Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Religion

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Gods


For the Egyptians, the gods represented the powers of nature conceived as personalized beings. They helped to explain the world, how it came into existence, why it continued to exist, and why events occurred as they did. The Egyptian gods had many characteristics that distinguish them from the Western conception of “god.” Egyptian gods had a beginning; they did not always exist. Egyptian texts speak of a time when the gods did not yet exist. The creator god (of whom there are several) is unique in that he (or she, in one instance) creates himself; the other gods were born to mothers and fathers. This brings up another characteristic of Egyptian gods: they have gender, male and female. Some are said to go through a childhood and grow to maturity. Not only did the Egyptian gods grow up, they grew old, and even died. An Egyptian deity could be killed, as when Seth killed his brother Osiris, or they could simply grow old and die. Every day, the Egyptians visualized the setting sun as an old man near death. The Ibis-headed god Thoth determined the life spans of both men and the gods. Egyptian texts even make references to the tombs of the gods, and one late text even mentions an entire graveyard of gods.


Egyptian gods had other limitations as well. The Egyptians did not consider them to be omnipotent. Most gods and goddesses had power only within certain closely defined areas, such as a particular town, nome (province), or region of the world. Egyptians had a term that meant “local gods,” meaning the gods of any particular locality. When an Egyptian traveler was in another part of Egypt, or in another country such as Nubia, he would pray to the local gods to protect him. Egyptian gods were not considered omniscient; they did not know everything. The story of Isis and Re, in which Isis concocts a plan to learn Re’s secret name and therefore gain power over him, demonstrates that Isis was ignorant of Re’s name, and that Re was ignorant of Isis’s plan, because he falls into her trap.


The Egyptian gods did not have well-defined personalities. A few stories provide insight into the characters of Osiris, Isis, Seth, Horus, Re, Hathor, and a few other deities, but most of what is known of the gods comes from their names and iconography. An Egyptian god could have more than one name, and the more powerful the god, the more names he could have. A name was not merely a label but was part of the god’s personality, and it revealed something about him. Almost all of the gods’ names can be translated, and generally denote a characteristic feature or function of the god. Examples include Amun (the Hidden One), the invisible god of the air; Khonsu (The Traveler), the moon god; and Wepwawet (Opener of the Ways), the jackal guide of the deceased. Some names tell of the god’s origin, such as the snake goddess Nekhbet, whose name means “she of Nekheb,” modern el-Kab, a town in southern Upper Egypt.


The Egyptians grouped their deities together using several different numerical schemas. The simplest grouping was in pairs, usually of a god and goddess, although pairs of the same sex did exist (Isis and Nephthys; Horus and Seth). The most common method of organizing deities was based on the triad, usually consisting of a god, a goddess, and their offspring. There are many examples of such triads in Egyptian religion: Osiris (god), Isis (goddess), and Horus (offspring); Amun (god), Mut (goddess), and Khonsu (offspring); and Ptah (god), Sakhmet (goddess), and Nefertem (offspring). Triads could also consist of a god and two goddesses—for example, Osiris (god), Isis (goddess), and Nephthys (goddess); or Khnum (god), Satis (goddess), and Anukis (goddess). There were also all-male triads—such as Ptah, Sokar, and Osiris (who were worshipped at Memphis)—and all-female triads—Qadesh, Astarte, and Anat (all foreign deities introduced into Egypt). In one grouping, the goddess Qadesh was matched with two gods, Reshep, and Min. These numerical groupings could grow larger, as with the Ogdoad (grouping of eight pairs of gods) and the Ennead (grouping of nine gods). An Ennead could simply refer to the genealogical classification of gods, and was not limited to only nine members; some Enneads had as few as seven members, while others could have as many as fifteen.


There was an additional method of associating deities that is difficult for modern students of Egyptian religion to comprehend. The Egyptians could combine two or more gods into a single god. This phenomenon has been called syncretism by scholars, and gave rise to the compound names such as Amun-Re. What occurred with the god Amun-Re was the merging of Amun and Re to form a new god, Amun-Re. The gods Amun and Re continued to have separate existences, however; where there were once two gods, Amun and Re, there were now three, Amun, Re, and Amun-Re. Generally, the second name in the pairing was the older god. Syncretism was a way for one deity to extend his sphere of action and influence. In a compound deity consisting of two components, the first name is the individual, while the second indicates the role that the deity is fulfilling. For example, Khnum-Re fulfills the role as life-giver—powers associated with Khnum—and is also seen as a sustainer—powers associated with Re. The number of such combinations a deity could enter into was not limited; in addition to Amun-Re scholars have found Sobek-Re, and from the Pyramid Texts, Re-Atum. Syncretism was not limited to two deities; examples of combinations of three (Ptah-Sokar-Osiris) and even four (Harmakis-Kheper-Re-Amun) occurred. In each instance a new deity possessing all the powers and attributes of the individual constituents was formed, while each individual deity retained its own unique existence and influence. A striking example of this was found at the Great Temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, where the sanctuaries dedicated to the gods Amun-Re, Re-Horakhty, and Ptah were found. Re occurred simultaneously in two different syncretistic combinations in this sanctuary.


Just as a god could have many different names, each revealing something about the nature of the deity, so could a god be depicted in many different ways. Egyptian gods could be shown as fully human, fully animal, or—perhaps most familiar to even the most casual student of ancient Egypt—in a hybrid form combining both human and animal elements. When creating images of their gods, the Egyptians were not attempting to depict the god as he really was, but rather their goal was to communicate something essential about the god’s nature.

Animal Form

The earliest evidence for the depiction of Egyptian gods seems to indicate that in the prehistoric period (before 3100B.C.E.) the Egyptians worshipped divine powers in animal form. Around the beginning of the Dynastic period (after 3100 B.C.E.), powers that had been worshipped as deities came to be represented in human form. Towards the end of the Second Dynasty (2675 B.C.E.) the method of depicting Egyptian deities that was to become so commonplace is first in evidence. On cylinder seal impressions from King Peribsen (fourth king of the Second Dynasty) gods in human form are depicted with animal heads, in this case the god Seth with the head of a hawk. Once these different methods of representing the deities made their appearance, they continued to coexist with the other forms; one form did not replace another. The same god could be represented using all three methods of purely human, purely animal, or animal-human hybrid. The goddess Hathor could be shown as a woman, as a cow’s head on a woman’s body, or simply as a cow.

Significance of Depictions

If the same deity could be represented in several different forms, it is obvious that not all of these depictions could represent the actual appearance of the deity. In fact, none of these depictions represented the “true” form of the deity; this form was forever hidden to man, just as the true name of the deity was a closely guarded secret. The task for the modern student of ancient Egyptian religion is to attempt to discern what meanings were intended by the different methods of representation of the Egyptian deities. An animal head on a human body revealed certain characteristics or attributes of the deity. Unfortunately, the symbolism intended by the use of particular animals is not clearly understood. A human head combined with an animal’s body seems to indicate the acquisition or possession of divine aspects by humans. For example, the human headed ba-bird represented the ability of a deceased individual to freely move about and transform himself into different forms. That classic Egyptian symbol, the sphinx, which placed a human head on a lion’s body, represented the royal power of the individual. A sphinx was not solely human-headed; it could take the head of several different animals, each representing a particular deity. A ram-headed sphinx represented the royal power of the god Amun-Re. A falcon-headed sphinx indicated the royal power of the god Horus, while a sphinx with the head of a hawk represented the same for Seth. Each mixed figure, whether it be human head with animal body or animal head with human body, represented a theological statement in iconographic form about the Egyptian god.

Accoutrements of the Gods

The items the gods and goddesses were shown wearing or carrying also contributed information regarding their characteristics. The double crown of kingship was worn by several deities, including Atum, Horus, and even Seth. The Hathor-crown, consisting of cow horns with a sun-disk in the middle, was worn by goddesses known for their motherly nature, such as Hathor, Isis, and Renenutet. A deity shown wearing a crown with a sun-disk incorporated into it was thought to have some sort of relationship to the sun-god. Deities could also be shown wearing an identifying hieroglyph as a headdress. The goddess Isis, for example, often wore the throne-sign that was the hieroglyph for her name on her head. Deities could be shown carrying the ankh-symbol, representing their power to bestow life. Gods could be shown carrying a was -scepter, indicating their dominion and control, while goddesses often carried the wadj -staff, representing fertility and renewal in nature. The goddess Taweret, the protector of women in childbirth, was shown carrying a large sa -amulet, representing protection. Even the color associated with the gods was significant. Amun, the king of the gods during the New Kingdom, was shown with blue skin, possibly representing the color of the sky. Osiris, Anubis, Isis, and various demons could be shown with black skin, indicating their association with the underworld and the afterlife. Osiris could also be depicted with a green face, an allusion to his powers of revival associated with fertility. The aggressive and hostile Seth was shown with red skin, the color of the rising and setting sun.


Some Egyptian deities fall into the category of personifications, that is, deities who embody some characteristic or trait. The names of these deities are also found as nouns having a non-personal meaning. Examples of personifications include Amun (imn, also the word for “hidden”) and Gereh (gereh, also the word for “darkness”). Many types of things could be personified, including geographical locations (such as names of nomes or temples); time, including the seasons (such as Renpet for “Spring”); directions (including Imenet for “West” and Iabt for “East”); emotions (such as Hetepet for “peace”); products (such as Nepri for “corn” or Nub for “gold”); and various activities (such as Tayt for “weaving”). Personifying such entities allowed them to be depicted or described as interacting with other entities, including the other gods, and living or dead individuals. Major personifications include the goddess Maat for Truth and Order, the god Heka for magic, and Hapy, for the personified inundation of the Nile. A particularly important category of personification includes gods of birth and destiny and deities who protected women during childbirth such as Bes and Taweret.


For the ancient Egyptians, “demons” were not considered evil. In fact, the Egyptians did not have the dichotomy between good and evil found in Western thought. They distinguished between those things that upheld order (maat), and those that did not (isfet). The real dichotomy for the Egyptians was between being and non-being, that is, those things which belonged to the created world, Maat, and that which belonged to the uncreated world of chaos, called Nun. Demons belonged to chaos. They were thought to inhabit those areas that the Egyptians associated with chaos, such as deserts, foreign places, water, night, and darkness. Demons were not able to receive the light of the sun, either because they were blind or had an “evil eye.” They did not speak in comprehensible language, but in incomprehensible howling. They had a foul smell and ate excrement. Demons were never the focus of a cult, which distinguishes them from gods who were thought to be responsible for various calamities. Demons could take many forms, including a crocodile, snake, ass, jackal/dog, bull, or cat. They were frequently shown brandishing knives. They had fearsome names such as “Slaughterer,” “Fighter,” “Rebel,” or “Black-faced One.” Demons inhabited liminal areas, or were particularly dangerous at liminal times. They were particularly feared during times of transition, such as the five days added at the end of the 360-day year of the Egyptian calendar, called the epagomenal days. They inhabited bodies of water, and were responsible for causing disease. The underworld teemed with demons that punished those who did not make the successful transition to the next life. They guarded the various gates of the underworld that the deceased had to pass, and if the dead did not know their names, they put their fearsome knives to use. Major demons included Apophis, the snake demon who threatens creation by attempting to stop the sun in its path, and Ammemet, “She who devours the dead.” This goddess had a composite form, consisting of a crocodile’s head, the forepart of a lion or leopard, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. She sat near the scales of justice, and gobbled up the heart of the unfortunate deceased individual who did not meet the requirements of justice, represented by the goddess Maat.

Foreign Gods

Throughout their history, the Egyptians added several foreign deities to their pantheon. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, only one foreign god—the Nubian god Dedun—entered the Egyptian pantheon. Beginning with the Second Intermediate Period, there were several Syro-Palestinian deities worshipped in Egypt. There are several possible explanations for their appearance. The Hyksos brought their Asiatic deities with them when they entered Egypt, and identified them with Egyptian deities, such as Baal with Seth, and Anat with Hathor. Also, Egyptian traders and soldiers who went abroad brought back the gods they encountered on their travels. It was common for people to pray to the gods of the lands in which they were, and gods were thought to be portable. If an individual felt that a particular god had been beneficial to him, then he may have brought that god back with him to Egypt. During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, the Egyptians brought back many prisoners of war from their campaigns in Syria-Palestine, and these people would have brought their gods back with them.

Memphis and Major Foreign Gods

Memphis, the political capital of Egypt, was a major center of the worship of foreign gods in Egypt. Among the significant foreign gods found in Egypt are Reshep, a Semitic god of plague and lightning who was thought to live in a valley south of Memphis. He was frequently associated with the Theban god Montu. At Deir el-Medina he was considered a healer god, the patron of good health and honesty. The Semitic god Baal appeared in two guises. The first was Baal of Sapan, a mountain in north Syria, who was honored as a protective deity of sailors and had his cult place at Peru-nefer, the harbor of Memphis. The second was Baal the storm god associated with the Egyptian god, Seth. Three important foreign goddesses appeared in Egypt. They included Astarte also called Ishtar, a goddess associated with healing, love, and war often depicted on horseback. Egyptians also worshipped the foreign war goddess Anat and the Syrian goddess Qadesh, associated with sexuality and fertility.

Egyptian Myths


Myths are stories that have a beginning, middle, and end, and which describe the activities of superhuman beings. Prior to the New Kingdom, myths are scarce in Egyptian texts, but allusions to myths are numerous. The reasons for this are uncertain, but it is probably related to the types of text that have survived to modern times. Allusions to the activities of the gods are found in texts whose purpose is to provide for the successful transition of the dead into the afterlife or texts which accompany ritual activities. For these purposes, allusions to the doings of the gods are sufficient. Prior to the New Kingdom, Egyptian myths may only have been transmitted orally.

Creation Myths

While mythic narratives do not appear in the Egyptian records until the New Kingdom, the frequent allusions to the activities of the gods found in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts allow scholars to reconstruct a fairly comprehensive and consistent view of the earliest Egyptian stories about the gods. One of the most important categories of myth for the Egyptians was creation stories. The Egyptians believed that for existence to continue, it had to be continually recreated at each dawn, at each full moon, or each New Year. One part of the process of this recreation was to recall the first time of creation. Characteristically the Egyptians did not have only one creation account, but the creation of the universe was ascribed to several gods, and even a goddess. These creation accounts are named after the location where the creator god had a major temple.


The earliest of all creation accounts is associated with the god Atum at Iunu (Heliopolis in Greek, the biblical On), which scholars call the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. A cosmogony is a story of how the world came to exist. In this version of creation, the universe is originally an infinite, dark, watery expanse called Nun or Nuu. Within this watery expanse, the god Atum essentially creates himself, and looks about for a place to stand. One tradition states that Atum stood on Mehetweret, a goddess in the form of a cow representing a solid emerging from the waters. According to another tradition Atum stood on the primeval hill located at Iunu, an image deriving from the emergence of land after the annual Nile flood recedes. After finding a place to stand, Atum masturbates with his hand (personified as the goddessIusaas, “she who comes and grows”), and from his semen produces the first pair of gods, Shu (male) and Tefnut (female). The name Shu means void or emptiness. The meaning of Tefnut is uncertain; one tradition may associate her with moisture.

Birth of Mankind

After Atum created them, Shu and Tefnut become separated from him in the dark expanse of Nun. Atum, finding himself alone again, sends out his eye to find his missing children. While his eye is away, Atum creates another eye to take its place. When the eye returns with Shu and Tefnut, it becomes angry at its replacement. Atum then puts the eye on his forehead, where it becomes the protective, fire-spitting Uraeus snake found on the headdress of Egyptian kings and gods. A late tradition connects this event with the creation of mankind. When the eye returned with Shu and Tefnut, Atum became so happy he wept, and from his remet (“tears”), remetj (“mankind”) came into being.

Father Earth

Shu and Tefnut mate and give birth to the god Geb and the goddess Nut. Geb represents dry land, while his sister-wife Nut is the sky. Originally, Geb and Nut are locked in an embrace, and Geb impregnates Nut. A significant event in the creative process occurs when Shu separates Geb from Nut, thereby creating a space in which life can take place, a bubble in the expanse of Nun. This act is represented as Shu standing on a prone Geb while lifting the arching body of Nut high overhead. Shu represents the air and light separating the earth from the sky. A late text explains why Shu separated Geb and Nut; apparently they were quarreling because Nut kept swallowing her own children, that is, every morning the stars disappeared. Shu stepped in to stop the quarreling. One important aspect of this myth is the gender of the earth and sky. In most societies the earth was thought of as female (mother earth) and the sky as male. In Egypt, this imagery is reversed. This reversal was probably due to the source of moisture in Egypt. In most places the land depends on rainfall, seen as the semen of the sky god, for fertility. In Egypt, the fertility of the land did not depend on rainfall, which was scarce in Egypt, but rather on the rising floodwaters of the Nile. Since the earth was considered to be the source of these waters, it would follow that the earth was male.

Threat of Existence

Another important aspect to this myth is the precariousness of the continued existence of the world. All life as the Egyptians knew it took place within the bubble created by the bodies of Geb and Nut separated by Shu. This bubble existed within the vast realm of chaos, Nun. At any point, the sky could come crashing down on the earth, obliterating all life and returning everything to Nun. Magical spells threatened to cause this to come about if the practitioner did not gain what he desired. Rituals were carried out in Egyptian temples in order to prevent this watery chaos—represented by the serpent Apophis—from overcoming Re—the sun god. In one passage in the Book of the Dead, Atum, in dialogue with Osiris, says that one day “this land will return to Nun, to the flood, like it was before.”

Heliopolitan Ennead

Geb and Nut eventually give birth to two gods, Osiris and Seth, and two goddesses, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris and Isis give birth to the god Horus. The myths surrounding these deities belong to the funerary mythology. The birth of these gods completes the Heliopolitan Ennead, or group of nine gods: Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Horus, the tenth member of the Ennead, is a later addition.

Hermopolis Creation Story

Another version of the creation story is associated with the town of Hermopolis, modern Ashmounein in Middle Egypt. This account centered on the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, or group of eight gods. These deities were grouped in pairs of male-female gods with three constant pairs: Nun and Naunet (primeval water, formlessness), Heh and Hehet (spaciousness), and Kek and Keket (darkness). The identity of the fourth pair varies in different texts. At times it is Tenem and Tenemet (confusion and gloom). It can also be Gereh and Gerehet (completion) or Niu and Niut (void). Eventually, the god Amun and his female counterpart Amaunet, representing concealment, become the customary fourth pair in the Ogdoad. The gods of the Ogdoad all represented characteristics of the chaos that existed before creation. A late tradition associates the origin of these gods with Amun’s main city, Thebes. The serpent god Kematef, “he who accomplishes his time” had a son, another snake god, Irta “he who makes the land.” Irta traveled from Thebes to Hermopolis, where he created the Ogdoad. Another late tradition describes Thoth as the creator of the Ogdoad. The gods of the Ogdoad were depicted as frog-headed (male) and snake-headed (female) humans.

Creation of the Sun

When the primeval hill, called the iu neserer (“island of flame”), arises out of chaos, the Ogdoad comes together and creates the sun on this hill. Building inscriptions tell us that there was once a shrine called the “island of flame” at Hermopolis, but its location has yet to be determined. The Ogdoad was said to create the sun in two ways. One tradition says that the Ogdoad came together and created an egg on the primeval hill. The goose that laid this egg, called the Great Cackler, came to be associated with Amun. Amun can occasionally be found depicted on stelae from Deir el-Medina as a goose, at times accompanied by eggs. An inscription from the tomb of Petosiris, dated to the fourth century B.C.E., claims that the shell of this egg was buried at Hermopolis.

Lake of Origin

Another version of the creation of the sun arose during the Ptolemaic Period. In this account, the sun emerges from the opening blossom of a lotus. The male members of the Ogdoad were said to have placed their semen in the waters of Nun. This semen traveled to a vegetable ovary called benen, which was also the name of the temple to Khonsu at Thebes. In the hieroglyphic script, benen is represented as an egg. This egg is the contribution of the female members of the Ogdoad. The place where the egg was fertilized was called the “lake of origin.” From the benen, a lotus sprouts, and takes root on the island of flame. When the lotus blossom opens, the sun rises, depicted as a child sitting inside the flower. The association of the lotus blossom and the sun arises from the fact that the Egyptian blue lotus sinks underwater at night, and rises and opens at daylight.

Death of the Gods

The remainder of the cosmology is not detailed. The sun-god created the gods from his mouth, mankind from his tears, and cattle from his limbs. After the Ogdoad completed their work of creation, either by creating the egg or lotus blossom, they traveled to Thebes, where they died. They were buried at Medinet Habu, Edfu, and Esna. At these locations they were the recipients of a funerary cult.

Memphite Theology

Another cosmogony, called the Memphite Theology, is preserved in only one text, known as the Shabaka Stone, after the Twenty-fifth Dynasty king who had it carved. Because of the archaic nature of the writing and language, scholars thought that this text originated in the early Old Kingdom. Subsequent studies have shown that the text cannot be earlier than the New Kingdom, perhaps dating to the reign of Ramesses II. One scholar even suggested that the text should be dated to the time of the copy, that is, to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Such a discrepancy in assigning a date to the text arises from the fact that Egyptian scribes would copy and re-copy religious texts for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. The existence of only one copy of a text makes it difficult to be certain when the text originated. For example, some Ptolemaic funerary papyri contain examples of Pyramid Texts, and if it were not for copies from the Old Kingdom pyramids it would be impossible to determine how old these texts really were. Another problem in dating texts is that the Egyptians would deliberately write in an archaic style and attribute a text to an ancient author to lend the text an aura of antiquity, and therefore enhance its authority.


The main actor in the Memphite Theology was the god Ptah. Ptah was originally a patron god of craftsmen and artisans. By the New Kingdom he had increased in importance to become a universal creator god. Hymns call him the father of the fathers of all the gods, possibly a reference to the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, who were called the fathers of the gods. Hymns further describe him as the one who carries Nut and lifts up Geb, equating him with Shu. Ptah is said to have brought about creation by first planning it in his mind—literally the heart—and then by speaking the name of everything and calling it into existence. The Memphite Theology has received considerable attention because it is similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition of creation through speaking seen in the biblical description of creation in Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John, in which the creative word is emphasized rather than the physical methods of creation employed by the other Egyptian creator gods.

Esna Cosmogony

The final cosmogony to be discussed merits mention because, unlike the other creation accounts examined so far, the creator in the Esna Cosmogony is not a god, but the goddess Neith. This cosmogony is found on the walls of the Temple of Khnum at Esna and dates to the period of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 C.E.). This creation story borrows significantly from earlier accounts. Neith is the first being to emerge from Nun. She changes herself into a cow, and then a lates -fish, also known as Lake Victoria perch. These images derive from the cult of Neith. She was worshipped in the form of a cow and lates-fish at Esna. Neith creates a place for herself to stand, and then turns herself back into a cow. She pronounces thirty names, which become thirty gods to help her in the process of creation. These gods are said to behemen (“ignorant”), and they then transform themselves into the hemen (“Hermopolitan”) Ogdoad. The story thus rests on a word play between two words that sounded similar but had different meanings. Neith then creates the sun-god through producing an excrescence from her body and placing it in an egg, which hatches as Re, the sun, who promptly takes the name of Amun. Amun then continues the act of creation through emanations from his body, creating thenetjeru (“gods”) from his saliva, and remetj (“mankind”) from his remt (“tears”). This explanation demonstrates the Egyptian belief that puns reveal some basic, underlying truth.

Myth of Osiris


An important series of myths involved the god Osiris. Osiris played an important role in Egyptian mythology as the god of the underworld and judge of the dead. As a chthonic (“earth”) deity, he also became associated with the fertility of the earth. Osiris first appears in Egyptian texts at the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2500-2350 B.C.E.), when he is mentioned in both inscriptions in private mastabas (tombs) and in the Pyramid Texts found in Unas’ pyramid. His name was written with the hieroglyph of an eye surmounting a throne, and this combination has given rise to much speculation as to the origin and meaning of the name Osiris. At this point, there is no agreement about the significance of the name or its spelling. The simplest etymology would connect his name to the Egyptian word weser, meaning “mighty,” making Osiris the “mighty one.”

Fertility and the Underworld

Osiris was not originally viewed in a positive light. He may have been the god of the unsuccessful dead, that is, those who did not ascend to the sky to become a star or gain a spot in Re’s barque (sailing vessel). Osiris seems to have originally been thought of in the form of a dog, based on a Pyramid Text passage which states that the king has the face of a jackal, like Osiris. Osiris quickly lost this form, however, and his earliest depictions show him as a mummi-form human with his hands protruding from the mummy bandages and gripping the symbols of kingship, the crook and flail. He is frequently shown wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, or the Atef-crown. His face and hands are often painted green, representing his association with fertility, or black, a color associated with the underworld.

Association with Dead Kings

Whatever Osiris’ origin, the Pyramid Texts show that by the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2350 B.C.E.) the dead king was identified with Osiris. These texts frequently refer to the dead king as the Osiris N (representing the name of the dead king). As such, the king had gone from being the king of Egypt to being the king of the underworld. In these texts, the first allusions to the myth of Osiris are found, which are not recorded in narrative form until the first century C.E., when the Greek writer Plutarch recorded the myth. In this version, Osiris was a king of Egypt who was murdered by his jealous brother Seth. How this takes place is uncertain. Some texts refer to Osiris as being “thrown down” in the town of Nedyet in the land of Gehesty, while others refer to Osiris being drowned in the water of Djat. There may also be references to the dismemberment of Osiris. In the Greek version, Seth throws a banquet, and offers an exquisitely carved chest to whoever can fit inside it. When Osiris climbs into the chest, Seth slams it shut, seals it with molten lead, and throws it into the Nile. From there, it makes its way along the currents to the shores of Lebanon, where it becomes enfolded in the trunk of a tree, which is used as a column of a temple by the king of Lebanon.

First Mummy

All versions of the myth include the search and discovery of Osiris’ body. There are some indications in the Pyramid Texts that his father Geb found Osiris’ body. Most commonly, however, his sister-wife Isis and sister Nephthys discover the body of Osiris. They are able to restore the body to life just long enough to allow Osiris to impregnate Isis with his son and heir, Horus. In later versions of the myth, the god Anubis transforms the corpse of Osiris into the first mummy, and he serves as the prototype of the treatment all deceased Egyptians wished to receive. According to the Greek version of the story, Isis leaves the chest containing the body of Osiris in Buto while she attends to her newborn child. Seth discovers the chest, becomes enraged, and dismembers the body of Osiris, scattering the pieces throughout Egypt. Isis finds each part and buries it. This provides an explanation for the numerous tombs of Osiris found up and down the Nile. Osiris then assumes his permanent position as ruler of the underworld.


The major cult center of Osiris was Abydos. Originally, this city was the cult-center of the jackal-god of the dead Khentiamentiu, “foremost of the Westerners” (i.e., the dead). During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, however, Khentiamentiu became assimilated with Osiris. Beginning in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.), his temple at Kom el-Sultan was taken over by Osiris. Also in the Twelfth Dynasty, the First-dynasty (3100-2800 B.C.E.) mastaba of King Djet in Abydos was mistakenly interpreted as the tomb of Osiris. Every year, Abydos was the site of a huge festival during which a dramatic presentation of the myth of Osiris took place. In order to participate vicariously in this festival, kings would build cenotaphs (“false tomb memorials”) for themselves at Abydos. Along the festival route, private individuals erected small chapels for themselves. These chapels, called mahat, could contain a small stele or statue of the owner. This object would become the conduit through which the individual could magically share in the bounty of the festival.

Myths of Horus, Seth, and Amun

Horus the Sky God

Horus, in the form of a falcon, or falcon-headed human, is one of the oldest gods of the Egyptian pantheon. He was the god of the sky, whose right eye was associated with the sun, and whose left eye was the moon. A First-dynasty (3100-2800 B.C.E.) comb found in a tomb shows the sky as the two wings of a bird, probably Horus. Horus was also associated with the king, and from the First Dynasty onwards one of the king’s names was preceded by the Horus falcon, making the king the earthly embodiment of the cosmic Horus.

Battle With Seth

In the earliest version of the myths surrounding Horus, he was involved in a struggle with his brother, Seth, for the throne of Egypt. This is apparently a reflection of the political situation in which the city of Hierakonpolis (a major cult center for Horus) gradually expanded and engulfed the town of Nagada (ancient Ombos), a center of Seth-worship. This version of the myth must be reconstructed from allusions in the Pyramid Texts. For unstated reasons, Seth attacks Horus, and a violent struggle ensues. Horus loses an eye, and Seth loses his testicles. Eventually, the missing pieces are restored to their rightful owners, and the two gods go before a tribunal of the gods of the Heliopolitan Ennead, with either Geb or Atum presiding. The verdict of this tribunal is that Horus is the rightful ruler of Egypt, because he is the older of the two.

Son of Osiris

With the entrance of the god Osiris into the Egyptian pantheon, the protagonists in the myth shift roles. When Osiris becomes equated with the dead king, the living king, Horus, comes to be thought of as the son of Osiris, since the dead king was usually the father of the living ruler. The conflict between Horus and Seth then shifts to become a conflict between Osiris and Seth, and serves to explain why Osiris is dead. He was killed by his brother Seth. Horus then assumes the role of a son avenging the wrong done to his father and fighting for his rightful inheritance, which in this instance is the throne of Egypt. Horus also takes on two aspects: Horus the elder, ruler of Egypt, and Horus the Child (Greek, Harpokrates), the son of Osiris and Isis. Hence, the purpose of the trial before the gods serves two purposes: the need to punish Seth for the murder of Osiris as well as the need to determine who should inherit the kingdom of Egypt from Osiris.

Battle for Inheritance

The New Kingdom story “The Contendings of Horus and Seth” is a narrative detailing the events which take place during the trial of Horus and Seth before Atum and the gods of the Ennead. Unlike earlier myths, this one leaves out the issue of Seth killing Osiris and deals strictly with the issue of inheritance. Each god has his supporters, and the tribunal’s judgement sways first one way, and then the other. The gods appear to be petty, petulant bickerers who cannot make up their minds. Finally, Seth suggests a contest between the two. They are to transform themselves into hippopotamuses to see who can stay submerged underwater the longest. Due to Isis’s interference, first on one side and then the other, the contest is indecisive. Seth then commits a sexual assault against Horus, intending to call forth his semen from Horus’ body in the presence of the judges, thereby demonstrating his superiority over Horus. Again, Seth’s efforts are thwarted by Isis, who rids Horus of Seth’s semen, and tricks Seth into unwittingly ingesting Horus’ semen. Finally, in desperation, Seth suggests the two gods build and race boats of stone, with the winner being declared the rightful heir. Seth proceeds to build a boat of stone, while Horus builds his boat of pine wood plastered over with gypsum to give it the appearance of stone. When the race begins, Seth’s boat sinks while Horus’ continues on the course. Seth transforms himself into a hippopotamus and scuttles Horus’ boat. Again, there is no clear winner. Finally, the judges decide to write a letter to Osiris, and ask who he would have as his heir. Osiris chooses Horus, who becomes the ruler of all Egypt. Since in this myth Seth is not guilty of killing his father, he is given the consolation prize of being sent to live in the sky with Re, where he becomes the god of storms and thunder.

Poisoned Child

Another series of stories relate the events of Horus’ childhood. After Isis finds herself pregnant by Osiris, Re-Atum suggests she hide this fact from Seth, lest he try to destroy the infant Horus. When Horus is born, Isis hides him in the marsh at Khemmis. Isis leaves the infant alone while she goes in search of food. When she returns, she finds the baby weak and unable to suckle. A local wise woman diagnoses the child as suffering from a poisonous sting, either of a scorpion or snake. Isis cries out for help, and the sound of her anguish brings even Re in his solar barque to a stop. The god Thoth arrives to aid Isis, and recites spells which remove the poison from the child. Texts describing such events in the life of the infant Horus were carved on stone stelae known as cippi. These stelae depicted the infant Horus standing on the backs of crocodiles, grasping snakes, scorpions, and other dangerous animals by the tails. Water poured over the stele was thought to absorb the power of the spells, and was drunk by those seeking a cure for snake bite or scorpion sting.

Amun, Hidden One

Amun, whose name means “the hidden one,” was originally associated with the area of Thebes. When Theban families rose to prominence and became the rulers of all Egypt, first in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.) and again in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.E.), Amun’s power and influence also increased. As the Eighteenth-dynasty kings expanded Egypt’s empire into Asia, they attributed their successes to Amun’s blessings, and rewarded his priesthood accordingly. Eventually, Amun, joined with Re to form the god Amun-Re, rose to become the state god of Egypt, known as Amun-Re, king of the gods, lord of the thrones of the two lands. During the Third Intermediate Period (1075-656 B.C.E.), the priesthood of Amun at Thebes became the virtual rulers of southern Egypt, and one of the most important priestly offices was that of God’s Wife of Amun.

Self-Birthing God of Air

Egyptian artists usually depicted Amun as a human wearing a cap adorned with two tall, multi-colored feathers. His skin is blue, perhaps related to Amun’s association with the wind and air. His principle cult center was at Karnak, where he was worshipped in conjunction with his consort Mut, a goddess representing motherhood, and their son Khonsu, whose name means “the wanderer” and represents the moon. Amun was associated with the ram and goose. In the Hermopolitan cosmogony, Amun is one of the sixteen gods representing the state of the world before creation. Egyptologists gave it this name because it is thought to have originated in Hermopolis, before being transferred to Thebes. The gods of this cosmogony form an Ogdoad, or group of eight pairs of deities. This group includes Nu(n) and Naunet (representing the primeval water and formlessness), Huh and Huhet (spaciousness), Kek and Keket (darkness), and Amun and Amaunet (concealment). Another tradition describes how Amun, in his form of Kematef (a serpent deity), fathers the Ogdoad. This idea of Amun being his own progenitor, and therefore having no creator, is also encountered in the form of Amun Kamutef, “Amun, bull of his mother.” This epithet states that Amun was his own father. Amun was closely associated with kingship. Reliefs from New Kingdom temples describe a myth in which Amun falls in love with the queen of Egypt. He visits her in the guise of her current husband, the reigning king, and fathers the next king of Egypt. When the child is born, Amun acknowledges his paternity, and presents the child to the gods as the future king of Egypt.


Deeds of the Creator God

According to Egyptian mythology, the gods were responsible for the creation and sustaining of the world and everything in it. One question that needed to be worked out, however, was the nature of the gods’ continuing relationships with their creations, particularly man. In the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) text known as the Teachings for Merykare, the king’s father explains the creator god’s actions on behalf of man. After establishing order by vanquishing chaos (described as the “water monster”), the god provides breath and light for his children. For food, he provides them with plants, cattle, fowl, and fish. The creator god continues to take an interest in his creation, and every day he watches them as he sails through the sky. When they are sad, he takes notice. In order to aid his children, the god provided them with rulers to protect the weak, and perhaps most importantly, with heka (“magic”) “to ward off the blow of events.”


But if the gods created the world, and outfitted it for the benefit of man, how is it that it contains elements which are inimical to man? Here scholars encounter the Egyptian view of theodicy, how to account for the presence of evil in a world created by the gods. In the Egyptian view, isfet (“evil”) was not the creation of the gods. Evil resulted from the actions of mankind. Egyptian texts contain several references to a rebellion by mankind. In the text from the time of Merykare it is said that the creator god “slew his foes, reduced his children when they thought of making rebellion.” In a passage from the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts Spell 1130, the creator god states that “I made every man like his fellow, but I did not command that they do evil. It is their hearts that disobey what I have said.”

Book of the Heavenly Cow

More references to a rebellion of mankind find mythological expression in the New Kingdom composition known as theBook of the Heavenly Cow. This text appeared first in the tomb of Tutankhamun (1332-1322 B.C.E.), and thereafter in several royal tombs of the New Kingdom. The text states that at one time Re ruled as king over gods and men. When Re grew old, mankind began to plot against him. Re summoned the other gods to a meeting to discuss his response to mankind’s actions. In the story, Nun advises Re to send his fiery eye (Hathor) to destroy those who plotted against him. Hathor undertakes her task with relish, and kills those conspirators who had fled into the desert. Before Hathor can complete the job of destroying mankind, Re has a change of heart. He concocts a plan to get Hathor drunk on what she thinks is human blood, and in her altered state she fails to continue in her destructive work. Re preserves mankind, but as a result of their rebellion he withdraws to the sky on the back of his daughter, Nut, the sky, who takes the form of a cow.


The ancient Egyptians believed that at birth, a person’s name, profession, length of life, and time and manner of death were assigned by a god or goddess. Some texts describe the manner of death of an individual as decreed by deities referred to as the Seven Hathors. In The Doomed Prince, the Seven Hathors attend the birth of a prince, and decree that he shall die by means of a crocodile, a snake, or dog. In The Story of Two Brothers, the Seven Hathors attend the creation of a wife for one of the brothers, Bata, and decree that she shall die through execution by means of a knife. In the Middle Kingdom Khufu and the Magicians, Re sends the goddess Meskhenet to attend the birth of his three children, and to decree that each will in turn assume the kingship of all Egypt. Other deities involved with determining a person’s fate include the goddess Shay, the personification of fate who was thought of as allotting a person’s length of life and manner of death, and Renenet, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Renenet could assume the form of a woman suckling a child or of a serpent, and was thought of as assigning those physical aspects of a person that seem to be beyond an individual’s control, such as height, weight, complexion, and even material goods and prosperity. Gods were also thought to control fate, and Amun, Khnum, and Horus were each said to assign an individual’s fate. In a text known asA Calendar of Lucky and Unlucky Days, a particular date is listed as being lucky or unlucky based on mythological events which were thought to have occurred on that date. Some dates contain a notation that assigns a particular fate to anyone born on that date. Anyone born on day three of the first month of Akhet would die by a crocodile, while anyone born on day six of the second month would die on account of drunkenness. Day five preserves a particularly interesting fate; one born on that date was fated to die “of copulation.” The extent to which one’s decreed fate was unalterable is uncertain. In The Doomed Prince mentioned above, the flow of the narrative seems to suggest that the prince will eventually escape his three ordained fates, but since the end of the papyrus is missing, this conclusion cannot be certain.

Animals in Egyptian Religion


Animals played an important role in Egyptian religion. Most of the Egyptian gods could at times be depicted either as an animal or as an animal-headed human. Since the Egyptians apprehended their gods through the natural world, it is not surprising to find that animals were viewed as manifestations of the divine. Several theories have been suggested as to why this was the case. The American scholar Henri Frankfort suggested that it was the apparently unchanging nature of the animals that impressed the Egyptians. From generation to generation, humans exhibit changes in appearance, while animals appear the same. An important element in Egyptian theology was that the perfect pattern of existence had been established by the gods at the time of creation, called the sep tepi, “the first time,” and it was important that this pattern be maintained. Animals would seem to have been more successful than man at maintaining their form established at the first time. The German Egyptologist Hellmut Brunner suggested alternatively that it was the animals’ possession of superhuman powers, such as flight, speed, stealth, heightened senses, and strength that made the Egyptians perceive them as beings through whom the gods were manifest. One thing is certain: the Egyptians did not see a wide gulf separating gods and humans from the animals. The creative powers of the mind and tongue were thought to be operative in the gods, mankind, and animals equally. A hymn to Amun states that he cares even for worms, fleas, mice in their holes, and insects. The First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.) nomarch Henqu states that not only did he give bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked in his nome, but he also provided the jackals of the mountains and the birds of the sky with food, putting good deeds towards humans and animals on the same level. Given the close association between animals and the gods, it is not surprising that animals could be worshipped, not as gods but as the means through which the gods manifested themselves, much as a statue was worshipped as a vehicle through which the god was manifest. This distinction was lost on the Greeks, who, when they encountered Egyptian religion, thought the Egyptians were worshipping the animals as their gods, as the ancient Greek author Clement of Alexandria (died 215C.E.) described.


Evidence for the veneration of animals dates back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. Predynastic burials of gazelles, dogs, cattle, monkeys and rams have been found at the villages of Badari and Nagada in southern Egypt, and Maadi and Heliopolis in northern Egypt. The care taken in the burial of these animals, and the fact that they were buried with grave goods, is considered to be evidence for a cult of sacred animals in Egypt at this early date. The earliest mention of a particular sacred animal, the Apis bull, dates to the reign of Aha, the first king of the First Dynasty (3100-2800 B.C.E.). During the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664-525 B.C.E.) the cult of sacred animals received renewed emphasis, perhaps an expression of a resurgence of Egyptian nationalism after Kushite rule in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (760-665 B.C.E.). Animal cults reached their acme during the rest of the Late Period (664-332 B.C.E.) and Ptolemaic Period (332-30B.C.E.). Most of the large animal necropolises date to the latter period.

Classification of Sacred Animals

There were three types of sacred animal in ancient Egypt. One type is the temple animal. These animals performed the same function as cult statues, and were considered vessels through which the gods could make their wills manifest. These animals lived in or near a temple and were distinguished by special markings. For example, the Apis bull, who lived at Memphis, was a bull with a white triangle on its forehead, a crescent moon on its chest and another on its flanks, and double hairs, black and white, in its tail. The Apis bull was thought to be the ba, or manifestation, of the god Ptah. At certain times of day the bull was released into a courtyard where worshippers would gather to see him and receive oracles. People could put a yes-or-no question to the bull, and the answer was received when the bull entered one of two stables. When the bull died, there was a time of widespread mourning, and an elaborate embalming and burial ceremony was performed. The Apis bull was buried in a stone sarcophagus in a mausoleum known as the Serapeum at Saqqara. The search for the new Apis bull then began. Other examples of such temple animals include the Mnevis bull at the Temple of Atum-Re at Heliopolis, the Buchis bull of the Temple of Montu at Hermonthis, the ram at the Temple of Osiris-Re at Mendes, and the ram of the Temple of Khnum at Elephantine.

Same Species

The second type of sacred animals were animals that belong to the same species as the temple animal. These animals were not thought to be special manifestations of particular gods, but because the god or goddess could appear in the guise of one of these animals, others of the same species were considered dear to the god. Large numbers of these animals could be kept near a temple. At Saqqara there was an extensive complex of buildings dedicated to the care of flocks of ibises associated with Thoth, falcons associated with Horus, and cats associated with Bast. Such large collections of animals served as the source of the enormous number of animal mummies that have been preserved. Sacred animal necropolises throughout Egypt contain literally millions of mummified animal burials. In addition to the ibis necropolis at Saqqara, there are necropolises for cats at Bubastis; rams at Elephantine; crocodiles, snakes, falcons, and ibises at Kom Ombo; and ibises and falcons at Abydos. Other animals that were buried include sheep, dogs, baboons, jackals, fish of several species, shrews, scorpions, and scarab beetles. The main difference between temple animals and animals of the same species is there was only one temple animal at a time; the temple animal received a cult, while these animals did not, and the mortuary services for the temple animals were much more elaborate.

Mummies as Votive Offerings

The reason for the mummification and burial of such enormous numbers of animals in ancient Egypt is related to their association with the gods. People who visited the various temples during festival periods were anxious to make an offering to the god in an attempt to earn his blessing. One acceptable votive offering was the mummified remains of an animal associated with the god. A prayer inscribed on a jar containing an Ibis mummy asked Thoth to be benevolent towards the woman who had embalmed his sacred animal. Of course, most such offerings took place during festivals. In order to ensure a plentiful supply of animals for pilgrims, the priests were not adverse to hastening the death of an animal. At this point, the extent of this practice is uncertain. The one population of animal mummy that has been systematically studied is cats. An examination of their mummies at the British Museum reveals that the majority of them died either at two or four months old, or between nine and twelve months. The average lifespan of a cat should have been around twelve years. In addition, a common cause of death among the cats was a dislocation of the cervical vertebrae, which could be the result of violently twisting the head of an animal until its neck broke. Other cat mummies show evidence of head trauma from a blow. Apparently the sacredness of these animals to the gods did not prevent the priests from doing what was necessary to supply a pilgrim with a mummified animal.

Private Animals

The third type of sacred animals were members of the same species as the temple animal which were kept in private homes as representatives of the gods. For example, snakes, cats, or dogs were often kept in homes and buried at their deaths. This practice is analogous to the construction of household shrines to allow for domestic worship.

The King

Divine Status

The king of Egypt was the only living person who possessed the status of a netjer (“god”). He could be called “the good god,” the “great god,” or simply “god.” Because of the king’s special status, he could serve as the link between the world of the gods and men. The king was the only mortal who could directly approach the gods. The temples throughout Egypt show only the king performing the rituals. This was a polite fiction, because in reality the king commissioned the priests to act in his stead. The king’s “divinity” (for lack of a better word—”netjer-hood” would be more appropriate, but is too cumbersome), however, is different from that of the gods. The king’s divinity was an acquired status, bestowed when he ascended the throne. Beginning with his coronation, and extending throughout his reign, the king participated in rituals designed to reinforce and strengthen his divine status.


The Egyptians had many ways of describing the king’s unique nature. He could be called a god, the son of a god, the image of a god, or he was described as like a god. For example, one text describes Merneptah (r. 1213-1204 B.C.E.) as “the good god that lives on Maat … son of Kheperi [a form of the sun], descendant of the Bull of Heliopolis [probably a reference to Amun, Re, or Atum], … born of Isis.” A text describes Redjedef (r. 2560-2555 B.C.E.), the third king of the Fourth Dynasty and the successor of Khufu, as the first king to be called the Son of Re. From this point on, every king has a “Son of Re” name, usually his birth name, which was one of the king’s two names enclosed in a cartouche (an oval or oblong figure enclosing the king’s names). This king’s status as the son of a god is explained in the text called Khufu and the Magicians, where the first allusion to the myth of the king’s divine birth are found. The text contains references to Ruddedet, the wife of a priest of Re, who was impregnated by Re himself. She gave birth to triplets who grew up to be the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty (2500-2350 B.C.E.). Later, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, Hatshepsut (r. 1478-1458B.C.E.) had a set of reliefs carved in her temple at Deir el Bahri depicting the myth of her divine birth. The myth relates that the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thuthmosis I, visited her mother one night. As a result of their union, Hatshepsut was conceived. The myth of the divine birth of the king was not confined to only Re and Amun. An inscription from the time of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) states that Ptah engendered the king in his form of Banebdjed, a ram god.


The king could be equated with any number of deities when he was said to be fulfilling the function of those gods. From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, the king was thought to be the embodiment of the ancient sky god Horus. Amenemhet I (r. 1938-1909 B.C.E.) is described as “driving out evil when he appears like Atum.” Sesostris III (1836-1818 B.C.E.) was described as Sekhmet, a fierce lion goddess representing the fiery heat of the sun, when attacking the enemies who trespassed on the borders of Egypt. The Loyalist Inscription describes King Amenemhet III (r. 1818-1772B.C.E.) as Sia (goddess of perception), Re, Khnum, Bastet, Hapi, Montu, and Sakhmet. Here the king was not the incarnation of these deities, but equating the king with these gods described his roles as warrior (Montu), provider (Hapi), protector (Sakhmet), and father figure (Khnum).

Four Purposes

According to an Egyptian text that scholars call The King as Sun Priest, Re established kingship in Egypt for four purposes: “judging men, for making gods content, for creating truth (maat), and for destroying evil (isfet).” The first of these duties, judging men, refers to the king’s civil duties as the source of law and justice. The second, making the gods content, refers to the king’s responsibility to see to it that temples to the gods were built and maintained throughout Egypt, and that in them the gods received the necessary offerings and the required rituals were performed. The third and fourth duties, creating maat and destroying isfet, go together. Maat has been translated as truth, order, justice, or righteousness. It refers to the order established by the gods at creation, when a space was established in the chaos of Nun for life to take place. It refers to the natural order as well as to the social order, and embraces the concepts of duty, responsibility, social justice, and ethical behavior. It was the way the Egyptians thought things ought to be. It was the king’s responsibility to ensure that maat was preserved and that its opposite, isfet (evil, disorder, injustice) was overcome. One of the king’s most important duties was to present maat, represented as a small figure of the seated goddess with her legs drawn up, to the gods in their temples daily. In this way, the king reaffirmed that he was fulfilling his duty of preserving maat.

Kingship Rituals

Formal Titulary

The king acquired and maintained his divinity through a series of rituals. The first such ritual the king participated in was his coronation, called in Egyptian khai, which means “to arise” and was also used to describe the sun’s rising. At this time, the five elements of the king’s formal titulary were announced: a Horus name, representing the king as the earthly embodiment of the sky-god Horus; a “Two Ladies” name (the two ladies being the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjit, the two protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt); the Golden Horus (or simply the Gold) name, the exact significance of which is uncertain; his throne name, assumed at accession, which was preceded by the title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”; and the birth name which, beginning in the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.), was compounded with the title “son of Re.” It is the throne name and birth name that were surrounded by a cartouche (an oval or oblong figure that held the king’s names).

Opet Festival

Once inducted into office, the king participated in rituals designed to maintain and renew his divine status. Once a year he traveled to Thebes to participate in the Opet festival at the temple of Luxor. During this festival, which began on the fifteenth or nineteenth day of the second month of the first season known as Akhet (Inundation), the king participated in a procession from Karnak to Luxor temple, where some of the rituals of the coronation were reenacted. The purpose of these rituals was to renew or restore the king’s royal ka (spirit) and reconfirm his right to rule. Each Egyptian possessed a ka, which can roughly be translated “life force.” This was a separate entity that was thought to inhabit the body. The ka was transmitted from parent to child, and embodied the procreative power. The ka represented a bridge between the physical world and the world of the spirit. At his coronation, the king had received the royal ka, the same ka possessed by all the previous kings of Egypt. It was possession of this ka that rendered the king divine. As the vessel of the royal ka, some kings had temples dedicated to their worship built during their lifetimes. Amenhotep III (r. 1390-1352 B.C.E.) erected temples to himself at Soleb, Sedeinga, and Sesebi. Tutankhamun (r. 1332-1322 B.C.E.) did the same at Kawa and Faras. Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 B.C.E.) built temples to his own divine form at Gerf Hussein, es-Sebua, ed-Derr and most famously, Abu Simbel. In these temples, the king could even be shown worshipping himself. The king really was not worshipping himself, but the royal ka of which he was only the vessel.

Sed Festival

After about thirty years on the throne, the king participated in a festival designed to restore his flagging powers. This event, called the Sed festival, was named for a very ancient jackal god named Sed. It could be held wherever the king chose. Generally, the festival would be held near the capital. Amenhotep I (1514-1493 B.C.E.) and Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.E.) of the Eighteenth Dynasty held their Sed festivals at Karnak; Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.) celebrated a Sed festival at the city of Pi-Rameses in the Delta. The exact elements of the Sed festival are uncertain, and the available evidence indicates that the rituals underwent changes over the course of Egyptian history. The two major aspects of the Sed festival remained fairly constant. First, the king sat on two thrones in succession, first wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and then the crown of Lower Egypt. He then paid a visit to each of the provincial gods in their shrines, which had been built for this occasion. Next he ascended the throne to receive visits from these same gods. The king then performed a ritual race or dance in which he strode across a field, crossing it along the two axes formed by the cardinal points. This activity took place between two territorial cairns (piles of stones serving as a memorial markers) designated respectively as the southern and northern boundary markers. During this circuit, the king wore alternately the two crowns of Egypt, a shendyt kilt that was a royal symbol, and carried a flail—a symbol of royal rule—and a document container containing the deed to Egypt. The ritual of crossing the field was intended to symbolize the king’s seizing possession of Egypt.


The result of completing the Sed festival was the rejuvenation of the king. An inscription from the temple of Sety I (1290-1279 B.C.E.) at Abydos stated of the king that “you experience renewal again, you begin to flourish … as a young infant. You become young again year after year. … You are born again by renewing Sed festivals. All life comes to your nostrils. You are sovereign of the whole land forever.” After completing his first Sed festival, the king could celebrate subsequent festivals at intervals of two to three years. Amenhotep III celebrated three such festivals, while Ramesses II held fourteen.

New Year

The third major festival associated with the king was the New Year’s festival. This festival began on the last five days of the year, called epagomenal days, because they were added by the Egyptians to their 360-day calendar to bring the year up to 365 days. The festival lasted until about the ninth day of the first month. The festival had three main purposes: protect the king from the ills and dangers which were thought to threaten creation during the five epagomenal days, renew royal power for the coming year, and purify the king and Egypt from the miasmal effects of the end of the year and of the misdeeds of the past year. There were two main parts to the festival: the Ceremony of the Great Throne, and the Rites of the Adoration of Horus who bestows the Heritage.

Ceremony of the Great Throne

During the Ceremony of the Great Throne the king was purified, dressed in new garments, provided with amulets of protection such as the ankh-sign (for life), and anointed nine times as a means of protection. After the last anointing, the following statement is given: “Pharaoh is a god among gods, he is come into being at the head of the Ennead, he has become great in the heaven and eminent in the horizon. Pharaoh is one of the victors who causes Re to triumph over Apophis; he is without wrongdoing, and his obstacles are dispelled.” This last line is a quotation from Book of the Deadspell 125, the so-called “negative confession” in which the deceased denies any wrongdoing. In a hymn to Isis from the temple at Philae (third century B.C.E.), there is the following inscription: “the evils of the past year that had adhered to [the king] have been repelled. His evils of this year are destroyed. His back is turned to them. … He has not done anything abominable toward the god of his town. He has not committed any evil. Nothing will be counted against him among the assessors and the scribes of the Two Lands [Egypt].” Here the king is essentially performing two functions: he is making amends for the past wrongdoings by himself, and by extension, the people of Egypt. As a result, the king can claim ritual purity and innocence. The king can claim that he has fulfilled the divine commission to uphold Maat and destroy wrongdoing (isfet), and as a result, he and the people of Egypt are entitled to the blessings and favors of the gods.

Rites of the Adoration of Horus

In the Rites of the Adoration of Horus, the king participated in a series of events that renewed his powers through recalling the coronation. The king spent a night in a chapel in the temple (which temple was not significant) during which he received a scepter and had four seals placed on his head, two with the name of Geb, one with Neith, and the other with Maat. The next morning, when the king appeared from the chapel, two birds were sent out as messengers to proclaim the king’s dominion. The king then engaged in the symbolic massacre of Egypt’s enemies by cutting off the tops of seven papyrus stalks. Next the king made offerings to all the deceased former kings of Egypt. This last act was related to the concept of the royal ka encountered in the Opet festival. Each king, by virtue of the fact that he was endowed with the royal ka at his coronation, was thought to be a direct descendant of all the previous kings of Egypt. One responsibility of possessing this ka was that of providing for the king’s deceased predecessors. In ancient Egypt, one way for the eldest son to ensure his right to the primacy of inheritance was to provide for the burial and continued funerary offerings of his father. By providing his deceased predecessors with the necessary offerings, the king confirmed his right to inherit the throne.


As can be seen from this brief description of the coronation, Opet festival, Sed festival, and the New Year festival, the maintenance of the king’s divine status was of great importance in the royal ideology of Egypt. An acquired status can be lost. In order to prevent this from happening, the king participated in several rituals intended to reinforce his divinity and relationship to the royal ka. The king’s divinity was essential to the well-being of the country, because without his status of netjer the king could not meet the needs of the gods, nor successfully intercede with the gods on behalf of the Egyptian people. If this happened, all sorts of calamities could be expected. After the Amarna Period (1352-1332 B.C.E.), during which the traditional gods and their temples were neglected, we are told that “the land was topsy-turvy, and the gods turned their backs upon this land.” So it was vitally important to the well-being of Egypt that the king’s status as netjer be constantly maintained.

Temple Architecture and Symbolism

God’s House

One of the king’s duties was to build and maintain temples throughout Egypt. The Egyptian word for temple meant “god’s house,” and temples were designed to be the earthly dwellings of the gods. As such, they included all the elements necessary to provide for the care and feeding of the gods. To meet the needs of the gods a temple needed to control an extensive network of land, livestock, and personnel. All of the elements necessary to conduct the business of the temple were referred to as the er-per, or temple estate. There were two main classes of temple in ancient Egypt: the cult temple and the mortuary temple, called by the Egyptians the “House of Millions of Years.” The cult temple had as its main purpose to carry out the worship of a particular deity or deities. The mortuary temple was built by the reigning king in order to carry out his cult while living, and to provide for his mortuary cult after he died. Since much that went on in cult temples had to do with the king, and the “houses of millions of years” could have areas dedicated to the cults of the gods, it has been suggested that the difference between the two was a matter of primary focus, the cult temple having as its primary focus the carrying out of the cult of a god, and a mortuary temple having as its primary focus the carrying out of the cult of the divine king, but not to the exclusion of the cults of other gods.

Building Materials

For information on the layout of Egyptian temples modern scholars depend primarily on the large stone temples dating from the New Kingdom until the Roman Period (1539 B.C.E.-395 C.E.). The earliest temples in Egypt were built of perishable materials such as mud brick or reeds. For information on these early structures, scholars rely on archaeological evidence combined with images found on labels, pottery, and other materials. The earliest religious structures built of stone were those intended for King Djoser’s (r. 2675-2654 B.C.E.) cult at Saqqara. The use of stone in cult temples did not begin until the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.), and the only surviving non-royal cultic structures from the Middle Kingdom are the White Chapel of Sesostris I (r. 1919-1875 B.C.E.) at Karnak and the small temple dedicated to Sobek, Horus, and Ernutet built by Amenemhet III (r. 1818-1772 B.C.E.) and Amenemhet IV (r. 1773-1763 B.C.E.) at Medinet Maadi. The White Chapel was dedicated to Amun at Karnak, and served as a place for the priests to rest the barque (sailing vessel) of Amun when the god was out in procession. The only reason the White Chapel stands is because it was disassembled and used as fill in the Third Pylon of Amenhotep III at Karnak. When archaeologists discovered the blocks during the twentieth century C.E., they carefully reassembled them.

Temple Complex

The main elements of a temple complex were fairly standard throughout Egypt. The temple area was segregated from profane space by a large brick wall, called a temenos. Entrance into the complex was gained through a gateway called a pylon. The pylon was a pair of high trapezoidal towers flanking a doorway, one on each side of the road leading up to the temple. The only limit on the number of pylons a temple could have was the space available and the resources that the king wanted to expend. Some temple complexes, such as the temple of Amun at Karnak, had ten pylons. For hundreds of years, successive kings would add a pylon to the temple. In front of pylons, tall poles with pennants were raised. Generally four such poles were in front of each pylon, although Karnak had eight. Colossal statues of the king or obelisks could also be set up in front of the pylon. These colossal statues could serve as focal points for the worship of the king. Obelisks were tapering shafts topped with a pyramid-shaped stone called a pyramidion. They were usually made of pink granite, and the pyramidion could be plated in gold. As such, they served as solar symbols, and the pyramidion was perhaps the first and last part of the temple to receive the sun’s rays.

God’s Road

The road to the temple, leading through the pylons, was called the “god’s road.” This was the path the god took when he left his temple in procession during festivals. Beginning with the reign of Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.), this path could be lined with small sphinxes. Smaller gateways, called propylons, could also be built along this pathway. As one passed through the last pylon, one entered the forecourt of the temple, called the “court of the multitude.” This open courtyard was as far as the general public could go. Here devotees could gather to participate in the public aspects of temple festivals. Individuals who received the king’s permission could erect statues of themselves within this courtyard. These statues, serving as proxy for the deceased donor, allowed the donor to continually enjoy the god’s presence and to participate in the offerings donated to the temple.

Interior Design

Passing through the forecourt, one entered the hypostyle hall, called the “fore-hall” or the “great court.” This room was filled with gigantic columns spaced close together. The columns took the form of plants such as palm trees, bundles of papyrus, or lotus stalks, with capitals of papyrus umbels or lotus blossoms (open or closed). The hypostyle hall gave way to the offering chamber, a room containing many small tables and stands set up to receive the offerings for the gods. Next was the barque shrine, a room that included a large platform intended to support the god’s boat when not in use. Egyptian gods generally traveled by boat when they left their temples. These boats were carried on the backs of priests and contained a small shrine to house the portable image of the god. Leaving the barque shrine one enters the inner shrine of the temple, the room that housed the god’s image. As the visitor proceeded from the hypostyle deeper into the temple, the ceiling became progressively lower, and the floor rose slightly. As a result, the main sanctuary of the temple was the highest point on the ground floor. This room had a low roof and was usually totally dark. It contained a small shrine, called a naos, which contained the image of the god. This image could be made of wood, stone, or gold, and has been estimated to be approximately twenty inches high. This image was the focus of the daily temple ritual. Since more than one deity could be worshipped in a temple, there was usually more than one sanctuary. The hypostyle hall, the offering chamber, the barque shrine, and the inner temple room lay along the main axis of the temple, usually oriented east-west. In addition, a temple had subsidiary rooms used for the various functions necessary to the cult. There could be a laboratory, where incense and ointments were prepared; a treasury where sacred vessels were kept; and a room through which libations entered the temple, sometimes called a Nile room.

House of Life

The temple proper was often surrounded by auxiliary buildings such as storehouses, granaries, kitchens, administrative offices, workshops and studios for the manufacture and repair of statues and furniture used in the temple, and dwellings for the priests. One such building was called the “House of Life.” This structure served as the place where texts were studied, copied, and assembled. Priests in the House of Life would prepare the texts that the lector priests would read during the daily temple ceremony. Papyri containing spells for protection for the living and for the dead (Book of the Dead) were also composed there. Medical textbooks and astronomical information were also compiled and copied in the House of Life. Temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (332 B.C.E.-395 C.E.) could include a building that the French Egyptologist J.-F. Champollion called a “mammisi,” meaning birth house, and a sanatorium. A mammisi depicted the events surrounding the conception and birth of a god’s offspring, such as Ihy, son of Horus and Hathor (found at Dendera). A sanatorium was a building to which the sick could be brought to seek healing from the gods or medical treatment from the priests. Here pilgrims could practice incubation, in which they would spend the night in hopes of receiving a dream detailing the cure for their illness or the answer to their problem. A central courtyard of the sanatorium could contain statues covered with magical healing texts, and water poured over these texts was thought to become charged with their power, and was used for drinking or bathing.

Sacred Lake

Within the temenos of each temple was a sacred lake, usually rectangular, filled with ground-water. This water was thought to originate in Nun, the cosmic water of creation, and it served several purposes. The king and priests would purify themselves in the sacred lake before performing rituals in the temple. This water also served to purify the sacred vessels used in the ceremonies, and was a source of water for libations poured out before the gods. Even the fish in the lake were considered important, and one of the sins the king denied when making his denial of guilt at the New Year’s festival was that he had poached fish from the sacred lakes.

Model of the Cosmos

The architectural design of the temple was intended to represent a scale model of the cosmos, the created world. The bricks of the temenos wall were not laid in straight lines, but in undulating rows, giving the effect of a wave. This wall represented Nun, the primordial water surrounding the created universe. The temple itself could be called an akhet(“horizon”), and represented the place where this world and the world of the gods and the deceased came together. The pylons could also be called akhet, and represented the mountains between which the sun rose and set. The two portions of the pylon could also be called Isis and Nephthys or the two Meret goddesses, who were thought to lift the sun out of Nun daily. The pylons could be decorated with scenes of the king smiting his enemies in battle, or engaging in hunting expeditions, all activities that the Egyptians associated with the role of the king as the champion against chaos and guarantor of order. Similar scenes could be carved on the outer walls of the temple, and served to protect the temple from the evil forces of chaos. The floor of the temple was also associated with Nun’s waters, and the large papyrus-shaped columns of the hypostyle hall seemed to grow out of this water. The bases of these columns and interior walls of the temple were frequently decorated with scenes of aquatic plants, papyrus plants, and lilies, as if growing out of the floor of the temple. The ceiling of the temple could be decorated with stars or astronomical texts, or with winged sun disks or vultures, all elements belonging to the sky. The sanctuary containing the god’s image was thought of as both the akhet, the place from which the sun god appeared, and as the sky. The priest opening the shrine each morning was said to “open the doors of heaven.” The steadily rising floor had the effect of rendering the sanctuary the highest point within the temple. As such, it represented the primeval hill, the first land to emerge from the waters of Nun on which creation began.

Temple Ritual

Ensuring Prosperity

Fortunately for the modern scholar, the Egyptians decorated the walls and ceilings of their temples with scenes and texts relating to the activities which went on in the temples. A few papyri relating to the temple rituals have also survived, and by putting the two together, scholars have been able to draw a fairly detailed picture of the rituals that went on within the temple. These rituals fall into two main categories: those which were intended to satisfy the god’s needs, conducted on a daily basis; and those representing the god’s function, either cosmic or political. These were the festivals celebrated during particular times of the year. The Egyptians believed that the well-being of Egypt was dependent on their continued performance of temple rituals. The Papyrus Jumilhac states that “if the gifts are poor on its [the sanctuary’s] tables, then the same thing will happen in the entire country; life will be poor for the living. If the gifts are multiplied in this place, then abundance will happen throughout the entire country, and every belly will be filled with grain.”

Caring for the God

The focus of the daily temple ritual was the care and feeding of the god, mediated through the divine image in the naos. This ritual took essentially the same form in every temple in Egypt. It derived from the ritual for the sun god Re at Heliopolis, and represented the rebirth of the sun each morning. At a later date, elements of Osirian belief were incorporated into the ritual, and it also came to symbolize the restoration and revivification of the dismembered body of Osiris. For the purposes of the ritual, the cult-statue was identified as both Re and Osiris. Modern information regarding the sequence of events of this ritual comes from two main sources: temple reliefs that show the king performing the various rituals of the ceremony, and papyri that list the rituals and the hymns which accompany them. Analysis of these various sources has allowed scholars to reconstruct the likely sequence of events of this ritual. Since all of the sources are not in agreement as to the order of events, scholarly reconstructions differ, depending on which source is taken as a guide.

Colored Cloths

Before dawn, two priests filled containers with water from the sacred well of the temple and replenished all the libation vessels of the temple. Priests were busy in the temple kitchens preparing offerings for the gods. The main officiating priest went to “the house of the morning” where he was ceremonially purified, dressed, given a light meal, and prepared to conduct the morning ceremony. The priest approached the shrine containing the god’s image, and as the sun rose the bolt was drawn back and the door opened. Since only the king was able to confront the god, the officiating priest declared that “it is the king who has sent me to see the god.” Once he had opened the doors to the shrine, the priest prostrated himself before the image. The next step was a ritual purification of the chapel with water and incense in preparation for removing the image from its shrine. At this point, the priest presented a small figure of the goddess Maat to the statue, which symbolized the proper order established for the world at creation. The image was then removed from its shrine, and the clothing and ointment that had been placed on the image the previous day were removed. Priests then placed the deity’s image on a pile of clean sand and purified the shrine with water and incense. Next, a priest applied green and black eye paint to the image and anointed it with several oils. A priest dressed the god in four colored cloths: white, green, blue, and red. The white and red cloths protected the god from his enemies, the blue hid his face, and the green ensured his health. The priest then presented the god with various objects such as his crowns, scepter, crook, flail, and collar. Next he anointed the god’s face, scattered sand around the chapel, and replaced the cult image in the shrine and bolted and sealed the door. Finally the priest performed the final purifications and exited the sanctuary dragging a broom behind him to obliterate his footprints.


At some point during the morning ritual, the offering ritual took place. The purpose of this ritual was to provide the god with his “breakfast.” Some reconstructions of the ritual have it occurring before the final purification of the chapel in preparation for replacing the statue in the shrine, while others would have the offering ritual take place before the undressing and dressing of the statue. In this ritual, the offerings that had been prepared that morning by the priests were presented to the god. Although an enormous meal was prepared for the god consisting of meat, bread, cakes, beer, milk, honey, vegetables, and fruit, only a small part of this repast was actually placed before the statue. An offering formula listing the various items of the offering was recited by the priest, and incense was burned and libations made to purify and sanctify the offerings. Since the god did not actually consume the offerings, but simply partook of their essence, they could be shared with the other deities in the temple. The offerings were also used in the ritual of the royal ancestors, in which the king made offerings to all of his predecessors in office, often depicted in the form of a list of their names. After this ritual, the offerings could then be made to the statues of other individuals found in the temple, and finally they became the property of the priests, who received a share based on their rank in the priestly hierarchy. This reuse of the offerings until they were finally consumed by the priests was called the “reversion of offerings” and was one way in which the priests were compensated for their work.

Threats to Existence

This morning ritual was the main ritual of the day, but less elaborate ceremonies were also held at noon and in the evening. During these rituals, the doors of the sanctuary housing the god’s statue were not opened. These rituals consisted primarily of pouring water libations and burning incense before the shrines of the gods. In addition to these offering rituals, certain protective rituals were conducted in the temples throughout the day and night in order to repel the threats to existence, frequently thought of in terms of Seth, the murderer of Osiris, or Apophis, the serpent who tried to stop the daily voyage of Re and thereby bring an end to creation. Singers sang hymns during the twelve hours of the day and night to protect Re from Apophis and keep the solar barque moving along on its voyage. Artists created images of enemies from wax or clay and then destroyed them, thereby bringing about the enemies’ destruction through magic.


In addition to their daily rituals, temples also celebrated a number of festivals throughout the year. For example, during the reign of Thuthmosis III (1479-1425 B.C.E.), the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak celebrated 54 festival days. Ramesses III’s (r. 1187-1156 B.C.E.) temple at Medinet Habu celebrated sixty festival days. Festivals could last from one to twenty-seven days, and involved large expenditures of food and drink for those participating in or observing the festival. Work records from the village of Deir el-Medina indicate that workers were frequently given days off to allow them to participate in many festivals. During the festival of Sokar, the authorities distributed 3,694 loaves of bread, 410 cakes, and 905 jars of beer. Important festivals included New Year’s Day; the festival of Osiris at Abydos, during which the “mysteries” of this god were celebrated; the festival of Hathor, during which the goddess would visit the royal cult complex, as did the god Sokar during his festival; and the Festival of the Coronation of the Sacred Falcon at Edfu. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley was an important occasion during which Amun-Re traveled from Karnak to the temple at Deir el Bahri and visited the royal cult complexes on the west bank of the Nile, particularly that of the reigning king. This was also an occasion for people to visit the tombs of their relatives, where they observed an all-night vigil and shared a feast among themselves and their deceased relatives.

Barque Shrines

The focus of a festival was the gods in their barque (sailing vessel) shrines. Egyptian gods always traveled in boats, either in real boats when traveling by water, or in barque shrines, carried over land on the shoulders of priests. Festivals could involve the procession of the god in his boat within the temple, or the god could leave the temple to visit another deity. These shrines were carried along processional avenues, often lined with sphinxes. At intervals, small altars were built which were essentially open-ended buildings that contained a station on which the priests could rest the barque. When the porters rested, priests performed fumigations and libations and sang hymns to the god in its boat. Such festivals and processions provided most people with their greatest access to the gods, since the furthest most people were admitted into the temples was the open forecourt. Scholars have long thought that the shrine in the barque containing the god’s image was closed during the procession, hiding the god’s image from onlookers. Recently, one scholar suggested that the doors of the barque shrine were open during such travels, since numerous texts describe the desire of people to see the image of a god during a procession. Egyptians believed that beholding the image of a god during a procession could heal an individual from illness.


It was during such festival processions that people could approach the gods seeking an oracle. The first clear evidence for oracles occurs in the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.). The English Egyptologist John Baines, however, argued that evidence for the existence of oracles occurs much earlier, perhaps as early as the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.). During processions, people could approach the god with a yes-or-no question written on small flakes of limestone or on ostraca that would be placed before the god. Surviving examples of such questions include “Is it he who has stolen this mat?”, “Shall Seti be appointed as priest?”, and “Is this calf good so that I may accept it?” The movement of the barque-shrine as it was carried on the shoulders of the priests indicated the answer, forward for affirmative, backwards for negative.

Temple Personnel


In view of the numerous activities which went on daily in an Egyptian temple, it should come as no surprise that a large staff of priests, priestesses, and other support staff was necessary for the efficient functioning of the temple. For example, the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak employed 81,322 men, while the temple at Heliopolis employed 12,963, and the temple at Memphis a paltry 3,079. Technically, only the king could officiate in the cult before the gods. He was the high priest of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt. In actual practice, the king delegated this responsibility to the priest-hoods of the various gods throughout Egypt. Many priestly appointments came directly from the king. Some priestly appointments could be made by local administrators. Frequently, priestly offices could be inherited. Yet priests could also hold civil offices in addition to their priesthoods.

Priestly Functions

There were two main classes of priests. The higher class of priest was the hem-netjer, “god’s servant.” These priests functioned in the cult before the god’s statue. The Greeks translated hem-netjer as “prophet,” an equation that derived from the priests’ role in interpreting oracles. The lower class of priests was the wabu, or “pure ones.” They carried the god’s barque (sailing vessel); poured water for the various libations required during the temple service; oversaw craftsmen, artisans, or scribes; or served as craftsmen themselves, making such sacred objects as the gods’ sandals. In addition to these two priestly titles, there was a third, the it-netjer, or “god’s father.” It has been suggested that the title “god’s father” was given to senior wab priests who had reached the level of prophet but were not yet formally inducted into that office. One of the it-netjer’s functions seems to have been to walk in front of the god’s image when it was in procession and sprinkle water on the ground in order to purify the path.


Inherent in one of the Egyptian words for priest is the concept of purity. Priests were required to maintain a status of ritual purity while serving in their office. Priests attained and maintained such purity through several means. During the Ramesside Period (1292-1075 B.C.E.), priests had to bathe in the sacred lake of a temple three times a day; the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.) wrote that in his day priests bathed twice a day and twice during the night. Priests had to cleanse their mouths with natron (a salt-like substance) dissolved in water, and remove all hair from their bodies. Herodotus wrote that they shaved their whole bodies every third day. Furthermore they were circumcised. They also had to abstain from sexual activity for several days before entering their service as priests and during the period of their service. While serving in the temple, they were not allowed to wear wool, and were required to wear white sandals. Priests had to observe certain food taboos, which differed from nome (province) to nome. For example, in the Third Upper Egyptian nome, eating fish was forbidden, and in the Sixth Upper Egyptian nome, honey could not be eaten.

Gangs of the Service

Priests were divided into four groups, called “gangs of the service,” to which the Greeks gave the name “phyles.” Each phyle served one lunar month in rotation, so that during the year each gang served for a total of three months, with three months off between each month of service. This free time allowed individuals to hold priesthoods in several temples. The chief priests of a temple were designated by ordinal numbers; the high priest of the temple was called the first prophet, the next most senior priest was the second prophet, followed by a third and a fourth prophet. The high priests of some gods bore special titles. The high priest of Ptah was called “he who is great at directing the crafts.” The high priest of Re was “he who is great at seeing.” The high priest of Thoth was called “the arbitrator between the two,” while the high priest of Khnum was called the “modeler of limbs.” These titles derive from the various spheres of influence or mythological roles these gods played.


In addition to these classes of priests, there were also priestly specialists. The hery-heb (“he who carries the festival roll”) was responsible for reading the hymns and spells which accompanied many of the rituals in the temple. The sesh per-ankh (“scribe of the house of life”) was responsible for copying the papyri used in temple and funerary rituals. Women also played a role in the temple priesthood. During the Old Kingdom, women of high social station could hold the office of priestess (hemet-netjer) of Hathor or of Neith. Prior to era of the New Kingdom, women served as priestesses in the cult of a god, but only rarely, due to the fact that women had numerous other duties in the culture and were not allowed to hold any job that would detract from these duties. Only select women who never married and dedicated themselves to a life of religion were allowed to serve the cult of a god. This changed in the era of the New Kingdom with the introduction of a professional class of priests, members of which gained title and property. Since women could hold no titles nor own property in ancient Egypt, they were no longer able to serve in the role of priestess. Instead they served mainly as musicians, singers, and dancers in the temple.

Personal Religion


Personal piety is not uniformly attested throughout Egyptian history. Before the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.), it is very rare to find a private person depicted on a stele (etched slab of stone) worshipping a deity. Old Kingdom tomb biographies tended to stress the service the tomb owner had performed for the king, and any mention of his deeds for the gods is largely absent. During the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.) the first indications of the belief in divinities that would intervene in the lives of individuals can be found on stelae and inside tombs. Such references are few, however, and seem to be outside the norm of general religious experience. Beginning in the New Kingdom, however, the evidence indicates a much greater emphasis on an individual’s personal relationship with the gods, and the gods’ actions on behalf of the individual. Evidence for such personal piety becomes abundant during the Ramesside period (1292-1075 B.C.E.), and it has been suggested that this is a reaction to the religious upheaval which took place in Egypt during the Amarna period.

Encountering the Gods

A primary locus for the individual’s encounter with the gods was the temple. While most of the temple activities were closed to the public, there were occasions when the gods appeared publicly. During festivals, when the gods left their temples in processions, people had the opportunity to present the gods with questions and receive oracular responses. In addition, there were places set aside within the temple complex where people could approach the gods with their prayers. At the rear of some temples, directly behind the sanctuary of the temple, could be found a chapel of the “hearing ear.” This could vary between an elaborate chapel to a simple niche with a statue of the main god of a temple, or even only a pair of carved ears, representing the god’s ability to hear prayers. There were also places in the gates of the temenos wall (the wall surrounding a temple) where people could make prayers and offering to the gods. The south gate of the temenos wall at Edfu was described as “the standing place of those who have and those who have not, in order to pray for life from the lord of life.” Even the relief images of the gods in the accessible parts of the temple could become the focus of prayers and offerings. Some of these figures show evidence that, at one time, structures were built around some reliefs, forming small shrines, with a shelf for offerings and at times a curtain to conceal the relief.


People would visit a temple for three main purposes: prayer, sacrifice, and dedication of votive offerings. Prayers were generally delivered orally, and began with a low bow, called “kissing the ground.” The petitioner would then kneel or stand, with arms raised, to praise the deity and make their requests. Fortunately, visitors sometimes carved their prayers into the temple as graffiti, which preserved evidence of the types of things people prayed for. People could pray to receive the favor of the gods, or to be loved by their gods. Other requests included the opportunity to go on pilgrimages, to avoid evil-doing, to receive the material necessities of life, good health, and a long lifetime of the ideal 110 years. One man left a prayer for potency and a good wife as a companion. Another left a request that he gain favor in the eyes of a certain female singer in the temple of Amun. Letters written by officials of the Ramesside period away on business to their family members back in Egypt made requests for prayers to be offered on their behalf. One such official, Dhutmose, instructed his family and servants to “please call upon Amun to bring me back, for I have been ill since I arrived north and am not in my normal state. Don’t set your minds to anything else. As soon as my letter reaches you, you shall go to the forecourt of Amun of the Thrones of the Two Lands, taking the little children along with you and coax him and tell him to keep me safe.”


Worshippers did not approach their gods empty-handed. When they visited the temples to offer prayers, they frequently brought sacrifices along as an inducement to the god to grant their requests. Common sacrifices included libations of wine, beer, milk, or water. The presentation of bread, fruit or flowers, or the burning of incense or foodstuffs was also common. Most temple visitors brought their offerings with them, but they could also acquire them at the temple. A more permanent type of offering was the votive offering, a permanent memorial of a prayer to a deity. Votives could include stelae, showing the petitioner praising the god, model ears, or stelae with images of ears, intended to induce the deity to hear the petitioner’s prayers. Other types of offerings included model phalluses, intended to gain fertility for the donor, or small images of deities or cult objects used in the temples.

Public Chapels

Temples were not the only location at which the worship of the gods occurred. The site of Deir el-Medina has preserved the remains of public chapels dedicated to the gods. These chapels show a fairly consistent design. They consisted of an open forecourt leading to a roofed hall, often with one or two pillars, with benches along each side wall. On the benches were seats, seven along one side of the hall, five along the other. Some seats from these chapels were inscribed with the names of individuals. This may indicate that participation in worship in the chapel was by subscription. Some scholars have used these inscriptions at Deir el-Medina to prove the existence of “cult guilds,” in which individuals would enter into a legal contract to band together in the worship of a particular deity. There is written evidence of these guilds in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664-525 B.C.E.), but as yet no written evidence of such societies has turned up for New Kingdom Egypt or for the Deir el-Medina. Moving from the open forecourt, the Deir el-Medina gave way to a small room, called the pronaos, which led to a series of one to three sanctuaries for cult statues, or more probably, stelae (carved or inscribed stone slabs or pillars), to the gods of the shrine. Around the sides of these rooms were subsidiary service rooms or rooms in which the guardian of the chapel could live. The priests who served these chapels were also the workmen who lived at Deir el-Medina and served part-time in the chapel. The chapels were places where worshippers could go to make prayers and offerings, and to receive oracles.

Domestic Shrines

Houses at Amarna, the capital during the reign of Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.), have preserved evidence of domestic shrines. These shrines were located in the garden, surrounded by trees and separated from the rest of the garden by a wall. They consisted of a sloping flight of stairs leading up to a platform, on which was a walled room containing an altar of brick or limestone. Found within these shrines were statues of Akhenaten and his family, or stelae showing the royal family worshipping the Aten. Evidence of domestic shrines can also be found at Deir el-Medina, where the hills around the town are dotted with over fifty tiny shrines arranged in rough rows. These shrines consisted of a few rough stones, arranged to form a back, floor, two sides, and a roof. Sometimes stones marked off a miniature forecourt. Inside each shrine was originally a small stele, commemorating its donor’s dedication to his gods. Additionally, there were places set aside within the house itself where people could worship their gods. The walls of a house could contain niches in which could be placed a stele of a god. Such niches could be fitted with a wooden door, and could be found in any room of the house. Deities particularly popular in such house shrines were Meretseger (protective goddess of the Theban necropolis), Renenutet (goddess of harvest), Sobek (crocodile-god), Amun, Taweret (goddess who protected women during childbirth), and Hathor (mother-goddess). In addition to the gods, stelae depicting deceased relatives or anthropoid busts of such relatives were erected and served as the recipients of offerings. Deceased relatives were worshipped as akh aper (“effective spirits”) and were thought to be able to influence the lives of their living relatives. The nature of the cult carried on in these private venues is not well known. From the images on the stelae, it seems that offerings of incense, food, and libations were made to the gods. The ritual involved in these offerings, or their frequency, is unknown. One suggestion is that a smaller, less elaborate version of the daily temple ritual may have been celebrated, but this is just conjecture.


Religious Worldview

For the ancient Egyptians the matter of ethics was firmly grounded in their religious world view, so much so that one scholar has written that “in the Egyptian’s terms, morality and religion can hardly be separated.” At the basis of all moral and ethical behavior in ancient Egypt was the concept of maat, which was also an essential element of kingship. It was every Egyptian’s duty to conduct his or her life in accordance with maat (truth), and to avoid committing deeds considered isfet (“wrongdoing”) or gereget (“falsehood”), the opposite of maat. In this way, the continued existence and prosperity of Egypt was assured. Our main source of knowledge concerning what behavior was in accordance with maat is the instruction literature from ancient Egypt. These texts, similar to the biblical book of Proverbs, date from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Period (2675 B.C.E.-395 C.E.), and were used as exercises for student scribes. They are portrayed as books of practical wisdom written by famous sages in which they distilled their lifetime of experience concerning which actions were and were not in accordance with maat. Living a life in accordance with the principles of maat was not only good for Egypt, but also good for the individual, and the instruction texts assured the individual that living a life based on maat was the path to success.

Judgment After Death

Maat was not only good for the living, but was also beneficial to a person after death. In The Eloquent Peasant, the peasant exhorts his audience (and the reader) to “speak maat, do maat, for it is great; it is important; it is everlasting; its usefulness will be discovered; it will lead (a person) to a blessed state (after death).” The ancient Egyptians believed in a post-mortem judgment of the individual, symbolized as the weighing of his or her heart against the feather, a writing of the word maat. The earliest hints of such a judgment appear in the Pyramid Texts (2371-2194 B.C.E.), but the first certain reference of a post-mortem ethical judgment is found in the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.) text known as the Teachings for Merykare, where reads “a man survives after death, and his deeds are laid before him in a heap.” In the Coffin Texts, it is the balance of Re which weighs the individual against maat. The idea of post-mortal judgment reaches its peak during the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) in the Book of the Dead, Spell 125. This spell is accompanied by an elaborate scene, showing Osiris presiding over the weighing of the heart of the deceased against the feather of maat, while the 42 judges watch. The god Thoth is present to assure the accuracy of the balance, and to record the results. Standing nearby is the demon Amemet, who swallows the dead. He gobbles up the heart which fails to measure up to maat, assuring the eternal destruction of the sinner.

Negative Confession

In order to prevent the deceased from suffering this fate, the scene was accompanied by a text that scholars call theNegative Confession. This spell consists of two long lists of denials of wrong-doing by the deceased. One list is spoken before Osiris, the other before the 42 assessor demons/judges. A study of the lists reveals the types of activities the Egyptians believed were contrary to maat. Deeds found in the lists include blasphemy, thievery, murder, damaging offerings to the temples, being dishonest in weights and measures, and stealing cattle from the temple herds. Sexual sins such as adultery, pederasty, ejaculation, and copulation (when in violation of purity regulations) also turn up. Less physical offenses include coveting, lying, sulking, “prattling,” and boasting.

Heavy Burden

The negative confession placed a heavy burden on an Egyptian wishing to live a life in accordance with maat. The question has been raised as to what extent the list of offenses in the confession served as a guide to daily life. The purpose of the Book of the Dead was to provide the deceased with safe passage to the afterlife, and by including spell 125 the deceased purchased for himself absolution of his sins. In view of the fact that living a life in accordance with maat was thought to lead to success, and that the declarations of innocence were not made only after death, but by the king during the New Year’s ceremony and by priests entering temples to perform their duties, it is probable that the lists did serve as a general code of conduct for at least some Egyptians.

Gods’ Displeasure

But what happened when someone committed an offense against maat and against the gods? The gods showed their displeasure with an individual by means of a bau (“curse”). A person under the curse of a god could be described as being, as in this Rames-side inscription, “… the abomination of men. The sun does not rise in his presence, while the inundation does not flow for him. He is a mouse surprised by the inundation; he cannot find a place to rest himself. He is a bird caught by the wings by the hand of man; he finds no means of flying away.” One sinner, Neferabu, admits in his stele that he swore falsely by Ptah, and as a result he was made to see darkness by day. He described his condition as that of “the dogs of the street.” The occasion for dedicating the stele was apparently Neferabu’s release from Ptah’s “dog-house.” Other deeds which are recorded as bringing about a manifestation of the gods’ displeasure are stealing, lying, and the most common offense, committed by the hapless Neferabu, swearing a false oath in a god’s name.


Once under a manifestation of a god, a person had to appease the offended deity to have the manifestation removed. This involved confession, as on Neferabu’s stele, making offerings of incense, and perhaps dedicating a votive stele to the god recording praise to the god and promising that the infraction will not occur again. There were occasions, however, when a person fell under the manifestation of a god without knowing what the offense was. In that case, the Egyptian could consult a “wise woman” in his village. One New Kingdom ostracon (inscribed potsherd) from Deir el-Medina records the visit of an unnamed individual to the wise woman who told him “the manifestation of Ptah is with you” because of an oath sworn by his wife. How exactly a wise woman arrived at her information is not recorded. Demotic texts from the Ptolemaic and Roman period record various methods of divination, but whether they were practiced as early as the New Kingdom is unknown.

Rewards and Punishment

The ancient Egyptians had several inducements to live a life in accordance with maat. Those who attended school were taught that the path to success lay in keeping maat. The reward for living a life according to the principles of maat was a pleasant existence in the next life. Finally, those who chose to violate the norms of maat stood in danger of incurring the wrath of an offended god, which could result in blindness or any number of other misfortunes.

Magic in Egyptian Religion


The English word “magic” is the accepted translation of the Egyptian word “heka.” The extent to which the two terms are synonymous, however, has been a subject of much discussion. The English term “magic” tends to carry pejorative connotations that the Egyptian term does not. Frequently “magic” has been opposed to “religion,” the one seen as somehow a debased form of the other. At various times, scholars have seen magic as unauthorized, abnormal, illegal, or as deviant behavior. None of these connotations is present in the Egyptian term. The association of “magic” with “heka” is not an invention of modern scholars, however. Coptic, the last stage of the Egyptian language, written with the Greek alphabet, used the equivalent of heka to translate the Greek terms for magic or magician.


The Egyptian Coffin Texts state that the creator god Atum created heka (“magic”) first of all his creations in order to protect all he had ordained. In the Teachings for Merykare, the king is told that the god had created magic as a weapon for mankind to ward off the blows of events. In view of these Egyptian statements regarding the purpose of magic, Egyptologists have tended to focus on the protective nature of heka in trying to define it. One such definition involves Egyptian heka as actions involving human contact with supernatural/divine powers in order to exploit these powers to deal with specific, unforeseen events. Such events include sickness, scorpion sting, snakebite, safety during childbirth, and threats from a living or dead enemy, evil spirit, or demon. Certain times, such as nighttime during sleep, and the end of the year, were considered particularly dangerous, and required the use of magic as a means of protection. Magic could also be used to induce love.


Practicing magic in ancient Egypt required reliance on the written word, so magicians had to be literate. Most magicians belonged to the ranks of the priesthood, and bore titles such as “Prophet of Heka,” “Chief of Secrets,” or “Lector Priest.” The manuals necessary for the practice of magic, consisting of compilations of spells and instructions on their use, were composed, compiled, and stored in the temple scriptorium called the “House of Life.” While most magicians would have been men, texts from the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina preserve mention of a “wise woman” who may have functioned as a seer.

Magicians in Literature

Egyptian literature does preserve accounts of famous fictional magicians and their incredible deeds. In Khufu and the Magicians, the Old Kingdom king Khufu (2585-2560 B.C.E.) is entertained by his sons with tales of the deeds of great magicians. The lector priest Webaoner was said to have fashioned a crocodile out of wax and brought it to life in order to avenge himself on the townsman who had cuckolded him. The magician Djadjaemonkh performed a feat that would later be duplicated by the biblical Moses when he recited a magic spell to part the waters of a lake. In the Egyptian’s case he performed this feat so that one of the female rowers of the king’s boat could retrieve a pendant she had dropped overboard. The magician Djedi was able to reattach a severed head through the use of a spell. When the king, anxious to see such a fantastic deed, asked for a prisoner to be brought as a test subject, Djedi refused, preferring to perform his feat on a goose rather than a human.

Methods of the Magician

These literary tales serve to highlight the methods used by the magician. The primary tool of the magician was the magic spell. These spells frequently associated the problem at hand with an event or element in the divine world in order to bring about the desired result. A sufferer from scorpion bite would be equated with the infant Horus, who had suffered and been saved from a similar fate. Spells to hasten childbirth equated the mother with Isis, and the infant with Horus. Such spells could be recited over the sufferer, but there were other ways in which a person could make use of a written text. Healing stelae known as cippi had their surfaces covered with magical images and texts and were set up in temples, houses, or tombs. Frequently such stelae were accompanied by basins, and individuals availed themselves of the power of the texts and images by pouring water over the stela and then drinking it. Yet another way of ingesting the power of the written word was by washing off the ink of an inscribed papyrus in a liquid such as water or beer and drinking it or by licking the ink off an inscribed object.

Manipulation of Objects

In addition to written spells, objects also played a role in Egyptian magical practices. Protective wands made of ivory and decorated with images of deities wielding knives served to protect women during childbirth. The names of enemies could be inscribed on images of bound captives known as execration figures or on red pottery and then smashed to bring about the destruction of the enumerated enemies. Images of such enemies could also be drawn on the sockets of doorposts, on the bottoms of sandals, or on foot-stools, so that every step or opening of a door caused the enemy to suffer. As in the story of Webaoner, figurines of animals could be fashioned out of wax in order to accompany a spell. A spell against scorpions involved the fashioning of a scorpion of clay, and another required the creation of a wax cat, presumably an enemy of the scorpion. From the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a spell for the summoning of Thoth involved the creation of a wax baboon.

Funerary Beliefs and Practices


So much of modern knowledge of the ancient Egyptians derives from material recovered from tombs that the misconception that the Egyptians were obsessed with death is common. We are indeed fortunate that the Egyptians decorated their tombs with scenes of daily life, that they included objects from everyday life in their burials, and that they buried their dead with texts of all types, from funerary texts intended to smooth the transition into the next life for the deceased, to literary and even administrative texts. Since the Egyptians buried their dead in the desert west of the Nile, avoiding wasting the scarce arable land, arid conditions have preserved this wealth of material.

The Ka

The ancient Egyptians viewed the individual as the sum of component parts, some of which came into existence at birth and coexisted with the individual throughout life, while others came into existence only at death. The Egyptians were not consistent in their description of these different entities, and it is not always possible to distinguish them clearly from each other. In Egyptian mythology, Khnum the potter god was responsible for the physical creation of the individual. Contemporaneous with the molding of the body, the god also fashioned a double for a person, called a ka. The ka is the life force, the difference between a living and a dead person. It was transmitted from parent to child, and represented that aspect of the deceased individual that was capable of making use of the numerous offerings of food and drink. Prayers accompanying offerings or taking the place of offerings were frequently addressed to the ka of the deceased. A statue of the deceased could serve as an image of the ka, and was placed in the tomb as insurance against the destruction of the body. In the event that occurred, the statue could serve as a stand-in and conduit to transfer the benefits of the offerings to the deceased.

The Ba

After death, the mummified body was placed in the tomb, where it was meant to stay for all eternity. In order to allow the deceased to leave the tomb and visit the world of the living and the gods, another element of the individual was necessary. This was called the ba. The ba was frequently depicted as a jaribu stork, occasionally with a human head. At death, the ba was said to fly away from the deceased. This separation was not permanent, however, since the ba must return to the mummy every night. The image of a person’s separation from his ba came to be used as a description for the condition brought about by drunkenness, or the losing of one’s wits in a stressful situation. The ba provided the deceased with two necessary capabilities: movement, signified by the wings of the ba-bird, and transformation. In order to make the transition to the next life, avoiding the pitfalls that awaited, the deceased often found it useful to transform him or herself into different forms. Spells in the Book of the Dead transformed the deceased into a falcon, lotus, snake, crocodile, or swallow, just to name a few of the forms assumed by the deceased. The ba also provided the dead with the ability to continue to enjoy sexual activity beyond the grave.

The Akh

A third aspect of the deceased individual was the akh, frequently translated as glorified or effective spirit. This was the aspect of an individual that achieved a glorified and exalted status in the next life. It was the spirit that could get things done, as shown by the letters preserved between living Egyptians and their dead relatives. These letters were written on papyrus or in bowls that would have contained offerings to entice the deceased to grant their requests. The letters could ask the dead to cease troubling the living, or to intercede with other spirits in the afterlife on behalf of the living to either bring about or cease a certain activity.


An important aspect of preparing for the afterlife was the construction of the tomb. Tombs could take many forms, including the elaborate pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom kings; rectangular, box-like constructions called mastabas; and tombs cut deep into the rock, known most famously from the Valley of the Kings. The construction of the tomb began as soon as a man had the means to do so. The Instruction of Prince Hardjedef gives this advice: “When you prosper, found your household, take a hearty wife, a son will be born to you. … Make good your dwelling in the graveyard, make worthy your station in the West [another euphemism for the land of the dead].” Whatever its form, the tomb had two main purposes: to house the body and to provide a place where the cult of the deceased could be carried out. This cult took the form of regular offerings and special rituals carried out during particular festivals. The two main parts of the tomb correspond to these two functions. The burial chamber, usually located below ground, housed and protected the body. Above ground was the superstructure, the chapel, which served as the public part of the tomb and was accessible to priests and visitors.

Burial Chamber

The burial chamber frequently contained the equipment necessary for a proper burial and a pleasant afterlife. Inside the burial chamber was the coffin, four canopic jars (containing the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines, which were removed at mummification), shawabti figures (figurines designed to act as stand-ins whenever the deceased was called upon to do any work in the afterlife), amulets, and texts. Objects of daily life that were thought necessary for the comfort of the deceased were also included in the burial chamber. These objects included food containers, furniture, tools, games, clothing, and any other object the deceased could have used. The walls of the burial chamber could be left plain, or be decorated with scenes from daily life, offering scenes, or scenes of the deceased in the afterlife.


The chapel could also take different forms. It could be as simple as a stele erected above the burial; wealthier individuals could have a chapel of many rooms, usually—but not necessarily—above the burial chamber. The focal point of the chapel was a stele called a “false door” by Egyptologists, since it represented a door carved in stone. This door, usually located directly above the burial chamber, was thought to be the place where the ba of the deceased could leave and enter the burial chamber. In front of the door could be found a stone table on which offerings could be left. The sides of the door were frequently engraved with the text of the offering formula, and it was thought that if any passersby would stop and recite the formula on behalf of the deceased, he would be magically provided with nourishment.

Chapel Decorations

The walls of the chapel could be decorated with many types of scenes. Some scenes depicted activities associated with agriculture, such as plowing, planting, and harvesting of crops, and the herding of animals. Scenes showing the processing of foodstuffs include those of brewing beer and making bread. Scenes of daily life include such activities as fishing and fowling, boating and boat-jousting matches, and the manufacturing of goods such as jewelry, chairs, beds, coffins, pottery, or cloth. Other tombs have representations of the funeral procession with mourners. During the First Intermediate Period, chapel walls were rarely decorated with such scenes. Rather, small wooden models depicting the same types of activities were included in the burials. The purpose of the scenes and models was the same: to ensure the deceased a steady supply of those goods he would need in the afterlife.


The focus of all this effort and activity was the mummy (embalmed remains) of the deceased. The English word derives from the Persian word mumia, meaning pitch or bitumen. The word was used at least since the Renaissance to describe the embalmed remains of the Egyptians because they appeared to be covered with pitch. The practice of mummification may have arisen because of the natural drying property of the Egyptian sand. The earliest Egyptian burials, from the Predynastic Period, were simply shallow pits on the desert’s edge. The heat combined with the sand served to dry out the body’s tissues before they could decompose, leaving a considerably lifelike appearance. With the introduction of more elaborate tombs, however, the body was no longer buried in the sand, and as a result quickly decomposed. Consequently, various attempts were made to preserve the body. The mythological justification for the process of mummification derives from the myth of the god Osiris. After Osiris had been dismembered by his brother Seth, Isis traveled throughout Egypt gathering up the pieces of his body. The god of embalming, Anubis, then reassembled the pieces and rejuvenated the body of Osiris to allow him to sire a son with Isis. Each deceased Egyptian was thought to become an Osiris, and by reenacting the same mummification process, to gain renewed life, as Osiris did.

Methods of Mummification

The earliest example of mummification dates to the Fourth-dynasty (2675-2500 B.C.E.) burial of Queen Hetepheres, the wife of Sneferu (2625-2585 B.C.E.) and mother of Khufu. Throughout Egyptian history, several different methods of mummification were used, depending on what the deceased or his family could afford. An elaborate mummification could have proceeded along the following lines. First, the corpse was taken to the Per-Nefer, the House of Mummification, where it was placed on the embalming table. This table was supposed to resemble the one on which Osiris had been placed after his death. The table is frequently shown with lion’s feet. Next, the brain was removed through the nose and thrown away. The Egyptians did not recognize the significance of the brain, and thought it of no use. The embalmer, known as the ut -priest, made a cut in the left side of the abdomen of the mummy and removed the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The organs were wrapped separately and each one was placed in its own jar. These jars were buried in the tomb with the mummy, often in a special chest. At times, the heart was removed and carefully wrapped and returned to its place. At other times, it was simply left in place. Near the heart the embalmer could place a “heart scarab,” an amulet containing a protective spell. The body cavity was packed with linen and other stuffing material. The body was packed and covered with dry natron, a salt-like compound used to dry out the body. This process took about forty days, after which the natron was removed and the body cavity was packed with linen bags of sawdust or myrrh soaked in resin. Then the abdominal incision was sewn shut. Priests rubbed the body with a mixture of cedar oil, wax, natron, and gum, and sprinkled it with spices. They smeared the skin with molten resin which, when hardened, kept moisture out of the body. The last step was wrapping the body with linen. This could involve the use of hundreds of yards of linen. Beginning in the Thirtieth Dynasty (381-343 B.C.E.), scribes wrote texts from the Book of the Dead on some of the mummy bandages. During the wrapping process, priests included amulets on the mummy to protect it. Throughout the whole process, priests recited the appropriate incantations at each stage of the mummification. Some of these spells have been preserved on papyri. For example, after anointing the head of the mummy with good quality resin, the embalming priest was to recite the following: “Ho, Osiris N [N represents the name of the deceased], resin which came forth from Punt is on you in order to make your odor agreeable as the divine scent. The efflux which comes forth from Re is on you in order to make [your odor] agreeable in the broad hall of the Two Truths.” According to the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.) the process of making a mummy took seventy days, this number deriving from the number of days the star Sirius was invisible. In actuality, the mummification could last anywhere from thirty to over 200 days. Once the mummy was completed, the funeral could begin.

Funeral Procession

The funeral began when the coffin of the deceased left his house. It could be carried by pallbearers or drawn on a sledge. The family of the deceased accompanied the procession, and they were said to be in a state of mourning. Tomb scenes show these individuals pulling at their hair, throwing dust on their heads, and collapsing from grief. Men and women mourned separately, men outside, and women inside the home. Two women fulfilled the roles of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who mourned for Osiris. The wife of the deceased usually took the part of Isis. Also present were the embalmer, lector priest, and the Sem-priest. Since most Egyptians lived on the east bank of the Nile, and most cemeteries were located on the west bank, a trip to the necropolis required travel by water. The west was also the location of the land of the dead, since the sun set in the west. When the procession reached the river, the mourners placed the coffin on a barge and towed it to the wabet, the “place of purification” on the west bank of the Nile. In the wabet, various rituals of purification were carried out. From there, they again placed the coffin on a sledge which was drawn by oxen to the tomb.

Opening of the Mouth

At the tomb the Sempriest purified the deceased, and the lector-priest performed the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The Opening of the Mouth ritual restored the vital faculties which the deceased had lost, and allowed him to make use of the funerary offerings. This ritual derived from the statue workshops of Memphis, and was originally used to animate statues of the gods after they were complete. Through a series of ritual passes made with an adze (a cutting tool), the priest opened the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth of the deceased, restoring his or her senses and faculties. Priests recited glorification spells in order to help the deceased transform into a glorified akh. The offering ritual involved the presentation of food, drink, incense, and many other goods before the false door of the tomb. The text stresses that the deceased has his own heart. This was essential, since in the final judgment before Osiris it was the deceased’s heart that the gods weighed in the balance against the feather of maat. If the heart failed to measure up to maat, it and the deceased would be devoured by the demon Ammit. This is why the heart was often carefully wrapped and replaced in the chest cavity of the mummy. The heart scarab frequently placed inside the chest was engraved with a spell to prevent the heart from opposing the deceased in the tribunal before Osiris. Completion of the rites of mummification and burial are what allowed the deceased to acquire the status of netjer, divine being.

Funerary Foundations

We have seen that at burial the deceased was the recipient of offerings of food and drink. The need for such sustenance lasted far beyond the funeral, however. In order to ensure that he would have a steady supply of offerings to support him in the afterlife, an Egyptian would endow a foundation with land or with the income from a priestly office that he held. Usually, this endowment went to the eldest son of the deceased, called his “beloved son” on the condition that some of the income from the endowment went to provide offerings for the deceased. Such individuals functioned as “ka-priests” for the deceased. Such offices could be bequeathed to descendants of the ka priest for generations. During the New Kingdom, an individual who had royal permission could set up a statue of himself in the temple precincts, and through the intermediary of this statue share in the prayers and offerings which went on in the temple.

Family Memorials

Although the dead were buried in the necropolis, they did not cease to form part of an Egyptian’s family. During certain religious festivals, the dead received special offerings. During the New Kingdom, at the “Feast of the Valley,” families would cross over to the west bank of the Nile to visit the tombs of their relatives, and hold picnics within their chapels. Within the home, busts of deceased relatives as “effective spirits” could be set up, and were the focal point of prayers and offerings. According to Egyptian thought, the deceased still influenced the lives of the living, hence the necessity to make sure that their needs were satisfied.

The Egyptian Afterlife

Destinations of the King

Information concerning the Egyptian ideas of the hereafter comes from the texts buried with the dead and the illustrations found on tomb walls. As with so much in Egyptian religion, there was no single destination, but a multiplicity of destinations, all of which an Egyptian wished to reach after death. The earliest postmortem destination was celestial, and in the Pyramid Texts it was the deceased king’s goal to ascend to the sky to live as a star among the circumpolar stars which never set. In Spell 1455 and 1456, the king states “I am a star which illuminates the sky; I mount up to the god that I may be protected, for the sky will not be devoid of me and this earth will not be devoid of me for ever. I live beside you, you gods of the Lower Sky, the Imperishable Stars. …” In addition to ascending to the sky as a star, an Old Kingdom pharaoh also wished to ascend to the sky to assume a seat in the barque (sailing vessel) of the sun-god Re. Re was thought to travel throughout the sky in his solar barque by day, and through the underworld at night. By taking a seat in the solar barque, the deceased king was allowed to participate in the eternal, rejuvenating voyage of the sun. Yet another destination for the deceased king was the underworld kingdom of Osiris. Osiris, after his death at the hands of his brother Seth, became the ruler of the Egyptian underworld. As a result of undergoing the ritual of mummification and burial, the dead king becomes identified with Osiris, and as such became the ruler of the underworld.

Private Individuals

After death, the private Egyptian expected to continue to enjoy a life very much like that which he had experienced on earth, judging from the types of burial goods included in the tombs, and the scenes found on tomb walls. Towards the end of the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.), however, the formerly exclusively royal prerogatives of the afterlife became available to private individuals as well. During the First Intermediate Period (2130-2008 B.C.E.) and Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.), the idea of a postmortem life in the underworld realm of Osiris became more prominent, but was not the exclusive goal of the deceased. The New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.E.) Book of the Deadplaced even more emphasis on the Osirian hereafter.

Dangerous Journey

The journey to the realm of Osiris was fraught with danger. The paths of the underworld were guarded by knife-wielding demons that lay in wait for the unprepared dead. At times these demons guarded gates through which the deceased had to pass. In addition, these gates could be guarded by encircling walls of flame. During the New Kingdom, the number of gates through which the dead had to pass was variously given as seven (Book of the Dead Spell 147) or twenty-one (Book of the Dead Spells 145 and 146). The key to safely negotiating these dangers was a knowledge of the names of the demons and obstacles which one was likely to encounter. Knowing their names rendered them unable to harm the deceased. Such knowledge was available in the texts buried with the deceased.

Field of Reeds

After finally reaching the Hall of Osiris, the deceased had to undergo the final judgment and the weighing of his heart against the feather of maat (truth) in the presence of Osiris and the 42 judges of the afterlife. If the applicant passed successfully, he was admitted to the paradise of Osiris, referred to as the “Field of Reeds” or “Field of Offerings.” This realm was modeled on Egypt itself. The land was crisscrossed by irrigation canals, and the deceased was responsible for such agricultural tasks as plowing, sowing, and reaping. Since this was paradise, the fruits of such labor were much greater. Wheat was said to grow to a height of five cubits (2.29 meters), with ears two cubits (.91 meters) in length. Barley grew seven cubits (3.2 meters) high, with ears of three cubits (1.37 meters). In order to avoid performing such backbreaking labor personally, the well-prepared Egyptian was buried with a number of shawabti-figurines, which responded for him or her when the deceased was called on to do manual labor in the afterlife.

Beginning of a New Day

Although the idea of spending the afterlife in the company of Osiris was prominent in the Book of the Dead, the idea of spending eternity in the solar barque (sailing vessel) with Re had not disappeared. Beginning with the Eighteenth-dynasty tomb of Thuthmosis I (r. 1493-1481 B.C.E.), a new type of funerary text made its appearance, the so-calledUnderworld Books. Included in this category are such works as the Amduat (“That Which is in the Underworld”), theBook of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Book of the Earth. These works describe the sun’s journey through the underworld, which begins at sunset and concludes with the sun’s rise from the waters of Nun, rejuvenated and ready to begin a new day. The underworld was divided into twelve sections, corresponding to the twelve hours of the night. During this time, Re, as the sun, bestows his life-giving rays on the dead who inhabit the underworld. Re travels through the underworld in his barque that sails on the waters of Nun, the primeval ocean. At times, hostile creatures try to stop the barque, but due to the efforts of Re’s entourage, they fail. At sunrise, Re successfully completes his journey through the underworld, bringing life and light to its inhabitants, including Osiris, and begins the new day rejuvenated.

The Damned

Not all the dead, however, were allowed to share in the life-giving rays of the sun during the night. The lowest level of the underworld was reserved for the damned, those who had not successfully passed the final judgment. These unfortunate individuals become identified with the enemies of Osiris and Re, and are consigned to the Hetemit (“Place of Destruction”). There they suffer decapitation and dismemberment, including removal of the genitals and heart. They are suspended upside down, with their severed heads between their feet. Other scenes show them being boiled in cauldrons heated by fire-breathing snakes, or being incinerated directly by such serpents. They are doomed to spend eternity submerged in the “Lake of Fire.” Perhaps worst of all, not only are their bodies subject to torture and destruction, but so are their bas. Scenes from the underworld depict the bas of the condemned dead, represented by the ba-bird hieroglyph, being boiled in cauldrons. Through these means these unfortunate Egyptians, whose crimes are not known, were consigned to oblivion.