Ancient Egyptian Religion

Ancient Egyptian Religion

A comprehensible knowledge of Egyptian religion is indispensable for anyone who wishes to grasp the essence of the Egyptian civilization. Religion had deeply dominated all aspects of the Egyptian culture, its art, science, government, and law. To sum up it was the womb of that ancient culture. Egyptian religion can be characterized by its infinite complexity and diversity. This diversity is justified by the constant growth of religious beliefs over many centuries during which new ideas were introduced without ever discarding any old ones (except during the reign of Akhenaten). Therefore, to the ancient Egyptian this diversity of beliefs and gods was acceptable, consequently each divine power was approached by a variety of images related to nature, animal and human life.

Sources of information:

Much of our knowledge about religion comes from the religious literature in the form of hymns, charms, spells, and other religious texts inscribed on the walls of the tombs & temples, and on coffins, stelae, statues and papyri. The earliest religious writings were the Pyramid Texts written on the walls of the burial chambers of the fifth and sixth dynasties rulers within their pyramids. In the Middle Kingdom these were transferred from the structure of the tomb to the coffins thus given the name the Coffin Texts. In the New Kingdom these are replaced by what is known as the Book of the Dead (190 chapters), which were rolls of papyrus buried with the dead in the coffin. Apart from the Book of the Dead various other 'books' are known as the Am-duat, Book of the Gates, Book of the day and night etc... The texts in their various forms were concentrating on one subject that was mainly the welfare of the dead and his journey in the after life.

Gods and Myth

The Egyptian pantheon was so diversified, it included many gods which varied in character and form, some being defined by myth, and others by geographical location and organization into groups.

Local Deities

Ancient Egypt was composed of many local areas referred to as nomes, each district possessed its own traditions and customs with its own divinity that was worshipped by its inhabitants. These deities shared the fate of their localities meaning that depending on the political and economic importance of the locality, some of the deities were promoted to state gods whose cults spread all over the country for example Ptah of Memphis, Amon of Thebes and Re of Heliopolis.

Cosmic Deities

There were other gods who did not have local basis however they participated and fulfilled their roles in general myths of creation like Nun which was a personification of chaos before creation.

Minor Deities

Most Egyptians did not have an access to the state gods in the temples' shrines, which represented the most sacred place. The people could only approach the gods in the national festivals. However there were additional deities who answered the everyday life wishes and were connected with the family. These are referred to as household deities. The most popular were Bes and Tawert which were associated to child birth.

Gods represented themselves in various forms and manifested human behavior. They thought, they spoke, they dined, and they had emotions. Sometimes they went into battle and traveled by boat, some even drank to excess, as illustrated by the behavior of the goddess Hathor in the myth of The Destruction of Mankind. The forms of the deities were numerous. They could be human such as the gods Amon and Ptah, or animal such as the gods Anubis as a jackal and Sobek as a crocodile. The Egyptians sometimes combined human and animal forms in one image such as the gods Horus shown as a falcon-headed man and Sekhmet as a lioness headed woman. Often the same deity possessed more than one form of representation . Gods were assimilated together to form sets composed of three deities, two adults and one youthful deity. These were referred to as triads like The Theban triad composed of Amon- Re and Mut as his consort with Khonsu as their child, another common way of combining gods together is referred to as syncretism, it is when a deity takes the name and character of a more important one, therefore Amon Re means Amon in the form of Re.

Egyptians' conception of the origin of the world In the Egyptian view of the universe, both the divine and human worlds had come into being at the time of the creation, before which there were only an uncreated matter. The act of creation took place when this matter was separated into the myriad different forms that make up the created world. There was mainly three major creation myths in ancient Egypt. One of the major creation myths was associated with the religious centre of Heliopolis, the creator god who was self generated, began the creation by masturbation thus creation the first pair of male and female deities, who in turn produced another pair ...etc.

The temple as the cosmos

The temple was considered the dwelling house of the god, it was a miniature picture of the world at the moment of creation. The temple was conceived as the center of creation. This symbolic role of the temple was expressed in its location and design as well as the decoration of its walls and ceiling. The structure was separated from the outside world by a massive mud brick enclosure wall which symbolize the watery state of the cosmos at creation. Within this lay the main wall or the entrance wall, decorated with scenes of the king slaughtering his enemies. The pylon is the largest element in the temple symbolizing the hieroglyph of the horizon with its two massive columns and the gap between them. The orientation of the temple was always east-west, therefore the sun rises in the pylon gateway penetrating with its rays to the sanctuary (or shrine in which the statue of the god was kept) which is placed in axis. The sanctuary represent the mound of creation. Therefore in passing through the temple, toward the sanctuary, one goes through the various phases of creation. The hypostyle hall encompasses the decorative scheme of the whole. The hall with its columns represented the marsh of creation while the ceiling is decorated with reliefs of the sky. On the walls, the activity of the world is represented, and in terms of the temple the give and take relation between the king and the god is the core of the world activity. There was a consistent general pattern of temple building. This pattern ensured a gradual approach was made to the divinity. The arrangement consisted of a gradual move from light to shadow, with a rise in the ground floor and lowering of the ceiling. The temple's daily ritual was a dramatization of the god's daily life. The main services at dawn, midday, and night consisted of washing, anointment, adornment with clothing and feeding of the deity with offerings. The great festivals represented the god's social life when he was taken in procession to visit another deity in his house or received such a visit. These procedures stand in sharp contrast with the religious practices of the majority of the Egyptians.


It was ritual not myth that dominated the religious thought of ancient Egypt. In each of the main temples the king was regarded symbolically as the high priest. There were three services performed each day, at dawn, at midday and in the evening all centered around purification and offerings presented to the god.


In the daily rituals the public had no role, in fact access to the inner parts of the temple was strictly forbidden to the common people, they can only participate in the great festivals. Each temple had a calendar of its feasts. One of the most important festivals was The feast of Opet held in Thebes during the second month of the season of the inundation. At this feast Amon barked from Karnak to Luxor accompanied by the boats of Mut and Khonsu, another important festival was The New Year Feast. There was also the visit of the goddess Hathor of Dandara to the god Horus of Edfu. The procession of the goddess Hathor used to leave Dandara and arrive at Edfu covering a distance of about 180 km, details of this great festival are depicted on the walls of the court of the temple at Edfu.

Funerary Beliefs and Customs

Egyptians were particularly religious people obsessed by death and burial however their preoccupation with the after life originated essentially from the Egyptian's devotion to life and the perfect harmony they found in the Egyptian environment. In general it was believed that the best existence of man after life is composed of what was thought as the best and the most desired style of life on earth. In death as in life, the Egyptians expected to belong to an hierarchical society in which the best was reserved for the king and the nobles. It is from their tombs that most of the information about the Egyptian customs comes. It is difficult to give an account of the beliefs of all the social classes, however, it is assumed that at every level the Egyptian conception of his existence after death was that it should consist of the best of what is available to him in his life on earth. In order to achieve the desirable end, the deceased should assure that his name continued to exist, his body remain intact, and be supplied with all the necessary food and drink. This led to the development of exquisite tombs containing incorruptible mummy and inscribed with texts with the owner's name and with scenes that would secure for him by magical means food, drink and other desirable objects.

Akhenaten's new religion

The New Kingdom has witnessed the first attempt of monotheism when Amenhotep IV established Aten as the sole universal god of Egypt and eliminated all the traditional deities in the Egyptian pantheon. This god was not in fact unknown to the Egyptians. It originally represented the light and heat of the sun. His name appeared frequently in texts, and used in expressions, the most common was [All that Aten encompasses] referring to the universe. Akhenaten's new doctrine did not last long after his death. The return to the orthodox worship of Amon- Re took place under the influence of the divine father Ay who guided the steps of the small king Tutankhaten. During Tut's reign Amon-Re regained its supremacy that lasted till the end of the Egyptian empire.

Last Updated on Sunday 16th January 2011