Sky Religion in Ancient Egypt: Temples and Magick - Part I

Sky Religion in Ancient Egypt: Temples and Magick - Part I

“In the beginning Egypt was not”

The Sky Religion in Egypt: Its Antiquity and Effects by G A Wainwright; published in 1938, is one of the classic enabling texts of Egyptology, and I am going to use this name as a porte-manteau for this thread.

The sky religion is, in my opinion, one of humanity’s oldest spiritual impulses. Its roots lie back in the mists of time. Wherever human remains are found, it’s shown the sky religion was practiced. It begins with the simple observation of the sky, although nothing is ever simple. It might, by extension, encompass acts of reverence, an infinite number of attempts to replicate things seen in the sky here on Earth. Or, the recognition in the landscape, of patterns on earth that have been seen in the sky. This is possible because, metaphorically speaking, the earth and the sky were thought to have been once joined; the imprint of one is to be seen on the other.

The Books of Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians told this story in various Books of the Sky, the most famous of which is that of Nut or Nuit.

Nut, goddess of sky and heavenly bodies in Ancient Egypt.

Of course when mentioning books, it may well evoke a certain idea in one’s mind, of an object printed on paper and sold in bookshops. Egyptian books, whilst sometimes written on papyrus or leather, were more often consisting of hieroglyphic texts and graphics carved in stone on the walls of sacred buildings. In a sense they were written in the environment, albeit a built one. Egyptian temples invariably contain several distinct books, arranged in panels on every available surface. One such book is that of Nut, the sky goddess.

Nut or Nuit was a sky goddess; Geb was the Earth god. This is a reversal of the commonest pattern of ancient thought, that of earth mother and sky father.

This is more than just a picture; it is a whole story, actually, a book.

In this book, we are to understand that Geb, the earth father, and Nut, the sky mother were once one flesh. In the book they are shown in the moments after another god, Shu, lord of the directions, has pushed them apart, raising Nut, the sky. There is a lot more going on in this book, to which we will need to revisit. We might validly infer that the imprint of the sky is on the Earth, and vice versa. This is an ancient iteration of the Hermetic ideal: “as above, so below”.

Caption of picture in book reads: "The God Seb supporting Nut on Heaven". 1904. The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. II, colour plate facing page 96, by E. A. Wallis Budge.

A World without Religion

Returning to the idea of the sky religion, strictly speaking, there is no word for “religion” in Egypt. We are going to have to use a term that was alien or unspoken as far as they were concerned. Such is the paradox of translation. “Religion” is a useful, perhaps indispensable concept, yet one for which there appears to be no equivalent used by the Egyptians themselves.

Our word concept comes from Latin, and was a Roman innovation. Part of its meaning is to bind together, with the same root as “ligature” – a cord wrapped around a bundle of different things. The Romans were no doubt keen to distinguish their religion, that which bound them together, from spiritual ideas from outside. The later Roman theologians were probably motivated by a desire to distinguish Roman religion from a more alien other world whose priests were “magi”, practitioners of magick.


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Ancient Egyptian Religion

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first peoples to have an existential crisis as they wondered to meaning through reflecting through nature and so was the birth of the ancient Egyptian religion. The ancient Egyptians came up with a religious system built on a combination of beliefs, rituals, and practices within a complex society built on the notion of polytheism and linked by their common focus on the interactions between the humanity and the divine realm. Religion could have been the most important aspect of their life as it included magic, mythology, medicine, science, herbology, spiritualism, psychiatry which gave them a more profound understanding of concepts like a higher power and life after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that life on earth was part of the eternal life, just a stepping stone for the next life and in order to continue to the afterlife, one has to live a life of purpose which can be found in religion.

Religion and Spirituality of the Ancient Egyptians

Ancient Egyptian religion seems to be based on an obsession of death, but it can also be seen as a desire to live. Their main goal? Immortality.

At first glance, the ancient Egyptian religion seems to be abnormally obsessed with death. As a culture they appear to have worshiped the dead. So much emphasis was placed on mummification and tombs that, without further perusal, that does seem like a reasonable assumption. That space in time brings to mind grand burials and golden relics languishing in dusty tombs. We envision the desiccated faces of the wrapped pharaohs we imagine the embalming process, overseen by the intimidating visage of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death.

Obsession with Death?

Even though much of their religion was rooted in death, the ancient Egyptians were actually infused with a vitality and vibrancy that is made apparent in their art, their literature and the accounts of their family lives. This is particularly true during the New Kingdom. They were preoccupied with death because of their strong desire to live.

The ancient Egyptians wanted life to continue, just as it was, in the afterlife. It wouldn’t do to leave it to chance, so every effort was made to insure that they were able to continue “living” just as they had before. The afterlife was to become an extension of their current lives. In a sense, one could live forever, if one’s name never died. They were searching for immortality in a both a figurative sense and a literal sense.

Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

The Egyptians had a way of combining the factual and the metaphoric in their religion. It was a religion that relied heavily on symbolism, yet at the same time was rooted in reality. A spiritual, otherworldly being was assigned for nearly all of the earthly happenings in the world. Sunrise would only happen when Ra rode his boat out of the Underworld and across the sky. He then journeyed across the sky, and back down into the Underworld. Only then would the sun set.

The Underworld was seen to be full of peril and the sunrise was never guaranteed. Fortunately, Ra was often accompanied by other gods, including Set and Mehen who helped defend against the creatures Ra might come up against. Then there was Nut, the sky goddess, dressed in a cape of stars, who swallowed Ra up nightly, to bring the darkness. Geb was the god of the earth, Tefnut was the goddess of moisture and Shu was god of the air. The Egyptians worshiped a number of minor and major gods, each one with a very specific purpose.

The upper tiers of the godhood also included the more well known of the Egyptian Gods Osiris, Isis, Horus and Set. Osiris, after being brutally dismembered by his brother Set, was brought briefly back to life by his wife, Isis. He became the god of the Underworld. Isis was goddess of motherhood and fertility. Set was god of chaos and Horus was god of protection. Set and Horus fought and after Horus triumphed, he became the ruler of the living world. Each Pharaoh became his living incarnation.

Afterlife and Immortality

The journey to the afterlife and judgment was fraught with danger and more literal interpretations. The deceased’s heart was weighed on a scale opposite a feather worn in the head-dress of Maat, the goddess of balance. Thoth the god of wisdom, recorded the results. If it balanced, they were free to enter eternal life. If it didn’t, they were immediately devoured by Ammit, the monster of the dead.

As time went on, the gods grew and adapted. Some merged and some disappeared altogether, but one thing remained throughout the Old Kingdom to Cleopatra’s time: the Egyptian civilization placed a lot of significance on death. But through death, came immortality.

Ancient Egyptian’s gods and goddesses

It is important to note that Ancient Egyptians were polytheists i.e. they worshipped many gods. They had over seven hundred diverse gods and goddesses (Matthews, 1997). The ancient Egyptian religion had its roots in the country’s prehistory, and it existed for over 3,000 years. However, as the significance attached to the gods grew and declined over the years, the religious beliefs of the Egyptians also shifted. Certain gods were more prominent than others at various periods of time (Matthews, 1997). Ancient Egyptian religion consisted of worshipping more than 700 gods and goddesses who were believed to have control over the elements and forces of nature (Pinch, 2004). Egyptians realized the difficulty associated with polytheism during the Old Kingdom. Consequently, they tried to make the religion simple by organizing gods to be worshipped in family groups.

Records show that Egyptians formed local cults for worshipping gods, especially animals. There were two categories of Egyptian gods, i.e. household and local gods, as well as national and state gods (Pinch, 2004). Household gods were worshipped in the shrines that were situated within the living quarters of the people. These gods did not have temples, priests or followers, but nonetheless, they were very important to the Egyptians, since the national and state gods were very far. Examples of eminent household gods include Tauert and Bes. In certain regions, local and state gods were the chief deity, for instance, the crocodile god, which was worshipped mainly in Kom Ombo and Fayoum (Pinch, 2004). Some local and state gods such as Re, the sun god, gained recognition nationwide and were worshipped all over Egypt. It is important to take note of the fact that certain gods were mixed with others to form a new deity. For example, Re was combined with Amun, a state god, to form Amen-Re. Worshipping of local and household gods was very common among the ordinary people. They believed that the gods would assist them to get jobs and their other needs (Pinch, 2004).

Priests in Ancient Egypt

Priests were very important in the ancient Egyptian religion. It was the belief of the Egyptians that the gods resided in the temples and only the priests were permitted to get into the sacred region of the temple where the statues of the gods were (Redford, 2002). Egyptian people often prayed at the gates of the temple or to Pharaoh whom they believed to be a link between them and the gods. Contrary to the present duties of priests of caring for the spiritual needs of the people, the role of Egyptian priests was to take care of the needs of the gods and goddesses (Redford, 2002). They neither watched over or cared for the people, nor taught them about religion. Caring for the gods involved the following: the high priest would break the seal in the morning, light a torch to march the gods, pray to the gods, wash the statue, light incense, put jewels and fresh clothing on the gods, as well as put food and drink offerings near the statue of the gods. Singers would often sing hymns in praise of the gods. When the day came to an end, the priest would live the shrine, ensuring that the sacredness of the temple was restored by sweeping away his footprints while he walked away (Redford, 2002).

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It was the belief of the Egyptians that the priest’s role to care of the gods was very vital, and that neglect in their duties would result in disaster. Consequently, the general public compensated the priests in recognition of their significance in the society. A majority of the priests were categorized as lay priests, i.e. part-time priests who were employed either by the local or state governments (Redford, 2002). Lay priests were very common, particularly among small communities, and they served in rotation. There were normally four groups of lay priests who were equally staffed, and every group would serve for one month, after which they resume their occupation for the next three months.

Pharaoh had the power of choosing new priests. Often he would select his relations to fill key positions in the temple (Redford, 2002). Most of the priest positions were heritable, thereby making them a preserve of only a few families. However, during certain times, new priests were chosen by a committee of priests. Cases of transfer or promotion of priests were also in the hands of Pharaoh. Like any other job with rules and regulations, the job of a priest necessitated that they only wore clothes made from plants while on duty. Clothes made from animal skin were not allowed. Other requirements included shaving their heads and bodies on a daily basis, showering with cold water numerous times in a day, as well as abstaining from sex while carrying out their duties in the Temple (Redford, 2002).

Ancient Egyptian Temples

Ancient Egyptians built two types of temples i.e. the Cultus and the Mortuary Temples (Wilkinson, 2000). The Cultus Temples were mainly devoted to worshipping a particular god of Egypt for instance, the Temple of Isis located in Aswan. The Mortuary Temples, on the other hand, were constructed to give honor to Pharaoh when he passed on. The Temple of Ramesse II located in Thebes is an example of a Mortuary Temple (Wilkinson, 2000). Egyptian temples reflected the Egyptians’ myths. For instance, the pillars of the temples were designed in the shape of plants like papyrus, palms etc, which were believed to exist in the Island of Creation.

There were two kinds of ceremonies performed to the gods at the Cultus Temples. The first type was an every day ceremony of providing for the needs of the gods through offerings, which were conducted by the priest within the temple’s sanctuary (Wilkinson, 2000). Common people were not permitted to enter the sanctuary, and were, therefore, forced to stay outside when the ceremony was ongoing. The other type of ceremony was special festivals which took place at various times of the year. It was during the festive ceremonies that the ordinary Egyptians were free to worship their gods without any restrictions. Ancient Egyptian people highly regarded their temple, since they believed that it was the physical place where they connected with their gods (Wilkinson, 2000). They also believed that Pharaoh, together with the priests, would intervene on their behalf to the gods.

Ancient Egyptian Religion

The relationship of the believer with the gods in Ancient Egypt was particularly loose. There was no set of doctrines or a central book or personal bond with any deity. Only the holy being’s priests and Egyptian Pharaoh, who was also considered divine, could communicate with the gods. In addition, political changes could modify or transform the standing of a specific god or goddess. However, religion was of great consequence to the common Egyptian. It was deeply influenced by tradition, the concept of ma’at (order) and believe in an afterlife. Tradition and ma’at sort of went together. The Egyptians upheld tradition because change could bring chaos, the opposite of ma’at. If thing were going well, then Pharaoh and the priests were doing their jobs, if things were going bad, then changes were needed and the king and priests had to do something about it. Because of tradition, Egyptians hardly questioned their believes.

Concept of the Hereafter

The afterlife was all important. The body as the vessel of the ba or soul and therefore had to be preserved for all times. This credence led to great advances in the process of mummifying the body. When a person died, the ba had to face the God Anubis, who would weigh the heart of the deceased against the feather of justice and truth. If the heart war heavier, then the ba would be consumed by the demon Ammut. If the soul passed the test, then it would be lead by Horus to Osiris, the lord of the underworld, and to life everlasting.

Temples were built to the different gods and goddesses in various places. The common people could not visit the temple, only the priests. It was up to the priest to serve the gods and keep them happy.

Principal Gods and Goddesses

Some of the divinities the Ancient Egyptians believed in were local deities with little following or power. Others were considered national gods at one time or another and had many more believers. Among the famous known ancient Egyptian gods are:

Amun. The god of creation. He had no beginning. The patron of the poor, was called the King of the Gods. Eventually combined with Ra. The god sun, and was even more powerful. He had a temple built in his honor in the city of Thebes. He was represented as a ram, a man with a ram head or a man wearing a hat with an ostrich plume.

Aten: A form of Ra/ Represented as a sun with rays than ended in hands.

Bastet: A protective goddess. Daughter of Ra, the sun god. Associated with the cat, which was her symbol. She appears as a woman with the head of a cat.

Hathor: Goddess of joy and love. Wife of Horus. She was represented as a woman with the ears of a cow, a woman with a headdress of a sun disk between horns and as a cow.

Horus: The lord of the sky and Pharaoh himself. Lost an eye on his fight with Seth to rule the world of the living. The eye was restored, and it became a symbol of protection to the Egyptians. Represented as a man with a falcon head or a falcon.

Isis: The wife of her brother Osiris and mother of Horus. Important because Pharaoh was considered Hours and therefore, she was the mother of the king. She was a goddess of protection who used her spell to help those in need. Isis is the patron of motherhood, magic and fertility. Isis represented as a woman with a headdress in the shape of a throne, usually carrying Horus in her arms, or by a pair of cow horns with a sun disk.

Osiris: Ruler of the underworld and god of the dead, resurrection and fertility. When his brother, Seth, murdered him, Isis cast a spell and brought Osiris back to life long enough to be impregnated by him. He was depicted as a mummified man wearing the atef crown: a hedjet , the white, tall crown of Upper (Southern) Egypt, adorned with feathers.

Ra: The sun god. It was believed that every night the sky goddess, Nut, swallowed Ra and he was reborn in the mornings. In some creation myths of the Egyptians, it was Ra and not Amun who created the world. Represented as a man with the head of a hawk. His head dress was a sun disk encircled by a serpent.

Seth: The lord of chaos and a real threat to Egypt. Brother of Isis and Osiris, who he killed. He fought Horus, his nephew, for the right to govern humanity. Eventually he was exiled to the desert for eternity. He was depicted as a man with the head on an unidentified beaked animal.

Heka was Egyptian god of magic and medicine. Heka was the personification of magic because it was used to refer magical rituals. According to Egyptian writing Heka existed “before duality had yet come into being.

The Priesthood

Like I mentioned, priests were not really responsible for spreading the message or advising people. Their roles had to do with worshipping the gods in order to maintain divine order in the land and keep a connection with the deities.

Though the pharaoh was high priest, he delegated this position to others as he wasn’t able to perform the many different duties of the high priest in each temple. The priesthood was a hierarchy, and so the high priest was at the top and then after him came many ranks. The lowest ranking priests were those responsible for maintaining or supervising the cleanliness of the temple.

Some priests were scribes that maintained and copied the different religious texts. They were keepers of the sacred knowledge. Other priests did not have to be literate.

Priests were not required to be celibate and actually some handed down their career paths to their sons. The priesthood was available to women as well, with some reaching the very high rank of God’s Wife of Amun, for example, though they were less common than the men.

Statue of Ankhenesneferibre, God’s Wife of Amun. Photo by: John Campana

I’ll get into the priesthood in more detail soon, so keep an eye out for that page.

Though priests were not interacting with the regular ancient Egyptian on a daily basis, they were requested and hired to perform funerary rituals for the deceased whose family could afford it. The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was one of these very important rituals.

Sky Religion in Ancient Egypt: Temples and Magick - Part I - History

Nothing affected the everyday lives of ancient Egyptians more than their religion which differed, both in theory and practice, from any we know today. Egyptians worshiped not a single god, but a vast array from which they could pick and choose. Common people took almost no part in religious rituals that was the sacred responsibility of the priestly class. The afterlife was believed to be not an abstract spiritual realm, but a concrete, real destination mirroring life in this world. Finally, attaining eternal life did not require performing any good acts, but simply doing no wrong.

It is difficult to imagine a time before the existence of science, but such was Egypt ’ s situation throughout her entire 3,000-year history. Because no scientific principles existed to explain natural phenomena, Egyptians believed that whatever occurred in their lives or environment had a supernatural cause. Not understanding why events happened or how to control them, they considered something as familiar and central to their lives as the sun to be more than an astronomical object it was the falcon god Ra. The Nile was not just a river obeying simple laws of nature, but the god Hapi, depicted as a hermaphrodite a male with sagging breasts. Egyptians depended on the good will of their gods to give them what they wanted. The disappearance of the sun each night, for example, frightened them into imagining that it made a dangerous journey past enemies who tried to prevent its reappearance in the morning. So they made offerings to the gods, prayed, did in general whatever they believed their gods might demand to ensure its return. Lacking scientific laws to explain diverse phenomena, they regarded each natural event as the province of a separate god and assigned that god personal characteristics and a physical form. Of course they did not really believe the sun was a bird or that a river had breasts. Wrestling with the impossible task of representing invisible powers in some concrete manner, they chose to symbolize a particular god as a creature or attribute that exhibited similar abilities: birds fly, breasts produce liquid.

At the peak of their civilization, during the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egyptians worshiped more than a thousand gods. Some were the same deity celebrated under different names in different cities, but most were separate gods.
Ancient Egyptians were not required to choose a single god to worship, unlike later practices of monotheism. In the case of childbirth, for example, several divinities were responsible for different aspects of the process. One, a pregnant hippopotamus called Tauret, the “Great One,” protected a woman through the term of her pregnancy.

Another, a lion-headed male dwarf named Bes, looked after the child when he was born. When a woman became pregnant, she wore an amulet of Tauret around her neck for protection, much as Christians wear saints’ medals. After giving birth, the new mother donned a Bes amulet.
Despite an abundance of special-occasion gods, Egyptians believed that a few chief gods controlled everything in their world, including the lesser deities. In Memphis, the administrative capital of Egypt, priests credited the chief god Ptah, a human figure wearing a skullcap, with creating the world by imagining it in his mind, then uttering the word. Thebes celebrated a different major god Amun, the “Hidden One” with powers so great he could not be visualized, yet because he had to be represented in some way in order to pay him homage, he was depicted as a man with a tall ostrich plume crown.


To introduce order into their large collection of gods, Egyptians placed each within a hierarchy based on their relative powers. Relying on the familiar, they collected their pantheon into “families” of threes a father, mother and son the first trinities, with the superiority of a chief god symbolized by his fatherhood. Memphis’ chief god Ptah was paired with Sekhmet, a lioness their son Nefertum appeared in human form with lotus plants on his head. Similarly, Amun’s wife was Mut, a lioness-headed human their son Khonsu took the form of a ram-headed human. One feature of polytheistic religions is that even if someone lived in Memphis and prayed to Ptah, he could still believe in Amun. The principle is the same as a baseball fan today who roots for the New York Yankees and believes they are the best team, yet knows that the Boston Red Sox are just as genuine. It is not that they don’t exist they just aren’t your team.

Egyptians also practiced their religion differently from modern people whose attendance is expected at a church, temple or mosque for participation in joint prayer, recitation of common beliefs and practice of rituals. Egyptian lives were so filled with gods they felt no need to set aside special times for praying together. Only on rare festival days might groups congregate outside a temple to witness a performance of holy rites. In every other respect the business of religion was conducted entirely by proxy: only priests were permitted inside temples and only priests were allowed to perform the rituals. In effect, being a believer required no action whatsoever. An Egyptian temple was a dark, mysterious place considered to be the divine residence of a specific god or god’s family, rather than a communal gathering place for worshippers. Far inside, in the “holy of holies,” the innermost room of the temple, stood a sacred statue of the temple god. These statues usually bronze images up to two feet tall inlaid with gold and silver or, occasionally, composed of solid gold were meticulously served and cared for by specially trained priests as if they were living gods. Each morning the priests opened the doors to the shrine, placed food before the statue for its first meal, painted cosmetics around its eyes, perfumed it, and dressed it in white linen. These rituals complete, they closed the doors to the shrine until it was time for the next rites.
The only occasion an average Egyptian might see his cult statue was on important festival days when people crowded into temple courtyards for rare glimpses of their god’s image as it was carried outside on portable litters of gilded wood.
According to ancient texts, these cult statues could nod their heads and talk. Perhaps the reality was that priests secretly pulled strings to make the head move, spoke for the god by throwing their voices, or otherwise represented their own words as the deity ’ s.

Whatever the illusion employed, statues were consulted for their opinions on a variety of personal problems one ancient record even credited a statue with solving a crime.
A papyrus in the British Museum describes a theft that took place in Thebes. When, during the festival of Opet, the great statue of Amun was carried from Luxor to Karnak Temple, about a mile and a half away, a citizen named Amunemwia who guarded the storehouse of a nobleman appeared before his local statue to report that five colored shirts had been stolen while he napped one day.

Addressing the statue, he asked, “ My good and beloved lord, wilt thou give me back their theft? ” to which the papyrus states that “ the god nodded very greatly. ” Amunemwia began to read a list of townspeople. The statue, upon hearing the name of the farmer Pethauemdiamun, nodded and said, “ It is he who stole them. ” When the accused farmer was dragged in front of the statue he denied the theft and appealed to the oracle of his own district, Amun of Te-Shenyt, whose judgment agreed with the first statue. Pethauemdiamun again denied the theft and was brought before a third statue, Amun of Bukenen, “ in the presence of many witnesses, ” with the same result. Returning to the original statue of Amun of Pe-Khenty, Pethauemdiamun was forced to ask, “ Was it I who took the clothes? ” When he received an affirmative nod he finally broke down and confessed. He was beaten a hundred times with a palm-rib and made to swear that, if he went back on his word to return the clothes, he would be thrown to the crocodiles.
Cult statues even served as judges in courts of law. In a case involving a dispute over the ownership of a tomb, an oracle actually somehow wrote its decision. A workman named Amenemope had laid claim to a tomb he said belonged to his ancestor Hai, but necropolis officials who inspected the site questioned his claim when they found only a coffin with no name, funerary equipment or offerings. To settle the matter, Amenemope appealed to his local god who, according to his own account, “ gave me the tomb of Hai in writing ” a mystery indeed. Perhaps two papyri one supporting Amenemope ’ s claim, the other denying it were presented to the statue who indicated his choice with a “ nod. ”

Another case, involving a dispute over a house, is recorded on a pottery fragment in the British Museum. The builder Kenna had found an abandoned house in poor repair and renovated it for himself, but he was prevented from moving in by his neighbor, Mersekhmet, who claimed that he had previously consulted the statue of Amenhotep I and been told that he and Kenna should share the house. Kenna decided to take the case before the same statue in the presence of witnesses. As townspeople assembled outside the temple, the “ carriers of the god ” paraded the statue for all to see and heard the god say, “ Give the dwelling to Kenna its owner again . . . no one shall divide it. ” Perhaps one of the priests uttered the actual words. In any event, Kenna got his house.

Although temples generally employed groups of priests to tend cult statues, say prayers and conduct temple business, during Egypt ’ s earliest history, pharaohs bore the sole responsibility for maintaining divine order by acting as high priest, in addition to serving as king. As Egypt grew more populous, pharaohs no longer had time to perform all the duties and rituals demanded by the burgeoning numbers of temples. The designees who were selected as standins evolved into Egypt ’ s priestly class. Because they merely represented the pharaoh, these men were not required to hold deep religious convictions only their duties distinguished them from other government workers. Priests, in fact, often held regular jobs as carpenters, scribes, or goldsmiths in addition to their religious responsibilities because most worked in the temple only a total of three months a year: their tours of duty lasted thirty days, followed by three months of secular life.
Because each temple needed some full-time person to manage its operations, the position of first god ’ s servant evolved. As temples grew more complex and powerful, these men oversaw temple owned farms, fields, cattle, and orchards and managed the temple staff. The position carried such responsibility and power that parents frequently advised their children to become scribes because it was from these ranks that first god ’ s servants were chosen. In the case of large temples, second and third god ’ s servants existed beneath the first god ’ s servant beneath them were endless other priests, each performing a specific job.
Regular priests fell into two categories: those directly responsible for the cult statue and those who performed other kinds of religious duties. Wab priests, held to the highest standards of cleanliness because they came in contact with the cult statue, shaved all their body hair to avoid lice and wore nothing but pure white linen clothing. Even their internal purity was monitored: they had to swear they had not recently eaten fish, considered ritually unclean, before touching the idol. Other priests, called “ scroll carriers, ” managed the sacred scrolls in the temple library, recorded donations and estate revenues, kept inventory and recited prayers. When the bakers, beer brewers and cooks, who supplied each temple with offerings, and the farmers, herdsmen and overseers of the temple estates were all counted, these thousands and thousands of religious functionaries in ancient Egypt formed the largest bureaucracy, in terms of percentage, the world had ever seen. Priests were primarily paid directly or indirectly from the pharaoh ’ s coffers. When warrior pharaohs returned from conquered foreign lands with gold and other booty, they donated a portion of their plunder to the temples, both in gratitude for the gods ’ favor and to ensure their continued goodwill. Foreign conquests also supplied Egypt with captives who provided an important source of manpower for temple construction and work on temple estates.
Further adding to the wealth of the temples, pharaohs often donated large tracts of their own land to temples as continuing annuities until the holdings of Egypt ’ s religious orders paralleled those of the Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe each growing to rival the wealth of its kings.
Egyptian priests spent little time dealing with the well-being of individuals, seldom advising or counseling those with personal problems, but concentrating instead on cosmic matters such as keeping the sun in the sky and ensuring the fertility of the land. Any individual who desired special favors from the gods could, however, pay for offerings and prayers that priests would perform on their behalf.
The only other personal service priests regularly performed for believers was to interpret their dreams also for a fee. One might even arrange to spend the night near a temple god, hoping to receive a divine message during sleep. Since all dreams were considered prophetic, the key lay in their interpretation, a service priests performed with the help of special books. Since these books were written thousands of years before the idea of an unconscious mind, they ignore the possibility that a dream might result from the dreamer ’ s experiences.
Along the right-hand margin of one surviving copy of a Dream Book 1 run the words, “ If a man sees himself in a dream ” an accompanying horizontal line describes a dream and categorizes it as either “ good ” or “ bad ” and why, as in these examples:

Killing an ox Good. Enemies will be removed from one ’ s presence.

Seeing a large cat Good. A large harvest is coming to the dreamer.

Climbing a mast Good. He will be suspended aloft by his god.

Seeing one’s face as Good. Authority will be gained over the

A dwarf Bad. Half his life is gone.

Bare backside Bad. He will soon be an orphan.

Picking dates Good. He will find food from his god.

A dream’ s details, not its theme, determined its meaning: Egyptians viewed their dreams as messages from the gods. Regardless of who the dreamer was, dream symbols were universal, carrying the same message for everyone.

No civilization ever invested more faith, energy or money in attaining life after death than ancient Egypt. Its people loved life, yet made extensive and costly preparations for death because their religion promised they would live again just as the myth of Isis and Osiris taught.
Isis and Osiris had unusually strong bonds with one another according to the myth, they were both brother and sister and husband and wife. Isis was a fabled magician and Osiris was credited with bringing civilization first to Egypt by introducing domesticated animals and farming into the formerly precarious existence along the Nile Valley and then to the world. When Osiris returned from his travels, his evil brother Seth invited him to a great banquet, after which he offered a prize to whoever could fit inside a wooden chest he had previously constructed to Osiris ’ exact body measurements. When Osiris climbed inside, Seth immediately sealed the lid, poured molten lead over it, and threw it into the Nile.
Isis set out to recover his body, found it in a foreign country and brought it back to Egypt for a proper burial. But Osiris’ tribulations were not over. When evil Seth discovered the grave, he hacked the body into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. Undaunted, and trusting in her magic, Isis recovered all the pieces but one the penis, which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by fish. She reassembled her deceased husband, fashioned an artificial penis to replace the missing part, then, assuming the form of a bird, hovered over Osiris’ body until he came back to life. Thus revived remember this is a myth Osiris impregnated his wife before departing to become ruler of the next world.
No one knows whether this ancient myth gave the Egyptians their first ideas about the hereafter or whether the myth was invented later to explain ideas that already existed. In either case it contains their most basic beliefs about death even the box that fit Osiris later became their human-shaped coffin. It demonstrates the Egyptians ’ most important religious belief: resurrection that a physical body would literally revive in the next world, just as Osiris was magically reanimated. To gain a perfect eternal life required an intact body. Isis went to such lengths to retrieve the corpse of her husband for a proper burial because, if she had not pieced together his dismembered body the vehicle for eternal life he could not have been resurrected.

Certain ideas about life after death evolved over time. Originally, immortality was not thought to be parceled out equally: only the pharaoh was assured eternal life, a reasonable assumption given that he alone descended from the gods. It was believed that a nonroyal Egyptian ’ s best chance for eternal life was to be buried near his pharaoh ’ s pyramid in hopes that the king would take some commoners with him to the next world. Our earliest known writings about resurrection were found on the walls of the royal pyramid of Unas, the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, and include hundreds of magical inscriptions in vertical lines running from ceiling to floor.
These hieroglyphic “ utterances, ” referred to as Pyramid Texts, detail the three stages of a pharaoh ’ s transition to the next world: awakening in the pyramid, ascending through the sky to the netherworld, and finally being admitted into the company of the gods. The principle behind all the spells is the same: the word is the deed. Saying something, or having it inscribed on a pyramid wall, made it so. According to these texts, the king ’ s body rested in its burial chamber until it was time to travel through the sky to the next world somewhere to the west because that was the place where the sun died each day. (Fittingly, Osiris, god of the dead, was called the “ Lord of the West ” and the dead were referred to as “ westerners. ” ) When its journey was complete, a pharaoh ’ s body would be welcomed by Osiris to begin its eternal life, an existence that would continue much as it had in this world. A pharaoh would need clothes, furniture, food and drink, all of which had to be buried with the body. Next to Unas ’ pyramid stood a mortuary temple where commissioned priests made offerings of food and drink for the sustenance of his eternal body. The offering of prayers was also considered essential for eternal life. Because Egyptians realized their priests were fallible, often lazy, setting up a fund to pay for the prayers was no guarantee they would be made. In the event the priests did not do their job, some of the prayers were also inscribed on one wall of the pyramid ’ s burial chamber so that the written word could substitute for the spoken:

Oh Unas, stand up. Sit down to thousands

of loaves of bread and thousands of jars

of beer. The roast for the double rib is

from the slaughter house, thy retch-bread

is from the Wide Hall. As a god is supplied

with the offering meal, Unas is supplied with

A section of the Book of the Dead for a priest named Nes-Min
that specifies the amulets to be placed on the mummy

Although the Pyramid Texts applied only to royalty, during the lawlessness that followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom, pyramids were opened and robbed, allowing commoners to learn about the spells. By the Eleventh Dynasty, with stability restored, nonroyals began inscribing similar writings on the sides of their own coffins to assure their own immortality. Known as “ Coffin Texts, ” they are variations of the Pyramid Texts, with the same concern the well-being of the deceased. Eventually, these spells became so numerous that they no longer fit on the coffin, which led to their being written on rolls of papyrus that were placed inside the coffin and today are referred to collectively as the Book of the Dead.
Although not a book in the sense of a single work but many versions of roughly the same material, each consisted of a collection of spells, incantations, prayers, hymns and rituals. The various versions among them numbering about 400 different spells have been standardized and codified by Egyptologists for ease of reference. Any spell dealing with the deceased ’ s heart, for example, is called chapter 30.
As customers eager for immortality increased, books of the dead became a major industry for scribes who made thousands of copies. Naturally, quality varied greatly. Some scrolls stretched as long as ninety feet with beautifully colored paintings to illustrate different spells others were brief with no illustrations. In general, people got what they paid for. Many of the books were, at least for the period, mass produced. Places for the deceased ’ s name were left blank the first “ forms ” in history until purchase, when a scribe would fill in the appropriate information. Because these scrolls were written before an owner was known, their language had to be general for example, “ Ask the local god of your town for power in your legs ” instead of calling the god and the owner by their names. Mistakes were made: a scribe might not understand what he was writing or be careless sometimes the same spell was repeated in different parts of the same papyrus because two scribes worked simultaneously on different sections of the same book. Even illustrations in mass-produced work could prove problematic. Artists sometimes drew their pictures on the top of sheets before scribes wrote the appropriate text below if an artist left insufficient room for the words, chapters might be severely abbreviated or condensed, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility, or the picture might illustrate a different spell. Despite all these mistakes and problems, however,
such papyri provide abundant information about ancient Egyptians ’ understanding of life after death.
To achieve an afterlife, Egyptians expected two final judgments, crucial tests to be passed before admittance into the next world.
One was beyond the deceased ’ s control the other was based on his persuasive skill. The first test placed the heart of the deceased on one side of a balance scale whose other pan held a feather. Since the feather hieroglyph stood for the word maat or “ truth, ” this test examined the heart to determine how truthful the person had been in life.

Osiris is usually depicted presiding over the judgment to ensure fairness while the god of writing, Toth, records the result. If the dead person failed the test, his heart was thrown to a creature with the body of a hippopotamus and the head of a crocodile who destroyed the person by eating his heart. Egyptians sent no one to Hell, only out of existence. After surviving the balance scale test, the deceased would be ushered into the Hall of Double Truth for a second judging by a tribunal of forty-two gods. He would be required to “separate himself from evil doings” by making a plea, convincing each god that he had never done a specific wrong.

Weighing of the Heart Ceremony. In this scene from the Book of the Dead
the heart (right pan of the scale) of a deceased is weighed on a balance
scale against the feather of truth (left pan of the scale). Left of the scale
stands Toth, the ibis-headed god of writing, recording the result with his
scribe’s palette and brush

One purpose of the Book of the Dead in guiding the deceased through the judgment process was to reveal the names of the forty-two judging gods, because Egyptians believed that knowing someone ’ s name gave them power over that person. (Amun, for example, was considered so mighty that “ only his mother knew his name. ” ) The petitioner was told to gain the upper hand by greeting each god in turn by saying his name, then instructed as to which sin to deny to satisfy that particular deity. For example:

Hail Strider, coming forth from Heliopolis. I have done no wrong.

Hail Eater-of-Shadows, coming forth from the caverns. I have not

Hail He-Whose-Two-Eyes-Are-on-Fire, coming forth from Sais.

I have not defiled the things of the gods.

Hail Breaker-of-Bones, coming forth from darkness. I have not transgressed.

Hail Doubly-wicked, coming forth from Ati. I have not defiled the

Hail Disposer-of-Speech, coming forth from Weryt. I have not

inflamed myself with rage.

Hail Provider-of-Mankind, coming forth from Sais. I have not cursed

God. Hail White Teeth, coming forth from Ta-she. I have not slaughtered

the divine cattle.
If the deceased passed this second test and was declared “ true of voice, ” he earned passage to the netherworld and became a “ westerner, ” ready to be welcomed by Osiris.
Egyptians focused so much attention on the importance of their physical bodies that it may seem as if they lacked any concept of a soul. In fact, however, they had such an abstract concept. In chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, the dead person ’ s soul is represented as a heart, but the fully evolved theory was more sophisticated. A soul
was thought to be made up of several parts, the most important of which were the ba and the ka.
The ba was represented as a bird with the head of the deceased. Since the ba of a living person was rarely spoken of, we can deduce that it came into independent existence only when someone died and so resembled modern concepts of a soul. But unlike its modern counterpart, an Egyptian ba had physical needs. Relatives of the deceased were supposed to leave offerings in front of the tomb to feed the ba until it reached the next world paintings in the Book of the Dead even show the ba flying around the tomb or outside it. One amusing papyrus tells the story of a man who laments the sad state
of the world and considers killing himself while his ba ironically argues with him, threatening to desert him in the next world if he commits the deed. A special spell in the Book of the Dead, “ Causing the Uniting of the ba and its body in the Netherworld, ” ensured that his ba would be reunited with the deceased.

The ba, or soul, of the dead typically was represented as a bird, perhaps
to symbolize its weightlessness, with the head of the deceased

" Oh great god, cause that my ba may come to me from any place where it is. If there is a problem, bring my ba to me from any place where it is. . . . If there is a problem, cause my ba to see my body. If you find me Oh Eyeof- Horus, support me like those in the Netherworld. . . . May the ba see the body and may it rest upon its mummy. May it never perish, may it not be separated from the body for ever. Say this spell over an amulet of the ba made of gold, inlaid with stone that is placed on the deceased’ s neck. "

The soul ’ s second element was called the ka, a kind of spiritual duplicate of the deceased that required a place to dwell preferably the mummified body. A wealthy Egyptian would be buried with a ka -statue, a likeness of himself that the ka would recognize and in which it could live, in the event that his body was later destroyed .

Preserving the physical body after death became, over the centuries, a kind of Egyptian industry. At first, the dead were simply placed in sand pits and covered with more sand. Contact with the hot, dry granules quickly dehydrated the body and created natural mummies. Later, as burials became more elaborate, bodies were placed in rock-cut tombs but, away from the drying sands, they soon decomposed. Artificial mummification was needed to dehydrate the body before burial.
When someone died, a member of his family ferried across the Nile to embalming shops on the west bank where a type of mummification, which varied according to price, was chosen. Much as we hire hearses today, a special funerary boat was rented for the occasion to transport the corpse to the shop where it was deposited for seventy days. Female mourners who accompanied the body were paid to weep, wail and throw sand on their heads in traditional gestures of lament.
The mummification process removed the moist internal organs which cause a body to decompose. In the most expensive method of mummification, the brain was drained out through the nasal passages after a long, needle like instrument was inserted through the nostril to break into the brain cavity, then a thin tool with a hook, resembling a coat hanger, was pushed into the cranium and rotated to break the brain into pieces. When the cadaver was turned upside down, the mixture ran out through the nostrils. The brain was one of the few parts of the body embalmers discarded because it was thought to serve no useful function. Egyptians believed people thought with their hearts—when thoughts excite us, our hearts beat more quickly.

Anubis, god of embalming, puts the final touches on a mummy

Embalmers next removed the organs inside the torso through a small abdominal incision in the left side. The stomach, intestines, liver and spleen were all pulled through this hole, but the heart was left in place so the deceased, once resurrected, would be able to think and say the magical spells necessary to become reanimated. Organs were individually stored in one of four jars specially made for the purpose, each with a lid carved in the shape of one of the four sons of Horus: Mesti, the human headed son Duamutef, the jackal Hapi, the baboon and Qebesenef, the hawk. These jars were called “ canopic ” jars by early Egyptologists because the Greek god Canopus was worshiped in the form of a jar. A fluid, called the “ liquid of the children of Horus ” was poured over the internal organs to preserve them and the jars were sealed. Finally, priests recited prayers to invoke the protection of Horus ’ sons. Mesti says: I am Mesti, thy son, Osiris. I come so that I may protect thee.
I cause thy house to prosper, to be firm, by the command of Ptah, by the command of Re himself.
Hapi says: I am Hapi, thy son, Osiris. I come so that I may protect thee. I bandage for thee thy head and thy limbs, killing for thee thy enemies under thee. I give to thee thy head forever.
Duamutef says: I am thy son, Horus, loving thee. I come to avenge my father, Osiris. I do not permit his destruction to thee. I place it under thy feet forever and ever.
Qebesenef says: I am thy son Osiris. I have come that I may protect thee. I gather together thy bones, I collect thy limbs, I bring for thee thy heart.
I place it upon its seat in thy body. I cause thy house to prosper. Now the body was ready for drying. Natron, a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium chloride, basically baking soda and table salt, was shoveled onto the body until it was completely covered. Given the human body ’ s large mass and approximately 75 percent water content, more than 600 pounds of natron and forty days were necessary to complete dehydration. The abdominal and chest cavities were then washed with palm wine and aromatic spices and packed with resin-soaked linen that would harden to maintain the body ’ s original contours.
For less expensive mummifications, sawdust and onions placed in small linen bags were used as body-packing material, and the face was padded with linen in the cheeks and under the eyelids. (In one instance, onions were even placed in the eye sockets.)

of Horus’ four sons were more common

Last, the body was anointed twice from head to toe with oils mixed with frankincense, myrrh and the same lotions used in daily life cedar oil, Syrian balsam and oil of Libya. (Wealthy Egyptian ladies kept seven small alabaster vases of these oils on their boudoir tables, just as a modern woman might have a selection of perfumes.)
A priest wearing a jackal mask recited a prayer while the anointing oils were poured:
Thou hast received the perfume which shall make thy members perfect.
Thou receivest the source (of life) and thou takest the form of it to give enduring form to thy members thou shall unite with Osiris in the Great Hall. The unguent cometh unto thee to fashion thy members and to gladden thy heart, and thou shalt appear in the form of Ra it shall spread abroad the smell of thee in the nomes of Aqert. . . . Thou receivest the oil of the cedar in Amentet, and the cedar which came forth from Osiris cometh unto thee.
Next, bandages, which could come from the bedding of the deceased or other linen scraps, were torn into strips as long as fifteen feet by four inches wide and rolled, prior to use, like modern bandages, then applied according to a fixed ritual. First, each finger and toe was wrapped individually, with wealthy clients receiving gold covers for toes and fingers as additional protection — pure gold was the metal of eternity because it does not tarnish. The head was bound tightly to reveal the contours of the face: two bandages wrapped the top of the head, two the mouth, four the neck, and so on, as precisely dictated by ritual, while priests recited a prayer ensuring the deceased ’ s ability to see and breathe in the netherworld:
Grant thou that breathing may take place in the head of the deceased in the under-world, and that he may see with his eyes, and that he may hear with his two ears and that he may breathe through his nose and in the underworld.
The arms, feet and torso were bandaged last. Magic amulets were also usually placed within the wrappings to protect the mummy until it was resurrected in the west.
When the mummification was complete, the family returned to the west bank of the Nile with an entourage of friends, mourners and dancers. Servants carried furniture, clothing and food to be placed in the tomb and bore the mummy to its final resting place.

The mummy of Rameses the Great shows how well a body can be preserved
for over three thousand years

Next came the most important of all the resurrection rituals: the “ opening of the mouth ” ceremony. Involving more than a dozen participants, the ceremony was a play, perhaps the oldest in history, that took place in front of the tomb on the day of burial. The ground on which the play was to be performed was purified with water from four vases representing the corners of the earth. An officiating priest, reading from a papyrus roll, described how the rituals and speeches should proceed. Actresses, often members of the family, portrayed Isis and her sister Nephthys males acted as the guardians of Horus and a central character called “ The-son-who-loved him. ”
After incense was lit and various gods invoked, a calf was slaughtered to commemorate the battle in which Horus avenged the murder of his father, Osiris. (In the continuation of the Isis and Osiris myth, Seth ’ s conspirators, attempting to escape the avenging Horus by changing into various animals, were caught by Horus and decapitated.) Special animals were ritually killed, including two bulls (one for the north and one for the south), gazelles and ducks. One leg from the bull of the south was cut off and, along with its heart, offered to the mummy.
The play ended with a ceremonial opening of the mouth as a priest touched a special implement, shaped like a miniature adz

to the mummy’s mouth as he recited:

Thy mouth was closed, but I have set in order for thee thy mouth and thy teeth.
I open for thee thy mouth, I open for thee thy two eyes. I have opened
thy mouth with the instrument of Anubis,

with the iron implement with which the mouths of the gods were opened. . . .
You shall walk and speak, your body shall be with the great company of the gods. . . .
You are young again, you live again.
You are young again you live again.
The mummy was now ready for its resurrection in the West. The tomb was sealed while friends and relatives sat together outside to share a meal in memory of the deceased.

In the face of uncontrollable natural events, the average Egyptian tried to protect himself with magical amulets. The Egyptian word for amulet, meket, even meant “ protector ” and was supposed to gain a god ’ s intervention for the wearer. These small images were usually crafted with tiny holes so they could be strung and worn around the neck.
Amulets could be made of stone (lapis lazuli, carnelian, turquoise, feldspar, serpentine and steatite), metal (silver and gold were the most valuable, but bronze was also prized), or wood and bone (inexpensive substitutes for poorer people). Of all the materials used, the commonest was a ceramic called faience, a paste of ground quartz and water molded into a desired shape, fired solid in a kiln, then covered with a glassy glaze that added color. Faience amulets were produced by the thousands in factories throughout Egypt. A master amulet of some durable material, such as stone, was pressed into soft clay, which, when baked, became a hard An amulet mold into which the faience mixture could be placed. Any number of molds could be made from the master amulet, so thousands of duplicate amulets could be easily produced. Holes were made by rolling a string in quartz paste and pressing it into the mold when fired, the paste hardened into faience and the string burned away, leaving a hole.

Amulets were designed according to strict rules. The MacGregor Papyrus lists seventy-five amulets with their names and functions. Another list inscribed on the walls of the temple of Dendera specifies the materials from which each should be made. Egyptians believed that an amulet made from the wrong material would be ineffective but, if a person could not afford a carnelian amulet, then a faience amulet glazed the same rust color would do.
Amulets invoked the gods for example, a cat amulet carried the protection of the cat goddess Bastet. One of the most common amulets worn in ancient Egypt was the Udjat ( “ restored ” ) eye ( ), associated with the falcon god Horus. According to myth, Horus fought his evil uncle Seth to avenge the death of his father, Osiris.

During the battle, Horus ’ eye was torn to pieces, but Toth, the god of writing, assembled the pieces and restored his eye. Thus, amulets depicting the characteristic markings around a falcon ’ s eye became a sign of health and well-being. The most popular amulet of all was associated with the god Khepri, who took the form of a beetle.

Carved in the shape of a species of beetle called Scarabaeus sacer, from which the modern word scarab comes, these amulets enjoyed great popularity for a combination of reasons. The Egyptians were fond of puns, and the hieroglyphs for beetle also meant “ to exist, ” so if you wore a scarab amulet, your continued existence was ensured. The scarab was also held in high regard because the ancient Egyptians believed this beetle produced offspring without any union of the male and female of the species. After fertilization the female deposited her eggs in a piece of dung and rolled it into a ball which provided their newborn with food. Since this birth was the only part of this reproductive cycle Egyptians witnessed, they assumed the beetle was somewhat like the god Atum who begot children without a female partner. Further, after the beetle fashioned its dung ball, it rolled it to a sunny place, which, to the ancient mind, resembled the journey of the sun across the sky.

The top of a scarab amulet was carved to resemble the beetle s body, the bottom was left flat for an inscription, often merely the owner s name which symbolically requested keep So-and-So in existence, but frequently a god s or a pharaoh s name was inscribed. Wealthy people set their scarabs in rings so they could be used as seals. The top of a wine jar sealed with moist plaster would be given a scarab imprint to keep thirsty servants at bay a broken seal could not be repaired undetected.


For almost all of Egypt’s 3,000 years of recorded history, the same gods were an integral part of daily life. From the time an Egyptian baby was born under the protection of Bes, until the time he died and went West to Osiris, the old-time religion governed his life.
Through thousands of years of constancy only once were the old gods of polytheism banished and replaced with monotheism. For a brief seventeen-year span, every Egyptian, from high official to peasant, was pressured to alter his beliefs.

Egypt had reached its greatest glory by the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty—its temples were wealthy, its people prosperous, its army unrivaled. Amenhotep III luxuriated on his throne at this best of all times, proudly dedicating the greatest temple any pharaoh ever built to the great god of Egypt, Amun. At his death it was assumed that his son would carry on the traditions of his forebears. Yet, after ruling only a few years, the new pharaoh changed his name from Amenhotep IV (“Amun is pleased”) to Akhenaten (“It is beneficial to the Aten”) and declared there was only one god, the Aten. In history’s first recorded instance of monotheism, old temples and thousands of priests were no longer supported by the pharaoh, and Egyptians were told that the gods they had always worshiped had ceased to exist. The effect on society was cataclysmic.
Partly to ease social tensions, Akhenaten moved Egypt’s capital from thriving Thebes, the home of Amun, to an uninhabited spot of desert in the middle of Egypt, telling his followers of a mystical vision in which the Aten himself had appeared and instructed Akhenaten to build a new city on this deserted site. Akhenaten called the city Akhetaten, the “Horizon of the Aten,” and swore he would never leave.
Thousands followed their pharaoh into the desert to help found the new religion and erected temples to the new god which, unlike other temples in the country, were built without roofs so the god’s light could shine in. Along with the temples, houses, palaces and office buildings, a complete city was constructed. From his new capital, Akhenaten wrote prayers to his abstract god without human or animal form: there could be no statues of a god who was light itself.

The god Aten shining on Akhenaten’s family. The solar disk at the top, the
Aten, radiates rays ending in hands holding the sign of life, the ankh

The concept of a single abstract deity that ruled the universe was so far ahead of its time that few Egyptians understood what Akhenaten preached. One prayer he wrote, known as “The Hymn to the Aten,” has been compared with the 104th Psalm.

Splendid you rise in heaven’s lightland,

O living Aten, creator of life!

When you have dawned in eastern lightland

You fill every land with your beauty.

You are beauteous, great, radiant,

Your rays embrace the lands,

To the limit of all that you made.

Being Re, you reach their limits,

You bend them (for) the son whom you love

Though you are far, your rays are on earth,

Though one sees you, your strides are unseen.

When you set in western lightland,

Earth is in darkness as if in death

One sleeps in chambers, heads covered,

One eye does not see another.

Were they robbed of their goods,

That are under their heads,

People would not remark it.

Every lion comes from its den,

All the serpents bite

Darkness hovers, earth is silent,

As their maker rests in lightland.

Earth brightens when you dawn in lightland,

When you shine as Aten of daytime

As you dispel the dark

As you cast your rays,

The Two Lands are in festivity.

As part of his new religion, Akhenaten changed the concept of life after death. No longer was death a continuation of this world gone was Osiris and the West. Only when the Aten rose in the east could dead souls rise along with the rest of Egypt. Most Egyptians found this shadowy sort of afterlife unsatisfying.
For a dozen years, Akhenaten kept his promise never to leave his holy city. He abandoned the rest of the country to its own devices, while the citizens continued worship of old, familiar gods. Finally, angered, he dispatched teams of workmen throughout the land to chisel out the names of other gods wherever they appeared on statues and temple walls. This was the last act of a revolutionary whose revolution had failed. Soon after Akhenaten ’ s death, his holy city was abandoned and Egypt returned to its old religion and rituals. Its brief experiment with monotheism left no lasting imprint on religion along the banks of the Nile. Not until the birth of Christ
would monotheism again have a significant effect on Egypt.

Just as the forces of nature had complex interrelationships, so did Egyptian deities. Minor deities might be linked, or deities might come together based on the meaning of numbers in Egyptian mythology (i.e., pairs represented duality). Deities might also be linked through syncretism, creating a composite deity.

Artistic depictions of gods were not literal representations, since their true nature was considered mysterious. However, symbolic imagery was used to indicate this nature. An example was Anubis, a funerary god, who was shown as a jackal to counter its traditional meaning as a scavenger, and create protection for the mummy.

4 thoughts on &ldquo Religion in Ancient Egypt: A Hierarchy of Gods and Goddesses &rdquo

I definitely agree that it is very important to analyze every aspect of society especially religion. Religion has had a tremendous factor of the ancient Egyptian civilization in describing their lifestyle. It definitely does seem very complicating on how both gods and goddesses are interwoven with each other and how they play similar roles they played in their society. It will be very interesting to read the major impacts these religious figures had during this ancient civilization times and their physical creations have been interpreted by the society and going depth with each figure and how they played a role in the society and their lifestyle.

Your topic seems incredibly well thought out, and I like how you’ve split your focus evenly into gods and goddesses as opposed to just looking at the 12 most powerful or most worshipped deities in general, as this will allow you to look more clearly at gender as a variable and to see whether there might be a correlation between the number of temples and variables like gender (or, as you also mentioned, time, location, and said deities’ roles in the world). I personally find religion to be one of the most interesting features to study when it comes to analyzing a particular culture, and the vastness and complexity of the Egyptian pantheon makes it all the most interesting in this respect. You mentioned that conducting research of the major Egyptian deities can be complicated because different figures can occupy the same role, or the same figure can be referred to by many names, and this is something that I also ran into when doing research for my own paper (especially with Amun). Since you are looking at time as a variable as well, I wonder if you will see the use of different names for the same deities waxing and waning over time, and if these various names are a function of particular time periods. Your final paper seems like it will be very interesting, and I am curious as to what kinds of patterns will emerge when you analyze the topic so systematically, and with such clearly defined variables.

I’m writing my research paper on ancient Egyptian mortuary and funerary practices and the way these practices relate to their religion, philosophies, and the integration of magic in their lives. Drawing comparisons between the appearance of certain deities in Egyptian monuments and their relative importance in Egyptian religion is a very intriguing study, and I believe many parallels could be drawn between the topic of my research paper and yours. I intend to observe the manner in which the mortuary practices they reflected their religious beliefs, but from this I cannot determine the magnitude with which each deity is reflected in their practices, which is where your study would provide valuable insight.
An additional perspective that I think would be neat to study in collaboration with your current topic would include observing the importance of the acts, power, and status of each god in order to see if any correlations can be made between the rule of the god and their importance. For example, if the gods that were patrons of strength, or wisdom, were more heavily depicted than gods who played roles relating to death, or to the Duat. From this, a hierarchy could be made that ranked the importance of certain life forces that they related to certain deities.
I am looking forward to hearing the results of your study, and am especially excited to compare it alongside mine to see if any relations can be brought about between the two. It will be interesting to see if the religious figures with the highest ranking on your scale tend to be more involved or less involved with the mortuary practices of the ancient Egyptians. At the end of this study, I think it will be very interesting to see what other kinds of research questions might pop up after reviewing our own results.

I really like your topic! I think that it will be an interesting read. I think you took a subject of gods and goddesses and made it into a twist that makes me want to read more. I think that guiding your paper to focus on a few temples related to specific deities will have a positive outcome. I like that will in turn show us many differences between as you said the importance of gods and goddesses by time period, gender, location, and by the roles that they were believed to occupy in society. Maybe because you have so many deities and differences maybe focus on only a few. I’m interested on how that plays out I think that the subject can come with many challenges but in the end it will all come together.


Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods

The beginnings of Egyptian religion extend into prehistory, and evidence for them comes only from the sparse and ambiguous archaeological record. Careful burials during the Predynastic period imply that the people of this time believed in some form of an afterlife. At the same time, animals were ritually buried, a practice which may reflect the development of zoomorphic deities like those found in the later religion. [112] The evidence is less clear for gods in human form, and this type of deity may have emerged more slowly than those in animal shape. Each region of Egypt originally had its own patron deity, but it is likely that as these small communities conquered or absorbed each other, the god of the defeated area was either incorporated into the other god’s mythology or entirely subsumed by it. This resulted in a complex pantheon in which some deities remained only locally important while others developed more universal significance. [113] [114] As the time changed and the shifting of the empires changed like the middle kingdom, new kingdom, and old kingdom, usually the religion followed stayed within the border of that territory.

The Early Dynastic period began with the unification of Egypt around 3000 BC. This event transformed Egyptian religion, as some deities rose to national importance and the cult of the divine pharaoh became the central focus of religious activity. [115] Horus was identified with the king, and his cult center in the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen was among the most important religious sites of the period. Another important center was Abydos, where the early rulers built large funerary complexes. [116]

Old and Middle Kingdoms

During the Old Kingdom, the priesthoods of the major deities attempted to organize the complicated national pantheon into groups linked by their mythology and worshipped in a single cult center, such as the Ennead of Heliopolis which linked important deities such as Atum, Ra, Osiris, and Set in a single creation myth. [117] Meanwhile, pyramids, accompanied by large mortuary temple complexes, replaced mastabas as the tombs of pharaohs. In contrast with the great size of the pyramid complexes, temples to gods remained comparatively small, suggesting that official religion in this period emphasized the cult of the divine king more than the direct worship of deities. The funerary rituals and architecture of this time greatly influenced the more elaborate temples and rituals used in worshipping the gods in later periods. [118]

Early in the Old Kingdom, Ra grew in influence, and his cult center at Heliopolis became the nation’s most important religious site. [119] By the Fifth Dynasty, Ra was the most prominent god in Egypt, and had developed the close links with kingship and the afterlife that he retained for the rest of Egyptian history. [120] Around the same time, Osiris became an important afterlife deity. The Pyramid Texts, first written at this time, reflect the prominence of the solar and Osirian concepts of the afterlife, although they also contain remnants of much older traditions. [121] The texts are an extremely important source for understanding early Egyptian theology. [122]

In the 22nd century BC, the Old Kingdom collapsed into the disorder of the First Intermediate Period, with important consequences for Egyptian religion. Old Kingdom officials had already begun to adopt the funerary rites originally reserved for royalty, [42] but now, less rigid barriers between social classes meant that these practices and the accompanying beliefs gradually extended to all Egyptians, a process called the “democratization of the afterlife”. [123] The Osirian view of the afterlife had the greatest appeal to commoners, and thus Osiris became one of the most important gods. [124]

Eventually rulers from Thebes reunified the Egyptian nation in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC). These Theban pharaohs initially promoted their patron god Monthu to national importance, but during the Middle Kingdom, he was eclipsed by the rising popularity of Amun. [125] In this new Egyptian state, personal piety grew more important and was expressed more freely in writing, a trend which continued in the New Kingdom. [37]

New Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom crumbled in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650–1550 BC), but the country was again reunited by Theban rulers, who became the first pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Under the new regime, Amun became the supreme state god. He was syncretized with Ra, the long-established patron of kingship, and his temple at Karnak in Thebes became Egypt’s most important religious center. Amun’s elevation was partly due to the great importance of Thebes, but it was also due to the increasingly professional priesthood. Their sophisticated theological discussion produced detailed descriptions of Amun’s universal power. [126] [127]

Increased contact with outside peoples in this period led to the adoption of many Near Eastern deities into the pantheon. At the same time, the subjugated Nubians absorbed Egyptian religious beliefs, and in particular, adopted Amun as their own. [128]

The New Kingdom religious order was disrupted when Akhenaten acceded, and replaced Amun with the Aten as the state god. Eventually he eliminated the official worship of most other gods, and moved Egypt’s capital to a new city at Amarna. This part of Egyptian history, the Amarna period, is named after this. In doing so, Akhenaten claimed unprecedented status: only he could worship the Aten, and the populace directed their worship toward him. The Atenist system lacked well-developed mythology and afterlife beliefs, and the Aten seemed distant and impersonal, so the new order did not appeal to ordinary Egyptians. [129] Thus, many probably continued to worship the traditional gods in private. Nevertheless, the withdrawal of state support for the other deities severely disrupted Egyptian society. [130] Akhenaten’s successors restored the traditional religious system, and eventually they dismantled all Atenist monuments. [131]

Before the Amarna period, popular religion had trended toward more personal relationships between worshippers and their gods. Akhenaten’s changes had reversed this trend, but once the traditional religion was restored, there was a backlash. The populace began to believe that the gods were much more directly involved in daily life. Amun, the supreme god, was increasingly seen as the final arbiter of human destiny, the true ruler of Egypt. The pharaoh was correspondingly more human and less divine. The importance of oracles as a means of decision-making grew, as did the wealth and influence of the oracles’ interpreters, the priesthood. These trends undermined the traditional structure of society and contributed to the breakdown of the New Kingdom. [132] [133]

Later periods

In the 1st millennium BC, Egypt was significantly weaker than in earlier times, and in several periods foreigners seized the country and assumed the position of pharaoh. The importance of the pharaoh continued to decline, and the emphasis on popular piety continued to increase. Animal cults, a characteristically Egyptian form of worship, became increasingly popular in this period, possibly as a response to the uncertainty and foreign influence of the time. [134] Isis grew more popular as a goddess of protection, magic, and personal salvation, and became the most important goddess in Egypt. [135]

In the 4th century BC, Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom under the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC), which assumed the pharaonic role, maintaining the traditional religion and building or rebuilding many temples. The kingdom’s Greek ruling class identified the Egyptian deities with their own. [136] From this cross-cultural syncretism emerged Serapis, a god who combined Osiris and Apis with characteristics of Greek deities, and who became very popular among the Greek population. Nevertheless, for the most part the two belief systems remained separate, and the Egyptian deities remained Egyptian. [137]

Ptolemaic-era beliefs changed little after Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BC, with the Ptolemaic kings replaced by distant emperors. [136] The cult of Isis appealed even to Greeks and Romans outside Egypt, and in Hellenized form it spread across the empire. [138] In Egypt itself, as the empire weakened, official temples fell into decay, and without their centralizing influence religious practice became fragmented and localized. Meanwhile, Christianity spread across Egypt, and in the third and fourth centuries AD, edicts by Christian emperors and iconoclasm by local Christians eroded traditional beliefs. While it persisted among the populace for some time, Egyptian religion slowly faded away. [139]


Egyptian religion produced the temples and tombs which are ancient Egypt’s most enduring monuments, but it also influenced other cultures. In pharaonic times many of its symbols, such as the sphinx and winged solar disk, were adopted by other cultures across the Mediterranean and Near East, as were some of its deities, such as Bes. Some of these connections are difficult to trace. The Greek concept of Elysium may have derived from the Egyptian vision of the afterlife. [140] In late antiquity, the Christian conception of Hell was most likely influenced by some of the imagery of the Duat. Biblical accounts of Jesus and Mary may have been influenced by that of Isis and Orisis. [141] Egyptian beliefs also influenced or gave rise to several esoteric belief systems developed by Greeks and Romans, who considered Egypt as a source of mystic wisdom. Hermeticism, for instance, derived from the tradition of secret magical knowledge associated with Thoth. [142]

Modern Times

Traces of ancient beliefs remained in Egyptian folk traditions into modern times, but its influence on modern societies greatly increased with the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria in 1798 and their seeing the monuments and images. As a result of it, Westerners began to study Egyptian beliefs firsthand, and Egyptian religious motifs were adopted into Western art. [143] [144] Egyptian religion has since had a significant influence in popular culture. Due to continued interest in Egyptian belief, in the late 20th century, several new religious groups have formed based on different reconstructions of ancient Egyptian religion. [145]

Watch the video: Unterrichtsmaterial: Herrschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten Ägypten Ausschnitt Schulfilm (January 2022).

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