Egyptian religion presents us with one of the oldest pictures of the world, well attested in texts and figurative works. In its early stages it reflects the mentality of man who had only recently emerged from the primitive state and many aspects of this world vision survived for the following three millennia (3rd-1st millennia B.C.). For this reason the Ancient Egyptians' conceptions of the gods differ strongly from those of later cultures, right up to the present day. The most important features of the Egyptian religion are polytheism (worship of a number of different gods), syncretism (the combination of features of different gods in one deity), the distinctive appearance of the gods and the principles of interaction between man and god.
Originally the Egyptian gods were the embodiments of natural forces and phenomena that ensured their continual recurrence: solar gods, such as Ra, guaranteed the movement of the Sun across the sky; the gods of the first Nile cataract the regular floods of the river; and so on. Other gods ensured the functioning of society: Horus manifested himself in the king; Ptah patronized the crafts; Anubis directed the burial of the dead. Thus, although each of them was a supreme power in his own sphere, none were almighty on the scale of the universe and the world was governed by them all jointly. The Egyptians had the idea that the world had emerged from chaos and was in constant danger of slipping back into non-existence (probably because Egypt itself, hemmed in by lifeless deserts, could only exist through the daily creative labour of men). The world order was supported by the gods and that state of affairs had to be maintained eternally. But since the gods were not all-powerful, people did not ask for favour from them, but "steered" them, by bringing offerings to them. This idea with its origins in the primitive state is typical of all the most ancient religions, but it probably never manifested itself so vividly elsewhere as in Egypt. Mankind was thought to have been created by the gods specifically to make produce for offerings and to feed the gods with it, while the contented gods managed the world properly, guaranteeing the life and prosperity of its people. So the world was kept in balance by the religious cults and the existence of the whole universe was ensured by them alone.
All the Egyptian gods were local city deities or, looking even further back into the primitive period, tribal gods. Originally the authority of each of them extended over the very small territory where he or she was worshipped. Later the cults of many deities spread across the whole country, but the idea that every god was associated with a particular place never disappeared. At different times different deities - primarily the gods of the capitals - were allotted the main roles, but that could not supplant the basic principle that on his own territory the local god remained paramount. In the Old Kingdom (27th-22nd centuries B.C.) it was Ptah of Memphis; in the Middle Kingdom (20th-18th centuries B.C.) Sebek, the deity of the Fayum oasis; in the New Kingdom (16th-11th centuries B.C.) and later, the Theban Amun. However, for the inhabitants of Elephantine their local Khnum was always more important, while for the people of Hermopolis it was their own Thoth. Moving from one city to another, a person came under the sway of a different deity and began to worship him first and foremost, although he might retain a loyalty to his former god.
Thus there was no competition between the many various gods and consequently, as in other ancient cultures, religious intolerance was not characteristic of Egypt. This is a fundamental difference between the most ancient polytheistic religions and the later monotheistic, dogmatic religions in which only adherence to the one true god is acceptable. Besides, syncretism made it fairly easy to identify different deities with each other, rendering any talk of the superiority of one over the others meaningless.
In the New Kingdom the Egyptian religion grew considerably more complex and began to form the image of a world god, i.e. one that was omniscient, omnipotent and unrestricted territorially. The main "contender" for this role was Amun, the chief god of Thebes, then the capital. But this took place not only through an expansion of his powers, but also by his identification with two other great gods - Ra of Heliopolis and Ptah of Memphis. Polytheism endured in Ancient Egypt until the end of its history.
Very often several gods were combined in a single deity that retained the main characteristics of each of them. The possibility of such syncretism was preordained by the very existence of polytheism with a large number of gods from different places having similar functions. Thus, for example, when the cult of Osiris was established in Abydos it was very natural to merge him with the local Khentimentiu, also a god of the dead, to make Osiris-Khentimentiu. In Memphis Osiris was combined with the god of the city cemetery Sokar and became Sokar-Osiris. Alongside this functional syncretism there was also political syncretism, when - to underline his significance - the god of a new capital was identified with the ancient sun-god Ra. Thus, Sebek, the god of the Fayum oasis, where the capital of the Middle Kingdom was located, turned into Sebek-Ra, and Amun, the god of Thebes, the capital of the New Kingdom, into Amun-Ra. In the later periods of Egyptian history practically any deity might be identified with the Sun.
There were also more complex forms of divine merger. One could, for example, be described as a manifestation of or part of the body of another. Moreover, on occasion even some physical item (as a rule, a cult object) might be identified with one of the gods or a part of his body. Such connections were usually founded on consonance, a harmony of sound between the name of the object and that of the deity. Some identifications were stable and lasted for millennia; others arose for a particular reason and were never used outside a certain text or monument. With time the unlimited possibilities for affinity, juxtapositioning and merger between the deities led to the Egyptian religion becoming ever more confused and unwieldy.
The appearance of the majority of Egyptian gods went back to the depths of primitive antiquity. Every animal is superior to human beings in something: the lion in strength, the falcon in its ability to fly, the snake in the deadliness of its poison, and so the earliest gods were venerated in the guise of animals. Sometimes the choice of a particular animal is fairly obvious; sometimes, though, it is fairly hard to see how the functions of a deity accorded with its outward form. Gradually, but also very early on, at the dawn of Egyptian history, the gods began to acquire human characteristics. Thus the most common type of depiction of the gods came about - the head of an animal on a human body. Only very rarely do the gods have a purely human appearance.
Yet all these strange figures are only the outward manifestations of the gods which can be perceived by man. The true appearance of a god was unknown and could not be determined. It was said, moreover, that a deity could appear "in millions of images" and it was in this multiplicity that his might manifested itself. For this reason Amun could be depicted both as a ram and as a goose; Thoth both as an ibis and as a baboon; and Isis both as a woman and as a cow. An infinite number of forms of manifestation was one of the reasons for the prevalence of syncretism in Egyptian religion.
Temples of the gods are known in Egypt from the Early Dynastic Period (beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C.), but for more than a thousand years they remained very small and could bear no comparison with the monumental edifices constructed for the cult of the ruler. The heyday of temple construction began only in the New Kingdom and continued, with some interruptions, until the decline of Ancient Egyptian culture. Now the temple took the form of a series of courtyards, columned halls and enclosed rooms strung along a single axis and ending with the main sanctuary containing a statue of the god. The largest temple complex in Egypt was the Karnak temple at Thebes, constructed over a period of almost 2,000 years, while the best preserved today are the temples from the period of Macedonian and Roman rule (4th century B.C. - 3rd century A.D.).
According to a conception widespread in Egypt, the world began with the emergence of a sandy hill out of the waters of primaeval chaos. It was believed that any temple stood on such a "proto-hill" and hence went back to the beginning of the world; there were, moreover, in actual fact mounds of sand beneath the temples, since the construction process began with piling them up. The floor of the temple was identified with the soil; the lotus- and papyrus-shaped columns represented the flora that it gave birth to, while the ceiling, painted with stars, corresponded to the sky. Thus a temple was a model of the universe, while within it the rituals took place outside of time, or rather in time that merged with the moment of the creation of the world and the introduction of order into the original chaos.
In order to make a god fulfil his functions properly, people had to satisfy his needs, and so the construction of temples and the celebration of cults within them was one of the chief tasks expected of the Egyptians. Since the ancients, even when imagining the gods in a fairly abstract manner, considered them to have the same needs as human beings, the first priority was to feed them. Hence the enormous quantity of food offered in the temples each day and especially at festivals. Besides this, the daily ritual included the purification, anointing and dressing of the statue of the god that was the chief focus of the cult. Theoretically the cult could only be performed by the ruler, who was a combination of human and divine nature, but in practical terms this was impossible and so the responsibility for feeding the gods was delegated to priests who acted on behalf of the ruler. After the New Kingdom, over the last thousand years of Egyptian history, anyone could display piety by placing a statuette of a deity in a temple (of course, this kind of piety was in reality available only to the better-off, since such statuettes, generally made of bronze, were not cheap). Such statuettes, now in the Hermitage collection, allow us to present to you the images of the most important Ancient Egyptian gods.