Abstract: Mythology and Iconography of Divine Kingship in Ancient Egypt

Lecturer: Lanny Bell

Divine kingship was one of the fundamental tenets of ancient Egyptian religion.  But how could the ancient Egyptian people really have believed their kings were living gods?  Nevertheless, they must have; for the king, the priests, and the privileged ruling elite—who would seem to us to have benefited most from this idea—could not possibly have been successful in cynically deceiving their people for more than three millennia!  In fact, few of us realize the extent that religion and politics have been inextricably intertwined in the person of the King throughout human history; the king either was a god or functioned as a divinely appointed agent of God.  Anthropologists and historians of religion have documented such phenomena in many cultures from different time periods all over the world.  In order to begin to appreciate the doctrine of the king’s divinity, we must project ourselves into the world of the ancient Egyptians and examine their beliefs from within their own cultural perspective.  A solar incarnation, the Egyptian king ruled as the Sun, manifesting its powers; and when he died, his divine spirit rejoined the Sun, while his transfigured body was buried in a tomb where the drama of the sun’s nightly rebirth was reenacted.  By the time of the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BCE), the dogma of divine kingship exhibited a high degree of sophistication.  The King was the physical offspring of the Creator by a human woman—the Mother of God.  The lecture investigates several symbolic representations of the king’s divinity.  The Hellenistic and Roman empires adopted many features of Egyptian iconography, and bequeathed them to the West—particularly through the efforts of the Church Fathers of Alexandria, as they struggled to explain the nature of Jesus the Christ as both Son of Man and Son of God.  Essentially, there were always two kings on the Throne of Horus at the same time.  First there was the mortal king, who had gained control of the throne and ruled from it on behalf of humankind; as High Priest, he made offerings to the gods for his subjects’ sake.  Then there was the abstract King, a theological conception and political symbol, who was regarded as the living incarnation of immortal Kingship; as heir and successor to the gods on earth, he was the recipient of his own offerings.  Normally, these two aspects of divine kingship were represented in a single god-man, a hybrid being with two natures—uniquely and ideally suited to be the Intermediary between the human and divine worlds.

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Professor Nicholas D. Cahill earned his B.A. at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 1981. After that, Cahill went on to the University of California-Berkeley to earn both his M.A. in 1984 and his... Read More

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