History of religion

Religions of Antiquity II: EGYPT

(Published in GralsWelt 34/2004)


“You shouldn't go out of your house (= die) if you don't know the place where your corpse will rest. Let your resting place, where you wish your corpse be buried, be known so that you can be buried ... Decorate ... the grave that is to contain your corpse. "
From an ancient Egyptian text by Ani. (5, p. 202).

The Egyptian myths are mostly passed down through ancient writers (e.g. Herodotus, Plutarch, Diodorus).
The religious literature of Egypt includes numerous texts such as hymns of the gods, invocations, transfigurations and, since the new empire, also prayers. They were designed in temples and adorned the walls of royal tombs, and later also of private tombs. There are no dogmatic determinations, so that one cannot speak of a book religion. The best known of these texts are:
Old Kingdom: Pyramid Texts,
Middle Kingdom: coffin texts,
New Kingdom: Underworld Texts and the Book of the Dead.
Religious scholars discuss the traditional texts. It is assumed by esotericists that the deeper teaching contents were secret and could only be passed on orally. Accordingly, we would only have at our disposal the profane texts intended for the general public, which could be further removed from the deeper teachings than the sermon of a village pastor from the lectures at a Jesuit academy.


In the dry desert climate, the artefacts of an ancient culture are preserved better than anywhere else, and the archaeological finds “in the sand” are incomparable in terms of scope and material and ideal value.

Richly furnished, decorated with pictures and inscribed graves tell of everyday life thousands of years ago, of religious convictions, and of the trials that all departed people face on their journey to the hereafter.

What experts from the numerous ancient Egyptian temples, graves, mummies, inscriptions, artefacts, determine for the religious understanding of the people of that time is strange: The impression arises that it was not life that was the focus of everyday life, but death; that the most important thing on earth was not the shaping of living conditions, but preparation for death, for the otherworld, for being after death.

"Life is short, death is long" was apparently the belief of the ancient Egyptians; and it was necessary to prepare for this long, very long afterlife. How else can one understand that craftsmen in the “Valley of the Kings” who dug graves for the elite on working days would work on their own graves on holidays?

After the death, the corpse of every Egyptian whose relatives could afford it had to be preserved and placed in a grave that was as permanent as possible, protected from robbers and containing all the utensils necessary and useful for the journey to the hereafter. The more influential a personality, the greater their grave, the grave decorations, the grave goods. This cult of the dead took on proportions that can hardly be found in a second people, even if splendid grave monuments for outstanding personalities are considered indispensable up to our time.

Living on after death

Osiris was the eldest son of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, thus the rightful heir of the earthly kingdom that he ruled with his wife Isis. It was a happy time that came to an abrupt end when Seth, the younger brother, murdered Osiris and dismembered the corpse. Isis went in search of the body parts, was able to assemble them and bring them to life for so long that Osiris could beget Horus with her.
Osiris achieved immortality and became the ruler of the underworld, including paradise, his son Horus the rightful king.
Cult images show Isis with the Horus boy, and an Egyptian could still discover corresponding representations in more modern garb in many places today.
The myth of the dead (murdered) and risen God is a widespread religious idea that appears, for example, in Greek mythology in the figure of Adonis and Attis, in Germanic myths as Baldur.

The ancient Egyptians believed in survival after the death of the earth and had ideas of paradise, but apparently they did not expect repeated earth lives.

It seems that they could not free themselves from the idea that the continued existence of the immaterial, the spiritual essence of the person (his ka) is only possible in close connection with, indeed, dependence on his corpse. Her efforts to make the body durable by embalming and to protect it from decay by elaborate grave structures were correspondingly great:

Since the ka of the deceased only has an eternal life if it finds a permanent home in the body that has been preserved or in an immortalized work of art, the kings, worried that their embalmed body will crumble, leave their stone image in a secret room of the pyramid put up." (7)

The ancient Egyptian journey to the hereafter seems similarly confusing:

“The Egyptian wished to spend the day in the coolness of his tomb and feast on the supplies that his descendants brought to the grave, or that the magic procured for him ... to come to the sun barge when night fell, to stop them, to make room there take to set over the horizon and thus safely reach the inaccessible, dangerous areas of the hereafter ... to linger there in the gardens of Osiris or another paradise and find pleasant pastime ... at the moment when the sun is shining prepared to leave these enchanting realms, which were plunged into darkness again, to climb the barge of the Re again, to pull it over the eastern horizon and to return to earth with the dawning day ... and finally in the shape of a bird with a human head, how tradition gave them to the souls for this pilgrimage to reach the grave in a hurry. " (3, p. 47 f.):

The world of the gods

The ancient Egyptians had the idea of a unified, ordered cosmos. The course of the sun showed this order, which found its personification in the sky goddess Ma'at, the daughter of the sun god.

The Egyptian people demanded vivid images for the content of their beliefs. In this way numerous gods emerged who ruled the cosmos, worked in nature or society, or influenced the personal life of the individual.

But these gods arisen more from that
Folk beliefs (or a much older belief in demons?) Were not necessarily "deities", but rather principles of the unnameable, indescribable:

"The images of God are not images of a deity, any more than the names really designate the unnamable, and he would have a thousand names." (2nd p. 8).

Even the figures with animal heads that are so strange to us do not have to be viewed too one-sidedly:

“Many gods are assigned an animal in whose species (in classical times not in the individual) the function and essence of the deity are manifested. Art often depicts this deity with a human body and animal head, such as Horus with a falcon's head, or Thoth, the god of writing and arithmetic and the inventor of writing, with an ibis head, but also as an ibis bird.
The animal head denotes a part of the human being that was thought to be so precise and at the same time comprehensive that it could not be expressed more validly. " (2nd p. 8).

The Egyptian gods were mostly local deities first, perhaps sometimes natural beings (devas), whose worship was deeply rooted in the people:

“But behind the hundreds of gods there is ultimately only the one main god. The great sun god, who in itself remains incomprehensible, holy and anonymous, personifies himself to us in a wide range of gods, male and female. " (6).

As in other religions of antiquity, in Egypt, at least in the upper class, monotheistic ideas were not unknown, and the spiritual leaders tried again and again to bring order to the diversity of religious ideas and to bring them into line with their philosophical monotheism.

The people, supported by priests, resisted religious reforms, and so it failed, for example Akhenaten (Amenophis IV, 1364-47 BC) revolutionary attempt to replace the various gods and cults with a monotheistic doctrine, among other things because of this strong tradition of the people. (3, p. 59).

Mediator to the gods

The temples were the centers of the cult of the gods. Its most important part is the secor, the chapel, the holy of holies. A low, dark room in which there was an image of the main deity, who priests sacrificed and worshiped in a daily ritual. The believers were only allowed to approach the idol on public holidays, when it was carried out of the temple, wrapped in shawls. Then everyone could pray to or ask questions of the deity. Affirmative or negative responses could be seen in the movements of the image.

The most important mediator to the deities was the Pharaoh, who was able to question them directly in the Holy of Holies, and received answers from them that today we can only explain as manipulations by the priesthood. Every visitor to Egypt will notice the large stone-carved pictures at almost every temple, which show how a pharaoh sacrifices to a god and thus guarantees the protection of the deity for the country.

After his death, the Pharaoh became "Osiris", who now protects his country from the hereafter. This is how the personality cult around the pharaoh, which is incomprehensible from today's perspective, emerged as the indispensable advocate for the deities.

Continued "Religions of the Ancient World" III.

(1) Barnett, Mary: "Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt", Gondrom, Bindlach, 1998.
(2) Brunner-Traudt, Emma / Brunner, Hellmut: "Osiris, Cross and Crescent", Philipp von Zabern, Mainz, 1984.
(3) Drionton, Étienne: “The Religions of the Ancient Orient”, Pattloch, Aschaffenburg, 1963.
(4) Friedell, Egon: “Cultural History of Egypt and the Ancient Orient”, DTV, Munich, 1982.
(5) Morenz, Siegfried: "Egyptian Religion", W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1977.