Temples were a part of Egyptian history from the very beginning, and could be found in most towns at the height of Egyptian civilization. There were both mortuary temples designed to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs, and temples dedicated to patron deities, although the difference wasn’t always clear because the concepts of divinity and kingship were so intimately intertwined.
For the most part, state-run temples were not meant to be places for the general public to worship. Instead, these temples functioned as houses for the deities, whose physical images, like statues, acted as their surrogates, and were cared for and given offerings accordingly. These services were considered necessary to sustain the deities, so that they, in turn, could maintain the universe itself. Thus, temples were fundamental to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, which included both large estates of their own, and donations from the monarchy. Pharaohs often expanded temple estates as part of their obligation to honor the deities, which resulted in many temples growing to enormous size. However, not all deities had temples dedicated to them, as many deities who were considered important in official theology were only minimally worshipped otherwise, and many household deities were the focus of universal reverence rather than temple ritual.
The earliest Egyptian temples were small, short-lived structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms they became more elaborate, and were increasingly built out of stone. By the New Kingdom, the standard temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to a sanctuary, which housed a statue of the temple’s deity. Admittance to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. In addition to the actual temple itself, temple complexes also included workshops and storage areas, and a library where the temple’s sacred writings and everyday records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning.
In theory, it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, since he was Egypt’s official representative to the deities. In reality, priests almost always carried out these ritual duties. 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. It was not until the New Kingdom that professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests remained part-time. Temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters for temple ceremonies. Outside the temple itself were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple’s needs, and farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple’s income. As a result, large temples were very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.
Egyptian Temple Rituals
State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a particular deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a celebration and ritual renewal of the pharaoh’s strength that took place after he had held the throne for thirty years, then every three or four years after that.
Temple rituals included rites that took place all across Egypt, and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single deity. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or occasionally. The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or sometimes the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the deity’s statue before presenting it with offerings. Once the deity had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were distributed among the priests.
There were still quite a few less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often went beyond simple offerings to the deities, and could involve anything from reenactments of particular myths to the symbolic destruction of the forces of chaos. Most of these events were likely celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually entailed a procession carrying the deity’s image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other meaningful sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners would gather to watch these processions, and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the deities on these occasions.
Sacred Sites, Magic, and Oracles
At many sacred sites, the ancient Egyptians worshipped individual animals, which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were chosen based on specific sacred markings, which were believed to demonstrate their suitability for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were chosen for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation.
The ancient Egyptians used oracles to ask deities for knowledge or guidance. These oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom onward, although it’s likely they appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the pharaoh, asked oracles questions and, especially in the late New Kingdom, their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. The most common way to consult an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and then interpret an answer from the barque’s movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing straws, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently channeled. The means of discerning the deity’s will conferred a great deal of influence onto the priests who channeled and interpreted the deity’s message.
Popular religious practices included ceremonies marking important transitions in life, such as birth – because of the danger involved in the process – and naming, because the name was believed to be a crucial part of a person’s identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul’s survival beyond it. Other religious practices sought to discern the deities’ will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpreting of dreams, which could be viewed as messages from the divine realm, and the consulting of oracles. People also attempted to affect the behavior of the deities, in order to benefit themselves, through magical rituals.
The word “magic” is the closest translation of the ancient Egyptian term heka. Heka was considered a natural phenomenon, the force that created the universe and which the deities used to work their will. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans could also use heka, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were considered to be magic. Individuals also frequently used magical techniques for personal goals. Although these purposes might harm others, no form of magic was considered harmful in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative occurrences.