Questions in Egyptology? Did the ancient Egyptians Have a Religion?

Questions in Egyptology? Did the ancient Egyptians Have a Religion?

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.

Image result for gods of ancient egypt creative commons

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.

Image result for cosmos ancient egypt creative commons

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.

Image result for god statue ancient egypt creative commons

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.



Image result for king statue ancient egypt creative commons

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.

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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.

See also

How did the Egyptians Influence the Greeks?

How Long Did it Take to Mummify a Pharaoh?

The Tragic Life of Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla

How did the Egyptians Influence the Greeks?

How did the Egyptians Influence the Greeks?

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.

How Long Did it Take to Mummify a Pharaoh?

How Long Did it Take to Mummify a Pharaoh?

How Long Did it Take to Mummify a Pharaoh?

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.

Natural mummification

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.


British Museum

Mummification in The Old Kingdom By Ahmed Saleh

#ancientegypt #ancienthistory #anubis #pyramids #mummification #ancientegyptianmummies

How did the Egyptians Influence the Greeks?

Questions in Egyptology No. 1

The cartouche – protective circle or protective loop?

The conventional view of the cartouche in Egyptology was first identified in royal architecture by Flinders Petrie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although his chronologies and his views on race have not stood the test of time, Petrie was right in almost every respect when it came to the architectural survey and analysis of Egyptian monuments says David Ian Lightbody, in his article, The Encircling Protection of Horus, Current Research in Egyptology, 2011.

In Egyptology, the cartouche is considered to be a form of protective symbolism that was represented graphically, and as a partially abstracted concept, by the shen ring, or shenu. It was depicted as twin oval loops of rope, tied at the bottom. These protective symbols encircle the hieroglyphs of the pharaoh’s name

The cartouche is not circular. Circular symbols include the royal uraeus, represented in the image of a snake and the vulture goddess Nekhbet.

The god most closely associated with the Shen ring and the cartouche was the royal falcon Horus. Together, the Shen ring and the cartouche are said to represent royal protection and dominion over the encircled world in Egyptology.

Scenes incorporating images of Shen rings and cartouches were often depicted on the architectural elements of tombs and temples, particularly at entrances and on thresholds, such as under architraves, down door jambs or along the tops of enclosure walls. They are said to protect the royal building entrances and perimeters.

The earliest known shen ring image belongs to King Den‘s tomb and dates to the Second Dynasty. It appears on a tag from the royal tombs at Abydos, found by Petrie (Petrie 1901; Pl VII Wilkinson 2001, 207).  The symbol for gold is also on this tag and is considered significant in this context. The king, particularly close to Naqada or Nubt, the golden city, was always associated with gold (Wilkinson 2001, 207). The tag was part of the protection system for valuable goods, control of the treasury, and more generally, control and redistribution of food surplus that were the fundamental functions of the kingship and the basis for his power. This tag could have labelled an item of the king’s gold in the royal tomb.

The critical questions are were these images symbols of something or were they part of a functional magical system of royal protection. Was it protection in life or protection in death, and can a tied loop be considered a circle? I know it’s picky, but I’m pretty sure they are not the same.

If the loop is functioning as a protective magic circle, it provides a protective boundary by enclosing positive and beneficent energies within its confines. In otherwords, it protects what is inside the circle not what is outside. Or, is working like a charm or amulet? If so it may have been thought to offer protection to a given space, in much the same way as a horseshoe charm operates over a doorway. Was the king’s name really a lucky charm? It seems undignified and unlikely.

The idea of forming a protective circle suggests there are things in the world the protected something in the circle needs to be protected from. In Egyptology, there is a commonly held belief that the ancient Egyptians thought that chaos was all around them and that it was in danger of crashing into the world at any time and subsuming everything within it. This view makes the ancient Egyptians seem a bit like nervous wrecks, they sound like people who thought they had no control over the world they lived in which seems at odds with their culture which was highly organised and efficient.  In the cases mentioned by Lightbody, the protective encirclement is around the name of the king, not the tomb and certainly not the land of Egypt.

Now we come to the loop which is made from two pieces of rope. Why two pieces? Why was a single piece of rope not enough? The ropes are never joined wholly; why was that? The ancient Egyptians were perfectly capable of representing a continuous line, but they chose not to. What does this tell us about the way they envisioned the world? Do the two ropes represent duality? If so how?

The Egyptian magician spends a large part of his time tying knots according to Bruce Trigger et. al. A magic knot is a point of convergence of the forces which unite the divine and the human worlds he and his colleagues say in The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt, (Nancy Thomas, Gerry D. Scott, Bruce G. Trigger, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1995.)  How does the cartouche or the shen ring unite the human and divine worlds?

We see the knot tying image in the sema tawy image, a motif that shows the gods Horus and Set pulling on opposing ropes with the throne of Egypt in the centre. (in the image below it is two versions of the god of the inundation, Hapi.) The image is said to represent unity and shows the king’s name in a cartouche joined to the heart and lungs of a bull. The symbolism of the heart, lungs and trachea illustrate the complementary relationship between the organs, the lungs must work together to preserve the heart. It is an image of the two lands united by the king.

The image shows the king’s name is set within a cartouche.

The shen ring quite a different object, but it is tied in the same way as the cartouche. The Shen ring is usually seen carried by the vulture goddess Nekhbet and the god of eternity Heh. The Shen ring may be a protective charm when held over the king by Nekhbet.  The vulture goddess may be constantly on guard to catch the king’s soul as soon as he shuffles off his mortal coil. In the hands of Heh, it represents millions of years or an eternity of cycles.

We believe the cartouche holds the king’s name together in the same way that bandages held his dead body together. The ancient Egyptian were obsessed with thwarting the process of decay. They understood that bodies if left unbound disintegrated into a pile of bones.  The cartouche was designed to hold the king’s name together so that it would remain intact, could be read and said, and in this way, it preserved his Ka spirit or his worldly persona. The cartouche protects the king’s name not his tomb or the adjacent area. It provided the king with one of the many ways the ancient Egyptians believed a person could survive the decay of mortality. The two ropes represent the two ropes of time that are spooled out by the gods (See The Book of Gates). The shen ring, in our opinion, was principally a symbol of eternity.

Let us know what you think?

Forty years of documenting the Great Sphinx of Giza

Getting the Pharaoh to the Afterlife

Ancient Egypt – Cheapskate Coffin Makers

Forty years of documenting the Great Sphinx of Giza

Forty years of documenting the Great Sphinx of Giza

Forty years of documenting the Great Sphinx of Giza

In 1979, Mark Lehner and James Allen started work on the first comprehensive mapping of the Sphinx.

  • They studied its structure and geology
  • They documented every detail
  • Their goal was to determine how and when this iconic monument was built
  • Recorded its current state of preservation
  • Their data is now available thanks to a grant from ARCE’s Antiquities Endowment Fund
  • If you’d like to search the data yourself, good starting points are the project homepage or try browsing some of the over 5500 photographs and 364 maps and drawings and see what you find!

Julia Herdman

The Great Sphinx

Ancient Egypt – Cheapskate Coffin Makers

Ancient Egypt – Cheapskate Coffin Makers

About 3,000 years ago, a man named Nespawershefyt, a priest at the temple of Amun at Karnak (in modern Luxor), commissioned a set of coffins for himself.

He wanted an outer coffin and an inner coffin – the smaller of the two to be placed in the larger, much like Russian dolls – and a mummy board that would be placed on top of his embalmed and wrapped body.

Unbeknown to Nespawershefyt, the artisans he had chosen to make his coffins were cheapskates.

  • The wood they chose for the inner coffin was poor and needed lots of patching.
  • They were good at painting though. All the patches were expertly covered with bright yellow paint and text.
  • The coffins were delivered but not needed for years.

Sometime before his death Nespawershefyt decided to update his funerary inscriptions: he had received a promotion at the temple and wanted to mention his new higher-level position on his coffins.

You cannot leave your CV out-of-date for eternity, so the artisans set to work once again.

The coffins can be seen at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

depth, 49, cm, width, 60, cm, length, 206, cm, length, 190, cm, length, mummy board, 179, cm

given; 1822; Hanbury, Barnard, Waddington, George
Accession: Object Number: E.1.1822