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6-08-2015, 16:58

Egyptian Religion, Science, and Culture

sisters.” For the average person, religion meant everyday offerings and
devotions honoring local deities and familiar household gods, and a deepseated
belief in the power of magical rituals, spells, charms, and protective
amulets. Over the course of Egyptian history, Egyptians worshiped
more than 2,000 gods and goddesses, mostly minor local deities known
only in one region or village. When a city became important, so did its
gods and goddesses. Egyptians were more likely to adopt foreign deities
than to persecute their worshipers. They were remarkably tolerant, especially
compared to other ancient peoples.
There were no universal truths, no fixed religious doctrines. The
contradictions in their many views of the universe and multiple creation
stories did not bother them a bit. Religion was magical, not logical. In
Ancient Egypt: Its Culture and History, J.E. Manchip calls Egyptian religion
“a huge, intricate mosaic with thousands of pieces.”
The king and other high priests took care of the great matters: keeping
the world running smoothly and maintaining ma’at in the universe.
Their daily rituals ensured that the sun would rise, the inundation would
occur on schedule, and crops would grow. The average family’s religion
was focused on humbler matters: ensuring the health and safety of children
and animals, protecting the home, ensuring fertility, gaining protection
from everyday dangers and troublesome spirits, and getting safely through
pregnancy and childbirth. One religious story loved by king and peasant
alike was the legend of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, retold in the box on page 94.
Every home had shrines to Bes, Taweret, or Bastet, fierce protectors
of homes, babies, and women in childbirth. Families placed statues of
these beloved deities in wall niches, and wore amulets and charms with
their images. A small statue of Bes between two cats, currently in the
British Museum, probably once occupied an honored niche in the home
of a workman’s family. Household shrines also honored dead ancestors.
If not remembered, these ghosts might stir up family trouble.
The Egyptians believed that their gods and goddesses could take
any form—human, animal, a natural force (like the river), or any combination.
None of the gods or goddesses was completely good, or completely
evil. There was no all-evil “devil.”

The Judgement of Ma’at

Even when eternal life was opened to all, it was not guaranteed. At death,
each person was judged on the scales of the goddess Ma’at.
The Egyptians believed that the soul lived in the heart. When a
body was mummified, most internal organs were removed and placed in
canopic jars. But the heart was returned to the body with a magic charm
called the heart scarab.
Each dead person appeared in the Hall of Ma’at for judgement. Before
an audience of gods and goddesses, the heart was placed on a balance.
On the other side was the Feather of Ma’at. If the person had lived a
good life of ma’at, his heart was light as the feather, and his spirit gained
eternal life. If not, a fearsome monster (part crocodile, part hippo, part
lion) immediately devoured him, and he was dead forever.
Once judged fit for eternal life, the spirit faced a dangerous journey
through the underworld. To get past the gatekeepers and monsters, he
had to recite magic spells from the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, or the
Book of Going Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead).
Copies of these spells—illustrated scrolls for the wealthy, a few scraps of
papyrus for the poor—were placed in tombs.
After death, the spirit took three different forms: ka, ba, and akh.
The ka was the spirit of life. At the instant of death, ka and body were
united. The ka stayed with the corpse. At the funeral, a ceremony called
Opening of the Mouth magically activated the ka. The ka lived in the
tomb, feeding on offerings of food and drink brought by the ka servant. In
a pinch, the ka could magically activate food listed on menus in the tomb.
The ba was the spirit of personality, depicted as a human-headed
bird. The ba could leave the body after death and roam the earth, visiting
the dead person’s favorite places.
The akh (which means “shining ghost”) was the spirit of immortality.
Its brightness reflected the person’s accomplishments in life. Depending
on the dead person’s beliefs, the akh shone in the sky as a star,
traveled with the sun in the solar boat, or lived with Osiris in the Field of
Reeds—a kind of paradise afterlife.
From Predynastic times, the Egyptians believed that eternal life required
preservation of the body. As tombs became larger and fancier, they
contained more and richer grave goods: clothing, furniture, jewelry, pottery,
toys, weapons, food and drink, and more. This caused two problems
the Egyptians never completely managed to solve: preservation of corpses,
and tomb robbery.
In a mastaba or pyramid, the corpse, isolated from the hot, dry
desert environment that allowed natural mummification, was likely to
rot. So the Egyptians invented artificial mummification. Mummies were
encased in nested coffins and enclosed in stone sarcophagi. But many
bodies rotted anyway. Many more were torn apart by tomb robbers, eager
to get at the jewelry they were buried with.
The thought of all that buried gold, jewelry, fine linen, and luxury
goods was more than some Egyptians could resist. Almost all tombs were
looted, many within days of burial. The Egyptians tried to foil tomb robbers
with burial chambers made of solid quartzite topped with multi-ton
rock slabs. They tried false doors, trap doors, mazes, dead-end passages,
dummy chambers, trick doors, hidden shafts, stairways leading nowhere,
passages back-filled with huge stone blocks and rubble, curses inscribed
on walls, Medjay guards. Nothing worked.
After the pyramids were looted, Egypt’s kings decided their mummies
might be safer in caves carved into solid rock. But the rock-cut
tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in the cliffs west
of Thebes, presented no real difficulties for tomb
The graves of ordinary folks were seldom targets
for looters—there was nothing much to steal.
Poor people were buried like their ancestors, in simple
reed-lined pits in the sand. In many cases, their
bodies probably lasted longer than most expensively
mummified kings.

At Home in the Afterlife

Much of what is known about Egyptian life comes
from tombs: paintings, murals and carvings of everyday
activities, statues of the tomb owner and his
family and animals, food and drink, including “magical
menus,” and household equipment and supplies.
Detailed wooden models of typical home and farm
scenes placed in the tomb—kitchens, breweries,
workshops, gardens, and boats—could be magically
activated as needed. The houses of the living were
recreated in the houses of the dead.
During the Old Kingdom, the companions the
king chose to accompany him in eternal life were
not permitted to sail the skies with him in the solar
boat. They were confined to their tombs, which is
why they went to so much trouble and expense to
store away plenty of food, drink, and luxury goods.
Once the afterlife was opened to all after the
Old Kingdom, the king still ascended to the heavens after death. Everyone
else was no longer confined to spending eternity in their tombs, and
enjoyed the afterlife of their choosing. For the elite, this was comfort and
luxury, with the goods they had brought along in their well-equipped
tombs—just like the villas and palaces they enjoyed on earth, only better.
Farmers and peasants also pictured the ideal afterlife much like earthly life,
without the bad parts. In the afterlife’s Field of Reeds it was never too
hot, there was no illness or injury, flies did not bite, the inundation was always
just right, and grain grew 15 feet high.
The spirits of the dead required daily nourishment. Bakers, brewers,
and other ka servants who lived in necropolis villages prepared and served
daily meals to the spirits. These practical ka servants removed the food at
the end of each day and took it home for supper. In case ka servants neglected
their duties, every prudent tomb owner had menus of his favorite
meals inscribed on the walls of his tomb. In a pinch, his ka could magically
bring the menu items into existence.
A modern Egyptian tradition called el-Arbeiyin recalls these ancient
beliefs. After a person has been dead for 40 days, family members
bring food to his grave and distribute it to poor people who have gathered

Agriculture: Backbone of the Economy

Egypt’s agricultural economy was built on a technique known as basin
cultivation. Natural depressions flooded by the inundation were surrounded
with berms and dams to hold in water. Canals let water in or
out as needed. In times of prosperity, land was reclaimed from the desert
and marsh and was converted to farmland.
The inundation often destroyed or moved boundary markers and
damaged or destroyed canals, berms, ponds, and dams. Once the floodwaters
receded, farmers helped government officials re-survey croplands. Damaged
systems had to be rebuilt or repaired swiftly, so planting could begin.
The recently soaked fields needed little or no plowing. The farmer
scattered seeds and turned his animals and children loose in the fields to
trample it in. A farmer’s tools were simple: primitive picks and hoes, baskets,
and heavy pottery water jars carried on yokes across the shoulders.
Farmers grew two kinds of wheat, emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and spelt
(Triticum spelta). They also grew several varieties of barley (Hordeum
vulgare), mostly for beer. Farmers worked together to harvest one field after
another as quickly as possible, using wood sickles with flint blades. It
was hot, backbreaking work, lightened by competitions, work songs, and
many jars of beer. The grain sheaves were gathered into bundles and carried
by donkeys to the threshing floor in the village.
Emmer and spelt both require vigorous threshing (beating the grains
out of their husks) before they can be ground into coarse flour. Animals
and children trampled the grain to separate out the husks. The grain was
tossed into the air and the lighter husks blew away. The heavier grains
fell into large, flat baskets and were filtered through coarse sieves to remove
pebbles and insects. Husks and stems were saved for making mudbrick.
The grain was measured, packed into sacks, and stored in silos,
awaiting the tax collector.
The third major crop was flax (Linum usitatissimum). Bundles of
flax fibers were carried off to be prepared for spinning, weaving into cloth,
and braiding into rope—after the tax collector had taken his cut.

Crime and Punishment

Egyptians were courteous, law-abiding people. Society was generally orderly
and peaceful. Men and women were treated equally by law and
custom, as were members of different social classes.
Egyptian law was based on custom, tradition, and ma’at. An offense
against law and order was an offense against ma’at. Laws covered
crimes, land disputes, commercial transactions, wills, property transfers,
and trusts for eternal care of tombs. Legal disputes could be complex.
One land dispute among several generations of a feuding wealthy family
went on for decades, with many trials presided over by a series of viziers.
All judgements were made in the king’s name. There were no professional
lawyers. Trials were speedy and punishments were swift. Imprisonment
was considered expensive and unproductive. Prisons were
used as courts, storehouses for legal records, and to hold prisoners awaiting
trial. The death penalty was rare. It had to be approved by the king and
was reserved for only the most horrible crimes. Children who killed their
parents faced especially gruesome deaths, such as being eaten alive by
crocodiles. A merciful king might allow a condemned criminal to commit
For serious offenses, a criminal would have his nose or ears, or
both, cut off. He might also be sentenced to hard labor in the mines of
Nubia, or be banished to a faraway frontier fort. Disgrace and banishment
were considered worse than death. For lesser crimes, beatings and
whippings were common. Occasionally, an entire family was punished
for a relative’s crime.
While this all may sound harsh to us today, Egypt’s laws and punishments
were generally much more humane and enlightened than those
of most other ancient cultures.

Weapons of War

The Egyptians were not warriors by nature. Their battle gear was mostly
adapted from hunting weapons. Soldiers used bows, spears, javelins, and
daggers, and carried animal-hide shields. Much of the Egyptian army was
made up of foreign mercenaries who favored their own traditional
weapons and protective gear.

During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians became famous for their
khepesh swords—curved scimitars shaped like the leg of a bull. The king
often carried this weapon. The Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot,
which the Egyptians used mainly for speed. Their chariots were lightweight
wicker vehicles that carried a driver and an archer or spear thrower.
In battle, chariots were deployed in large groups. Diplomats and
couriers also used chariots for speedy travel.


The Egyptians were interested in practical applications of mathematics,
not theories. They were very good at manipulating numbers, and used
their skill to solve real world problems faced on the job by engineers, tax
collectors, construction supervisors, and military officers. The major surviving
Egyptian mathematical document, the Rhind Papyrus, is a collection
of mathematical problems with solutions.
The Egyptians multiplied by repeated addition, and divided by repeated
subtraction. They used fractions, but only with a one in the numerator.
They did not know about the concept of zero.
They used a hieroglyphic decimal system. Units were represented by
vertical strokes arranged in rows. A spiral represented 100, 200 was two
spirals, 10,000 was a finger, 100,000 was a tadpole. A god with upraised
arms meant 1 million—or “I can count no further.”

Accounting, bookkeeping, surveying, and land measurement were
highly sophisticated. Accountant-scribes knew how to determine accurate
property boundaries and calculate crop yields based on land area. They
could estimate labor and materials for construction projects, and determine
consumption rates for food and other commodities for districts, based
on population.
They were skilled at drawing plans and making accurate layouts.
For designing complexes of buildings, they used a primitive theodolite,
a surveying instrument that measures angles. They used practical mathematics
to figure out the best ways to transport and erect huge blocks of
stone, massive obelisks, and colossal statues.


The Egyptians were practical astronomers, too, using the stars mainly to
orient buildings and for timekeeping. When Khufu built the Great Pyramid,
Egyptian astronomy was at its height. An Egyptian catalog of the
universe lists five constellations, including crocodile, ox leg (the modern
Great Bear), and Osiris holding a staff (the modern Orion).
Egyptian astronomers divided the heavenly bodies into “unwearied
stars” (planets), “imperishable stars” (stars always visible above the
horizon), and “indestructible stars” (fixed stars). They knew Jupiter, Saturn,
Mars, Venus, and possibly Mercury.
They divided each day into 24 hours. The duration of each hour
varied with the season. They used sundials, shadow clocks, and water
clocks, marking time by measuring shadows or dripping water.

Health and Medicine

Egypt’s physicians were famous for their knowledge and skill. The Greeks,
Romans, Persians, and Arabs admired and borrowed Egyptian medical
Doctors treated problems common at farms and construction sites:
stiffness, sprains, crushing injuries, fractures, wounds, burns, and skin
disorders. They used splints, bandages, and compresses, and performed amputations
and simple surgeries with saws, knives, drills, hooks, and forceps.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus (from about 1600 B.C.E.), a kind of casebook
for surgeons, divides injuries and disorders of the head and chest into
treatable, non-treatable, and “maybe” cases.
Although medicine and embalming (preparing the dead for burial)
were closely related, Egyptians had little understanding of the internal
workings of the human body.
Corpses were sacred—not to be
studied or dissected.
Although Herodotus considered
the residents of Upper Egypt
the healthiest people in the world,
mummies and skeletons show that
Egyptians suffered many ills. Most
had rotten teeth. Their bread, full of
sand and grit from grinding stones,
wore down their tooth enamel until
the roots were exposed, causing abscesses
and severe pain.
Except for uncomplicated
treatments such as setting fractures
and stitching wounds, magic spells
and amulets were the best remedies
Egyptian doctors had for most ailments.
Diseases were blamed on
demons or ghosts. Prescriptions
called for applying potions while
reciting magical spells and incantations.
Potions included mixtures of
leaves, herbs, fruit juices, dates and
figs, honey, tannic acid, resins, castor
oil, human milk, animal fat and
blood, animal fur, snake grease, and
goose grease.

Language and Writing

Hieroglyphics, Egyptian picture-writing, was used for almost 35 centuries
for religious texts and inscriptions on monuments. (Today, you can visit
web sites to find out what your name looks like in hieroglyphics; see page
122.) The earliest hieroglyphics, ownership and business records, appear
on stone vases and seals.
But hieroglyphics quickly became too cumbersome for everyday
use. A flowing, script-like writing called hieratic (from the Greek word
hieratikos, which means “priestly”), derived from hieroglyphics, was used
for almost all writing. Later, busy scribes invented shorthand, called
demotic (from the Greek word demotikos, “popular”). At the end of the
dynastic era, a script derived from the Greek alphabet, called Coptic,
came into wide use.
Egypt’s best-known literary works are collections of magical spells
to aid the dead in their passage through the dangerous underworld on
their way to eternal life. In the Old
Kingdom, spells called the Pyramid
Texts were inscribed on the walls of
royal tombs. In the Middle Kingdom,
similar spells, the Coffin Texts,
were painted or carved on coffins.
The most famous collection
of religious-magical literature is
called the Book of Going Forth by
Day, sometimes known as the
Book of the Dead. It includes 90
chapters of magical spells that were
copied on papyrus scrolls and
placed in tombs. Many surviving
copies are beautifully illustrated in
color. A rich man might have an illustrated
scroll 120 feet long, with
spells covering every danger. A
poor man would get just a spell or
two on a scrap of papyrus.
The Middle Kingdom was the
golden age of non-religious literature.
Teachers loved the “wisdom
literature,” collections of proverbs
and instructions for living a life of
ma’at. Stories such as The Tale of
Sinuhe, The Tale of the Eloquent
Peasant, and The Shipwrecked
Sailor were so popular that they
were copied and repeated for centuries.
The moral of many of these
stories was, “There’s no place like
home.” In the New Kingdom, love
poetry also became popular.

Collections of papyri (stored
in boxes and pottery jars) in private
homes and temple schools were
called Houses of Life. These libraries
served religious and practical
purposes, containing papyri of
religious, scientific, and popular literature.

Arts and Artisans

Art was created for religious, symbolic,
or magical purposes, not artistic
expression. Each part of a scene
had to convey the exact message intended.
Though most scenes were
stereotyped set pieces based on conventional
themes, the best Egyptian
art works are still graceful and lively.
Egyptian artists were careful
observers of nature and excellent
draftsmen. But in depicting people,
they followed long-established traditions,
conventions, and proportions.
Heads appear in profile, eyes
are face-on. Torsos turn toward the
viewer, legs are twisted into profile.
All five fingers are extended and visible.
Nobles are larger than commoners. Men are larger than women.
Children are tiny, but with adult proportions. The king is always much
bigger than anyone else. Everything is drawn literally and exactly, with
bold outlines and no shading or shadows. There is no doubt about the
scene’s subject and purpose.
Each scene was carefully planned and designed. The artist sketched
a grid on his surface and laid out figures with traditional proportions (see
page 22). As long as he followed the conventions, he was free to arrange
people and objects as he liked.
The Egyptians loved vibrant color. Paints, manufactured from minerals
and plants, included black (from lead ore and lampblack), blue and green
(from malachite and copper), white (from limestone), and brown, red, and
yellow (from colored earth and plants). Colors had religious and symbolic
meanings. People were painted either red-brown (men) or yellow (women)
to indicate they were alive, or green or black if they were dead. Osiris was
green, Amun-Re blue. Other gods had yellow skin because their flesh was
made of gold. White symbolized hope or pleasure. Red meant evil.
Most statues were idealized forms, not personal portraits. They
were designed for specific settings, such as a tomb or temple. Sculptors
worked with mostly stone-age tools, in alabaster, basalt, diorite, granite,
limestone, marble, and quartzite. Eyes were made of white quartz, rock
crystal, ebony, and copper for a lifelike quality. Many sculptures were
painted. The painted limestone bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum is
among the world’s most famous sculptures.
In early Predynastic times, the Nile valley still had some large trees,
and woodworking achieved its highest level. Later woodworkers were at
a disadvantage because of the lack of good quality large timber. Native
woods were available only in small sizes and quantities. Imported wood—
cedar, cypress, ebony, juniper, fir, yew, and oak—was used for columns,
temple doors, flagpoles, fine coffins, furniture, and seagoing ships.

Clay-heavy Nile mud was the raw material for most pottery. Beer
and wine jars, oil vessels, mugs, plates, cosmetic pots, canopic jars, figurines,
ushabtis, and most coffins were made of mud “coarseware.” The
types and styles of coarseware found at ancient sites provide important
clues for establishing dates and chronologies.
Faience (quartz or clay covered with a fired glaze) was popular in
Egypt as far back as the Early Dynastic Period. The Step Pyramid of Djoser
has inlaid faience tiles. It was used for amulets, small objects such as
bowls and statuettes, and inlays. The most popular colors were blue and
greenish blue, recalling the Egyptians’ favorite gemstones, lapis lazuli and
Beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty, artisans cut and molded glass
to create beads, amulets, perfume jars, vases, and figurines in a rainbow
of colors. Glassblowing, forming molten glass into intricate shapes, was
unknown in dynastic times.
Jewelry for the wealthy was made of gold, hammered, cut, or shaped,
and adorned with gemstones: amethysts, turquoise, rock crystal, malachite,
lapis lazuli, onyx, peridot, hematite, jade, coral, carnelian, garnet,
jasper, agate, beryl, and rare emeralds from the eastern desert. Amulets and
ornaments of faience, bone, and pottery were mass-produced for ordinary
folks. Silver was rare and little used. Electrum, a rare, highly-prized
natural alloy of gold and silver, came mostly from Upper Egypt and Nubia.
Much of the work of Egyptian jewelers was sealed up in tombs, stolen,
and melted down by looters. The surviving pieces only hint at the fabulous
treasures that were lost.


Most flax was spun and woven into linen cloth for clothing and domestic
textiles. Torn into strips, fine linen wrapped mummified corpses. Flax
was also spun and braided into durable rope, strong enough to haul multiton
stone blocks.
Linen was one of Egypt’s major exports, in demand all over the
world. It was woven in several grades, from coarse cloth to fine, almost
transparent “royal linen” prized by wealthy ladies. Most linen was left its
natural, off-white shade. Vegetable dyes were used to make yellow (safflower),
red (madder), and blue (acacia tree bark) fabric.
In Predynastic times, the art of weaving fine linen on flat, horizontal
looms was already well-developed. The Hyksos introduced vertical
looms. During the Nineteenth Dynasty, a major linen manufacturing
business was run by harem ladies and minor members of the royal family
at a royal palace at Miwer in the Delta.
Silk, a luxury reserved for only the wealthiest ladies, was not known
until the Persian conquest in 525 B.C.E. Cotton, for which modern Egypt
is famous, was not grown until Roman times.