Many books have been written on religion in ancient Egypt. This brief overview is meant only to explain some of the basic concepts and to introduce some of the gods. Religion in ancient Egypt was not unlike modern times. Today, not everyone believes in the same way, or of the same god. Egypt was no different. Individual kings worshipped their own gods, as did the workers, priests, merchants and peasants. Pre-dynastic Egypt had formulated the ideas and beliefs of a "greater being", which was expressed in pictures, but some scholars suggest that "writing" was invented in order to communicate spiritual thoughts to the masses. Now the pictures had ideas, and took on human traits. The gods lived, died, hunted, went into battle, gave birth, ate, drank, and had human emotions. The gods reigns overlapped, and, in some instances, merged. Their was no organized hierarchy structure of their reign. The dominance of the gods depended on the beliefs of the reigning king. Their area of dominance depended on where the king wanted his capital. Likewise, the myths changed with the location of the gods, as did their names. Names in ancient Egypt were very mystic and powerful. It was thought that if you inscribed your enemies' name on something, then broke it, that enemy would either be afflicted, or possibly die. If you knew a name you had power. In the same respect, using a name could be beneficial. Each god had five names, and each was associated with an element, such as air, with celestial bodies, or were a descriptive statement about the god, such as strong, virile or majestic.
The creator of all things was either Re, Amun, Ptah, Khnum or Aten, depending on which version of the myth was currently in use. The heavens were represented by Hathor, Bat, and Horus. Osiris was an earth god as was Ptah. The annual flooding of the Nile was Hapi. Storms, evil and confusion were Seth. His counterpart was Ma'at, who represented balance, justice and truth. The moon was Thoth and Khonsu. Re, the sun god, took on many forms, and transcended most of the borders that contained the other gods. The actual shape of the sun, the disk (or, aten), was deified into another god, Aten.
As stated earlier, certain gods were worshipped in different areas. Local cities or villages, known as nomes, often had unique gods that were known only to that region. On occasion, these gods attained country -wide recognition and became the myths and legends that were passed on from century to century. Below is a listing of the main gods and their primary place of worship.
Amaunet - A female counterpart to Amon and one of the primordial gods of the Hermopolitian Ogdoad (group of eight gods). She was also worshipped at Thebes along with Amon and Mut.
Amon - Usually associated with the wind, or things hidden, and was also of the Hermopolitian Ogdoad. At Thebes he became Amon-Re, king of the gods. He was part of the Theban Triad, along with Mut and Khonsu.
Antaios - He was originally a double god, "the two falcons", that was later joined to create one, probably that of Horus.
Anuket - Worshipped at Elephantine, she was associated with the gazelle.
Apis - Seen as the bull with a solar disk between its horns, Apis was associated with Osiris and Ptah.
Aton - Also known as Aten, he was worshipped at Tell 'Amarna.
Atum - A primordial god that was represented in the form of a human and a serpent. He was the supreme god in the Heliopolitan Ennead (group of nine gods) and formed with Re to create Re-Atum.
Hathor - The goddess of love, dance and alcohol was depicted as a cow. At Thebes she was also the goddess of the dead. She was worshipped at Dendera as the consort of Horus and Edfu, and was associated with Isis at Byblos.
Horus - The earliest royal god was the shape of a falcon, with the sun and moon as his eyes. The sky-god was the ruler of the day. The many forms of Horus are; Re-Harakhti, Harsiesis, Haroeris, Harendotes, Khenti-irti, Khentekhtay (the crocodile-god), and Harmakhis, which is Horus on the horizons, in which the Sphinx of Giza is considered to be his aspect.
Isis - The mother of Horus and sister and consort of Osiris was worshipped at Philae. Associated with Astarte, Hathor, Nut and Sothis, she was later worshipped over the entire Roman Empire.
Khnum - Resembling a human with a rams head, he was worshipped in Hypselis, Esna, Antinoe and Elephantine.
Khonsu - the moon god was the son of Amon and Mut. The main temple at Karnak is dedicated to him.
Min - God of fertility coalesced with Amon and Horus. Min was mainly worshipped at Coptos and Akhmim.
Mut - Worshipped at Thebes, she was a consort of Amon and part of the Theban Triad (group of three gods).
Nut - Mother of the sun, moon and heavenly bodies.
Osiris - He is regarded as the dead king that watches over the nether world and is rejuvenated in his son Horus. As the symbol of eternal life he was worshipped at Abydos and Philae.
Ptah - Worshipped in Memphis, he coalesced with Sokaris and Osiris.
Re - He was the sun god of Heliopolis. From the fifth Dynasty onwards he becomes a national god and is combined with the supreme deity Amon.
Serapis - He was mainly worshipped in Alexandria and was later worshipped by the Greeks as Zeus. He was never fully accepted by the Egyptians in the Ptolemaic period.
Sekhmet - She was part of the Memphite Triad with Ptah and Nefertem. She was the mistress of war and sickness.
Seth - The son of Geb and Nut in the Heliopolitan Ennead was in the form of an animal that has no zoological equivalent. This powerful god was regarded as god of the desert, making him a god of foreign lands.
Shu - He was an ancient cosmic power and was regarded as the god of the air and the bearer of heaven.
Sobek - He was a crocodile god and was worshipped at the Faiyum and Ombos. During the middle Kingdom he coalesced with Re, Sobek-Re, and was worshipped as primordial deity and creator-god.
Thoth - He was worshipped as a baboon in Hermopolis. He was the god of sacred writings and wisdom.
The kings of ancient Egypt were an integral part of religion. They formed a bridge over the chasm dividing the people and the gods. In pre-dynastic times the kings were considered to be gods. In later times, around the third dynasty, the kings became "transformed into" gods. This was a crucial part of the governing of the people. The heirs to the throne were not kept out of public display. At a young age they were known to many, and were known as children, not future gods. A king may have had many heirs and may not have known who would assume the throne until a much later time. In order for the people , (and the future king), to accept the transformation, certain procedures had to be worked out. This dilemma was beautifully solved by the ritual that merged the king with the god. Belief was that all future kings had two aspects of his being, his physical being and his "ka." The ka was his spiritual counterpart that was part of the king at birth and remained with him throughout his life. Before assuming the throne a ritual was performed that united the king's ka and his person. The king and his priests would enter a temple, perform the ritual, and emerge as a god. All of the people would wait outside to witness the miracle of the transformation when the king re-emerged from the temple. In this way was the new king accepted as a god and his word was accepted as law.
Concerning religious matters, directly under the king were the priests. Their duty was to take care of the images of the gods. They also prepared the statues, or images, for the religious festivals. It was the priests role to read the scrolls before religious events. In later dynasties the priests were the voices of the oracles. Special compartments, called priest holes, were strategically placed inside the temple. The priests were able to speak from these holes unseen by the person asking questions or favors of the gods. Oracles were considered the pinnacle of the decision of the gods. The priests were in charge of the temple riches and granaries. They were on a rotation schedule and might work officially one week out of the month. Their laboratories were in the temples, where they prepared incense and healing potions. What we think of as wizards originated with the priests. Shrouded in mystery, they were seldom seen by the common people unless they were reading magical texts or performing religious rituals. Inside the temple sanctuaries they were seen only by the king.. During the 21st 'Dynasty tomb robbing was systematically done by the priests themselves. Throughout history tomb robbing had been a problem, but had generally been done by common thieves. The priests claimed that by removing the bodies, and stripping off all of the precious metals, that they were, in fact, saving the desecration of the bodies by the common thieves. Of course the priests re-wrapped the bodies and buried them in different tombs to help protect the corpses. Some of the stolen gold and silver went into the temple treasuries, but a large portion of it went to the purchase of wood and iron, resources that were not native to Egypt and were most costly. Thirdly, some of the riches went into the current kings' tomb, making the robberies sanctified by the throne.
The ancient Egyptians were extremely devout in their beliefs. They were dedicated to their gods and worshipped daily in many different ways. Their way of life revolved around these beliefs. They had a strong sense of justice and endeavored to do that which was right. Just like our society today, the common people abhorred adultery, stealing, murder and lying. They were a highly sophisticated society with values and morals not unlike our own. Magic was commonplace for them as is demonstrated by the wearing of amulets to ward off evil. Magical texts were written in tombs to protect against would-be robbers. Many spells against snakebite have been discovered. Magical spells, rituals and concoctions were used to treat the sick or injured. If the magic did not work it was considered a will of the god, and not a failure of the magic. The peoples calm acceptance of the strange and unusual allowed them to reconcile themselves to either natural phenomena or to those things unseen. Every occurrence had spiritual meaning and had a unique god assigned to the act.
In the 1st dynasty (2950 - 3110 B.C.E.) Menes, the king who is considered by many to be Ay or Narmer, united upper and lower Egypt. He created his capital at Memphis and dedicated a temple to the god Ptah. Existing beliefs at that time were revised to explain these events, and almost all other myths of gods came from this event. Over a period of time all of the surrounding local gods were brought into this scheme, creating a sort of order of the hierarchy of the gods. All of the gods were included in one story or another, so no one was offended. This composition of the gods was like laying bricks for a building and, in essence, created the foundation for history's longest lived civilization.
To understand the Myth of Creation, one must first understand that it is a complicated story. Four "cosmologies," or theories about creation are involved, each developing over different periods in ancient Egypt. There are some common elements to each theory. For example, each theory holds that in the beginning, only a primordial, stagnant ocean called Nu existed. In addition, the four theories agree that out of Nu, rose the primeval hill. Each cosmology believed it was their temple that stood on this hill. The first step-pyramids are no doubt symbolic of this mound. All cosmologies share the belief that creation was a slow process, not catastrophic. Finally, they also all agree that there was a "First Time," or a time period when the gods actually lived on earth.
With this foundation, the Heliopolitan cosmogony develops the myth further. The first event was the creation of Atum, the god of Heliopolis. There is dispute over whether he created himself, or was the son of Nu. Some texts say he first appeared over the hill, others say he was, himself, the hill. Eventually, Atum became associated with Ra, the sun-god. Ra-Atum at this point is said to be the coming of the light to disperse the darkness of Nu. Ra-Atum is symbolized by the Phoenix in this context. His next task was to create other gods. He did this by masturbation, not having a mate. This was not offensive to ancient Egyptians, but in fact intensified his power in their minds.
Ra-Atum gave birth to twins. Shu, his son and god of the air, was spit out, and his daughter, Tefnut, goddess of world order was vomited out by Ra-Atum. The Twins were raised by Nu and supervised by Ra-Atum's eye. The story of Ra-Atums eye will be told later. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to Geb, god of the earth, and his wife and sister, Nut, goddess of the sky. Geb and Nut, in turn, were the parents of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, and Set. These four gods, especially Osiris play a major role in later myths. Horus, another god was the son of Isis and Osiris. These five younger gods and goddesses may have been incorporated by the priests of Heliopolis. Whatever the case, this "Ennead," or grouping of gods, were very much a part of tradition during this time.
From here, the order of dominance or precedence becomes contradictory. Some text place Horus in a very high position, others give the right to Nut. Still others claim that Atum placed Geb over the Ennead, which included himself. The priests during this period believed themselves to represent Geb and Nut, not Atum. Eventually, it is Ra, the sun-god, who is considered supreme. However, Osiris later assumes this role. All of this will be discussed later.
Later, in 3100 B.C., Upper and Lower Egypt were joined and the capital became Memphis. This began a new theory of creation. Ptah, the high god of Memphis was deemed creator. At some point Ptah was even declared to be Nu (thus placed above Atum, high god of Heliopolis). The Ennead of Heliopolis was said to be merely a manifestation of Ptah. This displacement of Heliopolitan cosmogony was necessary to establish and maintain the Memphite superiority.
Yet another cosmogony existed which was quite different from that of Heliopolis and Memphis. This was in a city in Upper Egypt called Hermopolis. It was said that this theory came before any other. Instead of an Ennead, Hermopolitans had a group of eight gods called an Ogdoad. This group consisted of Nun and Naunet, Huh and Hauhet, Kuk and Kauket, and Amon and Amaunet. According to this theory, these eight gods were responsible for creating the world. After this was done, the eight ruled the world during a time called the Golden Age. When they died, they went to the underworld, from where they still had power to make the Nile flow and the sun to rise. Nun and Naunet symbolize water, Huh and Hauhet represent "unendingness," Kuk and Kauket signify darkness, and Amon and Amaunet symbolize the air.
Finally, in Thebes during the New Kingdom time from 1546-1085 B.C., a new cosmogony arose. At this time, all the other theories were widely accepted; therefore, it was essential that the Thebans incorporate the main features of these theories into their own. The chief god of Thebes was Amon, who was already associated with the air. This made it a simple task to also instill in Amon the power of the "supreme and invisible creator (Ames, 1965)." It was said that he created himself, having no father or mother, and was born in secret. Thebans claimed their city was the first city, and that all other cities were modeled after it. All of the cosmogonies claimed this. Thebans claimed that Thebes was the Eye of Ra, son of Amon. Going beyond what had been done in the past, Thebans claimed that entire cosmogonies were merely aspects of Amon; merely forms of him.
It is important to mention at this point that each translation of ancient Egyptian text renders its own perspective on what is being said. There are many inconsistencies in each account. Therefor, it is a very complicated and difficult task to summarize the myth of creation, or any myth, for that matter. From source to source, the names of the gods differ; even spellings differ. This site attempts to give a brief outline or a basic knowledge of Egyptian mythology. With this in mind, we continue with a few myths related to the creation myth.
The eye of Ra-Atum, mentioned above, is the mythological symbol for the sun. At one point, Shu and Tefnut, twin children of Ra-Atum, were separated from him. He sent his eye to find them. While the eye was searching, Ra-Atum replaced the eye with another. When the eye returned with Shu and Tefnut, Ra-Atum wept with joy, and the tears created humankind. However, the eye was enraged at having been replaced. Ra-Atum placed the eye on his forehead so that the eye could rule the world; thus becoming associated with the sun. The second eye is associated with the moon.
Another mythological symbol associated with the Creation Myth is the Phoenix. The Phoenix was said to travel from Arabia to Heliopolis once every five hundred years. The cycles of time were said to be set by the Phoenix, also known as the Benu bird, and the temple of the Phoenix became the "centre of calendrical regulation (Clark, 1960)." During the Middle Kingdom, it became the soul of Osiris and it was also at this time that it became associated with the planet Venus, the morning star, which was said to be the sun's guide. All of the above representations were minor associations, however. The Phoenix's main role was as the one who created himself, thus symbolizing Ra-Atum.
Common to all cosmogonies of creation is the temple. Each theory places its temple on the hill rising up from Nu. Myths concerning the form, origin and significance are mostly Memphite in origin; myths about the daily temple rituals are primarily Heliopolitan in nature. One such temple, and possibly the earliest described in myth, was that of the Falcon, associated with the god Horus who was the hunters' god, maybe a war god, and later, a sky god. Thus, the Falcon was a symbol of majesty and power, and the model for the pharaohs. According to myth, this temple's erection was a natural event and signified the final event in the process of creation. It started out as a shelter for the Falcon's perch and this portion remained the most sacred place in the temple. The detail in which the temple is described exemplifies the high level of development that was reached even before historic times. Many temples like this were constructed in predynastic Egypt, most likely.
The temple of the sun-god was the second type of temple built. This began as one rectangular structure or sanctuary. Other chambers were added, and a wall surrounded the structure. Some research shows that there was another type of temple of the sun-god that consisted of one sanctuary only. This temple signifies the beginning of the history of the actual temple physically built in Egypt.
Myth has it that the above temples descended from one primeval temple that was built to shelter the successor of the creator. This temple is said to have stood on the hill rising up from Nu, as did every other temple described in the various cosmogonies. However, this was a living temple, the body of the god of the temple, who took his physical form using the temple.