An Archeology of Ideas
Just before Christmas, some friends and I visited the Brooklyn Museum’s “Egyptian Fragments” exhibit. The one teeny room of stone foots and hands, etc. was underwhelming, but the main Egyptian rooms were fascinating, as always, and small enough that we could pay extended attention to individual pieces.
One display case fascinated me, particularly a small note at the bottom of the case. It mentioned that the ancient Egyptians believed the sun had three different forms or aspects: the rising sun, the sun at noon, and the setting sun. This seemed a striking idea, at first, since most of us think of the sun as one interplanetary object at all times, even when we can’t see it at night. It pleased me, though, as an example of the power of names and words and how they can shape perception.
Apparently, Egyptians associated the rising sun with Khepri, a god linked to the scarab (a dung and carrion beetle). Since scarabs appeared to the Egyptians to breed from the dung and offal they fed on, the word “khepri,” also means “to come into being.” Hence, you can see how the Egyptians might have associated it with the rising sun.
Ra-Horakhty is the sun at its zenith, at noon. It is also the name of a god, combined with an epithet that means something like “Ra (who is) Horus of the Horizons.” Ra and Horus were two of Egypt’s most revered gods, and Ra was a sun god. So, to be a Horus as far as the eye could see was to be supreme like the sun at the top of the sky in the middle of the day. In Egypt, so close to the Equator, the sun really is very close to the center of the sky at noon. Thus, Ra-Horakhty was the sun at a moment of both spatial and temporal fullness.
The setting sun was represented by another sun god, Atum, who eventually merged with both Ra and Amun to become a sort of tripartite solar divinity. Atum’s name apparently derives from the word ‘tem’, which means to complete or finish, hence his association with the sun at the day’s end.
Of course, we have the words “dawn,” “morning,” “sunrise,” “noon,” “mid-day,” “sunset,” and “evening” in English. They convey our sense of three cardinal points in the transit of the sun each day. But they seem broader and vaguer than the Egyptian terms. Except for “sunset” and “sunrise,” they don’t refer to the sun directly. Even these latter two terms convey more about the sun’s position in space and time than something physically or spiritually distinct about the star in each of these moments. (Of course, the words “morning” and “dawn,” especially, convey an emotional charge in English, too.)
Maybe the Egyptians’ anthropomorphic naming of the sun in its three primary daily manifestations stirred me a little. It felt poetic and slightly spooky. It wouldn’t do to make too much of my museum epiphany—or exaggerate the notion that the ancient Egyptians thought of the sun as three truly separate entities at morning, noon, and evening. Still, I felt I had stumbled across something as antique and foreign as the ibis and crocodile mummies we’d seen in another room, the canopic alabaster jars that held embalmed human organs, or the u-shaped ceramic or wooden “pillows” Egyptians used when they rested or slept.
There can be an archaeology of ideas, in other words, as revelatory as any unearthed tomb in the Valley of the Kings.