Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egyptian Pharaohs

From a lecture series presented by Professor Glenn S. Holland, Ph.D.

Official Egyptian religious culture was centered on temple worship, and temple worship was always carried out in the name of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The concerns of official Egyptian religious culture were expressed in “cult”—that is, in actions of ritual worship.

Image of the sphinx for the article on Egyptian Pharaohs

Egyptian Temples, Priests and Gods

Within Egypt, the focus of cultic worship was not only gods but also living kings, sacred animals, and the dead, especially those dead who were venerated as special heroes. Although the Pharaoh was the chief cultic official of the nation, in fact, most of the works of worship were carried out by hereditary or appointed priests who conducted worship on the Pharaoh’s behalf, and they did this both in temples and in other sacred spaces.

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The temple would be surrounded and supported by an estate. The temple estate provided everything necessary to supply the worship of the temple, which took in a great deal. This would include agricultural land, pens for sacrificial animals, and housing for the personnel who served at the temple and in the temple estate.

There were two orders of priests who were responsible for different aspects of worship. The higher order of priests performed the rituals that focused on caring for the image of the god in the temple. They were responsible for interpreting oracles, or prophetic messages, that might be received from the god.

The lower order of priests was responsible for supervising the craftsmen and the servants of the temple estate. They carried the shrine that contained the god’s image, during rituals, and they poured out water offerings and performed other duties in the temple.

In addition to these two orders of priests, there were other cultic functionaries, and there were also musicians, singers, and dancers—both men and women—who had their place and their proper duties in the temple. After the Old Kingdom, only men served as priests, although women might serve in other functions within the temple estate.

The main temple ritual would take place in the morning, and it coincided with the dawn, considered the rebirth of the sun god. At dawn, the priests of the temple would unlock and open the doors of the temple, just at the moment the sun rose. The temple would be purified with water and incense. This was in preparation for the opening of the door to the god’s shrine. After the purification, the doors of the god’s shrine were then opened, and the cultic statue that represented the god of the temple was removed.

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Religious Icons and Rituals

Although we are used to seeing colossal representations of the Pharaohs and the gods in ancient Egyptian remains, most of the cultic statues were, themselves, relatively small—around two feet tall, on average—and they might be made of stone, of wood, or of metal. The statue in the shrine of the god, representing the god, was not only a representation but also a dwelling for the presence and the active consciousness of the god in his temple.

The cult statue would be stripped of the previous day’s clothing, while the shrine itself was washed and purified. The statue was then decorated and anointed with oil. Then, it would be dressed again in fresh ceremonial clothing and invested, once again, with the symbols of its divine power. During this ritual, the statue was also presented with the day’s offerings. This provided an opportunity for the statue to partake of the spiritual essence of the food. At the end of the ceremony, the priests replaced the statue in its shrine, shut the doors of the shrine, and then left the temple while the chief priest closed and locked the doors behind them, bringing the ceremony to an end for the day.

In addition to this primary daily ritual, there were other rituals that were commonly performed, not only in temples but in other sacred spaces as well. Other temple rituals were typically conducted during other times of day. Mostly, they were aimed at purifying the god’s shrine, or during the night, they were used to drive away the threats of the forces of chaos.

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Rituals were also celebrated in honor of the divine Pharaoh, and this would happen both during the Pharaoh’s life on earth and after his death. After his death, offerings were made to the divine Pharaoh in temples that formed part of his tomb complex—so that there was worship of the departed spirit of the Pharaoh taking place in the tomb in which his body resided.

There were also funerary cults to provide offerings for all the dead who had been prepared to enter the afterlife through that process of mummification and the ceremony of the “Opening of the Mouth.” All those dead who were believed to reside in the kingdom of Osiris received the offerings of the funerary cult.

The Holy Animals

The Egyptians also devoted cults to animals, not to specific animals directly, but to the animals essentially fulfilling the same function as the cultic statue. The animals served as manifestations and abodes for the presence and the active consciousness of the gods to whom they were sacred.

Temple animals were carefully chosen. They had to be without blemish. They had to be perfect representations of their type, and they were housed and maintained on the temple estate. They were carefully chosen to be honored as manifestations of the god, and they were believed to be able to give oracles themselves—prophetic insights on the god’s behalf. They and other animals of the same species were kept in the temple estate in honor of the god, and at death, the animals were mummified and presented in the temple as votive offerings, signs of devotion and respect.

Away from the temple estate, other animals species that were sacred to the gods were kept in homes and were honored as the gods’ representatives. When they died, they were buried.

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Celebrating Divine Power

Official Egyptian religion included a variety of festivals that honored the Pharaoh, or honored the gods, and this provided opportunities for common people to have some fleeting contact with these sources of divine power. The Pharaoh played the leading role in several annual festivals, particularly those that involved his own royal authority. He was also actively involved in ceremonies and festivals that celebrated the seasonal fertility and well-being of the land.

A major recurring feature of annual and seasonal festivals was also the transportation of the statue of the god in a bark—a boat-shaped shrine—from its own temple to the temple of another god in another location. This would take place for a specified length of time, and then, later, the statue would be returned to its own temple. One example of this is the case of Hathor, who would visit her husband, Horus, in his temple for a specified time and then would return to her own temple.

The transportation on the bark was one of the few occasions when the temple gods, or at least their shrines, were visible to the majority of the Egyptian people. Over time, and especially during the New Kingdom, festivals became occasions for outpourings of public religious sentiment, something that was not particularly valued or called for earlier in Egyptian history. Public religious sentiment was expressed, though, increasingly in the New Kingdom, as whole villages would turn out to see the divine procession of the god’s bark as part of this seasonal festival.

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Any kind of close contact with the gods, or with representations of the gods and their cultic statues, was extremely rare for the average person. There are instances of monuments that commemorate the lives of private individuals, and these monuments mention that the deceased attended a sacred festival of this kind. Therefore, this was an event that would stand out in your entire life, as it would come within the proximity of a representation of one of the gods.

The appearance of the god outside of the precincts of the temple estate also provided an opportunity for the average person to procure oracles, prophetic insights usually understood as a “yes” or a “no” reply from the god in response to a query.

Festivals provided one of the very few opportunities for an encounter between the official religion of the elite of the nation and the popular religion of the common people. For all of the information that is available to us about the religious culture of ancient Egypt, the vast majority focuses on the official expression of Egyptian religion, and it is very difficult for us today to reconstruct religious culture among the common people of ancient Egypt. So, we have abundant resources over many centuries of the official religious culture of Egypt, but we have far fewer sources for what we might call popular religion, or the religion of the common people, which gives us a rather lopsided view of the subject.

Prayers of the Common Egyptian People

The ruling elite, the literate administrators who made up the royal bureaucracy,  represented only a very small percentage of the population of the Egyptian kingdoms. The life of most Egyptians was very different from the life of this elite. Most Egyptians made their living by manual labor that was often degrading, grueling, unpleasant, unhealthy, and apparently unending. For the mass of ancient Egyptians, life was a constant process of loss: loss from illness, loss from accident, loss from mutilation, loss from poor nutrition, loss from mental disorder, and the final loss of early death. So, the gods of the greatest interest to the common Egyptians were the ones who could help them, the ones who could make their burdens lighter and protect them from these constant losses of life.

Any religious action that the common people initiated was most likely a response to some sort of misfortune that they had suffered, or, perhaps, an attempt to get protection from the gods against more misfortunes in the future. As far as we can tell, they recognized and invoked the major gods of the national cults, but they did so only in cases where they believed that the god would hear their concerns and would listen to their prayers, to those gods who had a reputation for lending an ear to the common people.

For example, both Amun and Ptah were said to hear common people’s prayers. Amun had a temple at Karnack, which included a chapel of the “hearing ear,” and this dates from the reign of Ramses II, the long-lived and famous Pharaoh of Egypt who lived from 1279 to 1213 B.C.E.

Amun’s temple at Karnack included a courtyard where people could gather to pray in the vicinity of the temple, with the expectation that the god might hear them. There are instances where walls or monuments devoted to a god are engraved with ears, a graphic symbol of a god’s willingness to hear, listen, and respond to the prayers of common people. In one temple built during the reign of Ramses III, 1186 to 1155 B.C.E., there is an image of “Ptah who hears prayer,” again, with that emphasis on Ptah’s willingness to listen and to respond to the average person’s concerns.

Learn more: The End of the Old Kingdom

Religion in the Period of the New Kingdom

Generally, there appears to be an increase in the expression of personal piety in the period of the New Kingdom, and that is in the period between c. 1540 B.C.E. and 1075 B.C.E. This appears to reflect a belief in a more universal accessibility to the gods, a belief that religion was not only for the Pharaoh and the elite of the nation, but for all people.

During the New Kingdom, we also find an increase in devotional items in the homes of common people, and these devotional items took on a number of forms. Most commonly they were small votive images of the gods themselves, and sometimes, they were small monument stones to commemorate particular gods on particular occasions.

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The Role of Magic in Ancient Egyptian Religion

The primary religious activity of the common people in ancient Egypt through most of its history seems to have focused on “magical” practices and rituals. Now, magic in our culture carries a certain taint of legitimacy, and stands in contrast to religious action and religious practice. But in ancient Egypt, magic was part of the divine panoply of power, specifically in the case of Isis, who was a goddess who controlled many spells and who was a mistress of magic.

Spells were invoked by people in ancient Egypt to subdue the powers of chaos and to otherwise maintain the divine equilibrium that imposed divine order and cosmic harmony. These magical practices stood alongside other more practical ways of interacting with the physical world.

A great example of this has been found in Ancient Egyptian medical procedures. In some cases, a spell alone was considered a sufficient response to an illness. Someone said the spell and eventually that would cure the illness. Of course, this was most effective with human ills that resolve spontaneously, like flu and cold.

In other cases, such as a broken bone—which, of course, will not heal very well spontaneously—a spell would be said to accompany a specific practical procedure, so that as the surgeon set and bound the bone, he would also say a magical spell to ensure the efficacy of the treatment, so that the spell and the practical treatment went together. The two forms of treatment—magical and practical—were complementary, and they were carried out by the same practitioner at more or less the same time because the practitioner learned both forms of treatment in the context of his medical education.

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Probably the most common form of magical protection was the amulet, a small object that had the power to drive away malevolent forces. These were not only used by living human beings, but also by the gods, and amulets were very often included in funerary wrappings of the dead, in their mummies.

Other forms of piety and religious activity among the common people focused on gaining insight into a problem, or gaining foresight into the future. For example, the gods or other supernatural sources might also convey a message through a portentous dream, and that dream would usually require interpretation. This happens, for example, in the biblical story of Joseph, who interprets dreams that are received by the Egyptian Pharaoh—not an Egyptian story, but one that takes place within an Egyptian context and is reflected in a common Egyptian practice.

Essentially, there are two different forms of religious practice in ancient Egyptian religious culture. One was the face of the official religious culture, centered in the temple and the temple estate, or in the tomb. It was dependent on the divine Pharaoh’s power to impose order in the cosmos, and it represented the serene and continual interaction between the gods and community.

The other face is the face of popular religious culture, and this sought the intercession of the gods through prayers and through votive offerings, trying to gain their attention and favor, but it was primarily concerned with divine responses to the inevitable losses of a difficult life and protection against future events. Although one of these faces is far more prominent in the parts of Egyptian culture known to us and the other is essentially hidden, they both represent the spirit of Egyptian religion as it was experienced by its devotees.

Keep reading:
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From the lecture series Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World , taught by Professor Glenn S. Holland, Ph.D.