Reinventing Religion: Ancient Egypt in the European History of Religion

May 10, 2014
Reinventing Religion: Ancient Egypt in the European History of Religion
Aleister Crowley when he was about twenty-five years old, as a hierophant, in the Order of the Golden Dawn. © Bettmann/CORBIS

As the study of religion moved into the domain of cultural studies, there came a shift in the subjects of research.Scholars no longer focused solely on so-called world religions but also looked at the interplay between religion and culture in a broader sense. In a 1993 article on the paradigm of European history of religion, Burkhard Gladigow called this shift “vertical transfer.”

By using this term, Gladigow addressed the exchange between different systems of meaning (Sinnsystemen), such as literature, science, or technology. This approach is based on the assumption that religion appears not only in the well-known classical sense, but also in different cultural systems of meaning, each having its own hermeneutic pattern.

The academic discipline of the study of religion during the past twenty years has demonstrated the sustainability of such an approach. In the history of religion in Europe, “religion” could be located not only in terms of an institutionalized, mainly Christian religion, but in other systems of meanings and media as well. Moreover, if the paradigm of a European history of religion is combined with a discursive determination, the reinvention of religion through the use of traditional semantics and topoi comes into focus.

Taking this as my starting point, here I will examine this process using a prominent example: the reception of ancient Egyptian religion within the history of religion in Europe. As I hope to demonstrate, ancient Egypt became the focus of attention when a new religious tradition came to be created that was not based on classical (Christian) religion, but rather on an alternative system of meaning with a comparable, or even higher, worth.

My essay is divided into three parts. The first provides a brief overview of the reception of Egyptian religion within the history of Europe, with a special focus on the Freemasons of the eighteenth century. Next is a discussion of the use of Egyptian religion in modern Satanism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The third part offers some general observations on the function of Egypt in constructing and deconstructing religion from a systematic point of view.

Egypt in Eighteenth-Century Europe: The Freemasons

The reception of Egyptian religion in eighteenth-century Europe must be seen in two contexts. On the one hand, it was used by a tradition that focused on the specific meaning of the hieroglyphs. This was connected, on the other hand, with the idea that ancient Egypt presented a higher form of religion than Christianity. The ancient historians had already been fascinated by the monuments from ancient Egypt and by the hieroglyphs. Plutarch, Clement of Alexandria, and Diodorus established a tradition of scholarly speculation about Egypt that included inquiries into the deeper meaning of the hieroglyphs, without having the ability to read the Egyptian texts themselves. Centuries later, the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (1602–80) was to become an important contributor to the subject. His books Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1654) and Obeliscus Aegyptiacus (1666) were significant works on “Hieroglyphenallegorese” (the allegorical interpretation of hieroglyphs), with many interesting speculations on the hidden meaning of the hieroglyphs as a special esoteric language. Kircher and his contemporaries Bernard de Montfaucon (1655–1741) and Anne-Claude-Philippe de Thubières, Comte de Caylus (1692–1765) must be seen as representatives of “Egyptosophy” and not as adherents of a historical-critical approach, at least in its modern sense. They stand in a tradition that stretches back to the Greek grammarian Horapollo. In the middle of the fifth century ce, Horapollo wrote two books titled Hieroglyphica, in which he coined the term “hieroglyphs” and provided the definitions that influenced scholarly speculation about ancient Egypt for centuries. Without having any knowledge of the phonetics of the hieroglyphs, Horapollo and his successors believed that the “special wisdom” of the ancient Egyptians could be found in their esoteric language.

The beliefs of the Freemasons of the late eighteenth century were connected to these ideas, but they were also determined by the thinking of the Enlightenment, which moved away from the concept of revelation in favor of a “natural theology,” with man as sensible human being at its center. Immanuel Kant's often-quoted “emergence of man from his self-imposed immaturity” led to new systems of meaning in which ancient Egypt as a place of mysteries came into focus. This was combined with another factor: the distinction between two forms of religion. Already in the first century ce, Flavius Josephus had argued that the idea of the unity of God (die Einheit Gottes) was found first in Egypt and later transferred to the Israelites through Moses (Contra Apionem II.168). During the Enlightenment, this idea was shaped into the concept of a religio duplex, with a general polytheism for the people and a specific monotheism for the adepts. The latter was only available in the form of specific esoteric writings, the hieroglyphs. When the Freemasons identified themselves as heirs of an ancient Egyptian order of priests, they placed themselves within a tradition marked by two motifs: the deeper meaning of the hieroglyphs, and the specific wisdom of ancient Egypt.

Even though this tradition already included an anti-Christian impetus, the anti-Christian focus only came to the fore when it was combined with a much stronger concept: the idea of the Enlightenment. The core idea of the eighteenth century—that of the individual with sense and sentiment—was nothing less than an emancipation of the human from the assumption of man as sinner, as depicted, for example, by Martin Luther's popular image of the human soul like a horse ridden (and ruled) by God or the devil. The dozens of “Egyptianized” mysteries written during the flowering of the Freemasons, the years 1782 to 1787, were driven by a concept centered on the human being itself. Within this “new religion,” ancient Egypt was invoked in two ways: first, by creating a religious practice that had no Christian resonances; and second, by dressing the “new religion” in an old robe. The worthiness of the new religious concept was expressed in its ancient roots. Consequently, the new religion appeared in fact to be an ancient one, superior to the main European religion of the time: Christianity.

Egypt and Modern Satanism

The influence of Egyptian religion in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may be illustrated in many ways. One particular example is the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 in the United States. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), who became one of the main figures of Theosophy, tried to find the roots of the idea of spiritual evolution in ancient wisdom traditions, such as those of Egypt, Plato, and ancient Hindu sages. In her 1877 book, Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, Blavatsky relied on insights from the newly established academic discipline of Egyptology and referenced such works as Richard Lepsius's translation of the Book of the Dead (1842), as well as the Papyrus Ebers (discovered by Georg Ebers, 1875), which she considered to be the “most ancient book of wisdom” and “one of the six Hermetic books of Medicine” mentioned by Clement of Alexandria.

The example of Blavatsky illustrates that the reception of Egyptian culture was neither a specifically European phenomenon nor one limited to a period in history before the hieroglyphs were deciphered. Earlier research on occasion argued that the tradition of “Egyptosophy” came to an end with Jean-François Champollion. Even though Champollion's deciphering of the hieroglyphs, first documented in his famous 1822 “Lettre à M. Dacier, relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques,” marked the dawn of modern Egyptology, the reclaiming of Egyptian culture in the creation of novel spiritual concepts did not end with the founding of the academic discipline of Egyptology. Rather, the publication and display of new material from excavations in Egypt and the translations of ancient Egyptian literature were used for the same purpose as before 1822: to construct new religious traditions by deconstructing an old religion, namely, Christianity.

This observation can be illustrated by one of the more colorful figures of the early twentieth century, Aleister Crowley. Crowley was born in England, where he first encountered John Nelson Darby's dispensational premillennialism. After a few years as a member of the British Theosophical Society, Crowley created his own religious system, which he called “Thelema” and which, according to him, was based on a revelation. In 1904, while Crowley and his wife were on their honeymoon in Egypt, his wife had a revelation of the god Horus sent through his messenger, Aiwass. When Crowley and his wife visited the Egyptian Museum, they found Horus on an ancient Egyptian stele, with the number 666. In Crowley's own report, this god dictated to him the Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis), which was to be the theoretical foundation of Crowley's new religion, Thelema. Crowley's followers came to call the Egyptian stele the “Stele of Revealing,” even though it was in fact a Theban funeral stele from the middle of the first millennium bce (from the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties). Furthermore, the stele does not contain the number 666; this was simply the catalogue number from the former museum in Boulaq, where the stele had first been displayed after being excavated from the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Dayr el-Bahari by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.

With Thelema, Crowley developed a system of meaning with the human being at the center, as can be seen in two core statements from the Book of the Law: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” (AL I.40), and “Every man and every woman is a star” (AL I.3). In formulating his religious system, Crowley made systematic use of ancient Egyptian religion. Deities such as “Nuit” (the Egyptian goddess Nut) or “Ra-Hoor-Khuit” (the god Ra-Horakhty) are mentioned in his book. Interestingly enough, Thelema, though also a religion focused on the human being, drew on a different tradition than did the Freemasons. Whereas the Freemasons focused on humans' positive abilities, Crowley referred to their “negative” potential, postulating that dark energy existed in humans and in all living things.

Although Aleister Crowley could hardly be called a Satanist, he and his religion, Thelema, can be placed within the tradition of Satanism. It was the famous Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) who established a philosophical system based primarily on the assumption of evil as an autonomous vital force. According to him, Satan has no specific role, though evil as an autonomous principle does. De Sade's Satanism is mainly linked with sexual obsession, which made it popular, but it also is the start of a trajectory that continued through the first decades of the twentieth century and Aleister Crowley up to recent American Satanism. Significantly, the American form of Satanism makes substantial use of ancient Egyptian religion, as can be seen in a recent American Satanic movement, the Temple of Set. Michael A. Aquino founded the Temple of Set in 1975. Since the late 1960s, Aquino had been a member of the Church of Satan, a highly prominent Satanic group that became popular because of its connections with Hollywood. After leaving the Church of Satan, Aquino founded his own Satanic religion. According to Aquino, on the summer solstice in 1975 (June 21), the “Prince of Darkness” appeared to him as the deity Set, who declared that he wanted to be worshiped by his original name, Set, which had become obsolete as humans had come to know him as Satan and Lucifer. Set had already revealed himself to the ancient Egyptians, but, while the priesthood of the god Osiris knew a “Book of the Dead,” Set now wanted to reveal a “Book of Life.” Based on this etiology, Michael Aquino named the new organization the “temple” of the god Set, where “temple” refers, not to a building, but to the human being itself as a vessel for the personal conception of Satan. Don Webb, a high priest in the organization from 1993 to 2002, has explained this concept as follows:

The Temple of Set is a Left Hand Path organization. It reveres the psyche, and seeks its unification, empowerment, and isolation from the Cosmos, both in the world of Becoming and in the afterlife. Its philosophy and practice are a Remanifestation of the ancient Priesthood of Set, and are encoded in Xeper, a trans-personal principle that is best translated into English as 'I Have Come Into Being.' This word refers to the Realization of potentials within the Self, possesses the only ontology Recognized by the Temple of Set, and is the root of our metaphysics. We see the possibilities for our self-development arising out of Gift from the Prince of Darkness, and our reciprocal responsibility is to become a suitable companion for Him. 

A deeper look at the main scripture of the Temple of Set, the Book of Coming Forth by Night, illustrates the importance of ancient Egypt. Aquino wrote a full chapter on Egyptian religion, referring to such Egyptological publications as Ernst A. Wallis Budge's translation of the Book of the Dead, George Hart's edited volume, the Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, and Raymond O. Faulkner's translation of the Pyramid Texts. Aquino also presents an interpretation of Aleister Crowley's Book of the Law, arguing that it was actually the god Set who revealed himself to Crowley.

If we consider the Temple of Set and its concepts from a more systematic perspective, two interesting observations can be made. First, it is possible to trace how a new religion is created through the use of topoi from a non-Christian religion. As a rather young religion, the Temple of Set attempts to establish the worthiness of its doctrine by making a connection to an older system of reference: ancient Egypt and the god Set, who had revealed himself to the Egyptians and was known under the names Satan and Lucifer before wanting to be worshiped again by his original name. The new religion appears to be an ancient one and—more importantly—a religion that antedates Judaism and Christianity. Second, the recourse to ancient Egypt opens up the possibility of constructing a form of religion without Christian associations.

Constructing Religion: The Function of Ancient Egypt in the Modern History of Religion

It was not my aim here to give a comprehensive overview of the reception of Egyptian religion within the history of religions. Even though, out of necessity, I could only mention particular case studies, it is still possible to make some general observations based on these examples.

Within the modern history of religions, ancient Egypt serves primarily as a place of projection. Egypt becomes a focal point in systems of meaning that have virtually nothing to do with historical Egypt. The examples mentioned here illustrate in many ways that the authors—whether the Freemasons or persons such as Aleister Crowley, Helena Blavatsky, or Michael Aquino—were not interested in the Egypt of the pharaohs. Even though Helena Blavatsky and Michael Aquino quoted from modern Egyptological literature, their primary interest was to make the connection between Egypt and their “new” theoretical systems. Within such an approach, ancient Egyptian religion is co-opted for a new purpose. From a more theoretical perspective, what can be seen is a reinvention of religion through the use of traditional semantics and topoi, wherein ancient Egypt was used in two different ways.

Ancient Egyptian religion became relevant in modern religious history when religious actors sought to describe a new system of meaning that, first, marks itself off from classical (Christian) religion, but, second, claims historical dignity. Even though the anti-Christian impulse of the so-called autarkic Satanism of the late twentieth century is evident only on an implicit level, both the concepts of Aleister Crowley and those of Michael Aquino are tied to the history of Western esotericism, a tradition that stands in tension with a European history of religion dominated by Christianity. Ancient Egypt seems to present an ideal collection of topoi which can be used by “new” religious systems of meaning that are driven by two ideas: a distinct differentiation from traditional Christian religion, and the belief in a “special wisdom,” found for the first time in Egypt and then, as Helena Blavatsky argued, in other areas, such as ancient Greece and India.

Interestingly enough, acknowledgment of this tradition of the “special wisdom of Egypt” can already be found in the holy scriptures of precisely the religion that was deconstructed by the use of Egyptian religion in modern religious history: Christianity. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written: “So Moses was taught all the wisdom of the Egyptians and became a man with power both in his speech and in his action” (Acts 7:22; New Jerusalem Bible). This short statement about Moses and Egyptian wisdom was to become one of the most important topoi for the reception of Egyptian religion and culture within the European tradition. Moreover, on a deeper level, this verse already anticipates the later function of Egypt in the history of religion: to deconstruct Christianity by referring to a religious paradigm that is older, as well as “higher,” than Christianity.

—by Bernd U. Schipper

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.


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