by Eva Acqui
We have encountered the vastness of Egyptian mythology and ancient literature in building up a mythological perspective for Nevine Al-Seidi’s text, “The Prophecy of Isis”. Vast labyrinths of Egyptian history, mythology, ancient literature mingle in the poem, and we are again in front of the Sphinx, searching for angles, raising our arms high into the sun, to bring them down in the shape of a triangle, in prayer for the right path…We are to look at the image of the king as god, at rites related to his cult, at imperial ideologies and ancient Egyptian literature, at characteristics of its style, at the image of Isis, and her son Horus, at means of magical protection., and finally at the Sphinx.
So, let us go back in time to the golden age of the first kingdom, starting with the Third Dynasty and the rule of Djoser (2778 B.C.), until the year 2200, the end of the Sixth Dynasty. This was the period when the god kings ruled in Memphis, the capital city. In this period, we note the beginnings of elaboration of a theory of monarchy, that would be further maintained. The king is of divine essence, an interface between gods and mortals. The Sphinx of Gizeh is the masterly image of this concept. This period also establishes the royal titles, unchanged until the time of the last pharaohs, revealing for the universal character of the divine monarch. These titles are in number of five, being accompanied by five names, some of them granted at the moment of coronation. The name of Horus places the sovereign under the protection of the sacred bird, the protector of the city of Hierankonpolis, the place of origin of the first king, Narmer. Standing erect, with claws stretched, the divine bird protects the first name of the king, inscribed in a representation, in Egyptian manner, in the interior of the royal palace. The name of “netby” , “the two ladies” , places the monarch under the protection of the two goddesses that protect the king from the very beginning: Nekhbet (the vulture goddess that becomes the protector of the South, the image of the vulture symbolically enters the hairdo of the sovereign), the white vulture of Upper Egypt, and Uadjit (the cobra goddess, protector of Lower Egypt). Both of them constitute a symbolic unity, after the unification of Egypt.
The name of Golden Horus (that appears under the rule of Kheops, while the first names had been given by Narmer), tie the person of the king to that of solar and heavenly Horus, to the universe, according to the definition given by the Egyptians to it, that is “everything surrounded by the sun”. The name of nesut-bit , “the one that belongs to the reed and the bee”, which is also translated as “the king of Upper and Lower Egypt”, assimilates the sovereign to the symbolic flora and fauna of both constituent parts of the kingdom.
The name of Son of Re directly relates the sovereign (starting with Kefren) to the great cosmic force of the universe, whose cult spreads then in the entire country. In Kefren’s time, the last two names are included into a ring, the graphic development of the hieroglyph shen, that means to surround, to encircle, and constitutes another chosen method to define the link between the sovereign and his father, the Sun, assimilating the royal domination to the solar circle and the permanent renewal cycle of the planet.
Monarchy and religion are always closely tied together in the pharaonic system. It is not about the divine right here: the pharaoh, son of god, is himself a god, participating in the life-providing force of heaven and earth.
The pharaoh is chosen by gods, he proclaims himself to be thus chosen, and the ceremony of coronation takes place in the middle of human and divine joy. There is an entire mythology of the sovereign, created during the rameside period , where the mythology is blended with myths, in vivid colours, and we have the example of the texts of Medinet Habu. Mythology concerns first of all the personality of the hero-king. Images become numerous when the king leads a battle. His features belong to all categories: physical, intellectual, and moral. Thus are beauty, the king is handsome as the legend heroes, with a perfect face, he has the beauty of gods, and beauty is the one that underlines an exceptional being: then manliness and power, features necessary for a conqueror: knowledge and intelligence, as he king has an illuminated mind, with lots of knowledge and understanding: wisdom and ration, that are divine features, a result of the right and lucid spirit of the king: vigilance and efficacy are revealed in doing good, and the intellectual portrait is far more complete than the physical one: glory and prestige are inherent to a conqueror.
The image of the protector king is also part of this mythology. He is seen as a good shepherd, a brass wall, and very seldom of flint. The weapon is the symbol of light. Gold is the meat of gods and body of the sun, brass is the mythical substance of other elements in the heavenly universe. The king is a part, an earthly image of the walls of heaven: through his protective role he becomes a reflection of the world above. There is also the image of the country’s shield, and that of its heroic protector.
Under the rule of the ramesides the image is enhanced, enriched, as an image conceived by Egyptian thinking is never stable: it enlarges itself, develops, following a right poetic imagination.
An other image present in the mythology is that of the hero-king and the universe. The hero is never satisfied with simple human means. He always receives the form of an animal or assimilates to the elements of the universe. These are not simple comparisons or images, but possibilities of being, showing an unprecedented and limitless freedom to be. For Egyptians, liberty means going and coming without hindrances, but also entering any form among those existing in the world. In the case of humans, this kind of freedom comes after death, due to knowing the adequate formulas. For the pharaoh, this possibility is granted on earth also, especially in battles. Thus zoomorphism is manifested by the variety of animal shapes the pharaoh can take: bull, panther, jackal, hawk, mythical animal such as the gryphon. There are also cosmic forms, that of a trail of stars, taken especially by the traces of arrows shot by the pharaoh.
The hero belongs among gods: the pharaoh is the lightful son of the Sun, he is endowed by other divinities, being the heir and image of their common image. A magic endowment comes from parents: the sovereign is tied to the cycle of eternal time.
Concerning the rites related to the cult of the pharaoh, we have again the image of a god alive, belonging to the world of gods, and this divine being has the right to rule Egypt, he is the incarnation of the most powerful god. In order to outline divine origin, the pharaoh is given the name of Horus, and also that of Golden Horus. As son of the Sun, the royal divinity is not related only to function, as the pharaoh is a god from the moment of his procreation and conceived as god in eternity.
After these facts on the pharaoh, his divine origin and place, we have another issue of interest , that is the imperial ideology, formed around the year 1380 B.C. It concerns the background of ideology for the hymns composed in this light. At that time a conception of the empire is formed, which corresponds to a federative vision, as the Asian territories conquered become a group of states, each of them preserving its autonomy to a greater extent., The link between them is religion and the pharaoh, whose divine being is the same as those of the gods.
The first imperial hymn presents a discourse of Amon-Ra to his beloved son Tutmosis, in lyrical terms: the god provides power and victory , and the quality of the pharaoh appearing as a god in the eyes of the conquered people in the form of their divinities, thus becoming their legitimate master. This imperial hymn will be taken and adapted by the ramesides to another form of conscience: a victory song :” I will give you eternity…I will make wonders for you…they hail your name in all bodies…as I order for you…” . The god makes his promises to lead the pharaoh to victory, by helping him categorically and forcefully: :” I came..and will help you conquer…”.
During the same period, a sort of office for foreign countries comes into being, where the letters exchanged with Asian kings are kept. For this “international correspondence” a diplomatic language is used, named Akkadian. A strict protocol is respected, in terms of formulas and usage. Thus the first rules of international law are laid, under the guarantee of divinities. In this period, a second form of imperial hymn comes into being, that will be later taken up by the ramesides. This is a discourse of Amon, who does not speak of conquests, but insists upon the wonders he does for the pharaoh and on the total adoration of the empire’s peoples. It is a hymn of regained peace and prosperity. The text was sculpted on a stone in the funeral temple of Amenophis the third, on the left Teban banks of the Nile.” Oh, son, body of my body, most beloved Nebmaatre, my alive face,, ….”. The hymn insists on co-regency, as the prince is nominated king in childhood already, along his father.
Another issue of interest is that of ancient Egyptian literature, whose types , styles intermingle in the “Prophecy of Isis”. Ancient Egyptian literature is made up of hymns dedicated to gods, cities, kings, of stories, of teachings, of poetry. We witness the development of several types of literature, the mythological one, the historical, social literature, we find political texts, and a characteristic we underline here, a literature of teachings. The writings with teachings constitute an absolutely typical pre-philosophy in Egyptian culture, with a wide development, in comparison with Greek, Roman, Sumerian literature. In Egypt, this literary genre gained due to the social, economic, political conditions specific to the Egyptian state, the first in the world, totally different from the polis. Its geographic isolation was a determining factor in state formation. These conditions gave birth to the literature of wisdom, that is to teach man to survive in hostile conditions, as they deemed necessary the learning of an entire ars vivendi, the art of living in society. These texts were mostly written by scribes, people of culture. The texts are to be read among lines, for their message, as the message was not expressed directly. These “books” were useful to the pharaohs, consolidating their power, their rule: they educated people in the spirit of obedience to the pharaoh, to gods, promoting the adequate man for this role. Under the name of Egyptian wisdom, as mentioned in the Bible, we have to understand a corpus of moral doctrines, but also an anthropology, cosmology, theology, they constituting a pre-philosophy from where Greek materialist philosophy and the idealist philosophy promoted by Pythagoras will evolve. The oldest book of wisdom seems to be the one entitled The Advice of Ka-Gemini, written during the Third or Fourth Dynasty of the Old Empire, that is the middle of the third millennium B.C., having in its center the tragedy of the human being comparing himself to the gods, thus providing a source for Greek tragedy. Another text is entitled The Teaching of Ptahotep, one of the longest texts, but the most comprehensive “manual” on life written in the valley of the Nile, a treatise on the “art to succeed in life” destined to the youth at the pharaoh’s court, willing to succeed, a text from the period of the Fifth Dynasty, the third millennium B.C.
Another text , The Teachings of King Amen-em-hat, contains advice for the pharaoh who has to learn how to behave with his subjects. The Teaching of King Meri-ka-re to his son, contains advice given by a pharaoh of the Tenth Dynasty, on the art to be and behave as a king. Mythological literature is also important to our perspective: it came into being in centers like Helipolis, Theba, Memphis, Hermopolis. The myths are only fragments today. Pre-philosophical thinking occurs in Egypt, it is taken further by Greek thinkers, who explain the considerable extension of Egyptian mythological creation. Then myths are transposed into the realities of our world, a transfer occurring by allegorical interpretation. In myths, Egyptians saw symbols, figures that had to be discovered, read. Allegorical interpretation occurs in Egyptian thinking in very early times. We also mark the development of social, historical, political literature. The teachings to the pharaohs appear three millennia before the well-known “Il Principe” by Nicollo Machiavelli.
We also have to take into account the prophetic texts as these describe the fall of an old state of things and the instauration of a new regime, that is not always appreciated by the author of the prophecy. There is also a richness of fairy tales and fantastic stories, to which Egyptians granted importance, considering them important literary works. Their origin is in oral Egyptian literature. It would be a very tedious work to present a larger context of Egyptian gods, therefore, we limit our presentation to the image of goddess Isis and that of her son , Horus.
Isis is Osiris’s wife and Horus’s mother, she does not own any sacred animal, she is a caring mother to son and husband, husband murdered by the intrigues of his brother Seth. She looks for the body, finds the remains, and by magic means, she gives life again to the corpse. She cares and protects her son, reason for which she is the richest in magic. Among other means of protection, we find the amulets, little images of a sacred animal, of a god, which contained part of its spirit, acting as an emanation of the god’s power. These represented the cross, the hieroglyph of life, the node of Isis, the eye of Horus, the scarab, the heart, the royal scepter.
Egyptians viewed her as a solar god, naming her “The eye of Ra”, but Plutarch also describes her as a goddess of the moon. There occurs an identification of Isis with goddess Hathor, who also had a child, and the two goddesses undergo a fusion. The external features of Isis, defining her during the New Empire, that is the solar disk, the cow horns, then the cow head, are overtaken from Hathor. As an astral divinity, Isis is identified with Sothis, the lady of star Sirius, which marks the beginning of the year. Later, Isis becomes a goddess of nature and the world as a whole…
The other important god to us is Horus. From prehistoric times, Horus, from a local god with the head of a hawk, becomes a god worshiped in the entire Egypt. The place of origin is Nechen, from Upper Egypt. He is the king of Egypt : the first name of the pharaoh is Horus, and also Golden Horus.He later becomes god of the moon, but he is also identified with the sun: Horus of Edfu is a god of light, presented as a sun with wings, the sun and the moon being his eyes. The entering of Horus into the great myth of Osiris as his son, made a child of Horus, identifiable with young solar divinities. His cult expands once more, as son of Isis, as god of light, as god of the king, who is also a god. The combative features of the hawk and that of Horus make him identify with the gods of the delta, fighters and warriors. All gods with the face of a lion are assimilated by Horus. He also has a series of names hat mention his features: Ra.Harachti is Ra-Horus of the horizon, Harsiesis “Horus, son of Isis”, Harueris -Horus the Great, Harendates –Horus, the revenger of his father, Harpocrate -Horus the child, Khenti-irti - Horus assimilated to the hawk god of Letopolis, Hermesti -Horus the one with two eyes, the hawk god of Hedes.
The Sphinx recounts the glory of his land. It is the symbol of the Egyptian man, a creature with an Egyptian head complete with a nymeth (Egyptian headdress) and the body of a lion. The lion stands for value, dignity, and nobility. In the poem , the Sphinx tells the “truth” to tourists. He is filled with shame and regrets about the fall of the civilization of Gods who hand an ankh (key of life) and lived by a scepter (symbol of light). The fall came in the form of love (for the throne) and hate for (the potential Hebrew king) that resulted in the Pharaonic curse.
The Pharaonic curse is the Exodus which has influenced the world ever since. After this short peregrination in ancient Egypt, touching only on the elements that can provide us with a better insight to “The Prophecy of Isis”, we declare the poem open to interpretation from a mythological, historical, and ancient Egyptian literary point of view.