the meaning of the temples, the forms
and names of their gods, their territorial range, which cults and festivals were associated
to them and which were the claims of the social elites.