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.
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.
The preservation of the body was an essential part of ancient Egyptian funerary belief and practice. The burial customs began with wrapping the body either in a mat or animal skin to prevent direct contact with the sand and to hold the parts of the body together. The ancient Egyptians were terrified of the disintegration of the body. The hot sand drew out the body’s liquids aid its preservation. This kind of preservation is known as “natural mummification,” meaning that preservation was carried out without human intervention.
The practice of embalming aimed to improve on what nature could do on its own, and it was considered essential to mummify a Pharaoh. Early mummification involved the wrapping of specific parts of the body such as the face and hands. The best literary account of the mummification process is given by Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian. He records that the entire process took seventy days. There were 30 days of evisceration and drying and 40 days of perfecting with stuffing and embalming with oils.
Anubis, with the deceased on the lion bed of resurrections, beneath the four canopic jars face right, Anubis offers a libation.
Anubis was the god responsible for embalming, especially for the Pharaoh. The Pyramid Texts describe Anubis as the Pharaoh’s (Osiris’s) embalmer. “His entrails having been washed by Anubis; the services of Horus having been served in Abydos, [even] the embalming of Osiris”It is clear from this passage that the god Anubis had responsibility for washing the viscera of the deceased king. Egyptologist Bob Brier (1996) has suggested that embalming took place in a tent that was erected on the top of a hill away from the unpleasant smell that resulted from the process of treating the dead bodies. This suggestion is based on the titles of god Anubis that often occur in the offering formulae and the Pyramid Texts “Anubis, who presides in the sh-ntr” (896c), his tent. “He who is upon his hill (tp dw.f). the sh-ntr, which is translated as a “divine booth” (Wb. III, 465), was the place where the bodies of the kings were purified. The tent is described in various texts. it had a number of rooms, the central part of the tent was the place where the purification procedures were carried out. The doorways were shown as closed wooden doors (Merrewka), or curtains as in the tomb of Qar, or they were left open as in the tomb of Idu. There was a central ramp: In each tent, there was a central ramp, which connected the tent to a water channel.
Anubis mummifies the Pharaoh in his tent.
To mummify the body, the internal organs, apart from the heart and kidneys, were removed via a cut in the left side. The organs were dried and wrapped and placed in canopic jars, or later replaced inside the body. The brain was removed, often through the nose, and discarded. Texts suggest that the heart was removed during the Old Kingdom, although there is no proof this from the physical bodies. In a passage in the Pyramid Texts, the heart is removed from the body. The passage (1162a), which might be referring to putting a heart amulet in place of the original heart, reads: “To say: my father made for himself his heart, after the other (heart) was taken from him” In this passage, the word “other” could be a reference either to the god giving another heart to the deceased, or providing a heart amulet in its place.
The canopic jars.
Bags of natron or salt were packed both inside and outside the body and left for forty days until all the moisture had been removed from the remaining body tissue. The body was then cleansed with aromatic oils and resins and wrapped with bandages, often household linen torn into strips. Between the layers of wrapping, the embalmers place amulets to protect the deceased. Heart scarabs were placed in the wrappings with the mummy. They had spells carved on them to protect the deceased person’s heart from being lost or separated from the body in the underworld.
The canopic jars were used to store the soft tissue. “Anubis, who is the chief of the divine booth (sh-ntr), has commanded thy purification with thy eight nmst-jars and [thy] eight ‘3bt-jars, which come from the sh-ntr ” (2012b-c ). By the New Kingdom, there were only four jars. The lids of canopic jars represented gods called the ‘four sons of Horus’. These gods protected internal organs. Duamutef the jackal-headed god looks after the stomach Hapy the baboon-headed god looks after the lungs Imsety the human-headed god looks after the liver. Qebehsenuef the falcon-headed god looks after the intestines.
Scientific analysis of mummies using processes such as X-ray and CT scanning has revealed a wealth of information about how individuals lived and died. It has been possible to identify conditions such as lung cancer, osteoarthritis and tuberculosis, as well as parasitic disorders.
Whether you’re a man or a woman the process of writing a book that is a good read about someone of the opposite sex can be tricky. Historical characters have to be every bit as complex as people today, they have to think and feel, have a back story, desires and beliefs.
People of either sex and those who class themselves as something in between are complex. Do you know where your characters score on the Big Five Personality Taits?
Where would your characters fit in the Myres Briggs range of personality types?
As an author who wants to write historical fiction books with believable characters I try to make my characters multidimensional and rounded. I like to write characters who change and grow as they overcome the obstacles I put in their way so who they are affects how they react, what they do and say.
As a writer, you have to show your reader the character.
To do this your actors have to understand some things about themselves, the people around them have to understand parts of their personality they are unaware of themselves, and they have discovered things about themselves as the story unfolds.
Use A Johari Window
Think of the Johari Window – In the open pane there are things known to self and others, then there are things known only to self, there are things known by others and not by self, and finally things about the character that are unknown to both. These are the things the character will learn of their journey.
Making your character want something big will give you a good starting point to build around. What will Jane or Belle do get what her heart desires? Of course, what she will do wholly depends on how you’ve set her up. So much women’s fiction, historical and modern literary fiction is based on morally deviant characters these days because its an easy way to get Jane or Belle to do something extraordinary, something shocking and unexpected.
What makes these characters so well loved is that they overcame the obstacles society and their families put in front of them.
So, to write an attractive female character, she needs a goal and a lot of opposition, not necessarily a bad-ass attitude to the law.
Draw a Picture Warts and All
Angels are for heaven, not this earthly realm.
Being human, male or female, means we come with strengths and weaknesses and lots of imperfections. Try to make your characters interestingly flawed. Strengths, when we rely on them too much can be our downfall just as much as weaknesses.
Fears and Weaknesses
Overcoming weaknesses could be the making of a remarkable historical character, so don’t think to create a sassy heroine she has to be macho or fearless.
The most common fears for women are pretty much the same as they have always been. Which of these fears are you going to challenge your female historical characters with?
not getting married or finding a life partner,
not having kids or losing a child,
getting old, maimed or scarred,
being killed or raped,
being trapped in a loveless relationship,
ending up in poverty or dying alone.
Good writers let the reader know which fate awaits their historical heroine should she fail.
Mesmerising historical characters use everything they’ve got, their strengths, weaknesses, and their ingenuity to save themselves from their horrible fate.
Not the Prettiest Girl in Town
Characters we come to love are not the prettiest girls in town or the girls who never lose their temper.
Historical women had pride, intellect and ambition. The felt pain, they hated people, and of you had been around to prick them they would bleed.
If your historical female character is the sidekick to an all-conquering male protagonist, why shouldn’t she feel peeved and throw the odd spanner in the works from time to time?
Let your characters surprise you and surprise themselves.
Turn the tables on them, flip things around. Make what seemed impossible possible.
Let your characters find their courage, make fortuitous mistakes, try something they have never tried before even if it is taking the wrong advice.
Let your characters learn painful lessons, be confronted by their hypocrisy or the results of their stupidity.
Let them learn a secret that gives them power over others – lead them into temptation, and see how they perform.
Remember, whether you’re creating a female character or writing about a woman, she’s just human.
And that being human is to be full of possibilities.
Julia Herdman writes history and historical fiction. Her book Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s.
Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam.
Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.
Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.
Find a Good Starting Point:
When I wrote my book, Sinclair, I had no idea where or when to start my story. I had had the idea for a book for a long time, but it was very unformed. I wanted to write a book that was a good book to read, but I was struggling for somewhere to start.
I had discovered I had married into a family whose ancestors were apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s Hospital and living in Tooley Street close to London Bridge in the late 18th century.
The family were quite a well-documented, as the historical record goes. I had already done a lot of research, but I did not have a story and I could not see how I was ever going to write a book.
Determined not to give up on my quest to be a writer of novels I searched the internet for ideas and found one that I thought would work for me. I looked for a dramatic historical incident, adapted it and put my characters into it. Suddenly, my writer’s block had disappeared, and my characters were telling their own story.
The sinking of the Halsewell, by Turner
Keep the End in Mind:
When I was writing my book Sinclair, I always knew how the story would end.
I did not know how my characters would get there, but I knew where I wanted to get them.
Keeping the end in mind is a tried an tested technique in many endeavours, and it works well when you’re writing historical fiction or any book for that matter.
Hit the Books:
Getting the history right is important when writing historical fiction, but don’t get hung up on having to get everything right in the first draft. If you don’t know what they called something in the 1870s, just give the thing its common name and get on with the flow of your story.
Details can be corrected later. What cannot be repaired are fundamental errors such basing your book on an iron or steel ship in the 1780s when everything was made of wood.
Details matter, to the avid historical fiction reader. I remember reading a book set in the 1950s and the author described the stuffing coming out of an old settee as foam. It grated on me all the way through the book.
When I wrote my book I had to research the history of medicine and the key players in its development, particularly the London teaching hospitals.
To my horror, I found that medicine of the 1780s was very primitive. There were no anaesthetics, no antibiotics and doctors didn’t even have stethoscopes.
Getting a feel for scale is hard when you’re writing about the past.
Visiting the sites or similar locations to those you are writing about in your book will help you get a sense of how long it took people to do things in the past.
Putting the house or the street you are writing about into its context will help you paint a more vivid picture. I looked at old maps, old painting and illustrations and used contemporary descriptions of places I used in my story when I could find.
I also visited the central locations in Sinclair – London, Edinburgh and Beverley in Yorkshire.
When I write about the past, I know I am taking my reader into a foreign country.
Beyond the memory of your own generation, the past is a mystery, it is an uncharted territory that is both dangerous and exciting.
I aim to create a world my reader can believe because I want to write a book that is a good read. I want to show my reader a world that they might have experienced if they had lived in that time and place.
As a writer, I place myself inside my characters, I see the world I have created through their eyes because I am telling their story.
So, remember to think about the journey your characters will take, what will they be like when your tale is told. What will they have learned about life, themselves and their friends? No matter how accurate your history is if your characters are not believable and do not grow, you have not written a story, people will want to read.
Here are some websites to try if you’re thinking about writing historical fiction: