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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Extinct Afro-Asiatic language of the Nile River valley. Its very long history comprises five periods: Old Egyptian (circa 3000–circa 2200 BCE), best exemplified by a corpus of religious inscriptions known as the Pyramid Texts and a group of autobiographical tomb inscriptions; Middle Egyptian (circa 2200–circa 1600 BCE), the classical literary language; Late Egyptian (1550–700 BCE), known mainly from manuscripts; Demotic (circa 700 BCE–circa 400 CE), used in the periods of Persian, Greek, and Roman dominance and differing from Late Egyptian chiefly in its graphic system; and Coptic (circa 150 CE–at least the 17th century), the language of Christian Egypt, gradually supplanted as a vernacular by Arabic from the 9th century on but still preserved to some degree in the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Egyptian was originally written in hieroglyphs, out of which evolved hieratic, a cursive rendering of hieroglyphs, and demotic, a kind of shorthand reduction of hieratic. Coptic was written in a modified form of the Greek alphabet, with seven signs added from the demotic script for sounds that did not occur in Greek.
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Ancient sculptures, paintings, and decorative crafts produced in the dynastic periods of the 3rd–1st millennia BC in the Nile Valley of Egypt and Nubia. Egyptian art served those in power as a forceful propaganda instrument that perpetuated the existing framework of society. Much of what has survived is associated with ancient tombs. The course of art in Egypt paralleled the country's political history and is divided into three periods: Old Kingdom (circa 2700–circa 2150 BC), Middle Kingdom (circa 2000–circa 1670 BC), and New Kingdom (circa 1550–circa 1070 BC). The Old Kingdom's stone tombs and temples were decorated with vigorous and brightly painted reliefs illustrating the daily life of the people. Rules for portraying the human figure were established, specifying proportions, postures, and placement of details, often linked to the subjects' social standing. An artistic decline at the end of the Old Kingdom led to a revival in the more stable political climate of the Middle Kingdom, notable for its expressive portrait sculptures of kings and its excellent relief sculptures and painting. The New Kingdom brought a magnificent flowering of the arts; great granite statues and wall reliefs glorified rulers and gods, painting became an independent art, and the decorative crafts reached new peaks, the treasure of Tutankhamen's tomb typifying the variety of luxury items created. Seealso Egyptian architecture.
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