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.

EgyptainBookoftheDead

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…

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part I

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part I

For the ancient Egyptians, religion wasn’t something they did once a week or on designated holidays. They believed that their deities were part of and responsible for all the natural forces around them. Those natural forces included the weather, the elements, animals, plants, and places. The ancient Egyptians worshipped or acknowledged over one thousand deities. Many of these deities were local to specific regions of the country, but many were universally known. As the Egyptians came in contact with other civilizations, some deities were added to their pantheon. Egyptian pharaohs were also routinely elevated to deity status, and particularly distinguished individuals were sometimes accorded that honor as well.

Most religions have creation myths and the ancient Egyptians were no exception. They referred to this event as the Zep Tepi, which means “the first occasion.” Ancient Egyptian Zeb Tepi myths differ depending on the major city of a region, but they all have in common the idea that the world arose out of the primeval waters of chaos, personified by the god Nu. Another common feature is a pyramid-shaped mound, called the benben, which was the first thing to emerge from chaos.

The sun was also intimately interwoven with creation, and it was believed to have first risen from the benben, personified by the overall sun god Ra or as the god Khepri, who represented the newly risen sun. There were many versions of the first appearance ofAncientEgyptain Religion2 the sun; it either emerged directly from the benben itself, or from a lotus flower that grew there, taking the form of a heron, falcon, scarab beetle, or human child.

Another common variant of Egyptian cosmogonies, and those of other cultures, is the cosmic egg, which is either a substitute for the waters of chaos or the benben. One version of the cosmic egg variant has the sun god hatching from the egg created by the deities of the Ogdoad, or produced by the Chaos Goose and the Chaos Gander.

The creation myth taught in the city of Hermopolis concentrated on the nature of the universe before the world was created. The substance and qualities of the primeval waters were personified by a set of eight gods, called the Ogdoad. The god Nu and his female counterpart Naunet represented the primordial watery abyss itself; Huh and his counterpart Hauhet represented the water’s infinite chaos; Kek and Kauket personified the primordial darkness within it; and Amun and Amaunet represented its hidden and unknowable nature. According to the myth, the eight gods were originally divided into male and female groups. As they dwelled within the primordial waters, they were symbolically depicted as aquatic creatures: the males were represented as frogs, and the females were represented as snakes. These two groups eventually converged, resulting in a great upheaval, which produced the benben. From the benben emerged the sun, which rose into the sky to illuminate the world.

In Heliopolis, creation of the world was attributed to Atum, a deity closely associated with Ra, who was believed to have existed in the waters of Nu as an inert potential being. Atum started by creating himself, and became the source of all the elements and forces in the world. Atum then formed the air and wind god Shu and his sister Tefnut, goddess of moisture, moist air, dew, and rain. Next, Shu and Tefnut coupled to produce the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who defined the limits of the world between them. Geb and Nut in turn gave rise to four children, who represented the forces of life: Osiris, god of fertility and regeneration; Isis, goddess of motherhood; Set, the god of chaos; and AncientEgyptain Religion3Nephthys, the female complement of Set. These nine gods (and sometimes Horus) were grouped together theologically as the Ennead.

The version of the creation myth found in Memphis centered on Ptah, who was the patron god of craftsmen. As such, he represented the craftsman’s ability to envision a finished product, and shape the raw materials to create that product. Memphite theology held that Ptah created the world in a similar manner. Unlike the other Egyptian creation myths, this was not a physical but an intellectual creation by the Word and the Thought of Ptah. The ideas developed within Ptah’s heart (regarded by the Egyptians as the seat of human thought, rather than the brain) were given form when he named them with his tongue. By speaking these names, Ptah produced the gods and all other things. This Memphite creation myth managed to coexist with that of Heliopolis, because Ptah’s creative thought and speech were believed to have caused the formation of Atum and thus the Ennead.

Theban theology held that Amun was not merely a member of the Ogdoad, but the hidden force behind all things. Thebans conflated all aspects of creation into the personality of Amun, believing that he transcends all other deities. One Theban myth equated Amun’s act of creation to the call of a goose, which broke the stillness of the primordial waters and caused the formation of the Ogdoad and the Ennead. Amun was considered separate from the world, his true nature concealed even from the other gods. At the same time, because he was the ultimate source of creation, all the deities, including the other creators, were merely aspects of Amun. Due to this belief, and to the fact that Thebes was the capital of Egypt for such a long time, Amun eventually became the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon, fusing with Ra to become Ammun-Ra.

The ancient Egyptian view of the universe centered around Ma’at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English, among them “truth”, “justice”, and “order.” Ancient Egyptians saw Ma’at as the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and in human society. They believed that it had existed since the creation of the world, and without Ma’at the world would lose coherence. Ancient Egyptians believed that the forces of disorder were constantly threatening Ma’at, and thus all of society was needed to maintain it. On the human level this meant that all members of society need to cooperate and coexist; on the cosmic level it meant that all of the forces of nature – which, for the ancient Egyptians, meant their deities – should continue to function in balance. This latter objective was central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptians sought toIsis-goddess-Egyptian-mythology preserve Ma’at in the cosmos by sustaining their deities through offerings, and by performing rituals that forestalled disorder and perpetuated the cycles of nature.

The most important aspect of the ancient Egyptian view of the cosmos was the way they conceived of time, which was extremely concerned with the maintenance of Ma’at. Throughout the linear passage of time, a cyclical pattern recurred, in which Ma’at was renewed by periodic events that echoed the original creation. Among these events were the annual flooding of the Nile, and the succession from one king to another – but the most important was the daily journey of the sun god Ra.

When pondering the shape of the cosmos, the ancient Egyptians saw the earth as a flat expanse of land, personified by the god Geb, over which arched the sky goddess Nut. Shu, the god of air, separated these two deities of land and sky. Beneath the earth was a parallel underworld and undersky, and beyond the skies was the infinite expanse of Nu, the chaos that had existed before the creation of the world. The ancient Egyptians also believed in a place called the Duat, the land of the dead, which was located either in the underworld or in the sky. Each day, Ra traveled over the earth across the underside of the sky, and at night he passed through the Duat to be reborn at dawn.

In ancient Egyptian belief, the cosmos was inhabited by three kinds of sentient beings. The first were the deities; the second were the spirits of deceased human beings, who existed in the divine realm and possessed many of the deities’ abilities. The third were living humans, and the most important among them was the pharaoh, whose role was to bridge the human and divine realms.

To be continued…