I was talking to a friend and told him that I had to write this blog post about bribing and threatening the gods. My friend and I talk a lot about all sorts of things. He is an atheist although he does have his personal rituals and he is still rather open to my religious and spiritual experiences. Basically he is being very critical with any kinds of organized religions which is after all a widespread attitude among intellectually sophisticated people. And I can comprehend that many people who are living in Europe have had bad experiences with a very rigid form of Christianity and have therefore been driven away from religion and spirituality. He said:
“There is no such thing as bribery to gods, they are mighty and wise and don’t fall for such tomfoolery anyway, they just do as they see fit.”
I realized why it is so difficult for me to talk to people who are not pagan or polytheist. Usually I avoid discussions like that because it is sometimes simply too much I would have to explain to create at least some basic understanding for my religious practice. The way me and other Kemetics experience the gods differs a lot from what non-pagans usually understand by the term “god”. My friends answer made me realize that even though you have turned your back on religion the understanding of “god” is still strongly characterized by the idea of a higher being which is to be obeyed, worshipped and by no means to be doubted -in one word perfect. This couldn’t be more different from what the kemetic understanding of “god” is. Our gods may indeed be wise and powerful but not in every case and not always, they do have their flaws and negatives sides, they can overreact and may need to be shown limits and they are definitely not perfect. They argue, they trick, they work together, they lie, they cheat, they love, they care. One could almost dare to call them “human”. What makes them gods in my eyes is the ability to see their actions in a greater dimension. Unlike humans they certainly know how far they can go without violating Ma’at.
Working with gods
To work with polytheistic gods does require a high amount of self responsibility, self reflection, stability and the will to take over the control about you own life. You have to know yourself, your goals and you have to be able to clearly define them and additionally you have to know the gods so you are able to create synergies with them. And you have to take over responsibility when you make mistakes.
Independently from any cultural context bribing means to attempt to influence someone’s behavior by granting or promise of benefits. Threatening however is to influence someone’s actions by announcing unpleasant or even harming consequences. It might seem daring to use those methods to manipulate gods but in fact this was very common in Ancient Egypt. Both bribing and threatening the gods have taken place in an important context: with the fact that the person who was performing a ritual has equaled himself with the gods. Jan Assmann claims in “Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten” the practice of rites can be understood as a gateway to a temporary participation in the sphere of the gods. The Egyptians would not make “the gods descend to a human level” but raise themselves to a god’s level within the rite. This shows very clearly in text sources where the person performing a ritual equals himself with a certain deity.
‘Anubis, the good ox herd, bring in the light to me! For thou shalt give protection to me here today. For I am Horus son of Isis. the good son of Osiris […]’ – from the Leyden Papyrus, An Egyptian Magical BookClear example of threatening:
‘Spell spoken to the bite of the dog […] O this dog, who is among the ten dogs which belong to Anubis, the son of his body, extract thy venom, remove thy saliva from me again, If thou dost not extract thy venom and remove thy saliva, I will take thee up to the court of the temple of Osiris, my watch-tower.’ – from the Leyden Papyrus, An Egyptian Magical Book
Sometimes the ritual performer does not identify with a deity but with another person.
PGM VII. 319 -34 *Charm for direct vision: Take a copper vessel,/ pour rainwater into it and make an offering of male frankincense.
Formula: [….] Appear to me, lord Anubis, I command you, for I am IEO BELPHENO, who considers this matter.
Dismissal: ‘Go away, Anubis, to your own thrones, for my health and well-being’
The second quote also shows rigorious instructions to Anubis which would be unlikely if he was addressed from a subordinate position. The Egyptians communicated on eye level with the gods. Basically the practice of bribing, commanding and threatening can be summed up as summoning. So the Egyptians were more likely to work actively with the qualities and characteristics a god would provide rather than addressing them with a begging attitude. This process of invoking and using these energies can therefore be considered closer to an actual magic practice than praying in a monotheistic context would be.
Bribing and Threatening
It may be useful to have a closer look at both threatening and bribing beyond a moral evaluation and consider that the ancient Egyptian religion was first and foremost a rite-based tradition. This means contacting and connecting with the gods took place in either ritualistic gestures or magic acting. The language used to express oneself to the gods can therefore possibly be viewed as a sign language.
PGM VII. 528-39 – ‘Say this while you make an offering over oak charcoal, sacred incense […]’
PGM IV. 2359-72 – for the purposes of a successful business spell one must ‘make a drink offering of Egyptian wine, and light for him a lamp that is not coloured red’
Imagine you are meeting a total stranger who does not speak your language. How would you inform this person that you are not intending to harm him? You would be forced to use a universal language which is independent from a cultural context and refers to very basic level of communication. You could show your empty hands and demonstrate that you have no weapons. Or you can try to please your counterpart by offering a present. Both gestures respond to certain areas in the brain that are known as the “limbic system” and act more or less independently from the prefrontal cortex that contains the daily consciousness. The limbic system is part of the brain which is “older” in the scale of evolution and many neuropsychologists claim that even though we identify more with the processes of our prefrontal cortex the sensations of the limbic system still have priority. To show your empty hands is a gesture of exposure that will immediately calm the flight-or-flight reaction which normally activates when you encounter something new and unknown. It can provide your counterpart a sense of relief and unlock the natural curiosity which will most likely lead to a careful approach. By giving the stranger a gift that arouses his interest you relate to the reward system which will immediately react with a secretion of dopamine and cause a positive excitement.
Rituals – a vocabulary of gestures
So this is a very instinctive way of communicating and it is imaginable that the communication with the gods has been influences by it. After all most of the gods have an animalistic shape and many animals have been viewed as living avatars of the gods. The mythical speech has probably been added later in time to inspirit the ritual actions with a mythical meaning. As Assmann states in “Ägyptische Geheimnisse” the myths with all their various images and appearances have been added later in time to the rites to partly replace ritual meanings that have been lost in time. So it is imaginable that the ancient Egyptians rituals as we know them today are basically a combined freeze image showing an ancient multilevel way of communication which consisted both of gesture and speech.
Bribery on a human level
Also among humans bribery is initially considered as reciprocal gift-exchange and is thus a form of human interaction, which can even be community-forming. Threatening is after all a way of setting limits without harming someone literally but a clear statement that something is undesireable and will lead to unpleasant sanctions. So both presenting and threatening can actually be viewed neutrally as basic methods of social regulation if applied sensibly and empathically. The concept of Ma’at hardly contains any rigid rules but inspires to develop social awareness and intelligence to be able to act appropriately in any social situation for the good of all. Not the deed of bribing and threatening itself is “wrong” or immoral but the intentions as well as the consequences may be.
To examine this from yet another angle we can take a look at the Hebrew term שׁחד šochad (Talmud Traktat Ketubbot 105a) It means “present” which can of course also be a bribery gift. It has developed from the term שׁהוא חד šæhû’ chad meaning „which unites“. The exchange of gifts does not become morally critical until the giving one has an advantage by receiving it which extends the limits of social ethics. The border between making a present and actual bribery is therefore rather blury and needs to be handled with care. This also applys well to the order of Ma’at. “Ma’at” means literally both “sacrifice” and “offering” as well as “cosmic order” which in a kemetic sense always refers to the community as a livelihood.
Moral thoughts about corruption
Of course in everyday’s live both bribing and threatening is strongly influenced by human flaws. Many texts show that especially bribing must have been a severe problem in the very centralistic and hierarchical structure of the Ancient Egyptian state. Especially the priests have been warned not to accept bribing which basically shows that this must have been an actual problem.
Teachings of Amenemope Chapter 20
“Take not the gift of the strong man, nor repress the weak for him. Ma’at is a wonderful gift of God, and He will render it to whomever he wishes.”
The method of bribing or corruption in a social, political and economic system is a very ambivalent moral question. It is commonly stated that corruption benefits the individual and harms the community. So most leaders of communities are endeavored to avoid bribability to protect the community as a whole. This can of course lead to ethically questionable methods itself because the mere moral appeal is too fragile to ensure the constancy of important masterminds of a social system since those are preferably targeted by bribing. The possible corruption therefore has to appear “less attractive” in advance and this might sometimes only be assured by deliberate favoring – which, in the end, is bribing, too. So once again the method of bribing itself can’t be judged clearly without the context.
Teachings for Merikare: “Make your magnates great, that they may execute your laws; one who is rich in his house will not be one-sided, for he who does not lack is an owner of property; a poor man does not speak truly, and one who says, “Would that I had,” is not straightforward; he is one-sided toward the possessor of rewards.”
This quote indicates the dark side of the Egyptian social system which is after all just as fallible as any other system set up by humans. The fact that history mostly reports the life of the rich and powerful people masks the fact that there have possibly been victims of this system, too, who did not have the resources to be part of it to defend their own interests. So perhaps to address gods with a strong expression of personal needs – in the shape of bribery or threat – is a far more legitimate method of following your intentions. After all the gods do see the bigger picture of the order of Ma’at. By contacting them and summoning on their powers we also connect to their awareness and wisdom which can provide us experiences and teach us so we eventually grow in wisdom and awareness ourselves.
Many thanks to Kallista who supported me
by providing all those great quotations!
Check out her blog (click the image)!