home | before 1000 BCE


previous | next

Ideology and Myth in Egypt

Living in a desert with no violent storms, no great floods, having little to fear from wild animals or invading tribal armies, people along the Nile, it is said, had more cheer and confidence than did people in Mesopotamia.

There were conflicts, of course, and the warring that unified various communities along the Nile, and before this unification there were different names for the god that was the sun. The conquest that unified Egypt politically also unified Egypt's religion. An aggressive priesthood from the center of power at the city of Memphis spread worship of the sun god called Re across the whole of Egypt.

With time the script that the Egyptians borrowed from the Sumerians became distinctively Egyptian, and like Sumerian writing it too was largely religious in nature. It was concerned with the pharaoh’s personal religion and it was a literacy exclusive to an intellectual elite, while the religion of others remained in the tradition of talk and listening.

Sun god Re at Dusk

The great sun god Re sinks into the Underworld

Nature was still being explained as the magic of the gods, and it was described as secrets kept by the gods. The Egyptians believed that spirits moved in and out of objects and people, that sickness and dreams, being unwilled, were invasions by spirits. Some scholars interpret artwork as depicting human sacrifices in Egypt's earlier years, and there are skeletal remains of persons believed to have been sacrificed for the foundation of a building.

Like the Sumerians, the Egyptians believed that the gods gave order to the universe. The Egyptians had explanations as to how things came to be. The world was described as having begun in watery chaos and the sun was described as a god having risen from this chaos. The Egyptians believed that while having risen to a mountain top, their sun-god gave form to the universe and created other gods and all living things. They perceived that his daily descent and disappearance was a death, and his reappearance the following morning a resurrection. Egyptians saw their own deaths similarly: their spirit moving to a world that the living could not see.

Like Sumerian religion, Egyptian religion changed. One new twist was the Osiris myth. Osiris was a local god from southern Egypt who developed into one of Egypt's more important gods. By 2400 BCE, Egyptians believed that when the pharaoh died he became the god Osiris. Osiris was seen as the spirit of a real former king, a king who had been murdered by a jealous brother. (Brother murdering brother would be common in royal families.) The brother of the god Osiris was Seth, who was said to have sliced Osiris' body into parts and to have thrown them into the Nile. It was said that Osiris' queen, Isis, grieved and collected the pieces of her husband's body for a proper burial so that his spirit could live among the dead. She invoked the magic of the gods and put her husband's body together again. And, together again, Osiris became ruler of the spirits in the underworld as he had been among those who lived above ground.

Sun god Re in the Underworld

In the Underworld (where spirits dwell), the god Re, in the center, boats across the night before his morning resurrection and appearance as the sun.

Book of the Dead

A page from the Book of the Dead, a funerary text depicting gods weighing a heart to determine the worthiness of the soul of whoever has just died.


Like others, Egyptians didn't differentiate soul and matter. Here the jackal-headed god Anubis, tends to his mummification duties, fixing the soul by preserving the body.

The Egyptians believed that as god and ruler of the underworld, Osiris exercised expanded magical powers, that he granted all new life, including the sprouting of vegetation. The Egyptians believed that Osiris made the annual flooding of the Nile, and they believed that all people had been cannibals until Osiris taught humanity how to make agricultural tools and to grow crops. They came to view Osiris as a god of nature and of imperishable life. His evil brother Seth became a god of sterility whom the Egyptians associated with the sandy, barren desert east and west of the Nile. Osiris, the Egyptians believed, passed into one's body when one ate his creation: vegetables – which may have helped Egyptian mothers in feeding their children.

The goddess Isis became the Egyptian ideal of womanhood. Egyptians believed that it was she who gave women their techniques in grinding grain and weaving cloth, and that it was she who gave to humanity the concept of marriage. And Isis was a model for women mourning the death of their husbands.

Mixed into the Osiris myth was the falcon god, Horus – the son of Osiris and Isis. Because falcons sometimes flew so high that Egyptians lost sight of them, the Egyptians came to think of falcons as lords of the sky associated with their sun god. According to the Osiris legend, Isis sent Horus to avenge the death of Osiris, and Horus became the avenger of all evils.

The Egyptians also believed in a god called Thoth, who was the moon, a god of learning and the inventor of writing, all languages and social order. Thoth was believed to have a wife, the goddess Ma'at, who embodied truth and justice. And Egyptians believed that one lived in accordance with Ma'at when one did no harm to other people or to cattle.

The Egyptians believed in a goddess of war that had the form of a lioness – in keeping with their belief that war was part of a natural order. They saw cats as like this lioness and therefore as gods, and, because the cats were gods, the Egyptians mummified them.

The Egyptians saw crocodiles as threatening and therefore as embodiments of a demon god. But because crocodiles appeared on sandbanks of the Nile when the river declined, the Egyptians associated this god also with the return of land.

Like some other ancient peoples, the Egyptians believed in the godliness of bulls. Bulls were respected for their physical power, and the Egyptians believed that a bull's presence renewed the fertility of their fields. The Egyptians chose one bull as a god to represent all bulls. Women stripped naked before this bull in hope of ensuring their ability to bear children. Like other peoples, the Egyptians saw their gods as revealing knowledge in small portions, and the Egyptians asked questions of their bull god by taking the bull down a path lined with opposing propositions written on pots. They perceived the bull as choosing between the propositions according to which side it swayed its head. And when the god bull died, the Egyptians mummified its body, and a new bull was chosen as its replacement.

The ancient Egyptians viewed disease as the work of the demon goddess Sekhmet, and they saw their gods Re, Thoth and Isis as important healing gods. To treat their maladies, especially at the king's court, the Egyptians had physicians and dentists. They had specialists in gynecology and veterinary medicine. They treated internal illnesses, eye and skin diseases, and they used emetics and bandages. They chanted incantations while one of various medicines was applied: beer, woman's milk mixed with oil and salts, goat's milk with honey, oils or other plant and animal substances. And they tried exorcisms to remove from one's body whatever evil spirit was creating the illness.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.