By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Perhaps, nothing is more challenging than trying to get inside the head of a worshiper who belongs to a belief system that is different from our own. But the Egyptians win the first prize for presenting us with an almost insurmountable challenge.
An average Egyptian probably found his religious system almost as big a challenge as we do since it was an extremely secretive system. The priests seem to have gone out of their way to conceal it as much as possible. Perhaps it was a way of protecting and enhancing their importance. Or maybe they wished to keep the gods completely unsullied from the smelly hoi polloi. Probably a bit of both.
The worship of many of the Egyptian gods began in the Predynastic Period, the period before the kings. However, we’re going to be focusing on the New Kingdom, the period from 1570 to 1070, which was when the Egyptians first began to build impressive temples to their gods.
Previously, funerary chapels and the like were far more impressive structures than temples to the gods. Now the gods moved to center stage. It was also in this period that a professional priesthood first evolved.
What we can say without qualification is that the Egyptians were intensely religious in the sense that most of them believed wholeheartedly in the gods. That’s demonstrated by the fact that they spent as much money, proportionately, as any other nation in history on their gods and on their dead.
The subjects of all their sculpture were either image of the gods or images of the dead—true by the way also of Greek sculpture. Unless one happened to be the pharaoh or in the pharaoh’s immediate circle, one wouldn’t commission a portrait statue for display either in public or in the home.
What one could do, however, was to commission a portrait statue for one’s tomb in the belief that it would guarantee their immortality. Likewise, the only buildings that the Egyptians constructed out of stone were either tombs, including of course the pyramids, or temples, from the New Kingdom onwards.
Egyptian religion was supported by a vast bureaucratic and economic substructure. It’s been estimated that by the end of New Kingdom, approximately, one-fifth of the entire population was working in the service of religion and that one-third of the land was owned by the gods.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Egyptian Deities: Gods with Animal Forms
The Mesopotamians and other polytheistic peoples, they held to a system of belief that allotted each god or goddess, among many, a limited amount of power.
What distinguished their deities from those of Mesopotamia, however, was that many of them were hybrids. Or at least that is how they were frequently depicted in art—with human bodies and animal heads. There’s the falcon god Horus, god of the sky and protector of the pharaoh, who is depicted either as a falcon or as a man with the head of a falcon.
There’s Hathor, the goddess of motherhood, who is depicted either as a cow or as a woman wearing a crown consisting of a pair of cow’s horns surrounding the sun. There’s also a jackal-headed god Anubis, patron of embalmers. The ibis-headed god Thoth is the scribe of the gods and the inventor of writing, and so on.
The intriguing question is this: Did the Egyptians actually think of their gods in this form? Or did they think of them in a more abstract way combining the qualities of animals and humans?
One theory is that the prehistoric Egyptians did indeed worship animals—cats, cows, jackals, crocodiles, et cetera—because of their special powers. Cats, for instance, dispose of rats and rodents, and therefore would have been highly valued and esteemed. Perhaps as early as 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had come to think of their gods not only in animal form but also in human form. In other words, they anthropomorphized them.
Incidentally, the same theory has been applied to the Greeks. The goddess Athena, for instance, was closely associated with the owl, the god Zeus with the eagle, and so on. But whereas the Greeks almost wholly dispensed with the belief that their gods had animal forms as well, the Egyptians never did. Why? The most likely explanation is that they were highly conservative people, who retained the old ideas even when they introduced the new ones.
Learn more about being Egyptian.
Egyptian Deities: Gods without Animal Form
Not all the Egyptian gods have their origins in animal worship, however. One of the most important gods was Ptah, the chief god at Memphis, who was credited with creating the world by simply imagining it in his mind and then giving it palpable form by giving utterance to his thought. The Egyptians believed that words had magical powers. It’s rather like the creation story in Genesis. God said, ‘Let there be light. And there was light’.
Though a significant deity, Ptah never achieved ‘national’ importance, unlike Amun-Re. The name Amun means ‘the Hidden One’. He was called the Hidden One because his form was unknown, although for the sake of convention he was represented as a man with an ostrich plume crown. He became Amun-Re by acquiring the power of the sun god Re.
Amun-Re rose to unrivaled dominance in the New Kingdom due to the fact that Thebes, the home of his principal sanctuary, now became the capital. That event reflects the rise to power of his priesthood at this time. A distinctive feature of the Egyptian gods—one that distinguishes them sharply from the Greek gods—is that they didn’t have the same highly specific powers. While the Greek god Poseidon was the god of the sea and of earthquakes, Amun’s powers were indefinable.
Another national deity was Osiris, the protector of the dead, who was depicted as a mummiform figure, and Aten, who was shown as a sun disk. Incidentally, the Nile wasn’t worshiped as a god: he was a lesser, semi-divine being, appropriately depicted as a fat man holding a tray laden with food.
All the gods had myths attached to them, and as an Egyptian one would have been familiar with many of these myths. There was no official version of any myth, however, and the versions that circulated tended to vary greatly from place to place and time to time, adding to the confusion.
It’s a characteristic of myths that they are open to varied interpretation and manipulation for political purposes—to promote this or that deity and therefore this or that priesthood.
Learn more about belonging to an Egyptian family.
Common Questions about Religion and Deities of Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egyptians worshipped gods such as Amun-Ra, the hidden one; Osiris, the king of the living; and Horus, the god of vengeance.
Religion played a very important role in ancient Egyptians’ lives as it helped explain their surroundings, such as the annual Nile flooding. daily sun setting and rising.
One of the last ancient Egyptians gods to still be worshipped by people according to ancient Egyptian religion was Isis.
Egyptian gods mostly represented some natural phenomena, ranging from physical objects like the earth or the sun to abstract forces like knowledge and creativity.