Polytheism in Ancient Egypt

Many images of the gods, like this statue of Osiris, appeared in Egyptian artwork.
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Ancient Egyptians had an elaborate polytheistic religion that may at one time have contained more than 2,000 gods. Though individual gods rose and fell in prominence, the idea of many gods and the presence of religion in everyday life remained constant throughout much of Egyptian antiquity. Archaeologists know about many of these gods from hieroglyphics, artifacts and other finds during the great excavations of Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries.

1 Who's in Charge

In the minds of the ancient Egyptians, two major players ruled – Amon-Ra and Osiris. They identified Amon-Ra with the sun. He was said to have played a role in the creation of the universe, but his primary responsibility was ruling over the universe after its creation. The only other god of equal significance was Osiris, the god of the underworld and the dead. However, rather than symbolizing evil or darkness, Osiris was charged with guarding the souls of Egyptians during the afterlife and making immortality possible.

2 Other Heavy Hitters

Beyond Osiris and Amon-Ra, Egyptians venerated different gods during different periods and during different life events; for example, pregnant women and women in childbirth prayed to the hippopotamus-headed goddess Tawaret. What anthropologists think of as the major gods were the figures most frequently depicted in texts and artwork. Many of these gods had an animal counterpart or were themselves depicted as half-human, half-animal hybrids, with the animal symbolizing the god's qualities. Bastet, the cat-goddess, was a protective figure. Anubis, the god with the head of a jackal, supervised embalming and mummification. Seth, another animal-headed god, was the god of chaos.

3 Celebrations and Ceremonies

Because of the Egyptians' polytheistic beliefs, they celebrated and honored gods individually in various ceremonial activities, and many temples were built to honor specific gods. Statues of the gods were ritually washed, presented with food and drink and dressed in ornate jewelry. The face of men's coffins and other funerary materials often depicted Osiris. During annual festivals, like the Sed festival, priests and pharaohs interacted with objects thought to have spiritual significance for individual gods. They performed activities, such as a ceremonial run to the throne, to lift up the "living god," the pharaoh.

4 Pharaohs and Polytheism

Egyptians managed to have a polytheistic religion and also think of their pharaoh, or ruler, as a god. Imagine this by blending Europe's concept of the divine right of kings with classical Greek mythology. Ancient Egyptians considered the pharaoh a living embodiment of just one of their many gods, the god Horus. His responsibility was to protect the Egyptian people from evil, just as Horus had protected them from the chaos and darkness associated with the god Seth.

Kat Stromquist received a master's in creative writing from the University of New Orleans. She writes about interior design and lifestyle issues for a variety of print and web outlets.