The religion of the ancient Egyptians can be divided into the official or state religion and the private religion of the ordinary people. These ordinary people felt that the great gods of the kings were unlikely to help them with their everyday problems. They therefore made offerings at home to friendly gods like Tauert and Bes. Tauert (a hippopotamus) protected women in childbirth, and the ugly dwarf called Bes protected humans, especially children, against evil.
The ancient Egyptians had many gods and they were often in a type of ‘family’ relationship, called a triad. The family of Osiris (father), Isis (mother) and Horus (child) is an example. Horus was always very intimately linked with kingship, and when Egypt was united in the First Dynasty the name of the king was preceded by the title ‘Horus’. The king was thereafter regarded as a god on earth. Because Horus was also the son of Osiris, the king became one with Osiris when he died. Therefore the living king was Horus, and the dead king Osiris.
The king, who was regarded as a god, was the high priest of every cult and every temple in the country. It was impossible for him to be at all these temples at the same time and priests represented him. A temple was not for the ordinary people, but a house for a specific god. The cult image of the god was kept inside the temple in an inner sanctuary. The only people allowed inside the temple were the pharaoh and his priests.
Christianity in Egypt
The country’s Roman conquerers respected the Egyptian’s religion and the worship of their gods continued after their invasion 332 BCE. Historians are not entirely certain when or how introduction of Christianity occurred. Most Egyptian Christians (Copts) believe that Mark the Evangelist brought the religion to Alexandria, from where it spread to the rest of the nation.
In time, the majority of the Egyptian population was Christians, and the Church of Alexandria became one of Christendom’s four Apostolic Sees. The Church of Alexandria is therefore the oldest Christian church in Africa.
Conversion to Islam
The Arab conquest in 641 CE brought the Islamic religion to Egypt and the population underwent a gradual conversion to Islam.
Egyptians practiced polytheism, or the worship of many deities (except of course during the Amarna Period). Each god/goddess was worshiped according to his/her area of protection and influence. Egyptian gods are often represented with the body of a human and the head of an animal. There were over 700 different deities and it was not uncommon for two beings to be combined to form a new god.
Here are a few of some of the most popular gods:
Considered to be the “King of the Gods”, Amun is thought to have created all things. Represented by a man wearing an ostrich plumed hat.
The god of embalming and Egyptians believed he watched over the dead. Represented with the head of a jackal.
The god of strength and fertility. Represented with the head of a bull.
A form of the sun god, Ra. During the reign of Akhenaten, the Aten was raised to the “king of the gods”. Represented by a sun disk with rays ending in hands.
The gentle goddess of protection, joy, love and pregnant women. Represented by a woman with the head of a cat.
The protector of pregnant women, newborn babies and the family. Depicted as a dwarf with lion and human features.
The good of the sky and the protector of the ruler of Egypt. Represented by a human body with the head of a hawk.
A protective goddess who was the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. Represented by a woman with a headdress in the shape of a throne or a pair of cow horns with a sun disk.
The god of creation, the movement of the sun and rebirth. Represented by a man with the head of a scarab or a scarab beetle.
The god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. Represented by a mummified man wearing a cone-like headdress with feathers.
The god of craftsmen. Represented by a man wrapped in a tight white cloak carrying a staff.
The sun god and the most important god to all Egyptians. Represented by a man with a hawk head and a headdress with a sun disk.
The goddess of war. Represented by a woman with the head of a lioness.
The god of chaos. Represented by a man with the head of a "Seth animal".
A Nile god. Represented by a man with the head of a crocodile and a headdress of feathers and sun-disk.
The goddess who protected women during pregnancy and childbirth. Depicted as a creature with the head of a hippopotamus, the arms and legs of a lion, the back and tail of a crocodile, and the breasts and stomach of a pregnant woman.
The god of writing and knowledge. Represented by a man with the head of an ibis holding a writing palette, an ibis or a baboon.
A statuette of Tauert the hippopotamus that protected women in childbirth. (c) Iziko Photo Archives.
A mural of Horus, the god of the sun and king, at the Temple of Edfu in Egypt.
A statuette of Isis, mother of Horus and wife of Osiris, portrayed as the moon goddess Selene (Greek). The centre of the cult following being Heliopolis. (c) Iziko Photo Archives.
The Coptic Orthdox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. (c) Iziko Photo Archives.