Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Religion of the Ancients

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Deciding to write about the religion of the Ancient Egyptians was like opening up Pandora’s Box! Not only was religion a belief to the Egyptians, it was a way of life and it governed they’re very existence. It seems they were motivated to create the civilization they have left behind, solely for the gods. We know a lot about they’re everyday lives, the jobs they did, what they grew, what they ate, their government, their medical technology, even how they created their magnificent monuments. We know they dedicated their lives to appease the deities, but what exactly was the belief that was strong enough to create one of the most sophisticated societies in history?
The Egyptian religion was based on polytheism, or the worship of multiple deities, except for the brief period during the reign of King Akhenaton, who was a monotheist, believing in one god, the sun-disc, Aten. There was as many as 2000 gods and goddesses worshiped during the course of their history, often represented as part human and part animal. While some of these gods where worshiped throughout the country some were only popular in a certain location, with different gods being prominent at different periods of Egyptian history. These deities represented various forces of nature and the myths associated with them evolved and changed over time, so really Egypt never had a definite hierarchy of deities nor a unified mythology. In Egyptian mythology the Supernatural was never separated from humanity.

Not only did the Egyptians believe that all the elements and forces of nature where controlled by the gods, but that each element of nature was a divine force in itself. The gods represented phenomena, such like Shu which represented air, as they could also include animals, as Sekhmet, the deification of the ferocity of lions. Deities could also represent more abstract things, as Horus who represented the power of kingship. These deities were worshipped with offerings and prayers, in local and household shrines as well as in formal temples managed by priests. The hymns, prayers and offerings were for the purpose of placating the gods, gaining favors and turning them to human advantage. Because different deities existed in different manifestations, and some had multiple roles, the mythology remains a very complex.

But the most fascinating concept is the force of Ma’at. The Ma’at translates to include “truth,” “justice,” “order” and “harmony.” It was the fundamental of all the natural forces, as it represented the eternal order of the universe, both in nature and in human society. The Ma’at ensured the existence of the world stay in equilibrium. According to Ma’at all people and classes of society lived in harmony, and all the forces of nature existed in balance. Ma'at encompassed the cyclical patterns of time, the seasons, and of human generations, it also embodied the structure of the world, which kept each element in its place. This meant that any disruption of Ma’at was fundamentally harmful, so all people were expected to behave in accordance with it.

Egyptians regarded kingship as a force of nature, where the pharaoh was recognized as being both king and god. Although be was seen to be human with vulnerability, he was also regarded to have divine powers, as he was the intermediary between the Egyptian people and the gods. He was of course expected to uphold Ma’at in society, by defending the country from enemies, appointing fair officials, settling disputes between his people, managing the food supply, and appeasing the gods with temples and offerings. It was the pharaoh’s responsibility to honor and content the gods, which is how many temples grew to be huge, such as the Temple of Amun at Karnak, which is the largest religious structure in the world.

Ancient Egyptians tried to understand their place in the universe and their mythology centers itself on nature, the earth, sky, moon, sun, stars, and the Nile River. Trying to understand their mythology and its inter-woven complex connection with their very existence, we may discover not only secrets of the ancient, but we may very well stumble on secrets of the universe.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem