Ancient Egyptian Essay, Research Paper
Egyptian creation stories tell of several variations of how the
world was composed. According to one variation, the ocean was the only thing
in existence. Then the sun, Ra, came out of an egg (or a flower in some
versions) that appeared on the surface of the water. Ra created four
children. They were the gods Shu and Geb and the goddesses Tefnut and Nut.
Shu and Tefnut became the air, who stood on Geb, the earth, and held up Nut,
who became the sky. Ra ruled over all.
It was not uncommon for siblings to have children in ancient Egypt,
and Geb and Nut had two sons, Set and Osiris, and two daughters, Isis and
Nephthys. Osiris succeeded Ra as the king of the earth, helped by Isis.
However, Set hated his brother out of jealousy and killed him. Isis embalmed
Osiris’ body with the aid of the god Anubis, who then became the god of
embalming. Isis then resurrected Osiris, and he became the god of the
afterlife and the land of the dead. Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, later
defeated Set in an immense battle and became king of the earth.
Another version tells that Ra emerged from primeval waters. From him came
Shu, the god of air and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. From their union
came Geb and Nut, who held the same positions as the above version.
Yet another version tells that Ra became the god of the afterlife, but was
The ancient Egyptian theology dealt with hundreds of deities. These gods
changed during the different dynasties and their importance depended on the
views of the rulers of the kingdom.
The Egyptians worshipped their gods at temples, and each was dedicated to a
particular god. A statue of the god stood in the center of these temples.
Every day, priests would clean and dress the statue and offer it meals
before the worshipping ceremonies took place.
Ra means “creator.” He is or was for a time, in nearly all accounts of
Egyptian mythology, the supreme god. He was “the father of the gods, the
fashioner of men, the creator of cattle, the lord of all being”. He is the
god of the sun in most of these accounts and is shown as a man with a
falcon’s head. He carries a staff and the symbol for life, the ankh. The
symbol of the sun, also known as the solar disc, is above his head. Despite
the fact that he was a very important figure to Egyptians, he had few
temples dedicated to him. This was because of the fact that his importance
was reflected in all other worshipping rituals. The pharaohs named
themselves as sons of Ra.
The passage of the sun across the sky obviously fascinated the Egyptians
and from it rose many metaphors. At dawn the sun was regarded as a newborn
child emerging from the womb of Nut. The sun was also associated with a
falcon flying across the midday sun, thus Ra’s appearance. He could also be
a boat sailing across the great blue sea of the heavens. At dusk he was an
old man stepping down to the land of the dead.
Amon is “the complete one”. He was regarded as an important deity after the
second millennium BC, and considered supreme, surpassing even Ra, after the
sixteenth century B.C. He, like most other gods, had the body of a man. He
had a human head, and wears a crown with two tall plumes on its top.
Amon started out having power over the air or wind, but was not in complete
control of these forces. He later acquired powers of fertility that had
belonged to the god Min, the god of harvest.
By being accepted as the supreme god, Ra was a rival. To satisfy the claims
of supremacy made by Amon and Ra, the two deities merged to form the god
Amon-Ra or Amon-Re. This new god was worshipped as king of the gods, creator
of the universe, and the father of the pharaohs.
Amon-Ra was said to have guided the pharaohs in the battlefield. During the
battle of Kadesh, 1286 BC, Amon-Ra is supposed to have comforted the pharaoh
by saying, “Forward! Your father is with you! My powerful hand will slay a
hundred thousand men.”
Osiris was said to be the king and judge of the dead. Because the
importance of the afterlife was so immense in the Egyptians, Osiris was a
very important figure in worship cults. In fact, for a period, the
worshipping of Osiris in the Nile Valley became so popular, it almost
exceeded that of the sun god and father of the pharaohs, Ra. The chief
reason for his importance was the assistance he gave the Egyptians with
embalming, which was considered essential for life after death.
Osiris was described as a man with a long black beard. His arms are in the
crossed position of mummies and carries a crook and a flail, which
symbolized his power over the dead, his nature as a dying and rising god,
and his command over agriculture. He wears the white crown of Upper Egypt.
His personal emblem is two stalks of corn placed on top of each other.
Isis is the “mother goddess.” She is often illustrated as suckling the
child Horus. The name Isis is a Greek rendition of the Egyptian name Ast.
Worship of Isis became widespread in the Greco-Roman culture until from it
came a mysterious cult that worshipped both her and Osiris. This cult gained
much popularity until the spread of Christianity.
Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, was depicted as looking much like Ra, apart
from the symbol above his head and clothing. Like Ra, Horus had the head of
a falcon and the body of a man and holds a staff in one hand and the ankh in
the other. Unlike Ra, Horus wears the double crown on his head, showing that
he was king of both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Ptah was illustrated as a mummified man with a shaven or bound head and
held a scepter. At first he was most likely a fertility god like Min because
his name has connections with the womb. In the third millennium BC, priests
serving Ptah claimed that Ptah manifested himself in
many ways. It was believed that Ptah “created the gods, made their seats of
worship, established their sacrifices, and fashioned their forms.” He was
the molder of all things. Ptah became the protector and advocate to sacred
arts and crafts.
Later, Ptah was associated with lesser deities, especially those related to
the dead. He was then known as Ptah-Seker. The name Seker came from the god
of the same name, who was the mummiform god of the dead. In some instances,
Ptah was linked to Osiris, thus the name Ptah-
Aapep – the Egyptian serpent and enemy of Ra, known usually by his Greek
Ammut – “The Eater of the Dead.” Part crocodile, part hippopotamus, and part
lion, Ammut ate the souls of those unworthy to spend eternity in Osiris’
kingdom. He was usually illustrated with mostly crocodile features.
Aten – the deity worshipped as the universal and creator god by the pharaoh
Akhenaten. Aten was represented by Ra’s sun disc. After Akhenaten’s death in
1350 BC, Egyptian worship returned to Amon-Ra.
Bastet – the cat goddess and daughter of Ra. In some myths, Bastet has some
of the destructive qualities of her counterpart, the lion goddess Sekhmet.
Both Bastet and Sekhmet were closely linked to the goddess Mut. In Bastet’s
temple, cats were mummified upon their death and kept in the temple.
Bes – a popular household god. He was represented as a dwarf with a large
bearded face, shaggy eyebrows, long hair, large pointy ears, and a
projecting tongue. He protected children, slew poisonous snakes in the
towns, helped at childbirth, and kept misfortune at bay.
Khonsu – the moon god. He was the son of Amun and Mut. Like Ra, Khonsu was
often shown traveling across the sky in a boat. His symbol is a crescent
moon in a bowl position supporting a full moon. This symbol appeared above
his head. His ability to heal the sick drew many followers.
Maat – the goddess of truth and justice. She was the daughter of Ra and was
portrayed as a woman with a ostrich feather on her head. This feather, the
“Feather of Truth”, was the same used to weigh the heart of the recently
deceased in Osiris’ court.
Mehturt – the sky goddess who was portrayed as a cow. Her name means “Great
Flood” and she was the celestial river on which Ra and Khonsu’s boats traveled.
Menthu – the god of war and a sun god. He was not ever considered to be the
supreme sun god, but rather an assistant to Ra, and is often shown with him.
He was particularly fond of horses.
When Egyptian chariots bore down on the Hittites during the battle of Kadesh
in 1286 BC, the pharaoh Ramesses II remarked that he was “like Menthu,
shooting to the right and left.” His warlike qualities gained popularity
during later times.
Mertseger – a goddess with a serpent’s head. Her touchiness caused visitors
to Thebes to pay her the greatest respect.
Meskhent – a goddess who assisted in the delivering of babies and assigning
a destiny to each. She may have also appeared in Osiris’ court.
Min – the god of reproduction. Needless to say, he was an extremely popular
Nefertem – the god of the lotus flower from which, in some myths, Ra emerged
from each morning.
Nehebkau – a deity in the form of a serpent with human arms and legs. He was
a loyal servant to Ra. Nehebkau was originally a snake that threatened the
dead, but later evolved into a good force.
Nephthys – a funerary goddess. She appears as a normal woman. Her name means
“the lady of the castle”.
Phoenix – a bird that consumed itself in fire and was reborn from its ashes
every 500 years. The phoenix was sometimes used to represent Ra who, like
the sun, is born at dawn and dies at twilight. Followers of early
Christianity adopted the phoenix as a symbol of immortality.
Qubenhsenuf – a falcon-headed god associated with funeral rites. He was one
of four gods responsible for the safety of the Canopic jars of the dead and
to guard the four corners of the sarcophagus. Qubenhsenuf’s jar contained
Qetesh – a fertility goddess, usually shown without clothes, holding
flowers, and standing on the back of a lion.
Renenutet – a snake goddess who protected the harvest and the pharaoh. Her
name is connected with the concept of nursing and raising children, and was
often represented as the essence of divine motherhood.
Sebek – the crocodile god of lakes and rivers. He splashed in a pool in his
temple at Fayum.
Seker – a funerary god who protected the city of Memphis. Seker later was a
member of Osiris’ court.
Serqet – the scorpion goddess. She was a funerary deity who’s task it was to
guard the Canopic jars. She was the companion of Isis.
Shu – the god of sunlight and air, and one of Ra’s first two children. He
supports the sky with his arms.
Tefnut – the goddess of moisture. She helps her brother/husband Shu hold up
the sky and welcomed the sun, Ra, everyday, leading to the sun disc above
her head. She is represented as a woman with a lion’s head.
Tuamutef – a funerary god. He was one of four responsible for the Canopic
jars. His contained the stomach of the deceased. He has the head of a jackal
and is consequentially associated with Anubis.
Upuanut – a wolf god who helped to guide the dead to the court of Osiris.
Wepwawet – a funerary god with a dog’s body. His name means “the opener of
Ptah is said to have performed great miracles. One story relating to this
claim deals with Ptah saving the city of Pelusium from the Assyrians.
According to the myth, he instructed an army of rats to gnaw through the
attacker’s bowstrings and shield handles. Defenseless, the Assyrians were
forced to retreat.
He was also said to reincarnate the Apis bull. This bull was worshipped in
its own temple in Memphis. Everyday at a fixed time, the bull was allowed to
run loose in the temple courtyard so the future could be foreseen by its
behavior. The Apis bulls would normally die of old age and, like any other
sacred Egyptian animal, was mummified. The Egyptians believed that Ptah
would reincarnate the Apis bull after its death. Excavations have uncovered
64 Apis bulls, all mummified.
OSIRIS’ KINGDOM OF THE DEAD
One of the most important aspects of ancient Egyptian life is preparation
for the afterlife. It was believed that the basic life force consisted of
physical elements as well
as mental, one of which is the ka. The ka is a duplicate of the body that
accompanies the original body throughout life. Therefore, the ka could not
exist without the body, so every
effort was made to preserve it. From this belief came the ritual of
embalming. In addition, wood or stone replicas of the body were placed in
the tomb in case of the accidental destruction of the corpse. The more
statue duplicates of the body were put in the tomb, the greater chance the
person had of being resurrected. As a final protection, exceedingly
intricate tombs were built to protect the body and its replicas. According
to myth, the embalming was first performed by Isis, who prepared her
brother-husband Osiris, now the god of the underworld, for his journey to
Duat, the land of the dead, also known as Yaru.
Upon death, the ka was finally freed from the body, however, innumerable
perils awaited the ka until guided to Duat by the wolf-headed god Upuanut.
Because of these dangers, every tomb was furnished with a copy of the Book
of the Dead, a guide to life after death, which was inscribed on papyrus
scrolls. Part of the Book of the Dead told how to overcome these dangers.
Every necessity for life in Duat was put into the tombs, from furniture to
The dead were believed to first visit Osiris for permission to enter Duat.
It was located in a valley in the sky just past the western horizon,
separated from the earth and the heavens by mountains, through which the sun
god Ra passed everyday at sundown.
During the judgment process, the ka’s heart, which was meant in the
symbolic sense but illustrated in the physical sense, was weighed on the
Scales of Judgment against the Feather of Truth before Osiris and his
forty-two assessors. Anubis held the scale and weighed the heart and Thoth
recorded the result. If deemed worthy, the ka would be allowed to spend
eternity in Duat. If not worthy, the ka would be subject to hunger and
thirst for several days, then the crocodile god Ammut would eat him.
In order to gain the best judgment in Osiris’ court, the ka had to be able
to use magic spells and protest his innocence. But there were also
practical ways of gaining Osiris’ mercy. A worshipper could visit Osiris’
temple at Abydos at some time during his life and leave some inscribed
offering. The Book of the Dead also contains instructions for proper conduct
before Osiris’ court.
The Book of the Dead also tells about life in Duat. In Duat, grain
grew twelve feet tall and existence was a glorified version of life on
earth. Osiris expected the dead to do small amounts of work in these grain
fields in exchange for his protection and allowance to stay in Duat.
THE STORY OF OSIRIS
As the son of Geb, Osiris succeeded his father to the position of ruler
over Upper Egypt. He then took his sister Isis as his wife. First on his
agenda as king was to civilize his subjects. This included abolishing
cannibalism, showing them how to make agricultural tools, and cultivate
grapes and wheat. He instructed them on how to make bread and wine and the
arts of music and weaving. He also created a legal system and established
religious worship. His wife,
Isis, taught her subjects to ground flour, weave, and cure illnesses. She is
often credited with establishing the custom of marriage.
Having civilized Egypt, Osiris decided to do the same for the rest of the
world, leaving Isis to rule during his travels. After several years, he
returned, pleased to find that Isis’ rule had kept everything in order. But
shortly afterward his brother Seth, who had immense jealousy in Osiris’
power and success, planned to kill him.
Seth invited Osiris to a banquet, and a beautiful coffer was presented to
him. Seth said that whoever could fit into the coffer could own it. Osiris
was first in accepting the challenge. He climbed in, and Seth and his fellow
conspirators nailed the lid shut and sealed it with lead. During the
protection of the night, they dropped it into the Nile. The coffer floated
out to sea, and after some time settled at the base of a tamarisk tree at
Byblos. The tree sensed the valuable nature of the contents of the coffer
and grew protectively around it. When the king of
Byblos ordered the tree cut for a supporting pillar of the roof of his
palace, his servants did so, and a delightful scent rose from it. Word of
the scent of the tree quickly spread far and wide.
Back in Egypt, Isis was mourning the loss of Osiris. She did so by cutting
off her hair and tearing her clothes. She was informed of the tree and
immediately recognized its significance. She quickly set off to Byblos.
Malcandre gave the tree trunk to Isis, and she retrieved the coffer. She
then took the coffer back to Egypt and hid it in the swamps of the
Nile delta. There she opened it, and tried to breathe life into Osiris. She
succeeded in keeping him alive long enough for him to impregnate her.
Soon afterwards, Seth was hunting in the swamps and found the coffer.
Infuriated that Osiris still existed, Seth cut the body into fourteen pieces
and scattered them across Egypt. With the aid of Nut, Isis sought the pieces
of the body, and recovered all but the genitals, which were gone forever.
She was successful in resurrecting Osiris.
Osiris went before the gods and discredited Seth. Having regained
life, his reputation, and the throne as ruler of Egypt, Osiris could have
stayed on the earth, but instead chose to become lord of the land of the
dead, which was believed to exist just past the western horizon.
Isis, assisted by Anubis, prepared Osiris for his journey to the land of
the dead with the first embalming rituals, which established the ritual of
burial in Egypt. The magic of Isis was considered important to gain
acceptance into the land of the dead.
Later, Isis gave birth to the child Horus, who she kept hidden in the swamp
to protect him from the rage of Seth.
THE SENILITY OF RA
When Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, was the servant of the sun god
Ra, she persuaded him to confide his secret name to her, for whoever knew
the name would be granted much magic and power. She did this by collecting
some of the spittle that dripped from his lips and mixing it with earth.
*From this concoction she formed an asp, a deadly snake, which she placed in
Ra’s path. The snake bit and poisoned Ra who, being senile, was not able to
cure himself. Only Isis could remove the poison and the pain. She told Ra
that she would, but only if he told her
his secret name. He refused.
The effects of the venom grew worse. Eventually Ra gave in and uttered the
name to Isis, on the condition that she never tell anyone else. Isis then
gained some of his power and she became unmatched in the magic arts.
Horus was raised in the swamps of the Nile Delta in utmost secrecy by his
mother, Isis. When he reached manhood he vowed to avenge the death of his
father, Osiris. He fought many lengthy battles with Seth. In one of these
battles he lost an eye. Eventually, Horus killed him. The gods had judged
that Horus had won an honorable victory.
In another version of the story, Horus had emasculated Seth rather
than kill him. He appeared before the council of the gods and claimed he had
the right to the throne of his father, Osiris. But Seth insisted that he
himself be crowned, arguing that Horus was illegitimate because he was
mysteriously conceived after Osiris’ death. Finally, the cow goddess Neith
convinced through threats that the gods should “give the office of Osiris to
his son Horus,” she declared,
“and do not act wickedly, else I become angry, and send heaven crashing to
the ground.” He was granted rule over both Upper and Lower Egypt, even
though his father only ruled Upper Egypt.
To mark the event, Horus gave Osiris the eye he had lost and wore a serpent
on his head as his second eye. Thereafter, the pharaohs of Egypt wore the
serpent on their crown as a symbol of royal authority.
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