Terminology: Netjer

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Terminology: Netjer


Debate . The Egyptian word that is translated into English as god is netjer. This word is written with a hieroglyph resembling a flag (yellow in color) on a flagpole, often shown in green. It has been described as “a pole wrapped with a band of cloth, bound by a cord, the end projecting as a flap or streamer.” Exactly what this image has to do with the concept of god has been the subject of much discussion. It could represent a cult flag that is seen flying from tall flagpoles found at the entrances to New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) temples. Another suggestion is that the object represented a fetish, an inanimate object believed to have supernatural power. A more recent theory is that the flag represents the pennants found hanging from poles that were surmounted by hieroglyphs representing various deities. Usually a symbol representing a particular deity was found above the pennants, and it has been suggested that the pennant without the symbol came to represent the general concept of deity.

Etymology . The etymology of the word netjer is uncertain. It corresponds roughly to the word god, because in the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history, bilingual decrees in Greek and Egyptian translate the Egyptian netjer with Greek theos (god). A detailed examination of the Egyptian texts reveals that the word netjer has a far wider frame of

reference than the English “god.” The Egyptians used the term netjer to refer to beings that one would call gods, demons, and spirits. The term could also refer to the Egyptian king, certain living animals, and to dead people or animals. A close examination of the different beings that the Egyptians designated as netjer has led one scholar to suggest that the Egyptians used the term to refer to any being which was the object of a ritual, or received some sort of cult (meaning offerings).

Classes of Beings . When looked at in this light, there are several classes of beings that the Egyptians called “netjer” First are those beings one would call gods. They were created as netjer from the beginning and did not acquire the status at a later date. For them, ritual served to maintain and preserve their status as netjer, much as food allows a person to maintain the status of living being. A passage from the Coffin Texts states that an offering of grain “makes the gods divine.” These beings were the objects of daily rituals and offerings in the temples and shrines throughout Egypt. Throughout the three thousand years of Egyptian history, approximately two thousand deities were worshiped.

Acquired Status in Life . In contrast to the gods are those beings who acquired the status of netjer through undergoing a ritual at some time after their birth. These entities fall into two categories, those who become netjers while living and those who become netjers after death. In the first category are the king of Egypt and certain sacred animals. The king at his accession underwent a coronation ritual and as a result acquired the status of netjer. The king was the only living person in Egypt who had this status. In addition to the king, specific animals were viewed as being special manifestations of particular gods, usually based on the presence of special markings or characteristics. These animals also underwent a ritual that inducted them into the category of netjer and made them instruments through which a particular god could make his presence manifest.

Acquired Status in Death . The last class of beings that were considered to be netjer are those beings that underwent a ritual, and hence became netjer after death. The funerary ritual had the effect of turning every deceased Egyptian for whom it was practiced into a netjer. The dead person would become an akh a glorified spirit, and would be the recipient of offerings of food and drink from his family members. Particularly important individuals might acquire a prominent cult after their deaths and receive offerings from people in addition to family members. Finally, animals belonging to particular species that were kept at Egyptian temples would be mummified and buried at death, conferring on them the status of netjer.


Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, translated by John Baines (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, translated by G. M. Goshgarian (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).

David Silverman, “Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt,” in Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 7–87.