The Nile and Egyptian Religion


Egypt is a country in North Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and is among the oldest civilizations on earth. The name ‘Egypt’ comes from the Greek Aegyptos which was the Greek pronunciation of the Egyptian name ‘Hwt-Ka-Ptah’ (which means “House of the Spirit of Ptah”, who was a very early God of the Ancient Egyptians). In the early Old Kingdom, Egypt was simply known as ‘Kemet’ which means ‘Black Land’ so named for the rich, dark soil along the Nile River where the first settlements began.

Later, the country was known simply as Misr which means ‘country’, a name still in use by Egyptians for their nation in the present day. Egypt thrived for thousands of years (from c. 8,000 BCE to c. 525 BCE) as an independent nation whose culture was famous for great cultural advances in every area of human knowledge, from the arts to science to technology and religion. The great monuments which Egypt is still celebrated for reflect the depth and grandeur of Egyptian culture which influenced so many ancient civilizations, among them Greece and Rome. (23)

The Nile

The principle of harmony (known to the Egyptians as ma’at) was of the highest importance in Egyptian life (and in the afterlife) and their religion was fully integrated into every aspect of existence. The geography of Nile River may have influenced this belief. Unlike the Tigris and Euphrates which needed to be tamed on account of their unpredictable natures, the Nile’s consistent rise in the middle of July and fall in September gave Egyptians a dependable source of nourishment for vegetation over the year.

Not surprisingly, the Egyptians came to believe that the gods caused the river’s annual floods which deposited the fertile black soil along the arid banks. According to some myths, it was Isis who taught the people the skills of agriculture (in others, it is Osiris) and, in time, the people would develop canals, irrigation, and sophisticated systems to work the land. The Nile was also an important recreational resource for the Egyptians.

The river became known as the “Father of Life” and the “Mother of All Men” and was considered a manifestation of the god Hapi, who blessed the land with life, as well as with the goddess Ma’at, who embodied the concepts of truth, harmony, and balance. The Nile was also linked to the ancient goddesses Hathor and, later, as noted, with Isis and Osiris. The god Khnum, who became the god of rebirth and creation in later dynasties, was originally the god of the source of the Nile who controlled its flow and sent the necessary yearly flood which the people depended on to fertilize the land. (24)(25)

Egyptian Religion

The Egyptian Gods

The first written records of religious practice in Egypt come from around 3400 BCE in the Predynastic Period of Egypt (6000-3150 BCE). Deities such as Isis, Osiris, Ptah, Hathor, Atum, Set, Nephthys, and Horus were already established as potent forces to be recognized fairly early on. The Egyptian Creation Myth is similar to the beginning of the Mesopotamian story in that, originally, there was only chaotic, slow-swirling waters. This ocean was without bounds, depthless, and silent until, upon its surface, there rose a hill of earth (known as the ben-ben, the primordial mound, which, it is thought, the pyramids symbolize) and the great god Atum (the sun) stood upon the ben-ben and spoke, giving birth to the god Shu (of the air) the goddess Tefnut (of moisture) the god Geb (of earth) and the goddess Nut (of sky). Atum had intended Nut as his bride but she fell in love with Geb. Angry with the lovers, Atum separated them by stretching Nut across the sky high away from Geb on the earth.

Although the lovers were separated during the day, they came together at night and Nut bore three sons, Osiris, Set and Horus, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris, as eldest, was announced as ‘Lord of all the Earth’ when he was born and was given his sister Isis as a wife. Set, consumed by jealousy, hated his brother and killed him to assume the throne. Isis then embalmed her husband’s body and, with powerful charms, resurrected Osiris who returned from the dead to bring life to the people of Egypt. Osiris later served as the Supreme Judge of the souls of the dead in the Hall of Truth and, by weighing the heart of the soul in the balances, decided who was granted eternal life. (24)

The Egyptian Afterlife

The Egyptian afterlife was known as the Field of Reeds and was a mirror-image of life on earth down to one’s favorite tree and stream and dog. Those one loved in life would either be waiting when one arrived or would follow after. The Egyptians viewed earthly existence as simply one part of an eternal journey and were so concerned about passing easily to the next phase that they created their elaborate tombs (the pyramids), temples, and funerary inscriptions (the Pyramid Texts, the Book of the Dead) to help the soul’s passage from this world to the next.

The gods cared for one after death just as they had in life from the beginning of time. The goddess Qebhet brought water to the thirsty souls in the land of the dead and other goddesses such as Selket and Nephthys cared for and protected the souls as they journeyed to the Field of Reeds. An ancient Egyptian understood that, from birth to death and even after death, the universe had been ordered by the gods and everyone had a place in that order. (24)

This detail scene, from the Papyrus of Hunefer (c. 1275 BCE), shows the scribe Hunefer's heart being weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by the jackal-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. The devouring creature Ammit-whose body part crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus-awaits lest the heart prove to be heavier than the feather.Figure 3-1: Weighing of the heart by National Geographic, Ancient Egyptians is licensed under Public Domain

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead originated from concepts depicted in tomb paintings and inscriptions from as early as the Third Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2670 – 2613 BCE). By the 12 th Dynasty (1991 – 1802 BCE) these spells, with accompanying illustrations, were written on papyrus and placed in tombs and graves with the dead. The spells served as instructions for how the dead might overcome the perils of the afterlife. They also served, however, to provide the soul with fore-knowledge of what would be expected at every stage. According the Book, when a person died, they were guided by Anubis to the Hall of Truth (also known as The Hall of Two Truths) where they would make the Negative Confession (also known as The Declaration of Innocence). This was a list of 42 sins the person could honestly say they had never indulged in.

Once the Negative Confession was made, Osiris, Thoth, Anubis, and the Forty-Two Judges would confer and, if the confession was accepted, the heart of the deceased was then weighed in the balance against the white feather of Ma’at, the feather of truth. If the heart was found to be lighter than the feather, the soul passed on toward paradise; if the heart was heavier, it was thrown onto the floor where it was devoured by the monster goddess Ammut and the soul would cease to exist. (26)

With respect to the soul, the Egyptians believed it consisted of nine separate parts: the Khat was the physical body; the Ka one’s double-form; the Ba a human-headed bird aspect which could speed between earth and the heavens; Shuyet was the shadow self; Akh the immortal, transformed self, Sahu and Sechem aspects of the Akh; Ab was the heart, the source of good and evil; Ren was one’s secret name. All nine of these aspects were part of one’s earthly existence and, at death, the Akh (with the Sahu and Sechem) appeared before the great god Osiris in the Hall of Truth and in the presence of the Forty-Two Judges to have one’s heart (Ab) weighed in the balance on a golden scale against the white feather of truth. (27)