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Polytheistic Religion of Ancient Egypt

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 1 year, 2 months ago

Focus Question: What were ancient Egypt's beliefs about death, the afterlife, mummification, and the roles of different deities?


PAGE SUMMARY (Meghan O'Rourke, February 2022)

Polytheism is the worship of more than one god. Egyptians had many gods that they believed in. Women had an important role in Egyptian history, they assisted high priests in ceremony and had other roles. The Concept of Maat is central to Egyptian religion and thought and its embodiment of truth and the balance of the universe. Maat was personified by a goddess of the same name representing the ideals of law, order, and truth. Egyptians believed that death is not the end and that it is a natural step in the life cycle.



Image shows Priest Renpetmaa praying. ca. 900 BCE

Priest Renpetmaa praying.  ca. 900 BCE.Topics on the Page



Women in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Society


Concept of Maat

Beliefs about Death

Beliefs about the Underworld

Beliefs about the Afterlife


  • How to Make a Mummy
  • World's Oldest Mummies in Chile 


Role of Deities

Ancient Artifacts



CROSS-LINK: Dramatic Event Page for Who Built the Pyramids

    • Pyramid Texts


CROSS-LINKS on World Religions


AP World History Key Concept 2.1


Link also to the following for information about: 


Click here for a Timeline of Ancient Egypt starting from 3500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.

Click here for an extensive overview of Religion in the Lives of Ancient Egyptians.

Click here for a fascinating interview with Egyptologist Salima Ikram about the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Includes wonderful pictures of mummies and a wealth of further resources like interactive tours of Ancient Egypt and videos.

For an overview of recent archaeological discoveries, visit the website of the prominent archaeologist, Zahi Hawass.


Polytheism: the worship of more than one god. Egyptian gods include Amun Ra, Anubis, Seth, Osiris, Isis, and Horus.

Click here for an explanation of the differences between polytheism and monotheism.

For more information on the structure of polytheism, see Jan Assmann's The Search for God in Ancient Egypt

Click here for a video on Gods Isis and Osiris


 Image of all the Egyptian gods and the order in which they were created. 


 Women in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Society


 Seated Statue of Hatshepsut




Click here to read more about Women's role in Egyptian Religion 


  • Some women had the title "God's Wives", only given to those of high status, they would assist high priests in ceremony and tends to the god's statues
  • Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, was one of these God's Wives
  • Women could be scribes or priests in a cult of a feminine deity
  • Some women were believe to be able to predict the future and also interpret people dreams 


Click here to read about Important Women who helped changed the History of Ancient Egypt


  • Hatshepsut: first female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt
  • Cleopatra: ruled Egypt for nearly 3 decades
  • Nefertari: given various roles as Queen
  • Nefertiti: brought religious revolution to Egypt by worshiping only one God

Bust of Queen Nefertiti



The Concept of Maat


The Pharaoh, or king of Egypt, was viewed as both human and divine, and thus acted as intermediary between Egypt's people and the gods. He was given the challenging task of maintaining "Maat" within his kingdom.

The concept of maat is central to Egyptian religion and thought and is the embodiment of truth and the balance of the universe. The Pharaoh's role in maintaining Maat involved defending the country from enemies, appointing fair officials, managing the food supply, and appeasing the gods with temples and offerings.

The concept of Maat was personified by a goddess of the same name representing the ideals of law, order, and truth.

For information on Maat's commandments and its links to Christianity, click here

The pharaoh was responsible for maintaining Maat as he was expected to control all actions of his people. Maat included the ideas of truth, moderation, and justice and if it was lost, Isfet would occur. Years of civil unrest were blamed on the presence of Islet, while peaceful years resulted from Maat.

Go to Egypt's Golden Empire from PBS to learn more about Maat and read another an overall explanation of ancient Egyptian religion (25).


Go to https://egyptianmuseum.org/deities-Maat to learn more about the goddess of Meat and how she was created. 



  Journey through the underworld, being judged by Gods


Egyptian beliefs:

    1. Death is not the end; it's a natural step in the life cycle.
    2. Death is really a "rebirth."
    3. After death, you enter a new world like the current one, so you are buried with everything you will need.
    4. Belief that the human soul were comprised of five elements:
      1. Ka is the vital spark
      2. Ba is the personality of the individual
      3. Akh refers to the individual's immortality
      4. Sheut is the shadow
      5. Ren is the individual's name
    5. The Ba could leave the deceased's tomb during the day and do as it pleased, but had to remain in the tomb when the deceased wanted it to.

Egyptian Book of the Dead




    1. Before the dead could could reach the Afterlife, they first had to pass judgement in the Underworld.
    2. Anubis, the guardian of the Underworld, would greet the dead in the Hall of Maat where their soul would be judged.
    3. Anubis would then weigh the dead's heart against the feather on the scales of Maat to see if they are worthy of crossing over into the Afterlife.
    4. If the dead's heart proved unworthy, it would be fed to the demon dog, Ammut, and the dead's body and soul would be left vulnerable to the demons of the Underworld.
    5. If the dead's heart proved worthy, they will go to the field of reeds, which is basically a heavenly place, where the dead will tend a plot of land and cultivate reeds happily surrounded by his deceased love ones.  

Click here for a more detailed look at the journey through the Underworld 

Click here to learn more about tombs of Ancient Egypt.                                                     Picture


Click here for an interactive game about tombs of Ancient Egypt and what are usually inside of them Egyptian Tomb Adventure





    1. Life is a preliminary stage to get to the afterlife.
    2. Afterlife is ensured through a three step process:
      1. Mummification of the body
      2. Placing the mummified body in a tomb with the deceased's name on it
      3. Having a funeral.
    3. Food or drink was then offered to those who were not able to attend the funeral.
    4. To make sure the dead had material comfort in their afterlife, ancient Egyptians would place jewelry, furniture, and clothes, etc., in the tombs.
Egyptian mummies.  Photo by Bram Souffreau
Egyptian mummies. Photo by Bram Souffreau

For a lesson plan on the Afterlife, click here

The Ancient Egyptians believed in immortality and saw death as a temporary interruption of their lives. The journey to the underworld was dangerous and mummies needed to pass through the underworld. The gods participated in a "Weighing of the Heart" ceremony to determine whether they would survive in the afterlife based on their past. 

  • Click here to learn more about the Egyptians' ideas on the afterlife and immortality (23).



Click here for a video from the History Channel, "Journey to the Afterlife."




Mummification placed soft tissue in salt for preservation. Major organs were removed and placed in jars then the body was dressed in linens and buried. The process took about 70 days to complete.




    1. Mummification was originally reserved for kings, but throughout time became a common practice for everyone.
    2. It was believed that the physical body must be preserved by mummification in order for the soul to remain there in the afterlife.
    3. Bodies were mummified so the soul could get food and water in the afterlife.
    4. First, the internal organs would be removed, stored in jars, and placed at the burial site. The brain had no importance to the Egyptians, so they removed and disposed of it.
    5. The second step was letting the body dry in the sun for 40-50 days after being wrapped in cloth and soaked in natron (drying mixture of salt).
    6. Next, the body was stuffed with material, such as resin and linen, and formed into the person's original size and shape.
    7. The last stage consisted of wrapping the body in linen while priests said prayers. Jewelry was often placed within the linens.


  • The Getty Museum uses 3D animations to show the detailed steps Egyptians took in order during Mummification. In this video it is The Mummification Process for Herakleides.
    • A selection from a National Geographic special called King Tut's Final Secrets: Inside the Tomb
      • . In this special scientists use that latest technology available to uncover the mystery as to why the Pharaoh Tutankhamen died at such a young age.
  • A great video from the British Museum that has scientists using CT scans to look inside mummies and unlocking ancient secrets. Take a look inside.

See also The Mummy Maker, an interactive game that features an embalmer's workshop, where you have to prepare the body of Ramose, officer to the king, for burial, from the BBC.

The Egyptians used mummification as an act of purification and used palm wine to clean the bodies and kill decomposing bacteria.

  • This website explains the various steps of mummification and how bodies were prepared for the afterlife, including how they were dressed and the ceremonial ritual that lasted for 70 days before the body could be lowered into a coffin (24).


Ra, the Egyptian god was the god of sun and kings

Ra, the egyptian god was the god of sun and kings

Many cultures mummified their dead. For a good, albeit brief, introduction to mummies in other cultures, such as the Incas, the Chinese, as well as others, Click here


  • This episode of the BBC documentary series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, called "People of the Clouds" is a look at the Chachapoya people, who were mummifying their dead long before the Egyptians. A close examination of one of the mummies begins at about 24:00, where the link starts. BBC's Lost Kingdoms of South America, Ep. 1 "People of the Clouds"


  • Watch this video the Mummy Process as it depicts the mummification process, and explains how and why this process was upheld.



The World's Oldest Mummies


Chinchorro Mummies in the Atacama Desert of Chile.




Roles of Deities 


Many Deities in the Egyptian Pantheon have different roles in Egyptian Societies over the course of history. These are some of the noteworthy Gods and Goddess:

    1. The main deities were Atum, Ra, Khnum, Amun, Ptah, Isis, Anubis, Osiris. Each ruled over specific regions at specific times.
    2. Atum was the god of sun, ruler of gods. Atum is illustrated as a black bull or golden crown. He was considered the father of gods/pharaohs.
    3. Ra was the god of heaven/power/light. Ra was illustrated with a sun disk on his head. He is too old to rule from Earth, so he watches over from the heavens.
    4. Khnum was the "ram god" who made the Nile fertile for agriculture. Khnum was the creator of humans by making babies out of clay and putting them in women's wombs.
    5. Amun was the god of wind/sun,and later the head deity. Amun was illustrated as a man with beard and feathered crown/sun disk. Amun joined with Ra to become main deity.
    6. Ptah was the god of creation/artisans. He was shown as man with beard, wrapped like a mummy except for his hands.
    7. Isis is known as the mother goddess. She is also the goddess of healing, protection, magic. She is the wife of Osiris.
    8. Anubis is known as the God of embalming and the dead. He is associated with the process of mummification and judges people who are worthy in the underworld.
    9. Osiris is known as the first king of Egypt, but was killed by his brother and resurrected by Isis, his wife. He is the Ruler of the underworld and a judge of the dead.

Click here for a website that includes information about demons, who were more powerful than humans but less than gods and had supernatural powers. Ammut was a famous demon, known as the Devourer of the Dead, devoured the hearts of those too immoral for the afterlife. Apepi was another demon and enemy of the sun god. This website also explores the roles of more gods and goddesses. (22)

Egyptian artifacts on Display in Torino, Italy
Egyptian artifacts on Display in Torino, Italy

Conduct a class discussion/debate on who has the rights of ownership to ancient artifacts such as Egyptian mummies and Greek statues.

  • Linking the Egyptians’ belief in an afterlife with the ways that Western archaeologists have removed and studied mummies leads to an interesting discussion.
    • As one of our 180 Days in Springfield interns noted: "I have found that my classes were very divided on the matter, with some being vehemently opposed to tampering of tombs and bodies."

Click Here for a greater understanding of the purpose of Egyptian Art. Khan Academy explains the original purpose of this art, the function of the art, what we actually see in museums, and the meaning behind certain art techniques.

For more background on the issue of illegally excavated and exported artifacts, see:


Here is a video from National Geographic, Egypt Wants Treasure Back, about the issue of the stolen artifacts from tombs that were taken away in the past that are now featured in museums throughout Europe. 


Great Pyramid.  Image by Alex lbh
Great Pyramid. Image by Alex lbh

The Pyramids

As discussed earlier, the Egyptians believed in immortality after death. In order for the spirit to become immortal, the spirit of the deceased had to reanimate its body and then make the perilous journey to the afterworld.

In order to ensure this, not only did the body have to be preserved well in mummification, but they had to be provided with items to take with them to use in the afterlife.

Thus, the final resting place of the Egyptians were of great importance. Not only did the body have to remain mummified, but the items that were buried with them had to be protected from grave robbers. (26)

In the oldest of days, Egyptians could be expected to be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert in the ground, with a few items wrapped with them, where the natural aridity of the environment could mummify the body.

  • Eventually wealthier citizens opted to build mud-brick tombs called "mastabas" (related to the modern Arabic term for "bench"), but inside the mastaba, a body rotted away. Thus the need for mummification techniques was born.
    • Eventually, the wealthiest of citizens, the Pharaoh opted for a huge pyramid as their resting place. (27)

The pyramids were a monument to the Pharaoh, and they were also a physical object that had to have allocated resources, including materials, labor, location, and the creature comforts themselves. The amount of resources that were put into the building of these tombs say much about the social importance death and the afterlife in Ancient Egyptian society.

external image a9cc3f76fad57480efe3953a59868b35d27a3106.jpg


Link to The Great Pyramids of Giza for more information on the three primary pyramids on the Giza Plateau

Here is a BBC interactive game that allows a student (or a teacher) to experience the great challenge of designing and building the pyramid, taking into a count the social, economic, and religious implications of such a monumental endeavor!


Go to this link https://www.heritagedaily.com/2020/04/ancient-egyptian-pyramids-map/118351 for an interactive map on the locations of the Egyptian pyramids.



Pyramid Texts

Some pyramids from the Old Kingdom also featured hieroglyphics that make up the Pyramid Texts, a collection of spells, or utterances that are meant to guide the Pharaoh's soul to the afterworld, providing comfort, advice, and information, as well as calling on the gods and goddesses for favor and intervention on behalf of the deceased spirit. In addition, since they are dated to have been written 3100-3000 BCE, they are the oldest sacred text in the world. (28)

For an interactive look at the Pyramid texts, click here to journey to the Pyramid of Unas, the oldest of the pyramids with the Pyramid Texts on the wall!

  • The website allows the visitor to navigate through the pyramid and read the inscriptions by clicking on the areas inside the tomb where the text was originally located, or alternatively, the visitor can just view English text and view the originally hieroglyphic version.


  1. http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777190168/
  2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/afterlife-ancient-egypt.html 
  3. http://www.drhawass.com/about-zahi-hawass
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/gods_gallery.shtml
  5. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women1.htm
  6. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women2.htm
  7. https://www.ancient.eu/article/623/women-in-ancient-egypt/  
  8. http://www.egyptartsite.com/judgement.html#top
  9. http://www.king-tut.org.uk/egyptian-tombs/index.htm 
  10. https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/games/discover-ancient-egypt/discover-ancient-egypt/egyptian-tomb-adventure/  
  11. http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/mummies.htm
  12. http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/mummies/home.html
  13. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/launch_gms_mummy_maker.shtml
  14. http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/ED/mummy.html
  15. http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/should_ancient_artifacts_return_home
  16. http://www.china.org.cn/english/culture/54158.htm
  17. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1883142_1883129_1929080,00.html
  18. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/19/arts/design/19bowl.html
  19. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vaCflRWL9c
  20. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/a-night-of-exploration/videos/king-tuts-final-secrets/
  21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MQ5dL9cQX0
  22. http://www.childrensuniversity.manchester.ac.uk/interactives/history/egypt/makeamummy/
  23. http://discoveringegypt.com/ancient-egyptian-gods-and-goddesses/
  24. http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcr04e.shtml
  25. http://legacy.mos.org/quest/mummy.php
  26. http://www.pbs.org/empires/egypt/newkingdom/religion.htm
  27. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman/articles/ancient-egyptian-tombs-and-death-rituals/
  28. http://www.egyptianmuseum.org/burialpracticesgallery
  29. http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/pyramidtext.html
  30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wpwYqwf4Qc  

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