To the ancient Egyptians, religion was inseparable from everyday existence. They were a nation of farmers, who depended on the fertility of the land and its creatures for their livelihood. In trying to understand how the powers of nature could bring life and destroy it, the Egyptians personified these forces, worshipped them as gods and created myths about them. To retain the favor of the gods, they believed they should farm in accordance with god-given rules, offer sacrifice and continually give thanks.

Osiris and the Nile

The god of the Nile and of fertility was Osiris, considered a wise ruler who taught men to farm, build temples and worship the gods. The agricultural cycle depended on the the Nile's annual flooding, which enabled farmers to irrigate their fields through a network of canals and to use the rich silt left after it receded. They could then raise their crops, feed their animals and achieve prosperity for the whole economy. As summed up in the Hymn to the Nile, written around 2100 B.C., "you bring forth the barley, assuring perpetuity to the temples." The Egyptians explained Osiris’ association with the Nile, the underworld and fertility through the story of how he was murdered, cast into the river, and restored to life by his wife Isis long enough to impregnate her before returning to the underworld to rule over the souls of the dead. The agricultural cycle of irrigation, sowing and reaping replayed this story every year.

Animal Cults

The Egyptians held many animals sacred. Of farm animals, they considered cattle the most special. Cowhide, dung and horn were highly prized, but the meat was so expensive that it was usually reserved for the use of the nobility or priests. In most cases, Egyptians honored animals for their links with particular gods, rather than worshipping them in their own right. However, they treated bulls like pharaohs on account of their strength and virility. They pampered prize bulls in life and entombed their mummified bodies with lavish ceremony after death.

Divine Pharaohs

Ancient Egyptians believed in divine kingship. They called their pharaohs descendants of the sun god Re (or Ra), and trusted them to protect the kingdom and ensure its prosperity. This belief system gave the pharaoh responsibility for directing agricultural production and storing enough grain in his warehouses to feed the people in times of famine. In working for the pharaoh, laborers were working for the gods. Therefore, they had to obey the pharaoh’s commands on how to work the land and how much to pay in tax and tribute. Work was strictly organized through a hierarchy of command, with the nobility, royal officials, temple priests and local administrators in charge of individual farmers, gangs of laborers and slaves.

Agricultural Work

To fulfill the plan of the gods, sowing seed, tending fields, harvesting crops and storing had to proceed at fixed times. Building, quarrying and roadwork took place while the fields were under water. Maintaining the canals and managing irrigation was a communal responsibility. The best of the produce was offered back to the gods as tribute or sacrifice. About 20 percent of the yield was taken as tax to maintain the system of divine rule.