Polytheism In Ancient Egypt
To begin with, growing up in a Roman Catholic community and education did not give me many opportunities for in depth conversations about polytheism or what it even meant to those who believed it. For many years, I was under the assumption that polytheism in the ancient world did not have much significance or contributions to the world outside of the centuries old civilizations who practiced polytheism. In addition to thinking that the ancient Egyptians were just people who just used their polytheistic ideology only to come to terms with the terrifying unknown of nature and science. However, as I involved myself more in my historical education, I constantly found myself discovering that these assumptions were not fair or valid to make, and that there is a deeper meaning to polytheism. I want to know how polytheism affected the on goings of the ancient world, why the Egyptians, who revolved their entire way of life around their beliefs, made such an impact on the world and what exactly is polytheism besides the mere definition of “the worship of many gods.”
Egyptian civilization emerged around 3100 BC surrounding the Nile River. The Nile River Delta was a primary source for the agricultural, and population growth that started the development of the Egyptian kingdom. The river’s annual flooding left behind hydrated fertile soil that would support a variety of crops. Eventually overtime, the kingdom split in two directions, north and south of the river delta. Following this, the Egyptian culture began to take form. Hieroglyphs, one of the earliest forms of writing was invented, later evolving into a more complex script called hieratic. Both of which were associated with religious texts literature, and found in sacred tombs as well as temples. The first and second dynasty pharaohs even began claiming themselves as incarnations of the God Horus, and used the symbol of a falcon as their throne name.
With this in mind, one may come to the question, where exactly did this concept of religion come into existence in Egyptian civilization? First, the word “religion” did not exist in the language of the Egyptians. However, through examination of their texts it can be proved that they practiced what resembled a “religion.” The origin of their beliefs seems to stem from the
sun god known as Ra/Re who was thought to be the creator and one of the most powerful of the deities. They believed that he was the god who placed pharaohs to rule on earth so, maat, (meaning justice or order), could be reinforced.
As a result of their celestial assigned tasks, the pharaohs were considered half god and half man. Thus, the pharaoh was assumed to enter the spiritual world where he would be permitted to live for all eternity. This concept is what leads to the initial construction of the pyramids during the Old Kingdom. Before the time of the pyramids, the Egyptians, like other civilizations, used pits to bury the dead. The breakthrough in pyramidal building occurred during the 3rd dynasty, which was under the rule of King Djoser. The design was created by the king’s minister named Imhotep. With this new structure, the pharaohs could properly ascend into the afterlife with the gods, and the tomb may be used to perform rituals, worship, or dedication to an individual deity.
Also, because the pharaoh was divine in nature, he was supposed to judge the humans, while also satisfying the gods through offerings to both the individual gods and the dead. However, offerings were not only performed by pharaohs, but also for “humans” or citizens to build a connection with their gods. A typical offering included an exchange of goods between the offeror and the gods. Additionally, the goods were not meant for a literal ‘exchange’, but rather a symbolic expression of their support to the gods. In return, the people would receive various blessings or wonderful occurrences in their life.
Manifestations were another component of these types of rituals. As a matter of fact, the Egyptians believed that the gods could temporarily exist out of the eternal world and into the physical world. In order for this to take place, they would need to call upon the gods using their offerings within a temple or tomb. Temples could also serve as oracle centers and provided a means to divine connection, and dream interpretation in particular. It was believed that through sleep, elixirs could be communicated by gods in order to cure disease. Dreams were also valued as messages from the gods and could be interpreted by a holy individual such as a priest. Furthermore, the gods were in control of the processes of the world as well as the cosmos. So, the Egyptians frequently stressed about the world’s ongoing fate, so they sought out the study of the nature around them in order to assist in the maintenance of the world. This leads to the mastery of cosmology as well as the designation of deities to specific locations and roles in their society.
In early Egypt, it was believed that everything conceived through the gods’ creation held some degree of divine power, this included animals, humans, and of course, gods. Initially, the gods were depicted as various animals, and it was only later on that the gods would take the form of having an animal head and human body, that is frequently portrayed in today’s modern idea of Egyptian polytheism. For example, the goddess Hathor was originally was described as a cow, but then developed into a woman with cow ears crowned with a sun disk & uraeus (cobra) representing absolute power.
The gods of Egypt as well as their attributes would also evolve depending on various circumstances. First, if a new king or dynasty takes control of Egypt, new temples may be constructed or new rituals may be reinforced for gods that are preferred by the new authority. Hence, increasing the god’s popularity which often resulted in new traditions, rituals, and forms of the god. More often than not, the main reason that the gods had multiple forms was to signify the distinct features in each of their powers. The several forms of one god could be utilized in separate rituals, manifestations, and traditions. Additionally, these gods were also thought to have human mannerisms, and would be illustrated making human gestures such as raising their hands in a welcoming appearance to show their kindness or blessings.
Now, throughout the course of history Egypt acquired a large collection of hundreds of gods. In Egyptian mythology, “The Ennead” are the nine gods who in are considered the first produced from divine creation. These gods were Atum, Shu, Nut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, and Seth. Atum, like the previously mentioned Re, is a sun god who also is named a creator of the universe. His name ‘Atum’ refers to his totality and perfection as the creator of the universe. These two sun gods unify to be called Re-Atum.
Next, Shu the god of sunlight air, was created by Atum. Shu is portrayed as a human wearing a plume on his head and arms raised in support of the partnership of Geb and Nut. Geb, the eldest son of Shu and brother of Nut, was an earth god, who is known to have a laugh that is said to be powerful enough to initiate an earthquake. Meanwhile, his sister Nut, the sky goddess, gives birth to gods and goddess like Nephthys who are mentioned in the Osirian cycle of myth.
Osiris was king of Egypt, the successor of his father Geb. He and his brother Seth, the god of chaotic forces, competed for the throne. Eventually, Osiris’s reign came to an end after being violently slayed and dismembered by Seth. Seth also constantly fought with a god named Horus, whose name means “the Distant One” and was a chief god of Lower Egypt. He was commonly represented as a falcon or as a falcon-headed human being since he was a sky god and also was said to be a child of Nut.
Besides these initial gods, one god in particular, Amun, is considered one the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. He is commonly pictured as a pharaoh with a crown, and blue colored flesh. Amun is a very complicated god due to the varying interpretations of his name which is defined as “to conceal”. He was called ‘asha renu’ or ‘rich in names’ because of this.
Moving on from this, since both gods and human beings had a beginning in time, it is said that they must have an end in time. So, this brings in the topic of death and the afterlife for both humans and gods alike. The Osiris myth stated above is what inspires the concept of embalming rituals. In these rituals, the goal was to restore, and unify the body following death. To add on to this, it was said that during the 4th Dynasty is when the methods used to mummify dead bodies were first introduced and developed. The mummification procedure began immediately after the family of the deceased communicated with the embalmers. The body was washed and then taken to a workshop called the wabet, meaning the “pure place.” Next, the organs were removed through a small incision on the side of the body and a linen material then proceeded to be wrapped around the body.
The ceremonial preparing of the body typically took around seventy days to complete. The number of days was based on the astronomical phenomenon of decans, referring to the days the stars that remained below the horizon, (which was for these seventy days) before rising above, creating an allusion to the rising of the deceased from the afterlife. Following this amount of time, the embalming as well as the mummification process was complete, and the mummy was placed in a coffin which stood upright facing the south to be “bathed in the light, and in the sight of the god Re. The tomb where this coffin would be placed contained wall hieroglyphs depicting daily work and life, in addition to objects of everyday use. The spirit was believed to have the capability to activate these scripts in order to receive a great abundance of earthly pleasures such as food and drink in the afterlife.
In fact, Experts were able to learn a substantial amount about the everyday life of Egyptians because of these very texts. The homeland was cherished as a true divine gift and was treated as so. Altogether, agriculture was the main occupation for the average Egyptian with agricultural processing a close second. They grew crops such as barley which they made into beer, bread, and even linen. The Egyptians used a device which is still used today in rural Egypt, to control irrigation called a shaduf which aided them in the production of the crops. In addition to this, cultivation of papyrus was very popular as they were used for religious various books and texts. The week was made up of ten working days followed by a three-day weekend, with off days given during religious holidays. Demonstrating the great religious dedication and respect to the gods they worshipped.
All in all, Polytheism is what ties all of the cultural aspects and Egyptian life together. This allows one to realize the substantial importance of religious values in ancient societies like Egypt. This civilization was built on the foundation of religious values that catalyzed discoveries that would not have been made if ancient peoples did not question our very existence or what higher powers could exist in order to have our own unique and precise world that allows us to exist. The expression of their beliefs and practices made way for the some of the most admired and influential structures in the world. The pyramids, hieroglyphs, agricultural methods, embalming and mummification processes all represent the dedication of the Egyptians to their gods. The practice of Egyptian polytheism is so special and unique due to the fact that they did not have any outside sources of influence such as other civilizations. Also, despite the vast invasions, conquering and occupation by Islamic and Christian settlements, Egyptian culture remained intact for the most part and even influenced their conquerors in many ways. Therefore, representing the strong effect the Egyptians had on not only the region around them, but the entire world, which would not be the same without their innovations.