In ancient Egypt the sun was revered as the giver of life and, in reflection of the waning and waxing of the sun, death and resurrection were the central theme of sun worship.
Jenny Jobbins continues her look at ancient beliefs and their relevance today
The late Christopher Hitchens is often quoted as saying: “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realise that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
In regard to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, two corollaries may be drawn from this tongue-in-cheek observation. First, the ancient Egyptians were among several ancient civilisations who understood that the sun was the bringer of night and day and governor of the seasons that sustained the crops on which all living things depended, and so for much of their history they regarded it as their chief deity. Second, they lavished tributes and attention on the one they regarded as the deity’s representative on Earth, their king, and it was just as a matter of course that he (and his people) believed that he, too, was a god — indeed, a sun god.
It is all too easy, however, to draw a modern picture of events played out thousands of years ago, and archaeologists tread very cautiously when fitting together the jigsaw of the past. They are continuously questioning and updating evidence about our ancestors and their beliefs. In regards to Egypt, scientists are unable to say for certain how far back in time sun worship was adopted, or whether it developed separately there or was part of a cult spread more widely across North Africa that found its way to the Nile Valley with new settlers in predynastic times.
The evidence throws up many puzzles. In 1994 archaeologists from Leuven University working near Qena in Upper Egypt — at the site at Dendera where the Temple of Hathor was later built — found the skeleton of an anatomically modern human child buried about 55,000 years ago. The body had been placed in a seated position, with the knees drawn up, and with the head turned to face the rising sun. The presence of grave goods indicated an intentioned position, and some archaeologists have even posited that this was an early indication of a sun cult.
Experts are divided about whether this positioning was intentional, and evidence from this far back is sparse. However, the beliefs and rituals of the sun cult from the Early Dynastic Period onwards are well documented. The Egyptians developed an official religion during the Old Kingdom, and it was during this period that the solar cult reached its zenith. The cult was at the centre of a highly organised state, and at the centre was the king who exercised total control over nation and people.
The king identified himself with one of the earliest manifestations of the sun god, Horus, and on accession he assumed a throne or “Horus” name to identify him with the god. Soon afterwards he would start to build his funerary complex that would ensure his existence in the afterlife as companion to the gods as they sailed in their heavenly boat across the sky. This developed over the course of the Old Kingdom from a simple shaft topped with a mastaba (platform bench) structure to the Step Pyramid engineered by Imhotep, and finally to the smooth sided pyramids, of which the Great Pyramid of Giza was the most perfectly proportioned.
The reign of King Djoser, owner of the Step Pyramid, seems to have lasted for three decades, giving him ample time to enlarge his burial place from an initial simple mastaba until it reached its final form, the familiar contours of the Step Pyramid. The length of Djoser’s reign gave him time not only to aggrandise his final resting place, but also to reach an age that was fairly advanced for the era in which he lived. And for a king revered as a robust and vigorous leader, ageing might present a problem.
We are still unravelling the mystery of what it meant to be king in the days when he was a demigod. In August 2011, a body was found in a bog in Ireland which experts concluded was associated with the ritual sacrifice of a king between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. It had long been suggested that the early Celts replaced their kings after a number of years, with the old king being sacrificed and a new one chosen. The explanation is that as a representative of the solar deity, the king was married to the land, and as with the annual solar cycle — the waxing and waning power of the sun — the goddess would periodically require a new consort to restore her vigour and fertility.
So far as I know there is no evidence to date to verify the conjecture that North African solar worshippers shared a similar ritual. In developed societies such as existed in dynastic Egypt, where the ruler customarily held sway over an albeit powerful priesthood, kings had no desire to be replaced by a younger version of themselves. In order to circumvent the conundrum, the priests devised a festival during which the king’s regeneration was re-enacted at a special ceremony. This ceremony was called the Sed, or Heb Sed.
The Sed festival was held on the 30th anniversary of the king’s accession, and every three (or occasionally four) years thereafter. Several rulers reigned long enough to hold at least one Sed festival during the 3,500 years of ancient Egyptian history. The tomb of King Den of the First Dynasty provides the first evidence of the ceremony, and the custom continued for successive kings and Pharaohs well into the Late Period. Among them were Djoser (Third Dynasty); Pepi I (Sixth Dynasty); Amenhopis III (18th Dynasty); Ramses II (19th Dynasty); and several kings of the Libyan dynasty.
The layout of Djoser’s huge Heb Sed court at Saqqara has provided much information about how the ceremony was conducted. It involved a good deal of youthful walking about, with the king, wearing a wolf’s tail in honour of the wolf god Sed, being re-crowned twice: with the red crown at one end of the court and the white crown at the other. Lavish festivities were put on to highlight the splendour of the king and entertain his subjects.
Have such ancient ritual festivals died out? Probably not. Earlier this year one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs, Queen Elizabeth II, marked the 60th year of her reign with her Diamond Jubilee. It was the third jubilee of her reign, the earlier ones being held on the 25th (Silver) and 50th (Gold) years. Fortunately Queen Elizabeth was not expected to wear a wolf’s tail, or indeed walk very far (although she may have managed a helicopter jump). But who would have thought that her Jubilee may have had its origins in a solar deity, and the early sacrifice of the sun’s representative on earth?