While the Egyptians had no unified religious scripture, they produced many religious writings of various types. Together the disparate texts provide a very extensive, but still incomplete, understanding of Egyptian religious practices and beliefs.
Egyptian myths were metaphorical stories intended to illustrate and explain the gods' actions and roles in nature. The details of the events they recounted could change to convey different symbolic perspectives on the mysterious divine events they described, so many myths exist in different and conflicting versions.Mythical narratives were rarely written in full, and more often texts only contain episodes from or allusions to a larger myth. Knowledge of Egyptian mythology, therefore, is derived mostly from hymns that detail the roles of specific deities, from ritual and magical texts which describe actions related to mythic events, and from funerary texts which mention the roles of many deities in the afterlife. Some information is also provided by allusions in secular texts. Finally, Greeks and Romans such as Plutarch recorded some of the extant myths late in Egyptian history.
Among the significant Egyptian myths were the creation myths. According to these stories, the world emerged as a dry space in the primordial ocean of chaos. Because the sun is essential to life on earth, the first rising of Ra marked the moment of this emergence. Different forms of the myth describe the process of creation in various ways: a transformation of the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world, as the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah, and as an act of the hidden power of Amun. Regardless of these variations, the act of creation represented the initial establishment of maat and the pattern for the subsequent cycles of time.
The most important of all Egyptian myths was the myth of Osiris and Isis. It tells of the divine ruler Osiris, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god often associated with chaos.Osiris' sister and wife Isis resurrected him so that he could conceive an heir, Horus. Osiris then entered the underworld and became the ruler of the dead. Once grown, Horus fought and defeated Set to become king himself. Set's association with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful rulers, provided a rationale for pharaonic succession and portrayed the pharaohs as the upholders of order. At the same time, Osiris' death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation, and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death.
Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. In the course of this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who again acted as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed. He also fought each night with Apep, a serpentine god representing chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the rising of the sun the next morning, an event that represented rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.
Ritual and magical texts
The procedures for religious rituals were frequently written on papyri, which were used as instructions for those performing the ritual. These ritual texts were kept mainly in the temple libraries. Temples themselves are also inscribed with such texts, often accompanied by illustrations. Unlike the ritual papyri, these inscriptions were not intended as instructions, but were meant to symbolically perpetuate the rituals even if, in reality, people ceased to perform them. Magical texts likewise describe rituals, although these rituals were part of the spells used for specific goals in everyday life. Despite their mundane purpose, many of these texts also originated in temple libraries and later became disseminated among the general populace
Hymns and prayers
The Egyptians produced numerous prayers and hymns, written in the form of poetry. Hymns and prayers follow a similar structure and are distinguished mainly by the purposes they serve. Hymns were written to praise particular deities. Like ritual texts, they were written on papyri and on temple walls, and they were probably recited as part of the rituals they accompany in temple inscriptions.Most are structured according to a set literary formula, designed to expound on the nature, aspects, and mythological functions of a given deity. They tend to speak more explicitly about fundamental theology than other Egyptian religious writings, and became particularly important in the New Kingdom, a period of particularly active theological discourse. Prayers follow the same general pattern as hymns, but address the relevant god in a more personal way, asking for blessings, help, or forgiveness for wrongdoing. Such prayers are rare before the New Kingdom, indicating that in earlier periods such direct personal interaction with a deity was not believed possible, or at least was less likely to be expressed in writing. They are known mainly from inscriptions on statues and stelae left in sacred sites as votive offerings.
Among the most significant and extensively preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that deceased souls reached a pleasant afterlife.The earliest of these are the Pyramid Texts. They are a loose collection of hundreds of spells inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom, intended to magically provide the king with the means to join the company of the gods in the afterlife. The spells appear in differing arrangements and combinations, and few of them appear in all of the pyramids.
At the end of the Old Kingdom a new body of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began appearing in tombs, inscribed primarily on coffins. This collection of writings is known as the Coffin Texts, and was not reserved for royalty, but appeared in the tombs of non-royal officials. In the New Kingdom, several new funerary texts emerged, of which the best-known is the Book of the Dead. Unlike the earlier books, it often contains extensive illustrations, or vignettes. The book was copied on papyrus and sold to commoners to be placed in their tombs.
In the Book of the Dead, there is what's called the "Negative Confessional". The "Negative Confessional" is the list of sins not committed in life. These negative confessions were recited before Osiris from beginning to end. They contained sins frowned upon by the early Egyptian society. This meeting and anti confession before Osiris was followed by the ceremony called the "Weighing of the Heart". The ceremony was conducted by Anubis. He would place the heart on a scale and weigh it against a feather of Ma'at. If they lied in the "Negative Confessional", the sin of the Egyptian would make the heart heavier due to the burden of the sin and the creature Ammut would devour the heart. If the Egyptian's heart was lighter than the feather then it meant that there had been no major wrongdoings and the Egpytian could continue the journey to the afterlife with the help of the Book of the Dead.
The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld and instructions on how to overcome its hazards. In the New Kingdom, this material gave rise to several "books of the netherworld", including the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat. Unlike the loose collections of spells, these netherworld books are structured depictions of Ra's passage through the Duat, and by analogy, the journey of the deceased person's soul through the realm of the dead. They were originally restricted to pharaonic tombs, but in the Third Intermediate Period they came to be used more widely.
Temples existed from the beginning of Egyptian history, and at the height of the civilization they were present in most of its towns. They included both mortuary temples to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs and temples dedicated to patron gods, although the distinction was blurred because divinity and kingship were so closely intertwined. The temples were not primarily intended as places for worship by the general populace, and the common people had a complex set of religious practices of their own. Instead, the state-run temples served as houses for the gods, in which physical images which served as their intermediaries were cared for and provided with offerings. This service was believed to be necessary to sustain the gods, so that they could in turn maintain the universe itself. Thus, temples were central to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, including both donations from the monarchy and large estates of their own. Pharaohs often expanded them as part of their obligation to honor the gods, so that many temples grew to enormous size. However, not all gods had temples dedicated to them, as many gods who were important in official theology received only minimal worship, and many household gods were the focus of popular veneration rather than temple ritual.
The earliest Egyptian temples were small, impermanent structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms their designs grew more elaborate, and they were increasingly built out of stone. In the New Kingdom, a basic temple layout emerged, which had evolved from common elements in Old and Middle Kingdom temples. With variations, this plan was used for most of the temples built from then on, and most of those that survive today adhere to it. In this standard plan, the temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to the sanctuary, which held a statue of the temple's god. Access to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. The journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm, a point emphasized by the complex mythological symbolism present in temple architecture. Well beyond the temple building proper was the outermost wall. In the space between the two lay many subsidiary buildings, including workshops and storage areas to supply the temple's needs, and the library where the temple's sacred writings and mundane records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning on a multitude of subjects.
Theoretically it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, as he was Egypt's official representative to the gods. In reality, ritual duties were almost always carried out by priests. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. Only in the New Kingdom did professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests were still part-time. All were still employed by the state, and the pharaoh had final say in their appointments. However, as the wealth of the temples grew, the influence of their priesthoods increased, until it rivaled that of the pharaoh. In the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–664 BC), the high priests of Amun at Karnak even became the effective rulers of Upper Egypt. The temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters in temple ceremonies. Outside the temple were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple's needs, as well as farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple's income. Large temples were therefore very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.
Official rituals and festivals
State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the sed festival, a ritual renewal of the pharaoh's strength that took place periodically during his reign. There were numerous temple rituals, including rites that took place across the country and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single god. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or on rarer occasions. The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or occasionally the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the god's statue before presenting it with offerings. Afterward, when the god had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were taken to be distributed among the priests.
The less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, were still numerous, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often entailed actions beyond simple offerings to the gods, such as reenactments of particular myths or the symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder. Most of these events were probably celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually involved a procession carrying the god's image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other significant sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners gathered to watch the procession and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the gods on these occasions.
At many sacred sites, the Egyptians worshipped individual animals which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were selected based on specific sacred markings which were believed to indicate their fitness for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were selected for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation. A separate practice developed in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, when people began mummifying any member of a particular animal species as an offering to the god whom the species represented. Millions of mummified cats, birds, and other creatures were buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities.Worshippers paid the priests of a particular deity to obtain and mummify an animal associated with that deity, and the mummy was placed in a cemetery near the god's cult center.
The Egyptians used oracles to ask the gods for knowledge or guidance. Egyptian oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom and afterward, though they probably appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the king, asked questions of oracles, and, especially in the late New Kingdom their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. The most common means of consulting an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and interpret an answer from the barque's movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing lots, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently spoke. The means of discerning the god's will gave great influence to the priests who spoke and interpreted the god's message.
While the state cults were meant to preserve the stability of the Egyptian world, lay individuals had their own religious practices that related more directly to daily life. This popular religion left less evidence than the official cults, and because this evidence was mostly produced by the wealthiest portion of the Egyptian population, it is uncertain to what degree it reflects the practices of the populace as a whole.
Popular religious practice included ceremonies marking important transitions in life. These included birth, because of the danger involved in the process, and naming, because the name was held to be a crucial part of a person's identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death (see "Funerary practices" below), because they ensured the soul's survival beyond it.Other religious practices sought to discern the gods' will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpretation of dreams, which could be seen as messages from the divine realm, and the consultation of oracles. People also sought to affect the gods' behavior to their own benefit through magical rituals (see "Magic" below).
Individual Egyptians also prayed to gods and gave them private offerings. Evidence of this type of personal piety is sparse before the New Kingdom. This is probably due to cultural restrictions on depiction of nonroyal religious activity, which relaxed during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Personal piety became still more prominent in the late New Kingdom, when it was believed that the gods intervened directly in individual lives, punishing wrongdoers and saving the pious from disaster. Official temples were important venues for private prayer and offering, even though their central activities were closed to laypeople. Egyptians frequently donated goods to be offered to the temple deity and objects inscribed with prayers to be placed in temple courts. Often they prayed in person before temple statues or in shrines set aside for their use. Yet in addition to temples, the populace also used separate local chapels, smaller but more accessible than the formal temples. These chapels were very numerous, and probably staffed by members of the community. Households, too, often had their own small shrines for offering to gods or deceased relatives.
The deities invoked in these situations differed somewhat from those at the center of state cults. Many of the important popular deities, such as the fertility goddess Taweret and the household protector Bes, had no temples of their own. However, many other gods, including Amun and Osiris, were very important in both popular and official religion. Some individuals might be particularly devoted to a single god. Often they favored deities affiliated with their own region, or with their role in life. The god Ptah, for instance, was particularly important in his cult center of Memphis, but as the patron of craftsmen he received the nationwide veneration of many in that occupation.