Early Religions in Egypt

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Ancient Egypt is largely known for its pyramids, the Sphinx and mummies. But what motivated this fascinating culture to create such monuments to the dead? This lesson examines Ancient Egyptian religion and shows how it influenced Egyptian society in surprising ways.

Battle Between Order and Chaos

Like almost all ancient cultures, the Egyptians were a polytheistic people. This means that they believed that there was not one single god, but many. Each of these gods would have had a certain sphere of the world that he or she would have had power over. For instance, the goddess Anuket was seen as controlling the Nile River. Since Egyptian society required the Nile to flood each year in order to nourish their crops, Anuket was an important figure of worship. Sometimes these gods or goddesses personified a concept or idea, instead of a feature of the landscape. Maat was the goddess of truth, justice and the correct way of living. In many ways, she was even more important to the Egyptians, because they believed that individuals needed to live correctly in order to keep the universe in order. If people disobeyed Maat and lived badly, then natural disasters could occur; the Nile might not flood, crops would wither in the field, or the sun could refuse to rise.

In the Ancient Egyptian way of looking at the world, the relationship between the Gods and humankind was a partnership, although not an equal one. The Gods looked over creation, kept the universe running smoothly and protected human beings. However, in order to do this, they required something in return. Humans were tasked with providing the gods with clothing, food and drink in order to sustain them Humans also performed rituals to honor the gods. These tasks were important because, without them, the Gods would be unable, or unwilling, to protect the universe. This is because the Egyptians believed the universe was controlled by two separate forces: order and chaos. Order was represented by the Gods, the pharaoh, the priesthood, and the Egyptian government. These forces worked together to maintain stability in the world and make sure that people were safe and secure. However, chaos was another force that existed. These forces were represented by the desert, and the god Set. Chaos always worked to undermine order and destroy the establishment. This did not mean that chaos was evil, however. It was accepted that, occasionally, chaos had to overwhelm order for there to be a rebirth; a renewal of creation and the world.

Osiris, Ra and Ptah

Although Egypt had many gods, there are a few that stand out among the rest. Osiris was viewed as the first ruler of Egypt. According to the story, he was murdered by his brother Set and avenged by his son Horace. Meanwhile, his wife Isis mourned him and, according to some stories, was able to resurrect him. In this story, we see the way in which the Egyptians viewed the world: An old order would die and succumb to chaos and death, only to have a new order be born. It also reflected how the Egyptians viewed royalty, with the current pharaoh being seen as Horace and his deceased predecessor being the resurrected Osiris. Another important God was Ra, who was God of the Sun. Ra piloted a boat that contained the sun across the sky and, every night, would descend into the underworld only to be born again the next morning. Also important, although mentioned less often, was Ptah. Ptah was seen as the creator of all, who had thought of the world and spoke it into existence and was viewed as an old man with green skin and a long beard.

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