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An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods
One of the most fascinating aspects of ancient Egyptian culture for many modern Egyptophiles is its extensive pantheon. As might be expected of a culture that lasted for over 2,000 years, few gods or myths remained unchanged throughout Egyptian history. Several Egyptian cities had their own pantheons and their own creation myths. Over the millennia, these slowly coalesced as each city in turn became dominant and promoted its own favoured gods.
All cultures have creation myths, and the Egyptians were no exception. There were several different creation traditions, each from a different city. As the Egyptian empire aged, aspects of each of these became more or less important.
The Heliopolitans believed that the world was created out of a great ocean, called Nu. Pyramids may have started as representations of the first solid ground to break surface. At first, the gods lived on the land in the 'old time'. Atum was the god of the land and Ra the god of the sun. They combined into a single deity, Ra-Atum, and created the other gods from their seminal fluid. Shu and Tefnut were the twin offspring; their incestuous children were Geb and Nut, the earth and sky, who also married each other. Their four offspring were Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Set. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris. These last five gods were some of the most important to the Egyptians.
When Memphis became the capital, it was necessary for its local god, Ptah, to become more important in stature. Ptah thus became identified with Nu, or with the whole group of Heliopolitan gods (the Ennead).
As Thebes became the capital of the New Kingdom, it was the turn of yet another local deity to be promoted - Amon became the 'uncreated creator' of all other gods. Amon, Mut and their son Khonsu (together known as the Theban Triad) were the main Theban gods.
The residents of Hermopolis initially worshipped a separate set of eight gods, the Ogdoad. This consisted of four pairs of males and females: Nun and Naunet; Amun and Amaunet; Kuk and Kauket; and Huh and Hauhet. These pairs represented water, air, darkness and eternity respectively.
These gods between them gave rise to an egg (in later traditions a lotus) containing Ra, the sun god. There are many variants on this story, with the egg being laid by a goose, or the lotus opening to reveal a young man. This whole cosmogony1 was later combined with the Heliopolitan myths, with Ra being identified with Atum.
The Role of the Pharaoh
The pharaoh was believed to be the descendant of the gods and to be partly divine. This would have been helped by the longer lifespans of the well-off in Egypt (double or even triple the average of the peasants) and possibly by diseases or deformities caused by inbreeding among the royal families, which made them appear physically distinct. The pharaoh was synonymous with Egypt and was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile as well as the prosperity and safety of the country.
The pharaoh was believed to be the reincarnation of Horus, and as such was associated with Isis, the mother of Horus. After death, he returned to rule in heaven with the other gods.
Egyptians believed that each individual has three separate spirits or souls; the Ka, the Ba and the Akh. The shadow and the individual's name were also held to have soul-like qualities and the physical body provided a sixth aspect to the person. The process of mummification was strongly tied up2 with the journeys of these various aspects of the self through the afterlife.
The physical body.
The name given at birth. Egyptians placed great emphasis on ensuring that their names survived after their death, carving their own names on vast monuments and obliterating the names of their enemies. When written, names were surrounded by a drawing of a rope to provide added protection. This later became a simple oval, known as a cartouche.
The shadow was in some ways considered an entity in its own right, capable of leaving the dead body and travelling on its own.
The Ka was the 'spark of life' that animated the living. Created at birth, it was immortal and required sacrifices of food after the death of the body. The Ka would eat the spiritual energy of the food, leaving its physical aspect unchanged. After death, the Ka would rest until the mummification process was complete. In some versions, it would then travel into the afterlife; in others, it remained in eternity throughout the mortal's life and the Ba rejoined it after death.
Both humans and gods could have a Ka.
The Ba was the personality. After death, it would seek reunion with the Ka. The Ba of a god or a pharaoh could also be housed in an animal or in a building, such as a pyramid.
Once the Ka and the Ba had been reunited, the deceased spirit became a complete entity known as an Akh. The Akh could join the gods in the afterlife, or Akh-Akh3. Later, this idea changed and the Akh became part of the Ka, along with the Ba. After death, the Akh could be reincarnated, given a new Ba to form a new Ka.
Body parts such as the heart were also considered to have mystic powers associated with the various souls and spirits. They therefore had to be specially preserved during the mummification process.