Towards an Egypto-Judaeo-Christian Anthropology of Religion and Theology

by Nold Egenter


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 functions.

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 guessed already.


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.

Hermann Kees

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 conditions.

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. < 5>

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.

Archaeological sources

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 conditions.

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.


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 be rewarding.

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.