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Religion in Ancient Egypt

Religion played a very vital role in the lives of Ancient Egyptians. The religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians became a dominating influence in their everyday lives such that they became resistant to any changes (Matthews, 1997). Their aim was to imitate the conditions which according to them, were in existence at the beginning of creation. This paper discusses the religion beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians, including their gods and goddesses, priests and temples.

According to the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Pharaoh had an association with Horus, who was the son of the son god (Re), and he was very powerful. They believed that King Pharaoh had come down from the gods, and was an intermediary between the gods and the people (Matthews, 1997). The main obligation of Pharaoh was to propose offerings and rituals to sustain the gods to enable them to keep order in the universe. Consequently, enormous resources were allocated by the state for the purpose of performing rituals meant to appease the gods, and for building temples where the rituals were to be carried out. They later believed that when Pharaoh died, he became Osiris (a god) and helped them in their afterlife. They also believed that priests were very powerful people, such that when everything was going well, it signified that the good job being done by Pharaoh and the priests. However, when things were not fine in the country, they blamed them.

The Egyptians also believed in funerary practices and afterlife. They preserved the physical body of the deceased through mummification to earn their spirit a place in the afterlife by providing grave offerings and foods, as well as tombs to preserve the deceased’s bodies (Matthews, 1997). Ancient Egyptians believed that the body was a linkage to the spirit world that existed in the afterlife. Therefore, any damage to the physical body of the deceased required magic spells to be put on the deceased’s statue to enable the needs of its spirit to be met continuously. In other words, the body underwent a process called mummification to ensure that the required food and drinks were provided to the spirit in the afterlife (Redford, 2002). The process was very costly and time-consuming. An individual was expected to construct a tomb and then place the essential objects inside it. Upon his death, a priest or his son would be chosen to take offerings daily to the deceased. In the Old Kingdom, the mummification process was a preserve of Pharaoh along with his top advisors (Redford, 2002). However, in the Middle and New Kingdoms, mummification was extended to the common people, but due to the high costs involved, only a few rich people in the society were able to afford the entire procedure. It was common for poor people to be buried in shallow graves close to the desert. The hot and dry climate of the desert accelerated their natural mummification. One of the ways in which the Egyptians mummified the body of the deceased included injecting the body with cedar oil via the rectum, after which it was dried with natron (Redford, 2002).

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Ancient Egyptian’s gods and goddesses

It is important to note that Ancient Egyptians were polytheists i.e. they worshipped many gods. They had over seven hundred diverse gods and goddesses (Matthews, 1997). The ancient Egyptian religion had its roots in the country’s prehistory, and it existed for over 3,000 years. However, as the significance attached to the gods grew and declined over the years, the religious beliefs of the Egyptians also shifted. Certain gods were more prominent than others at various periods of time (Matthews, 1997). Ancient Egyptian religion consisted of worshipping more than 700 gods and goddesses who were believed to have control over the elements and forces of nature (Pinch, 2004). Egyptians realized the difficulty associated with polytheism during the Old Kingdom. Consequently, they tried to make the religion simple by organizing gods to be worshipped in family groups.

Records show that Egyptians formed local cults for worshipping gods, especially animals. There were two categories of Egyptian gods, i.e. household and local gods, as well as national and state gods (Pinch, 2004). Household gods were worshipped in the shrines that were situated within the living quarters of the people. These gods did not have temples, priests or followers, but nonetheless, they were very important to the Egyptians, since the national and state gods were very far. Examples of eminent household gods include Tauert and Bes. In certain regions, local and state gods were the chief deity, for instance, the crocodile god, which was worshipped mainly in Kom Ombo and Fayoum (Pinch, 2004). Some local and state gods such as Re, the sun god, gained recognition nationwide and were worshipped all over Egypt. It is important to take note of the fact that certain gods were mixed with others to form a new deity. For example, Re was combined with Amun, a state god, to form Amen-Re. Worshipping of local and household gods was very common among the ordinary people. They believed that the gods would assist them to get jobs and their other needs (Pinch, 2004).

Priests in Ancient Egypt

Priests were very important in the ancient Egyptian religion. It was the belief of the Egyptians that the gods resided in the temples and only the priests were permitted to get into the sacred region of the temple where the statues of the gods were (Redford, 2002). Egyptian people often prayed at the gates of the temple or to Pharaoh whom they believed to be a link between them and the gods. Contrary to the present duties of priests of caring for the spiritual needs of the people, the role of Egyptian priests was to take care of the needs of the gods and goddesses (Redford, 2002). They neither watched over or cared for the people, nor taught them about religion. Caring for the gods involved the following: the high priest would break the seal in the morning, light a torch to march the gods, pray to the gods, wash the statue, light incense, put jewels and fresh clothing on the gods, as well as put food and drink offerings near the statue of the gods. Singers would often sing hymns in praise of the gods. When the day came to an end, the priest would live the shrine, ensuring that the sacredness of the temple was restored by sweeping away his footprints while he walked away (Redford, 2002).

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It was the belief of the Egyptians that the priest’s role to care of the gods was very vital, and that neglect in their duties would result in disaster. Consequently, the general public compensated the priests in recognition of their significance in the society. A majority of the priests were categorized as lay priests, i.e. part-time priests who were employed either by the local or state governments (Redford, 2002). Lay priests were very common, particularly among small communities, and they served in rotation. There were normally four groups of lay priests who were equally staffed, and every group would serve for one month, after which they resume their occupation for the next three months.

Pharaoh had the power of choosing new priests. Often he would select his relations to fill key positions in the temple (Redford, 2002). Most of the priest positions were heritable, thereby making them a preserve of only a few families. However, during certain times, new priests were chosen by a committee of priests. Cases of transfer or promotion of priests were also in the hands of Pharaoh. Like any other job with rules and regulations, the job of a priest necessitated that they only wore clothes made from plants while on duty. Clothes made from animal skin were not allowed. Other requirements included shaving their heads and bodies on a daily basis, showering with cold water numerous times in a day, as well as abstaining from sex while carrying out their duties in the Temple (Redford, 2002).

Ancient Egyptian Temples

Ancient Egyptians built two types of temples i.e. the Cultus and the Mortuary Temples (Wilkinson, 2000). The Cultus Temples were mainly devoted to worshipping a particular god of Egypt for instance, the Temple of Isis located in Aswan. The Mortuary Temples, on the other hand, were constructed to give honor to Pharaoh when he passed on. The Temple of Ramesse II located in Thebes is an example of a Mortuary Temple (Wilkinson, 2000). Egyptian temples reflected the Egyptians’ myths. For instance, the pillars of the temples were designed in the shape of plants like papyrus, palms etc, which were believed to exist in the Island of Creation.

There were two kinds of ceremonies performed to the gods at the Cultus Temples. The first type was an every day ceremony of providing for the needs of the gods through offerings, which were conducted by the priest within the temple’s sanctuary (Wilkinson, 2000). Common people were not permitted to enter the sanctuary, and were, therefore, forced to stay outside when the ceremony was ongoing. The other type of ceremony was special festivals which took place at various times of the year. It was during the festive ceremonies that the ordinary Egyptians were free to worship their gods without any restrictions. Ancient Egyptian people highly regarded their temple, since they believed that it was the physical place where they connected with their gods (Wilkinson, 2000). They also believed that Pharaoh, together with the priests, would intervene on their behalf to the gods.