Ancient Egypt Mythology

Ancient Egypt Religion & Mythology

In ancient Egypt religion played a central role in the lives of people. The inhabitants of the region had long worshiped natural objects such as animals, stones, trees, and mountains. Over a period of time, a colorful pantheon of animal gods emerged as a reflection of the varied wildlife that once thrived in Egypt.  Although these gods were initially represented in their natural forms, many were eventually depicted in human form, with only the heads retaining animal features. Amongst these animal deities were the lion-god Mahes, the hippopotamus-goddess Taurit, the crocodile-god Sebek, and the frog-goddess Heqit.

The scarab beetle was also sacred, and the most popular of good-luck charms. On account of its habit of pushing a ball of dung over large distances, the beetle came to be identified with the sun-god Khapre, who in Egyptian mythology pushed the sun across the sky everyday. Furthermore, the scarab's young, which seemed to miraculously hatch from dung, was likened to life emerging from the earth, thereby making the beetle a powerful symbol of regeneration. Accordingly, it was customary to bury scarab-shaped amulets with the dead.

Ancient Egypt Mythology
These days the Scarab Beetle is a popular souvenir

scarab beetle

The cat was also accorded a special place in Egyptian society. The cat-headed goddess Bastet was closely identified with the sun's power to ripen crops. The reverence in which cats were held led the Egyptians to develop something of a penchant for embalming their feline friends, as testified to by the countless cat-mummies discovered lying in special cemeteries.

The abundance of different gods did not mean that Egyptians worshipped them all. In fact each village had its own deity, one that might well be completely unknown by outsiders. Usually, these gods were presented as triads, that is with their wife and child. In the case of the big-city gods, their status very much depended on the fortunes of their city. Thus when a city became the capital, its principal deity would be elevated to the status of the national god. For example, when Memphis was the capital, its god Ptah was the national god. When Thebes became the capital, the god Amun was similarly brought to prominence.

These the national gods were, by and large, the concern of the ruling elite. They played little or no part in the lives of ordinary Egyptians, who continued to worship local gods in temples especially dedicated to them.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the gods were, in fact, believed to have originally been mortals, albeit ones who were extraordinary and extremely long-lived. Having died, it was the job of the temple priests to ensure that their spirit, known as the ka, was perpetuated. Therefore, in temples that were often erected on the site where the god in question was thought to have been buried, the priests summoned the ka daily, using pictures or statues, and made vital offerings food and drink to ensure their eternal survival.

The Legend of Osiris

The Middle Kingdom saw a new trend in religious belief. Egyptians were deeply preoccupied by the question of life after death, and one myth seems to have struck a profound chord in them, that of Osiris. Both god and man, he suffered a terrible death, but his subsequent resurrection held the promise of eternal life for the ordinary Egyptian, a reward previously thought to be out of the reach of all except the rich and powerful.


It was Osiris who presided over the
momentous Trial and Last Judgment

According to the myth, he was a much-loved Egyptian king who urged his countrymen to give up their barbarous ways and live good lives in accordance with the laws of the land and of the gods. Yet, he had a great enemy in the person of his jealous brother Seth, who set about plotting his destruction. Seth secretly had a beautiful golden chest made to fit the exact specifications of Osiris's body and then organized a banquet to which he invited the unsuspecting king.

There, he asked his guests to try the chest out for size, offering to give it to whomever it fit. One by one the guests climbed in, but predictably it matched no one. Until Osiris's turn, that is. Seth's men immediately sealed the chest and threw it in the Nile, where it was carried off downstream. Grief-stricken, his wife and sister, Isis, went in search of her unfortunate husband's body, which she eventually found and hid.

But Seth soon discovered it and tore it into 14 pieces, scattering them in different parts of the country. Isis once again embarked on a journey to find the fragments. Having successfully gathered them together, she miraculously turned into a kite, and using the wind in her wings, breathed life back into the body of her husband. Isis subsequently gave birth to a son, Horus, who would avenge his father's death by defeating Seth and seizing the Egyptian throne for himself.

Isis was worshipped as the most important Egyptian goddess and venerated as the ideal mother. For his part, Osiris remained in the land of the spirits where he became the much revered and powerful god of the underworld. It was Osiris who presided over the momentous Trial and Last Judgment, upon which the eternal survival of the soul depended. Summoned before him, seated at his throne, a dead person would undergo the rigors of an intense examination, declaring that he had led a good life and abstained from wrongdoings.

The dramatic moment came as the deceased's heart was weighed against the Feather of Truth by the jackal-headed god of the dead Anubis. If the deceased was found to be free of guilt and to have lived an exemplary life, he would be permitted safe passage to the afterlife. However, those who were deemed to have lived dishonest lives would suffer the fate of being devoured by Amenti, a terrifying god with a crocodile head and a half-lion, half-hippopotamus body. 

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