It is usually taken for granted that the earliest Egyptians of the prehistoric period possessed ideas that can be defined as “religious.”

Since writing had not yet been invented and in consequence no written records existed until much later, there is no actual proof that those primitive inhabitants of the Nile Valley actually believed in a supernatural being who protected them or heard their prayers. Whether for “religious” reasons or for motives unknown to us, the dead were supplied at burial with food and drink, implements associated with their daily life, and articles of adornment, including even cosmetics. Sometimes such objects were placed close to the bodies of the dead. At other times they were placed outside the burial chamber, yet close enough to be at hand if needed.


Ancient Egypt : Religion

Prehistoric Beliefs.

What little has been learned from the early written records of the historical period is corroborative of the “religious” motives for the burial practices of prehistoric times. Different burial features in the prehistoric settlements and cemeteries of Merimde-Beni Salame, Badari, Nagada, Gerzeh, and El-Amrah point to varying religious beliefs among these peoples, just as’ their pottery and other possessions differ from one another.

If the body was laid on the left side facing east, sun worship may be indicated, for a well-known practice of sun worship in later times was to have the deceased facing the rising sun. If the body faced the west, a belief that the west was the dwelling place of the dead may be indicated. This belief, too, was current in later times. At Merimde-Beni Salame, the dead were turned to face the north or northeast. It is known from certain of the Pyramid Texts, which are only a few centuries later in date, that the dead were believed to join in some manner the neversetting stars of the northern sky. Thus the conflicting beliefs of the later Egyptians may have been inherited from remote ancestors of different prehistoric cultures.


The painted pottery of the Gerzean (Nagada II) period (about 3400 b. c.) is commonly decorated with distinctive emblems similar to those associated with certain gods and carried on the tops of long poles during religious festivals. Some of these insignia survive into the historical period as the emblems of names of local gods. Indeed, the pole itself with pendant streamers actually became the hieroglyphic sign for the word “god.” It is therefore evident that district deities were acknowledged and worshiped from remote times, and that certain religious practices and paraphernalia of the earliest historical period had been adopted and developed long before the dawn of history.

The primitive religion was fetishistic, and numerous aninıals were venerated because of their strength or other feared or admired qualities. There were cults devoted to the bull, lion, baboon, ibis, dog, vulture, hawk, cobra, ram, and many other creatures.

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By the beginning of the historical period many of the sacred animals or other cult objects had been anthropomorphized. Early man, as he advanced in knowledge and civilization, tended to consider his gods increasingly in terms of himself. Thus, instead of representing the god Horus as a hawk, the Egyptians depicted him as a man with a hawk’s head. The goddess Selkis, originally worshiped as a scorpion, became a woman with a scorpion on her head. Anıon (Amun), later considered the king of the gods, was sometimes pictured in human form with a ram’s head but more often was portrayed in purely human form. A few divinities, like Ptah and Osiris, were always represented in completely human form.


Local Gods.

The multiplicity of Egyptian gods must be explained by the fact that each of the early communities was sufficiently isolated from its neighbors that it directed its loyalty to a local divinity. Later, as communications between villages developed, the inhabitants were probably attracted to neighboring gods. The concept of monotheistic worship was undreamed of. If the name of a local god was feminine in grammatical gender, the divinity was considered to be a woman. Perhaps a nearby settlement honored a deity with a masculine name—the difference being merely the ending w rather than t—and thus worshiped a male god. Under such circumstances it was natural to assunıe a marriage between such neighboring divinities, with a pair receiving the homage of communities formerly attached to a single god.

In time, the primitive communities increased in population and developed into nomes, or provinces. Two groups of these became linked together in a sort of political alliance, with 20 nomes in the northern part of the country, the Delta, and 22 in the long narrow valley to the south. Each of these nomes carried on the ancient tradition by which its god or goddess was designated by an emblem fixed to a pole, much like the formal arms of European cities of the Middle Ages. Each nome had its own divinity, but the same divinity was occasionally worshiped by the inhabitants of several nomes.

Later the northern and southern groups of nomes solidified their alliances into two states, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt respectively, each with its own king. These in turn, shortly before the dawn of history, were united into a single state under one ruler—an achievement memorialized as the “Union of the Two Lands.” Tradition ascribes the union to Menes—supposedly the first king of the İst dynasty—who appears to have been a worshiper of the god Horus and the goddess Hathor. They were elevated far above the gods of nomes less important than theirs.

Horus, the chief god of the early Lower Egyptian capital, Buto, gained ascendancy over Set (Seth), the presiding deity of Ombos, the old Upper Egyptian capital. Indeed, the struggle between these two gods became the theme of numerous literary and mythological works current long after the historical events that they reflect had been forgotten.


Inevitably the gods of other important political centers were worshiped far beyond their places of origin. Thus Re (Ra), at first the local god of Heliopolis, and Ptah, native to Memphis, the capital traditionally founded by King Menes, became national gods of primary importance. Less esteemed divinities were raised to high regard by association or even identification with them, the most famous of these being Amon-Re, the imperial god of Thebes.

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Cults, Myths, and Centers of worship.

Two of the most important Egyptian cults were those of the sun god Re and the resurrected Osiris.

Since Memphis was close to Heliopolis, which had an influential priesthood serving Re, the worship of Re prevailed at the early court. From the 4th dynasty, Egyptian kings considered themselves to be the “son of Re,” and this designation became one of the most important elements of their official titulary.


Re was closely associated with a group of gods called the Heliopolitan Ennead. These nine gods were Atum, Osiris, Set, Isis, Nephthys, Shu, Tefnut, Nut, and Geb. Re’s chief center of worship continued to be Heliopolis, although there were many others, in most of which local gods were raised to eminence through identification with Re. Besides Amon-Re, there were Khnum-Re, Sobek-Re ( Montu-Re), and numerous others. Such syncretism became characteristic of the later Egyptian religion.

So early in Egyptian history that its origin is lost, there was a prevalent myth in which a king named Osiris was murdered by his ambitious brother Set, who subsequently dismembered the body and scattered its parts up and dovin the Nife Valley. The dead king was mourned by his two sisters, Isis (who was also his wife) and also Nephthys, and the erime was eventualİy avenged by his son, Horus. After a bitter struggle Horus succeeded in regaining his stolen inheritance from his usurping uncle, Set. The murdered Osiris assumed a ghostly existence as king of the netherworld, while Horus reigned in his place on earth. This myth appealed deeply to the Egyptians. The family circle of Osiris was afForded universal worship throughout the country and later over much of the Roman Empire.

The pharaoh identifîed himself with Horus, the king triumphant over his foes and the champion of his father. At his death he also reigned in the netherworld as Osiris. In the course of time, the Osiris doctrine was taken over by the masses to such an extent that each individual believed that he would become an Osiris after death and thus triumph over the forces of destruction, both of body and of “soul.”

The chief center of Osiris worship was Abydos, where the god’s head was supposed to have been buried. In consequence, Abydos became a sort of Egyption Mecca. Countless pil-grims journeyed there to worship Osiris, who, like every man, had passed through the shadow of death but who in addition had emerged in justification and triumph. Abydos was adorned with splendid temples by later kings, while thousands of lesser monuments were ereeted by the endless stream of devotees who came to worship at the shrine of the “first of the westerners,” the king of the dead.


A third important company of gods was associated with Hermopolis in Middle Egypt. The town’s modern name, El-Ashmunein, retains the ancient Egyptian word for “eight” (shmun or khmun), referring to the eight divinities of Hermopolis. These consisted of four couples—Nu (Nun) and Naunet, Huh and Hauhet, Kuk and Kauket,. Amon (Amun) and Amaunet—who symbolized the elements: depth, infinity, darkness, and invisibility. Nu was the primordial water, alone existent, out of which the first land emerged. This event had occurred, of course, at Hermopolis. Then, upon the origmal emergent soil, the Heliopolitan god Atum mysteriously came into being, and from him the remainder of the Heliopolitan Ennead sprang forth. The Hermopolitan Amon, “lhe invisible god,” later migrated to Thebes, where he became the chief god of the Egyptian Empire. identifîed with Re as Amon-Re, he lost much of his primeval significance.

While one of the chief creation myths of the Egyptians was thus associated with Hermopolis, it offers no explanation of the creation of mankind, about which no developed doctrine is known to have been formulated by the Egyptians. They believed in part that man (rmt) oıiginated from the tears (rmy.t) of the god Re —a mere play on words—or that he was formed on the potter’s wheel by the god Khnum.

Theological Speculation and Devotional Literature.

Few of the theological speculations of the Egyptians have survived, because of the perishable nature of their writing materials. Nevertheless, a fragmentary copy of a famous theological document has been preserved, copied on stone in the reign of Shabaka (25th dynasty) from an ancient text on a worm-eaten manuscript. The document presents a religious system developed to promote the interests of the Memphite circle of gods, Ptah and his associates.

Ptah is declared to have been the original god, while the eight principal divinities of creation, including Nu and Naunet—other names are unfortunately destroyed—are merely forms of Ptah himself. Atum’s circle of deities (the Heliopolitan Ennead) are simply the teeth and lips of Ptah’s mouth, by which he created ali thmgs by pronouncing their names. However, behind the activity of Ptah’s teeth and lips the heart and tongue stand in control. These, though outwardly symbolized as Atum, are at the same time Horus and Thoth, respectively, but in essence they are at the same time manifestations of Ptah. Thus Ptah, as heart, is in every body, human and animal; and, as tongue, he is in every mouth. Since the heart (mind) forms ali concepts and the tongue by command executes every act after it has been conceived, it is therefore Ptah who has created and who maintains the world order.


In contrast to this speculative “document of Memphite theology,” with its unique attempt at an intellectual explanation of origins, Egyptian devotional literature was exceedingly common. Hundreds of hymns to the gods have survived, some carved on the stone walls of temples and tombs and many written on papyrus. Nearly ali of the great gods are thus honored. It is evident from their positions at the entrances of tombs that such hymns were regularly chanted in worship of the rising and setting sun, but full information about the use of hymns in formal worship or by the masses is lacking.

Many of the compositions are filled with obscure references to myths and legends of the gods, with endless and often empty phrases intended to honor the god as creator and sustainer of the universe. Only a few of them rise to lofty imagery and noble sentiment. They reach their highest level in the “monotheistic” hymn to the sun god Aton, probably composed by the religious heretic King Akhenaton. Although* somewhat pantheistic in tone, this hymn contains phrases comparable to the Old Testament Psalms and particularly to Psalm 104, which seems to have been to some degree influenced by it.

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Cult Ceremonies and Festivals.

In the magnificent temples that the Egyptians built to their gods, the official cult was carried on in theory by the king alone but actually by his deputies, the priests. The cult was based on the simple premise that the gods needed food, drink, clothing, and bathing, the same as men. The ceremonies to provide such necessities were elaborate, and they varied little in character from the Old Kingdom to the end of Egyptian paganism in the 5th century a. d.


The 19th and 20th dynasties have provided considerable evidence to illustrate the richness of the established state religion of the period. The temples that Ramses II and Ramses III built near their tombs west of Thebes in order to serve their mortuary cults contain long hieroglyphic inscriptions on their south walls. The text on the temple of Ramses III, at Medinet Habu, was copied in large part from that of Ramses II’s temple, which is called the Ramesseum. The inscriptions contain lists of offerings to Amon-Re, king of the gods, and the divinities associated with him. Since most of the long lists are introduced by a specific date, the two voluminous inscriptions are usually referred to as the temple “calendar.”

Several of the Medinet Habu lists are devoted to new endowments established by Ramses III, but most of them confirm endowments originated by earlier, unidentified kings, so that the gods concerned will continue to enjoy the provision for their needs to which they have become accustomed by past benefactions. The numerous sections of the calendar are systematically composed, giving the source of income of the endowment, the dates when the products are to be offered in the temple, and the names and quantities of the articles to be supplied, some of which, such as bread and beer, are provided in enormous quantities.

At the beginning, the daily supplies for the morning offerings are listed. Next come the provisions for the twoday Feast of the Valley, one of the great annual festivals celebrated in Thebes. This is followed by the sections providing the offerings for the daily temple service, each offering item being named separately and followed by the total of each for the entire year. After the daily offerings the next sections proceed to detail the objects presented at eight monthly feasts, with a list for each and a total for ali. Finally, after several supplementary or special lists, the main sections of the calendar follow, with lists of offerings to Amon-Re and his Ennead for the annual feasts, each of which is precisely dated.

The first of the annual feasts is naturally that of the Coronation, commemorating the accession of Ramses III to the throne. Then, in order, come the sections devoted to the Feast of Sothis, the Wag Feast (an offering feast for the dead), the Feast of Thoth, the Feast of the Great Procession of Osiris, and the Feast of Opet, which lasted for 27 days and consumed a prodigious quantity of offerings for Amon.


A special offering list is interpolated for the benefit of the priests who officiated at the Feast of Opet, and a summary follows with the “total of bread, beer, oxen, geese, wine, fruit, and incense which the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ramses III, offered to his father Amon-Re, his divine Ennead, and the Standard of Usermare-Meryamun (Ramses III) at the Feast of Opet, the products to be charged to the magazine of this temple.” Then the remaining 26 annual feasts are listed.

State Religion.

From this list of feasts celebrated in an Egyptian temple of the 20th dynasty, detailing the immense quantities of food provided by the temple endowment dedicated to the gods, it is clear that much of the wealth of the state must have been concentrated in the religious establishment. If the same conditions prevailed in the splendid era of the 18th dynasty under Amenhotep III, as is very probable, it may well be that his son Akhenaton was motivated in his rebellion against the state religion at least in part by a desire to crush the authority of the hierarchy of Amon. However that may be, Akhenaton’s monotheism perished with him. The priests of Amon prevailed: they augmented their prestige and financial power to the degree reffected in the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu calendars; and eventually a priest of Amon occupied the throne at the end of the 21st dynasty.

At the time of Ramses III, the Amon hierarehy owned about 20% of the agricultural land of Egypt. It is easy to understand how the priests were in a position to force this king, whose father had been an obscure usurper, to erect and maintain the endowments of Medinet Habu and of two or three temples at Karnak as well. It was, of course, the priestly personnel and their families and dependents who ultimately consumed the vast wealth of food and other goods that make up the lists of offerings for the temple service and the special feasts.

Popular Religion.

The Egyptian masses, who are known to have been especially impoverished in the reign of Ramses III, did not benefit from the temple offerings, unless they belonged to the army of retainers. Indeed, they were denied access to the temples altogether and had no paıt in the formal cult of the gods, although a few of them may have been pernıitted within the open çourts of the temples. They did, however, participate in the numerous outdoor festivals of the gods that were celebrated during the course of the year. These took the form of elaborate and colorful processions in which the gods of one temple were ceremonially conducted, usually by boat on the Nile and connecting canals, to “visit” their neighbors in other sanctuaries.


Such festive occasions were outstanding events in the lives of the Egyptian people. They were attended with much feasting, drinking, and revelry at the refreshment booths erected along the route of the processions. The chief of these annual events, the 27-day Feast of Opet, became so deeply embedded in the hearts of the Egyptians that some of its features are retained in the principal Muslim festival of modern Luxor. For example, boatloads of people are transported on carts through the streets, just as the sacred barges of Amon, Mut, and Khonsu and the royal barge were towed on the Nile from Karnak to Luxor and back again.

If the common people were excluded from the state temples, they were nevertheless not deprived of more humble expressions of their religious faith. In blank spaees on temple walls, they often carved crude figures of certain gods before which they worshiped in a simple cult of their own devising. Some of them erected stone steles decorated with incised representations of numerous human ears, representing ears of the gods, who would hear and answer their prayers.

Burial Customs.

At the huge mortuary temple that the king built for himself, offerings were supplied in prodigious quantities not only during his lifetime but, more important stili, to provide his needs in the world to come, when his body was safely at rest in the tomb. The king’s subjects, if they were sufficiently afBuent, provided elaborate tombs for themselves, which imitated most of the features of the royal temples and tombs. At Thebes, not far from the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, these private tombs were usually cut into the limestone hills.

The mortuary chapel was usually a pair of rooms connected in the form of a T with the burial chamber hewn beneath the rear end of the long hail. The transverse hail in front was elaborately decorated with paintings or reliefs depicting scenes from the daily life of the owner. The long corridor leadıng to the entrance of the burial pit was normally reserved for funerary scenes and ritual texts intended to ensure the welfare of the body in the afterlife.


Not infrequently the tomb walls contained hieroglyphic inscriptions derived from the Book of the Dead and other religious writings. Their employment was a typical manifestation of Egyptian belief in magic. The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom and the Cofiîn Texts of the Middle Kingdom had also been compiled to ensure a happy and prosperous future existenee for kings and nobles. In the Book of the Dead there was even a magical spell that aimed at providing a substitute to step forth in place of the dead man in case he should be called upon to perform any menial labor in the afterlife. It occurs among the other magical spells written on rolls of papyrus deposited with the dead, but even more frequently on the small human statuettes known as shatvabti’s or ushebti’s (“answerers”), which were commonly provided, at least one for every day of the year.

Egyptian Morality.

From the religious point of view the ancient Egyptians were singularly complacent and self-righteous. Nevertheless they possessed from an early period a comparatively lofty moral code, which is well summarized in the “Declaration of Innocence,” constituting the 125th chapter, or spell, of the Book of the Dead. This consists of a series of denials, on the part of the dead man or woman, of having committed various sins or moral transgressions: “I did not blaspheme,” “I did not kili,” “I did not lie,” “I did not diminish the food offerings in a temple,” “I did not alter the size of the grain measure,” “I did not stir up strife,” “I did not talk too much,” “I did not commit adultery,” and many more.

The long text of the Declaration of Innocence was illustrated in many papyrus copies of the Book of the Dead by a drawing, or vignette, showing a balance set up before the enthroned Osiris as King of the Dead and presided over by Horus and Anubis. In the pans of the balance, the heart of the deceased is weighed against the symbol of truth, a feather. Magic is here supreme.

The judgment before the great Osiris is always resolved in favor of the deceased, who never fails to be innocent of every offense named in the list. However, to be absolutely certain. that there would be no slip of justice, the deceased provided, for burial on the breast of his mummy, an additional safeguard—a large stone “heart scarab” inscribed with another hieroglyphic spell from the Book of the Dead. This was an address to his heart that prohibited it from testifying against him in the judgment or admitting that he had ever been guilty of a single infraction listed in the Declaration of Innocence.


Thus in every aspect of life the Egyptian was persuaded of the complete efficacy of magic to achieve his desires and to repel misfortune. By magic he was certain of even being able to force the gods to render ample return for every service that he rendered them. Only among the lower classes in the late Empire period does evidence testify to a sense of guilt or evildoing and to a need for repentance.

But even these feelings appear to have stemmed from the fear of physical misfortune, such as the divine imposition of blindness; they did not arise from any moral awareness of man’s shortcomings in contrast to the perfection of the gods as a guiding force in human conduct. The average Egyptian desired to leave a “good name” after him. He wished to be remembered by future generations as one who “had done what men praised and the gods desired.”

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