The beliefs and rituals now referred to as "Ancient Egyptian religion" existed within every aspect of Egyptian culture. Their language possessed no single term corresponding to the modern European concept of religion. Ancient Egyptian religion was not a monolithic institution, but consisted of a vast and varying set of beliefs and practices, linked by their common focus on the interaction between the world of humans and the world of the divine. The characteristics of the gods who populated the divine realm were inextricably linked to the Egyptians' understanding of the properties of the world in which they lived.
The Egyptians believed that the phenomena of nature were divine forces in and of themselves. These deified forces included the elements, animal characteristics, or abstract forces. The Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods, which were involved in all aspects of nature and human society. Their religious practices were efforts to sustain and placate these phenomena and turn them to human advantage. This polytheistic system was very complex, as some deities were believed to exist in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with multiple deities. The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or "demons" with very limited or localized functions. It could include gods adopted from foreign cultures, and sometimes even humans: deceased pharaohs were believed to be divine, and occasionally, distinguished commoners such as Imhotep also became deified.
The depictions of the gods in art were not meant as literal representations of how the gods might appear if they were visible, as the gods' true natures were believed to be mysterious. Instead, these depictions gave recognizable forms to the abstract deities by using symbolic imagery to indicate each god's role in nature.Thus, for example, the funerary god Anubis was portrayed as a jackal, a creature whose scavenging habits threatened the preservation of the body, in an effort to counter this threat and employ it for protection. His black skin was symbolic of the color of mummified flesh and the fertile black soil that Egyptians saw as a symbol of resurrection. However, this iconography was not fixed, and many of the gods could be depicted in more than one form.
Many gods were associated with particular regions in Egypt where their cults were most important. However, these associations changed over time, and they did not necessarily mean that the god associated with a place had originated there. For instance, the god Monthu was the original patron of the city of Thebes. Over the course of the Middle Kingdom, however, he was displaced in that role by Amun, who may have arisen elsewhere. The national popularity and importance of individual gods fluctuated in a similar way.
Associations between deities
The Egyptian gods had complex interrelationships, which partly reflected the interaction of the forces they represented. The Egyptians often grouped gods together to reflect these relationships. Some groups of deities were of indeterminate size, and were linked by their similar functions. These often consisted of minor deities with little individual identity. Other combinations linked independent deities based on the symbolic meaning of numbers in Egyptian mythology; for instance, pairs of deities usually represent the duality of opposite phenomena. One of the more common combinations was a family triad consisting of a father, mother, and child, who were worshipped together. Some groups had wide-ranging importance. One such group, the Ennead, assembled nine deities into a theological system that was involved in the mythological areas of creation, kingship, and the afterlife.
The relationships between deities could also be expressed in the process of syncretism, in which two or more different gods were linked to form a composite deity. This process was a recognition of the presence of one god "in" another when the second god took on a role belonging to the first. These links between deities were fluid, and did not represent the permanent merging of two gods into one; therefore, some gods could develop multiple syncretic connections. Sometimes syncretism combined deities with very similar characteristics. At other times it joined gods with very different natures, as when Amun, the god of hidden power, was linked with Ra, the god of the sun. The resulting god, Amun-Ra, thus united the power that lay behind all things with the greatest and most visible force in nature.
Many deities could be given epithets that seem to indicate that they were greater than any other god, suggesting some kind of unity beyond the multitude of natural forces. In particular, this is true of a few gods who, at various times in history, rose to supreme importance in Egyptian religion. These included the royal patron Horus, the sun god Ra, and the mother goddess Isis. During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), Amun held this position. The theology of the period described in particular detail Amun's presence in and rule over all things, so that he, more than any other deity, embodied the all-encompassing power of the divine.
Because of theological statements like this, many past Egyptologists, such as Siegfried Morenz, believed that beneath the polytheistic traditions of Egyptian religion there was an increasing belief in a unity of the divine, moving toward monotheism. Instances in Egyptian literature where "god" is mentioned without reference to any specific deity would seem to give this view added weight. However, in 1971 Erik Hornung pointed out that the traits of an apparently supreme being could be attributed to many different gods, even in periods when other gods were preeminent, and further argued that references to an unspecified "god" are meant to refer flexibly to any deity. He therefore argued that, while some individuals may have henotheistically chosen one god to worship, Egyptian religion as a whole had no notion of a divine being beyond the immediate multitude of deities. Yet the debate did not end there; Jan Assmann and James P. Allenhave since asserted that the Egyptians did to some degree recognize a single divine force. In Allen's view, the notion of an underlying unity of the divine coexisted inclusively with the polytheistic tradition. It is possible that only the Egyptian theologians fully recognized this underlying unity, but it is also possible that ordinary Egyptians identified the single divine force with a single god in particular situations.
The Egyptians did have an aberrant period of some form of monotheism during the New Kingdom, in which the pharaoh Akhenaten abolished the official worship of other gods in favor of the sun-disk Aten. This is often seen as the first instance of true monotheism in history, although the details of Atenist theology are still unclear. The exclusion of all but one god was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition and some see Akhenaten as a practitioner of monolatry rather than monotheism, as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods; he simply refrained from worshipping any but the Aten. Under Akhenaten's successors Egypt reverted to its traditional religion, and Akhenaten himself came to be reviled as a heretic.
Other important concepts
The Egyptian conception of the universe centered on Ma'at, a word that encompasses several concepts in English, including "truth," "justice," and "order." It was the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and in human society. It had existed since the creation of the world, and without it the world would lose its cohesion. In Egyptian belief, Ma'at was constantly under threat from the forces of disorder, so all of society was required to maintain it. On the human level this meant that all members of society should cooperate and coexist; on the cosmic level it meant that all of the forces of nature—the gods—should continue to function in balance. This latter goal was central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptians sought to maintain Ma'at in the cosmos by sustaining the gods through offerings and by performing rituals which staved off disorder and perpetuated the cycles of nature.
The most important part of the Egyptian view of the cosmos was the conception of time, which was greatly concerned with the maintenance of Ma'at. Throughout the linear passage of time, a cyclical pattern recurred, in which Ma'at was renewed by periodic events which echoed the original creation. Among these events were the annual Nile flood and the succession from one king to another, but the most important was the daily journey of the sun god Ra.
When envisioning the shape of the cosmos, the Egyptians saw the earth as a flat expanse of land, personified by the god Geb, over which arched the sky goddess Nut. The two were separated by Shu, the god of air. Beneath the earth lay a parallel underworld and undersky, and beyond the skies lay the infinite expanse of Nu, the chaos that had existed before creation. The Egyptians also believed in a place called the Duat, a mysterious region associated with death and rebirth, that may have lain in the underworld or in the sky. Each day, Ra traveled over the earth across the underside of the sky, and at night he passed through the Duat to be reborn at dawn.
In Egyptian belief, this cosmos was inhabited by three types of sentient beings. One was the gods; another was the spirits of deceased humans, who existed in the divine realm and possessed many of the gods' abilities. Living humans were the third category, and the most important among them was the pharaoh, who bridged the human and divine realms.
The king was also associated with many specific deities. He was identified directly with Horus, who represented kingship itself, and he was seen as the son of Ra, who ruled and regulated nature as the pharaoh ruled and regulated society. By the New Kingdom he was also associated with Amun, the supreme force in the cosmos.Upon his death, the king became fully deified. In this state, he was directly identified with Ra, and was also associated with Osiris, god of death and rebirth and the mythological father of Horus. Many mortuary temples were dedicated to the worship of deceased pharaohs as gods.
The Egyptians had elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a ka, or life-force, which left the body at the point of death. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so it was believed that, to endure after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still consume. Each person also had a ba, the set of spiritual characteristics unique to each individual. Unlike the ka, the ba remained attached to the body after death. Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that it could live on as an akh. However, it was also important that the body of the deceased be preserved, as the Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to receive new life, before emerging in the morning as an akh.
Originally, however, the Egyptians believed that only the pharaoh had a ba, and only he could become one with the gods; dead commoners passed into a dark, bleak realm that represented the opposite of life, The nobles received tombs and the resources for their upkeep as gifts from the king, and their ability to enter the afterlife was believed to be dependent on these royal favors. In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to ascend to the sky and dwell among the stars. Over the course of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), however, he came to be more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris as those deities grew more important.
During the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181–2055 BC), the Egyptians gradually came to believe that possession of a ba and the possibility of a paradisiacal afterlife extended to everyone. In the fully developed afterlife beliefs of the New Kingdom, the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers in the Duat, before undergoing a final judgment known as the "Weighing of the Heart". In this judgment, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to Ma'at, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with Ma'at. If the deceased was judged worthy, his or her ka and ba were united into an akh. Several beliefs coexisted about the akh's destination. Often the dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasant land in the underworld. The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased soul traveled with Ra on his daily journey, was still primarily associated with royalty, but could extend to other people as well. Over the course of the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also travel in the world of the living, and to some degree magically affect events there, became increasingly prevalent.
ed based on different reconstructions of ancient Egyptian religion