The role of Kingship and the Nisut (Pharaoh/King) in Egyptian religion, particularly Modern Egyptian religion, is a controversial one. In order to more fully explain the controversy, I will give a cursory overview of the roles, functions, and beliefs surrounding the Nisut and the royal cult throughout much of Antiquity. Then I shall explain how the Modern Nisut differs in these.
DISCLAIMERS: In the section on the roles and functions of the Modern Nisut, I will be talking about the Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple. While there are a number of Modern Kemetic organizations that have a Nisut at their respective heads, I am not incredibly familiar with how those particular organizations work, or what their precise beliefs are. The Kemetic Orthodox Temple is the most well-known Kemetic organization, and I have spent a few years with the Kemetic Orthodox Temple and a number of its members. At the time of the writing of this article, I am a Remetj of the organization, and am contemplating Shemsuhood. In light of this, I feel much more comfortable using Kemetic Orthodoxy as my chief example here.
The following is neither an endorsement nor an invalidation of any Modern organizations that have a Nisut. It is also not intended to instruct anyone as to what he or she should believe in a religious capacity. It is up to the individual to decide whether or not he or she agrees with the idea of an organized Kemetic religion presided over by a Nisut or similar religious figure.
THE NISUT IN ANTIQUITY
The narratives of Egyptian Kingship span an impressive 32 Dynasties, which we refer to as the Pharaonic Period. A daunting number of changes occurred over the course of this vast segment of time, beginning with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt circa 3200 BCE and ending with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE by the eventual Emperor Octavian Augustus. All these transitions obviously can’t be covered here in their entirety. It is important to acknowledge that each Dynasty of the Pharaonic Period had its own set of unique circumstances, tensions, revisions, and consequences regarding concepts of Kingship and their implementation. This is especially true of periods of foreign rule over Egypt. However, only the more important and consistent details hailing predominantly but not exclusively from the Middle Kingdom Period and New Kingdom Period (excluding the Amarna Heresy*) will be discussed in this section, and not in intimate detail.
Ancient Egyptian religious traditions, both at local and State levels, maintained belief in a Mythic Era when Egypt and thus the world was ruled over by a Dynasty of Gods-as-Kings. These included but were not limited to Ra, Shu, Geb, Wesir (Osiris), Set, and Heru-sa-Aset (Horus the Younger). This Mythic Dynasty of eleven deities (relating primarily to the Heliopolitan family of Gods) Who ruled for over 7,700 years is recorded within the Royal Canon of Turin, which dates to the 19th Dynasty. (Wilkinson, 64) While Ra in particular was said to have eventually withdrawn from the world of men*, He still maintained sovereign power as God of the Heavens, as “Universal Lord.” Similarly, each God which was claimed to have ruled during this Mythic Dynasty did not lose His royal attributes when another succeeded the throne. In the Ancient Egyptian mind, these deities and myths established a precedent for Kingship as supremely crucial to the continuation of Ordered Creation. Indeed, from a dogmatic Ancient Egyptian point of view, the rule of the Gods was coeval with the rule of Kings; such mythic precedents link Kingship to the Gods, and were simultaneously established by means of the Gods.
Ra, as the Creator of all things and the prime establisher of ma’at, was the God the Pharaoh was most frequently associated with during his reign — aside from the popularly-referenced model for all Kings, Heru-sa-Aset. Ra laid down the “binding norms for all times and creatures,” and had established “Kings from the very beginning.” (Meeks, 122) From about the 5th Dynasty until nearly the very end of the Pharaonic Period, the title “Son of Ra” was applied to all Pharaohs once they were crowned. (Pinch, 71) As the “Son of Ra,” the Pharaoh was considered the only one who could intercede with the Gods, being the “Son” and “Elect” of the Universal Lord, though he was always inextricably bound to his human subjects, having been born into their ranks. (Meeks, 122; Baines et al., 66) Furthermore, as the “Son of Ra,” one of the King’s chief roles was as a participant in the solar cult,* in order to personally ensure the continuation of the solar cycle. His participation in the cult of the Gods in general was also required. While the King was considered “chiefest of priests” and was always presented in State iconography as the performer of cult, in reality cult rites were attended to by small numbers of high-ranking priests. In any event, cult ritual served as a microcosm of Creation, and all the (positive) dramas which were acted out in cult ritual translated to and were enforced upon the macrocosm, upon reality, as per their beliefs surrounding heka. This is why royal participation in Temple settings, whether actual or representational, was so important.
The most consistent and important of the King’s many moral and religious duties are best outlined in a brief text which probably dates to the Middle Kingdom. In it, an “official division of the Cosmos” is presented, along with the King’s role in the cult of the Sun God. (Baines et al., 127 – 129) The role of the King is effectively described as “more critical for the maintenance of order than any single deity,” since the King and his office are “for ever and ever, judging humanity and propitiating the Gods, and setting [ma’at] in place of [isfet.] He gives offerings to the Gods and mortuary offerings to [the blessed dead].” (Baines et al., 128 – 9) In other words, the King is the pivotal figure protecting, ordering, and ensuring life and abundance for all things. He was also not “just” the military, political, and religious leader of Egypt; he, like his “Father” Ra, was Universal Lord.
The four parts of society established in this particular text — the King, the Gods, the blessed dead, and humanity — were bound together by moral obligations, tasked to act as one unit to create and maintain both Cosmic and societal ma’at, though the onus lay predominantly on the King. Non-human, non-Divine beings and the unjustified dead are absent from this model. (Baines et al., 129) We see idealized models of social order in all such expositions on Kingship, as Kingship “provided a metaphor for the way others were to conduct their lives.” (Baines et al., 128)
At least, such ideals and models held true for the elite members of Ancient Egyptian society. What we do not see is any mention of the lower classes of Egyptian society, “ordinary people” who were only conspicuous by their absence from the ideologies surrounding Kingship and their benefits. The sufficient performance by the King of his roles and duties ensured that he and his few immediate beneficiaries would not suffer the wrath — or worse, neglect — of the Gods. Theoretically and ideally, the King guaranteed the Gods’ beneficence and Their provision for all humanity, while simultaneously ensuring that the Gods had an ordered existence and plentiful offerings that They could live and rule to Their fullest extents through and on. The privileged members of society “received Divine beneficence, and returned gratitude,” certainly, and their views of religion were all the more optimistic for it. (Baines et al., 127) But despite the overwhelming proliferation of the elite’s ideology on public monuments and in surviving documents (a woeful minority of people could read and write, and few could afford to commission monuments), the realities of Egyptian society, inasmuch as we know of them, were often miserable ones. Most of humanity was not “covered” by the idealized models of social order and human flourishing that concepts of Kingship presented. The conditions of life for the deprived Egyptians who made up the socio-economic majority were incredibly harsh (Baines et al., 137), and such persons generally had no official and direct channel for interacting with deities — much less any official channels one would have much hope of achieving legal justice through (Pinch, 83) — since existing evidence shows that very few from among the lower classes of Egyptian society ever participated in official religious practice. (Baines et al., 126 – 7)
The King was, first and foremost, “the protagonist of the Cosmic Order,” being chiefly identified with Heru-sa-Aset and/or Ra in this role, of an entirely separate and highly unequal status which enabled him to “distance himself from normal human morality.” (Baines et al., 142) He adhered to Divine models of rule, and those models functioned to his own benefit almost exclusively. He walked in the footsteps of the Gods, ritually acted out the Divine dramas of the Gods, was identified with the Gods, and was perceived to be in the constant company of the Gods.
Adhering to Divine models of rule, and identification of the King with the Gods on the basis of role and function, do not necessarily entail that the Pharaohs themselves were Divine beings in life. As David P. Silverman puts so well, “Ancient Egyptians envisioned in their ruler both a being and an office, the former originally mortal and the latter always Divine.” (Baines et al., 67) Geraldine Pinch states to a similar effect that the royal ka was more of an “immortal power,” that was said to dwell within each King — likely by virtue of the Divine office he held rather than by his own virtue of being. (Pinch, 73) Additionally, by the Middle Kingdom Period, personal identification with various Gods by elite members of society in heka papyri for ritual purposes was becoming increasingly normalized. (Pinch, 71) We can’t very well consider non-Pharaohs Divine by who they decided to identify themselves with in heka texts and rituals. What, then, can we say for the Divine nature of the Pharaoh himself?
There is certainly quite a bit of evidence that some New Kingdom Pharaohs — Ramses II foremost among them — were aggressively marketing their literal, fully-Divine status as God-Kings who “earned their immortality through long and successful reigns,” officially proclaiming their Godhood during their own lifetimes. (Wilkinson, 57) The term “Netjer,” meaning “Divinity” or “Power,” was frequently used as an epithet of such Pharaohs, among other titles which suggested some manner of Divinity. David P. Silverman attests to there being a conscious effort, both textually and iconographically, to emphasize the Divine roles and very Divinity of the King during the New Kingdom Period. (Baines et al., 66) The fusion of the deceased King with Wesir, “Sovereign of the Kingdom of the Dead,” and with “the dead sun who would share the destiny of Re on His journeys,” while having existed from an early date and not-controversial, was particularly emphasized and expanded upon during this time. (Wilkinson, 54, 62 – 65; Meeks, 123) Similarly, rituals and myths concerning royal theogamy, while they had existed since the Old Kingdom, were much more pronounced by the New Kingdom. (Meeks, 121 – 122) Not coincidentally, Temple estates became incredibly economically significant during the New Kingdom Period. It is no wonder, then, that there was a decided move toward consolidation of power in both action and image between the religious institutions and the royal office, and an increased mutual involvement in the active parties’ affairs — whether any of them liked it or not.
While the concept of Divinity in relation to Kingship was not altogether nonexistent before the New Kingdom Period, a number of other Pharaohs’ treatment of their own roles, functions, and self-image were much more nuanced, dare we say “humble,” by comparison. While virtually all Pharaohs iconographically appeared in the roles of various deities associated with Kingship, not nearly all Pharaohs went so far as to proclaim themselves Gods.
Opinions among scholars on the Divinity of the historical Nisut are not uniform. The late Henri Frankfort, for instance, had asserted in his 1948 study Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature, that the Pharaoh’s rites of coronation and accession clearly and literally elevated the Pharaoh to Divine status. (Wilkinson, 55) The famous Mythologist Joseph Campbell put forward a similar idea that, with the unification of Egypt and the founding of the Egyptian State, sacral Kings became God-Kings, and mythic identification of the King with the Gods was increasingly displaced by mythic inflation, or the absorption of the Gods into the King’s own ego. (Pinch, 70) This is arguably quite true of Ramses II and like-minded Pharaohs, but not nearly all Pharaohs. Much more recent scholars like Geraldine Pinch note that “few statements about the ‘Divine nature’ of the King would apply equally at all periods.” (70) Betsy Bryan has also put forward the noteworthy theory that royal rites and even outright decrees of “self-deification” may have been more symbolic and provisional in nature, as in the case of Amenhotep III’s deification, which she claims may have been “limited to prescribed occasions such as the King’s Sed festival.” (Wilkinson, 57) Richard H. Wilkinson notes that “the frequent identification of the King with various deities could often be little more than hyperbole,” and includes Marie-Ange Bonhême’s point that the Pharaoh’s formal names do not clarify “the degree of Divinity which is involved.” (55)
There is little to tell us what every member of Egyptian society believed about his or her ruler at any given point during the Pharaonic Period, or indeed what every Pharaoh believed about himself and the royal office in the privacy of his own mind. But we must assume that at least some people believed the images various Pharaohs were attempting to portray through representation in State iconography, and through their many edicts. We must also assume that Pharaohs on the whole took their religious roles, and all they implied, seriously.
THE NISUT IN KEMETIC ORTHODOXY
While my primary focus in this section is on Kemetic Orthodoxy and its Nisut, this first paragraph is ostensibly relevant to all Modern Kemetic organizations that have a Nisut. It should be abundantly obvious to the reader that any Modern Nisut is not and cannot feasibly consider him or herself to be an absolutist theomonarch as Ancient Egyptian rulers once considered themselves and functioned. The Modern Nisut does not occupy any temporal administrative office in any country’s governmental system, and is not the ruler of any country in any sense whatsoever. As such, all the political, economic, and military roles and duties of Ancient Egyptian rulers and their appointed officials fall by the wayside. There is a general establishment of a “separation of Church and State,” which Ancient Egyptian rulers and high-ranking officials had little to no concept of — not that any Modern government is in danger of sponsoring any Kemetic religion.
Additionally, the use of the term “State” in reference to Kemetic Orthodox rites isn’t used in an absolutist theomonarchial sense that dominated Ancient Egyptian thought. It instead refers to public, official Kemetic Orthodox rites and standards of (ritual) operation, versus non-Orthodox or individual Kemetic rituals and practices.
The Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple is not maintained to be the “spiritual leader” of any country, much less Egypt. The Nisut of Kemetic Orthodoxy is essentially a primus inter pares, or “first among equals,” of the highest echelon of the priesthood of that specific organization. The Kemetic Orthodox Nisut acts as the chief representative and leader of his/her ordained priests, lay priests, and non-priestly laity who specifically identify as Kemetic Orthodox and are in good standing with the organization (meaning, individuals who have not been ousted for disruptive and abusive behavior). The Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple does not represent nor claim to lead Kemetics who are not part of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple.
The Kemetic Orthodox Nisut acts as the main teacher of the organization, though is not the only one. The founder and current Nisut, Tamara Siuda, is an Egyptologist as well as a Reverend. As such, she has implemented a system of historically-informed priestly instruction (though not “historically accurate and precisely reproduced to the absolute letter,” if that’s even possible). She directly participates in the selection/investing of priests, performing many parts of the investiture process in-person, and has delegated educational/instructional as well as sacral duties to the various levels of priesthood. This is done so that, ideally, each tier can be properly supervised and non-priestly members can be better informed and attended to.
Kemetic Orthodox practitioners are not considered directly nor exclusively accountable to the incumbent Nisut for societal ma’at. The Kemetic Orthodox Nisut is also not considered, as mentioned in the previous section, “the protagonist of the Cosmic Order,” of an entirely separate and highly unequal status which enabled the historical Nisut to “distance himself from normal human morality.” (Baines et al., 142) In Kemetic Orthodox belief, all individuals are considered morally accountable to the Gods above all, and to their fellow human beings as part of the concept of “connective justice.” No one is above or outside that moral accountability. The Nisut isn’t the only person who is responsible for the “rightness of the world,” nor one member of an elite minority who enjoys the best, most immediate benefits of “doing and saying ma’at.” “Ordinary people” are not omitted from the ideologies, active religious roles, and “Cosmic and societal benefits” in Kemetic Orthodox religion as they generally were throughout various periods of Ancient Egyptian history. In short, the role of the Nisut in Kemetic Orthodoxy is incredibly diminished compared to its historical counterpart(s), and the religion much more democratized than was ever experienced during the Pharaonic Period.
The most controversial aspect of the Kemetic Orthodox Nisut — any Nisut of any Kemetic organization that has one, really — is whether or not the Nisut is treated as literally Divine. As stated in the previous section, while some Egyptian Pharaohs like Ramses II aggressively marketed their status as living God-Kings, whether or not the Nisut was actually considered Divine “across the board” is not something all scholars have been able to effectively agree upon. In like fashion, within Kemetic Orthodoxy, the current Nisut’s Divine status is not something all the Temple’s members can agree upon, and what meaning each Kemetic Orthodox member puts behind the honorific title “Her Holiness” can be highly divergent. Some Kemetic Orthodox do acknowledge Reverend Siuda, as of the moment of her “coronation,” to be a literal incarnation of the Kingly Ka, of the God Heru. Many members don’t consider her to be a literally Divine figure, but call her “Her Holiness” as a sign of respect devoid of Divine connotation, merely acknowledging her roles to be similar to those the historical Nisut played in Ancient Egyptian religion: chiefest of priests; religious leader; intermediary between the Divine and human worlds; and (re-)establisher of ma’at. Whatever each member’s beliefs and doubts, as Revered Siuda and other officials of the Kemetic Orthodox Temple have stated numerous times, the Kemetic Orthodox Nisut does not require anyone, Kemetic Orthodox or otherwise, to consider her Divine in any way.
How any given individual deals with the existence of the Kemetic Orthodox Nisut, much less the presence of multiple Nisuts spread out over multiple Kemetic organizations, is beyond my purview. It is my personal interpretation that none are “living God-Kings,” nor rulers in a governmental sense, and that each is to be considered the chiefest priest, organizer, and representative of his or her particular denomination of Kemeticism. While few if any aspects of the Ancient Egyptian royal cult are at all relevant to me, I don’t presume to name any of these Nisuts more “true” than the others in a religious capacity. That is up to the individual to decide for his or herself, if he or she feels inclined to decide or “side with anyone” at all. Academically — that is to say, in terms of which leaders, members, and/or organizations dole out reliable, historically-accurate information regardless of the nature of their religious beliefs and practices — that is another matter entirely.
1.) For more on the Amarna Period, Atenism, and the post-Amarna Reformation/Restoration, I suggest these commonly-available and relatively inexpensive titles to start: Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation by Aidan Dodson; Akhenaten : The Heretic King by Donald B. Redford; The Amarna Lettersby William L. Moran; and Akhenaten and the Religion of Light by Erik Hornung, translated by David Lorton.
2.) Regarding the rebellion of man and the departure of Ra to the Heavens, see also the Book of the Heavenly Cow, beginning on page 289 of The Literature of Ancient Egypt : An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry (Third Edition).
3.) For more detailed information on the developments and relations between the solar cult and the royal cult, see also Stephen Quirke’s The Cult of Ra : Sun Worship in Ancient Egypt, and, if one can find it, Jan Assmann’s Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Amun, Re, and the Crisis of Polytheism.
Baines, John, Leonard H. Lesko, and David P. Silverman. Religion in Ancient Egypt – Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Edited by Byron E. Shafer. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1991.
Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1996.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth : A Very Short Introduction. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London : Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003.