What was Ancient Egyptian Religion?

The religion of ancient Egypt lasted from the predynastic time (before the fourth millennium BCE) until the disappearance of traditional culture in the first century CE.

Fortunately, we learn much about Egyptian religion from various sources such as inscriptions, monuments, tombs, small artifacts, papyri, documents from Roman and Greek writings, and Egyptian texts. The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) of the fifth century BCE remarked about the intense religiosity of the Egyptians, Plutarch (45-120 CE) speaks about the gods Isis and Osiris, and Apuleius (124-170 CE) about the Isis cult in the Greco-Roman world. We also learn about Egyptian beliefs and rituals from the famous Book of the Dead while many religious myths and ethical beliefs were inscribed in royal tombs, especially on coffins and stone sarcophagi.

These sources paint a religion that was infused with Egyptian daily life and that, in particular, had a fascination with death. We have the great pyramids, such as the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, and a culture that used a sophisticated process of mummification. The ancient Egyptians had a great interest in the survival of the self after the death of the body.

The First Dynasty, founded when Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt around 3000 BCE, was Egypt’s most formative period. Later, between the years 1470 and 1580 BCE, the Egyptians were attacked and partly occupied by invaders from Assyria called the Hykos. From 1359 to 1339, the Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to establish a monotheistic religion in Egypt by suppressing the old religion of Amun. He was unsuccessful and his religion did not survive his own death. Egypt was later ruled by Pharaohs of Libyan descent (664-525) and Ethiopians before being twice dominated by Persia. There was also Greek and Roman occupation, but Egyptian culture managed to maintain continuity even from the First Dynasty.

The Pharaohs

The Pharaohs had an important and privileged role in Egyptian religious life. They enjoyed a unique status between humanity and the gods, partook in the world of the gods, and they constructed religious funerary monuments for their afterlife. The Pharaoh is often depicted as the person who makes offerings to the gods, although temple rituals were performed by priests. The Pharaoh received the benefit from the gods and he was seen as an aspect of the chief god Horus. During the Fourth Dynasty (r. 2575-2465 BCE), he came to be seen as the “Son of Re.” These beliefs no doubt contributed to the central political role the Pharaoh had in the kingdom. A number of the Pharaohs, including Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE), Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE) attempted to achieve deification during their rule while some were thought to become minor deities after their death.

The Story of Osiris

Osiris was the most important god in the pantheon and there is a story of his life, death, and resurrection. Living Pharaohs were identified with Osiris’ son Horus and the dead Pharaohs with Osiris himself. According to this story, Osiris’ brother Seth had a coffin. He then hosted a banquet and promised the coffin to the guest who could fit in it. Only Osiris could fit properly in the coffin, but while he was in it Seth had it shut and sealed. He then threw it into the Nile river and it was eventually found by Isis, Osiris’ wife. When Isis returned the body Seth chopped it up into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. Isis then searched and found all the pieces except for the penis. Isis remade Osiris from the pieces she had found, embalmed him, and gave him new life. Osiris then had intercourse with her which produced the son Horus (often depicted as a falcon with outstretched wings). Horus fought Seth and won, but hurt his eye in the process. His bad eye became associated with the Moon and the good eye identified with the Sun. Having overcome death, Osiris was believed to be the presiding god over death and the patron of mummifying the dead. He is also in the afterlife where he will judge the dead as told in The Book of Going Forth by Day. Osiris’ resurrection also became associated with the sprouting of grain in spring and summer, after his “death” in winter.

Many Gods and Goddesses

Ancient Egyptian religion was polytheistic, meaning that they believed in the existence of many gods and goddesses. The gods were not believed to be all-powerful although they were far superior in strength to humans. The gods were often associated with locations, notably cities (e.g. the god Re was associated with the city Heliopolis) and many cults formed around a specific deity who became the center of focus. Cults would worship images of gods located in shrines which would be clothed fed by devotees. This hoped to attain a reciprocal relationship between humans and the divine.

The gods were associated with animals like snakes and cows, and they were often depicted with mixed forms between a human body and an animal head. The sun god Re is typically depicted with a human body and the head of a hawk. We noted some of the major gods in the Osiris story (Isis, Seth, and Horus) but there are hundreds more. Some other important deities include Amunhotep who is the god of healing and wisdom; Heka the god of magic and medicine; Tefnut the goddess of moisture; Bastet, goddess of cats; Hathor, the primeval goddess; Ma’at, the goddess of truth; the god Ptah who was associated with craftsmen and builders. The Egyptian pantheon was rich in myths, narratives, and imagery and was probably one of the world’s largest pantheons to exist in its time.

The Book of the Dead and the After Life

The Book of the Dead or The Book of Going Forth by Day is arguably Ancient Egypt’s greatest text to have been created. It is very ancient as much of it is based on the Coffin Texts (probably assembled between 2050 and 1750 BCE) and represents the standard ancient Egyptian view of death and how to survive it. The book was also placed in tombs with the dead because it was believed to help them pass through judgment to the afterlife.

According to The Book of Going Forth by Day, the heart is weighed in the Hall of Two Truths by the god Anubis. The heart is weighed in the balance against Ma’at, the goddess of truth as represented by a feather. If the heart outweighed the feather (due to being heavy with sin), it would be consumed by Ammut, the she-monster and devourer of the dead. However, if the scales balanced, then the deceased would go into paradise and live in Aaru, the “field of reeds,” which is also the domain of Osiris. In this place, the blessed dead gather rich crops of barley and wheat, which is why abundant harvests are depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs.

The process of mummification was important in this process because the Egyptians believed that the spiritual life force (the ka) had to return to the body to receive sustenance. If the body decayed by being uncared for then the ka would starve. The ka needed to take strength from the body to rejoin the ba (the physical body, name, shadow, and personality depicted on hieroglyphics as a bird fluttering up to the sky after death) in the afterlife, and together these created the akh, which would have to gain admittance to the afterlife. Mummification was an advanced achievement in ancient Egypt when one considers the dry climate, the well-sealed coffins, and the process of embalming; it was also expensive but over the centuries became more accessible.

Festivals

On the experiential side of ancient Egyptian religion, elaborate festivals allowed direct interaction between the people and their deities. The people could ask questions of their gods and their responses might be given to priests. Festivals and ceremonies would also have public reenactments of myths, such as the death and resurrection of Osiris or the defeat of Seth by Horus.

References and Recommended Readings

Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 203-205.

Ambalu, Shumalit., et al. 2013. et al. The Religions Book. London: DK. p. 58-59

Baines, John. n.d. Ancient Egyptian religion. Available.

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