The majority of Egypt is dry desert, and only the benevolent Nile brings it life. Now, as thousands of years ago, the population settles along its banks, needing on its water to exist.
Religion was central to everyday life in ancient Egypt. Each area had its own tribal deities which were never completely assimilated into a single system and there are many gods and goddesses with conflicting relationships and histories.
However, there are common themes running through the myths of ancient Egypt. These centre on the constants of everyday life- the rising and setting of the sun, the surrounding arid desert, and the annual flooding of the Nile which left rich alluvial silt that provided a fertile medium for growing crops. The gods represented these natural forces and ideas sometimes depicted in human form and sometimes as animal headed to emphasise their link with the natural balance.
The country itself was a double kingdom of south and north: Upper Egypt [Shemau] is the southern part of the country, and northern Egypt was considered to be Lower Egypt [Ta-Mehu], the Delta. This is because the Nile is unusual in flowing from south to north.
The two kingdoms were united under King Menes in the early dynastic period around five thousand years ago and the unification is symbolised by the representations of the two lands: the papyrus of the Delta and the water lily of the south, or alternatively the sedge of the south and the bee of the north. The pharaoh was titled ‘he of the two lands’ and wore a double crown consisting of the red crown of Lower Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt. Often the two goddesses of upper and lower Egypt are shown wearing their respective crowns. Even Hapi, the god of the Nile, was sometimes shown as twins.
Just as north and south were balanced, so too were east and west, where Ra the sun god rose and set on his journey across the sky in the solar boat during the twelve hours of daylight. At sunset he became Atum, god of the sunset, and entered the Western gateway. During the twelve hours of night, he had to make a dangerous progress through the underworld, along the way reviving the god Osiris, visiting Thoth as the moon god, and defeating his arch enemy Apophis, a giant serpent. In the twelfth hour the solar boat entered the body of a giant snake and Ra emerged from its mouth as the scarab headed Kephera, god of dawn.
An alternative story tells how the sky goddess Nut swallowed the sun in the evening, it passed through her body at night, and she gave birth to it each dawn. This same journey was promised to the human soul: the passage through life into death, the journey through the land of the dead, and rebirth into the afterlife.
There are various creation myths:
In one the god Ptah created himself and everything else by speaking his thoughts out loud. This is more metaphysical than most Egyptian creation myths; it relies on the concepts of heka [divine magical energy], sia [divine knowledge] and hu [divine utterance].
In the Elephantine Creation Myth, the ram-headed god Khnum modelled creation on his potter’s wheel out of clay and watched over his creation with care.
In the Ogdoad creation myth of Hermopolis Magna eight deities known as the Ogdoad [Greek for “group of eight” or in Egyptian khmum] four frog headed gods and four serpentine goddesses – Nun and Naunet [primeval water], Amun and Amaunet [air or hidden power], Kuk and Kauket [darkness] and Huh and Hauhet [formlessness or flood force] – acted together to create a burst of energy, a kind of big bang, from which creation took place. A primeval mound of earth emerged from the waters, called the Isle of Flame. The god Thoth, in the shape of an ibis bird, placed an egg on it. This cosmic egg cracked and hatched the sun, which rose into the sky. A variation on this story states that a lotus flower [the god Nefertem] grew on the waters and opened its petals to allow the sun [Horus] to emerge from it. The earliest known version of this myth is from the Middle Kingdom [c.2055-1650 BCE].
On the best-known stories is the Ennead of Heliopolis: the primeval waters existed before everything. A mound arose upon them and on this was the god Atum [“The All”]. By masturbating or sneezing he spat out the god and goddess Shu [air] and Tefnut [moisture]. These mated and produced Geb [Earth] and Nut [Sky]. These two had to be separated by Shu and were the parents of Isis, Osiris, Set and Nepthys. These are called the Ennead [Greek for Group of Nine, or in Egyptian pesedjet.]
The various creation myths all emphasise order [maat] being created out of primordial chaos, usually symbolised by land emerging from water. Underlying all Egyptian philosophy, there was a constant fear of the return of chaos [Isfet], represented by the god Set who stood for the barrenness and aridity of the desert. Opposing Set was his nephew Horus, an emblem of order and fertility. Together the two made a perfect balance of two opposites, a common theme in Egypt.
THE STORY OF ISIS AND OSIRIS
Isis and Osiris, together with their siblings Set and Nepthys, were the children of the earth god Geb and Nut, the sky goddess. Set married his sister Nepthys, while Osiris married Isis and the pair became rulers of Egypt. Thoth the Scribe acted as their chief advisor. Osiris taught humankind how to plant and harvest grain, how to make tools, and how to make bread and beer. Isis taught them how to make wine. Together they built temples and reformed the religion of Egypt. After a few years Osiris travelled abroad and introduced these ideas into other countries, leaving the wise Isis to act as regent.
Then, in the twenty-eighth year of his reign, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set. Set is generally seen as an evil figure, the personification of the dry desert that surrounds the thin strip of fertile Nile Valley. Set and his followers tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, nailed down the lid and then threw it in the Nile. It washed up in Byblos, but Set found it and cut his brother’s body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered across Egypt.
Isis searched the whole land until she found the pieces, leaving a funeral inscription at each site, all but the fourteenth part- the phallus, which had been eaten by a crab. The jackal-headed god Anubis, son of Osiris and Nepthys, mummified the body and this was the first mummy.
Isis formed a new phallus by magic and, transforming herself into a kite, mated with the corpse and conceived Horus, the falcon headed god. Isis was forced to hide from Set until Horus was old enough to avenge his father. As a baby in the marshes he was watched over by the goddesses Nepthys, Sekhat-Hor, Neith and Selkis. He was also guarded by ‘the seven cows of Hathor’, identified with the Pleiades cluster of stars. Horus is sometimes said to be Osiris reborn.
Osiris chose to remain in Amenti (‘West’) the Land of the Dead to act as the judge of souls. He is usually depicted as a mummy.
Much of the lore of Osiris and Isis was appropriated by the Christian religion. Osiris was a god who chose to become a man to guide his people. As such he was called ‘the Good Shepherd’ and depicted with a shepherd’s crook. As a corn god he died, was buried, and was brought back to life when Isis caused the Nile to flood. As corn he fed his people and was called the ‘Resurrection and the Life’. His flesh was eaten in the form of wheaten cakes. Like Mary, Isis was called ‘The Star of the Sea’ and ‘Queen of Heaven’, a virgin who brought forth a son titled ‘the Saviour of the World’, the hero who brings order back into the universe. The pair were forced to hide from an evil king until the son became a man.
The Egyptian calendar of three seasons was based on the agricultural cycle, which depended on the flooding of the Nile. In late July the first heliacal (i.e. just before sunrise) rising of the Dog Star occurs in Egypt. Unlike other parts of the world the effects of Sirius were considered beneficial, and its appearance was thought to cause the yearly rising of the flood waters in the Nile Delta. The star is titled ‘the Water Bringer’. It was this inundation of the great river that provided the rich alluvial deposits for the cultivation of crops, and marked a time when the country, parched by intense heat and drought, would be brought back to life. This was the greatest festival in the Egyptian calendar.
Egyptians called the star Septit -or Sothis in the Greek form of the name- and identified it with the goddess Isis. The rising of Sothis was considered to be the goddess coming to mourn her husband and bring him back to life (as corn god) with the flooding of the Nile. It was called the Festival of Isis seeking Osiris in the Darkness.
DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE
The Egyptians believed in an afterlife. The earliest known burials, in shallow oval graves, date from 5000 years ago, and were simple burials in the hot, dry sand of the desert, which preserved the bodies. Even at this time, they were buried with funerary goods, such as pots, tools and weapons, which they were thought to need in the afterlife. They were buried in the foetal position, suggesting that there was a belief in rebirth. The unearthing of these perfectly preserved bodies may have given the ancient Egyptians the idea that the dead were living in some way, and that the body was required to be preserved for the afterlife.
As time progressed, richer people demanded more elaborate burials and tombs. People began to be buried in coffins and lined underground chambers. Mummification developed and continued until the conquest of Christianity on the fourth century AD.
From the later coffins texts, we know that the realm of the dead, called the Fields of Hetep [satisfaction or offerings] was thought to be located in the heavens, the realm of the sun. To reach it, the soul would travel on the back of a falcon or goose, on the outstretched arms of the gods, or by a reed boat. To get to the afterlife, the soul would have to overcome various obstacles.
The afterlife was a perfected vision of everyday life in Egypt, with lovely trees, fertile fields and abundance, where they would work in the fields, feast and so on. So that they did not have to work too hard, they would take servants with them in the form of shabtis. It was personified as the god Aker, shown as a strip of land with a human head or two lions sitting back to back, one facing east, the other west, guarding the entrance and exit to the otherworld. The afterlife and death or imhet was associated with the west, the direction of the setting sun, rebirth and life with the east or duat, the direction of the rising sun.
By dying and passing into the afterlife, a person came closer to the gods, and gained supernatural powers that might help the living. However, the unsettled dead could cause problems for the living.
The eternal part of a person had three parts:
Ka – a spirit double, or the vital energising force of life, represented by two upraised arms. It comes into being at a person’s birth and is linked with the physical body, which is the vessel for the ka after death. It required offerings of food and drink to sustain it in the afterlife.
Ba- represented by a bird with a human head. It seems to represent the non-physical elements that make a human an individual, the personality and will. It is more mobile than the ka and enables a person to move around in the afterlife.
Akh- represented by a crested ibis or a small mummiform figure, it is the transfigured spirit of a person after death. Those who fail to achieve this transformation are condemned to eternal death.
Name and Shadow- in addition, the name and shadow of a person were considered to be important, and these were protected and preserved after death.
After death, the soul of the person was judged in the court of Osiris. It was the duty of each person, especially the pharaoh, to maintain this cosmic order, a harmony personified as the goddess Maat, and to prepare for the afterlife by obeying the forty two divine laws, as judged by the forty two Maati or afterlife assessors. The soul would be asked to name the assessors and swear that he had not transgressed any of the divine laws, such a murder or polluting the environment. The proceedings were recorded by Thoth, the scribe. The heart of the deceased was weighed on the sales of Maat, and is depicted being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat. If it balanced, the soul was allowed into the afterlife. If it was heavy with sin, the heart would be thrown to a monster called Ammit [‘gobbler’]. If the heart passed the scales test, it was returned to its owner, and funeral rites included spells to ensure this. It was protected by a scarab laid over it during the bandaging of the mummy.