The Religion of Ancient Egypt

When considering ancient religions, modern observers often confuse religion with mythology.  Mythologies are stories told to explain the interaction between the Divine and the material world, and in some cases, there are more than one story to cover the same phenomenon.  There are, for example, several major creation myths in Egyptian mythology, but no one was bothered by the discrepancy.  To the Egyptians, the Divine was bigger than our ability to understand it, and so the stories of the gods could only be incomplete.  The object of religion, on the other hand, is the interaction of the Divine and the human, and the effort to harmonize them.

The essential characteristic of ancient Egyptian religion is the triumph of Order over Chaos.  The gods themselves are generally portrayed as agents of order, bringing the shapeless forces of original existence into a systematic form that is pleasing to themselves and beneficial to the lives of their creations.  Entropy can never be destroyed, however, and gods and mankind alike must work together constantly to keep order.

To the Egyptians, this system was a complex one with reciprocal elements.  It was not strictly a one-way arrangement, with the gods issuing commands and people following them.  Egyptian magic, known as heka, was a gift from the gods to mankind permitting humans to compel the gods, on a limited basis, to act in accordance with human interests.  This was deemed acceptable because, in the final analysis, the Egyptians (and only the Egyptians) were considered to have a harmony of interests with their gods.  Both wished to see life go on in an orderly fashion, producing prosperity both in this life and in the next.  Everything, from the movement of the sun in the heavens and the flow of the Nile to the daily efforts of the farmers who sowed and reaped the grain that was the basis of the Egyptian economy, served this goal.

The pharaoh was the fulcrum of this system.  He was the ultimate intermediary between the divine and human worlds.  A mortal man chosen by the gods and gifted with their energy, he served to speak for the gods among men, and for men among the gods.  The ceremonial portion of his office contained a host of rites that needed to be performed, by himself or by his delegates, in order to keep the world functioning as it should.  In theory, nothing less was at stake.

Naturally, it was impossible for the pharaoh to perform all of the necessary rites in all of the temples across the land.  Pictures and sculptures of the pharaoh performing said rites helped, because in the Egyptian magical tradition, the representation of a thing or an act was roughly as good as the thing or the act itself.  Similar reasoning underlay the many representations of the pharaoh triumphing over Egypt’s enemies, both real and symbolic, and above all the image of the king clubbing and treading underfoot such enemies.  Egypt represented Order, and its enemies, the forces of Chaos.  Representations of the king in the act of smiting his enemies served to advance the cause of Order through symbolic magic.

Still, someone was needed to perform the rites on a daily basis, and this was the job of the priesthood.  Egyptian priests were scribes chosen to represent the pharaoh, on a greater or lesser scale, in the service of a given god at a given temple.  It was literally a civil service job, and a scribe might enjoy priestly and secular appointments alternately or even concurrently in the course of his career. Indeed, the use of the word “secular” is not entirely appropriate in the Egyptian context.  Nothing was completely divorced from religion in ancient Egypt, just as religious activity was never divorced from the world.

Temple service was a very important function.  The temples were seen as the houses of the god or gods to whom they were dedicated, and the priests served as stewards and butlers to those gods.  Remembering the Egyptian belief that the image of something served as its magical substitute, it followed that a statue of a god already partakes of the god’s essence; when the appropriate rites were performed, the god was believed to take up residence within its statue.  The care and symbolic feeding of the god in residence within his primary image was the key component of daily ritual in a temple.

Little is known of the religious activities of common people in ancient Egypt, especially among the farmers at the base of the social pyramid.  Charms were available, and the simplest could even be made by the poorest peasants.  Small villages had shrines where favorite local gods might be approached.  Major temples had outer areas where the common people might pray before an image of the god.  Pilgrimages were often undertaken when seeking the favor of a god whose cult centers lay in a different part of the country.  Osiris, for example, had a major cult center in Abydos, and it was a popular destination for pilgrims at all periods in ancient Egyptian history.  Finally, religious festivals offered common Egyptians some measure of access to the gods and their favor.  One of the better attested festivals is the Opet Festival, in which statues of Amun, his wife Mut, and their son Khonsu were taken from Karnak Temple south to Luxor.

One religious activity that touched the lives of everyone in ancient Egypt was the funerary cult.  To the ancient Egyptians, death and decay were chaotic forces, and the preservation of the self in a lifelike afterlife was one important form of the triumph of Order over Chaos.  The Predynastic discovery that the desert sand could preserve the body from physical decay may have played a major role in the growth of a belief that the personality itself might be preserved after death.  Artificial mummification was developed during the Old Kingdom, and during the First Intermediate Period, all Egyptians gained access to some grade of mummification and to some of the written spells that were intended to protect the spirit on its journey to the land of the dead.  As the Pyramid Texts, these spells had been a royal prerogative, but with the waning of the Old Kingdom, they were incorporated into non-royal burials as the Coffin Texts.  By the New Kingdom, these spells were known as the Book of Going Forth By Day, although the modern world has dubbed it instead the Book of the Dead.

Such names are matters of convenience only.  What mattered to the Egyptians was that these spells gave some measure of protection to the deceased as he faced the monstrous entities that threatened him on his way to the land of the dead.  Above all, these spells provided the deceased with words of power and the proper answers to a series of tricky questions intended to trap the unwary.  These spells were the essence of maintaining order in the face of chaos on the individual level.

In the broader scheme, these spells are also essential to the ongoing work of harmonizing the human with the divine, the work of religion.  In Egypt, magic and religion were fully interconnected, even as magic and science blended into each other.  The essentials remained nearly a constant through three and a half millennia of history, despite changes in mythology.  Whether the chief god was Horus, Ra, Amun or the syncretic Amun-Ra, the fundamentals of Egyptian religion remained the same.


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