Three Are All Gods: A Study of Egyptian Theology in the New Kingdom

Cult statue of Amun-Re from the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak.

Amun, the hidden one, Re, the sun, together these two divine forces came to dominate Egyptian theology. Though Amun’s rise to power had its roots in the political preeminence of Thebes during the New Kingdom, his widespread acceptance and his amalgamation with Re does much to illuminate the nature of Egyptian theology. Many early Egyptologists believed that the “union with Rē did Amūn an injury, for as a result not much survives of his original nature […] and on the whole Amunrē is actually nothing more than the old powerful sun-god”.  However, as will be shown, this “union” was not complete. Amun did not eclipse Re, as can be seen in many New Kingdom prayers. Amun, Re, and Amun-re were still invoked as semi-independent entities sharing the same overarching domain of existence. Ultimately, it is best to view the god Amun-re as representative of a number of different facets of the divine life in Egypt, wedded together by Ptah, the force of creativity. For as the New Kingdom’s Poems on Thebes and its God states: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah—and there is none like them. Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah is his body […] Only he is: Amūn and Rē and Ptah, together three”.

Before an in-depth analysis of the role of Amun or Re can be attempted it is necessary to point out the massive age of Ancient Egyptian culture. It spans more than five millennia from the pre-dynastic period around 5500 BCE to the era of Roman rule in 395 CE. As such, when studying the theology of Egypt it must be remembered that the natures of the Egyptian deities were not immutable. Local deities would rise and fall, become associated with outside equivalencies during times of trade, or take on new meanings as Egyptian religion developed.

Claude Traunecker, in his text The Gods of Egypt, proposes that “[t]o attribute a name to a deity was to isolate, recognize, and define a force”. As such we see a multiplicity of equivalent names for similar gods arise in Egypt, or many names for the many facets of individual gods. In Traunecker’s account a single domain of power could be represented in many gods, according to the location of the specific cult. For example: “according to the cult place, the anonymous destructive goddess became Nekhbet, Isis, Anukis, Meret, and so forth”. Likewise we see a plurality of Names given to Re according to his various manifestations, as one source reads: “Many are (your) names, sacred are (your) kheperu [manifest]-transformations”. Indeed, even before his merging with Amun, “He [was] Kepri in the morning, Re at midday, and Atum in the evening”.

This multiplicity of titles served many purposes. A number of common names known by all were used for mediation with the divine realm. Thus one name of Re was used to counteract the effects of venom because of an associated myth with Re and a serpent. However, there were other names, concentrated in the priesthood, which expressed the overarching might of a deity. These names were considered to be “unpronounceable, for [they were] beyond linguistic reality”. Here it is important to note one of the early key differences between Re and Amun. While Re’s secret name was known, won by the goddess Isis, Amun’s secret name is unknown by any of the gods, as he is unfathomable even to them.

Another result of the multiplicity of titles was the combination of deities depending upon the functions they represented. Re-Atum, Khnum-Re, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris are some examples of these divine amalgamations. It is important to note that these unions did not eradicate the previous identity of the component deities. As David Silverman states in The Ancient Gods Speak: “in these divine links, one god was combined with another, or became an extension of another, and the elements of each would become unified in the composite without the loss of their original identity”. Thus we can see the theological background that made the union between Amun and Re possible. However, before one can look into the seemingly paradoxical union of Amun and Re, it is first necessary to look into the functions and histories of the two gods.

Re was the oldest of the preeminent sun gods of Egypt, and until his amalgamation with Amun he was considered the god of gods. For the ancient Egyptians “[t]he rising sun was the symbol for the creation of the world, and the daily course of the sun the symbol of the world’s cyclical renewal; hence the paramount importance of Re as creator and master of life”. This preeminence was both political and spiritual as the pharaoh and Re were said not only to be of similar natures but rather the pharaoh was seen as the son of Re, and thus represented the overarching will of the divine order.

A fundamental quality of Re was his revealing nature, this is displayed repeatedly in prayers from the New Kingdom:  “He causeth all eyes to open”, “he who illumineth the Two Lands”, “Lord of rays, who createth light”, and so forth. Being a sun deity this is not surprising; however, one is missing a great deal of Re’s importance if he is seen merely as a lord of light. This is revealed in his relationship to Maat, for he is Re who “lives on Maat”. This is a strange characteristic if Re is only seen as a fundamentally physical deity, the sun; rather, it only makes sense if Re’s illumination is seen as more than his physical emanation and rather as a more omnipresent revelation of existence.

As has been mentioned above, Re had a plurality of forms and names that corresponded to the different cycles of the sun. The primacy of this pattern is substantial, for not only did the movement of the sun dictate the passage of time, but it also ensured the entire cyclical order of the universe. This is why “Re’s closest ally is Maat, the embodiment of order and truth; [for] she represents the unimpeachable principle of his rule”.

Amun’s history is harder to characterize. He began his existence as a Theban wind god. However, his hidden nature and the political role of his priests allowed him to supplant the original patron of Thebes, Montu the war god. Traces of his airy origins can still be seen in the New Kingdom prayers. Amun is described as: “a sweet breeze to him that calleth upon him”, “[a] wind that turneth back the adverse blast”, “[t]he wind hath turned about to us in mercy, and Amun hath turned with (?) his wind” and he comes “with the sweet wind before him”.

From his unseen nature as a wind god it is not surprising that Amun later manifested himself as a force of the unknown, particularly to the sight worshiping Egyptians. He would later be characterized by this principle in the Hermopolitan tradition of the Middle Kingdom. During this time period in Thebes there were thought to be negative forces underlying those of creation, and they were represented by four sets of deities of which Amun and his consort where a pair. “These four entities are actually non-presences constituting a sort of negative description of the real. […] Amun, the ‘hidden one’ or the ‘unknown,’ is the converse of that which is visible or knowable—in sum, that which peoples and fills the world. As will be seen, this ineffable quality had its focus both changed and strengthened by his eventually amalgamation with Re.

The amalgamation of the two deities into Amun-Re took place sometime during the New Kingdom when Egypt was rising to the height of its empire. Once again, many historians posit a political motivation for the union, for as Thebes became the most with the god of gods. From this Amun appears to have adopted all the creative potential of Re; however, even before the merger he had been attributed these qualities by the Theban priests.

By studying the prayers of the New Kingdom it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of the transformation that occurred when Amun became associated with Re, and how their combination assumed its own separate properties. It is interesting to note that despite the unifications of the two, they are still mentioned both separately and together, and that all three of these, Amun, Re, and Amun-Re are vested and invoked with particular properties in mind. Re maintains his old status, being represented as a god of the sun, truth, and what is, whereas Amun seems to have taken on the portfolio of the ultimate unknown in relation to Re, that is, as master of the future, potentiality, and fate. In contrast, Amun-Re is often invoked primarily as the divine lord, the god of gods, and is more associated with royalty and political authority.

Throughout the prayers of the New Kingdom, Re maintained his role as both the sun, and the lord and creator of the knowable world. It is Re who is called upon by people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In this aspect he is “a lord in whom men may make their boast […] that preseideth over the Court of Law, that establish Truth and assail Iniquity”. Furthermore, it is important to note that “unlike other deities, Re never has a sanctuary with a cult statue; his image is the sun itself”. The symbolism of Re is consistent throughout this age. He is an almost omnipresent god that makes things live and his icon is itself the life giving sun.

One prayer to Re, however, does much to shine light on his nature as a god of not merely the knowable, but of all that is in actuality, as opposed to the potentiality of Amun. The prayer states that: “thou [Re] art he that doeth, and there is none save thee that doeth aught. Only thou it is that doeth anything”. There is a comment here by the translator that all others only help in words, yet this is seemingly contradictory to the whole spirit of Egyptian thought, for words were a powerful form of action. Rather, it is fruitful to see this as further evidence of Re’s role in the present as an active principle. Furthermore, it is said that “[Amun] appeared as Re in Nun [the disordered pre-mass of creation], and fashioned that which is and that which is not”. Once more, the connection between the two gods is emphasized, yet Amun seems to have taken on a primary role. It was he who appeared as Re, not Re as Amun, for he is a god not seen in his actual form by any, but only in what emerges from him. This passage both serves to establish Re as the lord of that which is and that which is not, and demonstrate Amun’s potential nature, for before there was anything, there was a possibility, and from that possibility emerges the knowable world. Amun, the unknown, unknowable, yet necessary pre-father of existence came before Ra. For as one New Kingdom prayer states: “the lotus of Re emerged, and light burst forth after the darkness in its name of Amun”.

Re’s role as a lord of what is present, or what is, is in contrast to that of the Amun of the New Kingdom. One text reads of him that:  “Fate and the Harvest goddess are with him for all people”, while Ramses II in an account of his victory over the Khatti, laments: “I have come hither by reason of the counsel of thy mouth, O Amun”. These prayers, directly dedicated to Amun rather than Amun-Re, almost exclusively address the concepts of futurity and fate. As one commentator notes: “Theologians of the Ramesside Period imagined that Amun existed in a sort of transcendent time: ‘You have announced what will happen in the future, in millions of years, for eternity is before you like yesterday which has passed’”.

The same commentator goes on to say of Amun that: “This is a god who is distanced from his creation, exterior to the world and thus transcendent, unknowable, without a cult, and unapproachable”. However, there is a contradiction here in his later analysis. After stating this he goes on to discuss how the Pharaohs and priests of the New Kingdom utilized oracles and even spoke to Amun directly to decide future courses of action. After the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV heard of an uprising in Nubia he “went immediately to the holy of holies to consult Amun. After this tête-à-tête with the god, he proclaimed the decision that had been made”. Thus there was a connection between the ineffable nature of the god and mortals that appears to have expressed itself through oracles. These oracles were always about things to come, and rarely about things that were, which belonged to the realm of Re.

In the New Kingdom prayers Amun-Re is predominantly invoked by name in his royal guise as ruler of all: “Heaven, Thebes, Heliopolis, and the Nether World, their inhabitants rejoice over their lord[…] Though triumphest, O Amunrē!”. Amun-Re is often identified as the Lord of Thebes, and the first to be king, and is most often invoked in hymns to royalty, such as Ramses II: “Son of Rē, who treadeth down the land of the Khatti, Ramses-Beloved-of-Amūn, given life. Beloved […] by Amūnrē, king of gods”. Overall Amun-Re was a royal deity, whose political origins were in part reflected in his divine domain as a god of kings. However, he also appears to have adopted Re’s position in maintaining Maat, for in the New Kingdom he was attributed with the daily conflict with Apep. This, if anything else, would seem to indicate that he did more to consume Re’s than Amun’s domain.

Finally, there is the relation that Amun and Re have to Ptah. In a particularly unique prayer these three deities are claimed together to be the only god. “Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah as his body”.

In the Middle Kingdom Ptah was the Memphite god of artisans and some scholars believe that he continued in this tradition into the New Kingdom as a god of creativity who expresses himself through the heart and tongue. In his role as a god of creativity he seems to have been necessary before creation itself, naturally ranking him with Amun and Re. Yet, as Claud Traunecker observes, recent research has shown that: “‘Ptah’ and ‘heart and tongue’ are not divine personages, but rather philosophical terms designating the intellectual creative process. Ptah is the name of the tool employed by the creator god. Thus […] the ‘principle of Ptah’ was preexistent”.

If this is the case then, it may be possible to look on this divine triumvirate as representing potentiality (Amun, his hidden name) actualizing (through Ptah, his body) into the actual (Re, his face). Together, according to the above prayer, these concepts seem to represent the whole of the Egyptian existence in which unknown potentiality was primary. Just as “[t]he concept of projection by forethought […] and its subsequent realization through intelligible expression were part of the daily life of artisans”, so too was the divine creative process. In this case, even though his creation may in fact have been politically driven, it is possible to see the New Kingdom’s Amun-Re as the complete artist of existence, ruling over the entire process. As he seems to have adopted the role of protecting Maat, perhaps it is wise to see him in this light. Even if Amun-Re was a politically driven deity, his theological effects upon his component parts resulted in a complex philosophical structure of existence that has yet to be fully fathomed by any age since.

Ultimately then, Amun’s merging with Re did not in fact diminish his identity, but rather involved him in a complex and integrated philosophical structure in which existence is understood in terms of the primacy of potentiality actualizing into the actual. Despite the political motivation for Amun’s rise to power, radical theological developments also emerged from his new association as Amun-Re. For his part, Amun-Re appears to have been seen as the overarching unity of the actions of Amun, Ptah and Re. If this is so then Amun-Re would be best interpreted as the primary ordering principle over and above that of the spheres of potential, actualization, and actual. It would then be easy to explain his place of power in the New Kingdom as the god of gods and the protector of Maat. This is one way to make sense of the puzzling prayer of the New Kingdom that: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah […] Only he is: Amun and Rē and Ptah, together three”. With this understanding, the world of the Egyptian gods seems to open up to new philosophical realms, particularly in the New Kingdom, realms in which the future is seen as the most unknown and awesome force. Given the nature of Ancient Egypt’s culture of preservation and focus on tradition, this is no surprise. To such a people there would be nothing more uncertain than the future, and Amun represented this uncertainty. In this regard, at least, perhaps the Ancient Egyptians were not so different from us after all.

For More Information:

Erman, Adolf. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians: Poems, Narratives, and Manuals of Instruction, From the Third and second Millennia B.C.. Trans. Aylward Blackman. London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1927.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. London: Ballantyne Press, 1925.

The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Ed. Donald Redford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Traunecker, Claude. The Gods of Egypt. Trans. David Lorton. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.


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