Religion in ancient Egypt permeated every facet of society. Ancient Egyptian religion combined theological beliefs, ritual ceremonies, magical practices and spiritualism. Religion’s central role in everyday Egyptians’ daily lives is due to their belief that their earthly lives represented merely one stage on their eternal journey.
Moreover, everyone was expected to uphold the concept of harmony and balance or ma’at as one’s actions during life affected one’s own self, others’ lives together with the universe’s continued functioning. Thus the gods willed humans to be happy and enjoy pleasure by leading a harmonious life. In this way, a person could earn the right to continue their journey after death, the deceased needed to live a worthy life to earn their journey through the afterlife.
By honouring ma’at during one’s life, a person was aligning themselves alongside the gods and allied forces of light to oppose the forces of chaos and darkness. Only through these actions could an ancient Egyptian receive a favourable assessment by Osiris, the Lord of the Dead when the deceased’s soul was weighed in the Hall of Truth after their death.
This rich ancient Egyptian belief system with its core polytheism of 8,700 gods lasted for 3,000 years with the exception of the Amarna Period when King Akhenaten introduced monotheism and the worship of Aten.
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Facts About Religion In Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Egyptians had a polytheism belief system of 8,700 gods
- Ancient Egypt’s most popular gods were Osiris, Isis, Horus, Nu, Re, Anubis and Seth.
- Animals such as falcons, ibis, cows, lions, cats, rams and crocodiles were associated with individual gods and goddesses
- Heka the god of magic facilitated the relationship between the worshippers and their gods
- Gods and goddesses often protected a profession
- Afterlife rituals included the process of embalming to provide a place for the spirit to reside, the “opening of the mouth” ritual ensure the senses could be used in the afterlife, wrapping the body in mummification cloth containing protective amulets and jewels and placing a mask resembling the deceased over the face
- Local village gods were worshipped privately in people’s homes and at shrines
- Polytheism was practised for 3,000 years and was interrupted only briefly by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten who installed Aten as the sole god, creating the world’s first monotheistic faith
- Only the pharaoh, the queen, priests and priestesses were allowed inside temples. Ordinary Egyptians were only allowed to approach the temple’s gates.
The God Concept
Ancient Egyptians believed their gods were the champions of order and the lords of creation. Their gods had hewn order from chaos and bequeathed the richest land on earth to the Egyptian people. The Egyptian military avoided extended military campaigns outside their borders, fear they would die on a foreign battlefield and not receive the burial rites that would enable them to continue their journey into the afterlife.
For similar reasons, Egyptian pharaohs declined to use their daughters as political brides to seal alliances with foreign monarchs. Egypt’s gods had bestowed their benevolent favour on the land and in return Egyptians were required to honour them accordingly.
Underpinning Egypt’s religious frameworks was the concept of heka or magic. The god Heka personified this. He had always existed and was there at the act of creation. In addition to being the god of magic and medicine, Heka was the power, which enabled the gods to perform their duties and allowed their worshippers to commune with their gods.
Heka was omnipresent, imbuing Egyptians’ daily lives with meaning and the magic to preserve ma’at. Worshippers may pray to a god or goddess for a specific boon but it was Heka who facilitated the relationship between the worshippers and their gods.
Each god and goddess had a domain. Hathor was ancient Egypt’s goddess of love and kindness, associated with motherhood, compassion, generosity, and gratitude. There was a clear hierarchy amongst the deities with the Sun God Amun Ra and Isis the goddess of life often contending for the preeminent position. The popularity of gods and goddesses often rose and fell over millennia. With 8,700 gods and goddesses, it was inevitable that many would evolve and their attributes merged to create new deities.
Myth And Religion
Gods played a role in popular ancient Egyptian myths that attempted to explain and describe their universe, as they perceived it. Nature and the natural cycles strongly influenced these myths, especially those patterns which could be readily documented such as the passage of the sun during the day, the moon and its impact on tides and the annual Nile floods.
Mythology exerted significant influence ancient Egyptian culture including its religious rituals, festivals and sacred rites. These rituals and feature prominently rites in scenes portrayed on temple walls, in tombs, in Egyptian literature and even on the jewellery and protective amulets they wore.
Ancient Egyptians saw mythology as a guide for their everyday lives, their actions and as a way of ensuring their place in the afterlife.
The Central Role Of The Afterlife
The average life expectancy of ancient Egyptians was approximately 40 years. While they undoubtedly loved life, ancient Egyptians wanted their lives to continue beyond the veil of death. They fervently believed in preserving the body and providing the deceased with everything they would need in the afterlife. Death was a brief and untimely interruption and providing the sacred funeral practices were followed, a deceased could enjoy eternal life without pain in the Fields of Yalu.
However, to ensure a deceased’s right to enter the Fields of Yalu, a person’s heart had to be light. After a person’s death, the soul arrived in the Hall of Truth to be judged by Osiris and Forty-Two Judges. Osiris weighed the deceased’s Ab or heart on a golden scale against Ma’at’s white feather of truth.
If the deceased’s heart proved lighter than Ma’at’s feather, the deceased awaited the outcome of Osiris conference with Thoth the god of wisdom and the Forty-Two Judges. If deemed worthy, the deceased was allowed passage through the hall to continue one’s existence in paradise. If the deceased’s heart was heavy with misdeeds it was cast onto the floor to be devoured by Ammut the gobbler ending one’s existence.
Once beyond the Hall of Truth, the deceased was guided to Hraf-haf’s boat. He was an offensive and cranky being, whom the deceased had to show courtesy to. Being kind to the surly Hraf-haf, showed the deceased was worthy of being ferried across The Lake of Flowers to the Field of Reeds, a mirror image of earthly existence without hunger, disease or death. One then existed, meeting those who had passed before or waiting for loved ones to arrive.
The Pharaohs As Living Gods
Divine Kingship was an enduring feature of ancient Egyptian religious life. This belief held that the Pharaoh was a god as well as the political ruler of Egypt. Egyptian pharaohs were closely associated with Horus the son of the Sun God Ra.
Due to this divine relationship, the pharaoh was very powerful in Egyptian society, as was the priesthood. In times of good harvests, ancient Egyptians interpreted their good fortune as being attributable to the pharaoh and the priests pleasing the gods, while in bad times; the pharaoh and the priests were seen as being to blame for having angered the gods.
Ancient Egypt’s Cults And Temples
Cults were sects dedicated to serving one deity. From the Old Kingdom onwards, priests were usually the same sex as their god or goddess. Priests and priestesses were allowed to marry, to have children and to own property and land. Aside from ritual observances requiring purification prior to officiating at rites, priests and priestesses lived regular lives.
Members of the priesthood underwent an extended period of training prior to officiating at a ritual. The cult members maintained their temple and its surrounding complex, performed religious observances and sacred rituals including marriages, blessing a field or home and funerals. Many acted as healers, and doctors, calling upon the god Heka as well as scientists, astrologers, marriage counsellors and interpreted dreams and omens. Priestesses serving the goddess Serkey provided medical care doctors but it was Heka who provided the power to invoke Serket to heal their petitioners.
Temple priests blessed amulets to encourage fertility or to protect against evil. They also performed purification rites and exorcisms to rid expel evil forces and ghosts. A cult’s primary charge was to serve their god and their followers amongst their local community and to care for the statue of their god inside their temple.
Ancient Egypt’s temples were believed to be the actual earthly homes of their gods and goddesses. Each morning, a head priest or priestess would purify themselves, dress in the fresh white linen and clean sandals signifying their office before going into the heart of their temple to tending to their god’s statue as they would anyone placed in their care.
The temple doors were opened to flood the chamber with morning sunlight before the statue in the innermost sanctuary was cleansed, re-dressed and bathed in fragrant oil. Afterwards, the doors to the inner sanctuary were closed and secured. The head priest alone enjoyed close proximity to the god or goddess. Followers were restricted to the temple’s outer areas for worship or to have their needs addressed by lower-level priests who also accepted their offerings.
Temples gradually amassed social and political power, which rivalled that of the pharaoh himself. They owned farmland, securing their own food supply and received a share in the booty from the pharaoh’s military campaigns. It was also common for Pharaohs to gift land and goods to a temple or to pay for its renovation and extension.
Ancient Egyptian religious cults did not have codified standardized “scriptures” as we know them. However, Egyptologists believe the core religious precepts invoked at the temple approximated those outlined in the Pyramid Texts, The Coffin Texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
The Pyramid Texts remain ancient Egypt’s oldest sacred passages and date from c. 2400 to 2300 BCE. The Coffin Texts are believed to have come after the Pyramid Texts and date to around c. 2134-2040 BCE, while the famed Book of the Dead known to ancient Egyptians as the Book on Coming Forth by Day is thought to have been first written sometime between c.1550 and 1070 BCE. The Book is a collection of spells for the soul to use to aid its passage through the afterlife. All three works contain detailed instruction to assist the soul in navigating the many perils awaiting it in the afterlife.
The Role of Religious Festivals
Egypt’s sacred festivals blended the sacred nature of honouring the gods with the everyday secular lives of the Egyptian people. Religious festivals mobilised worshippers. Elaborate festivals like The Beautiful Festival of the Wadi a celebrated life, community and wholeness honouring of the god Amun. The god statue would be taken from its inner sanctuary and carried on a ship or in an ark into the streets parading around households in the community to participate in the celebrations before being launched onto the Nile. Afterwards, priests answered petitioners while oracles revealed the will of the gods.
Worshippers attending the Festival of the Wadi visited Amun’s shrine to pray for physical vitality and left votive offerings for their god in gratitude for their health and their lives. Many votives were offered intact to the god. On other occasions, they were ritually smashed to underline worshipper’s devotion to their god.
Entire families attended these festivals, as did those looking for a partner, younger couples and teenagers. Older community members, the poor as well as the rich, the nobility and slaves all partook in the community’s religious life.
Their religious practices and their day-to-day lives intermingled to create ancient Egypt’s social framework based on harmony and balance. Within this framework, an individual’s life was interconnected to the health of society as a while.
The Wepet Renpet or “Opening of the Year” was an annual celebration held to mark the start of a new year. The festival ensured fertility of the fields for the coming year. Its date varied, as it was associated with the Nile’s annual floods but usually took place in July.
The Festival of Khoiak honoured Osiris’ death and resurrection. When the Nile River’s floods eventually receded, Egyptians planted seeds in Osiris beds to ensure their crops would flourish, just as Osiris reputedly had.
The Sed Festival honoured the Pharaoh’s kingship. Held every third year during a Pharaoh’s reign, the festival was rich in ritual rites, including making an offering of the spine of a bull, representing the pharaoh’s vigorous strength.
Reflecting On The Past
For 3,000 years, ancient Egypt’s rich and complex set of religious beliefs and practices endured and evolved. Its emphasis on leading a good life and on an individual’s contribution to harmony and balance across society as a whole illustrates how effective the lure of a smooth passage through the afterlife was for many ordinary Egyptians.
Header image courtesy: British Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons