Aker, Ancient Egypt, Anubis, Aset, Bastet, Djehutymose, Harmachis, Harmakhis, Hathor, Heka, Herishef, Heru, Heru-em-achet, Instructions for Merikare, Kemetic, Kemetic Round Table, Nekhbet, Nemty, Osiris, Popular Piety, Ra, Re, Sekhmet, Set, Seth, Sobek, Sutekh, Thutmosis, Tutu, Wesir, Yinepu
Bribing and Threatening the Gods: Can you do it? If you can, how so? And is it somehow ‘blasphemous’ or ‘immoral’ to do so?
INTRODUCTION : PERFECTION AND LACK THEREOF, AND THE PRETEXT FOR BRIBERY AND THREATS
Many Modern “Pagans” have been raised in societies dominated by Western monotheistic religious worldviews which assert that unwavering devotion and firm “belief” or “faith” in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God is all that is required for a functional relationship with the Divine. As such, to bribe and especially to threaten any deity is seen by many Modern “Pagans” as a rather vain, arrogant, and blasphemous act.
This was in many instances not the mindset of Ancient Egyptians. Ancient Egyptian peoples had a not-universal, not-irreversible concept of perfect deities. This notwithstanding, individual Gods were, and still are, superexalted to “Most High” in ritual contexts and extolled for Their mercy, omnipotence, and omniscience, whether or not They were/are ever viewed to possess such qualities in a more permanent sense.
The Gods of Ancient Egypt were certainly lauded for Their good qualities and predisposition toward intervening positively in the lives of mortals. One account tells of the God Herishef. Herishef appeared to Darius III’s personal physician Sematawytefnakhte after the defeat of the Persian army at Arbela near Nineveh. Herishef directly advised Sematawytefnakhte to desert Darius III’s army and return to Henen-nesu (Herakleopolis Magna), protecting the physician-collaborator throughout his perilous journey from Arbela to the God’s town in Middle Egypt. (Traunecker, 92 – 3) In like kind, though with far greater detail and intensity, Ra’s greatness and benevolence is praised. The much earlier Instructions for Merikare, one of the better-known Egyptian wisdom texts dating to around 2000 BCE during the First Intermediate Period and set in 10th Dynasty Henen-nesu, summarizes the nature and attributes of the God Ra and His solar religion through a monolatrous — or perhaps, dare it be said, henotheistic — lens. King Akhtoy extolls Ra in this treatise on the cosmology, ontology, eschatology, and ethics of the solar religion as a God Whom “none can withstand” : hidden; omniscient; provident; responsive; just. (Baines et al., 102 – 3) Ra is described as being essentially perfect within Instructions for Merikare. So concentrated was Akhtoy’s praise of Ra that the overt polytheism featured within many localized Egyptian theologies is decidedly absent within the text, as Lesko notes. (Baines et al., 103 – 4)
While the Gods sometimes take pity on mortals — especially mortals of high status — and engage in relatively benevolent micromanaging, and while They are lauded for Their positive qualities, Their intervention is not always pleasant. The Gods of the Near East are angry, jealous, and vengeful. Virtually every known God from Amun, Djehuty, and Shezmu, to Nekhbet, Sekhmet, and Bastet consistently bear epithets including but not limited to “Lord of Terror,” “Subduer of Rebellions,” “Subduer of Asia,” “The Destroyer,” “Slaughterer of Souls,” “Lady/Lord of Pestilence,” and so on. Even Ra has His wrathful, unforgiving, even vulnerable and fumbling aspects, which crop up within a number of texts (particularly of the more “folkloric” variety rather than liturgical), controverting the view of “perfection” espoused within Instructions for Merikare.
There was little question that the Gods and the more-than-human entities in Their employ could be brutal toward mankind, often without much — or indeed any — provocation. Gods like Nekhbet, Sekhmet, Bast, and Tutu are the superiors of fearsome sheseru demons or “Seven Arrows.” These sheseru demons, incidentally associated with the seven Decan stars closest to our sun, not only punish sinners, but also simply act out of malice for no discernible reason. (Redford et al., 105) Sekhmet in particular is “associated with vengeance and rage and was responsible for the near-total destruction of mankind.” She is waited upon by “Demons of Darkness,” who “bring slaughtering about, who create uproar,” and are responsible for plague and illness among humans. Sekhmet sends out Her demons to plague mankind in fits of malcontent. (Szpakowska, 2009)
The Ancient Egyptians generally understood that “belief” or “faith” in the Gods was simply not enough, much less relevant. One had to flatter and cajole the Gods, or failing that, threaten Them through “magical” means in order to obtain what was, and is, necessary for human flourishing. They fought fire with fire. Through this conflict, a fluid if delicate balance was achieved.
An offering that the King gives to Osiris, Lord of Busiris, that He (Osiris) may, in turn, give invocation-offerings.
— From a Middle Kingdom Period offering formula. (Redford et al., 290)
It is important to understand what a bribe is before we go further. A bribe is anything valuable given to an individual to get that individual to perform a specific service for the giver.* Lobbyists or “special interest groups” giving an (illegal) gratuity to a lawmaker is a more imminently recognizable example of bribing. Of course, not all bribes are so malignant and corrupt. One might bribe a child into doing their homework or household chores with candy or a new toy upon completion of the drudgery. A bribe is a form of incentive and positive reinforcement; the proverbial carrot as opposed to the stick.
As I briefly touched upon in a recent article, Ancient Near Eastern cultures, which includes Ancient Egyptian culture, were predicated upon gift economies. The heart and soul of these cultures — their mores, their ideal view of how personal, professional, and Divine relationships were to be conducted and maintained — were oriented around the exchange of gifts, rather than an explicit monetary exchange, despite the fact that Ancient Near Eastern societies soon developed advanced economic systems which did in no small part feature monetary exchange in the form of silver specie. (Warburton, 2007)
One creates a relationship by giving gifts to potential enemies and allies alike. Such exchange places the receiving party in debt, binding them in a “social contract” of sorts. If the relationship is to persist, a modest amount of time must elapse between the giving and counter-giving. One party is thus always indebted to the other(s), leading to an endless reinforcement of the state and health of the relationship. Too great a lapse in this exchange, or a breaking of it altogether, can seriously weaken the relationship, as well as foster enmity and a lack of trust in the parties involved.
In Antiquity, this exchange manifested as offerings, from opulent temple complexes and monuments to modest dedicatory stelae and sculptures; literature; loaves of bread; alcohol; and unguents for a deity. Ancient Egyptians flooded the coffers of a God’s cult in order to garner Divine favor. A prime example of this is the itemized list of the estate of the cult of Amun in the Great Harris Papyrus. (Watterson, 142)
Even today, when human beings make offerings to the Gods, however simple or elaborate, they are bribing and indebting the Gods. When one presents offerings or services to a God, one is essentially bribing that God to intervene kindly in one’s life, or to soothe that God’s anger in order to avoid Divine punishment.
Bribery and similar displays can likewise be initiated by Divine parties. As humans bribe and indebt the Gods through offering, the Gods bribe and indebt mortals through displays of mercy, forbearance, and especial favor. One account tells of a young Djehutymose IV dozing in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, a monument representing the God Heru-em-akhet (Harmachis). As he was dreaming, Heru-em-akhet appeared, and requested that Djehutymose free His Divine image from the sands and restore it to its former glory, presumably with the intention of supporting Djehutymose personally should he do as he was bidden. (Traunecker, 92; Wilkinson, 134 – 5)
But why do bribery and related acts work in the first place?
In The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion, contributing scholar Gertie Englund makes an insightful observation on the subject of offerings in relation to the complex concept of ma’at. He explains to us that offerings are part of a continuous exchange of energies that correspond to a holistic worldview, where everything in Creation is ecologically linked in a network of energies. (Redford et al., 286) Both humans and Gods are part of this network of energies, and depend upon its functioning. The Gods need mortals, their refinement of natural resources, and their worship in order to properly live and rule to Their fullest extent. If the Gods default on Their end of the debt and cause mortals to be driven away from Them, They starve and languish. Similarly, we human beings require the works and boons of the Gods in order to live to our fullest extent and maintain some semblance of order within human society. If we default on our end, we suffer equally. Bribes ensure that defaulting doesn’t occur, so that both Cosmic ma’at and societal ma’at are preserved.
The sun barque is at rest and does not proceed,
The sun is still in the same spot as yesterday.
The nourishment is without ship, the temple is barred,
There the disease will turn back the disturbance
To yesterday’s location.
The daemon of darkness is about, the times are not separated.
The shadow’s shapes cannot be observed anymore.
The springs are blocked, the plants wither,
Life is taken from the living
Until Heru recovers for His mother Aset,
And until the patient’s health is restored as well.
Where bribes are the carrot, threats are the stick. Bribes are designed, through the nuances of gift exchange, to influence behavior, to nudge fate in a direction beneficial to all parties. Threats, on the other hand, are delivered in the form of an ultimatum and force specific behaviors through fear of pain.
The Gods were seen as superior, ergo “perfect,” in all things and to all other beings, both positively and negatively. Though superior to mortals, though “perfect,” the Gods weren’t and aren’t above issuing or being cowed by threats any more than They are above issuing and accepting bribes. The Gods can’t threat or be threatened in just any way, however. It is through heka that threats must be effectively issued.
In Egyptian religion, heka is seen as the “Great Equalizer” between comparatively weaker mortals and supremely powerful beings like deities. In Instructions for Merikare, King Akhtoy says to Merikare: “[the Creator, Ra] has made for [humans] heka . . . to be weapons to oppose what may happen.” (Baines et al., 103) Ra and/or the collective of the Gods was said to have created and bestowed this power on mortals out of benevolent but nevertheless condescending compassion for the human condition. The explanations of how, when, and why heka came into being are not universal, however. For example, Spell 261 from the Coffin Texts tells us that heka (personified as the God Heka) simply existed before anything else. (Traunecker, 98) Whether God-given or otherwise, it is not a power any articulate being is selectively exempt from, and it is a power all articulate beings can use to their advantage in any given situation. Whether God or mortal, to use this power was not seen as “blasphemous.” Heka is meant to be used. Heka is a power even the greatest and most powerful Gods fear — a fear which Ra exhibits in The Book of the Heavenly Cow. (Traunecker, 98)
Indeed, Ra is right to fear it. Despite all the precautions Ra had taken, His own heka was used against Him by the Goddess Aset. Aset, “Whose heart was more rebellious than an infinite number of men, more smart than an infinite number of Gods . . . more clever than an infinite number of spirits,” managed to acquire a sample of Ra’s saliva. (Meeks, 98) Ra took pains to change names on a daily basis, in order to protect Himself (for to know a God’s true name is to have total control over that God), but it was to no avail. She mixed the saliva with the earth that clung to it, fashioning it into the form of a venomous serpent. Aset left the snake on a path that Ra walked down every day, and inevitably, He was bitten by it. Because it was not one of His own creations, He could not cure Himself of the venom. Consequently, “the world was plunged into darkness, shards of pottery began walking about, stones began to talk, and mountains took to wandering hither and thither.” (Meeks, 98) Aset eventually stepped forward and offered to cure Ra on the condition that He tell Her His true name. Ra had no choice but to agree, though He did so on the condition that only Aset and Her son Heru-sa-Aset, when He came of age, could know Ra’s true name. (Meeks, 99)
Threatening to incite Cosmic disaster, as Aset had done, was one of the tactics employed by Ancient Egyptian hekau. If the spell fails, the sky will literally fall, the inundation will cease, among other horrible calamities no one would wish to see come to fruition. On page 75 of her text Magic in Ancient Egypt (Revised Edition), Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch has this to say on this particular method of threatening the Gods and other entities:
The [hekau] usually protects himself by saying ‘It is not me that is saying this, but X,’ X being the God Whose role [the hekau] is playing in the rite. This suggests that even though it was only role playing, the Egyptians themselves had doubts about this procedure. Words were powerful, so such formulae might actually damage ma’at (the Divine Order).
Another popular method was the procurement of positive Divine influence through the interference of cult — or rather, the bare threat of interference, which could also damage or upset Cosmic and subsequently societal order as previously mentioned. Deities would sometimes be threatened with the desecration of Their temples, the slaughter of Their sacred animals in the forecourts of Their temples, the emptiness of Their shrines. Pinch mentions a headache spell which promises to slaughter a cow in the forecourt of Hathor and a hippopotamus in the forecourt of Set. The hekau even threatens to wrap the sacred icon of the God Yinepu (Anubis) with the flayed hide of a dog, and the sacred icon of Sobek with the flayed hide of a crocodile. (Pinch, 74 – 5) One would have to be quite desperate to issue such threats.
Why would a God need to honor such blatant disrespect or “empty threats”?
Geraldine Pinch posits that these heka formulae are not so much threats as predictions. The hekau, speaking on behalf of his fellow man, is reminding the Gods that if humans are not regularly cured, protected, and favored so that they may flourish, they will abandon the Gods and cease to maintain temples, make offerings, and respect the sacred animals. (Pinch, 75) Essentially, threats in heka are a reasonable demand for the enforcement and maintenance of the “gift economy” and the network of energies which sustains Cosmic and societal ma’at. The Gods must take these threats seriously and treat human beings humanely, or else everything falls to pieces and everyone suffers, including and especially the Gods.
DOABLE, MORAL, BLASPHEMOUS?
Because I do not have the manner of parallax required to definitively know what is externally, “universally,” and ultimately moral and ultimately immoral, I cannot say. That is a personal judgment each person must make for him- or herself, and hope that judgment is remotely close to being correct — whatever “correct” might mean. What I can say is that both bribing and threatening the Gods (and other more-than-human entities) is entirely doable. I can also say that I happen to think that these practices are both effective and permissible, coming from both personal experience and knowledge acquired from reading historical sources.
Above all else, I recommend trying offering/bribery of a God first, and having some patience. One does not see results overnight, much less immediately. In the event that bargaining fails, I personally see threats and ultimatums acceptable. This isn’t to be done lightly, however. Matters have the potential to end quite miserably if one’s heka is weak and inconfident, and if one cannot make good on those threats and ultimatums.
And, of course, if one feels that threats are “too impious,” no one is twisting any arms to make anyone threaten the Gods. Again, it is a personal decision.
But, as Geraldine Pinch notes, it is probably wrong to ascribe too much weight to threats in Egyptian heka. (Pinch, 75) Threats are simply one weapon, one technique, within a well-stocked, versatile armory. Indeed, it was often that a personified disease, a demon, a God, or some other being was pleaded with, cajoled, lied to, flattered, and threatened — all within the same text! And these texts were, and are, not the only source and not the only method. Many, many methods are available to the proficient hekau. Only the individual hekau will know, or be able to find out, what techniques and methods are most effective in whatever situation, concerning whatever entities.
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Traunecker, Claude. The Gods of Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2001.
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