Gods of Ancient Egypt

Gods of Ancient Egypt

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Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari, 13th century BC.

God of the sun, order, kings and the sky creator of the universe. One of the most popular and long-lasting Egyptian gods.

The Egyptians believed Ra sailed across the sky in a boat each day (representing sunlight) and travelled through the underworld at night (representing night). Faced a daily battle with Apep, the celestial serpent, while he was making his way through the underworld.

Ra is depicted with the body of a man, the head of a falcon and a sun-disk (with cobra) resting on his head.

Ra was later merged with several different gods, such the local Theban deity Amun. Together they created the combined deity ‘Amun-Ra’.


Whether Alien Ancient Astronaut Gods ruled Ancient Egypt is myth or Historical fact is an enigma.

However, this enigma may possibly be resolved and explained by referencing back to the Anunnaki Gods of Ancient Sumer.

This may mean that the Pyramid Texts are a factual account of Egyptian Prehistory in a preceding era of Alien Ancient Astronaut Gods rather than a pure mythological foundation for Egyptian Religion and Cosmology for the Pharaonic Osiris Myth of Divine Kingship in Ancient Egypt.

The featured documentary is an interesting discussion of the Ancient Astronaut Theory and the suggestion that Alien Gods may have ruled Ancient Egypt based on the First Pyramid War fought by the Anunnaki Egyptian Gods Seth, Osiris and Horus.

Alien Anunnaki Gods Of Egypt

2. Fact about the Jackal Headed God – Anubis

Anubis is one of the most famous ancient Egyptian gods that has found mention in many historical documentaries and Hollywood movies. The god had a head of a jackal and was known as the protector of the dead. He was also worshiped as a god who presided over the rituals of embalming and guarded the tombs. Anubis guided the souls for judgement by Osiris in the Hall of the Two Truths. Parented by Nephythys and Seth, Anubis had a cult following in Cynopolis.

8 ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses you might not know about

The ancient Egyptians worshipped at least 1,500 gods and goddesses. Some of these, such as the mummified god of the dead, Osiris, and the goddess of magical healing, Isis, are well known today. Others are more obscure. So how much do you know about Egypt’s forgotten deities? Here, egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shares 8 lesser-known gods and goddesses

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Published: September 24, 2019 at 10:20 am

Discover 8 lesser-known deities worshipped by ancient Egyptians…


At first sight the goddess Taweret, ‘the great female one’, appears to be composed of randomly selected animal parts. She has the body and head of a pregnant hippopotamus standing on its hind legs, the tail of a crocodile, and the limbs of a lioness – topped, occasionally, by a woman’s face. Her mouth lolls open to reveal rows of dangerous-looking teeth, and she often wears a long wig. We might find this combination of fierce animals and false hair frightening, but the women of ancient Egypt regarded Taweret as a great comfort, as she was able to protect them during childbirth by scaring away the evil spirits who might harm either the mother or the baby. This made her extremely popular so that, although she did not have a grand temple, her image was displayed on walls, beds, headrests and cosmetic jars in many private homes, and she even appears on palace walls.

The same assortment of animal parts – this time the head of a crocodile, the foreparts and body of a lion or leopard and the hind parts of a hippopotamus – can be found in Ammit, the ‘eater of the damned’. Unlike Taweret, Ammit was greatly feared. She lived in the kingdom of the dead where she squatted beside the scales used during the ‘weighing of the heart’, a ceremony that saw the heart of the deceased being weighed against the feather of truth. Those whose hearts proved light were allowed to pass into the afterlife. Hearts that weighed heavy against the feather were eaten by Ammit.

Bes was another god who brought comfort and protection to mothers and children. A part-comical, part-sinister dwarf with a plump body, prominent breasts, bearded face, flat nose and protruding tongue, Bes might be either fully human, or half-human, half-animal (usually lion). He might have a mane, a lion’s tail, or wings. He often wears a plumed headdress and carries either a drum or tambourine, or a knife.

Bes offered a welcome protection against snakes. But his primary role was as a dancer and musician who used his art to frighten away bad spirits during the dangerous times of childbirth, childhood, sex and sleep. His image decorated bedrooms of all classes, and we can also see him, either tattooed or painted, on the upper thigh of dancing girls.


Neith is a warrior or a hunter. Human-form and bald, she wears a crown and carries a bow and arrows. Her linen sheath dress is so tight that, in an age before lycra, she would have had difficulty moving around the battlefield. Her title ‘mother of the gods’ identifies her with the creative force present at the beginning of the world, and it is possible that she is credited with inventing childbirth. On the wall of the temple of Khnum at Esna, in southern Egypt, we see Neith emerging from the primeval waters as a cow-goddess who creates land by simply saying the words: “Let this place be land for me.”

Neith was worshipped throughout Egypt, but was particularly associated with the western Delta town of Sais (modern Sa el Hagar) where her temple became known as the ‘house of the bee’. During the 26th dynasty (664-525 BCE), a time when Sais was Egypt’s capital city, she became the dominant state god, and the kings were buried in the grounds of her temple. Her temple and the royal tombs that it contained are now lost.

The Aten

If Taweret and Ammit seem to have too many body parts, the god known simply as the Aten, or ‘the sun disk’, does not seem to have enough. The Aten is a bodiless, faceless sun that emits long rays tipped with tiny hands. He hangs in the sky above the royal family, offering them the ankh, symbol of life. As he has no known mythology, we can say very little more about him.

This apparently dull deity inspired such devotion in Pharaoh Akhanaten (ruled c1352–1336 BC) that he abandoned the traditional gods, closed their temples and built a new capital city which he named ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (modern Amarna), dedicated to the Aten. Had a private citizen decided to worship just one god, there would have been no problem. But Akhenaten, as pharaoh, was expected to make offerings to all of Egypt’s gods. His decision to abandon the traditional rituals was seen as very dangerous –surely the old gods would get angry? Not long after his death, the pantheon was restored by Tutankhamen (ruled c1336–1327 BC). As the old temples re-opened, the Aten sank back into obscurity.


Many of us are familiar with Hathor, the gentle cow-headed sky goddess associated with motherhood, nurturing and drunkenness. Few of us realise that Hathor has an alter ego. When angry, she transforms into the Sekhmet, ‘the powerful one’, an uncompromising, fire-breathing lioness armed with an arsenal of pestilences and plagues and the ability to burn Egypt’s enemies with the fierce heat of the sun. Sekhmet was a ruthless defender of her father the pharaoh and this, together with her skill with a bow and arrow, caused her to become closely associated with the army. When the sun god, Re, learned that the people of Egypt were plotting against him, he sent Sekhmet to kill them all. When he changed his mind, and determined to save the people, he had a lot of trouble stopping the killing. Sekhmet was not entirely vicious, however. As ‘mistress of life’, she could cure all the ills that she inflicted, and her priests were recognised as healers with a powerful magic.


Khepri, ‘the one who comes into being’, is the morning sun. He is usually shown in the form of a beetle, although he might also be a beetle-headed man, or a beetle-headed falcon. He is a divine version of the humble scarab beetle whose habit of pushing around a large ball of dung made the ancients imagine a huge celestial beetle rolling the ball of the sun across the sky.

Hidden within the scarab beetle’s dung ball were eggs that eventually hatched, crawled out of the ball and flew away. Observing this, the Egyptians jumped to the conclusion that beetles were male beings capable of self-creation. This enviable ability to regenerate made the scarab one of Egypt’s most popular amulets, used by both the dead and the living. Although Khepri did not have a temple, he was often depicted alongside Egypt’s other gods in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.


Renenutet was a cobra goddess. The Egyptian cobra can grow to be nine feet long and can, when angry or threatened, raise a third of its body from the ground, and expand its ‘hood’ (cervical ribs). This made the female cobra a useful royal bodyguard. A rearing cobra (the uraeus) was worn on the royal brow cobra amulets were included in mummy wrapping to protect the dead and a painted pottery cobra, placed in the corner of a room, was known to be an effective means of warding off evil ghosts and spirits.

Every year the river Nile flooded in late summer. The rising waters caused an increase in the number of snakes attracted to the settlements by the vermin flushed from the low-lying ground. This caused the cobra to be associated with the fertility of the Nile. Renenutet, ‘she who nourishes’, lived in the fertile fields where, as goddess of the harvest and granaries, she ensured that Egypt would not go hungry. Cobras were considered exceptionally good mothers, and Renenutet was no exception. As a divine nurse she suckled the king as a fire-breathing cobra she protected him in death.

In most mythologies, the fertile earth is classed as female. In ancient Egypt, however, the earth was male. Geb was an ancient and important earth god who represented both the fertile land and the graves dug into that land. For this combination of attributes, and for his prowess as a healer, he was both respected and feared. He usually appears as a reclining man beneath the female sky. His naked green body often shows signs of his impressive fertility, and he may have grain growing from his back. Alternatively, he might appear as a king wearing a crown. In animal form, Geb might be a goose (or a man wearing a goose on his head) or a hare, or he might form part of the crew of the sun boat that sails across the sky each day.

Geb ruled Egypt during the time when people and gods lived together. Later, Greek tradition would equate Geb with the Titan Chronos, who overthrew his father Uranus at the urging of his mother, Gaia.

Joyce Tyldesley teaches a suite of online courses in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Viking Penguin 2010).

This article was first published by History Extra in January 2017


The beliefs and rituals now referred to as "ancient Egyptian religion" were integral within every aspect of Egyptian culture. The Egyptian language possessed no single term corresponding to the modern European concept of religion. Ancient Egyptian religion consisted of a vast and varying set of beliefs and practices, linked by their common focus on the interaction between the world of humans and the world of the divine. The characteristics of the gods who populated the divine realm were inextricably linked to the Egyptians' understanding of the properties of the world in which they lived. [1]

Deities Edit

The Egyptians believed that the phenomena of nature were divine forces in and of themselves. [2] These deified forces included the elements, animal characteristics, or abstract forces. The Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods, which were involved in all aspects of nature and human society. Their religious practices were efforts to sustain and placate these phenomena and turn them to human advantage. [3] This polytheistic system was very complex, as some deities were believed to exist in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with multiple deities. The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or "demons" with very limited or localized functions. [4] It could include gods adopted from foreign cultures, and sometimes humans: deceased pharaohs were believed to be divine, and occasionally, distinguished commoners such as Imhotep also became deified. [5]

The depictions of the gods in art were not meant as literal representations of how the gods might appear if they were visible, as the gods' true natures were believed to be mysterious. Instead, these depictions gave recognizable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god's role in nature. [6] This iconography was not fixed, and many of the gods could be depicted in more than one form. [7]

Many gods were associated with particular regions in Egypt where their cults were most important. However, these associations changed over time, and they did not mean that the god associated with a place had originated there. For instance, the god Montu was the original patron of the city of Thebes. Over the course of the Middle Kingdom, however, he was displaced in that role by Amun, who may have arisen elsewhere. The national popularity and importance of individual gods fluctuated in a similar way. [8]

Deities had complex interrelationships, which partly reflected the interaction of the forces they represented. The Egyptians often grouped gods together to reflect these relationships. One of the more common combinations was a family triad consisting of a father, mother, and child, who were worshipped together. Some groups had wide-ranging importance. One such group, the Ennead, assembled nine deities into a theological system that was involved in the mythological areas of creation, kingship, and the afterlife. [9]

The relationships between deities could also be expressed in the process of syncretism, in which two or more different gods were linked to form a composite deity. This process was a recognition of the presence of one god "in" another when the second god took on a role belonging to the first. These links between deities were fluid, and did not represent the permanent merging of two gods into one therefore, some gods could develop multiple syncretic connections. [10] Sometimes, syncretism combined deities with very similar characteristics. At other times it joined gods with very different natures, as when Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked with Ra, the god of the sun. The resulting god, Amun-Ra, thus united the power that lay behind all things with the greatest and most visible force in nature. [11]

Many deities could be given epithets that seem to indicate that they were greater than any other god, suggesting some kind of unity beyond the multitude of natural forces. This is particularly true of a few gods who, at various points, rose to supreme importance in Egyptian religion. These included the royal patron Horus, the sun god Ra, and the mother goddess Isis. [12] During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC) Amun held this position. The theology of the period described in particular detail Amun's presence in and rule over all things, so that he, more than any other deity, embodied the all-encompassing power of the divine. [13]

Cosmology Edit

The Egyptian conception of the universe centered on Ma'at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English, including "truth," "justice," and "order." It was the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and in human society, and was often personified as a goddess. It had existed since the creation of the world, and without it the world would lose its cohesion. In Egyptian belief, Ma'at was constantly under threat from the forces of disorder, so all of society was required to maintain it. On the human level this meant that all members of society should cooperate and coexist on the cosmic level it meant that all of the forces of nature—the gods—should continue to function in balance. [14] This latter goal was central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptians sought to maintain Ma'at in the cosmos by sustaining the gods through offerings and by performing rituals which staved off disorder and perpetuated the cycles of nature. [15] [16]

The most important part of the Egyptian view of the cosmos was the conception of time, which was greatly 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 which echoed the original creation. Among these events were the annual Nile flood and the succession from one king to another, but the most important was the daily journey of the sun god Ra. [17] [18]

When thinking of the shape of the cosmos, the Egyptians saw the earth as a flat expanse of land, personified by the god Geb, over which arched the sky goddess Nut. The two were separated by Shu, the god of air. Beneath the earth lay a parallel underworld and undersky, and beyond the skies lay the infinite expanse of Nu, the chaos that had existed before creation. [19] [20] The Egyptians also believed in a place called the Duat, a mysterious region associated with death and rebirth, that may have lain 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. [21]

In Egyptian belief, this cosmos was inhabited by three types of sentient beings: one was the gods another was the spirits of deceased humans, who existed in the divine realm and possessed many of the gods' abilities living humans were the third category, and the most important among them was the pharaoh, who bridged the human and divine realms. [22]

Kingship Edit

Egyptologists have long debated the degree to which the pharaoh was considered a god. It seems most likely that the Egyptians viewed royal authority itself as a divine force. Therefore, although the Egyptians recognized that the pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, they simultaneously viewed him as a god, because the divine power of kingship was incarnated in him. He therefore acted as intermediary between Egypt's people and the gods. [23] He was key to upholding Ma'at, both by maintaining justice and harmony in human society and by sustaining the gods with temples and offerings. For these reasons, he oversaw all state religious activity. [24] However, the pharaoh's real-life influence and prestige could differ from his portrayal in official writings and depictions, and beginning in the late New Kingdom his religious importance declined drastically. [25] [26]

The king was also associated with many specific deities. He was identified directly with Horus, who represented kingship itself, and he was seen as the son of Ra, who ruled and regulated nature as the pharaoh ruled and regulated society. By the New Kingdom he was also associated with Amun, the supreme force in the cosmos. [27] Upon his death, the king became fully deified. In this state, he was directly identified with Ra, and was also associated with Osiris, god of death and rebirth and the mythological father of Horus. [28] Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods. [16]

Afterlife Edit

The Egyptians had elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a ka, or life-force, which left the body at the point of death. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so it was believed that, to endure after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still consume. Each person also had a ba, the set of spiritual characteristics unique to each individual. [29] Unlike the ka, the ba remained attached to the body after death. Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that it could live on as an akh. However, it was also important that the body of the deceased be preserved, as the Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to receive new life, before emerging in the morning as an akh. [30]

In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to ascend to the sky and dwell among the stars. [31] Over the course of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), however, he came to be more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris as those deities grew more important. [32]

In the fully developed afterlife beliefs of the New Kingdom, the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers in the Duat, before undergoing a final judgement, known as the "Weighing of the Heart", carried out by Osiris and by the Assessors of Maat. In this judgement, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to the feather of Maat, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with Maat. If the deceased was judged worthy, his or her ka and ba were united into an akh. [33] Several beliefs coexisted about the akh's destination. Often the dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasant land in the underworld. [34] The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased soul traveled with Ra on his daily journey, was still primarily associated with royalty, but could extend to other people as well. Over the course of the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also travel in the world of the living, and to some degree magically affect events there, became increasingly prevalent. [35]

Atenism Edit

During the New Kingdom the pharaoh Akhenaten abolished the official worship of other gods in favor of the sun-disk Aten. This is often seen as the first instance of true monotheism in history, although the details of Atenist theology are still unclear and the suggestion that it was monotheistic is disputed. The exclusion of all but one god from worship was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition and some see Akhenaten as a practitioner of monolatry rather than monotheism, [36] [37] as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods he simply refrained from worshipping any but the Aten. Under Akhenaten's successors Egypt reverted to its traditional religion, and Akhenaten himself came to be reviled as a heretic. [38] [39]

While the Egyptians had no unified religious scripture, they produced many religious writings of various types. Together the disparate texts provide an extensive, but still incomplete, understanding of Egyptian religious practices and beliefs. [40]

Mythology Edit

Egyptian myths were metaphorical stories intended to illustrate and explain the gods' actions and roles in nature. The details of the events they recounted could change to convey different symbolic perspectives on the mysterious divine events they described, so many myths exist in different and conflicting versions. [42] Mythical narratives were rarely written in full, and more often texts only contain episodes from or allusions to a larger myth. [43] Knowledge of Egyptian mythology, therefore, is derived mostly from hymns that detail the roles of specific deities, from ritual and magical texts which describe actions related to mythic events, and from funerary texts which mention the roles of many deities in the afterlife. Some information is also provided by allusions in secular texts. [40] Finally, Greeks and Romans such as Plutarch recorded some of the extant myths late in Egyptian history. [44]

Among the significant Egyptian myths were the creation myths. According to these stories, the world emerged as a dry space in the primordial ocean of chaos. Because the sun is essential to life on earth, the first rising of Ra marked the moment of this emergence. Different forms of the myth describe the process of creation in various ways: a transformation of the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world, as the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah, and as an act of the hidden power of Amun. [45] Regardless of these variations, the act of creation represented the initial establishment of Ma'at and the pattern for the subsequent cycles of time. [16]

The most important of all Egyptian myths was the Osiris myth. [46] It tells of the divine ruler Osiris, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god often associated with chaos. [47] Osiris's sister and wife Isis resurrected him so that he could conceive an heir, Horus. Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead. Once grown, Horus fought and defeated Set to become king himself. [48] Set's association with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful rulers, provided a rationale for pharaonic succession and portrayed the pharaohs as the upholders of order. At the same time, Osiris's death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation, and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death. [49]

Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. In the course of this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who again acted as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed. He also fought each night with Apep, a serpentine god representing chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the rising of the sun the next morning, an event that represented rebirth and the victory of order over chaos. [50]

Ritual and magical texts Edit

The procedures for religious rituals were frequently written on papyri, which were used as instructions for those performing the ritual. These ritual texts were kept mainly in the temple libraries. Temples themselves are also inscribed with such texts, often accompanied by illustrations. Unlike the ritual papyri, these inscriptions were not intended as instructions, but were meant to symbolically perpetuate the rituals even if, in reality, people ceased to perform them. [51] Magical texts likewise describe rituals, although these rituals were part of the spells used for specific goals in everyday life. Despite their mundane purpose, many of these texts also originated in temple libraries and later became disseminated among the general populace. [52]

Hymns and prayers Edit

The Egyptians produced numerous prayers and hymns, written in the form of poetry. Hymns and prayers follow a similar structure and are distinguished mainly by the purposes they serve. Hymns were written to praise particular deities. [53] Like ritual texts, they were written on papyri and on temple walls, and they were probably recited as part of the rituals they accompany in temple inscriptions. [54] Most are structured according to a set literary formula, designed to expound on the nature, aspects, and mythological functions of a given deity. [53] They tend to speak more explicitly about fundamental theology than other Egyptian religious writings, and became particularly important in the New Kingdom, a period of particularly active theological discourse. [55] Prayers follow the same general pattern as hymns, but address the relevant god in a more personal way, asking for blessings, help, or forgiveness for wrongdoing. Such prayers are rare before the New Kingdom, indicating that in earlier periods such direct personal interaction with a deity was not believed possible, or at least was less likely to be expressed in writing. They are known mainly from inscriptions on statues and stelae left in sacred sites as votive offerings. [56]

Funerary texts Edit

Among the most significant and extensively preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that deceased souls reached a pleasant afterlife. [57] 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, intended to magically provide pharaohs with the means to join the company of the gods in the afterlife. [58] The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and few of them appear in all of the pyramids. [59]

At the end of the Old Kingdom a new body of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began appearing in tombs, inscribed primarily on coffins. This collection of writings is known as the Coffin Texts, and was not reserved for royalty, but appeared in the tombs of non-royal officials. [60] In the New Kingdom, several new funerary texts emerged, of which the best-known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier books, it often contains extensive illustrations, or vignettes. [61] The book was copied on papyrus and sold to commoners to be placed in their tombs. [62]

The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld and instructions on how to overcome its hazards. In the New Kingdom, this material gave rise to several "books of the netherworld", including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat. [63] Unlike the loose collections of spells, these netherworld books are structured depictions of Ra's passage through the Duat, and by analogy, the journey of the deceased person's soul through the realm of the dead. They were originally restricted to pharaonic tombs, but in the Third Intermediate Period they came to be used more widely. [64]

Temples Edit

Temples existed from the beginning of Egyptian history, and at the height of the civilization they were present in most of its towns. They included both mortuary temples to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs and temples dedicated to patron gods, although the distinction was blurred because divinity and kingship were so closely intertwined. [16] The temples were not primarily intended as places for worship by the general populace, and the common people had a complex set of religious practices of their own. Instead, the state-run temples served as houses for the gods, in which physical images which served as their intermediaries were cared for and provided with offerings. This service was believed to be necessary to sustain the gods, so that they could in turn maintain the universe itself. [65] Thus, temples were central to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, including both donations from the monarchy and large estates of their own. Pharaohs often expanded them as part of their obligation to honor the gods, so that many temples grew to enormous size. [66] However, not all gods had temples dedicated to them, as many gods who were important in official theology received only minimal worship, and many household gods were the focus of popular veneration rather than temple ritual. [67]

The earliest Egyptian temples were small, impermanent structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms their designs grew more elaborate, and they were increasingly built out of stone. In the New Kingdom, a basic temple layout emerged, which had evolved from common elements in Old and Middle Kingdom temples. With variations, this plan was used for most of the temples built from then on, and most of those that survive today adhere to it. In this standard plan, the temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to the sanctuary, which held a statue of the temple's god. Access to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. The journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm, a point emphasized by the complex mythological symbolism present in temple architecture. [68] Well beyond the temple building proper was the outermost wall. Between the two lay many subsidiary buildings, including workshops and storage areas to supply the temple's needs, and the library where the temple's sacred writings and mundane records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning on a multitude of subjects. [69]

Theoretically it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, as he was Egypt's official representative to the gods. In reality, ritual duties were almost always carried out by priests. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. Only in the New Kingdom did professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests were still part-time. All were still employed by the state, and the pharaoh had final say in their appointments. [70] However, as the wealth of the temples grew, the influence of their priesthoods increased, until it rivaled that of the pharaoh. In the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–664 BC), the high priests of Amun at Karnak even became the effective rulers of Upper Egypt. [71] The temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters in temple ceremonies. Outside the temple were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple's needs, as well as farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple's income. Large temples were therefore very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people. [72]

Official rituals and festivals Edit

State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a ritual renewal of the pharaoh's strength that took place periodically during his reign. [73] There were numerous temple rituals, including rites that took place across the country and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single god. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or on rare occasions. [74] The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or occasionally the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the god's statue before presenting it with offerings. Afterward, when the god had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were taken to be distributed among the priests. [73]

The less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, were still numerous, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often entailed actions beyond simple offerings to the gods, such as reenactments of particular myths or the symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder. [75] Most of these events were probably celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. [74] However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually involved a procession carrying the god's image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other significant sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners gathered to watch the procession and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the gods on these occasions. [76]

Animal cults Edit

At many sacred sites, the Egyptians worshipped individual animals which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were selected based on specific sacred markings which were believed to indicate their fitness for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were selected for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation. [77] A separate practice developed in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, when people began mummifying any member of a particular animal species as an offering to the god whom the species represented. Millions of mummified cats, birds, and other creatures were buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities. [78] [79] Worshippers paid the priests of a particular deity to obtain and mummify an animal associated with that deity, and the mummy was placed in a cemetery near the god's cult center.

Oracles Edit

The Egyptians used oracles to ask the gods for knowledge or guidance. Egyptian oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom and afterward, though they probably appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the king, asked questions of oracles, and, especially in the late New Kingdom their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. [80] The most common means of consulting an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and interpret an answer from the barque's movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing lots, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently spoke. The means of discerning the god's will gave great influence to the priests who spoke and interpreted the god's message. [81]

Popular religion Edit

While the state cults were meant to preserve the stability of the Egyptian world, lay individuals had their own religious practices that related more directly to daily life. [82] This popular religion left less evidence than the official cults, and because this evidence was mostly produced by the wealthiest portion of the Egyptian population, it is uncertain to what degree it reflects the practices of the populace as a whole. [83]

Popular religious practice included ceremonies marking important transitions in life. These included birth, because of the danger involved in the process, and naming, because the name was held to be a crucial part of a person's identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul's survival beyond it. [84] Other religious practices sought to discern the gods' will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpretation of dreams, which could be seen as messages from the divine realm, and the consultation of oracles. People also sought to affect the gods' behavior to their own benefit through magical rituals. [85]

Individual Egyptians also prayed to gods and gave them private offerings. Evidence of this type of personal piety is sparse before the New Kingdom. This is probably due to cultural restrictions on depiction of nonroyal religious activity, which relaxed during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Personal piety became still more prominent in the late New Kingdom, when it was believed that the gods intervened directly in individual lives, punishing wrongdoers and saving the pious from disaster. [56] Official temples were important venues for private prayer and offering, even though their central activities were closed to laypeople. Egyptians frequently donated goods to be offered to the temple deity and objects inscribed with prayers to be placed in temple courts. Often they prayed in person before temple statues or in shrines set aside for their use. [83] Yet in addition to temples, the populace also used separate local chapels, smaller but more accessible than the formal temples. These chapels were very numerous and probably staffed by members of the community. [86] Households, too, often had their own small shrines for offering to gods or deceased relatives. [87]

The deities invoked in these situations differed somewhat from those at the center of state cults. Many of the important popular deities, such as the fertility goddess Taweret and the household protector Bes, had no temples of their own. However, many other gods, including Amun and Osiris, were very important in both popular and official religion. [88] Some individuals might be particularly devoted to a single god. Often they favored deities affiliated with their own region, or with their role in life. The god Ptah, for instance, was particularly important in his cult center of Memphis, but as the patron of craftsmen he received the nationwide veneration of many in that occupation. [89]

Magic Edit

The word "magic" is normally used to translate the Egyptian term heka, which meant, as James P. Allen puts it, "the ability to make things happen by indirect means". [90]

Heka was believed to be a natural phenomenon, the force which was used to create the universe and which the gods employed to work their will. Humans could also use it, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were counted as magical. [91] Individuals also frequently employed magical techniques for personal purposes. Although these ends could be harmful to other people, no form of magic was considered inimical in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative events. [92]

Magic was closely associated with the priesthood. Because temple libraries contained numerous magical texts, great magical knowledge was ascribed to the lector priests, who studied these texts. These priests often worked outside their temples, hiring out their magical services to laymen. Other professions also commonly employed magic as part of their work, including doctors, scorpion-charmers, and makers of magical amulets. It is also possible that the peasantry used simple magic for their own purposes, but because this magical knowledge would have been passed down orally, there is limited evidence of it. [93]

Language was closely linked with heka, to such a degree that Thoth, the god of writing, was sometimes said to be the inventor of heka. [94] Therefore, magic frequently involved written or spoken incantations, although these were usually accompanied by ritual actions. Often these rituals invoked an appropriate deity to perform the desired action, using the power of heka to compel the deity to act. Sometimes this entailed casting the practitioner or subject of a ritual in the role of a character in mythology, thus inducing the god to act toward that person as it had in the myth.

Rituals also employed sympathetic magic, using objects believed to have a magically significant resemblance to the subject of the rite. The Egyptians also commonly used objects believed to be imbued with heka of their own, such as the magically protective amulets worn in great numbers by ordinary Egyptians. [95]

Funerary practices Edit

Because it was considered necessary for the survival of the soul, preservation of the body was a central part of Egyptian funerary practices. Originally the Egyptians buried their dead in the desert, where the arid conditions mummified the body naturally. In the Early Dynastic Period, however, they began using tombs for greater protection, and the body was insulated from the desiccating effect of the sand and was subject to natural decay. Thus, the Egyptians developed their elaborate embalming practices, in which the corpse was artificially desiccated and wrapped to be placed in its coffin. [96] The quality of the process varied according to cost, however, and those who could not afford it were still buried in desert graves. [97]

Once the mummification process was complete, the mummy was carried from the deceased person's house to the tomb in a funeral procession that included his or her relatives and friends, along with a variety of priests. Before the burial, these priests performed several rituals, including the Opening of the mouth ceremony intended to restore the dead person's senses and give him or her the ability to receive offerings. Then the mummy was buried and the tomb sealed. [98] Afterwards, relatives or hired priests gave food offerings to the deceased in a nearby mortuary chapel at regular intervals. Over time, families inevitably neglected offerings to long-dead relatives, so most mortuary cults only lasted one or two generations. [99] However, while the cult lasted, the living sometimes wrote letters asking deceased relatives for help, in the belief that the dead could affect the world of the living as the gods did. [100]

The first Egyptian tombs were mastabas, rectangular brick structures where kings and nobles were entombed. Each of them contained a subterranean burial chamber and a separate, above ground chapel for mortuary rituals. In the Old Kingdom the mastaba developed into the pyramid, which symbolized the primeval mound of Egyptian myth. Pyramids were reserved for royalty, and were accompanied by large mortuary temples sitting at their base. Middle Kingdom pharaohs continued to build pyramids, but the popularity of mastabas waned. Increasingly, commoners with sufficient means were buried in rock-cut tombs with separate mortuary chapels nearby, an approach which was less vulnerable to tomb robbery. By the beginning of the New Kingdom even the pharaohs were buried in such tombs, and they continued to be used until the decline of the religion itself. [101]

Tombs could contain a great variety of other items, including statues of the deceased to serve as substitutes for the body in case it was damaged. [102] Because it was believed that the deceased would have to do work in the afterlife, just as in life, burials often included small models of humans to do work in place of the deceased. [103] Human sacrifices found in early royal tombs were probably meant to serve the pharaoh in his afterlife. [104]

The tombs of wealthier individuals could also contain furniture, clothing, and other everyday objects intended for use in the afterlife, along with amulets and other items intended to provide magical protection against the hazards of the spirit world. [105] Further protection was provided by funerary texts included in the burial. The tomb walls also bore artwork, such as images of the deceased eating food that were believed to allow him or her to magically receive sustenance even after the mortuary offerings had ceased. [106]

Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods Edit

The beginnings of Egyptian religion extend into prehistory, though evidence for them comes only from the sparse and ambiguous archaeological record. Careful burials during the Predynastic period imply that the people of this time believed in some form of an afterlife. At the same time, animals were ritually buried, a practice which may reflect the development of zoomorphic deities like those found in the later religion. [107] The evidence is less clear for gods in human form, and this type of deity may have emerged more slowly than those in animal shape. Each region of Egypt originally had its own patron deity, but it is likely that as these small communities conquered or absorbed each other, the god of the defeated area was either incorporated into the other god's mythology or entirely subsumed by it. This resulted in a complex pantheon in which some deities remained only locally important while others developed more universal significance. [108] [109]

The Early Dynastic Period began with the unification of Egypt around 3000 BC. This event transformed Egyptian religion, as some deities rose to national importance and the cult of the divine pharaoh became the central focus of religious activity. [110] Horus was identified with the king, and his cult center in the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen was among the most important religious sites of the period. Another important center was Abydos, where the early rulers built large funerary complexes. [111]

Old and Middle Kingdoms Edit

During the Old Kingdom, the priesthoods of the major deities attempted to organize the complicated national pantheon into groups linked by their mythology and worshipped in a single cult center, such as the Ennead of Heliopolis, which linked important deities such as Atum, Ra, Osiris, and Set in a single creation myth. [112] Meanwhile, pyramids, accompanied by large mortuary temple complexes, replaced mastabas as the tombs of pharaohs. In contrast with the great size of the pyramid complexes, temples to gods remained comparatively small, suggesting that official religion in this period emphasized the cult of the divine king more than the direct worship of deities. The funerary rituals and architecture of this time greatly influenced the more elaborate temples and rituals used in worshipping the gods in later periods. [113]

Early in the Old Kingdom, Ra grew in influence, and his cult center at Heliopolis became the nation's most important religious site. [114] By the Fifth Dynasty, Ra was the most prominent god in Egypt and had developed the close links with kingship and the afterlife that he retained for the rest of Egyptian history. [115] Around the same time, Osiris became an important afterlife deity. The Pyramid Texts, first written at this time, reflect the prominence of the solar and Osirian concepts of the afterlife, although they also contain remnants of much older traditions. [116] The texts are an extremely important source for understanding early Egyptian theology. [117]

In the 22nd century BC, the Old Kingdom collapsed into the disorder of the First Intermediate Period. Eventually rulers from Thebes reunified the Egyptian nation in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC). These Theban pharaohs initially promoted their patron god Montu to national importance, but during the Middle Kingdom, he was eclipsed by the rising popularity of Amun. [118] In this new Egyptian state, personal piety grew more important and was expressed more freely in writing, a trend that continued in the New Kingdom. [119]

New Kingdom Edit

The Middle Kingdom crumbled in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650–1550 BC), but the country was again reunited by Theban rulers, who became the first pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Under the new regime, Amun became the supreme state god. He was syncretized with Ra, the long-established patron of kingship and his temple at Karnak in Thebes became Egypt's most important religious center. Amun's elevation was partly due to the great importance of Thebes, but it was also due to the increasingly professional priesthood. Their sophisticated theological discussion produced detailed descriptions of Amun's universal power. [120] [121]

Increased contact with outside peoples in this period led to the adoption of many Near Eastern deities into the pantheon. At the same time, the subjugated Nubians absorbed Egyptian religious beliefs, and in particular, adopted Amun as their own. [122]

The New Kingdom religious order was disrupted when Akhenaten acceded, and replaced Amun with the Aten as the state god. Eventually, he eliminated the official worship of most other gods and moved Egypt's capital to a new city at Amarna. This part of Egyptian history, the Amarna Period, is named after this. In doing so, Akhenaten claimed unprecedented status: only he could worship the Aten, and the populace directed their worship toward him. The Atenist system lacked well-developed mythology and afterlife beliefs, and the Aten seemed distant and impersonal, so the new order did not appeal to ordinary Egyptians. [123] Thus, many probably continued to worship the traditional gods in private. Nevertheless, the withdrawal of state support for the other deities severely disrupted Egyptian society. [124] Akhenaten's successors restored the traditional religious system, and eventually, they dismantled all Atenist monuments. [125]

Before the Amarna Period, popular religion had trended toward more personal relationships between worshippers and their gods. Akhenaten's changes had reversed this trend, but once the traditional religion was restored, there was a backlash. The populace began to believe that the gods were much more directly involved in daily life. Amun, the supreme god, was increasingly seen as the final arbiter of human destiny, the true ruler of Egypt. The pharaoh was correspondingly more human and less divine. The importance of oracles as a means of decision-making grew, as did the wealth and influence of the oracles' interpreters, the priesthood. These trends undermined the traditional structure of society and contributed to the breakdown of the New Kingdom. [126] [127]

Later periods Edit

In the 1st millennium BC, Egypt was significantly weaker than in earlier times, and in several periods foreigners seized the country and assumed the position of pharaoh. The importance of the pharaoh continued to decline, and the emphasis on popular piety continued to increase. Animal cults, a characteristically Egyptian form of worship, became increasingly popular in this period, possibly as a response to the uncertainty and foreign influence of the time. [128] Isis grew more popular as a goddess of protection, magic, and personal salvation, and became the most important goddess in Egypt. [129]

In the 4th century BC, Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom under the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC), which assumed the pharaonic role, maintaining the traditional religion and building or rebuilding many temples. The kingdom's Greek ruling class identified the Egyptian deities with their own. [130] From this cross-cultural syncretism emerged Serapis, a god who combined Osiris and Apis with characteristics of Greek deities, and who became very popular among the Greek population. Nevertheless, for the most part the two belief systems remained separate, and the Egyptian deities remained Egyptian. [131]

Ptolemaic-era beliefs changed little after Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BC, with the Ptolemaic kings replaced by distant emperors. [130] The cult of Isis appealed even to Greeks and Romans outside Egypt, and in Hellenized form it spread across the empire. [132] In Egypt itself, as the empire weakened, official temples fell into decay, and without their centralizing influence religious practice became fragmented and localized. Meanwhile, Christianity spread across Egypt, and in the third and fourth centuries AD, edicts by Christian emperors and iconoclasm by local Christians eroded traditional beliefs. While it persisted among the populace for some time, Egyptian religion slowly faded away. [133]

Legacy Edit

Egyptian religion produced the temples and tombs which are ancient Egypt's most enduring monuments, but it also influenced other cultures. In pharaonic times many of its symbols, such as the sphinx and winged solar disk, were adopted by other cultures across the Mediterranean and Near East, as were some of its deities, such as Bes. Some of these connections are difficult to trace. The Greek concept of Elysium may have derived from the Egyptian vision of the afterlife. [134] In late antiquity, the Christian conception of Hell was most likely influenced by some of the imagery of the Duat. Egyptian beliefs also influenced or gave rise to several esoteric belief systems developed by Greeks and Romans, who considered Egypt as a source of mystic wisdom. Hermeticism, for instance, derived from the tradition of secret magical knowledge associated with Thoth. [135]

Modern times Edit

Traces of ancient beliefs remained in Egyptian folk traditions into modern times, but its influence on modern societies greatly increased with the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria in 1798 and their seeing the monuments and images. As a result of it, Westerners began to study Egyptian beliefs firsthand, and Egyptian religious motifs were adopted into Western art. [136] [137] Egyptian religion has since had a significant influence in popular culture. Due to continued interest in Egyptian beliefs, in the late 20th century, several new religious groups going under the blanket term of Kemetism have formed based on different reconstructions of ancient Egyptian religion. [138]

Gods in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive.

The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion.

The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country.

The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.



From the Neolithic era and Early Dynastic period, Egypt was part of a network connecting Africa, the Levant, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia. In Egypt and the Nile Valley, extant written sources begin in the late Predynastic period (c. 3100 bce ). The foundation of the Egyptian state in the Early Dynastic period (c. 3100 bce ) marks the beginning of more than 500 kings, belonging to around thirty dynasties, and ending with the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors. These dynasties are grouped into periods called the Early Dynastic (c. 31st–27th centuries bce ), Old Kingdom (c. 27th–22nd centuries bce ), Middle Kingdom (c. 21st–17th centuries bce ), and New Kingdom (c. 16th–11th centuries bce ), as well as three Intermediate periods, and the late Greco-Roman period (4th century bce –4th century ce ). 1

During these almost 3,500 years, the ancient Egyptians remained polytheistic. Most gods had many identities and aspects, and, therefore, many names and manifestations. About 1,500 deities are known the Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen (LGG), in its more than 5,500 pages, lists about 56,500 names and expressions designating deities from the Old Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period. The same god could have many names, various gods could represent the same entity, and the same designation could be given to many deities. 2

The ancient Egyptians felt surrounded by manifestations of their deities. Nature divided the country into a variety of ecological and political subregions, 3 some of which were represented by deities. Ancient Egypt was defined by the Nile, though it also included the oases in the western desert and places along the Red Sea. 4

From south to north, the Nile connected these regions from Sudan to the Mediterranean. The Nile flowed in an almost straight course through “Upper Egypt” near Memphis it fanned out, forming the delta of Lower Egypt with its many channels. The delta comprised most of Egypt’s agricultural land, as well as vast areas of marshland. The Egyptians believed that the Nile—which they simply called jtrw, perhaps “the seasonal one”—had its origins in the underworld and emerged at Elephantine. Its annual floods brought and created the fertile (t3) kmt (“black [land]”), in contrast to the flanking deserts, which were called dšrt (“red land”). The Nile was never venerated as a deity in its own right, though it was sometimes referred to as the “great efflux of Osiris,” or the tears of Isis. Yet its inundations provided fecundity, and this aspect was personified as the god Hapy as well as other Nile deities. 5

From east to west, the sun god ran his course. He remained the most important divine entity throughout ancient Egyptian history, venerated as Re, Re-Horakhty, or Amun-Re. 6 With other gods and deceased kings in his following, the sun god fended off the forces of eternal darkness and enabled life for the living and the dead. The deceased were predominantly buried on the western side of the Nile, close to the setting of the sun, between “black” and “red” lands. Here the sun god entered the Duat (d3t, dw3t), the realm of the deceased and of Osiris, god of the afterlife. 7

Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt, the “Two Lands.” Their unification was a central aspect of kingship ideology, reflected in the royal and divine title nb t3wj (“Lord of the Two Lands”). The red crown and the white crown, which stood for Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively, were also connected to the tutelary deities of kingship Wadjet and Nekhbet, respectively. Though originally separate crowns, since the Early Dynastic period the two crowns were often united in the Double Crown. 8 Each of the Two Lands comprised about twenty sep3wt (“provinces, nomes”), each of which had its own provincial capital with an associated main deity, and in many cases further temples for additional gods and cults, as well as a standard with divine symbols. 9

Despite the separation between the realms of the gods, the deceased, and the living, the boundaries were always permeable. All three beings essentially shared, interdependently, the same world that had emerged from eternal darkness. To maintain the status quo and avoid descending back into darkness, constant cooperation was necessary. Ancient Egypt was fundamentally a theocracy: the gods had created life and the universe, and a divine king controlled its organization. The gods lived or manifested themselves in many and various places, for instance, in buildings, images, texts, and events, and were thus essentially omnipresent. The Egyptians were one of the most visually oriented people of the ancient world, and their lavish use of images and image-like scripts allows multifaceted insights into their conceptions of the gods. 10 But natural factors and human care and destruction, as well as political and personal interests of the Egyptian kings, determined what survives in our archaeological record. 11

Many ideas and concepts were central to all periods of Egyptian history despite the semblance of rigidity, there was also innovation and change. Akhenaten’s experiment in monotheism, for instance, was highly innovative yet unsuccessful. During the decade of his “Amarna revolution,” the divine sun-disc Aten was transformed from being a god among many to being the subject of a henotheistic cult, especially in the capital Akhet-aten (modern Tell el-Amarna), and ultimately was elevated to being an exclusive, unique, and universal deity. The experiment ended with Akhenaten’s death his successor, Tutankhamun, reversed most of the changes and reestablished the old order. 12 Many studies have been dedicated to this phenomenon the first recorded monotheism in world history has fascinated many scholars and writers even beyond the field of Egyptology, especially in regard to its connections with biblical monotheism. 13 But its impact was greater on modern scholarship than on the ancient Egyptians. In the over 3,000 years of Egyptian history, the brief experiment with monotheism had almost no religious consequences, though it may have triggered a polytheistic response. 14

Genesis of the Egyptian Gods

Neolithic burials of animals, mostly bovids, but also gazelles, dogs, jackals, cows, rams (e.g., in Maadi and Heliopolis) are early evidence of the veneration of divine powers in or though animals. The bodies of animals were ritually treated, and their graves, sometimes furnished with matting, lay close to human burial grounds. Animal shapes are found as cosmetic palettes (connecting them to the preservation of the body), on pottery, and on standards, suggesting a special status accorded to these animals. 15

With the emergence of writing and the more frequent use of iconography in the Early Dynastic period, we get a better grasp of the Egyptian gods. Their development is closely connected to the formation of the Egyptian state and its kingship, whose power was represented by images of animals founding cities or vanquishing enemies (e.g., lion, bull, scorpion). This practice was accompanied by the phenomenon of some Egyptian kings having animal names. By the First Dynasty, divine powers were also represented in anthropomorphic shape (e.g., Geb, Min with flagellum, ithyphallic forms). By the end of the Second Dynasty, the first deities in hybrid or bimorphic forms had appeared. These deities were usually composed of a human head and an animal body or vice-versa, with the head being the essential element the coiffure masked any disjointedness between these body parts. 16 Contemporaneous regional sanctuaries and shrines, which had probably developed from reed huts set up in sacred spaces, were usually built of mud brick, unless the king decided to invest in a specific deity and to have its temple built in or decorated with stone. A number of Egyptian gods, shrines, and cults are attested as far back as the Early Dynastic period. 17

The earliest hieroglyphs designating a deity were a cloth wound on a pole, the falcon on a standard, and an anthropomorphic sitting god (with divine beard). Though there were many variations in execution and detail, these remained the main hieroglyphs for deities throughout history. 18

By the end of Old Kingdom, the information we have on Egyptian gods improves drastically, mostly thanks to the Pyramid Texts. Important icons had been created, such as hawk-headed anthropomorphic deities (Third Dynasty) and the Sphinx (showing the divine king with a human head and lion’s body). Many of the ideas created in this period remained essential until the Roman period, such as the divinity of the king, the dominance of the sun god, and Osiris as the god of the deceased. 19

Genesis of the Universe and the Gods according to the Ancient Egyptians

Many narratives reveal how the Egyptian gods came into being and how the universe was created. These narratives were usually created as parts of larger compositions for specific use, such as mortuary or temple cults. All-explaining, dogmatic versions of texts did not emerge until the late periods of ancient Egypt. Occasionally these texts share commonalities, or they may differ significantly, depending on their period, their region, or the importance of the deities involved. Even so, they allow us to glimpse ancient Egyptian conceptions of creation and the gods, and they provide philosophic and scientific views of how the universe works, describing its dynamics in terms of divine forces in action. The long tradition of differing cosmogonies testifies to the ancient Egyptians’ openness in approaching ultimately unknowable matters. 20

In ancient Egypt, creation was seen as a process of separation and continuing differentiation, often formulated as sequences of generations of gods. 21 One fundamental idea was that out of Nun, the personified primeval waters, a mound rose whence creation was set in motion the idea mirrored the yearly experience of the emergence of land after the Nile flood. The waters of Nun were believed to immerse the world and surrounding the world they were at the same time life-giving and a threat to creation, for the universe could tumble back into them and end. 22

In the Heliopolitan tradition (known since the Old Kingdom), nine gods of the psḏt (“Ennead”), the sun god, and eight of his descendants, were responsible for creation. Atum (or Re-Atum) self-generated and emerged from the primordial waters, and produced out of himself (by spitting, sneezing, or masturbating) the next generation with Shu (“Air”) and Tefnut (“Moisture”), which then produced Geb (“Earth”) and Nut (“Sky”). Out of these first generations of “universal” elements were born the gods of social concepts: Osiris, god of the underworld Seth, god of chaos, always endangering order Isis, the throne deity and Nephtys, a parallel to Isis. Finally, Osiris and Isis produced Horus, the god of kingship, thereby making kingship part of the natural divine order. 23

In the Hermopolitan traditions (known since the Old Kingdom), following upon the primordial mound, the “Ogdoad” came into being. This group of deities was formed of four pairs of male and female deities representing sempiternal concepts of the original universe (Nun/Naunet, “Water” Heh/Hauhet, “Infinity” Kek/Kauket, “Darkness” Amun/Amaunet, “Hiddenness”). 24

The Memphite Theology (documented on the Shabaka Stone, Twenty-fifth Dynasty the original age of the text is debated) features the god of crafts, Ptah Tatenen (“Ptah of the Primeval Mound”). He created Atum “through his heart and through his tongue,” by plan and word, and founded Maat and kingship. The gods of the Ennead were his manifestations. 25

Further texts describe other gods as being involved in the beginning of the universe: the world emerged from a cosmic egg the sun god Re emerged (as child or scarab) from a lotus the sun god or Amun-Re created the world an All-lord created deities from his sweat and humans from his tears (Middle Kingdom) Aten, the only god, is the sole creator (Amarna period) Khnum fashioned men on the potter’s wheel a bird, the “great cackler/honker,” alighted on the primeval hill and tore apart the silence, allowing creation to start. 26 In the “Myth of the Heavenly Cow,” the sun god Ra, who lives with humans on earth, retired to heaven after man’s rebellion and began his daily journeys. 27

There were different conceptions of the cosmos in one of them, Nut, the goddess of the sky, is depicted as a naked woman with her body arching over Geb, the earth god, with Shu, personification of empty space, separating the two of them. Another conception shows the heavenly cow (a manifestation of Nut) supported by Shu and other deities, while the boats of the sun god traverse her star-spangled belly.

Heaven was the oldest known and the preferred abode of the gods (since the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods). Regions in the frontiers of earth and heaven were called “God’s land.” On earth lived the humans and the manifestations of the gods (e.g., animals, statues, symbols). The Duat, ruled by Osiris, was the realm where the dead ancestor gods and the deceased lived. During the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom it was located in heaven, but sometimes also in the earth from the New Kingdom onward, it was a netherworld. In the Duat, the gods and the dead could regenerate, but they were also surrounded by dangers the Pyramid, Coffin, or New Kingdom underworld texts give lavish descriptions of the Duat’s features they also provided information and spells for a safe sojourn of the deceased (Figure 1). Some main gods, such as the sun god and his following, had a transitional stay in the Duat, during which their Ba and body united in order to regenerate before facing another day. 28

Figure 1. Netherworld Papyrus of Gautsoshen, Third Intermediate period, Twenty-first Dynasty, c. 1000–945 bce . Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Egyptian universe of man and gods was surrounded by endless and unknown darkness this darkness was a danger to all creation, and always on the verge of repossessing the known world, but it was also filled with creative and regenerative force. It had to be kept at bay by a collective effort of all beings, by preserving Maat (“order”), and by supporting the fight of the gods against the representatives of darkness and jsft (“chaos”). Every night, Apophis, a giant serpent in the primeval ocean, endangered the course of the sun god and had to be fought back into the darkness. Only rarely the “end of days” is mentioned, when Atum, god of all the universe, and in some versions also Osiris, god of all that is in the underworld, remain alone and everything else returns to the primordial ocean. 29

Two further forces and concepts, personified by deities, were pivotal for the existence and smooth running of the universe. The goddess Maat (with a feather on her head) represented the correct order. The gods had created Maat and lived by it. The kings, ideologically responsible to keep order, regularly offered Maat to the gods, or integrated Maat as a constitutive part of their royal names. In the underworld, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat. 30

Heka (“Magic”) was created by the creator god and used for further creation. It also kept the universe running. Magic was an integral part of the Egyptian religious system. Heka was a source of power for healing and protection, a weapon to ward off potential dangers and to repel inimical powers that threatened individuals (such as illness, nightmares, snake or scorpion bites, snatching by a crocodile, dangers to children) or the state (fended off, for instance, by execration texts and figurines). The gods used magic and so did humans, even against gods, going so far as to threaten them with the “end of days.” 31

General Traits and Features of Egyptian Gods

Information on Egyptian gods must be gathered from numerous texts and images. These materials come from different regions and periods and were sometimes created for very specific contexts. 32 Here, some of the more general aspects are presented.

Nṯrw (“gods”) and other entities

The Egyptian word encompassing the concept of „god“ is nṯr (pl. nṯrw, fem. nṯrt/nṯrwt). 33 Its etymology and original meaning are debated. 34 The singular nṯr is usually used when the deity intended is obvious (at least to the Egyptians), or when the deity is left intentionally unspecified, meaning “any random god,” for instance in teachings for officials, who during their work would have to deal with a variety of deities. When a divine emanation was detected, almost everything, except a living human, could be tagged as nṯr “divine,” though the various nṯrw were approached discriminately.

There were other supernatural entities as well. The ba (pl. baw), usually translated “soul,” was a manifestation of power and part of the personality of gods, kings, and humans, living or deceased. In the case of Amun, this omnipresence was described as his Ba (“Ba-soul”) being in the sky, his corpse in the netherworld, and his image on earth. Whenever a god became manifest, his ba was detected—for example, the sun for Re, the Apis bull for Osiris, or the Old Kingdom pyramids for the king. Sometimes a deity was seen as the ba of another deity. Finally, the baw of the cities of Buto, Hierakonpolis, and Heliopolis were the divinized deceased kings. The baw of the deceased (since the New Kingdom, depicted as a human-headed bird) lived in the following of the gods, and were nourished by offerings. 35

Several other forces were involved in interactions with the various entities. The akh (pl. akhw) was the spirit of the deceased that had managed an ideal and effective transformation into the afterlife. It was a personal life force, activated and manifested after death. It kept the appearance of the individual and lived in the realm of the gods and the deceased. For the living, the akhw liaised with the gods, especially Osiris. 36 The ka was part of human individuality, its “life force,” “character,” “nature,” or “double” it also received offerings. Images of individuals were their ka. Another force was sḫm (“power,” sometimes symbolized by the sḫm-scepter), an expression of the radiation and charisma of deities and the deceased. 37

Main Traits of the Gods

The Egyptian gods were powerful but not almighty, nor even all-knowing (for instance, nobody, except at a certain point Isis, knew the “hidden” name of the creator god). No god was able to see beyond the defined universe even the creator god is merely nb-r-ḏr (“master-to-the-end” of the known world) the eternal darkness remained impenetrable. The gods were not eternal beings they had a beginning within the genesis of the universe. The first god came into being by himself the next generations were created, conceived, and born. The gods had a period of youth (e.g., Horus, Chons, sun god), they aged, they died (sun god), and they were even killed (Osiris), though they usually did not remain dead but instead regenerated. Osiris had a tomb on earth that was visited by humans (e.g., the tomb of king Djer, or the Osireion at Abydos). In the Amduat (lit. “that which is in the underworld”), tombs of the gods are depicted, and in Late Period Egypt, some tombs of gods were located on earth, whether inside temples or in a necropolis. In the „Cannibal Hymn“ of Old Kingdom Pyramid texts, eating other gods strengthens the Egyptian king. Osiris is slain but becomes the chief god of the underworld. The sun god (Re in the sky) dies at sunset (as Atum), only to be regenerated in the underworld and rise anew each morning as Khepri, the scarab crawling out of the ground. The deceased human who had lived righteously was regenerated eternally those who had not were condemned and annihilated. In the New Kingdom, Thoth knows the exact lifespan of humans and gods. 38

The gods were imagined as having skin of gold, hair of lapis lazuli, and a body made of other luxurious materials. Their hearing and seeing were amplified. They had a certain fragrance and radiance. Their presence could be sensed through smell, sight, intuition, natural phenomena (e.g., earthquakes), or through illness or misfortune. Their effect on humans was to induce snḏt (“fear”) and šfšft (“respect, awe”). Even so, the Egyptian gods were generally generous and benevolent to humans.

Some gods’ spheres of action concentrated on their cities as such, city gods were locally close and incorporated many aspects useful to humans. 39 A god’s influence could be extended by portable images (e.g., for travel protection). The gods had definite human behaviors—they ate, drank, worked, fought, cried, laughed, became angry or sulky—and their characters were ambivalent. Some deities were usually helpful to humans (e.g., Thoth, Horus, Isis), others potentially threatening (e.g., Sakhmet, Seth). The gods could get angry with the humans and seek to destroy them (e.g., Ra in the Myth of the Heavenly Cow), and they had many needs, which were met by offerings and rituals. 40

Many Names and Many Aspects

The Egyptians characterized their deities as “hidden,” “mysterious” or “unknown,” “rich in names,” having numerous, even secret names (e.g., the sun god) and epithets. 41 As each god was unique, Egyptians had no problem addressing them with superlatives such as “the greatest,” though exclusivity was not intended. The gods were rarely reduced to the mere meaning of their names rather, they had elaborate histories, characters, and competences beyond those. They had primary functions, but were versatile and responsible for many things. Ra, for instance, was a deity of kingship and creation, regenerator of the living and the dead. Osiris was chief of the realm of the dead, but also associated with kingship and fertility he also became a savior god who helped to overcome death. Hathor is a goddess connected with childbirth and maternity, with festival joy and drunkenness, but she can also be a necropolis goddess and even a ferocious lioness guarding a desert wadi in Ptolemaic Edfu, she had as many forms as there are days in the year. Sometimes a god was regarded as a manifestation, a ba or an image of another one. The many names and images of a deity were considered to be merely selected aspects of a much vaster personality. They allowed worshipers to distinguish, to characterize, and to make them approachable for cultic purposes (though not every deity had a cult). 42

A good example for this multitude of forms and aspects is the sun god. He was imagined to be the scarab Khepri, “The One Who Becomes,” at dawn virile Ra during the day old Atum at dusk and for a brief moment connected to Osiris in the underworld. The “Litany of Ra” (New Kingdom) lists seventy-four forms of the sun god. 43 The sun god is sometimes shown as a cat with a knife fighting the serpent Apophis. In the Amarna period, the sun disc Aten was venerated without an anthropomorphic shape, but as a disc with arms. 44

The etymologies of some names of the greater gods are debated (e.g., Osiris, Re, Min, Ptah, Seth). Some are identical with the spheres and regions they personify (e.g., Nun “eternal water,” Shu “empty space, air”), while others are not (e.g., “earth” t3 vs. Geb “moon” j‘ḥ vs. Thoth and Khonsu „heaven“ pt vs. Nut). The four elements were never personified but still connected to various deities: several deities used fire crocodile-shaped deities protected waters (e.g., Sobek) various gods were connected to earth (e.g., Geb, Tatenen, Aker) air was represented by Shu “empty space,” Amun as enlivening air and breeze, or Seth as destructive storm. Some divine names were personifications of concepts (e.g., Maat “Order,” Heka “Magic,” Sia „Perception,“ Hu “Authoritative Utterance”) or functions (e.g., the demon Ammut “female devourer”). Some female deities were named as a counterpart to their male partner (e.g., Amun/Amaunet, Ra/Rat, Inpu/Input). And though animals were important manifestations of the gods, deities rarely have animal names. 45

Among the heavenly bodies, the sun clearly dominates. Sun and moon were both represented by various deities. Other heavenly bodies were seen as manifestations of deities as well: Sirius, the brightest fixed star, was connected with the Nile inundations, as a manifestation of Isis the constellation Orion was a manifestation of Osiris, and most planets were thought to be manifestations of Horus. Though the pole star was an important goal in the kings’ ascent to heaven, it was not a deity. Other stars were seen as manifestations of various deities or of deceased kings. 46

Syncretisms and Conjunctions of Gods

The character of a deity was regularly expanded by syncretism. Deities were combined, creating a new, extended, more powerful, more complete deity. 47 Regional deities were combined with more important, supraregional ones, thereby increasing their power (e.g., Sobek-Re, Chnum-Re). Others were combined to create a more complete manifestation of a concept. These combined deities did not replace their various components, but extended them. By adding several manifestations that represented only smaller aspects, a new and more comprehensive approximation to a concept was created: for example, Re-Atum (day/evening sun), Atum-Khepri (evening/morning sun), Re-Horakhty (two solar deities), and Amun-Re (the invisible/visible powers on earth). More than two deities could be combined as well, as in Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Amun-Re-Harakhte-Atum, and Harmachis-Khepri-Re-Atum, all major solar deities. Even Egyptian and foreign deities were united, for example, Anat-Hathor (Asiatic/Egyptian), or Ptolemaic Serapis (combining Osiris, Apis, Zeus, and Helios).

Egyptian Gods and Their Animals

Many gods were pictured with the heads or other parts of animals. Many animals were seen as manifestations of a deity or served as intermediaries between humans and the gods. Some species were seen as the baw of the gods (e.g., baboon for Thoth, crocodile for Sobek, cat for Bastet and/or Sekhmet, mongoose for Re, ram for Amun). In other cases, only one living animal at a time was presumed to be the representative of a god (e.g., the Apis bull). Some votive animal figurines—often cats, dogs, snakes, or falcons—are clearly related to certain gods. From the late New Kingdom onward, the idea of animals as intermediaries led to a huge industry of animal mummification. Animals were raised, killed, mummified, and sold to pilgrims and devotees, who had them interred at places connected to their patron deities. The animal mummies were placed in catacombs: the falcon catacomb of North Saqqara contained about 4 million birds, and at Tuna el Gebel the interred ibis mummies are estimated to be in the millions. 48

The Egyptian King

The impressive size and number of monuments created for and by the Egyptian king are unparalleled in the ancient or modern world. Constant building activities and fabrication of images and texts created a memorial landscape that was a permanent reminder of the longevity of kingship, gods, and their institutions. It was perpetuated by a state that staged and treated its ruler as a god.

The Egyptian king was subordinate to the gods, but, ex officio (by the New Kingdom, with his coronation) he was a god on earth, universal ruler, and linchpin of earthly order. He controlled all resources, decided where they were directed, provided for the gods and their cults, built their temples, performed the rituals as the main actor, and was principally responsible for keeping Maat. The king was regularly addressed as nṯr (“god”). He was described as having superhuman powers (e.g., smiting groups of enemies at once in battle), or presented—like the gods—as a hybrid, such as sphinx or griffin. All dead and even some living kings had cults and temples. 49

In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, Egypt adopted ancient Near Eastern ideas in iconography, writing, and architecture and amalgamated them with its own concepts into a system of representing and staging its king. Using foreign elements certainly consolidated the perception of the king as someone extraordinary and extramundane. 50 With the unification of Egypt by the Early Dynastic period, the king became the central authority, obliged to mediate between his people and the gods and responsible for their care. Many essential elements of the representation of Egyptian kingship were created in this period, such as the king as Horus, the dual monarchy of Upper and Lower Egypt, the distinction of the elite from the common people, many of the regalia (e.g., scepters, uraeus, white, red, and double crowns), iconography (e.g., the king smiting his enemies, or being represented as a falcon), titles, rituals and festivals (e.g., Sed festival). 51 The kings’ mud-brick tombs with storerooms and mortuary buildings are located in Abydos and Saqqara further buildings were erected in other regions. 52

In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian king was seen and treated as a deity: in life he was a nṯr, a son of Ra, a Horus (son of Osiris) on earth, thus being the son of the gods responsible for the realms of the living and the deceased. He was image and son of various gods, as well as likened to gods by names and titles. The king was regularly shown in the company of gods, worshiping, offering, but also being nurtured or embraced. In death, the king became an Osiris he lived his afterlife with many other gods and dead kings in the company of the sun god. Each king was buried in a pyramid that symbolized the primeval hills or the ladder to heaven each pyramid had its own temples and personnel to supply the mortuary cult of the dead king, theoretically for eternity, and in actual practice at least for generations. 53

From the Middle Kingdom on, the king was chosen by the gods and followed their commands, his success depending on their support still, pyramids were built for him, though of mud brick, not stone. By the New Kingdom, the afterlife had shifted to an underworld sphere, and the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built into a hill that was seen as a gigantic pyramid the kings’ graves were decorated with images of the netherworld and showed the king in constant company with the gods. 54 In their mortuary temples, the so-called Mansions of Millions of Years, but also in the regular temples of the gods, images and texts record the king performing his political acts (e.g., campaigns against foreign countries) and his ritual duties to the gods in such images the king is regularly shown in the company of the gods. 55

Though the king was subordinate to the gods, the buildings with the highest labor costs were usually the mortuary installations for his afterlife. 56 There seems to have been a decrease of investment in the staging of the king, as its main building became more modest—from the pyramids of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, to the tombs and mortuary temples of the New Kingdom, to smaller tombs in the Late Period. One reason for this development may have been the increasing cultural and political interaction with Near Eastern states and kingdoms, where the kings were usually seen as human and large buildings were built only for the people’s major, actual deities.

The concept of kingship was projected into the realm of the gods by imagining a “king of gods” (e.g., Amun, Amun-Re, Aten), fully endowed with insignia, crowns, thrones sometimes their names were written in a cartouche, as was usual for the human king. In the New Kingdom, it was imagined that the gods had once ruled on earth (e.g., Ptah, Horus, Osiris). Ra was king of gods and men until he retired from earth and became ruler only of the gods. On earth, Horus succeeded his father Osiris, and was finally embodied and represented by the reigning Egyptian king. 57

Organizing the Multitudes of Gods

Through the ages, the status of some deities changed and fluctuated, which sometimes led to new hierarchies, connections, family relations, and cultic approaches. Some deities kept great importance through all periods, especially Re, Osiris, Horus, Isis. Others lost their status, as when Montu was superseded by Amun the latter rose during the Middle Kingdom from being a regional god to being the central god of the Egyptian pantheon of the New Kingdom and later. In the Amarna period, Aten became the only god, though only for a decade, and most of the time his influence was restricted to the new capital city Akhetaten. The importance of Seth fluctuated through time. 58

Some gods were grouped as dyads (e.g., Isis and Nephtys, Horus and Seth, the pairs of male and female principles that again were grouped as the Ogdoad) triads (tripling was the simplest way to express a plural: Amun/Re/Ptah, Amun/Mut/Khonsu, Osiris/Isis/Horus) tetrads (e.g., the sons of Horus) pentads (e.g., gods of the epagomenal days) hebdomads (the sum of three and four, such as the souls of the sun god, or the manifestations of Hathor) ogdoads (e.g., the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, or the eight Heh deities supporting the legs of the cow goddess Nut being the sky), and enneads (as the plural of plural, such as the Enneads of Heliopolis, but sometimes with only seven, or up to fifteen members), dodecads (e.g., goddesses of the night). 59

Other groups are defined by regions, such as the cavern deities known from the “Book of Caverns,” the gate deities from the “Book of Gates,” twelve hour deities of the day or the night, the forty-two judgment deities, the nome deities of Upper and Lower Egypt, the numberless Souls of Nekhen and Pe (associated with the king), or the many star deities. 60

The Egyptians also differentiated “greater” and “smaller” gods. They also had a “king of gods” (since the Old Kingdom), with other gods in various court functions. There were also many divine mothers (e.g., Isis, Nut, Neith, Mut), as well as divine fathers (e.g., Amun, Ptah) in the Amarna age, Aten was considered to be mother and father of all creation. 61

Imaging Egyptian Gods

The ancient Egyptians exploited many creative options to depict their gods, their kings, the dead, spirits, and souls, and they used almost the whole spectrum of visual representations for all their divine entities. These ranged from realistic, fully anthropomorphic or theriomorphic representations to hybrid combinations of body parts from various creatures, and to symbols and objects that sometimes were animated by arms and legs. 62 This playfulness made the ancient Egyptians by far the most productive creators of divine images among the ancient Near Eastern cultures. Their openness to hybrid constructions of gods was unique. In the contemporaneous Near East, where the main gods were often associated with certain animals, the gods were, however, never shown as hybrid creatures. Their images were anthropomorphic, whereas hybrid beings were lesser supernaturals that were often labeled “demons,” “genies,” or “monsters.” Showing their gods in fully human form mirrored the fact that the Near Eastern gods were part of the human social order. 63

In ancient Egypt, in contrast, the ways of imaging divine entities were as manifold and fluid as their characters. Images did not only represent them but were also considered to manifest their actual presence. In the Early Dynastic period, deities were already represented as theriomorphic (e.g., Anubis), anthropomorphic (Min, Ptah), or hybrid (Bat), and by their symbols the Second Dynasty, the basic repertoire of representations was completed by bimorphic deities with a human body and animal head. 64 After that period, Egyptian deities were imaged in anthropomorphic (male, female, children) and zoomorphic (numerous animals) forms, as well as in composite or hybrid forms. They could be further characterized by rather uniform costumes, varied symbols, emblems, and crowns which could be held and carried by many deities, emphasizing their status in the context represented. 65

Egyptian gods were venerated via various animals or symbols, which were seen as their possible manifestations. Not all deities are known in images. Many images and elements were not limited to one specific deity. The many interchangeable attributes were used to create complex visual representations of deities, for example as syncretic fusions. They could also accentuate a deity’s mood in certain contexts (e.g., by switching between representation as a gentle cat or a ferocious lion, in the case of some female deities).

Purely anthropomorphic forms of male deities were used to depict gods who represented the cosmic or geographic spheres, as creator gods (e.g., Amun/Amun-Re, Atum, Ptah), moon (Khonsu), earth (Geb), air (Shu), heaven (Nut), waters (Hapy as the Nile flood, or Nun as the primeval waters), mountains, cities, estates, fertility (Min), deified humans (such as Imhotep), deceased kings and notables, or imported Levantine deities (Baal, Hauron, Reshep). Furthermore, the grotesque-looking Bes has an anthropomorphic but dwarfish appearance. Osiris, as god of the dead, was usually shown with a mummiform body or as the fecundity-bringing “Corn Osiris” with plants sprouting out of his body. There were also various gods venerated as child deities (e.g., Horus). 66 Female deities with mainly anthropomorphic forms are Hathor, Isis, Maat, Mut, Neith, Nephtys, Nut, and Seshat, and also imported Levantine goddesses such as Anat, Astarte, Baalat, and Qadesh. 67

Theriomorphic forms cover almost the whole fauna known in Egypt—mammalian, avian, reptilian, and amphibian species, fish, invertebrates, and insects. Male deities were associated with bulls (Apis), dogs and jackals (Anubis), rams (Khnum), falcons (Horus, Re, Sokar), ibises (Thoth), lions (the king), crocodiles (Sobek), serpents (Apophis, or Yam, the Levantine god of the sea), scarabs (Khepri), or the unknown animal representing Seth female deities were associated with cows (Bat), cats (Bastet), vultures (Nekhbet, Mut), serpents (Meretseger, Wadjet), frogs (Heket), lionesses (Sekhmet), or hippopotamuses (Taweret). 68

Hybrid or bimorphic deities combine human and (usually) animal parts, the head representing the essence of the entity. Composite deities combine different deities or characteristics. As many as a dozen different gods may be combined. Deities were created in the shape of baboon-hawks and hippopotamus-serpents, some of them multiple-headed and -armed. Hippopotamus, crocodile, and lioness were combined for the goddesses Ammut and Taweret. In an illustration to the Litany of Re, the seventy-four shapes of the sun god vary from purely anthropomorphic to purely animal, with many hybrid combinations (e.g., a human body with a scarab or ropes as a head). 69

In rare occasions (at least before the Late Period), some of these creations might look monstrous, though they usually did not behave like that among them were the gods Bes and Thoeris, helpful in childbirth, and the ambivalent Seth-animal, but also creatures of the netherworld that could end the eternal life of the dead. 70

Inanimate objects could also represent deities. Thus, the Amarna-period god Aten was exclusively represented by the sun disc. 71

The same deity could have more than one image or representation: Thoth (baboon, ibis, moon), Amun (ram, goose), Re (falcon, human with falcon head), Hathor (human, cow, woman with cow head, woman with bovine features, pillar with female head and cow ears), or Bastet (a cat when placid, a lioness when angry). Moreover, the same image could represent a variety of deities: the sun (Re, Atum, Khepro, Horakhty, and many others), the cow (Hathor, Nut), or lion/cat (Bastet, Hathor, Sakhmet). All the images were understood not as depictions of a deity but rather as one of many manifestations, an “ideogram,” showing only a part of their essence and nature appropriate to the given context. But there were certain limitations to the possible manifestations thus, Amun never appeared as a moon, tree, or water. The true form of a deity was not representable, not knowable to a living human, and it could only and barely be seen in the beyond, in dreams, or in visions. 72

Interactions between Humans and the Gods

The socio-economic system of ancient Egypt was based on an ideology founded on cooperation among the gods, the dead, and the living, all interested in preserving Maat (“order”) and keeping away eternal darkness. The construction and upkeep of temples and tombs was an important economic engine many resources were invested in maintaining the monuments of the gods, the kings, and the dead. This made Egypt one of the greatest consumers of luxury goods from Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean world. The king was the main provider and mediator between gods and humans. In theory, it was he himself who performed all the cultic services images and texts show him as the main actor in rituals and services all through the country. But in reality—though rarely depicted—priests with various titles and functions did the daily work in his place instead. 73

Gods as well as humans could initiate communication. The results tended to be positive when initiated by man (as through ritual or prayer), but negative when initiated by the supernatural entity (in the form of omens, illness, misfortune, dreams, haunting, or guilty conscience). The Egyptian gods were approached through official cults and festivals, but also through personal prayers and requests. Offerings and rituals were conducted to care for the gods, to acknowledge what they had created, and to put them in a positive mood. 74


From the Early Dynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, temples of gods were usually small and regional the predominant religious installations were the mortuary temples of the Egyptian kings. Of some importance was the temple of Osiris in Abydos (from the Early Dynastic period on), and the temple of Ra (mainly Fifth Dynasty). This changed by the New Kingdom. The temple of Amun in Thebes, by then the main god in Egypt, was rebuilt in stone and gradually enlarged by succeeding kings. Temples for many other gods were built all over the land. 75

The temples of the Egyptian gods were sacred spaces, “heavens on earth,” intersections between the human and divine spheres, and focal points of the presence of deities on earth. Their architecture, images, and texts embedded them in the world and the cosmos. During the flood season, the temples were inundated, and when the water receded, the building with its columns shaped as lotus and papyrus plants emerged like the hill from the primeval ocean. Thus, the temples were regarded as being built on the primeval hills their surrounding wavy walls symbolized the primeval waters and kept people and chaos at bay. A “sacred lake” in the temple provided water and was a reminder of various aspects of cosmogony. 76

The economic system serving the gods, their temples, priests, employees, and worshippers pervaded many areas of the country. The temples were provisional residences and households of the gods, as well as the administrative centers of the Egyptian state, the main nodes of its economic network. They were the main consumers, administrators, employers, producers, and redistributors of a variety of goods needed by the gods and the people working for them. The temples had various landholdings and employees for instance, the temple of Amun at Karnak had more than 60,000 employees in its estates in Northern Egypt alone. Bread and beer were basic components of salaries, so granaries were an important feature of a temple the Ramesseum’s granary could store 226, 328 sacks of grain, enough to feed 3,400 families for one year. Names, titles, and biographies of thousands of persons show that being a priest was not exclusive to a chosen few, but part of the life of many Egyptians, as they did priestly service in rotating shifts, interrupting their usual work for some months. From the New Kingdom on, priestly offices became more professional and even hereditary. 77

Daily Care for the Gods and Their Statues

The Egyptians strived to make the gods’ stay on earth as agreeable as possible. Represented by their main statues, the gods resided and slept in the holy of holies, a chamber with a shrine inside the temple. Most temples had several resident gods. At the core of the rituals were their statues, made of precious materials, which were the most important of the many possible manifestations of the gods. The statues were regarded as transient receptacles, a physical form or double (a ka) for the god or his ba-soul, which seems always to have been present within the statue. This concept allowed for the simultaneous presence of a god at various places. 78 After production, the ritual of the “Opening of the Mouth”—also used to enliven the mummy—enlivened the statue. 79 Unfortunately, no example of a deity’s main cult statue survives. Some were stolen by foreign invaders (notably by the Persians), and some destroyed by the early Christians, but most of them were smelted at some point to recycle the metals they were made of, often gold. According to descriptions, they were made of various precious materials their height was about a meter or more, as deduced from the sizes of the shrines. 80

In daily rituals, the statues/gods were washed, dressed, adorned, censed, and given offerings of food, drink, and gifts heaps of beer, bread, vegetables, and more were left before the cult statues and removed later, before setting up the next offerings. This meal service was performed three times a day, 81 and involved a variety of priests, porters, and craftsmen, who all received wages that consisted of a portion of the offerings. 82

Festivals and Public Appearances of the Gods

The gods and their main images were usually visible and approachable by the common people only during festivals. These festivals often intertwined the realms of the gods, the kings, the dead, and the living, and involved various cultic areas and ritual actions. Hundreds of local and national festivals are known, some well documented from several sites, others known only from brief references. Many festivals included processions, journeys by gods on river barges, and the chance to approach deities with oracular questions on official or private matters (Figure 2). The performances during these festivals made the gods and their deeds tangible and allowed people to draw close to them. 83

Figure 2. Unfinished stela to Amun-Re, New Kingdom, Ramesside, Twentieth Dynasty, c. 1184–1070 bce . Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The festivals during the month of Khoiak were dedicated to Osiris and celebrated throughout the country from the Middle Kingdom to Roman times. The tomb of king Djer (First Dynasty) in Abydos was considered to be the burial site of Osiris. The fight of Osiris against Seth, his murder and resurrection, and the defeat of his foes were reenacted in public, with the king, or a surrogate, playing the role of Horus. Images of Osiris and other deities, boats, sledges, and shrines were made in advance, carried in a procession, and then interred, first and foremost at Abydos, and at other places in Egypt (e.g., in the temple of Karnak, or at Medinet Habu, where hundreds of bronze figurines of Osiris were found). 84

The yearly “Beautiful Feast of the Valley” commemorated the dead and was celebrated only in Thebes it lasted two days. The living visited the dead. Statues of gods and dead kings were paraded. In a procession led by the king, the statue of Amun left his temple in a portable shrine, and crossed the Nile from east to west, from the sphere of the living to the area of the dead. Amun visited the temples of the deceased kings and revived their souls. He spent the night with Hathor in the temple of Deir el Bahari, which became a place for seeking cures and fertility. The procession, with all its smells and noises, enlivened and attracted the dead as well. In order to be close to the festival for eternity, some tomb owners had their tombs and chapels built close to the processional route. 85

The festival of Amunhotep I commemorated this king. As “Amunhotep of the Village” he was important to the people of Deir el-Medina, the village of the builders working on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. During the four days of the festival, the statue of the king left his shrine, a feast was celebrated in the necropolis, the people reflected on and mourned the king’s death, and he visited the Valley of the Kings. As this was an official holiday, the workers received extra rations. The deceased king was consulted by the people for oracles on local disputes, issues of administration such as ownership of land and tombs, appointments of officials, and other matters. 86

Other festivals focused on kingship, such as accession and coronation festivals. The most important was the Sed festival (known since Early Dynastic period), which was celebrated after thirty years of regency, then repeated at intervals of about three years. The festival renewed the king’s life energy and power. Part of the festival involved the king meeting some deities (e.g., Upuaut, Min) for a procession, followed by a procession with divine standards, and the king visiting various sanctuaries. Gods could also celebrate a Sed-festival. 87 Another very important festival was the Opet festival, when Amun together with Mut and Khonsu left his temple at Karnak, toured the Theban sacred region, and visited to the Luxor temple. 88

Personal Piety: Temples, Statues, Stelae, Amulets

During the festivals, individuals had the opportunity to offer food, drink, flowers, or other kinds of gifts to the gods. In addition to such events, there were other places and more personal ways to approach a deity. 89 Shrines and chapels were built close to the sites of festivals, pilgrimage routes, and the ways leading to them (such as along the processional routes to the “tomb of Osiris” in Abydos). Some temple courtyards were open to the people, as at Karnak. “Chapels of the Hearing Ear,” usually on the exterior back wall of a temple, allowed approaching images of gods who listened to a worshipper’s petitions. In villages, shrines were dedicated to deities, as in Deir el-Medina to the goddess Meretseger. 90

Countless votive figurines of all periods are known from houses, temples, and tombs. They are of various shapes and address almost the whole range of Egyptian deities. Figurines offered to Hathor, the cow-shaped goddess of fertility and health, were women, plaques with cows, model ears, eyes, phalluses, beds (sometimes with papyrus-gathering scenes), and more. Amulets represented deities or their symbols and had various, mostly protective, functions: for afterlife (funerary deities), or for fertility and childbirth (frog/Heqet, hippopotamus/Taweret, Bes). Amuletic decrees inscribed on papyrus protected against displeased gods, lurking demons, the stings and bites of animals, traffic accidents, thunderbolts, and collapsing walls. A lifelong protection was an individual’s name, which often included the name of a god. 91

A variety of images were produced to ensure the proximity of the gods (Figure 3). Private stelae and statues were set up in temples, but also in houses, where they allowed private access to the gods at any time. 92 Votive stelae show the pious person standing and/or offering before the gods. Ear-stelae simply show ears used to contact them. Statues and stelae representing gods, kings, or private individuals were either specially commissioned or bought from stock and personalized by engraving the owner’s name. Their shape (e.g., cube-shaped statues forming a flat serving platform statues holding vessels) and inscriptions could remind a passerby that the statues expected offerings, that they expected to be kept clean, and that the owner’s name should be spoken in order for him to live and be remembered forever. The statues were provided for within the temple’s donation cycles. Some statues became, or were intentionally set up to act as intermediaries between worshipers and deities, as in the case of the deified architects Imhotep (serving king Djoser, Third Dynasty), and Amenhotep, son of Hapu (serving Amenhotep III, Eighteenth Dynasty), both of whom were venerated until the Roman period. Hoards of statues were found under the temple floors, illustrating the importance of this statue cult: the “cachette” of Karnak comprised 17,000 votive objects from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period, among them 750 statues of officials, royals, and deities. 93

Figure 3. Offering table with statuette of Sehetepib, Middle Kingdom, late Twelfth Dynasty–early Thirteenth, c. 1850–1775 bce . Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Beyond and the Dead

Human life is limited, but afterlife is eternal. With this in mind, the Egyptians invested much effort and resources in preparing for death and afterlife. In the Naqada I and II periods, connections to and claims on places were made by burials of the dead rather than by houses of the living as David Wengrow writes, “The density of social memory was more vital than the massing of permanent dwellings.” This process was called “the Urbanisation of the Dead.” 94 This longstanding preoccupation with death made ancient Egypt uniquely rich in monuments. Also vivid were the varying descriptions of the beyond, a realm imagined as being populated by many deities and other entities.

Afterlife mirrored daily life, with the difference that the righteous dead were now in the same realm as the gods. In the Old Kingdom, existence in the beyond was being with the sun god in the sky, after the dead had become an Osiris. By the New Kingdom, the beyond was defined by the course of the sun god, rising in the east out of the netherworld in the morning, crossing the sky by day, in the west entering the netherworld, and passing through it by night. The night in the netherworld, like the day, was subdivided into twelve hours, each hour having its specific dangers, and reflecting a stage in the regeneration of the sun god (fighting the eternal danger Apophis, uniting with Osiris, etc.). In each hour, many different deities were active. In the netherworld, the god Osiris was responsible for granting eternal life to the dead. Those who had led a righteous life were allowed to live for eternity in the company of the gods a monster called the Devourer annihilated others. One was righteous when one had led a life according to Maat. This was proven and tested by weighing the heart of the dead against the feather or the statue of Maat (Figure 4). 95 Autobiographical accounts, negative confessions, or images in the tombs or associated buildings bear witness of this righteousness, showing, for instance, the king performing his religious and political duties, or non-royals in their daily work environment. 96

Figure 4. The Singer of Amun Nany’s funerary papyrus, Third Intermediate Period, Twenty-first Dynasty, c. 1050 bce . Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many gods and the akhs of the dead lived in the beyond. Here, everybody’s duty was to secure the course of the sun god, to make him rise every morning. The kings joined the entourage of the sun god in order to protect him from danger, especially from the great serpent Apophis. Non-royal persons participated, according to their position during their lifetime, in caring for the fields in the beyond.

To ensure eternal participation in this afterlife, the Egyptians made many investments. The main investment was the tomb itself, with its decoration, furnishing, and real and symbolic provisions. Next to that came the arrangements made with priests and caretakers for regular offerings. Just as the temples were nodes to represent and care for deities, the tombs were an individual’s node to be represented, remembered, and cared for. It was the eternal home for the dead and for close family members. The tomb and its decoration were customized according to the social status of the owner: for non-royals the decoration showed an ideal everyday life, while for the kings, life in the beyond was close to the gods. The preferred site for a tomb was usually on the western side of the Nile, outside the fertile land toward the desert, close to the setting of the sun god, his entering the netherworld. 97

The body was needed in the afterlife as a vessel for the ba, so special care was taken with it. In the Naqada and Early Dynastic periods, natural mummification was attained by burying the dead in the hot desert sand grave goods such as cosmetic palettes further supported the body’s preservation artificial mummification was practiced beginning in the Old Kingdom. 98 Various deities were associated with the embalming and mummification process, especially the jackal-headed god Anubis, Nephthys, Selket, Neith, and the four sons of Horus (Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, and Kebehsenuef, whose heads served as stoppers for the canopic jars storing the organs of the dead). 99 The body’s capability to be enlivened was attained by the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth, which was also applied to statues. Several protective layers encased the body—sarcophagi, coffins, or masks, which were often covered by texts and images of deities. 100 In addition to stelae (Figure 5), statues of the dead were placed in tombs and temples as “reserve” bodies. 101

Figure 5. Stela of Saiah, Third Intermediate period, Twenty-second Dynasty, c. 825–712 bce . Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Africa, and the Mediterranean

Interactions and mutual influences among Egypt and the various cultures of the Near East and the Mediterranean can be seen beginning in the 4th millennium bce and intensify during the Bronze Age. 102 The openness of the Egyptian polytheistic system allowed for the import of foreign deities. 103 Already in Early Dynastic times, various features for staging the divine king were adopted from the Near East. 104 Some deities mentioned in the Pyramid Texts were probably imported from the Levant (Chaitau) and Nubia (Dedwen). 105 In the Late Bronze Age, deities from the Levant were worshipped in Egypt, including Reshep, Baal, Hauron, Astarte, Anat, and deities responsible for the sea, such as Yam. 106

There is some evidence that Egyptian ideas influenced Near Eastern cultures in the Early Bronze Age. For instance, ideas from Egyptian iconography, divine kingship, and the name of the god Osiris reached Mesopotamia. 107

In the Middle Bronze Age (early 2nd millennium bce ), images of several Egyptian deities were present in the Levant, Syria, and Anatolia. The image of the Egyptian divine king smiting his enemies was adapted in the Levant to show the most important god, the weather god, in a similar pose, holding a lightning bolt. Other images, such as the winged solar disc, the sphinx, and the ankh symbol, became part of the Near Eastern visual repertoire. 108 The growing Egyptian influence on these regions definitely inspired certain ideas and imagery of the Bible and the biblical world. 109

The impact of Egyptian deities abroad continued during the Iron Age. In the Near East and the Mediterranean world, this impact was often filtered and transmitted by Levantine city-states. 110 In Nubia and the Sudan, the Ethiopian kings who ruled Egypt as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty continued the adaptation of Egyptian ideas in areas of religion, mostly via their kingship ideology and representation. 111 Images of Egyptian gods are also known in Assyria, for instance, on ivories for furniture, as magically protected parts of horses’ harnesses, and on protective amulets. 112

In the Ptolemaic period many Egyptian deities became very prominent, and some were equated with Greek deities. In the Roman period, these beliefs spread throughout the Roman Empire, often via the mysteries of Isis and Osiris. 113 Some of the ancient ideas are still echoed in Coptic Christian Egypt. 114

Review of the Literature

In antiquity there were both fascination with and aversion to the animal-shaped ancient Egyptian gods. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century ce ) ridiculed them the Church Fathers passed their dislike on to the modern age. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a more scientific interest in ancient cultures in general led to the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822 , making these texts understandable. Early on, this led to divergent views of ancient Egypt: on the one hand, there was admiration for the early and great accomplishments of the ancient Egyptians, and on the other, bewilderment over their polytheistic, “weird” ideas about religion and the divine. Many debates ensued about whether Egyptian religion was polytheistic only on its surface, but monotheistic at its core. It was suggested, for instance, that Egypt had a primary monotheism that degraded into polytheism, that there was a high god, or that the Egyptian elite was monotheistic whereas polytheism was for the simple people. In the early 20th century, the discussion was enriched by further characterizations of Egyptian religion being pantheistic and/or henotheistic. Later on, and based on the known material and textual evidence, various studies by Egyptologists discussed aspects and conceptions of the ancient Egyptian gods. 115 Though they all made clear that Egyptian religion was polytheistic, the idea that it had some monotheistic tendencies lingered. 116

Erik Hornung’s seminal “The One and the Many” still offers a profound analysis of the Egyptian conception of the gods. It was supported by many of his studies on Egyptian deities, the various Books of Afterlife, and the reception of ancient Egyptian culture in general. 117

Spearheading some of the modern debates in cultural science are the works of Jan Assmann. In addition to his publications on ancient Egyptian topics such as hymns, prayers, theology, and the history of Egyptian religious beliefs in general, he contributed important ideas on collective memory, remembrance, death, ancient Egyptian religion, and its reception. Many of his works discuss the impact of ancient Egypt on the Old Testament, and associated modern reception. Of great interest are his discussions of polytheistic/henotheistic vs. monotheistic systems and views. 118

Rosalie David and Emily Teeter provide modern introductions to Egyptian religion. Both vividly present Egyptian religion and its approach to the gods. 119

Stephen Quirke offers a critical outline of problems in discussing ancient Egyptian religion. First, there is the Western foundation of scientific interest in ancient Egypt, and until today the almost exclusively Western view of a culture that has always been African and Near Eastern. Second, we find an emphasis on written information, and thus often a neglect of other sources such as images or archaeological contexts. Third, he mentions the problems posed by scientific language, the words for names and concepts used to describe phenomena within Egyptian religion, such as names of gods and places we still commonly use the traditional labels coming from classical studies, tagging concepts like “god,” “demon,” and “soul” that are contaminated with Western ideas, instead of using the ancient Egyptian terms, which are more innocuous and less burdened with modern viewpoints. Consequently, Quirke replaces at least some of the traditional “antique” names with the ancient Egyptian ones. He also discusses whether there were differences in the belief systems documented by monuments and texts which were created by and addressed to the elites, and the lesser-known lower social strata who had no access to literacy and costly resources of self-representation. 120

Primary Sources

Egyptian gods are known through texts and images. These two media were often used together, complementing and even interacting with each other. Hieroglyphic texts about deities appear in temples and tombs, but also on coffins, stelae, and statues, often next to representations of deities. The texts on papyri, usually written in the hieratic script, are often complemented by images, which do not simply illustrate the texts but contribute an extended view. The surviving records allow for some insights into how far different social groups and strata were integrated and participated in the mostly state-organized system of the Egyptian gods.

Among the various sources for Egyptian religion—ranging from simple objects to complex texts—there are common threads running through all periods which transmit the most information. The dead were not only supplied, sometimes lavishly, with spacious tombs, grave goods, and offerings, but also with collections of texts, spells, and utterances which would help them to successfully enter and stay in the beyond. Though the names of the various corpora of spells and utterances vary, they stand to some extent in a continuous tradition. Another joint feature is the fact that, for none of these groups, is a complete “master version” known, if such existed. Each burial was supplied with a variety of these utterances: some of them seem important enough to be found regularly, but others only rarely. Their subsumption into one corpus with a continuous numbering is not an ancient Egyptian concept, but a result of modern scientific editorial work.

In the Old Kingdom (from the Fifth Dynasty on), Pyramid Texts were written in hieroglyphs on the walls in the pyramids of the kings they were the sole decoration in these royal tombs. This first large textual corpus on religion is evidence of a very elaborate and complicated system of divine-human interaction. 121 Its analysis shows that the rituals and utterances were very likely also part of the burial customs of non-royal persons—that they were not exclusive to kings. Therefore, the often-expressed idea that there was a democratization process, a trickling down of funerary texts and rituals from the royals to the elites between the Old and the Middle Kingdom, cannot be sustained. 122 In the Middle Kingdom, the Coffin Texts adopted and developed the spells of the Pyramid Texts. They are found in non-royal contexts and were written not only on coffins but also on papyri, tomb walls, and various other objects within the burial. 123

In the New Kingdom, the tradition of providing the dead with useful spells and descriptions for the beyond continued in several text groups. The foremost are (The Book of) Going Forth by Day (sometimes called the Book of the Dead), and (The Book of) That Which is in the Underworld (also called Amduat see Figure 1). The utterances in these collections are often accompanied by illustrations. It was common to supply the dead with scrolls of papyrus containing these texts and images. Of course, style and quality of execution could vary.

In royal burials such texts were also written and drawn on the walls of the tombs. 124 Other compositions include the Book of Caves, the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, the Book of the Earth, the Book of Nut, the Book of the Day, the Book of the Night, and the Book of the Heavenly Cow. 125 From the New Kingdom, we also have plenty of texts and images on the walls of burials, temples of the gods, mortuary temples of the kings, chapels, statues, sarcophagi and coffins, scarabs, papyri, and many more objects, which provide information about Egyptian gods, their daily interactions with humans, and their position in the universe. An abundance of epigraphic and archaeological materials is known from the Greco-Roman period. 126 Publications of many of these groups have often been grand-scale, longtime projects, of which many still are works in progress. 127

Egyptian Mythology

While the best-known myths of Eros depict the son of Aphrodite as a fertility god — the version that proved inspirational to the popularized Roman god Cupid — later Greek myths portrayed Eros as one of several winged erotes, and the one regarded as a protector of homosexual culture, according to research in the scholarly book Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World.

The Egyptian goddess, also worshipped by Greeks, is known for solving a gender identity issue of yore. Iphis was born female but raised male by his mother, who concealed the truth because her husband wanted a male heir. Ultimately, Iphis fell in love with Ianthe, a woman, and was betrothed to her. Before the wedding, Iphis prayed in the Temple of Isis for a solution, and voila! she became a he. As noted on Owlcation, this may have been a heterosexual ending, but the love story was laced with LGBT themes. Above: Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek heroine Io as she is borne into Egypt on the shoulders of the personified Nile, as depicted in a Roman wall painting from Pompeii.

While the level of tolerance for LGBT people in ancient Egypt remains subject to debate, the truth can be found in the ostraca. Mythology depicted in hieroglyphics and history revealed on pyramid walls confirms same-sex relationships existed within the culture and lore along the Nile. Many scholars today suggest that while all matters of sex were treated as somewhat taboo, intolerance of homosexuality seemed such a foreign concept that no records show the practice as forbidden. In addition, several intersex figures were not only recorded but celebrated. Here is a review of their stories as well as the other Egyptian deities who fall within the LGBT spectrum.

The storm god associated with many natural disasters, Seth was among the more colorful figures in the Egyptian pantheon. Researcher Mark Brustman says Seth, while married to his sister Nephthys, is depicted as engaging in sexual activities with other male deities such as Horus. Seth is also described as having impotent testicles, and he never had a child. This may not be a sign of great tolerance in the culture Seth was cast in a terribly negative light in many stories. And while his childbearing siblings Osiris and Isis represent life, he represents the desert. This may indicate a certain negative sentiment about gay identity. But many stories show that while Seth could be called a villainous figure, his homosexuality was not what made him so.

Many tales about Seth focus on his envy of his nephew Horus, the child of Isis and Orisis. In one tale documented well in Richard Parkinson’s Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, Horus is either raped or seduced into a sexual encounter. Seth intends to embarrass Horus by showing others Horus was the receptive partner in the act. But Horus gets the upper hand, because he secretly captured Seth’s semen, then had his mother Isis feed it back to Seth in his lettuce. When the semen is called forth by Seth in an attempt to humiliate Horus, it comes from Seth instead. Interestingly, the tale shows that ancient Egyptian culture didn’t look down on homosexuality — something heroic Horus engaged in himself — so much as it held being subjugated in low esteem.

23. Antinous

This resurrection figure holds ties to ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Antinous was a real historical figure and the male companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The pair would take journeys around the Mediterranean. And on one trip, Antinous drowned in the Nile on the same day that Egyptians commemorated the watery death of Osiris. Deeply affected by the death of his lover, Hadrian encouraged the deification of Antinous, and cults sprung up around the Mediterranean honoring him. In some tellings, Antinous rose from the Nile after his death and was then revered as a form of Osiris reborn. Indeed, the god and the Roman cult that followed him still have devotees today.

In the creation story for the Egyptian gods, the first deity, Atum, was both male and female, according to studies by researcher Mark Burstman. The ancestor to all self-produced two offspring, Shu and Tefnut, through either a sneeze or his own semen, and it wasn’t for a few generations that the archetypal male and female gods of Isis and Osiris were born.

25. Nephthys

While there are fewer tales in Egyptian history and mythology about female than male homosexuality, many considered the goddess Nephthys to be a lesbian. The sister and constant companion of Isis, she married brother Seth but bore him no children. Scholars have debated whether the stories of Nephthys, who did bear one son by Osiris, show that the culture held lesbians in greater esteem than gay men, because they could still be fertile despite their sexual orientation. Then again, others express skepticism about her lesbianism altogether.

Isis was among the few goddesses worshipped both by the Egyptians and their Mediterranean neighbors in Greece. The mother goddess and a protector of children, she also cared for society’s downtrodden, which may be why gay priests in ancient Egypt worshipped the deity. In one tale documented at Isiopolis, Isis appeared in a dream accompanied by an Egyptian retinue to calm the pregnant Telethusa, who feared she would deliver a girl against her husband’s wishes. Isis told the mother to carry the child, Iphis, who was born a girl but raised as a boy. Later in life, Iphis called on Isis to change his gender to male, an ancient gender affirmation granted by divine means.

While the sun god Ra in most mythological accounts was regarded as the father to the major gods, Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge wrote of clear indications of a double-gender nature to the deity. As early as the fifth dynasty, Budge wrote of Ra’s female counterpart Rat, who was considered the mother of the gods.

28. Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

The clearest evidence that bisexuality was acceptable in ancient Egypt may be the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men laid to rest in the necropolis of Saqqara. Hieroglyphics indicate that the men were married with children but also show them in intimate embrace. The two men apparently worked as overseers to manicurists in the palace of King Nuiserre. There is some scholarly debate as to whether the men were brothers, but virtually all depictions of the pair show a commitment that looks far more than fraternal.

29. Hatshepsut

The first documented transgender figure in history may have been the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut. Deidra Ramsey McIntyre of Red Ibis Publishing notes that unlike other female Egyptian rulers, Hatshepsut was always depicted in ancient art wearing men’s clothing, and she frequently was drawn with a male body. Her descendent Thutmose III would later try to eradicate nearly all historic reference to her.

30. Neferkare and Sasenet

The Egyptian King Neferkare, who many scholars believe rose to become Pharoah Pepi II, would make conspicuous midnight visits to his favorite general, Sasenet, according to tales dating to the era of the Middle Kingdom. According to German scholars Gunter Burkard and Heinz Thissen, some ancient texts state Neferkare would do to the military leader “what his majesty desired,” a phrase they interpret as clear innuendo of sexual congress.

Hapi, the god of the Nile, is depicted in hieroglyphics as an intersex person with a ceremonial false beard and breasts. While generally referred to as male, the god also was also considered a symbol of fertility. According to Richard Parkinson’s Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, the deity was portrayed to suggest both male and female reproductive power, a topic that has incited debate among scholars.

Another male god widely associated with fertility was Wadj-Wer, a deity depicted at a pyramid site in Abusir. Sometimes referred to as the "pregnant god," Wadj-Wer held the same type of station as river gods in Greek mythology, representing the Mediterranean Sea in some accounts or rivers and lagoons of the northern Nile Delta in others. An association with water seems the greatest distinguishing feature separating iconography of Wadj-Wer from that of Hapi.

33. Shai/Renenutet

The Egyptian god of fate Shai sometimes was depicted in male form,and other times presented as the female Shait. Related to both birth in the world and rebirth in the afterlife, Shai was born with each individual, constantly starting life anew but also an immortal god, according to ancient Egyptian belief. Wallis Budge suggests the deity was viewed in parts of Egypt as combining the facets of a male Shai, decreeing what should happen to man, and a female Renenutet, the goddess of good fortune. “Subsequently no distinction was made between these deities and the abstract ideas which they represented,” Budge wrote in The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Religion and gods in ancient Egypt

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Throughout Egypt's history beliefs and practices were constantly changing though the themes of fertility, rebirth, death and resurrection generally remained constant. The ancient Egyptians had a tendency to merge new beliefs with the old ones rather than simply replace them. This tendency has made it difficult for modern scholars to fully understand the ancient beliefs and, although much is known, there is still much that remains a mystery.

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We know of hundreds of gods and goddesses worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as their names, personalities and appearances have survived in the artwork the civilisation left behind. Many of these had the same or similar roles. This is due to both the complex nature of the religion and the political organisation of the state.

Local areas had local gods, with each city or region often having their own deities that they worshipped. If a city came to prominence under a ruler or powerful official, then the local gods rose alongside them. These became ‘state’ gods, worshipped by the wealthy and elite in the temples. However, the general population continued to worship their local gods as well. Some gods, therefore, were preferred by certain classes of people, some were only worshipped in certain areas, and others prominent only in certain periods. In later times, different deities were frequently combined or merged.

Osiris, chief god of the dead and the afterlife, is usually depicted as a mummy-shaped human wearing the atef crown (a white crown flanked by ostrich feathers) and holding a crook and a flail (signs of kingship and justice) Occasionally, Osiris' skin is green or black, a reference to his aspects of vegetation and fertile earth.

Anubis was the jackal-headed god of embalming and mummification and the patron god of embalmers. He was also a guardian of the dead and a guide through the underworld.

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Neith was the mother of the sun god Re and a goddess of hunting and warfare.

The dwarf Bes was a popular household god and mainly responsible for protecting the family and ensuring a safe childbirth in particular. Artists often depicted him facing forward, rather than in profile.

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Sakhmet was goddess of war, destruction and misfortune. The name is derived from the ancient Egyptian word sekhem, meaning ‘powerful’. She is an aggressive deity who is usually depicted as a lion-headed figure.

The cat-headed goddess Bastet was the gentle counterpart to the lion-headed Sakhmet. She was protector of the home and pregnant women and was also linked to worship of the moon.

Horus, the falcon-headed sky god, was the son of Osiris and Isis and the embodiment of divine kingship. His eye, or udjat (sometimes spelt wedjat), was a powerful protective amulet. Rulers of Egypt were considered to be earthly representations of Horus so many falcon statues and images bear the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

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Human-headed Imsety, a son of Horus, was the protector of the liver.

Baboon-headed Hapy, a son of Horus, was the guardian of the lungs.

Falcon-headed Qebehsenuef, a son of Horus, protector of the intestines.

Jackal-headed Duamutef, a son of Horus, keeper of the stomach.

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Duamutef was one of the four sons of Horus, guardians of the deceased king’s organs. This jackal-headed god protected the king’s stomach and shielded him from harm in the Netherworld. The ancient Egyptians feared death and decay and protected the deceased by removing the organs and mummifying the body.

Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy
© Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy

Thoth, a moon-god, was the god of wisdom, maker of laws and chief scribe to the gods. He was also a guide and helper to the spirits of dead people travelling in the underworld. Artists depicted him as an ibis, a baboon or a man with the head of either of these animals.

Isis was the wife-sister of Osiris and a powerful goddess of protection.

Nephthys was the sister of Isis and Osiris and a protector of the dead.

Artume was the Etruscan goddess of the night and Shalim was the Canaanite god of dusk. In Arabian mythology, Al-Qaum was the Nabatean god of the night and of war, but also seen as a protector of caravans.

Ahriman is the Iranic god of darkness, night, and evil. In Lithuania, Breksta was the goddess of twilight and dreams who protects humans from sunset to sunrise. The Zorya were two guardian goddesses related to the morning and evening stars in Slavic mythology. In Maori mythology, Hine-nui-te-pō, the ruler of the underworld, is also the goddess of the night and of death.

As it can be seen, darkness was often, but not always, associated with evil. There have been many cases in mythology when “dark” deities were simply a personification of the primordial darkness which existed even before the appearance of the world.

Top image: The Ancient of Days (William Blake, 1794). Photo Source: ( Public Domain )

Watch the video: Die 10 wichtigsten Götter des antiken Ägyptens


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    I think this is a wonderful thought.

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