An Overview of the Ancient Egyptian Religion
by John Watson
Without the ancient Egyptian Religion, there would probably be little reason for one to visit Egypt today. The great Pyramids would not exist, nor of course, would there be the fabulous temples, the tombs on the West Bank of Thebes (modern Luxor) and their mummies, or the colorful decorations that adorn these structures that have lured travelers to Egypt over the past three thousand or so years. Behind every aspect of Egyptian life, including the art, the political structure and the cultural achievements one must see the religious forces that shaped the fabric of ancient Egypt.
The spiritual world that was created by the ancient Egyptians was a richly fascinating one which remains unique in the history of human religion, but at the same time, somehow familiar in many ways. The character of that spiritual world was both mysterious and manifest, at once accessible and hidden, for although Egyptian religion was often shrouded in layers of myth and ritual, it nevertheless permeated the ancient civilization of theNile and ultimately shaped, sustained and directed Egyptian culture in almost every way.
One thing that does seem familiar about their ancient religion was that people were very concerned about the afterlife. Furthermore, in order to avoid being counted among the damned of the afterlife, one had to not only venerate the Egyptian gods, but also live by a code of standards that would be judged after death.
Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians "are religious to a higher degree than any other people" Some six centuries later, in the Perfect Discourse, Hermes Trismegistos summed up the spirit of Egyptian religious beliefs for his disciple, Asclepius, in a striking metaphor:
"[Egypt] has become the image of heaven, and what is more, the resting place of heaven and all the forces that are in it. If we should tell the truth; our land has become the temple of the world"
Like the members of any other human culture, the ancient Egyptians were driven to find meaning in existence, but there were also other influences on their religion, such as the need to justify kingship, among others.
We cannot say with any certainty exactly when the foundations of Egyptian religion were actually laid, though it was certainly prior to recorded history. In fact, some of the important mythology, such as the Contentings of Horus and Seth, could have possibly been rooted in real events prior to Egypt's unification.
We must be careful when examining the ancient Egyptian religion. Though there was a considerable amount of consistency between various areas of Egypt and over the religion's long existence, there were significant variations and over time, changes in the theology. For example, while some 1,500 gods and goddesses are known by name from ancient Egypt, many of them were not worshipped at any one time or in any one place.
Over time, many changes took place, and some were very dramatic. The tell-tail signs of these changes were sometimes very obvious. For example, the burial practices of the Egyptians, which were certainly affected by their religious ideologies, went from simple mastabas in the very early periods and during the Predynastic Period, to monumental pyramids during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Then, after the first ruler of Egypt's New Kingdom who built a Pyramid at Abydos, the Egyptian Kings rather suddenly did away with superstructures altogether, preferring instead to have hidden tombs with no superstructures at all. Perhaps part of the reason for this was the security of the tomb and its content of valuables, though it did not do much to stop the tomb robbers. However, it also had much to do with the Egyptian religion's movement towards Osiris. The god Osiris also seems responsible for another major change in Egyptian religion through its long history, that is, it's popularization. Osiris was a democratic god who doubtless became more and more popular because the theology surrounding him allowed even common Egyptians the opportunity of immortality after their death.
Of course, some things did stay the same, to an extent. There seems to have always been a sun god from the earliest of times, but his worship too changed over time, and sometimes dramatically. The sun godRe was worshipped at Egypt's earliest shrines, and his veneration probably reached a high point during the lateOld Kingdom, when kings not only built their pyramids, but also specialized temples to worship the sun god.
Perhaps one of the most consistent aspects of ancient Egyptian religion was the role of the King, though even this did change over time. However, the king seems to always have been central to the ancient Egyptian religion. What changed was the perception of his role, though even this remained somewhat consistent particularly after the Early Dynastic Period.
While Egyptologists may sometimes address the reasons for changes within the ancient Egyptian religion, this may be one of the most unknown aspects of the religion. Did priests have heated debates over theology which culminated in change? If they did, it must have been mostly narrative in nature, for we have little if any record of this. If such discussions did take place, the King must have been involved, because it is through his actions that most new religious foundations were created, and it was his funerary monuments that seem to have changed the most over time.
That theological discussions and probably discourse took place is almost certain, because the mythology of the religion evolved, becoming more complete, This is particularly obvious from funerary texts, beginning with the Pyramid Texts and moving on to numerous texts particularly during the New Kingdom.
On the other hand, it is very likely that changes took place also because of shifts in regional power. This certainly seems the case when, during theNew Kingdom, the center of religious activity shifted toThebes, where the state god,Amun rose to acclaim. Furthermore, the need of the common populous to be included also effected changes, particularly towardsOsiris.
Religion has been defined as a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. This is somewhat of an over simplification because religions usually include a system of values as well as various practices. Egyptian religion can be said to encompass their ancient gods, the mythology or accounts of those gods and other aspects of the religion such as creation, death and the afterlife, and the cults who worshipped the gods. However, there are certainly more complexities to the religion, such as how the king played into this structure of religion, and moral dogma concerning what the god's expected of humans (a system of values).
Consistently, from the beginning of Egyptian religion to its final stand at the Temple of Philae, with possibly the exception of one brief period, most scholars agree that the religion was polytheistic. A number of attempts have been made to explain Egyptian religion in terms of monotheism, and certainly scholars of the nineteenth century, steeped in Christian tradition, tended to find traces of monotheism in Egyptian beliefs. The main evidence they sited was the anonymous "god" who the Egyptians referred to in literary and wisdom texts. Now, however, the anonymous god found in Egyptian texts is understood to represent a way of invoking any divine power emanating from any gods, or sometimes, a specific, assumed god worshipped by an individual or one in a specific region.
Even during the 18th Dynasty reign of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who apparently tried to introduce and promote a single god, the Aten, Egyptian religion cannot be said to have been monotheistic, for while the king himself may have worshipped a single god, and even that is uncertain, his religion never caught on and for the most part, Egyptians in general continued to worship their traditional gods.
However, several researchers have applied the concept of henotheism to Egyptian religion. This practice focuses on one god addressed in a particular time of worship. Essentially, henotheism is the belief in one god without denying the existence of others. The believer unites all known divine powers in his favorite god.
The situation with gods is further complicated by syncretism and other forms of combining them. The term "syncretism" has a special meaning in Egyptology, referring to the combination or merging of aspects of one god in another. This feature first appeared in the 4th Dynasty with Atum-Re of Heliopolis and by Middle Kingdom, there were many such combinations. It has been shown that this was probably a temporary fusion of gods, each keeping their own characteristics.
Furthermore there is the matter of manifestation, a concept that is frequently misunderstood by the general public. Egyptians almost certainly did not worship statues, paintings of gods or, for that matter, animals. These objects were simply believed to be the manifestation, or temporary habitats of the gods who they worshipped.
It should also be noted that the Egyptians created personified conceptions, such as Ma'at (truth, balance), or (Hapi (the inundation), though these were always joined with a god or used as decorations.
Cults were the official structure used to worship the Egyptian gods. In regards to ancient Egypt, this structure included the priests who carried out rituals associated with the gods, who were frequently manifest in the form of statues, within the cult temples. The center of the Egyptian cult was the temple, a sacred area enclosed by a wall, that excluded the profane.
Temples could be called a "house" or "chapel", or a "chapel of the god", which includes a section of the temple devoted to worldly needs. Inside the sanctuary of the temple was the cult statue, which served as the dwelling for the god worshipped in the cult center, though there could be and were more than one in many temples.
Rituals centered around offerings, but there were certainly numerous other rituals, including many daily functions such as washing and clothing the gods (or at least the statue of the gods). Other rituals took the form of celebrations when, for example, one god might be taken to visit the cult center of another, and it was during these festivals that common Egyptians probably came closest to their gods, for at other times they were prohibited from the sanctuaries that housed the cult statues.
At first the cult, and for that matter, the benefits of religion and the god's which it served was limited to the king for the most part, though many functions and rituals were performed by his substitutes (priests). Common Egyptians could mostly only hope that the King took his religious duties seriously, or otherwise they might expect to suffer famine or other disasters or for that matter, any chance of an afterlife. As time passed, religion became much more popularized, so that in latter Egyptian history, common Egyptians demanded their own means of worshipping and being accepted by their gods. More and more, common Egyptians built within their homes shrines for their personal worship, or at other times, small public shrines where they could worship and pray together. However, throughout Egyptian history, common Egyptians were limited as to the scope that they could participate in the state cult centers.
A myth may be defined as a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society:
Unlike many modern religions, there was no single (or only a few) textual source that bound up the religious ideology of the ancient Egyptians. There was no bible as such, nor could there have been, because the beliefs sometimes varied from region to region, and the mythology evolved over time.
Texts are known since the third dynasty that make reference to the activities of thegods, usually within accounts of relations between nobles and the king. In fact, most of the known Egyptian myths concern the origins and nature of kingship as the central topic of interest. Narrative literature did not appear before theMiddle Kingdom (to our knowledge), but myths certainly existed in oral tradition long before. Allusions to the deeds of gods are inserted in early ritual texts, such as thePyramid Texts.
Because Egypt had many gods, they also had many myths. Some of them, such as those surrounding Re, the Sun God, particularly during the earlier periods, and later, such as the contention of Horus and Seth, became central to the Egyptian religion, perhaps mainly due to their relevance to Kingship. However, other myths involving, for example, Hathor as a healer, were very important to more common Egyptians, as were myths concerning Bes, a goddess of childbirth and the home. There were certainly other myths, sometimes at odds with others, that explained creation, dealt with the afterlife, and even the end of times.
System of Values
A value system (also see our articles on evils and ethics) was important to the ancient Egyptians in much the same way that it is today. In fact, many of the values of our modern society were present in the Egyptian system. What is perhaps different is the exact relevance that the ancient Egyptians gave to their value system. Certainly, the value system had both a secular and religious side. On the religious side, then, as in many religions today, one was judged upon death for his or her actions during life, and either condemned to be a member of the damned or the blessed.
However, a system of values was also important for social order, just as it is today, and then as well as now, a criminal system was also available to punish offenders during their lifetime for certain offenses.
Somewhat different was the matter ofMa'at, a personified concept of truth, balance and order. An individual could violate Ma'at by his actions, but so too could the nation as a whole. In this regard, the king was always responsible for maintaining Ma'at on behalf of the country, usually by maintaining and supporting the cult centers, fending off foreign powers and in general by maintaining the system of values, for example, removing corrupt officials. The ancient Egyptians believed that failure to maintain Ma'at, as a country, could result in divine intervention, when the Egyptiangods provided only lowNile floods, and thus famine, enemy incursions or even complete chaos within the country.
This notion of a national Ma'at is not lost to us today. Many people of religion continue to believe that a nation's fortunes are dictated by their adherence to both good deeds and a general belief in God. Biblically, there are more than a few examples of states finding the wrath of God due to a lack of values.
We know of the ancient Egyptian system of values from wisdom text, wall engravings, particularly autobiographies, and from various religious sources.
The King represented Egypt before the gods, and it is he who is depicted most often worshipping them while standing, kneeling or even crawling. In making offerings to the gods, the King attempts to secure order, or Ma'at, which is compulsory for gods as well as kings.
The king was the single link between the divine and the profane, as well as the representative of the gods on Earth. Since the Second Intermediate period, the doctrine of the king as god attempts to explain how a living being can acquire divine status, a concept that was first formulated in the Coffin Texts, and possibly used earlier in the Pyramid Texts. It may have originated in the union of the dead king with Osiris, or that of the living king with Horus.
The first title of an Egyptian king was his Horus name, and there is a close connection of this deity and the king since at least the late Predynastic Period. This basic concept was maintained during all periods, although in various royal representations, the proportions of the king to the god were eventually changed in favor of the god, and therefore making the king of less importance.
The king's divine status has been explained by reference to his two natures. The king became an offspring of the Sun God, Re, in the 4th Dynasty, which is viewed as a loss in divine power. The dead king was seen as Osiris, while the living king was the son of Re. Note that during the 5th Dynasty, the king's built solar temples (to Re), but had Osirian subterranean structures beneath their pyramids, which show the close association of both Re and Osiris with kingship.
So important was the king to ancient Egyptian religion that he was theoretically required to be the head of all ceremonies and rites throughout the country at the same time. The practical answer to this was for the king to elevate members of the royal family, during theOld Kingdom, and nobles of his court later, so that they could represent him. This became theEgyptian priesthood, which eventually developed its own independence and titles during theNew Kingdom.
It is not unreasonable that our concept of how the Egyptians worshiped their many gods might change extensively as we find more and more new information. Indeed, there have, over the years, been shifts in how Egyptology views the religion. One might consider the amount of material available on our modern religions, and how little we have on the Egyptian religion, to have an understanding of just how little we actually know about this complex and ancient belief system.
See also our Old Mythology Section
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Last Updated: October 23rd, 2011