Sometimes you hear Ancient Egyptian culture treated as if it was a static thing, staying the same over the whole course of its history – someone (often in a documentary voiceover!) making statements about how “the Ancient Egyptians” did things as if all of them did the same from the time of Narmer through to the fall of Cleopatra some 3000 years later. This is, of course, nonsense – over the course of three thousand years a lot changes, even in a culture that made such a point of (talking about) doing things the way they had always been done. Their religion was no exception – the importance of different gods in their pantheon waxed and waned as the importance of different regions and priesthoods waxed and waned. Your mind might go to Akhenaten and his failed attempt to move from an Amun-centred pantheon to worship of the Aten, but I think that’s a bit different as he also changed the way worship happened and the architecture of temples – an attempt at a more seismic shift in the religious culture. The changes I have in mind are those that seem more organic (at least as far as one can tell), more like reshuffling of priorities than disruptive alterations – things like the rise and (relative) fall of the god Montu in the early Middle Kingdom.
Montu is the ancient principle deity of Thebes and the surrounding area. He’s most often represented in art as a falcon-headed man or as a falcon, but he may also be depicted as a bull or bull-headed man (particularly in the Late Period and after). He wears a headdress of a sun-disk and uraeus with two feathered plumes, and these plumes serve to differentiate him from depictions of Re or Horus or other falcon-headed deities. He may also carry a curved sword called a khepesh, emphasising his martial nature. He is referenced in the Pyramid Texts and there is also archaeological evidence of him in the Old Kingdom period. At this point he is primarily important on a local scale but this changes with the 11th Dynasty. They have a particular veneration for Montu – three of the rulers from this dynasty (and an ancestor) are named Montuhotep, which means “Montu is satisfied”. An appropriately warlike choice for a family who used force of arms to reunify the fractured land that was the Egypt of the First Intermediate Period!
With the 11th Dynasty’s rise to power so comes Montu’s rise to national importance as one of the key state gods. But he was not to remain preeminent for long. The 12th Dynasty began with the reign of Amenemhat I, and again the name gives a clue – during the time of “Amun is at the forefront” and his successors the cult of Amun begins its rise to centre stage. Montu doesn’t completely fade back to being a purely local god, however. Instead he becomes the deity who represents the aggressive side of kingship. During the New Kingdom the more martial rulers use epithets that reference Montu, for instance Thutmose III fights “like Montu in his might”. As well as this his cult remains important in the Theban region right through into the Roman period.
There are four main sites near Thebes where there are temples to Montu – Armant, el Tod, Karnak and Medamud. Karnak surprised me when I read about it, as I associate that temple complex so strongly with Amun (and his consort Mut & their child Khonsu) that I wasn’t expecting Montu to show up there as well. This is an artifact both of the dominance of the New Kingdom buildings on the site and of which bits of the complex I’ve actually visited. The precinct of Montu is to the north of what I think of as “Karnak temple” (the New Kingdom precinct of Amun-Re), and is dwarfed by it.
The temple at Armant was the main cult centre for Montu, and it was here that his sacred bull was buried. In much the same way that the god Ptah had the Apis Bull at Saqqara as an avatar, so too Montu had the Buchis Bull. There was only one Buchis bull at any one time, and when it died it was mummified and buried with full honours in a catacomb at Armant called the Bucheion or Bucheum. The bull’s mother was also buried in a catacomb nearby, called the Baqqariyah. The next bull was chosen on the basis of its markings – a white hide and a black face, according to one ancient author but this doesn’t always seem to’ve been the case. It was particularly renowned for its ferocity, and was depicted in bull fighting scenes in Old Kingdom Upper Egyptian tombs.
As with most Egyptian gods Montu had a consort – or rather he had different ones in different times and places, another iteration of the idea I started this article with. At a Middle Kingdom era temple in Tod the god was shown with the goddess Tjenenet. There’s a double sided relief dating to the reign of Montuhotep III which is now in the Louvre which has Montu on one side and Tjenenet on the other, both receiving offerings from the king. This is part of a wall that used to divide two of the chapels in the temple – one dedicated to each deity. But by the time of the late New Kingdom (and afterwards) the consort of Montu depicted in reliefs is Raet (also sometimes called Raettawy). She began as a female counterpart for the sun-god Re and is known from the 5th Dynasty. She doesn’t really show up much in mythology though, the roles that you might expect the counterpart of Re to fulfil in a story are more often taken by Hathor. Even later in Ancient Egyptian history Montu and Raet complete their triad with a child (in the temple at Medamud at least). This child is the deity known to the Greeks as Harpocrates – Horus the Child. Who is more often, in (most) other times and places, identified as the son of Isis and Osiris conceived after Osiris’s death …
So altogether the rise and fall, and the relationships, of Montu are a good illustration of the fluidity of Ancient Egyptian religious culture over time. There’s a core of Montu-ness around which are a variety of attributes and relationships which reflect what place Montu has in that specific place at that specific moment.
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, Kei Yamamoto
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyledesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson