That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.
Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.
This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.