Kushite Religion

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KUSHITE RELIGION . Kush was the name given in ancient times to the area of northeast Africa lying just to the south of Egypt. It is the Aethiopia of Herodotus and other classical writers, and it corresponds in a general way to the Nubia of today. Its peoples were and are African in race and language, but since very early times their culture has been strongly influenced by that of their northern neighbors.

The northern part of Kush was under direct Egyptian control during the New Kingdom (c. 15801000 bce). Egyptians did not settle in the country in large numbers, but they oversaw the building of temples, towns, and fortresses and the inauguration of the typical pharaonic system of administration and of worship. When the colonial overlords departed, around 1000 bce, they had laid the basis for an Egyptianized successor-state that was to emerge a little later as the empire of Kush. The Kushite rulers assumed all the titles and trappings of the pharaohs, and for a brief period (751656 bce) were even accepted as rulers in Egypt itself. Kushite authority in Egypt was ended by an Assyrian invasion, but the empire later expanded southward at least as far as the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, and possibly much farther.

The original capital of Kush was at Napata, near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, where a great temple of Amun had been erected during the Egyptian colonial regime. Later, as the empire expanded southward, the capital was moved to Meroe, near the mouth of the Atbara River. The earlier and later phases of Kushite civilization are often designated as Napatan and Meroitic, after the respective capitals. The empire of Kush was finally overrun and destroyed by barbarian invaders in the fourth century ce, but some of its traditions persisted until the coming of Christianity two centuries later.

Detailed information about the religion of Kush is scanty. The accounts of classical writers are unreliable, and the indigenous language of Kush (called Meroitic) is largely undeciphered. Most of our information is based on the interpretation of reliefs carved on temple and tomb walls and on votive objects.

In the beginning, the religion of Kush appears to have differed little from that of pharaonic Egypt. The principal state deity was Amun, whose cult was celebrated at the great state temples of Napata and Meroe, and at many other places. Other Egyptian deities who are depicted in Kushite temple reliefs include the moon god Khonsu, the ibis-headed Thoth, and the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Mut. The ram-headed Khum, god of cataracts, was especially venerated in the cataract region of northern Kush. Horus, who in Egypt symbolized the pharaonic authority, was another deity especially popular in the north.

In Kush as in Egypt, mortuary ritual was associated with the Osirian family of deities: Osiris, his sister-wife Isis, and Nephthys, the sister of Isis. The jackal-headed Anubis also played an important part in mortuary ritual. In later centuries the cult of Isis became especially highly developed, and was no longer primarily a mortuary cult. Isis became the chief tutelary of the most northerly district of Kush (later known as Lower Nubia), but there were also Isis temples at Meroe and elsewhere in the south.

In the Meroitic period (c. 350 bce350 ce) the Kushite pantheon came to include a number of deities who were apparently not of Egyptian origin. The most important of them was Apedemak, a lion-headed male god who was a special tutelary of the ruling family. He was a god of victory and also of agricultural fertility. There were temples of Apedemak at Meroe and at several other towns in the southern part of Kush, but his cult seems to have been little developed in the more northerly districts, which were far from the seats of royal authority. Two other possibly indigenous deities were Arensnuphis and Sebiumeker, who are sometimes depicted as guardians standing on either side of temple doors. There was, in addition, an enigmatic goddess with distinctly negroid features, whose name has not been recovered.

Cult animals were evidently important in Kushite religion, as they were in Egypt. Cattle are often depicted in temple procession scenes, and at the southern city of Musawwarat there was apparently a special cult of the elephant.

Kushite religious architecture shows very strongly the influence of Egypt, though with some distinctive local touches. Temples are of several types, but they fall into two broad categories. The largest temples, comprising from three to five rooms, are purely Egyptian in type, with pylon gate, forecourt, hypostyle hall, pronaos, and one or more sanctuaries. All of the temples dedicated to Amun are of this type. A much smaller type of temple comprises only a pylon gate and one or two adjoining chambers, with or without interior colonnading. Most if not all of the temples of Apedemak are of this type.

We know almost nothing about the details of ritual, but we can deduce from temple and tomb scenes that offerings of food and drink played an important role. Processions of priests and animals were probably also common. Pilgrimage was an important act of personal piety, to judge from the number of votive graffiti on temple walls and floors as well as on cliff faces. Funerary texts from northern Kush suggest that there were several ranks of priesthood attached to the temples, although the precise meaning of these texts is very far from clear.

As in Egypt, the afterlife was a major focus of concern. The Kushite rulers and their families were buried under steep-sided stone pyramids, each of which had attached to it a mortuary chapel like a miniature temple. Underground there were two or three chambers adorned with painted scenes of the afterlife. The royal dead were often laid out on a bed (a uniquely Kushite practice), accompanied by lavish offerings that sometimes included animal and human sacrifices. More ordinary folk were interred in an undecorated underground chamber, which might be surmounted by a brick platform or a miniature pyramid. These too usually had an adjoining chapel or at least an offering niche. A unique feature of mortuary ritual in the northern part of Kush was the making of ba statuettes, in the form of a bird with human head. These were placed outside the tomb superstructure, and symbolized that part of the soul (the ba ) that remained on earth after death, while another manifestation of the soul (the ka ) journeyed to the afterworld.


There is no single, detailed work on the religion of Kush, as is to be expected in view of the scanty available evidence. Brief, popular summaries can be found in Peter L. Shinnie's Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan (New York, 1967), pp. 141152, and in my book Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton, 1977), pp. 325328, 336338, 374378. More technical discussions include those of Jean Leclant, "La religion Méroïtique," in Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech (Paris, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 141153, and Nicholas B. Millet, "Meroitic Religion," in Meroitische Forschungen 1980 (Meroitica 7), edited by Fritz Hintze (Berlin, 1984), pp. 111121. L. V. Žabkar's Apedemak, Lion God of Meroe (Warminster, 1975) discusses at length one particular aspect of Kushite religion.

New Sources

Török, Laszlo. The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art: The Construction of the Kushite Minad, 800 b.c. 300 a.d. Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.

Welsby, Derek A., ed. Recent Research in Kushite History and Archaeology: Proceedings of the 8th International Conference for Meroitic Studies. London, 1999.

Wildung, Dietrich, ed. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. New York, 1997.

William Y. Adams (1987)

Revised Bibliography