Ancient Egypt is known for its incredible relics and massive, intricate monuments. The context of the vast majority of these artifacts are religious in nature or tied to it in some way. In ancient Egypt, their religion was not merely a life-style choice; the religion dictated their entire social structure, from leadership and administration, to social stratification and life after death. Everything from its origins to its eternal influence around the globe has been studied for many centuries under many great intellectuals. Even in its great ages, people such as the Greeks were absolutely fascinated with the Egyptian empire and culture. The theology of this religion is the first to introduce revolutionary ideas such as monotheism (Brier) and enforce such a prominent role for the religion over the entire empire. The religion of the ancient Egyptians was a complex and dynamic one; it shaped the history of a great nation and at the same time, the religion was continuously altered and modified to suit the tastes of the cultural norms and individuals in power. In further exploration, this paper will explore a broad overview of the highlights of ancient Egyptian’s religion over the course of 3,000 years and how it was engrained in every single aspect of their daily lives.
In order to understand where the fascination with ancient Egyptian’s religion begins, one must turn to when it was alive, and the dominating presence it had over the ancient world. In its early stages, there is not much known about outside interactions with Mesopotamian city states or empires, save some possible trading, but others believe that there must have been some sort of very early influence from the region of Mesopotamia due to Egypt’s language of hieroglyphs basically uniformly producing itself overnight at around 3300 or 3200 BCE (source). By the age of the New Kingdom however, much more is known about the interaction with Mesopotamia, specifically Babylon (Stiebing 114) and Assyria (Stiebing 275). The interaction from these empires gave way to cultural transmission and it is clear to see that Egypt was not in favor of their old Middle Kingdom isolationist policy anymore (Knapp 102). While many Mesopotamian empires lasted a generation or two, Egypt’s great civilization lasted thousands of years. This was in part due to King Menes’ early unification of the “Black Lands” (Upper Egypt), and the “Red Land” (Lower Egypt) 3100 BCE and later because of imperialistic campaigns the Egyptians ran to spread their presence and control throughout the ancient near East (Knapp 174).
Egypt’s dominating presence as a powerful and advanced civilization continued throughout antiquity and eventually resulted in great thinkers from Greece in the North Mediterranean to become fascinated and captivated by the awe-inducing presence of Egypt. Greek philosophers such as Herodotus even travelled to the still living late Egyptian empire to learn more from their society in order to bring the knowledge back home to Greece. Plato was to have been a man who disregarded religion due to its conflict with the truth, but even he said that the religion of the Egyptians was something to be understood and acceptable (Brier). Over time the Greeks learned and modeled their own society after much of the Egyptian empire’s (Brier), specifically in religious features such as their pantheons and gods. However, the Greeks did not really change their political structure to imitate the Egyptians; their apparent interest was from the old Egyptian gods and the monumental artifacts that were built in honor of said divine beings.
The religious aspects of these Mesopotamian realms, such as patron city gods, is something that can be found in Egypt as well, such as the “city of Amun”, “city of Thoth” etc. (Assmann 17), and as a subsequent result, the great Mediterranean civilization of Greece conforming to the same type of religiously structured city-states with patron deities. While the Greeks used Egypt as a basis for many aspects of their own civilization, some of the most prominently apparent cross-overs are religious in nature. For example, the Greek gods were very closely modeled after some of Egypt’s, as though they took Egypt’s gods and put them into a Greek mold in order to call them their own. There are many parallels in Egyptian and Greek gods and by the Hellenistic period in 300 BCE, gods such as Isis were being worshipped by both civilizations. Another Greek god with Egyptian origins is Amun-Ra. He was paralleled to be Zeus, the Greek king of the gods or the highest god (Assmann 10). This conflicting idea of a supreme, monotheistic god existing in tandem with the other lesser gods is a concept that the Greeks inherited from Egyptian mythology with Amun-Ra. This relationship between Greek and Egyptian gods is shown when Herodotus documented his travels in Egypt using the Greek gods’ names for all of the Egyptian ones he encountered. Greece considered Egypt to be a place of origin, especially for the root of their own gods.
The Egyptian gods themselves were vast in number and representatives of nature. There are over 2,000 names listed in the Egyptian Pantheon. The origin of the gods’ anthropomorphic nature is a mystery from before historic times (Traunecker.25). It is thought that the gods anthropomorphic and animalistic hybridization could have derived from being symbolic of the nature and geography of ancient Egypt (Traunecker 28-29). It is known that each of the gods reigned over certain aspects of the Egyptian world such as Osiris being the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld , and Anubis being the god of mummification. The Egyptian gods were appreciated by the population, because it was thought that the gods were the ones providing the stability and balance of their entire world. An interesting feature of the ancient Egyptian religion is its practice of monotheism and the power of the pharaoh Akhenaten in the 18th Dynasty (Quirke 143). In this era, the sun god Ra was put in the highest position of reverence and Akhenaten was the one dictating this shift from polytheism. The gods were supposedly all-powerful, but the influence of the “divine status” of pharaoh could strengthen or weaken the gods’ presences.
Ma’at plays a major part in the theology of the ancient Egyptians for it ties in the role of the pharaoh, the beliefs of the population, and the order of their universe. As said by Stiebing, it is a word that means “truth … order, stability, balance, harmony, wisdom, and justice” (Stiebing 127). The idea of constant stability and balance in part lies with the geography of Egypt and the predictability of the annual flooding of the Nile River. This continuous regularity in the ancient Egyptians’ environment gave a strong sense of security and trust in the gods to help them. Ma’at was personified as a goddess and the daughter of Ra, but the pharaoh was also considered an important figure in maintaining the concept of ma’at. The best way to uphold this idea of justice was through the legal system and the administration of the government. The pharaoh had to be a just lawmaker and administrator in order to truly showcase the ideals of ma’at and reinforce their position of a divine mediator between the people and their gods.
The religion of the ancient Egyptians began with very materialistic, worldly origins. This is easy to see by the design of the Egyptian tombs and all of the material possessions belonging to the deceased individuals. A very intriguing topic though, is how morality emerges in the religion and how is shown through the artifacts, such as tomb inscriptions (Breasted 166). In many writings there are affirmations and many self-affirmations of one’s honesty and good-doing. Examples of such self-proclaimed righteousness are shown clearly in the following excerpts: “I gave bread to all the hungry of the Cerastes-Mountain” and “I speak no like, for I was one beloved of his father, praised of his mother, excellent in character to his brother, and amiable to [his sister]” (Breasted 168). There seems to be a close relationship with moral worthiness and the gods’ judgement of the individual which determines their place in the afterlife. This motive is clearly seen in another tomb inscription “I desired that it might be well with me in the Great God’s presence” (Breasted 170) for it showed that the deceased had behaved in such a way during their life that it would please the gods and allow a pleasant afterlife.
As stated earlier, the pharaoh was a figure who supported and upheld ma’at which contained the moral ideals of justice and ethicality. The pharaoh’s divine status was the primary reason they were able to fulfill those significant duties. The divinity of the pharaoh was one of the most influential elements of the Egyptian religion and realm. Although there had been kings and leaders to claim divinity in Mesopotamia, it was met with conflict and impermanence, as seen with Naram-Sin of Akkad (Stiebing 74). In the age of ancient Egypt, the population agreed about the validity of the divinity of their leader and supported and worshipped the pharaoh as such. The Old and Middle Kingdoms in particular gave divine kingship an important status because it helped unify their territory politically and culturally (Trigger 71). There is debate as to what particular aspects of the pharaoh were considered divine, but a general consensus Egyptologists believe is that the people of Egypt believed the position and authority of pharaoh to be divine, not the individual human being in the throne. The pharaoh was considered a mediator between the humans and the gods and supposed to enact the will of the gods throughout Egypt through their judgements and reigns. As mentioned earlier, in reality the pharaoh ended up with the ultimate power, sometimes even influencing the status of gods, as seen with Akhenaten (Quirke 144). They were able to structure both the governmental administration and the religion’s organization which enabled them to monopolize power and keep other officials and priests confined to limited powerful privileges.
The symbolic nature of the pharaoh was also something that largely shaped the religion of the ancient Egyptians. The first to merge the Upper and Lower Regions of ancient Egypt was King Menes (Knapp 102). He also created the capital of Memphis in the north (David 15) and in doing so, he created a sense of unification that remained throughout Egypt’s history. His political unification of the two realms made his importance as a leader unrivaled, and in later Egyptian history it probably supported the idea of the pharaoh being of a divine existence. There is evidence of this from a ceremonial slate discovered at Horus’s temple in Hierakonpolis where it details Menes, also called Narmer, representing important relics from both the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt (David 16). This is most likely a physical representation of the power of the pharaoh, for what else other than divine power could unite the two? The pharaoh was basically a symbol of not only the ancient Egyptian’s religion, but of Egypt itself as a whole in antiquity. The pharaoh was an answer to many parts of Egypt’s ancient lifestyle, and they also helped form a bridge between the humans and their gods. The pharaoh was closely associated with many of the gods such as Osiris, the god of the dead and Ra, the god of the sun. The pharaoh was said to be the son of Ra and the human form of Osiris after they died.
The pharaoh’s death was a very ritualistic and significant part of the ancient Egyptians culture. While the pharaoh and his kin were not the only ones to be mummified, the process for the pharaoh was still very expensive and a lengthy procedure. The embalming process involved several steps, first of which certain individuals would cleanse the body, remove the internal organs, and dehydrated them with salts (source). The brain of the deceased was also mashed with a long probe and removed through the nose. The body is washed again and covered in oils to maintain skin elasticity. In earlier stages, canopic jars were used to hold the dried-out organs but in later methods, the Egyptians transitioned to the process of re-stuffing the body with the dehydrated bowels (source). Afterwards the body was wrapped in linens and ultimately laid to rest in a sarcophagus in large tombs such as the pyramids where they would be surrounded with all of their important material possessions for the afterlife. Items such as clothing, jewelry, food, wealth, precious oils, weapons, statues, and sometimes even the household servants and officials (source) were placed in the tombs as well.
The pyramids which held the pharaohs were an absolute masterpiece in the ancient and modern world. Of the pyramids, the three at Giza are perhaps the most famous. These 4,000-year-old pyramids are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and it’s clear why such a title is given. The amount of physical labor and resources used to build these 450-ft. high pyramids retains its astounding effect. Precise mathematics and physics played an important role in the creation of such monumental structures while the function of these was primarily religious. Because there were so many valuable, materialistic goods buried in the chamber of the pharaoh in the center of the pyramid, there was great precaution taken to stop graverobbers from breaking in. For that reason, there were curses placed upon the pyramid so those who came to defile the site would be cursed for eternity. The entrance of the tomb was also not easily visible. In the case of Amenemhet III’s pyramid, there were also mazes within the pyramid to confuse and trap looters from stealing anything (source). One of the reasons these pyramids were constructed was because of how the soul had individual parts and the parts stayed in their respective areas.
The soul is considered to be of two parts to the ancient Egyptians, and each had respective roles in the spiritual realm. Ka and Ba have a complex relationship, and both have important roles in the afterlife. Ka is the life-force and spiritual essence of the soul. On the other hand, Ba is the roaming physical essence of the soul. Combined, these make the soul. There is a third part to the equation though, also thought of as the goal for the deceased soul to create.