By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Ancient Egypt’s religion was inseparable from its politics. For instance, there were three different Egyptian creation myths, associated with three different cities competing for power. The version that came to prevail was that the world emerged from a kind of watery chaos.
The Religious Lives of Ordinary Ancient Egyptians
As an ordinary Egyptian, one left the worship of the gods, aside from the domestic deities, entirely in the hands of the priesthood, whose principal task was to perform services on their behalf every day. Ordinary Egyptians weren’t even permitted to enter a temple. That’s because the temple was the dwelling of the god and had to be kept completely pure.
Ordinary Egyptians were, nevertheless, permitted to pass through the monumental gateway that gave access to the temple complex and stand in the forecourt. The forecourt had colonnades along the two sides with an altar for performing sacrifices in the middle. It was here—if at all—that people would experience the numinous presence of the deity. Beyond the forecourt lay a covered hall and beyond the covered hall lay the temple itself. If one were a person of rank, one might deposit a votive offering in the forecourt.
There were also places on the outer walls of temples, which are described as ‘chapels of the hearing ear’, where people could whisper their prayer into a sculptural representation of a pair of ears. In addition, there were lots of small, local shrines devoted to specific gods dotted throughout Egypt, where you could leave a votive offering or make a sacrifice. So, as an ordinary person, they weren’t completely cut off from the major gods.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Festivals of Ancient Egypt
The only occasion when an ordinary Egyptian would see the cult statues of the deities that were housed inside the temples was at festival times when they left their homes and were borne in procession.
Many of the festivals coincided with important junctures in the agricultural calendar, such as the beginning and end of the inundation season, that’s to say, in June and September, respectively. And what would they have made of a festival? They would no doubt have been greatly impressed by the splendor of the pageantry.
They would also have believed that the cult statue was in a real sense the deity himself or herself. But I doubt that one would have understood much more than that. It was not the business of the priesthood to explicate what they did on behalf of the gods or to enlighten people about the nature of the gods. They had more important things to be doing. So for the most part, at the festival time, one would probably have gawped. It would have been a day off work, but hardly an occasion to express your piety.
In fact, it’s difficult to understand what piety might have meant in an Egyptian context. Festivals were opportunities for jollity—and to some extent frivolity. There would have been a lot of free food and free booze going around. And all of this would have been accompanied by much singing and dancing.
Learn more about being an Egyptian worker.
Sed Festival of Ancient Egypt
If one lived long enough, one might have attended the Sed Festival, held at Memphis, which celebrated the union of Upper and Lower Egypt—in other words, the creation of Egypt as a single kingdom.
The Sed Festival was normally held after the pharaoh had reigned for 30 years and then repeated at three-year intervals. Many of the major gods were invited to pay their respects to the pharaoh on this occasion. That’s to say, their statues were removed from their temples and brought by boat to Memphis. Unfortunately, we know very little about the details of the festival.
What we do know is that it culminated in the pharaoh running a circuit to prove that he was still virile and athletic. He did so clutching a vase, an oar, and a carpenter’s square, and alternately wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt.
No doubt people’s heart was in their mouth when they saw him trip. Probably priests accompanied him on either side, ready to prop the old fellow up if he stumbled. Even so, it would be a pretty bad omen if he couldn’t complete the circuit unaided.
It’s always possible of course that one might choose to become a priest themselves. Although, in order to qualify, they would have to be educated in order to read and write hieroglyphics. The hope was that their parents would have chosen this career at birth because they had to be circumcised.
Probably, the priesthood mostly ran in families. We don’t know why circumcision was performed for priests. It may have represented a covenant to the gods, similar to the covenant that is established between Abraham and the Lord in Genesis through circumcision.
Learn more about belonging to an Egyptian family.
The Order of Egyptian Religion and Priesthood
The Egyptian priesthood was very hierarchical. At the top was the pharaoh. The pharaoh was the son of Ra and a god in his own right, and when he died he went to join the other gods. Members of the upper class had to kneel and bow their heads to the floor in his presence, whereas the hoi polloi had to prostrate themselves.
Directly under him was an official called ‘the Overseer of the Temples and Prophets of all the Gods’. The overseer had to administer the enormous wealth that the gods possessed, deriving partly from their estates and partly from taxation.
Below the overseer came the high priests—one for each of the gods who were worshiped throughout Egypt. And below the high priests were the chief priests, one for each temple. It was the task of the chief priests to supervise the lesser priestly officials, of whom the most important were the wab priests.
It was the primary duty of a wab priest to attend to the cult statue of the gods or goddesses. Each morning they would break open the clay seals of the doors of the shrine in which the cult-statue was housed and then solemnly remove it from the shrine.
They then removed the garments that the statue was wearing. Next, they bathed the statue, purified it, and provided it with fresh clothing and jewelry. After all that, they replaced it in its shrine and laid out a ritual meal, presented in a symbolic form. After a decent lapse of time, they removed the offering. When they were done, they sealed the doors again and purified the whole sanctum, brushing away all traces of their footprints as they backed toward the exit.
They did all this to protect the deity from the forces of disorder and chaos, and they performed this ritual three times a day.
There were also other lesser priests, including the scroll carriers and the horologers or prophets, who observed the heavens in order to determine the exact timing of daily rites and festival calendars. As a priest, they would reside inside the temple complex along with the rest of the temple staff. The temple complex also included a school, which is where they trained to become a priest.
As we’ve noted, being a wab priest was rather repetitive. The good news was that they would typically work for one month and then have three months off, like all Egyptian priests. During their work, they had to remain ritually clean by bathing frequently. They had to shave their head, wear a long white linen kilt, and refrain from sexual intercourse.
During their three months off, however, they were not bound in any way to their priestly functions. They could wear and do whatever they liked. So there’s nothing to suggest that they had to be what we might call spiritual or devout.
Learn more about being a dead Egyptian.
Common Questions about the Religious Life of Ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egyptian religion followed a wide set of pagan beliefs with many gods and deities, who were believed to control the forces of nature.
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.
Ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion lasted for 3000 years; and on its way, it influenced many past and future religions
Yes, the ancient Egyptian religion is still practiced in a way since most major religions have drawn some influences from the ancient Egyptian religion.