Egyptian religion

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Egyptian religion

Egyptian religion, the religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt. Information concerning ancient Egyptian religion is abundant but unsatisfactory. Only certain parts of Egyptian religious life and thought are known; whole periods remain in the dark. What we do know is that the religious beliefs of the Egyptians were riddled with inconsistencies and confusions. Many gods and goddesses seem more or less identical, and yet they existed together. Contradictory myths explaining the creation of the world, natural phenomena, and the like were accepted without argument. Attributes of deities were freely and indiscriminately adopted from one group or locality to another, and combinations and fusions of gods were frequent. It is impossible to discern an orderly and consistent picture of Egyptian religion, and much scholarship remains hypothesis and conjecture.

Early Beliefs

Probably the oldest form of religious worship in Egypt was animal worship. Early predynastic tribes venerated their own particular gods, who were usually embodied in a particular animal. Sometimes a whole species of animal was sacred, as cats at Bubastis; at other times only individual animals of certain types were worshiped, as the Apis bull at Memphis. As Egyptian civilization advanced, deities were gradually humanized. Many were represented with human bodies (although they retained animal heads) and other human characteristics and attributes. The wolf Ophois became a god of war, and the ibis Thoth became a patron of learning and the arts.

We do not know precisely how or why certain animals became associated with certain gods. Moreover, the relationship between a god and his animal varied greatly. The god Thoth was not only identified with the ibis, but also with the baboon and with the moon. Occasionally a god was a composite of various animals, such as Taurt, who had the head of a hippopotamus, the back and tail of a crocodile, and the claws of a lion.

Just as a god could represent various natural phenomena, so could a single phenomenon be given different explanations. The ancient Egyptian conceived of the earth as a disk, with the flat plains of Egypt as the center and the mountainous foreign lands as the rim surrounding and supporting the disk. Below were the deep waters of the underworld, and above was the plain of the sky. Several systems of cosmic deities arose to explain this natural phenomenon. Some attributed the creation of the world to the ram-god Khnum, who styled the universe on his potter's wheel. Others said that creation was a spiritual and not a physical act, and that the divine thought of Ptah shaped the universe.

Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation of the creation was that the sun-god, called either Ra or Atum, appeared out of primeval chaos and created the air-god Shu and his wife Tefnut, to whom were born the sky-goddess Nut and the earth-god Geb, who in turn bore Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Some early cosmological myths represented the heavens as a great, star-studded cow, sometimes called Hathor or Athor, curving above the earth. Regardless of the different creation myths and ranking of gods, it is clear that the ancient Egyptian venerated many deities, that those gods were inherent in nature, and that they enabled the Egyptian to correlate human, natural, and divine life.

Development of a National Religion

At the end of the predynastic period (c.3200 B.C.), when a combined state was created, a national religion apparently grew out of the various primitive tribal and local religions, but still there were great inconsistencies and variations as various priesthoods attempted to systematize the gods and their myths. Changes in the political power of various localities also changed the status of the gods. In that way Amon became Egypt's most prominent deity, and by similar shifts of power Suchos, Bast, and Neith rose to importance. Some scholars have believed that the history of Egyptian religion was a sort of war of the gods, with the dominance of a god following directly the political dominance of a city or region. Others have pointed out that the national prominence of gods often centered in obscure cities or regions that never had political power. Nevertheless, shifts and changes did occur, making for new identifications and associations.

Egyptian religion was remarkable for its reconciliation and union of conflicting beliefs. Some scholars have held, in fact, that the syncretism of Egyptian religion reveals a basic trend toward monotheism. But only during the reign of Ikhnaton, who based his theology on the solar god Aton and denied recognition to all but that god, was a monotheistic cult actually established. That unique cult apparently proved unsatisfactory to the ancient Egyptians; after Ikhnaton's death, polytheism was restored.

The Major Cults

The most important of the many forms of Egyptian worship were the cults of Osiris and of Ra. Osiris was especially important as king and judge of the dead, but he was identified as well with the waters of the Nile, with the grain yield of the earth, with the moon, and even with the sun. A bountiful and loving king, Osiris was the protector of all, the poor and the rich. His myth, portraying the highest ideals of family devotion, expressed aspirations that were close to the people. His murder by his brother, Set, and his restoration to life by his wife, Isis, made him the great symbol of the eternal persistence of life. The revenge exacted by his son and successor, Horus, showed the triumph of good over evil.

The worship of Ra, the great sun-god, chief of the cosmic deities, was perhaps more closely related to the fate of the royal house than to that of the people, but his cult was nevertheless one of the most important in ancient Egypt. His symbol, the pyramid, became the design of the monumental tombs of the Egyptian kings. Ra was said, in fact, to be the direct ancestor of the kings of Egypt, and in certain hymns was even addressed as a dead king. But he was more specifically thought of as a living power, whose daily cycle of birth, journey, and death was a fundamental theme in Egyptian life. Besides Osiris and Ra the other most prominent Egyptian god was Amon. By the XIX dynasty he was Egypt's greatest god, united with Ra as Amon Ra.

The Role of the King

Most scholars have concluded that, in later times at least, there was no close personal tie between the individual Egyptian and the gods, that the gods remained aloof, that their relationship to humans was indirect, communicated to him by means of the king. There was no established book or set of teachings, as the Bible or the Qur'an, and few prescribed conditions of behavior or conduct. Humans were guided essentially by human wisdom and trusted in their belief in the goodness of the gods and of their divine son, the king. An important concept in Egyptian life was the idea of maat [justice]. Although the Egyptian was entirely subservient to the state, the king had the duty of translating the will of the gods. The universe had been created by bringing order and justice to replace primeval chaos, and only through the continuance of order and justice could the universe survive. The law of nature, of society, and of the gods was an organic whole, and it was the duty of the king to administer that law, which was guided by the concept of maat. As Egypt flourished, so did the state cult. As the pharaohs grew more powerful, they poured riches into the state cult and built huge and splendid temples to their gods. The priesthoods thus grew very powerful.

Life after Death

The populace found its expression of religious feeling in the funerary cults. The great body of mortuary texts has, in fact, provided us with much that we know of ancient Egypt, particularly of belief in the afterlife (see Book of the Dead). The dead were provided with food and drink, weapons, and toiletry articles. Tombs were often visited by the family, who brought new offerings. Proper precautions and care for the dead were mandatory to insure immortality (see mummy). Although the ancient Egyptians strongly believed in life after death, the idea of passing from life on earth to life in the hereafter was somewhat obscure, and the concepts concerning the afterlife were complex.

The ancient Egyptian, however, hoped not only to extend life beyond the grave, but to become part of the perennial life of nature. The two most important concepts concerning the afterlife were the ka and the ba. The ka was a kind of double or other self, not an element of the personality, but a detached part of the self which was sometimes said to guide the fortunes of the individual in life, like the Roman genius, but was clearly most associated with a person's fortunes in the hereafter. When people died they were said to join with their ka. More important perhaps than the ka was the concept of the ba. The ba is perhaps loosely identifiable as the soul of a person. More specifically the ba was the manifestation of an individual after death, usually thought to be represented in the form of a bird. The Egyptians also believed in the concept of akh, which was the transformation of some of the noble dead into eternal objects. The noblest were often conceived of as being transformed into stars, thus joining in the changeless rhythm of the universe.


See J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion in Ancient Egypt (1912, repr. 1970); E. A. T. W. Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (1934, repr. 1972); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1948, repr. 1961); J. Cerny, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1952, repr. 1957); S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (tr. 1973).

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