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Egyptian Religion: An Overview


Before beginning to survey ancient Egyptian religion, a number of limiting factors must be considered. The data upon which this survey rests come from all periods and many different sites, but these times and places are very unevenly represented. Clearly, more data survive from the later periods, from the south of the country (Upper Egypt), and from the very highest social strata. Some cult centers were totally lost long ago. Others required periodic renovation, while the increased devotion and/or increased wealth of later generations also led to large-scale rebuilding efforts. Because of this it is often impossible to survey what went on for thousands of years at the major temples of Memphis and Heliopolis, difficult to assess the cultic changes at major sites such as the Karnak and Luxor temples, and almost impossible to reconstruct the pre-Greek beliefs and cultic practices from the largely Ptolemaic remains at the sites of Edfu, Dendera, and Philae. Material from numerous cemeteries in the deserts near town sites, sometimes on the opposite side of the Nile, provides more eschatological data than anything else, but it also occasionally provides doctrinal, devotional, ethical, or cosmological information about one or another of the creeds of ancient Egypt. Monumental architecture is often not synchronous with monumental pieces of religious literature, and some of the most commonly repeated texts are often much less insightful than some unique, fragmentary pieces.

Religious Texts and Historical Setting

Of the texts that survive from ancient Egypt, the religious literature as a whole remains the most difficult to comprehend. There are a variety of explanations for this, including the carelessness of scribes, the composite nature of the collections, efforts to keep the material esoteric or arcane, and also factors having to do with the modern editing of the texts. In examples from both temple walls and papyri, the original scribe's efforts have been mishandled by copyists and artists. Texts chosen from different sources for a new purpose were not always fully understood by the scribes, who tried to incorporate old or unfamiliar bits. For much of the religious literature researchers are simply not familiar enough with all the mythological allusions, the magic, the rites, and the puns, and in the case of the Ptolemaic material, efforts were made originally to encode the texts with widespread and multifold sign substitution. These Ptolemaic hieroglyphs, which contain much of the accumulated myths and rituals at several major sites, also were not completely consistent from one site to another. One problem with modern editions of the religious literature is that the major concern has been to establish the best text by assembling parallels, with the result that the individual complete manuscripts are not understood or easily compared. The order of the texts in these editions is generally not that of any individual manuscript, and the variations that occur are completely lost in them, and in the translations made directly from them.

On the positive side, it should be noted that a large quantity of texts have been published now, and these include almost all the texts on several large temples. The temple texts furnish descriptions of the deities, their mythic significance, daily rites, and festivals, and to some extent the interaction between the human and divine worlds. Not all of the texts have been translated yet, but some important ones on rites and feasts have been, and attempts based on the texts found on the temple walls to explain the function of various parts of temples are not far off the mark. The major collections of mortuary or funerary texts from tombs are also available now, and preliminary published translations at least present the different Egyptian views concerning the afterlife and provide additional information concerning almost all aspects of Egyptian religion. There have also been numerous studies dealing with individual deities or concepts based on the phenomena encountered in all sources, and while these may not accurately reflect what the religion was for any one time or place, they do provide useful references for future synchronic studies, and again are probably not terribly far from the mark. Surveys of all of ancient Egyptian religion, also for the most part phenomenological, almost always have important observations to offer, though they do tend to be much less accurate in their generalizations and their subjectivity is often too significant an ingredient. Any details from which such generalizations are made may have applied to only an individual or a small group, when many different levels of belief and devotion were possibly current at the same time. To some extent, the survey that follows indicates trends, tendencies, and what apparently was appealing or approved at the highest levels, with the political motive often as weighty as the religious.

Already in prehistoric times, burial customs indicated a belief in life after death, which would have required that the body be preserved along with some household furnishings and food offerings. The expectation or hope was for a life after death that was not unlike human existence in this world. The locations of tombs and position of the bodies in their graves became traditional, and the traditions may have been more or less religious. Bodies were usually in a crouched position on their left sides with the head to the south and facing west, a custom that could be associated with the cult of Osiris or other gods of the dead in a western necropolis, or even with the location of the setting sun and perhaps the cult of the sun god. The exceptional site with a head to the north could also be understood in terms of an astral cult (reflected in later Pyramid Texts), with the goal of the deceased being to join the imperishable stars in the northern sky. There has been a great deal of speculation concerning the association of various cults with different localities in Egyptian prehistory, some of this based on finds but most on later evidence and claims. With the wealth of material available from historical context, it is surely best to omit speculation on undocumented origins and on the supposed interactions of the various prehistoric cult centers.

At the very beginnings of Egyptian history the slate palette of Narmer (c. 31103056 bce) shows this king of Upper Egypt, who is wearing the white crown of the south, smiting a northerner, while on the reverse side of the palette Narmer is shown wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. Whether Narmer or his son, Aha, was actually the first king (later known as Menes) of the first dynasty is still debatable, but some of the emblematic representations on the palette may have mythological significance. Both the bull and the falcon can represent aspects of the king's power, but the latter seems very likely to be associated with the identification of the king as the god Horus, a principal element in the myth of divine kingship. Since all but one king of Egypt is known to have been identified with the title "Horus," this myth is both very early and also, perhaps, one of the cornerstones of Egypt's success. There are several aspects of Horus, however, and even several Horuses, so that the full and precise meaning of this early representation could easily be overstated if it were said that all that is known of the association of the king and Horus from later texts had already been formulated at this stage. Many accretions must have occurred with later explication. The divinity of the pharaoh and the notion of divine or sacred kingship have recently been challenged because of specific later references indicating that there were clear distinctions between the respect accorded the kings and the worship accorded the greatest gods. It will be seen, however, that the myth persisted, undoubtedly supported by the kings, some without doubt more vigorously than others.

Menes, besides identifying with Horus and unifying or reunifying the Two Lands, traditionally founded the capital, Memphis, and erected a temple there, presumably to the god Ptah. His civic contributions were equaled by his religious devotion, and he was thus an exemplary model for all succeeding kings. The kings of the first two dynasties probably had both tombs and cenotaphs that supported the new role of dual kingship, but their monuments at Abydos may also have had some bearing on the relationship of the living Horus to the deceased Osiris, whose cult was later at least maintained there. The fact that kings at the end of the second dynasty could take a "Seth" or a "Horus and Seth" title would indicate that the myth of the contending of Horus and Seth for the patrimony of Osiris was certainly known. But it is doubtful that this reflected a shift in religious belief; more likely a it was political move that was given a mythological framework.

For the first half of the Old Kingdomthe third and fourth dynastiesthe great pyramids themselves remain, unfortunately, the principal monuments to the current beliefs. The attention given to these elaborate tombs clearly surpassed any other contemporaneous projects and would seem to show that the power of the king was reflected in the cult of his divine kingship. If the pyramids are not exclusively symbolic of royal power, they could also be symbols of divine power, either of the Horus-king or of his new father, the sun god, Re. The famous statue of Khafre with his headdress incorporating the Horus Falcon can be used to argue for the former, but the title "Son of Re," the use of Re in the theophoric royal names, and the true pyramid shape associated with the sun's rays and/or the Benben stone of Re point to the likelihood of either a developed or developing solar cult. In the second half of the Old Kingdomthe fifth and sixth dynastiesthe central importance of the cult of Re is very well documented. The kings generally have Re in their name, and in addition to their smaller pyramids, they constructed substantial temples to the sun god. The story of the Miracles That Happened in the Reign of King Khufu (Westcar Papyrus) was probably written in the Middle Kingdom, but it reflects what was viewed as having happened earlier. The text purports to prophesy that a new dynasty will succeed Khufu's successors and that its first three new kings will be born to the wife of a priest of Re.

Much more significant for an understanding of the religion of this period and of much that had been developing and evolving before it are the Pyramid Texts, first recorded in the interior burial rooms of the pyramid of Unas, the last king of the fifth dynasty. These texts in vertical columns, lacking the illustrations and rubrics of later such mortuary or funerary literature, provided a combination of rituals, hymns, prayers, incantations, and offering lists, all designed to ensure that the king would reach his goal in the afterlife and have the information and provisions that he would need there. The texts were evidently compiled by priests connected with the temple of Re at Heliopolis. They indicate acceptance of the fact that the king is a god who ascends to the sky, joins Re on the solar bark for his voyage back and forth across the heavens, and guards Re and guides his bark past the perils, usually snakes, that threaten them. The rites, some of which may have taken place in these rooms or in the mortuary temple or valley temple to the east of the pyramid, included provision for opening the tomb, sacrificing an ox, and breaking jars for magical protection. The descriptions of the ascension in the tomb's antechamber provide alternative explanations that may have come originally from separate sources. They have the king ascending on the wings or backs of birds, on the incense wafting upward, on reed rafts, or on the outstretched arms of gods forming a ladder for him. On entering the tomb the king is still addressed as Horus; on ascension to the sky he is called Osiris. In the so-called cannibal hymn, he devours gods to acquire their attributes. He protests his guiltlessness and claims his divine perquisites. Within the burial chamber the king is presented to the great gods, and the offering-lists and spells are provided for him, while on the west gable are inscribed the serpent spells, incantations possibly intended to protect the tomb or to be used in guiding Re's bark.

Apart from the central theme of this collection, one learns much more about the religion of Egypt from these texts through the king's relationship to various deities and also through citations or mythological allusions from the texts of the other religions of the Egyptians. Here the king's genealogy is presented clearly by making him the product of the Heliopolitan Ennead. This family of nine gods represents a cosmological or cosmogonical explanation of creation by Atum (the complete one), who by himself created Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). From this pair, Geb (earth) and Nut (watery sky) came forth, and in the next generation they produced the two brothers Osiris and Seth and their sisters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris, the eldest, ruled on earth in place of his father, but he was slain by his stronger brother, Seth. It fell to Osiris' son, Horus, born after his death, to avenge the slaying and assume the rule of this world.

In the form in which this genealogy survives, the significance of the Ennead is really subordinated to the son, Horus, on the one hand, and on the other to Re, who is alternately assimilated to Atum or placed before him as his creator. In the Pyramid Texts the Ennead is personified as the goddess Hathor (House of Horus), and so Re and Hathor are the parents of Horus just as surely as Osiris and Isis. Horus is also said here to be a son of Sekhmet, a statement of interest because Sekhmet was the consort of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis. According to later texts (the Shabaka Stone), Ptah sprang forth from primeval chaos conceiving the creator, Atum, in his heart and bringing him forth on his tongue by speaking his name. The chaos from which Ptah came is also known as the Hermopolitan Ogdoad: The four pairs of deities represent the different aspects of chaos from which an egg appeared as the inundation receded at Hermopolis, thus producing the creator. The names of the four pairs are not consistent in different texts, but they generally include Amun and Amaunet (hiddenness), Kuk and Kauket (darkness), Huh and Hauhet (formlessness), and Nun and Naunet (the watery abyss). The creator god of Hermopolis might well have been Thoth, the moon god of that city, but in these Heliopolitan texts the creator remains Atum, while Thoth is included as a member of the Ennead and as a companion of Re in the sky. Because the son of Ptah and Sekhmet is Nefertem, the child appearing from the lotus, the king was associated with the scions and creator gods of all three of these important and early cult centers of Egypt.

It should be noted that the roles of both Thoth and Ptah in this connection are not spelled out, but they seem to be clearly alluded to. There were thus probably some limits on how far the Heliopolitan priests would go in assimilating the doctrines and deities of their counterparts or rivals. To some extent the priests of the other temples must have approved of some such accommodation to guarantee the continuing favor and actual support of the crown, but because the formulation had been Heliopolitan, the cult of Re became preeminent, and for the most part it remained so for most of Egyptian history.

In the fifth dynasty society in general became more open, and many of the highest offices in the land could be attained by people not related to the royal family. At least a few utterances from the Pyramid Texts indicate that they were not written originally for a king, so that the goal of a blessed hereafter was not exclusively a royal prerogative. Further decentralization of power occurs in the sixth dynasty, and local nomarchs are provided with quite respectable tombs. These tombs may have been equipped with religious texts on coffins or papyri that have not survived, but certainly in the First Intermediate Period, with the breakdown of central authority, several claimants to kingship, and actual civil war, the claimants to earthly power also made claim to divinity.

The texts on the interior of the single or nested wooden coffins of nobles from many sites in Egypt are in some cases identical to the earlier royal Pyramid Texts, and in other cases are considerably expanded. The texts from different sites vary more than the texts found at each site. The local differences are not all explained as yet, but some reasonably significant collections of spells labeled "books" on the coffins from El Bersha (the necropolis of Hermopolis) have been studied. These coffins have on their fronts (the side faced by the mummy lying on its left side) a false door to facilitate the deceased's mobility; a painted table of offerings to provide sustenance; a plan and description of the Field of Hetep, which is at least one version of the paradise these Egyptians hoped for; and a list of ship's parts, information useful for the deceased, who joins the sun god in his bark and guides it through the skies.

On the inside surface of the bottom of most of the El Bersha coffins was painted an elaborate illustrated plan or map with descriptive texts known today as the Book of Two Ways. (The Book of Two Ways is a collection within the Coffin Texts.) The plans are all roughly comparable, with a blue waterway surrounded by mounds to represent the day sky, and a black land route, surrounded by water, representing the night sky. This cosmological plan provided the earliest illustrated guidebook to the beyond and attempted to locate various uncommon demons as well as some commonly known terms for places in the afterlife. Apart from the central plan, however, the book is really two different books. The earliest version was apparently written as a guide for followers of the Osirian religion, and the goal of several of its sections was to aid these followers to pass the various gates and demon keepers leading to the mansion of Osiris. The later version has the plan and one section as a guide to the route leading to the mansion of Osiris, but it also has one whole section dealing with Thoth, another dealing with Re, and a conclusion that ties together the whole in terms of knowledge of spells about the beyond. If the deceased knows the spells to the first stage, he will become a star in the sky with the moon god, Thoth. If he knows them to the next stage he will join Osiris in his mansion, and if he knows all the spells he will join Re on his bark in the sky. These goals also appear to be put in terms of social standing, commoners being associated with Thoth, great ones with Osiris, and, obviously, royalty with Re. What this does is to democratize the hereafter by making the highest goals available to anyone who has the book. It was clearly based on an original Osirian text, and in the hands of the priests of Re it would have become a good prosyletizing text for the solar religion.

The Book of Two Ways concludes with the famous statement by the All-Lord, Re, that he "made the four winds that every man might breathe," "made the great flood that the poor as well as the great might have power," "made every man like his fellow (I did not command that they do evil. It is their hearts that disobey what I have said)," and "made their hearts to cease forgetting the West, in order to make divine offerings to the gods of the nomes." The All-Lord says, "it is with my sweat that I created the gods. Mankind is from the weeping of my eye," and a little later he adds that after the deceased has spent millions of years between Re and Osiris, "we will sit together in one place. Ruins will be cities and vice versa; house will desolate house." These remarks provide rather interesting insights into the metaphysics and ethics of the Re religion as well as a noteworthy example of early ecumenism. These particular Coffin Texts came from a necropolis of Hermopolis, in middle Egypt. Whether Re priests from Hermopolis or Heliopolis were responsible is still debatable. But another text of this same chaotic period, from Heracleopolis in middle Egypt, although it is a literary text in the "instruction" genre, is actually one of the most religious documents surviving from ancient Egypt. A compact section at the end provides in capsulized form the complete philosophy and theology of the Re religion:

One generation of men passes to another, and God, who knows characters, has hidden Himself, so worship God upon his way. The soul goes to the place it knows. Beautify your mansion in the West, embellish your place in the necropolis with straightforwardness and just dealing; more acceptable is the character of the straightforward man than the ox of the wrongdoer. Serve God, that He may do the like for you, with offerings for replenishing the altars and with carving; it is that which will show forth your name, and God is aware of whoever serves Him. Provide for men, the cattle of God, for He made heaven and earth at their desire. He suppressed the greed of the waters, he gave the breath of life to their noses, for they are likenesses of Him which issued from His flesh. He shines in the sky for the benefit of their hearts; He has made herbs, cattle, and fish to nourish them. He has killed His enemies and destroyed His own children, because they had planned to make rebellion; He makes daylight for the benefit of their hearts, and He sails around in order to see them, and when they weep, He hears. He has made for them magic to be weapons to ward off what may happen.

From this it is seen that Re is hidden, omniscient, provident, responsive and just. Humans, who are created in the likeness of God, and for whom heaven and earth were created, must worship God, and provide for their fellow people. Hypocrisy is of no avail, but God gave humans magic to ward off "what may happen."

This text of the instruction of a Heracleopolitan king to his son, Merikare, anticipates the fall of the tenth dynasty (2040 bce) to the Theban family of dynasty eleven. Coffin Texts continue to be used in the Middle Kingdom, and this indicates that for the most part the religion or religions of the people did not change drastically with this change in government. The official doctrine of the state, however, had to be supported by a great deal of political propaganda literature to account for the reunification under the new Theban king, Mentuhotep II, then the apparent usurpation by his vizier, and finally the assassination of this vizier become king, Amenemhet I. Amenemhet had already returned the capital to the north and constructed defenses on Egypt's borders, but he was apparently not prepared for the threat from within his own palace. The change from dynasty eleven to dynasty twelve was also marked by a shift in the Theban's titular god and the formulation of a new national god. Previously Montu, a war god, was worshiped at perhaps four separate temples in the Theban nome, but with Amenemhet ("Amun is in front") Amun and his new cult begin a long and steady growth in the south in spite of the fact that the kings of this and succeeding dynasties ruled from the north. The new god is perhaps a conflation of Montu with Min, the ithyphallic fertility god of Coptos, which had been allied with Thebes in the war against Heracleopolis, and also, of course, with Amun, the first of the primordial gods of Hermopolis. This latter element may have provided the priority of the new god in the minds of the formulators, but the association with Re as Amun-Re was probably the significant factor in guaranteeing some continuity with the earlier dynastic gods.

The king of the twelfth dynasty was still Horus, but beginning with Senusret I (19711928 bce) important new claims to kingly divinity surface. In the Story of Sinuhe Senusret I is called a god without peer, "no other came to be before him." In order to consolidate his power, Senusret III deposed a number of powerful nomarchs and divided the country into departments that were to be administered from the capital by his appointees. At the same time, in a cycle of songs in his honor and in a loyalist instruction he is called the "unique divine being" and is identified as Re himself. Remarkably, the propaganda literature of this dynasty remained popular for at least 900 years, and the tradition of Senusret's special position among the kings of Egypt also survived through Greek sources to the present.

The Second Intermediate period was marked both by internal weakness eventually giving way to division and by foreign occupation of at least the major part of the delta. These Hyksos rulers were eventually driven out of their capital at Avaris by a new Theban family, which reunited the land and began the period of greatest imperialistic expansion, the New Kingdom. The new family was devoted to the cult of Amun-Re at Karnak, and also had a special interest in the moon god in several earlier forms, including Iah (the moon itself), Thoth, and Khonsu, who was now the son of Amun-Re and Mut (the mother). Thutmose I (c. 15091497 bce), perhaps the first king of the eighteenth dynasty to have a palace in the north, was also responsible for leading expeditions far into Syria, perhaps to the Euphrates. His credentials as a god-king were evidently well established, but not those of his successors. His daughter by his chief wife had to become consort to his son by a lesser wife to secure that son's succession as Thutmose II. But when the latter died, handing over the throne to a son by another wife, his half sister and chief wife, Hatshepsut, took the throne for herself. There were probably very practical explanations for her success in this maneuver, but the justification she chose to propagate was her own "divine birth." She had this recorded on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahri, which depicted Amun-Re in the form of her father, Thutmose I, coming to her mother Ahmose, who conceived the goddess-king, the female Horus.

Hatshepsut's mythologizing goes beyond this with the commemoration of her restoration efforts since the expulsion of the Hyksos. They had "ruled without Re," and she was indeed favored by the gods of Egypt. She had extensive work done at the temple of Karnak, adding a new sanctuary, pylon gates, and very tall obelisks, monuments as much to herself as to Amun-Re, her father. Her small cult temple at Medinet Habu (ancient Djeme) probably has particular significance mythologically for the later association of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad with this sacred site. According to a Ptolemaic text in the Khonsu temple at Karnak, Amun was the father of the fathers of the Ogdoad who (as Ptah) created the egg at Hermopolis and later traveled (khenesh) to Thebes in his new name of Khonsu. Together with the Ogdoad, he is in the tomb chamber in the necropolis at Medinet Habu. Indeed, it seems likely that Hatshepsut and her supporters were concerned not only with her genealogy but with the genealogy of the Theban gods. Her husband's son, Thutmose III, who succeeded her and eventually tried to blot out her memory, was primarily involved with military expeditions to Syria and Palestine, and he used his additions to the Karnak temple to publicize his victories. The temple became wealthy and influential because of his generosity and devotion. His successors continued to benefit from and build upon his achievements in the international sphere; foreign alliances, foreign wives, and foreign deities were all introduced in this period, which peaked in the reign of Amenhotep III (14031366 bce).

The son of Amenhotep III, who may have been his coregent for as long as ten years, changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaton by his fifth year and moved his residence to a new site, Akhetaton (modern Tell al-ʿAmarna). He devoted himself to one aspect of the solar cult, the sun disk (Aton) itself. He saw himself and perhaps his wife, Nefertiti, as the only representatives or intermediaries between the Aton and the rest of creation. Akhenaton's monolatry or henotheism, while apparently accepted by his chief officials, eventually did bring him into direct conflict with the powerful temple staff of Karnak. His supporters attacked the name "Amun" and the word gods throughout the Theban area. They were probably sent to eradicate the full name "Amun-Re, King of the Gods," but this attempt to erase (primarily from monuments) the term gods has been viewed by many as a monotheistic revolution. Later reaction to Akhenaton as a heretic is known, but what he intended or how far he went to not as clear. The Aton was not his creation either as an icon or as a deity. It had increased in significance in the early eighteenth dynasty. The emblems of almost all the gods of Egypt survive from Tell al-ʿAmarna, indicating that Akhenaton's followers either had no fear of keeping them or had greater fear of abandoning them. The fact that Akhenaton's own prenomen is Waen-Re ("the unique one of Re") is indicative of his continued acceptance of the old solar cult, or perhaps even of the Heliopolitan priests' support of the new cult. Something of Akhenaton's attitude toward the Aton in this international period can be seen in the following excerpt from his famous hymn to the Aton.

How plentiful it is, what you have made, although they [the creatures made by Aton] are hidden from view, sole god, without another beside you; you created the earth as you wished, when you were by yourself, before mankind, all cattle and kine, all beings on land, who fare upon their feet, and all beings in the air, who fly with their wings. The lands of Khor and Kush and the land of Egypt: you have set every man in his place, you have allotted their needs, every one of them according to his diet, and his lifetime is counted out. Tongues are separate in speech, and their characters as well; their skins are different, for you have differentiated the foreigners. In the underworld you have made a Nile that you may bring it forth as you wish to feed the populace, since you made them for yourself, their utter master, growing weary on their account, lord of every land. For them the Aton of the daytime arises, great in awesomeness. All distant lands, you have made them live, for you have set a Nile in the sky that it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains like the sea to irrigate the fields in their towns. How efficient are your designs, Lord of eternity: a Nile in the sky for foreigners and all creatures that go upon their feet, a Nile coming back from the underworld for Egypt.

Most aspects of this hymn can be found stated in almost identical terms in the universalist hymn to Amun-Re, so it cannot be regarded as totally original or epoch-making in itself. A claim in the hymn that there is no other who knows the Aton except his son, Akhenaton, is noteworthy, and the statement that the whole land was founded and its crops were raised by the Aton for Akhenaton and Nefertiti is egocentric, to say the least.

Akhenaton's coregent and short-lived successor, Semenkhkare, who some now believe may have been none other than Nefertiti herself, seems to have attempted reconciliation with the priesthood of Amun-Re. But Tutankhaton (c. 13481339 bce), who next assumed the throne, changed his name to Tutankhamen, had statues of himself made both as Amun and as Osiris, and decorated the Luxor temple with scenes of the restored Opet feast. (The main feature of this feast was the procession of Amun's cult image from the Karnak temple to the Luxor temple and back.) He even had a restoration stela set up at Karnak. After his death and that of his successor, Ay, the temple reliefs and stela were usurped by his former general, Horemheb, who on becoming king began attacks on his four predecessors who were involved with the movement, now regarded as heretical.

Horemheb's successor was his vizier, who came from Tanis. As Ramses I he began the nineteenth dynasty, which for various reasons is seen as most significant in the history of Egyptian religion. On the one hand, the pharaohs of this dynasty had to indicate their continuity with the past and assure their support in all the cult centers of Egypt. They built extensively at all the old temple sites and went overboard to demonstrate their polytheism. Temples now had multiple chapels and sanctuaries dedicated to various deities, but the monuments also were used as propaganda to show the power of the kings, to depict their victories, to record their legitimate succession, and to indicate their great devotion to the gods and their munificence to both the gods and their own subjects. On the other hand, the pharaohs succeeded in reinstating their own god, Seth, whom they commemorated as having been in their new capital since the time of the Hyksos. Seth was included in the royal names now and also had one of the Egyptian armies named for him.

In the early Ramessid period the tombs of nobles had much less of the biographical material and scenes of everyday life that were common earlier. Now the emphasis was on the funerary rites and any religious offices the deceased had held. There appears to be a very conservative religious reaction to what had taken place in the eighteenth dynasty. Even the literary texts have primarily mythological settings and content for stories, but interestingly, these often make the gods look foolish and cannot be considered very pietistic. Women, even goddesses, in these texts are cast in an unflattering light, again perhaps in reaction to the powerful queens of the preceding dynasty. The long reign of Ramses II produced numerous temple constructions with colossal statues and representations of himself, but these seem to indicate that he was glorifying himself as much as any of the other gods. The group of four deities at the back of his temple at Abu Simbel shows that he was placing himself on the same level as the three earlier dynastic gods of EgyptPtah, Re-Harakhty, and Amun-Re.

The religious texts with which people were buried in the New Kingdom and later are now known as the Book of Going Forth by Day but they actually constituted at least two different collections, again emphasizing in introductions or conclusions either an Osirian or a solar afterlife, often with some elements of both in between. These papyri, illustrated with vignettes, vary greatly in length and include many interesting chapters, such as that with the servant statue or Shawabti spell (chap. 6), the heart spell (chap. 30), a spell to enable the deceased to have all requisite knowledge in one chapter (chap. 162), and the famous negative confession and judgment scene (chap. 125). The negative confession is not confession at all but rather a protestation of innocence between forty-two judges of the underworld. Following the psychostasia, or weighing of the deceased's heart, in relation to the feather of Maat, or Truth, the deceased inevitably escapes the devourer and is presented to Osiris, but most often goes forth past the gatekeepers and joins Re as well. The New Kingdom copies of the Book of Going Forth by Day are commonly called the Theban recension because so many copies come from Theban tombs. But the texts generally, even in the negative confession, indicate a northern origin, most likely Heliopolitan. Many texts outside of the negative confession are modifications or corruptions of the earlier Coffin Texts versions.

The negative confession, though less than ideal as a code of ethics, cannot be ignored, because it survived in thousands of copies spanning fifteen hundred years. A portion of the fuller list follows:

O Wide-of-Stride, who comes forth from Heliopolis,
I have not committed evil.

O Embracer-of-Fire, who comes forth from Babylon,
I have not stolen.

O Nosey, who comes forth from Hermopolis,
I have not been covetous.

O Dangerous-of-Face, who comes forth from Rosetau,
I have not killed men.

O Ruti, who comes forth from heaven,
I have not damaged the grain-measure.

O Breaker-of-Bones, who comes forth from Heracleopolis,
I have not told lies.

O White-of-Teeth, who comes forth from the Fayum,
I have not trespassed.

O-Eater-of-Entrails, who comes forth from the Thirty,
I have not practised usury.

O Wanderer, who comes forth from Bubastis,
I have not gossiped.

O Wamemti-Serpent, who comes forth from the place of judgment,
I have not committed adultery.

O Maa-Intef, who comes forth from the Temple of Min,
I have not defiled myself.

O Ser-Kheru, who comes forth from Wensi,
I have not been quarrelsome.

O Bastet, who comes forth from the sanctum,
I have not winked.

O His-Face-behind-Him, who comes forth from Tep-het-djat,
I have not been perverted; I have not had sexual relations with a boy.

O Tem-sep, who comes forth from Busiris,
I have not been abusive against a king.

O Acting-with-His-Heart, who comes forth from Tjebu,
I have not waded in water.

O Flowing-One, who comes forth from Nun,
My voice has not been loud.

The judges and the places from which they come are not consistently prominent or frightening and cannot logically be connected with the forty-two nomes of Egypt, but while a few of the statements have uncertain meaning, the vast majority are perfectly clear and not particularly surprising.

From the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty the principal religious text selected to decorate the walls of the royal burial chambers was the so-called book of Amduat, or That Which Is in the Netherworld. This book, which resembles a large-scale papyrus unrolled on the walls, treats of the voyage of the solar bark through the hours of the night sky, but it involves Sokar, the god of the Memphite necropolis (Rosetau), as chief god of the underworld. The nineteenth-dynasty kings, different as they may have been from their eighteenth-dynasty counterparts, were also buried in tombs in the Theban Valley of the Kings, but their tombs were more elaborately decorated, with relief carving and paintings of the Book of Gates and the journey of the sun through the body of the goddess Nut.

When Ramses II made peace with the Hittites some time after the nearly disastrous battle of Kadesh, a thousand deities on either side were called to witness, and foreign deities such as Anat, Astarte, and Reshef became even more popular in Egypt. His successor, Merneptah, was beset with attacks from Libyans and the Sea Peoples. It is from his reign that the earliest surviving reference to Israel is found, but without other corroborating documentation for the story of the Exodus aside from its reasonably accurate setting.

Ramses III of the twentieth dynasty was the last great pharaonic ruler of Egypt. His building efforts included a separate small temple at Karnak, as well as a very large mortuary temple for himself at medinet Habu. This latter, which survives in very good condition, contains descriptions of the complete festivals of Min and Sokar in addition to the usual battle scenes, and it also has an elaborate calendar of feasts and offerings. The whole was surrounded by a wall with two fortifiable gateways, which probably reflect the worsening political situation of the whole country. There were strikes by the royal tomb workers, who had to be provisioned by the temple storehouses; there were attacks by a coalition of foreigners, principally Libyan; and finally, the king was slain in a harem conspiracy. In addition to punishing those responsible, his son Ramses IV recorded in a very interesting document, the great Papyrus Harris I (c. 1150 bce), all the benefactions that his father had made to the temples of Egypt. The Wilbour Papyrus, of slightly later date (1140 bce), confirms that the temple of Amun-Re alone controlled an exorbitant amount of land and the population of a large area in middle Egypt hundreds of miles away.

By the end of the twentieth dynasty the High Priest of Amun, Herihor, was for all practical purposes the ruler of Upper Egypt, and the twenty-first dynasty began with one of his sons assuming the kingship at Tanis in the north while another succeeded him as high priest in the south. Several of the priestly successors also claimed royal titles in the Theban area, and eventually the two offices were combined in one. Unlike the earlier usurpations of viziers or generals, who undoubtedly had a military power base, the base for the priests seems to have been primarily economic. The process can be traced back to the nineteenth dynasty, to a priestly family that gained control not only of the temple treasury but also of the royal treasury. Throughout the Ramessid period there are indications that all was not what it was supposed to be in this period of religious fervor. Banquet songs stress a carpe diem attitude; a workman in the royal necropolis shows no respect for his deceased king, and eventually almost all of the Theban tombs were systematically looted. Some of the robbers were accused and tried, but evidently those chiefly responsible got away with their crimes. The priests reburied the royal mummies, but with none of their original trappings or treasure. The priests apparently did not approve of the reinstatement of Seth by the Ramessid kings, and the god's name was attacked at their capital in the north.

When a Libyan family, the twenty-second dynasty, took over in the Third Intermediate Period they ruled from the north also, but controlled the south by appointing a daughter to serve as Divine Adoratress of Amun, a new position above that of high priest. The Nubian Piye (Piankhy), a very devout follower of Amun, conquered all of Egypt to set things right there but did not remain to rule himself, although he did appoint his sister (Amenirdis I) to be the successor of the current Divine Adoratress (Shepenwepet I) when she eventually died. His good intentions were not sufficient, however, and the Nubians (twenty-fifth dynasty) did return to rule the country, losing to the Assyrians, who installed the Saite (twenty-sixth) dynasty. This period marked one of the last Egyptian revivals, with a great deal of temple and tomb construction. In many respects the Saite period harked back to the Old Kingdom; several huge Theban tombs of this time had extensive collections of the Pyramid Texts.

With the Persian conquest of Egypt by Cambyses in 525 bce, there are indications that the conquering kings had good intentions with regard to maintaining the cultural, legal, and religious traditions of the Egyptians. Although Herodotos, who was not unbiased, accused Cyrus of sacrilege in Egypt, it is known that this king dutifully performed burial rites for an Apis bull and also had small temples erected to the Egyptian gods. The Persian satraps who actually administered the country were doubtless less highly esteemed, probably deservedly so. With several native rebellions and one last gasp of independence in the thirtieth dynasty, Egypt fell again to the Persians, and in turn welcomed Alexander the Great in 332 bce as a savior from the Persian oppressors.

Alexander was probably convinced of his own divinity on visiting the oracle of Amun at the Siwa oasis, but this was not enough to guarantee a long life. Under his successor, Philip Arrhidaeus, the sanctuary of the Karnak temple was rebuilt. When Alexander's general, Ptolemy, became king of Egypt, much new construction was begun. Alexandria, with its library, museum, and new government offices, was founded, while other Greek cities in Egypt were enlarged or planned. Under the Ptolemys truly great temples were erected at some ancient cult sites, and countless smaller temples, gates, appendages, and inscriptions were added to other places. All the main structures at the temple of Horus at Edfu are Ptolemaic. The vast main temple and its surrounding walls are covered from top to bottom with scenes and texts dealing with Horus, his myths and rituals. The texts have undergone a complicated encoding with a sixfold increase in the number of hieroglyphic signs used, and a wide range of possible substitutions for many standard signs is also encountered. The language is classical Middle Egyptian, and presumably the texts were from earlier material chosen by Egyptian priests from their own libraries, or perhaps from several sites in Egypt. The inscriptions are quite distinctive but often difficult to translate. They seem intentionally obscure despite their accessibility, and the encoding must have been used to make these texts more esoteric or arcane to their own followers and perhaps to the Greeks as well.

The temple of Hathor at Dendera has similar encoding of texts, as well as mamisi (birth houses) for the goddess, secret crypts, and a combined Egyptian-Greek zodiac on the ceiling of a small room on the temple's roof. The dual temple of Haroeris and Sobek (the crocodile god) at Kom Ombo may have had a crypt for oracular pronouncements. At Esna the creator god, Khnum, who fashions on the potter's wheel, is commemorated. The temple of Isis on the island of Philae had many separate buildings with inscriptions dating well into the Roman period. The cult of Isis, incorporating much of the cult of Hathor as well, is probably better known now from the Isiac temples in the rest of the Mediterranean than it is from this, the greatest center of the worship of the Egyptian goddess of love. Now that the entire temple complex has been moved to higher ground on a neighboring island, much more work will be possible here. Following construction of the old high dam at Aswan, the temple was under water for most of the year. Another major Oriental cult in the Greco-Roman world that had at least some roots in Egypt was that of Serapis, whose name comes from Osiris and the Apis bull of Ptah of Memphis. These particular sacred bulls, chosen for their markings, had been mummified and buried in large sarcophagi at the Serapium in Saqqara throughout much of the late period in Egyptian history.

Alexandria early became one of the principal centers in the world for the study of philosophy and theology, and when Egypt converted to Christianity many of the Alexandrian Church Fathers became deeply embroiled in controversies. Philo, Origen, Arrius, and Clement represent a few of the different positions originating in Alexandria. Traditional Greek philosophers and pagan, Jewish, Christian, orthodox, and heterodox interpretationsall had their adherents here, living virtually side by side for some time. The Septuagint and Hexapla were produced here, and the Coptic Gnostic library found in Upper Egypt at Nag Hammadi probably originated here as well. The hermetic tractates may provide some link to earlier Egyptian notions, but the apocrypha and Gospel of Thomas preserved in this archive most likely originated elsewhere.

Monasticism in both its eremetic and cenobitic forms originated and became very popular in Egypt, partially spread by conditions in the country under the Romans, who overtaxed the people and provided them little protection from the Blemmyes' invasions. The monasteries provided food, protection, and solace. The monastic rule of Pachomius became the standard in many Egyptian monasteries, and it was introduced to the west by John Cassian, becoming the basis of Western Benedictine monasticism.

The early Christians in Egypt suffered persecution under the Romans, but after Rome converted to Christianity, the pagans suffered as well. The Neoplatonic philosopher Hypatia was stoned to death in Alexandria in 415 ce, and the last outpost of paganism in the Roman Empire, at the temple of Isis at Philae, was finally overcome in the late fifth century. When the Arab general ʿAmr ibn al-ʿA took Egypt in 641 conversion to Islam was rapid, due as much to economic advantages as to the attractions of the Qurʾān.

Conceptions of the Universe

The ancient Egyptians conceived of their universe in a number of different ways. One view was that the firmament (bia ) was a huge inverted metal colander, from which pieces fell; these wonders or marvels (biau ) included meteoric iron (biat ), which was used in making ceremonial implements such as the adzes for the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. This ritual was performed to give life to statues or other representations and also to revivify the mummies of the deceased. According to another view, the sky was a giant cow whose four legs were supported by four deities, while other deities (stars) on small crescent-shaped boats sailed on her belly. This heavenly cow may be associated with Hathor, who according to the Heliopolitan cosmogony was variously seen as consort of Re and mother of Horus, but also as consort of Horus and mother of Ihy, a form of the sun god to whom she gives birth. The sun god, Re, is also frequently shown being born to the goddess Nut, whose body spans the sky from east to west. According to the Heliopolitan cosmogony she should, of course, be descended from him. Nevertheless, as regularly depicted on the ceilings of royal bed chambers, the sun appears and crosses the goddess's body during the day, but is swallowed by her at night, passing through her body from west to east to be born again.

All of these concepts view the earth as quite solid, generally flat, and practically limitless in extent. The sky (Nut) receives her support from the earth (Geb), and sometimes is shown held apart from him by the air god, Shu. All that the sun encounters in its day and its night voyage is above the earth. The locations generally translated as "netherworld" or "underworld" (imht and duat ) both actually appear to have been in the sky originally. Some descriptions indicate that the Egyptians also conceived of an undersky (nenet ) and a topsy-turvy afterlife, so that one of the terms (duat ) seems to have been relocated later. As if this were not confusing enough, another mythological cosmology would have one form of the falcon god, Horus, represent the entire sky, with his two eyes as the sun and the moon. The moon was the eye injured in the battle with his uncle, Seth, to avenge the death of his father, Osiris, in order to assume his inheritance. This great Horus would seem to be as much greater than Re, the sun, as the Heliopolitan Re of the Pyramid Texts is above his son, the Horus-king. Such seemingly incompatible cosmologies may represent either earlier separate traditions or later attempted rationalizations.

Conceptions of Human Nature and Destiny

The Egyptians' view of their own nature certainly varied in some respects from time to time, place to place, and person to person, but a few terms persisted expressing notions about their ontology that are reasonably consistent. People were created in God's image, from the weeping of his (Re's) eye, were conceived in God's heart (mind) and spoken by his tongue (Ptah), or were fashioned on the potter's wheel (Khnum). One's body had to be preserved in order to enable it to properly live again in the afterlife. To ensure this a replica of the body was thought to have been fashioned by the gods at birth; more were made later by sculptors and painters as stand-ins for bodies that might be lost. These ka figures, enlivened by the Opening of the Mouth ritual, served as second effective personalities, but they could also be protecting genii. At least by the Late period even the great gods such as Re and Thoth have a number of these ka s or "attributes," including Hu (authoritative utterance), Sia (perception), Maa (sight), and Sedem (hearing).

The term most closely approximating "soul" for the Egyptians was ba, which was represented in hieroglyphic as a small bird and was also depicted in burial scenes departing from the body as a bird flying up to the sky. In at least one literary text, the Dispute of a Man with His Ba, this conscience or other self is present in life to be argued with and to help the person make up his mind after considering both sides of a question, in this case the serious question of whether to go on living. Another literary text, the Lamentations of Khakheperreseneb, has the scribe address his heart (ib ), which cannot respond, rather than his ba. It was generally the heart that was considered the seat of both intellect and will.

Another significant aspect of an individual's person or personality is the akh, or "spirit," which is what remains apart from the body or at least is not limited by the body after death. A person wants to become an akh aper, an "equipped spirit" or "perfect spirit," in the afterlife, and to this end he prepares himself with the required religious spells from one or the other collections available, often including as many books and variations as possible and both full and shortened versions. The spirits in the hereafter were sometimes thought to be not content to rest in peace in a blessed state, nor were they always allowed to. Another literary text, the Ghost Story, tells of a long-dead spirit who appears to a priest and requests that his cracked and drafty tomb be repaired. Many letters to the dead are also found; they were left with food offerings by living relatives to urge some specific action on their behalf in the spirit world. These usually mention past favors and show confidence in the deceased's ability to effect change for righting the injustice.

Gods, Cults, and Magic

While the deceased in the necropolis were regularly called akh s, they were also occasionally termed netjeru ("gods"). A curse left on a square block at the door of a tomb threatened dire consequences to anyone who disturbed even a pebble in the tomb, and it advised finding a place that would not impinge upon the tombs of any of the gods in the necropolis. For the Egyptians the word netjer ("god") was used broadly to cover all levels of divinity, from the greatest gods to the justified dead (that is, those declared "true of voice" in the judgment before Osiris). Monotheism, if it ever existed in ancient Egypt, was never clearly formulated and apparently was never established as doctrine in any of the native religions. From almost all periods come texts that indicate the uniqueness of one or the other gods, usually some form of the sun god, but this monolatry or henotheism cannot be demonstrated to have the exclusivity necessary to fit the modern definition of monotheism.

There are numerous references to "god" and "the god" in Egyptian literary texts, particularly in the instructions. In some cases these may refer to a local god or to the king, but most frequently they refer to Re or Pre (the sun). He is often called the neb-er-djer ("lord to the limit, universal lord"), and can indeed appear practically transcendent, as in the Instruction for Merikare, quoted above. The only important point lacking here is a statement that no other god exists, but of course this can also be said of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Tradition is the principal source for both the Jewish and the Christian monotheistic doctrine, but it is lacking for Egyptian religion. Without this tradition the multiplicity of denominations and sects, the veneration of saints, and the loose use of "divine" and "godlike" for popular heroes would all conspire to challenge the generally accepted monotheistic aspect of modern Western religions and of Western civilization. For the Atenist heresy of Akhenaton the situation is somewhat different, because the Hymn to the Aton states that there is no god beside (or like) Aton, there was an attack on other gods and the plural "gods," and Akhenaton was later clearly regarded as having attempted to disrupt the established religious system. Most likely the notion of monotheism was present in this period, in some minds at least, though it was harshly dispelled. By syncretizing the names and aspects of various deities into powerful new gods, the Egyptians widened the gap between the greatest god and all the rest. Re-Atum, Amun-Re, and Pre-Harakhty were unchallenged national gods each in his own time.

Probably second in importance to the great national gods was the cult of the god of the dead. This evolved very early, evidently from several separate cults. The cult of Osiris, originally from Busiris, superseded the cults of Khentyimentiu ("foremost of the westerners") and Wepwawet ("opener of the ways") from Abydos and Siut, respectively. The cults of Osiris and Re intermingle in most of the mortuary literature, and in at least one instance come close to merging. When the cult of Sokar becomes a major element in royal funerary literature and later in all the funerary literature of the New Kingdom, it leads to perhaps the ultimate syncretism in the late New Kingdom of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris-Tatenen.

The Osiris cult certainly permeated almost all aspects of Egyptian culture. Osirid statues decorated the courts of temples, and the Osiris suites are a major feature of the mortuary temples. Every owner of a book of mortuary literature is given the title "Osiris," and every deceased person named in tomb or stele has the epithet "true of voice" or "vindicated" with respect to his last judgment before this great god. The association of Osiris with death, resurrection, fertility, and the Nile touched everyone, and his cult center at Abydos, where he was supposed to have been buried, became the most important pilgrimage site in the country.

The living king is generally called the "good god," while the deceased king is the "great god." Whether death actually enhanced the king's status is debatable. As the embodiment or incarnation of the god Horus, he is already a major god on earth, and much of the doctrine of his divinity and his perquisites was widely published and accepted. Certainly the king who instructed Merikare was more aware personally of his limitations than Senusret III or Ramses II would have been. The whole concept could have been viewed in different ways at different times by different people. Based on the number of persons who had as their goal in the afterlife something approaching or equaling the goals of their kings, perhaps more would have believed in their sovereign's divinity and their own potential divinity than some modern scholars are now prepared to accept. Of course there are exceptionsthe Song of the Harper and the story of the Man Who Was Tired of Life both reflect despair about the afterlife. Some kings were assassinated, and all the royal tombs were robbed. Aware of the difficulty of securing their burials, the Egyptians tried incredible masses of stone, secret hidden passages, tricks, provision of security guards, and also magic and curses. In a sense all of these would have been attempts by believers to thwart the unbelievers.

Some individuals, even nonroyal personages, attained a state of divinity far above the ordinary. The cult of deceased kings would generally not have outlived the endowment of their funerary establishment, but Amenhotep I, together with his mother, Ahmose Nefertari, continued for centuries to be venerated by the workmen of Deir al-Medineh as the great patrons or patron saints of the place. The architect of the step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Imhotep, was deified, and his cult became ever more popular more than two millennia after his death. He was revered as a sage and was also identified with the Greek god Asklepios. Another architect and sage, Amenhotep Son of hapu (the epithet is traditionally part of his name), was also exceptionally revered. In sum, the Egyptians seem to have had a number of different levels of divinity, several equivalent to different levels of sainthood, with only one word, netjer, to cover them all.

Worship of animals does not seem to have been a significant element in any of the religions of Egypt. The use of animals to represent some attributes of gods, or the gods themselves, is frequent, and in most religious artwork their primary importance is clearly in differentiating the principals. The conventional linking of the falcon with Horus, the falcon and disk with Re, the cow with Hathor, the baboon or ibis with Thoth, the jackal with Anubis, the crocodile with Sobek, and the ram with Amun-Re was generally recognized throughout the country and in all periods following its formulation, whereas strictly anthropomorphic representations would have been confusing. It is possible that for some ritual reenactments priests would have worn the animal masks of the gods and recited the words attributed to the gods in numerous temple reliefs. The cobra Edjo of Buto and the vulture Nekhbet of Al-Kab are usually represented in their totally animal forms, but they are protective deities for the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and were more intimidating in this form. The often malevolent but sometimes protective deity Seth is represented as either partially or totally animal, though there was in antiquity, and there is now, little agreement as to what the animal was. Pig, hippopotamus, donkey, hound, and giraffe are all plausible in different documents or reliefs. Evil beings or demons are often composite, fanciful creations that must be armed with knives to be really threatening. The evil serpent Apophis, perhaps the greatest demon, is repulsed from attacking the sun god by means of numerous serpent spells, but it is also driven back by the spears, and bows and arrows of protecting deities such as the four sons of HorusImesty, Hapi, Duamutef, and Khebeksenuefwho are also the protective gods represented on the Canopic jars containing the internal organs of the mummified dead.

Although oxen and smaller cattle were among the offerings made to the gods in their temples, the Apis bull, which was emblematic of and sacred to Ptah in the New Kingdom and later, had a very special position and would have been considered by many as the embodiment of a god on earth. Burials of each successive Apis bull and its cow mother were performed with great solemnity. Later, in the Greek period, the proliferation of cemeteries for mummified cats sacred to both Bast and Paket, crocodiles sacred to Sobek, ibises sacred to Thoth and Imhotep, baboons sacred to Thoth, and falcons sacred to Horus reached all parts of Egypt, to the point that demand for some of these creatures as votive offerings began to exceed the supplies available; sometimes people who thought they had purchased jars with mummified animals actually left sealed jars of sand to be buried in the huge catacombs at sacred sites.

Magic was clearly a significant aspect of Egyptian life. Again, as noted in the Instruction for Merikare, magic was considered a gift of the great god, Re. There was a goddess called Weret-Hekau (Great of Magic), and several texts refer to the books containing the secret knowledge of Thoth, whom the Greeks later identified with Hermes and whose legendary knowledge is still being touted by certain groups today (e.g., the Rosicrucians). The Egyptians had magical spells believed to prolong life, to alter fate, to help in romance, and to combat any number of physical and mental afflictions. A combination of entreaty and threat is found in one type of love charm:

Hail to you, Re-Harakhty, father of the gods!
Hail to you, Seven Hathors, who are adorned with strings of red thread!
Hail to you, all the gods of heaven and earth!
Come make so-and-so [f.] born of so-and-so come after me,
Like an ox after grass, like a nursemaid after her children, like a herdsman after his herd!
If you do not make her come after me, then I will set fire to Busiris and burn Osiris.

Some magic spells survive in the funerary literature, some references occur in the literature, and much is found in the medical texts. The rubrics of chapters in the New Kingdom Book of Going Forth by Day frequently provide information about the very ancient origins of these spells for transformation and glorification, and they also provide instructions concerning the rites accompanying recitation of the spells. In some cases complete secrecy is required, and one frequently encounters the claim that a particular spell was tried and proved a million times. Chapter 64 of the Book of Going Forth by Day is "The Chapter for Knowing the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day in a Single Chapter." Its rubric adds:

If this chapter is known by the deceased, he will be mighty both on earth and in the otherworld, and he will perform every act of a living person. It is a great protection that has been given by God. This chapter was found in the city of Hermopolis on a block of iron of the south, which has been inlaid with real lapis lazuli, under the feet of the god during the reign of his majesty, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menkaure, justified [i.e., deceased], by Prince Hordedef, justified. He found it when he was journeying to make an inspection of the temples. One Nakht was with him who was diligent in making him understand it, and he brought it to the king as a wonderful object when he saw that it was a thing of great mystery, which had never before been seen or looked upon. This chapter shall be recited by a man who is ritually clean and pure, who has not eaten the flesh of animals or fish, and who has not had intercourse with women. And you shall make a scarab of green stone, with a rim plated with gold, which shall be placed in the heart of a man, and it shall perform for him the opening of the mouth. And you shall anoint it with anti- unguent, and you shall recite over it these spells.

The words that follow are the heart spell of chapter 30. The discovery of the text by such a famous sage in so significant a place clearly enhanced its value.

Those Egyptian medical texts that deal with surgical procedures tend to be reasonably scientific, but for the vast majority of human ailments treated in most medical texts the Egyptians relied on magicpotions, poultices, or salves applied with written or recited spells. Headaches and stomach disorders are obvious targets, and there are lengthy series of spells for hastening birth that recall the travail of Isis in giving birth to Horus.

Magic was also used in the Execration Texts, which the Egyptians devised to overcome enemies perhaps too difficult to overcome by any other means. These bowls or figurines, inscribed with a fairly standard selection of the names of Egypt's foreign and domestic enemies plus all evil thoughts, words, and deeds, were deliberately smashed to try to destroy any and all persons and things listed thereon.

The Opening of the Mouth ritual, already referred to above, was obviously a magical rite to bring to life mummies and other representations of individuals. Sculpted portraits (called reserve heads) in Old Kingdom mastaba tombs were magical stand-ins. The eradication from statues, stelae, and tomb and temple walls of names and representations of individuals was thought to be a way of eliminating those persons magically. The texts in some tombs had the animal hieroglyphs either halved or with knives in them, to prevent them from being a danger to the deceased. The names of individuals involved in the harem conspiracy against Ramses III were often changed in the records to evil-sounding names, primarily so that the evil person's memory would not live on. In this same conspiracy, magic was also apparently involved in the making of waxen images by the conspirators. Exactly how these were to be used is unclear.

In addition to reserve heads and ka- statues, the deceased in his tomb frequently had a supply of servant statues. In the earlier periods they were shown doing exactly what they would have done in life, but in the New Kingdom they were represented merely as mummified figures, with chapter 6 of the Book of Going Forth by Day written on them. This is the magic spell that says that if the deceased is called upon to do any work in the afterlife, such as moving sand from one bank to another, the "answerer" (the figurine) will respond that he is present to do it. A different type of magic is found in the Cannibal Hymn, in Pyramid Text utterances 273274. Here the deceased king goes about devouring the gods, both to demonstrate that he has gained power over them in death and in order to acquire their strength and attributes.

Popular Religion and Personal Piety

Among the numerous amulets used by the Egyptians a few stand out and deserve attention. Probably the best-known amulet and symbol is the ankh sign, the hieroglyph for "life," which is most frequently shown being presented by the gods to humans. Considerably more important for the Egyptians was the udjat, the eye of Horus, which symbolized the sacrifice endured by Horus in his struggle to avenge his father's murder. This eye was used to designate any offering or sacrifice and also to represent the sun and the moon gods and their barks. Similar falcon eyes are found on the fronts of Middle Kingdom coffins, presumably to enable the deceased to see; on the prows of boats and in mummy wrappings these might also have been chosen to ward off evil.

The scarab beetle was a symbol that had religious significance, but it was frequently used for the very practical purpose of identification, as a seal bearing the owner's name on its flat underside. Some scarabs have ornamental decoration and the vast majority have royal names, usually of Thutmose III or Ramses II. The scarab itself was a symbol of the sun god, apparently derived from the image of this beetle slowly pushing along a nutritious ball of dung. The Egyptian word for this beetle was kheper, a homonym for their word meaning "to come to be" or "to happen," and the word also became the name of the early morning sun deity. Re, then, is the powerful and bright noonday sun, and Atum the old and worn-out evening sun.

Two symbolic figures often found on amulets seem to have been primarily associated with household deities and were particularly important for their connection with fertility and the successful conclusion of pregnancy. These are of the gods Bes, the grotesque human-faced baboon or monkey, and Taweret, the not very attractive female hippopotamus/crocodile who stands on her hind legs and holds another amulet, the "knot of Isis," in her hands. Amulets of the frog goddess, Heket, and the knot of Isis were probably used similarly by women. The feather of Maat (Truth or Justice) also symbolized order, and in those countless temple scenes showing the king presenting to various deities the small figure of the goddess wearing the feather and seated on a basket, the king is both claiming and promising to preserve order on earth on behalf of all the other gods. The plump hermaphrodite figures of Hapy are symbolic of the fertility of the Nile in flood and are frequently shown tying together the sedge plant of Upper Egypt and the papyrus of Lower Egypt.

The numerous stelae and votive offerings left at cult centers provide adequate testimony of the personal piety of the Egyptians. Many of the stelae were inscribed with a plea to the god of the place, and some had a human ear or ears carved on them as if to entreat the god to be especially attentive. Because the common people would not have had access to the god in the interior of his temple, they had their own preferred shrines, statues, or reliefs of the god (often Amun) "who hears prayers" outside the temple proper but within the sacred precincts. If they were patient they could wait to approach the god on his processions in connection with major feasts. These occasions were regularly used to make requests of the gods, and the nod of the god, perhaps aided by the shoulders of the men carrying the god, was considered a significant oracular response. The "power" or "manifestation" of a god is mentioned in several texts as punishment for an offense (e.g., being blinded for lying) or as a force compelling a person to recant earlier testimony. Some women called "knowledgeable" could use their powers for conjuring or healing. Omens were important to the Egyptians, many different dreams were interpreted as good or bad, and at least by the Late Period they had calendars of lucky and unlucky days.

One final indication of the religiosity of the Egyptians and also of their trust in magic is the very frequent occurrence, both on stelae and in graffiti, of a list of good works the writer had done, followed by his request that any passerby reading the text pronounce his name and the formula "A thousand bread, beer, oxen, and fowl," so that some day he would magically receive these stereotypical offerings. The Egyptians had a great deal of confidence in both the written and the spoken word and a proper respect for things sacred. A woman from Deir al-Medineh accused of stealing a workman's tool compounded her guilt enormously when she swore a false oath and it was discovered that she stole not only the tool but also a vessel from a temple.


The priests and priestesses of ancient Egypt included a very high percentage of the population. The king himself seems to have been the principal intermediary between gods and humans. He is shown making offerings, pouring libations, and burning incense before almost all the gods in all the temples. How much of the king's time was actually spent in religious ritual is not known and probably varied from dynasty to dynasty and from one king to another. The large amount of civil authority delegated to viziers would have released time for more religious activities if that were desired. Some kings, however, seem to have preferred leading military expeditions, perhaps finding these more essential or more interesting.

The actual high priests of each temple had different titles. The word used most frequently was hem-netjer ("servant of the god"), which the Greeks rendered as "prophet." The great temple of Amun-Re at Karnak had four ranked prophets, and the first prophet had one of the highest positions in the land. In addition to his religious duties involving the daily temple ritual and rites connected with many special feasts, he exercised temporal power over a vast amount of landholdings and over the people who worked those lands. He also served as a judge in the tribunal headed by the vizier. Some did rise to the higher priestly offices by coming up through the ranks and being recognized for their abilities, but it was also the case that they could start at the top, apparently with the king's patronage. Royal princes frequently held the post of high priest of the temple of Ptah at Memphis. At Thebes the office of high priest often was hereditary, and it became a power base from which individuals could claim and acquire the kingship of the entire land (twenty-first dynasty).

Little is known about the lesser prophets, though the office of second prophet seems in one case to have been given over to a queen, Akhmose Nefertari of the eighteenth dynasty, either to exercise the office or to award it to another. Later a famous fourth prophet of Amun, Montuemhet (twenty-sixth dynasty), was simultaneously mayor of Thebes, and his great wealth and prestige probably accrued from that position. It is not known whether any of these figureheads and administrators were also knowledgeable theologians.

Those temple scribes who were familiar with the sacred writings were called chery-heb ("lector priest"). It was their responsibility to interpret omens and dreams, to know the magical spells required for any eventuality, and to read the required texts for the rituals of embalmment and burial. The scribes most likely also provided the copies of funerary texts that people wanted to be buried with, and would either have served as physicians themselves or would have provided the magical medical spells that the physicians used.

In all the temples most of the lesser tasks were in the hands of the faithful. All would be called upon to do their monthly service, and because they were regularly divided into four phylae, this meant that they alternated but served three months out of the year. These common priests (wabu, "pure ones") shaved their hair, washed frequently in the sacred lakes near the temples, and maintained ritual purity to enable them to serve the god in his mansion. They served as porters, watchmen, and attendants, assisted with offerings and rites, and probably did their share of cleaning, polishing, painting, and moving things around.

There was of course a major distinction between the city cult temples and the mortuary temple establishments. The great mortuary temples grew out of the smaller chapels erected above shaft tombs, and these in turn developed from the small offering niches in Old Kingdom mastaba tombs. The offerings to be left at the chapels of nobles or temples of kings were provided by endowments, and the priests who administered the endowments were called hemu-ka ("servants of the ka "). If the endowment included lands, the produce would have provided offerings as well as an income for the individual "priests." They would also benefit from the unconsumed offerings that they provided each day. These endowments became an important part of the individual's property and tended to be collected and handed on to heirs.

Women in all periods shared at least some priestly responsibilities and enjoyed priestly titles. In the Old Kingdom many women were priestesses of Hathor, Neith, or Nut. In the early New Kingdom the great royal wives were also the "god's wives of Amun" and as such bore the next divine son, but they did as well participate with male priests in temple rites. Of course Hatshepsut as king (she took the masculine title, and even wore a false beard) was also priest, but remarkably, Nefertiti appeared alone or with her daughter, making offerings to her god, Aton. The wives of nobles and even the working women of Deir al-Medineh were very frequently called songstresses of Amun and were depicted in tombs bearing two symbols of this office, the sistrum and the menit -necklace, with which they provided musical accompaniment for rituals at both the great and the lesser temples. Women in general also served as ka -priests and professional mourners. In the late New Kingdom the wives of the high priests of Amun held the title of chief concubine of Amun-Re, but while it is known that they had a great deal of influence, it is not known precisely what religious responsibilities they had. Daughters of the first prophets of Amun were given the title of "God's Wife" in the twenty-first dynasty, and then, to assume greater control of the south, the Tanite kings gave this position to their own daughters. The next step in the process is the evolution of a new position, that of Divine Adoratress, from the office of God's Wife; the new position is clearly ranked above that of the high priest. Since the Divine Adoratress remains a virgin, she adopts her successor from among the daughters of the king.

The Egyptian temple was the mansion of the god, his abode on earth or, at least, the abode of his principal cult statue. The daily ritual for a god in his temple was limited to a few priests present, and consisted of their approaching the sanctuary, opening the shrine, removing the statue, undressing it, washing it, censing it, making offerings to it, clothing it in fresh garments, replacing it, sealing the shrine, and retreating, with care taken to sweep away their footprints. Although the faithful did not have the opportunity to participate in the daily ritual, they were able to see the god during special feasts, when the statue of the god would leave the temple. For the feast of Opet the statue and shrine of the god Amun-Re was taken from its sanctuary at the Karnak temple, placed on a bark held aloft by priests with carrying poles on their shoulders, and carried to its river transport for the two-mile voyage to the Luxor temple, the southern harem, for a sojourn there before the return voyage. The Beautiful Feast of the Valley involved Amun-Re's voyage across the river to western Thebes to visit the major temples there, but numerous stops were made at small temples and way stations along the route. In addition to these great feasts of Amun-Re recorded at the Luxor and Karnak temples, the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu contains records of the festival processions of Min and Sokar illustrated in great detail.


Mythology is encountered in almost everything that survives from ancient Egypt. Texts, whether religious, historical, literary, medical, or legal, or merely personal correspondence, all contain mythological allusions. Art of all kinds and on all scales, and artifacts of all types, made use of easily recognizable mythological symbols. This does not mean that everything had a ritual purpose or that the Egyptians had narrow one-track minds, but it does show how mythology and religion had permeated the culture, and also how artisans and craftsmen could capitalize on this.

It is not surprising to find that the Egyptians' mythology was not detailed and collected in any one place, but surely the various traditions were handed down by word of mouth and were generally well known. Temple libraries, known in the Late period as "houses of life," certainly contained medico-magical texts, and also would have had many ritual, historical, and theological texts and treatises. Many of these contained mythological material, but none was entitled Egyptian Mythology. There may have been individual texts relating to the individual cults or sites, such as Papyrus Jumilac. The cosmogonical myths that were excerpted for use in the mortuary literature and that have been briefly summarized above were included in the Pyramid Texts to indicate the power of the king, his genealogy, or his goal, rather than to explain or justify the other gods. The temple texts of individual gods are remarkable for the little mythological information they contain and the vast amount of knowledge they presume.

Some texts, such as the Story of the Two Brothers and the Blinding of Truth by Falsehood, are in large part mythological without being mythic in purpose. The Contendings of Horus and Seth has a totally mythological setting, but it is a burlesque of the real myth, and perhaps a sophisticated attack on the entire pantheon as well. The Myth of the Destruction of Mankind is slightly more serious in intent, showing humans to be totally at the mercy of the gods if they cross them. In this myth Hathor was sent to slay men because they had plotted in the presence of Re, but Re decided to save them by making bloodlike red beer to deceive and distract her. The goddess became so drunk that she could not perceive humankind, and what had begun as a story about punishment for sin becomes an etiological explanation for drinking to the point of drunkenness at the feast of Hathor. Another remarkable document from the late Ptolemaic period is Papyrus Jumilac, which provides the entire religious history, largely mythological, of the otherwise little-known eighteenth nome of Upper Egypt.


Egyptian religion does not seem to have been greatly changed by any outside influences. In the New Kingdom several Asiatic deities were introduced into the Egyptian pantheon, including Reshef, Kadesh, Anat, and Astarte. The story of Astarte and the Insatiable Sea has been proposed as one example of Egyptian borrowing from the Ugaritic Poem of Baal, but the counterargument for the indigenous nature of most of the contents of this text posits that only the names of the principals were changed to those of well-known Semitic deities. The Canaanite god Baal was regularly identified with Seth, and later many Greek gods became identified with the older Egyptian gods (e.g., Hermes-Thoth, Hephaistos-Ptah, and Min-Pan). The Isis-aretalogies that survive in Greek have a few descriptions of the goddess that may be traced back to Egyptian antecedents, but for the most part the composition appears to have been primarily Greek. Many scholars have seen similarities between the Egyptian Hymn to the Aton and the biblical Psalms, the Instruction of Amenemope and Proverbs, or the collections of Egyptian love songs and the Song of Songs. If there were instances of borrowing (and this is not universally accepted), they would in each case have been from the slightly earlier Egyptian texts.

Among the religious survivals from ancient Egypt, the language used in the Coptic Christian liturgy down to the present time represents the latest stage of ancient Egyptian, but it is written in the Greek alphabet. The decoration of early Coptic textiles used as vestments had incorporated ankh signs as well as udjat. As noted above, the institution of monasticism in both its eremetic and cenobitic forms, and the earliest monastic rule, can be clearly traced to Egypt. Whether the late cult of Isis had any influence on the story of the Blessed Virgin, or whether the story of the death and resurrection of Osiris influenced the gospel narrative of Christ, would be hotly contested by many Christians. In doctrinal matters it has been proposed that the Egyptian triads (such as that of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu of Thebes) influenced the concepts of the Trinity and the Holy Family, and that descriptions of the Field of Hetep (paradise) and of places of torment in the afterlife were predecessors for the concepts of heaven and hell. Slightly less controversial would be the question of Egyptian influence on the doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints. The traditional sites for the finding of the infant Moses at the river's edge, and the places visited by the Holy Family on their sojourn in Egypt, are indeed very old, but how accurate they are historically is questionable. Surviving traditions in modern Egypt include the use of mourners at funerals, visits to tombs, the leaving of food offerings, and the burning of incense at services. Modern beliefs in afreets or ghosts certainly have ancient roots, and the modern Luxor processions carrying boats on the feast of the Muslim saint Abul Hagag are clearly reminiscent of ancient festivals.


In general the Egyptians seem to have been very religious, believed in an afterlife, and devoted much of their energy to preparing for this. Their preparations included both the physical burial equipment and the spiritual: rites, temple services, offerings, good works, and avoidance of evil deeds. They believed that they were destined from birth to a particular fate, but they were also optimistic that they could, perhaps with the help of a god, change an unfortunate fate. They desired a long life and eventually a proper Egyptian burial. To a great extent they wanted to continue living after death a life very like their life on earth. They were clearly optimistic about vindication in a last judgment and their ability to attain the highest goals in the afterlife.

Two characteristic features of Egyptian religious literature are syncretism and a multiplicity of approaches, and these perhaps show steps in the process of developing doctrine. In the case of the descriptions of the afterlife, the Egyptians could on the one hand place separate, mutually exclusive descriptions side by side without indicating that one is better or more accurate than another; on the other hand, they could combine in the same document aspects from different traditions in a new, apparently superior, composite, and theoretically logical entity. Perhaps this was one way of dealing with the problem of conservatively maintaining the old while also accepting the new.

The Egyptians did not believe in the transmigration of souls, but among the hymns, guidebooks, offering texts, and rituals with which the deceased were buried are many spells for transformationsoften into the form of birds, perhaps because of a desire to achieve their apparent freedom. Presumably, an Egyptian purchased the texts he wanted well in advance of his death. Some manuscripts could have been read in advance by their owners, but many texts are quite flawed in extant copies and might not have been intelligible even if the person had bothered to read them. Scribes also had serious problems understanding some texts, and in at least one case (Book of Going Forth by Day, chap. 17) a tradition of various interpretations is handed down in the form of glosses incorporated into the text.

Hymns are probably a good gauge of the religiosity and sophistication of the priest-scribes and theologians, as well as of the believers, of ancient Egypt. The short hymns, perhaps excerpts, found in the earlier mortuary literature eventually developed into carefully constructed, easily read, edifying, and glowing tributes to the gods that spell out the gods' links with nature and their special concern for humankind. The Hymn to the Nile, the Hymn to Amun-Re, the Hymn to the Aton, hymns found in nobles' tombs to the rising and setting sun, and the hymns to Osiris and to Re in the Book of Going Forth by Day might not be as exciting and different as the so-called Cannibal Hymn. But these were very proper and popular works, indicating a considerable refinement in ancient Egypt that is not often recognized and appreciated by historians of religion.


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