Did the ancient Egyptians have a religion, or was it just a collection of unrelated local cults?
Whether the ancient Egyptians had what we would call religion is topic that Egyptologists struggle with and disagree about.
The word religion is has a Latin origin, the ancient Egyptians had no word for religion and so the argument goes, therefore, they had no concept of religion, but they also had no word of cosmos or art but they believed they lived in the cosmos and they practised all manner of arts.
Defining religion is tricky and Egyptologists take their lead from anthropologists on the subject which makes religion into the study of people not as one of the pioneers of anthropology would put is as the study of the ‘belief in the existence of spiritual beings that needed humans to form relationships with them’. (Tylor, 1871).
Tylor’s definition is not the most up to date and it’s certainly not perfect but it works. Some anthropologists have pointed out that religious traditions such as Theravada Buddhism do not require the existence of supernatural or spiritual beings to be a religion and eminent sociologists and philosophers such as Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx have emphasised the social and economic function of religion over belief, but if you look at modern psychology the consensus is that belief is what motivates human actions because when you believe something you accept as true without ever feeling the need to prove it. Religion then can be defined as the entire collection of beliefs, values, and practices that a group holds to be true and sacred. A group’s religious beliefs explain where the people fit in relation to the universe and how they should behave (moral code) while here on Earth.
Book by Stephen Quirke
In Egyptology, the term cult means the daily tending and worship of an image of a deity. The shrine containing the image was opened at dawn, and then the deity was purified, greeted and praised, clothed, and fed. There were several further services, and the image was finally returned to its shrine for the night. Apart from this activity, which took place within the temple and was performed by a small group of priests, there were numerous festivals at which the shrine and image were taken out from the sanctuary on a portable barque, becoming visible to the people and often visiting other temples. Thus, the daily cult was a state concern, whose function was to maintain reciprocity between the human and the divine, largely in isolation from the people. This reciprocity was fundamental because deities and humanity together sustained the cosmos. If the gods were not satisfied, they might cease to inhabit their images and retreat to their other abode, the sky. Temples were constructed as microcosms whose purity and wholeness symbolized the proper order of the larger world outside.
So, was there an ancient Egyptian religion, or was it a collection of cults?
When Jean François Champollion unlocked the secret code of Egypt’s most sacred language, hieroglyphs, in 1822 he unlocked many wonders of a long-hidden world. It was a world populated by strange and mysterious gods with human bodies and animal heads. From the start, Egyptology committed itself to the study of Egypt’s ancient religion; particularly to its beliefs about life after death. These scholars of long lost languages were not the first to be intrigued by ancient Egypt and her gods. Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino was the first to compare the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis with the Christian Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher explored the nature of the divine in Greek and Egyptian culture and the romantics of the late 18th and 19th century were fascinated by anything to do with royal tombs and mummies.
Wikipedia Ancient Egyptian deities
.Since the translation of the ‘divine words’ Egyptology has come a long way but it has fallen short in one important respect: it has failed to produce a description of the ancient Egyptian gods that is in any way commensurate with the scale and impressiveness of its sacred monuments. Today the gods and religion of ancient Egyptians are portrayed as mundane and soulless; there is no sense that the gods were holy, divine, or transcendent and certainly no sense that once people believed they contained the ultimate mystery of life, death and, the cosmos.
The sun rises over the circular mound of creation as goddesses pour out the primeval waters around it.
What has become obvious to me is that Egyptologists themselves do not have a clear picture of the gods or of the ancient Egyptian religion. Egyptologists focused on words, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Buildings and monuments are the domain of the archaeologists; the wonderful art of the tombs and precious funeral artefacts found in them were the domain of art historians, and the anthropologists are processing ancient Egyptian religion through a variety of pan-world theories that render religion down to observable social behaviours.
Brooklyn Museum A figure of the Goddess Nephthys
The gods were kept from common view, they were kept or made pure and special. That which is held sacred in a society is kept special because it helps to fulfil its deepest needs and longings. The gods in the ancient world filled people with both reverence and terror. What was thought sacred was protected and adored because it represented the intersection between the limits of temporal human effort and the unlimited possibilities of the metaphysical. Religion was not an individual means for orienting or transforming oneself in the world as it is the West today, but a complex and rich human phenomenon that formed the mental architecture of the whole of society.
Where belief in the sacred prevails as it did in ancient Egypt, the world and life is viewed essentially as the work of supernatural beings. In Egyptology, however, sacredness is believed to lie primarily in the person of the king; in his tomb, his temples and in his cult statues, in his images and in the ritual objects he used in sacred performances.
Khafra (also read as Khafre, Khefren and Greek: Χεφρήν Chephren) was an ancient Egyptian king (pharaoh) of the 4th Dynasty during the Old Kingdom. He was the son of Khufu and the throne successor of Djedefre. According to the ancient historian Manetho, Khafra was followed by king Bikheris, but according to archaeological evidence, he was instead followed by king Menkaure. Khafra was the builder of the second-largest pyramid of Giza.
The ancient Egyptian king was believed to be the son of a god, chief priest, and mediator between the gods in heaven and the people on earth. The priest, once initiated, led the community in connecting with the supernatural to access its divine benefits – health, good fortune, and life after death.
The king’s priests were initiated into the sacred cults; they learned and maintained the sacred systems; its requirements, and its taboos; and they maintained the sacred order and the prevailing worldview among the non-literate. The concept of sacredness extended beyond the king to the natural world, to the river Nile, the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. The land of Egypt was a sacred land filled with the abundance of creation, it was a land filled with sacred animals and plants, and it was land filled with sacred numbers.
Hieroglyphics with Egyptian numerals. The text seems to be a recipe for a medicinal potion. Wikimedia.
By understanding what was sacred to the ancient Egyptians it is possible to get a new view over ancient Egypt, a view that reveals the rich religious symbolism and philosophy of the world’s first great religion. Almost two hundred years after Champollion provided the first key to understanding ancient Egypt we are working on a new key – the key of sacred numbers and it now stands ready to unlock another layer of meaning in the great mystery that is ancient Egypt.
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I know that the generally accepted academic view is that the ancient Egyptians had no influence on the development of Greek mathematics, philosophy and cosmology but I believe there is evidence, that has been overlooked by the mainstream, that shows the Greek mathematicians and philosophers such as Meltis, Pythagoras (or the Pythagorean cult I know the character we call Pythagoras probably never existed) and Plato were all influenced by what they learned about numbers in Egypt.
In Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, Pythagoras is shown writing in a book as a young man presents him with a tablet showing a diagrammatic representation of a lyre above a drawing of the sacred tetractys.
The reason Egypt’s contribution has been misunderstood is that the academics do not understand what the ancient Egyptians did with numbers. They have decided that Egyptian numbers were used in a purely profane way, that is used to quantify stuff’ However, there is a good deal of evidence that they also used them as metaphors to describe the cosmos. I’m working on a book about numbers as metaphors for what was sacred in ancient Egypt, and the evidence is compelling. Well, I can hear you say. ‘She would say that wouldn’t she.’ But I think that when the book comes out a lot of people will agree.
In the ancient Greek civilisation where the first philosophers attempted to explain the creation of the Universe, the hymns of mysticist Orpheus proved to be of significant importance, by introducing the term ‘Chaos’. This is another reason Egyptian cosmology has not been understood. The Greek notion of chaos has been superimposed onto the ancient Egyptians whose prima materia was not chaotic but inert, dark, limitless, timeless and without form.
According to Orpheus, Chaos condensed into the giant Cosmic Egg, whose rupture resulted in the creation of Phanes and Ouranos and of all the gods who symbolise the creation of the Universe. Later, Greek philosophers supported the view that chaos describes the unformed and infinite void, from which the Universe was created.
Engraving of a marble relief of Phanes.jpg. From Wikimedia Commons …
After visiting Egypt, so his biographer said, Thales of Miletus (624/623 – c. 548/545 BCE) claimed that the Earth floats on water and that earthquakes occur when the Earth is rocked by waves, an idea he probably picked up in Egypt where everything came out of the infinite waters of the Nun and where the Earth was believed to be surrounded by the water of Nun.
Thales was also known for his innovative use of geometry. For example, he said: Megiston topos: apanta gar chorei (Μέγιστον τόπος· ἄπαντα γὰρ χωρεῖ.) The greatest is space, for it holds all things.
The god Shu was the god of space or emptiness who held the bubble of air that contained the Earth in the ancient Egyptian cosmology. His role in creating the triangle occurred when he mythically lifted the body of the goddess Nut to form the vault of the sky, beneath him lay the body of the Earth god Geb. Flinders Petrie was the first to notice that the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza was based on a 3–4–5 pyramid, built c. 2,500 BCE.
Wikimedia: Nut forming the arc of the heavens, Shu supported by Khumn in the centre, and Geb in a prone position lying on the Earth.
Topos is in Newtonian-style space, since the verb, chorei, has the connotation of yielding before things or spreading out to make room for them, which is extension. Within this extension, things have a position. Points, lines, planes and solids related by distances and angles follow from this presumption that Thales understood triangles and right triangles, and what is more, used that knowledge in practical ways. It is said that he measured the height of the pyramids by their shadows at the moment when his own shadow was equal to his height. A right triangle with two equal legs is a 45-degree right triangle, all of which are similar.
The length of the pyramid’s shadow measured from the centre of the pyramid at that moment must have been equal to its height. This story indicates that he may have been familiar with the Egyptian seked, or seqed, the ratio of the run to the rise of a slope (cotangent). The seked is at the base of problems 56, 57, 58, 59 and 60 of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus which dates to the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt. It was copied by the scribe Ahmes (i.e., Ahmose; Ahmes is an older transcription favoured by historians of mathematics), from a now-lost text from the reign of King Amenemhat III (12th dynasty).
Wikimedia Commons: Rhind Mathematical Papyrus
Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – c. 495 BC)[b] was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the eponymous founder of Pythagoreanism. His political and religious teachings were well known in Magna Graecia and influenced the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and, through them, Western philosophy.
According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans used mathematics for solely mystical reasons, devoid of practical application. They believed that all things were made of numbers. The number one (the monad) represented the origin of all things and the number two (the dyad) represented matter. The number three was an “ideal number” because it had a beginning, middle, and end and was the smallest number of points that could be used to define a plane triangle, which they revered as a symbol of the god Apollo. The number four signified the four seasons and the four elements. The number seven was also sacred because it was the number of planets and the number of strings on a lyre, and because Apollo’s birthday was celebrated on the seventh day of each month. They believed that odd numbers were masculine, that even numbers were feminine, and that the number five represented marriage because it was the sum of two and three.
Ten was regarded as the “perfect number” and the Pythagoreans honoured it by never gathering in groups larger than ten. Pythagoras was credited with devising the tetractys, the triangular figure of four rows which add up to the perfect number, ten. The Pythagoreans regarded the tetractys as a symbol of utmost mystical importance. Iamblichus, in his Life of Pythagoras, states that the tetractys was “so admirable, and so divinised by those who understood [it],” that Pythagoras’s students would swear oaths by it.
Modern scholars debate whether these numerological teachings were developed by Pythagoras himself or by the later Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus of Croton. We believe Pythagoras whoever he was, and his followers developed them after visiting Egypt. The Pythagorean Mystery Numbers are not exactly what the Egyptians were up to but the Pythagoreans got the idea of modelling the universe with numbers from the Egyptians and we will show how they did it in our upcoming book which has the working title, ‘The Numbers of Thoth’ by Julia and Martin Herdman.