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Kemetic Round

Table : Bribes and

Threats Underlying
Principles of
Egyptian Heka
and Ritual
Bribing and Threatening the Gods: Can you do it? If you can, how so?
And is it somehow blasphemous or immoral to do so?
Many Modern Pagans have been raised in societies dominated by Western
Monotheistic religious worldviews which assert that unwavering devotion and firm
belief or faith in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God is all
that is required for a functional relationship with the Divine. Indeed, many
religions that do not maintain a Monotheistic theological stance cannot conceive
of Divine entities that are not ultimately, inherently, and perfectly good. As such,
to bribe or especially threaten any deity, perceived and accepted as ultimately,
inherently, and perfectly good by default, is seen by many Modern Pagans as a
rather vain, arrogant, and blasphemous act.
This was in many instances not the mindset of Ancient Egyptians. Ancient
Egyptian peoples had a limited and not-universal, not-irreversible concept of
perfect deities. This notwithstanding, individual Gods were, and still are,
superexalted to Most High in ritual contexts and extolled for Their mercy,
omnipotence, and omniscience, whether They actually possess(ed) it or not.

First concept design for the Herishef amulet, based on an electrum artifact on
display at the Louvre. Art by Peter Chiappori.
The Gods of Ancient Egypt were certainly lauded for Their good qualities and
predisposition toward intervening positively in the lives of mortals. One account
tells of the Ram God Herishef. Herishef appeared to Darius IIIs personal
physician Sematawytefnakhte after the defeat of the Persian army at Arbela near
Nineveh. Herishef directly advised Sematawytefnakhte to desert Darius IIIs army
and return to Henen-nesu (Herakleopolis Magna), protecting the physiciancollaborator throughout his perilous journey from Arbela to the Gods town in
Middle Egypt. (Traunecker, 92 3) In like kind, though with far greater detail and
intensity, Ras greatness and benevolence is praised. The much
earlier Instructions for Merikare, one of the better-known Egyptian wisdom texts
dating to around 2000 BCE during the First Intermediate Period and set in 10th
Dynasty Henen-nesu, summarizes the nature and attributes of the God Ra and
His solar religion through a Monolatrous dare it be said, Henotheistic lens.
King Akhtoy extolls Ra in this treatise on the cosmology, ontology, eschatology,
and ethics of the solar religion as a God Whom none can withstand : hidden;

omniscient; provident; responsive; just. (Baines et al., 102 3) Ra is described

as being essentially perfect within Instructions for Merikare. So concentrated was
Akhtoys praise of Ra that the overt Polytheism featured within many localized
Egyptian theologies is decidedly absent within the text, as Lesko notes. (Baines et
al., 103 4)
While the Gods sometimes take pity on mortals especially mortals of high
status and engage in relatively benevolent micromanaging, and while They are
lauded for Their positive qualities, Their intervention is not always pleasant. The
Gods of the Near East are angry, jealous, and vengeful. Virtually every known
God from Amun, Djehuty, and Shezmu, to Nekhbet, Sekhmet, and Bastet
consistently bear epithets including but not limited to Lord of Terror, Subduer of
Rebellions, Subduer of Asia, The Destroyer, Slaughterer of Souls, Lady/Lord
of Pestilence, and so on. Even Ra has His wrathful, unforgiving, even vulnerable
and fumbling aspects, which crop up within a number of texts (particularly of the
more folkloric variety rather than liturgical), controverting the view of
perfection espoused withinInstructions for Merikare.
There was little question that the Gods and the more-than-human entities in Their
employ could be brutal toward mankind, often without much or indeed any
provocation. Gods like Nekhbet, Sekhmet, Bastet, and Tutu are the superiors of
fearsome sheseru demons or Seven Arrows. These sheserudemons, incidentally
associated with the seven Decan stars closest to our sun, not only punish sinners,
but also simply act out of malice for no discernible reason. (Redford et al., 105)
Sekhmet in particular is associated with vengeance and rage and was
responsible for the near-total destruction of mankind. She is waited upon by
Demons of Darkness, who bring slaughtering about, who create uproar, and
are responsible for plague and illness among humans. Sekhmet sends out Her
demons to plague mankind in fits of malcontent. (Szpakowska, 2009)
The Ancient Egyptians generally understood that belief or faith in the Gods
was simply not enough, much less relevant. One had to flatter and cajole the
Gods, or failing that, threaten Them through magical means in order to obtain
what was, and is, necessary for human flourishing. They fought fire with fire.
Through this conflict, a fluid if delicate balance was achieved.

The God Heru is presented with offerings in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut,
the Djeser-Djeseru, in the Valley of the Kings, near Deir el-Bahari. New Kingdom
Period. Image source.

An offering that the King gives to Osiris, Lord of

Busiris, that He (Osiris) may, in turn, give
From a Middle Kingdom Period offering formula.
(Redford et al., 290)
It is important to understand what a bribe is before we go further. A bribe is
anything valuable given to an individual to get that individual to perform
a specific service for the giver.* Lobbyists or special interest groups giving
an (illegal) gratuity to a lawmaker is a more imminently recognizable example of
bribing. Of course, not all bribes are so malignant and corrupt. One might bribe a
child into doing their homework or household chores with candy or a new toy
upon completion of the drudgery. A bribe is a form of incentive and positive
reinforcement; the proverbial carrot as opposed to the stick.
As I briefly touched upon in a recent article, Ancient Near Eastern cultures,
which includes Ancient Egyptian culture, were predicated upon gift economies.
The heart and soul of these cultures their mores, their ideal view of how

personal, professional, and Divine relationships were to be conducted and

maintained were oriented around the exchange of gifts, rather than an explicit
monetary exchange, despite the fact that Ancient Near Eastern societies soon
developed advanced economic systems which did in no small part feature
monetary exchange in the form of silver specie. (Warburton,2007)

A priest wearing a panther skin presents lavish offerings to a seated Osiris. Late
Period, Dynasty XXVI. Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt.
One creates a relationship by giving gifts to potential enemies and allies alike.
Such exchange places the receiving party in debt, binding them in a social
contract of sorts. If the relationship is to persist, a modest amount of time must
elapse between the giving and counter-giving. One party is thus always indebted
to the other(s), leading to an endless reinforcement of the state and health of the
relationship. Too great a lapse in this exchange, or a breaking of it altogether, can
seriously weaken the relationship, as well as foster enmity and a lack of trust in
the parties involved.
In Antiquity, this exchange manifested as offerings, from opulent temple
complexes and monuments to modest dedicatory stelae and sculptures;
literature; loaves of bread; alcohol; and unguents for a deity. Ancient Egyptians
flooded the coffers of a Gods cult in order to garner Divine favor. A prime
example of this is the itemized list of the estate of the cult of Amun in the
Great Harris Papyrus. (Watterson, 142)

Even today, when human beings make offerings to the Gods, however
simple or elaborate, they are bribing and indebting the Gods. When one
presents offerings or services to a God, one is essentially bribing that
God to intervene kindly in ones life, or to soothe that Gods anger in
order to avoid Divine punishment.
Bribery and similar displays can likewise be initiated by Divine parties. As humans
bribe and indebt the Gods through offering, the Gods bribe and indebt mortals
through displays of mercy, forbearance, and especial favor. One account tells of a
young Djehutymose IV dozing in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, a monument
representing the God Heru-em-akhet (Harmachis). As he was dreaming, Heruem-akhet appeared, and requested that Djehutymose free His Divine image from
the sands and restore it to its former glory, presumably with the intention of
supporting Djehutymose personally should he do as he was bidden. (Traunecker,
92; Wilkinson, 134 5)

Multiple representations of the Gods Ra, Heru-em-akhet, and Aker. Heru-emakhet, or Heru of the Horizon, is here most notably identified by the N
27 akhet horizon glyph, which is made up of the N 5 glyph for sun,ra, and the
N 26 glyph for mountain, djew. The akhet glyph resembles a sun between two
hills. These two hills represent the Eastern Mount of Sunrise, Bakhu, and the
Western Mount of Sunset, Manu. The God Aker is represented by the N
27 akhet glyph resting upon the backs of two opposite-facing lions.Image source.
But why do bribery and related acts work in the first place?
In The Ancient Gods Speak A Guide to Egyptian Religion, contributing scholar
Gertie Englund makes an insightful observation on the subject of offerings in
relation to the complex concept of maat. He explains to us that offerings are part
of a continuous exchange of energies that correspond to a holistic worldview,
where everything in Creation is ecologically linked in a network of energies.
(Redford et al., 286) Both humans and Gods are part of this network of energies,

and depend upon its functioning. The Gods need mortals, their refinement of
natural resources, and their worship in order to properly live and rule to Their
fullest extent. If the Gods default on Their end of the debt and cause mortals to
be driven away from Them, They starve and languish. Similarly, we human beings
require the works and boons of the Gods in order to live to our fullest extent and
maintain some semblance of order within human society. If we default on our
end, we suffer equally. Bribes ensure that defaulting doesnt occur, so that both
Cosmic maat and societal maat are preserved.

A vignette from the Book of the Dead of Chensumose, priest of Amun-Ra. Three
demons bear knives, while Chensumose confronts a trussed donkey. Papyrus.
21st Dynasty (1080-960 BCE), Third Intermediate Period, Egypt.

The sun barque is at rest and does not proceed,

The sun is still in the same spot as yesterday.
The nourishment is without ship, the temple is
There the disease will turn back the disturbance
To yesterdays location.
The daemon of darkness is about, the times are
not separated.

The shadows shapes cannot be observed

The springs are blocked, the plants wither,
Life is taken from the living
Until Heru recovers for His mother Aset,
And until the patients health is restored as well.
Jan Assmann, gypten Theologie und
Frmmigkeit einer frhen Hochkultur, p. 85
Where bribes are the carrot, threats are the stick. Bribes are designed, through
the nuances of gift exchange, to influence behavior, to nudge fate in a direction
beneficial to all parties. Threats, on the other hand, are delivered in the form of
an ultimatum and force specific behaviors through fear of pain.
The Gods, while not perfect and infallible, were seen as superior in all things and
to all other beings, both positively and negatively. Though superior to mortals,
the Gods werent and arent above issuing or being cowed by threats any more
than They are above issuing and accepting bribes. The Gods cant threat or be
threatened in just any way, however. It is through heka that threats must be
effectively issued.
In Egyptian religion, heka is seen as the Great Equalizer between
comparatively weaker mortals and supremely powerful beings like deities.
InInstructions for Merikare, King Akhtoy says to Merikare: [the Creator, Ra]
has made for [humans] heka . . . to be weapons to oppose what may
happen. (Baines et al., 103) Ra and/or the collective of the Gods was said to
have created and bestowed this power on mortals out of benevolent but
nevertheless condescending compassion for the human condition. The
explanations of how, when, and why heka came into being are not universal,
however. For example, Spell 261 from the Coffin Texts tells us that heka
(personified as the God Heka) simply existed before anything else. (Traunecker,
98) Whether God-given or otherwise, it is not a power any articulate being is
selectively exempt from, and it is a power all crafty articulate beings can use to
their advantage in any given situation. Whether God or mortal, to use this power
was not seen as blasphemous. Heka is meant to be used. Heka is a power even
the greatest and most powerful Gods fear a fear which Ra exhibits in The Book
of the Heavenly Cow. (Traunecker, 98)

Indeed, Ra is right to fear it. Despite all the precautions Ra had taken, His own
heka was used against Him by the Goddess Aset. Aset, Whose heart was more
rebellious than an infinite number of men, more smart than an infinite number of
Gods . . . more clever than an infinite number of spirits, managed to acquire a
sample of Ras saliva. (Meeks, 98) Ra took pains to change names on a daily
basis, in order to protect Himself (for to know a Gods true name is to have total
control over that God), but it was to no avail. She mixed the saliva with the earth
that clung to it, fashioning it into the form of a venomous serpent. Aset left the
snake on a path that Ra walked down every day, and inevitably, He was bitten by
it. Because it was not one of His own creations, He could not cure Himself of the
venom. Consequently, the world was plunged into darkness, shards of pottery
began walking about, stones began to talk, and mountains took to wandering
hither and thither. (Meeks, 98) Aset eventually stepped forward and offered to
cure Ra on the condition that He tell Her His true name. Ra had no choice but to
agree, though He did so on the condition that only Aset and Her son Heru-saAset, when He came of age, could know Ras true name. (Meeks, 99)
Threatening to incite Cosmic disaster, as Aset had done, was one of the tactics
employed by Ancient Egyptian hekau. If the spell fails, the sky will literally fall,
the inundation will cease, among other horrible calamities no one would wish to
see come to fruition. On page 75 of her text Magic in Ancient Egypt(Revised
Edition), Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch has this to say on this particular method of
threatening the Gods and other entities:

The [hekau] usually protects himself by saying It

is not me that is saying this, but X, X being the
God Whose role [the hekau] is playing in the rite.
This suggests that even though it was only role
playing, the Egyptians themselves had doubts
about this procedure. Words were powerful, so
such formulae might actually damage maat (the
Divine Order).
Another popular method was the procurement of positive Divine influence through
the interference of cult or rather, the threat of interference, which could also
damage or upset Cosmic and/or societal order as previously mentioned. Deities
would sometimes be threatened with the desecration of Their temples, the
slaughter of Their sacred animals in the forecourts of Their temples, the
emptiness of Their shrines. Pinch mentions a headache spell which promises to
slaughter a cow in the forecourt of Hathor and a hippopotamus in the forecourt of

Set. The hekau even threatens to wrap the sacred icon of the God Yinepu
(Anubis) with the flayed hide of a dog, and the sacred icon of Sobek with the
flayed hide of a crocodile. (Pinch, 74 5) One would have to be quite desperate
to issue such threats.
Why would a God need to honor such blatant disrespect or empty threats?
Geraldine Pinch posits that these heka formulae are not so much threats as
predictions. The hekau, speaking on behalf of his fellow man, is reminding the
Gods that if humans are not regularly cured, protected, and favored so that they
may flourish, they will abandon the Gods and cease to maintain temples, make
offerings, and respect the sacred animals. (Pinch, 75) Essentially, threats in
heka are a reasonable demand for the enforcement and maintenance of
the gift economy and the network of energies which sustains Cosmic
and societal maat. The Gods must take these threats seriously and treat
human beings humanely, or else everything falls to pieces and everyone suffers,
including and especially the Gods.
Because I do not have the manner of parallax required to definitively know what
is externally, universally, and ultimately moral and ultimately immoral, I cannot
say. That is a personal judgment each person must make for him- or herself, and
hope that judgment is remotely close to being correct whatever correct might
mean. What I can say is that both bribing and threatening the Gods (and other
more-than-human entities) is entirely doable. I can also say that I happen to
think that these practices are both effective and permissible, coming from both
personal experience and knowledge acquired from reading historical sources.
Above all else, I recommend trying offering/bribery of a God first, and having
some patience. One does not see results overnight, much less immediately. In the
event that bargaining fails, I personally see threats and ultimatums acceptable.
This isnt to be done lightly, however. Matters have the potential to end quite
miserably if ones heka is weak and inconfident, and if one cannot make good on
those threats and ultimatums.
And, of course, if one feels that threats are too impious, no one is twisting any
arms to make anyone threaten the Gods. Again, it is a personal decision.
But, as Geraldine Pinch notes, it is probably wrong to ascribe too much weight to
threats in Egyptian heka. (Pinch, 75) Threats are simply one weapon, one
technique, within a well-stocked, versatile armory. Indeed, it was often that a
personified disease, a demon, a God, or some other being was pleaded with,

cajoled, lied to, flattered, and threatened all within the same text! And these
texts were, and are, not the only source and not the only method. Many, many
methods are available to the proficient hekau. Only the individual hekau will
know, or be able to find out, what techniques and methods are most effective in
whatever situation, concerning whatever entities.