Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

This is the third post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here and Part two can be read here

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.

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part II

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part II

This is the second post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here

There has been a long debate among Egyptologists regarding the degree to which ancient Egyptians considered the Pharaoh a god. The consensus at the moment seems to be that the ancient Egyptians viewed royal authority itself as divine. Thus, while recognizing that the Pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, the ancient Egyptians simultaneously considered him a god, because he was the incarnation of the divine power of kingship. In this role, he acted as intermediary between the people of Egypt and the gods. He was essential to upholding Ma’at, both by maintaining justice and harmony in human society, and by sustaining the gods with temples and offerings. For these Pharaoh-Thutmose-III-Luxor-Museum.jpgreasons, one of the Pharaoh’s jobs was to oversee all state religious activity.

The Pharaoh was also associated with many specific deities. He was directly identified with Horus, who represented kingship itself, and was seen as the son of Ra, ruler and regulator of nature as the Pharaoh was the ruler and regulator of society. By the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE) the Pharaoh was also associated with Amun, the supreme force in the cosmos. Upon his death, the Pharaoh attained full godhood. In this state, he was directly identified with Ra, and was also associated with Osiris, god of death and rebirth who was the father of Horus. Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.

The Journey of the Soul

The ancient Egyptians had intricate doctrines about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a ka, or life force, which left the body at the moment of death. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so they believed that, to live on after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still absorb. Each person also had a ba, which consisted of those spiritual and personality characteristics that were unique to each individual. Unlike the ka, the ba BaKaAkhstayed attached to the body after death.

Egyptian funeral rituals were designed to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that, together, they could become the akh (meaning “magically effective one”), which they conceived of as mind as a living entity. Nevertheless, it was also important that the body of the deceased be preserved, as the ancient Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to renew itself, before emerging in the morning as part of the akh.

In early times, ancient Egyptians believed the deceased pharaoh ascended to the sky and dwelled among the stars. However, over the course of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), he came to be more closely linked with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris, as those deities grew more important.

By the time the New Kingdom rolled around, ancient Egyptians believed that the ka and the ba had to escape an assortment of supernatural perils in the Duat (the realm of the dead), before submitting to a final judgment, known as the “Weighing of the Heart,” WeighingoftheHeartcarried out by Osiris and the Assessors of Ma’at.

This judgment consisted of, the gods comparing the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to Ma’at, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with the principles of Ma’at. If the deceased was judged worthy, his or her ka and ba were united into an akh. There were several coexisting beliefs about the destination of the akh. Frequently, the worthy dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasing land in the underworld. The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased akh traveled with Ra on his daily journey, was still associated with royalty, for the most part, but could be extended to others as well. Over the course of the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also visit the world of the living, and magically affect events there to a certain degree, became increasingly widespread.

Myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus

The most important of all ancient Egyptian myths was the story of Osiris and Isis. It is the tale of the divine ruler Osiris, who was murdered by his jealous brother, Set, a god often identified with the forces of chaos. Osiris’ sister and wife, Isis, resurrected him so thatEyeofHorusPillars they could conceive an heir: Horus. Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead.

After he grew up, Horus fought and defeated Set to become king himself. The association of Set with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful divine rulers, provided a rationale for the succession of Pharaohs and set up the Pharaohs as the upholders of order. At the same time, the death and subsequent rebirth of Osiris was connected to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the flooding of the Nile, and also provided a template for the resurrection of the human ka and ba after death.

Another important motif in ancient Egyptian myth was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. During the course of this journey, Ra would meet with Osiris, who served as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed. Ra would also battle each night with Apep – a serpentine god that represented chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris would ensure the rising of the sun the next morning, a daily event that symbolized rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.

Importance of Funerary Texts

Among the most notable and thoroughly preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that the deceased made it to a pleasant afterlife. The earliest of these are the Pyramid Texts. They are a loose collection of hundreds of spells, inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom, which were intended to magically provide pharaohs with the methods by which they could take their place in the company of the gods in the afterlife. The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and a handful of them appear in all of the pyramids.


At the end of the Old Kingdom a new group of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began to appear in tombs, but these were primarily inscribed on coffins. This collection of writings, known as the Coffin Texts, was not reserved for royalty, but turned up in the tombs of non-royal officials. In the New Kingdom, various new funerary texts emerged, of which the most well known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier texts, it frequently features extensive illustrations, or little scenes. The Book of the Dead was copied on papyrus and sold to the common people to be placed in their tombs.

The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld, along with instructions on how to overcome its dangers. In the New Kingdom, this material inspired a number of “books of the underworld,” including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat. Unlike the previous loose collections of spells, these underworld books are organized portrayals of Ra’s passage through the Duat, and through metaphor, the journey of the deceased’s ka and ba through the realm of the dead. These texts were originally restricted to the tombs of pharaohs, but in the Third Intermediate Period (1069–744 BCE) their use was widespread.

To be continued…