By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Ordinary people in ancient Egypt had their own private religions and domestic deities, whom they worshipped for different reasons. Briefly, there was a time in ancient Egypt when monotheism or at least henotheism broke the stranglehold of polytheism.
Private Religion of Ancient Egypt and its Deities
Apart from the official religion and deities, ancient Egyptians also had a private religion and deities. Ancient Egyptians mainly prayed to these domestic deities whenever they needed their assistance. One of the most frequently invoked domestic deities was Bes, a grinning male dwarf with the facial features, feet, and a tail of a lion, and a bloated stomach.
Bes guarded people’s homes, in part by warding off snakes—always a danger in Egypt. Women also invoked Bes when they were giving birth. We find his image depicted on headrests, beds, mirror-handles, and other domestic objects, and on amulets that have been carved from hippopotamus ivory.
Another domestic deity was Taweret. Taweret was depicted as a pregnant hippopotamus, standing upright on the lion’s feet and carrying a crocodile on her back. She also protected women in labor.
One might also occasionally pray to one of the major gods. We have a prayer that was written by a workman called Neferabu, who lived in Deir el-Medina, in which he confesses that he has sworn falsely by the god Ptah who has now blinded him as a punishment, and he humbly asks for Ptah’s mercy and forgiveness.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Monotheism or Henotheism in Ancient Egypt
Religion was a stabilizing force in Egyptian society. Only once was there any attempt to shift its course dramatically. The attempt was made by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who reigned from 1350 to 1334 B.C. Amenhotep took the bold and revolutionary step of seeking to replace polytheism with monotheism—or at least something close to monotheism.
He abolished the worship of the traditional gods and promulgated the sun disk, the Aten, and changed his name to Akhenaten, which means ‘Beneficial to the Aten’. He sent his agents up and down the land, armed with their chisels to expunge the names of all the traditional gods from the temples and other monuments that bore their names.
The experiment to replace the traditional gods was deeply resented by the priesthood, who saw their livelihoods put at risk. Imagine, being an ordinary Egyptian. Everything that everyone had believed in for 1,500 years was denounced. Certainly, everyone was deeply concerned.
Unfortunately, we know very little about what steps Akhenaten took to educate the ordinary Egyptian people into this new belief. Indeed, we don’t know actually whether he took any steps at all. He may simply have handed down a directive forbidding the worship of the traditional gods and closing their temples. Whatever the facts, it’s more appropriate to think of Akhenaten’s bold venture as an experiment in henotheism—the elevation of one deity above all others—rather than as monotheism tout court with a single transcendent godhead.
Our best insight in the challenge that many people face in making the switch from polytheism to monotheism is provided by the Book of Exodus, which describes the first fumbling attempts by the Hebrews to abandon polytheism in favor of monotheism. “Thou shalt worship no other gods before me”, says the First Commandment, implying that there are other gods around whom other peoples worship. Henceforth, however, you’re only permitted to worship the one God, Yahweh.
In the course of their exodus, after their escape from Egypt, we see the Hebrews constantly complaining and even reverting to polytheism by worshiping a golden calf.
Learn more about being an Egyptian worker.
Religion in Ancient Egypt: Return to Polytheism
Akhenaten was way ahead of his time, but when he died Egypt returned to its old ways. No doubt the traditional priesthood breathed a collective sigh of relief.
In conclusion, Egyptian religion seems to have placed remarkably few demands upon the common man and woman. The Hebrew God, as we learn from the Jewish Bible, was a jealous God, who struck terror and guilt into the entire race. The Egyptians, by contrast, were spared both terror and guilt.
They didn’t have to worry about placating angry gods—that was handled by experts. This was why they paid the taxes—to leave the difficult and mysterious business of handling the gods to those best qualified. And if things did go wrong, they could always blame the priests or the pharaoh.
If there was a domestic difficulty or anxiety, people could invoke Bes or Taweret since one didn’t need any expertise for that.
For the state gods, however, all one had to do was to turn up to the festivals, and that meant having a good time: drinking, dancing, and merrymaking. One didn’t need to seek spiritual guidance or to conduct oneself in accordance with a moral code that was sanctioned by religion.
So people just got on with their daily life secure in the knowledge that the Nile will flood, the crops will sprout up, your wife will give birth to a healthy child, Egypt will stand firm against its enemies, and all will continue as before in its time-hallowed way.
Learn more about belonging to an Egyptian family.
Common Questions about Private Religion and Monotheism in Ancient Egypt
Kemetic orthodoxy is a modern reconstruction of the ancient religious traditions of Ancient Egypt. It is a special type of polytheism, which follows monolatry ways of worship.
Egyptian gods mostly represented some natural phenomena, ranging from physical objects like the earth or the sun to abstract forces like knowledge and creativity.
Ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion lasted for 3000 years; and on its way, it influenced many past and future religions.
Religion played a very important role in ancient Egyptians as it helped explain their surroundings, such as the annual Nile flooding. daily sun setting and rising.