Ancient Egyptian Religion and Beliefs
The ancient Egyptian Religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals that were essential to ancient Egyptian civilization.
It focused on the Egyptians’ contacts with several deities thought to be in control over the world; prayers and offerings were made to the gods to obtain their favor; formal religious practice centered on the pharaohs, Egypt’s rulers
who were thought to have divine powers by their status; they served as go-betweens for their people and the gods and were required to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings
to maintain Ma’at, the cosmos’ order, and repel Isfet, which was chaos.
The state poured vast sums of money into religious rites and temple development. Individuals might connect with the gods for personal gain, requesting assistance through prayer or commanding the gods to act through magic.
These behaviors were different from, but inextricably related to, formal rituals and institutions.
As the pharaoh’s status decreased, the popular religious tradition became more significant in ancient Egyptian history. Immense efforts are taken to ensure the survival of their souls after death – via the provision of tombs, burial goods, and offerings to maintain the departed’s bodies and spirits, demonstrating Egyptian belief in the afterlife and the importance of funeral rites.
Religion has its origins in prehistoric Egypt and has endured for 3,500 years.
The specifics of religious belief evolved as the significance of specific gods rose and fell, and their complicated relationships changed.
Certain gods, such as the sun deity Ra, the creator god Amun, and the mother goddess Isis, rose to prominence at various times. For a brief while, the conventional pantheon was supplanted by
a single god, the Aten, in the Religion espoused by Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Many literature and monuments from ancient Egyptian Religion and mythology have been discovered and significant influences on ancient and current societies.
The beliefs and rituals now referred to as “ancient Egyptian religion” were integral to every aspect of Egyptian culture.
Ancient Egyptian Deities
The ancient Egyptians believed that the phenomena of nature were divine forces in and of themselves, and these deified forces included elements, animal characteristics,
or abstract details; the ancient Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods involved in all aspects of nature and human society. Their religious practices were efforts to sustain and placate these phenomena and turn them to human advantage. This polytheistic system was very complex in the Ancient Egyptian Religion, as some deities
were believed to exist in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with various deities.
The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or “demons” with limited or localized functions.
It could include gods adopted from foreign cultures and sometimes deceased human pharaohs believed to be divine, and occasionally distinguished commoners such as Imhotep also became deified. Art’s depictions of the gods were not meant as literal representations of how the gods might appear.
The gods’ true natures were believed to be mysterious if visible. Instead, these depictions gave recognizable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god’s role in nature.
This iconography was not fixed; many gods could be depicted in multiple forms. Many gods were associated with particular regions in Egypt where their cults were most important.
However, these associations changed over time and did not mean that the god associated with a place had originated there.
For instance, the god Montu was the original patron of Thebes.
The Egyptians often grouped gods to reflect these relationships; one of the more common combinations was a family triad with a father, mother, and child worshipped together.
Some groups had wide-ranging importance. One such group, the Ennead, assembled nine deities into a theological system involved in the mythological areas of creation, kingship, and the afterlife.
Syncretism, a word specific to ancient Egyptian Religion, was the basis for another essential ordering of the gods. The names of two or more gods were sometimes
combined to produce a composite identity.
The name of the god Re was usually incorporated in these combinations. Examples such as Amon-Re, a fusion of Amon and Re, and Osiris-Apis, a fusion of Osiris with the Apis Bull, are prominent examples.
Even though composite forms like Amon-Re became the primary identities of some gods, the distinct deities continued to exist and were sometimes even given a cult, as was the case with Re,
These syncretisms, in part, conveyed the concept of Amon in his aspect as Re; as such, they were akin to the various appearances of a single deity.
Syncretism resulted in many prominent gods of different cultures becoming more similar. Many deities could be given epithets that indicate they were more significant than any other god, suggesting unity beyond the multitude of natural forces. This is particularly true of a few gods who, at various points, rose to supreme importance in ancient Egyptian Religion.
These included the royal patron Horus, the sun god Ra, and the mother goddess Isis. Amun held this position during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC).
The theology of the period described in particular detail Amun’s presence in and rule over all things so that he, more than any other deity, embodied the all-encompassing power of the divine
Ancient Egyptian Religion Cosmology
The air god Shu, assisted by other gods, holds up Nut, the sky, as Geb, the earth, lies beneath.
The Egyptian conception of the universe centered on Ma’at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English,
including “truth,” “justice,” and “order.” It was the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and human society, and was often personified as a goddess.
It had existed since its creation; without it, the world would lose cohesion.
In Egyptian belief, Ma’at was constantly threatened by the forces of disorder, so all of society was required to maintain it.
On the human level, this meant that all members of society should cooperate and coexist; on the cosmic level,
it meant that all of the forces of nature, the gods, should continue to function in balance; this latter goal was central to ancient Egyptian Religion.
The Egyptians sought to maintain Ma’at in the cosmos by sustaining the gods through offerings and performing rituals that staved off disorder and perpetuated the cycles of nature.
The most important part of the Egyptian view of the cosmos was the conception of time, which was greatly concerned with the maintenance of Ma’at.
Throughout the linear passage of time, a cyclical pattern recurred, in which Ma’at was renewed by periodic events which echoed the original creation.
Among these events were the annual Nile flood and the succession from one King to another, but the most important was the daily journey of the sun god Ra.
When thinking of the shape of the cosmos, the ancient Egyptians saw the earth as a flat expanse of land, personified by the god Geb, over which arched the sky goddess Nut.
Shu, the god of air, separated the two. Beneath the earth lay a parallel underworld and undersky, and beyond the skies lay the infinite expanse of Nu, the chaos that had existed before the creation
The ancient Egyptians also believed in the Duat, a mysterious region associated with death and rebirth that may have lain in the underworld or the sky.
Each day, Ra traveled over the earth across the underside of the sky, and at night he passed through the Duat to be reborn at dawn. In Egyptian belief, three types of sentient beings inhabited this cosmos: one was the gods; another was the spirits of deceased humans, who existed in the divine realm and possessed many of the gods’ abilities; living humans were the third category,
and the most important among them was the pharaoh who bridged the human and divine realms
Egyptian Kingship (Pharaoh )
Egyptologists have long debated the degree to which the pharaoh was considered a god, and it seems most likely that the Egyptians viewed royal authority as a divine force.
Therefore, although the Egyptians recognized that the pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, they simultaneously viewed him as a god
because the divine power of kingship was incarnated in him, he acted as an intermediary between Egypt’s people and the gods.
He was vital to upholding Ma’at by maintaining justice and harmony in human society and sustaining the gods with temples and offerings.
For these reasons, he oversaw all state religious activity.
However, the pharaoh’s real-life influence and prestige could differ from his portrayal in official writings and depictions,
and beginning in the late New Kingdom, his religious importance declined drastically.
The King was also associated with many specific deities; he was identified directly with Horus
who represented kingship itself, and he was seen as the son of Ra, who ruled and regulated nature as the pharaoh ruled and regulated society
By the New Kingdom, he was also associated with Amun, the supreme force in the cosmos; upon his death, the King became wholly deified.
In this state, he was directly identified with Ra and associated with Osiris, the god of death and rebirth and the mythological father of Horus.
Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.
Ancient Egyptian Afterlife Beliefs
The ancient Egyptians had elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife; They believed humans possessed a ka, or life force, which left the body at the point of death.
In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so it was believed that to endure after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food,
whose spiritual essence it could still consume; each person also had a ba, a set of spiritual characteristics unique to each individual.
Unlike the ka, the ba remained attached to the body after death. The ancient Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the ba from the body so it could move freely and rejoin it with the ka so it could live on as an ankh.
However, it was also crucial that the deceased’s body be preserved, as the ancient Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to receive new life
before emerging in the morning as an akh, Maat wearing the feather of truth
In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to ascend to the sky and dwelled among the stars. Throughout the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), however,
He became more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and the underworld ruler Osiris as those deities grew more important.
In the fully developed afterlife beliefs of the New Kingdom, the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers in the Duat,
before undergoing a final judgment, known as the “Weighing of the Heart,” carried out by Osiris and the Assessors of Maat.
In this judgment, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to the feather of Maat to determine whether they had behaved by Maat.
If the deceased was judged worthy, their ka and ba were united into an akh. Several beliefs coexisted about the akh destination.
Often the dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasant land in the underworld.
The solar vision of the afterlife, where the deceased soul traveled with Ra on his daily journey, was still primarily associated with royalty but could also extend to other people.
Throughout the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also travel in the world of the living and, to some degree, magically affect events there became increasingly prevalent.
During the New Kingdom, the pharaoh Akhenaten abolished the official worship of other gods in favor of the sun-disk Aten.
This is often seen as the first true monotheism in ancient Egyptian Religion.
However, the details of Alienist theology are still unclear, and the suggestion that it was monotheistic is disputed.
The exclusion of all but one god from worship was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition.
Some see Akhenaten as a practitioner of monolatry rather than monotheism, as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods; he refrained from worshipping any but the Aten.
Under Akhenaten’s successors, Egypt reverted to its traditional Religion
Ancient Egyptian Mythology
Ra (at center) travels through the underworld in his bark, accompanied by other gods.
Egyptian myths were metaphorical stories intended to illustrate and explain the gods’ actions and roles in nature.
The details of the events they recounted could change to convey different symbolic perspectives on the mysterious divine events they described, so many myths exist in different and conflicting versions. Mythical narratives were rarely written in total, and texts often only contain episodes from or allusions to a more significant tale.
Therefore, knowledge of Egyptian mythology is derived mainly from hymns that detail the roles of specific deities, ritual and magical texts that describe actions related to mythic events, and funerary texts that mention the functions of many Gods in the afterlife.
Allusions in secular texts also provide some information. Finally, Greeks and Romans such as Plutarch recorded some extant myths late in Egyptian history. Among the significant Egyptian myths were the creation myths; according to these stories, the world emerged as a dry space in the primordial ocean of chaos.
Because the sun is essential to life on Earth, the first rising of Ra marked the moment of this emergence.
Different forms of the myth describe the process of creation in various ways: a transformation of the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world, the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah, and an act of the hidden power of Amun Regardless of these variations,
the act of creation represented the initial establishment of Ma’at and the pattern for the subsequent cycles of time.
The most important of all Egyptian myths was the Osiris myth; it tells of the divine ruler Osiris, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god often associated with chaos. Osiris’s sister and wife, Isis, resurrected him so he could conceive an heir, Horus.
Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead. Once grown, Horus fought and defeated Set to become King himself.
Set’s association with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful rulers, provided a rationale for pharaonic succession
and portrayed the pharaohs as the upholders of order; at the same time, Osiris’s death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death.
Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. During this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who acted as an agent of regeneration to renew his life. He also fought each night with Apep, a serpentine god representing chaos.
The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the sun’s rising the following day, representing rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.
Ritual And Magical Texts
The procedures for religious rituals were frequently written on papyri, which were used as instructions for those performing the ceremony.
These ritual texts were kept mainly in the temple libraries. Temples themselves are also inscribed with such texts, often accompanied by illustrations.
Unlike the ritual papyri, these inscriptions were not intended as instructions but were meant to perpetuate the rituals even if, in reality,
people ceased to perform them symbolically. Magical texts likewise describe patterns, although these rituals were part of the spells used for specific goals in everyday life.
Despite their mundane purpose, many texts originated in temple libraries and were later disseminated among the general populace.
Hymns And Prayers
The ancient Egyptians produced numerous prayers and hymns written in poetry.
Hymns and prayers follow a similar structure and are distinguished mainly by the purposes they serve.
Hymns were written to praise particular deities. Like ritual texts, they were written on papyri and temple walls
and were probably recited as part of the rituals they accompanied in temple inscriptions.
Most use a literary formula to expound on a given deity’s nature, aspects, and mythological functions.
They tended to speak more explicitly about fundamental theology than other Egyptian religious writings and became particularly important in the New Kingdom,
a period of particularly active theological discourse; prayers follow the same general pattern as hymns but address the relevant god in a more personal way,
asking for blessings, help, or forgiveness for wrongdoing.
Such prayers were rare before the New Kingdom, indicating that in earlier periods, such direct personal interaction with a deity was not believed possible
or less likely to be expressed in writing. They are known mainly for inscriptions on statues and stelae left in sacred sites as votive offerings
Ancient Egyptian Funerary Texts
At the end of the Old Kingdom, a new body of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began appearing in tombs, inscribed primarily on coffins.
This collection of writings is known as the Coffin Texts and was not reserved for royalty but appeared in the tombs of non-royal officials. In the New Kingdom, several new funerary texts emerged, of which the best-known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier books,
it often contained extensive illustrations or vignettes; The book was copied on papyrus and sold to commoners to be placed in their tombs. The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld and instructions on overcoming its hazards.
In the New Kingdom, this material gave rise to several “books of the netherworld,” including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat.
Unlike the loose collections of spells, these netherworld books are structured depictions of Ra’s passage through the Duat and, by analogy, the journey of the deceased person’s soul through the realm of the dead; they were initially restricted to pharaonic tombs, but in the Third Intermediate Period, they were widely used.
Section of the Book of the Dead for the scribe Hunefer, depicting the Weighing of the Heart.
Among the most powerful and extensively preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that deceased souls reached a pleasant afterlife. The earliest of these are the Pyramid Texts, a loose collection of hundreds of spells inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom,
intended to magically provide pharaohs with the means to join the company of the gods in the afterlife.
The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and few appear in all the pyramids.
Ancient Egyptian Temple
Under the direction of the government, the priest would celebrate and perform the ceremonies in the temple on behalf of the community.
Temples existed from the beginning of Egyptian history and were present in most of its towns at the height of ancient Egyptian civilization. They included mortuary temples to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs and temples dedicated to patron gods.
However, the distinction was blurred because divinity and kingship were closely intertwined. The temples were not primarily intended as places for worship by the general populace, and the ordinary people had complex religious practices.
Instead, the state-run temples served as houses for the gods, in which physical images which served as their intermediaries were cared for and provided with offerings. This service was believed necessary to sustain the gods so that they could, in turn, maintain the universe itself.
Thus, temples were central to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, including donations from the monarchy and large estates. Pharaohs often expanded them as part of their obligation to honor the gods so that many temples grew to enormous sizes,
However, not all gods had temples dedicated to them. Many influential gods in official theology received minimal worship, and many household gods were the focus of widespread reverence rather than temple rituals.
The ancient Egyptian temples were small, impermanent structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms, their designs grew more elaborate and increasingly built out of stone.
In the New Kingdom, a basic temple layout emerged, which had evolved from common elements in Old and Middle Kingdom temples. With variations, this plan was used for most temples built from then on, and most of those that survive today adhere to it.
In this standard plan, the temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to the sanctuary, which held a statue of the temple’s god, Access to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests.
The journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm, emphasized by the complex mythological symbolism in temple architecture. Well beyond the temple building proper was the outermost wall.
Between the two lay many subsidiary buildings, including workshops and storage areas to supply the temple’s needs. The library where the temple’s sacred writings and mundane records were kept also served as a center for learning many subjects.
Theoretically, it was the pharaoh’s duty to carry out temple rituals, as he was Egypt’s official representative of the gods. In reality, ritual duties were almost always carried out by priests; During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead,
many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. Professional priesthood only became widespread in the New Kingdom, although most lower-ranking priests were still part-time.
The state still employed all, and the pharaoh had the final say in their appointments.
However, as the temples’ wealth grew, their priesthood’s influence increased until it rivaled the pharaoh’s. In the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–664 BC), the high priests of Amun at Karnak even became the influential rulers of Upper Egypt.
In temple ceremonies, the temple staff included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters. Outside the temple were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple’s needs and farmers who worked on temple estates.
All were paid with portions of the temple’s income; Large temples were, therefore, vital centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.
Official Rituals And Festivals
State religious practice included temple rituals involved in the cult of a deity and ceremonies related to divine kingship.
Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a ritual renewal of the pharaoh’s strength that occurred periodically during his reign.
Numerous temple rituals, including rites, took place across the country, and traditions were limited to temples or temples of a single god.
Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or on rare occasions; the most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony,
performed daily in temples across Egypt.
In it, a high-ranking priest, or occasionally the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the god’s statue before presenting it with offerings.
Afterward, when the god consumed the offerings’ spiritual essence, the items were taken to distribute among the priests.
The less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, were still numerous, with dozens occurring yearly.
These festivals often entailed actions beyond simple offerings to the gods, such as reenactments of particular myths or the symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder.
Most of these events were probably celebrated only by the priests and took place inside the temple.
However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak,
usually involve a procession carrying the god’s image out of the sanctuary in a model bark to visit other significant sites, such as the temple of a related deity.
Commoners gathered to watch the procession and sometimes received portions of the extensive offerings given to the gods on these occasions.
At many sacred sites, the ancient Egyptians worshipped individual animals that they believed to be manifestations of particular deities.
These animals were selected based on specific sacred markings believed to indicate their fitness for the role.
Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah.
Other animals were selected for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular later, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals to choose a new divine manifestation.
A separate practice developed in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, when people began mummifying any member of a particular
animal species as an offering to the god whom the species represented. Millions of mummified cats, birds, and other creatures were buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities.
Worshippers paid the priests of a particular deity to obtain and mummify an animal associated with that deity. The mummy was placed in a cemetery near the god’s cult center.
Oracular Gods in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians used oracles to ask the gods for knowledge or guidance; it was an essential part of the Religion of ancient Egyptian
Egyptian prophets are known mainly from the New Kingdom and afterward, though they probably appeared much earlier.
People of all classes, including the King, asked questions of oracles, and, especially in the late New Kingdom,
their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions; the most common means of consulting an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image
while it was being carried in a festival procession, interpret an answer from the bark’s movements.
Other methods included analyzing the behavior of cult animals, drawing lots, or consulting statues through which a priest spoke.
The means of discerning the god’s will had a significant influence on the priests who spoke and interpreted the god’s message.
Magic in Ancient Egyptian Religion
The word “magic” is usually used to translate the Egyptian term heka, which meant, as James P. Allen puts it, “the ability to make things happen by indirect means.”
Heka was believed to be a natural phenomenon, the force used to create the universe that the gods employed to work their will.
Humans could also use it, and magical practices were closely intertwined with Religion; in fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were counted as magical.
Individuals also frequently employed magical techniques for personal purposes; although these ends could harm others, no form of magic was considered damaging.
Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome adverse events; Magic was closely associated with the priesthood.
Because temple libraries contained numerous magical texts, excellent occult knowledge was ascribed to the lector priests, who studied these texts.
These priests often worked outside their temples, hiring their magical services to laypeople.
Other professions also commonly employed magic as part of their work, including doctors, scorpion charmers, and makers of magical amulets.
It is also possible that the peasantry used simple magic for their purposes, but because this magical knowledge would have been passed down orally,
there is limited evidence; The language was closely linked with heka to such a degree that Thoth, the god of writing, was sometimes said to be the inventor of heka.
Therefore, magic frequently involved written or spoken incantations, although ritual actions usually accompanied these.
Often these rituals invoked an appropriate deity to perform the desired action, using the power of heka to compel the Creator to act.
Sometimes this entailed casting the practitioner or subject of a ritual in the role of a character in mythology, thus inducing the god to act toward that person as it had in the myth.
Rituals also employed sympathetic magic, using objects believed to have a magically significant resemblance to the rite subject.
The ancient Egyptians also commonly used objects believed to be imbued with heka of their own, such as the magically protective amulets worn in great numbers by ordinary Egyptians.
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