The actions and interactions of the gods, the Egyptians believed, govern the behavior of all of these forces and elements. Instead, the relationships and interactions of the gods illustrated such processes implicitly. Most of Egypt's gods, including many of the major ones, do not have significant roles in any mythic narratives,  although their nature and relationships with other deities are often established in lists or bare statements without narration.
Therefore, if only narratives are myths, mythology is a major element in Egyptian religious understanding, but not as essential as it is in many other cultures.
Ancient Egyptian History for Kids: Gods and Goddesses
The true realm of the gods is mysterious and inaccessible to humans. Mythological stories use symbolism to make the events in this realm comprehensible. Some images and incidents, even in religious texts, are meant simply as visual or dramatic embellishments of broader, more meaningful myths. Few complete stories appear in Egyptian mythological sources.
These sources often contain nothing more than allusions to the events to which they relate, and texts that contain actual narratives tell only portions of a larger story. Thus, for any given myth the Egyptians may have had only the general outlines of a story, from which fragments describing particular incidents were drawn. Their importance lay in their underlying meaning, not their characteristics as stories. Instead of coalescing into lengthy, fixed narratives, they remained highly flexible and non- dogmatic. So flexible were Egyptian myths that they could seemingly conflict with each other.
Many descriptions of the creation of the world and the movements of the sun occur in Egyptian texts, some very different from each other. Thus the creator god Atum was combined with Ra to form Ra-Atum. One commonly suggested reason for inconsistencies in myth is that religious ideas differed over time and in different regions.
Which of the Ancient Egyptian Gods Were the Most Important?
In the Old Kingdom c. They formed a mythical family, the Ennead , that was said to have created the world. It included the most important deities of the time but gave primacy to Atum and Ra. For instance, the god Ptah , whose cult was centered at Memphis , was also said to be the creator of the world. Ptah's creation myth incorporates older myths by saying that it is the Ennead who carry out Ptah's creative commands. Many scholars have seen this myth as a political attempt to assert the superiority of Memphis' god over those of Heliopolis. Egyptologists in the early twentieth century thought that politically motivated changes like these were the principal reason for the contradictory imagery in Egyptian myth.
However, in the s, Henri Frankfort , realizing the symbolic nature of Egyptian mythology, argued that apparently contradictory ideas are part of the "multiplicity of approaches" that the Egyptians used to understand the divine realm. Frankfort's arguments are the basis for much of the more recent analysis of Egyptian beliefs.
Multiple versions of the same myth express different aspects of the same phenomenon; different gods that behave in a similar way reflect the close connections between natural forces. The varying symbols of Egyptian mythology express ideas too complex to be seen through a single lens. The sources that are available range from solemn hymns to entertaining stories. Without a single, canonical version of any myth, the Egyptians adapted the broad traditions of myth to fit the varied purposes of their writings.
Susanne Bickel suggests that the existence of this tradition helps explain why many texts related to myth give little detail: the myths were already known to every Egyptian.
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Only a small proportion of these sources has survived to the present, so much of the mythological information that was once written down has been lost. Many gods appear in artwork from the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt's history c. The Egyptians began using writing more extensively in the Old Kingdom, in which appeared the first major source of Egyptian mythology: the Pyramid Texts. These texts are a collection of several hundred incantations inscribed in the interiors of pyramids beginning in the 24th century BC. They were the first Egyptian funerary texts , intended to ensure that the kings buried in the pyramid would pass safely through the afterlife.
Many of the incantations allude to myths related to the afterlife, including creation myths and the myth of Osiris. Many of the texts are likely much older than their first known written copies, and they therefore provide clues about the early stages of Egyptian religious belief. During the First Intermediate Period c. Succeeding funerary texts, like the Book of the Dead in the New Kingdom and the Books of Breathing from the Late Period — BC and after, developed out of these earlier collections. The New Kingdom also saw the development of another type of funerary text, containing detailed and cohesive descriptions of the nocturnal journey of the sun god.
Temples , whose surviving remains date mostly from the New Kingdom and later, are another important source of myth. Many temples had a per-ankh , or temple library, storing papyri for rituals and other uses. Some of these papyri contain hymns, which, in praising a god for its actions, often refer to the myths that define those actions. Other temple papyri describe rituals, many of which are based partly on myth. It is possible that the collections included more systematic records of myths, but no evidence of such texts has survived.
The elaborately decorated and well-preserved temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods BC—AD are an especially rich source of myth. The Egyptians also performed rituals for personal goals such as protection from or healing of illness. These rituals are often called "magical" rather than religious, but they were believed to work on the same principles as temple ceremonies, evoking mythical events as the basis for the ritual.
Information from religious sources is limited by a system of traditional restrictions on what they could describe and depict. The murder of the god Osiris , for instance, is never explicitly described in Egyptian writings. References to myth also appear in non-religious Egyptian literature , beginning in the Middle Kingdom.
Many of these references are mere allusions to mythic motifs, but several stories are based entirely on mythic narratives. These more direct renderings of myth are particularly common in the Late and Greco-Roman periods when, according to scholars such as Heike Sternberg, Egyptian myths reached their most fully developed state. The attitudes toward myth in nonreligious Egyptian texts vary greatly. Some stories resemble the narratives from magical texts, while others are more clearly meant as entertainment and even contain humorous episodes.
A final source of Egyptian myth is the writings of Greek and Roman writers like Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus , who described Egyptian religion in the last centuries of its existence. Prominent among these writers is Plutarch , whose work De Iside et Osiride contains, among other things, the longest ancient account of the myth of Osiris. Established at the creation of the world, maat distinguishes the world from the chaos that preceded and surrounds it. Maat encompasses both the proper behavior of humans and the normal functioning of the forces of nature, both of which make life and happiness possible.
Because the actions of the gods govern natural forces and myths express those actions, Egyptian mythology represents the proper functioning of the world and the sustenance of life itself. To the Egyptians, the most important human maintainer of maat is the pharaoh. In myth the pharaoh is the son of a variety of deities. As such, he is their designated representative, obligated to maintain order in human society just as they do in nature, and to continue the rituals that sustain them and their activities.
In Egyptian belief, the disorder that predates the ordered world exists beyond the world as an infinite expanse of formless water, personified by the god Nun. The earth, personified by the god Geb , is a flat piece of land over which arches the sky, usually represented by the goddess Nut. The two are separated by the personification of air, Shu. The sun god Ra is said to travel through the sky, across the body of Nut, enlivening the world with his light. At night Ra passes beyond the western horizon into the Duat , a mysterious region that borders the formlessness of Nun.
At dawn he emerges from the Duat in the eastern horizon. The nature of the sky and the location of the Duat are uncertain. Egyptian texts variously describe the nighttime sun as traveling beneath the earth and within the body of Nut. The Egyptologist James P. Allen believes that these explanations of the sun's movements are dissimilar but coexisting ideas. In Allen's view, Nut represents the visible surface of the waters of Nun, with the stars floating on this surface.
The sun, therefore, sails across the water in a circle, each night passing beyond the horizon to reach the skies that arch beneath the inverted land of the Duat. Lesko , however, believes that the Egyptians saw the sky as a solid canopy and described the sun as traveling through the Duat above the surface of the sky, from west to east, during the night. The sun and the stars move along with this dome, and their passage below the horizon is simply their movement over areas of the earth that the Egyptians could not see.
These regions would then be the Duat. Outside them are the infertile deserts, which are associated with the chaos that lies beyond the world. There, two mountains, in the east and the west, mark the places where the sun enters and exits the Duat. Foreign nations are associated with the hostile deserts in Egyptian ideology.
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Foreign people, likewise, are generally lumped in with the " nine bows ", people who threaten pharaonic rule and the stability of maat , although peoples allied with or subject to Egypt may be viewed more positively. While some stories pertain to the sky or the Duat, Egypt itself is usually the scene for the actions of the gods. Often, even the myths set in Egypt seem to take place on a plane of existence separate from that inhabited by living humans, although in other stories, humans and gods interact.
In either case, the Egyptian gods are deeply tied to their home land. The Egyptians' vision of time was influenced by their environment. Each day the sun rose and set, bringing light to the land and regulating human activity; each year the Nile flooded , renewing the fertility of the soil and allowing the highly productive agriculture that sustained Egyptian civilization.
These periodic events inspired the Egyptians to see all of time as a series of recurring patterns regulated by maat , renewing the gods and the universe. Many Egyptian stories about the gods are characterized as having taken place in a primeval time when the gods were manifest on the earth and ruled over it. After this time, the Egyptians believed, authority on earth passed to human pharaohs.
At the other end of time is the end of the cycles and the dissolution of the world. Because these distant periods lend themselves to linear narrative better than the cycles of the present, John Baines sees them as the only periods in which true myths take place. Egyptians saw even stories that were set in that time as being perpetually true.
The myths were made real every time the events to which they were related occurred. These events were celebrated with rituals, which often evoked myths. Some of the most important categories of myths are described below. Because of the fragmentary nature of Egyptian myths, there is little indication in Egyptian sources of a chronological sequence of mythical events.
Among the most important myths were those describing the creation of the world. The Egyptian developed many accounts of the creation, which differ greatly in the events they describe. In particular, the deities credited with creating the world vary in each account. This difference partly reflects the desire of Egypt's cities and priesthoods to exalt their own patron gods by attributing creation to them.
Yet the differing accounts were not regarded as contradictory; instead, the Egyptians saw the creation process as having many aspects and involving many divine forces. One common feature of the myths is the emergence of the world from the waters of chaos that surround it. This event represents the establishment of maat and the origin of life.
One fragmentary tradition centers on the eight gods of the Ogdoad , who represent the characteristics of the primeval water itself. Their actions give rise to the sun represented in creation myths by various gods, especially Ra , whose birth forms a space of light and dryness within the dark water. With the emergence of the sun god, the establisher of maat , the world has its first ruler. Atum , a god closely connected with the sun and the primeval mound, is the focus of a creation myth dating back at least to the Old Kingdom.
Atum, who incorporates all the elements of the world, exists within the waters as a potential being. At the time of creation he emerges to produce other gods, resulting in a set of nine deities, the Ennead , which includes Geb, Nut, and other key elements of the world.
The Ennead can by extension stand for all the gods, so its creation represents the differentiation of Atum's unified potential being into the multiplicity of elements present within the world.
Over time, the Egyptians developed more abstract perspectives on the creation process. By the time of the Coffin Texts , they described the formation of the world as the realization of a concept first developed within the mind of the creator god. The force of heka , or magic, which links things in the divine realm and things in the physical world, is the power that links the creator's original concept with its physical realization. Heka itself can be personified as a god, but this intellectual process of creation is not associated with that god alone.
An inscription from the Third Intermediate Period c. Hymns from the New Kingdom describe the god Amun , a mysterious power that lies behind even the other gods, as the ultimate source of this creative vision. The origin of humans is not a major feature of Egyptian creation stories. In some texts the first humans spring from tears that Ra-Atum or his feminine aspect, the Eye of Ra , sheds in a moment of weakness and distress, foreshadowing humans' flawed nature and sorrowful lives.
Others say humans are molded from clay by the god Khnum. But overall, the focus of the creation myths is the establishment of cosmic order rather than the special place of humans within it. In the period of the mythic past after the creation, Ra dwells on earth as king of the gods and of humans. This period is the closest thing to a golden age in Egyptian tradition, the period of stability that the Egyptians constantly sought to evoke and imitate. Yet the stories about Ra's reign focus on conflicts between him and forces that disrupt his rule, reflecting the king's role in Egyptian ideology as enforcer of maat.
In an episode known in different versions from temple texts, some of the gods defy Ra's authority, and he destroys them with the help and advice of other gods like Thoth and Horus the Elder. The Eye goddess becomes angry with Ra and runs away from him, wandering wild and dangerous in the lands outside Egypt. Weakened by her absence, Ra sends one of the other gods—Shu, Thoth , or Anhur , in different accounts—to retrieve her, by force or persuasion.
Because the Eye of Ra is associated with the star Sothis , whose heliacal rising signaled the start of the Nile flood, the return of the Eye goddess to Egypt coincides with the life-giving inundation.
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Upon her return, the goddess becomes the consort of Ra or of the god who has retrieved her. Her pacification restores order and renews life. As Ra grows older and weaker, humanity, too, turns against him. In an episode often called "The Destruction of Mankind", related in The Book of the Heavenly Cow , Ra discovers that humanity is plotting rebellion against him and sends his Eye to punish them.
She slays many people, but Ra apparently decides that he does not want her to destroy all of humanity. He has beer dyed red to resemble blood and spreads it over the field. The Eye goddess drinks the beer, becomes drunk, and ceases her rampage. Ra then withdraws into the sky, weary of ruling on earth, and begins his daily journey through the heavens and the Duat.
The surviving humans are dismayed, and they attack the people among them who plotted against Ra. This event is the origin of warfare, death, and humans' constant struggle to protect maat from the destructive actions of other people. In The Book of the Heavenly Cow , the results of the destruction of mankind seem to mark the end of the direct reign of the gods and of the linear time of myth. The beginning of Ra's journey is the beginning of the cyclical time of the present. Egyptian accounts give sequences of divine rulers who take the place of the sun god as king on earth, each reigning for many thousands of years.
Both of them face revolts that parallel those in the reign of the sun god, but the revolt that receives the most attention in Egyptian sources is the one in the reign of Geb's heir Osiris. The collection of episodes surrounding Osiris ' death and succession is the most elaborate of all Egyptian myths, and it had the most widespread influence in Egyptian culture.
In some versions of the myth, Osiris is actually dismembered and the pieces of his corpse scattered across Egypt. Osiris' sister and wife, Isis , finds her husband's body and restores it to wholeness. Isis then briefly revives Osiris to conceive an heir with him: the god Horus. The next portion of the myth concerns Horus' birth and childhood. Isis gives birth to and raises her son in secluded places, hidden from the menace of Set. The episodes in this phase of the myth concern Isis' efforts to protect her son from Set or other hostile beings, or to heal him from sickness or injury.
In these episodes Isis is the epitome of maternal devotion and a powerful practitioner of healing magic. In the third phase of the story, Horus competes with Set for the kingship. Their struggle encompasses a great number of separate episodes and ranges in character from violent conflict to a legal judgment by the assembled gods. For this reason, the Eye of Horus is a prominent symbol of life and well-being in Egyptian iconography. Because Horus is a sky god, with one eye equated with the sun and the other with the moon, the destruction and restoration of the single eye explains why the moon is less bright than the sun.
Texts present two different resolutions for the divine contest: one in which Egypt is divided between the two claimants, and another in which Horus becomes sole ruler. In the latter version, the ascension of Horus, Osiris' rightful heir, symbolizes the reestablishment of maat after the unrighteous rule of Set. With order restored, Horus can perform the funerary rites for his father that are his duty as son and heir.
Through this service Osiris is given new life in the Duat, whose ruler he becomes. The relationship between Osiris as king of the dead and Horus as king of the living stands for the relationship between every king and his deceased predecessors. Osiris, meanwhile, represents the regeneration of life. On earth he is credited with the annual growth of crops, and in the Duat he is involved in the rebirth of the sun and of deceased human souls.
Although Horus to some extent represents any living pharaoh, he is not the end of the lineage of ruling gods. He is succeeded first by gods and then by spirits that represent dim memories of Egypt's Predynastic rulers, the souls of Nekhen and Pe. They link the entirely mythical rulers to the final part of the sequence, the lineage of Egypt's historical kings. Several disparate Egyptian texts address a similar theme: the birth of a divinely fathered child who is heir to the kingship. The earliest known appearance of such a story does not appear to be a myth but an entertaining folktale, found in the Middle Kingdom Westcar Papyrus , about the birth of the first three kings of Egypt's Fifth Dynasty.
In that story, the three kings are the offspring of Ra and a human woman. The same theme appears in a firmly religious context in the New Kingdom, when the rulers Hatshepsut , Amenhotep III , and Ramesses II depicted in temple reliefs their own conception and birth, in which the god Amun is the father and the historical queen the mother. By stating that the king originated among the gods and was deliberately created by the most important god of the period, the story gives a mythical background to the king's coronation, which appears alongside the birth story.
The divine connection legitimizes the king's rule and provides a rationale for his role as intercessor between gods and humans. Similar scenes appear in many post-New Kingdom temples, but this time the events they depict involve the gods alone. In this period, most temples were dedicated to a mythical family of deities, usually a father, mother, and son. In these versions of the story, the birth is that of the son in each triad. This shift in focus from the human king to the gods who are associated with him reflects a decline in the status of the pharaoh in the late stages of Egyptian history.
Ra's movements through the sky and the Duat are not fully narrated in Egyptian sources,  although funerary texts like the Amduat , Book of Gates , and Book of Caverns relate the nighttime half of the journey in sequences of vignettes. In traveling across the sky, Ra brings light to the earth, sustaining all things that live there. He reaches the peak of his strength at noon and then ages and weakens as he moves toward sunset.
In the evening, Ra takes the form of Atum, the creator god, oldest of all things in the world. According to early Egyptian texts, at the end of the day he spits out all the other deities, whom he devoured at sunrise. Here they represent the stars, and the story explains why the stars are visible at night and seemingly absent during the day.
At sunset Ra passes through the akhet , the horizon, in the west. At times the horizon is described as a gate or door that leads to the Duat. At others, the sky goddess Nut is said to swallow the sun god, so that his journey through the Duat is likened to a journey through her body. These images are symbolic of the awesome and enigmatic nature of the Duat, where both the gods and the dead are renewed by contact with the original powers of creation. Egyptian couples were even known to negotiate an ancient prenuptial agreement. These contracts listed all the property and wealth the woman had brought into the marriage and guaranteed that she would be compensated for it in the event of a divorce.
Even though they regarded the pharaoh as a kind of living god, Egyptian workers were not afraid to protest for better working conditions. The most famous example came in the 12th century B.
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When laborers engaged in building the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina did not receive their usual payment of grain, they organized one of the first recorded strikes in history. The protest took the form of a sit-in: The workers simply entered nearby mortuary temples and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. The gamble worked, and the laborers were eventually given their overdue rations. Egyptian art commonly depicts pharaohs as being trim and statuesque, but this was most likely not the case.
The Egyptian diet of beer, wine, bread and honey was high in sugar, and studies show that it may have done a number on royal waistlines. Examinations of mummies have indicated that many Egyptian rulers were unhealthy and overweight, and even suffered from diabetes.
A notable example is the legendary Queen Hatshepsut, who lived in the 15th century B. While her sarcophagus depicts her as slender and athletic, historians believe she was actually obese and balding. These ancient construction workers were a mix of skilled artisans and temporary hands, and some appear to have taken great pride in their craft. While the ancient Egyptians were certainly not averse to keeping slaves, they appear to have mostly used them as field hands and domestic servants. Surprisingly little is known about the life of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, but some historians believe they know how he died.
This drastic departure from traditional Egyptian burial practice suggests that he may have suffered a horrific injury prior to his death. According to a handful of Egyptologists, one of the most likely causes for this wound would have been a bite from a hippopotamus. If the boy pharaoh was indeed fond of stalking dangerous game, then his death might have been the result of a hunt gone wrong.
An ancient physician was usually a jack-of-all-trades, but evidence shows that Egyptian doctors sometimes focused on healing only one part of the human body. This early form of medical specialization was first noted in B. The Egyptians saw animals as incarnations of the gods and were one of the first civilizations to keep household pets. Egyptians were particularly fond of cats, which were associated with the goddess Bastet, but they also had a reverence for hawks, ibises, dogs, lions and baboons.
Many of these animals held a special place in the Egyptian home, and they were often mummified and buried with their owners after they died.