Hermes the Egyptian

the impact of Ancient Egypt on Greek Philosophy
against Hellenocentrism, against Afrocentrism
in defence of the Greek Miracle

Section 1
the influence of Egyptian thought on 
Thales, Anaximander & Pythagoras

Section 2
Alexandro-Egyptian Hellenism & Hermetism

by Wim van den Dungen


Section 1
the influence of Egyptian thought on 
Thales, Anaximander & Pythagoras

1 Egypt between the end of the New Kingdom and the rise of Naukratis.

  • 1.1 The political situation in the Third Intermediate Period.

  • 1.2 A few remarks concerning the Late Period.

  • 1.3 Greek trade, recontacting & settling in Egypt.

2 Greece before Pharaoh Amasis.

  • 2.1 Short history of Ancient Greece.

  • 2.2 The invention of the "phoinikeïa" for both vowels & consonants.

  • 2.3 Archaic Greek literature, religion & architecture.

3 Memphite thought and the birth of Greek philosophy.

  • 3.1 The origin of Greek philosophy : Thales, Anaximander & the colonizations.

  • 3.2 The Stela of Pharaoh Shabaka and Greek philosophy.

  • 3.3 Pythagoras of Samos : the mystery of the holy & sacred decad.

  • 3.4 The Greek pyramidion or the completion of Ancient thought.

Section 2
Alexandro-Egyptian Hellenism & Hermetism

4 The Greeks in Egypt.

  • 4.1 Egyptian civilization after the New Kingdom.

  • 4.2 The Ptolemaic Empire

  • 4.3 Elements of the pattern of exchange between Egyptian and Greek culture.

  • 4.4 Religious syncretism & stellar fatalism.

5 The Alexandrian "religio mentis" called "Hermetism".

  • 5.1 Formative elements of Hermetism.

  • 5.2 "Nous" and the Hellenization of the divine triads.

  • 5.3 The influence of Alexandrian Hermetism.

  • 5.4 Crucial differences between Hermes and Christ.


The direct influence of Ancient Egyptian literature on Archaic Greece has never been fully acknowledged. Greek philosophy (in particular of the Classical Period) has -especially since the Renaissance- been understood as an excellent standard sprung out of the genius of the Greeks, the Greek miracle. Hellenocentrism was and still is a powerful view, underlining the intellectual superiority of the Greeks and hence of all cultures immediately linked with this Graeco-Roman heritage, such as (Alexandrian) Judaism, (Eastern) Christianity but also Islam (via Harran and the translators). Only recently, and thanks to the critical-historical approach, have scholars reconsidered Greek Antiquity, to discover the "other" side of the Greek spirit, with its popular Dionysian and elitist Orphic mysteries, mystical schools (Pythagoras), chorals, lyric poetric, drama, proze and tragedies.

Nietzsche, who noticed the recuperation of Late Hellenism by the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, simplistically divided the Greek spirit into two antagonistic tendencies : the Apollinic versus the Dionysian. For him, Apollo was a metaphor for the eternalizing ideas, for the mummification of life by concepts, good examples and a life "hereafter", "beyond" or "out there". Dionysius was the will to live in the present so fully & intensely as possible, experiencing the "edge" of life and making an ongoing choice for that selfsame life, without using a model that fixated existence in differentiating categories. A life here and now, immanent and this-life.

And what about Judaism ? The author(s) of the Torah avoided the confrontation with the historical fact that Moses, although a Jew, was educated as an Egyptian, and identified Pharaoh with the Crocodile, who wants all things for himself. However, the Jews of the Septuagint, the Second Temple and the Sacerdotal Dynasties were thoroughly Hellenized, and they translated "ALHYM" (Elohim) as "Theos", thereby confusing Divine bi-polarity (kept for the initiates). It is precisely this influence of Greek thought on Judaism which triggered the emergence of revolutionary sects (cf. Qumran), solitary desert hermits and spirito-social communities, seeking to restore the "original" identity of the Jewish nation, as it had been embodied under Solomon (and the first temple), and turned against the Great Sanhedrin of the temple of Jeruzalem.

Ancient Egyptian civilization was so grand, imposing and strong, that its impact on the Greeks was tremendous. In order to try to understand what happened when these two cultures met, we must first sketch the situation of both parties. This will allow us to make sound correspondences.

"Herodotus and other Greeks of the fifth century BC recognized that Egypt was different from other 'barbarian' countries. All people who did not speak Greek were considered barbarians, with features that the Greeks despised. They were either loathsome tyrants, devious magicians, or dull and effeminate pleasure-seeking individuals. But Egypt had more to offer ; like India, it was full of old and venerable wisdom." -
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, pp.11-12.

What exactly did the Greeks incorporate when visiting Egypt ? They surely witnessed (at the earliest in ca. 570 BCE, when Naukratis became the channel through which all Greek trade was required to flow by law) the extremely wealthy Egyptian state at work and may have participated, in particular in the areas they were allowed to travel, in the popular festivals and feasts happening everywhere in Egypt (the Egyptians found good religious reasons to feast with an average of once every five days).

In his Timaeus (21-23), Plato (428/427 - 348/347 BCE) testified the Egyptian priests of Sais of Pharaoh Amasis (570 - 526 BCE) saw the Greeks as young souls, children who had received language only recently and who did not keep written records of any of their venerated (oral) traditions. In the same passage of the Timaeus, Plato acknowledges the Egyptians seem to speak in myth, "although there is truth in it." According to a story told by Diogenius Laertius (in his The Lives of the Philosophers, Book VIII), Plato bought a book from a Pythagorean called Philolaus when he visited Sicily for 40 Alexandrian Minae of silver. From it, he copied the contents of the Timaeus ... The Greeks, and this is the hypothesis we are set to prove, linearized major parts of the Ancient Egyptian proto-rational mindset. Alexandrian Hermetism was a Hellenistic blend of Egyptian traditions, Jewish lore and Greek, mostly Platonic, thought.

Later, the influence of Ptolemaic Alexandria on all spiritual traditions of the Mediterranean would become unmistaken. On this point, I agree with Bernal in his controversial Black Athena (1987).

"In the first place we find the survival of Egyptian religion both within Christianity and outside it in heretical sects like those of the Gnostics, and in the Hermetic tradition that was frankly pagan. Far more widespread than these direct continuations, however, was the general admiration for Ancient Egypt among the educated elites. Egypt, though subordinated to the Christian and biblical traditions on issues of religion and morality, was clearly placed as the source of all 'Gentile' or secular wisdom. Thus no one before 1600 seriously questioned either the belief that Greek civilization and philosophy derived from Egypt, or that the chief ways in which they had been transmitted were through Egyptian colonizations of Greece and later Greek study in Egypt." -
Bernal, 1987, p.121, my italics.

Recently, Bernal has advocated a "Revised Ancient Model". According to this, the "glory that is Greece", the Greek Miracle, is the product of an extravagant mixture. The culture of Greece is somehow the outcome of repeated outside influence.

"Thus, I argue for the establishment of a 'Revised Ancient Model'. According to this, Greece has received repeated outside influence both from the east Mediterranean and from the Balkans. It is this extravagant mixture that has produced this attractive and fruitful culture and the glory that is Greece." -
Bernal, in O'Connor & Reid, 2003, p.29.

Bernal apparently forgets that Greek recuperation is also an overtaking of ante-rationality by rationality, a leaving behind of the earlier stage of cognitive development (namely mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought). The Greeks had superior thought, and this "sui generis". Hence, Greek civilization cannot be seen as the outcome of an extravagant mixture. The mixture was there because the Greeks were curious and open. They linearized the grand cultures of their day, and Egypt had been the greatest and oldest culture.

"Most of the names of the gods may have arrived in Greece from Egypt, but by Herodotus' own day, as a result of receiving gods from other peoples (Poseidon from the Libyans, other gods from the Pelasgians and so on), the Greeks have clearly overtaken the Egyptians in their knowledge of the gods, if they have not indeed discovered all the gods worth discovering." -
Harrison, in Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.153.

On the one hand, Greek thinking successfully escaped from the contextual and practical limitations imposed by an ante-rational cognitive apparatus unable to work with an abstract concept, and hence unable to root its conceptual framework in the "zero-point", which serves as the beginning of the normation "here and now" of all possible coordinate-axis, which all run through it (cf. transcendental logic). The mental space liberated by abstraction, discursive operations and formal laws was "rational", and involved the symbolization of thought in formal structures (logic, grammar), coherent (if not consistent) semantics (linguistic & technical sciences) and efficient pragmatics (administration, politics, socio-economics, rhetorics). 

Because of the Greek miracle of abstraction, rationality and ante-rationality were distinguished, equating the latter with the "barbaric" (i.e. coming from "outside" Greece and its colonies) or seeking the inner meaning of Egyptian religion (i.e. the wise men who studied in Egypt and later the infiltration of Greeks in the administrative, scribal class). Although the inner sanctum of the temples of Ptah, Re and Amun must have remained closed (excepts perhaps for exceptional Greeks like Pythagoras), the Greeks adapted to and rapidly assimilated Egyptian culture and its environment.

"In addition to the tangible exchange of objects and good, from the time of Solon there appears to have been a certain kind of abstract intellectual contact. There survive a growing number of works written in Greek which demonstrate some measure of familiarity with Egypt and Egyptian thought or at least claim to have been influenced by them. The list of authors of such works is impressive : Solon, Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus, Euripides and Plato to name only the best known." -
La'ada, in Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.158.

On the other hand, the Greeks had no written traditions and so no extensive treasurehouse of ante-rational, efficient knowledge (no logs). They had no libraries like the Egyptians. In their Dark Age, literacy had dropped dramatically and only in Ionia and Athens could pieces of Mycenæan culture be detected. The old language (Linear B) was lost. At the beginning of the so-called Archaic Period (starting ca.700 BCE), the Greeks could not erect temples, had a new alphabet adapted from the Phoenicians, no literature and very likely an oral culture, containing legends, stories about the deities and grand, heroic deeds (such as recorded by Homer & Hesiod, ca.750 BCE).

When their abstracting, eager and young minds got in touch with the age old cultural activity of the Egyptians, the encounter was very fertile, enabling the Greeks to develop their own intellectual & technological skills, and move beyond the various examples of Egyptian ingenuity. They were able to deduce abstract "laws" (major), allowing for connections to be made beyond the borders of context and action (minor) and the application of the general to the particular (conclusion). Moreover, the rich cosmogonies of Egyptian myth, the transcendent qualities of Pharaoh, the moral depth of Egypt's sapiental discourses and the importance of verbalization in the Memphite and Hermopolitan schools were readapted and incorporated into Greek philosophy, as so many other connotations and themes, adapted by their Greek authors to their Helladic taste.

This complex interaction between Greeks and Egyptians before and under the Ptolemies, allowed Alexandria to become a major intellectual centre, home of native Egyptians, Greek priests & scientists, Jewish scholars, Essenes and Hermetics alike. It continued to be influential until the final curtain came down on it in 642 CE, when general Amr Ibn Al As conquered Egypt for Caliph Omar, the second of the Islam's Four Pillar Caliphs. And so nearly nine hundred years of Graeco-Roman suzerainty had come to an end.

1. Egypt between the end of the New Kingdom and the rise of Naukratis.

1.1 The political situation in the Third Intermediate Period.

  • Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1075 - 664 BCE) : Dynasties XXI - XXV

  • Late Period (664 BCE - 332 BCE) : Dynasties XXVI - XXX

  • Ptolemaic Period (305 - 30 BCE)

  • Roman & Byzantine Period (30 BCE - 642 CE)

The "golden" New Kingdom ended (ca.1075 BCE) with a weak Pharaoh. Politically, we witness a clear division between the North (Tanis) and the South (Thebes). Theologically, "Amun is king" ruled, and so Egypt was a theocracy (headed by the military). In the period which followed, the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1075 - 664 BCE), Nubia and the eastern desert were lost again (as well as the northern "Asiatic" regions). At the end of this period and for the first time since 3000 BCE, Egypt lost its independence.

The last Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ramesses XI (ca. 1104 -1075 BCE) had been unable to halt the internal collapse of the kingdom, which had already filled the relatively long reign of Ramesses IX (ca. 1127 - 1108 BCE). Tomb robberies (in the Theban necropolis) were now discovered at Karnak. Famine, conflicts and military dictatorship were the outcome of this degeneration. With the death of Ramesses XI, the "golden age" of Ancient Egyptian civilization had formally come to a close.

Dynasty XXI, founded by Pharaoh Smendes (ca. 1075 - 1044 BCE), formally maintained the unity of the Two Lands. But his origins are obscure. He was related by marriage to the royal family. In the North (Tanis) as well as in Thebes, Amun theology reigned (the name of Amun was even written in a cartouche), but in practice, the Thebaid was ruled by the high priest of Amun. The daughter of Psusennes I (ca. 1040 - 990 BCE), called Maatkare, was the first "Divine Adoratice" or "god's wife", i.e. the spouse of Amun-Re, the "king of the gods". She inaugurated a "Dynasty" of 12 Divine Adoratices, ruling the "domain of the Divine Adoratrice" at Thebes, until the Persian invision of 525 BCE.

From the XXIII Dynasty onward, the status of the "god's wife" began to approach that of Pharaoh himself, and in the XXVth Dynasty these woman appeared in greater prominence on monuments, with their names written in royal cartouches. They could even celebrate the Sed-festival, only attested for Pharaoh ! All this points to a radically changed conception of kingship, which became a political function (safeguarding unity) deprived of its former "religious" grandure and importance (Pharaoh as "son of Re", living in Maat). Indeed, all was in the hands of Amun and Amun's wife was able to divine the god's wish and will ...

Stone sculpture on a grand scale was rare. But work of unparalleled beauty & excellence was made on a modest scale (metal, faience). But in the North (Tanis), matter were not univocal either. Libyan tribal chieftains had been indispensable to the the Tanite kings, but with Pharaoh Psusennes II (ca. 960 - 945 BCE), they lost their power to them ... 

With Dynasty XXII ("Bubastids" or "Libyan"), founded by the Libyan Shoshenq I (ca. 945 - 924 BCE), Egypt came under the rule of its former "Aziatic" enemies. However, these Libyans had been assimilating Egyptian culture and customs for already several generations now, and so the royal house of Bubastid did not differ much from native Egyptian kingship, although Thebes hesitated. After the reign of Osorkon II (ca. 874 - 850 BCE), a steady decline set in. In Dynasty XXIII (ca. 818 - 715 BCE), the house of Bubastids split into two branches.

In the middle of the 8th century BCE, a new political power appeared in the extreme South. It had for some generations been building up an important kingdom from their center at Napata at the 4th cataract. These "Ethiopians" (actually Upper Nubians) felt to be Egyptians in culture and religion (they worshipped Amun and had strong ties with Thebes). The first king of this Kushite kingdom was Kashta, who initiated Dynasty XXV, or "Ethiopian", characterized by the revival of archaic Old Kingdom forms (cf. Shabaka Stone) and the return of the traditional funerary practices. Indeed, because they possessed the gold-reserves of Nubia, they were able to adorn empoverished Egypt with formidable wealth.

Piye (ca. 740 - 713 BCE), probably Kashta's eldest son, was crowned in the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal (the traditional frontier between Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia), as "Horus, Mighty Bull, arising in Napata". He went to Thebes to be acknowledged there. After having consolidated his position in Upper Egypt, Piye returned to Napata (cf. "Victory Stela" at Gebel Barkal). 

At the same time, in Lower Egypt, a future opponent, the Libyan Tefnakhte ruled the entire western Delta, with as capital Sais (city of the goddess Neit, one of the patrons of kingship). Near Sais were also the cities of Pe and Dep (Buto), of mythological importance since the earliest periods of Egyptian history, and cult centre of the serpent goddess Wadjet, the Uræus protecting Pharaoh's forehead. When the rulers of Thebes asked for help, Piye's armies moved northwards. When he sent messengers ahead to Memphis with offers of peace, they closed the gates for him and sent out an army against him. Piye returned victoriously to Napata, contenting himself with the formal recognition of his power over Egypt, and never went to Egypt again. But the anarchic disunity of the many petty Delta states remained unchanged.

Pharaoh Shabaka (ca. 712 - 698 BC), this black African "Ethiopian", also a son of Kashta, was the first Kushite king to reunite Egypt by defeating the monarchy of Sais and establishing himself in Egypt. Shabaka, who figures in Graeco-Roman sources as a semi-legendary figure, settled the renewed conflicts between Kush and Sais and was crowned Pharaoh in Egypt, with his Residence and new seat of government in Memphis. Pharaoh Shabaka modelled himself and his rule upon the Old Kingdom.

The first Assyrian king who turned against Egypt -that had so often supported the small states of Palestine against this powerful new world order- was Esarhaddon (ca. 681 - 669 BCE). For him, the Delta states were natural allies, for -in his view- they had reluctantly accepted the rule of the Ethiopians. Between 667 and 666 BCE, his successor Assurbanipal conquered Egypt (Thebes was sacked in 663 BCE) and this Assyrian king placed Pharaoh Necho I (ca. 672 - 664) on the throne of Egypt. With him, the Late Period was initiated.

► Conclusion :

In the Third Intermediate Period, or post-Imperial Era, we witness the decentralization of Egypt, and the reemergence of new divisions, either between Tanis and Thebes or between Sais and Napata. After the XXIth Dynasty, the former "enemies of Egypt" ruled, i.e. the Libyans and Nubians (both used as mercenaries at the beginning of the New Kingdom).

However, we cannot say these fully egyptianized Libyan or Ethiopian rulers destroyed Egyptian culture, quite on the contrary. They were proud to stand at the head of Egypt, to prove to the traditional pantheon that their rule favored them and they Egypt (so that the deities of Egypt would remember them). Indeed, just before and after the Assyrian conquest, Dynastic Rule was characterized by a revival of archaic Egyptian forms. The extraordinary wealth of Egypt was monumentalized on a grand scale by artist and architects who were also state-funded archeologists of Egyptian culture. They studied the papyri in the various "Houses of Life" and rediscovered the old canon. They copied "worm-eaten" documents to make them better than before. For in their minds, the Solar Pharaohs of old were the true foundation of Egyptian Statehood (Old Kingdom nostalgia can also be found in the New Kingdom).

1.2 A few remarks concerning the Late Period.

The XXVIth or "Saite" Dynasty (664 - 525 BCE) installed by Assurbanipal, allowed for the resurgence of Egypt's unity and power. Necho I was killed by the Nubians in 664 BCE and his son Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) was an able stateman. He was trusted by the Assyrians and left alone by the "Ethiopians". Because the Assyrians could not maintain their military presence in Egypt, Pharaoh was able to reunite Egypt. He immediately revitalized the Egyptian form by relying on the vast cultural heritage and its recorded memory. A short renaissance saw the light. And also in this period, the Greeks recontacted the Egyptians for the first time since generations. Carians and Ionians were enlisted by Pharaoh, who made his scribes study Greek.

"Saitic Egypt, with her turning back to the great pharaonic times and her consciousness of a great cultural past, the memory of which reaches back to a time long forgotten ("Saitic Renaissance", Assmann, 2000), is seen as the teacher of knowledge and wisdom, for she is recognized for her old age and for her wisdom that derives from that antiquity. It seems to be especially this "cultural memory" (Assmann, 2000) of Saitic Egypt that determines the image of Egypt in later Greek generations." -
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, pp.14.

The Saite Dynasty sought to maintain the great heritage of the Egyptian past. Ancient works were copied and mortuary cults were revived. Demotic became the accepted form of cursive script in the royal chanceries. These Pharaohs focused on keeping Egypt's frontiers secure, and moved far into Asia, even further than the New Kingdom rulers Thutmose I and III.

When Cyrus the Great of Persia ascended the throne in 559 BCE, Pharaoh Ahmose II or Amasis (570 - 526 BCE) was left with no other option than to cultivate close relations with Greek states to prepare Egypt for the Persian invasion of 525. The latter led to the defeat and capture of Psammetichus III (526 - 525) by Cambyses (who died in 522 BCE).

Under Persian rule (525 - 404 BCE), Egypt became a satrapy of the Persian Empire. The Persians left the Egyptian administration in place, but some of their rulers, like Cambyses and later Xerxes (486 - 465 BCE) disregarded temple privilege. The gods and their priests were humiliated. Only Darius I (522 - 486 BCE) displayed some regard for the native religion. When Darius II died (404 BCE), a Libyan, Amyrtaios of Sais, led an uprising and again Egypt would enjoy a relatively long period of independence under "native" rulers, the last of which being Pharaoh Nektanebo II (360 -  343 BCE).

A second Persian invasion (343 BCE) ended these short Dynasties (28, 29 & 30, between 404 - 343 BCE). But with Alexander the Great (entering Egypt in December 332 BCE), Egypt came under Macedonian rule. The Greeks respected Egypt and its gods and Greek communities had been living there for generations. In 305, the Ptolemaic Empire was initiated (it ended in 30 BCE). Mass immigration happened  : Greeks, Macedonians, Thracians, Jews, Arabs, Mysians and Syrians settled in Egypt, attracted by the prospect of employment, land and economic opportunity. Foreign slaves and prisoners of war were brought to Egypt by the new rulers.

Between 30 BCE and 642 CE, Egypt was ruled by the Romans and the Byzantines, before it became Islamic as it still is today.

1.3 Greek trading, recontacting & settling in Egypt.

Old Kingdom Egypt used mercenaries in military expeditions. Nubians settled in the late VIth Dynasty in the southernmost nome of Elephantine and were employed in border police units.

"Contact with Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean Greeks is well attested. The image of Egypt is already firmly established in the Homeric poems and a plethora of Egyptian artefacts has been unearthed in Greece, the Aegean and even in western Greek colonies such as Cumae and Pithecusa in Italy from as early as the eighth century." -
La'ada, in Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.158.

The presence of Libyans and Nubians is attested in the armies of Pharaohs Kamose and Ahmose at the start of the New Kingdom. An alliance between the Hyksos Dynasty and the Minoans existed.

"In return for protecting the sea approaches to Egypt, the Minoans might have secured harbour facilities and access to those precious commodities (especially gold) for which Egypt was famous in the outside world." - Bietak, M., 1996, p.81.

With Pharaoh Ahmose (ca. 1539 - 1292 BCE), Minoan culture enters Egyptian history. Indeed, in the aftermath of the sack of Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a - ca. 1540 BCE), the capital of the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1759 - 1539 BCE), the fortifications and palace of the last Hyksos king (Khamudi) were systematically destroyed. Pharaoh Ahmose replaced them with short lived buildings reconstructed from foundations and fragments of wall paintings of the ruins. The fragments were found in dumps to level the fortifications & palatial structures of Ahmose. These paintings were Minoan !

Their presence, 100 years earlier than the first representations of Cretans in Theban tombs and earlier than the surviving frescos at Knossos, whose naturalistic subject matter they share, shows the cultural links between Crete and Egypt (before and after the sack of Avaris). These frescos seem to owe little to Egyptian tradition and serve a ritual purpose : bull-leapers, acrobats and the motives of the bull's head and the labyrinth point to Early Cretan religion.

As a small amount of Minoan Kamares ware pottery was found in XIIIth Dynasty strata (Middle Kingdom), it is not impossible Egyptian artistic style influenced Crete as far back as the Old Kingdom (jewels). These early periods do not evidence the systematic immigration of Greeks. The links between Greece and Egypt, as with many other nations, were probably foremost economical.

We know Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) employed Carian and Ionian mercenaries in his efforts to strengthen his authority (ca. 658 BCE) against the Assyrians. He also put some boys into the charge of the Greeks, and their learning of the language was the origin of the class of Egyptian interpreters, and the "regular intercourse with the Egyptians" began. He allowed Milesians to settle in Upper Egypt (not far from the capital Sais). This was the first time Greeks were allowed to stay in Egypt.

"With the enrollment of Greek mercenaries into his service, Egypt became more important from the Greeks' point of view than the ruined cities of Syria." -
Burkert, 1992, p.14.

It is Herodotus who, in his Histories, informs us that camps ("stratopeda") were established between Bubastis and the sea on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. They were occupied without a break for over a century until these Greek mercenaries were moved to Memphis at the beginning of the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose II or "Amasis" (570 - 526 BCE). They were reintroduced in the area at a later stage to counter the growing menace of Persia (525 BCE). 

The Greek inscription found on the leg of one of the colossi at Abu Simbel, indeed indicates that mercenaries, under Egyptian command, formed one of two corps in the army, whose supreme commander was also an Egyptian. Under Pharaoh Apries (589 - 570 BCE), there was a revolt of mercenaries at Elephantine ... Because the Ionians and Carians were also active in piracy, the Egyptians were forced to restrict the immigration of Greeks, punishing infringement by the sacrifice of the victim. 

Herodotus (II.177,1) also comments that during Pharaoh Amasis, Egypt attained its highest level of prosperity both in respect to crops and the number of inhabited cities (indeed, an estimated 3 million people lived in Egypt). It was under this Pharaoh that the Greeks were allowed to move beyond the coast of Lower Egypt. Trade was encouraged and the sources, mostly Greek, refer to trading stations such as "The Wall of the Milesians", and "Islands" bearing names as Ephesus, Chios, Lesbos, Cyprus and Samos. 

A lot of Greek centres emerged, but the best-documented trading centre was Naukratis on the Canopic branch of the Nile not far from Sais and with excellent communications. It was founded by Milesians between 650 - 610 BCE (under Pharaoh Psammetichus I). From ca. 570 BCE, all Greek trade had to move through Naukratis by law. So, before the end of the 6th century BCE, the Greeks had their own colony in Egypt. The travels of individual Greeks to Egypt for the purpose of their education, as well as Greek immigration to Kemet, the "black" land, is usually dated at the time of the Persian invasion (525 BCE). However, it can not be excluded that Pharaoh Psammetichus I allowed Greek intelligentsia to study in Memphis.

Summarizing Greece/Egypt chronology (all dates BCE) :

  • ca.2600 : Neolithic Crete : first sporadic contacts with Old Kingdom Egypt (Dynasty IV) ;

  • ca.1700 : neopalatial Minoan Crete : Mediterranean network of artistic and iconographic exchange, communication between Minoan high culture and Egypt (XIIIth Dynasty) ;

  • ca.1530 : Hyksos ruins in Minoan style (Avaris) are used by Pharaoh Ahmose I ;

  • ca. 670 : Pharaoh Psammetichus I initiated the study of Greek, employed Greek mercenaries against the Assyrians, set up a camp that stayed in the western Delta and allowed the Miletians to found Neukratis ;

  • 570 : under Pharaoh Ahmose II (Amasis) the Greeks were allowed to travel beyond the western Delta - Neukratis became an exclusive Greek trading centre complete with Greek temples. He cultivated close relations with Greek states to help him against the impending Persian onslaught ;

  • 525 : Egypt a satrapy of the Persia empire, start of a more pronounced Greek immigration to Egypt ;

  • 332 : Egypt invaded & plundered by the Macedonians ;

  • 305 : Egypt ruled by Greek Pharaohs ;

  • 30 : death of Queen Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian ruler.

2. Greece before Pharaoh Amasis (before 570 BCE).

2.1 Short history of Ancient Greece.

The earliest traces of habitation on Crete belong to the 7th millenium BCE. Continuous Neolithic habitation have been noted at Knossos from the middle of the fifth millenium BCE. Towards the middle of the 3th millenium BCE (ca. 2600 BCE) a peaceful immigration took place, probably from Asia Minor and Africa, introducing the Bronze Age to Crete. Before establishing a list of historical parallels, let us summarize the evolution of Ancient Greek culture as follows (all dates BCE) :

  • Minoan Crete (ca. 2600 - 1150) : This period is subdivided on the basis of the pottery or the rebuilding of the palaces. 

    The Palatial Chronology is : 

    prepalatial (ca. 2600 - 1900) : The arrival of new racial elements in Crete brought the use of bronze and strongly built houses of stone and brick with a large number of rooms and paved courtyards, with a varied pottery of many styles - society was organized in "clans" ("genos"), and farming, stock-raising, shipping and commerce were developed to a systematic level - the appearance of figurines of the Mother Goddess - Egyptian influence at work in golden & ivory jewels ;
    protopalatial (ca. 1900 - 1730) : Centralization of power in the hands of kings, and the first large palace centres with wide cultural influence : Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros (and there must have been more) - production of very fine vases or vessels of stone and faience, sealstones of precious or semi-precious stones, elegant weapons & tools - the emergence of naturalistic hieroglyphic and dynamic scenes - the pantheon has the Great Goddess as its main element as well as the use of sacred symbols such as the sacred horns and the double axe - society is hierarchical and contacts with the outside world become frequent - hieroglyphic script (derived from Egyptian models ?) developed into Linear A (late protopalatial) - a terrible disaster, perhaps caused by earthquakes, destroyed the first palace centres ca. 1730 BCE ;
    neopalatial (ca. 1730 - 1380) : Minoan civilization reached its zenith with the reconstruction of more magnificient palaces on the ruins of the old - increase in the number of roads, organization of the harbours, increase of trade - feudal & theocratic society installing & maintaining the "Pax Minoica", facilitating the cultural development of Crete - main deity is still the Great Goddess, portrayed as a chthonic goddess with the snakes, the "Mistress of the Animals" (lions & chamois) or the goddess of the heavens (birds & stars), worshipped together with the god of fertility, who had the form of a bull - the hieroglyphic script became Linear A (with two hundred surviving texts), used until the collapse of the Pax Minoica - in ca. 1530 the Thera volcano on Santorini erupted - from about 1500 onwards there was a significant increase of Mycenæan influence - the rise of the use of a syllabic, ruling-class language, Mycenæan Greek, now called "Linear B" (imported by the Mycenæans to Crete) ;
    postpalatial (ca. 1380 - 1100) : after the final destruction of Knossos in 1380, none of the Minoan palaces were re-inhabited - Mycenæan culture took over (ca. 1450) and their presence is attested both by Linear B and the appearance of typical pottery. Ca. 1100, the descent of the Dorians heralded the demise of Minoan civilization.

  • Helladic Age (ca. 2800 - 1100) : This period is preceded by the Neolithical Period. The earliest settlers reached Greece from Anatolia during the 7th millenium. Good pasturage drew them to the plains of Thessaly or Boeotia and the land round the gulf or Argos. They did not know the plough. The transition from this Neolithic communites to a metal-working culture (first half of the 3th millenium) was not always peacefully accomplished.

    Following subdivisions prevail :

    Early Helladic I (ca. 2800 - 2600) : Greece inhabited by these so-called "pre-Helladics" who did not speak Greek. At first, they lacked farming expertise. They worshipped the Mother Goddess. Stone houses replaced mud-bricks. The Stone Age sites they erected provided collective defence against some external threat. Trade, especially by sea, began to flourish. Political and economical agricultural urbanism. Local barons ruled an area of up to ten miles' radius round a walled hilltop site.

    Early Helladic II (ca. 2600 - 2100) : They eventually capitalized and developed this progress and formed a civilized society.

    Middle Helladic (ca. 2100 - 1600) : The arrival, in 2100 and later between 1950 and 1900, of marauding barbarians who burnt and destroyed the fortified towns. 

    "Greece, at all events, like Italy, Anatolia, and India, only came under Indo-European influence during the migrations of the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Greeks in Greece, or, more precisely, the immigration of a people bearing a language derived from Indo-European and known to us as the language of the Hellenes, as Greek, is a question scarcely less controversial, even if somewhat more defined. The Greek language is first encountered in the fourtheenth century in the Linear B texts." -
    Burkert, 1985, p.16.

    These newcomers formed the spearhead of a vast collective migrant movement originating somewhere in the great plateau of central Asia, sweeping West and South from Russia across the Danube and penetrating the Balkans from the North. The Greek language they spoke was a branch of the Indo-European group (as is Vedic Sanskrit) and they are regarded as the first, true "archaic" Greeks. The female fertility images vanished and were replaced by a male sky-god cult and a feudal, palace-based society akin to that of Homer's Olympians. These warrior-aristocrats were totally unaware of seafaring and became Mediterranean traders once the slow process of acclimatization was on its way.

    Mycenæan Age (ca. 1600 - 1100) : The mythical Danaus (ca. 1600  - 1570), a Hyksos refugee, took over Mycenæ and established the "Shaft Grave dynasty" which lasted for several generations. Mycenæan Greece was split up into a number of small districts (and hence to regard Mycenæ itself as a "capital" is misleading), with a scribal caste at the service of warrior leaders, vigorous commercial economy (based on indirect consumption) and a high level of mostly imported craftsmanship. New were the "tholos" burials, with their domeshaped burial-chambers. Their palaces followed the architectural style of Crete, although their structure was more straightforward and simple. Linear B texts reveal the names of certain gods of the later Greek pantheon : Hera, Poseidon, Zeus, Ares and perhaps Dionysius. There are no extant theological treatises, hymns or short texts on ritual objects (as was the case in Crete). Their impressive tombs indicate that their funerary cult was more developed than the Minoan. 

    During the mid thirteenth century (ca. 1200 - 1190) several Peloponnesian sites suffered damage and within a century every major Mycenæan stronghold had fallen, never to be recovered. Indeed, a vast, anonymous horde with horned helmets and ox-driven covered wagons had made its way, locust-like, across the Hellespont, through the Hittite Empire, by way of Cilicia and the Phoenician coast to the gates of Egypt, to be defeated by Pharaoh Ramesses III (ca. 1186 - 1155) in two great battles. These nomadic "Dorians" destroyed what came in touch with them, and after their defeat, they vanished amid the wreckage of their own making. Athens never fell, and it is unconquered Athens we have to thank for what survives of the Mycenæan legends, although their customs vanished.

  • Dark Ages (ca. 1100 - 750) : Over a period of nearly two centuries, beginning soon after 1100, we find eastward migrations, from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia Minor. These movements were driven by Mycenæan refugees, shaping a diaspora, speaking a dialect known as Aeolic. The rich central strip of Ionia was colonized (after a bitter struggle) after the Dorians overran mainland Greece. About 900, the Dorians themselves spread out eastward from the Peloponnese. Aeolic, Ionic and Doric elements intermingled. When Homer wrote his Illiad and Odyssey (ca. 750) or Hesiod his Theogony, the Greek world was desperately poor. The Dark Age practice of relying on a local chieftain for protection was encouraged. Greece was a series of small, isolated communities, clustering round a hilltop "big house".

  • Archaic Period (ca. 750 - 478) : This period has also been called the "Age of Revolution", because after the slow recovery of the Dark Age, there came a sudden spurt or accelerated intellectual, cultural, economical and political efflorescence. Two divisions :

    from the Dark Age to the "Greek Miracle" (ca. 750 - 600) :

    The alphabet was derived from Phoenician, but scholars differ as to when this has happened. Some say shortly before the earliest inscriptions -found on pottery ca. 730-, while others propose an earlier date. The latter do not accept an illiterate Dark Age. Phoenician attained its classical form ca. 1050, and so a transmission of the alphabet in the late Mycenæan age could not be excluded. However, by 800 there was unity in language and, to some extent, a culture throughout the Aegean world. And in the same period as seagoing trade resurged (ca. 750), writing was reintroduced. Thanks to the use of a viable, fully vowelized, Phoenician-derived alphabet rather than a restricted syllabary (Linear B), literacy became a fact. This paved the way for the "Greek Miracle" in sixth-century Ionia. 

    Government was based -through hereditary aristocracy- on landownership. Between ca. 750 and 600, we find the crystallization of the city-state and the rise in power of the non-aristocrats, allying themselves with frustrated noble families and putting the hereditary principle under pressure. The two main leitmotivs of this age are discovery (literal and figural) and the process of settlement & codification. 

    With Hesiod (ca. 700), the poet-farmer from Ascra, described as the forerunner of the pre-Socratics, we find a mere lay poet taking upon himself the priestly task of systematizing myth according to the pattern of the family tree (genos). He saw the world as a muddled, chaotic place where the only hope lay in working out man's right relations with the gods, his fellow men and his natural, barely controllable environment. Homeric ideals, looking back five centuries in the past (to idealize the Mycenæan age), were swept away. Although Hesiod betrays nostalgia for the good old days, he knows that they are over. Those who have no power to implement their wishes, must appeal to general principles. Hence, his morality is that of the underprivileged and his emphasis on the omnipotent Zeus, who bestows the gift of justice ("dike"). Shortly after Hesiod, we see the rise of lyric poetry which -in the fifth century- gave way to drama (in choral form) and to prose.

    Although Homer (ca. 700) thought along paratactic (creating sentences without subcoordinating or subordinating connectives), symbolical and mythical lines, Hesiod did not know what an abstraction was. The idea of the polis emerged, but was characterized by the tension between rational progressivism and emotional conservatism, between civic ideals and ties of consanguinity, between blood-guilt and jury justice, between old religion and the new secularizing philosophy. Indeed, with the Ionians Thales and Anaximander of Miletus, Greek philosophy was born (ca. 600). Between 650 - 600 we also witness the rapidly developing emphasis on human concerns : anthropocentrism. From about 675 onwards, the "tyrannoi" began to seize power in the city-states all over the Aegean world : Argos, Sicyon, Corinth, Mytilene, Samos, Naxos, Miletus and Magara among other fell in their hands. They were an urban-based phenomenon and were eager to promote fresh colonizing ventures.

    from the "Greek Miracle" to the Classical Period (ca. 600 - 478) :

    During this period, Greece's great revolution was brought to completion. The stiff, Egyptian stance of the male statues ("kouroi") began to lose its hieratic formality. Politically, the slow evolution of democratic government at Athens and the rise of Persia have to be noticed. The predominantly "scientific" interests associated with Miletus, gave way between 550 and 500 to a more mystically oriented movement, to which Pythagoras, Heracleitus and Xenophanes each contributed. Between 514 and 479 all Greek history is dominated by the shadow of Persia, which contributed to finally establish the right of mainland Greece to persue its own way of life. A mere handful of Greek states did stand out against the gigantism of the Persian Empire and the palace absolutism of the Near East.

    During this Archaic period, pre-Socratic philosophy developed.

  • Athenian Imperialism (478 - 404) : With the formation of the "Delian League", Athens broke away from the "Hellenic League", which had fought against Xerxes. In 469, Cimon took a large fleet to the eastern Mediterranean and routed Persia's forces. He reopened the old Levant-route to Rhodes, Cyprus, Phoenicia and Egypt. The drift of new learning, both in the speculative as in other fields, was firmly anthropocentric. The gods were left out or replaced by exotic, enthusiastic and uncivic foreign cults. The Eleusinian Mysteries were an attempt to provide this trend with some official outlook. The Sophists emerged and pioneered the great liberal movement, criticized by Plato. In 404, Athens at last surrendered to Sparta, and exchanged one despotism by another.

  • Decline of the polis (404 - 323) : The next three decades, the isolationist, old-fashioned and autocratic Spartan government ruled, triggering the formation of an anti-Spartan coalition and Persia playing each side off against the other. Thebes and Athens were thrown into alliance, the latter breaking Sparta's hold on Greece. This proved a mere repetition, but under a better leadership, of the Spartan experience. Sparta, Athens, Elis, Achaea and Mantinea formed a coalition against Thebes. With the rise of Philip II of Macedonia (359), the whole picture changed, and in 338 all organized resistance to Macedonia ceased. With the death of his son, Alexander the Great (323) a new era began (namely Hellenism). The city-states vanished and became part of the new imperial rule.

Chronological Table of the Aegean Bronze Age compared with Ancient Egypt

This historical sketch of Ancient Greece presents us with a lot of dynamic players and is characterized by a lot of inner tensions and interactions with the environment (invasions, migrations, colonizations). Natural disasters, immigration, "Doric" invasions, Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War and the Macedonian rule were primordial in the formation of the Greek mentality. This conflictual interpretation of the complexity of Greek culture explains the extraordinary cognitive reequilibrations which happened, before but especially after the Dark Age. This catastrophic evolution being the outer side of an inner, mental state of discontent. It also shows the importance of cosmopolitanism, individualism, anthropocentrism and adaptability in the formation of the Greek cultural form and its rationality.

Using another chronological order, five fundamental stages may be discerned

  • Neolithic Age (7000 - 2600 BCE) : settlements of farmers in Crete and mainland Greece ; 

  • Bronze Age (2600 - 1100 BCE) : the Bronze Age, starting with the arrival of peaceful immigrants on Crete, can be divided in two periods :

    Minoan : This culture was palace-based. Between ca. 2600 and 1600 BCE, no Greek influence was present on the island. The Minoans reached their zenith between ca. 1730 and 1500 (the "Pax Minoica"). Two scripts are attested : hieroglyphic (not yet deciphered) & Linear A. The latter is nearly always used for administrative purposes (the count of peoples & objects). The last phase of the Minoan neopalatial civilization was characterized by Mycenæan influence (i.e. after ca.1600 BCE).
    Mycenæan : Initiated ca. 1600 BCE, the culture of these Greek speaking people spread over mainland Greece and reached Crete. It was strongly influenced by Minoan protopalatial (ending with the destruction of ca. 1730 BCE) & neopalatial culture, but remained loyal to its own Greek character. Eventually they conquered Crete (ca. 1450 BCE) and caused the elaboration of Greek Linear B based on Cretan Linear A, which is not a Greek language as evidenced by the few tablets found in Linear A (for example, the word for "total" -often used in administrative texts- cannot be understood as the archaic matrix of a Greek word).  

    So Minoan and Mycenæan cultures interpenetraded : before 1600 BCE, Crete had directly influenced the formation of Early Helladic Greece but was itself non-Greek (Linear A) - after 1450 BCE, Mycenæan Greece took over Minoan culture on Crete and Greek Linear B was used by the Minoan treasury of Crete in the postpalatial.

  • Dark Age (1100 - 750 BCE) : Dorian Greece, pushing Greek culture a step back ;

  • Archaic Age (750 - 478 BCE) : Greek culture reemerges ;

  • Classical Age (478 - 323 BCE) : the "polis" and the emergence of classical, conceptual rationalism.

What happened with literacy during the Dark Age ? Although it is likely the scattered Mycenæan refugees kept some of their linguistic traditions alive, so that some were still able to read and write Linear B, it is clear the cultural network which had existed beforehand had been destroyed by the Dorians and with it a unified cultural form in Greece based on a shared language. If these refugees wrote their literary texts (if any) down on tablets in Linear B in the same way as had happened on Crete, then the reason why none were found may be explained by the fact the clay of these tablets had been dried only and/or reused. It is more likely though their culture was oral.

During these obscure centuries, Greek culture, as a form shared by all the inhabitants of Greece, was nonexistent. The marauding barbarians, who had destroyed the fortified towns of the pre-Helladics, and had developed (thanks to Crete) into the grand Mycenæan culture, were themselves destroyed by horned plundering hords from the North, identified by some as belonging to the Doric branch of the Greek family ... 

The length of the Dark Age (300 years) must have thrown a devastating shadow on the survival of Mycenæan culture. Note that the name of this period refers to how little is known about it and also points to the remarkable contrast between Doric Greece and Mycenæan culture. Fact is the Dorians had no written language of their own and did not use Linear B. Isolation and loss of skills characterized the period. About the religious practices, Snodgrass (2000) says that :

"Such practices seldom leave a substantial material record, even in a well-documented period ; they are known to us largely from literary sources. We should not therefore doubt the possibility of their transmission through the dark age, simply because we cannot find proof of it in the material evidence." -
Snodgrass, 2000, p.399.

In the memories of the few able to safeguard the original Mycenæan form, Mycenæ became legendary and heroic. In a sense, the Mycenæans represented the "mythical" past of the Ancient Greeks.

2.2 The invention of the "phoinikeïa" for both vowels & consonants.

"The impact of writing as opposed to oral culture is perhaps the most dramatic example of transformation wrought from the outside, through borrowing." -
Burkert, 1992, p.7.

Before the reemergence of writing in Ancient Greece at the end of the Dark Age (ca. 750 BCE), linguists distinguish between pictographic (hieroglyphic) writing, Linear A and Linear B writing.

  • hieroglyhic script : ca. 1900 (begin protopalatial) - 1730 BCE (destruction first palace) : probably a Cretan, non-Greek language ;

  • Linear A : ca. 1900 - 1450 BCE (destruction second palace) : a Cretan picture-based language which does not represent Greek words (reached its zenith ca. 1650 BCE) - in the beginning it existed side by side with the hieroglyphic script ;

  • Linear B : ca. 1450 - 1380 BCE (final destruction of Knossos) : a Cretan and Greek sound-based, syllabic language representing the archaic matrix of Greek words - recast of Linear A ; 

  • Archaic Greek Alphabet ca. 800 BCE : advent of one spoken language in Greece - ca. 750 BCE : a Greek script derived from Phoenician and adapted to Greek needs.

Hieroglyphic script on seals - Crete (Lyttos)

A pictogram is the representation of a complete word (not individual letters of phonemes) directly by a picture of the object actually denoted. 

This hieroglyphic script developed ca. 1730 BCE into Linear A. It is called "hieroglyphic", because it resembles the signary of Old Egyptian. This typical "pictoral narrative" can also be found on the Predynastic Narmer Palette or the Label of Djer (Dynasty I - tomb of Hemaka). 

Possibly their inspiration indeed came from Egypt, as sporadic trade was initiated as early as the prepalatial period (during Egypt's Old Kingdom and its Old Egyptian literature), as evidenced in Cretan ivory & gold jewellery. 

If so, then the script had various pictograms which would have received a phonetic (consonantal) and/or an ideographic value (assisting in the determination of the meaning implied). Vowels would be absent and the artistic, contextual placing of the signs would have played an important role. 

Next to these formal considerations, there would have been the pragmatical fact that Egyptian hieroglyphs were "sacred" signs, only used to write down religious, funerary, literary & philosophical thoughts of monumental & lasting importance. The Minoans had no "cursive" form of hieroglyphic, mostly used for secular purposes (in Egypt, this "hieratic" developed alongside hieroglyphic, starting ca. 3000 BCE). 

Indeed, Linear B seems to have been an administrative & bureaucratic language. No linear B literature has (yet) been found ...

Linear A Tablet Co 907 - Crete (Knossos)

Linear A is mostly inscribed on stone. The shape of these signs suggests an earlier development, but nothing can be said for sure. 

Most inscriptions were found in the south of Crete. The script was primarily used -unlike the sacred Egyptian hieroglyphs- for administrative purposes. Linear A was in use when Egyptian had already entered its classical, so-called "Middle Egyptian" format. Linear A is not a Greek language. Although phonograms may occur, Linear A is (like the hieroglyphic script) picture-based. It also appeared in religious contexts.

Linear B Tablets 13 & 85 - Crete (Haghia Triada)

Linear B (derived from Linear A) is not picture-based (pictogram) but sound-based (phonogram). A series of 87 signs are used. The basic syllabary consists of 60 biliteral signs. With these the phonetic value of words are written down. The basic syllabary is the combination of 5 vowels with 12 consonants. Linear B adds 16 optional signs and 11 signs are not yet identified. The optional signs are used to allow one to identify words more precisely or to represent two basic signs. It is read from left to right. Linear B (also used in the last phase of the Minoan culture) was the script of the Mycenæns (ca. 1600 - 1100 BCE) and its language was Greek. Archaeological evidence showed that Linear B was not used a lot in mainland Greece. No private use of the language has been discovered. It was deciphered by Ventris in 1951. Apparently, Linear B was only used to keep records in Greek at Knossos and later at the palaces of Thebes, Mycenæ and Pylos.

"L'écriture semble avoir été employée exclusivement comme un outil bureaucratique, le moyen indispensable de conserver les comptes et documents administratifs, mais jamais dans une perspective historique et encore moins profane. (...) le contenu des tablettes en linéaire B consiste, presque sans exception, en listes d'individus, d'animaux, de produits agricoles et d'objects manufacturés." -
Chadwick, 1994, p.191.

Phoenicia, its language & alphabet

Phoenician alphabet of Byblos - ca. 1050 BCE
with Aramaic & Hebrew derivations

In Antiquity, Phoenicia was the region corresponding to modern Lebanon, with adjoining parts of modern Syria and Israel. Its inhabitants, the Phoenicians, were notable merchants, traders, and colonizers of the Mediterranean in the 1st millennium BCE. Its chief cities were Sidon, Tyre, and Berot (modern Beirut).

It is not certain what the Phoenicians called themselves in their own language. It appears to have been "Kena'ani" (Akkadian : "Kinahna") or "Canaanites." In Hebrew the word "kena'ani" has the secondary meaning of "merchant," a term characterizing the Phoenicians well. The Phoenicians probably arrived in the area about 3000 BCE. Nothing is known of their original homeland, though some traditions place it in the region of the Persian Gulf.

At Byblos, commercial and religious connections with Egypt are attested from the IVth Dynasty. Extensive trade was certainly carried on by the 16th century, and the Egyptians soon established suzerainty over much of Phoenicia. The 14th century, however, was one of much political unrest, and Egypt eventually lost its hold over the area. Beginning in the 9th century, the independence of Phoenicia was increasingly threatened by the advance of Assyria, the kings of which several times exacted tribute and took control of parts or all of Phoenicia. In 538 BCE, Phoenicia passed under the rule of the Persians. The country was later taken by Alexander the Great and in 64 BCE was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria. Aradus, Sidon, and Tyre, however, retained self-government. The oldest form of government in the Phoenician cities seems to have been kingship limited by the power of the wealthy merchant families. Federation of the cities on a large scale never seems to have occurred.

The Phoenicians were well known to their contemporaries as sea traders and colonizers, and by the 2nd millennium they had already extended their influence along the coast of the Levant by a series of settlements, including Joppa (Jaffa, modern Yafo), Dor, Acre, and Ugarit. Colonization of areas in North Africa (like Carthage), Anatolia, and Cyprus also occurred at an early date. Carthage became the chief maritime and commercial power in the western Mediterranean. Several smaller Phoenician settlements were planted as stepping stones along the route to Spain and its mineral wealth. Phoenician exports included cedar and pine wood, fine linen from Tyre, Byblos, and Berytos, cloths dyed with the famous Tyrian purple (made from the snail Murex), embroideries from Sidon, wine, metalwork and glass, glazed faience, salt, and dried fish. In addition, the Phoenicians conducted an important transit trade.

In the artistic products of Phoenicia, Egyptian motifs and ideas were mingled with those of Mesopotamia, the Aegean, and Syria. Though little survives of Phoenician sculpture, the round, relief sculpture is much more abundant. The earliest major work of Phoenician sculpture to survive was found at Byblos : the limestone sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos at the end of the 11th century. Ivory and wood carving became Phoenician specialties, and Phoenician goldsmiths' and metalsmiths' work was also well known. 

Although the Phoenicians used cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing), they also produced a script of their own. The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters appeared at Byblos ca. 1050 BCE, but earlier stages are likely. The inscription on the sarcophagus of Ahiram (ca. 1000 BCE), shows a scripture which had already attained its classical form. This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the modern Roman alphabet. It was the Phoenicians' most remarkable and distinctive contribution to arts and civilization.

This writing system developed out of the North Semitic alphabet and was spread over the Mediterranean area by Phoenician traders. It is the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and, hence, of all Western alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet gradually developed from this North Semitic prototype and was in use until about the 1st century BCE in Phoenicia proper, when the language was already being superceded by Aramaic. Phoenician colonial scripts, variants of the mainland Phoenician alphabet, are classified as Cypro-Phoenician (10th - 2nd century BCE) and Sardinian (ca. 9th century BCE) varieties. A third variety of the colonial Phoenician script evolved into the Punic and neo-Punic alphabets of Carthage, which continued to be written until about the 3rd century CE. Punic was a monumental script and neo-Punic a cursive form. Punic was influenced throughout its history by the language of the Berbers and continued to be used by North African peasants until the 6th century CE.

The Phoenician alphabet in all its variants changed from its North Semitic ancestor only in external form. The shapes of the letters varied a little in mainland Phoenician and a good deal in Punic and neo-Punic. The alphabet remained, however, essentially a Semitic alphabet of 22 letters, written from right to left, with only consonants represented and phonetic values unchanged from the North Semitic script. Phoenician is very close to Hebrew and Moabite, with which it forms a Canaanite subgroup of the Northern Central Semitic languages.

Phoenician words are found in Greek and Latin classical literature as well as in Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew writings. Phoenician and Hebrew scripts, both monumental and cursive, were closely akin and developed along parallel lines. Modern decipherment of Phoenician took place in the 18th century (Swinton, Barthélemy). Phoenician epigraphic material is far from impressive.

the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet

Archaic Greek Alphabets derived from Phoenician

Although the Greeks played no important role in the formation of their own alphabet, they added a crucial dimension : the five vowels. Indeed, Phoenician, like Aramaic and Hebrew, was essentially a Semitic alphabet. It consisted of 22 letters, written from right to left, with only consonants. Semitic languages remained written from right to left, while archaic Greek inscription had both directions before fixating the opposite direction (from left to right). Moreover, the order of the letters was also fundamentally Phoenician, and the Hebrew meaning given to the individual letters corresponded with the Greek name for the letter :

aleph / alpha (ox), beth / bèta (house), gimel / gamma (camel), daleth / delta (door), he / epsilon (window), vau / upsilon (nail), zain / zèta (sword), cheth / èta (fence), teth / thèta (serpent), yod / iota (hand), kaph / kappa (hollow hand), lamed / lambda (ox-goat), mem / mu (water), nun / nu (fish), sameth / xi (prop), ayin / omicron (eye), pe / pi (mouth), tzaddi (fish hook), qoph (back of hand), resh / rho (head), shin / sigma (tooth), tau / tau (cross-mark)

Seven Phoenician consonants (cf. "phoinikeia grammata", the "Phoenician letters") were unnecessary in Greek (identified by their Hebrew names) : "aleph", "he", "vau", "yod", "ayin", "tzaddi" & "qoph".

These unnecessary consonants were used to represent the vowels and two consonants, "tzaddi" and "qoph", were dropped. The "vau" was taken out of the Phoenician alphabetical order and added as "upsilon" at the end of the new Greek alphabet, together with four typical Greek sounds. 

  • the "aleph" was used for "a" ;

  • the "he" was used for "e" ;

  • the "vaw" was used for "u" ;

  • the "yod" was used for "i" ;

  • the "ayin" was used for "o" ;

Finally, they added four Greek sounds :

  • the "phi", for "ph" ;

  • the "chi", for "ch" ;

  • the "psi", for "ps" ;

  • the "omega" for "oo".

This alphabetic system provided the Greeks ca. 750 BCE with 7 voweled sounds : "a", "e", "ee", "i", "o", "oo" and "u". The complete alphabet ensued : (a) alpha, (b) bèta, (g) gamma, (d) delta, (e) epsilon, (z) zèta, (è) èta, (th) thèta, (i or j) iota, (k) kappa, (l) lambda, (m) mu, (n) nu, (x) xi, (o) omicron, (p) pi, (r) rho, (s) sigma, (t) tau, (u) upsilon, (f or ph) phi, (ch) chi, (ps), psi and (oo) omega

In all Ancient Semitic languages vowels were omitted. Even in Ancient Egyptian, only the consonantal structure was recorded. Vowels are dynamical, and constitute the variety & adaptability of a script to concrete situations like gender, number and measurements. In Linear B, vowels (a and o) were used to define gender and were recorded. By adding vowels to their alphabet, the Archaic Greeks allowed the written language to reflect the spoken one, so that a text seemed a fixating copy of the concrete, living situation which triggered its composition (in Egypt, the difference between the spoken word and the "sacred" hieroglyphs was considerable). Thanks to vowels, the event could be exactely recorded, and made present "in abstracto" as text. Hence, Greek cultural forms could be transmitted with more precision, which triggered the formation of a "historical memory" based on records which reflected the past as it was (devoid of the ante-rational connotations & contexts necessary to decipher non-voweled texts). Literacy meant thus much more than access to the sacred (as in Egypt) : by writing down their language using a voweled alphabet, the Greeks were able to captivate & describe the living, concrete context in such a way that the text better represented the real or ideal thing.

In my opinion, binding vowels fits well the linearizing and defining state of mind of the Greeks. In Mycenæan Linear B, the system was till syllabic, joining each vowel with a consonant. In Cretan Linear A, the pictogram ruled but phonetic value might have been present. But Linear B offered a clear advantage : it was sound-based and fixated the vowels, though not absolutely. With the adaptation of the Phoenician script at the beginning of the Archaic Age, the Greeks took a fundamental cognitive step forward and eliminated the exclusive consonantals, identifying each vowel with an alphabetic sign of its own !

The evolution of cognition may hence be linked with these various scripts as follows (for Ancient Egypt see : theology, verbal philosophy and magic

  • hieroglyphic script : mythical mode : loose pictograms on Creta ;

  • Linear A : mythical mode : pictoral system ;

  • Linear B : pre-rational mode : syllabic system with relatively fixed vowels ;

  • Archaic Greek : proto-rational mode : alphabetic system with fixed vowels.

The fixation of the vowels in an absolute, phonographic sense, allowed the Greeks to define a series of categories which had remained outside the scope of any other script of Antiquity. The vowels could be used to write down gender, verbal inflections and suffixes making the language fluid. Suddenly, about 750 BCE, the Greeks had a tool to define meaning with an unprecedented precision and clarity, adapted to the spoken tongue. 

This accomplishment must not have passed unnoticed when -under Pharaoh Psammetichus I- they arrived in Egypt. There was however no direct information available to the Greeks about Egypt as a whole, for -as a group- they were forced by law to remain in the western Delta, a situation which would change when Pharaoh Amasis ascended the throne of Egypt in 570 BCE.

2.3 Archaic Greek literature, religion & architecture.

► at the treshold of archaic literature

At the beginning of recorded Greek literature stand two grand epic stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, and the works of Hesiod (White, 1964), like the Theogony.

Some features of the Homeric poems reach far into the Mycenæan age, perhaps to 1500 BCE, but the written works are traditionally ascribed to Homer. In their present form, they probably date to the 8th century (recorded ca. 750 BCE). It goes without saying that the elaborated compositional framework evidenced in these masterpieces proves the existence of an oral tradition.

"The likely conclusion is that the Homeric political system, like other Homeric pictures, is an artificial amalgam of widely separated historical stages. And yet there is natural and almost irresistible urge to look for a single period in which as many features as possible of the picture can be credibly and simultaneously set." - Snodgrass, 2000, p.389.

Implicit references to Homer and quotations from the poems date to the middle of the 7th century BCE. Archilochus, Alcman, Tyrtaeus, and Callinus in the 7th century and Sappho and others in the early 6th adapted Homeric phraseology and metre to their own purposes and rhythms. At the same time, scenes from the epics became popular in works of art. The pseudo-Homeric "Hymn to Apollo of Delos," probably of late 7th-century composition, claimed to be the work of "a blind man who dwells in rugged Chios", a reference to a tradition about Homer himself. 

The general belief that Homer was a native of Ionia (the central part of the western seaboard of Asia Minor) seems a reasonable conjecture, for the poems themselves are in predominantly Ionic dialect. Although Smyrna and Chios early began competing for the honour, and others joined in, no authenticated local memory survived anywhere of someone who, oral poet or not, must have been remarkable in his time ...

With Hesiod, the farmer-poet from Ascra, apparently of the eighth century BCE, described as a forerunner of the pre-Socratics, we encounter a lay poet taking upon himself the task of systematizing myth. He saw the world as a muddled, confusing, chaotic place where the only hope lay in the hands of the Pantheon, one's fellow men and natural factors around him. The barely controllable essence of the world springs to the fore. Brute necessity is more important than Homeric ideals, and the individual emerges out of the collective in a desperate mode. Grim might seems right here. Zeus however, has the gift of justice ("dike") and crime does not pay. Hesiod stands midway Homer and the Milesian philosophers.

There is no evidence to substantiate the existence of Greek literature in Linear B, although Indo-European poetry is attested as an art form in "measured lines with fixed poetic flourished, some of which appear in identical form in Vedic and Greek." (
Burkert, 1985, p.17, my italics).

The use of leather, combined with a sea climate, makes it unlikely to ever discover original Mycenæan texts. The Linear B tablets found survived because of catastrophic fires which destroyed the buildings they were stored in (for the original were only sun-dried). It is likely that under the Mycenæans and the Dorians, the bulk of all Homeric and Hesiodic ideas were transmitted exclusively orally. Let us speculate, and assume Mycenæan poets at times wrote down a brief sketch of their works, assisting memory with small inscriptions in Linear B on leather and sun-dried clay, and assuring the continuity of the synopsis of their thought (combined with extensive oral training). A strong contra-argument has always been the absence of inscriptions on pottery (instead, geometrical forms were used). But this is apparently less significant in Greece in terms of scriptoral capacity than it was in Ancient Egypt, with its "magical" and "divine" interpretation of language and its eternalization.

"... the criterion of ceramic style as an indicator of major cultural changes is less satisfactory. We have found it misleading ..." -
Snodgrass, 2000, p.393.

► towards Archaic Greek religion

Minoan religion was associated with the miracle of nature, and our principal source of knowledge are artistic representations inspired by a deified natural world and depicting or facilitating religious cult. 

"They might be described as high-class hedonists with a strong religious sense ; and their religion, characteristically, seems to have been a gay open-air everyday faith, with holy spots on mountain-tops and in groves or by springs and well-houses, with fertility goddess and an Artemis-like Mistress of Beasts ..." -
Green, 1973, p.34.

Three important features of the Minoan religious experience stand out : 

  • the sacrality of the tree : the tree marks a sanctuary and is surrounded by a sacred enclosure. During processions, the anthropomorphic Great Goddess is enthroned beneath it. The same holds for pillars, columns and stones ; 

  • the chthonic powers : sacrifice of the bull (symbol of the fecundity of nature, the male god of vegetation), bull-games, double axe and sacral horns point to the mastering of the chthonic powers of the mother goddess, who played a central role ;

  • the epiphany of the deity from above in the sacred dance : it seems that mystical communion with the god (i.e. the direct experience of the Divine) was important and momentary scenes of epiphany show the deity besides the sacred tree, in front of shrines, next to a stepped altar or on a mountain peak.

Although obvious differences are present, Minoan and Egyptian religion are of the same family. Both are based on nature, the exhaltation of life and divine kingship. They share identical iconography : the bull as symbol of permanence, the sacrality of trees and elevated places, the ample use of colorful representations of fauna and flora and similar jewelry. On Crete, nature at times was a rumbling, bull-like underground which knocked down their best palaces. Hence, to find and keep the proper "equilibrium" was what was needed to allow the acrobat to jump over the back of the bull. In Egypt, were chaotic Nile-floods could cause famine and wreck social order, the image of the balance expressed a solidarity with nature, despite its darker, destructive sides.

The famous "Bull-leaping" fresco, East wing of the palace of Knossos - 15th century BCE

But in Egypt, the mystical approach in the daily ritual was restricted to Pharaoh, son of Re, and his representatives, although the Egyptian people had a strong religious sense and organized many yearly festivals and special days. Also : the Minoans apparently did not share Egypt's convictions regarding sacred script and the magic of words, both spoken and written. The hypothesis of a direct influence of Egypt on Crete should not be excluded. If so, this started as early as the Old Kingdom.

The Palace of Nestor at Pylos - tentative reconstruction by Higgings of the Throne Room

The contrast with Mycenæan religion, with its Indo-European "sky-god" and "father of the Olympians" should be clear. The Elysium, ruled over by the Cretan Rhadamanthus, the judge of the dead, was unlike the gloomy Hades. Here a happy Sunlit paradise, there the darkness of wandering shades. For the Mycenæans, the human was placed at the centre of the universe and military confronted with nature. The human was no longer part of nature, but endowed with the power to protect and fortify himself. The palaces also point to the difference : the Mycenæans built according to a rigid plan, based on rectangular units ("megaron"), whereas the Cretan palaces possessed a plastic layout (also true for the Egyptian temple). 

Plan of the Palace of Minos at Knossos - in its heart is a rectangular central court

The Mycenæan sense of linearity will become the outstanding feature of Archaic and Classical Greece. The "megaron" returned in the Dorian temple and contributed to the finished and complete sense of any major Greek building.

"Les dieux égyptiens ressemblent, de par leur nature et leurs manifestations en mutation constante, aux temples du pays, qui n'étaient jamais achevés, mais toujours 'en construction'. La forme axiale des temples en Égypte est clairement ordonnée, articulée, et pourtant n'exclut jamais la possibilité d'extension et de transformation continues. (...) En cela, l'Égypte diffère considérablement de la Grèce, où temples et dieux sont relativement finis et complets." -
Hornung, 1986, p.235, my italics.

On Linear B tablets found at Knossos, the names of Zeus, Hera, Pæan, Enyalios & Poseidon appear. A rich and differentiated system of Mycenæan gods was worshipped by priests in a lifelong, official position. Sacrificial rituals are attested.

But although rooted in Minoan and Mycenæan elements, Archaic Greek religion is not to be equated with it. For example, nowhere at any time is the triad : altar, temple and cult-image, found in the Minoan-Mycenæan world.

At the end of the Dark Age, external elements caused the Greek cultural form (nearly extinct during the Dark Age) to rejuvenate and reemerge. These may be summarized as an "Oriental influence", in which Egypt played a prominent factor :

"Alongside the fragmentary, but undeniably effective Mycenaean-Minoan tradition, there are therefore repeated, noteworthy impulses from the East, or more precisely from the Hittite/North Syrian area, which must be registered, with Cyprus having a special importance as the meeting-place and centre for dissemination. Intensive contacts exist in the twelfth century and then again in the ninth/eighth centuries, when Greek traders establish settlements in Syria, until there is a true breakthrough of Eastern fashion about 700 with the Orientalizing Style ; then from 660 onwards, thanks to the role of Greek mercenaries in the twenty-sixth dynasty, Egypt sets the tone. But before the seventh century is over, the culture drift is reversed ; Greek art now comes into its own and for centuries is taken as a model by both East and West. In particular cases it is often difficult to decide in which phase of East-West relations a given element of religious culture has been taken over ; even the Homeric epic does not always provide clear clues. But the history of religion cannot disregard the fact that it was precisely during the dark age, the time of confusion and debilitation, that the gates to an Oriental influence were opened." -
Burkert, 1992, p.52, my italics.

► archaic architecture

Mycenæan palaces were fortified citadels. These feudal and local barons lived of commerce and plunder. Each ruled an area of up to ten miles' radius around a hilltop site. Their architecture was military and stern (cf. the "megaron"), although superficial resemblances with Minoan architecture are obvious.

The Citadel of Mycenæ - reconstruction by Higgings as it would have been in the 13th century BCE

The major structural improvement made by the Archaic Greeks was the outer colonnade, also called "peripteros", around the sacred space of the temple (the "cella"). In Egypt, columns were used in the hypostyle hall, which referred to the primordial marsh of creation or to the forests that had vanished along the Nile. Colonnade-temples as such did not occur. 

Originally, the "peripteros" was made out of wood, for the temple, in Minoan fashion, was conceived as a space surrounded by trees. The "cella" was the "open" space in the sacred, original "wood", eventually represented in a rigid, linear way. Because the rich donated money to replace the wood by stone, the wooden sanctuary eventually became a stone temple ... 

One of the oldest examples of a Greek temple or palace, was found on the island of Euboia :

Temple or Palace of Lefkandi - 9th/8th century BCE

"Even if the Greeks had wanted to build monumentally before they found themselves on the banks of the Nile they would have lacked the technical know-how for quarrying, transporting, and installing megalithic masonry. It is plausible that Egyptian technology served as a primary player in the re-emergence of monumental architecture in archaic Ionia. This is not to say that the Ionian Greeks simply copied Egyptian temples. Indeed, quite to the contrary, the evidence suggests that the Ionian Greeks created structures that were unique, and the evidence for this will be taken up later. For now, the main point is that the Egyptian techniques for monumental construction and the exemplars they had produced stimulated the Ionian Greeks. And that from Naucratis where they had a thriving colony, no more than a weekend's travel away, the Ionians had extraordinary access to a grateful Egypt." - Hahn, 2001, p.69.

Temple or Hera in Olympia shows the hesitations of the first archaic architects :
two colonnades in the cella instead of one in the middle (statica) and plump Dorian columns
the original wooden columns of the peripteros were slowly replaced by stone ones - ca. 600 BCE

The leap forward realized by the Greeks in their Dorian temples is evident in the linearization of the layout, as well as in the precise cardinal orientation of the edifice. However, it takes some time before these architects feel confident enough to erect slender buildings. In contrast with sculpture and painting, which are judged according to "eros" (mutual attraction) and "mimesis" (likeness), architecture is defined by abstract mathematical standards of symmetry and proportion. In the latter, the natural numbers (introduced by Pythagoras) played an essential part. Indeed, natural numbers (the set 1, 2, 3 ...) can be squared, raised to the third power, and placed in a series etc.

First Temple of Hera in Poseidonia, Paestum, called "basilica" - ca. 540 - 530 BCE

These symmetries introduced a play of proportion and "natural number" symbolism, which has been defined as the classical standard of beauty. And although each temple is indeed a representation in stone of a particular mathematical equilibrium or "logos" (word), they may be placed together with no real consideration for the overall architectonic balance between them, as we see in Poseidonia, with its two Hera temples erected bluntly next to each other :

Foreground : first Temple of Hera in Poseidonia, Paestum, called "basilica" - ca. 540 - 530 BCE
Background : Great Temple of Hera - ca. 460 - 440 BCE (contemporary of the Parthenon)

For the Greek architects, symmetry was a system of proportions, which regulated coherence, reciprocity and balance. These defined harmony. Proportions could be expressed numerically in "natural" numbers. The influence of Pythagorism on Greek architecture was therefore decisive. 

3. Memphite thought and the birth of Greek Philosophy.

Greek philosophy & science has been acclaimed as the most original contribution of the Greeks to the intellectual tradition of the world. 

"What does change as soon as philosophy appears on the scene is perspective and verbalization, the kind of questions asked. Previously religion had been defined by forms of behaviour and by institutions ; now it becomes a matter of the theories and thoughts of individual men who express themselves in writing, in the form of books addressed to a nascent reading public. These are texts of a sort that did not exist before in either form or content : the new is incommensurable with the old. Philosophy indeed begins with the prose book." -
Burkert, 1985, p.305, my italics.

It is clear the Greek philosophical mentality was unique, but it did not come forth "ex nihilo", but was the result of the network of forces that triggered the so-called "Greek Renaissance", which was based on traditional Minoan & Mycenæan elements, but made explicit by a series of "new" concepts derived from Mesopotamia, Iran and, last but not least, Egypt : 

  • "ta onta" : language refers to an object (correspondence & realism) - when understood in its most general (universal, abstract, linear) form as "being", it takes the plural "the beings" or "that what is", "things that are" ;

  • "arche" : this being has a beginning in time and space and when this is known, the essence of the entity can be ascertained ;

  • "phusis" : moreover, after its initiation as a "thing" by the "arche", there is a process of becoming which can not be influenced by human beings ; 

  • "kosmos" : the totality of what exists is not a random amalgam, but has intrinsic order, organization, lawfulness and determination ;

  • "aletheia" : besides being expressed through ritual acts in the domain of justice ("dike"), truth qualifies as a particular type of speech, pronounced under particular circumstances, by a figure invested with particular functions ;

  • "sophoi" or "sophistai" : men who came forward with books about these matters, but who had as yet no name for themselves and their work and designated as "wise". These men "understood" and "perceived" ("nous") certain truths and commanded intelligence and eloquence.

These "new" concepts were fully developed in Ancient Egyptian literature at the time when they first emerged in Greece to animate the Greek Renaissance and its philosophy :

  • creation as the totality of existing things is attested in the Memphis Theology as well as in the Hymn to the Aten : "Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words. He gave birth to the gods, he made the towns, he established the nomes, he placed the gods in their  shrines, he settled their offerings, he established their shrines, he made their bodies according to their wishes. Thus the gods entered into their bodies of every kind of wood, of every kind of stone, of every kind of clay, in every kind of thing that grows upon him in which they came to be. Thus all the gods and their ka's were gathered to him, content and united with the Lord of the Two Lands." (Memphis Theology, Lines 59 -61) ;

  • all things viewed as rooted in the "arche" is the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian idea that all deities and creation itself emerge out of the singular Atum, who creates himself "in the first time" and defies the preexisting "ultimate cause", namely the primordial ocean ("Nun") ;

  • the "physis" of the process of becoming is the equivalent of Atum simultaneously creating Shu and Tefnut (unfolding into an Ennead) and therewith the whole of creation (0 > 1 = 2 ... 9 = ALL) ;

  • the Enneadic structure of the pantheon and the interconnectedness between the Two Lands as well as their harmonization and unification by Pharaoh, is suggestive of the pyramidal order of a society ruled by a divine king who is the unique son of the creator (Ennead + Pharaoh = the decad, completion) ;

  • the importance of Maat (in Greece also personified by a female deity called "Themis" who -as in Egypt- was a daughter of the supreme god of the sky, Zeus) is both cosmical (Pharaoh sustaining creation by offering truth & justice to his father) and social (the accomplished discourse discussed by Ptahhotep) : "He who lessens falsehood, fosters truth." (The Eloquent Peasant, Sixth Petition, Middle Kingdom) ;

  • the wise of Egypt are able to live "in" truth & justice and are also exceptional individuals, with particular verbal qualities, understood in a "logoic" sense as well as reflecting a particular social position in society (as Ptahhotep and the other sapiental authors, known by name, confirm).

3.1 The origin of Greek philosophy : Thales, Anaximander & Anaximenes.

► archetypal, Afrocentric, communicational

Regarding the historical origins of Greek philosophy, three hypothesis have been put forward :

  • the Aryan model (Lefkowitz, 1996 & 1997) : denies the influence of Ancient tradition on Archaic Greece and proposes a purely white, European Greek archetype, rooted in the Indo-European experience. This model is Hellenocentric and Europacentric and in conflict with what is known about the historical interaction between cultures. Its core of truth is the idea that a "Greek mentality" existed and with it the particular linearity which allowed Greek rationality to see the light ; 

  • the Afrocentric model (James, 1954) : denies the Greeks their own cultural originality and proposes a "stolen legacy". This model is in conflict with the fact that the Greeks developed a rational system based on open dialogue, abstract thought & syllogistic logic (absent in Ancient Egypt and the cultures of the Middle East). Its core of truth is the acknowledgment that qua practical experience (the "minor" of the syllogism), the Greeks were "a young people" who had few or no written traditions of their own and who indeed allowed themselves to be influenced by the, in comparison, grand and old Egyptian civilization ;

  • the communicational (diffusionist) hypothesis : tries to understand the emergence of a new cultural form in terms of the open interaction between peoples and the formative, cognitive effects of communication and apprenticeship arising between them. The pre-Socratics have, as a group, been significantly influenced by Egyptians and Mesopotamians, but Greece subsequently influenced these ancient cultures, namely by linearizing and rationalizing their traditions. Between all cultures a constant flow of information is present which allows for creative interaction and exchange. Isolation is rare and contraproductive in terms of cultural development. Economical, demographical, political, social & theological variables are constantly at work. In this model, the weight of all major players should always been taken into consideration (as well as the versatility of new cultures, such as that of Archaic Greece). It is clear that in Mediterranean Antiquity, the long history of Egyptian civilization (entering history ca. 3000 BCE) represented the ultimate accomplishment of human civilization. Hence, for curious Greeks, there was a lot to learn in Egypt ...

Let us focus on the third hypothesis :


The Egyptians produced monumental funerary and other works of art, which were intimately bound by the "divine words" inscribed on them. In fact, the "neter medu" ("nTr mdw"), the "words of the god" or any book or inscription in hieroglyphs ("sacred glyphs") were deemed more important than the pieces which eternalized them. Moreover, every large temple had its library, containing hundreds if not thousands of papyri, records of the practical information & procedures (coded in the concrete concepts of proto-rationality) pertaining to the various sciences studied and applied by the members of these high places of Egyptian intellectual activity. The Egyptians were constanty sending out messages and every Greek who was intelligent enough to be interested in written traditions must have been overtaken by all these various, pictoral symbol-sources. The coining of the world "hieroglyphs" is suggestive of the fact that the use of a special pictoral "sacred script" (Middle Egyptian) impressed the Greeks. Indeed, they realized that the Egyptians also used cursive hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic. Egyptian beauty was far more scriptoral than was the case in Mesopotamian art. This outstanding linguistic nature of the Egyptian symbol-source should be taken into consideration.


That the Greeks were curious people is evident. But as receivers, they were ca.670 BCE in a special position, for their urge to learn was that of an emergent Greek nation which had lost touch with its roots during the Dark Age and which was left with Homeric poetical dreams, which were nothing more than an amalgam of the Minoan and Mycenæan experience intermingled with the grimness of the Dorians. No genuine track-record was present. Before 800 BCE, the Greeks spoke various dialects and they could no longer read and write ! So the Dorian catastrophe preceding the Greek Renaissance, involved a major cultural crisis, which culminated in the Greeks seeking out "new" models and "good" examples. Note that the reception of Egyptian civilization was also a recognition and a rememberance. For when the travellers returned home, they spoke of Egyptian kings, monuments, rituals and festivals rooted in a religion of nature which strongly resembled Minoan Crete. Were there traces of the Minoan experience left in the Greek data-base which made them approve Egyptian thought ? Did history repeat itself (Mycenæan Greeks influenced by Minoan Crete, Archaic Greeks influenced by Egypt) ? It is clear the Greeks became fruitful Egyptian info-sources, as Alexandrian Hermetism proves.

" ... it is inaccurate to refer to the relationship between Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece as one of cultural theft. Probably the best description of the relationship is as 'approbation'. The Ancient Greeks as a whole were only partially guilthy of the more severe charge of plagiarism, as they often cited their Egyptian and Oriental antecedents. It was the classicists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who completed the denial of the earlier sources, giving all the credit to the European Greeks." -
Bernal, 2001, p.393, my italics.

So, although the negative insight that there is not one single origin of Greek philosophy holds, we may discern the following formative components which induced the "Greek Miracle" :

  • the past Minoan factor : this non-Greek, Linear A civilization strongly influenced the Greek mainland and the Greeks arriving there between ca. 1900 & 2100 BCE - the differences between Minoan and Indo-European mythology are considerable, whereas, at some point, early Minoan Crete was influenced by Egypt ;

  • the past Mycenæan factor : this Greek civilization was first influenced by Crete and would eventually conquer the island and recast Linear A (no vowels) into Linear B (syllabic). Although there are no direct sources available, evidence suggests the presence of an original Greek pantheon (with a focus on the sky god) and an organized society. Traces of the typical "philosophical" questions posed by the Ionians have not been found, but the stern, linear and fortified constructions of these Greeks, as well as their grim shadowy funerary expectations, are suggestive of the discontent and martial mental attitudes of the Classical Greeks (thought as crisis & catastrophe), which contrast with both Cretan myth and Egyptian thought. "The finished literary masterpieces of the Iliad and Odyssey, like the curiously sophisticated and analytical mentality behind the contemporary Late Geometrical paintings, show the magnitude of the renaissance that now enveloped Greece." - Snodgrass, 2000, p.436.

  • Third Intermediate Period Egyptians : although the "age of empire" (the New Kingdom) was over, Egypt stood, ca.1075 BCE, in comparison with other nations, still at such a high point of cultural development, that its decline took another millenium, during which time Egypt continued to be outstanding and inspiring (most of the Egyptian temples we can visit today were erected under Greek, Ptolemaic rule). The marvel of its temples and the erudition of its priests very probably astonished the Greeks, who quickly "approved" these realizations to readapt them to their own linear mentality ; 

  • other Mediterranean cultural formations : the Phoenicians, Babylonians, Hittites, Jews etc. also influenced the Greek travellers, but my reading of the evidence present today shows that the affiliation qua philosophical intent was not as marked as the Egyptian influence. 

Although commerce (the invention of "money"), the voweled alphabet, astronomy & the astral religions of the Middle East served as additional ingredients, the focus on the mental (the heart of truth & justice), the verbal (great speech, generative command, creative command), the ceremonial (the magic of the just deed), the scriptoral (the magic of words) and the dialogal (accomplished discourse) witnessed in Egyptian thought, was truly unique (both qua persistence in time as qua internal structure and balance). Egyptian thought came close to the philosophical intent of wanting to understand creation and the place of humanity therein and had developed theological (cf. Hymns to Amon), naturalistic (cf. Great Hymn to the Aten), sapiental (cf. Maxims of Ptahhotep) and quasi phenomenological (cf. Cannibal Hymn) answers, albeit in an ante-rational mode of thought

Over the millenia, the practical results of this proto-rational thinking had been preserved on monuments and in the various libraries, to be studied by Pharaoh and his representatives when a major task was initiated (like erecting a new temple) or an unforseen problem rose (so as to seek out what their predecessors did). When the first Greeks arrived, and given the Egyptian conservative love of writing, we can only speculate about the number of papyri that were carefully stored away in all the major and minor libraries of Egypt. We have extant lists of books found in the "House of Life" of major temples. They reveal categories and a system of classification.

Egyptian thought was, ex hypothesi, the decisive (but not the only) catalyst enabling Greek philosophy to emerge in Ionia ca. 600 BCE. It played a crucial part in the Greek Renaissance giving way to Classical Greece and its philosophy.

If asked which characteristics of Egyptian thought played a prominent role in the constitution of Greek philosophy, following points spring to the fore :

  • the words of god and the love of writing : it should be emphasized, that in Ancient Egypt, both spoken and written words were very important : hieroglyphs were "divine words", endowed with magical properties, "set apart" and distinguished from everyday language and writing (in hieratic and later demotic). Pharaoh Unis (ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE) decorated his tomb with hieroglyphs to assure his ascension and subsequent arrival in heaven. Even if the offerings to his Ka would end, the hieroglyphs -hidden in the total obscurity of the tomb- contained enough "inner" power ("sekhem") to assure Wenis' felicity ad perpetuam ... Egyptian rituals were a unity of gestures and words. The latter were vibrations which opened the secret gates of the Netherworld, offerings of sound (voice-offerings) and subtle bodies for the deities to dwell in (as "ka" and/or "ba"). But ritual gestures were a "language" too. For example : two raised hands -the hieroglyph for "ka"- indicated embrace.  Each morning, the cult-statue was likewise "embraced" by the officiating priest to pass on vital energy and to invite the deity to dwell in its idol. In that sense, Egyptian civilization was quite unique in the Mediterranean, and perhaps even in the world. It is remarkable that a civilization producing such a vast literary corpus, never reached (as a collective) the rational mode of cognition. Egypt's attachment to the contextual and the local, as well as the special pictoral nature of the "sacred script", all point to an ante-rational mentality, rooted in the mythical, pre-rational (pre-concepts) and proto-rational (concrete concepts) layers of early African cognition. From a philosophical point of view, the fact the Greek word "nous" (mind, thinking, perceiving) seems to be derived from the Egyptian "nw", "to see, look, perceive, observe", is noteworthy. The "logoic" nature of Greek philosophy, as well as its preoccupation with "aletheia" or "truth", are thus possibly linearizations of the Memphite philosophy to be found in both the work of Ptahhotep, the sapiental authors, and the theology of the priests of Ptah.

  • accomplished discourse : The fundamental categories of Memphite philosophy were "heart/tongue/heart" insofar as theo-cosmology, logoism and magic were at hand and "hearing/listening/hearing" in moral, anthropological, didactical and political matters. The first category reflected the excellence of the active and outer (the father), the second the perfection of the passive and inner (the son). The active polarity was linked with Pharaoh's "Great Speech", which was an "authoritative utterance" ("Hu") and a "creative command", which no counter-force could stop ("heka"). The passive polarity was nursed by the intimacy of the teacher/pupil relationship, based on the subtle and far-reaching encounters of excellent discourse with a perfected hearing, i.e. true listening.

    The "locus" of Egyptian wisdom was this intimacy. Although Pharaoh was also called "wise", the sapiental discourses alone name their (possible) author. Wisdom was always linked with a "niche" defined by the vignettes of life the sage wished to use as good examples to confer his wisdom to posterity, to understand how he balanced Maat in all circumstances and made the social order endure by serving "the great house", being at peace with himself.

  • truth and the plummet of the balance : In Egyptian, the word "maat" ("mAat") is used for "truth" and "justice" (in Arabic, "al-haq", is both "truth" and "real"). Truth is linked with a measurable state of affairs as given by the balance :

    "Pay attention to the decision of truth
    and the plummet of the balance, according to its stance !"
    Papyrus of Ani, Plate 3 - XXVIIIth Dynasty - British Museum

    This exhortation summarizes the practice of wisdom and its persuit of truth found in Ancient Egypt. It also points to their philosophy of well-being and art of living happily & light-heartedly (for the outcome of the weighing is determined by the condition of the heart or mind alone). In this short sentence, the "practical method of truth" of the Ancient Egyptians springs to the fore : concentration, observation, quantification (analysis, spatiotemporal flow, measurements) & recording (fixating) with the sole purpose of rebalancing, reequilibrating & correcting concrete states of affairs, using the plumb-line of the various equilibria in which these actual aggregates of events are dynamically -scale-wise- involved, causing Maat (truth and justice personified as the daughter of Re, equivalent with the Greek Themis, daughter of Zeus - cf. "maâti" as the Greek "dike") to be done for them and their environments and the proper Ka, at peace with itself, to flow between all vital parts of creation. 

    The "logic" behind this operation involves four rules : 

    1. inversion : when a concept is introduced, its opposite is also invoked (the two scale of the balance) ;

    2. asymmetry : flow is the outcome of inequality (the feather-scale of the balance is a priori correct) ;

    3. reciprocity : the two sides of everything interact and are interdependent (the beam of the balance) ;

    4. multiplicity-in-oneness : the possibilities between every pair are measured by one standard (the plummet).

Truth & Justice as Cosmic Logos

Heart (cognizing)

Tongue (speaking)

divine thought (what Ptah has on his mind, namely the image of Atum) as the ultimate and efficient cause of words - the immaterial cause of creation and excellent discourse - seat of the personality and free will in the individual

divine words as physical manifestations of what is conceived by the heart of Ptah (or divine mind) - the material cause of creation and excellent discourse, the agents used by the creator to fashion creation (preexistence, first time, the Ennead)

Truth and Justice as Social Order

Hearing (receiving) Listening ("verstehen")

the material entrance of well-formed sounds (language) in the healthy ear - to grasp the meaning of what is said - the ability to reproduce what has been said without "inner" understanding - the non-wise who aspire

to grasp the intent, possible hidden implications and "Ka" of what was perfectly heard - to listen with the heart is to truly understand the message with one's "inner being" - the wise who live "in" truth

► the colonizations : the imprint of the Greek foot

The second half of the tenth century brought a distinct easing off in depopulation, isolation, metal-shortages, architectural and artistic impoverishment & regional disparities, but this "true end" (Kirk, 1961) of the Dark Age has also been called a "false dawn" (Snodgrass, 2000, p.402). Because important centres of Greek civilization were still wrapped in obscurity, one can not claim that the "Greek Renaissance" had already begun ... Moreover, these changes are confined to the Aegean and its coasts. It is only since the middle and late eight century that profuse changes came about, which changed the outlook of Greek civilization fundamentally. This "Greek Renaissance" was an Age of Revolution. Exploration and codification (settlement) were its leitmotivs. The "second colonization" of the Greeks, which accompanied this revival, took place between ca. 750 and 650 BCE. The rise of Greek philosophy, the "Greek miracle", happened in Asia Minor, starting in Ionia ca. 600 BCE.

The Corinthian expansion probably took place at the end of the ninth century, while the establishment of a Greek settlement in the Levant is slightly earlier. These colonizations did not leave a strong impact, while the eighth century Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily shaped the history of these regions for the next centuries. Hence, the forerunners were probably voluntary and spontaneous venturers, whereas those of the eight century were the work of organized bodies of Greeks, possibly led by an individual aristocrat, and stimulated by the growth of population in the Greek homeland.

Greeks may have been marauding the Egyptian Delta perhaps as early as ca. 800 BCE, if not earlier. Because Ionian mercenaries had successfully assisted Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) in his battle against the Assyrians, the Greeks were welcomed in Egypt, enabling Miletus to found Neukratis and the Greeks to settle in the Delta of Lower Egypt. Pharaoh Amasis (570 - 526 BCE) allowed them to settle upstream (Heliopolis, Thebes). So between 664 and somewhere in the reign of Pharaoh Amasis, the only major temple-complex the Greeks had seen at work, was that of the priests of Ptah of Memphis.

► Thales of Miletus

There is a consensus, dating back at least to the 4th century BCE and continuing to the present in our academical history of Greek philosophy, that Thales of Miletus was the first Greek philosopher. According to the Greek thinker Apollodorus, he was born in 624 BCE. The Greek historian Diogenes Laërtius (ca. 3th century CE) placed his death in the 58th Olympiad (548 - 545 BCE) at the age of 78. He also affirms Thales travelled to Egypt, while Iamblichius explains how he advised other intellectual Greeks to go to Egypt in order to learn :

"Thales advised Pythagoras to go to Egypt and to entertain himself as much as possible with the priests of Memphis and Diospolis : it was from them that he had drawn all the knowledge which made him a sage and a scientist in the eyes of the masses."
Iamblichius : Life of Pythagoras, 12, my italics.

During his lifetime, the word "philosopher" (or "lover of wisdom") had not yet been coined. Thales was counted, however, among the so-called "Seven Wise Men" (the "sophoi"), whose name derives from a term designating inventiveness and practical wisdom rather than speculative insight (consistent with the Ancient Egyptians' notion of wisdom). In fact, today we reckon Thales to be the only "philosopher" on that list ! Thales tried to transmit to the Greeks the mathematical knowledge he had derived from the Babylonians (who, when conquering Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period, had influenced its astronomy profoundly). Thales sought to give it a more exact foundation and used it for the solution of practical problems, such as the determination of the distance of a ship as seen from the shore or of the height of the Gizza pyramids. Though he was also credited with predicting an eclipse of the Sun, it is likely that he merely gave a natural explanation of one on the basis of Babylonian astronomical knowledge (cf. the Saros-period between eclipses). 

Indeed, it was the Greek writer Xenophanes (ca. 580/577 - 485/480 BCE), who claimed Thales predicted the Solar eclipse that stopped the battle between the Lydian Alyattes and the Median Cyaxares, evidently on May 28, 585 BCE. However, Herodotus spoke of his foretelling the year only. That the eclipse was nearly total and occurred during a crucial battle, probably contributed considerably to his exaggerated reputation as an astronomer. No writings by Thales survive, and no contemporary sources exist. Hence, the truth of his achievements is difficult to assess. Inclusion of his name in the canon of the legendary "Seven Wise Men" led to his idealization, and numerous acts and sayings, many of them no doubt spurious, were attributed to him. Again according to Herodotus, Thales was a practical statesman who advocated the federation of the Ionian cities of the Aegean region. The Greek scholar Callimachus recorded a traditional belief stating Thales advised navigators to steer by the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) rather than by the Great Bear (Ursa Major), both prominent constellations in the North. Although such stories are probably apocryphal, they illustrate Thales' reputation. 

Thales' significance for Greek philosophy, lies less in his choice of water as the essential substance, than in his attempt to explain nature by the simplification of phenomena. Indeed, Thales searched for causes within nature itself rather than in the caprices of the anthropomorphic gods. He was deemed the first Greek to give a purely natural explanation of the origin of the world, free from all mythological ingredients and unnecessary complexities (linearization and homogeneity). The claim Thales was the founder of Greek philosophy rests primarily on Aristotle, who wrote he was the first (Greek) to suggest a single material substratum for the universe, namely, water, or moisture ... Aristotle apparently had no knowledge of Heliopolitan theology (Old Kingdom) and New Solar Theology (New Kingdom).

Even though Thales renounced mythology, his choice of water as the fundamental building block of matter had its precedent in the Egyptian tradition (cf. "Nun", the undifferentiated primordial waters before time and space and its "Ba" or "soul", the autogenetor Atum). To Thales, the entire universe is a living organism, nourished by exhalations from water (cf. Egypt's organic, hylezoistic view on creation).

It is true Thales made a fresh start on the basis of what a person could observe and figure out by looking at the world as it presented itself. This procedure naturally resulted in a tendency to make sweeping generalizations on the basis of rather restricted but carefully checked observations. But it also allowed Milesian philosophy to move beyond the localized and contextualized traditional thinking of the cultures surrounding it. The catastrophe of the Dark Age, as well as the vitality of the Greek spirit (its immaturity ?) favoured the rise of conceptual rationality, a mode of thought devoid of contextual restrictions.

In geometry, Thales has been credited with the discovery of five theorems :

(1) a circle is bisected by its diameter ;
(2) angles at the base of a triangle having two sides of equal length are equal ;
(3) opposite angles of intersecting straight lines are equal ;
(4) the angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle ;
(5) a triangle is determined if its base and the angles relative to the base are given.

Because of the ancient practice of crediting particular discoveries to men with a general reputation for wisdom, his mathematical achievements are difficult to assess. However, they evidence the linear and geometric spirit of the Greeks. Surely, Egyptians and Mesopotamians had arrived at the truths represented by these theorems before Thales, but their theoretical record and fixation (in abstract, discursive, denotative and context-independent terms) is highly original. It is this linearizing activity which foremost characterizes the "Greek miracle", not observation, recording and comparison. The latter can be done with proto-rational concepts too. But formal reason is precisely this : a reduction of a variety (a manifold) to a limited number of categories.

► Anaximander of Miletus

Thales' friend, disciple and successor, Anaximander of Miletus (ca. 611 - 547 BCE), is said to have given a more elaborate account of the origin and development of the ordered world (the cosmos). However, his writings are lost, and although still available to Apollodorus of Athens (cf. Chronica, ca. 140 BCE), they are not known to have been used by any other writer later than Aristotle and his successor Theophrastus of Eresus (ca. 370 - 285 BCE). The latter's Phusikos Doxai is also lost, but repeated by Simplicius (6th century CE). All ancient doxographers depend on the latter's Physics (Diels) . 

Doxographical evidence exists Anaximander wrote treatises on geography, astronomy, and cosmology that survived for several centuries, and made a map of the known world. He prized symmetry and introduced geometry and mathematical proportions into his efforts to map the heavens. Thus, his theories departed from earlier, more cosmogonical conceptions of the universe and prefigured the achievements of later astronomers.

Unfortunately, we only possess one sentence of Anaximander's writings. In this sentence, Anaximander explains a "need" or "necessity" (a moral imperative at work in creation) operating between the elements (as well as in human society) : 

"But where things have their origin, there too they must pass away, as it should ; for indeed, they give one another justice and penalty for their injustice, in accord with the ordinance of time."
Simplicius : Commentary on the Physics, 24.13v, my translation.

According to him, the cosmos developed out of the "apeiron", the boundless, infinite and indefinite (without distinguishable qualities). Aristotle would add : immortal, divine and unperishable.

Within this "apeiron" something arose to produce the opposites of hot and cold. These at once began to struggle with each other and produced the cosmos. The cold (and wet) partly dried up (becoming solid Earth), partly remained (as water), and -by means of the hot- partly evaporated (becoming air and mist), its evaporating part (by expansion) splitting up the hot into fiery rings, which surround the whole cosmos. Because these rings are enveloped by mist, however, there remain only certain breathing holes that are visible to men, appearing to them as Sun, Moon, and stars. 

"The Greeks seem to have received from Egypt their old celestial architecture, as well as that of their temples. It is only when conceived in this way, as a roof, that the 'ouranos' can be described as 'brazen' or (in the Odyssey) as made of iron. The reference is no doubt to the great solidity of the edifice. Hesiod has much the same thing in mind when he calls it, 'a seat set firm'." -
Kahn, 1994, p.139.

Anaximander realized upward and downward are not absolute. Downward means toward the middle of the Earth and upward away from it, so the Earth has no need to be supported by anything (as Thales had believed). Instead, he asserted the Earth remained in its unsupported position at the centre of the universe because it had no reason to move in any direction and therefore was at rest.

Starting from Thales' observations, Anaximander tried to reconstruct the development of life in more detail. Life, being closely bound up with moisture, originated in the sea. All land animals, he held, are descendants of sea animals. Gradually, however, the moisture will be partly evaporated, until in the end all things will have returned into the undifferentiated "apeiron", in order to pay the "penalty for their injustice", i.e. of having struggled against one another.

Anaximander subscribed to the philosophical view that unity could definitely be found behind all multiplicity. In Ancient Egypt, the same idea had ruled for millenia. The origin of creation was Atum, but the moment he autogenerates he splits into a pair (Shu and Tefnut). Unity and differentiation walk hand in hand. Also, in the Heliopolitan Ennead, the first two "generations of gods" are natural principles : Shu, Tefnut, Geb and Nut are hypostases of physical phenomena : Air, Moist, Earth & Sky. To indicate the primordial ocean had no bounds, the Egyptians gave Nun no cult. Only with the third generation, did the principles of human drama enter the picture. They are represented by anthropomorphic deities (as is to be expected). Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys are the prime actors in the mystery play of the mythical "golden age", the grand story of Osiris.

► Anaximenes of Miletus

Anaximander's successor, Anaximenes of Miletus (ca. 585 - 525 BCE), taught Air was the origin of all things. Neither Thales nor Anaximander appear to have specified the way in which "the other things" arose out of the water or the "apeiron". Anaximenes, however, declared the other types of matter arose out of Air by condensation and rarefaction. In this way, what to Thales had been merely a beginning, became a fundamental principle remaining essentially the same through all of its transmutations

Thus, the term "arche", which originally simply meant "beginning," acquired the new meaning of "principle," a term that henceforth played an enormous role in philosophy. This concept of a principle remaining the same through many transmutations is, furthermore, the presupposition of the idea nothing can come out of nothing. All of the comings to be and passings away we observe, are nothing but transmutations of something remaining essentially the same for ever (the law of conservation). 

Both ideas are found in Egyptian thought.

In the cult of Re and the funerary theology of Osiris, the principle of transformation is fundamental. The basic verb of Egyptian theology, "kheper", ("xpr") represented by a scarab, means : "becoming, coming into existence, transformation, manifestation", and shows the self-creative capacity of the creator to perpetually rejuvenate, i.e. move through the cycle of rebirth, death and resurrection, while his spirit ("akh", his essence) remains the same. The fact preexistence was described in positive terms, so that the "absent god" of pre-creation, Nun, was deemed always at work in the background (except in the very short period of Amarna theology), points to the Egyptian idea of a continuity of being, manifesting in various modes, of which the primordial one "in the beginning" is the undifferentiated water of original chaos (cf. the cultless "Nun", the "father of the gods"). In the Late New Kingdom, Amun-Re theology points in the same direction. Amun is hidden, one and millions. He is behind the world (spatiotemporally) and hidden unity in the world. As such, he is every god and every goddess. Amun-Re functions as Anaximenes' "arche".

In Egyptian culture, the importance of Maat cannot be underestimated. The goddess was a personification of a divine concept of truth and justice. The transformation of Atum ends with the first dawn of Re. He sends forth rays of light (petrified as an obelix) upon the "risen land", the primordial hill whose emergence heralds the end of the "first time" and the coming into being of phenomena (to be witnessed). Together with Re, Maat appears. She personifies the law of the universe, a combination of natural and moral insights and considerations. This law cannot be broken and is offered by the divine king to his divine father. This "offering of Maat" was the fundamental ritual of Pharaonic Egypt.

The Greek mentality removed the mythical and pre-rational contexts which the Egyptians had left intact in their (difficult) proto-rational literature and eventually they linearized (simplified) Egyptian thought, a process initiated by the Milesian "sophoi".

► Milesian philosophy : individual observation and emergent proto-rationality

Architecture (the Dorian temple) is a good example of the Greek linear state of mind.

"The architects, along with the Milesian phusiologoi, were no doubt stunned by their discoveries of geometric thought and its curious application to a world of change, a world grasped first of all by the senses. The imposition of certain patterns on physical things allowed them to become intelligible in a manner previously unknown. No doubt it was partly an inherited wisdom, from Egypt, Bablylon and elsewhere, but the archaic Greeks in Ionia transformed that vision and so also its meaning." -
Hahn, 2001, p.166.

The Egyptians kept extensive pictoral & written records of their political, economical, funerary and, since the Middle Kingdom, personal reflections, as well as of the dynamics of the Nile (the core of which they never discovered, for the process is chaotic - Hassan, 1997). The image of the balance (cf. supra) is essential to understand Egyptian thought as a whole. To measure the distance from equilibrium with a plumb-line in a process of confrontation between two opposing forces and to reestablish harmony (the transcendent factor, projected on Pharaoh) was the overarching, endless work of "justice and truth" ("Maat") which ruled, as a natural moral law, since the first day of creation.

The mathematical Rhind Papyrus (second half of the 19th century BCE) shows the empirico-pragmatics of numerals, units of measurement, multiplication, division, addition of fractions, summing to 1, doubling of unit fractions, division of numbers by 10, solution of equations, unequal distribution of goods, squaring the circle, rectangles, triangles and pyramidal forms were mastered by the Egyptians. Badawy (1965), based on a study of 55 case studies belonging to all periods of Egyptian history, demonstrated that in Egyptian painting, sculpture and architecture a "harmonic design" based on the 8:5 triangle (approximating the golden section) was used.

The archaic mentality of the Greeks (prefigurated in the rigid Mycenæan "megaron" as well as in the complex geometrical design of Dorian pottery) was stern, courageous, young and geometrizing. But just like the rigid Mycenæans had been fascinated by Minoan Crete and its "African" natural scenery, the Archaic Greeks were awestrikken by the formidable grandeur of (Afro-)Egyptian culture. Their own insistence on this should be taken serious. There was more than intellectual opportunism at work here. Of course, as Indo-Europeans, the Archaic Greeks had a couple of typical features of their own :

  • individuality / authority : at the beginning of the Archaic Age, there was a "crisis of sovereignty" (Vernant, 1962). It implied a new political problem : Who should rule and by virtue of what authority ? The collapse of the Mycenæan palace civilization was followed by a return to the small tribal organization (cf. the "ethnos"). This tension between individuality and social unity is fundamental to understand Greek philosophy (culminating in the judgment of Socrates). The view that an individual had the right to rule by virtue of divine lineage was undermined. Heroic individualism was slowly replaced by an egalitarian ideal, in which archaic aristocratic authority was challenged. The building of temples was an "argument" for the appropriation of civic authority and helpful to keep control of the foundation of the economic power of the landowners, the aristocrats (Hahn, 2001, p.237). They secured their claim by drawing a particular connection between themselves and a given deity and integrated the divergent fractions of the community through the regularity of worship. This swing of the pendulum between the particularism of the aristocrats and the egalitarism of the democrats, remained a core ingredient of Greek culture & animated the Classical Greek "polis" ;

  • exploring mentality : at the beginning of the Archaic Age, the population quadrupled and citizenship was increasingly connected with land ownership, triggering a competition for land which motivated the colonization. But besides these external causes, the fact remains that the Greeks were a curious people, always eager to learn more by approving new ideas and linearizing them in accord with their own abstract frame of mind. The dynamic nature of the Greek cultural form assisted a decontextual approach (while in Egypt, a sedentary mentality reigned) ;

  • unique dynamical script : the importance of their new system of writing should not be underestimated : by fixating the vowels, the Greeks were able to describe an state of affairs with a precision no other script of antiquity possessed. This referential, objective linguistic capacity enabled them to communicate through writing with more ease, precision and objective validity ; 

  • linearizing, geometrizing mentality : proportion, measurement, number, spatial organization, cyclical processes etc. "reveal" the structure, form, order, organization of the cosmos. Numbers are more than practical tools to categorize, for they reflect the genuine, authentic, essential features of any object. A number never stands alone, for it entertains numerous fixed mathematical relationships with other numbers and spatial characteristics. These are described in general, universal, abstract terms ("theoria"), to be distinguished from their particular, local, concrete applications in architecture, sculpture, poetry etc. ("techne") ;

  • anthropomorphic theology : deities had a human face and in the Mycenæan age, they were at times combined in one cult. At the beginning of the Archaic Age, the pantheon was systematized by Homer and Hesiod, and each deity received its task (as in human society). However, Greek religion was undogmatic, for no sacred text existed (as in Egypt). Xenophanes was critical about Greek anthropomorphic (and anthropocentric) polytheism, proposing One Supreme God who was unlike anything human. Typical for Greek soteriology (salvic theory), is insisting the human soul had to liberate itself from the physical body through purification (cf. "ascesis" in Orphism) or somehow trigger its release (cf. "katharsis" & "ekstasis" in the Dionysian cult). Most major Greek emancipatoric theories will return to this and understand the body as the prison of the soul (cf. Plato & Plotinus). This would become the cornerstone of the Greek idea of "mystery", as opposed to the Egyptian view.

The "Greek Miracle", i.e. the rise of Greek philosophy in Ionia, commenced with the study of nature (which could be called the "materialistic polarity") but, thanks to the Ionian Pythagoras, developed into a study of proportion and number (the "mathematical polarity"). Natural philosophy tried to do away with mythological explanations, whereas the symbolism of Pythagoras coupled this naturalism with a mysticism of numbers, which allowed natural phenomena to be related to each other in abstract, theoretical terms.

The broad schemes developed by the Egyptians (cosmology, theology, sapiental wisdom, literature, theocracy, architecture, art) were decontextualized and linearized (simplified) by the Greeks. The foundational stones of their forthcoming rational edifice : a pre-existing "first matter", a co-existing divine moral law, a transformation of one into millions, etc. were gathered by the Egyptian "barbarians" before them. Milesian philosophy is a rationalization of mostly Egyptian source-material. Likewise, Alexandrian Hermetism is a Hellenization of Ancient Egyptian, Jewish and Greek thought. The Ancient Greeks were extremely adaptable and flexible.

Two original components (naturalism and mathematics) define Greek philosophy, which, with the thought of Parmenides and Heraclitus and their study of being, acquired, its first, truly metaphysical orientation (it has been argued that Parmenides importance for Greek philosophy is to be compared with Kant's impact on modern philosophy). Add to this the anthropocentrism, dialogism and relativism of the Sophists, and the stage is set for the classical period of Greek philosophy.

3.2 The Stela of Pharaoh Shabaka and Greek philosophy.

►the importance of the Shabaka Stone

The Memphis Theology is inscribed on the right hand side of the Shabaka Stone, a near black block or slab of basalt, erected by Pharaoh Shabaka (ca. 712 - 698 BCE), the Ethiopian, in Memphis (ca. 710 BCE). It is probably the most remarkable and interesting opus of Ancient Egyptian literature left to us, and this for various reason, not in the least philosophical

In Line 2 of the inscription, Pharaoh affirms (and the spatial disposition of the text on the stone confirms) he had copied it from a worm-eaten original (papyrus in hieratic script ?) and had made it better than before (a new composition in hieroglyphs on stone). 

Reconstruction of the layout of the Shabaka Stone by Breasted - in : Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, Berlin, n°39 (102), 1902, plates 1 & 2.

A squarish hole is cut deep into the stone in the center, out of which eleven rough channels radiate, as a result of ignorant disregard in post-Pharaonic Egypt, when it was used as a nether millstone (note that Breasted drew only ten channels). The scribal voids in the first columns (left) may refer to the damaged original Pharaoh Shabaka found, namely the outermost edge of a scroll rolled from left to right (Sethe, 1928). Breasted situated the original in the XVIIIth Dynasty, although today scholars tend to place it in the Late Ramesside Era, i.e. after Amarna).  It is probable that the original was a compendium of Memphite texts (Junker, 1939).

portrait of Pharaoh Shabaka
from the naos he erected in the temple of Esna
XXVth Dynasty (712 - 698 BC)

The major assets of the Shabaka Stone are :

  • historical : The inscription refers to three different periods in the history of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, extant text, original text and original ideas of the inscription on the Shabaka Stone  each have a different age : the extant text was inscribed on stone by Pharaoh Shabaka ca. 710 BCE (XXVth Dynasty - Third Intermediate Period), the worm-eaten originals were probably written under the Ramesses (XIXth or XXth Dynasty, ca. 1295 - 1075 BCE - Junker, 1939), while the original ideas may go back as far as the Vth Dynasty (Old Kingdom). Grimal (1988) is the only leading contemporary egyptologists who continues to attribute the inscription to the Old Kingdom. Even if this last layer is not considered, we know the Ethiopians wanted to adorn themselves with an Old Kingdom style. These archaisms are also present in the text and have been put there because older original examples were taken into considerations and reworked. Most scholars accept Pharaoh Shabaka indeed "found" a series of old documents in the library of Ptah's temple in Memphis, although some do not, understanding the stela to be part of the propaganda-campaign of the "black" Ethiopian Dynasty (note Shabaka's name -Line 1- was removed). The fact Shabaka said he made it better, is for some proof he wanted to be worthy enough to rule Egypt from Memphis, the "capital" of the Old Kingdom.

  • linguistical : Since Junge (1973) showed the language of the text belonged to the XXVth Dynasty, nobody (except Grimal) is willing to assign the worm-eaten original to the Old Kingdom. Indeed, the archaizing language of the text misled generations of outstanding egyptologists (like Frankfort) to accept an Old Kingdom date. This fact alone shows how able Shabaka's scribe was and how well the "old" schemes were preserved in various inscriptions on stone and papyrus. It is clear the scribe used this knowledge to rework the text and he added elements which enabled Junge to understand the text as a composition of the XXVth Dynasty (like the name "tanen"). Neither the presence of these elements, nor compositional intent, contradict the possibility an older copy was present, or that Shabaka's scribe could have used older examples to compose this exceptional literary work ca.710 BCE. Junker (1939) did put into evidence the text was composed using more than one example, suggesting the original was a body made up of various texts. So, the Shabaka Stela is probably a compendium of Memphite thought.

  • literary : The text has exceptional synthetic qualities. Indeed, the fundamental facts of Egyptian political, ritual, theological & (verbal) philosophical thought are presented in a composed and well-organized format. The inscription has 61 columns and 3 rows (two large header rows and one smaller), or a total of 64 lines, of which one is empty (Line 5).

    The table of contents has 6 sections :

    1. LINES 1 - 2 : heading (titulary, colophon) : general information about the stela & editorial remarks concerning its finding and composition ;

    2. LINES 3 - 6 : prefaces : LINES 3 - 4 : general declaration of Ptah's supremacy as proclaimer of the great name of "Tanen" and as Pharaoh (LINE 5 is empty) ; LINE 6 : introduction of the mystery-drama of the deities created by Atum begat by Ptah ; 

    3. LINES 7 - 35b : the mystery-drama : here the division (decided by Geb) of the rule of Egypt between Horus and Seth is narrated and enacted. This settlement is replaced by the union of the Two Lands under the sole rule of Horus, who is a manifestation of Ptah.

    4. LINES 48 - 52 : new heading & Ptah's epiphanies : reaffirmation that all deities are manifestations in Ptah, to whom Ptah gave birth ; 

    5. LINES 53 - 61 : the theology of Memphis, containing a verbal philosophy ;

    6. LINES 61 - 64 : the royal residence : Memphis is the city of Ptah-Tanen.

  • theological : Although the theological schemes developed in Ancient Egypt (Heliopolitan, Hermopolitan, Memphite, Osirian & Theban) complement each other, in the late New Kingdom (after the Amarna-crisis), theologians sought to arrive at a better articulation of Divine unity. In this inscription, we are told Ptah is the Supreme Being who used the "image of Atum" to create the world. Although the Memphite theologians considered their verbal solution (creation through the Divine Word) more accomplished than the mythical cosmogony of Heliopolis, they did not oppose the earlier scheme but integrated it into the Memphite concept. This tendency to shape a "novel" and "superior" but "integrated" theology can also be seen at work in Thebes in the late Ramesside period - cf. the Hymns to Amun, wherein the "one and millions"-formula is prominent (Amun as "deus invisibilis et ineffabilis") as well as a trinitarian solution to the problem of divine multiplicity.

  • philosophical : My own contribution comes from the side of epistemology, layering cognitive growth in modes of thought which develop in stages (cf. after the genetical approach of Piaget).  These investigations reveal the absence of rational, abstract, discursive thought as part of the cultural form of Ancient Egyptian civilization. To understand Ancient Egyptian thinking, one is much helped by the analysis of the earliest stages of cognition, characterized by mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of thought and their prelogical, pre-conceptual and concrete operational standards (cf. Heka and Rules). These early modes of thought are at work in our text : the mystery-play summarizes the foundational Dynastic myth and the dialogues between the deities operates according to pre-rationality's rules of cognition. The way distinctions are bridged by the all-encompassing concept of Ptah is typical for proto-rational activity (cf. the introduction of a universal, like Anaximander's "to apeiron", the boundless). It would therefore be unfair to deny Ancient Egyptian civilization its metaphysical, theological or mystical intentions & cognitive activities, albeit mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational. This points to the importance of multiple, non-linear approaches in the Egyptian mind. Section V, the theology of Memphis, has three subdivisions : 

    1. LINES 53 - 57 : logoism : the description of the logoic process with which Ptah created everything, including all possible deities and the reason why this Memphite theology supercedes the Heliopolitan one of Atum. Rudiments of an epistemology are given ;

    2. LINES 57 - 58 : natural philosophy : a holistic philosophy of nature ;

    3. LINES 58 - 61 : pan-en-theism : poetical affirmation that Ptah is everywhere & everything and that all is in Ptah. Ptah is above (celestial) as well as below (terrestial).

  • political : Last but not least, the inscription finally affirms the importance of Memphis, the city of the coronation of Pharaoh. The mystery play also culminated in the notion of "the House of Ptah, the 'Balance of the Two Lands' in which Upper and Lower Egypt had been weighed." (Line 16c). Ptah incarnates as Horus, who is crowned as Pharaoh, and who abides in Memphis. The Royal Residence is the sacred place of the presence of the divine on Earth. The text affirms Memphis, "the Great Throne that gives joy to the heart of the gods in the House of Ptah, is the granary of Tanen, the mistress of all life, through which the sustenance of the Two Lands is provided ..." (Line 61).

► a major text of Ancient Egyptian literature

Breasted, the eminent American egyptologist, was the first to recognize the importance of this text as early as 1901 : the stela had been in the British Museum for nearly a century without anybody taking serious notice of it before Breasted -in difficult circumstances- made the first historical transcription. After translating the work (and situating its conjectured original in the XVIIIth Dynasty), he wrote :

"The above conception of the world forms quite a sufficient basis for suggesting that the later notions of nous and logos, hitherto supposed to have been introduced into Egypt from abroad at a much later date, were present at this early period. Thus the Greek tradition of the origin of their philosophy in Egypt undoubtedly contains more of the truth than has in recent years been conceded. (...) The habit, later so prevalent among the Greeks, of interpreting philosophically the functions and relations of the Egyptian gods (...) has already begun in Egypt before the earliest Greek philosophers were born ; and it is not impossible that the Greek practice of the interpretations of their own gods received its first impulse from Egypt." -
Breasted, 1901, p.54.

For Frankfort (1948), wrongly situating the conjectured original in the Early Dynastic Period, the text had clearly biblical connotations : 

"We know from numerous other texts that 'heart' stands for 'intellect', 'mind', and even 'spirit'. The 'tongue' is realizing thought ; it translates concepts into actuality by means of 'Hu' - authoritative utterance. We must then, read these passages as the true Egyptian equivalent of John's 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' The Egyptian mode of expression strikes us as clumsy because we assume involuntarily that a more abstract mode was available ; but, of course, it was not." -
Frankfort, 1978, p.29.

Morenz (1960) wrote : 

"The Memphite Theology, that hymn to the creative word, does not contain the least suggestion that the word of God needed any ready-made material." -
Morenz, 1996, p.172, my italics.

And after nearly a century of praise, we still read :

"The Memphite Theology is, undeniably, a remarkable document, and it clearly ascribes an intellectual and volitional motive to creation, with a focus on the heart or mind of the creator and the manifestation of thought in language and material reality. For this reason the theology has been cited as an antecedent to the first verses of both the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John." -
Hare, 1999, pp.178-179.

The Memphite Theology has recently also been part of a serious polemic between classical scholars and historians. In his controversial and refuted work, Stolen Legacy (1954), George G.M.James wrote that the Memphis Theology :

"... contains the theological, cosmological and philosophical views of the Egyptians. (...) Just as the Memphite Theology is the source of Greek philosophy or primitive science, so it is also the basis of modern scientific belief."
James, 1992, pp.139 & 145.

In his Black Athena (1987), Bernal remarks : 

"... proof that Egyptians could think in terms of abstract religion, which was published eighty years ago, has received so little attention. The proof comes from a text generally called Memphite Theology, which dates back to the 2nd and 3rd millenium." -
Bernal, 1987, p.140.

In her Not Out of Africa (1996), Lefkowitz rightly argues against Afrocentrism and its myth of the "stolen legacy". But in doing so, she wrongly represents the tenets of the Memphis Theology. She writes : "The Memphis inscription relates how Ptah's mind (or 'heart') and thought (or 'tongue') created the universe and all living creatures in it." (pp.140-141). How can somebody claim the Memphis Theology is a work "of a totally different character from any of Aristotle's treatises" (p.140), and then misrepresent its contents ? Indeed, the "logoic" element of the Memphite theology is not mentioned and its crucial passage is badly translated. Clearly, the author of the Memphite Theology wanted to stress the difference between the "heart" (mind) and "tongue" (speech), which are nevertheless simultaneous when Ptah creates the universe (Hare, 1999, p.184). The fact Lefkowitz translates "tongue" as "thought" proves she did not understand the theology at hand. Why ? Because of her insistence (which seems as dogmatical and blind as James' mythical Afrocentricism
-but for better reasons-) the Greeks did never use Egyptian sources, a statement as wrong as its logical opposite ...

"Aristotle did not steal books from the library of Alexandria and try to pass them off as his own. Nor did any of the other Greek philosophers learn their ideas in Egypt, because even if they went there (and not all of them did), they would not have been able to study with priests in the Egyptian Mystery System. The existence of a few common themes does not prove or even suggest that Greek writers plagiarized from the Book of the Dead, the Memphite Theology, or any other Egyptian source." -
Lefkowitz, 1996, p.150.

This line of argumentation is muddled (emotional ?). First of all, the decisive influence of Egypt (Memphis) on the Greeks was during the Early Archaic Age. Between 670 - 500 BCE, the Greeks developed their own "Dorian" mode of thought and in turn influenced the Egyptians and other cultures. So to refute the idea of Egyptian influence, Lefkowitz should have studied the Archaic Period, and not the Classical Greeks (for it is obvious -although not for James- that the abstract ideas of Plato and Aristotle are indeed far removed from the proto-rationality of the Egyptians). 

Secondly, Egypt had developed a verbal philosophy long before the Milesians founded Neukratis, and although it was not abstract but rooted in myth and pre-rationality (making use of a pictoral language), it nevertheless contained the essence of the later Greek "idea" of the "logos", namely that the creator created creation with a thought and an utterance. This notion can not be found in Minoan and Mycenæan cultures. 

Thirdly, although indeed no "pure" Egyptian Mystery System ever existed (being an invention of Alexandrian Egypt and later part of the mythology proposed by the European Masonic tradition), it is probable that the Greek mercenaries & travellers were well received in Egypt by Pharaoh Psammetichus I and his son Pharaoh Necho II. Can it be excluded they learned about Egyptian religion and sapiental discourses from the Memphite priest ? No. Indeed, the contrary is more likely.

Finally, if we may believe Diogenius Laërtius, Pythagoras brought with him to Egypt a letter of recommendation of Polycrates for Pharaoh Amasis and also three silver cups "for each of the priests of Egypt" (referring to the high-priests of Memphis, Heliopolis and Thebes). We are told he learned Egyptian (cf. Lives, Book VIII, who refers to Antiphon's Men of Extraordinary Merit) and studied there. The possibility Pythagoras was able to read hieroglyphic inscriptions can therefore not be excluded, neither can it be affirmed the Greeks learned nothing from the Egyptians. 

As is often the case with polemic constructions, Lefkowitz was unable to present the results of a balanced intellectual exercise (A and B, instead of A or B), clearly prejudiced in favor of the Aryan thesis. Unfortunately, this drains her work of its vitality, for by rightly opposing James, she became dependent on likewise weak arguments and doubtful readings.

► obvious parallels with various components of Greek philosophy

Since ca. 800 BCE, the Greeks spoke again one language. Only ca. 40 years separate the recording of the works of Homer (ca. 750 BCE) from the memorable installation of the Shabaka Stone in the temple of Ptah in Memphis. Around that time (i.e. ca. 710 BCE), no direct and major indirect cultural ties existed between these "new" Greeks and Egypt. It is only when the former started their journeys and marauded the Delta, that they were noticed by the Egyptians (and ranked as pirates). Hence, it is impossible that Egypt initiated the Greek Renaissance (ignited by one spoken and written language, i.e. between ca. 800 - 750 BCE).

At the start of the Assyrian conquest (671 - 664 BCE), Milesian Greeks were incorporated in the Egyptian army (as reported by Herodotus). They were however not allowed to settle in Memphis or travel upstream. 

When Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) invited Greeks at his court, some remained there as mediators between Greece and Egypt. That a minority of Greeks were taught by priests of the temple of Ptah is likely. Direct evidence is of course not available, but the time-window does not contradict the hypothesis under investigation : intelligent Greeks may have learned about Egyptian thought under Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) or thereafter, but not before 664 BCE (Thebes sacked by the Assyrians and ca. 40 years before the birth of Thales of Miletus ca. 624 BCE). Hence, a fruitful encounter with the vast traditional knowledge of the Memphite priests cannot be excluded. 

We should remind ourselves : the Egyptian temple libraries contained an astonishingly large number of domains covered by priestly knowledge.

"... archaeological investigation has permitted the recovery of the very works kept in one of these libraries, in the little town of Tebtunis in the Faiyum. Among these documents, in addition to rituals and treatises on astronomy and medicine, a certain number of literary texts written in Demotic have been identified (the stories of Setne, which have already been mentioned, and of Pedubaste), as well as three onomastica (i.e. collections of words classified according to their meanings) and several copies of an otherwise known book of wisdom." -
Sauneron, 2000, p.136.

An attempt is made to answer the question of the influence of Egyptian thought on Greek philosophy in the context of the inscription on the Shabaka Stone. Which components of the Memphis Theology may have been incorporated into Archaic Greek thought and to whom were they assigned ?

Following general correspondences spring to the fore :

  1. water as the source of all things : we are told this doctrine was proposed by Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 - 545 BCE), who -according to Aristotle in Metaphysica A (983b6v) and De Caelo (294a28v)- saw water (moist) as the "arche" of all what exists and the Earth as floating on water as it were a piece of wood or a ship. For Homer, the "arche" was the starting-point-in-time, a cause of action and potential of initiative. For Thales, water was the first principle of natural philosophy developed in the proto-rational mode of thought. After him, Fire (Heraclitus, ca. 500 BCE) & Air (Anaximenes, ca. 585 - 525 BCE) will also be proposed, until Empedocles (ca. 490 - 430 BCE) completes the theory on the elements of creation.

    "Nun", the primordial ocean, the "father of the gods", was the starting-point of the Memphite, Heliopolitan, Hermopolitan and Theban cosmogonies. It preexisted outside time and space, and is the true beginning with no beginning. The preexistent ocean was conceived as undifferentiated and absolutely inert, dark and unlimited, boundless & chaotic. Because of the self-creative act of the creator of everything, floating in Nun, or Atum, and the co-relative, simultaneous emergence of the primordial hill or mount of creation ("tenen"), the primordial waters are made to surrounds the place of creation. This happened in the "first time" ("zep tepy"), a liminal existence between preexistence proper and creation. Because of this material and creative causa sui, creation unfolded in the midst of these primordial waters. Also : the importance of water for the Egyptian economy justifies the metaphor of the Nile as the "source of all things" Egyptian.

    In the theology of the Memphites, Ptah is also Nun (or Ptah-Nun). The Memphis Theology starts with a series of identifications. The primordial waters are made part of Ptah's process of creation. Nun and his consort are the first epiphanies of Ptah. All deities are. This theology resembles late Ramesside Amun-Re theology, with the difference that Ptah creates the world through throughts and speech.

  2. the boundlessness of pre-creation : Anaximander of Miletus (ca. 611 - 547 BC), a friend and pupil of Thales, proposed the "apeiron" or "boundless" to be the first inexhaustible principle. In it, two natural forces produce an explosion creating the universe (the wet & cold interior is in permanent conflict with its dry & hot exterior). In Hermopolitan theology ("khemenu" or "City of the Eight"), pre-creation was characterized by eight chaos-gods. Hou and Haouet, the boundless & the undefined were part of this Ogdoad (or company of eight deities headed by Thoth). The double polarity of the Ogdoad (four times two) is obvious and typical for the polarized state of affairs before and after creation. Indeed, for the Heliopolitans, Atum-Re self-created and was simultaneously divided in Air (space) or the god "Shu" and Water (moist) or the goddess "Tefnut". In the Memphite theology, the boundless is expressed by the all-encompassing nature of Ptah, who is Nun, Atum-Re, Shu, Tefnut and all possible deities. It is also present in the sense of an "alpha privativum" (cf. "a-peiron") in the explicit ontological distinction between preexistence and existence, for example between Ptah-Nun and Ptah-Horus.

  3. natural moral law : for the pre-Socratics, moral law was natural law. Like Maat, Dike would operate to make justice and truth stand firm.

  4. the dual oppositions : in pre-Socratic philosophy, the doctrine of the opposites played a major role in explaining the actual state of affairs in creation. The dialectical opposition between the "cold" and the "warm" being typical for the Milesians. The oppositions are living forces which combat each other, causing periodical crisis, terror & change (cf. Heraclitus on "war"). In later Greek philosophy, this doctrine becomes ontological, as in the difference between "being" and "non-being" in Parmenidian thought or the radical gulf separating the Heraclitic world of becoming from the world of being in Plato's system. In Egypt, both politics and theology were founded on the notion of harmonizing dual oppositions : the unification of the "Two Lands" in one Pharaoh, the settled peace after the battle between Horus and Seth, the blending of this-world with the hereafter in elaborated funerary preoccupations, the daily and nocturnal voyage of Re, the hidden and revelational sides of Amun and in the Memphis Theology, the divine order of Ptah encompassing pre-creation (Ogdoad) and creation (Atum-Re and the Ennead) as well as the simultaneity between divine form (thought) and divine matter (speech). This tendency to transcend duality in a "tertium comparationis" goes back to the Early Dynastic Period and is a totality embracing paired contrasts or a harmony of opposites realized by a factor of transcendent significance (projected, in proto-rational fashion, on Pharaoh).

  5. the four elements : the "enantia" or opposites were structured in four elements : Fire and Air were the active elements and both warm (Fire was dry and Air was moist), whereas Water and Earth were passive and both cold (Water was moist and Earth was dry). The elements figure as a paradigm in Empedocles (cf. De Generatione et Corruptione, 330a30), but in Ionic philosophy they were viewed as the "arche" of the universe. In the cosmogony of Memphis, as well as in astronomy, architecture & ritualism, these four elements were explicit. The origin of creation is the primordial Water before creation. The initiation and foundation of creation is the emergence of the primordial hill (Earth out of Water) struck by a beam of the Sun (Fire) petrifying (cf. the "Benben") the division between heaven and Earth (Air separating the two). Moreover, the Sun (Fire) was considered as the subtlest of the elements for responsible for light. The four elements were the cardinal points of the horizon placed around the sacred objects (pyramids, temples, thrones, coffins) and the pillars of creation. They played a central role in ritualism and were called the four "Sons of Horus", each protecting one of the funerary "Canopic" Jars.

  6. the origin of the world : Democritus of Abdera (ca. 460 - 380/370 BCE) said that nothing comes out of nothing ("ex nihillo nihil fit") and hence the fundamental constituents of the universe must always have existed. This doctrine of the eternal nature of matter has been ascribed to Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) who argued that because matter, motion and time are eternal, therefore the world is also eternal. He contradicts himself in his Physics (Book VIII 1.25) when he speaks of the world as caused (by the "unmoved mover"). In Ancient Egypt, the eternity of the fundamental constituents of the universe is attested as pre-creation, which perpetually escapes the continuous movement of rise, decay, death & rebirth, which is typical for the gods, goddesses & the rest of the natural order. The eternal repetition of the pantheon is contrasted with the everlastingness of Nun, chaos. The chaos-gods are inert but omnipresent (in the Netherworld) and in the deep of the Nile (cf. Amduat). Moreover, in the beginning, "Atum" is an "atom", that immediately splits to create the spatiotemporal world ... And this "first time" of the "splitting of singularity" is also a perpetual state, for daily, Atum-Re reemerges out of Nun. 

  7. the demiurge or intermediate god in creation : this doctrine is ascribed to Plato (428/427 - 348/347 BCE), but was also taught by the Persians (Zoroaster) and by Pythagoras of Samos (ca .574 - after 500 BCE). For the latter, the universe consisted of two unities : an absolute (final) unity, from which the series of numbers or beings as such is derived, encompassing The All, and the One, i.e. the first ("1") in the series of derived numbers or beings. The One is opposed to and thus limited by plurality (the other numbers) and therefore a relative unity. In Plato's system, this distinction reoccurs as the difference between the demiurgical Idea of the Good (as the limit of limits) and the other Ideas. It was Porphyrius (the pupil of Plotinus) who called this Ultimate an Infinite Being beyond all finite being. Aristotle defined the supreme being as an "unmoved mover", creating all beings but remaining inexhaustible in the process ("actus purus") and always identical with itself. The distinction between :
    (a) an absolute unity, as ultimate cause, which remains identical with itself and unopposed to anything (but out of which "sui generis" creation unfolds) and 
    (b) a Demiurge, the first number or first cause, is made explicit in the Memphite theology by incorporating the Heliopolitan difference between pre-creation (with its Ogdoadic inertness rooted in Nun) and the "first time" of Atum-Re who creates himself and all the rest of existence out of his own body. Atum splits as soon as he emerges, and so his creativity is always tangential, for it is the Ennead of which he is the head which rules the affairs of the world : 
    {0} < 1 < 2, 3 < 4, 5 < 6, 7 & 8, 9.

  8. the Divine order of things : from Pythagoras' mathematical views onwards, the Greeks were fascinated by the structure, organization & architecture of the world. Their temples testify their need to find the laws of life and completely fixate them in rigid, unchangable ideas (the Egyptian temples were never completed). The pre-Socratics explained the world through its elemental roots, whereas Plato organized the world of Ideas in a pyramidal fashion, with the Idea of the Good as a pyramidon at the top. This tendency to find an all-embracing "form" or "theoria" can be seen as the greatest accomplishment of the Greeks. In the theology of Memphis, Ptah is all-encompassing : he is pre-creation as Ptah-Nun, he is the first time as Ptah creating "in the form of Atum" and he is creation as the Ennead of Ptah manifesting the deities, nature & humanity. In that sense, Ptah represents the "formula of totality". The same kind of all-comprehensiveness occurs in the Ramesside theology of Amun-Re, who ruled both the hidden and the visible as well as being implicitly present in all gods & goddesses and in the hearts of every devout individual who took his god "in his heart" (Amun-Re is One and Many).

  9. thought, word & creative command : It was Socrates (469 - 399 BCE) who introduced an intelligent cause in order to account for creation. Earlier, and in more proto-rational terms, Heraclitus had speculated that the hidden harmony of nature (reproducing concord from oppositions) rules all things together with the divine law ("dikê") and universal reason ("logos"). Plato speculated that the world was endowed with a perfect soul, acting as a mediator between the Ideas and the natural world, causing life, motion, order & knowledge (Timaeus, 30 - 35). In the Memphis Theology the "logos"-section testified that the Egyptians were aware of the creative command of thoughts ( in or Ptah's mind) and words (on ,  the tongue) before the Greeks coined the word "nous" (first used by Anaxagoras, ca. 500 - 428 BCE). The magical sources confirm this (cf. "heka" or "word of power"). Ptah created everything with his thoughts and creative commands. In Ramesside theology, Amun-Re was called the "Ba" (soul) of the world.

These correspondences suggest the learned Archaic Greeks took over & reworked (linearized) many components of the mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational layers of the cognitive semantics of the Memphites. First as their own proto-rational structures (the pre-Socratic materialists & number symbolists) and later as part of a rational explanation of the universe and man (the Classical Period of Plato and Aristotle).

3.3 Pythagoras of Samos : the mystery of the holy & sacred decad.

The Ionian naturalists (materialists) were individuals, and although Anaximander had Thales as a teacher, no "school" emerged after their death. With Pythagoras (ca. 580 BCE, island of Samos, Ionia  - ca. 500, Metapontum, Lucania), this son of an engraver of gems, we encounter the first Greek "school" of thought, a teaching in which religion, mysticism, mathematics and philosophy were allowed to interpenetrate each other and orchestrate a totally new symphonic whole, which will have a decisive influence on Greek thought as well as on Greek architecture. This was so unique, that Pythagorism may well be called the second major orientation in pre-Socratic philosophy next to Milesian materialism as a whole. 

According to tradition, the very word "philosophy" was coined by Pythagoras, who described himself as a "philo-sophos", a "lover" of wisdom. With his school, the scope of the Milesian "sophoi" was dramatically enlarged by the introduction of metaphysics, mystical experience and the philosophy of mathematics (including Pythagorean numerology). These speculative considerations took place "next to" physical inquires into the nature of all possible beings. With his emphasis on numbers and the theology of arithmetic (cf. Nicomachus of Gesara's The Theology of Arithmetic, ca. 100 CE), Pythagoras completed mathematics, for a complete study of geometry was taken for granted (for part of the "know-how" of the Milesian "sophoi").

The combination of geometry and arithmetic, was called the "tetraktys" (from "tetra", "four"), after the form of a four-tiered triangular patters of ten dots, the sacred symbol upon which Pythagorean Oats were sworn, and which probably had its origin in the arrangements of pebbles used to study mathematics. It is "holy", because of its summarizing manifestation of completion. It is "sacred", because it contains a secret which is kept out of sight of the inepti ...

TETRAKTYS - ultimate sacred number
"delta" shaped form (cf. "deka", ten) in four ("tetra") rows
directly influenced Hebrew qabalah and its 10 "sephiroth"
as well as the structure of the 4 qabalistic worlds

Unfortunately, none of the writings of Pythagoras have survived, and Pythagoreans invariably supported their doctrines by indiscriminately citing their master's authority. It is difficult to distinguish his teachings from those of his disciples, neither legends from historical fact. However, he is credited with the theory of the functional significance of sacred numbers in the objective world and in music (obtained by stopping a lyre string at various points along its length - the octave (2: 1), the fifth (3: 2) and the fourth (4: 3)). Other discoveries often attributed to him, like the incommensurability of the side and diagonal of a square, and the Pythagorean theorem stating the square of the hypothenuse of a right-angled triangle equals in area to the sum of the squares of the other two sides (well-known in Egypt and Mesopotamia), were probably developed only later by the Pythagorean school. 

Diogenius Laërtius also tells us Pythagoras entered the Egyptian temples and learned the secrets of their gods. This is a remarkable testimony. The Egyptian gods were hidden from sight. Nobody, except Pharaoh and his appointed priests, could enter the "holy of holies" and face the deity. There was no communication between the deities and humans, for gods communicate only with gods. In the Late New Kingdom, common people took Amun "in their heart" and the Hidden Supreme heard their prayers & supplications ... Does the fact that Pythagoras entered parts of the inner spaces of the temple (decorated with the grand story of the pantheon), not make it likely he had learned how to read hieroglyphs and had satisfied the discipline of an Egyptian priesthood in decline ? Not to say he had become an Egyptian priest, but a wide variety of functions were in existence in Egyptian temples and some of them allowed access to areas which revealed much to those able to read the sacred writing, the "words of the gods" (cf. "lector" priest of the "House of Life" - in the Late Period Memphis, Sais and Bubastis had major libraries).

Iamblichus writes Pythagoras buried Thales and knew Anaximander before he stayed 22 years in Egypt and was initiated in the teachings of the priests of Thebes (plurality & unity of the Divine) and the doctrine of the resurrection of Osiris (the immortality of the soul). He would have received the sign of the winged disk in gold on his thigh, so that he was called "chrysomeros", or "he of the golden thigh". When the Persian Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, he was made captive and brought to Chaldea. There he studied with the "magoi" for 12 years and learned about numbers and music. Other authors claimed he encountered Zarathoustra (being baptized in the Euphrate) and travelled to India were he met Gautama the Buddha (and was taught the doctrine of the "transmigration", i.e. reincarnation ?). The teachings drew a large following in the Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy, were he went to live. A kind of Freemasony "avant la lettre" rose among the aristocracy. It was a fraternity with Pythagoras as its "master". Its members had a lot of political power (based on "areté" and "ponós", excellence and effort), but were eventually massacred in a riot long after Pythagoras had died. The followers spread the principles and caused Pythagorism (or "Pythagoreanism") to become part of the Greek world. Iamblichus quotes his master, who had said : "number is the rule of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and demons".

In all, the various accounts draw a cosmopolitan picture of Pythagoras. He was the first Greek philosopher in the universal sense of the word, for all beings were part of his reflection. His interests go further than the physical doctrines of the Milesians and for the first time in Greek history, philosophy, mathematics & religion were put in one system of thought.

The problem of describing Pythagorism is complicated by the fact the surviving picture is far from complete, being based chiefly on a small number of fragments from the time before Plato and on various discussions in authors who wrote much later - most of whom were either Aristotelians or Neoplatonists. In spite of these historical uncertainties, the contribution of Pythagorism to Western culture has been significant and therefore justifies the effort, however inadequate, to depict what its teachings may have been.

Three levels may be discerned :

  1. original teachings of Pythagoras ;

  2. Pythagoras in Plato and Aristotle ;

  3. teachings & influence of the Pythagorean school.

The character of original Pythagorism is controversial, and the conglomeration of disparate features it displayed is intrinsically confusing. Its fame rests, however, on some very influential ideas, and likely most of these prevailed in the school of Croton :

  • the metaphysics of number and the conception that reality, including music and astronomy, is, at its deepest level, mathematical in nature : Pythagoras' sufficient ground is not a cosmic substance but an inner organization or structure coupled with a liberating, salvic intentions, albeit ascetical & philosophical ;

  • the use of philosophy as a means of spiritual purification : a lover of wisdom is more than an intelligent person aware of problems and their solutions, for his persuit of wisdom must be a window to the immortal soul, the light of which draws him near to the original and fundamental level of reality : the mathematical order of being which whispers a hidden, mysterious language of silence, with a code available to the initiate only ; 

  • the heavenly destiny of the soul and the possibility of its rising to union with the divine : Pythagoras is not satisfied with the mundane, immanent perspective, for the Pythagorean philosopher is before all the rest a lover of unity and its experience, which implies transcendence, trance, osmosis etc. ; 

  • the appeal to certain symbols, sometimes mystical, such as the "tetraktys", the golden section, and the harmony of the spheres : symbols are the residu of spiritual experiences and contain a code to trigger co-relative experiences later ; 

  • the Pythagorean theorem : mathematics and the solution of particular problems are the "purest" way to encounter the immortal soul, for its language is that of sacred number ; 

  • the demand members of the order shall observe a strict loyalty and secrecy : the order is a private affair and has no "outer order".

What could Pythagoras have learned from the priest of Memphis and Thebes ?

  • the unity of the divine : the absolute is One and Millions, invisible by nature and manifest in nature's forms ;

  • the rule of truth and justice : all actions have to be weighed on the balance of truth to measure their order ;

  • the order of creation : the cosmos unfolded as a series of numbers : 0 > 1 > 2 & 3 > 4 & 5 > 6, 7, 8, 9 ;

  • the sacrality of "10" : Pharaoh, "son of Re", completes the Ennead + 1 = "10" order ;

  • the creativity of thought and speech : the cosmos as conceived in the "mind" of the absolute ;

  • geometrical solutions to practical problems : mathematical papyri testify Egypt's elementary abilities ;

  • the magic of symbols : sacred script and ritual speech have powers beyond their physical form ;

  • the rule of silence : the Egyptian gods and their priests were out of sight and hidden - silence was gold ;

  • the harmony of opposites : all fundamental oppositions are bridged by a harmonic "third" ;

  • the symbolism of numbers : each natural number (0 - 10) has "inner" meanings, purposes and relations.

There probably never existed a strictly uniform system of Pythagorean philosophy and religious beliefs, even if the school did have a certain internal organization. Pythagoras appears to have taught by pregnant, cryptic "akousmata" ("something heard") or "symbola". His pupils handed these on, formed them partly into Hieroi Logoi ("Sacred Discourses"), of which different versions were current from the 4th century BCE on, and they interpreted them according to their convictions.

Although variations occur, a striking similarity prevails between the Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew numerologies. The qabalah was influenced by Pythagorism (Barry, 1999) and Pythagoras probably studied Theban numerology (cf. the headings of the Hymns to Amun) :

absolute, single, alone, with no second : Nun

absolute unity, ultimate cause

Ain : the absolute as unlimited nothingness


1 unity, the All, Atum relative unity, creator, male creator, first cause


2 Shu and Tefnut,
The Two Lands
division, weakness, female variety-in-unity, supernal "logos" or "wisdom" 2
3 one as three :
god, goddess, child
one in three :
beginning, middle and end
unity-in-variety, supernal matrix or "understanding"
4 compass, foundation, the sons of Horus righteousness and stability ongoing creative power and act of compassion 3
5 Horus-Pharaoh living in Maat unifies dual Egypt marriage of odd and even, of male and female severity of the laws of creation and act of justice
6 Re, life, Osiris, Djet, resurrection, soul peace, wholeness and sacrifice inner balance, immortality and self-sacrifice
7 Seven Hathors, 42 Assessors joy, love and opportunity love, peace, plenty and victory 4
8 Ogdoad, Thoth, magic of the restored eye, heart steadfastness and balance thought, science, medicine and glory
9 Ennead, Isis as "una quæ es omnia" ultimate completion foundation of spiritual life, free will and ego
10 Ptah, creator, manifestation, double sacred, summarizing number physical manifestation, world of four elements

* this a tentative list of correspondences, based on a wide range of Egyptian texts

Plato mentions Pythagoras only once (Republic, X.600). No details are given about the "Pythagorean way of life", which he compares with Homer. The Pythagorean teachings were obviously popular enough for Plato not to bother to discuss them. Not so for his pupil Aristotle, who wrote :

"Pythagoreans applied themselves to  mathematics, and were the first to develop this science ; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything. And since numbers are by first nature among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in number, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues dof what is and comes into being-such and such a property of number being justice,. and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest - and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number."

Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, v. 1-3, 985b.

In  the 4th century BCE, Plato's inclination toward Pythagorism created a tendency -manifest already in the middle of the century in the works of his pupils- to interpret Platonic concepts as originally Pythagorean. Most of the literary sources ultimately hark back to the environment of Plato and Aristotle. Later, Neoplatonism, which developed in the third century CE, reworked Pythagorism. Although they claimed to reassert a true understanding of Plato, they took a syncretic approach and drew from other sources, such as Pythagorean number mysticism and the Hermetica.

By laying stress on certain inner experiences and intuitive truths revealed only to the initiated, Pythagorism seems to have represented a soul-directed, salvic idealism alien to the mainstream of pre-Socratic Greek thought, preoccupied with determining what the basic cosmic substance ("phusis") was. In contrast with Ionian naturalism, Pythagorism was akin to trends seen in mystery religions and mystical movements, such as Orphism, which often claimed to achieve a spiritual insight into the Divine origin and nature of the soul through intoxication. Yet, there are also aspects of it appearing to have owed much to the more sober, "Homeric" philosophy of the Ionians, especially regarding ascesis and the importance of mathematics. 

Indeed, the Pythagoreans displayed an interest in metaphysics (the nature of being), as did their naturalistic predecessors, though they claimed to find its key in mathematical form rather than in any cosmic substance. They accepted the essentially Ionian doctrines saying the world is composed of opposites and generated from something unlimited, but they added the idea of the imposition of limit (number) upon the unlimited and the sense of a musical harmony in the universe (a "music of the spheres", sounding to human ears as silence - cf. Aristotle, De Caelo, II.9). Again, like the Ionians, they devoted themselves to astronomical and geometrical speculations. Combining, as it does, a theory of number with a numerology and a speculative cosmology with a theory of the deeper, more spiritual reaches of the soul, Pythagorism interweaves religion and philosophy more inseparably than does any other movement in pre-Socratic thought. 

Pythagoras and his school are the first to develop a system of thought influenced by many disparate sources (Ionian, Egyptian, Persian, Indian). These elements were brought together, equilibrated and made to function as part of a larger whole. Just like the Ionian "sophoi" before him, his system of thought incorporates foreign sources and transcends them using a Greek mode of thought. However, Pythagoras' thought is scholarly, i.e. focused on the development of a school of thought. The same process is at work in the Corpus Hermeticum, written from the first to the third century CE but going back to Alexandrian sources (ca. 100 BCE ?). Here, Ancient Egyptian, Jewish and Greek philosophies are combined and made to function is a larger, decontextualized form (Hermes as the "nous" of Atum, prefigurating Aristotle's "first intellect"). Apparently Greek thought is very able to recuperate bits and pieces of interesting material and then recombine it to form a rational whole. Ionian thought, Pythagorism and Hermetism are clear examples of this (even Plato is said to have written down the thoughts of Socrates).

3.4 The Greek pyramidion or the completion of Ancient thought.

► the Greek Renaissance was not exclusively endogenic

There is no evidence on mainland Greece to support the thesis that the fundamental cognitive leap forward (from Dorian to Archaic, from illiterate to literate) put into evidence by the history of Ancient Greek culture, namely the "reequilibration" which happened between 900 - 800 (unity in language) and 750 BCE (the reemergence of writing) -the so-called Greek Renaissance- was exclusively caused by factors in the autochtonous environments of these various Helladic peoples, on the contrary. The Greek Renaissance (in the Age of Revolution) as a whole, and the Greek Miracle (the birth of Greek philosophy) in particular, were not the sole product of cultural processes from within the "body" of Dorian and Early Archaic Greeks.

Their new, shared system of writing was non-Greek but Phoenician. The "techné" of their Dorian architecture was Egyptian. Crude leather was replaced by fine Egyptian papyrus. And because of the exceptional cultural ties between Miletus and Naukratis, let us conjecturet the Archaic Ionian philosophers, with Pythagoras in front, approbated most of their subject-matter in the incredible inductive storehouses of images kept in the libraries & temples of Egypt (as the Greek themselves proudly affirmed) as well as from oral teachings given by the Memphite & Theban priests themselves. Other influences also played, but Egypt won the prize of the most venerable culture.

► the Greek Renaissance was not exclusively exogenic

Nevertheless, by the end of the Dark Age, the Greek cultural form had persistent "Aryan", Indo-European characteristics of its own :

  • linearization : "Mycenæan megaron", "geometrical designs", mathematical form, peripteros ;

  • anthropocentrism : warrior leaders, individual aristocrats, poets, "sophoi" and teachers ;

  • fixed vowels : the categories of the "real" sound are written down & transmitted ;

  • dialogal mentality : the Archaic Greeks enjoyed talking, writing & discussing (with strong arguments) ;

  • non-dogmatic religion : the Archaic Greeks had no sacred books and hence no dogmatic orthodoxy ;

  • cultural affirmation : the Archaic Greeks were a "young" people who needed to affirm their identity ;

  • cultural approbation & improvement : the Archaic Greeks accepted to be taught and were eager to learn.

The inventive, Greek adaptation of these strong direct influences, the linearization of the underlying ante-rational thoughts and eventually the rational universalization of ante-rationality itself, constituted the formalizing streak which characterized Hellas. Indeed, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, a fair number of technical processes and decorative motive of Mycenæan Art reappeared in Greece. They are probably reintroductions from the East, where they had been adopted in the days of the Mycenæan empire and kept alive throughout the Dark Age. Linear B was however never used again, but parts of the "old" Greek cultural form had survived and was presently seeking its renewal by good, strong & enduring examples : Phoenicia, Egypt, Mesopotamia.

"Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Bronze Age to Classical Greece was something less tangible, but quite prossibly inherited : an attitude of mind which could borrow the formal and hieratic arts of the East and transform them into something spontaneous and cheerful ; a divine discontent which led the Greek ever to develop and improve their inheritance." -
Higgings, 1997, p.190 (my italics).

► the Greek Miracle : product of the formal attitude of the Greeks and Egyptian "wisdom"

The Archaic, pre-Socratic stratum of the "Greek Miracle" was itself layered :

  • Milesian "arche", "phusis" & "apeiron" : the elemental laws of the cosmos are rooted in substance ;

  • Pythagorian "tetraktys" : the elemental cosmos is rooted in numbers which form man, gods & demons ;

  • Heraclitian "psuche" & "logos" : a quasi-reflective self-consciousness, symbolical & psychological ;

  • Parmenidian "aletheia" : the moment of truth is a decision away from opinion ("doxa") entering "being" ;

  • Protagorian "anthropos" : man is the measure of all things and the relative reigns.

Let us remind ourselves of a few dates :

  • ca.670 BCE : Psammetichus I initiated linguistic exchanges (translators) ;

  • ca.624 BCE : birth of Thales of Milete, who visited Egypt ;

  • 570 BCE : under Amasis (dies in 526 BCE), Neukratis became an exclusive Greek trading centre ;

  • ca. 580 BCE : birth of Pythagoras, who studied in Egypt to be well received in its temples ;

  • ca. 540 - 530 BCE : Dorian "old" Temple of Hera, Poseidonia, erected ;

  • ca. 500 : death of Pythagoras ;

  • 478 BCE : end of the Archaic Age (creation of the Delian League).

The Egyptian heritage could have influenced individual Greeks from 670 BCE onwards. Thales of Milete being the first Greek "sophoi" who visited Egypt and who was allowed to study the pyramids, geometry and probably parts of Egyptian religion, like the mythical notion of the primordial ocean ("Nun") as the fundamental, unchanging root or reality out of which all of creation emerged (a story as old as Egypt itself). Probably also in Egypt did Thales lean about the "Saros" period between eclipses, for Chaldean astronomy & astrology had been recently introduced into Egypt after the Assyrian invasion. It is clear, as Iamblichus explains, that this practical knowledge was approved by the Milesians, who knew Thales had not received his education in Greece. In his homeland, he became famous for feats Egyptians and Bablylonians had done. The opportunistic, intelligent and inquiring mentality of Thales, as well as his ability to approbate, adapt and change the set of inductive parameters, were of course truly Greek.

With Amasis and the exclusive position of Neukratis, a new period was initiated. And a few decades later, Pythagoras (already famous in Greece) was brought before Pharaoh, who decided the lad could study with the priests of Thebes. Likely the priests of Memphis were the first to take him in charge. Did he learn Egyptian from them ? The length of his stay, as well as the religious orientation of the first Greek "philo-sopher", points to a training under Egyptian priests. The secrecy, the heavenly goal of the immortal soul as well as the holy and sacred nature of the "decad" are truly Egyptian. Pythagoras also assimilated Chaldean (music) teachings, Vedic & Buddhist notions (like the transmigration from elemental being to god - cf. Buddhism's "wheel of dharma"), evidencing the adaptability of the Greek mind.

How many classical historians of philosophy mention that Egypt had developed its own sapiental literature, Memphite ethics and verbal philosophy, albeit in proto-rational terms ? That when Thales and Pythagoras visited Egypt, their Memphite counter-parties were highly educated and intellectually skilled men ? That cognitively, they had the same proto-rational inclinations as these Early Archaic Greeks ? The notions of "truth" ("maat") and "wisdom" ("saa") were essential to the Memphites, who were only willing to share their information, if Pharaoh commanded so AND the pupil was intelligent enough to learn Egyptian, both hieratic and hieroglyphic. Tradition claimed Pythagoras was the first to satisfy both conditions, for in the eyes of Polycrates he was already an exceptionally gifted individual.

Thales and Pythagoras represent the two sides of the Ionian experience : independent physical inquiry (Thales) and metaphysics of number (Pythagoras). This experience, which is truly Greek, had as catalyst the approbation of Egyptian and Bablyonian age-old inductive insights, forming a traditional proto-rational system of operational and efficient relationships, variables and constants. Indeed, the Greek words "nous" ("mind, thinking, perceiving") and "noés" ("perceive, observe, recognize, understand"), could be derived from the Egyptian "nu" ("nw"), "to see, look, perceive, observe" :

"NU", "nw", determinative for action with eyes - XXXth Dynasty
similar, earlier and complexer forms (with different determinatives) for :
to keep guard over, to watch, to tend, intention, care for something, shepherd, guide
supposed origin of the Greek "noés" and "nous"

► Greek philosophy and the modes of thought

Shabaka Stone : line 53, retrograde writing
(hieroglyphs in red are reconstructed)

There comes into being
in the mind :

It is as the image of Atum. 

There comes into being
by the tongue :

It is as the image of Atum.

Ptah is the very great,
who gives life to all the gods
and their Kas.

All of this
in this mind and
by this tongue.

The modes of thought described elsewhere can also be applied to the becoming of the Classical Greek mental form, which, contrary to the Egyptian, was able to realize the "formal" mode as a collective and become the cornerstone of Classical Greek civilization, which stabilized thought in the rational mode of cognition :

of thought
in Greek thought
Piagetian genesis 
of cognition
Minoan myth & religion 
(ca. 2600 - 1150 BCE)
Minoan hieroglyphs
non-Greek Linear A

the Greeks settle in Greece, are taught by the Minoans and return home enriched ...
later they conquer Crete

Mycenæan culture
(ca. 1600 - 1100 BCE)
Greek Linear B
administrative documents
Dark Age of Dorians
(ca. 1100 - 750 BCE)
lost Linear B ? - oral tradition
Homer & Hesiod
the Greeks travel, are taught by the Egyptians and others and return home enriched ...
later they conquer Egypt and others
Archaic Greece
(ca. 750 - 478 BCE)
Milesian "sophoi", 
"philo-sophos" Pythagoras
concrete operatoric
Classical Greece
(478 - 323 BCE)
Parmenides, Protagoras
Socrates, Plato & Aristotle
formal operatoric

To think the difference between Greek proto-rationality and the traditions of "Antiquity", is to allow the Greek "mind" and its perceptions its own characteristics beyond the ante-rational civilizations which had celebrated their apogees before the Archaic Greeks (from Neolithicum to the truncated pyramids of proto-rationality). The stern architecture of the Mycenæans and the "megaron" of their warrior-like, pre-rational mental attitudes, restricting their protective interest to their own hill-top, are the earliest traces of the "geometrizing" and "linearizing" tendencies of the Greeks. In the epics, the military heroism of these leaders was idealized. 

The influence of the non-Greek, Minoan culture on the Mycenæan empire was unmistaken. The stern Greek was inspired by African high-culture. Likewise, the Archaic Greeks, recovering their cultural unity after centuries of decay, opened the doors to the East to educate and emancipate themselves. They were received in Egypt ca. 670 BCE. Ca.150 years later, the Greeks manifested the "Dorian" standard, as well as realized the luxury to entertain a series of Milesian "sophoi" and a Pythagorean school of spiritual philosophy. The expression : "the Greek Miracle" does perhaps refer less to origin as to speed.

The presence of an alphabet explains the fundamental schism between the "old" proto-rationality of the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, on the one hand, and that of the Archaic Greeks, on the other. The Greeks were able to fixate referential meaning by introducting a completely new written feature : fixed vowels. In the old systems, the vowels were not recorded, and so essential categorial information was lost. Moreover, their "geometrizing" mental attitude stood in sharp contrast with the "harmonizing" mentality of the Egyptians, who never decontextualized their meanings and had eternalized a difficult pictoral script and various grammars (cf. Assmann's "visuelle Begriffsbildung"). Although not theoretical, the Egyptians had accumulated a gigantic number of inductive statements (in terms of practical proto-conceptual procedures). Most likely by "trial and error", they had arrived at operational solutions, from which the Greeks abstracted the "universal rule", enabling them to eventually "adjust" the procedures. 

► the capstone of proto-rationality

The most difficult operation, after an Egyptian pyramid was finished, was the raising and placing of a capstone or pyramidion. This was made of granite or basalt, and was placed on the apex. An inscription at the pyramid of Queen Udjebten (VIth Dynasty, consort of Pepi II), refers to a gilded capstone, which suggests these stones were at times overlaid with gold or electrum (an alloy of gold and silver). The finest pyramidion is the one of Pharaoh Amenemhet III (XIIth Dynasty). All four sides bear inscriptions in which the invoked deities are associated with the cardinal points of the compass. The pyramidion was the first to catch the rays of the Sun and represented, in a practical, pictoral way, the concept of resurrection and personified the creator Atum.

the logos-section : translation & commentary

53 There comes into being in the heart.
There comes into being by the tongue.

(It is) as the image of Atum. 

Ptah is the very great, who gives life to all the gods and their Kas. It all in this heart and by this tongue. 

LINE 53 initiates the text of the Memphis Theology. It starts with two parallel phrases : "there comes into being in the heart" (mind), "there comes into being by the tongue" (mouth). Both events occur at the same time. Then, in retrograde writing, "as the image of Atum" is added. At the end of the line, a short parallel text, again stressing "heart" and "tongue" closes this line.

Atum is the "image" or "form" used by Ptah to create, a blueprint of how the laws of actual existence are in Ptah. These "laws" involve :
the self-creation ("kepher"), spliting (Shu & Tefnut - cf. line 57) and manifestations of Atum (his Ennead) hand in hand with ;
(b) the sacred eternal cycle of dawning, culmination, dusk, rejuvination (resurrection, ascension) and rebirth. Atum is hence the "form" used by Ptah to create everything by speaking divine words. 

These laws of existence, given form through the imagery of the cult of the Sun, became the Heliopolitan model of creation, rooted in mythical & pre-rational thought. But in Memphis, Atum & his Ennead are "demiurgic" deities in the mind of Ptah, who is the ultimate creator as exalted overseer of all, including himself, namely "on the Great Throne", encompassing the "Two Lands" and striking the absolute balance between all polarities (between creation & pre-creation, between sky and earth, between Upper and Lower Egypt) by means of creative speech. The whole Heliopolitan scheme is seen as an "image", a "form" or "metaphor", for Ptah is the very great, not Atum.

Those essential pre-rational factors, rooted in the specifics of the myth of creation associated with Atum, are taken as an "image" rising in the mind and by the tongue of the creator (see also line 55). Atum is not eliminated. On the contrary, his mythology is necessary to define the superiority of the Memphite scheme, which conceived the deities as epiphanies (Amun-Re), and combined this with the notion that creation exclusively comes into being as the result of divine thought in the image of Atum & the utterance of divine words. Atum is invoked, not as the real cause of creation (the mind), but only as the "image" preferred by the logoic creator, Ptah. Atum is the archetype of creation Ptah has in mind and which, when uttered, manifests.




54 Horus came into being in him ;
Thoth came into being in him as Ptah.

Power came into being in the heart and by the tongue and in all limbs, in accordance with the teaching that it (the heart) is in all bodies and it (the tongue) is in every mouth of all gods, all men, all flocks, all creeping things and whatever lives ; thinking whatever the heart wishes and commanding whatever the tongue wishes !

Again parallel writing is used. Horus and Thoth are introduced as the deifications of the logoic process itself, and namely of two of its main components : (a) thinking (Horus, the overseer) & (b) speech (Thoth, the scribe).

This line is very complicated, and eluded many translators. The essential equation is given in the two parallel texts of the two introductory lines of this theology, namely "heart" = "Horus" and "tongue" = "Thoth". In line 54, this play with the words "heart" and "tongue" continues. Contrary to Sethe, Junker translated the pivotal "wnt.f" ("that") as referring to heart and tongue, rather than to Ptah (as Sethe suggested). This solution is followed here. The Memphite author plays with the meaning of "heart", for the physical heart (as organ) and the wishing heart (as mind) are juxtaposed.

After the general statement in line 53, that Ptah, by means of the logoic process (i.e. the creation of everything using thought & spoken words), gave life to all deities, Ptah specifically manifests in two divine forms. Horus is an epiphany of Ptah's mind and Thoth of Ptah's tongue. 

The divine order of words thought in Ptah's mind & spoken by his tongue (both "in the form of Atum") have as their concrete objects :

the unity of the Two Lands, of which Horus was the ultimate deity (cf. the Old Kingdom "Followers of Horus" ; the confusion between Horus and Re ; Horus of Lower Egypt, avenger of Osiris, who is the justified Pharaoh of Egypt ; the four sons of Horus in ritual, etc.) and
the art of divine speech, connected with Egyptian magic, epiphanized as "Thoth", the god of writing, learning, wisdom, magic, healing arts etc. He was the secretary of Re and the brother of Maat, goddess of truth & justice

Horus as "heart" is Pharaoh's capacity as overseer, associated with his mind. The mind is therefore weighed at the Judgment of the Dead, for it is by means of the heart that Maat is offered to Re. Both Horus & Thoth (as all the rest) are created by Ptah in Ptah while in the material process of speaking his immaterial mind. No mythical event is invoked, but only the fact that Ptah thinks and creates when he speaks

The simultaneity of the mental (subjective) and material (objective) sides of the cognitive process, is indicated by the use of symmetrical writing. Horus and Thoth are the two sides of the divine logoic process. Horus determines the contents of what is said, Thoth conveys magical power to what is said. Both happen at the same time.

The "heart" of Ptah is not a "nous" devoid of context, i.e. an abstract, rational Divine (Platonic) Mind. Rather, the contents of mind (the divine words) simultaneously move Ptah's tongue. Formal and material poles come together in Ptah's continuous actions, the overseeing "Great Throne" of Ptah. The mental process suggested here is proto-rational, and aims at establishing a solid case for ongoing creative speech and the ontic supremacy of Ptah as "very great" (while allowing, consistent with henotheism, other deities to exist as such "in" Ptah). Furthermore, the fact that Ptah is unable to create without the "image of Atum", proves the point. In an abstract "nous", creation would be the outcome of thought & speech only.

Hence, this proto-rational logos philosophy identifies Ptah with the source of the content of mind (Horus also comes into being as the image of Atum) and not with the abstract, formal, simple mind of rational logos philosophy (as found in Plato or Aristotle).






55 His (Ptah's) Ennead  is before him as heart, authoritative utterance, teeth, semen, lips and hands of Atum.

This Ennead of Atum came into being through his semen and through his fingers.

Surely, this Ennead (of Ptah) is the teeth and the lips in the mouth, proclaiming the names of all things, from which Shu and Tefnut came forth as him, and

In this section, the Ennead of Ptah is the main object of the theology. It is contrasted with the Ennead of Atum. The hieroglyphs define this latter company of deities by adding "Atum" (this happens once), whereas the Ennead of Ptah is mentioned without such an addition, and referred to as "his" or "this".

The components of the two theologies (Memphis & Heliopolis) are summarized. On the one hand, heart, authoritative command & teeth point to Ptah and, on the other hand, semen, lips & hand are suggestive of Atum. Indeed, the creative form of Atum was associated with "Khepera", arising self-engendered out of Nun.

In a papyrus from the Late Period (ca. 312 BCE), preserved in the British Museum, we read :

"I am he who came into being in the form of Khepera. I became the creator of what came into being (...) Not existed heaven, not existed earth (...) I raised them up from out of Nun from a state of inactivity. (...) I, even I, had union with my clenched hand, I joined myself in an embrace with my shadow, I poured seed into my own mouth ..."

So Atum created the world for his own pleasure. His progeny are accidental and the whole issue revolved around his auto-erotic intent. The lengthening and becoming stiff of his penis refers to the emergence of the primordial hill (the risen land) and the solidifying of the waters of chaos. The reason why something came out of Nun is explained as Atum pleasing himself. By masturbating he ejected semen and by pouring his seed into his own mouth, everything came forth ...

In the Memphite scheme, this unnatural mythical procedure is superceded. It is only an "image". Contrary to Atum, Ptah creates everything by using his mind and authoritative command. As soon as the latter is expressed (lips & teeth), creation unfolds. The only part of the body which both have in common are the lips. Indeed, Atum brings his seed to his mouth. Likewise, only when the divine words are articulated will creation unfold. 

Indeed, they may indeed say in Heliopolis, that the Ennead is supposed to have come into being through the semen, lips & hands of Atum, but in reality, however, the divine Ennead came into being through the word, the teeth & lips in Ptah's mouth, which named all things. The most interesting advance lies in the attempt to explain creation in terms of the processes of thought and speech rather than in sheer physical activity. 

The latter is typical for the mythical & pre-rational mode of thought, whereas the former is the realization of proto-rational thought, able to work with stable concepts. These are not abstract or formal, for this proto-rationality remains rooted in the pre-rational "image" of Atum, who remains the mythical and pre-rational proto-type of (or context for) the physical aspect of creation. 

However, this aspect was not the cause of creation as such. Creation was not the result of the auto-erotical intent of Atum, but of the word in the mind of Ptah. This divine word was not "before" its physical manifestation, but simultaneous with it. Atum was not negated, but introduced as the "model" of creation risen in Ptah's mind. 

Had Ptah relinquished this "form", a concept of mind untained by its content would have arisen. This was not the case. The word of Ptah pronounced by his mouth created everything. To do this, Ptah needed the "image of Atum" to mediate in the act of creation. Likewise, Shu and Tefnut came forth from the logoic process. But not as themselves, but as Ptah. Nevertheless, the fact that the cause of creation is not some mythological physical activity but a logoic process (albeit simultaneous with physical events) is extraordinary. It indicates that Ancient Egyptian philosophy existed and that in it, the importance of thought and speech were omnipotent. Hence, the claim that the Greeks were first to invent the logos is refuted.







56 which gave birth to the Ennead (of Ptah).

The sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, and the breathing by the nose, they transmit to the heart, which brings forth every decision.

Indeed, the tongue thence repeats what is in front of the heart. Thus was given birth to all the gods. His (Ptah's) Ennead was completed.

Lo, every word of the god, came into being through the thoughts of
57 the heart & the command of the tongue.

In this line, the Memphite proto-rational theory of knowledge appears. 

It is made clear that the events recorded by the sense of hearing and the sense of sight in the living, breathing body are brought up to the mind. The notion of moving upwards is suggested by the determinative of the double stairway, leading to a high place. This elevated place is nothing less than the realm of the divine mind, the Memphite "nous", to which the impressions ascend.

Although the Aristotelian distinction between the passive and the active intellect is absent as such (for no formal, abstract concept has yet been established), it is clear that our author is aware of the registering faculty of the mind and knows that after registering, the mind produces "every decision". 

Hence, the two phases of the empirico-noetic process (registering and deciding) are put forward, albeit in a proto-rational scheme, i.e. without the power of abstraction the Greeks attributed to the First Intellect, a Divine mind or logos which is independent from that which it creates (hence, no empirico-formal knowledge is attained). For here, Ptah creates "in the image of Atum", and hence does not escape the contextual features of proto-rationality.

The faculty of speech is under the control of the mind and all deities were created through it, completing the logoic Ennead of Ptah. Our author reaffirms his main theme : every law of nature (the deities) and everything these laws operate were conceived in the divine mind and spoken by the divine tongue. Nothing can come into existence without the divine "nous" and its speech.

The presence of Atum does not imply that our author wished to belittle the more physical story expressed in the mythical & pre-rational thought. The "image of Atum" is a genuine part of this theology. If it were absent, the theology of Memphis would have been the expression of a rational, metaphysical theory on the logos. Such an essentialist interpretation is not warranted. Although the theology of Memphis contains a "higher" philosophy than can be found in the Heliopolitan myth, it is given in pictoral terms consistent with the Ancient Egyptian experience.

Nevertheless, in this theology, the figural and analogical way of conceiving creation in the mythical and pre-rational mode of thought, is freed from its omnipresent physicality to the advantage of a logoic scheme. Although Ptah thinks and speaks simultaneously, one can not but conclude that our author reflected upon the cognitive faculties themselves. It is true that this reflection is not formal but mediated by the form of Atum. Nevertheless, the idea that everything (deities, nature & human beings) came into being as a result of divine creative speech, is unique and to some extent valid till the present day.

Although the accomplishment of this mentalizing proto-rational theology is impressive, the "form of Atum" proves also to be its ultimate limitation. For Ptah is unable to create the world without Atum. Although the "form of Atum" also exists outside creation "in the mind of Ptah", paradoxically, the "mind of Ptah" always creates "in the form of Atum". The concept here is concrete, not formal or decontextualized ... Atum is the "form" used by Ptah to create everything by speaking divine words. 

Not unlike what we know of Anaximander or Parmenides, the author of the Memphis Theology moves beyond mythical & pre-rational thought. Here we see proto-rationality at work, for both object & subject are distinguished, integrated and transcended by Ptah-Nun, a "Deus otiosus" (the divine inactive of pre-creation).

But it can not be said of this author that he (like Plato) contemplated a realm of "pure" thought, outside of the operations, conditionings or determinations of physical reality (a world of ideas, a "nous") or contextual limitations (like "the form of Atum"). We have to wait for Greek rational thought for that. But that this extraordinary Memphis Theology influenced the Greeks who visited Memphis, should not surprise us.









Visualize the trunctated pyramid as the ultimate realization of the proto-rational mode of cognition, and the Greek "delta" of the Pythagorean "tetraktys" as its rational capstone. In Egypt, because of context, the final piece had to be put in place separately. Rationality is the "pyramidion" of proto-rationality. It implies a symphony of intelligent intersubjective experiences, sophisticated languages and a storehouse of objective facts, procedures & methods. The incompleteness of the pyramid, the void apex, "tops" the extreme "gravity" (solidity and mass) of ante-rationality. By placing the "tetraktys" on the apex, proto-rationality was completed with the inner features of 10 numbers. This happened in the last period of Egyptian culture, namely in Alexandria, capital of the Ptolemaic Empire.

If we take the syllogism as a metaphor for Greek rationality, then "the Orient" (East, Middle East, Egypt) provided the Greeks with the essential part, namely the inductive "minor". 

(1) Every A is a B : major : universal rule ;
(2) C is an A : minor : inductive statement of fact, (so) :
(3) C is B : necessary conclusion.

With a considerable amount of inductive statements on record, the Greeks might have reasoned :

(1) A' is a B ;
(2) A'' is a B ;
(3) A"' is B etc ...
so = an unlogical, inductive jump from the particular to the universal :
(2) Every A is B : inductive conclusion.

At the end of the Archaic Age, the Greeks brought three fundamental new co-relative elements into play, namely :

  • undogmatic individualism : the Greek philosophers are known by their names, had no long standing traditions and were teachers who initiated speculative schools which existed next to each other without central authority or royal approval. In Egypt, the Temple Schools were part of the Pharaonic State and the individual teachers were less important than the tradition for which they stand (in fact, the priest always acted on behalf of Pharaoh).

  • an abstract, formal, theoretical, rational approach : from Socrates & Plato onwards, the Greeks were able to decontextualize the mythological, pre-rational & proto-rational components of their thought, allowing a theoretical approach of any subject. Subject and object were clearly distinguished. This power of abstraction allowed them to develop a lot of themes beyond the limits kept in place in Egyptian thought, unable to fully decontextualized the old pantheon (except for a short, rejected & forgotten period under Akhenaten).

  • a dialogal mentality : again from the Sophists & Socrates onwards, the search for truth by dialogal, communicative actions became essential and the Socratic technique was elevated to a literary genre by Plato, the father of Western philosophy. The theoretical climate which emerged, was the breeding-ground for the formidable theoretical work of his pupil Aristotle ; 

  • Of course, Greek rationality was not the end of the story of the unfoldment of thought. We have to wait for Descartes for rational self-reflection to break through and for Kant to witness the birth of critical thought (the culmination of the conceptual rationality initiated by the Greeks - cf. Rules, Knowledge & Criticosynthesis).


The influence of Egyptian thought on Archaic Greek philosophy was foremost "semantical" (meaning, themes) & "pragmatical" (methods, procedures), but not "syntactical" (formal order, abstract organization). The vast proto-rational system of Egypt had no abstractions, but was the "inductive pool" in which the early Archaic Greeks navigated, fished and discovered amazing new laws and relationships (unforseen by the Egyptians themselves). However, the Greek Renaissance and the Greek Miracle were not the outcome, product or effect of an "extravagant mixture" as Bernal claims. Neither are these incredible developments devoid of exogenic influence (as Hellenocentrists think).

In this way, between ca. 670 and ca. 500 BCE, the Greeks approbated Egyptian theology, Egypt's sapiental discourses, its verbal philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, magic, ritual, political system, etc. Adaptations, novel derivations as well as new inventions characterized these Greeks, who had a characteristic, Indo-European, geometrizing streak, enabling them to assimilate and reorganize practical (proto-rational) knowledge in terms of its general, formal principles. 

They reinterpreted the Egyptian pantheon as personifications of collective concepts on creation and humans (as Theban specialists had done before them - cf. Hymns to Amun). At the end of the Archaic Age, Egypt's influence had already diminished, for as soon as the Greeks realized a "universal", they returned it to its ante-rational source and subsequently altered it. In this way, Hellenism would conquer the known world and establish Greek identity far beyond the borders of Greece. 

The linearization brought by them, culminated in the Ptolemaic Empire, which guaranteed the survival of the Egyptian heritage at the turn of the millenium. Egyptian thought had been assimilated by the Hebrews as well as the Greeks, whereas the Greeks had a crucial influence on the Hebrews. 

The encounter between Egyptians and Greeks had been fruitful. The Greeks had gained speed and thematic consistency. The Egyptians had saved the Pharaonic system and its temples. Egyptian thought survived in Pythagorism, Hermetism, Neoplatonism and Christian Gnosticism. Its theology and rituals were readapted and reemerged in Coptic Christianity (Isis as Mary), Roman, Byzantine & Orthodox Rituals (Christ, the "New Adam" as Osiris and the "son" of God). 

In 529 CE, the Christian emperor Justinian suppressed all Pagan philosophical schools. But Egyptian wisdom and Greek philosophy continued to exist in Harran. By the mid-ninth century CE, and perhaps even in the time of Ma'mun, Muslim authors identified Hermes with Idris, or Enoch, both mentioned in the Koran. The Harranians became Sabaeans and through them, Hermetism influenced Islam ...

initiated : 20 XII 2002 - last update : 07 I 2015 - version n°2

© Wim van den Dungen