Religion and the gods were an important part of ancient Egyptian life. From their pharaoh, who was a god-king to them, to their preparation for the afterlife, almost everything they did was connected with religion.
The people believed that the pharaoh was Horus, the falcon-headed god, living on earth. His job was to keep order, or ma’at. He did this by performing rituals. If the pharaoh carried out the proper rituals and offerings, the sun would rise and the crops would grow.
The pharaoh could not be everywhere at once, so he appointed priests who would also perform rituals. The priests also distributed the wealth and food that were collected in taxes. They were advisors to the pharaoh.
There were several types of priests, but the most important was the high priest. Only the high priests could enter the inner sanctuaries of the temples, where the statues representing the gods were kept.
The high priest of the sun god Re was called wer maau, meaning “greatest of seers”. He may have been in charge of the astronomers, who kept track of the movements of the heavenly bodies so festivals were held at the right time.
The Egyptians had many gods. Some had animal-like features. A few even had more than one animal part.
For example, the goddess Thoueris had a hippo’s belly, a lion’s paws, and a crocodile’s tail. The god Amemit (also spelled Ammut) had the head of a crocodile, the front of a lion, and back of a hippo. He punished people and ate the dead.
Although some people say the Egyptians worshipped animals, that is not really true. They respected animals. For example, a person who killed a cat got the same punishment as one who killed a person. Pets were honored members of the household, so they were sometimes mummified and buried with their owners.
A few of the gods that had animal heads or bodies were:
- Thoth—ibis or baboon; god of wisdom, the moon, magic, and writing
- Heqet—frog; goddess of fruitfulness, childbirth, and grain growth
- Taweret—hippopotamus; goddess of childbirth
- Anubis—jackal; god who weighed the hearts of the dead
- Bastet—wild desert cat or lioness, later a cat; goddess of music and dancing, protector of children and crops
- Sobek—crocodile; god of power, protection, and fertility
- Renenutet—cobra; goddess of babies and of the harvest
- Sekhmet—lion; goddess of war and healing
- Hathor—cow or woman with cow horns; goddess of love, music, and beauty, also of women and children, and of the dead
Many cults existed in Egypt, each with dedicated followers and temples to honor its god. (A cult is a religious following. Ancient Egyptian cults formed around the worship of a particular god.) The cult of Re, the sun god and creator, was the most important. His symbol was the pyramid. Just as the sun rose and set, so life went from birth to death. Honoring Re kept that cycle going.
Osiris was the god of the underworld. When floodwaters were low, Osiris was dead. When the water once again flooded the land, he had awakened. This tied to the people’s belief in the afterlife and showed that death was not the end, it only meant changing to a different state.
Isis was the wife and sister of Osiris. She was also the mother of Horus and the protector of the dead as well as the goddess of fertility and motherhood. Often shown wearing the horns of a cow or as a winged woman, she had magical skill and could create and destroy life with only words.
One of the most important cults of the Middle Kingdom was that of Amun. (The Middle Kingdom was the second of three main periods in ancient Egyptian history.) He was a local god of Thebes. As Amun-Re he became one of the main creator gods. Pharaohs of the New Kingdom called themselves sons of Amun.
The Egyptians believed that their ka, or life force, lived on after death. Their ba, or personality, did, too, and it was symbolized by a bird. After they traveled to the sky and passed a series of tests, they were transformed into an akh, a spirit or a ghost. Then they could influence life on earth.
The ka and ba needed a body to return to, so the Egyptians mummified the bodies and filled the tombs of the dead with goods that would be needed in the afterlife. Pharaohs and others who could afford it began to prepare elaborate tombs while they were still living. These tombs helped ensure their eternal life.