The Spirits of Nature
Religion of the Egyptians
Ancient Egypt had by tradition a great variety of gods and what today can be labelled as "spirits" and "fairies". The total of them all was over 2.000, but many of them had similar characteristics and appeared all over the country by different names. The huge diversity is due to the fact that before the country was united the Nile Valley was split up into about forty self ruling areas (later to be provinces - so called nomes) where the ruling tribe had its own deities. Almost all gods had one thing in common - they had a count- erpart of the opposite sex and manifested themselves on earth through animals. Thus hundreds of birds, crocodiles, snakes, frogs, turtles, cows, cats etc. were considered to be the living images of a particular god and a natural and indestructible part of the environment in which people lived.All parts of life were covered and there were gods for - beer, plants, digestion, the high seas, female sexuality, gardens, feasting etc. Many of them had lots of duties and were in time combined with each other in a great number of ways. They could also appear in many forms like a goddess (curious even by Egyptian standards) having a head of a bee and body from a hippopotamus. The goddesses are easy to single out in depictions - they always had their legs joined together, while the gods used to be shown striding.
Different towns struggled to have just their local gods as the prime deities in the state religion and thus we have many different religious legends over the years depending upon which town had the greatest influence for the moment. Because of this over the years different gods came into fashion and later went out of style, with exception of a group that was in front right from the beginning and never lost its popularity. These were responsible for vital things like love, joy, dancing, childbirth, justice, cemeteries, afterlife, writing, mummification etc. All aspect of daily life were covered by at least one of these deities, and like people on earth they were members of families, were married and had children. Many ingredients made it possible for common people to identify themselves with them since their personalities were made of both divine strength and human weakness. They did most of the things that ordinary people did, like harvesting, hunting, eating, drinking, partying and even dying. Most of them were depicted as men and women combined with the head of the animal by which they were represented and they could appear in different costumes and be represented by several animals in the Egyptian fauna. In other words - they could appear in many ways and yet some of them were so alike looking that it's impossible to identify them without reading the connecting text. Just looking at the dresses and the regalia they carry along isn't always enough, because they used to borrow objects from each other. This guesswork is a part of the charm when looking in to their in many ways, to us, unlikely world.As to their names today we use a blend of both their original Egyptian ones like Re, Ptah and Amon, and the Greek forms like Isis, Anubis and Horus.
When the goddesses and gods were depicted with a human body the variety wasn't so big in the way they were dressed. Not more then half a dozen types of garments make almost one hundred percent of all. From the beginning they all wore white dresses, or at least single colored. This tradition slowly changed over the years and with time the colours and patterns became various. The peak was reached during the Greco-Roman period with outfits like actors in a costume spectacle in a theatre. Excluding the mummy-like creations, here is a type description in brief:
Tunic with suspenders.Male garment, ending above the waistand popular in all times. Example: Re.
Dress with suspenders.Female garment, ended above the waist, and was usually white. Example: Hathor.
The short loinclothShort and skirt-like garment and popular from earliest times. Example: Asar-hap.
The short-sleeved overall From the earliest times very common tight female garment. Example: Isis.
The full-length dressUnusual, sleeve-less and for goddesses. Went up to the neck. Example: Seshat.
Notice that long sleeves were not in fashion in any era of Egyptian history, at least for the gods and goddesses. Their dresses were to a great extent similar to those worn by the upper classes in society during daytime and evenings, and mostly indoors.
The gods had a lot of different things to put on their heads, and they surely did. In bright contrast to the stereotyped positions of their bodies the painters and sculptors were keen on giving the heads as much attention as possible. This was obviously initiated by pharaoh himself or the priesthood in order to give their favourite gods as much promotion as possible. The different crowns could give a hint where the god originally came from, and by wearing the combined crown for the whole country, the message was given that this god or goddess was important to all Egyptians. To make them conspicuous all crowns, hats etc. were adorned with plumes, horns, snakes, flowers, sun discs, leaves etc painted in bright colours. Especially during the Greco-Roman era the fantasy and elaboration was significant.
EGYPTIAN CROWNS: The red one was from Lower and the white from Upper Egypt. The double crown represented the whole country. The Atef-crown was worn by Osiris and the type with horns and the sun disc by Re-Horakhte and other gods. The blue helmet-like came during dynasty 18 and was worn by kings and the god Amon.
Besides royal crowns the gods had a lot of other symbols and things to wear upon their heads. In some cases the headgear was necessary to identify the deities in question, when they were dressed the same, as they often were. Here is a selection of personal things helping to identify which goddess is depicted in case the written hieroglyphs don't give a clue. The following objects below are shown in the way that they looked when the bearer in question was facing right. Neit had the a stylised form of her shield and crossed arrows on her head. Isis wore a throne on top, a rather uncomfortable one it seems, and Maát had her standing ostrich feather she was named after. Nephtys had a building topped with a bowl-like object (for collecting rain water?) and Nut had a pot (or a broad vase) upon her head.Selkhet wore the dangerous scorpion (without its deadly sting), and Seshat had the holy Persea-tree with two horns over it as her personal sign. Anat had a stylised cow's uterus as her token. Hathor had several objects in her hat box like cow's horns with the sun disc and her favourite musical instrument - the sistrum, which was a rattle.
Most of these objects worn upon their heads were unique for just one female deity. The solar disc and horns (Hathor) and object of Anat could be worn by others and the very common solar disc with a cobra (not shown) was the insignia of many goddesses.
All paintings, drawings, sculptures and reliefs in Egypt followed a traditional scheme, and changes came slowly in time. Lots of artistic expressions didn't alter anything at all, and were the same for 3000 years. Traditional ways of depicting people are among these unaltered expressions of art. The body was normally in profile except for the torso which was shown from the front like the eye, to make the face more expressive. The gods (and kings) depicted were seldom empty handed - they usually carried various objects, and the symbolic meaning of some are still obscure to Egyptologists. The gods usually had the well known ankh-sign in one of their hands, with the meaning in general "life", also to be interpreted as joy of living. Since the Egyptian religion offered eternal life for those who had behaved well on earth, we don't know if this sign of life meant the next or the present one - or possibly both. The other hand was holding a staff or sceptre of some kind, and here we have half a dozen types. Goddesses usually had a sceptre topped with a flower in different colors (like a white lily from the Nile) but this was seldom seen among the gods, possibly because it gave a more soft impression to the observer.
Very common through all times was the Was-sceptre for "command" (see pictures below) and some gods, like Ptah and Osiris, had their own type of this staff.
1) Sceptre with flower often carried by goddesses.
2) The herdsman's crook of god Anedjti, patron of shepherds and protector of domesticated animals.
3) Was-sceptre, stood for domination and power. It was very common among gods/kings in all times.
4) Staff of creator Ptah formed of four "djed-pillars" of order and stability (possibly a human spine).
5) Outfit of Osiris: crook and flail (cattle breeding and farming) plus the Was-sceptre and ankh-sign.
In the very beginning of time Osiris was king over Egypt and his queen (and sister) was the goddess Isis.
He was beloved by the people whom he told how to worship the gods and grow their crops for their daily bread. His brother Set became jealous and tried to overthrow him and become king himself. When participating in a feast with Osiris as host, Set began to describe a beautiful coffin he had, in a way that made the other guests curious. IsisHe was asked to fetch it and so he did and this was just in line with his plan.
Everyone agreed that it was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship and Set told them that he would give it away for free to whomever fitted exactly into it. Since he had made the coffin himself it was measured to fit one person only - his brother Osiris. When he placed himself in it everybody could see that he was the one who would get i as a present, but the evil Set had other plans. With his brother Osiris still in it, he and his fellows quickly nailed the lid and threw it into the Nile. Queen Isis was overcome by sorrow and began to search all over the land for it, but in vain.
HorusIsis understood that this was the place where the coffin had come to shore and she went there in disguise. She got a job at the court as a hairdresser for the queen and now when she could walk freely inside the castle she began to look for the coffin, and finally she found it in a remote chamber.
During the night she managed to snach it and embarked a boat heading for Egypt. When she came there she hid in the marshlands in the delta. There she opened the coffin and took a last farewell of her beloved husband Osiris and began searching for a suitable place to bury him. But Set was aware of all this and was hiding nearby. When Isis went to rest for the night he snatched the coffin and cut his brother's body into fourteen pieces and spread them all over Egypt. Isis became furious and asked her sister Nephthys and her son Anubis, to help her to find all the pieces of her husband's body.
They now started a nation wide search that lasted for many years and finally all the part of Osiris' body were found except for the penis which had been thrown into the Nile where it was devoured by a fish. Isis made a wooden replacement for it and then put the whole body together. She now asked the sun god Re to make her husband alive just for one day, which he did, and they could have a last night of love together. The next day Osiris died and his body was embalmed by Anubis who thus made him the first mummy. Isis later gave birth to a son who was named Horus and she did all she could to keep it a secret from Set, but he found them and almost killed them in an ambush.
ThothThey were saved by the god of wisdom - Thoth, and he told them to hide in the reeds in the marshes once more. But as before Set found their hiding place and had more wicked things on his mind. He transformed himself into a snake and gave the little Horus child a fatal bite.
When Isis came back she found her baby almost lifeless, and took him to the nearest village to get help. A wise old woman examined him and found out that it must have been Set as a snake who had bitten him. Thoth came to their rescue once more and drove out the poison from Horus' body and he recovered. He and his mother stayed hiding in the delta until he was a mature man and sometimes he took the form of a hawk and scouted out Set for the final showdown - the revenge on his murdered father. When that moment came they fought for three days until Thoth stopped the fight. They were both taken to the Court of Law in the Underworld and there they presented their versions of the story leading to the combat. The Court did not believe Set, who was sentenced to pull the boat with the sun across the sky forever. Horus now became the new king of Egypt like his father Osiris before him, and the good had finally conquered evil.
Isis put the body of her dead husband in a coffin and had nineteen identical coffins made in which she put duplicates. Priest from Egypt's twenty biggest towns then were given one each and could all thereafter claim that they had Osiris' tomb in their town. Thus many places in Egypt were (and still are) called Abusir - the place of Osiris.
Ancient Egypt had different stories telling about how the world and all its inhabitants once came to be. The legends varied from province to province along the Nile, but after the unification a handful of them grew more popular and others were forgotten.The priesthood in the cult centres of the creator-gods supported their own version and thus we meet gods like Atum, Re, Ptah, Khnum and Kheper performing the act as The Great Maker, but in different ways. There are no Deluge-legends involved in any of the creation stories of the Nile-people, probably because they had their own big flood every year and the beginning of everything couldn't possibly involve a banality like that.
The most common, and probably one of the oldest stories, said that at the dawn of time there was nothing but the water called Nun, and the first ground coming out of the water was symbolized by fetish called the "Ben-Ben stone". From a slightly irregular shape in time it turned into a broad and short obelisk with a pointed top in a four-side pyramid fashion. Some scholars suggest that this might be the prototype for later pyramids tombs, but others do not. On the Ben-Ben stone stood Atum and he coughed and spat out Shu and Tefnut.
ATUM from Heliopolis made everything (even himself) of his own sperm through masturbating or spitting. He then created woman from a bit of flesh from his hand.
PTAH from Heliopolis in Lower Egypt made the world by simply saying words and made earth raise from the water, very similar the story in the Bible.
RE (also from Heliopolis) is told in a rather late poetic legend to be the creator by using a tear from his eye to build all the world.
KHNUM from the island of Elefantine in Aswan in the south, was the creator who made the world and all its people on his potter's wheel. The stuff was mud from the Nile.
PERKHE (representing Re) made all other gods from matter taken from his own body. He also created life (symbolically) every morning by commanding the sun to rise.
AMON from Thebes was during the New Kingdom vaguely connected to the creation of the World, saying that he once (like Atum) had created himself at the dawn of time
THOTH was in Khemenu (Hermopolis) in Upper Egypt, the maker of the world and the first ones he helped to life were four frogs and four snakes, the so called Ogdoad.
One legend tells that Re for some reason (possibly jealousy) had become angry with Nut and laid a curse on her telling that none of her coming children could be born on any one day of the year. This was a big setback for Nut and Geb who were just planning to raise a family. In their agony they turned to the god of wisdom - Thoth, for advice. He went to his superior, the shadowy and not often depicted moon-god Aah who was in charge of the Egyptian moon-calendar. This old table of time consisted of 12 months of 30 days together making the moon-year of 360 days.
Thoth made him a proposition to gamble about the matter and they started to play a game of dice resulting in victory for Thoth. He thereby won the moonlight of the five additional days of the true astronomical year (in this case July 14-18) and gave it to Geb and Nut who used them for the births of their children. Thus the curse of Re had no effect because the children could all be born outside the official calendar.
In the following years Nut gave birth to five of the most famous deities of Egypt: Year 1 - Osiris. Year 2 - Horus (the Elder). Year 3 - Set. Year 4 - Isis. Year 5 - Nephtys.
From the beginning there was nothing but a water chaos called Nun, and from that came the god Atum, who had created himself. He made the earth-god Geb and his sister (and wife) Nut, goddess of the sky. To hold up and fill the sky they had two children, the boy Shu, the god of the air, and a girl Tefnut, goddess of moisture and rain. This family of four was the very foundation upon which the world existed as they represented: earth, water, air and the sky.
1) The old tradition from Heliopolis (Iunu) just north of Memphis in Lower Egypt said the creation of all the gods was made by Kheper, who was another form of their local sun god Re. He was self-produced and made the other gods out of the matter of his own body. He was the father of many gods like Osiris, Nephtys, Isis, Set, Horus and others.
2) The priests from Hermo- polis in Upper Egypt declared for their part that Thoth was the primeval god and created the first four couples that built up everything. The first pair was Nun and Nuntet (snakes), who represented and dwelled in the mass of water from which everything emerged. The second was Heh and Hauhet (frogs), who stood for indefinite time and long life. The third was Kek and Keket (snakes), who embodied darkness, and the fourth pair was Niau and Niaut (frogs) representing the void. During the New Kingdom the two latter were replaced by Amon and Amonet.
3) In Sais (in the delta in Lower Egypt) the priests taught the people that their own mighty goddess Neit was behind the origin of the other gods. She was self-begotten and self-produced and mother of the mighty solar god Re.
4) Another story tells that the creation of The World was wet and dark and Atum-Re arose from the Nun and appointed the eight reptile gods above (the so called Ogdoad) to their proper places and brought order from chaos. Here the frogs Niau and Niaut have been changed for Amon and Amonet which tells that this version is of later date (New Kingdom) when Amon had reached a lofty position among the gods.
A very old legend in Egypt told that mankind was divided into four types when they were made on the potter's wheel by the great creator Khnum. He made them all out of mud of various colors from the Nile. The order in which they were made was as follows: First was - Romut, meaning "men", and these were the Egyptians themselves. The second to come from the potter's wheel was - Áamu, the people from the desert mountains east of the Nile. This name was later also used for Asians in general.Number three, called - Temehu, was the fair skinned people from the Mediterranean coast west of the Nile Delta and the oases west of the Nile Valley.The last to be made was - Nehesy, the black people to the south of Egypt, below the province of Nubia. Notable is that the names of these people seem to be very old and originating from the early times when the Egyptians didn't have a name for Asians, which they surely encountered well before the first dynasty as shown in archaeology remains.According to another (much younger) legend mankind was created from a tear that fell from the eye of the god Re, and turned into men and women. The fair-skinned Libyans, considered as "cousins" by the people in the Nile valley, were formed in the same way. The two other people have a tear from Re as their origin too, but in a more irregular way.
When a person had died he was taken to Underworld where his deeds in life were taken to the Court of Osiris for the final judgement. Since this place also was called "The Island of Fire" it's quite obvious that the Egyptians had knowledge about the burning interior of the Earth though they had no volcanoes in their own country. Before coming there the dead person had to pass a labyrinth of gates and doors and answer questions correctly to pass through. The lion-god Aker let him through the last gate and he was facing the fourteen members of the jury in the Tribunal Hall. There he was allowed to speak about his behaviour on Earth. (Shown in the upper left in the picture below).
Then god Anubis took him into the courtroom presenting him the scale where his heart would be put in balance with the feather of the goddess Máat, patroness of truth and harmony. The procedure was recorded by Thoth - the god of writing and wisdom. Sometimes Thot's animal (a baboon) was sitting on top of the scale ready to adjust the result using a sliding weight.
The deceased enters from the left guided by Anubis. His heart is placed on the scales and the result is recorded by Thoth. Then Horus takes him in front of the judge Osiris for the final verdict. Behind the throne stand Isis and Nephtys.
If the heart of the deceased wasn't too heavy with sins from his life on Earth, he went through and could continue his voyage to the afterlife and was granted a plot of land in the "Field of the Reeds". This was the paradise for the ancient Egyptians - to grow crops for eternity in a land that was the very image of the Nile Valley they just had left.
If he failed the test on the other hand - his heart was immediately devoured by the beast Ammut sitting under the scale ready to have a good blow-out. In that case the dead faced the most horrible future imaginable for the Egyptians - he was denied an eternal life in the land in the West and his soul would be restless forever.
1. Crossing the celestial river by Nemty to the "Land in the West".
2. Passing through gates and labyrinths by answering questions.
3. Being let into the great Court of the Underworld by the god Aker.
4. Addressing a jury of 14 judges about the deeds during life on Earth.
5. Taken by Anubis to "Balance of Truth" to weigh his heart for sins.
6. If the heart wasn't heavy, brought by Horus to Chief Judge Osiris.
7. Entering the "Fields of the Reed" (Paradise) and get eternal life.
The Book of the Dead was (in most versions) an illustrated manuscript which consisted of prayers and magical texts to be used during the funeral and read over the dead to ensure the survival in the afterlife.
These texts were a necessary part of the funerary equipment and were thought to help through dangers of the Underworld. Over 150 burial spells were written on papyrus and placed with the dead and the content has been traced back to the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts from 2.300 B.C. and had probably a long oral tradition before that.
Each nome (province) and even towns had their own version putting text mentioning the local gods in favour. For poor people (i.e. the average Egyptian) there were versions not so elaborated (and expensive) and just containing the essence. A big part concerned the moment when the dead came in front of the jury in the Underworld. There he would make confessions like: "I have not killed or used false weights on my balance, or caused pain to anyone". Then he usually stated things like: "I have given clothes to the naked, water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry" etc, all to convince the jury members of his kind-heartedness.
One spell was spoken in front of a tribunal of 42 gods, and proclaimed innocence of a series of specified sins that covered every kinds of wrong doing. This made the soul worthy to go further into the Judgement Hall where the Court of Osiris (see above) had the final word. Being approved of there he was ready to embark on the Boat of Re to sail to the "Land in the West" for eternal rest.
The human soul - Ba, seen as a bird, hovering over his newly mummyfied master on his bier.
The Egyptians believed that every person (during life and after) was followed by an invisible double called - Ka. He was created at the moment of birth and stood for "force of live" for the person. He could not be seen or depicted but all big tombs had a "blind door" for him to use. After death a transformation of rebirth took place and every night he was released to give his dead master a spiritual travel to the land of the living. The travel itself was made by his soul Ba (see beyond). This was a link from the tomb to life on earth that was supposed to go on forever. The poor commoners who couldn't afford an embalming were offered small simple statuettes of mummies to give their Ka someone to stand beside in the life beyond and thereby please their life-long companion and get eternal rest themselves.
The human soul was called - Ba and was depicted as a bird with a human face, sometimes with the features of the dead person. The Ba (like Ka) appeared for the first time at the moment of birth, but the Ba was dwelling within the body, and after death in the mummy. During life he was his master's conscience and after death he was himself protected from being misled by evil spirits through rituals and prayers from "The Book of the Dead" performed by priests or relatives. A correct behaviour in both worlds was essential to the Egyptians. After death he was released from the mummy every night and could fly back to the world of the living to check things out. Before sunrise he was back within his master, who thus never lost contact with the world he had left.
The story of the sun god Re and the voyage in his boat was one of the most important in Egyptian mythology and concerned the very basics of life for the people in the Nile Valley. It clearly shows the cyclic way of looking at time and life that was at hand since the oldest times for Egyptians.
The religious beliefs in Heliopolis in Lower Egypt told that Re was the creator of men and at the beginning of the fifth dynasty he reached a very lofty position when the kings adopted his name in their titles claiming to be his sons.Re travelled through the waters of heaven in two different boats each day. The first, Madjet ("being strong"), rose out of the east behind the Mount Bakhu and then passed between two sycamore trees. At noon he was transferred over to a small bark by the name of Semektet ("going weak"), and this vessel took him into the sunset in the west at Mount Manu.
He did not navigate the boats himself because this was taken care of by Máat, goddess of justice and stability. She was first mate on the bridge and set the course accompanied by Horus.
The first voyage over the sky.
The life-giving Re (as the sun disk) and the symbol of creation the beetle Kheper on the very first day. Onboard are the gods who had helped to formed the World. The boat was the first land that was created and is held up by Nun, the lord of the watery chaos below from which everything had emerged at the dawn of time - the day before. (See gods Hu and Sia).
The boat was not provided with sails, but had another way to get power to move. It was simply pulled across the sky by the evil god Set who had been condemned to do so for killing his brother Osiris (as told in the Myth of Osiris above).
At night the god Upuaut stood on the prow and navigation was assisted by pilot fish Abtu and Ant, who swam in front of the boat.
The crew consisted of the gods Geb and Heka plus the companions Hu and Sia. They all helped Re to overcome the obstacles set up by those who tried to stop his journey - the three monsters Sebau, Nak, and Apep. The evil creature Apep was the most dangerous one and he took the shape of a big snake or a crocodile.
Under the protection of war god Maahes, Re fought and killed the monsters every day in order for the sun to rise the next morning, and by then they were all alive and kicking again and the daily combat could begin as usual.
Cloudy days were scary to the Egyptians because it might be that Apep had stopped Re in his boat. To prevent this and make things go back to normal again they made extra offerings in the temples to make the sun come back.
A prayer for life
By begging Re to come back in the morning the Egyptians hoped that life should go on as usual.(From a prayer book).
The most critical days, that thankfully did not come often, were those with solar eclipses in different stages. It seemed that Apep was swallowing up the sun, but somehow, after extra ceremonies, Re turned out to be the winner in the end. There were even manuals for people to help to fight this evil snake/crocodile that could jump up from the heavenly waters and attack the boat and the people onboard. Even the otherwise bad god Set took part in the struggle, besides pulling the boat, which underlines the importance of the mission.
The essence of this myth is that the sun (symbolising life itself) was a constant struggle. A lifetime for a man was a similar voyage with the birth and peak of living at noon. At twilight life was coming to an end and people finally reach the glorious Land In the West - the next World, after their short stay on Earth.
By venerating the gods who struggled every day to make the life-giving sun keep shining, order and stability was secured. This was what the chief navigator goddess Máat stood for and she always managed to get the old barge to port.
The basic purpose of mortuary preparation was to ensure the deceased a successful passage into the next world. The tombs were from the very beginning shallow holes in the sand later to be lined with a wall of sun dried bricks or stones and topped by a mound of sand or clay. The substructures were elaborated downwards when pits leading to grave chambers were cut out in the bedrock starting around 3200 BC. The structures above ground developed into bench-like brick buildings (mastabas) later to be made of stone and ending with the great pyramids 2.400 BC, a time span of evolution for almost half a millennium.
The amount of grave goods and offerings (for wealthy people) was increasing and be- came more sophisticated and progress was also seen in the treatment of the body of the deceased - the mummification. This custom first appeared also in about 3200 BC. and steadily progressed technically for the next 2.000 years from simple dehydration (made by the dry climate) to preparations with chemicals.
Originally the dead was placed in a crunched position lying on the side, but with time traditions changed and they were stretched out on their backs.
The religious belief was that the body should be preserved intact for the soul to dwell in the next world. This made kings and other royalties hide their dead protected un- der mountains of stone (pyramids) and later in secret hideouts in the desert cliffs. Unfortunately they did not separate the valuable offerings and grave goods from the mummies, which made the robbers plunder it all during periods of political instability.
Prepared for eternity
Anubis who was the watcher over the cemeteries, also took care of the important mummification.
Thus the great kings of the Old Kingdom did not come to "the Field of Reeds" after death despite (or probably just because) they tried to protect themselves under moun- tains of stone, which draw attention to everybody, not the least tomb robbers.
The next world was located in more than one place both in a physical and a religious (metaphysical) sense. It could be 1) in the area around the tomb, 2) among the stars, 3) in the celestial regions with the sun god or 4) in the Underworld itself.