Cult Statues in Ancient Egyptian Religion

Cults existed for pharaohs both living and dead.
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In Egyptology, the meaning of "cult" is synonymous with the word "ritual." Ancient Egyptian religion wasn't centered around theological principles or canonical writings as in many modern religions; instead, it was symbolic and performative and centered around rituals or interactions with "ntr," generally understood to be gods and represented by statues. But ntr could also be statues of humans, kings or animals -- anything that garnered ritual attention.

1 Divinity Cult Statues

In ancient Egypt, temples were called "hwt-ntr," or houses of the gods. Every temple had several statues of different gods that were the focus of daily and seasonal rituals. These statues were usually small, averaging 22 inches in height, and resided in the temples' inner sanctuary. It was believed the skin of the gods was gold and their hair was lapis lazuli, so the statues were either made of gold or covered in gold leaf, with lapis lazuli insets for the hair.

2 From Statue to Ntr

A cult statue was just a statue until it was brought to "life" through the Opening of the Mouth ritual, the same ritual performed on mummies. This ritual allowed the statue to be used by the god and opened it up so the ka and ba, the soul of the deity, could take up residence. It was only then that a statue became an object of ritual -- not worship. Ancient Egyptians didn't believe the statue was the god, just that it was the vehicle for their prayers to the god.

3 Pharaonic Cults

Aside from divinity cults, there were also cults dedicated to the Egyptian pharaohs. This made sense because the pharaoh was partially divine: He was the son of both Re, the sun god, and Osiris, the god of the underworld; and he was the earthly manifestation of Horus, the falcon god. Pharaonic cults existed for both living and deceased pharaohs. Once the pharaoh was deceased, statues and temples built in their honor became the focus of their cult, where they would ritually receive food and drink.

4 Animal Cults

Because most of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses were represented by animals, cults also formed around select animals like cats and bulls. These animals were considered sacred and, between 3000 and 2000 B.C., animal cults were so important in Egyptian society that killing one of the sacred animals could garner a death sentence, even if the death was an accident. Aside from living animals, animal mummies and statues were also the focus of rituals.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.