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

Polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism
Throughout their history the Egyptians worshipped a great number of gods. Tomb and literary texts indicate that an individual did not ally himself with a single god. For example, the opening formula of Late Ramesside letters recounts: "I call upon Amun Re, King of the gods, Mut, Khonsu and all the gods of Thebes to bring you back safe."

The religion of Akhenaten during the Amarna Period (Dynasty 18) has been described as "monotheism," and heralded as a possible indication that the Egyptians were the source of Judeo-Christian thought. Indeed, in the Amarna Period, Akhenaten elevated his god, the Aten, to a supreme place in the pantheon, and later in his reign his agents traveled through Egypt physically expunging the name of other gods from monuments. The interpretation of the religion of the Amarna age as true monotheism, however, cannot be sustained in light of the simultaneous worship of other gods. Maat, both as a concept and in her personification of a goddess, continued to be venerated, and indeed the ritual of the presentation of her image reached new prominence in the Amarna age. So too, in some circumstances, the king and queen were associated with the gods Shu and Tefnut, respectively. Statuettes of Bes and other members of the traditional pantheon have been recovered from houses at Amarna. The greatest objection to the religion of the Amarna age being true monotheism is the elevation of the king and his queen Nefertiti (and perhaps, posthumously, Akhenaten's father, Amunhotep III) to divine status. The vestiges of the old gods, as well as the triad formed by Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the incarnation of the solar light as the Aten, consisted of yet another conventional grouping of gods, not the formation of a transcendent monotheistic godhead.

The religion expressed in the Amarna age is better termed henotheism, the temporary elevation of one god above others. This trend to henotheism continued in the Ramesside Period, with the elevation of various forms of Amun to the supreme god, but without the intolerance for other gods seen in the late Amarna Period. Some theologians even argue for the presence of a transcendent god into whom all other gods were subsumed during the Ramesside Period.

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Figure 5: Ramesses III performs the Sed festival.  »

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