May 18, 2008

What's In A Name?

I just bought an interesting little book called "Understanding Hieroglyphics" by Hilary Wilson. Yes, soon enough, I will be able to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Anyways, I wanted to share with you two little interesting tidbits in the first chapter titled "Whats In A Name?"
In ancient Egypt a person's name was not just identifying label, it was part of that person's very being, and as such was far more important than names are in our modern, Western society. Knowledge of the true names of things gave power over those things. According to Egyptian myth, the god Re-Atum had only to conceive a thing in his mind and speak its name for it to come into being. Thus, as he had given everything a name at its creation, he alone had powers over all things. This same idea is expressed in Genesis 2:19-20, in which God is described as giving Adam the power of naming all the animals of creation so that man might have dominion over beasts.
Like the author, I have no idea that one can connect the two stories, and perhaps even say the Israelites were influenced by this story. But really, I believe there is a very powerful contrast between the two. For both cultures, and probably more in the ancient near east, names are highly important and symbolic. But in one story, you have a God using his power to create anything he wants and the other, you have God bestowing that power on to man as a sort of partner. Also, if you keep reading the story of Re-Atum, you see its pretty standard in terms of dieties battling on another. While walking around earth disguised as an old drooling man, Re-Atum is ambushed by a snake created from his own spittle that the goddess Isis found on the floor.While suffering great pain from the venom, he calls upon all his venomous creations, but none of them can help him. He could not summon the one snake that bit him, because he did not create him and name him, and hence, did not have power over him. So Isis basically blackmails him and eventually he yields to her demands.

Here is another little tidbit:
Egyptian gods also had many names. Some religious text include lengthy sections devoted to the naming of gods in their various aspects so that the appropriate form of a particular deity might be invoked for a specific purpose. The sun-god for example, was known by many names, each seens as a different god. The supreme solar deity was Re (or Ra), the god of the sun at its height [noon]... The creator Atum was also associated with the sun, often being named as Re-Atum. He was the sun in its descent from the noon to sunset in the west and especially in the dangerous realms of the underworld through which it had to travel each night to reappear in the east at dawn the next day... The sun at its rising and setting was Harakhty, meaning 'Horus of the Two Horizons,' seen as a soaring or diving falcon. The sun-god who was seen to ascend through the morning sky was Khepri, the scarab beetle, pushing the sun before him as a the insect rolls its ball of dung.
Ok, not too little. A little confusing, but from what I understand, a God basically had more than one name, depending on its aspect or its job. Not only that, but they basically made that aspect a god onto its own. So does this give a defense (if one is needed) to the idea that Elohim and YHWH are certainly one God, but called two different names depending on the aspect, which obviously Chazal, and, probably earlier Israelites were always sensitive to? Well, I don't know. I wikied Re-Atum and it came up with something interesting. It says he is basically a composite diety of two seperate myths:
Atum-Ra (or Ra-Atum) was another composite deity formed from two completely separate deities. However, Ra shared more similarities with Atum than with Amun. Atum was more closely linked with the sun, and was also a creator god of the Ennead. Both Ra and Atum were regarded as the father of the gods and Pharaohs, and were widely worshiped. So, it was almost inevitable that the two cults were merged under the name of Atum-Ra.
Sound familiar? Your call.