Overview of the Ancient Egyptian Cult

An Overview of the Ancient Egyptian Cult

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet

The cult center of Karnak

Unlike our modern religions, ancient Egyptian religion was not based on a set of theological principles, nor did it really depend on the content of canonical writings. Rather, it evolved around how people interacted with their gods, and these actions are termed by Egyptologists as "cult", which is roughly synonymous with "ritual". In the ancient Egyptian language, there is no specific word for "ritual". They variously referred to these interactions with the gods as irt ht (doing things), irw (things done) or nt (regular procedures).

Cults were focused on ntr, which since the Ptolemaic (Greek) period has been translated as god. However, the ancient Egyptians applied this term to people and things which we today would hesitate to call gods. In fact, Dimitri Meeks has recently suggested that the common feature of all entities called ntr by the ancient Egyptians is that they were the beneficiaries of ritual. However, we might better define these entities by separating them into several classes.

First of all, there were of course beings who originally existed as gods. Rituals served to preserve their existence as gods through providing them with sustenance and other benefits. The second class were entities that became ntr through ritual. This general category can be further divided between those who became ntr during their lifetimes, and those who became ntr after death. Examples of the first type include the king and special animals who were thought to be manifestations of the gods. Examples of those who became ntr after death include various common people who became deified, the most famous of which was probably Imhotep, and mummified animals.

In order to conduct the cult of the gods, the Egyptians constructed religious facilities that remain some of the most elaborate structures ever built. These temples were called by the ancient Egyptians, hwt-ntr, meaning "the house of the god". These temples actually usually served several gods, and in order to sustain these cult activities, considerable resources, such as extensive networks of land, livestock and personnel were required. These necessary resources that were required to support the activities of a temple were referred to as r-pr, meaning "temple estate".

Tuthmosis III (at left) offers incense and libation before Amun

Most temples prior to the New Kingdom appear to have not survived. Scholars sometimes attribute this to their construction using perishable materials, which is probably true of the earliest of these structures. However, it is also likely that materials from well built temples of, for example the Middle Kingdom, may have often been reused in later building projects. Nevertheless, beginning with the New Kingdom and continuing through the Greco-Roman periods, the Egyptians built enormous stone temples that provide us with our primary source of information on cult activity.

We know that important Egyptian temples employed a large number of priests and servants who performed a wide variety of tasks. Theoretically, only the king, who was the only living person in Egypt considered to have the status of ntr, could officiate in the cult before the gods. It was he who was considered to be the high priest of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt, and on who's shoulder's fell the responsibility for their contentment. However, in reality the king delegated to the various priesthoods who served the gods the responsibility of their welfare. Though many major priestly appointments were made by the king himself, others could be made by local officials, and at various times during Egyptian history, priestly offices could be inherited.

A high priest in leopard skin

Priests were usually divided into four groups that were called "gangs of the service", to which the Greeks gave the name, phyles. Each group served one lunar month in rotation, so that during the year each one served for three months with three months off between months of service. This actually allowed some priests to hold priesthoods in several temples. In the mature ancient Egyptian cult, there were two main classes of priests. Those of the highest class were called hm-ntr, meaning "god's servant". They functioned in the presences of the god's statue, and the Greeks translated hm-ntr as "prophet", because it was these priests who interpreted the oracles of the gods. The chief priests of a temple were designated by ordinal numbers and so the high priest of a temple was called hm-ntr tpy, or "first prophet". In some temple cults, the high priest received special titles. For example, the high priest of Ptah was called "he who is great at directing the crafts, while the high priest of Re was "he who is great at seeing. The high priest of Thoth was "the arbitrator between the two" and that of Khnum was "the modeler of limbs".

The lower class of priests were called the "pure ones". They served such functions such as carrying the god's bark, pouring water for libations during temple services, as overseers of craftsmen, artisans or scribes, or as craftsmen themselves, producing sacred objects for the cult. There was also a third class of priest known as it-ntr, or "god's father". It has been suggested that these priests were senior members of the lower class priesthood who had perhaps reached the level of prophet, but who were not yet formally inducted into that office. At least one of their functions seems to have been to walk in front of the god's image in processions and sprinkle water to purify the path.

Some priests were also specialists. For example, the hry-hb who "he who carries the festival roll", and it was his responsibility for reading the hymns and spells which accompanied many rituals. The "scribe of the house of life" was given the duty of copying the papyri used in temple and funerary rituals.

A depiction of the opening of the mouth scene in the tomb of Inherkha, Thebes

During the Old Kingdom, women could hold the office of priestess (hmt-ntr) of Hathor or Neith. However, they rarely served as priestess in the cult of a male god. Before the New Kingdom, the office of priest was not considered a full-time position, but with the later introduction of the professional priest, women could no longer hold priestly titles. Mainly, they served as musicians, singers and dancers of the cult. Later, however, they could hold a vary prestigious title at Thebes, known as the Divine Adoratress, which was a prominent position indeed.

The continued existence and prosperity of Egypt was considered to depend on the successful performance of cult activities, carried out by the priesthood in the temple. At the very point of creation, the ancient Egyptians believed that there was a small space of order that appeared in the midst of chaos. Only within the space of this order was life possible, and in order to keep chaos from engulfing the created world, it was necessary to perform the cult of the gods. These cult activities primarily consisted of rituals that were conducted on a daily basis, and those carried out periodically during specific festivals.

A typical cult statue, this one of Isis

The focus of all the cult activity was usually a statue of the god known as an "image". These were usually small objects, averaging about 50 centimeters (22 inches) in height, that resided in a naos or bark shrine in the chapel of the temple's inner sanctuary. Made of wood, stone, or sometimes precious metals, since most temples housed more than god, they also contained more than one cult statue. However, these statues were usually produced with only the most permanent or symbolically significant materials. The skin of the gods was considered to be pure gold, so divine images were often gilded or made entirely with this precious metal. The hair of the gods was said to be like lapis lazuli, so this was the semi precious stone that was often inset into statues of deities to signify their hair and eyebrows.

Like the mummies of the deceased, once these statues were completed by the craftsmen, they underwent a ritual called the "Opening of the Mouth", which transformed the statue, allowing it to be used by the god to manifest itself and in which the divine ka and ba could take up residence. However, it should be noted that the statue itself was not the subject of worship. They were simply one means by which the gods could receive worship.

At any particular point in time, the daily temple ritual took essentially the same form in every temple in Egypt. This ritual evolved from that for the sun god Re at Heliopolis, which evolved around the rebirth of the sun each morning. Elements of the Osirian belief were later incorporated into this daily ritual, symbolizing the restoration and revivification of the dismembered body of Osiris. For the purpose of the ritual, the cult-statue became to be identified as both Re and Osiris.

Our understanding of these rituals comes basically from two main sources, which include the temple reliefs that depict the king performing the various tasks of the ceremony, and papyri that list the rituals and the hymns which accompany them. Though these sources have allowed scholars to reconstruct the various events of the daily ritual, they do not provide the sequence of activities.

However, we might suppose that before dawn, two priests may have been responsible for filling containers with water from the sacred well of the temple and replenishing all of the libation vessels. In the kitchens, priests would have been busy preparing offerings for the gods. The main officiating priest, a hm-ntr, would then go to the "house of the morning" where he would be ceremonially purified, dressed, given a light meal, and prepare to conduct the morning ceremony.

Looking into the inner sanctuary and shrine of the temple of Horus at Edfu

As the sun rose, the bolt was drawn back and the door opened to the shrine that contained the god's image. Since only the king was considered to be able to confront the god, as the officiating priest approached the statue, he would declare that "it is the king who has sent me to see the god". Now the priest prostrated himself before the image, and the chapel was ritually purified with water and incense before a small figure of the goddess Ma'at was presented to the god, symbolizing the proper order established for the world at creation.

Next, the image of the god was probably removed from its shrine, and the clothing and ointment provided the statue the previous day were removed. We believe that the statue was placed on a pile of clean sand and the shrine was then purified with water and incense. The image of the god would then be adorned with green and black eye paint, as well as anointed with several oils. The statue was then dressed in clothes that were colored white, green, blue and red. The white and red cloths would protect the god from his enemies, while the blue hid his face and the green ensured his health. The god's image was then presented with his regalia, such as crowns, scepter, crook, flail and wsh-collar.

Finally, the face of the statue would be anointed, sand scattered around the chapel and the statue replaced in its shrine, before the door was once more bolted and sealed. As the priest performed the final purifications and left the sanctuary, he would drag behind him a broom in order to obliterate his own footsteps.

S,rmjpyr zooo ,slomh sm pggrtomh og omvrmdr smf s ;onsyopm

Though at what point it took place is unclear, at some time during the morning ritual, the offering would take place. This provided the god with his "breakfast, and may have occurred before the final purification of the chapel in preparation for placing the statue in the shrine. Other scholars believe it may have taken place before the undressing and dressing of the statue. Though an enormous meal consisting of meat, bread, cakes, beer, milk, honey, vegetables and fruit was prepared for this purpose, only a small, symbolic portion of it was actually placed before the statue. There was an offering formula listing the various items that was recited by the priest, and incense was burned and libations made in order to purify and sanctify the offerings. Of course, the god did not actually consume the offerings, but rather took from them their essence, so they could be shared with the other deities of the temple.

In fact, the offerings were also used in the ritual of the royal ancestors, where they were provided to the king's royal predecessors, often depicted in the form of a list of their names. Next, the offerings were finally provided to the statues of other individuals found in the temple, before ultimately becoming the property of the priests. The priests received a share of the offerings based on their rank, and this was one manner in which the priests were compensated for their service.

Though the morning ritual was the primary ceremony of the day, there were also less elaborate ceremonies that took place at noon and in the evening. However, during these services, the doors of the god's chapel were not opened. They consisted mainly of pouring water libations and burning incense before the shrines of the gods.

The Apophis snake enemy

There were other rituals that were performed throughout the night and day, consisting mostly of apotropaic dramatic rituals meant to repel threats against the gods. Frequently, these threats originated in the form of Seth, the murderer of Osiris, or Apophis, the serpent who tried to stop the daily voyage of Re thereby bringing an end to creation. On Re's behalf, hymns were sung during the twelve hours of the day and the twelve hours of the night to protect Re on his journey. Images of these enemies were created from wax or clay and then destroyed, thereby bringing about the enemies destruction through magic.

There were also a number of festivals (hbw) that were celebrated throughout the year, though their nature could vary considerably over Egyptian history. Workers, as evidenced by records at Deir el-Medina, were given days off for festivals. During the reign of Tuthmosis III, we know that in the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, some fifty-four festivals were held, and at Ramesses III's temple at Medinet Habu, sixty festival days were celebrated. Some of these festivals were small, but others could last as many as twenty-seven days and require large expenditures of food and beverages for participants. Records recording one festival related to Sokar record that 3,694 loaves of bread, 410 cakes and 905 jars of beer were distributed.

Some of the more important of these festivals include the celebrations for New Year's Day, the festival of Osiris at Abydos, during which the "mysteries" of this god were celebrated, the festival of Hathor, when her statue was bought before the royal cult complex and the festival of the Coronation of the Sacred Falcon of Edfu. There was also the Beautiful Festival of the Valley during which the statue of Amun-Re was taken from Karnak to the temple at Deir el-Bahri, as well as other royal cult complexes on the west bank of the Nile River (particularly that of the reigning king). This was also a celebration for the people, who would visit the tombs of their relatives and observe an all-night vigil where they shared a feat with their deceased relatives.

A cult procession with priests carrying the bark and shrine

During the festivals, the focus remained on the statue image of the god, but the statue would now be housed in bark shrines. The Egyptian gods always traveled in boats. Sometimes the boat was real, when the god traveled on water, but at other times the bark was a symbolic boat carried over land on the shoulders of priests. During these festivals, the journey could be as short as a procession through the temple, or the god could leave the temple to visit another deity some distance away. The bark shrine was carried along processional avenues which were often lined with sphinxes. Along the way, essentially open-ended buildings were placed as stations on which the priests could rest the bark. At these points, the priests would perform fumigations and provide libations and hymns to the god's image.

These festivals and processions provided the general population with access to the gods, which was otherwise not available, since the farthest most people were admitted into the temples was the open forecourt. Though most scholars believe that the bark shrine was closed during these processions, hiding the image from the onlookers, Dirk van der Plass argued that numerous texts describe the desire of people so see the image of the god, and therefore believes that the shrine was left open. The ancient Egyptians believed that individuals could be healed of various illness by beholding the god's image.

People could also approach the gods during festivals in order to seek an oracle, though the first clear evidence for oracles only occurs as early as the New Kingdom. However, John Baines has suggested that evidence for the existence of oracles may exist as early as the First Intermediate Period, and that even earlier examples may exist. This practice consisted of placing questions with simple yes or no answers written out on small flakes of limestone or ostraca before the gods. These were often questions regarding relatively everyday matters. The movement of the bark-shrine carried on the shoulders of the priests indicated affirmative, if moved forward, nor negative if the priests moved the shrine back.

Workers house at Deir el-Medina showing what probably served as both a bed and a domestic altar

It should be noted that not all cult worship took place in the normal temple environment. Though during the New Kingdom a type of public chapel, known as a "Chapel of the Hearing Ear" was sometimes built into the rear of regular temples for the general public, there also came to exist, particularly during the New Kingdom, sites at Amarna and Deir el-Medina that evidence public chapels which would have contained either a small cult statue, or more commonly a stela with an image of the god. Areas in some private homes were even set aside for worship. At Amarna, upper-class homes had domestic shrines containing statues of Akhenaten and his family, or stelae showing the royal family venerating the Aten (sun disk). Also, many of the houses at Deir el-Medina contained household shrines consisting of a wall niche which could be equipped with an offering table or libation trough. Such areas might be found in any room, including the kitchen. Popular gods for such shrines included Mertseger, Renenutet, Sobek, Amun, Taweret and Hathor, though deceased relatives were frequently worshipped as the "able spirit of Re".

Small, public chapels were usually served by lay priests, but we have little information about the cult practices in these, or in home shrines. Doubtless, offerings of food, libations and incense were made, but what other forms of rituals took place is unknown. These shrines served as places where people could make specific requests of their gods in prayer.

See also:






Reference Number

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Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-05120-8

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ISBN 977 424 669 1

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Dover Publications, Inc.

ISBN 486-22056-7