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Ancient Egyptian religion encompasses the beliefs and rituals of Ancient Egypt. It was followed for over three thousand years until the establishment of Coptic Christianity and Islam.

Gods

Early beliefs can be split into 5 distinct localized groups:

  • the Ennead of Heliopolis, where the chief god was Atum-Re
  • the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, where the chief god was Ra
  • the Chnum-Satet-Anuket triad of Elephantine, where the chief god was Chnum
  • the Amun-Mut-Chons triad of Thebes, where the chief god was Amun
  • the Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem triad of Memphis, unusual in that the gods were unconnected before the triad was formalized, where the chief god was Ptah.

Throughout the vast and complex history of Egypt, the dominant beliefs of the ancient Egyptians merged and developed as leaders of different groups gained power. This process continued even after the end of the Ancient Egyptian civilization as we know it today. As an example, during the New Kingdom Ra and Amun became Amun-Ra. This "merging" into a single god is typically referred to as syncretism. Syncretism should be distinguished from mere groupings, also referred to as "families" such as Amun, Mut and Khonsu, where no "merging" takes place. Over time, deities took part in multiple syncretic relationships, for instance, the combination of Ra and Horus into Ra-Herakty. However, even when taking part in such a syncretic relationship, the original deities did not become completely "absorbed" into the combined deity, although the individuality of the one was often greatly weakened. Also, these syncretic relationships sometimes involved more than just two deities, for instance, Ptah, Seker and Osiris, becoming Ptah-Seker-Osiris. The goddesses followed a similar pattern. Also important to keep in mind is that sometimes the attributes of one deity got closely associated with another, without any "formal" syncretism taking place. For instance, the loose association of Hathor with Isis.

An interesting aspect of ancient Egyptian religion is that deities sometimes played different conflicting roles. As an example, the lioness Sekhmet being sent out by Ra to devour the humans for having rebelled against him, but later on becoming a fierce protectress of the kingdom, life in general and the sick. Even more complex is the roles of Set. Judging the mythology of Set from a modern perspective, especially the mythology surrounding Set's relationship with Osiris, it is easy to cast Set as the arch villain and source of evil. This is wrong, however, as Set was earlier playing the role of destroyer of Apep, in the service of Ra on his barge, and thus serving to uphold Ma'at (Truth, Justice and Harmony).

Given the diverse tapestry of religious history in ancient Egypt, it comes as no surprise that many different forms of theism evolved. Although mainly henotheistic in nature, at some point even monotheism, as introduced by Akhenaton thrived. What is important to realize is that it is very dangerous to try and cast the religion of the ancient Egyptians in any particular theistic form. Even more dangerous to claim is that, towards the end of the Egyptian civilization, a drive toward monotheism was taking place. The evidence of the time (Greaco-Roman period) seems counter to this belief: although syncretism was still taking place (sometimes and more frequently between Egyptian and non-Egyptian deities), many deities were still revered and served. As an example the following which Thoth enjoyed during these later periods. This is quite evident when one simply looks at the vast number of mummified Ibis birds offered to him. Also, the belief in Egyptian deities was spreading to countries other than Egypt. For instance the Roman belief in, and following of Isis.<b/>

The Egyptians believed that in the beginning, the universe was filled with the dark waters of chaos. The first god, Re-Atum, appeared from the water as the land of Egypt appears every year out of the flood waters of the Nile. <b/>Re-Atum spat and out of the spittle came out the gods Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). The world was created when Shu and Tefnut gave birth to two children: Nut (sky) & Geb (the Earth). Humans were created when Shu and Tefnut went wandering in the dark wastes and got lost. Re-Atum sent his eye to find them. On reuniting, his tears of joy turned into people.

Geb and Nut copulated, and upon Shu's learning of his children's fornication, he separated the two, effectively becoming the air between the sky and ground. He also decreed that the pregnant Nut should not give birth any day of the year. Nut pleaded with Thoth, who on her behalf gambled with the moon-god Yah and won five more days to be added onto the then 360-day year. Nut had one child on each of these days: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus-the-Elder.

Osiris, by different accounts, was either the son of Re-Atum or Geb, and king of Egypt. His brother Set represented evil in the universe. He murdered Osiris and himself became the king. After killing Osiris Set tore his body into pieces, but Isis rescued most of the pieces for burial beneath the temple. Set made himself king but was challenged by Osiris's son - Horus. Set lost and was sent to the desert. He became the God of terrible storms. Osiris was mummified by Anubis and became God of the dead. Horus became the King and from him descended the Pharaohs.

Another version is when Set made a chest which only Osiris could fit into. He then invited Osiris to a feast. Set made a bet that no one could fit into the chest. Osiris was the last one to step into the chest, but before he did Set asked if he could hold Osiris's crown. Osiris agreed and stepped into the chest. As he lay down, Set slammed the lid shut and put the crown on his head. He then set the chest afloat on the Nile. Isis did not know of her husband's death until the wind told her. She then placed her son in a safe place and cast a spell so no one could find him. When she searched for a husband, a child told her a chest had washed up on the bank and a tree had grown up. The tree was so straight the king had used it for the central pillar. Isis went and asked for her husband's body and it was given to her. The god of the underworld told her that Osiris would be a king, but only in the underworld.

Death

Egypt had a highly developed view of the afterlife with elaborate rituals for preparing the body and soul for a peaceful life after death. Beliefs about the soul and afterlife focused heavily on preservation of the body, or ba (The soul was known as the ka). This meant that embalming and mummification were practiced, in order to preserve the individual's identity in the afterlife. Originally the dead were buried in reed caskets in the searing hot[sand, which caused the remains to dry quickly, preventing decomposition, and were subsequently buried. Later, they started constructing wooden tombs, and the extensive process of mummification was developed by the Egyptians around the 4th Dynasty. All soft tissues were removed, and the cavities washed and packed with natron, then the exterior body was buried in natron as well. Since it was a stoneable offence to harm the body of the Pharaoh, even after death, the person who made the cut in the abdomen with a rock knife was ceremonially chased away and had rocks thrown at him.

After coming out of the natron, the bodies were coated inside and out with resin to preserve them, then wrapped with linen bandages, embedded with religious amulets and talismans. In the case of royalty, this was usually then placed inside a series of nested coffins the outermost of which was a stone sarcophagus. The intestines, lungs, liver and the stomach were preserved separately and stored in canopic jars protected by the Four sons of Horus. Other creatures were also mummified, sometimes thought to be pets of Egyptian families, but more frequently or more likely they were the representations of the Gods. The ibis, crocodile, cats, Nile perch and baboon can be found in perfect mummified forms.

The Book of the Dead was a series of almost two hundred spells represented as sectional texts, songs and pictures written on papyrus, individually customized for the deceased, which were buried along with the dead in order to ease their passage into the underworld. In some tombs, the Book of the Dead has also been found painted on the walls, although the practice of painting on the tomb walls appears to predate the formalization of the Book of the Dead as a bound text. One of the best examples of the Book of the Dead is The Papyrus of Ani, created around 1240 BCE, which, in addition to the texts themselves, also contains many pictures of Ani and his wife on their journey through the land of the dead.

In later belief, the soul of the deceased is led into a hall of judgement in Duat by Anubis (god of mummification) and the deceased's heart, which was the record of the morality of the owner, is weighed against a single feather representing Ma'at (the concept of truth, and order). If the outcome is favorable, the deceased is taken to Osiris, god of the afterlife, in Aaru, but the demon Ammit (Eater of Hearts) – part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus – destroys those hearts whom the verdict is against, leaving the owner to remain in Duat. [1]. A heart that weighed less than the feather was considered a pure heart, not weighed down by the guilt or sins of one's actions in life, resulting in a favorable verdict; a heart heavy with guilt and sin from one's life weighed more than the feather, and so the heart would be eaten by Ammit.

The monotheistic period

Aten disk

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family praying to Aten.

A short interval of monotheism (Atenism) occurred under the reign of Akhenaten, focused on the Egyptian sun deity Aten. Akhenaten outlawed the worship of any other god and built a new capital (Amarna) with temples for Aten. The religious change survived only until the death of Akhenaten, and the old religion was quickly restored during the reign of Tutankhamun, most likely Akhenaten's son by a minor wife. Interestingly, Tutankhamun and several other post-restoration Pharaohs were excluded from future king lists, as well as the heretics Akhenaten and Smenkhkare.

While most historians regard this period as monotheistic, some researchers do not regard Atenism as such. They state that people did not worship Aten, but worshipped the royal family as a pantheon of gods who received their divine power from the Aten. That point of view is largely dismissed by the historical community. Some researchers go as far as to suggest that Akhenaten or some of his viziers were the Biblical Moses or Joseph; the Egyptological community dismisses these claims as unscholarly, since none of the theories are based on proper research, and the well-documented worship of Aten has nothing in common with the religion of Moses.

According to John Tuthill, a professor at the University of Guam, Akhenaten's reasons for his religious reform were political. By the time of Akhenaten's reign, the god Amen had risen to such a high status that the priests of Amen had become even more wealthy and powerful than the pharaohs. However, it may be that Akhenaten was influenced by his family members, particularly his wife or mother (Dunham, 1963, p. 4; Mertz, 1966, p. 269). There was a certain trend in Akhenaten's family towards sun-worship. Towards the end of the reign of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep III, the Aten was depicted increasingly often. Some historians have suggested that the same religious revolution would have happened even if Akhenaten had never become pharaoh at all. However, considering the violent reaction that followed shortly after Akhenaten's untimely death, this seems improbable. The reasons for Akhenaten's revolution still remain a mystery. Until further evidence can be uncovered, it will be impossible to know just what motivated his unusual behavior.

After the fall of the Amarna dynasty, the original Egyptian pantheon survived more or less as the dominant faith, until the establishment of Coptic Christianity and later Islam, even though the Egyptians continued to have relations with the other monotheistic cultures (e.g. Hebrews). Egyptian mythology put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity, sometimes explained by claiming that Jesus was originally a syncretism based predominantly on Horus, with Isis and her worship becoming Mary and veneration.

 

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