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The ancient Egyptians had no word for religion. For them, religion was not a separate category of thought requiring an approach different from that used when discussing philosophy, science, or any other topic. Therefore, the first step in any study of Egyptian religion is to decide what religion is and then examine the Egyptian record for data relating to this definition. Attempts to define religion as a phenomenon are numerous, and no universal definition has been agreed on. The definition used here will follow that of Melford Spiro, who suggested that religion is an “institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.”


This definition consists of three main components. First, religion is an institution. Only social groups practice religion. In other words, a person cannot have a religion of one. An individual can have his or her own beliefs, but for those beliefs to be called a religion a wider group must practice them. Egyptian religion could be practiced in the formal setting of the massive state temples, with their extensive holdings of land, buildings, and personnel, or in the privacy of an Egyptian home. Second, religion assumes the existence of “culturally postulated superhuman beings,” beings we may call gods, demons, or spirits. The Egyptians believed these beings were able to influence the lives of human beings, either for good or bad. The ancient Egyptian term for these beings was netjer . Third, religion includes the interaction between people and these superhuman beings. These interactions can take two forms: people engage in activities that they think please the superhuman beings, such as behaving morally and ethically, carrying out prescribed rituals, and participating in festivals; and people engage in activities for the purpose of influencing the superhuman beings. They urge the superhuman beings to act on behalf of a particular individual or cease acting against that individual. They can also urge similar requests for a group. These activities include prayers, sacrifices, or votive offerings.


The Egyptian word that is translated into English as “god” is netjer. This word is written with a hieroglyph resembling a yellow flag on a green flagpole. The etymology of the word “netjer” is uncertain. We know it corresponds roughly to the word “god” because in the Ptolemaic period (332–30 B.C.E. ) of Egyptian history, bilingual decrees in Greek and Egyptian translate the Egyptian netjer with the Greek word for god, theos . A detailed examination of Egyptian texts reveals that the word netjer has a far wider frame of reference than the English “god.” The word could also refer to the Egyptian king, certain living animals, and to dead people or animals. The one thing every entity referred to as “netjer” had in common was that it was the object of a ritual, or received some sort of offerings during a ritual. When viewed in this light, there are five classes of beings that the Egyptians called “netjer.” First are those beings modern-day theologians would call gods. They were created as netjer from the beginning, and did not acquire the status at a later date. For them, ritual served to maintain and preserve their status as gods, much as food allows a person to maintain the status of a living being. These beings received daily rituals and offerings in the temples and shrines throughout Egypt. Next are those beings that acquired the status of netjer through undergoing a ritual at some time after their birth. These entities fall into two categories: those who undergo a ritual and therefore become a netjer while living, and those who become a netjer after death. In the first category are the kings of Egypt and certain sacred animals. The king, at his accession, underwent a coronation ritual and as a result acquired the status of netjer. In addition to the king, the Egyptians viewed certain animals as being special manifestations of particular gods, usually based on the presence of special markings or characteristics. These animals also underwent a ritual which inducted them into the category of netjer and made them instruments through which a particular god could make his presence manifest. The last category of beings that were considered to be netjer is those beings that underwent a ritual, and hence became netjer, after death. The funerary ritual had the effect of turning every deceased Egyptian for whom it was practiced into a netjer. The dead person would become an akh , the Egyptian word for a glorified spirit, and would be the recipient of offerings of food and drink from his family members. Finally, animals belonging to particular species that were kept at Egyptian temples would be mummified and buried at death, conferring on them the status of netjer.


Ancient Egyptian religion has certain characteristics that differ from what most Western observers would call religion in several ways. Unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Egyptian religion was not a founded religion. In other words there is no single individual such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed who received credit for founding Egyptian religion. The exception is Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.E. ), who founded the cult of the Aten. Furthermore, Egyptian religion is not scriptural. There is no set of writings thought to be revealed by the gods to mankind explicating the tenets of Egyptian religion. This does not mean that the Egyptians did not have religious texts, for they most certainly did. But these writings never achieved the status of a canon against which all else could be judged. There was no doctrine for people to believe, and no creeds to which people had to agree. Egyptian religion was greatly influenced by the natural world. The Egyptians did not worship nature, but it was through nature that they gained their knowledge of the gods. The landscape, plants, and animals could all have religious significance. The Nile River and the scorching Egyptian sun played prominent roles in Egyptian theology.


One of the most striking characteristics of Egyptian religion to the modern student is what has been termed the “multiplicity of approaches.” The Egyptians did not seek a single explanation for phenomena or events. Rather, the same phenomenon could have several different, and to us mutually exclusive, explanations. There were several different explanations for the creation of the world that ascribed creation to different gods. The same phenomenon could be described through several different symbols. For example, the Egyptians imagined the sky as a cow with stars adorning her belly, as a body of water on which the sun-god sailed in his boat, as a woman’s body stretched out over the earth, and as a roof or canopy, all at the same time.


Another feature of Egyptian religion was the importance of the spoken word and names. Words were not simply vibrations of sounds or collections of letters; they possessed power. The Egyptians did not believe that similarities in sound between words were coincidental, but rather revealed essential information about the relationship between the entities. Just as individuals like the king or vizier (high government official) could accomplish things by speaking orders, the speaking of words could bring about concrete events. Reading the offering formula on behalf of a deceased relative provided him with the commodities needed in the afterlife. Names referred to the essence of a person or deity, and manipulation of an entity’s name granted control over the entity. In order to bring about the destruction of an enemy, his name could be written on a clay bowl or anthropomorphic figurine. The writer could then smash the bowl or the figurine. This action ensured the enemy’s destruction. Knowing the true name of a god granted one power over the god. The names of gods became the building blocks for expanding knowledge of the deities, and the more names a god had the more aspects his being possessed.


When studying Egyptian religion, scholars must always keep in mind that most interpretations are based on evidence spread out over more than 3,000 years of history. The main source of information about Egyptian religion is the abundant written material that has been preserved. The first written evidence for Egyptian religion comes from the period of Dynasty 0 (3200–3100 B.C.E. ) and the Early Dynastic Period (3100–2675 B.C.E. ). This evidence is in the form of names of individuals that include a god’s name as an element. Names such as “he whom Khnum has saved,” or “he whom Anubis has created” or “she whom Neith loves” give scholars the first indication of which gods the Egyptians worshipped, and the types of actions and relationships people expected from their gods. Labels and clay seals used to close jars also preserve brief texts that give evidence for temples in ancient Egypt. The texts occasionally indicate that the commodities in the containers were destined for, or came from, a particular temple.


The texts that the Egyptians buried with their dead to aid them in making a successful transition to the afterlife are an extremely important source of information on the Egyptian gods and their doings. The earliest of these texts, and in fact the oldest religious texts known anywhere in the world, are found on the walls of the pyramids of the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas (2371–2350 B.C.E. ), and in the pyramids of the Sixth-dynasty kings (2350–2170 B.C.E. ) and even some of their queens. Because of their location Egyptologists call them Pyramid Texts . These texts were initially the exclusive prerogative of royalty. Towards the end of the Old Kingdom a new type of funerary text appeared among the high officials of the bureaucracy. These texts became more frequent during the Middle Kingdom, and are found mainly on the walls of wooden coffins, and therefore are called Coffin Texts . At the end of the Middle Kingdom, funerary spells written on papyri and buried with the deceased or painted on tomb walls replaced the Coffin Texts . The Egyptian title of these spells was “The Book of Going Forth by Day.” Once introduced, these texts continued in use until the end of the Roman period of Egyptian history. In 1842 the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius published a Ptolemaic period papyrus of these texts, and coined the name Totenbuch , which in English is Book of the Dead , and that is how these texts have been known ever since.


In addition to the Book of the Dead , the New Kingdom pharaohs included in their tombs a new type of funerary text, which scholars call underworld books. These books described the nightly journey of the sun through the underworld, and it was a goal of the dead pharaoh to join the sun god on this voyage. Scholars include several different compositions among the underworld books. The most important are the Amduat , the Book of Gates , the Book of Caverns , and the Book of the Earth . A similar category of text is found in tombs after the Amarna period, which scholars call books of the sky. These texts represent the sun’s voyage as a passage along the body of the sky-goddess Nut. During the day, the sun passes along her body, and at night it is swallowed by Nut, passes through her internally until dawn, when the sun is reborn between her thighs. The compositions known as the Book of Nut , Book of Day , and Book of Night belong to this genre of text.


Funerary texts are not the only source of knowledge on Egyptian religion. Egyptian literature is replete with references to the gods and to people’s interactions with them. Hymns and prayers are commonly found carved on tomb walls and on stelae (carved stone slabs) set up as monuments to the king, memorials to the deceased, or as votive offerings to the gods. Private letters, contracts, royal decrees, and medical texts, while not “religious” in purpose, all contain references to the gods and preserve important information on Egyptian religion. Instructional texts, used to train scribes, contain advice on how to live a life pleasing to the gods. Magical spells are an important source for some of the myths of the gods. Fortunately for modern scholarship, the ancient Egyptians covered the walls of their temples with texts and scenes relating to the activities which went on inside these massive buildings. The best-preserved temples are also the latest (Ptolemaic and Roman periods), and caution must be exercised when using these late sources to throw light on earlier religious practices.


The practice of burying goods with the deceased has preserved important artifacts relating to Egyptian religion. Earliest evidence for Egyptian religion comes from the burials of people and animals during the Predynastic period (4500–3100 B.C.E. ). The fact that people at this early stage were buried with grave goods and foodstuffs indicates a belief in some sort of life after death. Human figurines of clay and ivory included in some of the burials may represent deities, but this is uncertain. The number of animal burials discovered from this period may indicate that the Egyptians already worshipped divine powers in animal form. Excavations at the New Kingdom town sites of Amarna and Deir el-Medina have revealed important information about the personal religious practices of their inhabitants, and about the types of shrines at which these practices were carried out.


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