Religion was an inherent part of Egyptian life. Egyptian astronomy, literature, medicine, art and government were based on religious beliefs. Astronomy defined the correct time for sacrifices and religious ceremonies. The earliest pieces of literature we devoted to religious issues. Medicine made profound use of magical utterances since illnesses were ascribed to the will of gods. The magnificent Egyptian pyramids were sacred tombs for the pharaohs who were treated as earthly gods. The pharaoh was a holy monarch fulfilling the role of the intermediary between man and gods. God was also believed to have created justice, which was therefore perceived in religious aspects as well. To top it all, the Egyptians’ ethical code was believed to have been approved by gods (James, 1979).
From the very beginning, the Egyptians worshipped animals that were considered sacred. That is why there is no wonder that this nation carefully buried bulls, sheep, cats and gazelles in their own graves. In the course of time, Egyptian gods perceived human features and became anthropomorphic, although the animal’s body or head has been preserved. Egyptian religion knows over 700 goddesses and gods; a multitude of beliefs depends on the historical period which is being investigated. Even for the Egyptians it was hard to follow the variety of goddesses and gods during the period of the Old Kingdom. Therefore, the Egyptians tried to simplify their religious hierarchy by organizing the gods in family groups of nine or eight (Redford, 2002).
In the era of Predynastic Egypt (till 3100 B.C.), people worshipped predominantly animals, i.e., every community had its peculiar deity or a set of them. Since 3100 B.C., after Egypt had been unified, its religion became polytheistic. Only when the Pharaoh Akhenaten ruled, the religion was changed to monotheistic – Athen, the pharaoh’s patron deity, became the only god. After Akhenaten’s death, earlier polytheistic religion was restored:
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A pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Akhenaten, who identified the supreme god with Athen, the shining disk of the sun, took this idea so far that he actually tried to abolish the worship of other leading deities. He failed in this “religious revolution,” but even so, Egyptian polytheism always had an underlying urge toward the opposite form of belief, monotheism.
Two main groups of the Egyptian deities: local, national or state gods and household gods
Household gods were of primary importance to the majority of population since the national gods seemed rather distant. People worshipped these gods outside temples and did not create religious cult of them. Nor did household gods need priests. Bes and Tauert are the brightest examples of household gods (Redford, 2002).
State and local gods were the major deities worshipped in certain places in Egypt. For instance, the Fayoum and Kom Ombo were the locations where the crocodile god was predominantly worshipped. Some gods of this group could have gained national fame and be idolized throughout Egypt. To illustrate, the sun god Re became widely recognized in the second dynasty. Sometimes a new deity was created by combining gods. For example, the New Kingdom Era witnessed the birth of Amen-Re as a combination of the sun god Re with the state god Amun. The national gods were often determined by preferences of the pharaohs. The majority of ordinary people most commonly idolized local or household gods. Very often people would choose which god to worship according to their occupation. For instance, the central deity of a scribe was Thoth – the patron of writing and scribes (Redford, 2002).
Osiris was the deity of the dead who first appeared as a local god of the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt. He was also the god of agriculture. His wife was Isis and his brother was animal-headed Seth. Seth was Orisis’ rival and killed him, but Isis convinced the gods to resurrect her husband; since then, the latter ruled over the dead. Osiris embodied the fertilizing, life-giving power of the Nile, whereas Isis stood for the fruitful earth of Egypt. There were several gods of the sky: Horus who beat the demon Seth after an enduring struggle; Re – the sun god who was later joined with Amen and, later, with Athen. The God Thoth, with a baboon’s head, was the god of the moon, wisdom, numbers and magic. In small villages, all the forces of nature were idolized: one local god consisted of three parts – lion, hippopotamus and crocodile (ancient-egypt-online.com).
Egyptian religion guaranteed optimism and confidence in the stability and the outer order reigning in the world. The cycles of life and death were guided exclusively by gods. The essential feature of Egyptian religion is its belief in afterlife. As Wyly Michael puts it:
Death meant a continuation of one’s life on earth, a continuation that, with the appropriate precautions of proper burial, prayer, and ritual, would include only the best parts of life on earth – nothing to fear, but on the other hand, nothing to want to hurry out of this world for.
People believed that their souls would continue to live after death of body and did everything to preserve the latter through mummification. The Egyptians were convinced that physical existence is a hurdle on the way to a blessed state of happiness that could last forever. However, one would not necessarily live forever after death. To do this, an Egyptian should have followed (in actions, thoughts and intentions) Maat – the perfect order that emerged from the original chaos that could never be destroyed. Furthermore, afterlife in Egyptian religion had many forms or existences. Khat stood for the physical body that was mummified for resurrection. The sahu embodied the spiritual counterpart of the body. The shadow was known as the khaibit. Intelligence rested in the heart, ab, which was later judged by Maat. What we name the soul, the Egyptians named Ba, whereas the divine spiritual aspect of every person was Akh; threesacred birds – ibises – represented Akh, they left the body after death and soared in heaven (Wyly, 2002).
These ideas of afterlife have had a profound impact on other civilizations and countries. In almost all European countries (excepting some East European), the majority of population believes in life after death. Evidence suggests that the oldest and the youngest groups of population are more likely to believe in afterlife. Such countries as Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal tend to show the increasing rates of people believing in afterlife. On balance, Egyptian and Western religions have many features in common: after death, man is judged and his further place of existence is defined; to lead a good life, man should obey certain sacred principles; afterlife is aimed at release of the soul from the body, whereas the true human essence – the self – is eternal. Notwithstanding, no one Western religion seems to have so many forms of afterlife as the Egyptian one (Greeley; books.google.com.ua).
Egyptian laws were based on common sense view of right and wrong since they followed the principles of Maat. Maat symbolized truth, order, justice and balance in the universe. Under this concept, anyone, except slaves, should be equal despite a social position or wealth. Nonetheless, when a person was punished, the family of the guilty was a subject to punishment as well. For instance, when people were exiled, their children automatically got outlawed with them, too. If a relative deserted from the armed forces or neglected the labor requirements of the state, the whole family might be sent to prison (touregypt.net).
The laws of the land were created and enforced by pharaohs. There exist about eight books comprising the legal code of Egypt. Pharaoh’s power had no limits as he was sacred, and everyone had to obey his laws. In Egypt, there existed severe punishments for law offenders. Here belonged the stake, exile, drowning, mutilation, burning alive, beheading and branding. Tomb raiding was considered the most severe crime as the treasures found there were believed to be sacred; the punishment for it was exclusively death. The fate of a criminal was decided in court by the pharaoh: law officials (today’s police) caught an offender and took him to the pharaoh. Since a criminal violated Maat, he was believed to suffer sickness, poverty, failure, deafness or blindness (touregypt.net.).
Some legal proceedings of Ancient Egypt were documented, and from them we know that light punishment also existed. For example, if an offender stole or embezzled goods, he was fined twice their value. Simple physical (corporal) punishment involved a hundred strokes of the cane, and if a case was more severe, five bleeding cuts were added or an offender was branded, which symbolized eternal dishonor. Apart from exile to the Western Oasis or Nubia, one could be sent to labor in the distant quarries or mines (touregypt.net). Records demonstrate that, according to the civil law, females “had a relatively high degree of freedom and independence. Monogamous marriage was the rule, and women could own property, bring lawsuits, and divorce their husbands” (Greer, Thomas; books.google.com.ua). The poor, children and even slaves could own property under particular conditions. The problematic issues that arose in the environment of common peasantry were treated as important, too.
On the whole, the law system of Ancient Egypt may be claimed to be rather harsh, as it can be judged from the existing punishment for breaking a law. It may be reasonably claimed that the ancient Egyptian laws have had an enduring effect. First of all, the Greeks adopted Egyptian legal system, and later Egyptian laws were used by Romans. Nowadays’ legal system has also adopted many elements of Roman law: the notion of a trial conducted by jury, the right to possess property, the right of appeal and legal defense, the validity of contracts and wills (touregypt.net). To top it all, capital punishment in the US also exists.