Egypt: Piety of the Common Ancient Egyptians

Piety of the Common Ancient Egyptians

by Jimmy Dunn


Unfortunately, far less is known about the worship of common people in Egypt than about that of the state religion. There is a great deal of ancient Egyptian material that has survived regarding the state religion of Egypt's elite, but relatively little evidence documents how the common Egyptians viewed and worshipped their gods. Nevertheless, a fair amount is known about popular religion, at least in certain areas and at certain times, and we can only presume that what is known is indicative of the broader pictures.

Although the common people played little or no active part in the formal rituals conducted by the official cults from the New Kingdom onward, they were nevertheless a very religious people. Herodotus' often quoted statement that the Egyptians were "religious beyond measure...more than any other people" seems to have applied not only to the priesthood and members of the royal court, but also to the piety of the ordinary people of ancient Egypt.

In the earliest periods of Egyptian history, we believe that there was no clear distinction between the priesthood and other members of society. Temple services were most likely performed by people who, after their religious duties, returned to secular work in their communities. As Egyptian history progressed, and the Egyptian religion evolved, the priesthood changed considerably so that by the New Kingdom and in later times, the priestly offices became professional and largely hereditary. No longer were more or less ordinary members of society directly involved in the state religion.

By the New Kingdom, common individuals were allowed to place votive offerings in the outer areas of temples, but the chief occasions during which they could approach the gods were public festivals. At these times, ordinary people might witness the procession of a deity, although it would most frequently be from a distance and usually the actual image of the god would not be visible to them.

Interior of the Temple of Hathor at Deir el-Medina, a local shtrine

Those outside the priesthood also had access to "hearing ear" shrines that were placed in the outer walls of many temples, and the colossal statues in front of the pylons were also readily accessible to the people as mediators of their prayers. However, by the New Kingdom, the common people had more access to temples than was originally thought by Egyptologists. The spacious open courtyards of Luxor Temple and even the hypostyle hall at Karnak, bear inscriptions which indicate that members of the public were able to assemble and praise the king and experience the manifestation of the gods.

At times, and in some temples, though usually during processions, the common people could also approach their gods through oracles which could answer their important questions, usually by a yes or no answer.

This was frequently accomplished through specific movements of the god's portable shrine barque while it was being carried in processions. One movement might indicate a yes answer, while another might indicate no. Auguries were also taken from sacred animals that were regarded as manifestations of the gods.

Legal questions might be settled in a similar fashion. Though we do not know how common this type of oracular manifestation occurred or how widely it was accessible, it is probable that such guidance of the gods was sought when the courts were not able to settle a matter. During the Late Period, there are frequent references to "the gate that delivers justice". People with a guilty conscience would come to ask for a ruling, which the priest then pronounced in the god's name. However, priests also sat on the bench at some lay trials, which were often held in or near temples. This demonstrated the particular god's role in maintaining the rule of law on earth.

Common people, as well as royalty, might also access their gods through dreams.The ancient Egyptians seem to have believed that the sleeper temporarily inhabited the world of the gods, and dreams could thus often involve contact with gods. Of course the best known example is that of the New Kingdom king, Tuthmosis IV, to whom the Great Sphinx spoke as a god in a dream, but event he most humble commoner could dream of deities in the same manner. Magical texts describe the meanings of many such dreams which might be experienced, and we have good evidence of dreams being actively used as a means to understanding the will of the gods. In fact, at some temples there were specific places were people could sleep in order apparently enhance their sleeping contact with the gods.

Statue of worshipper presenting votive of Mut, Amun and Khonus

Pious visitors to temples also interacted with their gods by providing them with perishable offerings such as food, drink or flowers as well as with non-perishable gifts ranging from simple trinkets to finely carved and painted statues and votive stelae. These latter items represent the most important votive gifts found in archaeological contexts. The statues that were given as gifts to the gods were frequently produced in large numbers during many periods of ancient Egyptian history, though some were also individually crafted. Most of the statues that have survived are in fact votive pieces donated to the gods by kings, nobles, priests and various offers of the state, as well as collective gifts from cities and towns. However, mass produced statuary were usually utilized by the less wealthy. These statues usually comprised individual or group figures of gods, and sometimes included an intermediary royal or priestly figure.

In the Late and Ptolemaic Periods, the private donation of votive bronze statues grew considerably, and the development of casting technology led to the production of countless metal images of deities and sacred animals for devotional purposes and as offerings at temples and shrines.

Votive offerings could be used for a number of purposes. Many bore texts requesting favors from the gods and sometimes gave thanks for their help when it was thought to have been given. Though the form of these offerings could vary over time and at different locations, they seem to have usually taken the form of a stelae depicting the donor, sometimes together with members of his family, worshipping the deity to whom the stela was dedicated. During the New Kingdom in particular, such votive offerings might also depict one or more large pairs of ears to ensure that the supplicant's prayers could be heard by the god.

A gilded votive statuette of Osiris from the Late Period

From the Middle Kingdom onward, approximately correlating with the emergence of the professional priesthood, we also find common people attempting to access their gods in a direct manner. We find fairly early stelae showing the direct worship of Osiris by the deceased, and a movement began to develop that eventually resulted in more direct divine access for the common people.

In fact, After the First Intermediate Period, magic spells that were one the exclusive knowledge of the royalty began to show up. Texts on Middle Kingdom coffins utilized much of the Pyramid Texts, giving their non-royal owners divine status once deceased and promising an eternity spent with the gods. Prior to this, their only real hope in the afterlife was basically as an attachment to their king's divinity. At least two autobiographical texts of elite commoners describe their participation in the pageants and rites of Osiris at Abydos. In fact, by the 18th Dynasty, scenes depict the deceased worshipping a god directly, showing no royal intermediary.

By the New Kingdom, in addition to the great state temples, there were also numerous small local shrines in which prayer could be offered or votive offerings left for the deity to whom the shrine was dedicated. At the workmen's village of Deir el-Medina on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor), there were shrines of this type honoring Amun, Hathor, Ptah, Thoth, Isis, Osiris, Anubis and other gods including some of foreign origin, such as Asarte and Qadesh. In other areas, local gods and gods specific to various labors might be honored in such shrines. Hence, much of the time, the gods most venerated by the common people were not necessarily those most important to the state. Frequently, the gods that could assist in child birth, protection of the family in both this life and the next, and those related to various trades played the most important role in common worship. At other times, common worship might lag behind, or even reject the gods of the state. It is very likely that outside of the capital during the Amarna period, common Egyptians continued to worship their old gods rather that Akhenaten's Aten, for example.

A worker's house at Deir el-Medina showing a feature that may have served both as a bed and a domestic altar

While these local, popular shrines show evidence of considerable use, it appears that the religion of many Egyptians may have been dominated by the veneration of gods in even smaller household shrines. Again, at Deir el-Medina, we find niches in private homes where images of household deities such as Bes and Taweret were kept. Such deities were thought to have the power to ward off evil, and their images were depicted on plaques or as amulets which were attached to household objects or worn by individuals.

Also, what effect was achieved is unclear, but common Egyptians often took, as part of their name and like their more noble counterparts, the names of gods. Certainly to name one's child in such a manner must have been one of the greatest of honors that a common Egyptian could bestow upon a god, but obviously the parents sought for their child both protection and perhaps success in doing so.

We must also not rule out other forms of contact that ordinary Egyptians might use to interact with their gods. For example, Egyptians may have felt that their gods could be sensed through their fragrance, through sounds and in other such manners. Even the wind on one's face might be perceived as the breath of a god or the passage of the air god, Shu.

In addition to the state or local gods, common Egyptians also frequently venerated specific people, who might usually be deceased ancestors or others. In fact, people often had stelae made to solicit such worship during their own afterlife, perhaps so that people would provide them with offerings and, in remembering their name and offering to them prayers, might also sustain their them in the netherworld.

Now while we talk of the piety of the common Egyptians, we must also note that, just as in our modern world, not all common Egyptians were pious. In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that not all kings and priests may have been pious. Certainly the grave robbery that took place during antiquity was not the act of people who believed wholeheartedly in the ancient Egyptian religion and in fact such acts could only be considered sacrilegious. We might also consider various royal assassination attempts and any number of other examples that would suggest that, along with the pious, there was an element of the population that apparently had little regard for the gods and the results of their actions in the afterlife.






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