ANCIENT  EGYPTIAN
R E L I G I O N S

(The following information was written by Anthony C. Di Paolo, M.S. J.D.)

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 The religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were the dominating influence in the development of their culture, although a true religion, in the sense of a unified theological system, never existed among them. The Egyptian faith was based on an unorganized collection of ancient myths, nature worship, and innumerable deities. In the most influential and famous of these myths a divine hierarchy is developed and the creation of the earth is explained. 

Creation

According to the Egyptian account of creation, only the ocean existed at first. Then Ra, the sun, came out of an egg (a flower, in some versions) that appeared on the surface of the water. Ra brought forth four children, the gods Shu and Geb and the goddesses Tefnut and Nut. Shu and Tefnut became the atmosphere. They stood on Geb, who became the earth, and raised up Nut, who became the sky. Ra ruled over all. Geb and Nut later had two sons, Set and Osiris, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris succeeded Ra as king of the earth, helped by Isis, his sister-wife. Set, however, hated his brother and killed him. Isis then embalmed her husband's body with the help of the god Anubis, who thus became the god of embalming. The powerful charms of Isis resurrected Osiris, who became king of the netherworld, the land of the dead. Horus, who was the son of Osiris and Isis, later defeated Set in a great battle and became king of the earth. 

Local Gods

From this myth of creation came the conception of the ennead, a group of nine divinities, and the triad, consisting of a divine father, mother, and son. Every local temple in Egypt possessed its own ennead and triad. The greatest ennead, however, was that of Ra and his children and grandchildren. This group was worshiped at Heliopolis, the center of sun worship. The origin of the local deities is obscure; some of them were taken over from foreign religions, and some were originally the animal gods of prehistoric Africa. Gradually, they were all fused into a complicated religious structure, although comparatively few local divinities became important throughout Egypt. In addition to those already named, the important divinities included the gods Amon, Thoth, Ptah, Khnemu, and Hapi, and the goddesses Hathor, Mut, Neit, and Sekhet. Their importance increased with the political ascendancy of the localities where they were worshiped. For example, the ennead of Memphis was headed by a triad composed of the father Ptah, the
mother Sekhet, and the son Imhotep. Therefore, during the Memphite dynasties, Ptah became one of the greatest gods in Egypt. Similarly, when the Theban dynasties ruled Egypt, the ennead of Thebes was given the most importance, headed by the father Amon, the mother Mut, and the son Khonsu. As the religion became more involved, true deities were sometimes confused with human beings who had been glorified after death. Thus, Imhotep, who was originally the chief minister of the 3rd Dynasty ruler Zoser, was later regarded as a demigod. During the 5th Dynasty the pharaohs began to claim divine ancestry and from that time on were worshiped as sons of Ra. Minor gods, some merely demons, were also given places in local divine hierarchies. 

Iconography

The Egyptian gods were represented with human torsos and human or animal heads. Sometimes the animal or bird expressed the characteristics of the god. Ra, for example, had the head of a hawk, and the hawk was sacred to him because of its swift flight across the sky; Hathor, the goddess of love and laughter, was given the head of a cow, which was sacred to her; Anubis was given the head of a jackal because these animals ravaged the desert graves in ancient times; Mut was vulture headed and Thoth was ibis headed; and Ptah was given a human head, although he was occasionally represented as a bull, called Apis. Because of the gods to which they were attached, the sacred animals were venerated, but they were never worshiped until the decadent 26th Dynasty. The gods were also represented by symbols, such as the sun disk and hawk wings that were worn on the headdress of the pharaoh. 

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Sun Worship

The only important god who was worshiped with consistency was Ra, chief of cosmic deities, from whom early Egyptian kings claimed descent. Beginning with the Middle Kingdom (2134-1668 BC), Ra worship acquired the status of a state religion, and the god was gradually fused with Amon during the Theban dynasties, becoming the supreme god Amon-Ra. During the 18th Dynasty the pharaoh Amenhotep III renamed the sun god Aton, an ancient term for the physical solar force. Amenhotep's son and successor, Amenhotep IV, instituted a revolution in Egyptian religion by proclaiming Aton the true and only god. He changed his own name to Akhenaton, meaning “Aton is satisfied.” This first great monotheist was so iconoclastic that he had the plural word gods deleted from monuments, and he relentlessly persecuted the priests of Amon. Akhenaton's sun religion failed to survive, although it exerted a great influence on the art and thinking of his time, and Egypt returned to the ancient, labyrinthine religion of polytheism after Akhenaton's death. 



I S I S

Isis, in Egyptian mythology, goddess of fertility and motherhood. According to the Egyptian belief, she was the daughter of the god Keb (Earth) and the goddess Nut (Sky), the sister-wife of Osiris, judge of the dead, and mother of Horus, god of day. After the end of the New Kingdom in the 4th century BC, the center of Isis worship, which was then reaching its greatest peak, was on Philae, an island in the Nile, where a great temple was built to her during the 30th Dynasty. Ancient stories described Isis as having great magical skill, and she was represented as human in form though she was frequently described as wearing the horns of a cow. Her personality was believed to resemble that of Athor, or Hathor, the goddess of love and gaiety. The cult of Isis spread from Alexandria throughout the Hellenistic world after the 4th century BC. It appeared in Greece in combination with the cults of Horus, her son, and Serapis, the Greek name for Osiris. The Greek historian Herodotus identified Isis with Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth, agriculture, and fertility. The tripartite cult of Isis, Horus, and Serapis was later introduced (86 BC) into Rome in the consulship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and became one of the most popular branches of Roman religion. It later received a bad reputation through the licentiousness of some of its priestly rites, and subsequent consuls made efforts to suppress or limit Isis worship. The cult died out in Rome after the institution of Christianity, and the last remaining Egyptian temples to Isis were closed in the middle of the 6th century AD.

Suggested Reading: Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. (1994).


O S I R I S

Osiris, in Egyptian mythology, one of the principal deities. Originally the local god of Abydos and Busiris, Osiris, who represented the male productive force in nature, became identified with the setting sun. Thus he was regarded as the ruler of the realm of the dead in the mysterious region below the western horizon. Osiris was the brother and husband of Isis, goddess of the earth and moon, who represented the female productive force in nature. According to legend, Osiris, as king of Egypt, found his people plunged in barbarism and taught them law, agriculture, religion, and other blessings of civilization. He was murdered by his evil brother, Set, who tore the body to pieces and scattered the fragments. Isis found and buried his scattered remains, however, and each burial place was thereafter revered as sacred ground. Their son Horus, sired by a temporarily regenerated Osiris, avenged his father's death by killing Set and then ascended the throne. Osiris lived on in the underworld as the ruler of the dead, but he was also, through Horus, regarded as the source of renewed life. The cult of Isis spread from Alexandria throughout the Hellenistic world after the 4th century BC. It appeared in Greece in combination with the cults of Horus, her son, and Serapis, the Greek name for Osiris. The Greek historian Herodotus identified Isis with Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth, agriculture, and fertility.  The tripartite cult of Isis, Horus, and Serapis was later introduced (86 BC) into Rome in the consulship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and became one of the most popular branches of Roman religion. It later received a bad reputation through the licentiousness of some of its priestly rites, and subsequent consuls made efforts to suppress or limit Isis worship. The cult died out in Rome after the institution of Christianity, and the last remaining Egyptian temples to Isis were closed in the middle of the 6th century AD.

Suggested Reading: 

Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. (1994).

The Book of the Dead ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Arkana Publishing (?).

Ancient Egyptian Magic ; by Dr. Bob Brier, Quill Publishing (1981).

Osiris & The Egyptian Resurrection ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. ( orig. 1911; current 19? ) 




R A

Ra or Re, in ancient Egyptian mythology, sun god depicted with a human body and the head of a hawk. Ra was usually considered the creator and controller of the universe, his chief symbols being the sun disk and the obelisk. Originally a local cult, the worship of Ra first became widespread during the Old Kingdom in Egypt. The chief temple of Ra was at the city of Heliopolis, which became an important center when the cult was adopted as a state religion. Ra later became associated with other important deities, particularly Amon and Horus. 

Suggested Reading: 

Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. (1994).

The Book of the Dead ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Arkana Publishing (?).

Ancient Egyptian Magic ; by Dr. Bob Brier, Quill Publishing (1981).


APIS BULL


Apis, sacred bull of the ancient Egyptians. It  was known to them as Hapi and was regarded as the incarnation of Osiris or of Ptah. A court was set apart for Apis in the temple of Ptah at Memphis. It was believed that when Apis died, a new Apis appeared and had to be searched out; he would be recognizable by certain sacred marks upon his body, such as his color (mainly black) and a knot under his tongue. Apis is sometimes represented as a man with the head of a bull.

SUGGESTED READING: Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir
E.A.Wallis Budge. Dover Publications, Inc. (1994). 



H A T H O R

Hathor, in Egyptian mythology, goddess of the sky and queen of heaven. Daughter of the sun god Ra and wife of the sky god Horus, she was the goddess of fertility and patron of women and marriage. She was also the goddess of love and beauty; for this reason, she was identified often with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Worshiped throughout Egypt, she was often represented as a star-studded cow or as a woman with a cow's head. Her name also appears as Athor or Athyr.

Suggested Reading: Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. (1994).
 

HORUS

Horus, in Egyptian mythology, god of the sky and of light and goodness. One of the major Egyptian deities, Horus was the son of Isis, the nature goddess, and Osiris, the god of the underworld. After Osiris was murdered by his evil brother Set, the god of darkness and evil, Horus avenged his father's death by killing his uncle. Worshiped throughout Egypt, Horus was usually depicted as a falcon or a falcon-headed man. Another representation of him, an infant with a finger held to his lips, was known as Harpocrates by the Greeks and Romans.

Suggested Reading: Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir E.A.Wallis Budge, Dover Publications, Inc. (1994).



A M O N


Amon or Ammon (Egyptian, hidden), ancient Egyptian deity, originally a local Theban god of reproductive forces, represented as a ram. Amon, his wife, Mut (Egyptian, the mother), and his son, the moon god Khon (Egyptian, to traverse the sky), formed the divine triad of Thebes. Later Amon was identified with the sun god Ra of Heliopolis, and was known as Amon-Ra, the father of the gods, the fashioner of men, the creator of cattle, the lord of all being. As a universal god he became the god of the Egyptian nation and the empire. The power of his high priest rivaled that of the pharaoh, provoking political problems similar to modern church-state rivalry. The most massive temple ever built was constructed for Amon-Ra at El-Karnak. Amon was worshiped in the ancient Greek colonies of Cyrene, where he was identified with Zeus, and in Rome, where he was associated with Jupiter.

SUGGESTED READING: Legends of the Egyptian Gods ; by Sir
E.A.Wallis Budge. Dover Publications, Inc. (1994). 

 


A N U B I S


Egyptian god of the dead, represented as a black jackal or dog, or as a man with the head of a dog or jackal. His parents were usually given as Re in combination with either Nephthys or Isis. After the early period of the Old Kingdom, he was superseded by Osiris as god of the dead, being relegated to a supporting role as a god of the funeral cult and of the care of the dead. The black color represented the color of human corpses after they had undergone the embalming process. In the Book of the Dead, he was depicted as presiding over the weighing of the heart of the deceased in the Hall of the Two Truths. In his role as psychopomp he was referred to as the "conductor of souls". The Greeks later identified him with their god Hermes, resulting in the composite deity Hermanubis. His principal sanctuary was at the necropolis in Memphis and in other cities. Anubis was also known as Khenty- Imentiu - "chief of the westerners" - a reference to the Egyptian belief that the realm of the dead lay to the west in association with the setting sun, and to their custom of building cemeteries on the west bank of the Nile.

 


THE BOOK OF THE DEAD

The Book of the Dead is a name generally given to a large collection of funerary texts of various dates, containing magical formulas, hymns, and prayers believed by the ancient Egyptians to guide and protect the soul (Ka) in its journey into the region of the dead (Amenti). Egyptians believed that the knowledge of these texts enabled the soul to ward off demons attempting to impede its progress, and to pass the tests set by the 42 judges in the hall of Osiris, god of the underworld. These texts also indicated that happiness in the afterlife was dependent on the deceased's having led a virtuous life on earth. The earliest religious (funerary) texts known were found cut in hieroglyphs on the walls inside the pyramids of the kings of the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom; these became known as the Pyramid Texts. A famous example is found in the pyramid of Unas (reigned about 2428-2407 BC), the last king of the 5th Dynasty. In the first Intermediate Period and in the Middle Kingdom private individuals had these texts painted on coffins, from which the alternate name Coffin Texts is derived. By the 18th Dynasty the texts were inscribed on papyri placed in the mummy case; these papyri were frequently from 15 to 30 m (50 to 100 ft) long and illustrated in color. This vast collection of mortuary texts has survived in three critical revisions, or recensions: the Heliopolitan Recension, edited by the priests of the College of Anu (Heliopolis), and containing texts in use between the 5th and the 12th Dynasties; the Theban Recension, used from the 18th to the 22nd Dynasties; and the Saite Recension, used from the 26th Dynasty, about 600 BC probably to the end of the Ptolemies, 31 BC. The title “Book of the Dead” is misleading; the texts do not form a single connected work and do not belong to one period. Egyptologists have usually given this title to the last two Recensions. Translations of some sections (chapters) were made under various titles; one celebrated English translation of the Book of the Dead was made by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1895. 
 



USABTI  STATUES

Magical powers Egyptians believed in servants for the afterlife

by Pat Remler

One of the most interesting and collectable artifacts from ancient Egypt is the usabti, the magical statue found in tombs. Magic played an important role in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. Part of their magic was the belief that amulets and statues would protect them from perils, both real and imagined, in their daily lives and in the next world. During Egypt's Middle Kingdom period, small statues began to be placed in the tombs of the deceased. These statues were intended to be servants which would magically come to life, and do any unpleasant chore the deceased might be called upon to perform in the afterlife. Because the daily life of ancient Egyptians centered around agriculture, they viewed the next world as primarily agrarian. They believed that the deceased would have to plant the fields and maintain irrigation canals, so the little statues, buried in tombs, took on the appearance of field workers. They were mummiform, so as to be identified with Osiris, the god of the dead, but their hands were protruding from the bandages so they could do the work. At first, the statues were inscribed with only the name of the deceased, but soon they were inscribed with magical spells as well to assure that they would really come alive to do their chores. A typical spell would be: "O shawabti, if the deceased is called upon to do work in the next world, answer "Here I am!" Plough the fields, fill the canals with water and carry the sand of the east to the west." The word "shawabti" apparently referred to the persea-tree out of which these figures were occasionally made. Another name for them was "usabti" which meant "answerer". The idea was that when the deceased was called to work, the figure would answer for him. The statues are called by both names today. Since ushabtis were provided to do the work, it became desirable to have many of them. During the New Kingdom it was common to have hundreds placed in the more elaborate tombs. Because the number of ushabtis found in tombs is often nearly 365, it is believed by many that the Egyptians intended that there be one for each day of the year. There is no actual evidence for this, and in fact the number found is rarely exactly 365. The pharaoh Taharqa had more than one thousand ushabtis, each one beautifully carved from stone. Ushabtis varied considerably in size and materials, depending upon the wealth of the deceased. They were usually made of faience, although some were made of terra-cotta, wood or stone. Faience, a paste made of ground quartz or of sand with a high percentage of quartz, was one of the most commonly used materials in producing ushabtis. The faience paste was pressed into molds and then fired. When baked, the glaze would migrate to the outside producing a smooth glassy surface. The quality and the color of the glaze depended on the impurities in the paste. Faience ushabtis range in color from a bright dark blue to various shades of turquoise and pale green. Faience ushabtis were produced in all sizes and in varying shapes. The poorest quality were small, uninscribed and with minimal features. Sometimes the faces and inscriptions were added with black ink. As the cost of the figure increased, so too did the quality of workmanship and the fineness of detail. On the backs of the more detailed figures are sacks, (usually identified by crosshatching on the left shoulder) that represent seed packs for planting in the fields. Sometimes the hoes, held close to the chest are protruding from each hand. The better quality statues were usually larger, with inscriptions on the front and back. If a complete spell was not included on the usabti, it was customary to identify the deceased with Osiris by inscribing the name of the deceased along with that of Osiris on each usabti. For collectors interested in Egyptian artifacts, ushabtis offer an interesting and affordable possibility. They are available in all prices, some with clear features and translatable inscriptions. Ushabtis are an art form that is purely Egyptian, remaining unchanged in both purpose and form for over 2,000 years.

(Pat Remler is an associate of Mehrdad and Aziz Sadigh at Ancient Artifacts & Coins in New York City)


EGYPTIAN BURIAL RITUALS

Burying the dead was of religious concern in Egypt, and Egyptian funerary rituals and equipment eventually became the most elaborate the world has ever known. The Egyptians believed that the vital life-force was composed of several psychical elements, of which the most important was the ka. The ka, a duplicate of the body, accompanied the body throughout life and, after death, departed from the body to take its place in the  kingdom of the dead. The ka, however, could not exist without the body; every effort had to be made, therefore, to preserve the corpse. Bodies were embalmed and mummified according to a traditional method supposedly begun by Isis, who mummified her husband Osiris. In addition, wood or stone replicas of the body were put into the tomb in the event that the mummy was destroyed. The greater the number of statue-duplicates in his or her tomb, the more chances the dead person had of resurrection. As a final protection, exceedingly elaborate tombs were erected to protect the corpse and its equipment. After leaving the tomb, the souls of the dead supposedly were beset by innumerable dangers, and the tombs were therefore furnished with a copy of the Book of the Dead. Part of this book, a guide to the world of the dead, consists of charms designed to overcome these dangers. After arriving in the kingdom of the dead, the ka was judged by Osiris, the king of the dead, and 42 demon assistants. The Book of the Dead also contains instructions for proper conduct before these judges. If the judges decided the deceased had been a sinner, the ka was condemned to hunger and thirst or to be torn to pieces by horrible executioners. If the decision was favorable, the ka went to the heavenly realm of the fields of Yaru, where grain grew 3.7 m (12 ft) high and existence was a glorified version of life on earth. All the necessities for this paradisiacal existence, from furniture to reading matter, were, therefore, put into the tombs. As a payment for the afterlife and his
benevolent protect son, Osiris required the dead to perform tasks for him, such as working in the grain fields. Even this duty could, however, be obviated by placing small statuettes, called usabtis, into the tomb to serve as substitutes for the deceased. 


HELIOPOLIS

Heliopolis (ancient Egypt) (Greek, city of the sun), city of ancient Egypt, the center of sun worship during the pre-Christian Egyptian civilization. The ruins of the city are 8 km (5 mi) east of the Nile River at the apex of the Nile delta, and about 10 km (about 6 mi) northeast of Cairo. Heliopolis was originally the center of worship of the god Tem, deity of the setting sun, later regarded as a form of the sun god Ra. In Egyptian theological literature, the city was known as Per-Ra (City of Ra), of which the Greek name is a translation. In the Bible, Heliopolis is referred to as On, Aven, and Beth-Shemesh. Although its history goes as far back as about 2900 BC, the city reached its greatest development during the New Kingdom, beginning about 1570 BC, when Ra, later called Amon-Ra, came to be regarded as the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Under the pharaoh Ramses II during the 13th century BC, the temple of Heliopolis reached the height of its influence, with almost 13,000 priests and slaves serving in it. Most of the religious literature of ancient Egypt was written by the priests of Heliopolis, who were renowned for their learning, and the temple was the repository for royal records. The city declined under later dynasties, especially after the founding of Alexandria (332 BC), and the Ptolemies almost disregarded it. When Rome occupied Egypt, the obelisks of Heliopolis were removed, and the walls of its buildings were used as construction materials for other cities.

 

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