Herodotus' statement that the Egyptians “are religious to a higher degree than any other people” (Book II, 37) eulogizes Egypt to an uncommon degree. About six centuries later, in the Perfect Discourse, Hermes Trismegistos summed up the spirit of Egyptian religious beliefs for his disciple, Asclepius, in a striking metaphor: Egypt “has become the image of heaven, and what is more, the resting-place of heaven and all the forces that are in it. If we should tell the truth: our land has become the temple of the world” (Codex Nag Hammadi VI, 70, 5–10). About the same time, Lucian mocked the Egyptian gods who had infiltrated the assembly of the Olympian gods (Deorum concilium, 10–11). The quoted texts, mainly those of the third century CE, give evidence of the prestige and the power Egyptian religion had in Greek thought.


Egyptian religion was polytheistic from beginning to end. In the Early Dynastic period, fetishes, animals (for example, on the mace head of King “Scorpion,” the Battlefield Palette, and the Narmer Palette), and human beings are attested everywhere in religious representations (Hoffman 1984, 306–347; Hornung 1983). The gods working for the king never appear on standards, but the divine fetishes and animals in the service of the king do. Hence, the divine signs on the standards symbolize the connection of a god with a specific town.

Animal representations of gods like Wepwawet, Thoth, or the various falcon gods, which appear in animal shape in dynastic times as well, or fetish representations of gods like Min, who has usually taken a human shape by then, make one cautious about tracing a historical development from fetishism to zoolatry and the cult of anthropomorphic gods. Gods of animal or human shape are also mentioned in the early onomasticon, such as Apis, Neith, and others, indicated by the common god hieroglyph (nṯr) (“god”), which may stand for a specific god. It is difficult to trace the development of the fetishes and most of the animals commonly associated with the cult of a specific god from the predynastic period through dynastic times (e.g., the relation of the Abydos fetish to Osiris, first apparent in the Middle Kingdom). Baines (1995, 113) proposes another interpretation of the predynastic animals: they were embedded into the context of the king as representations of royal power; he also refers to the general absence of entirely human representations in depictions of gods and kings.

Ucko (1968, 427–434) investigated the so-called idols of the Badarian culture and dismissed the existence of anthropomorphic gods. However, it is difficult to detect features in predynastic human figures that would challenge their interpretation as deities. The scarcity of human figures from predynastic times suggests that the figures of bearded men and dancing or naked women were intended as divinities.

The gods could assume many different shapes (Assmann 1991, 57–58; Hornung 1983). Their appearance was therefore unpredictable, though a certain pattern had developed by dynastic times.

The ba.

The manner in which sacred animals and fetishes were connected with the gods was formulated by the Egyptians themselves in later times. The gods were rarely present because they dwelt in distant territories that could be described only vaguely. The sun god, Re, continually traversed the sky and the netherworld, and thus had no specific dwelling-place in Egypt. Since the Old Kingdom, Re was attached to Heliopolis by being syncretized with Atum. The remote gods could “enter into the statues” provided for them in the temples (Memphite Theology, 60) or, according to the theology of the Late period, they could enter this world as ba (b3), the active spirit or personality of gods and men (Assmann 1991, 67). The god could choose among the various “vessels” that Egyptians prepared for him.

The kings set up cult statues in the temples to be at the disposal of the gods. With the decline of royal power after the New Kingdom, the gods could take over this task themselves (Memphite Theology, 60). According to the Palermo stone, statues were created by royal acts. All statues (including mummies) were animated by the Opening of the Mouth ceremony; the statue then became the potential restingplace for the divine ba. The prevention of free access of the god to his image endangered his efficacy in the world. Sorcerers used to threaten the gods with this restriction, in a practice documented as early as the Pyramid Texts. The Perfect Discourse refers to Egypt as “the restingplace of the gods” but adds that the gods can leave Egypt forever—a concept that was also formulated in the myth of the Heavenly Cow, recorded in royal tombs since the end of the eighteenth dynasty (Hornung 1982).

The divine ba (creative power) could rest in a variety of places. It was therefore important that the ba stayed with the dead: “Your ba belongs to your innermost properties” (Spells 753a and 413a of the Pyramid Texts; Morenz 1973, 157–158; for the concept of the ba see Žabkar 1968). The plural of ba also means “dangerous divine power” in later periods (for example, British Museum Papyrus 10251 r° (19); Edwards 1960). In the Old Kingdom, people had names evoking the positive divine power, for example, ḫʿ-bʒ.w-ptḥ (“the power of Ptah has arisen”). In the Coffin Texts, the god and his ba are clearly distinguished (Spell 333), while animals appear as manifestations of different divine powers (Hornung 1982; Assmann 1979, 7–42).

The sacred animals can be regarded as living cult images: chief representatives of a sacred species were kept at the temples, and fetish animals were kept in homes (Kessler 1989). The first group was evident in cults—the Apis bull attached to Osiris, the Buchis and Mnevis bulls attached to the sun god, and even the beetle Khepri (the resurrecting form of the sun god). Ba was incorporated in these living images just as the god Horus appeared in the living king. The gods could also appear in various animals—baboon, ibis, snake, frog, kite, or falcon—which were given the actual names of their divine masters.

The ka.

In contrast to the active ba, the sacred images prepared for the gods were called the ka ( “double”). The Egyptians thought that the ka was the creative force that accompanies people in life (Schweitzer 1956). Double statues of the Old and the Middle Kingdoms represent the person with his double. In Spell 1623a of the Pyramid Texts, Geb, the father of Osiris, is “the ka of every god”; that is, he is the representative and the “vessel” of all gods. Horus, the king, has a ka that is joined with the royal cenotaphs or ka-mansions (documented since the sixth dynasty), showing the divine force of the king established throughout Egypt. Several Old Kingdom pyramids belonging to one king—for example, Sneferu—may be interpreted as Ka-mansions. During the Middle Kingdom the “soul” mansions—the proper Egyptian name is not recorded—probably fulfilled this function for the nobility. The royal ka-mansion disappeared in the eighteenth dynasty, and was replaced by the “house of millions of years” erected also in multiples for a single king (Arnold 1996, 139).

Inscriptions of the Hathor temple in Dendera clearly describe the connection of the gods to the statue (ka). The cult statue of the goddess was transferred onto the roof of the temple where, defended against the profane gaze by a wall, it was deposited in a little kiosk on New Year's Eve. In the morning, the divine power (ba) of the goddess descended with the rays of the rising sun and united with her statue (ka).

Local Dimension of the Gods.

The Egyptian gods of dynastic times can be understood in terms of their cults, in terms of their cosmic dimensions, and also in terms of the language used to characterize them (Assmann 1991). The cult was not locally fixed, but it had local aspects, though some scholars have overestimated the extent of these (Kees 1956). Most of the major gods, such as Amun, Re, Osiris, and Thoth, obviously had roots in more than one settlement. Most gods had cult places in many Egyptian temples, and in addition one or two cult centers, where the honored god was called “lord” (for example, Khnum in Elephantine, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Thebes, Dendera, Hypsele, Antinoöpolis, and Herakleopolis; Gardiner 1947; Badawi 1937). In most temples, however, one god was linked with other gods; this is clearly demonstrated by their composite names.

Toward the Late period, the connection of a god with a settlement became more important. Greek toponyms such as Hermopolis, Heliopolis, and Crocodilopolis conclusively prove this. In the toponyms of pharaonic times, such divine names were used only in connection with the chapels and temples situated there. The toponym of Memphis (Mn-nfr w-ppy, “Pepy's beauty rests”), known since the New Kingdom, is the name of the funerary temple of King Pepy I of the sixth dynasty; ʿnḫ-tʒ.wy (“the revival of the two lands”) or Ḥw.t-kʒ-ptḥ (“the ka-mansion of Ptah”) are the occasional toponyms of the town from the Old Kingdom onward. This is also true of the toponym Dendera, in which the name of a goddess is joined to the sacred pillar (iwn.t).

The temple was the resting place of the gods, where they could visit and accept the offerings presented to them. The temple was imagined as the image of the cosmos with the god's house at its core on the highest point of the structure, that is, the primeval hill. Temples were hidden from public view by walls. The best-preserved Egyptian temples belong to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, and all these features were present in them.

Gods in Time and Space.

Gods were tied to time and space. They grew old, faded away, and were resurrected. This feature belongs mainly to the sun god, Re, who was “born” every morning and “died” every night. Connected with the birth of gods, mainly the child members of divine triads, were special buildings (mammisi) adjacent to temples, erected in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The conceptual antecedent of this structure is the representations of the king's divine birth, frequent since the eighteenth dynasty. However, its origin clearly dates back to the time of the Pyramid Texts (for example, Spell 632).

The Egyptians did not define the death of Osiris, lord of the underworld. Osiris was always regarded as a dead god, despite the late custom of the corn mummy, which is often taken as a sign of his resurrection. New life generally arises out of the dead part of the god (mummy, soil). Hence, the comparison of Osiris with gods of resurrection in the ancient Near East should be treated with caution. The birth of the divine son, Horus (also the “beloved son”), was interpreted in two ways: the dead Osiris sired the son on his sister-consort, Isis; or the sun god conceived his son with a mortal queen.

The lifetime of the gods defined the boundaries of existence. Gods were tied to a structured creation, in contrast to a formless chaos. Eschatological texts show some ambiguity concerning the end of the world. Chapter 175 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) reveals the end of existence in the primeval waters. The text continues: “How prosperous will be what I have done for Osiris, elevated before all gods [that is, the dead ones]. I have given him government over the desert. His son Horus is the heir of my seat on the Island of Flame.” The catastrophe is not total, however. Osiris's rule over the desert and Horus's inherited dominion on the Island of Flame do not end. The topic of this spell may be the same as that of the myth of the Heavenly Cow, where the aged creator withdraws from government on earth into heaven. What is left of the world resembles chaos more than well-ordered Egypt. The Egyptians did not reflect on this inevitable catastrophe; instead, they always looked for ways and means to maintain order (maat).

Creation of the Gods.

Creation is one of the main topics of Egyptian theology. Several concepts are known, each tied to a specific town—Heliopolis, Hermopolis, or Memphis. The first matter to appear in the primeval waters was usually believed to have been a hill bearing the primeval egg, which a primeval wind would fertilize, according to a tradition of the Late period. The egg could also be associated with Re (Spell 292 of the Coffin Texts). In another concept, a lotus flower grew on the primeval hill, and in it the child-god Nefertum appeared (Frankfort 1948, 151–159). Although chaos is formless, the Egyptians called the primeval waters Nun (Nny, Nww), who was both the creator and the most ancient element of creation. According to a more elaborate concept, from Hermopolis, there were eight primordial gods, in four pairs, all with negative significance. They are Nny and Nnit (“water abyss”), Kky and Kkit (“darkness”), Ḥy and Ẉhy (“infinity”), and Imn and Imnt (“invisibility”). The positive elements are “sacred water” (for example, the sacred lakes of the temples), “light” (for example, the sun, the moon, and the stars), “limitation” (linked to the expression ḏrw, “boundary”), and “observation” (that is, Amun comes forth from invisibility). The pairs were shaped as frogs or frog-headed human beings. That is why the goddess of birth has the shape of a frog. Apart from these pairs, the Egyptians had another group of five gods: four primeval gods presided over by Thoth.

The Heliopolitan and Memphite theologies also concentrated on the creation of the world. According to the Heliopolitan system, the creator, Atum, masturbated to generate the first pair of gods—Shu (Šw, “emptiness filled with air”) and Tefnut, the goddess of humidity (Tfnw.t), who remains rather dim beside her male counterpart. According to another version, Atum spit them out (1653a–b of the Pyramid Texts). The creation of the next generation—Geb, the god of the earth (Gbw) and his consort, Nut, the goddess of the sky (Nw.t)—is not well documented in texts. This cosmic pair became the parents of the next four gods: Osiris (Wsir), Isis (ʒ.t), Seth (Stẖ, Stš), and Nephthys (Nb.t-ḥw t, “mistress of the chapel”). A dividing line is to be drawn between the first two pairs, the cosmic gods, and the four of the next generation; the latter have to do with kingship. Osiris and Isis generate the living king (Ḥrw, Horus, “the far one”). Seth opposes the young royal heir of Egypt. The existence of his consort makes the imagining of pairs a structural necessity. The system focuses on the generation of the king as the guarantor of creation. The notion of the king's divine kinship was gradually expanded through Egyptian history.

Memphite theologians thought creation was done through words. The heart and tongue of Ptah formed the center of the Memphite system. Contrary to the Memphite view, the Heliopolitan Atum generated the gods in a sexual way. Still important, however, is the division between cosmic and political divine spheres. The main topic of reflection in Memphis was the establishment of the kingdom after the cosmogony was accomplished.

The Egyptians did not dwell on the moment when the first thing emerged from chaos into being. The epithet ḫpr ḏs.f (“the self-created”) was attached to all gods whom Egyptians chose to consider as creators. In the Middle Kingdom, the primordial existence of a god who did not belong to a specific theological system is often stressed (for example, the god Ḥkʒ, “Magician” in Spell 261 of the Coffin Texts), though the connection sometimes seems to be contrary to the god's origins. Egyptian thought tends to start with the explanation of what to call the created world, probably under the influence of Memphite thinking. The first instances of divine concern may be found in 1695a of the Pyramid Texts: “They create (sḫpr) this NN like Re in this his name of Creating (ḫprr).” Literary works did not appear before the Middle Kingdom, but the acts of the gods are mentioned in the Pyramid Texts.

Besides the major cosmological systems, there were also minor cosmogonies, known to us from quotations in texts. These systems have no unique features because they syncretized other known systems; for example, the theology of Amun used the cosmogony of Re-Atum (Sethe 1929).

The Egyptians conceived the leading god of a cult center as the head of a triad, which consisted of the god, his consort, and their child. This concept was widespread in Egypt from the Old Kingdom, when the god-child was usually the king, to the Late period, when he was the king's divine substitute. If there was no local goddess at hand, the Egyptians created one for the triad (for example, Nḥm.t-ʿwʒy “Savior of the robbed one,” in Hermopolis). Prominent triads are known in Thebes (Amun-Mut-Khonsu), Memphis (Ptah-Sakhmet-Nefertum), Elephantine (Khnum-Satis-Anukis), and everywhere in a general connection with kingship (Osiris-Isis-Horus). Other triads may be detected in several places, but written or archaeological evidence is scarce.

Syncretism and Personification.

The term “syncretism” has a special usage in Egyptology, designating the coexistence or perhaps cooperation of two or more gods. Coexistence could be of a theological or political nature. This feature first appeared in the fourth dynasty with Atum-Re of Heliopolis. Prominent examples from the Middle Kingdom are Amun-Re of Thebes and Ptah-Sokar of Memphis, as well as less permanent linkages like Sobek-Re and those of minor gods with important gods, where the lesser may claim the cultic attributes of the greater. One of the most disputed of these relationships is the Ramessid triad Amun-Re-Ptah, which signifies an amalgation of the powers of the three gods in one entity. Another important, long-lived syncretism (starting in the Old Kingdom) occured between Re and Osiris, that is, the fusion of the living god with the dead one. Statements like “this certain Osiris is arisen as Re” (in Wsir mn pn ḫʿy m Rʿ, Coffin Texts, I, 191g–192a) support this view. “Re unifies with his mummy Osiris in the sixth hour” of the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat) was a phrase used in kings' tombs since the eighteenth dynasty. The unio mystica (“mystical union,” as Hornung has called it), clearly shows that syncretism was a temporary unification in which each god kept his own characteristics. “It is Re who rests in Osiris, Osiris rests in Re,” was written in the nineteenth dynasty next to the ram-headed, mummiform Re in the tomb of Nefertari (tomb sixty-six in the Valley of the Queens). This is also of the fusions that represented attempts to connect king and gods more closely. Toward the Late period the number of syncretized gods increased without reference to kingship, the divine nature of which was steadily waning.

The Egyptians created personified conceptions and emblems, too, but these were always joined with a god or used as decorations (Baines 1985). The feature can be observed already in predynastic times, when standards represented gods. It is doubtful, however, that animated standards of other objects were actually venerated as deities. The Inundation (Ḥʿpy, Hapy) and the Magician (Ḥkʒ, Heka) should be excepted because they already had cults.

Gods in Narrative.

The mythic dimension of language in Egypt is closely bound to literacy. Texts known since the third dynasty make reference to the activities of the gods, usually within accounts of relations between nobles and the king. Narrative literature did not appear before the Middle Kingdom, but myths certainly existed in oral tradition long before. Allusions to the deeds of gods are inserted in early ritual texts, such as the Pyramid Texts.

Late in Egyptian history, myths often have an etiological character, like the Horus myth of Edfu. Most of the known Egyptian myths concern the origins and nature of kingship as the central topic of interest.

Hymns (dwʒw) and litanies were used in the cults. Hymns seemed to be addressed to both gods and kings, and were also incorporated in the Pyramid Texts. The Middle Kingdom hymn to the crocodile god, Sobek, that equates the beast with the king is a striking example of connecting the king to a god. The powers of the king are revealed in the crocodile god, and the powers of the god in the king (Papyrus Ramesseum VI, 11. 62. 95. 107). Numerous hymns to Re, Osiris, Thoth, Amun, Khnum, and other minor gods were created for ritual purposes. Toward the last days of Egyptian religion, a strict daily schedule seems to have evolved, which consisted of hymns, litanies, and rituals taken from the theologies of every period (for example, at the temple of Khnum at Esna; Sauneron, 1962).

A litany enumerates the names of the god in a cultic context (wdn). Elaborate litanies could have an explanatory text, like the Litany of Re (Hornung, 1975–1976). Essentially, the litany mirrors the multiplicity of forms of one god in different cult centers.

The idea of divinity developed as a result of long and intensive reflection. The theology of Amun evolved between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, well before Amun appeared at Thebes in the Middle Kingdom. Yet the concepts of kingship are fully formed in the Pyramid Texts, which mark a terminus ante quem of their origin (for example, Spell 606). Scholars date the origin of these concepts to the Early Dynastic period. The Memphite system appears to have developed in various stages, with many textual deviations like (Morenz 1973, 155; Assmann 1996, 392–395). The evolution of these concepts can also be shown in royal mortuary texts (Pyramid Texts, Book of That Which Is the Underworld), or the texts of nonroyal burials (Coffin Texts, or Book of Going Forth by Day).

Monotheism and Henotheism.

Several attempts have been made to explain Egyptian religion in terms of monotheism (Hornung 1983). Scholars of the nineteenth century, steeped in the Christian tradition, tended to find traces of monotheism in Egyptian beliefs. The main evidence put forward was the anonymous god to whom Egyptians prayed in literary and wisdom texts. Now, however, the anonymous god is understood to represent a way of invoking any divine power (ba) emanating from any gods. It was only the eighteenth dynasty religious reforms of Amenhotpe IV (Akhenaten) that tried to introduce and promote a single god, the Aten. Akhenaten did not succeed; the reform was supported only by the young intellectuals of his court, and even his adherents did not completely accept his monotheism, as representations of other gods found in their tombs prove. After the intermezzo of Amarna, the Egyptians abandoned monotheism for good.

Several researchers have applied the concept of henotheism to Egyptian religion. This religious practice focuses on one god addressed in a particular time of worship. The believer unites all known divine powers in his favorite god. Henotheistic practices have been documented as early as the Old Kingdom, and may have been theologically connected with the notion of the anonymous god.


The center of the Egyptian cult was the temple, a sacred area enclosed by a wall, that excluded the profane. The temple could be called a “house” (pr), or a “chapel” (ḥw.t), or a “chapel of the god” (ḥw.t-nṯr), which includes section of the temple devoted to worldly needs. Inside was the cult statue, consecrated (“born”) by a royal act, which served as dwelling for the divinity. The king (or his priestly substitute) had to care for the cult statue during the daily ritual. In depictions of cultic performance, it is always the king who acts in front of the god. The kings (and later, nobles) are represented holding a relic or a cult object, a convention demonstrating reverence.

An early exception seems to be the worship of Osiris, known from many stelae in the Middle Kingdom, in which the dead person worships the god. The deceased became Osiris, as only the dead king did in the Old Kingdom, and could perform the cult rituals before the god of the dead. After a certain point in history, nobles were allowed by the king to set up their statues in the local temple or in sacred areas like Abydos, and could thus share in the rituals performed for the deity there at any time.

The cult ritual was a dialogue between gods (Assmann 1991, 60), and thus the king (or his representative) acted in the divine performance as a god. Until the Middle Kingdom, the spheres of administration and cult were not separated, but in the eighteenth dynasty, a special priesthood was established. Hence, the administrators acquired access to the cult sanctuary, acting on behalf of the king. It is doubtful that the general population were ever admitted into this activity.

The offering list was a ritual document that originated in the Old Kingdom and persisted until the end of Egyptian antiquity. This list consists of such things as animals, cereals, food, and garments. Animals like gazelles or birds frequently signify the enemies of Osiris. Bulls, however, represent the power of kings and gods. Therefore, the offering has a protective and a nutritive significance, that is, the annihilation of the god's enemies and the sustenance of the gods by the meal made of the sacrificial bull. The offerings often allude (by speaking of the eye of Horus or the testicles of Seth) to the myth of Horus and Seth, which was closely connected with kingship from the Old Kingdom onward. By the Late period, this connection became rather complicated (if not incomprehensible), but the myth of kingship remained at the core.

The King.

The king represented Egypt before the gods. He worshipped the gods in standing, kneeling, and crawling positions while presenting offerings to them. One of the statues of the Luxor cache shows King Horemheb kneeling in front of Atum. The symbolism of the offerings shows their significance: he must secure order (m3ʿ.t “maat”), which is compulsory for gods as well as kings. The sense of offering is not merely to give in order that the god will give in return (Hornung 1983); it reminds the deity that order must be maintained. Disorder and chaos attack order when the sun god traverses the underworld by night, and the people could revolt against the aged god (Book of That Which Is in the Underworld, Myth of the Heavenly Cow).

The king was the single link between the divine and the profane. He was the representative of god on Earth, or his image from the thirteenth dynasty on. The doctrine of the king as the image of god is one of the awkward features of Egyptian religion. Recorded since the Second Intermediate Period, the doctrine attempts to explain how a living being can acquire divine status. The concept was first formulated in the Coffin Texts, and had perhaps been used earlier in the Pyramid Texts. It may have originated in the union of the dead king with Osiris, or that of the living king with Horus.

The first title of the king is Horus. There is a close connection of deity and king since late predynastic times, in that the god Horus appears in the royal person. This basic concept was maintained during all periods, although in various royal representations, the proportions of the king to the god were eventually changed in favor of the god: the falcon sits, hardly visible, on the neck of the fourth dynasty king Khafre; the king bears plumage covering the back of his head down to his waist in several eighteenth dynasty representations; and a giant Horus falcon protects King Nektanebo II of the thirtieth dynasty. In a statue of the Luxor cache found in 1988, King Horemhab stands in the last position in front of Amun; he represents Amun, who protects him, for his people.

Doubts have been expressed about the divine nature of the king. His divine status has been explained by reference to his two natures (Silverman 1995, 65). The king became an offspring of the god (son of Re) in the fourth dynasty (886a–887b of the Pyramid Texts). This has been viewed as a loss of divine power. This feature could be interpreted as a way of embedding the king into the Heliopolitan system. This new concept defined the status of the dead king as Osiris, and that of the living king as son of Re. In mortuary texts, taking Re as the principle of life and Osiris as the principle of death, the title “Son of Re” demonstrates the affiliation of the ruling king to the sphere of life, while “Son of Osiris” can also be applied to the same ruling king. This can be supported by the construction of solar temples together with the “Osirian” pyramids in the fifth dynasty, which also shows the close connection of Re and Osiris with kingship.

The permanent co-presence of king and gods at every place in Egypt was clearly impossible. The king thus had to deputize members of the royal family (in the Old Kingdom), and later, nobles of his court to represent him. Priestly ranks were closely connected to administrative ranks in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and an independent priesthood with its own titles developed only during the New Kingdom. The clerical and administrative hierarchy was organized into groups called “phyles” (s3). High priests were appointed at all great temples from the local administration, while officials were entrusted with informal tasks in temples, which could include the temporary leadership of the local phyle (Stela Louvre C 13). At the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, the temple hierarchy grew stronger and began to influence the king. The origins of this special relationship between gods (through the priests) and kings go back as far as the Middle Kingdom. The god is said to elevate the king before millions (Instructions for Merikare 116), thus legitimizing the king. In the New Kingdom, the dominant god, Amun-Re, often intervened in politics (electing the king, or conducting campaigns) through his priesthood. The designation of priests by the king became a formality, though the king retained the right to appoint high priests. In the Ramesside Period the god could even appropriate this task (the appointment of the high priest of Amun, Nb-wnn, in the reign of Ramesses II). Near the end of the eighteenth dynasty, Akhenaten attempted to restore the original relationship of king to god. The king became the exclusive partner of the god, the only intermediary between the one god and the people (Redford 1995, 177–178). The clerical challenge to kingship may have motivated King Akhenaten.

The male-dominated Egyptian society did not concede any important cultic position to women. Though priestesses existed since the Old Kingdom, their number and their importance were always limited, and in most cases they served female gods. Many women seem to have been involved in the so-called harem (ḫnr) as chantresses or as dancers, as shown by reliefs in the Old Kingdom tombs, textual evidence from the Middle Kingdom archives of Illahun, and in large numbers of Theban and other temples of the New Kingdom. Apart from the minor positions that women held during all periods, the rank of the “god's wife of Amun” eventually acquired the highest political influence (in the first half of the first millennium BCE). It was inaugurated in the First Intermediate Period, when a “god's wife of Min” is first mentioned, and thus the rank was not limited to servants of Amun.

The idea of an intermediary relation between kings and gods seems to be displayed in the recently found two-sided relief statue of King Amenhotpe III in Luxor. On the front, the king stands on a sledge, which emphasizes his exceptional status as the god Horus, while on the back, the king kneels, in holy discourse with and makes an offering to Amun, Lord of Karnak (Silverman 1995, 62–63). Both representations reflect Horus's position in the divine hierarchy as the offspring of the gods. Thus, royal statues took part in the cult as intermediaries, and were themselves divine in the New Kingdom, particularly in the Ramessid period. The king making an offering in front of the king's cult statue needs additional explanation. In the Old Kingdom, the divinity appears in a dual role—as a heavenly and an earthly god. But the royal Horus title does not automatically signify the heavenly Horus. He can, however, instill his divine power into the king. Similarly, Osiris represents two gods: Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, and Osiris, the dead king, specified by name; these attributes are evident already in the early Middle Kingdom. Hence the king, as the potential receiver of the divine power (ba), also divides into cult statue and living king.

In the New Kingdom, the Egyptian who was not part of the priesthood could not directly participate in the rituals or enter the temple. He saw only the veiled figures of the gods during outdoor processions, and could only participate in the cult of gods during festivals. Herodotus makes some reference to those events, but he is cautious about the details. A glance at the Theban festival calendar of the New Kingdom and those of the Ptolemaic and Roman temples clearly show that everywhere in Egypt celebrations were held in a great number throughout the year, and especially on New Year's Day, when order (maat) was restored.

Egyptians could not always pray directly to the gods. A “personal piety” movement developed from the Middle Kingdom onward, in which Egyptians could directly address the gods and seek a divine answer. Evidently in the early eighteenth dynasty, the gods could resolve political questions through oracles and also had the power to pardon human sins. Since creation was not perfect, misguided people would sin against order (maat, Spell 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day); gods and kings had to prevent chaos. The creator formed mankind in his own image—not just his physical appearance, but also the free will that seduced humans from the correct course of order. For the same reason, people could hope for divine salvation if they took the god into their hearts.

Egyptian religion had great appeal in Hellenistic times. The cult of the goddess Isis spread throughout the Roman Empire. The nature of her cult was by then more Hellenistic than Egyptian, but Isis never lost her Egyptian identity, and her temple in Philae was not closed until the sixth century CE.



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Ulrich H. Luft