Bordered by deserts, Egypt's Nile River valley was relatively isolated from other centers of civilization in the ancient Near East for thousands of years. As a result, Egyptian religion remained almost untouched by the beliefs of foreign cultures. The religion included a large and diverse pantheon of gods and goddesses, and around these deities arose a rich mythology that helped explain the world.
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture deity god or goddess
Conquest by the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great in 332 B . C . and by the Romans about 300 years later weakened the Egyptian religion. By about A . D . 400, Christianity had become the dominant faith of the land.
Cults and Deities
Religion and religious cults played a central role in all aspects of ancient Egyptian society. The king, or pharaoh, was the most important figure in religion as well as in the state. His responsibilities included ensuring the prosperity and security of the state through his relationship with the gods.
Role of the King. The ancient Egyptians believed that the king was a divine link between humans and the gods. As a living god, he was responsible for supporting religious cults and for building and maintaining temples to the gods. Through such activities, he helped maintain order and harmony.
The idea of order, or ma'at, was a basic concept in Egyptian belief, reflecting such notions as truth, cooperation, and justice. Egyptians imagined their world as being surrounded by chaos that constantly threatened to overwhelm ma'at. By pleasing the gods through his religious obligations, the king could maintain order and protect society from disorder.
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
chaos great disorder or confusion
Because of his critical role in promoting the welfare of Egyptian society, the pharaoh was in some ways more important than any individual god. His official names and titles reflected his special relationship to the gods, particularly to the sun god Ra and the sky god Horus. Some kings sought to gain full status as gods during their lifetimes. Others achieved that position after their deaths.
The Egyptian Pantheon. Ancient Egypt had a remarkably large and diverse pantheon of deities, with many national, regional, and local gods and goddesses. Unlike the gods of some cultures, who lived in a special place in the heavens, Egyptian deities were thought to inhabit the temples of their cults. Daily temple rituals involved caring for the gods and providing them with food, clothing, and other necessities.
Egyptian gods tended to have shifting identities. Many did not have clearly defined characters, and their personalities might vary from one myth to another. Although most deities were known by certain basic associations—such as the connection of the god Ra with the sun—these associations often overlapped with those of other gods. Some deities possessed a collection of names to go with the different sides of their personality. For example, the goddess Hathor, who helped the sun god, was also called the Eye of Ra. Sometimes the names and characters of two or more gods were combined to form one deity, such as the combination of the sky god Amun and Ra (Re) into Amun-Ra. The creator god Atum merged with Ra to become Ra-Atum. Nevertheless, such deities might continue to exist separately as well as in their combined forms.
Egyptian gods also could assume different forms, often combining both human and animal features. If a deity was closely associated with a particular animal or bird, he or she might be shown in art with a human body and the head of that animal or entirely in animal form. Thus, Horus appears with the head of a falcon, Sekhmet with the head of a cat, and Set is portrayed as a donkey or huge dog. Sometimes a god was linked to several animals, each reflecting a different side of his character.
The gods were powerful and for the most part immortal, but their influence and knowledge had limits. Still, they had the ability to be in several places at the same time and could affect humans in many ways. Although generally benevolent, gods could bring misfortune and harm if humans failed to please them or care for them properly.
Egyptian deities were often grouped together in various ways. The earliest grouping was the ennead, which consisted of nine gods and goddesses. The most important of these, the Great Ennead of the city of Heliopolis in northern Egypt, contained the deities associated with creation, death, and rebirth. Another major grouping was the ogdoad —four pairs of male and female deities. Triads, found mainly in local centers, generally consisted of a god, a goddess, and a young deity (often male).
Most Egyptian religious cults centered on a temple and the daily rituals performed there. Each temple contained images of the cult's god, generally kept in the innermost part of the building. Daily ceremonies involved clothing, feeding, and praising the god's image. The pharaoh had overall responsibility for all cults, but the temple priests supervised the daily rituals. Although temple rituals affected the welfare of all the people, common Egyptians rarely took part in them. They attended only special festivals, which often included processions of the god's images and reenactments of popular myths.
immortal able to live forever
benevolent desiring good for others
Major Deities. Although Egypt had thousands of gods and goddesses, only a few were regarded as major deities. The sun god Ra (Re) was a deity of immense power, considered to be one of the creators of the universe. The combined god Amun-Ra, a mysterious creator spirit, was the source of all life. Ra-Atum represented the evening sun that disappeared each night below the horizon and rose again at dawn. Another sun god, Aten, became the focus of religious reform in the 1300s B . C ., when the pharaoh Akhenaten tried to make him the principal god of Egypt.
Osiris, Isis, and Horus, who made up the best-known Egyptian triad of deities, played leading roles in some of the major Egyptian myths. Osiris, the lord of the underworld and god of death and resurrection, was the brother and husband of Isis, a mother goddess of Egypt. Horus was their son. Osiris and Isis were the children of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Set, another child of Geb and Nut, changed from a benevolent god to an evil one and murdered his brother Osiris.
One of the oldest goddesses of Egypt was the sky goddess Hathor, a mother goddess sometimes known as a deity of fertility, love, and beauty. Ptah, another ancient deity, was credited in some myths with creating the world and other gods. Thoth, a patron of wisdom and arts, was the scribe of the gods. He was said to have invented hieroglyphics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, as well as to have written the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Anubis, a god of the dead, presided over funerals and guided dead souls through the underworld.
Major Myths and Themes
Very few actual Egyptian myths have been preserved from ancient times. Modern scholars have reconstructed stories from such sources as hymns, ritual texts, magical incantations, images on temple walls, and decorations on tombs and coffins. Some myths about major deities were known and valued throughout Egypt. But many gods and the legends about them had only regional significance. Even the widespread myths often changed or adapted to new situations over the centuries, resulting in numerous variations of a particular story.
Creation Myths. The Egyptian creation myth has many versions. According to one account, the world was originally a dark, endless chaos of primeval waters. The forces of chaos were represented by an ogdoad consisting of four pairs of deities: Nun and Naunet, the god and goddess of the primeval waters; Kek and Ketet, the forces of darkness; Heh and Hehet, the spirits of boundlessness; and Amun and Amaunet, the invisible powers. In some versions of the myth, the god Ptah is associated with Nun and plays a central role in creation.
triad group of three
resurrection coming to life again; rising from the dead
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
scribe secretary or writer
hieroglyphics ancient system of writing based on pictorial characters
underworld land of the dead
incantation chant, often part of a magical formula or spell
primeval from the earliest times
Within the waters of chaos, the spirit of creation waited to take form. When a primeval mound rose above the waters, Amun (or Ra) emerged and used divine powers to establish order ( ma'at ) out of the chaos. The spirit of creation (Amun or Ra—or sometimes Ptah) then made other gods and humans to inhabit the world. Some accounts say that the gods were formed from the sweat of the creator spirit and that humans came from his tears.
Another part of the Egyptian creation myth concerned the formation of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis. The first of these nine gods was Ra-Atum, who emerged from the primeval waters and created Shu, the god of air, and Tefnet, the goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefnet united to produce the earth god Geb and sky goddess Nut. Geb and Nut stayed very close together, leaving no room for anything to exist between them. Finally Shu separated the two, providing space for other creatures. Geb and Nut eventually had two pairs of male-female twins: Osiris and Isis and Set and Nephthys. The birth of these gods and goddesses completed the ennead.
Other entries related to Egyptian mythology are listed at the end of this article.
Solar Myths. Another group of Egyptian myths involved the sun gods and the daily cycle of their movement. According to one story, the sun god was born each day at dawn and crossed the sky
|Amun||supreme god, combined with the sun god Ra to form a new deity called Amun-Ra, who was king of the gods and creator of the universe|
|Anubis||god of the dead|
|Aten||personification of the sun and later an all-powerful and creator god under the pharaoh Akhenaten|
|Atum||god of the sun and creation|
|Geb||god of the earth|
|Hathor||mother goddess associated with fertility and love, goddess of the sky|
|Horus||sun god and sky god, ruler of Egypt, identified with the pharaoh|
|Nut||goddess of the sky and mother goddess|
|Osiris||god of the underworld and judge of the dead|
|Ptah||creator god, patron of sculpting and metalworking|
|Ra (Re)||sun god, combined with the supreme god Amun to form a new deity called Amun-Ra, who was king of the gods and creator of the universe|
|Set||god of violent and chaotic forces|
|Thoth||god of wisdom and knowledge, patron of scribes|
in a boat filled with other gods and spirits. At nightfall, he descended to the underworld, where he traveled throughout the night, only to be born again the next day. During his passage through the sky and the underworld, the sun god faced dangers from a giant snake named Apep (or Apophis) and other enemies who tried to interrupt his journey.
The Egyptians celebrated the sun's cycle daily in temples and sang hymns and incantations to help ensure that the sun god would escape danger and continue his journey They believed that the movements of the sun god made it possible for the world to be created anew each day.
Myths of Osiris. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was one of the most important pharaohs. In time, his cult rivaled those of Ra and Amun, and myths about Osiris were widespread. Most of the stories involve three basic themes: the struggle between good and evil, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and the judgment of the dead.
As pharaoh, Osiris civilized the Egyptian people by introducing agriculture, establishing laws, and teaching them to worship the gods. Osiris decided to travel around in the world to bring civilization to other peoples. During his absence, he left his sister-wife, Isis, in charge.
Myth and Magic
Magic played an important role in Egyptian religion, often providing a way to avoid or control misfortune. Magical spells might include versions of myths. All gods had secret, divine names that carried magical powers. One spell told the story of how Isis discovered the secret name of Ra, which she then used to increase her own magical skills. Many spells were used to treat the bites of snakes and scorpions, generally regarded as symbols of the forces of chaos. The god Thoth, a patron of wisdom, was closely connected with magic.
By the time Osiris returned to Egypt, his evil brother Set had concocted a plot to kill him. Set had crafts workers build a beautifully decorated box to the measurements of Osiris's body. At a lavish banquet, Set displayed the box and announced that he would give it to the person whose body fit in it exactly. When Osiris lay in the box, Set and his supporters closed the top and nailed it shut. Then they carried the box to the Nile River and threw it in the water.
When Isis heard of Set's treachery, she was overcome with grief and set out to find her husband's body. During the course of her travels, she learned that the box had floated to the shores of the land of Byblos and had become trapped in the branches of a tree. The tree had grown to a great size, and the king of Byblos had cut it down to make a pillar for one of the rooms in his palace.
Isis went to Byblos and recovered the box. Then she brought it back to Egypt and hid it. However, Set discovered the box and cut Osiris's body into many pieces, scattering them all over Egypt. Accompanied by her son Horus and sister Nephthys, Isis gathered the pieces and used her magical powers to bring the dead Osiris back to life. Osiris then became the king of the gods and the underworld.
To avenge his father and to punish Set for his evil deeds against Osiris, Horus fought his uncle three times. Their battles represented a struggle between good and evil. Horus won each battle, and in the end, the gods decided that he was the rightful heir to the thrones of both Upper and Lower Egypt. Set was forced to accept this judgment. With Horus as pharaoh, Isis went to live with Osiris in the underworld, where he ruled as lord of the dead.
The underworld and the idea of the afterlife played a central role in Egyptian religion. When humans died, their souls began a difficult journey through the underworld. Spells and incantations helped them on their way, and these eventually were collected in a group of texts known as the Book of the Dead.
When the dead person's soul reached Osiris's throne room, it was placed on a scale balanced by a white feather symbolizing truth. Osiris, assisted by Horus, Anubis, and Thoth, sat in judgment. Individuals found innocent of various sins could live among the gods until their bodies were one day resurrected and reunited with the soul. Those found guilty were condemned to eternal torment.
Legacy of Egyptian Mythology
The influence of Egyptian mythology and religion extended beyond the kingdom's borders. The ancient Greeks and Romans adopted some of Egypt's gods and myths, suitably modified to fit their cultures. Egyptian cults, particularly that of Isis, also spread to Greece and Rome. In his book The Golden Ass, Roman philosopher Lucius Apuleius mentions festivals of Isis, and the Roman historian Plutarch wrote down one of the most complete versions of the myth of Osiris and Isis.
In Egyptian mythology, goddesses were sometimes much mor e powerful than gods. Whe n angered, they could cause warfare and destroy those wh o crossed them. Amon g the most powerful and terrifying goddesses were Neith and Sekhmet. Neith, associated wit h hunting and warfare, gave birth to the giant snake Apep when she spat into the primeval waters. During the struggle between Horus and Set, she threatened to make the sky fall if the other gods did not take her advice for resolving the dispute. Sekhmet, portrayed as a terrifying lioness, was killed by rebellious humans during the early years after creation. The Egyptians sometimes sacrificed criminals to her, and it was thought that she used contagious diseases as her messengers.
Egyptian mythology has inspired modern writers, artists, and composers as well. The novel The Egyptian (1949) by Finnish author Mika Waltari refers to the supremacy of Aten over other gods. The opera Aida (1869) by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi is set in ancient Egypt and mentions the god Ptah.