By Deborah Howard
Much of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian culture is based on elaborate worship rituals related to death and the afterlife. Egyptians were devoted to their gods and to their pharaohs who were gods on earth, as demonstrated by their willingness to build the pyramids for the safe passage of their leaders into the afterlife.
Understanding the development of Egyptian society and their theological system requires a basic knowledge of the geography of the area. The Nile River Valley and Nile Delta, circa 4000-5000 BCE, was comprised of about 12,000 square miles of arable land. The villages and towns of ancient Egypt were found up and down the length of the Nile with most of the population living below the First Cataract (located approximately at present day Aswan).
The Egyptians were accomplished farmers. They knew the Nile would flood each year and bring new life and abundant grain. The Nile’s flooding was predictable and left rich new deposits of silt for new crops, making irrigation easy to plan. A basin irrigation system allowed the flood waters to flow gently into each field, cleansing and renewing the earth each year.
The virtual isolation of the Nile Valley allowed Egyptian civilization to develop unthreatened by its neighbors. The Mediterranean Sea lay to the north, vast deserts were found to the east and west, and dense jungle lay to the south. An invader would have to be quite determined to brave the elements that protected the Nile Valley civilization.
Since Egyptian civilization was a product, in many ways, of the natural forces that surrounded its people, the people looked to nature to explain the unexplainable. Egyptian gods were depicted as wise, caring, predictable, and forgiving, just as the Nile was predictable and life sustaining.
The creation myth of the ancient Egyptians began with a vast waste of water called Nu, similar to the creation story in Genesis where the Spirit of God “hovered over the waters.” Nu gave birth to the sun god, who was called Kheyera at dawn, Ra at noon, and Tum at dusk. Just as the Greek god Zeus was greater than his father Chronos, Ra became greater than Nu. Ra created his wife Tefnut, who made the rain. Together, they created Seb, God of the Earth, and Nat, the Goddess of the Sky. Seb and Nat were the parents of Osiris, Isis, Set and Nepthys.
Ra is given credit for creating the heavens and earth and all creatures. According to Egyptian legend, Ra had only to think and a creature would take form. Ra is also said to have created man from his eye, and Ra became the first king on earth. The idea that the god Ra was the first king is the seed for the belief that a Pharaoh was both King and god.
After Ra gave up his kingship to ride across the sky, Osiris became king with Isis as his queen. Osiris is credited with teaching men to be civilized and to farm, and for teaching mankind to worship the gods and to build temples. Isis was also a wise and good ruler who taught men how to raise grain.
Several legends about the death of Osiris exist. All of them credit his brother Set with his death. In one legend, Set cut up Osiris’ body and cast it in the Nile, and Isis shed so many tears that the Nile came over its banks. The flooding of the Nile each spring was caused by the tears of Isis as she sought the body of Osiris. (The waters rose in June and receded in October each year).
In another legend, Ra ordered Thoth and Hourus to find the body of Osiris and bind it in bandages. Isis then breathed life into the mummied form of Osiris, and Ra sent him to be the Judge of the Dead. This legend laid the foundation for the art of mummification of the dead.
The Egyptians had a reverence for most things in nature. Many animals were sacred, including the cat, the bull, the fish, the jackal, the ram, the boar, the frog and the lion. The serpent figures prominently in many Egyptian myths. The serpent even had the power to poison the great Ra. Because of its great power, the serpent became a symbol of the Pharaohs themselves. Virtually every god and goddess was associated with one or more animals and in some instances might appear in the form of their chosen animal-familiar. A person might lose his own life if he killed a sacred animal.
The history of Egypt is typically divided into four periods: pre-dynastic Egypt (6000- 3000 BCE), the Old Kingdom (2700–2200 BCE), the Middle Kingdom ( 2050–1786 BCE) and the New Kingdom (1560–1087 BCE). The pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom Period. The Egyptians had been preserving the remains of their dead long before the building of the great pyramids. They believed that a person’s soul (Ka) could live after the death of the body. However, the Ka needed a place to be, so the body was preserved and supplied with the possessions it would need on its journey to the “land of shadows.” The mummified body was even provided with food and drink for its journey. In some parts of Egypt, mourners did not leave real food but used magic to feed the spirit by simply naming the foods.
The great pyramids were raised to protect the souls of the Pharaohs from their enemies. Farmers would build the pyramids while the Nile was flooding. Work on the pyramids was owed to the god-pharaoh. Tools used to build the pyramid were simple: wooden mallets, stone drills, chisels, flint knives, wooden rulers, plumb lines, and ramps. It is amazing to consider that these huge monuments (Cheop’s Pyramid, 137 meters; and Zoser’s Pyramid, 60 meters high) were built before widespread use of the wheel. The pyramids were huge complexes that contained not only the sarcophagi of the kings, but pits for the funerary barge, temples, and many false chambers to confuse would-be thieves. Pharaohs would be buried in the tombs as would other members of the royal family. All the belongings the pharaoh might need would be buried with him: food, clothing, tools, furniture, jewelry, even slaves.
The dead had to be given instructions concerning the proper prayers, attitudes, etc. to deliver at the various stages of their journey. The temple priests were the only ones who knew how to instruct the dead for their journey. Instructions were written on the inside of the coffin and in the tomb so the dead soul would not forget what it should do. Later the instructions were written on scrolls of paper. Some of these instructions have been collected in the Book of the Dead. Here, we find the Ka trying to gain entrance into the company of the gods by reciting his virtues:
Homage to thee, O great God, Lord of Maati! I have come unto thee, O my Lord, and I have brought myself hither that I may behold thy beauties. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the forty-two Gods who live with thee in the Hall of Maati…I have not committed sins against men. I have not opposed my family and kinfolk. I have not acted fraudently in the Seat of Truth. I have not known men who were of no account. I have not defrauded the humble man of his property. I have not done what the gods abominate. I have not vilified a slave to his master. I have not inflicted pain. I have not caused anyone to go hungry. I have not made any man to weep. I have not committed murder….I have not encroached on the fields (of others). I have not added to the weights of the scales…I have not driven the cattle away from their pastures. I have not snared the geese in the goose-pens of the gods. I have not caught fish with bait made of the bodies of the same kind of fish. I have not stopped water when it should flow…I am pure, I am pure. I am pure…
This is a negative confession; ie, the Ka recites what it has not done rather than what it has done. By reading the excerpt above, a student of this culture could argue that the ancient Egyptians believed they had a responsibility to their gods, to their fellow men, and to nature.
The soul was led before the seat of Osiris, who sat as the Judge of the Dead. He weighed the heart of the dead person on his balance. Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, balanced the scale. If the heart of the deceased weighed true, he went to his eternal reward wandering the shadow land that was the double of the Nile Delta. No famine or sorrows bothered him in this blessed afterlife. If his heart weighed too heavy, he would be thrown to the animal gods who tear him to shreds.
The hieroglyphs left by the priests of ancient Egypt were meant to provide the dead with a guide to the afterlife, to instruct the Ka what it should do in every test as it navigated the after world. Those same hieroglyphs have done much more. They have provided present day scholars with an amazing record of a culture that existed thousands of years ago and some insight into the minds of the people who lived in that culture. Through those ancient writings we have come to know how the ancient Egyptians worshiped, how they viewed their leaders, how they thought they should relate to one another, and how they viewed their role in this life and the next one.