The Origins of Egyptian Religion

The Origins of Egyptian Religion

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Taylor Ray Ellison

The "Great White", an early baboon god from the Late predynastic Period

The origins of Egyptian religion are difficult if not impossible to define. We have no doubt that its roots exist deep within prehistoric times, occurring long before Egypt existed as a nation state and the invention of writing. In fact, the hieroglyphic symbol for god, described as a "cloth wrapped on a pole by Alan H. Gardiner, predates the establishment of actual Egyptian writing. Though many scholars are interested in this topic, there exists little definitive evidence from which to draw clear conclusions and so amongst anthropologists and Egyptologists, there remain many different opinions.

Yet, many observations may be made about early Egyptian religion from apparent cult objects, in human and animal burials and from areas where formal rituals appear to have taken place. Furthermore, the care with which the dead were buried in the prehistoric period and the implied belief in an afterlife certainly suggests that the early Egyptians were very capable of a somewhat sophisticated theology. The predynastic dead were buried facing west, in a contracted position and with their hands clenched near the face and their head toward the south. Their bodies were wrapped in a mat or a hide for protection, and some provisions were placed either outside this wrapping, or in a small niche dug in one of the walls of the grave. The burial pit with its food offerings was an image of the womb. The contracted fetal position of the earliest surviving interments and the consistent direction of the face to the west where the sun sets may very well suggest the belief in spiritual rebirth. The spiritual significance of these early burials is also demonstrated by the inclusion of funerary provisions for the afterlife, such as pots, slate palettes, jewelry and other items.

A very early fragmentary statue of the god Min from Coptos dating perhaps to the late Predynastic Period.

Like elsewhere in the early world, ancient Egyptians appear to have had a reverence for the natural world in which they existed, and on which they depended. They were perhaps inspired by both the animate and inanimate world, though most of the earliest physical evidence in Egypt points to their development of the former. Therefore, the first clear divinities we find in Egypt's archaeological record are for the most cases, animal deities such as the cow and the falcon. By the late prehistoric period, we also find evidence of other animal that may have been worshipped as gods, including dogs (or jackals), gazelles, cattle, hippopotamus and rams. They were buried in what seems to have been ritual graves including funerary goods and their images were recorded in figurines and paintings. The major sites for such burials were, in Lower Egypt, Maadi and Heliopolis, and in Upper Egypt, Badari and Naqada.

Some Egyptologists believe that such depictions and carvings may simply be totems of tribal groups or have other unknown meanings, but most seem now to believe that there can scarcely be any doubt that in at least the last centuries of prehistory, the Egyptians for the most part worshipped divine powers in animal form. If indeed they are manifestations of the divine, then we may see in them a significant stage in the development of the Egyptian gods of later periods. The idea that the divine might be manifest in animal form is a vital prerequisite for the animals which are shown acting in entirely human ways and which are the major representations of Egyptian gods at the end of the Predynastic Period.

Recent study of sites at Nabta Playa and Bir Kisseiba in the Sahara west of the Upper Nile Valley indicate that cattle were particularly important in the development of Egyptian religious beliefs. They may have been venerated even prior to their domestication around 7000 BC. At Tushka in Nubia, the horn cores of cows were placed in burials as early as 10,000 BC, suggesting their afterlife beliefs. Whether this evidence represents early cults or not, it fits well with the prevalence in dynastic Egypt of the imagery of cows in association with early goddesses such as Hathor, Nut and Neith. It is very likely that this later imagery was merely a continuation of a much older tradition of primordial cow goddesses that sprang from the context of Neolithic cattle herding in the Egyptian Sahara. Fekri Hassan has pointed out that both the cow and woman gave milk, and both shared an identity as a source of life and nourishment. The idea that mothers, both human or bovine, gave physical birth and sustenance, was therefore a powerful influence on early Egyptian religion.

The Narmer Palette
The Narmer Palette

In the Narmer Palette, which dates to the period of transition between predynastic and dynastic Egypt, we find on the reverse side a falcon holding a captive and on the obverse a bull breaking down a city wall and trampling an enemy figure. There are also mythical serpopards with long necks on both sides of the palette, and a deity with a cow's head that fuses human and bovine features that surmounts these scenes. Here, the cow figure is more closely identifiable to Bat, a goddess who was later worshipped in the seventh Upper Egyptian nome, than to the better known Hathor. It is also important to note the stars on the palette, that surely even at this date identify her as a sky goddess. Hence, as we see the earliest Egyptian writing appear, so too do we definitely see among the artifacts of the period indisputable zoomorphic deities.

Evidence of deities in human form at the earliest states of Egyptian religious development are less clear. This is interesting because in many early societies, the magic that allowed women to bleed without dying and to give birth and nourishment inspired primeval goddesses of great importance. There have been unearthed, from the Naqada Period and the earlier Badari culture, crudely formed anthropomorphic figures made of clay or ivory. Though traditionally interpreted as deities, more recent study of these figures indicate a variety of uses and meanings is likely, while none may definitively be associated with deities. A "great mother goddess" is quite unknown in Egypt during the earlier historical period, one must be skeptical about the attempt to identify naked, bearded figures as gods. In reliefs and paintings of the time, pointed beards of this sort were mostly worn by enemies, while in late predynastic and early dynastic times, nakedness is reserved for subjugated enemies of Egypt. Peter J. Ucko believes that they could have served as children's dolls, magically efficacious images used in various rituals or as votive offerings as well as for other purposes.

A very early anthropomorphic image, here fusing the form with zoomorphic characteristics. A female figure from the Naqada II Period

Yet it is also clear that by the very beginning of the historical period, deities such as Min, Neith and Onuris were being worshipped in human form, and it is probable that they could have been worshipped as such already in the Naqada period, but their human iconography is know only from historical times. The earliest depictions of gods in human form show a body usually without separate limbs, and though true mummification was not yet practiced, nevertheless resembling a mummiform.

Anthropomorphic deities were slow to develop in Egypt, and in fact throughout Egyptian history, gods and goddesses were almost always viewed as hybrid forms, part human and part animal. Even into the late predynastic and Early Dynasty Period, Egyptian kings retained animal names such as Scorpion, Catfish, Kite and Cobra. Hence, while Hathor was one of the first deities to be given anthropomorphic form, she retained the horns of her sacred animal, the cow, and she was frequently depicted in bovine form thousands of years after her initial appearance. There also continued to be gods who were never portrayed as anything but animals, such as the Apis bulls.

A cosmetic palette with astrological overtones from Gerzeh dating the Naqada II (3500-3100 BC)

Much less clear is the development of the deification of inanimate objects. There is almost a complete lack of evidence in this regard, and yet, this does not mean that early Egyptian religion did not encompass some aspects of such worship. At Gerzeh, there is in fact reoccurring star images and other artifacts from the late Neolithic Period (3600 - 3300 BC) that may indicate an early astral cult that developed in Egypt. However, it is entirely possible that spiritual beliefs surrounding inanimate objects such as the sky were simply not as easy to represent in physical form, as were animals and people.

Most anthropologists view the concept of individualized deities who hold power over certain events, such as harvests are child birth, as a desire by ancient man to gain some kind of control over the natural world and human vulnerability. Very likely, the needs of early human societies throughout the ancient world were the same everywhere, though the immediate vulnerability of ancient humans at the hands of nature probably gradually gave way to the awareness of longer term needs such as the freedom from pain and want.

When, around 3,000 BC, Upper and Lower Egypt was united, it is likely that the perceived and real religious needs of the people changed. It was then that, for the first time, national deities came into existence, together with the divine cult of the king. Not only was the land united, but much of its religion as well. This marks the end of Egyptian religion's formative years, for over the next 3,000 years, subsequent historical development would fail to radically change the underlying nature of Egyptian religion.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion Redford, Donald B. 2002 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-515401-0
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many Hornung, Erik 1971 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-8384-0
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7
Egypt Before the Pharaohs Hoffman, Michael A. 1979 Barnes & Noble Books ISBN 0-88029-457-4
Great Goddesses of Egypt, The Lesko, Barbara S. 1999 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-3202-7
Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice Baines, John; Lesko, Leonard H.; Silverman, David P. 1991 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-2550-6