The King as Son of God and Savior
The collapse of the pharaonic mediation of divine order, which proceeded with the collapse of Dynasty VI, neither resulted in a similar collapse of the cosmological myth, nor culminated in a radical transfiguration of the symbolization and institutionalization of the cosmocentric experience. Though existence was sensed to be both disordered and unorderable under the one-hundred and fifty year interregnum, the cosmos itself did not become “profane” in the absence of an effective king. Neither did any pronounced effort seem to have arisen to re-found existence by an unseen measure beyond the cosmological gods and their divine mediator. The events of the First Intermediate Period issued forth neither a Plato, nor an Isaiah. Rather, the Egyptian response to disorder was to reinterpret the symbols of the myth. This occurred even as a human cry went out for Pharaoh, some Pharaoh, to resume the role of mediator of divine cosmic order. At present, we shall examine how the symbolization of the king and the king’s role came to reflect an increasing emphasis on their status as son of god, rather than god, and as savior, rather than creator. In essence, in the wake of the First Intermediate Period, and with increasing intensity following the Second and Third, the very effectiveness of the king in bringing about maat became a criteria for the formerly unthinkable: judging the god.
The restoration of centralized, pharaonic rule under Mentuhotep I (c.2066-2040), and his immediate successors down to Amenhemet I (c.1991-1962) did not consign the experiences of the preceding time of troubles to an imaginative oblivion. Quite to the contrary, for, there is much indication that literate and high-ranking members of Egyptian society, at the very least, preserved memory of the disaster, and contributed thereby to the reconsideration of key details of the cosmological order. The Instructions of King Merikare, which are addressed to the king’s son, stand as a striking example. The document begins in a rather pragmatic tone, with the king offering advice as to how one should secure rule:
A talker is a mischief-maker, suppress him, kill [him], erase his name, [destroy] his kinsfolk, suppress the remembrance of him and his partisans who love him.
A violent man is a confuser of the citizens who always makes partisans of the younger generation. If now you find someone belonging to the citizenry [///] and his deeds have passed beyond you, accuse him before the entourage and suppress [him], for he is a rebel indeed; a talker is a mischief-maker. Bend the multitude and drive out hot temper from it; [///] will not rise [in] rebellion by means of the poor man when he is made to rebel.
Then, on the heels of a great deal of less sanguine advice regarding court politics and the avoidance of covetousness, matters take a decidedly apologetic turn:
The kingship is a goodly office; it has no son and it has no brother who shall make its monuments endure, yet it is the one person who ennobles the other; a man works for his predecessor, through the desire that what he has done may be embellished by another who shall come after him. A mean act was committed in my reign; the territory of Thinis was devastated. It indeed happened, but not through what I had done; I knew of it only after it was done. See, the consequences exceeded what I had done, for what is damaged is spoiled, and there is no benefit for him who restores what he (himself) has ruined, who demolishes what he has built and embellished what he has defaced; beware of it! A blow is repaid by the like of it, and all that is achieved is a hitting.[i]
From these two passages one might make three reflections. First, one should observe that the pragmatic status of the kingship has clearly fallen precipitously in Merikare’s time if “talkers” need be handled with bloody-handed suspicion; indeed, the paradigmatic “Quiet Man” effectively becomes the man of discretion. Secondly, however, one detects an odd dulling in the king’s aura, which is reflected in his apologetic reference to unfortunate incidents undertaken by his subordinates. One recalls to mind the haranguing of Ipu-Wer and wonders as to the degree to which the Great God had already suffered a loss of prestige. Thirdly, though, one is faced with the fact that the letter was not a unique copy, which was preserved by some quirk of fate. Rather, the existent copy dates from Dynasty XVIII, approximately seven-hundred years after the narrated events. Furthermore, the extant copy is not only separated from the original by the entire span of the Middle Kingdom, but by the Second Intermediate Period as well. The memory of the breakdown of pharaonic order survived the restoration of central rule by deliberate acts of preservation. One may thus already speak of an Egyptian experience of history in Voegelin’s sense of a history of order – of a memory or experience of sequential periods in time which are seen to express meaningful differences as periods of relative order and disorder. In the context of its anonymous 15th-century B.C. copyist, The Instructions of King Merikare would have carried, at the very least, the weight and meaning of two periods of maat, followed by two eras of isfet, preceded only by a Beginning, and issuing into a third restoration of maat in the copyist’s present under the rulers of Dynasty XVIII.
The significance of the king in the order of Egypt did not simply diminish, however, though it may be tempting to posit as much. The centrality of the king in even such late documents as the metastatic Potter’s Oracle, itself first composed in the late Ptolemaic Era, belies such facile assumptions. That the king played the role of the creator of maat and the mediator of true existence, right down to the end of the cosmological order, rather suggests something else. That is, that one must look elsewhere to determine the means by which the preserved memory of the vicissitudes of order and time was incorporated into the myth.
What suggests itself from the sources is not a simple diminishment of the king’s status, but rather a re-conceptualization of Pharaoh’s symbolic significance and institutional position within the cosmic order of the empire. With later dynasties, particularly those which followed the second restoration, centrality of divine agency has markedly shifted away from the king, to the Theban creator-god, Amon:
(I) . . . (The god Amon) — he is my father, and I am his son, He commanded to me that I should be upon his throne, while I was (still) a nestling. He begot me from the (very) middle of [his] heart [and chose me for the kingship… The is no lie], there is no equivocation therein — when my majesty was (only a puppy, when I was (only a newly) weaned child who was in his temple, before my installation as prophet had taken place. . .
. . . [He opened for] me the doors of heaven; he spread open for me the portals of its horizon. I flew up to the sky as a divine falcon, that I might see his mysterious form which is in heaven, that I might adore his majesty. (10) . . . I saw the forms of being of the Horizon God on his mysterious ways in heaven.
Re himself established me, and I was endowed with [his] crowns [which] were upon his head, his uraeus-serpent was fixed upon [my brow]. . . . I [was equipped] with the understanding of the gods, like Horus when he took account of himself at the house of his father Amon-Re. I was [perfected] with the dignities of a god. . . . [He established] my crowns, and drew up for me my titulary himself . . . .
. . . He made all foreign countries [come] bowing down to the fame of my majesty. Terror of me is in the hearts of the Nine Bows; all lands are under my sandals. He has given victory through the work of my hands, to extend [the frontiers of Egypt]. . . He is rejoicing in me more than (in) any (other) king who has been in the land since it was (first) set apart
I am his son, the beloved of his majesty. What I shall do is what his ka may desire. I bring forward this land to the place where he is. [ii]
Here, the king is no longer the creator-god who emerges from the primordial isle of flame, as in Utterance 249 of the Pyramid Texts.[iii] Nor does the king figure as the co-creator who brings order to creation by mediating the intracosmic divinities, society, and man, as in the Memphite Theology. Instead of the figure of the Great God and creator, the reader is presented with that of the Son of God, who was begotten in the heart of Amon. We find a similar proclamation of divine parentage in the inscriptions of Queen Hatshepsut, whose authority to rule, even faced with the rival Thutmose III , seems to have lain exclusively in the official recognition of her as the “son” of the god by the powerful cult of Amon in Thebes[iv]:
Instructions of Amend
- Utterance of Amon, presider over Karnak: “GO, to make her,
together with her ka, from these limbs which are in me; go, to fashion
her better than all gods; rshape for me,le this my daughter, whom I
have begotten. I have given to her all life and satisfaction, all stability,
all joy of heart from me, all offerings, and all bread, like Re, forever.”
Reply of Khnum
201. “I will form this [thy] daughter [Makere] (Hatshepsut); for
for love of the beautiful. Her form shall be more exalted than the gods, in her life,
prosperity and health; for offerings mistress.
great dignity of King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” [v]
Indeed, the significance of the myth of the king as the chosen son of god retained enough currency to have been of use to Alexander the Great nearly twelve-hundred years later.[vi] The new conceptualization of the king as creature rather than creator, and as servant of the god rather than equal, also came to be reflected in the epithet “the Good God”, which came to supplant “the Great God” early in the Middle Kingdom era. More importantly, the repositioning of the king in the semantic web of ancient Egypt reflected a shift in the experience of the ground of cosmic order. As such texts as the Admonitions of Ipu-Wer, The Instructions of King Merikare, and A Dispute Over Suicide exemplify, the downfall of the house of the king and the resulting unrest, rendered it impossible to conceive him or her as the bringer, creator, defender, and perfecter of the cosmos. When the king’s hu had been experienced as bringing disorder and disaster, the response was to simultaneously search for a “true” king, as well as to search for that ground of ordered existence by which the ruler was to be measured, all the while attempting to explain the mystery of kings who bring isfet. One remarkable Coffin Text from the Middle Kingdom reflects the new found search:
The All-Lord says in the presence of those stilled from the tumult on the journey to the court: “Pray, be prosperous in peace! I repeat for you four good deeds which my own heart did for me in the midst of the serpent-coil, in order to still evil. I did four good deeds within the portal of the horizon.
“I made the four winds that every man might breathe thereof like his fellow in his time. That is (one) deed thereof.
“I made the great inundation that the poor man might have rights therein like the great man. That is (one) deed thereof.
“I made every man like his fellow. I did not command that they do evil, (but) it was their hearts which violated what I had said. That is (one) deed thereof.
“I made their hearts cease from forgetting the West, in order that divine offerings might be given to the gods of the nomes. That is (one) deed thereof.
“I brought into being the four gods from my sweat, while men are the tears of my eye.” — All Men Created Equal in Opportunity, [vii]
The text is tantalizingly suggestive of both the experiential problems of the Egyptian cosmological order, and of their symbolization within the context of the myth. Embedded within the formulation is the salient theodicic message – that all men have been created equal, and that it is the hearts of men which do evil (isfet), not the god who commands it. While the Coffin Text itself cannot be demonstrated to have been in general circulation, it would seem to capture the larger trend in a few words. That is to say that maat came to be seen as the creation of the highest god in a Beginning, preceding its installation in society, and that isfet was introduced by the hearts of men. The suggestive inferences towards the failures of kings are present with possibility, but never reach explicitness. When, much later, under the Achaemenids and then the Ptolemies, revolts break-out against the king for the first time, the justification and purpose of the act does not stretch towards the goal of abolishing kingship as a profane office. Rather, the purpose would prove to entail the fulfillment of that sacred and sacerdotal station. The flash-point of revolt would invariably originate in the perceived failure of the king to mediate the divine, intracosmic flow of the gods through the maintenance of temples, sacred spaces, animals and offices, and the proper performance of rituals.[viii] The king, in other words, would hold responsibility for staving off what had not been experienced as possible before the intervention of three collapses of the pharaonic order – the disenchantment of the Land and its abandonment by the gods.
The subtle re-conceptualization of maat as the creation of the highest god, rather than the king as Horus, did not alter the fundamental understanding of true existence as an attunement within the cosmos of gods. The relocation of maat with the creator-god – be it Amon, Re, Ptah, Khnum, or so forth – did not ever suggest that the ground of existence itself transcended cosmic reality. This was the case for the simple reason that the Egyptian creator-gods themselves did not transcend the sensual reality of the cosmos. Rather, the creative acts at the Beginning were always expressed as acts of begetting which brought the primeval oneness into a plenitude of divine forms.[ix] The creator-god, by this reckoning, is merely the mysterious entity which begets itself from the primordial soup, begat multiplicity from oneness, and brought multiplicity to order through either direct or indirect activity.
The demiurgic god of the Egyptian myth could thus only ever be the judge of immanent existence in terms of its conformance to cosmic order. It could not, like the God of Israel, the Buddhas and boddhisatvas of Buddhism, the Brahma gods of India, or the Platonic Agathon, issue a call for existence which transcended the demands of the cosmos. Thus, the lowering of the rank of the king, relative to that of an Egyptian demiurge, could not and did not fundamentally represent a break with the cosmological myth in favour of an anthropological or soteriological order.
In practical terms, anxiety over a cosmic existence which was less than cosmic – let alone paradigmatic – actually increased both the prestige and the responsibility of the king in the new capacity of savior. The Prophecy of Neferrohu, written sometime in Dynasty XVIII, is particularly florid in its description of all the ills which the savior king will overcome:
This land is helter-skelter, and no one knows the result which will come about, which is hidden from speech, sight, or hearing. The face is deaf, for silence confronts. I show thee the land topsy-turvy. That which never happened has happened. Men will take up weapons of warfare, (so that) the land lives in (40) confusion. Men will make arrows of metal, beg for the bread of blood, and laugh with the laughter of sickness. There is no one who weeps because of death; there is no one who spends the night fasting because of death; (but) a man’s heart pursues himself (alone). (Disheveled) mourning is no (longer) carried out today, (for) the heart is completely separated from it. A man sits in his corner, (turning) his back while one man kills another. I show thee the son as a foe, the brother as an enemy, and a man (45) killing his (own) father. . .
. . . (Then) it is that a king will come belonging to the south, Ameni, the triumphant, his name. He is the son of a woman of the land of Nubia; he is one born in Upper Egypt.16 He will take the [white] crown; he will wear the red crown; (60) he will unite the Two Mighty Ones;17 he will satisfy the Two Lords18 with what they desire. The encircler-of-the-fields (will be) in his grasp, the oar. . .
Rejoice, ye people of his time! The son of a man will make his name forever and ever. They who incline toward evil and who plot rebellion have subdued their speech for fear of him. The Asiatics will fall to his sword, and the Libyans will fall to his flame. The rebels belong to his wrath, and the treacherous of heart to (65) the awe of him. The uraeus-serpent which is on his brow stills for him the treacherous of heart. [x]
Similarly, the aforementioned Potter’s Oracle arises in the latter half (c.130-116) of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, long after Graeco-Macedonian rule had lost its luster. By that time, the Lagids had fallen to squabbling amongst themselves and ignoring their kingly duties to the cosmic order – even as they continued to campaign against the rival ecumenic empires of the Selucids, the Attalids, and Rome:
. . . and lawless. The river will flow without enough water, with insufficient, so that the land … will be inflamed, but against nature. For in the time of the Typhonians they will say: “Wretched Egypt, you are wronged by terrible iniquities wrought against you.”
The sun will be darkened, not wishing to look upon the evil things in Egypt. The land will not welcome the sowing of the seed. These . . . will be blasted by the wind. And the farmer did not sow on account of this, but tribute will be required of him. They are fighting in Egypt because of the lack of nourishment. What they till, another reaps and takes away.
In this generation there will be war and murder which will destroy brothers, and husbands and wives. For these things will come to pass when the great god Hephaistos wishes to return to the city, and the Girdle-wearers, being Typhonians, will destroy themselves … evil will be wrought. He will go on foot to the sea in wrath, and will trample on many of them because of their impiety. And out of Syria will come he who will be hateful to all men, and being … he will come from Ethiopia … and from the realms of the impious into Egypt and he will be established in the city which will later be laid waste.
And for two years our … well . . . The month of Amon and he said well. Their children will be defeated. And the land will be unsettled and not a few of those dwelling in Egypt will abandon their own land and go to a foreign place. Friends will murder friends. There will be weeping and their ills will be worse than those of the others. And men will perish at each others hands. Two of their number will pass on to the same place(?) because of the one help. Much death will fall upon pregnant women.
The Girdle-wearers being Typhonians are destroying . . . And then Agathos Daimon will abandon the city being established and will enter Memphis, and the foreign city which will be built will be emptied. And these things will take place at the conclusion of the evils when the falling of the leaves occurs in the Egypt of the foreigners. The city of the Girdle-wearers will be laid waste as in my furnace, because of the unlawful deeds which they executed in Egypt.
The statues transferred there will return to Egypt. The city by the sea will become a drying place for fishermen because Agathos Daimon and Knephis will have gone to Memphis, so that some who pass through will say: “This city, in which every race of men dwelt, was all-nourishing.”
And then Egypt will increase, when for fifty-five years he who is well disposed, the king the dispenser of good, born of the Sun, established by the great goddess Isis, is at hand, so that those surviving will pray for the resurrection of those who died before, in order that they might share in the good things. At the end of these things trees will bear leaves and the forsaken Nile will be filled with water, and the winter having been stripped of its natural dress, will run its own cycle. And then the summer will take its own course, and the winds shall be well-ordered and gently diminished.
For in the time of the Typhonians the sun was darkened, having shone forth on evil customs and having exhibited the poverty of the Girdle-wearers. And Egypt … having spoken up to this point he (the potter) fell silent. / King Amenophis, distressed by the many disasters he had recounted, gave burial to the potter at Heliopolis, deposited the book in the sacred archives there, and revealed it unstintingly to all men. Speech of the potter / to King Amenophis, (translated) as far as possible. Concerning [future] events in Egypt. [xi]
Here, quite amazingly, one is presented with a prophecy which is not merely florid in its expectations for a return to true order, but positively metastatic in its expectation of a wholesale transfiguration of the cosmos. The girdle-wearing Typhonians – the Hellenes – will first and foremost be destroyed, as will be Alexandria, their hated “city by the sea”. The gods of Alexandria will have abandoned it in the meanwhile, for the more respectable city of Memphis – the home city of Ptah and the site of the formal “creation” of the Two Lands under the legendary Menes. The savior-king, son of god, having been established on his throne (a manifestation of Isis, if we recall), the cosmos will be set right and will give bounty like never before. The sun shall shine more brightly, the Nile will be filled, and the earth will give its gifts without reservation. Most conspicuous in its absence, however, is any mention of the foreign empires nipping at the Land’s borders – particularly Rome.
The mysterious muteness on the clear and present pragmatic dangers of the age is, however, made verbose by the symbolism. “Thyphon”, in this instance, is the Hellenized name of the Egyptian god Seth, the rival of Horus. By the time of the New Kingdom, Seth had come to be seen not as the manifester of power and might within the cosmos of Egypt, who had submitted to the rule of Horus’ law (maat). Rather, the god had come to be identified with the aggressive, lawless (maat-less) forces of Asia – the lands beyond the Red Desert.[xii] As such, foreign lands were recognized to subsist within a meaningful relationship to the cosmos, rather than to be a manifestation of meaningless chaos across the periphery of the horizon. The world outside of the Black Land and the Red Desert was thereby brought within the horizon of Egyptian consciousness, but only in the capacity of an obnoxious aggressor.
Within the narrative of the Potter’s Oracle, the “Typhonians” stand-in both as symbols of the obnoxious foreigner then currently disrupting the Land, but also for all such elements, past and present, within the expanded Egyptian horizon. The text, therefore, anticipates the savior god to not simply drive the local Greeks into extinction, but all of the “Typhonians”, the people of Seth, within the sun’s horizon. By implication, at the end of this business, the world will be left to the followers of Horus and maat. Indeed, one senses that, having tasted the disappointments of the rise and fall of cosmic order in time, that the authors of the oracle have elected for an imaginative leap out of history, into an End which mirrors the Beginning, and which makes manifest the Beyond – the god’s maat – on Earth and for good.
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Arrian; Anabasis Alexandri (trans. E.J. Chinnock); 1893 at http://websfor.org/alexander/arrian/intro.asp,
Assmann, Jan; The Mind of Egypt (trans. Andrew Jenkins); Harvard University Press, 2002
Assmann, Jan; The search for God in ancient Egypt (trans. David Lorton); Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2001
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Fowden, Garth; The Egyptian Hermes: a historical approach to the late pagan mind; Cambridge University Press 
Frankfort, Henri; Kingship and The Gods; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948
Frankfort, Henri; Ancient Egyptian Religion; New York, Harper., 1948
Mead, G.R.S.; Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 2, , at http://sacred-texts.com/gno/th2/th251.htm
Mercer, Samuel A.B; The Pyramid Texts; Longman, Green & Co; New York, London Toronto; 1952
Pritchard, James Bennett; Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament; Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1955
Voegelin, Eric; “Immortality: Experience and Symbol” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1967)
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[i] Translation by R. O. Faulkner, William Kelly Simpson (ed.), The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, 1973, p. 180-192.
[ii] From ANET, p.446-447.
[iii] The Isle of Flame is represented in the cosmogonic myth of Heliopolis to be the place from which the sun-god first arose to create the Land, and it is this association which is extended to the king in the Pyramid Text. To quote from Mercer, p.76:
“265: N. is this (flower) at the nose of the Great Mighty One.
- has come out of the Isle of Fire, after he has placed Truth there in the place of Falsehood.
- is the guardian of washing, who watches over the Uraei on that night of the Great Flood which comes out of the Great One (sky).
266: N. appears as Nefertum, the lotus at the nose of Re, as he comes out of the Horizon (Ax.t) every day, and at the sight of which the gods purify themselves.”
[iv] For a period of time, Queen Hatshepsut and Thutmose III seem to have been co-rulers of a sort, with the Queen taking on the role of king of the empire, and the younger man taking on the task of commanding the Egyptian expeditions against Asia. With Hatshepsut’s death, the kingship fell to Thutmose.
[v] From Breasted, James Henry; Ancient Records of Egypt, v.2; §200-201.
[vi] In 332/331, having defeated the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 and taken control of Asia Minor, Syria, and then Egypt, Alexander made a sojourn to the Oracle of Amon in Siwah (itself located in Libya). There, the oracle reportedly confirmed the young conqueror’s kinship as the son of the god, thereby allowing him to step into the role of Pharaoh. See Arrian; Anabasis Alexandri; III.3-4.
[vii] From ANET, p.7
[viii] For more on the centrality of the king in the ritual mediation of the cosmos, see Frankfort, Henri; Ancient Egyptian Religion; p.102-106; Frankfort, Henri; Kingship and the Gods; p.53-60, 67-69; Assmann, Jan; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt; p.119-123; Assmann, Jan; The Mind of Egypt; p.57-61, 73, 75-77.
[ix] See ANET; p. 3-6, for instance, for two different variations of the Egyptian cosmogony respectively headed by Atum of Heliopolis and Ptah of Memphis.
[x] From ANET, p.444
[xi] From Austin, Michel; The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest; §326
[xii] See Assmann, Jan; The Mind of Egypt; p.198-200.
This is the final of two parts of Dr. Cordner’s book tentatively titled, On The Process of the Disenchantment of Ancient Egypt. Part one can be accessed here.