Saturday, March 7, 2015

Short Story: Champollion’s pantheon of gods

The ancient Egyptians worshiped a whole menagerie of gods recognisable through their various attributes and props. While a specific god may appear in various aspects, there are generally one or, at most, two animals associated with each god that are recognisable on wall reliefs and sacred scenes of temples and tombs.

Until the discovery of the hieroglyphic system nearly 200 years ago by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822, all that was known about ancient Egypt was what was recounted and passed down through the ages from historians like Herodotus. 

The deciphering of the hieroglyphic language meant that Egyptologists could now literally “read” the history of Egypt from the texts found on papyri and temples! Soon after he deciphered the sounds and meanings of the symbols, Champollion quickly turned to studying the various gods and their relationships to each other.

Amun-Re, Spirit of the material world
With the help of L.J.-J. Dubois, a professional draughtsman and curator of Egyptian Antiquities at the Musee Charles-X, Champollion produced a fascinating collection of plates showing the illustrated gods or “Pantheon”, based on their representations on the walls of temples and tombs.

 Published by the French presses of Firmin-Didot, the original work, “Pantheon Egyptien: Collection des personages mythologiques de l’Ancienne Egypte d’apres les monuments” must have been met with great enthusiasm from the public.

Unfortunately, only 90 coloured plates were completed between the years 1823 and 1831. There should have been 200 coloured plates all in all, but Champollion’s early death at the age of 42 brought the work to an abrupt end. In 1992, a facsimile of the completed plates was published by Olivier Tiano.

A few examples follow with commentaries from the original text of Champollion.

Khonsu, the Sacred Baboon
The ram was one of the main symbols used to represent Amun-Re, the highest deity of the land. The image shows the one-headed sacred ram “Amun” with the falcon, symbol of the god Re extending protective wings. They are both wearing the solar disk with the Uraeus or stylised cobra, symbols of eternal life and divinity. 

Here the sacred ram is depicted and decorated to represent the spirit of Amun setting in motion the powers of Upper and Lower Egypt, represented by the cobras’ headdress emblems.

One of the emblems of the moon god Khonsu is the baboon. The baboon is one of the animals most often depicted on ancient monuments and is associated with the two deities Khonsu and Thot. 

Sekhmet, the Castigator
We can differentiate which deity is meant by examining the props around him. Here he is shown squatting in front of an alter full of offerings that include lotus flowers and sacred loaves of bread. His head is adorned with the crescent and the lunar disk combined, which shows him to represent the moon god Khonsu.

One of the emblems of the moon god Khonsu is the baboon. The baboon is one of the animals most often depicted on ancient monuments and is associated with the two deities Khonsu and Thot. 

We can differentiate which deity is meant by examining the props around him. Here he is shown squatting in front of an alter full of offerings that include lotus flowers and sacred loaves of bread. His head is adorned with the crescent and the lunar disk combined, which shows him to represent the moon god Khonsu.

The Nile was worshiped in Egypt in the form of the god Khnum, considered an aspect of the central god figure, Amun and a major divinity. Here he is shown seated on his throne, pouring out two symbolic trickles meant for man and for nature. 

Khnum, God of the Nile
As giver of life, Khnum was the animator of all things and was known as the “good spirit”. The flood, on which Egypt depended for irrigation of its crops, was considered an act of goodwill by the god Khnum almighty.

Though the collection is delightful and has contributed to the general fascination with all things Egyptian, it was unable to answer the question of whether the ancient Egyptians worshiped multiple gods through a form of polytheism; or whether they were monotheists, worshiping one god but through many of its sacred aspects. 

This question, which has occupied many brilliant minds, whether Egyptologists or other thinkers, remains a mystery to this day.

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