Many books have been written on
religion in ancient Egypt. This brief overview is meant
only to explain some of the basic concepts and to
introduce some of the gods. Religion in ancient Egypt was
not unlike modern times. Today, not everyone believes in
the same way, or of the same god. Egypt was no different.
Individual kings worshipped their own gods, as did the
workers, priests, merchants and peasants. Pre-dynastic
Egypt had formulated the ideas and beliefs of a
"greater being", which was expressed in
pictures, but some scholars suggest that
"writing" was invented in order to communicate
spiritual thoughts to the masses. Now the pictures had
ideas, and took on human traits. The gods lived, died,
hunted, went into battle, gave birth, ate, drank, and had
human emotions. The gods reigns overlapped, and, in some
instances, merged. Their was no organized hierarchy
structure of their reign. The dominance of the gods
depended on the beliefs of the reigning king. Their area
of dominance depended on where the king wanted his
capital. Likewise, the myths changed with the location of
the gods, as did their names. Names in ancient Egypt were
very mystic and powerful. It was thought that if you
inscribed your enemies' name on something, then broke it,
that enemy would either be afflicted, or possibly die. If
you knew a name you had power. In the same respect, using
a name could be beneficial. Each god had five names, and
each was associated with an element, such as air, with
celestial bodies, or were a descriptive statement about
the god, such as strong, virile or majestic.
The creator of all things was either Re, Amun, Ptah,
Khnum or Aten, depending on which version of the myth was
currently in use. The heavens were represented by Hathor,
Bat, and Horus. Osiris was an earth god as was Ptah. The
annual flooding of the Nile was Hapi. Storms, evil and
confusion were Seth. His counterpart was Ma'at, who
represented balance, justice and truth. The moon was
Thoth and Khonsu. Re, the sun god, took on many forms,
and transcended most of the borders that contained the
other gods. The actual shape of the sun, the disk (or,
aten), was deified into another god, Aten.
As stated earlier, certain gods were worshipped in
different areas. Local cities or villages, known as
nomes, often had unique gods that were known only to that
region. On occasion, these gods attained country -wide
recognition and became the myths and legends that were
passed on from century to century. Below is a listing of
the main gods and their primary place of worship.
Amaunet - A female counterpart to Amon and one of the
primordial gods of the Hermopolitian Ogdoad (group of
eight gods). She was also worshipped at Thebes along with
Amon and Mut.
Amon - Usually associated with the wind, or things
hidden, and was also of the Hermopolitian Ogdoad. At
Thebes he became Amon-Re, king of the gods. He was part
of the Theban Triad, along with Mut and Khonsu.
Antaios - He was originally a double god, "the
two falcons", that was later joined to create one,
probably that of Horus.
Anuket - Worshipped at Elephantine, she was associated
with the gazelle.
Apis - Seen as the bull with a solar disk between its
horns, Apis was associated with Osiris and Ptah.
Aton - Also known as Aten, he was worshipped at Tell
Atum - A primordial god that was represented in the
form of a human and a serpent. He was the supreme god in
the Heliopolitan Ennead (group of nine gods) and formed
with Re to create Re-Atum.
Hathor - The goddess of love, dance and alcohol was
depicted as a cow. At Thebes she was also the goddess of
the dead. She was worshipped at Dendera as the consort of
Horus and Edfu, and was associated with Isis at Byblos.
Horus - The earliest royal god was the shape of a
falcon, with the sun and moon as his eyes. The sky-god
was the ruler of the day. The many forms of Horus are;
Re-Harakhti, Harsiesis, Haroeris, Harendotes,
Khenti-irti, Khentekhtay (the crocodile-god), and
Harmakhis, which is Horus on the horizons, in which the
Sphinx of Giza is considered to be his aspect.
Isis - The mother of Horus and sister and consort of
Osiris was worshipped at Philae. Associated with Astarte,
Hathor, Nut and Sothis, she was later worshipped over the
entire Roman Empire.
Khnum - Resembling a human with a rams head, he was
worshipped in Hypselis, Esna, Antinoe and Elephantine.
Khonsu - the moon god was the son of Amon and Mut. The
main temple at Karnak is dedicated to him.
Min - God of fertility coalesced with Amon and Horus.
Min was mainly worshipped at Coptos and Akhmim.
Mut - Worshipped at Thebes, she was a consort of Amon
and part of the Theban Triad (group of three gods).
Nut - Mother of the sun, moon and heavenly bodies.
Osiris - He is regarded as the dead king that watches
over the nether world and is rejuvenated in his son
Horus. As the symbol of eternal life he was worshipped at
Abydos and Philae.
Ptah - Worshipped in Memphis, he coalesced with
Sokaris and Osiris.
Re - He was the sun god of Heliopolis. From the fifth
Dynasty onwards he becomes a national god and is combined
with the supreme deity Amon.
Serapis - He was mainly worshipped in Alexandria and
was later worshipped by the Greeks as Zeus. He was never
fully accepted by the Egyptians in the Ptolemaic period.
Sekhmet - She was part of the Memphite Triad with Ptah
and Nefertem. She was the mistress of war and sickness.
Seth - The son of Geb and Nut in the Heliopolitan
Ennead was in the form of an animal that has no
zoological equivalent. This powerful god was regarded as
god of the desert, making him a god of foreign lands.
Shu - He was an ancient cosmic power and was regarded
as the god of the air and the bearer of heaven.
Sobek - He was a crocodile god and was worshipped at
the Faiyum and Ombos. During the middle Kingdom he
coalesced with Re, Sobek-Re, and was worshipped as
primordial deity and creator-god.
Thoth - He was worshipped as a baboon in Hermopolis.
He was the god of sacred writings and wisdom.
The kings of ancient Egypt were an integral part of
religion. They formed a bridge over the chasm dividing
the people and the gods. In pre-dynastic times the kings
were considered to be gods. In later times, around the
third dynasty, the kings became "transformed
into" gods. This was a crucial part of the governing
of the people. The heirs to the throne were not kept out
of public display. At a young age they were known to
many, and were known as children, not future gods. A king
may have had many heirs and may not have known who would
assume the throne until a much later time. In order for
the people , (and the future king), to accept the
transformation, certain procedures had to be worked out.
This dilemma was beautifully solved by the ritual that
merged the king with the god. Belief was that all future
kings had two aspects of his being, his physical being
and his "ka." The ka was his spiritual
counterpart that was part of the king at birth and
remained with him throughout his life. Before assuming
the throne a ritual was performed that united the king's
ka and his person. The king and his priests would enter a
temple, perform the ritual, and emerge as a god. All of
the people would wait outside to witness the miracle of
the transformation when the king re-emerged from the
temple. In this way was the new king accepted as a god
and his word was accepted as law.
Concerning religious matters, directly under the king
were the priests. Their duty was to take care of the
images of the gods. They also prepared the statues, or
images, for the religious festivals. It was the priests
role to read the scrolls before religious events. In
later dynasties the priests were the voices of the
oracles. Special compartments, called priest holes, were
strategically placed inside the temple. The priests were
able to speak from these holes unseen by the person
asking questions or favors of the gods. Oracles were
considered the pinnacle of the decision of the gods. The
priests were in charge of the temple riches and
granaries. They were on a rotation schedule and might
work officially one week out of the month. Their
laboratories were in the temples, where they prepared
incense and healing potions. What we think of as wizards
originated with the priests. Shrouded in mystery, they
were seldom seen by the common people unless they were
reading magical texts or performing religious rituals.
Inside the temple sanctuaries they were seen only by the
king.. During the 21st 'Dynasty tomb robbing was
systematically done by the priests themselves. Throughout
history tomb robbing had been a problem, but had
generally been done by common thieves. The priests
claimed that by removing the bodies, and stripping off
all of the precious metals, that they were, in fact,
saving the desecration of the bodies by the common
thieves. Of course the priests re-wrapped the bodies and
buried them in different tombs to help protect the
corpses. Some of the stolen gold and silver went into the
temple treasuries, but a large portion of it went to the
purchase of wood and iron, resources that were not native
to Egypt and were most costly. Thirdly, some of the
riches went into the current kings' tomb, making the
robberies sanctified by the throne.
The ancient Egyptians were extremely devout in their
beliefs. They were dedicated to their gods and worshipped
daily in many different ways. Their way of life revolved
around these beliefs. They had a strong sense of justice
and endeavored to do that which was right. Just like our
society today, the common people abhorred adultery,
stealing, murder and lying. They were a highly
sophisticated society with values and morals not unlike
our own. Magic was commonplace for them as is
demonstrated by the wearing of amulets to ward off evil.
Magical texts were written in tombs to protect against
would-be robbers. Many spells against snakebite have been
discovered. Magical spells, rituals and concoctions were
used to treat the sick or injured. If the magic did not
work it was considered a will of the god, and not a
failure of the magic. The peoples calm acceptance of the
strange and unusual allowed them to reconcile themselves
to either natural phenomena or to those things unseen.
Every occurrence had spiritual meaning and had a unique
god assigned to the act.
In the 1st dynasty (2950 - 3110 B.C.E.) Menes, the
king who is considered by many to be Ay or Narmer, united
upper and lower Egypt. He created his capital at Memphis
and dedicated a temple to the god Ptah. Existing beliefs
at that time were revised to explain these events, and
almost all other myths of gods came from this event. Over
a period of time all of the surrounding local gods were
brought into this scheme, creating a sort of order of the
hierarchy of the gods. All of the gods were included in
one story or another, so no one was offended. This
composition of the gods was like laying bricks for a
building and, in essence, created the foundation for
history's longest lived civilization.
THE GODS OF HELIOPOLIS
THE TRIAD OF THEBES
THE TRIAD OF ABU
To understand the Myth of Creation, one
must first understand that it is a complicated story.
Four "cosmologies," or theories about creation
are involved, each developing over different periods in
ancient Egypt. There are some common elements to each
theory. For example, each theory holds that in the
beginning, only a primordial, stagnant ocean called Nu
existed. In addition, the four theories agree that out of
Nu, rose the primeval hill. Each cosmology believed it
was their temple that stood on this hill. The first
step-pyramids are no doubt symbolic of this mound. All
cosmologies share the belief that creation was a slow
process, not catastrophic. Finally, they also all agree
that there was a "First Time," or a time period
when the gods actually lived on earth.
With this foundation, the Heliopolitan
cosmogony develops the myth further. The first event was
the creation of Atum, the god of Heliopolis. There is
dispute over whether he created himself, or was the son
of Nu. Some texts say he first appeared over the hill,
others say he was, himself, the hill. Eventually, Atum
became associated with Ra, the sun-god. Ra-Atum at this
point is said to be the coming of the light to disperse
the darkness of Nu. Ra-Atum is symbolized by the Phoenix
in this context. His next task was to create other gods.
He did this by masturbation, not having a mate. This was
not offensive to ancient Egyptians, but in fact
intensified his power in their minds.
Ra-Atum gave birth to twins. Shu, his
son and god of the air, was spit out, and his daughter,
Tefnut, goddess of world order was vomited out by
Ra-Atum. The Twins were raised by Nu and supervised by
Ra-Atum's eye. The story of Ra-Atums eye will be told
later. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to Geb, god of the
earth, and his wife and sister, Nut, goddess of the sky.
Geb and Nut, in turn, were the parents of Isis, Osiris,
Nephthys, and Set. These four gods, especially Osiris
play a major role in later myths. Horus, another god was
the son of Isis and Osiris. These five younger gods and
goddesses may have been incorporated by the priests of
Heliopolis. Whatever the case, this "Ennead,"
or grouping of gods, were very much a part of tradition
during this time.
From here, the order of dominance or
precedence becomes contradictory. Some text place Horus
in a very high position, others give the right to Nut.
Still others claim that Atum placed Geb over the Ennead,
which included himself. The priests during this period
believed themselves to represent Geb and Nut, not Atum.
Eventually, it is Ra, the sun-god, who is considered
supreme. However, Osiris later assumes this role. All of
this will be discussed later.
Later, in 3100 B.C., Upper and Lower
Egypt were joined and the capital became Memphis. This
began a new theory of creation. Ptah, the high god of
Memphis was deemed creator. At some point Ptah was even
declared to be Nu (thus placed above Atum, high god of
Heliopolis). The Ennead of Heliopolis was said to be
merely a manifestation of Ptah. This displacement of
Heliopolitan cosmogony was necessary to establish and
maintain the Memphite superiority.
Yet another cosmogony existed which was
quite different from that of Heliopolis and Memphis. This
was in a city in Upper Egypt called Hermopolis. It was
said that this theory came before any other. Instead of
an Ennead, Hermopolitans had a group of eight gods called
an Ogdoad. This group consisted of Nun and Naunet, Huh
and Hauhet, Kuk and Kauket, and Amon and Amaunet.
According to this theory, these eight gods were
responsible for creating the world. After this was done,
the eight ruled the world during a time called the Golden
Age. When they died, they went to the underworld, from
where they still had power to make the Nile flow and the
sun to rise. Nun and Naunet symbolize water, Huh and
Hauhet represent "unendingness," Kuk and Kauket
signify darkness, and Amon and Amaunet symbolize the air.
Finally, in Thebes during the New
Kingdom time from 1546-1085 B.C., a new cosmogony arose.
At this time, all the other theories were widely
accepted; therefore, it was essential that the Thebans
incorporate the main features of these theories into
their own. The chief god of Thebes was Amon, who was
already associated with the air. This made it a simple
task to also instill in Amon the power of the
"supreme and invisible creator (Ames, 1965)."
It was said that he created himself, having no father or
mother, and was born in secret. Thebans claimed their
city was the first city, and that all other cities were
modeled after it. All of the cosmogonies claimed this.
Thebans claimed that Thebes was the Eye of Ra, son of
Amon. Going beyond what had been done in the past,
Thebans claimed that entire cosmogonies were merely
aspects of Amon; merely forms of him.
It is important to mention at this
point that each translation of ancient Egyptian text
renders its own perspective on what is being said. There
are many inconsistencies in each account. Therefor, it is
a very complicated and difficult task to summarize the
myth of creation, or any myth, for that matter. From
source to source, the names of the gods differ; even
spellings differ. This site attempts to give a brief
outline or a basic knowledge of Egyptian mythology. With
this in mind, we continue with a few myths related to the
The eye of Ra-Atum, mentioned above, is
the mythological symbol for the sun. At one point, Shu
and Tefnut, twin children of Ra-Atum, were separated from
him. He sent his eye to find them. While the eye was
searching, Ra-Atum replaced the eye with another. When
the eye returned with Shu and Tefnut, Ra-Atum wept with
joy, and the tears created humankind. However, the eye
was enraged at having been replaced. Ra-Atum placed the
eye on his forehead so that the eye could rule the world;
thus becoming associated with the sun. The second eye is
associated with the moon.
Another mythological symbol associated
with the Creation Myth is the Phoenix. The Phoenix was
said to travel from Arabia to Heliopolis once every five
hundred years. The cycles of time were said to be set by
the Phoenix, also known as the Benu bird, and the
temple of the Phoenix became the "centre of
calendrical regulation (Clark, 1960)." During the
Middle Kingdom, it became the soul of Osiris and it was
also at this time that it became associated with the
planet Venus, the morning star, which was said to be the
suns guide. All of the above representations were
minor associations, however. The Phoenixs main role
was as the one who created himself, thus symbolizing
Common to all cosmogonies of creation
is the temple. Each theory places its temple on the hill
rising up from Nu. Myths concerning the form, origin and
significance are mostly Memphite in origin; myths about
the daily temple rituals are primarily Heliopolitan in
nature. One such temple, and possibly the earliest
described in myth, was that of the Falcon, associated
with the god Horus who was the hunters god, maybe a
war god, and later, a sky god. Thus, the Falcon was a
symbol of majesty and power, and the model for the
pharaohs. According to myth, this temples erection
was a natural event and signified the final event in the
process of creation. It started out as a shelter for the
Falcons perch and this portion remained the most
sacred place in the temple. The detail in which the
temple is described exemplifies the high level of
development that was reached even before historic times.
Many temples like this were constructed in predynastic
Egypt, most likely.
The temple of the sun-god was the
second type of temple built. This began as one
rectangular structure or sanctuary. Other chambers were
added, and a wall surrounded the structure. Some research
shows that there was another type of temple of the
sun-god that consisted of one sanctuary only. This temple
signifies the beginning of the history of the actual
temple physically built in Egypt.
Myth has it that the above temples
descended from one primeval temple that was built to
shelter the successor of the creator. This temple is said
to have stood on the hill rising up from Nu, as did every
other temple described in the various cosmogonies.
However, this was a living temple, the body of the god of
the temple, who took his physical form using the temple.
& Flight of Horus