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Ancient Egypt: Religion

Resources for the Ancient Egypt unit.

brown concrete wall with human face carved

Source: Jeremy Bezanger (2021)

Religion was a huge part of life in Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians believed in lots of gods and goddesses, many of which took the form of half human, half animal creatures. These gods and goddesses were responsible for different parts of everyday life, from childbirth to beer brewing. Read through the resources below to learn more.

Book of the Dead papyri

'Book of the Dead' papyri are first found in the early New Kingdom c.1450 BC and the finest (like Hunefer's) were written by expert scribes and decorated by master draftsmen. Perhaps, as royal scribe, it was Hunefer himself who put brush to ink to inscribe his own papyrus.

Sheet composed of 30 lines of black and red cursive hieroglyphic text with black dividing lines. Above the text is a polychrome vignette in a band at the top, separated by black/yellow lines. Spell 17.

Vignette depicts seven seated figures holding knives, one of which is seated in a booth; the deceased worshipping five seated deities; a cat slaying a snake by a tree. Black cursive hieroglyphic captions identify the deceased and the deities; Ra, Shu, Tefnut, Geb and Ba-Djedet (ba of Mendes). Framed by black/yellow lines.

Composition framed by red and yellow lines; fills sheets. Very little text/image loss except for yellow paint which has faded.

Wooden figure of Duamutef

Wooden figure of an Egyptian jackal-headed deity
This is one of several wooden statuettes of Egyptian deities discovered by Giovanni Belzoni in the Valley of the Kings, and subsequently sold to the British Museum by Henry Salt, Belzoni's patron. Dating from about 1290 BC, it represents a jackal-headed god, probably Duamutef, and would originally have been entirely covered with black varnish. Such figures, serving a protective purpose, have been found in several of the royal tombs in the Valley; the exact provenance of this one is unknown, although it is very probable that it came from the tomb of one of the 19th Dynasty pharaohs, Ramesses I or Sety I, discovered in 1817.
Most of the wooden figures from these tombs had been subjected to rough handling by robbers, and many had lost their bases. Before offering them to the British Museum, Salt, or one of his associates (perhaps even Belzoni himself), endeavoured to 'restore' the statues by providing them with pedestals or supports made from fragments of other antiquities. Thus one of the figures (EA 61283) is now mounted on the base of a private funerary statuette dating to the Ptolemaic Period (c. 250 BC), while several others, including the present example, were attached to blocks of wood which had been sawn from a painted coffin of the 26th Dynasty (c. 600 BC). This 'cannibalising' of what were regarded as inferior artefacts to enhance the value of more desirable pieces well illustrates the somewhat cavalier attitude of early nineteenth-century excavators towards their discoveries.

Bronze figure of Sobek

Bronze figure of Sobek: this solid cast figure depicts the god Sobek as a plump crocodile sprawled on a hollow shrine shaped plinth. The details of his scales are carefully incised, his eyes have gold inlays and on his head he wears an 'atef' crown composed of a central tall reed crown with bulbous top (now lost) and sun disc, flanked by ostrich feathers and upreared cobras, all mounted on a pair of twisted ram's horns.

Wherever the Nile was rendered treacherous by sandbanks or cliffs, or there were marshlands, the crocodile was revered as Sobek by a kind of propitiatory magic. The creature was particularly feared because not only did it kill, it ate the body of its victim without which there could be no afterlife. The reasoning was that if the crocodile was deified, and sacred crocodiles were tended while alive and embalmed when dead, Sobek would do no harm to those who revered him. This bronze might have been dedicated at one of the god's temples by a pious worshipper although there is no dedicatory inscription.

Bronze figure of Isis

Bronze figure of Isis wearing the sun-disc with horns(damaged) on a uraeiform modius and a vulture-headdress; the arms and wings are extended forwards in protective gesture; plinth beneath the feet.


Amulet in the Form of a Lion-Headed Goddess

This amulet represents a lion-headed goddess on an open worked throne. With her right hand she is holding a sistrum (a musical instrument like a rattle) that is topped by a double ba-bird. Her other hand clenches a papyrus-scepter that symbolizes regeneration and life. A number of lion-headed goddesses are known from ancient Egypt, such as Sakhmet, Bastet, and Wadjet, and it is unclear, which one is represented here. Each side of the throne depicts a lion-headed goddess with a sun disk on her head. Behind her is a snake god with human arms and legs, who is linked to stellar decans. Above the snake’s head and in front of the lion headed goddess are short columns of text that presumably give their names; but unfortunately they are undecipherable. All feline deities are closely connected to the sun god Ra and at the top of the large figure, between her ears, is a small hole that originally must have held a separately manufactured sun disk. The loop at the top of the amulet was meant for suspension. The Egyptians believed that amulets like this one evoked the power of the goddess and put the wearer under her protection.

Statuette of Amun

The god Amun ("the hidden one") first came into prominence at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. From the New Kingdom onward, Amun was arguably the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon. As a creator god, Amun is most often identified as Amun-Re (in the typical Egyptian blending of deities, Amun is combined with the main solar deity, Re). His main sanctuary was the immense temple complex at Karnak on the east bank of the Nile at the southern edge of modern Luxor.

In this small figure Amun stands in the traditional pose with the left leg forward. He is identified by his characteristic flat-topped crown, which originally supported two tall gold feathers, now missing. He wears the gods' braided beard with a curled tip and carries an ankh emblem in his left hand and a scimitar across his chest. On pylons and temple walls of the New Kingdom, Amun-Re is often depicted presenting a scimitar to the king, thus conferring on him military victory.

This statuette, cast in solid gold, is an extremely rare example of the statuary made of precious materials that, according to ancient descriptions, filled the sanctuaries of temples. The figure could have been mounted on top of a ceremonial scepter or standard. There are traces of a tripartite loop on the top of Amun’s cap, which indicates that he could be suspended and, as such, perhaps was worn by a temple celebrant or by a statue of a deity.For the Egyptians, the color of gold and the sheen of its surface were associated with the sun, and the skin of gods was supposed to be made of gold.

The soft modeling of the torso, the narrow waist, and other features are typical of the art of the Third Intermediate period. This era marks the political decline of centralized power in Egypt, but it is also a period of great artistic achievement. Works in metal (gold, silver, and, above all, bronze) were of especially fine quality, and the Museum's statuette of Amun testifies to the excellence typical of the period.

Offering Table of Seti I

This large offering slab was placed in a temple and dedicated by Seti I to the god Seth: it bears a representation of bread loaves and libation jars on the top. Where the spout would normally be, there is a smoothly finished depression, which suggests the piece was repaired in ancient times. On two sides of the depression are parallel scenes depicting the king worshipping Seth (on the right) and offering libation to his consort Nephthys. All pictorial and textual references to Seth have been defaced, except for his hieroglyph in writing the name of the king.

Wedjat Eye Amulet

The symbolism of this wedjat-eye amulet was one of the most pervasive and powerful in ancient Egypt. Combining a human eye with the stylized markings of a falcon's, it represents the healed eye of the god Horus that was known as the "Sound One." It was a symbol of recovery and regeneration. As amulet it prevented its wearer from harm and ensured well-being.

Taweret Amulet

Taweret and other closely related goddesses were created from a blending of lion, hippo, crocodile, and human attributes. The three animals were some of the fiercest species found in ancient Egypt and combining their strengths produced a most potent deity and therefore amulet. Taweret's particular responsibility was the protection of women during pregnancy and childbirth. She is often portrayed leaning on a sa symbol. Her representation was sometimes used on tomb walls or funerary equipment to protect the deceased during rebirth.

Statuette of Isis and Horus

For the ancient Egyptians the image of the goddess Isis suckling her son Horus was a powerful symbol of rebirth that was carried into the Ptolemaic period and later transferred to Rome, where the cult of the goddess was established. This piece of faience sculpture joins the tradition of pharaonic Egypt with the artistic style of the Ptolemaic period. On the goddess's head is the throne hieroglyph that represents her name. She also wears a vulture head-covering reserved for queens and goddesses. Following ancient conventions for indicating childhood, Horus is naked and wears a single lock of hair on the right side of his head.

Ritual Figure

The fluid pose and chest-beating gesture of this extraordinary figure evoke a stately performance. Egyptian relief representations depict such figures as part of a troupe of similarly genuflecting divine beings with falcon and jackal heads. This troupe is usually seen attending the sunrise or the birth and coronation of a king; three-dimensional figures of the same type were set around the processional shrines of certain gods, doubtlessly to accompany the epiphany of the deity during a procession.

It is not easy to explain the presence among the animal-headed divinities of the human-headed figure wearing—as seen here—the regalia of a pharaoh. Some scholars interpret the figure as the representation of an actual king. Others understand it as a mythical being that introduces royal aspects into the otherworldly ritual. Whatever its exact meaning, this masterpiece of wood carving was certainly part of a temple's equipment. Its ritual character was further emphasized by a covering of lead sheet, now vanished.

Hathor amulet

In Ancient Egypt, deities are often depicted with a human body and an animal head. Less frequently, a human head was attached to the body of an animal, in this case a cobra. The snake is shown rearing on a low base; its weight is placed on the first, bottom segment of the body and on the tip of the tail, which protrudes slightly over the back of the base. Its body is only bent twice, so that the cobra rears up high. In the center of the snake’s wide hood is a vertical column of ventral plates. A crisscross pattern marks the upper part of the hood, with three diagonal ventral scales framing the lower part of the vertical column. Emerging from the hood is a human head wearing a long, tripartite wig bound with ribbons. The ears are very narrow where they meet the face and then widen, as is typical for cow’s ears. The sound box of a sistrum (a cultic musical instrument) on top of the head takes the shape of a small shrine framed by inward curving volutes. Behind the back of the head is a pierced loop for suspension. 

The cobra itself can be identified with different goddesses such as Wadjet, Hathor, Meretseger, Renenutet, Bastet, or Sakhmet. The human head of this amulet, however, has cow’s ears and can thus be identified as Hathor, who is often depicted as a cow goddess. The naos-shaped sound box of a sistrum, a cultic musical instrument that is likewise associated primarily with this goddess, was placed on top of the head and makes it most likely that Hathor is depicted here.

The goddess Hathor was generally associated with love, music, and fertility. The particular form of the amulet here alludes to her role, both dangerous and protective, in the myth of the destruction of mankind. In this story humans revolted against the gods. In response, the sun god sent out one of his eyes in the form of a cobra to destroy mankind; the eye is identified with Hathor. This dangerous aspect of the goddess was used only against enemies or other forces that threatened world order. The manifestation of Hathor as an uraeus (rearing cobra) can be seen as an image of divine protection. The amulet was likely meant to put its wearer under the protection of the goddess and her appearance as a cobra was probably thought to be particularly effective in warding off danger.

Silver bottle with offering scene naming Meritptah

Wine was a coveted drink starting in Egypt’s earliest days, though wine services do not have a long history there, as strainers were not found before the New Kingdom. The importance of wine grew during that period, as intoxicating drinks played a prominent role in festivals and in communal celebrations. When associated with Bastet and other feline goddesses, these drinks helped partakers emulate the drunkenness that brought about the goddesses’ pacification.

Such practices probably occurred in festivals for Bastet in Tell Basta, where this and other vessels were found. The vessels were buried in two caches close to the temple, along with silver and gold jewelry, ingots, and lesser objects. Rare in antiquity, most silver and gold vessels were later melted down and reused for new projects. The Tell Basta hoards are thus exceptional finds.

Bottles like this one might be used for mixing wine.

Statuette of Osiris

Osiris is most often represented as a shrouded mummy, emphasizing his connection with the dead. He holds a flail and a short shepherd’s crook, insignia associated with Egyptian kingship, and wears a long, braided beard, emblematic of divinity. On the front of his tall crown is a uraeus, a cobra ready to spit fire at his enemies. The horns may link him with the sun god, who often appears as a ram-headed man at the end of the day and during the night.

By the first millennium B.C., statues and statuettes of Osiris were offered in profusion, reflecting both the importance of the god and a shift in how the ancient Egyptians performed certain rituals. Some of the places where statues of Osiris have been found can be identified as temples and shrines belonging to him, but they have also been found as offerings in contexts where explanations are not evident. This example is unusually large, though not the largest known in bronze.

Relief of a goddess offering a palm rib

This temple relief depicts a goddess raising her right hand behind what remains of a notched reed along the right margin of the block. The slightly raised position of the goddess's hanging left arm suggests that it was bent at the elbow so that her left hand grasped the reed. The palm branch, stripped of its leaves and notched to serve as a tally, was an Egyptian sign for "year," and gods were believed to present the reed, usually accompanied by either the sign for "one hundred thousand" or multiple jubilee signs, to the king as a promise of a long reign. Such presentations usually occurred in connection with birth, coronation-like ceremonies, or heb-sed festivals-jubilees traditionally celebrated after thirty years of rule.

Behind the goddess is a left-facing inscription that relates to a missing scene at the left. It refers to a king who is beloved of "Atum in the Hwt-Sr."

Inlay depicting Thoth as the ibis with a maat feather

This exquisite piece of inlay from a shrine shows Thoth, god of writing and all things intellectual, as an ibis walking atop a standard. Its beak is supported by a feather—the symbol of Maat, goddess of justice and closely associated with Thoth. The artist beautifully captured the halting stride of the bird, which seems to be considering its every step.

Tomb Chapel of Raemkai: West Wall

In ancient Egyptian mythology the west was the realm of the dead. Therefore, in all Old Kingdom tombs, west walls incorporate a symbolic doorway (called a False Door by Egyptologists) as a focal point for prayers and offerings. Along with the False Door (08.201.1e), west walls usually present scenes that are closely related to the offering rituals. On this west wall, to the right of the large False Door, rows of attendants bring tables on which offerings are heaped. In the uppermost preserved register the tomb owner, seated on a lion-legged chair, receives the gifts. The butchering scene in the second register from the bottom is also appropriately placed on this wall, as meat was among the most important life-affirming offerings.

Butchering and Meat Preparation
The representation in the second register from the bottom is structured symmetrically. At right and left, groups of men work on butchered cattle, while in the center, a cook cuts meat on a low block. Choice cuts simmer in a basin over a terracotta stove, and more basins are positioned nearby. The scene includes some unusual details. Stages in the butchering like the one on the left that shows the animal's exposed ribcage were only rarely depicted. Even more unusual is the image at the far right, which shows small chips falling from a flint knife that is being knapped with a bone instrument for sharpening. Inscriptions were added only to the activities less frequently seen: "butchering" is written above the jointing on the left, "cooking meat" appears in the center, and "knife-sharpening" on the right. Thematically, the man roasting a duck at the far right of the register above should be part of this slaughtering scene, but there was no space for him below.

In the bottom register a large clap-net is pulled closed by five men. The net is tightly packed with all kinds of birds; lotus flowers and leaves float around them, indicating that the trap was placed in a pool in the marshes. The men's nudity (an unusual detail) further emphasizes their aquatic environment. The pool is surrounded by reeds and papyrus plants, but their depiction here is so stylized that they resemble a low fence. In reality, the reeds were higher than a man, so that the haulers could not see the net. Therefore, a signalman was stationed close to where the trap had been set to signal the haulers when it was time to pull. Since shouting would disturb the birds, the signalman raises a stretched piece of cloth. At left another man who has already collected a few birds presents them to the offering place at the False Door.

East Wall, South Side of Nakht's Offering Chapel

Between 1907 and 1938, under the leadership of British Egyptologist Norman de Garis Davies, the Graphic Section of The Met’s Egyptian Expedition undertook a documentation project with the goal of recording ancient monuments as accurately as possible.

This facsimile painting copies the decoration painted on the left hand wall as one enters the tomb chapel of Nakht (Theban tomb no. 52), a scribe and astronomer who probably lived during the reign of Thutmose IV.

A large scene adorns the walls on either side of the tomb chapel’s entrance, showing Nakht and his wife Tauy pouring the contents of a libation vessel over a heap of offerings laid on reed mats, in this case for the benefit of the deities Amun, Ra-Horakhty, Osiris, Hathor, and Anubis. While the composition is similar on the right hand wall, variations in the offerings depicted and the associated inscriptions show how the same image can be invested with different meanings.

The right half of the wall is devoted to agricultural activities, organized in four registers, under the vigilant inspection of the deceased, who is seated under a canopy at the top right; indeed the caption above Nakht reads "sitting under a canopy and looking at his fields." Like Nakht, one can see, in a sequence from bottom to top, the various activities carried out in the fields, from preparing the soil to winnowing the harvested grain. These scenes refer to the production of the offerings necessary for Nakht’s survival in the afterlife.

Apis Bull statuette

One of the most important animal deities of ancient Egypt was the sacred Apis bull, whose worship is attested from Dynasty I. Near the Ptah temple at Memphis, Egypt's old capital, a living representative of the Apis bull was stabled. He was paraded out at festive occasions to participate in ceremonies of fertility and regeneration. The bull that played this important role was selected for displaying color patterns, such as a white triangle on the forehead and black patches resembling winged birds on the body. In the ivory figure, the white triangle is indicated by a sunken area on the head, while engravings of a vulture with wings spread and a winged scarab flank an elaborate blanket on the back. When Apis bulls died, they were embalmed and buried with all honors. Beginning with the reign of Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.) in Dynasty 18, the place of Apis burials was a huge and growing underground system of chambers called the Serapeum in the Memphite necropolis, Saqqara. The mothers of Apis bulls had their own cult and burial place.

Deceased censing and libating to the deified Mentuhotep and Ahmose-Nefertari, with the Hathor cow emerging from the mountain; Tomb of Ameneminet

This facsimile copies a small scene painted in the northwest corner of the tomb chapel of Ameneminet (Theban tomb no. 277). Located in the Qurnet Murai necropolis, this small rock-cut tomb was made for a priest serving in the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III, probably during the course of Dynasty 20.

Ameneminet is depicted on the left, pouring a libation and censing in front of King Mentuhotep II and Queen Ahmose-Nefertari. Beyond, in the Theban mountain, is the cow goddess Hathor. Mentuhotep II and Ahmose-Nefertari are shown posthumously, not as living beings but as images, as suggested by the rectangular pedestal beneath Mentuhotep II’s feet and Ahmose-Nefertari’s dark complexion. Ahmose-Nefertari’s posthumous representations often show her with black skin. In ancient Egypt the color black evoked rebirth and regeneration, in connection with the fertile black soil brought by the Nile inundation. The dark complexion refers to the deified status Ahmose-Nefertari acquired after her death. As the wife of King Ahmose, founder of a new dynasty (Dynasty 18), and mother of Amenhotep I, she may have been seen as the matriarch of the entire dynastic line and in some ways she embodied the idea of regeneration.

This scene is set in the well-defined locality of Western Thebes. This setting is evoked by the presence of King Nebhepetre-Mentuhotep II, who descended from a family of Theban rulers and built his tomb and mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri; Ahmose-Nefertari, who, with her son Amenhotep I, became the patron deity of the artistic community of Deir el-Medina; the cow goddess Hathor, who was worshipped in the Theban area as early as Dynasty 12; and the Theban mountain that was part of the mountain range preceding the desert plateaus on the west bank of the Nile river.

Statue of Wadjet inscribed for Minirdis, son of Panehsy and of Aarwt(?) whose parents are Horwedja and Nitocris

The goddess Wadjet and her very ancient city of Buto (known as the cities of Pe and Dep) are from earliest times mythic reference points for the emergence of a unified Egyptian kingship. Wadjet might take cobra form, the form she wears as the uraeus on the king’s brow. But she was also an Eye of Re goddess, a female relative of the sun god who acted as his emissary/enforcer, and, like other Eye of Re goddesses, she generally adopted the form of a lioness as she does in this statue. And, perhaps influenced by the proximity of Buto to the marshes where Isis hid her young vulnerable son Horus after the death of his father Osiris, Wadjet was regarded as another protectress of Horus, who, of course, grew up to ascend the throne.

In the Late Period, impressively large metal statues of Wedjat as a lion-headed goddess, such as this one, and of Horus, the latter in either lion-headed or falcon-headed form, constitute a special group that evoke the legends of early kingship and the original primacy of Buto through symbols and vignettes on the sides of their thrones. The latter are unfortunately very damaged on this statue.

A recent study has illuminated the origin of this group and its meaning. Examples with a known provenance actually originate in Sais, and for a number of reasons it seems likely that all originate in Sais rather than Buto. In fact, Buto was quite near Sais, the dynastic seat of the 26th Dynasty. Apparently, the Buto gods had an important role and cult at Sais: it seems the Buto legends were understood as mythic precursors for the struggles and then ascendancy of the Saite dynasty in the Delta after the Third Intermediate Period.

The statue is inscribed with a request that Wadjet give life and health to the donor Minirdis, son of Pahnesy and Aarwt, whose (Aarwt's) parents were Horwedja and Nitocris.

Carvings at the Temple of Isis at Phylae

Carvings at the Temple of Isis at Phylae, Egypt, showing the goddesses Isis and Hathor and the god Horus. All were important in the Egyptian religion.