Egyptian mythology (or Egyptian religion) is the name for
the succession of beliefs held by the
people of Egypt until the coming of Christianity
and Islam. The timespan involved is nearly
three thousand years, and beliefs varied
considerably over time.
The main early beliefs can be split into 5 distinct localised
As the leaders of the different groups gained and lost power,
so the dominent beliefs merged and mutated. First, Ra and Atum
became Atum-Ra. At the end of this, all at remained, by the
time of hellenic influence over Egypt, was the trinity of Osiris,
Isis, and Horus, and their enemy, Set, as exemplified by the
Legend of Osiris and Isis. The trinity had absorbed so many
of the prior cults, that each was worshipped at their own cult
centre - Abydos for Osiris, Dendara for Isis, and Edfu for Horus.
Even by this stage, the amalgamation was continuing, with Osiris
all but an aspect of Horus (and vice-versa), heading rapidly
towards monotheism. Nethertheless, monotheism had briefly existed
before, as, in the 13th century, Akhenaten had attempted to
introduce the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun-disc itself,
although it was subsequently rejected.
- the Ennead of Heliopolis, whose
chief god was Atum
- the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, where the chief god was Ra
- the Khnum-Satet-Anuket triad of Elephantine, where the
chief god was Khnum
- the Amun-Mut-Chons triad of Thebes, where the chief god
- the Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem triad of Memphis, unusual in
that the gods were unconnected before the triad was formalised,
where the chief god was Ptah
According to the Turin Royal Canon, ten gods ruled Egypt,
each for long (but finite) periods, prior to the First Dynasty:
Ptah, Ra, Su, Seb, Osiris, Set, Horus, Thoth, Ma'at, Horus.
Beliefs about the soul meant that embalming and mummification
were practiced, in order to preserve the individual's identity
in the afterlife. In Egypt, the dead were originally buried
in reed caskets in the searing hot sand, which caused the
remains to dry quickly, preventing decomposition, and were
subsequently buried. Later, they started constructing wooden
tombs, and the extensive process of mummification and associated
burial rituals and rules began. Embalming was developed by
the Egyptians around the 4th Dynasty. All soft tissues were
removed, and the cavities washed and packed with natron, then
the exterior body was buried in natron as well. Since it was
a stoneable offence to harm the body of the Pharaoh, even
after death, the person who made the cut in the abdomen with
a rock knife was ceremonially chased away and had rocks thrown
After coming out of the natron, the bodies were coated inside
and out with resin to preserve them, then wrapped with linen
bandages, embedded with religious amulets and talismans. In
the case of royalty, this was usually then placed inside a
series of nested coffins the outermost of which was a stone
sarcophagus. The intestines, lungs, liver and the stomach
were preserved separately and stored in canopic jars protected
by the Four sons of Horus.
Other creatures were also mummified, sometimes thought to
be pets of Egyptian families, but more frequently or more
likely they were the representations of the Gods. The ibis,
crocodile, cats, nile perch and baboon can be found in perfect
The Book of the Dead were
a series of almost two hundred sectional texts, songs and
pictures written on papyrus, individually customised for the
individual, which were buried along with the dead, or painted
on the tomb walls, in order to ease their passage into the
underworld. In some tombs, the Book
of the Dead has also been found painted on the walls.
One of the best examples of the Book
of the Dead is The Papyrus of Ani, created around 1240
BC, which, in addition to the texts themselves, also contains
many pictures of Ani and his wife on their journey through
the land of the dead.
In later belief, the soul of the deceased is led into a hall
of judgement in Duat, by Anubis,
and the deceased's heart, which was the record of the morality
of the owner, is weighed against a single feather representing
Maàt's (the concept of truth, and order). If the outcome
is favourable, the deceased is taken to Osiris in Aaru,
but the demon Ammit (Eater of Hearts)
part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus
destroys those hearts whom the verdict is against, leaving
the owner to remain in Duat.
The Monotheistic Period
A short interval of monotheism (Atenism) occurred under the
reign of Akhenaten, focused on the Egyptian sun deity Aten.
Akhenaten outlawed the worship of any other god and built
a new capital (Amarna) around the temple for Aten.
The religious change survived only until the death of Akhenaten's
son by a minor wife Tutankhamun, being highly unpopular and
quickly reverted afterwards. In fact, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun's
removals from the Wall of Kings are likely related to the
radical religious change.
According to some egyptologists, particularly among those
with a Judao-Christian religious bias, it is incorrect to
regard this period as monotheistic. These researchers state
that people did not worship the Aten
but worshipped the royal family as a pantheon of gods who
received their divine power from the Aten.
According to other egyptologists, it is important to regard
this period as monotheistic. A recent alternative explanation
resulting from interpreting particular items of knowledge
concerning biblical and Egyptian history (by Ahmed Osman)
proposes that Moses and Akhenaten to be the same person.
After the fall of the Amarna dynasty, the original Egyptian
pantheon survived more or less as the dominant faith, until
the establishment of Coptic Christianity and later Islam,
even though the Egyptians continued to have relations with
the other monotheistic cultures (e.g. Hebrews). Egyptian mythology
put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity,
sometimes explained by claiming that Jesus was originally
a syncretism based predominantly on Horus, with Isis representing
Many temples are still standing today. Others are in ruins
from wear and tear, while others have been lost entirely.
Pharaoh Ramses II was a particularly prolific builder of temples.
Some known temples include:
- Abu Simbel Complex of two massive rock temples
in southern Egypt on the western bank of the Nile.
- Abydos (Great Temple of Abydos) Adoration of the
early kings, whose cemetery, to which it forms a great funerary
chapel, lies behind it.
- Ain el-Muftella (Bahariya Oasis) Could have served
as the city center of El Qasr. It was probably built around
the 26th Dynasty.
- Karnak Once part of the ancient capital of Egypt,
- Bani Hasan al Shurruq Located in Middle Egypt near
to Al-Minya and survived the reconstruction of the New Kingdom.
- Edfu Ptolemaic temple that is located between Aswan
- Temple of Kom Ombo Controlled the trade routes
from Nubia to the Nile Valley.
- Luxor Built largely by Amenhotep III and Ramesses
II, it was the center of the Opet Festival.
- Medinet Habu (Memorial Temple of Ramesses III) Temple
and a complex of temples dating from the New Kingdom.
- Temple of Hatshepsut Mortuary temple complex at
Deir el-Bahri with a colonnaded structure of perfect harmony,
built nearly one thousand years before the Parthenon.
- Philae Island of Philae with Temple of Aset which
was constructed in the 30th Dynasty.
- Ramesseum (Memorial Temple of Ramesses II) The
main building, dedicated to the funerary cult, comprised
two stone pylons (gateways, some 60 m wide), one after the
other, each leading into a courtyard. Beyond the second
courtyard, at the centre of the complex, was a covered 48-column
hypostyle hall, surrounding the inner sanctuary.
- Dendera Temple complex Several temples but the
all overshadowing building in the complex is the main temple,
the Hathor temple.
Egypt exchanged ideas with Libya during its early unsettled
period. Egypt was also influenced by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasties,
which ruled Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic
queen to rule on her own. Egypt was incorporated into the
Roman Empire, and was ruled first from Rome and then from
Constantinople (until the Arab conquest).
Main article: Third Intermediate Period of Egypt
22nd 25th Dynasty
Egypt has long had ties with Libya. After the death of Rameses
XI, the priesthood in the person of Herihor wrest control
of Egypt away from the Pharaohs until they were superseded
(without any apparent struggle) by the Libyan kings of the
22nd Dynasty. The first king of the new Dynasty, Shoshenq
I, served as a general under the last ruler of the 21st Dynasty.
It is known that he appointed his own son to be the High Priest
of Amun, a post that was previously
a hereditary appointment. The scant and patchy nature of the
written records from this period suggest that it was unsettled.
There appear to have been many subversive groups which eventually
led to the creation of the 23rd dynasty which ran concurrent
with the 22nd.
Main article: Greek Egypt
304 BC 30 BC
Started with Ptolemy I of Egypt and ended with Cleopatra
VII. As Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"), he founded
the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was to rule Egypt for 300 years.
All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name "Ptolemy".
Because the Ptolemaic kings adopted the Egyptian custom of
marrying their sisters, many of the kings ruled jointly with
their spouses, who were also of the royal house. This custom
made Ptolemaic politics confusingly incestuous, and the later
Ptolemies were increasingly feeble. The last of the Ptolemies,
the famous Cleopatra, was the only Ptolemaic queen to rule
on her own, after the death of her brother/husband, Ptolemy
Main article: Roman Egypt
30 BC 639 AD
Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire and was ruled
first from Rome and then from Constantinople (until the Arab
conquest). The most revolutionary event in the history of
Roman Egypt was the introduction of Christianity in the 2nd
century. It was at first vigorously persecuted by the Roman
authorities, who feared religious discord more than anything
else in a country where religion had always been paramount.
But it soon gained adherents among the Jews of Alexandria.
From them it rapidly passed to the Greeks, and then to the
native Egyptians, who found its promise of personal salvation
and its teachings of social equality appealing.
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