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Djoser Joseph Osiris

My recent move has already paid off in terms of increased access to the Bay Area intellectual milieu, by which I mean wacky outlandish hypotheses about completely random stuff. The other day a few people (including Ben Hoffman of Compass Rose) tried to convince me that Pharaoh Djoser was the inspiration for the god Osiris and the Biblical Joseph. This sort of thing is relevant to my interests, so I spent way too long looking into it and figured I ought to write down what I found.

The short summary is that the connection between Djoser and Osiris is probably meaningless, but there’s a very small chance there might be some tiny distant scrap of a connection to Joseph.

Djoser, who ruled Egypt around 2680 BC, was a pretty impressive guy. Egypt had been unified by one of his predecessors a few generations before, but they’d let it get un-unified again, and Djoser’s father was the one who reunified it. Djoser inherited a kingdom of newfound peace and plenty – and made the most of it, starting lots of impressive infrastructure and religious projects. His chief minister Imhotep was famous in his own right as a polymath who invented medicine and engineering (he may also have been the first person to use columns in architecture). He was later deified for his accomplishments. Djoser and Imhotep cooperated to build the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Osiris was a legendary god whose worship was first recorded around 2400 BC. The legends say he was a wise and benevolent Pharaoh of Egypt in some unspecified distant past before being killed by his brother Set. One thing led to another, and he eventually ended up as the god of death and resurrection and the underworld. Scholars have long debated the exact origins of the Osiris cult, and tend to attribute it to some historical memory of something or other but disagree viciously over the details.

The argument I heard for Djoser inspiring Osiris hinges on a couple of points (there may be others I didn’t get). First, the times sort of match up – this legend of the wise king Osiris first appears just a century or two after Djoser died. second, Djoser was a big fan of an Egyptian symbol called the ‘djed’, a weird column shape thing. Djoser included djeds all over the step pyramid he and Imhotep built together, and may have kind of had an obsession with the thing (and why shouldn’t he? – if I helped invent the column, I’d talk about it a lot too). Meanwhile, the djed is traditionally considered the symbol of the Egyptian god Osiris. And third, if you’re going to deify a pharaoh into the god of death and resurrection, the beloved and powerful ruler who invented the first pyramid sounds like a pretty good candidate.

I think this argument is probably wrong. For one thing, although nobody can prove Osiris existed before the death of Djoser, everybody suspects that he did. In The Origins Of Osiris And His Cult, Egyptologist John Griffiths appeals to some early inscriptions that might name Osiris, and concludes that

There is a strong likelihood that the cult of Osiris began in or before the First Dynasty in connection with the royal funerals at Abydos, [although] archaeological evidence hitherto does not tangibly date the cult ot an era before the Fifth Dynasty

A common consensus is that he began as a local deity of the city of Busiris and (as mentioned above) the necropolis at Abydos. Djoser has no connection to either city, and in fact was the first king not to be buried at Abydos. His building a pyramid is less impressive than it sounds; all the Egyptian rulers were into building big tombs, and he just took it to the next level.

Djoser liked djeds, but so djid lots of Egyptians. They were popular long before Djoser and remained popular long after him; among their many fans may have been such pharaohs as eg Djedkara, Djedkheperu, Djedkherura, and Djedhotepre. The djed started out as a general fertility symbol, later became a symbol of the god Ptah, and only became fully associated with Osiris a thousand years after Djoser’s djeath. This makes it hard to argue Osiris got associated with the djed because of some cultural memory of Djoser.

This is kind of weak evidence against the theory – a speculation that Osiris is older than he looks, a little bit of confusion around when Osiris became associated with his sacred symbol. But it was a weak theory to begin with, so weak counterevidence convinces me.

So let’s get to the more interesting claim – that Djoser inspired the Biblical Joseph.

This comes from a monument called the Famine Stele, written two thousand years after Djoser’s death but telling a legend that had grown up around him. According to the stele, in the time of Djoser there were seven years of famine. Djoser asks his chief minister Imhotep for help. Imhotep investigates and finds that the problem is related to the god Khnum. He prays to Khnum and offers to worship him better, and Khnum appears to him in a dream and says that okay, he’ll make the crops grow again. Djoser and Imhotep repair Khnum’s temple, the famine ends, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The parallels to the Joseph story are pretty apparent. A seven year long famine. A Pharaoh who begs his chief minister to do something about it. A dream that provides the solution. Sure, the crocodile-and/or-ram-headed god Khnum gets left out of the Biblical account, but that sounds like just the sort of thing the Hebrews would conveniently forget.

There are some other differences, of course. The Joseph story involves seven years of plenty before the famine; the Imhotep story doesn’t. Joseph gains his chief ministerial position because of the famine incident; Imhotep is already in charge when the famine begins. God gives Joseph a rational planning strategy; Imhotep uses divine intervention directly. But isn’t there still a suspicious core of similarity here?

Creationists think so. They get really excited about this connection since it seems to link the Bible to a verified historical event (for values of “verified” equal to “someone made a stele about it two thousand years later, and in fact after the Bible itself was written”). Back during the presidential campaign, Ben Carson got soundly mocked for saying the pyramids were silos for storing grain. Everyone attributed this to his warped fundamentalist Christian view of history, but nobody thought to ask why fundamentalist Christians seized on this falsehood in particular. The answer is: if the pyramids were grain silos, then the link between Joseph (whom the Bible says built grain silos) and Imhotep (whom Egyptian records say built pyramids) becomes even more compelling.

Awkwardly for the creationists, this doesn’t even match their own hokey Biblical history. There are various different Biblical chronologies, but they mostly date Joseph around 1900 – 2000 BC – too late to be Imhotep, who lived closer to 2600. Also, don’t tell anyone, but the Bible is probably false.

Atheists have a better option available – they can claim that the Egyptian legend of Imhotep inspired the Israelite legend of Joseph. This is the strategy taken by a Ha’aretz article, which first roundly mocks any identification of Imhotep with Joseph, saying that this makes no sense and is totally stupid, and then adds:

There is a consensus among the majority of biblical scholars that the Joseph story dates, at the earliest, to the 7th century BCE, namely 2700 years ago. Many Judahites were residing in the Nile Delta at the time, as proven among other things, by the existence of a replica of the Jewish First Temple in Jerusalem on the island of Elephantine. It seems these Judahites may have been behind the adoption of the Imhotep tale as an Israelite story.

It doesn’t cite which scholars it’s talking about, or explain why they suddenly backtracked from their “there is no connection between Joseph and Imhotep shut up you morons”, but the overall point seems pretty plausible. Remember, the 7th century would have been just a few centuries before the Famine Stele was written, and the Djoser/Imhotep famine legend might have been popular in Egypt around this time. It sounds just barely possible that some Jews might have rewritten it with an Israelite protagonist the same way a bunch of pagan goddesses and even the Buddha ended up as Christian saints.

(or, for that matter, the Egyptians could have rewritten the Bible story with an Egyptian protagonist, although it seems less likely for cultural transmission to go that direction given the two cultures’ relative sizes.)

Or maybe none of that happened. Wikipedia’s article on the Famine Stele points out that a seven-year famine was a weirdly common motif all across the Ancient Near East, citing eg the Epic of Gilgamesh:

Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle? Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years o£ seedless husks, there is grain and there is grass enough.’

I don’t know if all of this derives from the same proto-Near-Eastern source, or whether seven year famines are just sort of a natural kind (compare all the different cultures that have something like “may your reign last a thousand years!”). But it warns us against leaping into accepting this too quickly. This is especially true in the context of atheists’ haste to believe things like “Christ is just a retelling of the Osiris myth!” or “What if Moses was really just Akhenaten” that later turn out to not really make that much sense. Part of the lesson I wanted to teach with Unsong is that this sort of thing is too easy, and therefore we need to increase our guard. I don’t know how to weight this, but maybe say there’s like a 30% chance

As a perfect example, here’s a completely insane work of Biblical apologetics claiming that a totally different pharaoh associated with djeds corresponded to the Biblical Joseph.

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61 Responses to Djoser Joseph Osiris

  1. Eponymous says:

    > Joseph gains his chief ministerial position through his famine-ending competence; Imhotep is already in charge when the famine begins.

    Nope, Joseph was named minister after correctly *interpreting* the Pharoah’s dream, before the famine started. This is actually key, because his solution was to build barns and store food during the good years.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I rephrased it to “because of the famine incident”, which is what I meant.

      • Eponymous says:

        Yes, sorry; upon reflection I see that what you wrote may have just been an awkward phrasing, not an incorrect version of the story.

  2. alwhite says:

    Seven was considered to represent completeness. 7 days in week, etc… So 7 years of famine really means “a really bad famine”.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve seen this kind of argument before, but ten also represents completeness, and so does twelve, and forty kind of does also, and eventually you’re back where you started from.

      …but maybe they represented different kinds of completeness and it was totally obvious to ancient Near Easterners that famines required the seven kind.

      • Deiseach says:

        It’s possible that seven is tied to some idea of cosmic significance because it’s the number of heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye: sun, moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn. Since the inundation of the Nile was vitally important, the determination of when it would happen was tied to astronomical observation, and if you’re mythologically/symbolically representing the length of time something will happen (especially when trying to forecast it starting/ending), tying it to a heavenly number like seven makes allegorical sense, with the movement of the seven visible planets being used to calculate the passage of time.

        In Indian astrology, the seven (and a half) year cycle of Saturn is very important; Saturn is the Greater Malefic, so misfortunes like famines would come under its orbit. And in Babylonian astrology/mythology, Saturn is associated/identified with Ninurta whose name means “lord of barley”, an agricultural deity. I am really reaching here, but it’s not wholly impossible that court astronomers/astrologers (who would have been the same thing) forecast that the famine will last as long as it takes the lord of grain to move from the 12th house (house of loss) to the 2nd house (the house of wealth), which would come out to over seven years (tidy that up to the magic whole number seven when writing it up afterwards).

        • Nornagest says:

          The days of the week are named after the planets in Latin and most Romance languages, which led in a kind of roundabout way to the Germanic naming scheme that we’re more familiar with (the planets were named after the Olympians, and the Romans liked to map the gods of any people they came into contact with to their own, which occasionally led to some weirdness like Tacitus saying Mercury was the German king of the gods). The idea of a seven-day week has no clear origin according to Wikipedia, although it looks pretty damn suspicious to me that 7 is the largest factor of 28.

          • Michael Watts says:

            The days of the week are also named after celestial objects (the planets, the sun, and the moon, just like in English and Romance languages[1]) in Japanese, and were in Chinese (now, sadly, the days of the week in Chinese are “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”, “five”, “six”, and “day”, a Christian influence). As far as I’ve read, there is agreement that this must have been cultural transmission rather than independent development, but no one really knows how it happened.

            On a more pedantic note, I’m pretty sure Saturn doesn’t count as an Olympian.

            [1] Modern Romance languages have replaced the day of the Sun with the day of the Lord, and I’m not totally sure what’s going on with Saturday.

          • Nornagest says:

            The “day of the Lord” thing comes from the ecclesiastical calendar, which gave that name to the Sabbath and numbered all the other days. Presumably the numbers didn’t stick.

            The modern Romance words for Saturday, meanwhile, are clearly cognate to “Sabbath” — sabato in Italian, for example — but I don’t know the story behind that. I do know that not all the branches of Christianity accept Sunday as the sabbath day, though — it’s Saturday in Orthodox Christianity and among the Seventh-Day Adventists among others. And it’s also Saturday in Judaism, obviously.

          • SEE says:

            Depends a lot on what you mean by “Sabbath”.

            As the primary day of worship, Christians almost all use Sunday; the exception are some Protestant groups. As a day of mandatory rest (which marks a ‘Sabbatarian’ church), some Protestant churches similarly use Sunday (first-day Sabbatarian), while the ones who use Saturday as a day of worship also rest on Saturday (seventh-day Sabbatarian). The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics consistently refer to Saturday as ‘the Sabbath’, and making certain special provisions for it, while being non-Sabbatarian. The (not Eastern) Orthodox Tewahedo apparently wound up with a two-day “Sabbath”, though I have conflicting sources on how exactly that works. And the non-Sabbatarian Western churches with Sunday services (like the Catholic Church and many Protestant) sometimes refer to either Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath depending on context without ‘Sabbath’ having a truly formal meaning, while often recommending a weekly day of rest without specifying which day that should be.

            And, of course, all that evolved over time, so historical practices and references muddle things further.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            It’s not just that the Japanese label days with planets, but they put them in the same order.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The idea of a seven-day week has no clear origin according to Wikipedia, although it looks pretty damn suspicious to me that 7 is the largest factor of 28.

            I’m not sure where it came from originally, but the Romans (and, by extension, modern Europeans) seem to have got the idea of a seven-day week from the Jews [ETA: or possibly the Greeks; see below], possibly because it allowed them more time off; before about the first century BC, the Romans had followed a nine-day week.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Nundinum should be translated as “eight-day week” because the Romans had weird ideas about counting. Compare: Christ rose on the third day. (That’s Greek, but the Greeks previously used a modern counting method and Matthew contradicts himself, probably confusing the two methods.)

        • Aapje says:

          @Deiseach

          The possibility I’ve heard is that it is basically:

          1, 2, 3….1 (1+2+3+1 = 7)

          So 1, 2, 3 stand for long sequence and the 1 is to say that the sequence ended.

      • onyomi says:

        I don’t think you need seven to be a special number other than as “the length of time really bad famines were generally imagined to last.”

        Like why does everyone fast for forty days and forty nights? Because forty days and forty nights is the amount of time an impressive fast lasts.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The 7 day week is a fairly late development. People were probably telling stories with 7s in them before it. The Egyptians probably didn’t have a 7 day week in the time of Djoser. It might have been introduced by the Greeks at the time of the famine stele. The Babylonian 7 day week probably comes not out of symbolic value of the number, but out of dividing the lunar month into quarters.

      • monoidist says:

        Wikipedia suggests that the Greeks had adopted the 7-day week from the Babylonians by the 4th century BC: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Week Hence, the (Greek) ruling class during the Ptolemaic period, when the stela was written, would have used a 7-day week. However, the Egyptians traditionally divided the solar year into weeks of 10 days each (with 5 “epagomenal days” left over at the end). According to the article on the Famine Stela, the scholars Lichtheim and Vycichl believe the stela was written by “the local priests of Khnum,” who sound to me like native Egyptians.

        All this said, I’m fairly convinced that the seven-year duration of the famine on the stela is merely an ancient narrative trope that had diffused across the region between Mesopotamia and Egypt. In general, late-period Egyptians spun all kinds of outlandish propaganda out of early Egyptian history and monuments: compare https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_Stele

  3. TK-421 says:

    Djoser liked djeds, but so djid lots of Egyptians.

    Don’t ever change, Scott.

  4. cmurdock says:

    I am immediately skeptical of the Djoser~Joseph connection because I can’t help suspecting people are attracted to it because of the similarity between the sound of the syllables “Djos-” and “Jos-“. But of course (as you probably know) in Biblical Hebrew the “J” there was pronounced like English “Y”, and (as you might not) in Ancient Egyptian the consonant sometimes written “dj” was probably pronounced as a voiceless ejective palatal stop (something like chʼ).

    • entobat says:

      Turn it around—what are the chances two totally unrelated “historical” Middle Eastern people with vaguely similar life stories would also have their names Romanized similarly?

    • Matt M says:

      Nominative determinism strikes again!

    • djiy says:

      Some of the oldest Arabic sources mention dialects that switch the “Dj” with “Y,” in fact people living in the eastern parts of the Arabian peninsula still talk this way.

    • benquo says:

      It’s more likely that the Joseph story is based on the Djoser-Imhotep system than just Djoser. I agree we shouldn’t put a lot of weight on the similar names, but actual instances of y turning to j are pretty strongly suggestive of the plausibility of y turning to j, as yiy points out.

  5. Jack V says:

    Hm. It sounds like both stories may derive from a common myth about a seven year famine? That seems quite plausible. It seems suggestive the two stories are related with the “chief minister” specific, but if we know “we have two stories that are related somehow”, is it more likely “one derived from the other” or “there was a widespread family of related stories of which we happen to have two”?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Seriously, derivative story telling has always been all the rage…

      • Aapje says:

        Hollywood discovered the same truth: sequels and reboots are simply very profitable.

      • Matt M says:

        I also wonder if there’s something to the idea that shared myths among multiple cultures are more likely to be promoted and accepted into mainstream thought (by third parties) than isolated ones. Like, say we have three myths.

        Myth A is solely Egyptian
        Myth B is solely Hebrew
        Myth C seems to have rough equivalents by both the Egyptians and the Hebrews

        At some point, the Greeks come along and come into contact with both Egyptian and Hebrew cultures. Which myth will seem the most credible to the Greeks? Surely the one that both cultures have a version of, right?

  6. Corey says:

    [Imhotep] was later deified for his accomplishments.

    Later to be killed by Elvis and JFK, after picking on the wrong nursing home.

    • Johannes D says:

      That sounds like some sort of a cross between the Illuminatus! trilogy and American Gods.

  7. Deiseach says:

    This is the kind of quality content I come here to find! (That “Moses was really Akhnaten” story was getting stale, anyway).

    I’ve seen it said* that the djed is a symbolic backbone/spinal column, and that kind of makes sense the way it’s drawn/written, especially if you want to compare it with the vajra of Indra, the thunderbolt that is made – ta-dah! – from the skeleton of a sage who died in order to provide the bones to create the invincible weapon:

    Dadhichi is then said to have given up his life by the art of yoga after which the gods fashioned the vajrayudha from his spine. This weapon was then used to defeat the asura, allowing Indra to reclaim his place as the king of devaloka.

    *I really should have put “It is written” there, shouldn’t I?

    • massivefocusedinaction says:

      I’d have probably tried to work in a “So let it be written; so let it be done.” [Clap] [Clap] somewhere.

  8. Michael Watts says:

    This seems like a good place for a comment about the Mesopotamian version of the Noah myth?

    Also, if there’s a common near-Eastern story about a great royal adviser solving seven years of famine, and the Egyptian version themes it on their traditional great royal adviser (this is an obvious choice!) and the Hebrew version themes it on Joseph, I think it makes sense to call them the same story regardless of the historicity of Joseph?

    There’s a common story in Indo-European cultures of a hero who is forced to kill his own son in battle. The relevant Irish hero is Cuchulainn, the Germanic hero is Hildebrand, and the Persian hero is apparently Rostam. (Personally, I feel like the Greek Heracles shows a good amount of similarity too.)

    Here are some snatches from wikipedia:

    Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son by Aífe, comes to Ireland in search of his father, but Cú Chulainn takes him as an intruder and kills him when he refuses to identify himself. Connla’s last words to his father as he dies are that they would have “carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond”, leaving Cú Chulainn grief-stricken. The story of Cú Chulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also kills his son Sohrab. Rostam and Cú Chulainn share several other characteristics, including killing a ferocious beast at a very young age, their near invincibility in battle, and the manner of their deaths.

    Hildebrand became Dietrich’s armourer, because he had to leave his home, he left his wife and his son. 30 years later, Hildebrand returns. His son Hadubrand is now ruling over his land, he is leading his army against the supposed invasion. As is customary, the two leaders meet between the armies. They start to list their family tree, in order to prevent themselves from killing a relative. Hadubrand says that he is “Hadubrand Hildebrand’s son”, but he was told that Hildebrand died, and he thinks that the fighter before him is using Hildebrand’s name to deceive him. In fact, the ending in the original text has been lost, but the legends and the third song tell the end of the story. Hildebrand has to kill his son otherwise he would be killed by him; he has pictures of all the warriors he killed on his red shield, and his son’s picture is added to the others.

    Two Persian heroes, Rostam and Esfandyar, share Labours stories with Hercules.

    Rostam is best known for his tragic fight with Esfandiar, the other legendary Iranian hero, for his expedition to Mazandaran (not to be confused with today Mazandaran province), and for his mournful fight with his son, Sohrab, who was killed in the battle. Rostam was eventually killed by Shaghad, his half-brother.

    The Scandinavian song “Hildebrand’s death” tell how Hildebrand fights against his half-brother. He is wounded fatally by him and the shield with the picture of his son falls near to his head on the ground.

    Editorial note: Hercules is also known for slaying a ferocious beast as an infant, and for killing his own son (and daughter, and wife).

    Does this mean the Iranian hero Rostam was really based on the Celtic hero Cuchulainn? Of course not. Can we say that the legend of Cuchulainn is drawn from the legend of Hildebrand? Sort of. Can we say these are the same legend in different traditions? Yes.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I guess the Celtic/Persian thing makes sense to me because they’re both Indo-Europeans, but since the Hebrews and Egyptians don’t share a cultural root I assumed there needed to be some borrowing.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Don’t they, though? The Israelites – or, according to most scholars, at least a culturally-significant part of them – were in Egypt for generations.

      • Michael Watts says:

        The Hebrews and the Egyptians are located in essentially the same place even if you assume the whole Hebrews-inside-Egypt-itself thing was an invention (which there’s no reason you should). Ireland and Iran are a little more separate than that.

        Egypt had a very close relationship with Mesopotamia/Syria for a long, long time, sometimes ruling territory there. And while Egyptian isn’t considered a Semitic language like Hebrew/Arabic/Akkadian/Aramaic, Egyptian and Semitic are considered sister language families (under the ur-category “Afro-Asiatic”). They are related, but, for example, Egyptian word roots sometimes have four consonants instead of three. This seems similar to how Persian and Sanskrit are closely related to each other, broken out as “Indo-Iranian” languages, while Celtic and Latin are closely related to each other, and the relationship between Persian and Celtic is more distant.

        It could be a case of borrowing; I don’t see that as being significantly different. How would you tell whether this was common descent or takeup and adaptation?

        And, why would you prefer the theory “the Hebrews rethemed Egypt’s story of Imhotep stopping a famine” to the theory “the Egyptians rethemed the Hebrew story of Joseph stopping a famine”?

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        One of the things that has become more and more apparent over the past few decades is just how immersed the Ancient Hebrew writers were in the literature of the surrounding cultures: Canaanite, Egyptian, Mesopotamian. The Song of Songs is clearly in the same genre as Egyptian love poetry. The Psalms are replete with allusions to Canaanite myth. Ecclesiastes borrows liberally from the Gilgamesh epic. And so on.

      • Egypt had a very close relationship with Mesopotamia/Syria for a long, long time,

        The biblical Esther and Mordecai are the Babylonian Ishtar and Markuk.

        • Evan Þ says:

          The names are definitely similar, but couldn’t two Jews in Babylonian/Persian culture have just as easily taken those names, or a Jewish storyteller have given them to his characters? Are there any similarities aside from the names?

        • Deiseach says:

          My first reaction to that was “No, they’re not”. Scott’s whole post is “please don’t take similiar sounding names, or names that can be made to sound similar, and run with them”.

          But to be fair, though I am not aware of a particular linkage between Marduk and Ishtar, I did some googling and it looks like at least one person has come up with this theory, so I am going to have to ask: did you see it on this website or come across it elsewhere?

          Is Circe Ishtar (or Ishtar Circe)? After all, they are both goddesses who turn their ex-lovers into animals! Game, set and match!

          Ishtar has her own extended chain of fools, who’ve loved her and whom she’s loved – for the time being. When she’s through with them, she does things like turn them into animals.

          What about Ishtar = Eostre = Easter, an argument that has been made? (Though it’s rather dignifying it to call it an “argument” rather than “crackpot proposition”). People love to take a grab-bag of Fertile Crescent societies, mythologies and cultures and ram them by brute force into the Bible – either to prove the truth of Biblical accounts or to disprove them, doesn’t really matter which.

          I’m a bit sensitive to stuff like this, such as The Two Babylons where the (quasi) historical queen Semiramis is linked with Nimrod of the Bible and then we jump forward to “And the Catholics to this day worship Semiramis under the guise of Mary, so they’re not Christians they’re pagans“.

          • SamChevre says:

            OK, there’s someone else on this board who has read The Two Babylons.

            I grew up with it around (Mennonites have a long history of not liking Catholics, and the rest follows). I still converted, but that book was striking–and strikingly good at hiding it’s bizarre leaps of of logic in piles of random facts.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Is Circe Ishtar (or Ishtar Circe)? After all, they are both goddesses who turn their ex-lovers into animals! Game, set and match!

            I don’t know about that, but Napoleon is definitely Apollo. Just look at the evidence, sheeple!

  9. manwhoisthursday says:

    I will take this as an excuse to provide a short bibliography on Ancient Egyptian myth, religion and culture.

    The best book to start with on Egyptian myth is Garry J. Shaw’s The Egyptian Myths. It includes the best retellings I’ve found, as well as a nice guide to the afterlife as described in the Book of the Dead. The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt is helpful as a supplement, but is not a good place to start.

    For the Book of the Dead, Raymond Faulkner’s version is about the best available. You’ll need a guide to understand any of it though. Shaw is a good place to start. Barry Kemp also has a short book.

    Barbara Hughes Fowler’s translations of Egyptian love poetry are excellent. (They are obviously in the same tradition as the Hebrew Song of Songs.) William Kelley Simpson, Toby Wilkinson and John L. Foster all have separate anthologies of Ancient Egyptian literature.

    Richard H. Wilkinson has some nice photograph heavy books on Ancient Egypt. There are excellent books on Egyptian culture and religion from John A. Wilson, Jan Assman, Barry Kemp, Geraldine Pinch, Erik Hornung and Toby Wilkinson.

    • Allisus says:

      Thank you for this list. It’s always good to have the wheat separated from the chaff already.

  10. 4bpp says:

    Considering the theory that Genesis was deliberately addressing the Babylonian creation story, it seems quite likely that much like we expect a (physical) Theory of Everything nowadays to provide a plausible explanation for the heap of experimental evidence part compatible with and part of the narrative of previously existing theories, an ancient (religious) Theory of Everything was at the minimum expected to provide a plausible explanation for the body of folk stories (global flood, creation from water, seven years of famine) that were common knowledge in its cultural sphere. (“That thing with the parted ocean? Yeah, of course that was our deity too. Here’s how he did it.”)

  11. Allisus says:

    While we’re talking about myths/biblical figures, has anyone been watching Jordan Peterson’s Biblical series on YouTube? I’ve found it very interesting and worthwhile. Takes a different approach on interpreting the bible through a metaphorical lens.

  12. callmebrotherg says:

    //Part of the lesson I wanted to teach with Unsong is that this sort of thing is too easy, and therefore we need to increase our guard.//

    The really scary thing is that you wrote it well enough that the younger, Mormon version of myself (circa 2013, let’s say) would have incorporated some of your connections into his theology and, if pushed on the issue, concluded that you must have actually been a little bit Inspired because those pieces just fit so well.

    /shudder

  13. KenB says:

    Prior to the “discovery” of Sanskrit by European scholars in the 19th century and the realization that phonological changes in language are regular and consistent, a common practice for determining whether two languages were related to each other was just to compare word lists and look for cognates based on the sound and the meaning of the words; if enough cognates were identified, one would then make an argument that the languages were related. However, there were no strict standards governing how similar either the words themselves or their meanings had to be, so in practice this meant that you could arguably relate just about any two languages — between pure coincidence and people’s inventiveness in coming up with semantic connections, one could usually find dozens or hundreds of supposed cognates out of a list of 10,000 words.
    After the discovery of the regularity of historical sound change and the more rigorous requirements for identifying relationships, many previously accepted language relationships were shown to be unfounded (at least, to the limits of how far back in time linguists can reasonably go).

    • Evan Þ says:

      Sounds interesting! Where can I look further into this development of linguistics?

      • KenB says:

        Hmm…my comment was based on what I remember from grad school lectures 25 years ago, so I don’t have any good reference to hand you, but I’d assume any book on the history of linguistics would cover this territory.

  14. MawBTS says:

    Were you aware of the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a fragmentary ~3300 year old papyrus that (eg) describes the Nile turning to blood and servants defying their masters?

  15. daveschuler says:

    An infant found among the bulrushes occurs both in the Biblical story of Moses and in the myth of Sargon the Great. Does that mean that the story of Moses was derived from the myth of Sargon the Great? No. It means that Sargon the Great was the first Semitic king of Mesopotamia, as such he was a culture hero, and his story was well-known to the audience for which the story of Moses was written. Evoking the the myth of Sargon the Great was a device for signalling to the audience that Moses like Sargon would be a great liberator of his people.

  16. benquo says:

    Thanks for the follow-up research! Your summary is fair and “seven-year famine stories are really common” does seem like a strong point against a direct Djoser-Joseph connection.

    Part of the lesson I wanted to teach with Unsong is that this sort of thing is too easy, and therefore we need to increase our guard.

    Most modern languages don’t actually have three-letter roots. So, when you connect “MaSSachusetts” with “MoSeS,” it’s obviously spurious to anyone familiar with Hebrew. But, the Semitic languages *really do* have three-letter roots that carry the same meaning fairly consistently. Believing that a three-letter combo carries a consistent meaning across languages isn’t a reasonable hypothesis for an Anglo to generate, but it *totally is* for a speaker of Hebrew or Aramaic or Arabic who knows a lot about other Semitic languages.

    I bring this up because you left out – likely I forgot to mention – one of the key points that persuaded me that something interesting was going on here. It turns out that “Osiris” is actually a terrible transliteration, because the Greeks were terrible at transcription. According to Wikipedia:

    In Egyptian hieroglyphs the name appears as wsjr, which some Egyptologists instead choose to transliterate ꜣsjr or jsjrj. Since hieroglyphic writing lacks vowels, Egyptologists have vocalized the name in various ways as Asar, Yasar, Aser, Asaru, Ausar, Ausir, Wesir, Usir, Usire or Ausare.

    When I read this, my first thought was “Wazir,” the Arabic word for, well, vizier. I looked it up, and sure enough, W-Z-R is a Semitic root, meaning bearer of a burden. This is a really, really interesting rhyme with the idea of load-bearing columns. It’s only in that context PLUS Imhotep’s apparent invention of load-bearing columns that the Djed symbol seems interesting here. Osiris’s name might be a loan-word from the Semitic word for “load-bearing” or “vizier”.

    So, a slightly more complete list of relevant similarities (some of which are very uncertain, none of which is decisive, nor are they decisive all together):

    Djoser-Imhotep system
    – Seven-year famine story
    – Prominent vizier AND king
    – Great builder
    – Djed, sacred column symbol
    – Literal load-bearing columns
    – Iconic planner/recordkeeper/architect

    Joseph story
    – Seven-year famine story
    – Prominent vizier
    – Planning based on foresight
    – Great builder

    Wsjr
    – Literally named “Vizier” (loan word meaning load-bearing), but also king
    – Djed, sacred column symbol
    – Planning based on hindsight and memory (the mirror image of foresight)

    Of course, the Djed symbol predated Djoser-Imhotep. I’d claim something like – the Osiris myth is somewhat likely to be a reinterpretation of Djoser-Imhotep, with Egyptian characteristics, using preexisting Egyptian symbolism. Likewise, the Joseph myth is somewhat likely to be a reworking with Hebrew/Babylonian/Canaanite/Yahwist characteristics.

  17. littleyid says:

    This is the first I’m hearing of Djoser, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of Osiris mythically corresponding to Joseph.

    In the Osiris-Horus cycle, Osiris represents established society, and Horus represents the ideal king who integrates the culture he inherits with the specific circumstances of his time. Horus rescues his dead father from the underworld, ([Recommended Jordan Peterson video here.])

    Osiris is represented in Egyptian iconography by the pyramid, and Horus by the eye at its peak. This corresponds very neatly to the final two sephirot of the Tree of Life, where Yesod (Joseph) is succeeded by Malkuth (David). Joseph establishes the Children of Israel in the region of Goshen, where they grow from a family into a people (Osiris, ordered society). David integrates an extremely diverse set of classical and modern virtues (shepherding, music, duelling, diplomacy, guerrilla warfare, leadership, romance, foreskin collecting etc.) to become the archetypal king of the Jews (Horus, ideal king).

    The Israelites shlep Joseph’s bones with them out of Egypt for reburial in the land of Israel, mythologically corresponding to the retrieval of Osiris from the underworld. The Talmud even says that Moses personally uses a kabbalistic spell to raise Joseph’s coffin up from the depths of the Nile.

    The djed representing stability works perfectly with both myths. It certainly seems more like a Yesod icon than, say, a Chesed icon, or the icon of another randomly chosen sephirah. I have no idea what the relationship here is between real people and the stories that end up being distilled out of their lives, and I don’t know how much the myths involved independently arose out of similar structures, but it seems excessively skeptical to blame the entire thing on phytoplankton.

  18. GnosticGnome says:

    It seems really weird to me that any Creationists would expect the pyramids to be grain storehouses. The Bible is not shy about showing off the accomplishments of people like Joseph – if he’d been responsible for the pyramids instead of hastily-built grain storehouses, it would have said so. And as you say, Djoser was too early to be Joseph’s Pharaoh. So the obvious conclusion for a Creationist should be that the pyramids *weren’t* grain storehouses, that Djoser was *not* Joseph’s Pharaoh, and that Joseph’s achievements were naturally misattributed to Djoser years later as the coolest historical pharaoh whose name happened to sound like Joseph.