and nature of the gods
It is almost impossible to enumerate the gods of the Egyptians, for individual
deities could temporarily merge with each other to form syncretistic gods
(Amun-Re, Re-Harakhty, Ptah-Sokar, etc.) who combined elements of the individual
gods. A single god might also splinter into a multiplicity of forms (Amun-em-Opet,
Amun-Ka-Mutef, Amun of Ipet-swt), each of whom had an independent cult and
role. Unlike the gods of the Graeco-Roman world, most Egyptian gods had no
definite attributes. For example, Amun, one of the most prominent deities
of the New Kingdom and Late Period, is vaguely referred to in secondary literature
as the "state god" because his powers were so widespread and encompassing
as to be indefinable.
To a great extent, gods were patterned after humans — they were
born, some died (and were reborn), and they fought amongst themselves.
Yet as much as the gods' behavior resembled human behavior, they
were immortal and always superior to humans.
Gods are attested from the earliest time of Egyptian civilization. Standard
anthropological models that suggest that gods in early civilizations are
derived from a mother goddess or that they are the incarnation of aspects
of nature do not fit the Egyptian evidence. Further complicating our understanding
of the early gods is the fact that a single deity could be represented in
human form, in zoomorphic form, or in a mixed animal-human form. Although
the animal forms and therianthropic (i.e., part human, part animal) forms
slightly predate anthropoid manifestations, it is unlikely that the gods
were derived from totemic animals or that the Egyptians practiced zoolatry
(i.e., worship of animals). Rather, animal forms were probably used to suggest
metaphorically something about the characteristics of the god.
Certain gods were associated strongly with specific localities, although
their worship was not limited to those regions. The gods were organized
into groupings that expressed male and female elements (Amun/Amunet), family
triads (Amun, his wife Mut and their child Khonsu), and other groupings
such as the ogdoad of eight gods and the ennead of nine gods.
Many aspects of Egyptian theology are elusive to modern researchers. This
results from the fact that there was tremendous development of religious
ideas throughout the 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization, yet few concepts
were discarded; instead, they were layered upon each other in an ever more
complex and seemingly convoluted manner. Although sometimes dismissed as
the signs of a primitive culture or of the Egyptians' confusion about their
place in the universe, the seemingly contradictory beliefs are better interpreted
as extended metaphors used to explain the intangible. For example, there
are several different and seemingly contradictory ideas about creation.
In some theologies, the god Ptah brought mankind into being by the force
of his thoughts while others recount that mankind was created by Khnum on
his celestial potter's wheel. In still others, the god Atum performed the
first act of creation from his spittle or semen. All of these solutions
were an attempt to explain a phenomenon that was beyond human understanding
in more comprehensible metaphors.
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