Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 1

Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 1
Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 1

The Gods

Egyptian religion was polytheistic. The gods who inhabited the bounded and ultimately perishable cosmos varied in nature and capacity. The word netjer (“god”) described a much wider range of beings than the deities of monotheistic religions, including what might be termed demons. As is almost necessary for polytheism, gods were neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. Their power was immeasurably greater than that of human beings, and they had the ability to live almost indefinitely, to survive fatal wounds, to be in more than one place at once, to affect people in visible and invisible ways, and so forth.

Most gods were generally benevolent, but their favor could not be counted on, and they had to be propitiated and encouraged to inhabit their cult images so that they could receive the cult and further the reciprocity of divine and human. Some deities, notably such goddesses as Neith, Sekhmet, and Mut, had strongly ambivalent characters. The god Seth embodied the disordered aspects of the ordered world, and in the 1st millennium BCE, he came to be seen as an enemy who had to be eliminated (but would remain present).

The characters of the gods were not neatly defined. Most had a principal association, such as that of Re with the sun or that of the goddess Hathor with women, but there was much overlap, especially among the leading deities. In general, the more closely circumscribed a deity’s character, the less powerful that deity was. All the main gods acquired the characteristics of creator gods. A single figure could have many names; among those of the sun god, the most important were Khepri (the morning form), Re-Harakhty (a form of Re associated with Horus), and Atum (the old, evening form). There were three principal “social” categories of a deity: gods, goddesses, and youthful deities, mostly male.

Gods had regional associations, corresponding to their chief cult places. The sun god’s cult place was Heliopolis, Ptah’s was Memphis, and Amon’s was Thebes. These were not necessarily their original cult places. The principal cult of Khnum, the creator god who formed people from clay like a potter, was Elephantine, and he was the lord of the nearby First Cataract. His cult is not attested there before the New Kingdom, however, even though he was important from the 1st dynasty (c. 2925–2775 BCE). The main earlier sanctuary there belonged to the goddess Satet, who became Khnum’s companion. Similarly, Mut, the partner of Amon at Thebes seems to have originated elsewhere.

Deities had principal manifestations, and most were associated with one or more species of animal. For gods, the most important forms were the falcon and bull, and for goddesses the cow, cobra, vulture, and lioness. Rams were widespread, while some manifestations were as modest as the millipede of the god Sepa. Some gods were very strongly linked to particular animals, as Sebek was with the crocodile and Khepri with the scarab beetle. Thoth had two animals, the ibis, and the baboon. Some animal cults were only partly integrated with specific gods, notably the Ram of Mendes in the Delta and the Apis and Mnevis bulls at Memphis and Heliopolis, respectively. Animals could express aspects of a deity’s nature: some goddesses were lionesses in their fiercer aspect but were cats when mild.

These variable forms relate to aspects of the person that was common to gods and people. The most significant of these was the ka, which was the vital essence of a person that was transmitted from one generation to the next, the ba, which granted freedom of movement and the ability to take on different forms, principally in the next world, and the akh, the transfigured spirit of a person in the next world.

The chief form in which gods were represented was human, and many deities had only a human form. Among these deities were very ancient figures such as the fertility god Min and the creator and craftsman Ptah. The cosmic gods Shu, of the air and sky, and Geb, of the earth, had human form, as did Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys, deities who provided a model of human society. In temple reliefs, the gods were depicted in human form, which was central to decorum. Gods having animal manifestations were therefore shown with a human body and the head of their animal. The opposite convention, a human head, and an animal body were used for the king, who was shown as a sphinx with a lion’s body. Sphinxes could receive other heads, notably those of rams and falcons, associating the form with Amon and Re-Harakhty. Demons were represented in more extravagant forms and combinations; these became common in the 1st millennium BCE. Together with the cult of animals, they were mocked by Greek and Roman writers.

Apart from major deities—gods who received a cult or had a significant cosmic role—there were important minor figures. Several of these marginal beings had grotesque forms and variable names. The most prominent was Bes, a helpful figure with dwarf form and a masklike face, associated especially with women and children, and Taurt, a goddess with similar associations whose physical form combined features of a hippopotamus and a crocodile. Among demons, the most important figure was Apophis, shown as a colossal snake, who was the enemy of the sun god in his daily cycle through the cosmos. Apophis existed outside the ordered realm; he had to be defeated daily, but, since he did not belong to the sphere of existence, he could not be destroyed.

Groupings of deities

The number of deities was large and was not fixed. New ones appeared, and some ceased to be worshipped. Deities were grouped in various ways. The most ancient known grouping is the ennead, which is probably attested from the 3rd dynasty (c. 2650–2575 BCE). Enneads were groups of nine deities, nine being the “plural” of three (in Egypt the number three symbolized plurality in general); not all enneads consisted of nine gods.

The principal ennead was the Great Ennead of Heliopolis. This was headed by the sun god and creator Re or Re-Atum, followed by Shu and Tefnut, deities of air and moisture; Geb and Nut, who represented earth and sky; and Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. This ordering incorporated a myth of creation, to which was joined the myth of Osiris, whose deeds and attributes ranged from the founding of civilization to kinship, kingship, and succession to office. The ennead excluded the successor figure, Horus, son of Osiris, who is essential to the meaning of the myth. Thus, the ennead has the appearance of a grouping that brought together existing religious conceptions but was rather arbitrary and inflexible, perhaps because of the significance of the number nine.

Other numerical ordering schemas included the Ogdoad (group of eight gods) of Hermopolis, which embodied the inchoate world before creation and consisted of four pairs of male and female deities with abstract names such as Darkness, Absence, and Endlessness. Here too the number was significant in itself because at least six different pairs of names are known although eight deities are listed in any occurrence. The major god Amon, whose name can mean “He who is hidden,” was often one of the ogdoads with his female counterpart, Amaunet.

The most common grouping, principally in the New Kingdom and later was the triad. The archetypal triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus exhibit the normal pattern of a god and a goddess with a youthful deity, usually male. Most local centers came to have triads, the second and third members of which might be devised for the sake of form. Thus, one triad worshipped in the Greco-Roman-period temple at Kawm Umbū (Kôm Ombo) consisted of Haroeris (the “elder Horus”), the goddess Tsenetnofret (“the perfect companion”), and the youthful god Pnebtawy (“the lord of the two lands”). The last name, which is an epithet of kings, is revealing because youthful gods had many attributes of kings. As this case indicates, triads resemble a minimal nuclear family, but deities were rarely spouses. The notion of plurality and the bringing together of the essential types of deities may have been as important to the triads as the family analogy.

Another important ordering of deities was syncretism, a term with a special meaning for Egyptian religion. Two or more names of gods were often combined to form a composite identity; many combinations included the name of Re. Prominent examples are Amon-Re, a fusion of Amon and Re, and Osiris-Apis, a fusion of Osiris with the Apis Bull. Although composite forms such as Amon-Re became the principal identities of some gods, the separate deities continued to exist and sometimes, as in the case of Re, received a cult. In part, these syncretisms expressed the idea of Amon in his aspect as Re; they were thus analogous to the multiple manifestations of individual deities. Through syncretism, many major deities came to resemble one another more closely.


Myths are poorly known. The religious discourse was recorded in hymns, rituals, temple scenes, and specialized texts but rarely in the narrative, which only slowly became a commonly written genre and never had the highest literary prestige. In addition, much religious activity focused on constant reiteration or repetition rather than on development. A central example of this tendency is the presentation of the cycle of the sun god through the sky and the underworld, which was an analogy for the creation, maturity, decay, and regeneration of individual life and of the cosmos. This is strikingly presented in the underworld books. These pictorial and textual compositions, which probably imparted secret knowledge, were inscribed in the tombs of New Kingdom kings. They describe the solar cycle in great detail, including hundreds of names of demons and of deities and other beings who accompanied the sun god in his barque on his journey through night and day. The texts are in the present tense and form a description and a series of tableaux rather than a narrative.

The fact that mythical narratives are rare does not imply that myths or narratives did not exist. There is reason to think that some myths underlay features of enneads and therefore had originated by the Early Dynastic period (c. 3000 BCE). Mythical narratives preserved from the New Kingdom and later include episodes of the rule of the sun god on earth, tales of the childhood of Horus in the delta marshes, and stories with themes similar to the Osiris myth but with differently named protagonists. The rule of the sun god was followed by his withdrawal into the sky, leaving people on earth. The withdrawal was motivated by his age and by the lack of tranquility in the world. One narrative recounts how Isis obtained a magical substance from Re’s senile dribbling and fashioned from it a snake that bit him; to make her still the agony of the snakebite, he finally revealed to her the secret of his “true” name. A myth with varied realizations recounts how Re grew weary of humanity’s recalcitrance and dispatched his daughter or “Eye” to destroy them. Regretting his action later, he arranged to have the bloodthirsty goddess tricked into drunkenness by spreading beer tinted the color of blood over the land. This myth provides an explanation for the world’s imperfection and the inaccessibility of the gods. In Greco-Roman times it was widespread in Lower Nubia, where it seems to have been related to the winter retreat of the sun to the Southern Hemisphere and its return in the spring.


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