Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pagans, atheists and nature worshippers

While walking through Wadi Digla with a group of friends we got to talking about pagans, and found that we were not in agreement, writes Jill Kamil

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Painted amulets dangling from a cartonnage mummy case

Wadi Digla is a dried-out river bed lying to the east of the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was declared a nature reserve some years ago, and is frequented by nature lovers and those who want to take exercise far from the madding crowd. For my group of friends it is also an opportunity to walk together to discuss matters of mutual interest.

On a recent occasion we got to talking about paganism. As an Egyptologist I naturally associate the word "pagan" with polytheism, the worship of many gods before the introduction of the divine or "revealed" religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Characteristic of pagan traditions, I presented, is the presence of a living mythology that explained natural phenomena and religious practice.

However, a friend claimed that paganism referred to atheists and agnostics. A third asked, rhetorically, what of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and the Bahaai faith, surely they are not pagan, or are they? When I pursued the conversation with others that evening, I heard the remark that the Old Testament of the Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures) contained references to pagans as those communities surrounding the Hebrews, and they included Babylonians, Canaanites, and Philistines.

In fact, everyone I spoke to seemed to have a different definition of the word "pagan", and at some gatherings, as the argument became more and more heated, I realised that while opinions differed, most of my compatriots remained convinced that their meaning of the word was the correct one. There was obviously no consensus, and, I observed, not even a "correct" definition of the word "pagan". So I decided to look it up on the Internet. There I was in for a number of surprises. "Paganism" is actually derived from the Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller, or rustic", and was a term originally used to describe the religions and spiritual practices of pre-Christian Europe; by extension, it was a term for polytheistic traditions or folk religion (like that of ancient Egypt) seen from a Western or Christian viewpoint.

Today the word pagan encompasses all of the religions of the world outside of the Abrahamic group of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And that includes Eastern and native American religions and mythologies. Ethnologists, by the way, avoid the term "paganism" in referring to traditional or historic faiths, calling them shamanism, pantheism, animism and the like. But this too is criticised as terms that refer only to aspects of different faiths, but do not denote the religions themselves.

So, what is paganism? If one tries to define it, broadly speaking, as anyone involved in any religious practice that is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and which is outside of Hinduism and Buddhism, then are pagans those without a religion -- i.e. are they atheists? Far from it. After all, in the strictest sense paganism refers to the authentic religions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome as well as surrounding areas. They originated way back in the Stone Age, and while the belief was in many gods, one was chosen to represent the chief god and supreme godhead, worthy of special worship. That supreme god was generally a nature god and kingship was associated with it.

When one wanders through the colonnades of Egyptian temples, strolls through museum galleries, stands in awe before the relief on a massive sarcophagus, or simply observes the remarkable detail of a single gold statue or illuminated papyrus, the vast number of divine images staggers the imagination. We are conscious of the vital part religion played in the life and experience of the ancient Egyptians. The capitals of columns are adorned with sculptured reliefs of Pharaohs making offerings to the ram-headed god Amun, or hawk-headed Horus. Statues and statuettes in granite, limestone and sandstone portray different deities, seated or standing, all frozen in hierarchical attitudes. They may be male or female figures with human heads, in human form surmounted by the head of an animal, or sometimes even by the muzzle of an animal, the beak of a bird, or a scorpion. These are the gods and goddesses to whom offerings were made or ritual gestures performed. But a fact that is too frequently overlooked is that the daily, monthly, and annual rituals carried out in the various temples, to various gods in different forms, were uniform. They related to natural phenomena like the rising and setting of the sun or the agricultural and solar cycles.

Every town and province in ancient Egypt had its own protective god who bore the title "Lord of the City", but whether ram or crocodile, hawk or cow, the rituals performed in every temple throughout the land were the same. The three main services at the day were solar oriented, at dawn, at mid-day when the sun was at its zenith, and at sunset. Great festivals were held on each god's "birth day", when his cult image was taken from the sanctuary and paraded before an adoring populace.

The temple, which was regarded as the house of the god, could only be entered by the king, or the high priest in his stead. Ordinary people might enter the outer part of the temple and participate in festive processions, or they could write petitions to their local deity, often leaving them beside a statue of a highly regarded ancestor placed in the forecourt, but they were not entitled to enter the holy inner chambers.

Although we know the names of the gods of ancient Egypt and can identify their attributes, we in fact understand surprisingly little of their nature and, with some exceptions, know few myths and legends concerning them. The reason is that an awareness of the roles and attributes of the gods and goddesses was handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Tales were told of their attributes and deeds, much as we recite classical fairy tales to our children today. The stories grew more complex over the centuries. Nothing was ever discarded or considered redundant. So there emerged what appears to be a mass of confusing, and sometimes contradictory, religious beliefs. In fact, a study of ancient Egyptian social history reveals that many gods, goddesses, and deities were viewed by people simply as the focal points in worship. They each represented aspects of nature, and were believed to have a spirit. Gods played an important role in every aspect of society, influencing everything from laws and customs to general workings of the community.

On the first occasion that we discussed paganism in Wadi Digla, the question was raised as to why (in a country that had embraced Christianity from the early centuries and where Christianity was the declared religion of the Roman empire at the beginning of the fourth century), there was a mass conversation of the population to Islam in the seventh century. To avoid taxation, responded one member of the group with certain resolve. That would only partially explain the reason, said another. And I myself came up with the suggestion that it was because the bulk of the population was still pagan. Now, that was greeted with total denial. The very idea that there were still pagans in Egypt in the seventh century was rejected out of hand.

This troubled me, because it indicated a misunderstanding of the very word "pagan". Unfortunately, owing to misrepresentation, pagans have come to be regarded as sexual deviants, devil worshippers, practitioners of "black magic", witchcraft and the like. In fact, I was referring to an unknown number of Egyptians who had not actually embraced Christianity, yet believed in the organic vitality and spirituality of the natural world and its divine nature. If this is paganism, then in my opinion there is evidence of paganism until today in Egypt's highly religious society -- among Muslims and Christians alike.

Let me give you an example of my personal confrontation with pagan belief within my very own household. I had a maid, Fatma, who stole 15 pieces from a canteen cutlery I had received for a wedding present. She of course denied that she had taken the items and, because she was a poor woman, I did not wish to pursue the matter with the law. So I sacked her. More than a dozen years later I received a telephone call from "Cheke" Biocche, a resident in Maadi well-known in the community for her love of cats and for her social activities. She asked me if I had lost any forks, knives and spoons. She said a woman called Fatma was ill and dying and had asked her to return them! I went to Cheke's house on Road 18, and there, wrapped in a yellowed and torn newspaper covered with strange signs, was the missing cutlery. Cheke told me Fatma's story. She had apparently run into a spate of bad luck: Her husband had died, she had lost a young child, and her older daughter was desperately ill, so she wanted to make an offering to god. She was now old and dying and wanted me to know that she had not stolen the objects with a view to selling them, just to use them as an offering with her prayers, and that now she wanted to return them. I looked at the strange sketches on the newspaper and realised that some of them were not unlike the magical texts I had seen on manuscripts in the Coptic Museum.

Egyptians are deeply religious and superstitious at all levels of society. That is certain. Rich and poor alike keep talismans or purify their homes with incense. It is not unusual for Egyptians to observe the strictest religious rituals and, at the same time and without any sense of contradiction, hold to a belief in the protective blue bead, fortune-telling games, purifying with incense, palmistry and offerings to the divine (if only a piece of cloth), not to mention sacrifices. Faith is a question of personal piety after all. Those who make offerings, like Fatma, but generally of a more modest nature, extend well beyond mere superstition. It is a personal outlook and belief in a higher power.

The ancient Egyptian who wrote a prayer to the god Amun (on the votive stela of Nebre) that includes the words "When I call to you in my distress you come to me, you come to rescue me, to give breath to he who is wretched...." cannot be regarded as a "pagan" in its modern, derogatory sense. Even until the end of Egypt's ancient history, when old beliefs gave way to the monotheistic faiths, the old ways proved to be seeds from which new religious ideas continued to grow. Hymns, prayers, and songs of praise today, requesting help, protection, guidance, and the continued gift of life, whether from a merciful and benevolent higher being, an honoured ancestor, or from a sense of deity seen in the world around us, is a relationship with the divine wherever it may be found in any part of the world.

Since the word "pagan" cannot be expunged from the dictionary, let us at least add a new definition, one cleaned of its negative connotations, and described as a part of a living culture.

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