Upper Egyptian Neolithic and Predynastic Religion and Rulers
by Caroline Seawright
May 14, 2001
Upper Egyptian Neolithic and Predynastic Religion and Rulers
The people who are believed to be the ancestors to the predynastic Egyptians were a people known as the Badarian people. They lived in Upper Egypt, on the eastern bank of the Nile, near the village of Badari, south of Asiut. Archaeologists have found both a series of settlement sites as well as various cemeteries. They lived at about 4400 BC and may have even been as far back as 5000 BC.
Though they were a semi-nomadic people, they started to cultivate grain and domesticate their animals. They found the need for a series of small villages in the flat desert bordering on the fertile land created by the Nile, and the burial grounds were found on the outskirts of these villages. They even gave their cattle and sheep ceremonial burial!
The graves of the people were simple - the dead were laid to rest on their left sides facing the west, in a fetal position and wrapped in matting. They were buried with fine grave goods - beautiful ceramics, decorated plates, bowls and dishes. Cosmetic utensils including makeup palettes, ointment spoons, decorative combs and bracelets, necklaces and copper beads and pins. They also usually had an ivory or clay female figure (which may have been fertility doll or idol) placed in the grave with the deceased. Unfortunately many of the graves were robbed soon after burial.
This seems to point to a highly evolved funerary system - they dead were buried with their finest possessions, personal possessions and clothing for use in the next world.
Succeeding the Badari, the Naqada people took over. They were one of the most important prehistoric cultures in Upper Egypt, and their development can be traced to the founding of the Egyptian state.
The Amratian (Naqada I) started as a parallel culture to the Badari, but eventually superimposed itself on the other, and finally replaced it. These, though, were the race thought of as the first 'true Egyptians', and dominated between 4500-3100 BC.
Like the Badari, they lived in villages, and started the first real attempt at cultivating the fertile Nile valley and supplemented their diet by hunting for food. Each village had it's own animal deity which was identified with a clan ensign. From this came the different Egyptian nomes with their own local totems - the gods of the dynastic pantheon.
The artistic accomplishment of the people were given a chance to grow, and pottery decorated with animals, human figures hunting or worshiping and even papyrus bundle boats started appearing. So, too, did the female idol figures continue to grow - they appeared in greater numbers and in a wider variety, and bearded male figures started to appear on pendants and ivory sticks ("magic wands"). These last sets of human figures seems to have been of a magical or spiritual nature.
In the Amratian graves, the deceased were buried with statuettes to keep him or her company in the afterlife. These were the forerunners of ushabti figures found in Egyptian tombs. Along with these figured, the dead person was buried with food, weapons, amulets, ornaments and decorated vases and palettes.
In the middle of the fourth millennium BC, the Naqada II period superceded the Naqada I. They had mastered the art of agriculture and the use of artificial irrigation, and no longer needed to hunt for their food. The people started live in towns, not just villages, creating areas of higher population density than ever before.
The Gerzean people continued to expand in the artistic area, creating new styles of pottery and more elegant artwork. They started to create a wide variety of animal-shaped palettes for mixing cosmetics, as well as a shield-shaped cosmetic pallet, the ancestor of the ceremonial palettes in early Dynastic Egypt. Metalworking increased - the Gerzean people made great use of copper knives. They also created their own cast-metal implements and weapons.
They traded with far distant peoples for copper and other goods (they traded much further than the previous two cultures) - silver, lapis lazuli, lead, cylinder seals were some goods traded for from Asia and Mesopotamia. Foreign influences through their trading began to show in their style of dress, ornaments and various implements. Radical changes in the design of knives, daggers and pottery were made by the Gerzeans.
They also introduced the images and totems of the falcon, symbol of the sun god Ra, and the cow, symbol of the love goddess Hathor.
There were also significant changes in the matter of burials. Whereas cemeteries that dated from an earlier period showed that the corpse was generally wrapped in some sort of covering and buried in a contracted position facing the west, those which were located in Gerzean deposits indicated a lack of regular orientation, a more elaborate form of grave, and evidences of ritual procedure at the time of burial in the form of deliberately shattered pottery.
There is evidence of an elite social class from the graves and grave goods found. The more elaborate funerary cult created larger, rectangular graves with walls lined with either masonry or wooden blanks, which could also hold grave goods. The differences in the lavish (or not) graves, with many or lesser goods, pointed to the distinction in classes in the Gerzean people.
In Nekhem (Hierakonpolis), the cult centre of Horus of Nekhem, there is a Naqada II palace and ritual precinct. This area was made of timber and matting, and can only be theoretically reconstructed from the positions of the postholes - some of which were big enough for entire tree trunks! The features of the complex were compared with the buildings of Djoser's pyramid complex, where such buildings were made in stone. It has a large oval courtyard, surrounded by various buildings, and is clearly the forerunner to the royal ritual precincts of the early Dynastic Period.
This, then, was the root of the Egyptian kingship system and the beginning of the unified state.
The Naqada III had many territorial divisions, known as nomes. They had their own sacred animal or plant that became the totem, fetish or emblem of that territory. The emblem was depicted on the pottery of that area. The nomes then resulted in two powerful states - Upper and Lower Egypt. It has been found that they ended up with twenty nomes in Lower Egypt and twenty-two in Upper Egypt! Each state had their own ruler.
There were thirteen or so rulers at Nekhem, of which only the last few have been identified (though they are by no means certain):
- Horus "Crocodile"
- Horus Hat-Hor
- Horus Iry-Hor
- Horus Ka
- Horus "Scorpion"
- Horus Narmer "Baleful Catfish"
The rulers who named themselves after animals, were probably attempting to identify themselves with the divinity found in these animals. The rulers became the personification of the named animal-god, as later on the pharaohs were known as the "Son of Ra". These rulers also wore the white crown of Upper Egypt and were depicted as superhuman figures, giants who towered above mortal men. They were depicted as being war-like, with Scorpion's macehead hints at the nature of Upper Egyptian rulers.
In Lower Egypt, a more commercial system ran the state. The centres of wealth were ruled over by important families or groups in each town, rather than by a single hierarchy. Ma'adi, Buto and Tell Farkha were the larger towns of the state, with the capital probably at Buto. By the Naqada III period, Buto's pottery was 99% from Upper Egypt, and so was thought to have been "Naqada-ised" by that time.
The rulers of Lower Egypt, who wore the red crown, taken from the Palermo Stone may have been:
There is not much known about these rulers, other than their names. Some believe that there was never one ruler over Lower Egypt in predynastic times, because of a lack of evidence of these rulers.
Narmer (who some believe to also be King Scorpion because of lack of evidence of the other king, other than one macehead) managed to take over the state of Lower Egypt, by force according to decorated palettes and maceheads. The famous Narmer palette shows him on one side wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, and the other shows him wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. It also shows the hawk emblem of Horus, the Upper Egyptian god of Nekhem, dominating the Lower Egypt personified papyrus marsh. From this, Narmer is believed to have unified Egypt.
Manetho attributes the unification of Egypt to Aha "Fighter" Menes. He has been listed as the first pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty, but Menes and Narmer may be on in the same man. Menes was from Thinis, in the south of Upper Egypt, but he built his capital at Memphis, according to Diodorus.
The Narmer palette was found in the temple at Nekhem where they had been dedicated to Horus, as were other expensive objects with royal imagery. These items were not for every day use - they were more than twice the size of normal items! There was a clear link between the ruler and religion as he was a central figure in religious art. Burial customs became even more stratified, and much more elaborate for the highest classes - for the elite, there were two places to be buried: Abydos in Upper Egypt, and Saqqara in Lower Egypt. Many nobles and rulers were buried in both places in the early Dynastic Period.
The religion of Neolithic and predynastic Egypt appears to have been animistic nature worship, with each village or town with its own spirit in the form of an animal, bird, reptile, tree, plant or object. The spirit was always in something that played a prominent part in the life of the people of that locality. The spirits fell into two general groups - that which was friendly and helpful, such as cattle, or that which was menacing and powerful such as the crocodile or snakes. In both cases, the favour of the spirit had to be solicited with a set formula of words and action, and they had to have houses built for them and offerings made to them.
As the spirits became gods, in each town or village, the deity had its own temple staffed by priests, who dealt with the deity's daily wants. In return for these services, the god was thought to protect its people, ensuring fertility and well-being. But if the needs weren't met, the deity might call down wrath on the community in the form of plague or famine or other such natural disasters.
The totemic origin of the Egyptian religion is that of great antiquity. From spirits worshiped through animals, plants and even mountains to being the standard of the town itself, then to being the god of the town. The standard of the nome clearly showed which deity protected the town. And, as the town gained prominence, so too did the town's standard.
The religion was interwoven into not only the ruling power, but into life itself. The deity of the town was who the people turned to, through the government, to prevent the everyday hazards of living - magic, spells, charms, folklore and amulets. They appealed to the deity for protection against hazards and to intercede on their behalf for anything from the Nile flooding to sowing and harvest to protection from poisonous animals to childbirth.
Horus and Nekhbet, the vulture goddess of Al Kab, came to represent Upper Egypt. In Lower Egypt, Set and Udjo, the cobra goddess of Buto, were worshiped. In later Egyptian history, the vulture and cobra were united in the royal diadem, to represent dominion over both lands. So when Nekhem became the most powerful town, Horus became the god par excellence. The rulers started to identify themselves as the living embodiment of the hawk god.
The growth of the Egyptian religion is one of the reasons why Egypt ended up with such a complex and polythestic religious system. When a town grew in prominence, so did the god. When the town was deserted, the god disappeared. Only a few of the many deities ended up in the Egyptian pantheon, and even then their popularity waxed and waned through the thousands of years of Egyptian history. Another reason for complexity was when people moved, their god did, too. This meant that at the new town, there was sometimes a battle between the old and new gods - but the Egyptian gods were easily merged, with other gods taking over that god's attributes and abilities! So it is that some of the ancient gods of Neolithic and Predynastic Egypt came to national prominence are considered to be some of the main gods in the Egyptian pantheon today: Amun of Thebes, Ptah of Hikuptah (Memphis), Horus (the Elder) of Nekhem, Set of Tukh (Ombos), Ra of Iunu (Heliopolis), Min of Gebtu (Koptos), Hathor of Dendra and Osiris of Abydos.
Can you have a look at my Egyptology Column for more Hieroglyph Lessons, Egyptian Goddess articles and more! PS - One favour I do ask, please e-mail your comments about the articles to firstname.lastname@example.org because it's your comments that keep me writing!
Last Updated: Aug 3rd, 2011
Who are we?
Tour Egypt aims to offer the ultimate Egyptian adventure and intimate knowledge about the country. We offer this unique experience in two ways, the first one is by organizing a tour and coming to Egypt for a visit, whether alone or in a group, and living it firsthand. The second way to experience Egypt is from the comfort of your own home: online.