To speak of "the religion" of the ancient Egyptians can seem like nonsense. Over close to 4000 years of evolution, their religious ideas indeed varied considerably, and it would be more discriminating to speak of "the religions" of Egypt. Nevertheless, there exist diverse threads, of basic but great ideas which remained sufficiently stable thanks to the fundamental conservatism of Egyptian civilisation to allow one to propose a reasoned approach. Gods and goddesses are everywhere, from minor household figures - such as Bes or Taweret - to the all-powerful State gods of empire, Amun and Re. This made Egypt the most completely theocratic society of the ancient world and its inhabitants "more religious than any other people" (Herodotus).
The Egyptian person was entirely dependent for his survival on the specific geoclimatic nature and conditions in the valley of the Nile. The impossibility of him understanding the physical reasons for the phenomena and natural events comes with an inability to act on them.
Not being able to understand them, he describes them in the form of divine entities, which he will associate with each a person and a function.
The typical example is the one of the sky: it can be represented like an arch, a reminder of its physical reality, but also as a woman (Nut) or like a cow (Hathor) since the function of the sky is let the sun return to the world by being reborn every morning.
But this is not all. It was also necessary to Egyptian minds that the Egyptian world order included the divinities in a recognised social group, the one of the gods. For this, it is going to be necessary to represent the god like a human being, to make it become a "divine person".
It is also necessary to give the god a name, which then makes it possible to come into contact with it.
The god's representation often combines a human body (his/her persona) and a head consisting of an animal, or even by an object, and expression of the divine function which one wishes to see exercised at a specific time and situation.
It is not necessary to believe that an animal representation has an unambiguous significance. It often covers a world of meaning.
Thus, the ram will be taken as an image of virile fertility in some circumstances, and as a representation of the Ba of Re elsewhere. The world of snakes also covers entities with extremely diverse meanings.
A representation of an Egyptian god has therefore to be understood as an icon, but which we cannot entirely trust to know with whom we are dealing. In fact, the functions are interchangeable so a divinity is capable of borrowing the function of another or combining the different functions which were not originally attributed to it.
So, while looking at an image of an Egyptian god, it is always necessary to look for the additional elements, and in particular its name, to identify it.
The gods are responsible, by their functions, for intervening with beneficial manifestations or even for nature itself. Man is therefore totally dependent on them and so must seek to be able to influence their behaviour to render them favourable to him.
According to the traditional Egyptian way of thinking of reciprocity ("a favour for a favour"), the human and divine worlds are interdependent. Men need the gods, but the gods all have as much need for men. It is the basis of a religious system.
Indeed, if they are no longer worshipped, if the offerings are no longer presented to them the gods decline and die. Because the Egyptian gods are mortal! And it is necessary to note that this original concept at the very least was seen to be correct: when, toward the 5th century of our era, the temples finished pagan worship and all ended up closing under the pressure of the triumphant Christianity, the former gods who had governed the two lands for nearly 4000 years were forgotten, forsaken and did in fact disappear… So divine worship is an obligation. It will address either the person’s need or the god's function…
So divine worship is an obligation. It will address either the person or the god's function.
Worship of a divine person is specific, and represents the dedicated worship for that divinity. By definition it doesn't apply to another divinity. To compensate for this particularity, which the Egyptian order hardly appreciates, a worship of specific functions appears at the same time, which will be more or less standardised country-wide since the functions can be interchangeable: it is the daily divine worship.
Worship takes place in the temple, traditionally described by Egyptologists as a magical microcosm, by a group of specialised civil servants: the priests. Sauneron and Yoyotte proposed the analogy with a "nuclear power station": an isolated, protected place ("Djeser") where the gigantic divine forces which are set in motion are confined; a place which must remain absolutely separated from the common world because any incursion here in these processes would be likely to induce a cosmic catastrophe.
The role of the priests is to assure, by the appropriate acts and recitations, the functioning of the divine machine, so that it does not stop, so that the forces of the chaos always menacing at the periphery of the creation are repulsed, so that tomorrow morning the sun is born again from the horizon to dispense light and heat to men. Worship is made before material representations of the god: innumerable statues, bas-reliefs and paintings, are there to make manifest the god's presence
The principal divine statue, the one which resided in the shrine of the temple, was however by its nature different from the others: it indeed contained the God's presence, and therefore represented an idol in the life, while the other representations are icons. Therefore, at this level there exists a sort of hole in the otherwise insurmountable wall which separates the world of the gods from the one of men. One understands all the precautions taken around the statue therefore: if one struck a blow at it, it would be a sacrilege, with potentially terrifying consequences.
The gods also have the constant need that one recalls who they are, for why they are useful, and that one incites them to act.
The intermediary, the one who achieves the communication between the human world and the divine world, this one is the Pharaoh. It is he who is represented as officiating on the walls of all the temples of Egypt. The priests are merely his delegates in this function.
Let's notice that, even though faith was certainly great in ancient Egypt, the ministerial function didn't imply in itself any personal adherence to the god that one served. It certainly didn't pose any problem to a priest of Amon in Karnak to serve Aton if the king, of whom he was the delegate, ordered it of him.
In fact, according to the principles of sympathetic magic, all these representations exist and indeed are animated in the beyond, an absolutely different world in imagination of the Egyptian to the world which we discern. These parallel "worlds" are as "real" as each another. One could call them the sensate and the perfect.
In the sensate world, that of everyday, everything can exist, good or bad. On the other hand what the Egyptians represented on their monuments of eternity (temples, tombs, etc.), was an idealised imaginary world, a perfect world: the plants there are gigantic, hunting and fishing game abundant, there are no grasshoppers or bad Nile which destroy the harvests by bringing famine. Pharaoh defeats all his enemies there in an uninterrupted continuation of military victories. It is the triumphant world of the Ma'at.
The gods are many and everywhere in the Ancient Egypt. They are so involved in all the things of the life that the ancient Egyptians didn't have a word equivalent to our word "religion", since this supposes a dichotomy between profane life and sacred life.
The Egyptian religion is fundamentally polytheistic, and remains so until its disappearance. To want to see ulterior monotheistic thoughts in the ministerial elite class while the people tend to be idolatrous, as has been proposed (for example by Drioton), does not rest on any convincing proof.
Certainly, one finds in the Egyptian texts with expressions of the type "nTr=j pw", "this, my God" in the singular, but they designate in reality the god of the nome, of the city, or the one which the supporter chose as his protective individual which is so obvious that it is not necessary for him to name the god. Also notice that in state religion we ignore almost everything of the real faith of the Egyptian, the popular religion. Nothing allows us to think that it differed fundamentally from that of the clergy.
doesn't change this analysis. tried to simplify a religion which he judged to be too complex, but didn't want to suppress the divine forms. For example the name developed of his "unique" god Aton is in fact "Re-Horakhty-who-rejoices-in-the-horizon-under-the-name-of-Shu", and makes reference therefore to three divinities of the pantheon. It is certainly possible that the personal title the monarch felt his god was indeed unique, but nothing proves it.
In any case, this belief, being too different from tradition, never spread further than the king.
Unlike the open religions which offer theoretically only one truth, written in an immutable Book and to which the faithful one must adhere without restriction, in Egypt one finds a plurality of approaches of the divine one. None excludes the other, because none has the claim to be complete. Each one brings its vision which is added and never replaces the preceding one.
It indeed explains the reason why nothing of that which was once sacred one day must disappear completely: We construct a new temple on the foundations of another more ancient one of which we preserve the structures devoutly. We ramble on about the previous glosses of a sacred text, at the price sometimes of contradictions which seem to us incompatible. But which posed no problems to the Egyptian mind. We find a new explanation, or we leave the apparent contradiction.
So each city, every temple could have its creator god, different from the one of the neighbouring temple, without it affecting anyone.
The divinities of foreign origin could also be assimilated without problem, and see themselves endowing great cult centres, as was the case in the delta for divinities of Asian origin, such as Baal or Astarte. There were no religious wars in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians made steps toward the divine that was inherent and present everywhere in the sensitive world. The effort was praiseworthy, but of the specific form which it took on in Egypt was still not understood by modern scholars for whom polytheism came along also judged with a negative value.
Not even the Greeks, though polytheistic, and who gave us the major mythological writings which reached us. Not being insiders, the basics of Egyptian theology largely escaped them, and from whom gets the reproaches and mockeries which one finds of Herodotus, or Diodorus of Sicily, for example the Egyptian love of gods with the head of a dog.
With their acceptance, in Egypt which underwent multiple invasions in a later period, a tendency towards animal forms seemed to have developed strongly while the upper levels of the religion remained confined inside the temples where the priests preserved the traditions intact.
On the whole, to approach the Egyptian gods supposes that we make an effort to erase as far as possible our own Judeo-Christian culture and our logical rationalisation. And that we do it with humility.
If we look at them with sympathy and try to feel them as much as to explain them, we have a chance of far better understanding.
To go back to Bernhardt Lang: "(in polytheism)… mostly man is able to ally himself with the surrounding powers. He knows himself to be secure in the middle of benevolent forces. Here is what provides him with this sense of security, which is generally what is lacking to us, the person of today. They who understands the Gods can only to regret that their world is gone".
Paradoxically, it is the explosion of that which we tend to consider as Religion, embodied in general by dogmatic monotheisms, and here by Christianity, which sounded the knell for the traditional religion of Ancient Egypt, of this natural religion which had even built the Egyptian man into a social and political group with a length of time without equal in the history of the humanity.
Whether or not its modern replacement is spiritual ‘progress’ is debatable.