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.

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

“It’s hard to have those conversations,” the palliative care doctor was saying. She was talking about telling a loved one that Stage 4 cancer is terminal, and all the discussions and decisions that surround such a prognosis. The patient, an 85-year-old man, had lived a good life and yet, because of his fear of death, of losing this life, he was in denial and angry. This caused him and his family pain and turmoil as he sought to find his way to some acceptance of his situation.

Conversations about death are hard because U.S. culture is steeped in the fear of death. One only needs to look at television or magazine ads to see this; a culture that prides itself on fitness, youthfulness, and acquiring things has little understanding of the true nature of death. Death is a skeleton to be feared, a lurker in the closet that should not be acknowledged. Many aged have lived a life of denial of death, waiting until perhaps the last possible moment to “find God” or think about “the other side.”

People fear dying, not death, in general. They fear the pain and suffering that comes with long illnesses. Who wouldn’t? Cancer is certainly not a pleasant state. We hope for a quick death or to die in our sleep. Death in this way removes the focus on the body, on the horrors of what happens to the flesh that decays. Westerners don’t spend a lot of time on what it means to transition in death; they mostly focus on the unpleasant physical effects of the dying process. What is fascinating is that if one steps outside of perhaps the standard Western religions, he sees a far greater world that is not only accepting of death, but embracing of death.

While the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day) is a book, or set of scrolls, that specifically addresses the stages of death and afterlife, it doesn’t speak to the reader in such a way as to make the stages of death clear. It is still, after all, a Western book, early (2670 B.C.E.) as it may be. The scrolls were lists of spells which were left in the tombs of the dead. Their purpose was to provide the deceased a way to navigate the afterlife successfully. A very good modern interpretation / translation of this book is titled “Awaking Osiris.”

The Bardo Thodol, or “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is a book which is written for the living to assist the dying and deceased to make the transition off the Wheel of Life to Nirvana. This book is also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although that is a fanciful 20th C. Western name.

Three bardos, or intermediate states between activities, are to be navigated, and success in these provides pathways toward different ends. A bardo may be any intermediate state, such as between birth and death, death and rebirth, even between something like sleeping and awakening. The guru or teacher sits with the person that is about to die and speaks to him of his journey, reminding him of his true being. He is prompted to enter the Clear Light, and thus, remove himself from the path of Earthly physical life. If he transitions to the second bardo, further instructions are given, and so on, until the soul either returns to Nirvana or back into a physical body, depending on the spiritual acumen of the deceased person. That all sounds a little complicated; in essence, it is assistance by the earthly person to the unearthly one, guiding him on his way to reincarnation or elevation.

“O Nobly Born, that which is death being called to thee now, resolve thus: “O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitless expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort to the Sole Perfection.”

This section, from the First Bardo, is an example of the cultural views of death; not only its acceptance but total embrace to do what is best for the good of the collective humanity. This section goes on to remind the deceased that his life is in service to the greater good. The bardos continue in a cycle, all the while being guided by a guru, a “man of Faith,” a brother, or other person. The person acts as a guide from this realm to the next, allowing the soul to find peace by whatever means it finds possible. The thought of reading these beside the dying person is somehow comforting, perhaps as much to the speaker as to the “hearer.”

I think much of this same type of symbolism and instruction is provided to the Craft Mason, who winds through these bardos in the the rituals of all Craft degrees. Freemasonry, being an initiatory rite, seeks to impress on its membership the repeated lessons of life and death, until these ritual words and actions become very familiar to him. At first he is the recipient and later the provider. The nature of Freemasonry, the Service to Humanity, maybe partly this: imparting the ability to have each human experience a peaceful transition from this life to the next, and thereby improve the overall state of all beings.

The three bardos of death to rebirth transition, as explained in the book, are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of Experiencing Reality, and the Bardo while seeking Rebirth. To me, these mirror perfectly with the Craft degrees, where the lessons are told in with a Western slant. In some Masonic traditions, a chamber is used to create a space for the candidate to experience a true bardo, an intermediate state between activities, where reflection and change can take place. Symbolic in this world, perhaps these ritual trappings are faint shadows of the reality of our earthly transition.

It was said to me, recently, that Freemasons seem to be less afraid of death than perhaps the average Western human. If we listen to what Freemasonry is imparting, the Mason can’t help but put away the denial of his physical, transitory nature. We will die from this world. Freemasons may be better able to embrace the transcendence of being that marks the animus, the soul, the spirit, or whatever you wish to call the immortal principle in each living thing. Fear is the mind killer and is that which brings pain to what may not need to be a painful experience.

Freemasons are repeatedly provided the tools, symbolic and ritualistic, to learn to guide themselves and others through all the bardos of the human existence. It seems to me that all humans could use a lot more peaceful transitions into whatever intermediate state we find ourselves.

“Thine own consciousness, shining, void and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light.” ~ Buddha Amitabha