For most people today, “the Trinity” is a distinctly Christian concept, referring to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But as Jennifer Williams, a specialist in African-American studies, writes, it was not the first religious trinity. Christianity borrowed the idea from the ancient Egyptians, making significant changes along the way.
Williams notes that the early Christians found inspiration for their spiritual system in religions around the Mediterranean. The area was full of stories involving the resurrection, salvation, virgin births, and the central figures who were the sons of the supreme gods. In ancient Egypt – or Kemet, as his people called him at the time – a key concept was the relationship between three deities, Asar, Aset, and Heru. (Most Americans today know them best by the names the Greeks gave them: Osiris, Isis, and Horus, respectively.)
Like many Egyptian gods, these divine beings started out as humans. Asar was a revered king who was assassinated by a usurper but became the king of the afterlife, or spiritual realm. His wife, Aset, took their son, Heru, underground, and Heru eventually returned to reclaim the earthly throne.
Kemetic culture was based on the principle of Maat, or order. This included grouping deities into families or pairs, such as the Asar-Aset-Heru trinity.
“Making changes in the tangible and intangible realms typically required more than one deity so that the essence of a deity didn’t overwhelm the balance of the visible and invisible worlds,” Williams writes.
Part of Ma’at was the complementary male and female principles, both in the universe and in human society. The Egyptians passed property and title by matrilineal route. And while men generally held official positions of political authority, royal women also had a powerful role in decision-making.
At the start of the Middle Kingdom, around 2040 BCE, Williams writes, Egypt was largely patriarchal, and celebrations often focused on Asar. But during the New Kingdom, a time of mighty queens that began around 1570 BCE, Aset gained new attention. She became known as the protector of the living and the most powerful healer among the gods. Over time, the cult of Aset spread to the Greeks and Romans, especially among women. Her identity was sometimes confused with other goddesses, such as Astarte and Hera.
But Aset, and the Egyptian Trinity more generally, did not clearly correspond to the emerging Christian system.
“The roles of father and son match Asar and Heru,” Williams writes. “However, the role of the Holy Spirit, an entity residing within the body of a believer or of God in a tangible realm, does not correspond to Aset’s role in the Kemetic Trinity.”
Aset parallels the Virgin Mary in some ways. The artists clearly borrowed images from Aset and Heru to create images of the Christian holy mother and child. But the Roman Empire, in which the concept of the Christian Trinity developed between the first and fourth centuries CE, was both patriarchal and patrilineal, and had no concept equivalent to Ma’at.
“A female deity would not translate into the new male-centric socio-political-spiritual system that championed patriarchy,” Williams writes.
This left Mary without the divine powers of Aset and outside the Christian Trinity.