➊ Symbols In Ancient Egyptian Religion
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Understanding Ancient Egyptian Religion
At the same time, Osiris's death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew in the wake of the Nile inundation, and provided a template for the resurrection of human souls after death. Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. In the course of this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who again acted as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed. He also fought each night with Apep , a serpentine god representing chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the rising of the sun the next morning, an event that represented rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.
The procedures for religious rituals were frequently written on papyri , which were used as instructions for those performing the ritual. These ritual texts were kept mainly in the temple libraries. Temples themselves are also inscribed with such texts, often accompanied by illustrations. Unlike the ritual papyri, these inscriptions were not intended as instructions, but were meant to symbolically perpetuate the rituals even if, in reality, people ceased to perform them.
Despite their mundane purpose, many of these texts also originated in temple libraries and later became disseminated among the general populace. The Egyptians produced numerous prayers and hymns, written in the form of poetry. Hymns and prayers follow a similar structure and are distinguished mainly by the purposes they serve. Hymns were written to praise particular deities. Such prayers are rare before the New Kingdom, indicating that in earlier periods such direct personal interaction with a deity was not believed possible, or at least was less likely to be expressed in writing. They are known mainly from inscriptions on statues and stelae left in sacred sites as votive offerings.
Among the most significant and extensively preserved Egyptian writings are funerary texts designed to ensure that deceased souls reached a pleasant afterlife. They are a loose collection of hundreds of spells inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom, intended to magically provide pharaohs with the means to join the company of the gods in the afterlife. At the end of the Old Kingdom a new body of funerary spells, which included material from the Pyramid Texts, began appearing in tombs, inscribed primarily on coffins. This collection of writings is known as the Coffin Texts , and was not reserved for royalty, but appeared in the tombs of non-royal officials.
Unlike the earlier books, it often contains extensive illustrations, or vignettes. The Coffin Texts included sections with detailed descriptions of the underworld and instructions on how to overcome its hazards. In the New Kingdom, this material gave rise to several "books of the netherworld", including the Book of Gates , the Book of Caverns , and the Amduat. They were originally restricted to pharaonic tombs, but in the Third Intermediate Period they came to be used more widely. Temples existed from the beginning of Egyptian history, and at the height of the civilization they were present in most of its towns.
They included both mortuary temples to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs and temples dedicated to patron gods, although the distinction was blurred because divinity and kingship were so closely intertwined. Instead, the state-run temples served as houses for the gods, in which physical images which served as their intermediaries were cared for and provided with offerings. This service was believed to be necessary to sustain the gods, so that they could in turn maintain the universe itself. Pharaohs often expanded them as part of their obligation to honor the gods, so that many temples grew to enormous size. The earliest Egyptian temples were small, impermanent structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms their designs grew more elaborate, and they were increasingly built out of stone.
In the New Kingdom, a basic temple layout emerged, which had evolved from common elements in Old and Middle Kingdom temples. With variations, this plan was used for most of the temples built from then on, and most of those that survive today adhere to it. In this standard plan, the temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to the sanctuary, which held a statue of the temple's god. Access to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. The journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm, a point emphasized by the complex mythological symbolism present in temple architecture.
Between the two lay many subsidiary buildings, including workshops and storage areas to supply the temple's needs, and the library where the temple's sacred writings and mundane records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning on a multitude of subjects. Theoretically it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, as he was Egypt's official representative to the gods. In reality, ritual duties were almost always carried out by priests. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties.
Only in the New Kingdom did professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests were still part-time. All were still employed by the state, and the pharaoh had final say in their appointments. In the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period c. Outside the temple were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple's needs, as well as farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple's income. Large temples were therefore very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.
State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival , a ritual renewal of the pharaoh's strength that took place periodically during his reign. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or on rare occasions. In it, a high-ranking priest, or occasionally the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the god's statue before presenting it with offerings.
Afterward, when the god had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were taken to be distributed among the priests. The less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, were still numerous, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often entailed actions beyond simple offerings to the gods, such as reenactments of particular myths or the symbolic destruction of the forces of disorder. Commoners gathered to watch the procession and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the gods on these occasions. At many sacred sites, the Egyptians worshipped individual animals which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities.
These animals were selected based on specific sacred markings which were believed to indicate their fitness for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were selected for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation. Millions of mummified cats , birds, and other creatures were buried at temples honoring Egyptian deities. The Egyptians used oracles to ask the gods for knowledge or guidance. Egyptian oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom and afterward, though they probably appeared much earlier.
People of all classes, including the king, asked questions of oracles, and, especially in the late New Kingdom their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing lots, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently spoke. The means of discerning the god's will gave great influence to the priests who spoke and interpreted the god's message.
While the state cults were meant to preserve the stability of the Egyptian world, lay individuals had their own religious practices that related more directly to daily life. Popular religious practice included ceremonies marking important transitions in life. These included birth, because of the danger involved in the process, and naming , because the name was held to be a crucial part of a person's identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul's survival beyond it. These included the interpretation of dreams, which could be seen as messages from the divine realm, and the consultation of oracles. People also sought to affect the gods' behavior to their own benefit through magical rituals.
Individual Egyptians also prayed to gods and gave them private offerings. Evidence of this type of personal piety is sparse before the New Kingdom. This is probably due to cultural restrictions on depiction of nonroyal religious activity, which relaxed during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Personal piety became still more prominent in the late New Kingdom, when it was believed that the gods intervened directly in individual lives, punishing wrongdoers and saving the pious from disaster. Egyptians frequently donated goods to be offered to the temple deity and objects inscribed with prayers to be placed in temple courts. Often they prayed in person before temple statues or in shrines set aside for their use. These chapels were very numerous and probably staffed by members of the community.
The deities invoked in these situations differed somewhat from those at the center of state cults. Many of the important popular deities, such as the fertility goddess Taweret and the household protector Bes , had no temples of their own. However, many other gods, including Amun and Osiris, were very important in both popular and official religion. Often they favored deities affiliated with their own region, or with their role in life. The god Ptah , for instance, was particularly important in his cult center of Memphis , but as the patron of craftsmen he received the nationwide veneration of many in that occupation. The word " magic " is normally used to translate the Egyptian term heka , which meant, as James P.
Allen puts it, "the ability to make things happen by indirect means". Heka was believed to be a natural phenomenon, the force which was used to create the universe and which the gods employed to work their will. Humans could also use it, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were counted as magical. Although these ends could be harmful to other people, no form of magic was considered inimical in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative events. Magic was closely associated with the priesthood. Because temple libraries contained numerous magical texts, great magical knowledge was ascribed to the lector priests , who studied these texts.
These priests often worked outside their temples, hiring out their magical services to laymen. Other professions also commonly employed magic as part of their work, including doctors, scorpion-charmers, and makers of magical amulets. It is also possible that the peasantry used simple magic for their own purposes, but because this magical knowledge would have been passed down orally, there is limited evidence of it. Language was closely linked with heka , to such a degree that Thoth , the god of writing, was sometimes said to be the inventor of heka.
Often these rituals invoked an appropriate deity to perform the desired action, using the power of heka to compel the deity to act. Sometimes this entailed casting the practitioner or subject of a ritual in the role of a character in mythology, thus inducing the god to act toward that person as it had in the myth. Rituals also employed sympathetic magic , using objects believed to have a magically significant resemblance to the subject of the rite. The Egyptians also commonly used objects believed to be imbued with heka of their own, such as the magically protective amulets worn in great numbers by ordinary Egyptians.
Because it was considered necessary for the survival of the soul, preservation of the body was a central part of Egyptian funerary practices. Originally the Egyptians buried their dead in the desert, where the arid conditions mummified the body naturally. In the Early Dynastic Period, however, they began using tombs for greater protection, and the body was insulated from the desiccating effect of the sand and was subject to natural decay.
Thus, the Egyptians developed their elaborate embalming practices, in which the corpse was artificially desiccated and wrapped to be placed in its coffin. Once the mummification process was complete, the mummy was carried from the deceased person's house to the tomb in a funeral procession that included his or her relatives and friends, along with a variety of priests. Before the burial, these priests performed several rituals, including the Opening of the mouth ceremony intended to restore the dead person's senses and give him or her the ability to receive offerings.
Then the mummy was buried and the tomb sealed. Over time, families inevitably neglected offerings to long-dead relatives, so most mortuary cults only lasted one or two generations. The first Egyptian tombs were mastabas , rectangular brick structures where kings and nobles were entombed. Each of them contained a subterranean burial chamber and a separate, above ground chapel for mortuary rituals. In the Old Kingdom the mastaba developed into the pyramid , which symbolized the primeval mound of Egyptian myth. Pyramids were reserved for royalty, and were accompanied by large mortuary temples sitting at their base. Middle Kingdom pharaohs continued to build pyramids, but the popularity of mastabas waned. Increasingly, commoners with sufficient means were buried in rock-cut tombs with separate mortuary chapels nearby, an approach which was less vulnerable to tomb robbery.
By the beginning of the New Kingdom even the pharaohs were buried in such tombs, and they continued to be used until the decline of the religion itself. Tombs could contain a great variety of other items, including statues of the deceased to serve as substitutes for the body in case it was damaged. The tombs of wealthier individuals could also contain furniture, clothing, and other everyday objects intended for use in the afterlife, along with amulets and other items intended to provide magical protection against the hazards of the spirit world.
The tomb walls also bore artwork, such as images of the deceased eating food that were believed to allow him or her to magically receive sustenance even after the mortuary offerings had ceased. The beginnings of Egyptian religion extend into prehistory, though evidence for them comes only from the sparse and ambiguous archaeological record. Careful burials during the Predynastic period imply that the people of this time believed in some form of an afterlife. At the same time, animals were ritually buried, a practice which may reflect the development of zoomorphic deities like those found in the later religion.
Each region of Egypt originally had its own patron deity, but it is likely that as these small communities conquered or absorbed each other, the god of the defeated area was either incorporated into the other god's mythology or entirely subsumed by it. This resulted in a complex pantheon in which some deities remained only locally important while others developed more universal significance. This event transformed Egyptian religion, as some deities rose to national importance and the cult of the divine pharaoh became the central focus of religious activity. Another important center was Abydos , where the early rulers built large funerary complexes.
During the Old Kingdom , the priesthoods of the major deities attempted to organize the complicated national pantheon into groups linked by their mythology and worshipped in a single cult center, such as the Ennead of Heliopolis , which linked important deities such as Atum , Ra, Osiris, and Set in a single creation myth. In contrast with the great size of the pyramid complexes, temples to gods remained comparatively small, suggesting that official religion in this period emphasized the cult of the divine king more than the direct worship of deities. The funerary rituals and architecture of this time greatly influenced the more elaborate temples and rituals used in worshipping the gods in later periods.
As a hieroglyph, this symbol represents the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Other symbols are often added to illustrate unification further. When a pharaoh died, Maat was lost and the world was flung into chaos, only the coronation of a new pharaoh could restore Maat. The Egyptians believed that during creation this hill rose out of the sea of chaos to create dry land. The idea of this hill rising had a profound effect on the Egyptians, being used as everything from temple layouts to the possible inspiration behind the pyramids. A loop of rope that has no beginning and no end, it symbolized eternity. The sun disk is often depicted in the center of it. The Shen also seems to be a symbol of protection.
It is often seen being clutched by deities in bird form, Horus the falcon, Mut the vulture. The sound eye of Horus. Symbolizes healing and protection. Horus was the ancient Egyptian sky god who was usually depicted as a falcon. His right eye was associated with the Sun Ra. The mirror image, or left eye, sometimes represented the moon and the god Djehuti Thoth. A person ka would live on after their body had died. Some tombs included model houses as the ka needed a place to live. Offerings of food and drink would be left at the tomb entrance so the ka could eat and drink. The god Thoth used his magic to turn Horus into a sun-disk with splendid outstretched wings.
The goddesses Nekhbet and Uazet in the form of uraeus snakes joined him at his side. The exact origin of this symbol is unknown. In many respects, it resembles an ankh except that its arms curve down. Its meaning is also reminiscent of the ankh, it is often translated to mean welfare or life. As early as the Third Dynasty we find the Tiet being used as decoration when it appears with both the ankh and the Djed column, and later with the was the scepter.
In all these cases it seems to represent the ideas of resurrection and eternal life. Which means mountain, the symbol suggests two peaks with the Nile valley in the middle. The Egyptians believed that there was a cosmic mountain range that held up the heavens. This mountain range had two peaks, the western peak was called Manu, while the eastern peak was called Bakhu.
It was on these peaks that heaven rested. Each peak of this mountain chain was guarded by a lion deity, whose job it was to protect the sun as it rose and set. The mountain was also a symbol of the tomb and the afterlife, probably because most Egyptian tombs were located in the mountainous land bordering the Nile valley. The Atef crown was worn by Osiris. The Double Crown, the red crown, and the white crown put together to represent a unified Egypt. Although Egypt was not always a unified nation, it was stronger that way. Therefore unification was desirable. Narmer Menes , the founder of the First Dynasty around B. A Lotus Flower. A symbol of the sun, of creation and rebirth. Because at night the flower closes and sinks underwater, at dawn it rises and opens again.
According to one creation myth, it was a giant lotus which first rose out of the watery chaos at the beginning of time. From this giant lotus, the sun itself rose on the first day. A symbol of Upper Egypt. This symbol represents a lamp or brazier on a stand from which a flame emerges. The fire was embodied in the sun and in its symbol the uraeus which spits fire. The fire also plays a part in the Egyptian concept of the underworld. There is one terrifying aspect of the underworld which is similar to the Christians concept of hell. Most Egyptians would like to avoid this place with its fiery lakes and rivers that are inhabited by fire demons. This symbol represents a heart. The Egyptian believed the heart was the center of all consciousness, even the center of life itself.
In the Book of the dead, it was the heart that was weighed against the feather of Maat to see if an individual was worthy of joining Osiris in the afterlife. This symbol represents gold which was considered a divine metal; it was thought to be the flesh of the gods. Its polished surface was related to the brilliance of the sun. A sunrise is set behind the symbol, another reference to resurrection. The United Copts of Great Britain website shows its ankh-bearing symbol. Lacking any sort of a Christian cross, it displays only an ankh and a pair of lotus blooms, both references to their ancient culture.
The term "Eye of Ra" is used in a couple different contexts. Sometimes it is a symbol similar to the Eye of Horus. However, the Eye of Ra is more than simply a reference to a part of a god. The Eye of Ra is its own distinct element in Egyptian mythology, a feminine power that works Ra's will, often in the hands of a variety of different goddesses such as Hathor and Sekhmet. The Eye of Ra is most often represented by a sun disk with a cobra surrounding it.
Ankhs emerging from the cobras' necks are not uncommon. The distinguishing feature of a Wadjet Eye is the cobra to the right of the eye, which represents the goddess Wadjet. Wadjet is the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, and the cobra here wears the crown of Lower Egypt. The vulture to the left is Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt. Share Flipboard Email. Catherine Beyer. Wicca Expert. Updated November 04, Cite this Article Format.
Beyer, Catherine.It Symbols In Ancient Egyptian Religion back to a Symbols In Ancient Egyptian Religion remote period of human civilization. It is believed that the Jeffrey Dahmer Biography is a rendering of a human backbone. This resulted in a complex pantheon in beast body results Symbols In Ancient Egyptian Religion deities remained only locally important while others developed more universal significance.