WOMEN, RELIGION AND PIETY IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Pictures on this page are Copyright The British Museum and are used with permission
More, perhaps, than any other culture in the ancient world or since, the Egyptians were struck by the rhythms of the universe. Everyone is aware of the rising and setting sun, night and day, the moon’s monthly cycle, the seasons, birth and death, etc., but only the Egyptians made a religion of these recurrences. Possibly it was the Nile River that made them realize how dependent they were on continuity, for every year the river flooded its banks turned the entire country into a shallow lake, and four months later the water receded enough to plant. Any time the flood levels were low there would be famine and any time there was too much water villages would be destroyed.
As leader of the country, it was the King’s job to ensure the willingness of the gods to work for the maintenance of order and the continuation of these natural cycles for life itself depended on them. The Pharaoh was thought to be partially divine in order to facilitate his work with both humans and gods.
Akhenaten tried to convince his people that there was only one God, Aten, but the experiment in monotheism did not survive the death of the Pharaoh who introduced it. Otherwise the Egyptians were a remarkably tolerant people when it came to matters of religion. There were no atheists or agnostics, of course, but there is no evidence of the sort of “my view of god is better than your view of god” that is all too common in interdenominational and inter-religion relations today.
In theory the Pharaoh was the chief priest and appointed a High Priest in each of the temples to act in his absence. In reality every temple functioned as an independent unit and more often than not the High Priest got his job the same way other men got theirs: by being the son of the predecessor. Each god or goddess had his or her own cult center that operated without ties to any other organization. Even when two or more temples worshipped the same god or goddess, they usually operated as unrelated entities.
There was no catechism or official body of doctrine that all worshippers were expected to believe, nor were there congregations in the manner of churches today. Worship was carried out by the priests, not by ordinary people, and was designed to ensure the gods and goddesses looked with favor on Egypt. It was not designed to facilitate a relationship between the individual and his deity.
A statue of the god or goddess was kept in a cupboard in the sanctuary. Every day a priest would clean the statue, change its clothes, and offer food and drink. The statue, a man-made representation, was a home for the god or goddess in the same way that a mummy was a home for a person’s Ka and Ba: no one thought of the statue as the real thing any more than would a modern Christian offering prayers to a Crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Occasionally the statue was taken out of the temple and paraded around for the masses to see. This would be a time of feasting and celebration. While some provided a place for ordinary people to present their petitions or to offer personal prayers, temples existed to propitiate the gods. Those seeking a more personal relationship with the divine worshipped household gods at home.
It is a truism that the Egyptians were a very conservative people. They had no real objection to new ideas, but they tended to layer the new on top rather than discard the old. Where we see contradiction, they saw further clarification. There are several creation myths: modern people would say that while they could not believe any of them, logic would decree that if one were true the others had to be false. The Ancient Egyptian would see no reason not to accept them all despite the differences.
Isis was undoubtedly the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. She is normally pictured as a woman with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne on her head. Her enormous popularity, however, led to a merging with other goddesses, so, for example, she can often be found wearing Hathor’s cow horns and solar disk. The Greeks equated her with both the moon goddess Astarte and the corn goddess Demeter.
Most Egyptian temples had a corner reserved for the worship of Isis, but it was not until Dynasty XXX (The Late Period) that Isis got her own temple in the Eastern Delta. Other temples followed soon after at Philae (just south of Aswan) and at Denderah.
She was often thought of as the protector goddess and was one of the deities that guarded the four corners of the king’s sarcophagus. It was as a loving and faithful wife and mother, however, that Isis was best known and revered.
As king of Egypt, the god Osiris taught his people to harvest crops and to worship the gods. His brother Seth was jealous enough of Osiris popularity but he was absolutely furious that Isis and not he was made regent while the king traveled to spread his ideas around the world. Seth killed his brother by locking him in a box and tossing it into the river. The box drifted downstream, into the Mediterranean Sea and ended up wedged in a giant tamarisk tree in the palace of the King of Byblos.
Isis was distraught at the death of her husband and set out to find his body. Using a combination of help from the humans she met along the way and her magical powers as a goddess she learned the whereabouts of the box and her husband’s body.
Having disguised herself as an old lady, she was invited into the palace, the queen thinking that an Egyptian might know some spells that would cure her ailing son. Isis was revealed as a goddess. As a reward for saving the prince, she was given the tamarisk in which, unknown to anyone else, her husband’s body had been lodged. Isis retrieved the body of Osiris and returned the tree to the King of Byblos who made it the centerpiece of a new temple.
Shortly after Isis returned to Egypt Seth found the body, cut it up, and scattered the pieces. With the help of her sister, Nephthys, Isis managed to find all of the pieces. The gods Anubis and Thoth helped them put the pieces back together, embalm the body and wrap it in linen cloth, thus making the first mummy. Isis changed herself into a bird and used her wings to fan life back into him. He was then made King of the Underworld.
Isis had an infant son at this point and the next few years were spent raising him. Life was not easy for a single mother, even a goddess, and they were often hungry and constantly in fear that Seth would find them. Eventually Horus reached manhood and was ready to claim his throne. The Tribunal of the Gods agreed to meet to decide the issue.
Re preferred the throne would go to the more experienced Seth and ordered that Isis a women, be excluded from the discussion. The wily Isis bribed the ferryman to take her to the island where she transformed herself into a beautiful young woman. Seth was besotted. Not realizing who she was, he determined to possess her, but she refused his advances unless he agreed to help her.
Her son, she said, was caring for his father’s cattle, when a stranger came and stole them. She needed his help to get them back. The Egyptian word for cattle was also used as a synonym for the Egyptian people. As soon as he promised to get back her son’s “cattle”, Isis revealed herself as a goddess and demanded he keep his promise to return the Egyptian people to Horus. The gods all agreed that Seth had been beaten and Horus became King of Egypt.
We can see from this story that gods and goddesses have considerable power but that were limits to what they could do. They had the same emotions and the same needs as humans. Some scholars have suggested that the conflict between Seth and Horus may have reflected an actual incident in early history where it was decided that the succession would pass to a king’s son and not to his brother.
Isis was assimilated with a number of goddesses and her worship spread to the farthest corners of the Roman Empire. It has been suggested that if Emperor Constantine had not given his support to Christianity early in the Fourth Century A.D. that the cult of Isis might still be a major religion in the world of today.
Next to Isis, Hathor was the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. Her name, in Egyptian, meant “The Mansion of Horus”, so there is no doubt that she was considered one of the senior sky goddesses and sometimes called “Eye of the Sun God, Re”. She can be pictured in a variety of ways:
1. as a gigantic cow standing astride the four corners of the earth with the stars and planets attached to her hide and udder. The sun is fixed between the horns on her head. (The sky goddess Nut is also pictured this way, minus, of course, the udder and horns.)
2. a woman with a round, somewhat flattened face with a wig through which one can see the ears of a cow.
3. a very beautiful, young woman wearing an image of the sun caught in the grip of the horns of a cow.
When the aging Re became concerned that some humans were plotting against him he sent Hathor to catch and punish the guilty. Hathor took so much joy from her task and the taste of blood that he feared she would go on to kill all of humanity. The Sun God ordered that red ochre be mixed with enough beer to flood the land. Hathor thought it was blood and greedily drank it all. Needless to say she got so drunk that she forgot about her plan to kill all mankind.
Despite this one image of a bloodthirsty Hathor, she was normally thought of as a fun loving goddess concerned with the well being of humanity. She took a special interest in unmarried girls, for whom she would often find husbands, and as a fertility goddess she was called upon to help women in childbirth. When the Greeks came to match their deities with those of Egypt Hathor was thought to be the equivalent of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.
The Seven Hathors, a group of goddesses resembling Hathor, were able to foretell the fate of a newborn in the same way as the Fates of Greece.
Many temples were built in her honor both in Egypt and outside. Most of Egypt’s large towns had at least a shrine dedicated to her and often showed the local goddess as a manifestation of Hathor. In honor of his wife Nefertari, Ramesses II built a temple for Hathor at Abu Simbel in Nubia. One of the best known and most important Hathor temples was the one at Denderah, some 60 km north of Luxor. We have already noted that temple worship was usually carried out by the priests rather than the people, but commoners had a chance to participate during the great festivals when the divine statue was taken on a trip outside the temple. At Denderah the special occasion was the annual celebration of the Sacred Marriage of Hathor and Horus. Two weeks before May’s new moon, Hathor’s statue sailed 70 km up-river to Edfu. The procession stopped at several places along the way to allow the goddess to visit local deities. She was met at Edfu by the statue of Horus and together the two deities were carried to various holy sites for the performance of the appropriate rituals. For the next two weeks temple staff supplied free food and drink to all pilgrims. It was, of course, the biggest party of the year.
The Egyptian concept of ma’at refers to the natural order of the universe, ‘the way things ought to be’. It is sometimes called ‘justice’ but there is no word in the English language that really encompasses what the Egyptians meant and more often than not the word is simply left untranslated. Ma’at included the proper relationship between one human and another, between ruler and ruled, and between gods and people. Even the universe was subject to Ma’at as it was the force that kept the seasons in succession.
Ma’at did not mean that everyone should be equal. Some will have more money, social status, and authority than others, but responsibility goes with privilege. The rich should provide aid to the poor and those with power should use it to ensure there is justice for the weak.
On the day of judgment the heart was weighed against a feather to determine if the deceased had lived a life in accordance with Ma’at. There was no attempt to measure the amount of goodness or sin; a heart that weighed too much was as unacceptable as a heart that weighed too little. If the heart did not match the feather exactly, it was thrown to the Devourer, a creature with the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus: without a heart to serve as home, no life was possible for the Ka or the Ba.
The concept of Ma’at was so important that it was personified as a goddess. Portrayed as a woman wearing a feather in her headband, she was thought to be the daughter of the sun god, Re. She was often shown as a gift being presented by the king to the other gods.
WOMEN AND WORSHIP
Worship services in the temples were intended to promote a good relationship between the state and the gods. Personal piety was an individual and family matter, not a corporate one. Once a year most statues of a god or goddess were taken out of the temple and paraded around for the general public to see. This would be an excuse for a party as well as an opportunity for the masses to express their devotion to the local deity.
Level of ritual purity determined how far into a temple one could go, much like the levels of security clearance in a modern spy novel, but anyone could enter the outer courtyard. Here there was often a place where the faithful could present their petitions within earshot of the deity. Failing that, some public spirited individual may have constructed a statue where people could leave an offering with the expectation that someone would approach the divine on their behalf.
Those who could afford it set up a votive stela in the courtyard bearing a prayer and a picture of himself or herself making an offering to the god. A cheaper alternative was to use a shard of pottery. Either approach may perhaps have operated in much the same way as a candle left burning by the faithful in some Christian churches today. This stela, dedicated to the god Ptah, pictures a number of ears, symbolizing the donor's hope that people can stand before it and have their prayers heard by Ptah.
Much of the personal religious activity seems to have taken place at home. Unfortunately much of the evidence for this has disappeared along with their mud brick houses, but it appears that home had altars or niches that held votive stelae. Worship involved food offerings, libations and flowers, and stressed problems associated with conception and birth.
This stela is from the Ptolemaic or Roman era of Egypt and was likely put in the courtyard of a private home to keep evil away. Women looked to the god Bes to promote pregnancy and to keep them safe during childbirth. He is pictured in the stela brandishing a sword and holding a serpent (the symbol of evil)
CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON RELIGION:
Temple Service---what was the role of women in worship?
Human Nature in Life and in Death
God's Wife of Amun