Egyptian mythology: Wikis


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Ancient Egyptian religion

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Main Beliefs

Mythology · Soul · Duat · Ma'at · Numerology


Offering formula · Funerals

Amun · Amunet · Anubis · Anuket · Apep · Apis · Aten · Atum · Bastet · Bat · Bes · Four sons of Horus · Geb · Hapy · Hathor · Heka · Heqet · Horus · Isis · Khepri  · Khnum · Khonsu · Kuk · Maahes  · Ma'at · Mafdet · Menhit · Meretseger · Meskhenet · Monthu · Min · Mnevis · Mut · Neith · Nekhbet · Nephthys · Nu · Nut · Osiris · Pakhet · Ptah · Qebui · Ra · Ra-Horakhty · Reshep · Satis · Sekhmet · Seker · Selket · Sobek · Sopdu · Set · Seshat · Shu · Tatenen · Taweret · Tefnut · Thoth · Wadjet · Wadj-wer · Wepwawet · Wosret


Amduat · Books of Breathing · Book of Caverns · Book of the Dead · Book of the Earth · Book of Gates · Book of the Netherworld


Atenism · Curse of the Pharaohs

Ancient Egypt Portal

Ancient Egyptian religion encompasses the various religious beliefs and rituals practiced in ancient Egypt over more than 3,000 years, from the predynastic period until the adoption of Christianity in the early centuries AD. Initially these beliefs centered on the worship of multiple deities who represented various forces of nature, thought patterns and power, expressed by the means of complex and varied archetypes. By the time of the 18th dynasty they began to be viewed as aspects of a single deity who existed apart from nature, similar to trinitarian concepts also found in Christianity: the belief that one god can exist in more than one person.[1]

These deities were worshipped with offerings and prayers, in local and household shrines as well as in formal temples managed by priests. Different gods were prominent at different periods of Egyptian history, and the myths associated with them changed over time, so Egypt never had a coherent hierarchy of deities or a unified mythology. However, the religion contained many overarching beliefs. Among these were the divinity of the pharaoh, which helped to politically unify the country,[2] and complex beliefs about an afterlife, which gave rise to the Egyptians' elaborate burial customs.



Egyptian religion was not based on firm theological principles. Its primary focus was simply the interaction between humans and the gods.[3] These gods were believed to be present in every aspect of the natural world, yet their true natures remained to some degree mysterious. Hundreds of gods were believed to exist, and the exact nature of their complex interrelationships is still the subject of scholarly debate.[4]



The gods Osiris, Anubis, and Horus, from a tomb painting.

The Egyptians saw the actions of the gods behind all the elements and forces of nature. However, they did not believe that the gods merely controlled these phenomena, but that each element of nature was a divine force in itself.[5] The forces deified in this way included animals, as with Sekhmet, who represented the ferocity of lions, and inanimate elements, such as Shu, the deification of air. The gods could also represent more abstract things, as Horus represented the power of kingship.[6] The Egyptians thus believed in a multitude of gods, which were involved in every aspect of nature and human society.[7][6] Egyptian myths about the gods were intended to explain the origins and behavior of these phenomena, and the hymns, prayers and offerings given to the gods were efforts to placate them and turn them to human advantage.[6] This polytheistic system was very complex, as some deities were believed to exist in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with multiple deities.[8]

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 believed to be "mysterious" and "unknown". Instead, these depictions gave recognizable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god's role in nature.[9][6] Thus, for example, the funerary god Anubis was portrayed as a jackal, a creature whose scavenging habits threatened the preservation of the body, in an effort to counter this threat and employ it for protection. His black skin was symbolic of the color of mummified flesh and the fertile black soil that Egyptians saw as a symbol of resurrection.[10] However, this iconography was not fixed, and many of the gods could be depicted in more than one form.[11]

Many gods were associated with particular localities within Egypt where their cults were most important. However, these associations changed over time, and they did not necessarily mean that the god associated with a place had originated there. For instance, the god Monthu was the original patron of the city of Thebes. Over the course of the Middle Kingdom, however, he was displaced in that role by Amun, who had originated elsewhere. The national popularity and importance of individual gods fluctuated in a similar way.[12]

In addition to the major gods, there were also other, less-powerful supernatural beings. These included a profusion of minor gods, which in modern studies are sometimes referred to as "demons". They tended to be less universal than the major gods, and were often defined by specific behaviors or tied to particular locations, but the Egyptians did not draw a clear distinction between the two classes. Some demons were localized guardian deities, while others were servants of greater gods who performed specific actions on demand. Most of them were inhabitants of the Duat, the Egyptian underworld, although many others were present in the world of the living.[13] The spirits of deceased humans, while distinct from the gods, were also believed to exist on the same plane,[14] and could affect the world of the living in similar ways.[15] Deceased pharaohs were believed to be fully divine, and occasionally, distinguished commoners such as Imhotep also became deified.[16]

Associations between gods

The Egyptians recognized that different natural phenomena are interrelated,[6] and they often placed deities in groups to symbolize this relationship. Sometimes deities were grouped into pairs, linked because of a relationship between the two phenomena they represented, or simply to give one deity a counterpart of the opposite sex. They could also be grouped into threes; often these triads formed mythological families consisting of a father, mother, and usually male child. There were also many larger groups, including two different sets of creator deities—the eight gods of the Ogdoad and the nine gods of the Ennead—and several sets of minor gods with similar functions but no individual identity, such as the deities representing each hour of the day and night.[17]

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. While early Egyptologists believed that the Egyptians did this to resolve conflicts between competing deities, syncretism was more of a recognition of the presence of one god "within" another where their respective roles overlapped. Sometimes this process combined deities that had similar characteristics, or that could even be seen as different aspects of the same god. At other times syncretism combined a foreign deity with a native one, or linked a localized god with a more important national one. Sometimes syncretism joined gods with very different natures, as when Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked with Ra, the god of the sun. The resulting god, Amun-Ra, thus united the power that lay behind all things with the greatest and most visible force in nature.[18]

Monotheistic tendencies

At various times during Egyptian history, different gods, including Horus, Ra, and Isis, rose to be seen as the greatest of all the gods. During the New Kingdom, Amun held this position, and a theology developed in which he came close to being a truly monotheistic deity.[19] His true identity was concealed from the visible world, even from the other gods, yet his power permeated the universe. Although they retained their individual identities, all the gods were ultimately aspects of this single hidden force.[20][21]

Based on this, and upon instances in Egyptian literature where "god" is mentioned without reference to any specific deity, many Egyptologists have argued that beneath the polytheistic traditions of Egyptian religion there was an increasing tendency toward monotheism, while others have seen evidence of pantheism. In recent decades, however, Erik Hornung has disputed these claims, noting that each of the gods, even Amun, was only depicted and worshipped in a limited number of forms, so that Egyptian religion was never completely pantheistic. He also points out that at no point in Egyptian history were the traits of a supreme being limited to only one deity, and many Egyptian writings call particular gods "sole" or "lord of all that exists" even in periods when other gods were preeminent. He further argues that the Egyptians used the generic term "god" to refer to any god, or "whichever god you wish".[22] His argument is that Egyptian religion was purely polytheistic, having no notion of a divine being beyond the immediate multitude of deities.[23]

More recently, scholars such as James P. Allen and Jan Assmann have suggested that the Egyptians did to some degree recognize a single divine force.[24][23] Allen's compromise approach states that the Egyptians could simultaneously be polytheists and monotheists, as demonstrated by the process of syncretism which, he says, "unites the view of god as simultaneously Many and One". Under this view, it is possible that only the Egyptian theologians fully recognized an essential unity behind the polytheistic system. However, it is also possible that ordinary Egyptians practiced a form of henotheism, identifying the single divine force with a single god in particular situations.[24][25]


The Egyptians did have an aberrant period of true monotheism during the New Kingdom, in which the pharaoh Akhenaten abolished the official worship of other gods in favor of the sun-disk Aten, of which he himself was an aspect.[26] This exclusivity was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition,[27] and the Aten's impersonal nature did not appeal to the Egyptian people. Thus, under Akhenaten's successors Egypt reverted to its traditional religion, and Akhenaten himself came to be reviled as a heretic.[28]

Other important concepts


In Egyptian belief, the universe was governed by the force of ma'at. This Egyptian word encompasses several concepts in English, including "truth," "justice," and "order." It referred to the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in nature and in human society. This was the most fundamental of all natural forces, believed to have existed from the creation of the universe, which ensured the continued existence of the world. Among humans, ma'at meant that all people and all classes of society lived in harmony. Any disruption of ma'at was inherently harmful, so all people were expected to behave in accordance with it.[29]

In nature, ma'at meant that all the forces of nature existed in balance. It included the cyclical patterns of time—the cycle of day and night and of the seasons, and of human generations.[29] While the Egyptians recognized that time is linear, they also saw it as cyclical, in that each of these patterns represented a renewal of ma'at and a defeat of disorder, and thus a repetition of the original creation of the universe.[30] Therefore, the theme of cosmic renewal was present in many Egyptian rituals.[31][32]

Ma'at also included the structure of the world, which kept each element in its place.[29] The Egyptians had a specific vision of this structure. In this view, the world was surrounded by infinite expanse of water from which it had originally arisen. This water was personified as the god Nun. The earth was envisioned as a flat plate of land, represented by the god Geb. Above him arched the body of the sky goddess Nut, who represented the surface of the primordial water. Shu, the air, stood between Geb and Nut and separated them. During the day, the sun god Ra traveled over the earth, across the inner surface of Nut.[33] At night, Ra was thought to be swallowed by Nut, and pass through her body, or on the outside of the sky, through a region called the Duat. With each new sunrise, Nut gave birth to him again.[34] By the New Kingdom, however, the Duat was also sometimes identified with a region beneath the earth, and Ra was said to sail beneath the horizon to rise into the sky the next morning.[35]

Divine pharaoh

Colossal statue of the pharaoh Ramses II

Egyptians viewed kingship itself as a force of nature.[36] Thus, even though the Egyptians recognized that the pharaoh was human and subject to human frailties, they simultaneously viewed him as a god, because the divine power of kingship was incarnate in him. He therefore acted as intermediary between Egypt's people and the gods.[37] He was key to upholding ma'at in society, by defending the country from enemies, appointing fair officials, settling disputes between his people, managing the food supply, and appeasing the gods with temples and offerings.[38] For this reason, temple reliefs often depict the pharaoh presenting an emblem of ma'at to the gods, representing his maintenance of the divine order.[39] Theoretically, he held dominion over the entire world, and thus the Egyptian word for "king" referred only to the pharaoh, and not to any foreign ruler.[40][41]

The king was also associated with many specific deities. While alive, a pharaoh was logically identified with Horus, the god of kingship.[42] Due to analogy between the sun, the dominant force in nature, and the king, the dominant force in human society, the pharaoh was also associated with Ra and regarded as his son.[43][6] Once Amun had been syncretized with Ra, Amun was also identified with the king[44] and seen as his father.[45] Several goddesses functioned as the "mother" of the pharaoh,[46] and he could also symbolically take the place of the child deity in many family triads of gods.[47]

Upon his death, the king became fully 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.[48] Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.[49]


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. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so it was believed that, to endure after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still consume. Each person also had a ba, the set of characteristics distinguishing one individual from another, similar to the concept of a personality.[50] Unlike the ka, the ba remained attached to the body after death. Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that it could live on as an akh. However, it was also important that the body of the deceased 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.[51]

Originally, however, the Egyptians believed that only the pharaoh had a ba,[52] and only he could become one with the gods; dead commoners remained dead.[53] The nobles received tombs and the resources for their upkeep as gifts from the king, and their ability to enter the afterlife was believed to be dependent on these royal favors.[54] In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to dwell among the circumpolar stars, which never set in the Egyptian sky and were therefore regarded as eternal.[55] Over the course of the Old Kingdom, he came to be more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the cyclical death and resurrection of the fertility god Osiris as those deities grew more important.[56]

During the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, the possession of a ba and the possibility of a paradisiacal afterlife gradually extended to all Egyptians.[52][53] To reach this pleasant afterlife, the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers, before undergoing a final judgment known as the "Weighing of the Heart". In this judgment, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart, the center of reason and emotion in Egyptian belief) to ma'at (symbolized by a feather), to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with ma'at. If the deceased had not done so in life, then he or she could not be expected to do so in the afterlife, and was thus destroyed by the demon Ammut. If the deceased was judged worthy, his or her ka and ba were united into an akh.[57][38] Specific beliefs about the destination of the akh varied. The vindicated dead were often said to dwell in Osiris' kingdom, a lush and pleasant land believed to exist somewhere beyond the western horizon, but kings, and sometimes commoners as well, were often said to travel with Ra across the sky.[58][59] Over the course of 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.[60]


While the Egyptians had no unified religious scripture, they produced many religious writings. These included a variety of hymns, prayers, and funerary texts. Despite the great number of Egyptian myths, however, mythological information is more fragmentary.


Ra (at center) travels through the underworld in his barque, accompanied by other gods

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 change as long as they conveyed the same symbolic meaning, so many myths exist in different and conflicting versions.[61][6] Mythical narratives were rarely written in full, and more often texts only contain episodes from or allusions to a larger myth.[62] Partly this was because the Egyptians avoided explicitly describing or depicting negative events within myths, believing that this risked giving power to the forces of chaos. Much of what mythological information is known comes from papyri originally kept in temple libraries, from devotional writings, and from funerary texts. Surprisingly little comes from inscriptions in the temples themselves, as temples were meant to celebrate the eternal power and benevolence of the gods, and the turbulent events often found in myths conflicted with this purpose.[63]

Among the most important Egyptian myths were the creation myths. While there were several different creation myths, they all shared common elements: an infinite, lifeless ocean which preceded the creation, and a pyramidal mound of land which was the first thing to emerge from this ocean. [64] However, the creation accounts differ in focusing on different gods. One creation myth describes the Ogdoad, the group of eight gods who embodied the primeval waters, and how their meeting resulted in the creation and emergence of the mound.[65] Another myth relates the actions of Atum, who was said to be the first god to appear on the mound, in creating the Ennead, nine gods representing the natural forces of the world. A third myth says that the god Ptah, who was associated with the mound, created the world simply by envisioning and naming all things in it, while a fourth claims that Amun was the hidden power that caused all the other creator gods to form.[66] To some degree these myths represent competing theologies, but they can also be seen as representing different aspects of the process of creation. The convergence of the Ogdoad represented the transformation of the lifeless primordial chaos into the orderly, life-bearing world; the Ennead myth demonstrated how the world's original, embryonic form (Atum) evolved into the multiplicity of elements it later contained.[67] Amun was the ultimate cause of creation, who first developed a concept of what the world would be like, and Ptah was the power of creative speech, by which that initial vision was made reality, and which caused the growth of Atum.[68]

Another story central to Egyptian belief was the myth of Osiris and Isis.[69] It tells of the god Osiris, who had inherited his rule over the world from his ancestor Ra. Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother Set, a god often associated with chaos.[70] Osiris' sister and wife Isis reassembled Osiris' body and resurrected him so that he could conceive an heir to take back the throne from Set. Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead, while Isis eventually gave birth to his son Horus. Once grown, Horus fought and defeated Set to become king himself.[71] Set's association with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful rulers, provided a rationale for pharaonic succession and portrayed the pharaohs as the upholders of order.[72] At the same time, Osiris' death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation,[73] and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death.[74]

The sun god Ra was essential to life on earth, and was thus among the most important gods. In myth, the movement of the sun across the sky was explained as Ra traveling in a barque, and the setting of the sun was regarded as Ra's entry into the underworld, through which he journeyed during the night.[75] While in the underworld, Ra met with Osiris, who again acted as a god of resurrection, so that his life was renewed. He also fought each night with Apep, a serpentine god representing chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the rising of the sun the next morning, an event that represented rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.[76]

Devotional Writings

Like many cultures, the Egyptians prayed to their gods for help, although there are few written prayers that predate the Nineteenth Dynasty. There are also many formal hymns praising particular deities or the pharaoh. These poems consist of short lines organized into couplets or triplets, and were probably recited, or possibly even sung, during religious ceremonies. They often included mention of many different aspects of the deity whom they addressed, and expounded on his or her nature and mythological function. Thus, they are important sources of information on Egyptian theology.[77]

Funerary Texts

Section of the Book of the Dead depicting the Weighing of the Heart.

Among the most significant and extensively preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to insure that deceased souls reached a pleasant afterlife.[78] The earliest of these are the Pyramid Texts, the oldest religious writings in the world.[79] They are a loose collection of hundreds of spells inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom, intended to magically provide the king with the means to join the company of the gods in the afterlife.[80] The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and few of them appear in all of the pyramids.[81]

At the end of the Old Kingdom a new body of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began appearing in tombs, inscribed primarily on coffins, but also found on tomb walls and on other funerary objects. This collection of writings is known as the Coffin Texts, and was not reserved for royalty, but appeared in the tombs of nonroyal officials.[82] In the New Kingdom, several new funerary texts emerged, of which the best-known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier books, it often contains extensive illustrations, or vignettes.[83] The book was copied on papyrus and sold to commoners to be placed in their tombs.[84]

The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld and instructions on how to overcome its hazards. In the New Kingdom, this material gave rise to several "books of the netherworld", including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat.[85] Unlike the loose collections of spells, these netherworld books are structured depictions of Ra's passage through the Duat, and by analogy, the journey of the deceased person's soul through the realm of the dead. They were originally restricted to pharaonic tombs, but in the Third Intermediate Period they came to be used more widely.[86]

Religious practices

First pylon and colonnade of the Temple of Isis at Philae.


Temples existed from the earliest periods of Egyptian history, and at the height of the civilization were present in almost every town.[87] These included both mortuary temples to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs and temples dedicated to patron gods,[88] although the distinction was blurred because divinity and kingship were so closely intertwined.[89] Not all gods had temples dedicated to them, as there were many cosmic deities that did not receive widespread worship, and many household gods who were the focus of popular veneration rather than temple worship.[90]

Temples served as "houses" for the gods, in which physical images which served as their intermediaries were cared for and provided with offerings.[91] This service was believed to be necessary to sustain the gods, so that they could in turn maintain the universe itself.[92] Thus, temples were central to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep.[93] Pharaohs often added to them as part of their obligation to honor the gods, so that many temples grew to be huge—the Temple of Amun at Karnak, for instance, is the largest religious structure in the world.[94]

In the New Kingdom, a basic temple layout emerged, which had evolved from common elements in Old and Middle Kingdom temples. With variations, this plan was used for most of the temples built from then on, and most of those that survive today adhere to it.[95] In this standard plan, the temple was aligned along a central axis oriented relative to some significant location; most commonly, temples were built along the Nile with an axis running roughly east–west.[96] The major entrance to such temples was usually the nearby landing quay on the Nile, from which a processional way ran through the walls of the temple enclosure. Beyond this, there were usually one or more pylon gateways, followed by a courtyard enclosed by a colonnade. This courtyard was likely where commoners delivered offerings and met with the priests. Further in was the covered hypostyle hall, and beyond this was the sanctuary, surrounded by subsidiary rooms related to the daily business of temple ritual.[97]

The entire journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm; thus, the sanctuary was the most sacred part of the temple, and contained a shrine with a statue of the temple's god.[98] Access to the sanctuary was usually restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests.[99] Ritual offerings were typically performed in the morning and evening, either by the pharaoh or, more commonly, the priest acting as his surrogate. In these rituals, the god's statue was washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed, and food offerings were placed before or near it. Afterward, when the god had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were taken to be distributed among the priests.[100] In addition to these daily offerings, there were other rituals performed at certain times of year for particular festivals, and infrequent rituals performed under special circumstances.[92] Many of these rituals involved the transportation of the god's image to visit another significant site,[101] the symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder,[102] or the reenactment of particular myths.[103]

Temples were supported by donations from the monarchy and by estates of their own. These estates could include vast areas of land, with farms, gardens, mines, quarries, and workshops devoted to supplying the temple's needs. Large temples were therefore very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.[104]


Painting of a priest burning incense, showing his shaven head

The pharaoh was Egypt's official representative to the gods, so in theory, temple priests merely acted on his behalf.[45] In fact, during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. Only in the New Kingdom did professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests were still part-time. The pharaoh theoretically retained the right to make all priestly appointments, although he often delegated this duty.[105] However, as the wealth of the temples grew, the influence of their priesthoods increased, until it rivaled that of the pharaoh.[106] In the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period, the high priests of Amun even became the effective rulers of Upper Egypt.[107]

There were several different varieties of priests and temple personnel. One class of priests worked outside temples: those who served in the mortuary cults of private individuals.[108] The lector priests, who recited the incantations during temple rituals and were versed in many magical texts, also performed outside duties, such as officiating at funerals.[109] The priests serving in each temple were divided into several ranks and specialized roles. At the top of this hierarchy was the high priest, or "first servant of the god." This office was frequently passed from father to son and tended to become hereditary. Temples also employed many people outside the priesthood, including farmers and artisans to supply their needs, and musicians and chanters who assisted in temple rituals. All were paid with portions of the temple's income.[110]

Priests were usually male. During the Old Kingdom, many women from wealthy families held important priestly roles, mainly in temples to female deities. However, during the Middle Kingdom women became less prominent in public life, and afterward most of the women involved in temple activities seem to have been in more minor roles.[111] There was an exception to this during the Third Intermediate Period, when important female roles emerged in the cults of several deities, most notably the "god's wives" of Amun.[112]

While actively serving the temple, priests adhered to strict standards of purity. They were required to shave their heads and bodies, wash several times a day, and wear only clean linen clothing. In the service of some specific gods, there were also particular behaviors, such as eating certain foods, from which priests had to refrain. They were not required to be celibate, but sexual intercourse rendered them unclean until they underwent further ritual purification.[113]


The Egyptians celebrated a variety of religious festivals. Most were annual, tied to one or more specific days of the year, but some took place at longer intervals or on irregular occasions. Some, such as the celebration of the new year, took place across the country, but most were celebrated only locally, at a specific temple. Temple festivals usually involved a procession carrying the god's image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other significant sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners celebrated these events along with the priesthood, gathering to watch the procession and sometimes receiving portions of the unusually large offerings given to the gods on these occasions. Other festivals were part of the rituals of kingship rather than the cult of a deity; these included coronation ceremonies and the sed festival, a ritual renewal of the pharaoh's strength which took place periodically during his reign.[114]


The word "magic" is used to translate the Egyptian term heka, which meant "the ability to make things happen by indirect means". Heka was believed to be a natural phenomenon, the force which was used to create the universe and which the gods employed to work their will.[115] Humans could also use it, however, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were counted as magic.[116] Individuals also frequently employed magical techniques for personal ends. Although these ends could be harmful to other people, no form of magic was considered inimical in itself.[117] Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative events.[118]

Magic was closely associated with the priesthood. Temple libraries contained numerous magical spells, and many of the spells found in other contexts seem to derive from temple books; thus, great magical knowledge was ascribed to the lector priests who studied these books. These priests often worked outside their temples, hiring out their magical services to laymen.[119] Other professions also commonly employed magic as part of their work, including doctors, scorpion-charmers, and makers of magical amulets. It is also likely that the peasantry used simple magic for their own purposes, but because this magical knowledge would have been passed down orally, there is limited evidence of it.[120]

Language was closely linked with heka, to such a degree that Thoth, the god of writing, was sometimes said to be the inventor of heka.[121] Therefore, magic frequently involved written or spoken incantations, although these were usually accompanied by ritual actions. Often these rituals invoked the power of an appropriate deity to perform the desired action, using the power of heka to compel it to act. Sometimes this entailed casting the practitioner or subject of a ritual in the role of a character in mythology, thus inducing the god to act toward that person as it had in the myth. Rituals also employed sympathetic magic, using objects believed to have a magically significant resemblance to the subject of the rite. The Egyptians also commonly used objects believed to be imbued with heka of their own, such as the magically protective amulets worn in great numbers by ordinary Egyptians.[122]

Funerary practices

Because it was considered necessary for the survival of the soul, preservation of the body was a central part of Egyptian funerary practices. Originally people were buried in graves in the desert, where the arid conditions mummified the body naturally. In the Early Dynastic Period, however, the Egyptians began using tombs for greater protection, and the body was insulated from the desiccating effect of the sand and was subject to natural decay. Thus, the practice of embalming developed. The process was not fully developed until the New Kingdom, but from then on the embalmers removed the internal organs, dried the corpse in natron crystals, and wrapped it in linen to be placed in its coffin.[123] The quality of the process varied according to cost, however,[124] and those who could not afford it were still buried in desert graves.[125]

The Opening of the Mouth ceremony being performed before the tomb

Once the mummification process was complete, the mummy was carried from the deceased person's house to the tomb in a funeral procession that included his or her friends and relatives, along with a variety of priests. At the tomb entrance, a number of rituals were performed, including the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, in which a priest touched the mummy with various ceremonial tools to restore the dead person's senses and give him or her the ability to receive offerings. Then the mummy was buried and the tomb sealed.[126] Afterward, relatives or hired priests gave food offerings to the deceased in a nearby mortuary chapel at regular intervals. However, over time families inevitably neglected offerings to long-dead relatives, and most mortuary cults only lasted one or two generations.[127]

The first Egyptian tombs were mastabas, rectangular brick structures where kings and nobles were entombed. Each of them contained a subterranean burial chamber and a separate, aboveground chapel for mortuary rituals. In the Old Kingdom the mastaba developed into the pyramid, which symbolized the primeval mound of Egyptian myth. Pyramids were reserved for royalty, and were accompanied by large mortuary temples sitting at their base. Middle Kingdom pharaohs continued to build pyramids, although far smaller than those of the Old Kingdom, but the popularity of mastabas waned. Increasingly, commoners with sufficient means were buried in rock-cut tombs with separate mortuary chapels nearby, an approach which was less vulnerable to tomb robbery. By the beginning of the New Kingdom even the pharaohs were buried in such tombs, and they continued to be used until the decline of the religion itself.[128]

Tombs could contain a great variety of other items, including statues of the deceased to serve as substitutes for the body in case it was damaged[129] and Canopic jars containing the organs removed during the mummification process.[130] Because it was believed that the deceased would have to do work in the afterlife, just as in life, burials often included small models of humans to do work in place of the deceased. The use of these model workers replaced the practice, used by the earliest pharaohs, of burying human servants along with the king.[131] The tombs of wealthier individuals could also contain furniture, clothing, and other everyday objects intended for use in the afterlife, along with amulets and other items intended to provide magical protection against the hazards of the spirit world.[132] Further protection was provided by funerary texts inscribed on the tomb walls, the burial shroud, the coffin, or on separate rolls of papyrus.[133] The tomb walls also bore artwork, including images of the deceased eating food which were believed to allow him or her to magically receive sustenance even after the mortuary offerings had ceased.[134]

Because they believed that the gods could manifest themselves in animal form, the Egyptians mummified and interred animals as well as humans. Originally this only applied to specific sacred animals, such as the Apis bull worshipped as a manifestation of Ptah. Beginning in the Twenty-sixth dynasty, however, the Egyptians began mummifying a wide variety of animals in honor of the gods whom they represented. Worshippers paid the priests of a particular deity to acquire and mummify an animal which represented that deity, and the mummy was placed in a cemetery near the god's cult center as an offering. Some such crypts contain millions of animal mummies.[135]


Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods

The beginnings of Egyptian religion extend into prehistory, and information about religious activity in these early times comes solely from archaeological evidence, which is difficult to interpret and subject to differing opinions. Careful burials during the Predynastic period imply that the people of this time believed in some form of an afterlife. At the same time, animals were ritually buried, a practice which may reflect the development of zoomorphic deities like those found in the later religion.[136] While these early Egyptians also produced anthropomorphic figures which may represent gods in human form, the evidence is unclear, and this type of deity may have emerged more slowly than those in animal shape.[137] Each region of Egypt originally had its own patron deity,[138] but it is likely that as these small communities conquered or absorbed each other, the god of the defeated area was either incorporated into the other god's mythology or entirely subsumed by it. This resulted in a complex pantheon in which some deities remained only locally important while others developed more universal significance.[139]

The Early Dynastic period began with the unification of Egypt around 3000 BC. This event transformed Egyptian religion, as some deities rose to national importance and the cult of the divine pharaoh became the central focus of religious activity.[140] The early kings were interred in elaborate mastaba tombs with expensive grave goods and, in the case of First Dynasty rulers, humans sacrificed to attend the king in the afterlife. These burials demonstrate the importance of the royal funerary cult even at the beginning of Egyptian history. High officials were buried in less-elaborate tombs of a similar type.[141]

Old and Middle Kingdoms

During the Old Kingdom the priesthoods of the major deities tried to organize the confusing national pantheon into groups, each with their own mythology and cult center. It was in this period that family triads of deities emerged, and the theologies of Heliopolis, Hermopolis, and possibly Memphis were developed.[142][143][144] Meanwhile, pyramids replaced mastabas as the tombs of pharaohs, although important non-royals continued to use mastabas.[145] Pyramids were accompanied by large mortuary temple complexes, which were extremely important in the development of Egyptian temple design.[146]

In the Old Kingdom, the city of Heliopolis became the nation's most important religious site, and its patron god Ra was increasingly influential.[147] The Fourth Dynasty change from step pyramids to true pyramids, for instance, may have been influenced by the symbolic association of the true pyramid shape with the rays of the sun.[148][149] By the Fifth Dynasty Ra was effectively the nation's state god, with and had developed the close links with kingship and the afterlife that he retained for the rest of Egyptian history.[150][151] Around the same time, Osiris became an important afterlife deity.[152]

At the end of the Fifth Dynasty, kings began inscribing the Pyramid Texts inside their tombs. The texts contain not only the solar and Osirian concepts of the afterlife that were current at the time, but also older traditions, some dating back to Predynastic times.[153] They are thus an extremely important source for understanding Egyptian theology during and before the Old Kingdom.[154]

In the 22nd century BC, the Old Kingdom collapsed into the disorder of the First Intermediate Period, with important consequences for Egyptian religion. Old Kingdom officials had already begun to adopt the funerary rites originally reserved for royalty,[53] but now, less rigid barriers between social classes meant that these practices and the accompanying beliefs gradually extended to all Egyptians, a process called the "democratization of the afterlife".[155] The Osirian view of the afterlife had the greatest appeal to commoners, and thus Osiris became one of the most important gods. The new pharaohs originated from Thebes, and they promoted their patron god Monthu to national importance, but during the Middle Kingdom he was eclipsed by the rising popularity of Amun.[156]

New Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom crumbled in the Second Intermediate Period, but the country was again reunited by Theban rulers, who became the first pharaohs of the New Kingdom. They promoted their deity Amun to the position of supreme state god, and syncretized him with the long-established patron of kingship, Ra. The temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak in Thebes thus became the religious capital of Egypt.[157] Increased contact with outside peoples in this period led to the adoption of many Near Eastern deities into the pantheon,[158] while the subjugated Nubians absorbed Egyptian religious beliefs, and in particular, adopted Amun as their own.[159][160]

Akhenaten and his family worshipping the Aten

The New Kingdom religious order was disrupted when Pharaoh Amenhotep IV replaced Amun with the Aten as the state god, and renamed himself Akhenaten in its honor. Eventually he prohibited the worship of gods other than the Aten, and moved Egypt's capital to a new city at Amarna, for which this part of Egyptian history, the Amarna period, is named. In doing so Akhenaten claimed unprecedented status for himself, as an aspect of the Aten itself as well as its sole intermediary for worship.[161] The Atenist system lacked well-developed mythology, moral philosophy, and afterlife beliefs, and the Aten itself seemed distant and impersonal, so the new order did not appeal to ordinary Egyptians.[162] Thus, many of them continued to worship the traditional gods in private.[163] Nevertheless, the withdrawal of state support for the other deities undermined the structure of Egyptian society.[164] Akhenaten's successors therefore restored the traditional religious system, and eventually they dismantled all Atenist monuments.[165]

The confusion of the Amarna period resulted in a long-term decline in pharaonic religious influence, despite the efforts of later pharaohs to counteract it. As a backlash against Akhenaten's claim to be the only interface between the populace and the gods, people began to believe that the gods were more directly involved in daily life. The pharaoh was therefore less significant, more human and less divine. At the same time, after the religious restoration the priesthood of Amun grew still more powerful, and these factors contributed to the breakdown of the New Kingdom.[166]

Later periods

In the first millennium BC, Egypt was significantly weaker than in earlier times, and in several periods foreigners seized the country and assumed the position of pharaoh. Animal cults, a characteristically Egyptian form of worship, became increasingly popular in this period, possibly as a response to the uncertainty and foreign influence of this period.[167] Isis grew more popular in this period as well, and eventually became the most important goddess in Egypt.[168]

In the fourth century BC, Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom under the Ptolemaic dynasty, which assumed the pharaonic role, maintaining the traditional religion and building or rebuilding many temples. The kingdom's Greek ruling class identified the Egyptian deities with their own, and syncretized several Greek gods with Osiris and Apis to create Serapis, a new state god intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian communities. Nevertheless, for the most part the two belief systems remained separate, and the Egyptian deities remained Egyptian.[169][170]

The Ptolemaic religious system changed little after Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, with the Ptolemaic kings replaced by distant emperors.[171] The cult of Isis appealed even to Greeks and Romans outside Egypt, and in Hellenized form it spread across the empire.[172] In Egypt itself, however, knowledge of many of the details of Egyptian belief had become confined to the insular and shrinking temple priesthoods.[173] The religion declined further in the first century AD, when Christianity and its exclusive monotheism arrived and began winning converts. In 383 AD, when Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the closing of all pagan temples, including those in Egypt. While it persisted among the populace for some time, Egyptian religion slowly faded away thereafter.[174]


With the Neopagan emergence in the 20th century, a form of reconstructed ancient Egyptian religion called Kemetism was formed.

See also


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  2. ^ Fleming and Lothian (1997), p. 12
  3. ^ Redford (2002), p.62
  4. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 6, 36
  5. ^ Assmann (2001), pp. 63–64, 82
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Allen, Middle Egyptian, pp. 43–44
  7. ^ Wilkinson (2003), p. 60
  8. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 30, 32
  9. ^ David (2002), p. 53
  10. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 187–189
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  12. ^ Redford (2002), p. 82
  13. ^ Wilkinson (2003), p. 81
  14. ^ Allen (2000), p. 31
  15. ^ Fleming and Lothian, (1997), p. 108
  16. ^ Shafer (1991), pp. 56–57
  17. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 74–79
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  21. ^ David (2002), p. 185
  22. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 32, 36
  23. ^ a b Assmann (2001), p. 11
  24. ^ a b Wilkinson (2003), p. 38
  25. ^ Redford (2002), pp. 226–227
  26. ^ David (2002), pp. 215–216
  27. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 38–39
  28. ^ Allen (2000), p. 198
  29. ^ a b c Allen (2000), pp. 115–117
  30. ^ Allen (2000), p. 104
  31. ^ Shafer (1997), p. 2
  32. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 96
  33. ^ Allen (2000), p. 21
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  80. ^ Hornung (1999), pp. 1–5
  81. ^ David (2002), p. 93
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  96. ^ Wilkinson (2000), pp. 36–37
  97. ^ Wilkinson (2000), pp. 54–68
  98. ^ Allen (2000), p. 55
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  124. ^ Fleming and Lothian (1997), p. 98
  125. ^ Allen (2000), p. 94
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  127. ^ Taylor (2001), p. 95
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  130. ^ Quirke and Spencer, p. 92
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  132. ^ Taylor (2001), pp. 107–110, 200–213
  133. ^ Quirke and Spencer (1992), pp. 97–98
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  142. ^ David (2002), pp. 51, 81
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  146. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 20, 126–127
  147. ^ Shaw (2000), pp. 92, 108–109
  148. ^ David (2002), p. 97
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  151. ^ David (2002), p. 91
  152. ^ Shaw, p. 113
  153. ^ Shaw (2000), p. 113
  154. ^ David (2002), p. 92
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  156. ^ David (2002), p. 154–156
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  158. ^ David (2002), p. 276
  159. ^ Draper, p. 44
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  162. ^ David (2002), p. 238
  163. ^ Shaw (2000), p. 287
  164. ^ Shaw (2000), p. 311
  165. ^ David (2002), pp. 238–239
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  167. ^ David (2002), p. 317
  168. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 146, 149
  169. ^ Shaw (2000), pp. 437–438
  170. ^ David (2002), pp. 325–328
  171. ^ Shaw (2000), p. 437
  172. ^ David (2002), p. 326
  173. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 27
  174. ^ Wilkinson (2003), pp. 22–23


  • Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521774837. 
  • Assmann, Jan (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801442419. 
  • Assmann, Jan (2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801487293. 
  • David, Rosalie (2002). Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin. ISBN 0140262520. 
  • Draper, Robert (February 2008). "Black Pharaohs". National Geographic 213 (2). 
  • Fleming, Fergus; Alan Lothian (1997). The Way to Eternity: Egyptian Myth. Amsterdam: Duncan Baird Publishers. ISBN 0705435032. 
  • Hornung, Erik (1999). The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801485150. 
  • Pinch, Geraldine (1995). Magic in Ancient Egypt. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292765592. 
  • Quirke, Stephen; Jeffrey Spencer (1992). The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0500279020. 
  • Redford, Donald B., ed (2002). The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. Berkley Publication Group. ISBN 042519096X. 
  • Shafer, Byron E., ed (1991). Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801497868. 
  • Shafer, Byron E., ed (1997). Temples of Ancient Egypt. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1850439451. 
  • Shaw, Ian, ed (2000). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198150342. 
  • Taylor, John (2001). Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. University of Chicago Press. p. 25. ISBN 0226791645. 
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500051208. 
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. (2000). The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500051003. 

Further reading

  • Schulz, R. and M. Seidel, "Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs". Könemann, Cologne 1998. ISBN 3-89508-913-3
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis, "Egyptian Religion: Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life (Library of the Mystic Arts)". Citadel Press. August 1, 1991. ISBN 0-8065-1229-6
  • Clarysse, Willy; Schoors, Antoon; Willems, Harco; Quaegebeur, Jan, "Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years : Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur", Peeters Publishers, 1998. ISBN 9042906693
  • Harris, Geraldine, John Sibbick, and David O'Connor, "Gods and Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology". Bedrick, 1992. ISBN 0-87226-907-8
  • Hart, George, "Egyptian Myths (Legendary Past Series)". University of Texas Press (1st edition), 1997. ISBN 0-292-72076-9
  • Osman, Ahmed, Moses and Akhenaten. The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, (December 2002, Inner Traditions International, Limited) ISBN 1-59143-004-6
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge, Les cosmo-théologies philosophiques d'Héliopolis et d'Hermopolis. Essai de thématisation et de systématisation, (Academy of African Thought, Sect. I, vol. 2), Kinshasa-Munich 1987; new ed., Munich-Paris, 2004.
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge, "Les cosmo-théologies philosophiques de l’Égypte Antique. Problématique, prémisses herméneutiques et problèmes majeurs, (Academy of African Thought, Sect. I, vol. 1)", Kinshasa-Munich 1986; new ed., Munich-Paris, 2003.
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge, "Métaphysique Pharaonique IIIème millénaire av. J.-C. (Academy of African Thought & C.A. Diop-Center for Egyptological Studies-INADEP, Sect. I, vol. 4)", Kinshasa-Munich 1995 ; new ed., Munich-Paris, 2003.
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge, "Le Créateur et la Création dans la pensée memphite et amarnienne. Approche synoptique du Document Philosophique de Memphis et du Grand Hymne Théologique d'Echnaton, (Academy of African Thought, Sect. I, vol. 2)", Kinshasa-Munich 1988; new ed., Munich-Paris, 2004.
  • Pinch, Geraldine, "Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of ancient Egypt". Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-517024-5

External links


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