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Gods Who Hear Prayers; Personal Piety in Ancient Egypt

Ms. Cindy Ausec, a PhD candidate working jointly in the Near Eastern Studies Department at UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, spoke to the chapter about “Gods Who Hear Prayers; Personal Piety in Ancient Egypt”

 Ms. Ausec opened her lecture by noting that Egyptologists use various definitions of what constitutes personal piety.  Geraldine Pinch defined it as “individual’s relationship with one or more deities” while popular religion is the religion practiced by Egyptians in every day life. 

 The official temple cults in Ancient Egypt were carried out by the king who was assisted by the high priests.  One of the king’s primary functions was to propitiate the gods as a means of keeping the universe in balance. Each temple celebrated festivals as part of this process of pleasing the gods and maintaining Ma’at (truth, justice and essential harmony in the universe), and it is believed that common people were able to enter the forecourts of these temples.  The holiest precincts were open only to the king and the high priests.

 The great state temples in Ancient Egypt were constructed as places in which a particular manifestation of a god was thought to reside – his/her house.  Egypt’s populace could access the forecourt of the temples, but deeper regions of the temple were accessible only to those from among the royal or priestly sectors.  Egyptian temples were constructed with several succeeding courts and halls, each elevated slightly high than the last, and each smaller and more intimate.  Each succeeding court or sanctuary was thought to go deeper into time and closer to the realm of the gods, until the holy-of-holies was reached, where the manifestation of the god resided.  The temple represented the ‘cosmos’ with stars on the ceiling to represent the heavens, columns represented the papyrus and lotus plants of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the holy-of-holies representing the original primeval mound of creation.

 When offering scenes are found on temple walls, it is always the king who is offering to the god, for it is his responsibility to assure that Ma’at stays in balance, and chaos is kept out.  Festivals are also recorded on temple walls, and the god Min often appears in full form.  Usually, however, the god proceeds within his/her shrine, and is “unseeable” to human eyes.  The exterior walls of temples are frequently decorated with battle scenes, which were thought to help keep evil from entering.

 Local temples served a village, town or small city and were often dedicated to a local god.  Deir el-Medina is an excellent example for a number of local temples and shrines have survived.  At least 32 different cult buildings were excavated at this site, surrounding exterior walls of the main temple.  Many are no more than small shrines, with benches, perhaps for worship, or perhaps for the placement of ancestor busts.   Regardless of how they were used, we have lots of evidence for personal piety from them.  Votive stelae have been excavated from some, as well as model “hearing ears”, which can also appear on stelae, allowing ordinary people to speak directly to the god.  Votive ostraca which had been placed in some of the kings’ tombs survive. They contain messages to the gods.  The king is asked to convey the message directly to the god in question.  Penitential hymns allowed an individual to offer the hymn on behalf of himself or another, as in the case of a hymn donated by Neb-ra for his son Nakhtamun.  The son was seriously ill – “sick unto death” – because of his cow. The god was asked to heal him.  James Henry Breasted was one of the first to talk about Neb-Ra.  The penitential hymn seems to have emerged as a New Kingdom phenomena.  However, there are signs that personal piety goes as far back in Egyptian history as the Old Kingdom, per John Baines.  Personal piety is also reflected in personal names – as in Khui-wi-Ptah ‘May Ptah rescue him’. 

Patron “saints” such as the deified Pharaoh Amenhotep I, and his mother, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, were highly venerated especially at Deir el-Medina.  A supplicant was able to ask the god to decide, for example, a legal dispute.  The cult statue was brought forth from the temple by the priests and a procession allowed commoners to approach the god with their questions.  A question was posed and the priests were impelled by the god to move toward an “answer” – for example, forward if the answer was yes.  Sometimes the god was asked to identify a person or thing involved in a dispute, and the image moved in a direction which indicated guilt or innocence.

 Amun-Re is first attested delivering oracles during the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, choosing each as ruler.  When the god went forth in procession the common people were allowed to appeal directly to the deity.  The king was no longer always the intermediary.   The question arises as to whether the individual is addressing the state god or a local manifestation.  Per Ms. Ausec, there are varying opinions among Egyptologists. 

Egyptologist believe that individual people were, as noted previously, allowed into the forecourt of large state temples, and appropriate purity warnings were posted at the entrances to the more sacred areas.  A Rekhet or lapwing bird represented the common people and signaled where they could be within the temple.  Most frequently when the Rekhet are depicted in an attitude of adoration, it is of the king, vice the god.  The only known example of Rekhet revering a god’s name is at Luxor in a triple bark shrine erected by Queen Hatshepsut.

 Types of sites which were available for acts of personal piety include:

  • Images with special features, such as the inlaid eyes of an Osiris image or an image of Ptah inlaid with faience and metal;
  • Images with drill holes around the image which may have held up a veil or barrier, as can be seen with a depiction of Khonsu on the side of Ramesses II Triple Bark Shrine at Luxor;
  • Graffiti associated with a god who hears prayers, normally done by priests or individuals, as in ex-votto graffiti related to an image restored by Menkheperra;
  • Formal sites for hearing prayers, referred to a hearing ears; these are images of gods with specific titles that include “who hears prayers” as can be found in the eastern temples at Karnak or the contra-shrine at Kom Ombo.

 At Karnak Temple seated scribal statues of Amenhotep son of Hapu and Paramesses were placed by Pylon X to hear prayers for Amun (however no votive stelae have been found).  Thutmosis III and Ramses II both installed places for hearing of prayers, accessible to ordinary people.  Thutmosis III erected a temenos wall around the Amun-re temple when he enlarged it.  On the outside of the eastern side he has a solid alabaster block inserted into the wall which originally had two gods depicted (possibly Amun-Re and Amunet, we’re not sure who).  This block ensured that a supplicant could speak directly to the god, or to the king who would in turn convey the supplicants request to the god on his/her behalf.

 Also at the eastern end of Karnak Temple Bekenkhons constructed the temple of ‘Ramses-Meriamun who hears prayers”.  An individual would say his prayer to the king who would then pass the prayer to Amun-Ra.  However on the north side of the temple is an image of Amun-Re with the epithet “Amun-Re who hears prayers.”

 During the Greco/Roman period, Trajan established a hearing ear, originally with the goddess, Ma’at to hear prayers at Kom Ombo.  Kom Ombo was a temple dedicated to both Horus and Sobek, both of which also appear on the hearing ear along with a hymn to them.

 At Medinet Habu there is a hearing ear in the high gate.  The temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra and the deified Ramses III, but the god of hearing is Ptah.  We know that the high gate on the eastern side of the temple was only used during festivals.  Day-to-day entry into the temple precinct was through the western gate.  In a niche on the south side of the eastern gate is a depiction of Ptah.  He is standing in a shrine lined with metal and the figures of Ptah and Sekhmet are surrounded with drill holes for a veil or barrier around their image.  His titles make it very clear who and what he is doing there, and indicates that he hears prayers.  Ms. Ausec was particularly interested in how often and in what manner Ptah was treated in other parts of the temple and wondered if there was a pattern to the placement of his images.  Thus, she tracked all the gods in the temple, their treatment and their placement.  One of the first things she noted is a hymn to Ptah on the first pylon in which the king refers to Ptah as his father. Ramses III has copied a blessing of Ptah originally composed under Ramesses II.  She also found that Ptah receives offerings at 32 different locations throughout the temple, not just at the entrance to the 1st pylon and in a small chapel devoted to him within the temple precinct.  There are other manifestations of Ptah as well.  Ms. Ausec also found that presentations of Ptah receiving Ma’at, occurred predominately on the south side of the temple in the second court and in chapel 2 on northern side of the inner sanctuary of the temple.  Most often, Ptah is “living in the mansion” when he is also receiving Ma’at.  The presentation of Ma’at occurs everywhere in the temple, except in the forecourt, where all the scenes related to war and battles are found.  In the second court, Ptah receives Ma’at on the south side and on the north are images of Amun-Re receiving Ma’at.  Near the gate of the temple on the north is an image, mentioned as a site of popular supplication by Charles Nims, in which Amun-Ra is receiving Ma’at and three Ptah images surround him.

 Other iconography of interest at the main gate at Medinet Habu, are the Rekhet birds which flank the king’s window of appearances in adoration of the king’s name.  These images seem to be the same as those at Ramses II’s Eastern Temple – praying to the king who refers prayers. 

 “Living in the mansion” appears 49 times in the temple, 13 times associated with Ptah, and 13 times associated with Amun-Re.  Images of Ptah are clustered around areas of popular supplication.  Clearly, Ptah was important to the Ramesides.  Hearing ears here, functioned just as they did at Karnak temple.

 Personal piety in ancient Egypt was clearly an important part of the lives of most Egyptians.  The state made numerous opportunities available for ordinary people to approach the gods either directly or via the king.