Religion in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian religion revolved around multiple Egyptian gods and Egyptian Pharaohs. They performed prayers and offerings to gain the favor of the gods. 

Egyptians applied the principle of Ma’at (harmony) and understand how their actions affect others’ life along with theirs. 

They depended on each other to acquire the most significant level of pleasure and happiness for humans through a harmonious existence. 

It was considered the will of gods and also thought to help them perform their tasks better.

What religion did ancient Egyptians believe in?

The ancient Egyptians were polytheistic, believing in multiple gods. They thought that gods and goddesses controlled the forces of human nature and the supernatural world.

Why was religion important in ancient Egypt?

Every aspect of the lives of Egyptians revolved around religion. They thought life continued after death, and to make that possible, and they had to live a life worthy of continuation.

How was mummification associated with Egyptian beliefs?

Ancient Egyptians believed that mummification would preserve the body for use in the afterlife.

Egyptian Gods and Goddesses 

A portrait of Ancient Egyptian deities Osiris, Anubis, and Horus
A portrait of Ancient Egyptian deities Osiris, Anubis, and Horus
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Egyptians believed that the wonder of nature was due to divine forces. These included the elements, characters of the animals, and random forces. 

Multiple deities were associated with natural resources such as the sun. The roles of the gods ranged from prominent and essential to minor such as the devil with a limited role. 

Deceased Egyptian pharaohs were thought to be divine, and sometimes even some commoners like Imhotep were declared deities.

Many gods represented certain regions in Egypt where cults were important. However, it changed over time, and the importance of individual gods altered similarly.

There was a complex interrelationship among the deities, and the Egyptians grouped them based on the forces they represented. A common example of the combination was a family triad where a father, mother, and child were worshipped together.

A group of gods called the Enead was a group of nine deities all of who were associated with creation, kingship, and the afterlife.

Syncretism was another process to express the relationship between gods. Two or more gods were combined to form a mixed deity, the presence of one god was recognized in the other and the second god took on the role of the first god. 

This was not a permanent merging so that some gods could develop multiple syncretic connections. Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked with Ra, the god of the sun resulting in Amun-Ra with the most significant and most visible force in nature.

Some deities were given nicknames to indicate that they were more significant than any other god. This was true for a few gods who rose to utmost importance at some point in Egyptian religion. 

The names were royal patron Horus, the sun god Ra, and the mother goddess Isis. Amun held this position during the New Kingdom, declaring he embodied the all-encompassing power of the divine more than any other deities.

Cosmology

A portrait of Ancient Egyptian Goddess Ma'at
A portrait of Ancient Egyptian Goddess Ma’at

The concept of the universe in ancient Egypt revolved around Ma’at, meaning harmony, truth, justice, and order. It was the permanent, eternal order of the universe in the cosmos and human society and was personified as a goddess. 

Ma’at was under constant threat from the forces of disorder. Because of this, society was responsible for maintaining it.

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By honoring the belief of Ma’at, a person was aligned with the gods and the forces of light in contrast to the forces of darkness and chaos.

This assured one’s entrance to the Hall of Truth after their death and a favorable judgment by the Lord of the Dead, Osiris.

Pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt, possessed divine powers to benefit their positions. They acted as a mediator between gods and their people. 

Pharaohs sustained gods through rituals and offerings to maintain Ma’at, the order of the cosmos, and repel Isfet (disharmony). The state dedicated massive amounts to religious practices and to constructing temples.

The Egyptians attempted to maintain Ma’at in the cosmos by satisfying the gods through offerings, and rituals kept the disorders at bay and continued the cycles of nature. 

The concept of time was another critical factor in maintaining Ma’at. Ma’at was renewed by periodic events that resonated with the original creation. The Nile flood and the succession of power from one king to another were among these events.

The Egyptians saw the earth as flat land, ruled by the god Geb and the sky over it governed by goddess Nut. Between the two was governed by Shu, the god of air, god of underwater, below the earth was a parallel underworld and under the sky, and above the sky was infinite space, ruled by Nu.

Egyptians regarded Duat as a mysterious space related to death and rebirth residing in the underworld or the sky. Ra traveled to the earth every day across the underside of the sky, and during the nighttime, he traveled through the Duat to be reborn at dawn.

Egyptians had three varieties of conscious beings-gods, the spirits of deceased humans, and living humans in the cosmos. 

The spirits resided in the sacred land and had many of the gods’ abilities. The most influential people in the human category were the pharaohs, the mediators between the human and the divine beings.

The pharaoh was considered a god as he was an incarnation of the divine power of kingship and so acted as a mediator. He was associated with various deities as well, such as with Horus, who represented kingship itself. 

He was considered the son of Ra, who ruled and regulated nature similar to pharaoh supervising and controlling society.

Life after death

A portion of Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
A portion of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

According to Egyptian mythology, Egyptians believed that humans possessed the life force, Ka, that left the body at death and could move around freely. It was fueled by food and drink but was left stuck unable to find food and drink. For that, Egyptians offered food and drink as offerings to persist after death. 

Ba was another thing that humans had, a set of spiritual characteristics unique to each individual. Ba remained attached to the body even after death, so Egyptians held funerals to release Ba from the body.

The funeral helped Ba to move freely and later rejoin with Ka to live as an Akh. The dead body was preserved as the ba returned to its body each night to receive a new life and emerged in the morning as an Akh.

The deceased pharaoh was thought to ascend to the sky and live among the stars. Egyptians believed that the soul had to avoid several supernatural dangers in the Duat before getting the final verdict called the “Weighing of the Heart,” which was carried out by Osiris and the Assessors of Maat.

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In this, the gods compared the deceased person’s actions when they were alive to determine whether they behaved following Maat.

If they were decided to be worthy, their Ka and Ba united into an Akh. The dead dwelled in the land of Osiris, which was a pleasant land in the underworld. Their soul traveled with Ra on his daily journey but could move on to other people as well.

The Pharaoh Akhenaten, during the New Kingdom, eliminated worshipping other gods than the sun-disk Aten. This was history’s first initiation of true monotheism. Some see him as a practitioner of monolatry rather than monotheism since he did not deny the existence of other gods.

Mythology

A depiction of one of the Ancient Egyptian Myth where Nun lifts the barque of the sun god Ra into the sky-min
A depiction of one of the Ancient Egyptian Myth where Nun lifts the barque of the sun god Ra into the sky

Egyptian myths were metaphorical stories that explained the actions of the gods and their roles in nature. The details of the events portrayed symbolic perspectives on the mysterious divine events resulting in various myths in different and conflicting versions.

Egyptian mythology is mainly derived from hymns detailing the roles of specific deities, from ritual and magical texts that described the actions related to mythic events and their roles in the afterlife.

According to the creation myths, the world arose as a dry space in the primordial ocean of chaos. The first rising of Ra marked that moment of arising since the sun is vital to life on earth. The act of creation represented the first creation of Ma’at.

The Osiris myth was a crucial Egyptian myth as it explains the divine ruler Osiris and how he was murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god associated with chaos. 

His sister and wife Isis brought him back to life to conceive an heir, Horus. After that, Osiris entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead.

Horus fought and defeated Set when he grew up and became the king himself. This event provided the reasoning for pharaonic succession and depicted the pharaohs as the upholders of order. 

Osiris’s death and rebirth were associated with the Egyptian agricultural cycle. The crops grew in the wake of the Nile flooding, providing a template for the resurrection of human souls after death.

Ritual, magical texts, hymns, prayers, and funerary texts

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus with magical texts inscription
Ancient Egyptian Papyrus with magical texts inscription

The processes of religious rituals were written on papyri and used as instructions to carry them out. They were kept in the temple libraries; however, the temples were inscribed with texts and illustrations.

Magic texts described rituals that were a part of spells used for certain gods in daily life. Most of them originated in temple libraries and were later distributed among the general public.

Written in the form of poetry, the Egyptians had several prayers and hymns. They were usually similar in structure, were distinguished by their served purposes, and were written to praise specific deities. 

They were also reported on papyri and were found on temple walls.

Hymns usually spoke about fundamental theology, whereas prayers addressed the appropriate god in a more personal manner. 

They were used to asking for blessings, help, or forgiveness for wrongdoings.

Funerary texts are the most powerful and preserved Egyptian writings made to ensure the souls of the deceased reached a pleasant afterlife. One of the earliest is the Pyramid Texts, a collection of hundreds of texts inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids. 

They intended to provide pharaohs with ways to join the company of gods in the afterlife through magic.

Temples and festivals

Ancient Egyptian temple of Goddess Isis
Ancient Egyptian temple of Goddess Isis

The temples in ancient Egypt served the spirits of the deceased pharaohs and the patron gods. They were not open to ordinary people, so the familiar people had their religious practices. 

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Temples were the house for gods with their physical images and were believed necessary to sustain gods in expectations of maintaining the universe.

The early Egyptian temples were small and impermanent structures that later were turned into solid structures built with stones. There was a standard structure practiced to build temples. 

They were made along a central ceremonial way leading through a series of courts and halls up to the sanctuary. The sanctuary held a statue of the temple’s god, and the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests could only access this sacred space.

The outermost wall surrounded the temple building. Between the two would be many smaller buildings for workshops and storage areas to supply the temple’s needs and the library consisting of the sacred writings.

Carrying out the temples’ rituals was theoretically the pharaoh’s duty; however, practically, almost always, the priests would be the ones to carry out the responsibilities. 

The temple staff also included musicians and chanters. Artisans and laborers worked outside the temple to supply the temple’s needs, and farmers worked on temple estates. 

They were all paid with portions of the temple’s income; thus, more prominent temples were crucial for economic activities, which sometimes employed thousands of people.

State’s religious practices consisted of both temple rituals and ceremonies regarding divine kingship, which included coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, both for renewal of the pharaoh’s strength.

Similarly, the temple rituals had rites regarding the gods’ temples, taking place daily, annually, or rare occasions.  

The most common rituals were the offering ceremony, where a high-ranking priest or the pharaoh washed and dressed the god’s statue daily and presented offerings in front of it. 

Then, the offerings were distributed among the priests believing it contained the spiritual essence.

Dozens of festivals took place in ancient Egypt throughout the year, entailing actions more than offerings. They re-enacted myths and performed symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder, and most of these took place inside the temple. 

More important festivals like the Opet Festival involved carrying out god’s statues to visit important sites like temples of related gods by carrying them in baroque. Ordinary people gathered to watch it and received portions of offerings given to the gods.

Animal cults and oracles

A scene with Ancient Egyptian Oracles
A scene with Ancient Egyptian Oracles

In many places, Egyptians worshipped animals believing they represented particular deities. They were selected based on specific sacred markings indicating their fitness for the roles. 

The Apis bull was worshipped as a manifestation of Ptah in Memphis; millions of cats, birds, and other animals were mummified and buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities.

The Egyptians also practiced oracles to request the gods for knowledge and guidance, and people from all classes, including the king, took part in it. For the kings, the answers were used to settle legal disputes or make royal decisions. 

The priests carried these processes, giving them great power, and they did so during festivals and interpreting answers from the baroque’s movements.

Conclusion

Religion played a significant role in every aspect of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, as life on earth was viewed as only one part of an eternal journey. 

They believed they needed to live a worthy life to continue their journey after death. People were expected to keep balance by depending on each other. 

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