The religion of Ancient Egypt lasted for more than 3,000 years. It is indigenous beliefs of ancient Egypt from predynastic times (4th millennium BCE) to the disappearance of the traditional culture in the first centuries CE. It was polytheistic, meaning many deities were believed to reside within and control the forces of nature.
Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals that formed an integral part of ancient Egyptian culture. It is centred on the Egyptians’ interactions with many deities present in and in control of the world. Rituals such as prayer and offerings were provided to the gods to gain their favour. Formal religious practice centred on the pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt, believed to possess divine powers under their positions. They acted as intermediaries between their people and the gods. They were obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain Ma’at, the order of the cosmos, and repel Isfet, which was chaos. The state dedicated enormous resources to religious rituals and the construction of temples.
Individuals could interact with the gods for their purposes, appealing for help through prayer or compelling the gods to act through magic. These practices were distinct from but closely linked to the formal rituals and institutions. The popular religious tradition grew more prominent throughout Egyptian history as the status of the pharaoh declined. Egyptian belief in the afterlife and the importance of funerary practices is evident in the great efforts made to ensure the survival of their souls after death – via the provision of tombs, grave goods and offerings to preserve the bodies and spirits of the deceased.
Roots of Ancient Egyptian Religion
Religion is rooted in Egypt’s prehistory and lasted for 3,500 years. The details of religious belief changed over time as the importance of particular gods rose and declined, and their intricate relationships shifted. At various times, certain gods became preeminent, including the sun god Ra, the creator god Amun, and the mother goddess Isis. For a brief period, in the theology promulgated by the pharaoh Akhenaten, a single god, the Aten, replaced the traditional pantheon. Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology left behind many writings and monuments and significant influences on ancient and modern cultures.
Beliefs in Ancient Egyptian Religion
The beliefs and rituals now referred to as “ancient Egyptian religion” were integral within every aspect of Egyptian culture. The Egyptian language possessed no single term corresponding to the modern European concept of religion. Ancient Egyptian religion consisted of a vast and varying set of beliefs and practices linked by their shared focus on the interaction between humans and the world of the divine. The god characteristics that populated the divine realm were inextricably linked to the Egyptians’ understanding of the properties of the world in which they lived.
Deities in the Ancient Egyptian Religion
The Egyptians believed that the phenomena of nature were divine forces in and of themselves. These deified forces include elements, animal characteristics, or abstract forces. The 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, as some deities existed in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles.
The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or “demons” with very limited or localised functions. It could include gods adopted from foreign cultures and sometimes humans: deceased pharaohs were divine, and occasionally, distinguished commoners such as Imhotep became deified. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with multiple deities.
The depictions of the gods in art were not meant as literal representations of how the gods might appear if they were visible, as the gods’ true natures were mysterious. Instead, these depictions gave recognisable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god’s role in nature. This iconography was not fixed, and many gods could be depicted in more than one form.
Many gods were associated with particular regions in Egypt where their cults were most important. However, these associations changed over time. Also, they did not mean that the god associated with a place had originated there. For instance, the god Montu was the original patron of the city of Thebes. However, throughout the Middle Kingdom, he was displaced in that role by Amun, who may have arisen elsewhere. The national popularity and importance of individual gods fluctuated similarly.
Deities had complex interrelationships, which partly reflected the interaction of the forces they represented. The Egyptians often grouped gods to reflect these relationships. One of the more common combinations was a family triad consisting of 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.
The relationships between deities could also be expressed in the process of syncretism, in which two or more different gods were linked to form a composite deity. This process recognised the presence of one god “in” another when the second god took on a role belonging to the first. These links between deities were fluid and did not represent the permanent merging of two gods into one; therefore, some gods could develop multiple syncretic connections. Sometimes, syncretism combined deities with very similar characteristics. At other times it joined gods with very different natures, as when Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked to Ra, the god of the sun. Amun-Ra’s resulting god thus united the power that lay behind all things with the most tremendous and now visible force in nature.
Many deities could be given epithets that indicate that they were more fantastic than any other god, suggesting some unity beyond the multitude of natural forces. This conclusion is particularly true of a few gods who, at various points, rose to supreme importance in Egyptian religion. These included the royal patron Horus, the sun god Ra, and the mother goddess Isis. During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), Amun held this position. 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.
The Egyptian conception of the universe is centred on Ma’at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English, including “truth,” “justice,” and “order.” Ancient Egyptians often personified The fixed and eternal universe order as a goddess in cosmos and human society. It had existed since the world’s creation, and without it, the world would lose its cohesion.
In Egyptian belief, Ma’at was constantly under threat from the forces of disorder, so 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 means that all of the forces of nature — the gods — should continue to function in balance. This latter goal was central to the 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 now essential 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.
Shape of the Cosmos
When thinking of the shape of the cosmos, the 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 creation. The Egyptians also believed in the Duat, a mysterious region associated with death and rebirth that may have a law in the underworld or the sky. Each day, Ra travelled 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 the 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 was the third category, and the most important among them was the pharaoh, who bridged the human and divine realms.
Egyptologists have long debated the degree to which the pharaoh was considered a god. It seems most likely that the Egyptians viewed royal authority as a divine force. Therefore, although the Egyptians recognised 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, therefore, 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 accordingly, the son of Ra. The latter ruled and regulated nature as the pharaoh ruled and regulated society. He was also associated with Amun by the New Kingdom, the supreme force in the cosmos. Upon his death, the king became wholly deified. In this state, he was directly identified with Ra and was also associated with Osiris, god of death and rebirth and the mythological father of Horus. Ancients dedicated Many mortuary temples to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.
The Egyptians had elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a Ka, or life force, which left the body at the point of death. The Ka received its sustenance from food and drink in life, so it endured the journey after death. Consequently, the Ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still consume. Each person also had a ba, the spiritual characteristics unique to each individual.
Unlike the Ka, the Ba remained attached to the body after death. Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the Ba from the body to move freely and rejoin it with the Ka to live on as an Akh. However, it was also crucial that the deceased’s body be preserved, as the Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to receive new life before emerging in the morning as an Akh.
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 judgement, known as the “Weighing of the Heart”, carried out by Osiris and by the Assessors of Maat. In this judgement, the gods compared the deceased’s actions while alive (symbolised by the heart) to the feather of Maat to determine whether the dead had behaved per Maat. If the deceased was judged worthy, Ka and Ba were united into an Akh.
In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to ascend to the sky and dwell among the stars. However, throughout the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), he came to be more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris as those deities grew very important.
Several beliefs coexisted about the Akh’s destination. Often, the dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, lush and pleasant land in the underworld. The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased soul travelled with Ra on his daily journey, was still primarily associated with royalty but could extend to other people as well. 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 favour of the sun-disk Aten. The exclusion of all but one god from worship was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition. Historians regard this action as the first instance of true monotheism in history. However, the details of Atenist theology are still unclear, and the suggestion that it was monotheistic is disputed. 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, and Akhenaten himself came to be reviled as a heretic.
While the Egyptians had no unified religious scripture, they produced many religious writings of various types. The disparate texts provide an extensive but incomplete understanding of Egyptian religious practices and beliefs.
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 convey different symbolic perspectives on the mysterious divine events they described. Many myths exist in different and conflicting versions. Mythical narratives were rarely written in total, and more often, texts only contain episodes from or allusions to a more prominent myth.
Therefore, Egyptian mythology was derived chiefly from hymns that detail the roles of specific deities. It also came from ritual and magical texts that described actions related to mythic events; and from funerary texts that mention the functions of many gods in the afterlife. Finally, Greeks and Romans such as Plutarch recorded some extant myths late in Egyptian history. Allusions in secular texts also provide some information.
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 creation process in various ways. In other words, it describes transforming the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world, as the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah, and as an act of the hidden power of Amun. Regardless of these variations, the creation act represented the initial establishment of Ma’at and the pattern for the time subsequent cycles.
The most important of all Egyptian myths was the Osiris myth. It tells of the divine ruler Osiris, murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god often associated with chaos. Osiris‘s sister and wife, Isis, resurrected him to 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. This identification 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 this time cycle, crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death.
Journey of Ra
Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. In this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who again 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, an event that symbolised rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.