Kwasi Konadu

One of the Earliest Religious Texts in Africa: The Shabaka Text

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Neferkare or Shabaka, a ruler of the twenty-fifth dynasty, ordered an ancient religious text copied onto stone because the original was worm-eaten. The text belongs to the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 BCE), but its precise date is unknown. Named after this ruler, the Shabaka inscription shows how the beginnings of Kemetic/ancient Egyptian history had both divine and human origins, and how he, the ruler, was a bridge between both worlds. In fact, for ancient Egypt, not unlike many parts of historic Africa with notions of divine kingship, the ruler embodied the divine in their mortal form. In other words, they did not clearly distinguish the divine and the mortal, mythology and mundane reality. Shabaka had conquered Men-nefer (or the Greek adaptation, “Memphis”), capital and nexus between Upper and Lower Egypt, and proclaimed himself the “beloved son of Ptah.” Ptah, one of the most important and oldest divinities, was viewed as the king of Egypt and unifier of the land, creator of the divinities and the world, and who was closely associated with Men-nefer.

Shabaka’s rise to power as a unifier and his version of a widespread ancient Egypt’s creation story with Ptah (rather than Atum) as the original unifier and creator of all that exists is one of real significance of the Shabaka text. The structure of the text includes an introduction, the story of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Heru the divinity at Men-nefer (a preface to larger story of Egypt’s historical creation), the creation story called the “Memphite theology” by scholars, and a summary of the text. Throughout the text, the divinity Ptah is the unifying force. On the significance of the text, James Breasted concluded, “First, that the early Egyptian did much more and much better thinking on abstract subjects than we have hitherto believed, having formed a philosophical conception of the world of men and things... Second, it is obvious that the [Egyptian] conception of the world forms quite a sufficient basis for suggesting the later notions of nous [mind, intellect] and logos [divine reason], hitherto supposed to have been introduced into Egypt from abroad at a much later date. Thus the Greek tradition of the origin of their philosophy in Egypt undoubtedly contains more of truth than has in recent years been conceded. Third, the habit… of interpreting philosophically the functions and relations of the Egyptian [divinities…] had already begun in Egypt, centuries before the earliest of the Greek philosophers was born; and it is not impossible that the Greek practice of so interpreting their own [divinities] received its first impulse from Egypt” (p. 475).

His majesty [king Shabaka] wrote this document anew, in the house of his father Ptah, etc., his majesty having discovered it [as the] work of the ancestors, being [worm-eaten…], it was not legible from beginning to end. Then [he] wrote [this document] anew, more beautiful than the one that was before (it), in order that his name might [endure], and his monument [last] in the house of his father, Ptah, etc., for all eternity, being a work of the Son of Re [Shabaka], for his father Ptah, etc., in order that he might be given life eternally.

This Ptah is he, who is proclaimed under this great name: [Ta-tenen, the primordial mound, south of the wall, lord of eternity].

The Southland and the Northland are this uniter, who appears as king of Lower Egypt…. He that begat him is Atum, who [created] the nine [divinities], to whom the gods [gathered] when he had [separated Heru] and Set. He [ended] their [quarrel], in that he [made] Set as king of Upper Egypt in the Southland, [up to] the place where he was born, [Su]; whereas [Geb], he [made Heru] as king of Lower Egypt in the Northland, [up to] the place where his father was drowned, at the division of the two lands. It is [Heru] and Set who stood [over the region]; they [made peace over] the two lands at [Ayan]; it is the boundary of the two lands.

[Geb spoke to Set]: “[Go to] the place [where you were] born.” [Set: Upper Egypt].

[Geb spoke to Heru]: “[Go to] the place [where your] father was drowned.” [Heru: Lower Egypt].

[Geb spoke to Heru and Set]: “I [have separated] you.” [Lower and Upper Egypt].

[Geb to the nine divinities]: “I have assigned the inheritance to that heir, [Heru] the son of the first-born son….”

[Heru stood] on the [land], he is the uniter of this land, proclaimed under the great name, “[Ta-tenen] south of his wall,” lord of eternity. The double crown flourishes on his head; he is [Heru], [who arose] as king of Upper and Lower Egypt, uniter of the two lands [in the nome (one of 36 divisions of ancient Egypt) of the wall], at the place where the two lands are united. Now when [reed and papyrus] were at the front of the house of Ptah, [that means] Heru and Set were [pacified and united…]; they became brothers, they no longer [quarreled amongst each other. In whatever place they might be…,] united in the House of Ptah, in the [balance of the two lands where] the Southland and the Northland [had been weighed]; it is this land….

[The divinities who came into being in] Ptah.

Ptah upon the great throne.

Fashioner of the [divinities].

Ptah-Nun, [the father who made] Atum.

Fashioner of the [divinities].

Ptah-[Auset…,] mother who bore Atum.

Ptah the great is the heart and the tongue of the [divinities].

[Ptah… Nefertem] at the nose of Re every day.

He that became heart, and he that became tongue are an emanation of Atum. [The very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the divinities and] their kas [souls] [through] this heart and this tongue.

[Heru] came into existence through [Ptah], [Tehuti, divinity associated with wisdom, science, and writing,] came into existence through [Ptah], through Ptah, from whom proceeded the power of the heart and the tongue.... [Ptah] is the one who makes… that which comes forth from every body (thought), and from every mouth (speech), of all gods, of all people, of all cattle, of all reptiles, which lives, thinking and commanding… everything that he wills….

The [divinities] fashioned the sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, and the smelling of the nose, that they might furnish the desire of the heart. It (the heart) is the one that [brings] forth every successful issue. It is the tongue which repeats the thought of the heart; it (the heart) is the fashioner of all [divinities], at the time when every divine word even came into existence by the thought of the heart, and command of the tongue….

[Ptah is Tehuti], the wise; greater is his strength than (that of) the [divinities]. [Ptah was satisfied] after he had made all things, every divine word; when he formed the gods, made the towns, [established] the nomes, placed the [divinities] in their [shrines], made their offerings flourish, [established] their [shrines], made… their bodies to the satisfaction of their hearts; then the [divinities] entered into their bodies, of every wood, of every costly stone, of every [clay] and everything that grows upon [him] from which they [came to be]. It is he to whom all the [divinities gathered], their kas [content and] united, associated with the lord of the two lands….

Ta-tenen-Ptah, lord of years… [Ausar came into the earth, to…] the north of [the] land. [Ptah’s] son [Heru arose…] as king of Upper Egypt, [arose] as king of Lower Egypt, in the [embrace] of his father [Ausar] and [of the divinities], his ancestors, [in front of and] behind him.

Sources: James H. Breasted, “The Philosophy of a Memphite Priest,” Open Court 17 (1903): 459, 476-79; idem, “The Philosophy of a Memphite Priest,” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 39 (1901): 39–54; Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 61-76; Charles F. Horne, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), 2: 62-78.