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Religion of the Ancient Egyptians

Religion of the Ancient Egyptians

by Alfred Wiedemann

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This far-reaching, highly readable study presents a factual account of ancient Egypt's principal deities, myths, religious ideas, and doctrines — with particular emphasis on such concepts of historical significance as a profound dedication to recording their rich history and belief in an afterlife.


This far-reaching, highly readable study presents a factual account of ancient Egypt's principal deities, myths, religious ideas, and doctrines — with particular emphasis on such concepts of historical significance as a profound dedication to recording their rich history and belief in an afterlife.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Egypt Series
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6.74(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.73(d)

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Religion of the Ancient Egyptians

By Alfred Weidemann

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14940-0



THE attempt has often been made to hit off a national characteristic in some apt epithet ; the Romans have been denominated "brave," the Israelites "religious," the Assyrians "cruel." In like manner the Egyptians might be called "conservative" in the first and strictest sense of the word. While such appellations are only conditionally applicable to other nationalities, here we have a characteristic which the inhabitants of the Nile Valley invariably exhibit. The Egyptian people could never bring themselves to recognize any form of language, script, government, manners and customs as antiquated, and they steadfastly retained their hold upon every stage of their development during the whole course of a national history which lasted for thousands of years. Obviously there could be no denying that progress was made and that new views were attained to, either as the outcome of reflection or in consequence of foreign influence ; but, although the Egyptians could not hold aloof from change, their acceptance of it involved no casting off of the old and cherished ideas, which were retained and allowed to subsist on equal footing with the new modes of thought. This explains why the Egyptians, after having attained to an alphabetic system of writing, went on using the signs for words and syllables in which their script had originated. Hence also it came about that when the Egyptian monarchy had become absolute, titles and offices which prevailed in the feudal period, when the king was reckoned only as first among his peers, still continued to exist in connexion with the court and with official life. Innumerable incongruities were the natural result: titles did not correspond to offices, nor words to meanings. The Egyptian aversion to allowing anything to be lost of what had formed the possessions and institutions of their forefathers—of never losing connexion with the past, so that all might remain as it had been "since the times of the god Râ"—outweighed all practical considerations in their minds.

In the natural course of things this sentiment must have received some modification from the changing aspects of civic life ; for though names and forms might be steadfastly retained, it could not be so with the substance when any change of circumstances had become general. But it was otherwise in the domain of the spiritual ; there contemplation and thought were governed by feeling alone, and no rude truth was permitted to disturb a system. It was pre-eminently in his religion that the Egyptian allowed full play to his conservative nature. The natural phenomena, the few general truths upon which that religion was based, could be so variously explained and transformed that no abandonment of old opinions for the sake of new—however desirable according to our ideas—was in the least necessary in Egyptian opinion. The national bent of the people towards mysticism helped them easily over such paradoxes as might arise ; and where these might seem insoluble to earthly reason their interpretation could be regarded as a profound mystery whose nature the godhead would reveal to the blessed in the life to come.

On this account the Ancient Egyptian religion is of the deepest interest. Not only does it contain the simplest forms under which the nation on the banks of the Nile conceived of its gods, and the ceremonies with which it worshipped them in the days when very restricted means were at its disposal for the adornment of divine service; but side by side with these are the beliefs of later times, a constantly increasing number of divinities, a cult growing continually more refined and ornate, new modes of worship, and divinities of foreign origin. All the different systems of thought which grew out of Egyptian religious belief in the course of centuries are found together in the texts ; the earlier forms as well as those which succeeded them have all alike been retained. Hence it was inevitable that contradictions of all kinds should abound, but they did not disturb the Egyptian, for he never attempted to systematize his conceptions of the different divinities into a homogeneous religion. It is open to us to speak of the religious ideas of the Egyptians, but not of an Egyptian religion; and we must carefully bear in mind this fact, which cannot fail to obtrude itself upon every one who examines the texts without prejudice, and which the reader will perceive clearly from such extracts as will be brought to his notice in the following pages. Again and again has the attempt been made to formulate the Egyptian religion into a consistent system, and thus to credit the nation with what never was theirs. All such performances, however brilliant in themselves, are now regarded as failures by scientific men ; they are based upon an arbitrary choice of passages in the texts which the writer has selected to support a preconceived view, while taking no account of the far greater number of passages which do not agree with it.

Besides the impossibility of formulating any comprehensive system of this kind, there is that of deciding as to which was the oldest form of the Egyptian religion, and of demonstrating whether this was monotheistic—as on general grounds it has often been assumed—or whether, as others assert, it was based upon pantheism, polytheism, ancestor worship, worship of vegetable or animal life and their reproductive powers, belief in the divine power of the sun, or other religious ideas. All these forms of belief are to be found more or less clearly represented in Egyptian religion, but it cannot be proved historically which are the earlier and which the later. Set forth side by side in single sentences or at length, they are all extant in the oldest of the longer religious texts which have come down to us—namely, the Pyramid inscriptions of the Vth and VIth dynasties. As far as our knowledge of Ancient Egypt has hitherto extended, research has determined nothing indisputable as to the origins of their national religion, their form of government, their writing, or their racial descent. On the contrary, the more material is made accessible and the more thoroughly it is studied, the more obscure do these questions of origin become. One theory is disproved after another without being supplanted by any demonstrable truth. In Egypt, as in other countries, history, in the widest sense of the word, knows nothing of its own beginnings. In the present state of our knowledge, all that the science of religion can do as regards Egypt is to follow the same course once traversed by the Egyptians, but in the reverse direction. Where they combined we must isolate. By study of the texts we must seek to disentangle the intermingled doctrines, to sort out the separate pieces composing that motley mosaic presented by the Egyptian belief in higher powers. In this way we shall find that we can obtain a series of separate and distinct doctrines, each of which comprises an independent sphere of thought ; the combination of these doctrines, however, though attempted by the Egyptians, could never be logical.

Before proceeding to consider the most important of these circles of ideas, which partly centre round certain forms of deity and partly round some one fundamental idea, we must briefly examine into the origin of the Egyptian state. Many important points of her religious doctrine can thus be elucidated, as is always the case where religion and government are so closely coincident as they were in the Valley of the Nile.

The Ancient Egyptian state was formed by the union of many smaller states which occupied the Nile Valley in some prehistoric period. These states were not merged at that unification of the kingdom which legend ascribes to the first human monarch of Egypt, Menes. In a certain sense they continued to exist, for they remained in possession of their own religious, political, and military administrations, acknowledging the king as their liege lord only so far as to assign him in most cases the part of confirming the princes in their rank, the post of commander in chief in case of war, the bestowal of posts of honour and of titles, and the receipt of certain taxes. It is doubtful whether he could by right depose the subordinate princes. As a matter of fact he did depose them, but only after overcoming them in war, and thus used the right of a conqueror rather than that of a Pharaoh. Nevertheless he was apparently not permitted to retain land so obtained as his private property, but was obliged to bestow it upon some one who entered upon the rights and duties of the deposed prince and could bequeath the province to his own successors. It was owing to this invariable transmission of the fief that the ancient territorial divisions lasted down to the latest times. Changes rarely occurred, but occasionally two provinces would be united by inheritance, or two which had been united would be again separated. From the Pyramid period until the times of the Ptolemies and of the Roman emperors certain districts are specified by the texts as substantially unchanged. The Ancient Egyptian name for these provinces was hesp. The Greeks called them nomes ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), a designation retained by the Romans, under whose rule they enjoyed so much independence as to be allowed to issue a coinage of their own. Each nome consisted of four subdivisions : the capital, which was the seat of authority and the residence of the nomarch and of the principal deity ; the regularly tilled arable land ; the marshes, which were mostly used as pasture and for the cultivation of water plants ; and lastly the canals, which were in charge of special officials. The control of the canals was necessarily far more centralized than that of the rest of the country, for the regular irrigation of Egypt can only be secured when directed by a single authority which opposes in the common interest any attempt to cut off and divert the water for the gratification of private ends. Such an attempt was regarded in Egyptian morals as a serious crime, which the godhead itself would punish in the life to come ; but the need for such a threat testifies to the readiness with which an Egyptian gave himself to the practice.

The effects of this division into nomes on the condition and development of Egypt, as well as on its religion, were so important that a list of them is here given in tabular form, together with certain particulars.

A glance at the above list shows that each nome had its own god. In its capital stood his principal temple, and there the college of priests vowed to the service of the nome god exercised their functions. The Egyptian priests bore the titles of âb, "the pure," en neter, "servant of the god"—the latter title being translated by the Greeks as "prophet," though the official in question had nothing to do with prediction—and others of a similar nature. At the head of each college was a high priest with a specific title ; at Memphis he was "Chief of the Artificers," at Mendes "Director of the Soldiers," at Heliopolis the "Great Seer," at Thebes in earlier times the "First. Prophet of Amen," and later "Opener of the Gate of Heaven." In the later period a high priestess generally took rank beside the chief priest, who was surrounded by a staff of permanent officials, the number varying with the size and wealth of the temple. This staff was not so large as we might expect ; at Siût, for example, it consisted of ten and at Abydos of only five persons. To these, however, must be added many minor officials of the temple, and many personages of the city who performed priestly functions at stated times and in addition to their other functions. The priests of each nome were independent and subject to no higher jurisdiction. If occasionally the idea arose of appointing a high priest for all Egypt who, living at court and being under its influence, should rule the priesthood in a sense friendly to the government, the attempt invariably failed, owing to the jealous independence of the different colleges. The kings were obliged to be content with appointing their own relations or men devoted to their interests as chief priests of the more important shrines, and thus to gain an indirect influence over the priesthood. But it was not only in regard to government that the independence of the various colleges was preserved ; it maintained itself also in religious matters. Each nome had its own religion which it developed regardless of neighbouring faiths, and which in almost every case became henotheistic from time to time. The god of a nome was within it held to be Ruler of the Gods, Creator of the World, Giver of all good things, and it mattered little to his adherents that another deity played a precisely similar part in some adjacent nome where their own god was relegated to a subordinate place.

Quarrels between the nomes could not fail to arise from such isolation of interests. Some gods were enemies of others, according to the myths; and one deity being honoured in one province while his enemy was worshipped in another, their worshippers also took sides against one another. Even in Roman times this state of antagonism occasionally led to sanguinary conflicts between the inhabitants of different districts. Moreover, in the course of history, owing to the independent growth of local religions, divinities once the same in character and origin took different shape in different nomes, and became at length entirely distinct ; while other gods which eventually appear identical in name and nature were originally and radically dinerent. In historical times Horus of Edfû no longer corresponded to the Horus of Letopolis. The former is the keen sighted god of the bright sun, and the latter a blind deity whose manifestation was in solar eclipse. Hence, in treating of any one god we cannot indiscriminately apply all references to him without running the risk of acquiring false notions ; we must carefully examine whether they originated in the same place and arose out of the same fundamental ideas.

Occasionally indeed this isolation was intruded upon. This would often happen on a small scale when an inhabitant of one nome had established himself in another, bringing with him his own gods, to whom he proceeded to erect shrines, after obtaining the necessary official permission. If such a shrine was richly endowed and magnificent festivals were solemnized there, it was only natural—especially in a place where the chief temple was poor—that more and more adherents should flock to the new deity, and gradually give him precedence over the original god. At Abydos, for instance, in course of time, Anher, god of the city and of the Thinite nome, was almost entirely displaced by Osiris. Such events transpired quietly and were of local importance only, but the religious revolution which the assumption of power by a new dynasty involved had far wider issues. The new dynasty always believed that it owed the crown to the god of its native nome ; hence it considered the worship of its tutelary deity of primary importance, and endeavoured to spread the cult over the whole kingdom. In this endeavour their sovereign was willingly met halfway by the people. To them the elevation of the king over the other nomarchs implied the exaltation of his god over all the other divinities, and to this god all henceforth made their offerings and addressed their prayers. It was to such considerations and to royal influence that the worship of Ptah and that of Amen Râ were indebted for their extension. Again, other gods were raised to power as the result of certain tendencies of thought. From the Hyksos period onwards the origin of all forms of religion was sought in sun worship ; nearly all the principal deities were thenceforth amalgamated with the Sun god, and hence arose composite forms like Amen Râ, Khnûm Râ, and many others of the same kind. And although the train of ideas connected with the Osirian religion—to take only one example—could not logically be brought into harmony with the new doctrine, yet the solar bias which characterized Ancient Egyptian mythology from the beginning of the New Kingdom ultimately and inevitably turned the whole scheme of faith into pantheism.


Excerpted from Religion of the Ancient Egyptians by Alfred Weidemann. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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