“Personal Piety” in Ancient Egypt

The evidence from monuments


This eroded image of Hathor adorns the back wall of the holiest part of the Hathor temple at Dendara in Upper Egypt. You may think these are marks of vandalism on the image but in fact the gouges are made by the many ancient pilgrims to the shrine. Its position on the back wall was precisely to facilitate the devotions of the pilgrims, who were otherwise not eligible to enter the main shrine.

Most Egyptian shrines are scarred by many thousands of these pilgrim gouges – sometimes the powder is mixed into potions and consumed for healing and other purposes.. (See David Frankfurter “Religion in Roman Egypt”.) The practice begins in 19th dynasty Ramesside times (circa 1350BCE) perhaps even earlier. Uvo Hölscher, who conducted the excavations at Medinet Habu, unearthed some examples on blocks reused to line the tomb of king Horsiese circa 1000BCE. Elsewhere in the temple are countless examples of such marks from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. The practice continues even today. (1)

For example, you can see these gouges all over the wall of the Memorial Temple of Ramsesses III at Medinet Habu. Slightly surprising when you recall he was not a supposedly popular king and managed to get himself murdered in the infamous “Harim conspiracy”.

The emergence of “personal piety” at such an early date is for some a controversial thesis. Personal piety should be considered in contrast to the more official religious cult offered in the temples; which was “vicarious” (from which we get the term vicar) religion made by elite groups on behalf of the masses. I am particularly attracted by the phenomena of more personal religious activity – unmediated by the priesthood. It seems to me that magick is also a more personal religious activity.


Magical Neutralizing:

Other more common marks are made in the Coptic period. The images of the gods are marked in a very precise and time consuming manner in order to neutralize their power so the building can be stripped of its valuables or reused by other gods. The precision of the execration shows an awareness of magical modes. The faces, hands and feet are gouged out as these represent the organs of action of the beings represented in the image:

This is from the Memorial Temple of Sety I at Abydos

continues …
(1) Uvo Hölscher The Excavation of Medinet Habu Vol V Post-Ramesside Remains Chicago 1954 – page 9

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