Conversing with gods: propaganda or vision?

In this blog entry I’d like to ram home a couple of general points that have wide explanatory power and are not talked about enough. And when they are broached as subjects, it is often to minimize their importance rather than to appreciate it.

These are they:

  1. The ancients did not think like we do.
  2. Even not-so-ancients were perfectly happy making large social, political, and military decisions based solely on what a god told them to do.

Warm-up: psychohistory revealed in language

As I have mentioned before in this blog, when studying an ancient text you should try your best to get inside the psyche of its author, because doing so often changes the text’s meaning considerably.

Read some Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, such as the Precepts of Ptahhotep. Then invent and perform an exercise to become as aware as possible of your heart, ba, and ka. Then read the wisdom literature again.

Certain phrases which on your first reading seemed rather poetic may well become simple statements of fact.

Previously on this blog I have described a rather spooky exercise, where you connect your hands and feet with various internal organs. This, done seriously, has an astounding ability to tune your consciousness into quite a strange place.

Perhaps the simplest way to tap into an author’s head, though it’s quite a bit of work, is to learn by heart—ahha, by heart—some of their text.

Start by picking a few different authors who were all active at more or less the same time. A good spread for English speakers might be: a Shakespeare sonnet, the prologue from Marlowe’s The Jew Of Malta, and a speech of Mosca’s from Volpone.

Learn them all, as deeply as you can. I have already shared an exercise for accurate, relatively fast line-learning in the comments section of a previous blog entry. The only thing I’d add is this hint: try to ‘feel’ as deeply as you can while releasing any muscle groups that try to tense. This will teach you to connect specifically, deeply, and naturally with the text; or as Shakespeare put it, with “a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

(Meditating on temperance, as described in Hamlet’s Advice to the Players is as valuable an exercise for magicians as it is for actors. Temperance: the act of tempering a sword—word power—exchanging some sharpness to reduce brittleness…)

Having learned your lines, speak the speeches and switch between them. The more deeply you can learn each speech, the more of a sense you will get of the ‘flavour’ of the different authors.

If you try some of the above suggestions then you will swiftly come to the conclusion that our ancestors did not think quite as we do. You will also see how differently authors from the same period thought.

Sometimes the gulf between them and us is not so great; other times it is huge. You may also notice certain connections, unusual for today, happening as you speak the speeches. For instance, there is something really quite creepy in the way the Chorus, who begins The Jew Of Malta, gradually takes on the character of Machiavelli…and the way that that being can then be transmitted out to an audience.

Albeit the world think Machiavelli’s dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.

And let him not be entertained the worse,
Because he favours me.

For a poet accused of atheism and who was loudly no fan of the occult, Marlowe’s plays are certainly potent rituals…but I digress…

The further back you go, the wider the gulf between a writer and us can become. Having dipped your tongue into the English Renaissance, try some Chaucer. Or learn a bit from the York Mystery Cycle. Finally, see if you can work your way through some Old English verse—the language is just close enough to modern English that you can learn it and utter it, and fully mean what you are uttering.

If you get that far, you will have reached back about thirteen centuries into the mental past of English speakers, about as far as you can go with that language. Now imagine the psychological gulf between you and someone who lived forty-three centuries ago, four times further back than you have managed to penetrate with your English recitations.

The meat of the matter: visionaries of the eighteenth dynasty

Now read this:

“The Orb is desirous that there be made for Him […] as a monument with an eternal and everlasting name! Now, it is the Orb, my father, who advised me concerning it, (namely) ‘the Horizon of the Orb.’ No official had ever advised me concerning it; not any of the people who are in the entire land had ever advised me concerning it [. . .] Behold, I did not find it as reclaimed land [. . .] not as a ‘residence,’ nor as an administrative entity.”

It sounds like something out of Star Trek, but the text is about three and a half thousand years old. Much of the Trekiness is due to the translation’s use of modern-sounding titles such as “administrative entity.” Native English speakers tend to react quite differently to words with a Latin or Greek derivation compared to ones with a Saxon origin.

(The above translation is taken from Murnane, William J. and Charles C. Van Siclen III; 1993. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. London and New York: Kegan Paul International.)

These words, inscribed on a boundary stela, are Akhenaten’s, Egypt’s famous monotheistic, heretic king. He is describing how he came to build a brand new city, on virgin land, for Egypt’s new capital, and how he dedicated it to the worship of the Orb—the sun disc—which in translations is generally simply kept transliterated as Aten.

Akhenaten’s reasons for declaring Aten, the sun disc, to be the supreme god, and for moving Egypt’s capital to a brand new city dedicated especially to Aten, have been the subject of much Egyptological debate for over a century.

In an essay by Ömür Harmansah, Urbanism at Amarna: The City of Akhenaten 2007, the following reasons are suggested, immediately after quoting the boundary stela’s words, for moving Egypt’s capital to Akhetaten (“The Horizon of the Orb”):

  • Akhenaten wanted to “disassociate himself from the Theban priesthood.”
  • He wanted to “appease both the south and north regions of the Nile.”
  • He wanted to avoid Egypt descending into another dark age and being ruled by three contemporaneous dynasties.

All these may well have been true, but missing from the equation is the explanation given in the stela itself—that Aten told Akhenaten to do it:

The Orb is desirous that there be made for Him […] as a monument with an eternal and everlasting name! Now, it is the Orb, my father, who advised me concerning it, (namely) ‘the Horizon of the Orb.’

Our ancestors weren’t like us…

Akhenaten was not the only eighteenth-dynasty king to record conversations with gods. His ancestor, Thutmose IV, is famous for authoring the Dream Stele, which records what happened when the king fell asleep by the Great Sphinx. The Sphinx appeared to him in a dream, and asked the king to save it from the desert sand.

Masashi Fukaya gives many examples of deity communications recorded by the Egyptians in his paper, Re-examination of the Egyptian Oracle, including Merenptah’s message from Ptah and Tanutamen’s dream predicting that he would ascend the throne—well worth a look if you can track down a translation.

Ömür Harmansah’s interesting hypothesis in the article quoted above is that the eighteenth-dynasty kings suffered from congenital epilepsy. He deduces this from, among other symptoms, the recorded visions of Thutmose IV and Akhenaten, as well as the gynocomastia identified in the mummies of Thutmose and his descendents Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, the mummy in KV55 previously identified as Smenkare, and Tutankhamen.

He suggests that Thutmose IV’s vision “may be explained by a pathological religiosity” and that Akhenaten’s “may be explained by an underlying pathological condition,” the condition in question being temporal lobe epilepsy, which, as he says, is “particularly recognized as stimulating and promoting visual hallucinations associated with deep religious experiences.”

But though epilepsy is well known for setting off religious visions, this says nothing about the validity of those visions. Epilepsy can set off visions; it cannot explain them away—and Ashrafian is careful not to suggest otherwise.

New Scientist’s article on Ashrafian’s findings quotes Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist, listing a few other medical conditions which can predispose people to visions—in Akhenaten’s case, monotheistic ones! “Monotheism,” he says, “could be related to epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or drug intoxication from a fungus.” Then he adds, “but this paper does not sway me to any of these options.”

Both scientists are demonstrating a nuanced view of the visions of Thutmose IV and Akhenaten. While stating truly that certain medical conditions predispose people to religious experiences, they do not leap to the false conclusion that such medical conditions can explain away those experiences.

This is by no means a modern view. Epilepsy, for instance, was well known in the ancient world for its connection with visions, and the illness was treated as a pathology without denigrating the validity of any attendant visions. And for millennia, of course, magic-workers the world over have used cocktails of drugs to induce visions, without seeing those visions as merely the result of those drugs. If they were, then what would be the point?

So religious visions can be valid even when induced by some identifiable biological cause. Fine. But where we moderns really have problems is when our ancestors claim to have taken such visions seriously enough to actually do something about them. Religious visions can be valid; they just can’t be actionable. That’s when the other explanations really creep in: “he did it to shore up political support,” “he did it to screw with the political machinations of the priests of Amun,” and so forth.

In Disembedded Capitals in Western Asian Perspective, Alexander Joffe writes of Thutmose’s Dream Stela that it was “essentially, a form of propaganda to explain Thutmose’s usurpation of the throne. Thus, pharaohs often justified their actions through myths written on stelae.”

The same author describes Akhenaten’s boundary stela as “a fanciful tale,” even though in the previous sentence he has stated that in his opinion this king’s religious beliefs were absolutely genuine:

Truly knowing what was going on in Akhenaten’s head when he moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna is impossible to know. But his intent was clear: to create a utopia that provided open worship for the Aten, the one true god in which he believed.

So Akenaten’s religious beliefs are allowed to be genuine—genuine enough to move the capital and create a utopian city. Just not his visions. You can move mountains for your religious faith; you can’t move mountains for your religious visions.

But remember: our ancestors did not think as we did. If you do the line-learning exercise I suggested then you’ll gain some personal experience of this. You might also like to look up psychohistory, and Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, for some interesting ideas about just how far from our psyches our ancestors’ were. (Though in both cases, beware drawing the conclusion that mental illness explains phenomena that, as any practising mystic knows, can be far more precisely experienced during regular meditation, when a human being is perhaps at their sanest.)

A Classical example of actionable deity contact: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Our modern notions that religiosity is a fine justification for a monarch’s actions so long as those actions are also politically expedient, and that religious visions are to be quietly accepted so long as they do not lead to any identifiable action, would not have found much traction in the ancient world.

To demonstrate this, let’s take an example from a more modern civilization than Ancient Egypt.  Generally we find the Ancient Greeks much less alien than the Ancient Egyptians.  After all, their cultural achievements mark the start of the Western Cannon.  So let’s look at how Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC) recorded some of his interactions with Zeus in Anabasis.

Then, though the majority were in apprehension of the journey, which was not at all to their minds, yet, for very shame of one another and Cyrus, they continued to follow him, and with the rest went Xenophon.

And now in this season of perplexity, he too, with the rest, was in sore distress, and could not sleep; but anon, getting a snatch of sleep, he had a dream. It seemed to him in a vision that there was a storm of thunder and lightning, and a bolt fell on his father’s house, and thereupon the house was all in a blaze. He sprung up in terror, and pondering the matter, decided that in part the dream was good: in that he had seen a great light from Zeus, whilst in the midst of toil and danger. But partly too he feared it, for evidently it had come from Zeus the king. And the fire kindled all around–what could that mean but that he was hemmed in by various perplexities, and so could not escape from the country of the king? The full meaning, however, is to be discovered from what happened after the dream.

This is what took place. As soon as he was fully awake, the first clear thought which came into his head was, Why am I lying here? The night advances; with the day, it is like enough, the enemy will be upon us. If we are to fall into the hands of the king, what is left us but to face the most horrible of sights, and to suffer the most fearful pains, and then to die, insulted, an ignominious death? To defend ourselves–to ward off that fate–not a hand stirs: no one is preparing, none cares; but here we lie, as though it were time to rest and take our ease. I too! what am I waiting for? a general to undertake the work? and from what city? am I waiting till I am older myself and of riper age? older I shall never be, if to-day I betray myself to my enemies…

Now, you may be thinking, Xenophon may have been a great military leader, but perhaps calling a psychologically explicable dream divine intervention made him just a little eccentric according to the standards of his day.  Not so.  Read this passage from later on:

…If, on the other hand, we purpose to take our good swords in our hands and to inflict punishment on them for what they have done, and from this time forward will be on terms of downright war with them, then, God helping, we have many a bright hope of safety.” The words were scarcely spoken when someone sneezed (2), and with one impulse the soldiers bowed in worship; and Xenophon proceeded: “I propose, sirs, since, even as we spoke of safety, an omen from Zeus the Saviour has appeared, we vow a vow to sacrifice to the Saviour thank-offerings for safe deliverance, wheresoever first we reach a friendly country; and let us couple with that vow another of individual assent, that we will offer to the rest of the gods ‘according to our ability.’ Let all those who are in favour of this proposal hold up their hands.” They all held up their hands, and there and then they vowed a vow and chanted the battle hymn.

All right, so Xenophon was prepared to take massive military action on the strength of a nightmare, and the population as a whole were superstitious enough to view even a well-timed sneeze as divinely significant.  But what about deity communications when the communication is (a) out of one’s hands and (b) goes directly against one’s apparent best interests?  From later in Anabasis:

…[Xenophon] had a strong desire to hold the supreme command. But then again, as he turned the matter over, the conviction deepened in his mind that the issue of the future is to every man uncertain; and hence there was the risk of perhaps losing such reputation has he had already acquired. He was in sore straights, and, not knowing how to decide, it seemed best to him to lay the matter before heaven. Accordingly, he led two victims to the altar and made sacrifice to Zeus the King, for it was he and no other who had been named by the oracle at Delphi, and his belief was that the vision which he had beheld when he first essayed to undertake the joint administration of the army was sent to him by that god.

Thus Xenophon sacrificed, and the god as plainly as might be gave him a sign, neither to demand the generalship, nor, if chosen, to accept the office. And that was how the matter stood…

So, in one book, Xenophon’s Anabasis, we see examples of (a) a general undertaking a massive military manoeuvre on the strength of a nightmare that he ascribes to Zeus.  (b) an entire army agreeing with the proposition that a well-timed sneeze is a communication from Zeus. (c) Zenophon calmly turning down the ultimate promotion because “the gods gave him a sign” not “to accept the office.”

The ancients did not think like us. Visions of gods recorded on stelae are not necessarily political propaganda.  They may actually be true accounts of, well, visions.

If Xenophon can move an army due to a thunderbolt nightmare, can’t Akhenaten move the capital city on the strength of Aten’s word, and Thutmose IV clean up the Sphinx because it asked him to?

Our ancestors did not think like us, and so rational behaviour for them did not look like rational behaviour for us…unless, of course, you’re a practising mystic or magician.

Even then, you’d better make damn sure you don’t have epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or a fungal infection.  Getting messages from gods?  Maybe it’s time you washed your yoga mat, darling…

Further reading

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes’s controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only 3,000 years ago and still is developing.

Foundations of Psychohistory

By Lloyd DeMause, this book offers a challenging and disturbing reinterpretation of the historical process. Central to the book is an exposition of the ‘psychogenic paradigm’ which seeks to show how historical events are largely determined by the prevalent child-rearing modes of a given epoch. Material covered includes an outline of psychogenics, a discussion of the ‘fetal origins of history’ based on pre- and perinatal psychology and essays on the foudation of America and the American personality. Each chapter is a self-contained essay in itself with ample references, but the fundamental theses draw all these chapters together in a clear and concise vision. However one might react to the more controversial aspects of the main theses of the book, it remains an absolutely indispensible handbook for those wishing to know more about the basics of psychohistory as a discipline.

Xenophon’s Anabasis, Loeb edition

The Anabasis by Xenophon (c. 430 c. 354 BC) is an eyewitness account of Greek mercenaries’ challenging ‘March Up-Country’ from Babylon back to the coast of Asia Minor under Xenophon’s guidance in 401 BC, after their leader Cyrus the Younger fell in a failed campaign against his brother.


Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

2 thoughts on “Conversing with gods: propaganda or vision?”

  1. I’m reminded of a story from one of Arthur Mindell’s books (father of process-oriented psychology), Dreaming While Awake. An amazing book by the way, and quite pertinent, I think. Anyway, here’s the story:
    “Uncle Lewis Obrien, a Aboriginal elder with whom we were walking, gently put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “Arny, look over there, in the direction of the center of the city. What do you see?’ I told him that I saw Victoria Square, the noisy bustling business center of the city. Hundreds of people were shopping; cares honked and buses moved slowly through the traffic. ‘Looks like a busy city,’ I said.

    “Uncle Lewis suggested that I take another look. When I looked again, all I saw was the same noisy city. ‘Well, your sight is good, but you don’t see the Dreaming. White fellas don’t see the Dreaming. But they sense it anyhow. White fellas built the center of the city there. We Aboriginal people used to camp where the center is now; that’s where the Dreaming is strongest. Victoria Square is a wonderful place; that’s why the modern business center works so well over there.’

    “My environment consciousness was shocked and enlightened. I realized how my view of the city was filtered through the lens of my U.S. background and education. Until meeting this elder, given the choice, I tended to avoid cities, preferring the countryside. Uncle Lewis made me realize that the miracle of nature I was looking for in the countryside was right in front of me, in the midst of the bustling city. The Dreaming is always present, like an aura shimmering around the objects and events you call everyday life.”

    “(In a recent letter, Uncle Lewis explained that Adelaide is built right on the site of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming (Tarnda Munaintya) and that the outline of the outer city streets portrays the outline of that mythic being.)”

    1. Hey, thanks for this, I have not come across process-oriented psychology or the book…looks like another item for my Amazon wishlist!

      You’re right, it looks very much like the same phenomenon of two different cultures butting up against each other with different methods of perceiving reality, and therefore interpreting each others’ decisions wrongly.

      In the case of the Australian Aborigines’ methods of viewing the world and taking decisions, they have fifty thousand years of evolution, cultural and biological, completely independent from the rest of the world. That’s a long, long time for these sorts of perceptual differences to accumulate.

      Thankfully for the Australian Aborigines, they are still alive and so can correct the errors of modern Western anthropologists. Unfortunately we can only imagine a similar conversation between an archaeologist and a highly-educated Egyptian priest…

Thoughts? Please feel free to leave a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *