Egyptian religion was similar to that of Mesopotamia in several ways: polytheistic, genealogical relationships among the gods, major deities associated with principal cities, and pantheons that varied depending upon the political dominance of particular cities. In three basic ways the religions differed radically. While the Mesopotamians, like the early Israelites, developed no belief in meaningful life after death, this was a central concern in Egyptian religion, absorbing much of the energy and concern of the living. Secondly, theomachy, or strife among the gods, was not so prominent in Egypt as in Mesopotamia. This probably reflects two factors: Egyptian life was more tranquil, with the country less open to attack and invasion than Mesopotamia and the annual inundation of the Nile river, fed by rainfall in equatorial Africa, was far less tumultuous and disruptive than the floods of the Tigris and Euphrates. Thirdly, in Egypt, the reigning monarch, the pharaoh, was considered an incarnation of divinity, a deity in human flesh.
As in Mesopotamia, deities of various types were found in Egyptian religion: primordial gods whose roles were primarily limited to issues of divine and cosmic origins, cosmic and national gods whose activities sustained cosmic order and the normal flow of life, and particularistic gods related to specific places, events, or phenomena. The most important religious centers in Egypt each had their special cosmic gods: Ptah at Memphis, Re at Heliopolis, Amun at Thebes, Thoth at Hermopolis, Atum at Kheraha, and so on but often there was an intermingling of these. Solar deities and mythology were prominent throughout Egyptian history.
Various stories and allusions to the origins of the gods and creation of humans are found in Egyptian literature. In one form, nine gods (the Heliopolitan Ennead) played a role: Atum (the complete one) created the pair Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) from whom sprang Geb (earth) and Nut (watery sky) and a second generation consisting of Osiris and Seth with their sisters Isis and Nephthys. In the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, four pairs of primordial beings—hiddenness, darkness, formlessness, and watery abyss—represent the background of chaos and disorder against which the creator god emerged from an egg that appeared after the inundating waters subsided. In the myths, various means are used by the creator god to produce other divine beings: expectoration, ejaculation, and weeping. Humans were considered to be formed in the image of the divine and various myths suggested different means of their origin: from the tears of the sun-god Re's weeping, from a fashioning on the potter's wheel by Khnum, or by being spoken into existence by Ptah. Perhaps the closest to the Genesis account of creation is the so-called Memphis theology preserved on the Shabaka Stone (about 700 B.C.E.) in which Ptah thinks something in his heart and speaks it with his tongue and it comes into being.
The triad of deities—Osiris, Isis, and Horus—were venerated throughout Egyptian history and the worship associated with them spread into the Greco-Roman world. Osiris was god of both fertility-cultivation and the realm of the dead. Opposed by his brother Seth, the god of heat and desert, Osiris was killed and his dismembered body sought for by his sister-consort Isis. Having collected the body, Isis became pregnant by Osiris and gave birth to the male child Horus whose early days were spent in hiding in the marshes of the Nile. Horus eventually reclaimed the rights of his father and overcame the opposition of Seth to gain a favorable settlement from the other gods. The myth not only reflected the struggle of fertility versus aridity but also was a myth undergirding the pharaoh's claim to divinity. In this life, the pharaoh was identified with Horus and after death was identified and ruled in the “underworld” (originally in the heavens in Egyptian mythology) with Osiris.
The belief in and quest for life beyond death—originally a prerogative of royalty—produced some of the most notable Egyptian literature in the Pyramid and Coffin Texts and the Book of Going Forth by Day (previously designated the Book of the Dead). These texts contain spells, incantations, hymns, and confessions to get the deceased (whose body had to be preserved, thus the importance of embalming) past the past the forty-two deities of the judgment court. Although reflecting belief in magical powers to foil the gods, such material as section 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day and the idea of weighing of the heart against the feather of truth (Maat) indicates that Egyptian gods expected their worshipers to live ethical lives in this world and to measure up to moral standards.
Egyptian religion was tolerant and syncretistic throughout its history, with the period of Akhenaton being a rare exception. Nubian, Lybian, and Syro-Palestinian deities and influence were present at various times. Some humans were deified, such as Imhotep, the architect of the step pyramid at Doser, who was later identified with the Greek god Asclepios. (Animals were not worshiped in Egypt, although many were sacred to particular deities and were mummified at death.)