Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 2

Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 2
Secrets of ancient Egyptian religion: Chapter 2

Most cults centered on the daily tending and worship of an image of a deity and were analogous to the pattern of human life. The shrine containing the image was opened at dawn, and then the deity was purified, greeted and praised, clothed, and fed. There were several further services, and the image was finally returned to its shrine for the night. 

Apart from this activity, which took place within the temple and was performed by a small group of priests, there were numerous festivals at which the shrine and image were taken out from the sanctuary on a portable barque, becoming visible to the people and often visiting other temples. Thus, the daily cult was a state concern, whose function was to maintain reciprocity between the human and the divine, largely in isolation from the people. This reciprocity was fundamental because deities and humanity together sustained the cosmos. If the gods were not satisfied, they might cease to inhabit their images and retreat to their other abode, the sky. Temples were constructed as microcosms whose purity and wholeness symbolized the proper order of the larger world outside.

The priesthood became increasingly important. In early periods there seem to have been no full-time professional priests; people could hold part-time high priestly offices, or they could have humbler positions on a rotating basis, performing duties for one month in four. The chief officiant may have been a professional. While performing their duties, priests submitted to rules of purity and abstinence. One result of this system was that more people were involved in the cult and had access to the temple than would have been the case if there had been a permanent staff. Although most priestly positions were for men, women were involved in the cult of the goddess Hathor, and in the New Kingdom and later many women held the title of “chantress” of a deity (perhaps often a courtesy title); they were principally involved in musical cult performances.

Festivals allowed more direct interaction between people and the gods. Questions were often asked of a deity, and a response might be given by a forward or backward movement of the barque carried on the priests’ shoulders. Oracles, of which this was one form, were invoked by the king to obtain sanctions for his plans, including military campaigns abroad and important appointments. Although evidence is sparse, consultation with deities may have been part of religious interaction in all periods and for all levels of society.

Apart from this interaction between deities and individual people or groups, festivals were times of communal celebration, and often of the public reenactment of myths such as the death and vindication of Osiris at Abydos or the defeat of Seth by Horus at Idfū. They had both a personal and a general social role in the spectrum of religious practice.

Nonetheless, the main audience for the most important festivals of the principal gods of the state held in capital cities may have been the ruling elite rather than the people as a whole. In the New Kingdom, these cities were remodeled as vast cosmic stages for the enactment of royal-divine relations and rituals.


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