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Playing Dice With The Universe

The Heretics of the United Temple of Egypt

by Bill Kte'pi
Jan 03,2005


Playing Dice With The Universe

The Heretics of the United Temple of Egypt

Happy New Year! I want to do a few columns on the idea of heresy, which provides a lot of gameable material but doesn't seem to be used much -- I'm not sure yet how many columns it'll turn out to be, nor how many of them will be in a row. You won't need to click back to refresh your memory, though.

This month, I'll briefly explain what heresy is and provide an example of a polytheistic orthodoxy -- just a sketch, something that could be expanded for a fantasy game -- along with some of the heresies formulated around it.

What Heresy Is

Some quick definitions

Heresy. A religious position, belief, interpretation, or practice determined to be contrary to the orthodox position.

Heretic. One who adheres to a heresy.

Orthodox. In accordance to what is accepted or authoritatively established. (Not to be confused with Orthodox in the sense of the Orthodox churches or Orthodox Judaism, any more than catholic -- "universal" -- means Catholic.)

Orthodoxy. A religious institution which, in addition to its other duties and functions, differentiates between correct and incorrect interpretations of religious material, i.e. between heretical and orthodox ideas. This isn't the most common usage of the word, but I'm relying on it as a more generic term than "Church."

The idea of "heresy," of "heretics," is frequently associated with Christianity, which makes sense: the Catholic Church is the largest organized orthodoxy in history, and the word "heretic" was coined by Irenaeus to describe his opponents in the early Church. But the concept is much more widely applicable, and requires only an orthodoxy -- a system of prescribed belief, with an authority who decides what is right and what is wrong -- and at least one person who disagrees with it. This person must still consider himself a member of the religion in question -- a Muslim is not a heretic in the Catholic Church's eyes, nor is an atheist. It's not enough for the orthodoxy to think you're wrong, in other words: just as the Supreme Court only concerns itself with American law, because only American laws are governed by the U.S. Constitution, so does the hypothetical orthodoxy apply the term "heresy" only to those who still maintain their claims to "citizenship."

It's important to remember that difference between "outsiders" and "wrong-headed insiders," so to speak. Part of the concern with heresy essentially comes down to ... trademark protection, in a sense. A Christian orthodoxy has traditionally been concerned with heretics because they present a take on Christianity which the orthodox believes is not simply false, but false enough to significantly misrepresent them; orthodoxies concerned with heresy generally have to be very large (Christianity, which spread to a number of disparate areas long before it had a centralized authority; Judaism, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of a seat of power; etc).

Most Christian heresies were defined very quickly, with later heretics being accused of adhering to those older heresies (deliberately or coincidentally): because the Trinity, in particular, is such a complex topic, a number of heresies were defined (or "identified," if you prefer) which dealt with it, as they came up. Imagine a teacher explaining a difficult concept to a class -- kids raise their hands, and say, "So you mean Jesus was purely divine?" "Nope," says the teacher. "Sorry, that's heresy." "Okay," says another kid, "So he was purely human?" "Nuh-uh," says the teacher. "That's heresy too." You work your way down the line like that, and by defining what Jesus wasn't -- what the Trinity wasn't -- what Christianity wasn't -- orthodox belief was refined, more clearly delineated.

Keeping with the Christianity example -- don't worry, we'll move away from it soon -- one of the reasons there's been so much "opportunity" for heresy in Christianity is because the Bible doesn't cover everything. The early orthodoxy needed the Church as an adjudicator -- the relationship between the Constitution and the Supreme Court comes to mind again, except the Supreme Court is somewhat more limited (when the Constitution is silent, the Court is essentially silent; when the Bible is silent, the Church often finds it must speak).

Even prescriptive belief -- dogma, although the term has taken on a negative connotation it doesn't need to have -- allows for a certain range of interpretation, which is why clergy members in an orthodoxy can still debate issues -- not every question has been answered, and new questions will always arise. Since heresies are always defined as such by the orthodoxy -- in other words, no one (except members of goth bands) gets up in the morning and says, "Today, I'm going to formulate a heresy" -- they tend to focus on issues critical to the religion's core beliefs. Adoptionism, for instance, is the belief that Jesus was not born divine (and by extension, would discard the virgin birth and the immaculate conception of Mary) but became divine when he was adopted by God during his baptism. Arianism painted Christ and God as two separate divine beings, the former created by the latter and the two of them together creating the Holy Spirit. Like many Christian heresies, these are essentially christological: they address the nature of Christ, the relationship of Jesus to God, and were part of important arguments about how early Christianity related to older Jewish belief.

So just to point it out again: the bulk of heretics don't want to be "heretics." They consider themselves simply members of their religion -- they may object to the leadership of their religion, or they may not; they may keep their heretical notions secret, or they may practice them openly and accept being kept outside of the orthodox community. But rarely does a heretical movement begin with the desire to leave the orthodoxy.

(Although there is a popular conception of heretics being executed, burned at the stake, etc., this is neither an automatic response to heresy nor the Catholic Church's most common response.)

Heresy and Orthodoxy: the Unified Temple of Egypt

When I was getting my Master's degree in ancient history, my mentor was an Egyptologist, so I know better than to try to say anything definitive -- or even confident -- about ancient Egyptian religion. The specifics of gods and practices and how the various gods related -- or overlapped -- or took precedence over one another -- or were combined -- varied tremendously by time and place, and the Egyptian way of thinking about religion was so drastically different from any modern western worldview that understanding it is a course of study all itself.

So this stuff we're doing here, there's no claim to historicism in the slightest, not even an attempt to be faithful to the source material; that's beyond our scope and my ability. I'm just going to use a bunch of Egyptian gods and put them together in the pantheon revered by an Egyptian-inspired civilization in a hypothetical fantasy game. If you happen to be an Egyptologist yourself, and are bothered by my use of the names, just replace them with "Ted," "Fred," "Ed," "Ned," "Jacob," "Patty," and "Wolverine."

The pantheon has nearly one hundred gods, if you include minor local deities rarely known by name outside their region of origin: the UTE has no objection to their worship provided it doesn't detract from the proper reverence at national ceremonies and rituals. Only in the oldest settlements do local deities have temples or other large structures devoted to them, and even this is uncommon except in the far-flung or (relatively) recently acquired holdings of the empire: most of the national deities were local gods once, or have incorporated local gods. Other local gods are worshipped in the home, or on special occasions set aside for such.

When friction occurs between the local and national levels, it's usually because a group of worshippers has ascribed to a local deity powers which are meant to be held by a greater god in the pantheon -- these problems are nearly always solved bloodlessly, with the locals acknowledging that Ra is the Lord of the Sun, and their god merely carries the flame to it in the morning -- or with the UTE proclaiming that the local god is Ra being ignorantly worshipped under another name, at which point the locals continue with their ceremonies as they've always done, but change the name of the god those ceremonies are directed to. (In many cases, a hyphenated amalgam has been permitted -- Ra-Tep, let's say, where "Tep" was formerly worshipped as a deity in his own right and is now used to refer to a specific aspect or function of Ra.)

At the time when we're taking our "core sample" of this culture, the United Temple of Egypt has existed under that name for about four centuries, although it portrays itself as an eternal institution which traces its roots back to the days of prehistory, through the Temple of Ra. It has no single, binding holy text, no analogue to the Koran, the Tanakh, the Bible -- and most of its disparate holy texts are unavailable to common scribes, even common priests. Instead, temple priests in Thebes maintain a scroll library, the organization of which is almost puzzle-like in its esotericity, and possess a vast oral tradition in the form of hymns and rituals both secret and public.

The head priest of Egypt is served by the chief priests of Thebes, who vary in number according to the whims both of the head priest and the pharaoh -- who is revered as a god upon his succession to the throne, and who has the power to appoint or replace the head priest but often deigns to allow the priest to name his own successor.

In addition to the reverence of the pharaoh -- the theological implication of which is generally not very complicated except when the pharaoh chooses to become involved in religious affairs or opposes the priesthood -- the following are the principal gods worshipped by the UTE:

Ptah. The creator of the universe and of many of the gods, Ptah's role is largely silent. He is, after all, a creator -- not an intercessor. Although the UTE will quickly agree that Ptah is the most significant of the divine beings, Ra is nevertheless seen as the king of gods, and most religious activity reflects this. Ptah is worshipped directly by many craftsmen, especially those who work with stone, and he is popular among the more esoteric theologians whose religious attention is directed more at philosophizing and mystical experiences than community rituals.

Ra is the sun-god. He's the king of the gods, and as the sun provides the energy which makes life possible: while Ptah created the universe, Ra gave it being and animation. Sometimes Ra is spoken of as being the sun; other times, the sun is simply his eye; in some parts of the country, only the setting sun is Ra. He has long been conflated with the god Atum: but while Atum was created by Ptah (and created the divine couple Shu and Tefnut in turn from his own semen), Ra created himself.

Thoth and Khensu have been similarly conflated into one god, the god of the moon, magic, mathematics, time, writing, and other mystical or quasi-mystical pursuits. Under one name or the other, Thoth-Khensu is invoked in nearly every divination -- as well as in prayers for secrecy and stealth. He is sometimes believed to favor intrigue and deception -- in other portrayals, his is the light which prevents total darkness from encompassing the earth, the light which combats the darkness of lies.

Hathor is, in day to day worship, the most significant of the goddesses -- not only because she is one of several fertility goddesses (the strict-minded will point out that each fertility goddess governs fertility in a different context -- among young married couples, among older women near the end of their conceiving years, among animals, among families in need of an heir, and so on), but because she once left Egypt because of an argument with Ra, and Thoth had to convince her to return. (This can be read as a drought or famine, of course: fertility abandoned the land because of an "argument" with the sun. The moon coaxing it back could be a reference to the passage of time -- perhaps the famine was a particularly taxing month, or a lunar year; or perhaps it is not Thoth's lunar aspect that is important here, but his mystical one, or his association with abstract knowledge.) Hathor's eminence is a reminder to many women of the power they possess even if it is not accorded to them. As Hathor is both daughter and wife to Ra, her worshippers need fear neither father nor husband.

Osiris, on the other hand, is a distinctly male fertility deity whose association with the harvest and the cycle of life and death is shown not by his ability to conceive life but by his death and rebirth, which echo in the annual flooding of the Nile.

Seth is the god who killed Osiris: as the god of war, strength, deserts, and -- as odd as it may sound -- foreigners, he is a god feared more than worshipped, appeased more than revered. He is, in essence, responsible for most of the things which threaten the Egyptian state from without.

Hermanubis is the son of Seth, a jackal-headed god who governed the lands of the dead before Osiris usurped his position; today, he is merely the gatekeeper of the underworld, while Osiris actually judges the souls of dead men. Worship of Hermanubis -- who was once called simply Anubis, before being combined with the Greek god Hermes -- is popular, and its traditions are very old; some ancient hymns associate him, oddly, with the eye of Horus.

Horus, though, is the son of Osiris, who in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth is raised by Isis in secret and attempts to kill Seth, to avenge his father. He presides over law, justice, and civic order, and his cult is constantly on the verge of becoming too powerful for the priests of Thebes to control.

We could go on and on; ask any ten Egyptians of different social class and upbringing who the most important gods are -- even excluding local deities -- and you'll get ten different lists. These eight have enough interrelations, and preside over basic enough functions and concepts, that we can talk about them pretty well. We've got enough here to talk about heresies in light of the sketch we've put together of the United Temple of Egypt.

Well, the sketch I put together, anyway. You pretty much just sat there.

So, first: remember that heresy is defined by an orthodoxy, a religious authority, usually centralized. In this case, the UTE is based in Thebes (although Heliopolis, Memphis, and Akhetaten have all been power bases at one time or another as well, for one reason or another). The UTE has developed -- somewhat deliberately, somewhat reactively -- as a way to "nationalize" local religion, to take similar local practices and tie them together into part of the national -- and imperial -- myth, so that people will identify as Egyptians rather than simply Thebans, Memphans, and so on. No priest would be likely to phrase the Temple's goals this way; but these are the unstated practical concerns which are the foundation to a theological "we are right and you are not" argument.

The UTE needs to maintain orthodoxy because it has already "collected" into its pantheon a large assortment of gods whose stories are not necessarily fully compatible. Without the decision to proclaim one god an aspect of another, or to divide portfolios into pie slices, there would be a large handful of sun gods, multiple moon gods, and more fertility gods than you could shake a rabbit's foot at.

Think of the UTE as a force applying pressure to keep these gods in the "shape" to which they've been assigned -- picture the gods as being like those cool and extremely expensive pillows I saw at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, the ones that retain your handprint for a second after you let go, but then go back to their regular shape. If the church releases its force -- applied through the structures of orthodoxy -- the gods will revert back to their original, pre-unified shape.

This Egypt is an imperial Egypt. This is an Egypt that hasn't been -- or won't be -- absorbed by Rome, one that held its own against Greece, one that controls an enormous amount of land when measured against the difficult of travel and communication. They've absorbed many of the Sea Peoples, the Hittites and Mitanni are absorbed into empire or vassalage, the Hyksos aren't a problem anymore -- this is a big Egypt, and it needs to be managed accordingly.

At the same time, within that Egypt, it's a church that's subject to the will and whim of its pharaoh, who is not always a man of theological sophistication. One pharaoh may decide that more festivals need to be held to honor Horus, because he saw a falcon and took it as an omen. Another may stare at the sun until his retina is damaged, and proclaim Ra a necessary evil at best. And so on, and so forth. "Separation of church and state" is a nonsense phrase, as much as "separation of Ra and sun" is. There may be differing feelings as to their relationship and primacy, but separation isn't merely impossible, it's inconceivable.

So those heresies. Let's make a few up.

Okay, I'll make them up. You sit there.

Atenism. This is a real-world one, sort of; I'm not sure I would quite call real-world Atenism heresy, but it's probably the best-known example of the Egyptian equivalent. A couple hundred years ago (game time), the pharaoh Amenhotep IV underwent a severe religious conversion -- and no one knows why. He abandoned the worship of all the previous Egyptian gods, changed his name to Akhenaten, and worshipped the disk of the sun.

Aten wasn't simply a replacement for or synthesis of Ra or other sun deities: Aten was the actual, physical, disk of the sun, the physical sun. He had no human or animal form; he created nothing except his light, and engaged in no anthropomorphic activity (if Aten were to show up on an episode of Xena, he'd be played by a floodlight). You could argue that he didn't even think -- that he wasn't sentient, wasn't self-aware. Like Pooh, Aten just is.

The problem here -- and the reason why Akhenaten and his successors who upheld his beliefs were removed from many records, their names viciously rubbed off of stone and their images defaced -- is that Atenism is a monotheistic or monolatrist faith. (Monotheism believes only one god exists; monolatrism says more than one god might exist, but only one may be worshipped. Much of the Tanakh -- the Old Testament -- was written by, or tells the story of, monolatrists in a polytheistic society; true monotheists like Isaiah and Josiah enter the scene late in the game. Akhenaten was probably a monolatrist -- the History Channel likes to credit him with "inventing" monotheism and inspiring the Jews to reinvent his wheel, but they're oversimplifying the religion and getting the history flat-out wrong.)

Atenists are officially stamped out now -- the religion never took off, really, and survived only because of the power of the pharaoh and the devotion of Akhenaten -- but in our mythical setting here, they pop up occasionally anyway. Maybe Akhenaten established a secret society of Atenist wizards; maybe there are powers that can be acquired only by appealing directly to the sun itself, bypassing the gods who claim to rule it; maybe Atenism keeps coming back because it's right.

Whatever the case, the threat is clear: Atenists say that other gods are false, and that their worship is criminal, blasphemous. When Atenists were in power, they shifted the balance of power in Egypt: Thebes lost its influence entirely for a couple generations, and it doesn't want to see that happen again.

Now, arguably Atenists are no more heretics to the Thebans than Muslims are heretics to the Catholic Church: they're wrong, according to the official line, but they're not making any claims to membership either, it would seem. But it seemed like a good idea to start with them, what with them being real and all.

The Horus heresy, on the other hand? Totally made up. Every time the Horus heresy raises its head, the UTE claims it's a brand new blasphemy, evidence that modern man has drifted from the gods -- but it's been coming and going in waves since the UTE was just the Temple at Thebes. The Horusites conflate Horus with Ptah, or reject Ptah altogether as a foreign god with no place in Egyptian worship, and place Horus at the top of the tier: Ra remains "king of the gods," but only because Horus is above such considerations.

This Horus has the sun and moon for eyes, placing Ra and Thoth-Khensu at his immediate disposal. He isn't the son of Osiris -- but the human form he inhabits was born of the dead body of Osiris, whom Horus loved as a man loves a dear pet or a child, and Isis. Horus caused himself to be born in order to avenge Osiris and defeat death by killing Seth, whom Horusites claim has long since been destroyed.

With Ra and Thoth-Khensu incorporated into him, Horus is the possessor of all knowledge and time -- all other gods are a significant step below him.

The threat to the orthodoxy? On the one hand, the Horusite scheme of things could serve just as well, if the Theban priests could retain their power. On the other, Horus is the patron god of the pharaohs -- and the balance of power between the priesthood and the divine pharaoh is preserved in part by the priests' access to great and powerful gods. Elevating Horus above the other gods elevates the pharaoh's divine access above the priests' -- encouraging another kind of monolatrism, one that could make the priesthood irrelevant. If the Horusites became the state religion, after all, how many generations would it take before the pharaoh and Horus became conflated, and the monarch became the living god above all gods?

This wouldn't just threaten the priests -- it would make the empire unwieldy. Just as the spread of Catholicism depended on the creation of saints -- locally controlled "points of access" to God -- and the willingness of missionaries to "explain" to the natives that their gods are really Catholic saints or mistaken impressions of prophets -- in other words, to convince them that they were already compatible with Christianity -- so too with Egypt. New peoples, new tribes, new nations, are incorporated into the Egyptian empire by having their gods folded into the Egyptian religion. A Horusite-pharaonic faith, in which other gods were all but powerless or at least drastically out of balance, would make this far more difficult.

The Sethite-Osirans don't reconfigure the whole scheme of the pantheon. They accept the cosmology as the Thebans tell it. But they draw completely different conclusions from it. Developing out of local rituals focused on the Osiris cycle, the Sethite-Osirans have also retained the ancient reverence of Seth as a force of change -- like the storms that bring rain necessary for healthy crops. Once every great while -- more than a generation, less than a lifetime, but no one outside the cult seems positive what the length of time is, and there is likely some variable involved ("after the eleventh year of plenty," or "the second time the Pharaoh's firstborn is a daughter," that kind of thing) -- the Sethite-Osirans believe their local ruler must be killed by a priest assuming Seth's role, even as the ruler assumes Osiris's.

The ruler thus dies so that he may pass on to the underworld and govern the dead men who preceded him there, while his predecessor -- literally, the ruler who was ritually slain before him -- leaves the underworld to be reborn as the next ruler who will be slain. The period is long enough that not every ruler will face such death: there must be time for reincarnation to do its work.

Sethite-Osiranism has pockets of popularity all over the Empire, and is believed to be practiced in secret in some places where there is a history of governors dying violently. The threat to the orthodoxy here is simply that if this belief spread and became dominant, it would naturally extend to a need for a ritual killing of the pharaoh. It also bears too much in common with what the Theban priests view as the primitive religions that preceded their reign.

The Hermetics are found mainly in urban centers, and among the educated classes in recently acquired lands. Just as Hermanubis is an amalgam of an Egyptian god with a Greek one, the Hermetics look to the rest of the Greek pantheon and legendry in an attempt to amplify their understanding of their own religion. Ra becomes Zeus; Isis, Aphrodite; and so on.

The problem here is the integrity of Egyptian culture. Greek and Greco-Roman culture are too large, too sophisticated, too credible a rival, to be absorbed: picking and choosing a few bits here and there works, but to swallow the whole hippo would change the shape of the snake. Hermetics are dangerously Grecophile: they would be a concern if Greece or Rome were to go to war with Egypt, or to vie for its territories, and the more they introduce northern ideas, the more they will dilute Egyptian identity. One of the needs of Empire is to remain the imprinter, not the imprinted: the stamp may bring some metal back with it, but this is trivial compared to the impression it makes on the coin.

Akhists accept everything the UTE says about the gods -- where they differ is in their view of the soul. In the UTE's framework, "life after death" is possible only in two ways: existence as the ka, the spiritual soul which travels to the underworld upon death; and reunion of the ka with the ba, the physical shell left behind and (in the case of pharaohs and a small number of elites) preserved by mummification. The dead are thus subject to the rulers of the underworld, just as the living are subject to the rulers of the world.

According to the akhists, though, upon death the ka becomes the akh -- a spiritual entity which is conscious of itself but is also part of a continuum of human, animal, and divine akhs which dwell among the stars.

Akhist practice differs little from ordinary religious practice, making them hard to identify compared to the other heresies we've mentioned, but the threat they present is that if souls don't travel to the underworld to be judged, the influence of the church exists only on this world -- and they'd rather not limit themselves that way.

Others. I've concentrated here on heresies that present a clear threat to the orthodoxy, but there would be others, too, dozens of them -- some would retain old regional traditions and prioritize gods differently than the Temple does, or consider Ra Horus's father instead of Osiris, or claim Anubis is female or hermaphroditic. Cults of dead pharaohs would persist (and when these were politically dangerous, they would be eliminated). The Temple would single out the threatening ones first -- it wouldn't hesitate to label as heretical the others, it just might not bother taking action unless the number of heretics began to grow. (Again, trademark protection: you can't let it get to the point where 10 people are holding up the orthodox position and 1000 are holding one heretical notion or another, or the orthodox position isn't really orthodox anymore.)

In the future, we'll talk about different ways orthodoxies respond to heresies.

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