Religion in the Lives of the Ancient Egyptians

by Emily Teeter

by Douglas J. Brewer

ecause the role of religion in Euro-American culture differs so greatly from that in ancient Egypt, it is difficult to fully appreciate its significance in everyday Egyptian life. In Egypt, religion and life were so interwoven that it would have been impossible to be agnostic. Astronomy, medicine, geography, agriculture, art, and civil law--virtually every aspect of Egyptian culture and civilization--were manifestations of religious beliefs.

Hathor sculpture Most aspects of Egyptian religion can be traced to the people's observation of the environment. Fundamental was the love of sunlight, the solar cycle and the comfort brought by the regular rhythms of nature, and the agricultural cycle surrounding the rise and fall of the Nile. Egyptian theology attempted, above all else, to explain these cosmic phenomena, incomprehensible to humans, by means of a series of understandable metaphors based upon natural cycles and understandable experiences. Hence, the movement of the sun across the sky was represented by images of the sun in his celestial boat crossing the vault of heaven or of the sun flying over the sky in the form of a scarab beetle. Similarly, the concept of death was transformed from the cessation of life into a mirror image of life wherein the deceased had the same material requirements and desires.

Origins and nature of the gods

It is almost impossible to enumerate the gods of the Egyptians, for individual deities could temporarily merge with each other to form syncretistic gods (Amun-Re, Re-Harakhty, Ptah-Sokar, etc.) who combined elements of the individual gods. A single god might also splinter into a multiplicity of forms (Amun-em-Opet, Amun-Ka-Mutef, Amun of Ipet-swt), each of whom had an independent cult and role. Unlike the gods of the Graeco-Roman world, most Egyptian gods had no definite attributes. For example, Amun, one of the most prominent deities of the New Kingdom and Late Period, is vaguely referred to in secondary literature as the "state god" because his powers were so widespread and encompassing as to be indefinable.

To a great extent, gods were patterned after humans--they were born, some died (and were reborn), and they fought amongst themselves. Yet as much as the gods' behavior resembled human behavior, they were immortal and always superior to humans.

Gods are attested from the earliest time of Egyptian civilization. Standard anthropological models that suggest that gods in early civilizations are derived from a mother goddess or that they are the incarnation of aspects of nature do not fit the Egyptian evidence. Further complicating our understanding of the early gods is the fact that a single deity could be represented in human form, in zoomorphic form, or in a mixed animal-human form. Although the animal forms and therianthropic (i.e., part human, part animal) forms slightly predate anthropoid manifestations, it is unlikely that the gods were derived from totemic animals or that the Egyptians practiced zoolatry (i.e., worship of animals). Rather, animal forms were probably used to suggest metaphorically something about the characteristics of the god.

Certain gods were associated strongly with specific localities, although their worship was not limited to those regions. The gods were organized into groupings that expressed male and female elements (Amun/Amunet), family triads (Amun, his wife Mut and their child Khonsu), and other groupings such as the ogdoad of eight gods and the ennead of nine gods.

Many aspects of Egyptian theology are elusive to modern researchers. This results from the fact that there was tremendous development of religious ideas throughout the 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization, yet few concepts were discarded; instead, they were layered upon each other in an ever more complex and seemingly convoluted manner. Although sometimes dismissed as the signs of a primitive culture or of the Egyptians' confusion about their place in the universe, the seemingly contradictory beliefs are better interpreted as extended metaphors used to explain the intangible. For example, there are several different and seemingly contradictory ideas about creation. In some theologies, the god Ptah brought mankind into being by the force of his thoughts while others recount that mankind was created by Khnum on his celestial potter's wheel. In still others, the god Atum performed the first act of creation from his spittle or semen. All of these solutions were an attempt to explain a phenomenon that was beyond human understanding in more comprehensible metaphors.

Cult of the gods

King Ramesses III The deities required food, drink, clothing, and rituals of purification to sustain them as the protectors of mankind against the forces of chaos. These needs were met in the course of rituals performed before a cult statue of the god that was thought to provide an abode for the deity's soul. Although no complete example of such a cult statue has been identified, the Restoration Stela of Tutankhamun describes the Amun statue as "his holy image being of electrum, lapis lazuli, turquoise and every precious stone." In theory, the king, as the highest priest of the land, approached the sanctuary where the statue stood three times each day (in actuality, the high priest of the temple, accompanied by choirs of temple singers and ranks of other priests, substituted for the king). He opened the doors of the shrine that enclosed the statue and performed purification rituals. The cult statue was washed, anointed with perfumes, and dressed in clothes and necklaces. Food and drink were laid before the image of the god for divine sustenance. After a suitable interval for the god to consume the offerings, they were removed and reverted to the temple staff.

sacred boat Processions of the god were an important feature of the cult. During festivals the statue of the god was removed from his or her sanctuary and placed in a portable shrine which was, in turn, placed on a boat. These ritual craft could be quite large; indeed, the texts from Tutankhamun claim that it was carried by eleven pairs of priests. The sacred boat processions might circumambulate the temple or make a pilgrimage from one temple to another, accompanied by temple personnel and local residents who sang, danced, and acclaimed the god.

Maat, the king, and his subjects

Central to Egyptian religion and thought is the concept of maat, the embodiment of truth and the universal balance of the universe. This sense of order, personified as a goddess named Maat, intertwined all aspects of correct daily behavior and thought with cosmic order and harmony. Individuals were personally responsible for the maintenance of the universal order. If one transgressed against the forces of order, chaos--a state antithetical to everything the Egyptians knew and valued--would ensue and in this frightening realm the sun would not rise, the Nile would not flood, crops would not grow, and children would abandon their elderly parents.

One of the most fundamental duties of the king was to maintain maat through his intercession with the gods and especially through the cult actions performed in the temples each day in his name. Yet each of his subjects, through their correct behavior, shared that responsibility. What constituted proper morality is illustrated by the negative confession that the deceased recited at his or her judgment before the gods. This litany, Spell 125 of the "Book of the Dead," stipulated what was considered sinful such as: "I have not done wrong; I have not slain people; I was not sullen; I have not caused anyone to weep; I have not had intercourse with a married woman." Protestations such as "I have not disputed the king" indicate how closely religion was tied to the state, and that political obedience was an important part of the individual's religious duty.

The king, Osiris, and rituals of rejuvenation

One of the most significant functions of Egyptian ritual and myth was the reinforcement and protection of the office and body of the king. The most important myth associated the entity of the king with the gods Osiris and Horus. According to the myth, Osiris, the first king of Egypt, was murdered by his evil brother Seth. His death was avenged by Horus, the son of Osiris, and mourned by his sister/wife Isis and her sister Nephthys. This basic outline has myriad variations, the most elaborate version of which appears in the second century AD writings of Plutarch, but the focus of the myth was to associate the living king with the god Horus and his deceased predecessor with his mummiform father Osiris. In this way, each king of Egypt was incorporated into a mythological descent from the time of the gods. The myth also stressed filial piety and obligations of a son to his father. Osiris (or, according to various versions of the myth, at least part of the god's body) was thought to have been buried at Abydos, accounting for the sacred nature of the site throughout Egyptian history.

The gods Osiris (left) and Horus (right) (after Hobson 1987).

By the late Old Kingdom, posthumous identification with the god Osiris was adopted by the common people. After death, if they had lived their lives according to Maat and could truthfully confess that they had not committed any mortal sin before the divine judges in the Hall of Two Truths, they were admitted into the company of the gods. Coffins and funerary objects of the New Kingdom record that the name of the deceased was compounded with that of the god, and that the face of coffins belonging to men bore the false beard of Osiris.

King Ramesses III Many rituals were dedicated to the eternal rejuvenation of the living king. The most important was the Sed festival (also known as the "jubilee"), which is attested from the Early Dynastic Period and was celebrated up to the Ptolemaic era. Throughout most of Egyptian history, the ritual was celebrated on the thirtieth anniversary of the king's accession to the throne and thereafter at three-year intervals. During the course of the festival, the king alternately donned the red crown of Lower Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt and, grasping implements such as a slender vase, a carpenter's square, and an oar, ran a circuit between two B-shaped platforms. The king was then symbolically enthroned. Because the central act of the ritual--running the circuit--was physical, the Sed festival may be the vestige of a Predynastic ceremony wherein the king proved his continued virility and physical ability to rule. Although there is great emphasis upon the celebration of the jubilee in annals and autobiographies of courtiers who served kings who celebrated the Sed, little is known about the specific ceremonies.

By the reign of Hatshepsut (Dynasty 18), another ritual was introduced that, like the Sed, emphasized the power of the king. This festival, called Opet, was celebrated annually at Thebes. The ritual took the form of a procession of the sacred barks of the Theban triad (Amun, Mut and Khonsu) accompanied by the bark of the king himself. Once within the sanctuary of the Luxor Temple, the ka (spirit) of the king was rejuvenated for another year by its temporary fusion with the gods.

Polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism

Throughout their history the Egyptians worshipped a great number of gods. Tomb and literary texts indicate that an individual did not ally himself with a single god. For example, the opening formula of Late Ramesside letters recounts: "I call upon Amun Re, King of the gods, Mut, Khonsu and all the gods of Thebes to bring you back safe."

The religion of Akhenaten during the Amarna Period (Dynasty 18) has been described as "monotheism," and heralded as a possible indication that the Egyptians were the source of Judeo-Christian thought. Indeed, in the Amarna Period, Akhenaten elevated his god, the Aten, to a supreme place in the pantheon, and later in his reign his agents traveled through Egypt physically expunging the name of other gods from monuments. The interpretation of the religion of the Amarna age as true monotheism, however, cannot be sustained in light of the simultaneous worship of other gods. Maat, both as a concept and in her personification of a goddess, continued to be venerated, and indeed the ritual of the presentation of her image reached new prominence in the Amarna age. So too, in some circumstances, the king and queen were associated with the gods Shu and Tefnut, respectively. Statuettes of Bes and other members of the traditional pantheon have been recovered from houses at Amarna. The greatest objection to the religion of the Amarna age being true monotheism is the elevation of the king and his queen Nefertiti (and perhaps, posthumously, Akhenaten's father, Amunhotep III) to divine status. The vestiges of the old gods, as well as the triad formed by Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the incarnation of the solar light as the Aten, consisted of yet another conventional grouping of gods, not the formation of a transcendent monotheistic godhead.

The religion expressed in the Amarna age is better termed henotheism, the temporary elevation of one god above others. This trend to henotheism continued in the Ramesside Period, with the elevation of various forms of Amun to the supreme god, but without the intolerance for other gods seen in the late Amarna Period. Some theologians even argue for the presence of a transcendent god into whom all other gods were subsumed during the Ramesside Period.

Relevant link

The Oriental Institute


Emily Teeter is a research associate and curator of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. She is the author of a wide variety of books and scholarly articles about Egyptian religion and history, and has participated in expeditions in Giza, Luxor, and Alexandria.

Douglas J. Brewer

Douglas J. Brewer is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and director of the Spurlock Museum. He has written four books and numerous articles on Egypt, and has spent eighteen years involved in field projects in Egypt, including research on the natural history of the Eastern Desert, the Palaeolithic/Neolithic transition in the Fayum, and excavations concerned with the Predynastic and Dynastic culture of the Nile Valley.

COPYRIGHT | This story is adapted from Chapter 6 of Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter's "Egypt and the Egyptians" (Cambridge University Press). Copyright 2002 the University of Chicago and Cambridge University Press.

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