Mohamed abdel Aziz
Ancient Egyptian Religions
Vol 7 1998
A comprehensive knowledge of Egyptian religion is indispensable for anyone who wishes to grasp the essence of the Egyptian civilization. Religion had deeply dominated all aspects of the Egyptian culture, its art, science, government and law. In fact, it was the ‘womb’ of that ancient culture.
Egyptian religion can be characterized by its infinite complexity and diversity which is justified by the constant growth of religious beliefs over many centuries during which new ideas were introduced without ever discarding any old ones (except during the reign of Akhenaten). Therefore, to the ancient Egyptian this diversity of beliefs and gods was acceptable, consequently, each divine power was approached by a variety of images related to nature, animal and human life.
Sources of Information:
Much of our knowledge about religion comes from the religious literature in the form of hymns, charms, spells and other religious texts inscribed on the walls of the tombs and temples, and on coffins, stelac, statues and papyri. The earliest religious writings were the Pyramid Texts written on the walls of the burial chambers of the fifth and sixth dynasties’ rulers within their pyramids.
In the Middle Kingdom these were transferred from the structure of the tomb to the coffins, thus given the name the Coffin Texts. In the New Kingdom these were replaced by what is known as the Book of the Dead (190 chapters) which were rolls of papyrus buried with the dead in the coffin. Various other ‘books’ are known as the Am-duat, Book of the Gates, Book of the Day & Night . . etc.; the texts in their various forms were concentrating on one main subject: the welfare of the dead and that person’s journey in the after life.
Gods and Myth
The Egyptian pantheon was so diversified, it included many gods that varied in character and form, some being defined by myth, and others by geographic location and organization into groups.
Ancient Egypt was composed of many local areas referred to as nomes, each possessed its own traditions and customs with its own divinity that was worshiped by its inhabitants. These deities shared the fate of their localities meaning that depending on the political and economic importance of the locality, some of the deities were promoted to state gods whose cults spread all over the country .. such as Ptah of Memphis, Amon of Thebes and Re of Heliopolis.
There were other gods who did not have local basis, however, they participated and fulfilled their roles in general myths of creation, like Nun which was a personification of chaos before
Most Egyptians did not have access to the state gods in the temples’ shrines, which was the most sacred place. The common people could only approach the gods at national festivals. So, there were additional deities who answered the everyday life wishes and were connected with the family. These are referred to as household deities. The most popular were Bes and Tawert that were associated with childbirth.
Gods represented themselves in various forms and manifested human behaviour. They thought, they spoke, they dined, and they had emotions.
Sometimes they went into battle and travelled by boat, some even drank to excess, as illustrated by the behaviour of the goddess Hathor in the myth of the Destruction of Mankind.
The deities could be human, such as the gods Amon and Ptah, or animal, such as the gods Anubis as a jackal and Sobek as a crocodile.
The Egyptian deities sometimes combined the human and animal forms in one image, such as the gods Horus shown as a falcon-headed man, and Sekhmet as a lioness-headed woman.
Often the same deity possessed more than one form of representation. Gods were assimilated together to form sets composed of three deities, two adults and one youthful deity. These were referred to as triads like the Theban triad of Amon-Re and Mut as his consort with Khonsu as their child, another common way of combining gods is referred to as syncretism, which is when a deity takes the name and character of a more important one, therefore Amon-Re means Amon in the form of Re.
The Origin of the World
In the ancient Egyptian’s view of the world, both divine and human worlds had come into being at the time of creation, before which there was only uncreated matter. The act of creation took place when this matter was separated into the myriad different forms that make up the created world.
The Temple as the Cosmos
The temple was considered the dwelling house of the god; it was a miniature picture of the world at the moment of creation .. the temple was the center of creation. This symbolic role of the temple was expressed in its location and design, as well as the decoration of its walls and ceiling.
The structure was separated from the outside world by a massive mud brick enclosure wall symbolizing the watery state of the cosmos at creation. Within this lay the main wall or the entrance wall, decorated with scenes of the King slaughtering his enemies. The pylon is the largest element in the temple, symbolizing the hieroglyph of the horizon with its two massive columns and the gap between them. The orientation of the temple was always east-west, such that when the sun rises, its rays penetrate the pylon gateway to the sanctuary (or shrine where the statue of the god was kept) which is placed in axis.
The shrine represents the mound of creation, so, in passing through the temple toward it, one goes through the various phases of creation.
The hypostyle hall encompasses the decorative scheme of the whole. The hall with its columns represented the marsh of creation while the ceiling is decorated with reliefs of the sky.
The give and take relation between the king and the god is the core of the world activity and is represented on the walls of the temple. There was a consistent general pattern of temple building which ensured a gradual approach was made to the divinity. The arrangement consisted of a move from light to shadow, with a rise in the floor level and a lowering of the ceiling.
The public had no role in the daily rituals, in fact access to the inner parts of the temple were strictly forbidden. Only during the great festivals were they able to participate. Each temple had a calendar of its feasts.
One of the most important festivals was The Feast of Opet, held in Thebes during the second month of the season of the inundation. Another was The New Year Feast. There was also the visit of the goddess Hathor of Dandara to the god Horus of Edfu, details of this great procession that covered a distance of 180 kilometers are depicted on the temple’s court walls Edfu.
Funerary Beliefs and Customs
Egyptians were particularly religious people, obsessed by death and burial, however, their preoccupation with the after-life originated from the Egyptian’s devotion to life and the perfect harmony they found in the Egyptian environment.
In general it was believed that the best existence of man after life is composed of what was thought to be the best and most desired style of life on earth. In death, as in life, the Egyptians expected to belong to an hierarchical society.
Towards that end, the deceased assured that his name continued to exist, his body remained intact, and supplied with all the necessary food and drink. This led to the development of exquisite tombs, containing incorruptible mummy and inscribed with texts of the owner’s name and scenes of food, drink and other necessary and desired objects that would secure his after-life.
Most of the information about the Egyptian customs comes from their tombs. It is therefore difficult to give an account of the beliefs of all the social classes