Ancient Egyptian religion

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The ancient Egyptian religion was one of the great ancient polytheistic religions of the Mediterranean . It is documented from the early development of the pharaonic state, in the last half of the 4th millennium BC. Until the time of Roman rule , when it was ousted by Christianity and finally banned by the Roman emperors.

Scene from the Book of the
Gates , an underworld book from the tomb of Ramses IV , Valley of the Kings


By the drying out of the deserts of North Africa were hunter-gatherer cultures in Egypt as agriculture driving farmer sedentary. Their desert nomadic totem religion met and mixed with the local peasant religion.

As in many ancient cultures existed in the pre-dynastic Egypt in almost every village of the faith of one or more different gods . As a result of the amalgamation of small sub-kingdoms, the respective religious culture spread between different villages and areas and a coherent conglomerate with the most varied of religious views was formed. The Nile , which determined the rhythm of life, was decisive for the ancient Egyptian religion . The annual flood of the Nile was an important event, as it washed the fertile breeding ground for successful harvests into the plain. The flood could be roughly determined by the position of the stars in the sky, which led Egyptian scholars to concern themselves with astronomy , which thereby also influenced religion.


The ancient Egyptian religion had a strong temporal, spatial and social structure.

Temporal changes

In the more than three and a half millennia of its existence, religion has changed and developed, but never experienced such a sharp break that it would have lost its identity . The reign of Akhenaten is an exception, but in the overall context it is only a relatively short section.

Spatial structure

Despite the strong centralization of the pharaonic state, there were regional and local cults across the country . In the provincial cities, city gods were dominant, who were regarded as the “highest of all gods” for the respective population and were important for the regional identity of the population. These city gods only played a subordinate role at the level of the entire empire. In the course of relocating the royal residence, the local city god of the new residence was able to gain national importance. The Theban god Amun owes his ascent to the imperial god to the relocation of his residence to Thebes . However, Ptah , the local god of the old Memphis residence , could not achieve a comparable meaning ( see also: Memphite theology ). In turn, some localities only achieved a prominent position because of the national importance of their city god, such as Heliopolis as the city of Re and Abydos as the city of Osiris .

Social stratification

In addition to the official state cults, in which the elite of the state worshiped cosmically effective gods ( Amun , Re , Osiris , Isis , Thoth and others), there was obviously another religion of the common people, in which special lower gods were worshiped for the Maintaining the everyday life and personal health of people and their families were responsible. Representations of these gods (such as Taweret and Bes ) are mostly preserved in the form of small sculptures and amulets .


Siegfried Morenz characterizes the ancient Egyptian religion as:

In fact, there is no foundation date for the ancient Egyptian religion, which probably has slowly grown together from various African cults - similar to the ancient Egyptian state. The constant further development is also typical. There were no revealed canonical texts in this religion that were fixed and immutable for all time. Religious texts such as hymns , prayers and guides from the hereafter have been rewritten at all times and continuously developed. These texts were often recited during cult acts and rituals . One could not "join" the ancient Egyptian religion or personally confess to it, at least not in the Old and Middle Kingdom . The religion was upheld by the king and his state institutions , who viewed Egypt as the cosmos and abroad as a (transition to) chaos , which had to be kept away from Egypt in order to secure life and state order. For this reason, the ancient Egyptians were generally hostile and suspicious of foreigners.

Jan Assmann (1984) reckons with three "dimensions of closeness to God", with the help of which he outlines the peculiarities of the ancient Egyptian religion in a cultural comparison:

According to Assmann, the extensive absence of various dimensions of religious experience is typical of the ancient Egyptian religion. This includes:

The historical or political dimension of religion, i.e. the intervention of a god in matters of human coexistence ( politics , jurisprudence ) as well as "personal piety", i.e. the independent turning of the human individual towards a God and the personal expectation of salvation towards a God, were the alien to ancient Egyptian religion, at least in the Old and Middle Kingdom. It was only in the New Kingdom from the 18th dynasty onwards that there were first developments in this direction, which were briefly pushed back by the reforms of Akhenaten . After their failure, the political intervention of religious institutions and "personal piety" developed into a characteristic of the ancient Egyptian religion, especially in the Ramesside period .


Floor plan of the great temple of Amun in Karnak

Cult as a state function

Through cult, the god gained a local dimension in ancient Egypt. He became tangible and this worldly. This also gave religion a political meaning, because by exercising the cult, the king legitimized himself as a mediator to the gods. He made sure that the cosmic order and earthly justice ( Maat ) were observed, because as the earthly embodiment of the god Horus ("Horus the living") who ruled on earth , he was able to associate with the gods. Nationwide important imperial gods were worshiped in imperial temples (not only in the respective residence) with the purpose of maintaining the cosmic order and the state structure. The existence of city gods was based on the idea of territorial rule of the gods.

In principle, the cult in ancient Egypt was not an act of people towards the gods or for the gods, but an act of the gods among themselves. For this reason the king, as an earthly manifestation of the god Horus, was the only person who could practice the cult.

Cult practice

In practice, the king had himself represented by special agents, the priests , in the acts of worship . Cult acts were usually delegated. However, it was extremely important that the priests meticulously adhered to the necessary cultic purity laws for this task .

Most priests, especially the junior ranks, did not serve full-time, but only served part of the year in the temple. Whole teams (" Phylen ") took turns and pursued other activities for most of the year. In ancient Egypt, being a priest was coveted, the status was associated with good remuneration (in kind ) and considerable privileges.

Tomb statue of Hemiunu , the highest official of King Cheops

Gods cults

The most important cults were the cults of gods in the temples, which existed throughout the country and which could only be built on behalf of the king. In ancient Egypt this was the attempt to bring the gods to earth, i.e. into the human world, so that they could be influenced and favorably tuned in the interests of people. The temple was thus an earthly dwelling for God. The center of a temple was the image of God that was set up in the Holy of Holies, a shrine to which only the highest-ranking priests had access. According to the Egyptian view, the god actually lived in this image of God and could thus enter into interaction with the human world. The fact that Egyptian gods could have statues in different temples at the same time, partly also one stationary and another for processions or journeys ("Amun des Weges") or even completely different manifestations, was not a contradiction for the ancient Egyptians, but was one of them recognized abilities of the gods.

The cult in a god temple was based on the everyday life of a ruler in his palace and was often carried out around the clock, including night watch. The common people practically had no access to the temple and were essentially excluded from this cult. The center was the image of the gods, usually a statue made from very valuable materials. She stood in a shrine that was opened in the morning by the priest in charge. After that, various ritual acts were performed on the statue, which were modeled on the morning acts of a person.

Each god had his own daily routine. There were also annual events, such as certain festivals at which the god could also leave his temple and, for example, visit other temples (such as the “ Opet festival ” in Karnak / Luxor). In addition, the shrine with the image of God was carried by the priests like in a sedan chair. As is customary with noble Egyptians, the god covered longer distances by ship. Magnificently executed divine barges were available for this. These rare opportunities to be close to God were enthusiastically welcomed by the people who attended these events en masse. Such festivals were major events in the religious life of the Egyptians. ( See also: Nice festival from the desert valley and Bastet festival )

Cults of the dead

There were also death cults for the deceased kings, but in the course of history, increasingly complex, the death cult for the non-royal deceased. Here, too, a statue of the deceased, to whom offerings were made, played an important role. Tombs and cults of the dead were granted by the king, i.e. lent to his officials, whereby the equipment was graded according to the performance and importance of the respective person. These private death cults were carried out by the families of the deceased under the direction of the eldest son. ( See also: Grave goods (Ancient Egypt) )

Places of worship

Stele of Amun in three forms (human, goose, ram) (late period, 25th dynasty, around 700 BC)
Luxor Temple side view with pylon (left)
First pylon of the Temple of Isis at Philae

The classical cult of gods was carried out in ancient Egypt in a god temple, for the architecture of which a standard developed over time. An ancient Egyptian temple was staggered from front to back, with the front architectural elements being tall, large and light, and the rear ones becoming lower, narrower and darker. Access to the courtyards and rooms was also more and more strictly regulated the further one went into the temple. The Holy of Holies ( sanctuary ), i.e. the room with the shrine for the statue of the gods, was located very close to the back wall of the temple and could only be entered by very few people.

Since the New Kingdom at the latest, the front of a temple has been the so-called pylon , an architectural element that combined the functions of towers , walls and gates . In principle, a pylon was a two-part front wall with sloping sides. In the middle was a lower gate that was accessible and on which rituals could take place. In front of the pylon were flagpoles , some obelisks or colossal statues . Pylons also formed the fronts of the subsequent rooms and courtyards, so that a large temple had several pylons that became smaller towards the rear. In terms of architectural history, it was usually the case that rulers added additional structures to the front of temples and had to build them larger and higher than the existing temple parts.

The pylons were provided with pictures and texts, the most popular motifs were the presentation of the battle sword to the king by a god or the killing of the enemy by the king. This defensive symbolism reinforced the fortress-like character that was typical of many temples.

The most important and best-known temples in Egypt - partly because of their comparatively good state of preservation - are the Karnak Temple , the Luxor Temple and the temples of Abu Simbel and Dendera .

Important places of worship of ancient Egyptian kings are the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut of Deir el-Bahari , the mortuary temple of Ramses III. in Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum of Ramses II.

Important places of worship of the Ptolemaic period from the last centuries before the birth of Christ are the temples of Edfu , Kom Ombo and Esna . These late temples are best preserved and are the only ones able to convey a closed spatial impression to the modern visitor, as the ceiling construction is also partially there.


In contrast to the man-made temples, the cosmos was considered the true abode of the gods, with many gods embodying a special cosmic aspect. The most important cosmic phenomena were the sun, the sky and the earth. While the sun and earth gods were always male, the sky was represented exclusively by goddesses.


Sun gods or the different manifestations of the sun god usually had the function of a ruler on earth. That is why there was always a particularly close relationship between the king and the sun god ( see also: Re , Horus , Harachte ). In the Amarna period , Aton was the god of the solar disk.


Sky goddesses were usually viewed as mother goddesses who swallowed the sun in the evening and gave birth again in the morning. The classic sky goddess was Nut , but other female (mother) deities ( Isis , Hathor , Ipet , Sopdet ) were also able to show clear aspects of a sky deity. A typical attribute was a cow's horn with a sun disk on its head.


Earth gods were generally regarded as gods of the dead and had distinct aspects that indicated the topics of vegetation and fertility ( see also: Osiris , Ptah , Sokar , Tatenen , Aker ).


Thoth was considered the moon god, Shu the air god. Major stars ( Sirius , Isis-Sopdet ) had their own divine representatives. Hapi was the god of the Nile flood .


Myth is the linguistic dimension of closeness to God in ancient Egypt. In numerous religious texts from all epochs of Pharaonic Egypt we come across mythical motifs , through which reference is made to narratives about the actions of the gods. Typically we only find fragments of these narratives in the oldest texts; closed stories exist only from later times.

Mythical motifs also serve in magic to influence events in this world in the interests of humans by evoking divine events.

The pantheon of gods

Appearance of the gods

The Egyptian gods are mostly multiform. This goes back to equating local deities with different external characteristics. In the course of Egyptian history the great deities gained new aspects, or gods merged with one another, the most lasting Amun and Re to Amun-Re.
Most gods are animal-shaped or have body parts from animals. However, sometimes they just have a headdress to indicate it. Selket in human form only wears a scorpion on his head. A few gods appear abstract, e.g. B .: Amun, the hidden one; Aton , the solar disk; Well , the primeval tide; Behedeti , the winged disk of the sun ; Kuk , the darkness; Niau , the negation; Heh , the spatial endlessness; Gereh , the want; Tenemu , the disappeared.


Statues of Egyptian gods

The Egyptian religion has a variety of gods. They can be divided into different categories:

  • Main god : Although the Egyptian world of gods is so diverse, there are several gods who were particularly strongly revered and were superior to the others. The ruling dynasty gave the god of their hometown a lot of influence, so that in the Old Kingdom Re, from the Middle Kingdom onwards Amun is the supreme god. Under Akhenaten this honor comes the Aton (s. Aton cult below)
  • Local gods : gods who were only worshiped in one city, e.g. B. Upuaut in Siut. Many of these gods were local formations of another deity, such as B. Horus of Edfu .
  • The Ninth of On ( Heliopolis ) : originated in prehistoric times, it is already firmly anchored in the Old Kingdom. In the Ninth , the gods are arranged in family-like structures. At the top is Atum, the creator god of On. Furthermore, his children Shu and Tefnut belong to the ninth , their children Geb and Nut , who in turn fathered Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.
  • the eightness of Hermopolis (Magna). They too have been around since the dawn of high civilization, but the evidence is best in the Greco-Roman times . The Eighth is arranged in four pairs: Now and Naunet , Hah and Hauhet, Kuk and Kauket ; There are several divergent documents about the fourth pair: Amun and Amaunet or Niau and Niaut are mentioned . Occasionally Gereh and Gerhet are also mentioned as the fourth pair.
  • the triads : local "families", usually father, mother and their child. The best known are probably Isis, Osiris and Horus. There is also the Memphite triad, Ptah , Sachmet and Nefertem , the triad of Karnak , Amun , Mut and Chons . Other triads vary in their composition. These god families are not intended to represent the actual family relationship to one another; the triads are supposed to bring together the gods of a place.
  • the sons of Horus : Amset , Hapi , Duamutef and Kebechsenuef are the four sons of Horus who play an important role in the otherworldly area: they guard the bowels of the mummified.
  • Dead gods : Re is one of the dead gods as lord of the underworld; from the Middle Kingdom this position is taken by Osiris. Furthermore, Anubis , who watches over the judgment of the dead , Thoth , who calls out the result of the balance test, Maat , whose pen as an instrument of truth determines the outcome of the test. The corpse eater destroys the souls that fail the test. The sons of Horus, who guard the entrails, could be counted among the gods of the dead, as could the goddesses Neith , Nephthys , Selket and Isis who guard them . Isis and Nephthys are to be placed in this row because they searched for the body of Osiris and joined them together. They were mourners at his grave and led him into the underworld, as they do for every deceased.
  • Sun gods : The main god of the sun cults is Re; the other gods represent aspects of him. Chepre is the sun disk in the morning, Aton the sun disk at noon and Atum the sun disk in the evening. Schu embodies the sunlight Behedeti, the winged sun, and Harachte , the sun hawk, also belong to this circle. Chepre as a beetle who created itself ( scarab ), just like the sun god created himself, is also worshiped as a form of the sun god. Other gods were associated with Re in the course of Egyptian history. B. Amun-Re , Sobek-Re and Chons-Re.

See also


(sorted chronologically)

Egyptian religion

  • Adolf Erman : The religion of the Egyptians. Their becoming and passing in four millennia (= handbooks of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vol. 9.). De Gruyter, Berlin 1905; 2nd edition, supplemented new edition of the 1978 edition, De Gruyter, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-11-017040-X .
  • Hermann Kees : The belief in gods in ancient Egypt. 2nd edition, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1956.
  • Hermann Kees: Belief in the dead and conceptions of the afterlife of the ancient Egyptians. 2nd, revised edition, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1956.
  • Siegfried Morenz : Egyptian Religion. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1960.
  • Hellmut Brunner : Fundamentals of the ancient Egyptian religion. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1983.
  • Jan Assmann : Egypt: Theology and piety of an early high culture (= Urban pocket books. Volume 366). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart / Berlin a. a. 1984, ISBN 3-17-008371-6 .
  • Klaus Koch : History of the Egyptian Religion. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1993, ISBN 3-17-009808-X .
  • AR David: religion, state. In: Kathryn A. Bard (Ed.): Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, London 1999, ISBN 0-415-18589-0 , pp. 662-65.
  • Lucia Gahlin: Egypt. Gods, myths, religions. Edition XXL, Reichelsheim 2001, ISBN 3-89736-312-7 .
  • Richard H. Wilkinson: The world of the gods in ancient Egypt. Faith - Power - Mythology . Theiss, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-80621-819-6 .
  • Hans Bonnet: Lexicon of the Egyptian religious history. Nikol, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-937872-08-6 (former title: Reallexikon der Ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte. ).
  • Erik Hornung : The One and the Many. Ancient Egyptian gods. 6th edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2005, ISBN 3-534-14984-X .
  • Jan Assmann: Religio duplex. Egyptian Mysteries and European Enlightenment. Verlag der Welteligionen im Insel Verlag, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-458-710-32-5 .
  • Maria Michela Luiselli: The search for closeness to God. Research on personal piety in Egypt from the First Intermediate Period to the end of the New Kingdom (= Egypt and Old Testament 73 ). Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2011, ISBN 978-3-447-05890-2 .
  • Christiane Zivie-Coche , Françoise Dunand : The religions of ancient Egypt. (= The Religions of Mankind Volume 8). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2012, ISBN 978-3-17-019942-2 .


  • Günther Roeder : Documents on the religion of ancient Egypt. Diederichs, Jena 1915.
  • Günther Roeder: The Egyptian world of gods. Artemis, Zurich 1959.
  • Günther Roeder: Egyptian myths and legends. Artemis, Zurich 1960.
  • Günther Roeder: Cults and oracles in ancient Egypt. Artemis, Zurich 1960.
  • Günther Roeder: Magic and belief in the afterlife in ancient Egypt. Artemis, Zurich 1961.
  • Gregoire Kolpaktchy: Egyptian Book of the Dead. Scherz, Berlin 1970.
  • Erik Hornung: Egyptian underworld books. Artemis, Zurich 1972.
  • Raymond O. Faulkner: The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. three volumes, Aris & Phillips, Warminster 1973–1978.
  • Heike Sternberg-el Hotabi , Wilfried Gutekunst, Ernst Kausen : Egyptian rituals and incantations: oracles, rituals, architectural and votive inscriptions, songs and prayers (= texts from the environment of the Old Testament . (TUAT) Volume 2: Religious texts. Delivery. 3: Rituals and incantations 2. [Ugaritic, Egyptian, Aramaic, Phoenician, Old South Arabic]). G. Mohn, Gütersloh 1988.
  • Erik Hornung: Ancient Egyptian hereafter guide. An introductory overview. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1997.