Probably the oldest form of religious worship in Egypt was animal worship. Early predynastic tribes venerated their own particular gods, who were usually embodied in a particular animal. Sometimes a whole species of animal was sacred, as cats at Bubastis; at other times only individual animals of certain types were worshiped, as the Apis bull at Memphis. As Egyptian civilization advanced, deities were gradually humanized. Many were represented with human bodies (although they retained animal heads) and other human characteristics and attributes. The wolf Ophois became a god of war, and the ibis Thoth became a patron of learning and the arts.
We do not know precisely how or why certain animals became associated with certain gods. Moreover, the relationship between a god and his animal varied greatly. The god Thoth was not only identified with the ibis, but also with the baboon and with the moon. Occasionally a god was a composite of various animals, such as Taurt, who had the head of a hippopotamus, the back and tail of a crocodile, and the claws of a lion.
Just as a god could represent various natural phenomena, so could a single phenomenon be given different explanations. The ancient Egyptian conceived of the earth as a disk, with the flat plains of Egypt as the center and the mountainous foreign lands as the rim surrounding and supporting the disk. Below were the deep waters of the underworld, and above was the plain of the sky. Several systems of cosmic deities arose to explain this natural phenomenon. Some attributed the creation of the world to the ram-god Khnum, who styled the universe on his potter's wheel. Others said that creation was a spiritual and not a physical act, and that the divine thought of Ptah shaped the universe.
Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation of the creation was that the sun-god, called either Ra or Atum, appeared out of primeval chaos and created the air-god Shu and his wife Tefnut, to whom were born the sky-goddess Nut and the earth-god Geb, who in turn bore Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Some early cosmological myths represented the heavens as a great, star-studded cow, sometimes called Hathor or Athor, curving above the earth. Regardless of the different creation myths and ranking of gods, it is clear that the ancient Egyptian venerated many deities, that those gods were inherent in nature, and that they enabled the Egyptian to correlate human, natural, and divine life.
At the end of the predynastic period (c.3200 B.C.), when a combined state was created, a national religion apparently grew out of the various primitive tribal and local religions, but still there were great inconsistencies and variations as various priesthoods attempted to systematize the gods and their myths. Changes in the political power of various localities also changed the status of the gods. In that way Amon became Egypt's most prominent deity, and by similar shifts of power Suchos, Bast, and Neith rose to importance. Some scholars have believed that the history of Egyptian religion was a sort of war of the gods, with the dominance of a god following directly the political dominance of a city or region. Others have pointed out that the national prominence of gods often centered in obscure cities or regions that never had political power. Nevertheless, shifts and changes did occur, making for new identifications and associations.
Egyptian religion was remarkable for its reconciliation and union of conflicting beliefs. Some scholars have held, in fact, that the syncretism of Egyptian religion reveals a basic trend toward monotheism. But only during the reign of Ikhnaton, who based his theology on the solar god Aton and denied recognition to all but that god, was a monotheistic cult actually established. That unique cult apparently proved unsatisfactory to the ancient Egyptians; after Ikhnaton's death, polytheism was restored.
The most important of the many forms of Egyptian worship were the cults of Osiris and of Ra. Osiris was especially important as king and judge of the dead, but he was identified as well with the waters of the Nile, with the grain yield of the earth, with the moon, and even with the sun. A bountiful and loving king, Osiris was the protector of all, the poor and the rich. His myth, portraying the highest ideals of family devotion, expressed aspirations that were close to the people. His murder by his brother, Set, and his restoration to life by his wife, Isis, made him the great symbol of the eternal persistence of life. The revenge exacted by his son and successor, Horus, showed the triumph of good over evil.
The worship of Ra, the great sun-god, chief of the cosmic deities, was perhaps more closely related to the fate of the royal house than to that of the people, but his cult was nevertheless one of the most important in ancient Egypt. His symbol, the pyramid, became the design of the monumental tombs of the Egyptian kings. Ra was said, in fact, to be the direct ancestor of the kings of Egypt, and in certain hymns was even addressed as a dead king. But he was more specifically thought of as a living power, whose daily cycle of birth, journey, and death was a fundamental theme in Egyptian life. Besides Osiris and Ra the other most prominent Egyptian god was Amon. By the XIX dynasty he was Egypt's greatest god, united with Ra as Amon Ra.
Most scholars have concluded that, in later times at least, there was no close personal tie between the individual Egyptian and the gods, that the gods remained aloof, that their relationship to humans was indirect, communicated to him by means of the king. There was no established book or set of teachings, as the Bible or the Qur'an, and few prescribed conditions of behavior or conduct. Humans were guided essentially by human wisdom and trusted in their belief in the goodness of the gods and of their divine son, the king. An important concept in Egyptian life was the idea of maat [justice]. Although the Egyptian was entirely subservient to the state, the king had the duty of translating the will of the gods. The universe had been created by bringing order and justice to replace primeval chaos, and only through the continuance of order and justice could the universe survive. The law of nature, of society, and of the gods was an organic whole, and it was the duty of the king to administer that law, which was guided by the concept of maat. As Egypt flourished, so did the state cult. As the pharaohs grew more powerful, they poured riches into the state cult and built huge and splendid temples to their gods. The priesthoods thus grew very powerful.
The populace found its expression of religious feeling in the funerary cults. The great body of mortuary texts has, in fact, provided us with much that we know of ancient Egypt, particularly of belief in the afterlife (see Book of the Dead). The dead were provided with food and drink, weapons, and toiletry articles. Tombs were often visited by the family, who brought new offerings. Proper precautions and care for the dead were mandatory to insure immortality (see mummy). Although the ancient Egyptians strongly believed in life after death, the idea of passing from life on earth to life in the hereafter was somewhat obscure, and the concepts concerning the afterlife were complex.
The ancient Egyptian, however, hoped not only to extend life beyond the grave, but to become part of the perennial life of nature. The two most important concepts concerning the afterlife were the ka and the ba. The ka was a kind of double or other self, not an element of the personality, but a detached part of the self which was sometimes said to guide the fortunes of the individual in life, like the Roman genius, but was clearly most associated with a person's fortunes in the hereafter. When people died they were said to join with their ka. More important perhaps than the ka was the concept of the ba. The ba is perhaps loosely identifiable as the soul of a person. More specifically the ba was the manifestation of an individual after death, usually thought to be represented in the form of a bird. The Egyptians also believed in the concept of akh, which was the transformation of some of the noble dead into eternal objects. The noblest were often conceived of as being transformed into stars, thus joining in the changeless rhythm of the universe.
See J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion in Ancient Egypt (1912, repr. 1970); E. A. T. W. Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (1934, repr. 1972); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1948, repr. 1961); J. Cerny, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1952, repr. 1957); S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (tr. 1973).
Polytheistic belief system of ancient Egypt from the 4th millennium BCE to the first centuries CE, including both folk traditions and the court religion. Local deities that sprang up along the Nile Valley had both human and animal form and were synthesized into national deities and cults after political unification circa 2925 BCE. The gods were not all-powerful or all-knowing, but were immeasurably greater than humans. Their characters were not neatly defined, and there was much overlap, especially among the leading deities. One important deity was Horus, the god-king who ruled the universe, who represented the earthly Egyptian king. Other major divinities included Re, the sun god; Ptah and Aton, creator gods; and Isis and Osiris. The concept of maat (“order”) was fundamental: the king maintained maat both on a societal and cosmic level. Belief in and preoccupation with the afterlife permeated Egyptian religion, as the surviving tombs and pyramids attest. Burial near the king helped others gain passage to the netherworld, as did spells and passwords from the Book of the Dead.
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There was no one singular religion in ancient Egypt, but a variety of intermixing local cults devoted to specific deities. Most of these were henotheistic, (focusing on the worship of one deity whilst accepting the existance of others) and therefore Egyptian religion as a whole is often considered to be polytheistic. There were also some short-lived minor examples of cults which could be called monotheistic, such as Atenism.
Egyptian religion has been called a form of "paganism" by the Christians who took over, and this term has also been used by followers of Kemetism, a modern reconstructed form of the ancient Egyptian religion.
There was no one chief deity over the entire history of ancient Egypt. At times and places the chief god was Atum, who was later amalgamated with another important god, Ra, to form Atum-Ra. Ra was later amalgamated with Horus to form the god Ra-Horakhty.
The most notable gods included:
Deities in the Egyptian pantheon sometimes played different, and at times conflicting, roles. As an example, the lioness Sekhmet being sent out by Ra to devour the humans for having rebelled against him, but later on becoming a fierce protector of the kingdom, life in general, and the sick. Even more complex are the roles of Set. Judging the mythology of Set from a modern perspective, especially the mythology surrounding Set's relationship with Osiris, it is easy to cast Set as the arch villain and source of evil. However this was not always so, as Set was earlier playing the role of destroyer of Apep, in the service of Ra on his barge, and thus serving to uphold Ma'at (Truth, Justice, and Harmony).
Geb and Nut copulated, and upon Shu's learning of his children's fornication, he separated the two, effectively becoming the air between the sky and ground. He also decreed that the pregnant Nut should not give birth any day of the year. Nut pleaded with Thoth, who on her behalf gambled with the moon-god Yah and won five more days to be added onto the then 360-day year. Nut had one child on each of these days: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus-the-Elder.
Osiris, by different accounts, was either the son of Re-Atum or Geb, and king of Egypt. His brother Seth represented chaos in the universe. He murdered Osiris by tricking him to fit inside of a box, which was the nailed shut and thrown into the Nile. After killing Osiris, Seth tore his body into pieces. Isis rescued most of the pieces for burial beneath the temple, but first she resurrected Osiris so she could copulate with him to create their child Horus . Seth made himself king, but was challenged by Osiris's son - Horus. Seth lost and was sent to the desert. Osiris was mummified by Isis and became god of the dead. Horus became the king and from him descended the pharaohs.
Another version, this one by Plutarch states that Set made a chest that only Osiris could fit into. He then invited Osiris to a feast. Set made a bet that no one could fit into the chest. Osiris was the last one to step into the chest, but before he did, Set asked if he could hold Osiris's crown. Osiris agreed and stepped into the chest. As he lay down, Set slammed the lid shut and put the crown on his own head. He then set the chest afloat on the Nile. Isis did not know of her husband's death until the Wind told her. She then placed her son in a safe place and cast a spell so no one could find him. When she searched for her husband, a child told her a chest had washed up on the bank and a tree had grown up. The tree was so straight the king had used it for the central pillar of his new palace. Isis went and asked for her husband's body and it was given to her. The god of the underworld told her that Osiris would be a king, but only in the underworld.
Egypt had a highly developed view of the afterlife with elaborate rituals for preparing the body and soul for an eternal life after death. Beliefs about the soul and afterlife focused heavily on preservation of the body. The Egyptians believed the ka aspect of the soul needed to be reunited with the ba, to support the akh, the part of each being which ascends to the heavens to take its place among the stars. This meant that embalming and mummification were practised, in order to preserve the individual's identity in the afterlife.
Bodies of the dead were coated inside and out with resin to preserve them, then wrapped with linen bandages, embedded with religious amulets and talismans. In the case of royalty, the mummy was usually placed inside a series of nested coffins, the outermost of which was a stone sarcophagus. The intestines, lungs, liver, and stomach were preserved separately and stored in canopic jars protected by the four sons of Horus. The heart was left in place because it was thought to be the home of the soul. The standard length of the mummification process was seventy days.
Embalmment was reserved for a selected few in the Old Kingdom, but it became available to wider sections of society in later periods. Animals were also mummified, sometimes thought to have been pets of Egyptian families, but more frequently or more likely, they were the representations of deities. The ibis, crocodile, cat, Nile perch, falcon, and baboon can be found in perfect mummified forms. During the Ptolemaic Period, animals were especially bred for the purpose.
After a person dies their soul is led into a hall of judgment in Duat by Anubis (god of mummification) and the deceased's heart, which was the record of the morality of the owner, is weighed against a single feather representing Ma'at (the concept of truth and order). If the outcome is favorable, the deceased is taken to Osiris, god of the afterlife, in Aaru, but the demon Ammit (Eater of Hearts) part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus destroys those hearts whom the verdict is against, leaving the owner to remain in Duat. A heart that weighed less than the feather was considered a pure heart, not weighed down by the guilt or sins of one's actions in life, resulting in a favorable verdict; a heart heavy with guilt and sin from one's life weighed more than the feather, and so the heart would be eaten by Ammit. An individual without a heart in the afterlife in essence, did not exist as Egyptians believed the heart to be the center of reason and emotion as opposed to the brain which was removed and discarded during mummification. Many times a person would be buried with a "surrogate" heart to replace their own for the weighing of the heart ceremony.
The Book of the Dead was a series of almost two hundred spells represented as sectional texts, songs, and pictures written on papyrus, individually customized for the deceased, which were buried along with the dead in order to ease their passage into the underworld. In some tombs, the Book of the Dead has also been found painted on the walls, although the practice of painting on the tomb walls appears to predate the formalization of the Book of the Dead as a bound text. One of the best examples of the Book of the Dead is The Papyrus of Ani, created around 1240 BC, which, in addition to the texts themselves, also contains many pictures of Ani and his wife on their journey through the land of the dead.
Temples were built to honour the gods. Each temple was generally devoted to only one deity, with the priests of that temple being dedicated to that particular deity. Some important temples include:
Deir El Bahire; Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, also Chapel Dedicated to the worship of Hathor.
Regional cults (cities are listed north to south):
These regional cults were established by the end of the Old Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, the cosmogonies of the Ennead and the Ogdoad were merged (syncretized) into an overarching state religion of the Egyptian Empire, resulting in various identifications of formerly distinct deities. An example of such syncretism during is the unification of Ra and Amun as Amun-Ra, or Ptah, Seker, and Osiris becoming Ptah-Seker-Osiris.
Syncretism should be distinguished from mere groupings, also referred to as "families" such as Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, where no "merging" takes place. Over time, deities took part in multiple syncretic relationships; for instance, the combination of Ra and Horus into Ra-Herakty. The Legend of Osiris and Isis originating in this reform has a long history of reception outside Egypt. In Ptolemaic times, it influenced Hellenistic religion (Osiris-Dionysus), and later Renaissance occultism and Hermeticism.
Ancient Egyptian religion notably included an imperial cult, with the Pharaoh considered a living deity, identified with Horus. In the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh was deified during his lifetime. From the Fifth Dynasty, deification took place only after the pharaoh's death. It was only New Kingdom pharaohs like Amenophis III who attempted to regain divine status during their lifetimes. After death, the pharaoh was identified with Osiris (who was identified with Horus in the New Kingdom state religion).
The Old Kingdom period is most commonly regarded as spanning the period of time when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty, from 2686 BC to 2134 BC. It was the beginning of the highest level of cultural development achieved by the ancient Egyptians, whose cultural roots extend six thousand years earlier, into prehistory.
Old Kingdom deities:
The Pyramid Texts (roughly 25th to 23nd century BC) contain spells, or "utterances" primarily concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens. As such, they qualify as the oldest known religious texts worldwide, slightly predating the Sumerian hyms of Enheduanna. The "Coffin Texts" are funerary spells related to the Pyramid texts dating to the First Intermediate Period.
The cult of Amun grew during the Middle Kingdom. Senusret III (1878 BC – 1839 BC) built a fine religious temple at Abydos; while it is now destroyed, surviving reliefs show the high quality of the decorations. He was deified at the end of the Middle Kingdom and worshipped by the pharaohs of the New Kingdom.
By the New Kingdom, the Ogdoad and the Ennead were merged into a single syncretized cosmology. In the Ennead, Osiris is the husband of Isis, and sibling of Seth, all of whom are the great-grandchildren of the creator god Atum, and Horus is not present within the system. In the Ogdoad, Osiris is not present within the system, and Horus is son of Atum, the creator god. When the Ennead and Ogdoad merged, Ra and Amun were identified as one, becoming Amun-Ra, and Horus was initially considered the fifth sibling of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Set. However, Horus' mother, Hathor, gradually became identified as a form of Isis, leading Horus to be Isis' son, and therefore the son of Osiris.
A short interval of monotheism (Atenism) occurred under the reign of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) (1350s to 1330s BC), focused on the Egyptian sun deity Aten. The Aten is typically shown as a sun disk with rays coming out of all sides. Akhenaten built a new capital at Amarna with temples for the Aten. This was a symbolic act as Akhenaten wanted a place of worship for the Aten that was not tainted by the visage of other deities. The religious change survived only until the death of Akhenaten, and the old religion was quickly restored during the reign of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten's son by his wife, Kiya. Tutankhamun and several other post-restoration pharaohs were erased from the history, because they were regarded as heretics.
After the fall of the Amarna dynasty, the New Kingdom pantheon survived as the dominant religion, until the Achaemenid conquests. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was standardized (the "Saite Recension") during this time. Herodotus presents us a bleak portrait of Cambyses' rule, describing the king as mad, ungodly, and cruel. Herodotus may have drawn on an indigenous tradition that reflected the Egyptians' resentment, especially of the clergy, of Cambyses' decree curtailing royal grants made to Egyptian temples under Amasis. In order to regain the support of the powerful priestly class, Darius I (522–486 BC) revoked Cambyses' decree. Shortly before 486 BC, a revolt broke out in Egypt, subdued by Xerxes I only in 484 BC. The province was subjected to harsh punishment for the revolt, and especially its satrap Achaemenes administered the country without regard for the opinion of his subjects.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he went on pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis. The oracle declared him to be the son of Amun-Re. Egyptian religion continued to thrive during the Ptolemaic period; some cults were syncretized with Greek mystery traditions, exerting influence on Hellenistic magic. Under Roman rule (from 30 BC), the situation remained largely unchanged. The Romans like the Ptolemies respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the imperial cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced. Egyptian religion entered a period of decline following the Egyptians' adoption of Christianity in the first centuries of the common era. Remnants of native traditions lingered in traditionalist pockets such as temple hierarchies, free from persecution but gradually ousted by Early Christianity. The last vestiges of Egyptian religious traditions may have persisted into the 5th century, as reflected in the Hieroglyphica.