Ancient Egyptians believed in many gods who performed a variety of specific functions. Their involvement in daily life was critical to existence itself, since the gods were responsible for the maintenance of the universe. The complex religious practices that grew out of this concept thrived in Egypt for millennia.
The religious life of the ancient Egyptians spans a period of three thousand years beginning c. 3100 B.C.E. and includes a wide array of gods who enjoyed periods of development, longevity and prominence. The standard explanation concerning their origin suggests that the earliest gods were based on the forces of nature. Animism, the idea that spirits inhabit various features of the natural world, such as the spirits of the river, the sun and the wind, gradually took on more character as the spirits developed into personified gods in the collective imagination of the people. Other scholars disagree, given that there is evidence of gods being worshiped from the earliest stages of Egyptian civilization.
A Plethora of Gods
Although gods and goddesses tended to rise from localities, belief in them was not restricted to certain geographic areas. Nor was it common for people to be devotees of particular deities. In fact, according to Emily Teeter from the University of Chicago, and Douglas Brewer from the University of Illinois, as religious and concepts developed and took new forms over the course of time, they tended to layer in a complex religious system rather than discard old ideas for new ones. As a result, there were numerous gods who performed a variety of functions. It was possible for an average Egyptian to call on many of them at one time.
Kings and Temple Worship
Statues of gods were made to worship and appease, and worshipers ritually provided sacrifice for the gods to win their protection and help in preserving order. The king was regarded as the high priest, with the responsibility to appease the gods. Usually the king did not participate in person. Priests stood in his place in front of the statues that were believed to be physical homes for the gods. In return, the king's own divinity was granted to him by the gods. But famine, drought or pestilence were seen by the people as the results of the displeasure of a god. Due to this concept, the gods were invoked and appeased often throughout the day, playing a major role in the daily lives of ancient Egyptians.
According to the religious system of ancient Egypt, the gods not only protected and provided for the people, but were systemically involved in maintaining the order of daily life. The word "maat," represented and personified by the god Maat, referred to the order and balance of the universe. The march of the sun across the sky, the flow of the river Nile, the growth of food and all other aspects of life were seen as immediate results of the gods' involvement in ordering the cosmos.
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