Religion was very important to the Ancient Egyptians. Their religion was strongly influenced by tradition, which caused them to resist change. "Egyptians did not question the beliefs which had been handed down to them; they did not desire change in their society. Their main aim throughout their history was to emulate the conditions which they believed had existed at the dawn of creation" (Pg. 81, David, 1988). One of the very strong traditions was that of Divine Kingship. Divine Kingship is the belief that the Pharaoh was not only the King (political ruler) but also a god. The Pharaoh was associated with Horus, son of Re the sun god. Later it was believed that at death he became Osiris, or an Osiris, and would help the Egyptians in their afterlife.
Due to their beliefs, the Pharaoh held an immense amount of power. In addition, the priests in Ancient Egypt were also very powerful. When things were going well, the people believed the priest and pharaoh were doing their jobs well; when things in the country were not going well, the people believed the pharaoh and the priest were to blame.
The religion of Ancient Egypt was a polytheistic (many gods) religion with one short period of monotheism (one god). Their religion hosted about 700 different gods and goddesses. In addition, it was not uncommon for deities to be combined to form a new deity.
One of the more famous aspects of the Egyptian religious beliefs was their ideas of the afterlife. They believed the physical body had to be preserved to allow a place for their spirit to dwell in the afterlife. Because of this, mummification was performed to preserve the body. In addition, large pyramids were constructed as tombs for the pharaohs in the Old Kingdom. Later, rock cut tombs were used to bury the pharaohs.
Egyptians believed that the body was the link to a spiritual existence in the afterlife. The body was mummified so the spirit could get needed food and drink in the afterlife. In case the body was destroyed or damaged, magical spells were placed on a statue of the deceased so the spirit could continue to have their needs met.
The Egyptian spirit is divided into 5 parts: the heart, shadow, name, soul and vital spark
Ib = heart
An important part of the Egyptian soul was thought to be the Ib (jb), or heart. The Ib or metaphysical heart was believed to be formed from one drop of blood from the child's mothers heart, taken at conception. To Ancient Egyptians, it was the heart and not the brain that was the seat of emotion, thought, will and intention. In Egyptian religion, the heart was the key to the afterlife.
Sheut = shadow
A person's shadow, Sheut (šwt in Egyptian), was always present. It was believed that a person could not exist without a shadow, nor a shadow without a person, therefore, the shadow was represented graphically as a small human figure painted completely black as well, as a figure of death, or servant of Anubis.
Ren = name
As a part of the soul, a person's ren (rn 'name') was given to them at birth and the Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken, which explains why efforts were made to protect it and the practice of placing it in numerous writings. The greater the number of places a name was used, the greater the possibility it would survive to be read and spoken.
Ba = Soul
The 'Ba' is in some regards the closest to the contemporary Western religious notion of a soul, but it also was everything that makes an individual unique, similar to the notion of 'personality'. (In this sense, inanimate objects could also have a 'Ba', a unique character, and indeed Old Kingdom pyramids often were called the 'Ba' of their owner). Like a soul, the 'Ba' is an aspect of a person that the Egyptians believed would live after the body died, and it is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the 'Ka' in the afterlife.
The word 'bau, plural of the word ba, meant something similar to 'impressiveness', 'power', and 'reputation', particularly of a deity. When a deity intervened in human affairs, it was said that the 'Bau' of the deity were at work. In this regard, the ruler was regarded as a 'Ba' of a deity, or one deity was believed to be the 'Ba' of another.
Ka = vital spark
The Ka was the Egyptian concept of vital essence, that which distinguishes the difference between a living and a dead person, with death occurring when the ka left the body. The Egyptians believed that Khnum created the bodies of children on a potter's wheel and inserted them into their mothers' bodies. Depending on the region, Egyptians believed that Heket or Meskhenet was the creator of each person's Ka, breathing it into them at the instant of their birth as the part of their soul that made them be alive. This resembles the concept of spirit in other religions.
The Egyptians also believed that the ka was sustained through food and drink. For this reason food and drink offerings were presented to the dead, although it was the kau (k3w) within the offerings that was consumed, not the physical aspect. The ka was often represented in Egyptian iconography as a second image of the king, leading earlier works to attempt to translate ka as double.
Mummification was a long and expensive process. A person would need to have a tomb built, gather necessary objects to place in the tomb, and their son or a preist would have to be appointed to bring offering for the deaseased on a daily bases. In the Old Kingdom, it was a process reserved primarily for the Pharaoh and his top advisors. In the Middle and New Kingdoms, the Egyptians came to believe that the afterlife extended to the general population. The expense still limited full procedure to those who were finanically well off in the society. For the poor, a shallow grave near the desert was common. The dry, hot climate often caused natural mummification.
Gods & Goddesses
Egyptian religion has over 700 gods and goddesses with a variety of beliefs depending on the time period of Egyptian history which is being studied. Even the Egyptian recognized the difficulty of following the multitude of gods and goddesses as early as the Old Kingdom. They attempted to simplify the religion by organize their gods in family groups of eight or nine.
Evidence is very limited on Predynastic Egypt (before 3100 B.C.). What we do know would suggest that early Egyptian developed local cults of worship often centered around animals. Each community would worship it's own deity or set of deities.
After the unification of Egypt, (3100 B.C.) their religion was polytheistic with one exception during the reign of Akhenaten. During this time the Pharaoh Akhenaten changed the religion of Egypt to be monotheistic, worshiping only Aten, his patron god. His changes lasted only during his reign and were changed back to earlier practices after his death. The Egyptian gods can be divided into two main categories; household gods and local, state or national gods.
Household gods were often worshipped at shrines located in peoples living quarters. These gods often lacked cult followers, priests or temples at which they were worshipped. None the less these gods were of key importance to the general population, in that the state and national gods often seemed distant. Two of the most well known household gods were Bes and Tauert.
Local and state gods were the main deity or deities in certain locations in Egypt. For example, the crocodile god was worshiped mostly in the Fayoum and at Kom Ombo. From the group of local and state gods, some would gain national recognition and would be worshiped throughout Egypt. For example Re, the sun god, began to become national recognized as early as the second dynasty. To add to the mix, gods were sometimes combined with others to make a new deity to be worshipped. For example Re was combined with the state god Amun to become Amen-Re during the New Kingdom Era.
The national gods were often promoted by the reigning pharaohs preferences. For the common people, worship of the local or household gods was most common. People may also chose to worship gods which could help them in their occupation. For example a scribe often chose Thoth as their primary deity. Thoth was the patron god of scribes and writing.
There are several creation myths which developed in various locations in Egypt. The myths all had at the center of their story a primordial mound know as the "Island of Creation." It was the goal of religion to recreate this time which caused the Egyptians to be very traditional in their beliefs. Each of the major creation myths claimed that the temple of their local god/s was the physical location of the island.
The Heliopolitan Myth developed in Heliopolis and centered around Re-Atum as the key god figure. According to the myth, Re-Atum willed himself into existence. From him, Shu, the god of air and Tefnut, the god of moisture, were created. These two in turn had Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky god. From these the god of the elements were able to produce creation. In turn, these two produced Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. This myth was the most widely accepted and famous of the creation myths.
Later, myths developed in the New Kingdom. One developed in Karnak at the temple of Amen-Re. This one claimed that Amen-Re was the creator of man and the gods. Another one in the new Kingdom from Khnum the ram headed god of Elephantine. This myth has Khnum creating man on his potters wheel.
The role of the priest was very important in Egyptian Society. The Egyptians believed the gods lived in the temples. Only the priest was allowed to enter the sacred area of the temple and approach the statue representing the god or goddess. The people could pray at the gate or in the court to the Pharaoh who acted as a go-between the people and the gods.
The priests role was to care for the needs of the god/goddess. They have no role to oversee or care for the people of Egypt. They did not try to educate the people on the religion or look after their morals.
The priest would care for the god in the following ways:
In the morning, the high priest breaks the seal, lights a torch to walk the god, says prayers, lights incense, washes the statue (which may be solid gold), places fresh clothing and jewels on it and places offerings of food and drink near it. Singers offer hymns of praise to the god. At the end of the day, the priest backs out of the shrine, sweeping away his footprints as he goes, and seals the sacred area again. (Pg. 43 Day, 2001)
The Egyptians believed the priest played a vital role in providing for the needs of the gods. If their duties were neglected, it was believed problems would arise. Due to the importance of their role for the society, priests were well compensated.
"For much of Egyptian history, there was no class of full-time professional priests." (Redford, 2002, pg 315). Many of the priest were classified as lay priest A lay priest is part-time and would hold another job often in a position in the state or local governments. The lay priests were especially common in small communities. Lay priests served on a rotation system. Normally, there were four equally staffed groups of lay priests. Each group would serve for a month and then return to their other occupation for three months.
New priests were often chosen by the Pharaoh. Often, the Pharaoh would choose relatives to fill positions in the most powerful and influential temples. Many of the positions of priests were hereditary and remained as an inheritance in certain families. The Pharaoh would have the power to transfer or promote a priest the majority of the time. At times, they may have been selected by a committee of priests. Priests had certain requirements to meet while they were "on duty." They were only allowed to wear linens or clothing made of plants. Articles of clothing that were made from animals were not permitted. They were required to shave their heads and bodies daily. Cold water baths were taken several times a day. They had to practice sexual abstinence while performing their duties at the temple.
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