Mankind began settling in the Nile Valley long before the dawn of our era and well before the beginning of the pharaonic society that the modern public associates with ancient Egypt. The seeds of the civilization that was to develop and many of the concepts that appeared in the time of the pharaohs, therefore, clearly came into being well into the distant past. Some of the ideas were generated before the establishment of any settlements along the banks of the river Nile. Archaeological evidence from the earliest periods suggests that the environment in which mankind lived played a very influential role in the religious ideology that would be recorded much later. At first, these beliefs were private and focused only on the personal level, but as people became more settled in particular areas and oriented more toward structured groups, they adapted doctrines to reflect the requirements of a larger society. The doctrines of an earlier era did not necessarily disappear; in fact, some clearly survived the initial transition to the society and can be seen in the development of local cults and such practices as ancestor worship. Eventually these succumbed to change and adaptation when the even more settled organization of the state emerged. Once the country became united under a single ruler, it eventually favored the establishment of a national religion to which the local beliefs would have to become secondary. A king could, however, bring to national prominence a deity known primarily in the area from which the pharaoh came, but even when that did not happen, the local cults could persist. For example, the god Ptah had national significance during the pharaonic period and was especially prominent in the creation texts, but his original connection with Memphis never ceased to be recognized, and his status as a god in that region was maintained.

The Environment and Early Beliefs.

Some traditions can be traced back to the early stages of the development of the state such as the falcon god Horus, whose image appears along with the names of the earliest kings on early dynastic monuments, and then it becomes a standard element in the royal titulary. He also maintains an important role in several creation myths. Other animals, such as cattle, also figure prominently in pharaonic religion, and they appear to have an even longer history. Artisans created sculptures, reliefs, and paintings of cow-goddesses such as Hathor, who was known on a national level throughout dynastic times and was an important deity to whom the Egyptians built and dedicated temples. Other goddesses whom they associated with cattle, such as Bat and Mehetweret, were perhaps less well known, and their popularity did not remain constant. Images of these goddesses could take the form of a complete bovine or composite human/bovine. The latter type, occasionally accompanied by stars, appears during the Early Dynastic period. The head of a human female with bovine ears and horns in frontal view appears in raised relief, two times at the top of each side of the Narmer Palette. The repetition of the image four times, as well as its placement at the pinnacle of the composition, imply that this deity was particularly influential. Reinforcement for this conclusion might be seen in the inclusion of the image on a work whose main scenes appear to commemorate perhaps Egypt's earliest king uniting the legendary two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The prominence of the human/bovine divine emblem at the beginning stages of recorded Egyptian history suggests that it may have been a focus of reverence and veneration even earlier. Archaeological evidence indicates that cattle were apparently quite important as a source of milk, blood, and perhaps also meat in pre-pharaonic cultures that developed in the southern part of Egypt, near modern Sudan. These benefits, as well as certain characteristics of cattle, may have led early mankind to hold these animals in high esteem. The recent excavations by the American and Polish expeditions in the Sahara Desert, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Abu Simbel, have unearthed sacrificial burials of cattle bones as early as five thousand years before any pharaoh walked the earth. Such findings, as well as their recent discovery of the burial of a completely intact cow, suggest that practices originating in earlier African cultures may well represent the root of the later ideology that appears in the historic periods of the riverine society out of which pharaonic culture emerges.

While the flora and fauna in the environment helped shape the form that their deities took, the varying elements of the physical world were the significant factors affecting the underlying concepts of the gods and goddesses. The world around early mankind provided memorable experiences that shaped the beliefs of these individuals. Their universe could sometimes be most hostile, yet at other times quite gentle and beneficent, and they had to find ways of coping with and surviving in it. Certain elements of nature such as the sky brought forth the crop-supporting rain and the warm, life-sustaining rays of the sun, but from it also emanated chaotic windstorms, damaging torrential downpours, and lethal, parching heat. Likewise, later, when the Egyptians settled along the Nile; the river became to them a source of sustenance in the form of its life-giving water and the fertile soil it left after its yearly flooding. It too, however, could become the bearer of disaster in the form of an inundation that was either too high, resulting in devastating floods, or too low, leading to droughts.

Early individuals certainly observed and experienced the effects of these phenomena, but their struggles for survival took precedence over their contemplation of the causes and results of such forces of nature. As time progressed these peoples accumulated both knowledge and experience, and they soon acquired the necessary skills to thrive in their environment. Only then did they have the opportunity to contemplate their own role within their physical world and how they related to it. In other words, they no longer simply reacted to the elements of their environment, but stepped back to observe them and recognize the dynamics occurring before them. At these early stages of cultural development, however, the cognitive processes functioned primarily on a personal level. It is possible to suggest a simple model of how these events might have happened. An early human might one day notice that the light of the new day also brought warmth as well as a renewal of energy. Repetition of these feelings day after day might cause the individual to associate the initial perceptions of security with elements of the physical environment. In a subsequent move, he or she might then attribute the consequences to the disk of the sun as it reappeared at the eastern horizon. Some people might respond similarly to the same stimuli, while others react differently. Whatever their sentiments, they may have communicated them among each other as they came together once society came into being. Through these processes, they developed the basic concepts underlying the inner workings of the universe. That these very elements were critical at this point in history seems to be suggested by the many deities, appearing later in the recorded Egyptian pantheon, that focus on the environment.

Explicating the “behavior” of the universe was in a way a means of controlling it. Attributing some logic to the manner in which all of the physical elements functioned allowed early man to begin to predict what would or could happen rather than to react after it happened. In time, increased observations would result not only in refined knowledge of the world, but also in more elaborate explanations for its existence and interactions among its components. A theoretical universe was envisioned, and its relationship to the real world and mankind's role in both were explained through the use of myth. It is likely that attributing animal imagery, characteristics, and traits to the elements of the physical world was also part of this process. Such associations may well have happened through the ancient Egyptians' keen sense of observation. An often-cited example is the falcon, an animal that the Egyptians associated early on with the sun. It has been suggested that this creature's ability to fly so high that it appears to merge into the disk of the sun may well underlie its relationship to the solar deity Re.

Such a correlation allowed the Egyptians to link a conceptual element, heat and light, with a less abstract one, the solar disk, and then a concrete one, the falcon. By making further attributions with human traits, the mystical, enigmatic, and indefinable became recognizable, approachable, and tangible. This transcendence was facilitated through the allocation of special space for communing with the conceptualized deity. These specialized areas, which would later give rise to temples, were places where some form of the divinity could be approached, venerated, supplicated to, or worshiped. To visualize it in concrete form, the Egyptians used a fetish, a statue, or other type of related symbol or image, and in these locations appropriate ritual could take place. Eventually the structures became quite elaborate and were understood as residences for the god. The Egyptians used particular decorative programs of carvings and paintings and employed architectural elements of specific forms to reflect cosmic symbolism.

Gods, Goddesses, and the Stories of Creation.

Most of the deities that comprise the pantheon of ancient Egypt can be thought of as relating to the environment in some way. The question has often been asked whether the Egyptians viewed each god as a distinct element of the cosmos, or as integral components held together by a single universal force. Scholars have debated such questions over the last century and have proposed many arguments to support their conclusions. It is clear that a hierarchy among the deities existed and that it reflected societal divisions among mankind. For example, just as there was a king on earth, there was a king of the gods. For much of the historical period Re, or his composite form Amun-Re, had this role. Another divine king was Osiris, whose realm was limited to the afterlife, but the two were connected in many ways, some of which are reflected in the funerary texts written on papyri and recorded on coffins, tombs, vessels, and amulets. Osiris's son Horus resembles the crown prince, and the relationship between the two—as well as the events of their lives—mirror the transfer of power involved with inherited kingship. Some gods had bureaucratic positions, such as Thoth, the scribe and messenger of the gods, while others, such as Montu, were related to the military.

To be sure, associations such as these came well after the early beliefs that focused on the forces of the universe confronting early man. Cosmic powers, however, continued as part of Egyptian ideology into the historical period. The Egyptian concept of primeval gods appears to reflect these doctrines. This group would consist either of several gods or a series of divine couples that represent the aspects of the universe prior to creation. The Egyptians associated creator gods with different geographic areas, and separate myths and creation theologies were set around the major religious centers such as Heliopolis, Hermopolis, and Memphis. In Heliopolis, which was linked with the center of the solar cult in the North, Atum functioned as the primary deity, and the Ennead was completed by his eight children: Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Atum is the progenitor, and he singlehandedly creates the elemental components of the universe. He begets air and moisture, as a matched pair, and this couple in turn creates earth and sky, the chthonic and celestial elements, who in turn are responsible for the last two pairs. Further elaboration of this mythology involves the conflict between the two brothers, Horus and Seth, and the battles between Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, and his uncle Seth. The relationship of this doctrine and ancient Egyptian kingship is clear, and the derivation of it rests, at least in part, on the ostensible need for the legitimization of the royal genealogy.

Hermopolis, the local association of another version of creation, is a site in Middle Egypt. There prevailed the god Thoth, who was associated with wisdom, writing, and the moon. Eight gods grouped into four couples comprise the Hermopolitan mythology, which focuses on the ordering of the chaotic universe at the time of creation. Traditionally, Amun and his female counterpart Amaunet refer to hiddenness, and they are called in early texts the source of the other gods. They are paired with primeval waters, Nun and Naunet. Kuk and Kauket, representing darkness, and Heh and Hauhet, endlessness, make up the last two pairs. These in turn generate other divinities, and already in the Coffin Texts, passages relate that the deities of this cosmogony are associated with that of Heliopolis.

Memphis in the North is one of the earliest religious centers, and it retains its importance throughout most of Egyptian history. Its story of creation, however, derives from an ancient inscription, recorded in the eighth century BCE under the reign of King Shabaqa, that purports to be a copy of a much earlier original. Recent scholarship, however, disputes that attestation in the text and dates the document to the Late period, thereby suggesting that it represents the latest of the theologies of this type. Ptah, a deity associated with Memphis from early times, is the primary focus in this version. He is a god who is capable of creating with his heart and tongue, and this ability refers to the concepts of intellectual activity (thought) and its result (speech). Ptah also creates Atum in this myth, and through this action the Memphite theology is linked to that from Heliopolis. Many of the deities involved in these ideologies were of national renown during historic times, but their associations with a particular area may reflect their role as local deities at an earlier period.

Other gods and goddesses also became prominent figures or featured players in the stories of creation, as well as in the related narratives that became associated with them. For instance, the deity Nefertum, known both in the funerary texts as well in the local cult of Memphis, is symbolized as the lotus blossom, the first form of life that appears from the primeval mound after waters of chaos recede.

In all levels of the divine hierarchy and throughout Egyptian society there existed the unifying concept of balance and harmony. The creation myths describe the earliest periods in the memory of humankind as pure chaos. Out of it derived some form of harmony, and this calmed state made possible the existence of the world as the Egyptians knew it. The gods are responsible for maintaining the order and presenting it to the king who in turn reinforces the system. Humankind must live according to its rules and regulations; no one is exempt. So important was the concept of order and balance in the universe that it was deified as a goddess, Maat.

Divine Unions.

It is not unusual for a deity to be amalgamated, that is to say, syncretized, with one or more divinities, such as Re-Atum, Khnum-Re, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, and Amun-Re-Horakhty. In these divine links, one god was combined with another, or became an extension of another, and the elements of each would become unified in the composite without the loss of their original identity. Other less bound associations would include the series of couplets generally made up of a god and a goddess. Often the two divinities are a reflection of the elements of the environment, perceived as dual opposing components, such as light and darkness, air and moisture, and other “dualities” that figure prominently in the creation myths referred to above. Although not as common, same-sex pairs exist, as with the sisters Isis and Nephthys. The Egyptians also formed triads of deities, which groupings consist generally of two elemental gods and goddesses along with their offspring. Often these sets of divinities become associated with specific geographic areas. Ptah and Sekhmet, long linked with Memphis, add a son, Nefertum, in the New Kingdom, but other kinship groups, such as Osiris, Isis, and Horus, are attested as a group much earlier. Three deities also form a trinity, and this phenomenon, derived perhaps because of political considerations, was more common after the eighteenth dynasty. Such associations linked not only primary deities like Amun, Re, and Ptah, but also their cult places, Thebes, Heliopolis, and Memphis.

Categories of Egyptian Deities.

Several different terms for the classification of Egyptian gods have been used in the sections above, such as creator, local, and national. While some of these designations and others are of modern derivation, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Egyptians themselves would have sought some means of differentiating among the hundreds of deities that comprised their pantheon. In fact, the phrases “local gods” and “district gods” are referred to in both the Pyramid Texts and biographical inscriptions. In addition, the names of several gods derive directly from the city of their provenance, as with the goddess Nekhbet of Nekehb.

Modern publications often refer to the gods of the afterlife, and in fact the ancient Egyptians understood that many of the supreme beings they venerated functioned primarily in that domain. Such a reference could be made iconographically in statuary or relief, in which case the representation would situate the deity within an environment, clearly not that of the contemporaneous world. The Judgment of the Dead scene would be a good illustration of this process. There the god Osiris, whose visible body parts appear either green or black, presides over a court composed of animals as well as composite and fantastical creatures. The genre of text in which the god would appear, or the accompanying descriptive phrases might also help to categorize him or her. Funerary literature like the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) focus on these deities. Phrases such as “who is in the netherworld” might designate a specific god, perhaps Horus, in one text, or it might refer to a group of demons to be avoided in a particular area of the underworld in another inscription. This category of deities was perhaps the most populated of all, and because so much funerary material has survived into modern times, we are aware of the many gods and goddesses who played a role in this environment. The mortuary temples of the pharaoh and the tombs focus on Osiris, the king of the underworld, but Isis, Horus, Re, Anubis, and Thoth figure prominently as well. Those associated with embalming, in addition to Anubis—i.e., Nephthys, Selket, Neith; and the four sons of Horus: Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, and Kebehsenuef—also belong to this classification. Other spirits of the netherworld included demons, demigods, and personifications of the underworld. In addition, major deities like Ptah and Hathor also took part in the afterlife, but their role was not as significant as that of others. Their presence, however, indicates that the Egyptians imagined their gods as functioning in more than one capacity, and they assigned many roles to them. Re, for example, was instrumental not only as a funerary deity, but as a national one as well; likewise, Hathor appears in the context of the afterlife, was a state deity, had an international role, and also was the focus of local cults.

The Egyptians did not treat each god in the same way throughout the country. With the local, district, or domestic deities the relationship was more personal, and access was more direct and less formal. Other divinities that maintained more prominent positions in the pantheon, however, were worshiped at more of a distance. The formalized rituals were more uniform, since these gods and goddesses were worshiped all over Egypt. Temples were dedicated to these national divinities, and services, rituals, and festivals were held in their honor on a statewide basis. The temples of Luxor and Karnak were built in honor of Amun-Re, the king of the gods, and during certain holidays the image of the god would be brought forth from the shrine for view and worship by the people. Further access occurred when the priests transported the image to other temples along a prescribed route. Hathor, Isis, and Ptah are among other state deities to have been held in such repute.

The type of temple, the texts and decoration therein, as well as the associated documents help to distinguish the roles of the major gods and allow us to identify the many categories into which they were classified. A sense of the popularity of a divinity, the manner in which it was approached, and the type of group to which it belonged can also be seen by looking carefully at figurines, hymns, and prayers. Amulets represented a sign of devotion to and respect for a particular god, but they could also become a means of protection, benefit, and advantage. Deities associated with the more personal aspects of the individual are often rendered in the form of an amulet to be worn or carried. In amulets to be used in the afterlife, funerary deities predominate. Amulets used by the living with their magical properties were frequently used as personal adornments, and their use can be traced back to the earliest periods. Most of the early amulets took the form of animals, and these can be seen as symbols of particular deities. Particularly popular were the frog and hippopotamus, associated with fertility, over which, along with childbirth, the goddesses Heqet and Taweret would later have influence. Another of the minor deities, Bes, also important at birth, was particularly popular in the New Kingdom. Not much later, the repertoire of deities would increase and include many of the major figures, such as Sekhmet, Isis, Sobek, or Khnum, as well as minor ones like Heh, Horpakhered, and Imhotep. These tiny figures were thought to offer the wearer the protection or power of the divinity represented. It is clear from the great variety of deities depicted in amulets, from the many different forms of votive figurines, and the numerous deities addressed in prayers that the Egyptians eventually considered most of their gods and goddesses as capable of performing the role of a personal god.

Certain members of the pantheon had roles beyond the borders of Egypt, for during different periods, the pharaohs had extended the country's influence over foreign areas. Moreover, settlements outside Egypt would require access to native deities. Hathor was worshiped in the Sinai and at Byblos, and she along with Horus, Amun, Re, and others had cults in Nubia. Certain of Egypt's gods were assigned to border areas, like Ash, who is associated with the Western Desert and sometimes Libya. Especially in the New Kingdom and later, foreign deities made appearances on Egyptian monuments and were mentioned in texts. Reshef, Ba'al, Hauron, Astarte, and Anat are some of those from western Asia who figure prominently in the iconography and inscriptions; Dedwen appears to derive from Nubia.

Part of the concept of kingship included the doctrine of the pharaoh's deification after death, but this process was extended occasionally to lesser members of society as well. Perhaps the most famous of nonroyal individuals to receive such status was Imhotep, the high priest of Re during the third dynasty. Reputed to be the architect of the Step Pyramid, this vizier of King Djoser was, according to later sources, a great sage and the author of some of the earliest Wisdom Literature. Although he achieved cult status, as did other writers of similar works, such as Ptahhotep, Hordjedef, and Kagemni, only Imhotep was worshiped as a god, but not until the Late period. A cult for the deified late Old Kingdom official Heqaib was established after his death, and several centuries later people still visited the sanctuary. Amenhotep, son of Hapu, the director of works for Amenhotpe III, was accorded the honor of having a funerary temple dedicated to him in Western Thebes in an area reserved for pharaonic mortuary temples. Apparently a cult to him, especially in regard to medicine, developed later.

A king, however, was thought to achieve divinity routinely after death, and worship was in theory expected to occur through the mortuary cult in the funerary temple forever. Just how long the cult would actually last was determined by the length and quality of a particular ruler's reign, as well as political, sociological, and economic conditions during the king's life and after. Some officials of the Middle Kingdom held titles in the priesthood of kings who died in the Old Kingdom, a situation that indicates that cults could survive several centuries. Some cults, for example that of Amenhotpe I, existed beyond the mortuary temple. He became known as a personal god and often, along with his mother Ahmose-Nefertari, was accepted as a patron deity of Western Thebes and the village of Deir el-Medina. He could be approached for aid with other deities, and an oracle associated with him helped resolve legal issues.

While earlier evidence exists for the concept of the deification of a pharaoh prior to his death, it is not displayed so obviously until the eighteenth-dynasty reign of Hatshepsut. The reliefs depicting her divine birth occur, however, in her mortuary temple. Later, those of Amenhotpe III were carved on the walls of the state temple built for Amun at Luxor. He promoted the concept further by establishing cults at several locations dedicated to his living divine form. This idea promoted the conception of the king less as a superhuman hero whose divinity after death was assured than as a divine living being. His son and successor, Amenhotpe IV, was iconoclastic in both his conception of the divinity of the king and the manner in which he expressed it. This enigmatic figure changed his name to Akhenaten, abolished the many gods of the ancient pantheon in favor of a single preeminent one, the Aten, and moved the capital to Amarna, an area with no preexisting deity. Many scholars see in these and other moves a major step in the evolution toward monotheism, but others recognize rather a radical sociopolitical experiment to raise the level of kingship to a status more equal with the godhead. Other interpretations exist as well, but whichever is correct, to the Egyptians the concept was not acceptable. The changes were shortlived, and the orthodoxy was quickly reestablished. Eventually, with traditional religious ideas restored, Ramesses II of the nineteenth dynasty adapted the concepts of divine kingship developed in the preceding dynasty. He had many representations of his divine living image created, and in several inscriptions referred to his own deified state. The people, however, probably had at all times both an official and a personal view in regard to these ideas, and they expressed them for example in letters where the monarch is described in very human rather than divine terms.

See also BULL GODS; CONTENDINGS OF HORUS AND SETH; CULTS, articles on Divine Cults and Animal Cults; DEMONS; FELINE DEITIES; FOUR SONS OF HORUS; MYTHS; and articles on individual deities.


  • Englund, Gertie, ed. The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians: Cognitive Structures and Popular Expressions. Uppsala, 1989. A useful group of essays.
  • Forman, Werner, and Stephen Quirke. Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Norman, Okla., 1996. A useful source with a short glossary of deities.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Before Philosophy. Baltimore, 1948. One of the earliest attempts to deal with the concepts underlying the religion of the historic periods.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods. Chicago, 1948. A standard on the subject, but recent scholarship differs on many points.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. An excellent treatment of the subject with updated footnotes and references by the translator.
  • Morenz, Sigfried. Egyptian Religion. Translated by Ann E. Keep. London, 1960. A good standard book on religion.
  • Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1992. A concise and informative treatment.
  • Silverman, David P. “Divinities and Deities in Ancient Egypt.” In Religion in Ancient Egypt, edited by Byron Shafer. Ithaca, 1991. A detailed treatment of the subject with many notes and further references. The two other chapters in the book are also useful.
  • Silverman, David P. “The Nature of Egyptian Kingship.” In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O'Connor and David P. Silverman. Leiden, 1995. Focuses on the relationship between the king and the gods and the concept of divine kingship. The essays of D. Redford and J. Baines in the same volume also deal to some extent with this topic.

David P. Silverman