13 Mar 2011

Isis dethroned

In Klaus Kuhlmann's Throne (2011), I see some debatable claims that seem rooted in a naive literalism and lack of larger vision beyond the details he labours on.

Games of semantics
  • "None of the many Egyptian terms referring to the 'throne' imply the 'regal' or 'religious' connotation the word carries today."
This first statement crumbles swiftly once we realize that 'throne' is not the only way to translate these words. Given the semantics he describes, English already has a good equivalent in 'seat' - at once secular and religious, regal and commonplace. The language differences he points to are selective, imaginary and misleading.

Denying cultic reverence in the throne
  • "As an object, which could be desecrated (for example, by usurpation), the Egyptian throne underwent purification rites. There is no evidence, however, of it ever having received cultic reverence or having been deified (as the goddess Isis)."
His determination to diminish the widely known historical importance of the cultic throne[1] is odd. Whether Isis is a deified throne anthropomorphized or goddess as throne is moot; the effect is the same. Despite the many ways one might perceive this object or instrument of devotion, the rites pertaining to kingship and throne remain the same nonetheless. Isis undeniably became related to the notion of authority no matter what the origin of her cult.

This cult too extended far beyond Ancient Egypt into neighbouring cultures. It would be ignorant to deny that cultic thrones were present all around the surrounding Mediterranean, among the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, and Phoenicians. An Etrusco-Punic artifact known as the Pyrgi Tablets suggests a derivative of these earlier Egyptian traditions. The artifact replaces the Egyptian goddess with fitting foreign equivalents, Etruscan Uni and Punic Ashtarte. In that inscription, it's explicitly explained that Thefarie Viliana was raised by Uni-Ashtarte's very hand to rule the city of Caere. Both Caere and Carthage share the very Egyptian theme that Kuhlmann seems to downplay: Isis as deified throne, Isis as granter of authority. To add, consider Hattic Halmasuit, a contemporaneous "throne goddess" to Egypt's north. How well versed is Kuhlmann in surrounding non-Egyptian history?

Could he be seriously dismissing the role of Isis in kingship altogether?

Goddesses and the granting of power
    • "It was mainly Ra, Atum, Amun, Geb, and Horus who confirmed pharaoh's rightful claim to power by saying 'to thee I give my throne...' (e.g., Sethe Urk. IV: 563, 571)."
    Listing only male deities as those who mainly "confirm pharaoh's rightful claim to power" strikes me as a bit chauvinistic. According to Egyptian legend, Isis had resurrected the divine first king of Egypt, Osiris, from death so that he may become ruler in the underworld. As Osiris represents the mortal king, Isis acts as the source and embodiment of his authority,[2] directly shown in her active will to restore Osiris as god-king. Consider too Cleopatra's later self-association with Isis, effectively then empowering female rule as well as male.

    So if this overwhelming evidence shows that Isis granted power to the ruler and gave support to his authority, why does Kuhlmann not list Isis too as a confirmer of pharaoh's right to power? Because Isis is female? Among the matrilineal Minang people of Indonesia, property is inherited through the female line. It should not then be so unusual that it's a female granting power to male rulers. The absence of Isis in his list then is an odd gap. Is there a Victorian belief at work here enforcing an outdated notion that only male entities can ever grant males power in societies?

    The false dichotomy between writing and symbol
    • "The block-throne sign on the head of Isis (3st: HCE) is not a symbol but 'writing' (= s/se). It allowed the identification of iconographically undifferentiated female deities just as other hieroglyphic signs like [see symbol in article] or [see symbol in article] on the head of other goddess denoted a 'reading' as 'Nephthys' or 'Nut', respectively."
    Since writing is transparently symbolic in itself, Kuhlmann's pedantics grows mildly vexing. By lumping the main female deities into a big hazy pile of confusion, he artificially incubates a different artistic analysis of the female deities compared to the male ones, imposing a sexist bias. One could equally muse that the feather atop the god Shu's head is likewise "merely writing", not a full-fledged symbol, and only used to differentiate him from a cloud of vague male gods too then. In what way can Kuhlmann prove that Egyptian goddesses are, to quote his wording, "undifferentiated" - that is, in what way are female Egyptian deities as a whole any *more* undifferentiated than male Egyptian gods as a whole? I'm not as yet convinced of a difference.

    So by the end of the article, Kuhlmann is making many confident statements but which have no relevance or basis to the issues he raises. Is this consistent pattern of inventing false dichotomies to write about deliberate (ie. writing vs. symbol, the semantics of 'throne' vs. that of Egyptian terms, representation of male gods vs. the allegedly more undifferentiated female goddesses, goddess as throne vs. throne deified, etc.)? Or was it accidental that he authored this big ball of hanging threads and contrary claims?

    [1] Botterweck/Ringgren, Theological dictionary of the Old Testament, vol 7 (1995), p.240 (see link): "The throne of Pharaoh was deified at an early date in a development comparable to the deification of the 'throne seat' (ḫalmašuit) in the Old Hittite period of Boghazköy. The same hieroglyph represented both the throne and the goddess Isis."
    [2] Botterweck/Ringgren, Theological dictionary of the Old Testament, vol 7 (1995), p.241 (see link): "The so-called identity theory holds that Isis as the personification of the ruler's throne represents the personified power of the throne. Jürgen Osing and Kuhlmann, however, reject any etymological, morphophonemic, or semantic connection between ś.t 'throne,' and ȝśt, 'Isis,' on the grounds that the name of the goddess derives from the root wȝś (< *ȝś) and means 'the one who has sovereign power, powerful influence.' The throne symbol depicted on Isis's head represents merely a graphic aid to identification, although even the Greek Isis areatologies already interpreted this symbol as identifying the throne and Isis."; McCabe, An examination of the Isis cult with preliminary exploration into New Testament studies (2008), p.103 (see link): "A possible connection with Ra could also be illustrated by the hieroglyphic name of Isis, meaning 'seat' or 'throne' (thereby demonstrating 'her association with sovereignty')."


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