Go to the Digital Library top page!

Social Studies

Ancient Egypt
Introduction > Religion in the Lives of the Ancient Egyptians

Origins and nature of the gods
It is almost impossible to enumerate the gods of the Egyptians, for individual deities could temporarily merge with each other to form syncretistic gods (Amun-Re, Re-Harakhty, Ptah-Sokar, etc.) who combined elements of the individual gods. A single god might also splinter into a multiplicity of forms (Amun-em-Opet, Amun-Ka-Mutef, Amun of Ipet-swt), each of whom had an independent cult and role. Unlike the gods of the Graeco-Roman world, most Egyptian gods had no definite attributes. For example, Amun, one of the most prominent deities of the New Kingdom and Late Period, is vaguely referred to in secondary literature as the "state god" because his powers were so widespread and encompassing as to be indefinable.

To a great extent, gods were patterned after humans — they were born, some died (and were reborn), and they fought amongst themselves. Yet as much as the gods' behavior resembled human behavior, they were immortal and always superior to humans.

Gods are attested from the earliest time of Egyptian civilization. Standard anthropological models that suggest that gods in early civilizations are derived from a mother goddess or that they are the incarnation of aspects of nature do not fit the Egyptian evidence. Further complicating our understanding of the early gods is the fact that a single deity could be represented in human form, in zoomorphic form, or in a mixed animal-human form. Although the animal forms and therianthropic (i.e., part human, part animal) forms slightly predate anthropoid manifestations, it is unlikely that the gods were derived from totemic animals or that the Egyptians practiced zoolatry (i.e., worship of animals). Rather, animal forms were probably used to suggest metaphorically something about the characteristics of the god.

Certain gods were associated strongly with specific localities, although their worship was not limited to those regions. The gods were organized into groupings that expressed male and female elements (Amun/Amunet), family triads (Amun, his wife Mut and their child Khonsu), and other groupings such as the ogdoad of eight gods and the ennead of nine gods.

Many aspects of Egyptian theology are elusive to modern researchers. This results from the fact that there was tremendous development of religious ideas throughout the 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization, yet few concepts were discarded; instead, they were layered upon each other in an ever more complex and seemingly convoluted manner. Although sometimes dismissed as the signs of a primitive culture or of the Egyptians' confusion about their place in the universe, the seemingly contradictory beliefs are better interpreted as extended metaphors used to explain the intangible. For example, there are several different and seemingly contradictory ideas about creation. In some theologies, the god Ptah brought mankind into being by the force of his thoughts while others recount that mankind was created by Khnum on his celestial potter's wheel. In still others, the god Atum performed the first act of creation from his spittle or semen. All of these solutions were an attempt to explain a phenomenon that was beyond human understanding in more comprehensible metaphors.

« previous 2 of 6 next »

The Further Exploration page has many links to great sites about Ancient Egypt.

Visit the Kid's Corner of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago online.

Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!