The success of Ancient Egypt can highly be contributed to their religion and religious beliefs. The religion of the people of Ancient Egypt was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. It centered on the Egyptians’ interaction with an array of deities who were believed to be found in, and in control of, all forces of nature.
The stories, tales, and myths about the multitude of gods were meant to explain the origins and behavior of the forces they represented and controlled. The practices of Egyptian religion were efforts to provide for the gods and gain their favor. Pharaohs and their connection to the gods also play an integral role in the success of Ancient Egypt. Over the years, more and more is being discovered about Ancient Egypt.
Through archaeological digs such as the discovery of The Book of the Dead, The Pyramid Texts, and the Rosetta stone, we are able to deduce that religion was the most important aspect of the Ancient Egyptian society. Egyptian religious beliefs formed the basis of Egyptian art, medicine, astronomy, literature, and government. Most notably, Egyptian religion influenced one of the Egyptians most iconic practices: their burial practices. Focusing solely on what the Egyptian religion was on it’s own, it is easy to see that it was very important to the people of Egypt. Their religion was bound by tradition and saw little change over the thousands of years that it was practiced.
Different gods rose and declined in popularity and importance over the millenia. There were hundreds of gods and goddess and some were combined to create new deities. However, according to William Petrie, also known as the father of Egyptology, the primary deities of worship were Amun Ra ( the Sun god) and Isis (Petrie,4). In Egyptian religion, these gods were in charge of all of life forces, and commoners purpose was to praise these gods. In addition the Pharaoh or leader of their people was seen as a descendant of the gods, and serve as a intermediary between his people and the gods. The Pharaoh was obligated to sustain the gods by performing various rituals so that the gods would maintain order in the universe (Petrie, 5).
Pharaoh’s and deities were both held in godly positions. Essentially, Egyptian religion consisted of fellowship to the Pharaoh and Gods, in order to ensure an everlasting and plentiful afterlife. It is certain that the Egyptians had an in depth relationship with the thought of the afterlife, which was highly connected to their religious beliefs. The Egyptians felt that by pleasing the gods, specifically the god of death Osiris (Petrie,3) that they will be able to return to their bodies after death.
After death, it was believed that the heart of the deceased was weighed by Osiris, and the heavier the heart the lesser the chance to pass into the afterlife. It was this weighing process that instilled a fear in Egyptians to continue to worship their gods and pharaohs. The beliefs of the Egyptian on the human body and the afterlife have been found in ancient texts such as the Book of the Dead. This text states that these people believed that the actual human body was simply a home for the three parts of the soul. These parts were known as the ka, the ba, and the akh. The ka was the part of the soul that existed in the living realm, while the akh was the part that existed in the afterlife. The ba, essentially was the intermediary between the ka and the akh, but was attached the to body after death (Uranic 362). Egyptians tried to make sure that they continued to do good deeds to “keep their heart light” in order for them to free their ba so that it can become an akh by the mercy of their gods (Uranic 356).
So how did this all lead to their iconic burial practices? Well it was a cascade of events. First as discussed, the Egyptians needed to have strong faith in worshipping their gods. This eventually would lighten their heart at death. After death the ka, the ba and the akh relied upon the body to function effectively in the afterlife.
It was very important for the body to remain whole throughout the life and death of the person because of the function it served as the resting place for the parts of the soul. This caused the Egyptians to have a deep fear that their physical body would be damaged or disfigured after death. In result,the Egyptians built tombs and created the infamous mummification process to ensure that their bodies were well preserved for use in the afterlife (Baines 85).
Tomb walls and religious texts such as the Pyramid Texts feature prayers and spells for protecting the body and guiding the parts of the soul back to the person’s tomb (Baines 87). Pharaohs because of their elite status were the primary target for the mummification process. They had the closest relationship with their gods, and could afford the expensive process. It was for this reason that we are able to have great ancient structures such as the Great pyramids. These pyramids are elaborate burial tombs for various pharoahs, to pass into the afterlife in peace, containing everything they would need in the afterlife..
Archaeologists have discovered that the Egyptians had not always use such a massive monument at death. Tombs in Egypt were originally simple graves dug into the earth, that still contained the “essentials of the afterlife”. Eventually these graves would developed intro rectangular mastabas, which were graves built of mud brick. Mastabas would then further develop in form to become the structures called “step pyramids” which would finally become the “true pyramids”. The architectural structure of the pyramids we see now were shaped this way to resemble sun rays, therefore pleasing Ra. Again, we see elements of the Egyptian society influenced by their religion.
In addition, we see structures in the pyramids that have religious beginnings. The coffin or sarcophagus served as a symbolic tag for the soul to recognize its body. Referring back to their religious beliefs this ties into the importance of the body and soul. In addition by studying the pyramids and the inside structures and artifacts, archaeologists are able to deduce that there was indeed a hierarchy system in place. Entering a pyramids olne will immediately notice jewels and things of value. This shows archaeologists that both religion and wealth played into how they were buried. The closer to the Gods they were and the wealthier the were the more pleased the god would be, hence granting them the proper burial. Aside from burial practices, we see heavy religious influence in other aspects of the Egyptian culture.
Magical utterances found in the Book of the Dead were used to pervade medical practices since disease was attributed to the gods. Astronomy evolved to determine the correct time to perform religious rites and sacrifices. By studying the relationship between pharaohs, the gods, and their people through various ancient Egyptian texts, archaeologists are able to see that pharaohs controlled just about every aspect of life in Egypt.
He was that essential intermediary that the people looked to, and the gods trusted. We see influence of the gods through the pharaoh in social, economic and government aspects of the Egyptian culture. Socially the pharaoh was a bullhorn to the people for the gods. He was expected to support and guide the path and structure of society based on the gods expectations and help lead good moral conduct (Baines, 102). Society highly idolized the pharaoh for these reasons. In the government, again the pharaoh was in charge of creating laws that would appease the gods. The pharaoh could change any social, religious, or law related matter whenever. An example being that King Akhenaten started his own monotheistic religion centered around the god Aten.
Studying the rule of King Akhenaten shows archaeologists that the pharaoh greatly impacted how Egypt would be governed(North,250). With the power of the Gods at his hands, Pharaohs also had a huge hand in Egyptian economy. He had the power to distribute the land in any way he wanted. He also appointed officials to regulate taxation to bring in revenue. The Pharaoh was a praised sacrosanct monarch who served as the intermediary between the gods and man. Religion was integral to Egyptian life.
The complex Egyptian religion seemed to be intertwined into every part of the ancient civilization. The goal of reaching eternity with pleased gods, inspired a revolutionary era of signature burial practices, architectural masterpieces, and iconic rituals.