Egyptian Mythology

Egyptian mythology (or Egyptian religion) is the name for the succession of beliefs held by the people of Egypt until the coming of Christianity and Islam. The timespan involved is nearly three thousand years, and beliefs varied considerably over time.

The Gods
The main early beliefs can be split into 5 distinct localised belief groups,

  • the Ennead of Heliopolis, whose chief god was Atum
  • the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, where the chief god was Ra
  • the Khnum-Satet-Anuket triad of Elephantine, where the chief god was Khnum
  • the Amun-Mut-Chons triad of Thebes, where the chief god was Amun
  • the Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem triad of Memphis, unusual in that the gods were unconnected before the triad was formalised, where the chief god was Ptah
As the leaders of the different groups gained and lost power, so the dominent beliefs merged and mutated. First, Ra and Atum became Atum-Ra. At the end of this, all at remained, by the time of hellenic influence over Egypt, was the trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, and their enemy, Set, as exemplified by the Legend of Osiris and Isis. The trinity had absorbed so many of the prior cults, that each was worshipped at their own cult centre - Abydos for Osiris, Dendara for Isis, and Edfu for Horus. Even by this stage, the amalgamation was continuing, with Osiris all but an aspect of Horus (and vice-versa), heading rapidly towards monotheism. Nethertheless, monotheism had briefly existed before, as, in the 13th century, Akhenaten had attempted to introduce the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun-disc itself, although it was subsequently rejected.

According to the Turin Royal Canon, ten gods ruled Egypt, each for long (but finite) periods, prior to the First Dynasty: Ptah, Ra, Su, Seb, Osiris, Set, Horus, Thoth, Ma'at, Horus.

Death
Beliefs about the soul meant that embalming and mummification were practiced, in order to preserve the individual's identity in the afterlife. In Egypt, the dead were originally buried in reed caskets in the searing hot sand, which caused the remains to dry quickly, preventing decomposition, and were subsequently buried. Later, they started constructing wooden tombs, and the extensive process of mummification and associated burial rituals and rules began. Embalming was developed by the Egyptians around the 4th Dynasty. All soft tissues were removed, and the cavities washed and packed with natron, then the exterior body was buried in natron as well. Since it was a stoneable offence to harm the body of the Pharaoh, even after death, the person who made the cut in the abdomen with a rock knife was ceremonially chased away and had rocks thrown at him.

After coming out of the natron, the bodies were coated inside and out with resin to preserve them, then wrapped with linen bandages, embedded with religious amulets and talismans. In the case of royalty, this was usually then placed inside a series of nested coffins the outermost of which was a stone sarcophagus. The intestines, lungs, liver and the stomach were preserved separately and stored in canopic jars protected by the Four sons of Horus. Other creatures were also mummified, sometimes thought to be pets of Egyptian families, but more frequently or more likely they were the representations of the Gods. The ibis, crocodile, cats, nile perch and baboon can be found in perfect mummified forms.

The Book of the Dead were a series of almost two hundred sectional texts, songs and pictures written on papyrus, individually customised for the individual, which were buried along with the dead, or painted on the tomb walls, in order to ease their passage into the underworld. In some tombs, the Book of the Dead has also been found painted on the walls. One of the best examples of the Book of the Dead is The Papyrus of Ani, created around 1240 BC, which, in addition to the texts themselves, also contains many pictures of Ani and his wife on their journey through the land of the dead.

In later belief, the soul of the deceased is led into a hall of judgement in Duat, by Anubis, and the deceased's heart, which was the record of the morality of the owner, is weighed against a single feather representing Maàt's (the concept of truth, and order). If the outcome is favourable, the deceased is taken to Osiris in Aaru, but the demon Ammit (Eater of Hearts) – part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus – destroys those hearts whom the verdict is against, leaving the owner to remain in Duat.

The Monotheistic Period
A short interval of monotheism (Atenism) occurred under the reign of Akhenaten, focused on the Egyptian sun deity Aten. Akhenaten outlawed the worship of any other god and built a new capital (Amarna) around the temple for Aten. The religious change survived only until the death of Akhenaten's son by a minor wife Tutankhamun, being highly unpopular and quickly reverted afterwards. In fact, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun's removals from the Wall of Kings are likely related to the radical religious change.

According to some egyptologists, particularly among those with a Judao-Christian religious bias, it is incorrect to regard this period as monotheistic. These researchers state that people did not worship the Aten but worshipped the royal family as a pantheon of gods who received their divine power from the Aten. According to other egyptologists, it is important to regard this period as monotheistic. A recent alternative explanation resulting from interpreting particular items of knowledge concerning biblical and Egyptian history (by Ahmed Osman) proposes that Moses and Akhenaten to be the same person.

After the fall of the Amarna dynasty, the original Egyptian pantheon survived more or less as the dominant faith, until the establishment of Coptic Christianity and later Islam, even though the Egyptians continued to have relations with the other monotheistic cultures (e.g. Hebrews). Egyptian mythology put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity, sometimes explained by claiming that Jesus was originally a syncretism based predominantly on Horus, with Isis representing Mary.

Temples
Many temples are still standing today. Others are in ruins from wear and tear, while others have been lost entirely. Pharaoh Ramses II was a particularly prolific builder of temples.

Some known temples include:

  • Abu Simbel – Complex of two massive rock temples in southern Egypt on the western bank of the Nile.
  • Abydos (Great Temple of Abydos) – Adoration of the early kings, whose cemetery, to which it forms a great funerary chapel, lies behind it.
  • Ain el-Muftella (Bahariya Oasis)– Could have served as the city center of El Qasr. It was probably built around the 26th Dynasty.
  • Karnak – Once part of the ancient capital of Egypt, Thebes.
  • Bani Hasan al Shurruq– Located in Middle Egypt near to Al-Minya and survived the reconstruction of the New Kingdom.
  • Edfu – Ptolemaic temple that is located between Aswan and Luxor.
  • Temple of Kom Ombo – Controlled the trade routes from Nubia to the Nile Valley.
  • Luxor – Built largely by Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, it was the center of the Opet Festival.
  • Medinet Habu (Memorial Temple of Ramesses III)– Temple and a complex of temples dating from the New Kingdom.
  • Temple of Hatshepsut – Mortuary temple complex at Deir el-Bahri with a colonnaded structure of perfect harmony, built nearly one thousand years before the Parthenon.
  • Philae – Island of Philae with Temple of Aset which was constructed in the 30th Dynasty.
  • Ramesseum (Memorial Temple of Ramesses II) – The main building, dedicated to the funerary cult, comprised two stone pylons (gateways, some 60 m wide), one after the other, each leading into a courtyard. Beyond the second courtyard, at the centre of the complex, was a covered 48-column hypostyle hall, surrounding the inner sanctuary.
  • Dendera Temple complex – Several temples but the all overshadowing building in the complex is the main temple, the Hathor temple.

External Influences
Egypt exchanged ideas with Libya during its early unsettled period. Egypt was also influenced by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasties, which ruled Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic queen to rule on her own. Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, and was ruled first from Rome and then from Constantinople (until the Arab conquest).

Libyan period
Main article: Third Intermediate Period of Egypt
22nd – 25th Dynasty

Egypt has long had ties with Libya. After the death of Rameses XI, the priesthood in the person of Herihor wrest control of Egypt away from the Pharaohs until they were superseded (without any apparent struggle) by the Libyan kings of the 22nd Dynasty. The first king of the new Dynasty, Shoshenq I, served as a general under the last ruler of the 21st Dynasty. It is known that he appointed his own son to be the High Priest of Amun, a post that was previously a hereditary appointment. The scant and patchy nature of the written records from this period suggest that it was unsettled. There appear to have been many subversive groups which eventually led to the creation of the 23rd dynasty which ran concurrent with the 22nd.

Ptolemaic period
Main article: Greek Egypt
304 BC – 30 BC

Started with Ptolemy I of Egypt and ended with Cleopatra VII. As Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"), he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was to rule Egypt for 300 years. All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name "Ptolemy". Because the Ptolemaic kings adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying their sisters, many of the kings ruled jointly with their spouses, who were also of the royal house. This custom made Ptolemaic politics confusingly incestuous, and the later Ptolemies were increasingly feeble. The last of the Ptolemies, the famous Cleopatra, was the only Ptolemaic queen to rule on her own, after the death of her brother/husband, Ptolemy XIII.

Roman period
Main article: Roman Egypt
30 BC – 639 AD

Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire and was ruled first from Rome and then from Constantinople (until the Arab conquest). The most revolutionary event in the history of Roman Egypt was the introduction of Christianity in the 2nd century. It was at first vigorously persecuted by the Roman authorities, who feared religious discord more than anything else in a country where religion had always been paramount. But it soon gained adherents among the Jews of Alexandria. From them it rapidly passed to the Greeks, and then to the native Egyptians, who found its promise of personal salvation and its teachings of social equality appealing.

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