ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Demons and Spirits
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Gods and Goddesses, Demons and Spirits

    The ancient Egyptians lived in a world animated by forces over which he had little control. By naming them, giving them shape and character they attempted to find some understanding and ultimately ways to influence their behaviour.
    The first deities were purely local. They were hoped to protect the village, to bring fertility to fields, livestock and people, to help in hours of need. They were their defenders against malicious spirits and evil demons, which brought about disease, infertility and natural calamities.
    They were often given shapes which reflected their characteristics:
  • Bulls were venerated for their power and fertility
  • Falcons represented the sun wandering through the sky
  • Hippos were known for their fierce defense of the young
  • Lions and lionesses were admired for their fighting prowess
  • Dung beetles emerged from the ground, apparently self-created
  • Jackals were frequently observed near graveyards
    Some gods were difficult to represent: darkness, moisture, air, hiddenness, creativity etc. These were often given human form.
    Others were depicted as chimaera, ferocious monsters with body parts of various wild animals, e.g. Ammit, the devourer of the hearts of the sinners, who had a crocodile's head, a lion's forelegs and body and the hindparts of a hippopotamus. They were generally dangerous to mankind, and we often refer to them as daemons, though the Egyptians themselves did not make any such distinction. They played a minor role in religion and mythology, lacking characterization and often remaining nameless. Yet, knowledge of their names was crucial when a person wanted them to do his bidding or had to protect himelf from their attentions. Thus the Declarations of Innocence in the Book of the Dead, a guide book through the underworld, mentioned the names of the fourty two judges involved in the Judgment of the Dead, giving the deceased power over them.
The pantheon of the Egyptians was huge, comprising myriads of gods, demons and spirits, most of them of little consequence. A few gods achieved national standing, being worshiped in many places, some even crossed the seas and became important deities of foreign peoples: the cult of Isis, for instance, was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Others remained intimately personal, such as one's ancestors.
    The ancient Egyptians never abandoned their multitude of gods in favour of one single deity. There was apparently a feeling that the sacred was a union of all the gods which also comprised the deceased humans, and as such was indivisible. Even Akhenaten who was involved in a struggle against the followers of Amen appears to have done little to discourage the worship of deities other than Amen. [Image: Scarab]

Scarab with the inscription: Amen-Re is in every god
Probably New Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website

    The Egyptians had no difficulty in perceiving characteristics common to two or three gods and then uniting these gods into one deity, a process called syncretism. During the New Kingdom Amen, the hidden one, was joined to many gods, mainly on a local basis, but as Amen-Re he became–and remained for two millennia–the embodiment of creator and protector of The People, the Egyptians.

© October 2005
March 2006

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