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Three Cheers for King Tut and the Denver Art Museum

August 29, 2010

Two Sundays ago I attended the Denver Art Museum’s King Tut exhibit. Tutankhamen, the boy Pharaoh, was a minor figure in the dynastic history of ancient Egypt, but his tomb was discovered intact and reveals to us much about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and social order.

The exhibit is beautifully designed, the audio lectures are worthwhile narratives that bring out aspects of the exhibit that require expert commentary, and the film in 3-D about ancient Egypt is an excellent theatrical production that develops the main themes of this museum quality exhibit.  The Denver Art Museum deserves credit for making this accessible to the citizens of Colorado.

The exhibit tells us that ancient Egypt was governed by an institution of divine kingship that was focused on the experience of life, the expectation of death and a need to prepare for an afterlife.  Egyptian rulers were aware that life does not end in death and that in life we must prepare for eternal life.

I was introduced to these studies when a graduate student at Notre Dame where the political philosophers, Eric Voegelin, and Gerhart Niemeyer, taught courses and gave lectures on mythic consciousness, ancient myth and the clash of myth with philosophy in the Presocratics, Socrates and Plato.  A course on the recovery of political theory taught by Gerhart Niemeyer  featured readings in the works of Mircea Eliade, Henri Frankfort, and the compendium of ancient Near Eastern texts of Pritchard.  As a result, the scholarly work of Egyptologists like Frankfort and others has informed the study of political order by contemporary political philosophers with an understanding of ancient Egypt and other civilizations of the ancient Near East.  In a large way, their work influenced my my own work in political theory.

What I learned from these scholars was that in ancient Egypt, continuing the consonance of social with cosmic order was performed by the king, the Pharaoh, who was the divine mediator through whom cosmic order was extended to the people.

The Egyptians believed that without Pharaoh the country would fall into disorder. This idea was expressed most emphatically by the Egyptian political institution of divine kingship. When a king was alive, he was called “Horus,” the falcon god whose eyes were the sun and the moon. His hegemony and power over social order were symbolized by the flight of a cosmic falcon, one of whose eyes is always visible in the heavens. When the king died, however, he ascended to the heavens and became the god Osiris.

The power of Osiris in Egypt was manifest in the Nile, whose powerful contribution to the continuance of life was visual proof of Osiris’ power. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Egyptians included Osiris among the first nine (Ennead) gods of their religion. In this way, they expressed the unity of social with cosmic divine order. Just as Osiris was present among the Ennead at the beginning of creation, so also was present the Egyptian social order, the stability of which was attributed to its cosmic origins. Not only the kingdom, but individual cities of ancient Egypt, as well, understood their own political existence in terms of their relationship to this original creation of the world.

“The Creation by Atum,” a myth of the reign of the Sixth Dynasty (2180 B.C.) king, Pepi II (Nefer-ka-re), whose city was Heliopolis, speaks of the sun god (Atum) as the first of the gods because he arises from the original hill or site of creation. The pyramids in which this text was inscribed were images of that primeval hillock and thus symbols of creation of the cosmos. In this way, cosmic order was symbolically interlocked with the political because the hillock originated on the site of the city of Heliopolis and it was there that the creation by Atum of the air (Shu), moisture (Tefnut), and the other gods of the Ennead took place.  Pepi II, King of Heliopolis, was understood to be the ruler of a political community which could trace its existence back to the original creation.

This belief lent legitimacy and stability to the reign of the Pharaoh, of course, but it also contributed to the static character of Egyptian society. The Egyptians, and for that matter all cultures formed by “cosmological” myths, valued the unchanging, what we would call the eternal. Henri Frankfort has described this regard for immutability by observing that “for the Egyptians the past was normative.” These societies sought their norms in the myths of original creative acts of gods in the past, norms which were their standards of action in the present. It is of great significance that before political theory could develop, before the transition in consciousness from compact myth to fully differentiated philosophic consciousness could proceed, a successful framework for the criticism of myths had to be established.

The King Tut exhibit reveals that ancient man was concerned that his acts in this life would be judged in the next and that even Pharaoh would be judged and the consequences of that judgment would last for eternity.

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