Religion Of Egypt

It is important to correct a misconception. The Egyptians were not obsessed with death. That we think so is a function of modern archaeology, which interprets Ancient Egypt through surviving artifacts. Most of the artifacts that have survived are religious and funerary in nature, which colors perceptions of Egyptian mentality. The religious and funerary buildings so synonymous with Egypt were built to last, and often placed in the desert where they were well preserved by the barren wasteland. By contrast, the items of everyday Egyptian life were built of less durable materials and much has been lost over the centuries.

Nonetheless, as in most ancient societies religion infused every aspect of life. Much of the religion was inspired by the striking natural environment of Egypt. The Nile flooded every year, leaving deposits of black silt that made a tiny portion of the land incredibly fertile along the river. The Egyptians named their land the "Black Land" (Kemet) after the life giving silt in what would otherwise be a wasteland. By contrast, surrounding Egypt were stretches of barren, red colored sands. Black was the color of life and vitality in Egypt linked to the Nile, while Red was the color of death and danger and deserts. The stark contrast between the creative powers of the Nile and the oblivion of the desert sands would leave a lasting impression on Egyptians.

Egyptian religion has been called "polytheistic" but this is not entirely accurate. While Egypt has hundreds of deities, the vast majority of these are glorified regional spirits, tutelary deities of local tribes that existed long before Egypt was unified. Most of these deities were not honored outside their immediate cult center, and most Egyptians probably honored few deities aside from their ancestral tutelary god. Only a few deities attained national importance throughout Egypt, and most of these were connected with the royal family. The extremely localized nature of Egyptian religion frustrates attempts to imbue it with the normal understanding of "polytheism".

Another frustration to the usual polytheistic scheme is the fact that Egyptian deities quite often blended into each other. Sometimes two different deities were nothing more than personifications of a single divine principle. This was the case with Amon and Re. Amon was a god of the wind, and symbolized the mysterious, hidden forces of creation. Ra, on the other hand, was the ubiquitous power of creation as represented by the sun. Both deities are nonetheless streams of the creative powers of the universe. In the New Kingdom period, Amon and Re were combined into a composite deity called Amon-Re to symbolize both the winds and the sun, both the hidden and the plainly visible.

The central concept of Egyptian religion is Ma'at, sometimes symbolized as its own goddess. Ma'at is order, peace and justice on a cosmic scale. It stems from the Egyptian belief that the universe is or should remain essentially static. The Nile had to flood in precisely the right way at precisely the right time every year, or many Egyptian would starve. Thus the Egyptians came to enshrine the concept of a cosmic stasis.

The champion of Ma'at was the Pharaoh (Nisut). The King was theoretically the chief priest in Egypt, although he could not possibly be everywhere at once and many minor priests came to exercise most of the daily functions of religion. The King was the mediator between man and gods, and was in some sense divine (he was somehow the living embodiment of Horus, the falcon headed sky god of royalty). The king upheld the principles of Ma'at and cosmic order. To act against the King was to act against creation and order itself - this religious and political belief helped Egypt remain a remarkably stable and law abiding society throughout most of its long history.

When the king's earthly life had expired, his "soul" would ascend to the realm of the gods and he would take his place in the Sun God's retinue, where he would still be held in a position to defend Egypt. In some epochs, the famous pyramids were constructed to help the King's soul ascend to the gods. In early Egypt, eternal life was considered the province only of the royalty, as he was the god-king on earth and mediator between humanity and divinity. Only after the social turmoil of the Old Kingdom's collapse did people question this belief and come to see eternal life as the reward for all virtuous people.

The "democratization of the afterlife" came about through a popular myth. Osiris, a good king of Egypt, was murdered by his violent brother Set. Osiris descended into the underworld to become the god of the dead. Isis, his wife, meanwhile magically conceived a son for Osiris in the form of Horus. Horus, backed by Isis and other gods, fought a long war with Set for the throne of Egypt. Eventually Isis and Horus won the struggle, with Osiris reigning in the afterlife and Horus reigning in Egypt.

Isis, Osiris, and Horus came to be a holy trinity. Because Osiris had conquered death, he could grant eternal afterlife to any virtuous person. Because Isis was a goddess of magic who had fought Seth, she came to be regarded as a great benevolent goddess. This religion became popular, and nowhere was it more popular than outside of Egypt. The Greeks and the Romans generally did not have gods who could promise eternal afterlife (such as Osiris) or benevolent magician deities (like Isis). Egyptian inspired cults filled a void in the popular needs of Greco-Roman society. The Isis and Osiris cult swept the Hellenistic and Roman worlds and its cult began replacing the cults of the Olympians in popular loyalties. In Rome it was especially popular with women and people of foreign and lower birth - classes of people on the bottom of Roman society, in other words.

Like Christianity it was a very popular religion with the urban proletariat, and if things had gone differently it might have replaced the Christian Holy Trinity with its own. As it is, some scholars think the relationship between Isis and Horus might have influenced early Christian thinking on the relationship between Mary and the Christ child.

The Ptolemaic Greeks and imperial Romans who came to conquer Egypt did not banish the native Egyptian religion (as has been said, Greeks and Romans often preferred Egyptian gods to their own). But they did modify it to suit their needs. The cult of Isis and Osiris, for instance, started out as Egyptian but has many Greco-Roman influences. The Ptolemaic and Roman rulers tried to pass themselves off as Pharaohs. Despite this imperial meddling, Egyptian religion remained largely intact. Later, when Christianity swept the Roman and then Byzantine worlds, there were still traces of native Egyptian culture and religion. Only the force of Islam totally eradicated a native faith and culture that had been practiced for thousands of years.

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Did you know?

Maat was the personification of the fundamental order of the universe, without which all of creation would perish. The primary duty of the pharaoh was to uphold this order by maintaining the law and administering justice.

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