Ancient Egyptian civilization was an advanced society with a multi-layered bureaucracy. Socially stratified, Ancient Egypt was headed by a king called a pharaoh. Beneath the Pharaoh was a vast administrative apparatus run by an elite minority class who enforced state mandates on the lower class majority. Although the state system of Ancient Egypt was premised on institutional inequalities, it was justified because of religious beliefs, which were the foundation of Ancient Egyptian daily life.
The Basis for Belief
Ancient Egyptian religion was polytheistic, meaning its citizens subscribed to numerous gods -- more than 700 in total. However, the ethics and morals from the cosmology (or creation story) of two main gods, Osiris and Amon-Ra, represent the foundational beliefs of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Ancient Egyptian beliefs maintained that social, political and religious realms were interdependent. Social and political themes may have overlapped, but both were underlain by religious considerations. In the case of Ancient Egyptian society, religious beliefs influenced or determined all social and political decisions.
Cosmology and Bureaucracy
In Ancient Egyptian cosmology, Amon-Ra represents natural life on earth, while Osiris is related to the social and spiritual life on earth and in the afterworld.The contrasting features of these gods demonstrates a larger theme in Ancient Egyptian cosmology -- opposite and unequal elements that combine as parts of the same whole, i.e., lightness and darkness. This idea was the foundation of Ancient Egyptian society. Under the supreme leadership of the king or pharaoh, a class of administrators and officials with varying levels of elite status and responsibility oversaw the daily operations of the state and maintained social order. This system caused social inequalities that kept as much as 90 percent or more of the population poor and obedient to the rule of elites. Despite this, the lowest classes of Egyptians accepted their lesser role as the will of the gods.
Isis and Women's Roles
The treatment of women in Ancient Egyptian society was likely influenced by the cosmology of Isis, the wife of Osiris, who became a dominant figure after assuming Osiris's role as protector of the family following his death. Women had rights in marriage, such as the ability to divorce and remarry or even inherit property. Even though the priesthood was restricted to females, women often played integral roles in religious ceremonies and temple rituals.
Life After Death
The most well-known example of how religious beliefs affected lifestyles in Ancient Egypt is the practice of mummification. Ancient Egyptians believed that the body and soul were separate entities. Mummification was a means to preserve the earthly body for eternity while freeing the soul for its journey to the afterworld. Such burial rituals were initially limited to notable elites like the pharaoh -- who was seen as both a patron of Amon-Ra and Osiris as well as the person embodying the fate of the greater kingdom. But just as Osiris helped unify Ancient Egyptians by being a common god to all, so too did he introduce mummification to all segments of Egyptian society.
- Connecting Philosophy of Ancient Egyptians to Modern Thinking; Hassan Aminuddin, et. al.
- Teachings in the Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthropological View; Camila Aparecida Viana Amaral, et.al.
- Archaic Egyptian Cosmology; el-Sayed el-Aswad
- The Ancient Egyptian State: The Origins of Egyptian Culture; Robert Wenke
- John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images