Whenever a discussion focuses on Egypt, there is always an interconnection between the country and its culture to the ancient Egyptian religion.
This is because religion itself is one of the formative parts of ancient Egyptian culture as a complex structure of polytheistic beliefs and the rituals that come with them. Ancient Egyptian religion is part of the religions of the ancient Near East, along with Semitic, Anatolia, Persia, and Mesopotamia, which included Sumer and Babylonia.
The country takes pride not only in gaining global interest in the religions of ancient Egypt but also in its preservation of such religions. One of the most important aspects of Egypt is its tourism, and through the ancient architectures associated with the pharaohs and temples, the country has attracted tourists and researchers alike.
There is something so distinct about the ancient Egyptian religion and the way it is structured and presented based on ancient literature that it has become one of the most fascinating religions in the world and among the most popular polytheistic religions that have existed.
Ancient Egypt Religion
Egyptians believed that there are many deities and entities present and in charge of the world. Rituals, prayers, and offerings are integral to the ancient Egyptian religion and culture, and rituals were performed to receive favor from the gods.
Formal religious practices were focused on the pharaohs, as they were believed to possess the powers of the divine because of their position as rulers. Pharaohs were considered to be intermediary entities, bridging the gap between the gods and their people.
Despite this extraordinary role and blessing, pharaohs carried a great deal of responsibility as they were required to sustain the gods through offerings and rituals to maintain the balance of Ma’at, as well as the order of the universe, and to suppress chaos. This is the main reason why temples remain as integral architectural marvels in Egypt.
One of the most polarizing details about ancient Egyptian religion is that there is no single direct counterpart of this concept in the modern religions of other regions, such as Europe. As ancient Egyptian religion is a series of branches of beliefs and practices, interlocking with culture, it can be said that religion is in the DNA of Egypt’s existence.
– What (or Who) is Ma’at?
Ma’at, or sometimes Maat, is the ancient Egyptian concept or ideation of balance, harmony, law, and order, justice, morality, and truth.
Ma’at is also considered as a goddess personified, and she was believed to be in charge of regulating the actions of the mortals and other deities who brought and preserved order from chaos, seasons, and the stars. She is one of the foundations of the religions of ancient Egypt, and she is celebrated for her exceptionally broad scope, particularly in the aspect of cosmic balance.
Cosmology carries a significant role in the ancient Egyptian religion and across other religions of early Egypt. As Ma’at is considered to be the center of the universe, her name is associated with a large number of important concepts in the English language, such as justice, order, and truth. These concepts were also deemed universal; hence, they are linked to her existence.
The constant threat from disorder and chaos overshadows Ma’at’s existence and harmony, and it is society’s responsibility to maintain the balance against chaos. It is a moral and spiritual responsibility carried by the whole of society, and each individual must cooperate. Beyond the terms of humanity, all forces of nature, including the gods themselves, should be able to function and radiate their influence in perpetual balance.
One thing that sets the ancient Egyptian religion apart from other well-known religions is the objective of sustaining balance and harmony as a holistic goal. Other religions focus on singular balance and harmony, where true ascendance or transcendence should come from within.
In contrast, the ancient Egyptian religion aims for balance and harmony on a mass scale, as part of the responsibilities of the pharaoh and the entire society itself. While worship, prayers, and offerings can also be done individually, the main purpose still stands as religion being a grand duty of society.
– Death and the Afterlife
Individuals have the freedom to interact with the gods for their purpose or intention, and they can seek or appeal for help through prayers or even through the assistance of ancient magic.
While there are numerous religions of ancient Egyptians, such as Egyptian paganism and branches of ancient Egypt theology, the afterlife is a very important aspect across all religions of ancient Egypt.
This is why even today, the historical pieces of evidence of ancient Egyptian beliefs and the infrastructures found in ruins, as well as the mummified bodies, are all heavily associated with preservation and embracing of the afterlife.
Ancient Egypt theology, or even the entirety of Egyptian culture itself, has a very profound concept of death and the afterlife. It is one of the religions intertwined with a culture in which living and dying bear the same level of significance.
There are even literary concepts in the paths of ancient Egyptian cults and religions of ancient Egyptians where the afterlife is a huge deal, and present life is considered to simply be a modest preparation for the afterlife.
In other religions, life and the entirety of an individual’s existence end in death. However, in ancient Egypt theology, death is only the preamble of the afterlife – a brief passage from one life to the next.
This forward way of thinking that living is simply a preparation for the afterlife is also one of the unique characteristics of ancient Egyptian beliefs. While some religions dwell on the present or even the past, this religion considers the present as a transient phase towards a wider door, which is death, and a new beginning, which is the afterlife.
Egyptologists consider this perspective as a vouch of confidence, given that Egyptians consider the pharaoh as the bridge between mortals and gods. This detail presents itself as a guarantee that the afterlife is certain beyond the loss of life on Earth.
– Ancient Egyptian Deities
Ancient Egyptian religion has an astonishing compendium of major and minor deities, numbering more than 1,500. While other polytheistic religions carry a greater number of deities, the Ancient Egyptian religion is one of the most studied and detailed in recent times. No wonder a dedicated study or discipline exists specifically for Egypt alone – Egyptology.
As there are so many major and minor deities in ancient Egypt theology, we outline ten here that are considered to be the most worshipped and most popular gods and goddesses of all:
- Amun-Ra is considered the king of all the Egyptian gods and goddesses.
- Mut is the mother goddess (Mut also means “mother” in Egyptian) and one of the primary deities. She wears two crowns, which represent Upper and Lower Egypt.
- Osiris is one of the most well-known Egyptian gods and is the god of the afterlife.
- Anubis is known as the divine embalmer who assists in the afterlife. He is the jackal-headed god.
- Ra is the god of the sun. He is presented as a falcon-headed god with the sun disk around his head.
- Horus is the offspring of Osiris and Isis, and he is also another falcon-headed god.
- Thoth is the god of knowledge and wisdom.
- Hathor is the goddess of motherhood.
- Sekhmet is the daughter of Ra and is a lioness-headed goddess of war and healing.
- Geb is the god of the earth and crops.
Syncretism is also evident in the ancient Egyptian religion, where two or more entities are merged to establish a composite deity. Syncretism has been observed as a form of recognition when a god took over a role belonging to another god and either assumed the influence or merged them together.
Amun-Ra is the best example, where Amun, the god of hidden power, was associated with Ra, the god of the sun. This association led to Amun-Ra, where the powers have been combined and a greater, more visible influence has been achieved.
– The Real Category of Pharaohs
Egyptologists who have considerable knowledge and understanding have been debating the extent of the divinity of the pharaoh or whether they are considered as gods themselves.
The fact is that Egyptians consider pharaohs as the connection between people and the gods, but there has been evidence that a large proportion of the Egyptian population considers the pharaoh as a divine entity.
While the pharaoh is recognized to be human and is thus subject to human weaknesses and temptations, there is simultaneous ideation that Egyptians view him as a god. This is because of the bestowment and what is considered to be the divine power of kingship in him. Aside from this, pharaohs are also associated specifically with Horus, who holistically represented kingship and was seen as the son of Ra who regulated nature and how pharaohs ruled society.
The metaphorical stories that illustrate and define the gods’ actions and their respective roles are all included in Egyptian mythology. Egyptian mythology and its literary pieces only provide a condensed overview of the entirety of divine events, thus leading to the birth of several different interpretations. This broad series of interpretations about Egyptian mythology gave rise to several missing or even conflicting versions.
– The Important Egyptian Myths
Among all Egyptian myths, the Osiris myth is universally accepted to be the most important. This myth is also the most detailed, detailing how Osiris was murdered by his brother Set, a god generally associated with chaos. Isis, who was Osiris’ wife and sister, resurrected him to conceive Horus. After conception, Osiris entered the underworld to become the ruler of the dead. Horus, as he grew into adulthood, managed to successfully defeat Set and take over the throne.
At the dawn of the New Kingdom, under the rule of Pharaoh Akhenaten, the official worship of other major and minor gods was abolished in favor of the sun-disk Aten. Historical data shows that this is the first instance of real monotheism in Egyptian history.
However, the true essence of monotheism has been disputed for a very long time, as Atenist theology was believed to have only loosely been implemented that time, and Akhenaten only declared it to have people refrain from worshipping other gods or goddesses aside from Aten.
The exclusivity of singular worship was a sharp turn from the longstanding Egyptian tradition of monotheism. However, this radical cultural and religious shift was short-lived.
Whether or not Akhenaten strictly implemented his religious reforms remains a matter of debate. In time, he revised the names of Aten, as well as other religious languages. It is even noted that at some point, he initiated a widespread eradication of traditional names of the gods, including those of Amun.
Eventually, after Akhenaten left the throne, the majority of Egypt reverted to a polytheistic religion and culture. Polytheistic purists even called Akhenaten a heretic due to the sudden and radical change in the ancient Egyptian religion that he implemented.
Later on, archaeological discoveries revealed that in Akhetaten (or Amarna), the residents decided to chisel out or completely remove any references to or associations with Amun, even the most minute possessions that they own related to him. These include scarabs, pots, and other small items that might be associated with Amun as these can lead to accusations of expressing Amunist sympathy.
– The Legacy of Ancient Egyptian Religion
The interconnectedness of the ancient Egyptian religion to the Egyptian culture helps us appreciate the rich Egyptian history through the resilient monuments scattered all over Egypt. This has left a long-lasting influence not only on the modern Egyptians but also on neighboring cultures and religions. Its rich structure was also adopted by numerous cultures around the Near East and the Mediterranean.
For example, the silhouette and illustration of the sphinx, as well as a winged solar disk, were adapted into the Near East and Mediterranean culture. The Greek Elysium was also believed to be a direct interpretation of the Egyptian vision of a life beyond death. Another one is Hermeticism, which is a way of life believed to be condensed from the tradition of secret magical or arcane knowledge through the Egyptian god Thoth.
Dedicated researchers, archaeologists, and Egyptologists themselves are consistently drawn to the fascinating details that surround the ancient Egyptian religion. While the religions of ancient Egypt are known to be among the most explored, a lot of researchers believe there’s still a lot more to discover and understand about the religion itself based on the artifacts, ancient structures, and recent technological advancements that help clarify or determine various artifacts or hidden items.
According to recent studies, it is believed that there is still more to discover about the intricacies of the ancient Egyptian religion, and only time will tell when they will reveal themselves.
– Modernity and the Lasting Influence
The ancient Egyptian religion, together with other religions of ancient Egyptians, led to a long-lasting effect and survived thousands of years until today’s era. This only goes to show how rich the ancient Egyptian religion is in terms of establishment of faith and the resilient literature and art that came with it.
This is a religion that is very vivid in detail, and how the influences are disseminated and the way the deities are presented for modern individuals to appreciate and understand just go on to show how valuable this aspect of Egyptian culture is.
– In Popular Culture
The ancient Egyptian culture captured a great deal of attention from a wide variety of materials – from print and song lyrics to video games and fictional books. This is not a surprising detail considering how rich and well-studied Egyptian religion is.
Today, Egypt is predominantly Islam. However, because of the threads of ancient Egyptian culture tightly knit into Egyptian history itself, the remnants of the past have survived even in the 21st century.
Despite the cultural differences and the massive milestones of Egypt, the ancient Egyptian religion is one of the most preserved and respected aspects of the culture among the Egyptians themselves and even in those who are drawn to the fascinating ancient Egyptian religion and history.