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Ancient Egyptian religion

Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex and elaborate set of polytheistic rituals and beliefs developed and adopted by the ancient Egyptians that centred on the interaction between the mortals and various theriocephalic deities who controlled several aspects and phenomena of nature. These practices were efforts to provide for the gods and gain their favour. Formal religious practice centred on the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Although a human, the Pharaoh was believed to be descended from the gods. He acted as the intermediary between his people and the gods, and was obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain order in the universe. The state dedicated enormous resources to Egyptian rituals and to the construction of the temples.

Individuals could interact with the gods for their own purposes, appealing for their help through prayer or compelling them to act through magic. These practices were distinct from, but closely linked with, the formal rituals and institutions. The popular religious tradition grew more prominent in the course of Egyptian history as the status of the Pharaoh declined. Another important aspect was the belief in the afterlife and funerary practices. The Egyptians made great efforts to ensure the survival of their souls after death, providing tombs, grave goods, and offerings to preserve the bodies and spirits of the deceased.

The religion had its roots in Egypt's prehistory and lasted for more than 3,000 years. The details of religious belief changed over time as the importance of particular gods rose and declined, and their intricate relationships shifted. At various times, certain gods became more important over the others, including the sun god Ra, the creator god Amun, and the mother goddess Isis. For a brief period, in the aberrant theology promulgated by the Pharaoh Akhenaten, a single god, the Aten, replaced the traditional pantheon. Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology left behind many writings and monuments, along with significant influences on ancient and modern cultures.

Theology Edit

The beliefs and rituals now referred to as "Ancient Egyptian religion" existed within every aspect of Egyptian culture. Their language possessed no single term corresponding to the modern European concept of religion. Ancient Egyptian religion was not a monolithic institution, but consisted of a vast and varying set of beliefs and practices, linked by their common focus on the interaction between the world of humans and the world of the divine. The characteristics of the gods who populated the divine realm were inextricably linked to the Egyptians' understanding of the properties of the world in which they lived.[1]

Deities Edit


The gods Osiris, Anubis, and Horus, in order from left to right.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a multitude of gods and goddesses. These deified forces included the elements, animal characteristics, or abstract forces. The Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods, which were involved in all aspects of nature and human society. Their religious practices were efforts to sustain and placate these phenomena and turn them to human advantage.[2] Their polytheistic system was highly complex with several gods possessing multiple forms and complex marital relationships. Many deities were believed to exist in different manifestations and had multiple mythological roles. The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or "demons" with very limited or localised functions.[3] It could include gods adopted from foreign cultures, and sometimes even humans: deceased Pharaohs were believed to be divine, and occasionally, distinguished commoners such as Imhotep also became deified.

The depictions of the gods in art were not meant as literal representations of how the gods might appear if they were visible, as the gods' true natures were believed to be mysterious. Instead, these depictions gave recognisable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god's role in nature. Thus, for example, the funerary god Anubis was portrayed as a jackal, a creature whose scavenging habits threatened the preservation of the body, in an effort to counter this threat and employ it for protection. His black skin was symbolic of the colour of mummified flesh and the fertile black soil that Egyptians saw as a symbol of resurrection. However, this iconography was not fixed, and many of the gods could be depicted in more than one form.

List of Egyptian deities Edit

Interrelationships Edit

Amun-Ra head

Amun-Ra kamutef, wearing the plumed headdress of Amun and the sun disk representing Ra.

The Egyptian gods had complex interrelationships, which partly reflected the interaction of the forces they represented. The Egyptians often grouped gods together to reflect these relationships. Some groups of deities were of indeterminate size, and were linked by their similar functions. These often consisted of minor deities with little individual identity. Other combinations linked independent deities based on the symbolic meaning of numbers in Egyptian mythology; for instance, pairs of deities usually represent the duality of opposite phenomena. One of the more common combinations was a family triad consisting of a father, mother, and child, who were worshipped together. Some groups had wide-ranging importance. One such group, the Ennead, assembled nine deities into a theological system that was involved in the mythological areas of creation, kingship, and the afterlife.[4]

The relationships between deities could also be expressed in the process of syncretism, in which two or more different gods were linked to form a composite deity. This process was a recognition of the presence of one god "in" another when the second god took on a role belonging to the first. These links between deities were fluid, and did not represent the permanent merging of two gods into one; therefore, some gods could develop multiple syncretic connections. Sometimes syncretism combined deities with very similar characteristics. At other times it joined gods with very different natures, as when Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked with Ra, the god of the sun. The resulting god, Amun-Ra, thus united the power that lay behind all things with the greatest and most visible force in nature.

Divine forms Edit


Tawaret's sagging breasts and large rounded stomach identified her with pregnant women and mothers.


Set was probably based off a beast that either did not actually exist, or became long extinct.

The attributes and behaviour of an animal clearly determined its selection as the representation of the deity. For example, the fierce goddess Sekhmet takes the form of a lioness and Khepri is represented as a dung beetle, which has the habit of rolling its eggs in a ball of dung. Another consideration appears to have been that, by depicting a deity in the form of a dangerous animal, such as a snake, and then by worshipping that deity, the animal in question might in turn be placated and the hazard allayed.

Sometimes the form particular deities were given must also have been apotropaic. For example, the goddess Tawaret is portrayed as a hippopotamus with additional characteristics of a crocodile and a lion. The idea of such a potentially threatening combination would definitely keep harm away from the mother and her child.

The concept of a composite animal is most clearly exemplified by the demon deity, Ammit, who was responsible for devouring the hearts of those who had done wrong during their lifetime, thereby denying them a life after death. She was represented as part crocodile, part panther and part hippopotamus. The ancient Egyptians clearly dreamed up such strange combinations of animals in order to represent the more menacing deities.

All the animals in the collective visualisation of the divine world were indigenous to the Nile Valley, the marshy Delta region and the desert fringes. Though the giraffe was known to exist, because it had been brought in from sub-Saharan Africa, it was never chosen to represent a deity. There is, however, a deity whose animal form remains a mystery: that is Set. Perhaps due to his association with chaos and infertility, he was depicted as an animal with a forked tail, a greyhound-like body, a long snout and squared off ears. Such beasts have not been known to exist.

The significance of names Edit


Hapi, the god of the Nile inundation, was portrayed with rolls of fat and heavy breasts, emphasising his connection with fecundity. This image, symbolising the Unification of Egypt exemplifies the ancient Egyptians' love for symmetry in art.

Perhaps by visualising and verbalising the divine world in terms of customary animals and routine human behaviour, the intention was to demystify and make explicable what was by definition mysterious and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, divinity can never be fully understood and must instil a sense of wonder into the non-divine. In the myth of Isis and Ra's secret name, it is the one unknown name of Ra that is the source of his power, the hidden essence is crucial. The names were decidedly as important as their particular characteristics and the means by which they were represented. Offerings and prayers could be made only to a divine force that possessed its own name.

Myths served to explain the origins, personalities and relationships of the deities, but it is impossible to know for certain exactly how and when the identities of the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt evolved. All we can do is identify the earliest known occurrence of the deity in each instance, whether a textual reference or a pictorial representation. It is likely that the priesthood formulated and developed the various theological ideas associated with the gods and goddesses.

Deification of mortals Edit

Amenhotep IAhmoseNefertari

Amenhotep I and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari, (depicted on this stele) were worshiped as patron deities of Deir el-Medina long after their deaths. 18th Dynasty.

It was rare but not unheard of for the ancient Egyptians to deify eminent individuals from the past. The Pharaoh himself was considered a god to some extent, particularly after his death, but occasionally a local cult grew up around a ruler in addition to his official funerary cult, and he would be worshipped as a patron deity in a more unusual way. The most popular was Amenhotep I (c.1525—1504 BCE), the second ruler of the 18th Dynasty. Together with his mother Ahmose-Nefertari, he was worshipped as a protective deity and founder of Deir el-Medina, the west Theban village of tomb builders. He was treated like the patron saint of this small workmen's community. There was a shrine dedicated to him, festivals were celebrated in his honour, and sometimes his statue was carried by priests so that his oracle may be consulted.

The best-known non-royal figures who were posthumously honoured with deification were Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu, but from the New Kingdom onward (c.1550 BCE) victims of drowning began to be deified. The Nile was the lifeline of ancient Egypt and much religious belief surrounded it. By the Late Period a person who had drowned in it might have had a cult established in their honour.

Imhotep Edit

Main article: Imhotep

Imhotep was a favorite subject for bronze figurines during the late and Greco—Roman periods. This particular statue is from the Louvre Museum.

The great vizier, or chief minister, of the Third—Dynasty king Djoser (c.2667—2648 BCE), Imhotep was the architect of Egypt's earliest monumental stone structure, the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser at Saqqara, the chief burial site at the time for the capital at Memphis. An inscription on a statue of the king honours the vizier as a master carpenter and sculptor, while carvings on stone vessels say he was a priest.

Imhotep was obviously remembered throughout Pharaonic history, but he was not actually deified until the Late Period, some 2,000 years after his death. In fact he was particularly acknowledged during the Ptolemiac Period (332—30 BCE), when he was identified with the Greek Asclepius as a god of wisdom and medicine. A reputation for great wisdom does appear to have been a prerequisite for deification, hence the connection between the cults of Imhotep and Thoth. Healing sanctuaries were dedicated to Imhotep, one of which was built within the confines of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes.

Imhotep came to be regarded as the son of the chief god of Memphis, Ptah. Many bronze statuettes represent him wearing a skull cap and a priest's long linen kilt, seated with a papyrus scroll spread out across his lap.

Amenhotep son of Hapu Edit

Main article: Amenhotep, son of Hapu

Amenhotep, son of Hapu.

The Deir el-Bahri sanctuary was also dedicated to another god of healing, the second deified sage, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, who had been an important official during the reign of the Eighteenth Dynasty king Amenhotep III (c.1390—1352 BCE). Like Imhotep he was remembered for his wisdom, and as Director of Royal Works he was also responsible for building a great funerary structure for his king. This was the west Theban mortuary temple of Amenhotep III at Kom el-Heiten. Amenhotep son of Hapuwas granted the unique royal flavour of his own mortuary temple among the kings of Thebes, and statues of him were set up in the largest and most influential temple of the time, that of Amun at Karnak in Thebes.



The air god Shu, assisted by other gods, held up Nut, the sky, as Geb, the earth, lay beneath.

The Egyptian conception of the universe centred on Ma'at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English, including "truth," "justice," and "order." It was the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and in human society. It had existed since the creation of the world, and without it the world would lose its cohesion. In Egyptian belief, Ma'at was constantly under threat from the forces of disorder, so all of society was required to maintain it. On the human level this meant that all members of society should cooperate and coexist; on the cosmic level it meant that all of the forces of nature—the gods—should continue to function in balance. This latter goal was central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptians sought to maintain Ma'at in the cosmos by sustaining the gods through offerings and by performing rituals which staved off disorder and perpetuated the cycles of nature.

The most important part of the Egyptian view of the cosmos was the conception of time, which was greatly concerned with the maintenance of Ma'at. Throughout the linear passage of time, a cyclical pattern recurred, in which Ma'at was renewed by periodic events which echoed the original creation. Among these events were the annual Nile flood and the succession from one king to another, but the most important was the daily journey of the sun god Ra.

When envisioning the shape of the cosmos, the Egyptians saw the earth as a flat expanse of land, personified by the god Geb, over which arched the sky goddess Nut. The two were separated by Shu, the god of air. Beneath the earth lay a parallel underworld and undersky, and beyond the skies lay the infinite expanse of Nu, the chaos that had existed before creation. The Egyptians also believed in a place called the Duat, a mysterious region associated with death and rebirth, that may have lain in the underworld or in the sky. Each day, Ra travelled over the earth across the underside of the sky, and at night he passed through the Duat to be reborn at dawn.

In Egyptian belief, this cosmos was inhabited by three types of sentient beings. One was the gods; another was the spirits of deceased humans, who existed in the divine realm and possessed many of the gods' abilities. Living humans were the third category, and the most important among them was the Pharaoh, who bridged the human and divine realms.

Divine kingship Edit


Colossal statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, from the twin temples of Abu Simbel.

The belief in the divine nature of the position of the Pharaoh was central to the ideology of kingship in ancient Egypt. The term Pharaoh (per-aa) actually means 'great house' and was not used to describe the ruler himself until the New Kingdom period; before that time it was used to refer to the king's palace or the royal court.

The divinity of kingship was an important part of the Egyptian system of beliefs and social structure from the very beginning of the Pharaonic period. Some very early inscriptions have been found that describe the king as netjer ('god') or, more usually, nefer netjer ('good god'), which may indicate a lesser or minor god. Several inscriptions also describe the king as aa netjer ('great god').

More is known about the ruler's association with Horus: for example, the falcon became a symbol of kingship from the Protodynastic Period. On the Narmer Palette, a falcon holds a rope in its talons which is attached to a ring through the nose of a semi-personified papyrus marsh. The falcon presumably symbolises Narmer, whose victories are commemorated on the palette.

Royal titles Edit


Serekh containing the name of Djet and an association with Wadjet, on display at the Louvre. Wadjet was usually depicted as the uraeus on the Red Crown and protected the Pharaoh.

From the Old Kingdom (c.2686—2181 BCE), each king had five names, which were each introduced by an important title. Only one name was given at birth; the other four were bestowed when he attained kingship. They encapsulated the ideology of kingship. Two of the names were introduced by titles that stressed the rule of the king over the two unified lands: 'He of the Sedge and the Bee' (Nesw Bity) and 'He of the Two Ladies' (Nebty). The other two names – 'Horus' (hor) and 'Golden Horus' (Hor Nebw) – could not have more clearly emphasised his identification with the god.

The office of kingship was decidedly male, and during the 3,000 or so years of Pharaonic history, female pharaohs were few and far between. The best known is probably Hatshepsut, who necessarily had to make use of masculine royal titles and regalia. She was even referred to as 'he' in the inscriptions on the walls of the mortuary temple in Deir el-Bahri on the western bank at Thebes. This is not to underestimate the political and religious importance of female members of the royal family - in particular the king's mother and wives (especially the 'Chief Royal Wife').

In the ruler's succession and coronation, he recreated the myth (parts of which were recorded as early as the Pyramid Texts) of Horus ascending to the throne of his deceased father Osiris. On his accession, the king was crowned with the Double Crown, which Horus is often depicted wearing in temple and tomb reliefs. The king would also have performed rituals identifying himself with the falcon god. Of particular significance would have been the symbolic triumph over the god Set.

Associations with HorusEdit

Inscriptions and reliefs on the walls of the temple dedicated to Horus at Edfu describe the events of the annual Festival of Victory. Although these scenes date to the reign of Ptolemy IX (116—107 BCE), rituals of this kind were probably being enacted as early as the New Kingdom. The aim of the ritual drama was the annihilation of Set. The king, identified as Horus, had to pierce Set with ten harpoons. Set took the form of a hippopotamus, and it was likely that a model hippopotamus would have been made for the festival; the final ritual certainly involved the eating of a cake in the shape of a hippopotamus. The act of harpooning the wild animal, whether symbolic or actual, was an ancient royal ritual that symbolised the triumph of order over the forces of chaos.

The king is also seen to play the part of Horus in the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, which is now in the British Museum, London. This document dates to the reign of the Twelfth Dynasty king Amenemhat III, although the drama had originally been written down for the Jubilee Festival of Senusret I. The king, as Horus, had a conversation with the other gods and received the 'Sacred Eye' or the udjat; he ordered oxen to refrain from trampling on barley (symbolic to Osiris) and engaged in mock battle with Set.

It is clear that in such rituals the king was identified with Horus, but was also believed to come under his protection. The magnificent diorite of the king Khafre has a beautifully sculpted Horus falcon on the back of the king's head, with the wings in a protective posture around it. In the Ramesside period, the figure of Horus became part of the royal headdress, with his outspread wings wrapped around the crown.

Son of RaEdit

Crook and flail

The crook and flail, symbols of the Ra and by extension, the Pharaoh. Traditionally believed to protect the king.

In accordance with the mythology of kingship, the king's father (and thus by definition the deceased king) was identified with the god of the dead, rebirth and vegetation, Osiris. But the divine parentage of the ruler differed according to context. In the fivefold titles mentioned earlier, the king's birth name was introduced by the title 'Son of Ra' (Sa Re) – that is, son of the sun god, whom the king was thought to join on his death. This title was first used by the Fourth Dynasty king Djedfere. The birth name (nomen) and the throne name (prenomen) introduced by the titulary 'He of the Sedge and the Bee', were the two names appearing on the royal cartouche.

In the New Kingdom period, rulers claimed to be the offspring of Amun, the 'king of the gods'. The 'divine births' of rulers Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III were documented on the walls of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple and the temple at Luxor, respectively. These king's continued to use the title of 'Son of Ra' but this would not have appeared contradictory as Amun had already been merged with Ra to become the principal deity Amun-Ra.

A variety of religious texts show that the king might be identified with a range of deities, depending on context. He was often referred to as being 'like' (mi) certain gods. The status accorded to kingship is exemplified by the occasional reference to the ruler as a creator god. In fact, throughout the Old Kingdom, the king was said to have the powers of Sia (divine knowledge), Heka (divine magic) and Hu (divine utterance), which were usually attributed to creator gods.

Funerary religion Edit

Beliefs about the the Afterlife Edit

Weighing of the heart

This detail scene, from the Papyrus of Hunefer (c. 1275 BCE), shows the scribe Hunefer's heart being weighed on the scale of Ma'at against the feather of truth by Anubis. Thoth, the scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart equals exactly the weight of the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit composed of the deadly crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus. Vignettes such as these were a common illustration in Egyptian books of the dead.

The preparations that accompanied burials from as early as Predynastic periods (c. 5500—3100 BCE) reveal that the ancient Egyptians must have had beliefs about the existence of an Afterlife from very early on. These ides were certainly formed well before the emergence of Pharaonic Egypt as we know it; that is, before the country had a unified state with a sole ruler and an efficient, centralised government. Pre-dating any evidence for social stratification and the existence of a wealthy minority, there is evidence for burials involving the deposit of funerary goods in the grave alongside the body. These items were not elaborate or specially crafted ceremonial artifacts, but basic objects of daily use, such as pots and weapons. Presumably the people buried with these things believed that they would need them in a practical way after death.

Journeying into the Afterlife Edit


Ancient Egyptian papyrus depicting the journey into the afterlife. This particular sample is currently kept at the Altes Museum in Berlin.

The predynastic custom of burying dead bodies in the foetal position may suggesta belief in the concept of rebirth. Also the accidental or deliberate unearthing of perfectly preserved bodies may have lead the early Egyptians to believe the dead were living on in some way. The emergence of the practice of mummification early in the Dynastic Period reveals the strongly held belief that the body was required to be intact for the Afterlife.

We have no idea of what the ancient Egyptians imagined the Afterlife to be until they were able to write down a description of it. The funerary texts buried with the dead tell us that they ascended to the Afterlife that was located in the heavens – the realm of the sun. Several methods of ascent appear to have been possible. These included riding on the back of a falcon, goose or other bird;being wafted upwards with burning incense; climbing up a ladder formed by the outstretched arms of the gods or travelling on a reed float or barque that was sailed, rowed or towed. The journey into the Afterlife was no mean feat—all manners of demons and other hazardous obstacles had to be bypassed and overcome. The funerary texts provided guidelines and directions for the routes to be taken and certain spells and recitations to be uttered at specific times.

Domains of the dead Edit

The ancient Egyptians imagined the Afterlife as a perfect vision of life as they knew it in the Nile Valley, with a constant plethora of produce. The vignettes on the papyrus scrolls that accompany the text in the Book of the Dead and the scenes painted on the walls of non-royal tombs also provide us with a picture of the Afterlife. They tend to show the tomb owner and his wife toiling in the fields, which they did not for one moment expect actually to do (or at least hope not to). They certainly took precautions to safeguard against the possibilities of a any hard work.

References Edit

  1. Assmann 2001, pp. 1–5, 80.
  2. Allen 2000, pp. 43–44.
  3. Wilkinson 2003, pp. 30, 32, 89.
  4. Wilkinson, pp. 74–79.