Herodotus (II.42) informs his readers that “the name by which the Egyptians know Zeus is Amun.” Egyptian religion underwent constant change, and varied from place to place, but in general Amun is indeed, like Zeus, the King of the Gods, and already by Herodotus’s time had been fused with the sun-god Ra, who in turn was sometimes fused with another sun- or sky-god, Horus. All very complicated.
Though Horus is quite Apollo-like (or vice versa), some scholars refer to Horus as a sky god rather than a sun god because it is Aun-Ra who is linked more closely with the sun: his kingship over the gods comes increasingly to be associated with the dominance and power of the sun — and then, in the next phase — the one inaugurated by Akhenaten, the subject of a previous post — any such personifications seem unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. He builds temples open to the sky so the sun can be felt and worshipped simultaneously. Akhenaten’s religion is a literalizing movement, a rejection of all likenesses (metaphors, similes, personifications, all the apparatus of mythical storytelling).
In Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph and his people are set in opposition to Egypt, which is simultaneously the land of sun-worshippers and — as we saw in the most recent post in this series — a kind of underworld. The children of Israel dwell in the highlands, and think of things other than the sun. After the Prelude, the first chapter-as-such of the story is called “Ishtar.” Why? Because the Akkadian goddess Ishtar (or Inanna) is identified with the planet Venus, and that is what Joseph, gazing on the evening sky, is contemplating.
(Interestingly, Ishtar/Inanna is said to have been taken to, and then to have escaped from, the underworld, in stories that are closely linked to those of Osiris, Orpheus, and, if Mann is allowed to have his way, Joseph. Echo after echo after echo.)
Now, the Semitic version of Ishtar is Astarte, and under that name (or something close to it) she was worshipped by Canaanites, by Phoenicians, by Carthaginians, and, yes, by Egyptians. In the Hebrew Bible she is sometimes called Ashtoreth. Many centuries after Joseph, King Solomon would marry foreign women, with bad results:
He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom [in other translations Molek or Moloch] the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.
Again, that happens much later. Still, worth noting.
As if things are not complicated enough, I have to add one more point: Mann repeatedly associates Abraham with the moon, calls him “the moon-wanderer,” sees his children as inheriting that from him. (In an especially incomprehensible passage [p. 104] he speaks of Jacob as a man of the full moon and Esau as “a man of the dark moon, and thus a man of the sun, a man of the underworld” — huh? Moon, sun, and underworld all at once?) When Joseph and Jacob have their first conversation, in the darkening evening, Mann comments that “the sun’s clarity is one thing and the moon’s another, for the latter had indeed ruled most marvelously over that more than useful discourse. Things look different by moonlight than by the bright of day, and its clarity may indeed have seemed the true clarity to those minds in that time and place” (93, at the outset of the chapter called “Moon Grammar”). So: those in the highlands are linked with the bodies of the night sky, in opposition to the sun-worshippers of that underworld called Egypt.
How to make sense of this — well, of some of this? Perhaps by looking at a long passage from page 100:
Yet not even in a dream could the people of El-Elyon attribute their interconnection to a unity and purity of blood. Something Babylonian-Sumerian — and so not exclusively Semitic — had passed through Arabian desert stock; further elements from Gerar, from the land of the Muzri, from Egypt itself, had been blended in, as in the person of the slave Hagar, who was found worthy of sharing the bed with the great head of the tribe himself and whose son, then, married an Egyptian; and it was so universally known that one hardly needed to waste words on how sorely vexed Rebekah must have been by Esau’s Hittite wives — daughters from a tribe that likewise did not call Shem its primal father, but that at some point came from somewhere in Asia Minor, pressing into Syria from the Ural-Altaic region. Many a branch was cast off early on. It is certain that the primal Abraham sired more children after the death of Sarai, and in particular — not being particular himself — with Keturah, a Canaanite woman, though he had not wanted his son Isaak to wed a Canaanite. Of Keturah’s sons, one was named Midian, whose descendants lived out their lives south of the Seir mountains of Edom — Esau’s region — bordering on the Arabian desert, much like Ismael’s children this side of Egypt; for Yitzchak, the true son, had been the sole heir, while the children of concubines had been bought off with gifts and pushed off to the east, where they lost any feeling for El-Elyon — if they ever had clung to Him — and served their own gods. But it was divine matters, the inherited task of thinking about God, that formed the spiritual bond that, whatever its motley makeup in terms of blood, held this clan together, who among all the Hebrews — be it the sons of Moab, Ammon, or Edom — ascribed that name to themselves in a special and narrow sense, especially insofar as they had now begun, at the very period into which we have entered, to restrict it and link it with another name, that of Israel.
Whew. The essential point here being that when Joseph is meditating on the night sky he is also meditating on the gods of the gentes — the gods of the Akkadians and Sumerians and Canaanites and Phoenicians. He is thinking from within his own complex ethnicity. Abraham may have “invented God,” but these various gods of the peoples north and east of the fields where the children of Israel wander are part of Joseph’s inheritance also.
Mann is very interested in triangles and triangulation throughout this tetralogy — perhaps a subject for another post — and I think we can see here the beginnings of something that will be developed throughout this long tale: Joseph — the Thoth/Hermes of this story, the mediator and messenger — as triangulator. He stands at the center of a triangle:
Everyone knows that navigation depends on triangulation; Mann wants to show us how that works in matters of thought and belief. For many years he had hoped to be his country’s Joseph, perhaps even the Joseph of Europe: the navigator, the interpreter, the guide. (The three sides of his triangle are, I think, Culture, Civilization, and Art.) He describes his self-chosen vocation (sometimes with sly indirectness) in his 1918 book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, about which Chris Beha has written eloquently here. But circumstances denied him that role, a situation which he finally faced in late 1936, in a famous letter denouncing the Nazi regime, especially its antisemitism.
Soon thereafter Mann made his way to the United States — first to Princeton and then to California — where he wrote the final volume of his tetralogy, Joseph the Provider. He was a nonpolitical man no longer, and perhaps it was easier for him to accept the end of his role as navigator and interpreter because he was able to write the conclusion to his great tale of the ultimate avatar of Thoth/Hermes, the first cross-cultural guide, the advocate for a civilization based on forgiveness and reconciliation.