About time…

Sun dial from Ai Khanoum Musée Guimet

Time and time perception

“Time” in philosophy names the perceivable change or series of events observed by the human mind. Time appears to have a “direction” or a flow. This already raises the question if there is an absolute time which exists beyond consciousness or if time as well as time perception is rather a part of it. What we can probably say for sure is that the way time appears is highly influenced by the state of mind which again is influenced by many factors. A lot of disciplines deal with those factors be it neurology, biology, psychology and even cultural science. Aspects like perception, thinking processes, memory, emotions, zeitgeist they all are closely connected to time perception

Djed Pillar between 1500 and 1000 BC (New Kingdom) Walter Art Museum

To mention a few phenomenons of time perception just to illustrate how much the perception of time can be vary: “Telescoping effect” is the term for recent events seeming further back in time than they actually are or they seem more recent whilst being further back. Periods of time containing a higher number of changes seem longer than intervals with less changes. And if motivation for a task is higher time seems to pass quicker. Further influences on time perception are e.g. emotions, drugs, age, body temperature, mental disorders and many more.

Considering that time perception is varying a lot it may be easier to comprehend that a different culture can of develop totally different time concepts. Nowadays we are living with a linear view on time assuming time consists of past, present and future. We assume a direction coming from the past, crossing present and moving onwards to future. This, however, is not the case for Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians knew two coexisting time aspects namely “neheh” and “djed”. These two phases do not evolve from one another but they both name specific aspects of time as a whole.

Two time concepts in Ancient Egypt

A brief definition would be the following: neheh, as the cyclical and repetitive aspect of time, names an incompleted process while djed, as the aspect of durance refers to the state of completeness. Neheh therefore can be regarded as “imperfective” and djed “perfective”.

Neheh, in its cyclical quality has a clear solar relation which already shows in the way it is written – two twisted ropes and the sun determinative inbetween. The sun determinative has also been used to name other expressions of time such as “hour”, “season”, “year”, “tomorrow” or “yesterday”. These aspects of time are therefore also aspects of the cyclical dimension of neheh. The cyclical time was part of the daily experience of the Ancient Egyptian. It manifests in many natural cycles like the sun rising and setting, the yearly Nile flood or the repeating movements of the stars. Also death and birth, growth and decay, the moon phases basically all the rythms of nature were omnipresent to the Egyptian mind. A good example for the importance of the sun cycle is the so called “hour ritual” which follows the journey of the sun in a cultic way.

Djed however was written with a different determinative referring to land and earth as a symbol for consistency and stability. Djed is the concept of time when things are completed and development has come to an end. Djed is also symbolized by the djed pillar which already occurred in pre-historic times and was closely connected to Sokhar and Ptah. The ritual of raising a djed pillar by the king was a traditional act to provide durability and consistency to the kingdom. Later the djed was adopted in the Osirian cult to symbolize his spine and thus the durability in afterlife.



Another important aspect of Neheh is the fact that its various cycles are not considered as “circles”. In fact time in Ancient Egypt was considered to be rejuvenating – obviously following the example of nature – which means it is starting over and over again. This has lead to a very typical mind set of the Ancient Egyptians, the fact that repeating cycles were given more importance for the maintenance of life (and thus creation) than single events. This may be a major difference to our today’s world view were repetition are mostly considered as stagnation or even regression and innovation or the constant pursuit for new things is the ultimate goal of society.

Completeness and incompleteness

So cyclical time and durability coexisted as two sides of the same coin in Ancient Egyptian. Although they may seem opposing concepts they are in fact interdependent. Durability is about completeness, completeness generated by repetitive cycles and not by constant progress as it is understood in modern times. In a progress oriented time repetition is considered a threat or even regress. In Egypt however repetition (eg. in nature) marks what really matters to maintain life. Single incidents have lesser importance.

And the concept of repetition and durability has also been transferred onto morality and ethics in order to maintain community as a livelihood. Repetition of social gestures such as numberless festivities where a major tribute to maintain the social consistency. And of course the ancient Egyptian cult tradition is a perfect example for repetitive actions to maintain the connection of man to the sphere of the gods. This could not be a bigger contrast to modern times where intersocial repetition is mainly considered as unrewarding, uninspiring and even limiting. Relationships, friendships or other social bonds are mostly valued by the amount of “growth” and development rather than consistency which in the end is also expressed in repetition.

Sunset Nile/ Luxor Wikimedia Commons, by Martin Steiger

Further information and sources:

Die zwei Gesichter der Zeit: Neheh und Djet (Jan Assmann)
Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Juli 2010

Jan Assmann – Tod und Jenseits im alten Ägypten

This entry was posted in English, History • Geschichte and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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