Ancient History & Civilisation





There will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians honored the deity with heartfelt piety and assiduous service, and all our holy worship will be found bootless and ineffectual…. Oh Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only the stones will tell of thy piety. And so the gods will depart from mankind.

Yes, the gods are gone—Amon and Isis, jackal-headed Anubis, even Osiris, lordly judge of the dead. In a way, it seems a pity. For if man does make gods in his own image, the Egyptian gods testify to the tolerance of their creators. They lacked the nasty habits of some other deities, who thrived on incinerated babies and dripping human hearts or required the complete annihilation of people who held differing opinions on religious matters. Except for one brief period, Egyptian religion was the most broad-minded of faiths. If a foreigner could not find some Egyptian god or other to worship, he was very hard to please; but even in that case the amiable Egyptians allowed him to worship his own god, or adopted it themselves.

The Egyptians were just about the most polytheistic people who ever lived. No one knows exactly how many gods they had; one list gives over eighty, and I suspect it is incomplete. Before we get into the mainstream of the symposium, we had better start with the Cast of Characters—a list, not of all eighty, but of the principal gods, and their attributes, to whom we will be referring. The list itself is an oversimplification. There is still debate on who the gods were, how they got to be that way, and what they stood for:


Amon—One of the eight gods of chaos; god of wind or air. In the New Kingdom, as Amon-Re, he became King of the Gods. Wife: Mut. Son: Khonsu. City: Thebes. Sacred animals: ram, goose; but always shown in human form.

Anubis—God of cemeteries, embalming. Son of Osiris and Nephthys. Animal: jackal or other doglike beast.

Aton—Solar god, adopted by Akhenaton as his sole object of worship. Early representations show him as a hawk-headed human; under Akhenaton he was always depicted as the sun disc with rays ending in human hands.

Atum—Creator god, later identified with Re. The setting sun. Gave birth to Shu and Tefnut.


Thoth, Anubis, Ptah, Osiris


Sobek, Khnum, Bes, Set


Horus, Amon, Aton

Some of the principal gods

Bes—Dwarfish, bandy-legged god of the bedchamber and toilet table; wears leopard skin and ostrich headdress.

Geb—Earth god. Son of Shu and Tefnut, husband of Nut, father of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Set. Animal: goose.

Hapi—The Nile; more specifically, the Inundation. Shown as a plump man with pendulous female breasts.

Horus—Originally sky god, hawk-headed, whose eyes were sun and moon; identified with king. In his form of Horus of the Horizon, Harakhte, merged with Re to become Re-Harakhte. Became identified with Horus the son of Isis and Osiris, the great antagonist of Set.

Khephri—Morning sun, creator god. Identified with Re. Animal: beetle.

Khnum—The “Molder,” creator god, who made mankind out of clay. City: Elephantine. Animal: ram.

Khonsu—Moon god. Son of Amon and Mut. Shown as handsome boy with sidelock. City: Thebes.

Min—Ithyphallic, fertility god. City: Coptos.

Montu—God of war. City: Hermonthis (Thebes). Animals: bull, falcon.

Nefertum—Son of Ptah and Sekhmet. Human form. Insignia: lotus.

Osiris—God of the dead, judge of spirits. Shown in mummiform human shape. City: first Busiris, then Abydos. Wife: Isis.

Ptah—God of artisans, craftsmen; always in mummiform human shape. Husband of Sekhmet, father of Nefertum. Animal: Apis bull. City: Memphis.

Re—The sun-god. City: Heliopolis. Animals: falcon, Mnevis bull.

Set—God of oases, desert, foreigners, storm. Brother and murderer of Osiris. Animal: doglike, composite beast. City: Ombos, later Tanis.

Shu—God of atmosphere, who separates Geb, earth, from Nut, sky. Son of Atum, husband of Tefnut.


Some of the principal goddesses

Sobek—Crocodile god. Centers of worship: Fayum, Kom Ombo.

Thoth—Divine scribe, inventor of numbers. Associated with moon. Animals: ibis, baboon. City: Hermopolis.

Wepwawet—Mortuary god. City: Assiut. Animal: wolf and/or dog.


Bastet—Goddess of plea sure, dancing, music. Animal: cat. City: Bubastis.

Hathor—Goddess of love, beauty, joy; mother goddess. Animal: cow. City: Denderah.

Hekat—Frog goddess. Midwife who assisted birth of sun.

Isis—Symbol of devoted wife (of Osiris) and mother (of Horus). Animal: cow. Insignia: throne.

Maat—Goddess of truth, law, order. Daughter of Re. Symbol: feather. Shown as human-headed, with a feather on her head.

Meskhenet—Goddess of childbirth. Shown as woman with two long curved shoots on head.

Mut (pronounced “moot”)—Mother goddess. Wife of Amon, mother of Khonsu. Animal: vulture. City: Thebes.

Neith (pronounced like “night”)—Goddess of hunting and war. Symbol: crossed arrows. City: Sais.

Nekhbet—One of the Two Ladies who protected the king; tutulary goddess of Upper Egypt. Animal: vulture. City: Nekheb.

Nephthys—Sister of Isis and Osiris, wife of Set, but sympathetic to Osiris; hence, one of the goddesses who guarded the dead.

Nut (pronounced “noot”)—Sky goddess. Wife of Geb. Animal: cow.

Sekhmet—Goddess of battle. Wife of Ptah. Associated with medical profession. Animal: lion. City: Memphis.

Selket—Daughter of Re; presides over embalmed entrails; protectress of the dead. Animal: scorpion.

Seshat—Goddess of learning. Symbol: star on a pole with inverted horns.

Taweret—Hippopotamus goddess of childbirth.

Tefnut—Goddess of moisture. Mother of Geb and Nut, wife of Shu.

Wadjet—Second of the Two Ladies; goddess of Lower Egypt. Animal: cobra. City: Buto.

One of the things that makes a discussion of Egyptian religion so confusing is not so much the number of gods, but the fact that they refuse to stay in the neat little slots we construct for them. Through the process called syncretism, one god might assume the name and attributes of two or three others, as Amon of Thebes became Amon-Re Harakhte. Instead of sharing names, he might usurp some other god’s titles, or insignia, or job. So Osiris took first the insignia of an ancient Delta god named Andjti, and then the title and position of a mortuary god of Abydos. The animal-headed gods overlap frightfully—a falcon may represent Re, Horus, Montu, or any one of a number of others. All these factors are relatively unimportant, however, compared with a really serious problem of overlap which has annoyed most students of Egyptian religion. We will see it best through an example. So let us go back to the beginning of all things and see how, according to Egyptian dogma, the world was created.

In the beginning there was the primeval abyss—chaos—formlessness. Out of the waters of chaos there gradually emerged a small hillock of wet ground, just as, after the annual inundation begins to subside, little mounds of earth come into view above the falling waters. On this primeval mound appeared Atum, the Creator.

Atum was a male god. Despite this handicap, he produced the first couple, the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut, air and moisture. In a relatively refined version of the story he accomplished this by spitting. A more pragmatic version makes the hand and phallus of the god the agents of creation. What ever his method, once the first pair of male and female deities appeared, reproduction proceeded normally thereafter. Shu and Tefnut bore Geb (earth, male) and Nut (sky, female), who bore Isis and Osiris, Set and Nephthys. This group of nine deities constituted the Ennead of Heliopolis; Atum had adopted the sun god Re of that city and was called Re-Atum.

Even this one creation story gives alternative explanations of the method of creation—a third version provides Atum with a female consort. But Atum was not the only creator. Khnum, the potter, who made mankind out of clay, was another. The most provocative of the creation stories is the one called the “Memphite Theology.” According to this text, the real creator was Ptah, chief god of Memphis:


Geb, Nut, and Shu

The sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, the smelling of air of the nose, they report to the heart. This it is which causes every completed conception to come forth, and it is the tongue which proclaims that which the heart thinks…. Indeed, every command of the god came into being through that which the heart thought and the tongue commanded.

Here we have creation viewed, not as a physical act, but as the result of divine will and divine utterance. For “heart” read “brain” or “mind” the Egyptians thought of the heart as the seat of the intelligence. The Memphite Theology is one of the Egyptians’ finest achievements in philosophic thought. It is more abstract than the other creation stories; its resemblance to the doctrine of the Logos has been pointed out by many scholars. Yet—and this is the point of our example—neither the Memphite version nor any other creation story ever superseded all the others. For each cosmological phenomenon there was, not one explanation, but many; and all were equally valid.

For a more concrete example, let us look at the sun. Re was a sun god, and so was Harakhte—Horus of the Horizon. Horus being originally a sky god, the sun was regarded as one of his eyes. But it was also a boat in which Re sailed across the sky, and a hawk which flew on outspread wings.

The most fetching of all the sun myths is the one which identifies the solar orb with Khephri, the beetle-headed god—that same beetle whose form is commemorated in scarabs. How did an earthbound insect get to be a sun god? Well, the dung beetle of Egypt may be seen pushing a little round ball of clay ahead of him as he plods through the sand. From this ball, the ancients believed, the beetle’s young emerged, just as the new sun was reborn each morning. Modern science, always disillusioning, says that the ball does not, in fact, contain the grub of the beetle, but the Egyptians didn’t know that. (And if they had known, they probably wouldn’t have cared.)

A similar “multiplicity of approaches” can be found in almost every object or phenomenon the Egyptians thought seriously about—death, immortality, the rise of the Nile, the stars, and so on, ad infinitum. Some scholars find this lack of logical consistency infuriating, and there have been many attempts to pummel the big, floppy system into some sort of solid shape. It will not work. Egyptian religion was not consistent, in our terms. It may have had a consistency of its own, but it is so different from ours that we refuse to call it by the same name. We might reasonably ask how many theological systems are logical to nonbelievers; the subject matter is not particularly suitable to principles of reason. Furthermore, what we see in Egyptian religion is not an artificially constructed theology, formalized by arbitrary pronouncements from a single source of authority, but a hodgepodge from dozens of different temples, covering a period of more than three millennia! Certainly we can construct a system to explain everything if we are determined to do so, but we may find ourselves in the awkward position immortalized by an old song:

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there.

My tolerance of Egyptian inconsistency is perhaps, in part, personal; like the Egyptians, I have no trouble believing several contradictory things at once, and I find the universe too complex to be comprehended through a single system of thought. For this reason, or for others which are more defensible, I like the term “multiplicity of approaches.” It is a description of what the Egyptians did, rather than a pseudo-psychological explanation of why they did it; and it neatly, and correctly, describes the underlying assumption of Egyptian religion:

There are a dozen different ways of explaining anything that really matters; and all of them are right.

Our modern approaches to Egyptian religion are not necessarily inconsistent, but they are certainly numerous. No longer can a book on this subject restrict itself to a catalog of deities. Some studies attempt to synthesize the theology and explain the symbolism—neither of which the Egyptians ever bothered to do; others investigate details of dogma or ritual. One school stresses the historical aspect. A fairly factual history of Egyptian religion can be written, on the basis of the texts and reliefs of dynastic Egypt, but some scholars have tried to penetrate far back into the misty, unknown years of prehistory to describe the very beginnings of religion in Egypt.

In the beginning, then, instead of Atum squatting on his primeval hill, we see Egypt as made up of dozens of little villages, each with its own local chieftain and village god. Many of the local gods took animal forms, and they may have been the totems of the primitive communities. As time went on, two things happened. One was an amalgamation—under duress, usually—of the little villages into larger units. The other was a series of invasions of people from outside the valley. As the villages joined together, so did the gods join forces to form a pantheon; and they were accompanied by foreign gods imported by the invader, or invaders, or traders, or what ever they were. Among the invading gods, according to some scholars, was the well-known mortuary god Osiris, whose murder and resurrection form the Egyptian Passion. Settling first in the northern Delta, Osiris became god of the north, and eventually, when the two kingdoms of north and south came to blows, the conflict was viewed as a struggle between Osiris and the indigenous southern god, the redheaded warrior Set. The Great Antagonists, however, are not Osiris and Set, but Set and his nephew, Osiris’s son Horus, who was also a northern god. The eventual defeat of Set by Horus commemorates, in mythological form, an ancient conquest of the south by the north.

Another powerful god whose fame goes back to prehistoric times was Re, the sun god. His city was Heliopolis, but some scholars see him as another foreign god, from a northern region where the sun’s life-giving warmth would have been more valued than in Egypt. Unlike Osiris, who owed his popularity to the appeal of his resurrection, Re rose to power through the machinations of a clever, well-organized priesthood.

The reader can find one or more of these interpretations cited, as a fact, in many books about Egypt. I will now proceed to tell you what’s wrong with them. First and foremost, polytheism is not an additive process. It is unlikely that each little village worshiped only one god, distinct from all the other gods of all the other villages, and it is still more unlikely that the swarming pantheon of historic times was obtained by adding up all the monotheistic gods of all the villages. Totemism is another of those seemingly happy thoughts which cannot be supported. The distinctive traits of the totemic system, such as exogamy and the identification of the members of the tribe with the animal of the totem, are not found in Egypt.

As for Egypt’s famous animal gods, they cannot be described so simply. Some gods were never shown in animal form. Ptah was associated with a sacred bull, the Apis, but he never has a bull’s head, nor are bulls, as such, sacred to Ptah. Amon did not borrow even the head of his sacred animal, the goose. Other divinities sometimes have animal forms and sometimes human forms; Hathor may be shown as a shapely woman, or as a woman with a cow’s head, or as a shapely cow. The gods were not conceived of as animals, nor were animals worshiped as gods. The gods were beings who could be, at times, interpreted as, or symbolized by, an animal or part-animal form.

Egypt may have derived some of her gods from abroad, but as yet we cannot prove that Osiris or Re were immigrants. As for the conquest of the “Followers of Set” by the “Followers of Horus,” the only conquest we know of was the historic event which marks the beginning of dynastic history, and that was vice versa—south conquered north. The only evidence for the predynastic conquest, which is often mentioned, is this very myth. Myth may be a poetic description of political or historical events, but this approach can be overworked. Some interpreters see every new, powerful god as the patron of a new, powerful invading army or political party. In these terms the spread of Christianity must have been owing to the ferocity of that conquering sect from Palestine, which first overran the Roman Empire and then defeated the rest of the Western nations.

Even after the beginning of historic times—that is, the First Dynasty—we are exceedingly short on evidence with which to construct a legitimate history of Egyptian religion. The uncertainty and the debate over questions relating to prehistoric religion extend into the Archaic Period. We know that many of the gods prominent during later periods were being worshiped then, and that Horus was already identified with the king. Strangely enough, the name of Set, Horus’s implacable foe, also crops up in royal titles during the early dynasties. The quarrelsome redheaded god’s significance, from the political and religious aspects, is still the subject of considerable academic discussion. Some authorities believe that Re of Heliopolis was already a powerful god; others argue that Osiris had established himself as Lord of Abydos by this time. The actual evidence for both these last statements is, at best, vague.

By the Old Kingdom we are in slightly better case; for one thing, the inscriptional material has increased. The belief in immortality goes back to the earliest periods in Egypt; prehistoric graves include such pathetic but significant vanities as cosmetic palettes, beads, and pots which once contained food and drink. But it is not until the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties that we know much more about mortuary religion. The Pyramid Texts of this age tell us that Re and Osiris had both acquired status as gods of the dead. During the same era we see an increased importance for Re, the sun god, in court dogma as well as in the mortuary cult. However, despite the convincing, carefully documented arguments of several distinguished scholars, it is as yet impossible to explain why Re became so important.

During the Middle Kingdom Re continued to hold his own as divine father of the king, who was at the same time Horus, son of Osiris. The cult of Osiris also spread during this period; the blessing of the resurrected god was now available to commoners, if it had not been so earlier. The rulers of the Middle Kingdom came originally from Thebes, and in the Twelfth Dynasty a hitherto minor god of that city, named Amon, becomes a major divinity. Amon’s real nature is somewhat obscure. His name means something like “the Hidden One,” and he may have represented the wind or the air. Early in the proceedings Amon associated himself with Re and other sun gods and took the name of Amon-Re-Harakhte. Whether this was a sound political move, or merely sound theology, we do not know.

Amon’s real rise to power did not begin until the Eighteenth Dynasty, when, after a second period of political breakdown, Egypt was re united under a king of Thebes. Unlike the unifiers of the Twelfth Dynasty, the new Theban kings did not leave home after their conquest. When they set up the national capital in their native town, a temple to Amon was already there; and as the little villages on the Theban plain grew into “Thebes of the Hundred Gates,” so the humble temple of Amon mushroomed into the spectacular structure of Karnak, still, even in its ruins, one of the greatest sights coming down to us from the ancient world. Amon-Re was the divine father of the king and the patron of the warrior pharaohs of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. As Egypt spread out across the Near East, the spoils of empire poured into Thebes, and a goodly share of the booty fell to the temple of Amon-Re.

By the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty the once-obscure local god of Thebes had become King of the Gods, and “the sole one, who made everything which is.” Here Amon is not only a creator, but he is the only creator—the only god, if we are to take the text literally. This cannot be done, however. The worship of the other gods continued, and some of them also claimed the epithet “sole god.” It is only another example of that pleasant inconsistency which is so characteristic of Egyptian religion.

During the period of Amon’s aggrandizement we begin to find occasional references to a god called Aton. Like Amon-Re, he was a sun god, but he was a very small fish. Then, somewhere around the year 1390 B.C., a son and heir was born to King Amenhotep III and his chief wife, Tiye. The young prince was named Amenhotep, in honor of Amon; he was raised in the royal palace in Thebes, where he surely was trained to pay homage to the gods, chief among them the patron of his house and his city. When the youthful Amenhotep IV came to the throne, he was crowned at Thebes. He worshiped Amon. He also built a temple to the obscure godling Aton, who was shown in the form of a hawk-headed human figure, like Re-Harakhte.

Then—almost overnight, or so it seems to us across the gulf of the centuries—came the revolution. Amenhotep IV cast off his official name and chose a new one which incorporated the name of the god Aton—Akhenaton. He moved his court from Thebes to a brand-new city, also named after the Aton, and ordered his tomb to be built within its precincts. In the temples raised to his honor in the new city, Aton was shown, not as a man or an animal-headed man, but as a featureless disc whose only anthropomorphic feature was the row of rays ending in human hands, which extended the sign of life to the king and queen. Some time after the move the king sent emissaries throughout the country, ordering them to chisel out the names of the ancient gods from the walls of tombs and temples. Amon was especially persecuted; not even the name of Akhenaton’s father Amenhotep was spared, because it incorporated the hated element. In some cases the plural word “gods” was excised from the inscriptions.

So much is—we are fairly sure—fact. From this point on we enter into a realm of speculation and theory which is so permeated with unscholarly prejudices that it is almost impossible to separate people from their passions. I am certainly not free of prejudice myself; perhaps I still am affected by the glamour of my first meeting with Akhenaton in the pages of James Henry Breasted, who viewed the heretic king as “the first monotheist” and “the first individual in history.” Breasted admired Akhenaton; his masterful prose and his scholarly prestige created an unforgettable picture of a pale dreamer, frail in body but great of soul, who stood up unflinchingly against the forces of reaction to create a god who was—almost—God.

Who could resist an image like that one? It still clouds the surface of my intellect when I try to talk rationally about Akhenaton; and I suspect that the violent antagonism of some scholars is in direct ratio to the effort they must make to obliterate that same glamorous picture. The reaction has been violent indeed. Some modern interpreters see the whole Amarna experiment as the degenerate product of a sick, autocratic brain, and Akhenaton as deformed in body and perverted in soul.

It is impossible to talk about “Amarna religion” without talking about Akhenaton himself; here, surely, is one time when the individual as a force in history cannot be denied. The difficulty is that we know almost nothing about Akhenaton except what we can infer from his activities; and the interpretations of those activities are almost always colored in some way by the personality of the interpreter.

Just as we must view statements about Akhenaton the man with extreme caution, so we must be equally suspicious of interpretations of Akhenaton’s new religion. The Amarna “revolution” involved several new ways of doing things. We have already mentioned the art forms of the time. It is possible to emphasize the new developments and stress the iconoclastic nature of the reforms; it is equally possible to point out antecedents and insist that Akhenaton really did not change so much. Although there are precedents for some of the elements in the Aton faith, such as the claim “sole god,” which was also applied to Amon, I think it would be quibbling to deny that something strange, something radically different, was happening to Egyptian religion.

The first, vital question is: what did Akhenaton actually worship? The Aton was depicted as the rounded disc of the sun. Thus, to some scholars, it is the most physical, the least abstract, of all the gods of Egypt. The curious half-animal, half-human forms of other gods may have been—they had to be!—symbolic; but the sun is there, up in the sky. Other scholars say that the sun disc was a symbol too, and as such it was the most abstract of all the forms of the godhead.

I have my own prejudices about what Akhenaton worshiped; but I think it is almost impossible to know what he thought he was worshiping. The great Aton hymn, which has been compared with the l04th Psalm, is not much help. It is full of beautiful but vague compliments to the god, and it gives a charming picture of the dependence of all creation, animal as well as human, on the light and heat of the sun—or on the joy and love of the creator, depending on how you want to interpret the words.

Another important question is whether the Aton faith was monotheism or something else. Breasted thought it was mono the ism. Most modern scholars are more cautious. The Aton had a set of titles, a regular royal titulary, in which he was equated with Shu and Atum and other gods. This, say the skeptics, is not mono the ism. The cautious scholars also point out that Aton was not worshiped directly by anyone except members of the royal family; he was approached through Akhenaton, who was his son, the “only one who knew him.”

Since nothing can be written on the subject of the Aton mono theism that is fact—it is only one man’s theory against another’s—I may as well tell the reader what I think. Pure mono the ism, of the type implied by the reservations mentioned above, is just about non ex is tent. The idea of a divine son as an intermediary between god and man can be found in modern times in a faith which would certainly take affront if it were called polytheistic; it also admits a multiple godhead and worships the deity under many names and epithets. The king of Egypt was at all times the primary adorer of the god; his towering figure makes offerings on behalf of the land and the people. Private citizens could also be shown in postures of worship. It is not strictly accurate to say that prayers were never directed to the Aton by those outside the royal family. There are a number of such texts.

To me the conclusive evidence of Akhenaton’s faith being, so far as he was concerned, monotheistic can be found in the persecution of the other gods. Such bigotry is a sure sign of mono the ism. It is true that Amon is particularly often defaced, but the other gods were not spared, and there are the rare, but extremely significant examples of the obliteration of the plural word “gods.” At the city of Amarna itself no temples to other gods have ever been found. In the workmen’s village the old gods lived on, for official proscription does not destroy a divinity in the hearts of his worshipers. The question is not whether the Aton faith “caught on,” but what its true nature was. And the answer, it seems to me, is a fairly good version of mono the ism.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the reservations about this conclusion is the fact that Atonism, as we know it, seems to be lacking any ethical system. The “higher religions” have codes of conduct regulating the relations between god and man, and between man and other men. A similar moral code can be found in such Egyptian texts as the “Declaration of Innocence.” There is very little sign of moral values in the Aton hymn, which is the only statement of the faith surviving to us.

The Aton hymn is about the length of one of the longer Psalms; it is, like the Psalms, a hymn of praise. To assume, because we cannot find in it the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, that equivalent statements did not exist is unfair argument. We have so little material, really, and we are accustomed to working over each little scrap so thoroughly, that we tend to forget that what we have is only a small percentage of the total picture. Akhenaton reigned for seventeen years, and the religion he created died with him. It is not surprising that we lack documentary statements of belief from a period so short, when we have so few from the whole three-thousand-year span of pharaonic history. I cannot make any exalted claims for Akhenaton as a moralist; but neither can his adversaries dogmatically state that the Aton faith lacked this element. There is that continued emphasis on maat, not unique to Akhenaton, but surely implying the same values of truth, justice, and order.

We do not know the motives that impelled the soi-disant Amenhotep IV to take a step so alien to his heritage. Various theories have been suggested—naturally. There is the idea that the religious reformer was not Akhenaton but his wife or mother, and that this philosophically inclined female, whoever she was, came from one of the northern kingdoms—Mitanni is a favorite candidate—where a sun god was worshiped. Others suggest that the court party (a strictly modern concept) had become alarmed at the growing temporal power of Amon’s priesthood and sought to restrain it by setting up a new god. Neither theory makes sense. The “evidence” of Tiye’s foreign ancestry is extremely tenuous, as we pointed out in the first chapter; Nefertiti’s claim to Mitannian blood is now discounted. As for the idea that someone other than Akhenaton was responsible for the Aton faith, there is nothing to support or even suggest it.

The political interpretation gives Akhenaton credit for acumen so great as to amount to clairvoyance. We can see now, from where we stand, the development of a process which was to end four hundred years after Akhenaton with the high priests of Amon as rulers of Thebes; but there is no reason to suppose that the king, or anyone else at court, could see it.

Both these theories, like all the others, break down on the really essential point: that the Aton faith, if not true mono the ism, was so different from true polytheism as to be quite alien to the thought of the time, in Egypt or Mitanni or anyplace else. The most obvious way of explaining the phenomenon of Amarna is to resort to the unpopular but almost inescapable theory that Akhenaton himself was one of those rare, spiritually inspired individuals who occasionally emerge from the placid masses of mankind and, for better or worse, work their will on the course of history. No matter what we think of Breasted’s fondness for Akhenaton, we must admit that there is a grain of truth in that sweeping characterization, “the first individual in history.” Deformed, inspired, depraved, or what you will, Akhenaton is the only one of the pharaohs who has come down to us as more than a handsome hard-stone statue. The very magnitude of the controversy that rages around his vanished figure testifies to his uniqueness.

What ever its character, it is probable that the religious revolution was the work of one man. When he died—how, we do not know—the new faith also died. Akhenaton’s successors were boys, married to two of his daughters; one of them, Smenkhkare, probably did not survive his father-in-law, and young Tutankhaton was only nine years old when he ascended the throne. A few years later he had abandoned the city of Aton, changed his name to Tutankhamon, and restored the worship of Amon, repaying the god fourfold for all that he had lost under the persecution. Tutankhamon was the last of the house of Amarna; he was succeeded by a man of unknown antecedents who reigned for only a few years. The next king, Harmhab, who had been—we think—a follower of Akhenaton’s, completed the return to orthodoxy with a vengeance. Harmhab denied the existence of all the rulers between Amenhotep III and himself, claiming their years of kingship under his reign. Eventually Akhenaton’s very name was wiped off the pages of history. The heretic king was referred to only as “that criminal.” The victory of Amon was complete.

The new family of kings who made up the Nineteenth Dynasty were thoroughly orthodox except for one slightly peculiar factor—the prominence they gave to Set, the old enemy of Osiris. Osiris was not neglected. One of the most beautiful temples in Egypt was built in his honor, at Abydos, by two of the kings of this dynasty. Since one of them, Seti I, had a name which was singularly inappropriate at Abydos, incorporating as it did the name of Osiris’s murderer, the little figure of Set in the king’s cartouche was replaced throughout the temple by the Osiris figure. Even I find this inconsistency mildly startling; if the king’s name was so offensive, he should never have selected it in the first place. The solution, of course, lies in the familiar “multiplicity of approaches.” At Abydos, Set was his brother’s murderer and anathema; some place else he was something else, and perfectly all right. Set’s position is an unusual one, and it is still imperfectly understood. Whether or not it is understandable in our terms is another matter.

The Nineteenth Dynasty kings tried with some success to reestablish the old Egyptian Asiatic empire, which had been threatened during the reigns of Akhenaton and his father. One result of foreign contacts was the introduction of alien gods into the Egyptian pantheon; Astarte, Baal, and others were worshiped in Egypt, though none of them ever became outstandingly popular.

Above all the others, supreme in the pantheon, Amon-Re continued his triumphant progress. By the end of the Twentieth Dynasty his priests were in control of a vast amount of property; one estimate makes it as high as 15 percent of the people and 30 percent of the land. The end of the dynasty saw what some scholars have viewed as the inevitable conclusion. The High Priest of Amon took over the functions, if not the titles, of the king. It does not matter whether he seized power by virtue of his priestly power or his control of the army; he ruled as spokesman of the god. At this time Egypt was again divided, the north being ruled by men who claimed the title of king, the south by the high priests. A reunification made no difference to Amon. A benevolent monarch, allowing many lesser suns to shine in his heavens, he continued to rule the pantheon until Greek times, and after; Alexander the Great found it expedient to make the hard journey out to the Oasis of Siwa in order to be acknowledged King of Egypt by Amon of that place. The Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt, polytheists all, had no difficulty in worshiping the Egyptian pantheon and in adapting it to their needs. Isis was particularly popular; her worship spread throughout the Roman territories. Amon and his cohorts were not supplanted until Jehovah pushed Amon from his throne, and His Son replaced Osiris as a pledge of eternal life. Then, and not until then, could it be said that the gods of ancient Egypt were dead.


Anyone who has visited Egypt on one of those whirlwind five-day tours probably comes back with jumbled memories of Egyptian temples—heavy towering gateways, forests of columns, headless statues, and walls of austere pale stone covered with unintelligible pictures. Many of the existing “tourist” temples are Ptolemaic in date. Edfu, Denderah, Kom Ombo, Philae—all were built during the Greek or Roman occupation of Egypt, after 300 B.C. Their plans are much the same as those of the dynastic temples, but the decoration and the overall impression are different.

Of the dynastic temples still surviving, the most famous are in Upper Egypt—Karnak, Luxor, Abu Simbel (in Nubia), and Abydos are the main ones. Some of the other conspicuous temples of the Theban area, such as the Ramesseum, Deir el Bahri, and Medinet Habu, were dedicated to the mortuary cult of the king—though not exclusively. The distinction between mortuary and divine temples is useful, but, as is often the case in Egypt, the two categories overlapped.

The earliest temples in Egypt were little one-room affairs made of reeds, wood, or brick. Naturally, none of them have survived, but archaeologists can guess at their appearance from pictures, especially the hieroglyphic signs. The extremely scanty remains of one such temple, whose appearance has been brilliantly reconstructed from clues that would baffle Sherlock Holmes, was found at Hierakonpolis, once the capital of Upper Egypt. Few of the pre–Eighteenth Dynasty temples have survived. Perhaps the most interesting is the little temple of Senusert I, which dates from the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty, but it was not found intact. Its stones were disinterred from the inside of one of the pylons at Karnak and put together by archaeologists. The Egyptian kings were fond of claiming pious respect for the works of their ancestors, but like so many virtues, it was more honored in the breach than in the observance. The royal builder of the third pylon, looking around for material, took the temple stones to prop up his pylon, and there they remained until they were found in modern times. I should add that some scholars feel this was not an impious act; the pieces of the dismembered shrine remained in the temple, after all. Frankly, this argument strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

Senusert’s temple is a very simple one—a plain rectangular building with a flat roof and open windows all around. It stands on a platform, reached by ramps on opposite sides; and it is, for all its simplicity, a handsome, dignified little structure. This type is called a peripteral temple, and others of the same type were built during the Eighteenth Dynasty.

The standard temple plan of the New Kingdom, which is found in most surviving temples, is not so simple as that of the peripteral temple, but it is not as complicated as it appears to be. Basically it consisted of four elements: a pylon or gateway; a court with rows of columns along one or more sides; a wide, columned (hypostyle) hall; and the sanctuary room (or rooms). The whole thing was surrounded by a wall, usually of mud brick, with an open space in front of the gateway.


Perspective of a New Kingdom temple: Reconstruction of the temple of Amon-Re at Karnak

The pylon gateway was made of two towers with sloping sides and flat tops. It is believed to represent the mountains between which the sun rose each morning, and it does resemble the hieroglyph for “horizon.” The gate was between the towers. Beyond was the colonnaded court, usually unroofed except for the part over the colonnades. Beyond this came the hypostyle hall. The biggest and most impressive of these halls is the one at Karnak; it is a jungle of columns so crowded together that it is hard to realize how big the place is. If you stand at one end and look down to the other end and see a minuscule guide squatting at the base of one of the mammoth pillars, you begin to grasp the size. Some of the columns in this hall are forty-two and a half feet high, and twenty-seven and a half feet around. The hall was dimly lit by a clerestory raised on the two central rows of columns; the giants in these rows are sixty-nine feet high, and it has been calculated that one hundred men could stand on each of the enormous capitals—although I would not care to be one of the ones who stood along the edges.


Reconstruction of a pylon gateway, with obelisks, statues, and standards (temple of Amon-Re at Luxor)

Behind the hypostyle hall the favored priests might enter the shrine itself—the dwelling place of the god. This was a simple, windowless room; at the far end stood a statue of the god. Some temples were dedicated to more than one god, or to a god and his family. Triads were popular—father, mother, son—so often a temple will have three shrines. Surrounding the shrine were storerooms, offices, and the like.

The progression through these stages is from light to less light to utter darkness, and, as some scholars believe, from the chaos of ordinary life to that divine order (maat) with which the creation began, and which must be continually reconstituted through ritual. Or, to put it another way, the temple itself was the threshold between man and the divine. The rock-cut temples such as Abu Simbel were essentially a transfer of the standard style into solid stone. The facade of Abu Simbel represents the pylon, with gigantic statues like the ones often found in front of the regular temples; inside the cliff are the usual pillared halls and the shrine.

The casual visitor finds it hard to trace this plan in the Egyptian temples of today. This is because the basic elements could be multiplied, not only by the original builder but by succeeding rulers. When a king wanted to improve a temple, the usual procedure was to build another court and/or pylon in front of the ones already there. Karnak demonstrates this procedure very well. As it stands today it represents the pious royal efforts of over a millennium, and that figure does not include the Middle Kingdom temple, which is now lost. Karnak has eight pylons, not counting the ones which belong to the other nearby temples.

Prominent among the minor decorative elements of a temple were obelisks, and these also might be added by later kings, willy-nilly, to honor the god. Hatshepsut tore down part of her own father’s hall at Karnak in order to insert, quite inappropriately, two fine obelisks. These tall, slim square pillars, tapering to a pyramid point on top, often stood in front of the pylon gateway; their surfaces were covered with inscriptions praising, in no modest terms, the ruler who had erected them. The obelisks, some of which are almost a hundred feet high, are not what one would call easily transportable; and yet there are probably more standing obelisks today in Rome than there are in Egypt, and others are scattered all over the world, from New York to Istanbul. I don’t know what there is about obelisks that makes people want to steal them, but the form seems to have its appeal. The Washington Monument is the same shape, and from Roman times onward rulers of other countries went to considerable effort to carry them off from Egypt.

Personally I’d rather have a statue. Statues were an important architectural element too, and in keeping with the massiveness of the temple, they were large. They stood in rows against the walls or between the columns of the courtyard. Massive figures of the king might adorn the gateway as well. Like sculpture, reliefs and paintings played an important part in the decorative effect. Most of the flat wall surfaces were covered with carvings; the subject matter concerned the king and the gods.

Columns played an important part in Egyptian architecture. They were used in houses and palaces, but naturally we see them to their best advantage in temples, since these have survived better than has domestic architecture.


Column types

There were several distinct types of columns, characterized by their capitals. Most, archaeologists think, were derived from plant forms, even, in some cases, from bundles of reeds used to support the light roofs of early huts. The first column in our illustration was probably a bunch of papyrus stems, whose bound stiff tops form the capital. Another column derived from the ubiquitous and useful papyrus was number four, whose capital was a single papyrus top bent back, as would be natural, by the weight of the roof it supported. The second column looks, in actuality, so much like the papyrus cluster that it is hard to tell them apart. It is derived from the lily (lotus). Its stems are rounded in section, while the papyrus stems are triangular, but the easiest way of distinguishing them is that the column base tapers in the papyrus type and is straight in the lotus.

The palm column, number three, is not so common, nor is the open papyrus type. Our last example is a curious one; the squared capital has heads in bas relief and full face of the goddess Hathor, with her cow ears. These columns were used in shrines dedicated to the goddess, and similar ones, with figures of the little pygmy god Bes, also appear now and then. In Ptolemaic times several complicated composite plant capitals appeared; dozens of them can be seen at Denderah, Edfu, and other late temples. We must not forget to mention the simplest and, in some ways, the most effective of all Egyptian columns, which require no illustration—the beautiful fluted cylinder, which reminds us of Greek types. Archaeologists and art historians seem to agree that there is no connection between the Greek and Egyptian columns, although to an untrained eye they certainly look a lot alike. The Egyptian variety is probably seen to the best advantage at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri, but the type goes back a long way in Egypt.

One other type of temple ought to be mentioned, although it survives today only in plans. The temples Akhenaton erected in honor of his sun god Aton are quite different from the standard type. The glowing orb was not worshiped in a dark sanctuary but in an open court, approached by a series of colonnades and courtyards with great gateways. It was surrounded by offices and storerooms, and in the center, under the open sky, was the altar of the god, on a platform approached by steps. Akhenaton’s temples may not be so heretical as they first appear; sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty also had an altar, surmounted by an obelisk, in an open court as the center of worship.

It is no wonder that the tourist (and I use this word in an honorable sense, referring to a group of which I am often one) comes away confused about temple plans. The real pity is that he gets a totally misleading impression of what these temples looked like. They seem austere and dignified, almost ponderously so, and they add to the impression many people have of Egyptian culture as being equally ponderous and dignified. In their pristine state these temples were, of course, very big. But they blazed and glittered and shone as brilliantly as a sunlit baroque church.

As the visitor approached the pylon, his first impression was not so much one of size as of color, bright enough to hurt the eyes under the golden Egyptian sun. The flat surfaces of the towers which formed the pylon were painted with enormous figures of men and gods—orange and blue and green and red, they stood out against the clean white background as brilliantly as a billboard, and much more attractively. The obelisks before the gate might be tipped with gold or even completely covered with that gorgeous material. The tall flagstaffs in front of the portal also had golden tips and floated scarlet pennants. Going in through the gate, the visitor found himself in a court whose pillars were painted in the same bright colors and were covered with the elegant little pictures of hieroglyphic inscriptions. The massive statues, in serried ranks, looked very handsome with their heads and arms and noses all in place and their surfaces polished to a gleaming sheen. The limestone statues were painted—dazzling white clothing, red-brown skin, inlays of semiprecious stones, and gold on crowns and collars.

By the time the visitor passed from the sunlight of the court into the hypostyle hall, where shafts of clear light from the clerestory pierced the shadows, some of the brilliance of the first part of the temple was dimmed. But still the rich ornamentation continued. The doors might be of beautifully grained cedar or of copper plated with gold. The best picture comes from the words of the Egyptians themselves:

…a very great portal…wrought with gold throughout. The Divine Shadow, in the shape of a ram, is inlaid with real lapis lazuli wrought with gold and many precious stones…. Its floor is adorned with silver, towers are over against it. Stelae of lapis lazuli are set up, one on each side. Its pylons reach heaven like the four pillars of heaven, its flagstaffs shine more than the heavens, wrought with electrum.

Unlike churches, the temples were never filled with crowds of lay worshipers. Only the highest priests could enter the holy of holies and approach the god. By official dogma the king was the celebrant of the divine rites and high priest of all the gods; but, since he could not be in a dozen places at once, he had to delegate his duties.

In the morning, as the sun rose over the cliffs, the priest in charge of that day’s ritual entered the sanctuary, breaking the seals on the shrine. Within was the god’s statue, very possibly of solid gold. (Naturally, none of these have survived except in fiction.) With the slow care of religious ritual, the god was washed and anointed, clothed in new garments, and decked with jewels. The morning offerings of food and drink were made. Hymns of praise were chanted; the “Singers of the God” performed for his entertainment. At sundown the shrine was closed and sealed; the high priest, or priest in charge, backed out of the sanctuary, sweeping away the traces of his footprints in order to leave the sacred place ritually clean.

The priesthoods were organized into several groups, or phyles, the precise number varying from period to period and shrine to shrine. The head of the establishment was the high priest, or “Chief of the Servants of the God” you may find him called “First Prophet” in some books. The high priests of certain gods had special titles; the head of Re’s temple at Heliopolis was the “Greatest of Seers.” The word we translate “prophet” is somewhat misleading, for it does not imply prediction of future events but was simply the designation of certain high-ranking ecclesiastics, perhaps the ones who were allowed to meet the god face to face. Other orders were the lector priests, the scholars in charge of the ritual and the sacred writings, and the wab or lustration priests. Women served the god as dancers and singers and sometimes, particularly in the case of female divinities, as priestesses.

In all this elaborate activity the common people had little or no part. The only time they saw the god, or his gorgeous golden shrine, was when he went traveling on the occasion of some festival. Luckily for the Egyptian laboring man there were many festivals; at some periods almost one-third of the days were holy days. Evidently the gods became bored sitting all day in their shrines. Sometimes they visited one another, as when Hathor went from Denderah to call on Horus at Edfu.

One of the biggest festivals of the year was Amon’s Feast of Opet, at Thebes, when he went down from Karnak to his Luxor temple to see what was going on there. The festival took place during the Inundation, when the river was overflowing and many of the peasants were unable to work their land; they undoubtedly enjoyed the celebration very much. Amon was carried from his Karnak sanctuary to the divine boat at the river. This was a gorgeous affair built of cedar from Lebanon, gilded and adorned with carvings, rich hangings, and flowers. On the deck was a dais for the shrine of the god. The barge was towed by a royal flagship manned by high-ranking officials, who fought for the honor of transporting the god, and by gangs of workmen on towropes along the bank. The river must have been crowded with other boats—private vessels of well-to-do people dressed in their best, munching sweetmeats and singing songs; hired craft jammed with sightseers of the lower classes. Other spectators followed along the bank, dancing, buying trinkets and tidbits from the booths erected along the route, being robbed by pickpockets and solicited by prostitutes and whined at by legless beggars. When, amid shouts of rejoicing, the divine boat reached the Luxor temple, the god was carried in procession, led by the king, into his Luxor shrine. The crowd of followers stopped at the gates to the courtyard. There they could jostle and gape and point out important personages in the procession, like the crowds at the first-night performances of plays and films. Sooner or later free food would be distributed, with plenty of bread and beer.

Perhaps the humble worshipers of the god actually did get to see a theatrical performance, of a sort. There is no evidence in ancient Egypt of secular drama, but several papyri mention dramatic performances in connection with the king’s coronation and certain religious rites. The written dialogue is sometimes accompanied by specific stage directions. One Twelfth Dynasty official boasted of having been selected to play Horus in the mystery play of Osiris. This was probably the most famous of all Egyptian dramas, representing the god’s death and triumphant resurrection.

The full story does not come down to us from pharaonic Egypt but from the Greek writer Plutarch, who apparently found it remarkable enough to preserve. It was new to him, of course; to the Egyptians it was so well known that they never bothered to write it out in full, though frequent references make it clear that Plutarch got the plot more or less right. In an earlier chapter I described Osiris’s death and resurrection, the burial of his body by his devoted wife Isis, and the birth of his (extremely) posthumous son Horus. A number of cities claimed to have pieces of the god (it’s rather suggestive of medieval saints’ relics, isn’t it?), but his chief center was Abydos, where the head—or, according to some versions, the entire body—was buried. Thus, Abydos became the holy city of Osiris, the goal of devout pilgrims, and the scene of the famous drama.

The devout Egyptian audience may have wept and cheered and hissed the villain at appropriate moments, just as medieval pilgrims did during the representation of the Christian Passion. And when the resurrected god arose, it was the symbol and the promise of eternal life for them. Eventually the god’s name became a common title, referring to the dead man or woman: “The Osiris so-and-so.”

On a more frivolous note, one cannot help but speculate as to why Ikhernofret was chosen for the part of Horus—a starring role if ever there was one. Dramatic talent? Good looks? I jest, of course. Ikhernofret was Chief Treasurer, among a lot of other important titles, and his selection was probably a mark of royal favor.


And now the story continues. This “sequel” to the life and death and rebirth of Osiris does survive from an Egyptian text, and it is quite unlike the solemn ritual we have described. It shows, more vividly than my own words could do, that the Egyptians didn’t always take their religion too seriously.

The story opens in the supreme tribunal of the gods, who are here referred to as the Ennead; the word no longer means “nine gods,” just a lot of them. Chief of the court is Re-Atum, and the case under consideration is that of Horus and Set, the contenders for the throne of Osiris. Horus is now grown up and ready to take up the role of avenger of his father.

In the beginning, everyone except the president of the court seems to agree that Horus ought to inherit his father’s throne. Re-Atum is in favor of Set—perhaps because that god helps him repel his snaky enemies during the trip through the underworld—and while his authority is not enough to overrule the rest of the council, it is strong enough to create a deadlock.

The gods then request Thoth, the scribe, to write asking the advice of Neith, the ancient goddess of Sais; perhaps, as an old lady, she is supposed to be wiser than the rest. Neith replies: “Give the office of Osiris to his son Horus!” On hearing these words, the council shouts with one voice: “This goddess is right!”

Re, the lofty god of the sun, then loses his temper. He sneers at Horus: “The office is too much for you—you boy, still smelling of sour milk!” A general slanging match ensues; the petty god Baba, drawing himself up, shrieks at Re: “Your shrine is empty!”

That is too much—telling Re that he is not a god. The scandalized Ennead scolds Baba for lèse-majesté, and Re goes off to his tent to sulk. There he sits until Hathor, goddess of love, sidles in and exposes herself to him. This indelicate act restores the supreme god’s good humor; he returns to the tribunal and tells the contestants to present their cases.

Set’s plea is more notable for rhetoric than for reason. “As for me, I am Set, great of strength among the Ennead. Daily I slay the enemies of Re, I am in front of the Bark of Millions; no other god can do this. I should receive the office of Osiris!”

The fickle Ennead immediately bellows: “Set is right!” Thoth is almost the only consistent one. He speaks up for his candidate, Horus, but his reasoned arguments are submerged in an exchange of insults, which ends with Isis getting up and cursing the whole tribunal. Her threats terrify the immortals; they assure her that everything will be fine, everyone will get what is due him. Set promises to kill one god per day unless judgment is given in his favor, and he refuses to discuss the matter any further unless Isis is thrown out of court. In desperation Re suggests that they all move to an island where they can debate in peace. Strict orders are given to the ferrymen not to take any woman across the water.

Anti, the ferryman, is just as irresponsible as his betters. When Isis appears, disguised as an old woman, he lets himself be bribed into taking her to the island. Sneaking up, Isis sees the Ennead at dinner. She changes her form into that of a beautiful girl and strolls back and forth outside the window until Set catches a glimpse of her. It is love at first sight; he rushes out. “Beautiful maiden, I am here with you!” he announces rapturously.

Isis slyly presents him with a fictitious case. She is the widow, she says, of a poor herdsman, and a foreigner has come and stolen all the cattle from her son, the heir. Set, inflamed by love or basically stupid, exclaims indignantly, “Shall the cattle be given to the foreigner while the son of the man is alive?” Isis turns herself into a bird and flies up into a tree, cawing triumphantly, “It is your own mouth which has said it; it is your own cleverness which has judged you!”

Set bursts into tears. Weeping copiously, he returns to the tribunal and tells them the whole story. “Well,” says Re, in effect, “now you’ve done it.” Even the supreme god has no choice now but to decide in favor of Horus.

Stubborn Set refuses to accept the verdict; he demands a trial by combat. Changing themselves into hippopotami, the two gods plunge into the river to see who can stay down the longest. Isis, pacing up and down in an agony of concern for her son, finally can stand the suspense no longer. She heaves a harpoon into the water—like the heroines of modern thriller fiction who try to bat the villain on the head while he is wrestling with the hero. Naturally, her weapon misses Set and hits Horus; he has to come out of the water and tell her to take her magic weapon out of his hide. Next time Isis manages to hit Set, but when he emerges, appealing to her as his sister, the inconsistent woman frees him too. This annoys Horus, who cuts off his mother’s head to teach her a little lesson.

After a time, Isis’s unpleasant condition dawns on Re. “Who is this woman who has no head?” he inquires. Thoth, who knows all, tells him, and Re decides that Horus shall be punished. In the meantime Set finds the boy asleep and gouges out his eyes. Horus is cured by Hathor’s magic, and once again the Ennead goes into executive session to try to settle the case.

The story goes on and on. There is one bawdy episode in which Set tries to play a sexual trick upon his nephew, but it is turned back on him by the wiles of Isis. There are battles, and more hippopotami, and endless ranting in the tribunal. The issue is finally decided by a threatening letter from no less a personage than Osiris; Set concedes to Horus, Horus is crowned, and Set is consoled by Re’s promise that he shall “thunder in the sky and be feared.”

Obviously this story is not official dogma. It is rude, insulting, and frivolous, and I think there is no doubt but that the Egyptians regarded it as a humorous tale. It is a far cry from the solemn ritual which casual students think of as the only manifestation of the religious attitude in ancient Egypt. Yet frivolity was not the sole alternative to ritual, nor does the Horus and Set story represent the secret cynicism of the people as opposed to the official piety of the court. We know relatively little about popular religion in its day-by-day manifestations. But the few sources we do have give a third, and very significant, picture of religious attitudes.


Though they were not admitted to the inner precincts of the great temples, the people had their centers of worship. They made pilgrimages to certain shrines, and they also worshiped at home. Poorer houses had a small shrine in one room of the house; nobles might possess a special pavilion set in the beauty of the garden. The gods worshiped in the house hold shrines could be the great gods of the pantheon, and perhaps a craftsman might prefer to offer to Ptah, and a scribe might choose Thoth, the inventor of numbers and the patron of writing. Hathor was a favorite; her small shrine at Deir el Bahri yielded hundreds of pieces of broken faience objects which had been offered to her by pilgrims.

Two of the most popular house hold gods, whose worship was almost entirely restricted to small shrines, were very peculiar-looking. If we did not know that Taweret was a good-natured goddess, we would certainly take her for a monster. She was a hippopotamus goddess and the protectress of women in childbirth. One would think that the sight of her would frighten a pregnant woman into fits, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Another favored house hold god was Bes, whose grotesque figure often decorated the bedchamber. He is unusual in that he was the only Egyptian god to be painted, consistently, in direct front view. He does not look very Egyptian, really; his round bearded face and dwarfish body suggest something from inner Africa, as does his costume. Perhaps he was imported. But although he was not handsome, Bes was a jolly godling, in charge of fun and games generally.

The most important documents relating to popular religion come from little memorial stones found at Deir el Medina, the village of the necropolis workers of Thebes. One of these prayers is dedicated to a goddess named Meretseger, “She Who Loves Silence,” who was also called “The Peak of the West” after a prominent mountain near the Valley of the Kings. It was written by a necropolis worker named Neferabet, who calls himself “an ignorant and witless man.” “I knew not good or evil,” he says. “When I did the deed of transgression against the Peak, she punished me, and I was in her hand by night as well as day…. I called out to the wind, but it did not come to me…. But when I called to my mistress, I found her coming to me with sweet breezes. She showed mercy unto me, after she had let me see her hand. She turned about to me in mercy.”

This is really an extraordinary text to have been written by one of the cheerful, bumptious Egyptians, who bought magic spells to keep their consciences from testifying against them on the day of judgment. It is not unique, however. Another prayer, in much the same tone, addresses itself to no less a divinity than Amon-Re, king of the gods. The petitioner, an artist named Nebre, appealed to the god when his son fell ill, “in a state of death.” Amon, who is given the astonishing epithet “he who comes at the voice of the poor man,” responded to the father’s plea. He rescued the son from death. Nebre, filled with thanksgiving, praised the god in these words: “Though the servant is inclined to do wrong, yet the Lord is inclined to be merciful.” In this prayer we see a consciousness of sin, a humility, and an awareness of divine mercy which, it has been claimed, does not occur in ancient times outside of the religious literature of the Hebrews. Yet it is surely a factor in Egyptian religion of the Late Period.

In a sense these prayers are the essence of ancient Egyptian religion. Long lists of bizarre deities and philosophic interpretations of what we think the Egyptians thought are less significant than the actual words of a man to his god. The gods are dead, but once they lived—not as cold golden statues in a darkened shrine, but as forces which could command the awe and devotion of living men.

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