Ancient Egyptian religion spanned a period of some 3,000 years, beginning around 3000 B.C. Egyptian religion during this time was polytheistic, involving the worship of many gods, some represented by animals, others represented by elements and yet others embodying certain talents or abilities. Egyptians believed that the pharaoh, or king, was the intermediary between the gods and humans and that when he died, he became a god himself. Egyptians also believed in an afterlife and created elaborate funerary rituals, including the mummification process, in order to ensure their status and comfort in the next life.
During its long span, Egyptian religion contained approximately 2,000 gods. Some of the most widely worshiped gods were Osiris, god of the underworld; Isis, the goddess of motherhood and abundance; Horus, god of the sky, and son of Osiris and Isis; Anubis, the funerary god; Re, the Sun god; Nu the goddess of the sky; and Seth, the god of chaos and destruction. Some villages chose a specific god to represent them, while some individuals chose a god that supported their professions, such as Thoth, the god of scribes. Many gods were also represented by animals, such as cats, crocodiles, rams, lions and many others.
Role of Pharaoh
The pharaoh was seen as an intermediary between the gods and humans and was believed to be part god, part man. If things were going well, it was because the pharaoh was maintaining good relations with the gods. In case of troubles and disaster, the pharaoh was blamed for upsetting the gods. Upon the death of a pharaoh, ancient Egyptians believed he would become a god if his heart, when placed on a scale, weighed less than a feather. One of Egypt's most famous pharaohs was Akhenaten, who abandoned the worship of other gods and headed the only monotheistic period in ancient Egypt with his worship of the sun-disk Aten.
Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and created elaborate funerary rituals. The rituals included the process of mummification in order to maintain the integrity of the body for as long as possible after death so that the spirit would have a place to reside. Also important was the “opening of the mouth” ritual, a purification ritual performed on mummies or statues in temples, using incense and anointing to invoke the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound for the deceased to be able to use in the next life. The body was then wrapped in cloth, the folds of which contained amulets and jewels, and a mask bearing the likeness of the deceased was placed over the face. Depending on the person's status, food, drink and riches were also stored in the tomb for use in the next life.
Temples and Pyramids
Worship and ritual affected every aspect of Egyptian life. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said of the Egyptians that they were "religious to a higher degree than any other people." They built an extraordinary number of temples for the purposes of daily worship and ritual, as well as for elaborate religious ceremonies and festivals. Luxor Temple and Karnak are among the most impressive and the most visited today. But ancient Egypt is most famous for its pyramids, the great tombs built by the pharaohs to house their remains. Of the 138 pyramids found in Egypt as of 2008, the largest is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images