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Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt

QUESTION: Was religion a major part of everyday life in ancient Egypt?


To ancient Egyptians, the term "religion" as we think of it did not exist. Worship was the primary focus of everyday life, and was characterized by three main aspects:

  • Animistic: the belief that gods were representative of natural forces such as floods, the moon, and the sun.
  • Anthropomorphic: gods took on human-like characteristics when they visited earth; some were represented with animal heads and human bodies.
  • Polytheistic: they believed in more than one god or goddess. The Egyptian gods were very sacred and plentiful. The Egyptians worshiped at least eighty different gods.
The worship of their gods and goddesses was part of everyday life in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians interpreted every occurrence in terms of the relationship between natural and supernatural forces. They believed in life after death, which they termed the "afterlife." They had to obey their gods because after their death, the gods would judge them according to how well their commands were obeyed. The Egyptian people thought that the afterlife was similar to life on earth, only better. They thought that the spirits of the dead could eat, drink, and move around after death, and their spirit only needed a body to live in. That is why mummies were an integral part of the religious ritual in ancient Egypt.

The first attempt to establish a monotheistic doctrine (the belief that there is only one God) was when Akenaton (XVIII Dynasty) installed "Aten," who no one was able to see as the sole universal god and to facilitate the shift, he eliminated all the traditional deities. This god was not unknown to the Egyptians people, as it originally represented the light and heat of the sun. The name Aten appears frequently in the old texts, and was used in expressions most commonly referring to the universe. The new canon did not last long though. After the King's death there was a swift return to the status quo.

There was a proliferation of temples which indicates how essential they were to the function of everyday life in ancient Egypt and the religious function was not the whole story. Often one temple was built so close to another that whole temple complexes, even temple cities arose, cities like Giza, or Thebes. The sheer size of these complexes hints at the amount of activity that went on inside their walls.

In serving the gods, the priests were acting on behalf of the king whose decisions implemented the will of the gods on earth. This is why in every period of Egyptian history we find temple-wall reliefs forever repeating the motif of a king standing face-to-face with one god or other while he makes an offering. Being himself a "living god," the image of the King is drawn on the same scale as the supernatural being in front of him, with whom he is essentially on a par. In view of the great number of deities and temples, the King could not cope with all the duties ensuing from his privileged status, so he entrusted them on to the priests who every day performed religious rites on his behalf throughout the realm.

Before a priest could enter the innermost parts of the temple, where the god resided, a complex purification process was necessary. This was not a cleansing as we know it in Christianity, a spiritual act involving the avoidance and forgiveness of sins, but rather a sequence of physical operations. In order to be ritually pure, their clothes had to be woven from clean, fine linen thread and cut to a conservative style. Their clothing distinguished the priests from the rest of the population. The Egyptian laypersons did not have access to the gods in the temples or shrines. In contrast to Christian practice, laymen could only enter the forecourt of an Egyptian temple, the inner parts being reserved for the priesthood. The common people could only approach the gods in the national festivals.

After complying with all the requirements of purification, a priest still had to undergo a prescribed ritual ablution before he entered the inner sanctum. On the inside, and along the outside walls of the large temples was a sizable stone pool with a long set of steps leading down to the water. Once at the pool, the priest could use the water to sprinkle and cleanse himself. As well as being clean in body, the priests were supposed to abide by a strict code of ethics. They were never to enter a temple in a state of sin or impurity. They were warned to lay no false charges, be not desirous of profit, accept no bribes, spurn not the lowly in favor of the mighty, use no false measure or weight, and tell no "gossip" about the rites they performed. These were the secrets, the privacy clauses, idiosyncratic to the temple.

So the answer to the question is yes! Religion was a major part of everyday life in ancient Egypt, but not in the way "we" identify with religion.

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