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The A, B, C's of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Religion

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Describing the gods, goddesses, and belief systems of Ancient Egypt is tricky business. So, short of making up an alphabet song with the names of the gods, the best way to handle an introduction to it all is to keep it simple and sweet. But, first there are a few things to keep in mind: The gods didn't just appear over night. The history and development of the gods and the ancient religions spanned some 3000 years. Then there are some gods who, over the years, took on many different forms. In our modern times we might tend to see a lot of chaos and conflicting ideas in the description of the gods. Just remember that the times and influences did change over the years. Finally, there are the magic spells, charms, and amulets. The tools that every god needs to be a "good" god. After all, what's a super-power without the udjat eye which protects against evil, or the old faithful hocus-pocus needed to put a family member back together after a treacherous battle (see O, Osiris for the details on that one)?

Strap on your seatbelts!, Here we go: everything you ever wanted to know about ancient Egyptian gods, goddesses and religion, from A through Z!

Amun, the hidden one, is portrayed as a man with blue colored flesh. He is sometimes depicted with ram's horns (the ram being one of his sacred animals, along with the goose), but more often he is shown wearing a crown topped with two tall plumes (feathers) and holding a crook and a flail (symbols of sovereignty). Of all of the gods we noticed in the tomb paintings, Amun is the one most always recognized as a god of great importance and stature.

Bastet, cat goddess and daughter of the sun god Ra, could be ferocious as she was associated with her father, the sun's, vengeance. But, she was usually regarded as a friendly deity (god) and associated with joy. In contrast, the god Bes, who is a dwarfish, scary looking creature was known as a good-natured character fond of music and dancing. He protected women in childbirth by frightening away evil spirits and watching over the newborns.

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Colossal cenotaph temples
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Cenotaph temples are secondary mortuary temples dedicated to one or more gods and honoring the deceased Pharaoh who built it. Pharoahs' were thought to become gods upon death. The Cenotaph Temple of Seti I in Abydos is one of Egypt's most complete temples. This magnificent temple honors seven gods: Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amun, Ra-Harakhty, Ptah, and Seti I himself.

Death was just the beginning for ancient Egyptians. They dedicated their lives to preparing for death, or life in the after-world. The great temples, tombs and monuments that have long outlived their creators are immortal and will continue to stand as symbols of an unprecedented era that will forever live through them.

Edfu is the legendary site dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris, who avenged his fathers murder by slaying his uncle Seth. The temple is the largest and most completely preserved Pharonic temple in Egypt. It is said to be built on the site where the two gods met in battle centuries ago.

False doors were built in tombs or painted in the murals as if they were half open. These doorways enabled the Pharaoh's ka (his spirit or life force) to come and go through the tomb as he pleased. The ka was also the vital force that came from the gods and transferred through the Pharaoh to his people. Tip: Whenever visiting ancient Egyptian tombs, be very careful, these tricky doors can be deceiving as they look very real. Some travelers have been known to cause a scene in the tomb when they run smack into the doors and almost trip and fall. I don't know this from experience of course, it's just something I've heard...yeah, something I've heard. Anyway. the story of the gods gets even more interesting.

Geb, the Earth-god Geb was married to his sister, the sky-goddess Nut. He is usually depicted as a reclining man. According to legend, Geb divided Egypt in two, giving one son, Horus, the lower half and another son Seth, the upper.

Hathor, daughter of the sun-god Ra, was goddess of joy and love. She also protected women and travelers, although one myth depicts her as very violent, wishing to destroy humankind. Luckily, she has been gracious to us throughout our travels. She is often epresented as a cow, or as a woman with cows ears or horns between which sits a sun disk.

Isis, the mother goddess and (as Mother of Horus) the symbolic mother of the king is the sister and wife of Osiris. She possessed great magical powers, magic powers that she used to restore Osiris to life and to protect young Horus. Those seeking protection or healing therefore appealed to her for assistance. Isis appears as a woman wearing either a throne on her head or a sun disc flanked with cow's horns. Sometimes she appears (along with her sister Nephthys) as a kite, mourning the dead.

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J is for jars, canopic jars...
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Jars, called canopic jars, were placed in the burial chamber near the sarcophagus, which held the mummy of the Pharaoh or the queen. Speaking of mummies, can you imagine what type of yummy treats were placed in theses jars? Ok, I'll give you a hint, it didn't contain jam for jelly sandwiches in the after-life. These pottery jars did however hold the embalmed internal organs of the mummified Pharaoh. His liver, lungs, intestines and his stomach were preserved and placed by his side in the tomb to ensure the Pharaoh could use them in his after-life. So, I think we can safely say the Pharaoh was not snackin' in the afterworld.

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Khepris, god of the rising sun, is represented by the scarab beetle
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Khepri, the rising sun, was believed to be self-created so he was depicted as a scarab beetle. Its habit of rolling balls of dirt over the ground was thought to represent the divine task of pushing the sun up from the underworld to begin its journey across the sky. Hence the symbol of daily resurrection or rebirth that was incorporated into funerary jewelry. Small stone scarabs were made in the thousands as amulets and stamp seals.

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Lotus flowers - the sacred bud of Egypt
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Lotus flowers are the flowers of the gods, whom are often pictured holding or smelling this sacred bud. Lotus flowers were sacred in ancient times and are guarded as a symbol of divine perfection even today. This pure, white waterlily that grows up out of the dark, muddy waters symbolizes good coming from bad and light from darkness. It was also thought to represent the land of Egypt - the Nile Delta was the flower, the land of Al-Faiyum the bud, and the Nile and its valley the stem.

Maat, the goddess truth, justice and harmony, was thought to represent absolute cosmic order. She was depicted as a woman wearing an ostrich feather on her head, although sometimes she is symbolized solely by her feather. Gods could be destructive or beneficial, evil or good and we have the same choices. We represent ourselves in our actions, the sun, for example, brings light and life to the world but its rays could also scorch and kill. What do your actions say about who you are and how you represent yourself? What symbols could you associate with who you are?

Nut, not peanuts or cashews, pecans nor almonds, I mean the sky goddess Nut, who is both sister and wife of the earth-god Geb. She is also the mother of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Seth. She usually appears as a woman, but sometimes as a cow, and she is often shown stretched across the ceilings of tombs, swallowing the sun and creating the night. Nut, Geb and Shu are often depicted together. The sky goddess, is supported by Shu, the god of air and light, who separates her from the earth god Geb.

Osiris, god of the underworld and of fertility. He generally appears in mummy wrappings holding the crook and flail (representing kingship) and wearing a conical headdress that includes a pair of ram's horns and a tall plume, feather. He is the brother of Isis and the father of Horus. A most popular god, Osiris has numerous tombs spread out over the Nile Valley. The reason being is that he was murdered by his brother Seth and chopped into 14 pieces that Seth then scattered throughout the valley. And as Isis sought out and found each part she helped create a burial at each place. Not to worry Osiris, King of the Dead, was found and put back together again.

Ptah, was the humanlike creator god of Memphis the first capital city of Ancient Egypt. Ptah was also regarded as a skilled artisan and leader of craftsmen. He appears wearing a tight cap on his shaven head and he carries a scepter on which are the emblems of power, life and stability.

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Q is for Karnak!
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Q is for Karnak. OK, I'm stretching it here, but humor me for a second. In Arabic there is no 'q' sound, 'q' is pronounced with the 'k' sound, for example, souq (market) is pronounced souk and qasr (castle) is pronounced 'kasr'. So, if that's the case can't Q be for Karnak as well...maybe we can spell it 'Qarnak'. Yes, that might work! OK, just for today, Q is for Qarnak (Karnak), a complex of great temples, and the main place of worship of the Theban Triad (the gods Amun, Nut, and Khons) back when the city that is now called Luxor was the Egyptian capital city of Thebes. Its ancient name was Ipet-Isut (The Most Perfect Place). Karnak was built, added to, dismantled restored and enlarged over a period of about 1500 years. During the height of Theban power it was the most important temple in all of Egypt. The entire site is large enough to hold about 10 cathedrals!

Ra, the sun god and creator god of Heliopolis takes many forms. Other deities merge with him, enhancing their own powers. For example, Amun-Ra, he is generally shown as a man with a falcon's head upon which rests a sun disk. The ancient Egyptians believed that Ra sailed the sky in a solar boat rising from the underworld in the east and re-entering into the land of the dead in the west, with the rising and setting of the sun.

Seth who was worshipped from very early times is the Upper Egyptian counterpart to Horus. Seth is often seen as synonymous with evil. His birth was even violent, as he wrenched himself apart from Nut, his mother. But he is most God of chaotic forces and associated with wind, rain, storms, and thunder.

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Thoth - monkey mummies represent this god
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Thoth, god of writing and counting and patron of scribes. Thoth was worshipped in the form of a baboon or an ibis. He is usually depicted during the weighing of the heart ceremony as poised to record the results before the assessor gods. During this ceremony Osiris, god of the dead, weighed the heart against the brain of the deceased to judge that persons knowledge and goodness.

Uraeus is the rearing cobra with an inflated hood, associated with the goddess Renenutet. This was the symbol most associated with Egyptian royalty and was worn on the Pharaoh's forehead or crown. The sacred fire-spitting serpent was an agent of destruction and protector of the king.

Valley of the Dead where magnificent mortuary tombs and temples are built near Luxor on the West Bank of the Nile. The valley is marked by the mountain peak naturally shaped like a pyramid, and is home to The Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens, The Tombs of the Nobles, and The Great Temple of Hatshepsut. This sacred gravesite was first originated in 1495 BC and, in all, more than 60 tombs have been excavated in the valley, including those of King Tut, and the most well preserved tomb in all of Egypt, the tomb of Queen Nefertari.

Vocabulary Box

chaos: a state of extreme disorder, confusion and often panic

amulets: an ornament or gem containing a relic and worn as a charm or to ward off evil and mischief

flail: wooden instrument used to beat a person or animal

stature: high level of respect gained by impressive development or achievement
White Monastery in Asyut was built in 400 AD by the Coptic saint Sheouda. It was built with chunks of white limestone from a Pharonic temple. This monastery once supported a community of 2000 monks and symbolizes the introduction of Christianity to the Egyptians. Asyut was once the cult center of the wolf-god Wepwawet, the avenger of Osiris (god of the dead). Christianity became the dominant religion in the 4th century AD and today, there is no longer a following of the ancient worship. But, there are often confrontations between the Coptic Christians and the Muslims.

X symbolizes the crossroads that over the course of many years allowed Greek influence to meld and mix with ancient Egyptian religions. Many of the Greek gods and goddesses are heavily associated with the Egyptian gods and goddesses. The end result is finding similar characteristics, powers, and legends within the two belief systems. The Egyptian city of Heliopolis, which is believed to be created by the sun god Ra, is named after the Greek god of the sun Helios.

Relevant Links

Read about nine of the Egyptian Gods

An 8th grade class page all about the Gods of Egypt

An A-Z guide of the gods
Y aren't there more letters in the alphabet? There is still so much to learn, like how pyramids are the tombs of great Pharaohs. And how every Pharaoh was thought to become a god upon death. Every aspect of ancient life was tied into the cultic worship of the time. The great monuments, still standing today, prove just how important a part of life they were. These ancient masterpieces also allow us to look back five thousand years into the lives and times of the ancient world. So, just remember this is only the beginning, stay tuned for more Egypt coming right up!

Jasmine

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...worldtrekker@internettreks.org

 

Abeja - And on Sunday They Rested. NOT!!
Kavitha - What's That Noise Coming from Inside the Crypt?
Monica - Making a Difference: The News
Team - The Write Stuff - Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics

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