Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ancient Egyptian Religion

Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile around 3150 BC. This civilization developed and lasted over three thousand years. According to historians Ancient Egyptians were once the greatest nation of earth and regarded as the most religious of all mankind. They were usually polytheistic in nature with one short period of monotheism. They practiced a complex belief system which was consisted with polytheism, totemism, ancestor worship and myth. They built huge temples and pyramids corresponding to their greatness all over the Egypt that were covered with religious sculptures, paintings and hieroglyphics. Their knowledge and practice of art, science, and literature were distinctly connected with religion, and were used in the service of their deities. They surpassed all nations in the reverence they paid to the gods.

When we try to make some sense out of religious belief of ancient Egypt, we must keep in mind that the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh resulted in the merging of quite different cultural traditions and their religious belief, from where a new assorted belief developed. 

Their beliefs and rituals were so integral to their life and society that they never question the beliefs which had been handed down to them; nor even desired any change in their society. In spite of their special concern, their religious beliefs, deities, rituals and myths gradually changed over time, as a result of new ideas and changing cultural values.

From the beginning of the civilization, they hosted about 700 different Gods and Goddesses. Unlike other ancient cultures, most of their Gods are depicted as male and female, sacred animals, humans with heads of animals and fully human. Sometimes they combined two or more deities to form a new deity.

In every part of Egypt two great Gods, Isis and Osiris were worshiped. Osiris was a very popular God and Isis is his wife. Ra the sun-god was the greatest of the gods, he was supposed to be the representative of the Supreme Being. Ra was generally worshiped in association with some other God, as Amen-Ra, Num-Ra, ect. In many sculptures he is represented as carrying- on a constant conflict with the evil represented as the great serpent Apap. Though there were lots of Gods not all Gods were worshiped in the same way throughout Egypt or throughout time. Particular locations and pharaohs favored one set of Gods over another.

To exhibit in some symbol their ideas of their gods was the very essence of Egyptian religion. To set forth in superstitious symbol the attributes, qualities and nature of their gods, the priests chose to use animals. The bull, cow, ram, cat, ape, crocodile, hippopotamus, hawk, ibis, were all emblems of the gods. Often the head of one of these animals was joined to the body of a man in the sculpture. Though these sculptures were made with great care, they were never used for worship purpose.

Ancient Egyptians used to worship only the living representations of the gods and not their lifeless sculpture, images or idols. To serve this purpose the Priests chose animals which corresponded as nearly as possible to their ideas of the gods. Each of these sacred creatures was carefully tended, fed, washed, dressed, nursed when sick, and petted during its whole life by the priests. After death its body was embalmed. Popularly these animals were regarded as gods, and were really worshiped. By the priests they were regarded simply as the representatives of the Gods.
 If a man killed certain of the sacred animals, by the laws of Egypt he must die; if, however, in regard to some of them, the killing was accidental, then he might escape by paying a heavy fine. The story is told, that King Cambyses, when he invaded Egypt, caught a number of sacred animals, and placed them before his army. The Egyptians offered them no resistance, but fled away, afraid to fight lest they should injure the sacred animals.

The Gods of Egypt were worshiped in temples and tombs. The services were conducted by the priests, and on special occasions the
Pharaoh and scribes joined. The common people had but little to do with the worship. There was no close personal tie between the individual Egyptian and the Gods flexible social life. The relationship of gods to humans was indirect, communicated by means of the Pharaoh. They believed that all of Egypt belonged to the Gods and Pharaoh is the representative of Gods on earth. Due to their beliefs, the Pharaoh held an immense amount of power and considered not only the King but also a God.
The ancient Egyptian believed that Pharaoh was associated with Horus, son of Re the sun god. Later it was believed that at death he became an Osiris, and would help the Egyptians in their afterlife. He also possessed the almighty power and right to select the God to be worshiped by his people.
However, for a brief period, the Pharaoh Akhenaten of 18th dynasty tried to bring about a departure from traditional polytheistic religion and promulgated a single God in Athen that replaced the traditional pantheon as a one and only powerful God. After his death, traditional religious practice was gradually restored and people went back to worship the Gods they had before.
After the Pharaoh, Priests were the most powerful and influential clerics in Egyptian affairs. The High Priest and local priest’s duty was to care for the gods and attend to their needs. Their main task was not to spread teachings about the gods superiority, nor was it his task to see to the people's spiritual or moral welfare. The High Priest main job was to take care of the gods and their needs, served as a political adviser to the Pharaoh and appoint local Priests to act for him at the different temples. Temples were considered dwelling places for the Gods, no ordinary people allowed inside. Every temple was dedicated to a God or Goddess and he or she was worshiped there by the temple priests.

The most essential component for any temple was the innermost shrine, where the statue of the God was kept. Access to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. The journey from the temple entrance to the sanctuary was seen as a journey from the human world to the divine realm, a point emphasized by the complex mythological symbolism present in temple architecture. The activities of the temple revolved around the worship and celebration of the god's cult  and religious festivals. 

       One of the more famous aspects of the Egyptian religious beliefs was their ideas of the afterlife. Many heathen nations believed that the body, the flesh, was an evil thing, the seat of all base passions not so the Egyptians. They believed greatest event in a man's life happened after his death. After death, the spiritual aspects were released from the body and could move at will, but they required the physical remains as a permanent home.To serve the purpose the physical body had to be preserved as mummy to allow a place for their spirit to dwell in the afterlife. Large pyramids were also constructed as tombs to preserve the dead-body of the pharaoh. Each pyramid consisted of an inner chamber that entombed the deceased, the servants, horses, and pets of the deceased, and artifacts to make living in the afterlife similar to what they were used to every day.

Egyptians believed that the human soul was composed of two parts the Ka (physical soul) and Ba (conscience). The Ka was a spiritual twin born with every man and lived on after he died. The Ka needed that body after death; this is why Egyptians mummified their dead. If the body decomposed, their spiritual double would die and the deceased would lose their chance for eternal life. After the souls left the tomb of its buried dead, the myth says danger lurked everywhere to destroy the ka. Portions of the "Book of the Dead" were buried with the deceased to guide the soul through the world of the dead. Osiris, the king of the dead and forty-two demon assistants, judged the ka. The book showed the ka how to conduct itself before the judges. If the ka was condemned, it spent eternity in hunger and thirst or it was torn to pieces by executioners. If the judgment was favorable, the ka went to a heavenly realm to harvest grain from the fields of Yaru. 

There was much of majestic beauty about the Egyptian religion and worship, but when King Cambyses of Persia conquered Egypt, the supremacy of the world passed out of Egypt's hands and the downfall of its religion commenced. The religion of the conquerors was mingled with their own. After some hundreds of years, Christianity was spread over all north Africa and up the Nile. Then in the year 639, after Christ, Muslims conquered Egypt. Since then Islam continues to predominate in Egypt.

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