In one of his many criticisms of “the philosophers,” Nietzsche derides the Eleatics and the Platonists for their belief in a single One and a world of being, a “true world” added to the actual world “by a lie.”[i] He blames philosophers for their Egyptianism, for honoring a thing by mummifying it.
In “On Music and Words” (1871), “Egyptian” stands in for the regularity of a bad libretto, as opposed to the Dionysian quality of music. And in “Philosophy During the Tragic Age of the Greeks” (1873), Nietzsche criticizes as misguided and barbarous the attempt to go below Greek polytheism to a more originary layer, such as sun-worship.[ii] By Human All-Too-Human (1878), Egypt is a synecdoche for the stationary and petrified, although also for the scientific and literary, orderly and rationalizing. Ironically, it stays that way in Dawn (1881) and Will to Power (posthumously published 1901). Perhaps under the influence of Herodotus’ famous description of mummification – although, if so, then he would also recall Herodotus’ claim that the Egyptians were the first people to believe in a cycle of reincarnations in different bodies and forms – Egypt is petrified in his own thinking in a symbol of un-virile, un-Dionysian, scientistic unity and immutability.[iii]
Eternality was certainly an Egyptian concern, but what kind of eternality? Nietzsche misunderstood (or playfully misrepresented) why the Egyptians had mummified, namely to enjoy something much more like Nietzsche’s own eternal return than a Platonic escape into pure Being. In this profound sense, Nietzsche is Egyptian, and ancient Egypt is Nietzschean.
At Deir El-Medina in Thebes (Luxor), the tomb of the artisan Pashedu beautifully depicts a limestone mountain rising up in the west behind the figure of Osiris, god of the dead. This desert is the red land, also the land of the dead. In Egypt’s very parochial and very materialist Theban mythology, Egypt is the center of the world, its river is the center of the center, and it is bound by the fertile floodplain (the black land) and the desert (the red land) in the west, where the sun “dies.” Logically, the psychodrama of the rebirth of the sun passing through night, and of the afterlife of humans, is enacted on the western bank of the river.
The basic collection of New Kingdom texts about the afterlife, known as the “Book of the Dead,” is more accurately translated, “Going Forth by Day.” Spell 179, for example, describes going yesterday and returning today. A recent translation introduces the book by describing this return: it refers to “the longing and the hope to return by day from wherever the hereafter might be centered – to visit again at will the familiar scenes of earth.”[iv]
In a nutshell, the Egyptian theory is a form of eternal recurrence of the same. Although neither Lawrence Hatab nor Karl Löwith’s book-length studies of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence mention Egypt, the parallel is fruitful. Hatab analyzes Greek pre-Socratics as the most relevant source of Nietzsche’s recurrence, and describes Christianity as the world-historical interruption of the “Greek model of eternal, cyclic repetition.”[v] The value of Greek repetition is to moralize the world of becoming. For Hatab, Nietzschean return is not so much “factual” as “evaluative,” and return is about affirmation. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, return is for those “who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity.”[vi]
In his first published book, Nietzsche conflates Egypt with (to pun) what is unbecomingly static. In Section 9 of The Birth of Tragedy, he describes how changing forms freeze into an “Egyptian stiffness and coldness.”[vii] Whatever the source of this observation, it is not Theban rock-cut tomb art. As shown in Theban paintings, being dead in Egypt is very much like being alive in Egypt, and, while there are aspects of the varying myths and their more and less democratizing texts that identify the royal dead with the unchanging gods or with fixed stars, in general the afterlife is a world of rhythm and motion and becoming.[viii] It is an affirmation of the everyday, not escape from it.
In one version of this history, the desert itself sketches out the program for the Egyptian version of the afterlife.[ix] The desiccated body, leached of its natural moisture, preserved in a desert pit, offers the first suggestion for the idea that we can live on after bodily death. Another such version, based on evidence of mummification dating all the way back to the predynastic Naqada II period (3500-3150 BCE), locates the idea in religion, not natural science.[x]
The process of mummification is a way of improving upon natural desiccation. In the early desert pit burials, the form of the body was preserved but not the flesh. During the 3rd intermediate period, 11th-8th centuries BCE, the perfected process of mummification preserved not only the body’s form, but also the flesh and the crucial organs needed for a good afterlife – lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines.[xi] The brain was discarded. Unaware of the brain’s importance for justice (maat), the Egyptians preserved the wrong organs.
Egypt’s Theban mythology is based on worship of the sun god, who disappears each night in the limestone foothills on the western side of the Nile River, and is reborn after twelve long night-hours spent sailing on his barque and being dragged overland through the underworld (duat). At all sides, the life-giving sun is threatened by the terrible serpent Apophis, sometimes associated with sand banks and perhaps representing ships’ tendency to run aground in the Nile floodplain.[xii] Apophis is killed by the cat-headed god Bastet in her strongest form, a rabbit-eared manifestation of the eye of the sun god, as one can see depicted in the tomb of Inerkhau in the Valley of the Workers.[xiii] What exactly this symbolizes is not clear, but the death of Apophis promises renewed life.
Originally, the afterlife was for kings, who joined the entourage of the sun god. Democratizing the afterlife began at the end of the Old Kingdom.[xiv] The new version of afterlife is a Field of Reeds (Iaru) presided over by Osiris, the king of all those who can afford proper burial and mummification. Perhaps 10% of ancient Egyptians were able to afford this.[xv]
For the wealthy and privileged, then as now, bodily survival isn’t enough; one can also hope for an afterlife of plenty and ease. Offerings were provided for the ka-spirit: the spiritual double which has to stick close to the body, as opposed to the more mobile ba-bird.[xvi] Together, ka and ba formed the mysterious akh, the living image of the deceased. Burying useful goods to feed the ka invited robbery, of course. And mortuary cults and their priests, as well as the descendants of the dead who paid for these cults, were not always reliable sources of sustenance. In their place, representative art developed: wall-paintings that came alive to satisfy the needs of the dead, by magic.[xvii] Thus, from the inclusion of useful foodstuff and tools in tombs evolved the aesthetic masterpieces of Thebes.
As noted, the ancient Egyptian vision of the afterlife is a double-Egypt – the same desert, the same all-important waters. In a manner of speaking, by representing the worries and risks of this world in the next one, the Egyptians manage to close the circle of life. The religion has rhythm, like music, not unknowability. The royal dead ride with the gods. The good dead cultivate the fields, or joyously pull the sun’s bark overland. The evil dead try to thwart the sun’s passage. The afterlife is work, and hierarchical work at that, signaling that work is the fellowship of Egypt, and the afterlife is “doing everything that is done upon earth.”[xviii]
The addition of Osiris democratizes the land of the dead and adds an element of judgment. Only the worthy are allowed entrance to the realm of the dead; the rest are devoured on the spot by the horrifying composite monster Ammit, a lion-hippopotamus-crocodile. Thus, democratization works to affirm justice, but it violently excludes some people from the rhythmic, musical theory of the sun’s western passage.
A Nietzschean might reflect on the sun mythos as follows: the return of the same world, the same cultivated strip and its flood-plain, the same sun, the same crops, the same foods, is enough. The basic rhythm is of a cycle of material birth and death. To this is added democratic inclusivity and moralizing exclusivity. There is also a beginning point, when the self-creating god Atum emerged in the form of a mound from the undifferentiated waters of nun. And there is a story of a final fusion of Atum and Osiris and a return to primordial chaos.[xix] In other words, the basic unity and rhythm has breaks and ruptures, but unlike visions of a paradise beyond it does not point outside of itself.
Sadly, Nietzsche missed out on Egyptian art that is Dionysian, quivering, full of life and color and unrepressed bodily form. Nefertari’s green-hued tomb and green-faced figures in the Valley of the Queens seem in poor taste, with sickly forms, until the iconography is permitted to speak. Faces are black for fertility (the black land), and green for the resurrection of new crops. Green faces point east to the sometimes-more-than-annual crop in the floodplain, but no further. There is no ‘beyond’ beyond the east and everyday life.Whether there is a final step beyond this hallucinated double Egypt, towards total realism – no Osiris and no duat, no Field of Reeds, the total democratization and materialization of the body, finite and possessed of life which is both brief and the totality of things – is a tough question. If we are all “westerners” in the Egyptian sense of beings who practice dying and being dead, then we do not naturally seek a final realism and the end of myth. Nietzsche asked: “Why not allow oneself to be deceived?”[xx] Sometimes, what is veiled, covered, and un-illuminated has reasons for remaining so, Nietzsche writes, rebuking Egyptian youths who infiltrate temples.[xxi] The wiser way of life may be to proceed “mythologically” rather than rationally.[xxii] Indeed, as any traveller returning from Thebes (Luxor) can tell you, the thing that recurs is the act of myth-making itself.
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, transl. Richard Polt (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), p.18.
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Early Greek Philosophy and Other Essays, transl. Maximilian Mügge (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 43-44, 78.
[iii] Herodotus, Histories, 2.86-88, 123; Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human II, transl. Gary Handwerk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 125-126; Will to Power, transl. R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (Penguin Books, 2017), pp. 100, 252.
[iv] The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day, transl. Thomas George Allen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 1.
[v] Lawrence J. Hatab, Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), p. 60.
[vi] Hatab, Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence, pp. 63-64.
[vii] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, transl. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 51.
[viii] Salima Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt (Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press), p. 31.
[ix] Joyce Tyldesley, The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 114-115.
[x] Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, pp. 49-50.
[xi] Tyldesley, The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, pp. 114-115, 164.
[xii] Tyldesley, The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, p. 89.
[xiii] Tyldesley, The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, p. 197.
[xiv] Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, pp. 31, 39.
[xv] Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, pp. 39-40, 42.
[xvi] Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, pp. 23-31.
[xvii] Ikram, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, pp. 187, 189.
[xviii] The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day, transl. Thomas George Allen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 87 (Spell 110).
[xix] Tyldesley, The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, pp. 37-43.
[xx] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 200.
[xxi] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, transl. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 8.
[xxii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, transl. Judith Norman (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 21.