WOMEN, RELIGION AND PIETY IN ANCIENT EGYPT

More, perhaps, than any other culture in the ancient world or since, the Egyptians were struck by the rhythms of the universe. Everyone is aware of the rising and setting sun, night and day, the moon’s monthly cycle, the seasons, birth and death, etc., but only the Egyptians made a religion of these recurrences. Possibly it was the Nile River that made them realize how dependent they were on continuity, for every year the river flooded its banks turned the entire country into a shallow lake, and four months later the water receded enough to plant. Any time the flood levels were low there would be famine and any time there was too much water villages would be destroyed.

As leader of the country, it was the King’s job to ensure the willingness of the gods to work for the maintenance of order and the continuation of these natural cycles for life itself depended on them. The Pharaoh was thought to be partially divine in order to facilitate his work with both humans and gods.

Akhenaten tried to convince his people that there was only one God, Aten, but the experiment in monotheism did not survive the death of the Pharaoh who introduced it. Otherwise the Egyptians were a remarkably tolerant people when it came to matters of religion. There were no atheists or agnostics, of course, but there is no evidence of the sort of “my view of god is better than your view of god” that is all too common in interdenominational and inter-religion relations today.

In theory the Pharaoh was the chief priest and appointed a High Priest in each of the temples to act in his absence. In reality every temple functioned as an independent unit and more often than not the High Priest got his job the same way other men got theirs: by being the son of the predecessor. Each god or goddess had his or her own cult center that operated without ties to any other organization. Even when two or more temples worshipped the same god or goddess, they usually operated as unrelated entities.

There was no catechism or official body of doctrine that all worshippers were expected to believe, nor were there congregations in the manner of churches today. Worship was carried out by the priests, not by ordinary people, and was designed to ensure the gods and goddesses looked with favor on Egypt. It was not designed to facilitate a relationship between the individual and his deity.

A statue of the god or goddess was kept in a cupboard in the sanctuary. Every day a priest would clean the statue, change its clothes, and offer food and drink. The statue, a man-made representation, was a home for the god or goddess in the same way that a mummy was a home for a person’s Ka and Ba: no one thought of the statue as the real thing any more than would a modern Christian offering prayers to a Crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Occasionally the statue was taken out of the temple and paraded around for the masses to see. This would be a time of feasting and celebration. While some provided a place for ordinary people to present their petitions or to offer personal prayers, temples existed to propitiate the gods. Those seeking a more personal relationship with the divine worshipped household gods at home.

It is a truism that the Egyptians were a very conservative people. They had no real objection to new ideas, but they tended to layer the new on top rather than discard the old. Where we see contradiction, they saw further clarification. There are several creation myths: modern people would say that while they could not believe any of them, logic would decree that if one were true the others had to be false. The Ancient Egyptian would see no reason not to accept them all despite the differences.

ISIS:

Isis was undoubtedly the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. She is normally pictured as a woman with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne on her head. Her enormous popularity, however, led to a merging with other goddesses, so, for example, she can often be found wearing Hathor’s cow horns and solar disk. The Greeks equated her with both the moon goddess Astarte and the corn goddess Demeter.

Most Egyptian temples had a corner reserved for the worship of Isis, but it was not until Dynasty XXX (The Late Period) that Isis got her own temple in the Eastern Delta. Other temples followed soon after at Philae (just south of Aswan) and at Denderah.

She was often thought of as the protector goddess and was one of the deities that guarded the four corners of the king’s sarcophagus. It was as a loving and faithful wife and mother, however, that Isis was best known and revered.

As king of Egypt, the god Osiris taught his people to harvest crops and to worship the gods. His brother Seth was jealous enough of Osiris popularity but he was absolutely furious that Isis and not he was made regent while the king traveled to spread his ideas around the world. Seth killed his brother by locking him in a box and tossing it into the river. The box drifted downstream, into the Mediterranean Sea and ended up wedged in a giant tamarisk tree in the palace of the King of Byblos.

Isis was distraught at the death of her husband and set out to find his body. Using a combination of help from the humans she met along the way and her magical powers as a goddess she learned the whereabouts of the box and her husband’s body.

Having disguised herself as an old lady, she was invited into the palace, the queen thinking that an Egyptian might know some spells that would cure her ailing son. Isis was revealed as a goddess. As a reward for saving the prince, she was given the tamarisk in which, unknown to anyone else, her husband’s body had been lodged. Isis retrieved the body of Osiris and returned the tree to the King of Byblos who made it the centerpiece of a new temple.

Shortly after Isis returned to Egypt Seth found the body, cut it up, and scattered the pieces. With the help of her sister, Nephthys, Isis managed to find all of the pieces. The gods Anubis and Thoth helped them put the pieces back together, embalm the body and wrap it in linen cloth, thus making the first mummy. Isis changed herself into a bird and used her wings to fan life back into him. He was then made King of the Underworld.

Isis had an infant son at this point and the next few years were spent raising him. Life was not easy for a single mother, even a goddess, and they were often hungry and constantly in fear that Seth would find them. Eventually Horus reached manhood and was ready to claim his throne. The Tribunal of the Gods agreed to meet to decide the issue.

Re preferred the throne would go to the more experienced Seth and ordered that Isis a women, be excluded from the discussion. The wily Isis bribed the ferryman to take her to the island where she transformed herself into a beautiful young woman. Seth was besotted. Not realizing who she was, he determined to possess her, but she refused his advances unless he agreed to help her.

Her son, she said, was caring for his father’s cattle, when a stranger came and stole them. She needed his help to get them back. The Egyptian word for cattle was also used as a synonym for the Egyptian people. As soon as he promised to get back her son’s “cattle”, Isis revealed herself as a goddess and demanded he keep his promise to return the Egyptian people to Horus. The gods all agreed that Seth had been beaten and Horus became King of Egypt.

We can see from this story that gods and goddesses have considerable power but that were limits to what they could do. They had the same emotions and the same needs as humans. Some scholars have suggested that the conflict between Seth and Horus may have reflected an actual incident in early history where it was decided that the succession would pass to a king’s son and not to his brother.

Isis was assimilated with a number of goddesses and her worship spread to the farthest corners of the Roman Empire. It has been suggested that if Emperor Constantine had not given his support to Christianity early in the Fourth Century A.D. that the cult of Isis might still be a major religion in the world of today.

HATHOR:

Next to Isis, Hathor was the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. Her name, in Egyptian, meant “The Mansion of Horus”, so there is no doubt that she was considered one of the senior sky goddesses and sometimes called “Eye of the Sun God, Re”. She can be pictured in a variety of ways:

1. as a gigantic cow standing astride the four corners of the earth with the stars and planets attached to her hide and udder. The sun is fixed between the horns on her head. (The sky goddess Nut is also pictured this way, minus, of course, the udder and horns.)

2. a woman with a round, somewhat flattened face with a wig through which one can see the ears of a cow.

3. a very beautiful, young woman wearing an image of the sun caught in the grip of the horns of a cow.

When the aging Re became concerned that some humans were plotting against him he sent Hathor to catch and punish the guilty. Hathor took so much joy from her task and the taste of blood that he feared she would go on to kill all of humanity. The Sun God ordered that red ochre be mixed with enough beer to flood the land. Hathor thought it was blood and greedily drank it all. Needless to say she got so drunk that she forgot about her plan to kill all mankind.

Despite this one image of a bloodthirsty Hathor, she was normally thought of as a fun loving goddess concerned with the well being of humanity. She took a special interest in unmarried girls, for whom she would often find husbands, and as a fertility goddess she was called upon to help women in childbirth. When the Greeks came to match their deities with those of Egypt Hathor was thought to be the equivalent of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

The Seven Hathors, a group of goddesses resembling Hathor, were able to foretell the fate of a newborn in the same way as the Fates of Greece.

Many temples were built in her honor both in Egypt and outside. Most of Egypt’s large towns had at least a shrine dedicated to her and often showed the local goddess as a manifestation of Hathor. In honor of his wife Nefertari, Ramesses II built a temple for Hathor at Abu Simbel in Nubia. One of the best known and most important Hathor temples was the one at Denderah, some 60 km north of Luxor. We have already noted that temple worship was usually carried out by the priests rather than the people, but commoners had a chance to participate during the great festivals when the divine statue was taken on a trip outside the temple. At Denderah the special occasion was the annual celebration of the Sacred Marriage of Hathor and Horus. Two weeks before May’s new moon, Hathor’s statue sailed 70 km up-river to Edfu. The procession stopped at several places along the way to allow the goddess to visit local deities. She was met at Edfu by the statue of Horus and together the two deities were carried to various holy sites for the performance of the appropriate rituals. For the next two weeks temple staff supplied free food and drink to all pilgrims. It was, of course, the biggest party of the year.

MA’AT:

The Egyptian concept of ma’at refers to the natural order of the universe, ‘the way things ought to be’. It is sometimes called ‘justice’ but there is no word in the English language that really encompasses what the Egyptians meant and more often than not the word is simply left untranslated. Ma’at included the proper relationship between one human and another, between ruler and ruled, and between gods and people. Even the universe was subject to Ma’at as it was the force that kept the seasons in succession.

Ma’at did not mean that everyone should be equal. Some will have more money, social status, and authority than others, but responsibility goes with privilege. The rich should provide aid to the poor and those with power should use it to ensure there is justice for the weak.

On the day of judgment the heart was weighed against a feather to determine if the deceased had lived a life in accordance with Ma’at. There was no attempt to measure the amount of goodness or sin; a heart that weighed too much was as unacceptable as a heart that weighed too little. If the heart did not match the feather exactly, it was thrown to the Devourer, a creature with the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus: without a heart to serve as home, no life was possible for the Ka or the Ba.

The concept of Ma’at was so important that it was personified as a goddess. Portrayed as a woman wearing a feather in her headband, she was thought to be the daughter of the sun god, Re. She was often shown as a gift being presented by the king to the other gods.

WOMEN AND WORSHIP
Worship services in the temples were intended to promote a good relationship between the state and the gods. Personal piety was an individual and family matter, not a corporate one. Once a year most statues of a god or goddess were taken out of the temple and paraded around for the general public to see. This would be an excuse for a party as well as an opportunity for the masses to express their devotion to the local deity.

Level of ritual purity determined how far into a temple one could go, much like the levels of security clearance in a modern spy novel, but anyone could enter the outer courtyard. Here there was often a place where the faithful could present their petitions within earshot of the deity. Failing that, some public spirited individual may have constructed a statue where people could leave an offering with the expectation that someone would approach the divine on their behalf.

Those who could afford it set up a votive stela in the courtyard bearing a prayer and a picture of himself or herself making an offering to the god. A cheaper alternative was to use a shard of pottery. Either approach may perhaps have operated in much the same way as a candle left burning by the faithful in some Christian churches today. This stela, dedicated to the god Ptah, pictures a number of ears, symbolizing the donor’s hope that people can stand before it and have their prayers heard by Ptah.

Much of the personal religious activity seems to have taken place at home. Unfortunately much of the evidence for this has disappeared along with their mud brick houses, but it appears that home had altars or niches that held votive stelae. Worship involved food offerings, libations and flowers, and stressed problems associated with conception and birth.

This stela is from the Ptolemaic or Roman era of Egypt and was likely put in the courtyard of a private home to keep evil away. Women looked to the god Bes to promote pregnancy and to keep them safe during childbirth. He is pictured in the stela brandishing a sword and holding a serpent (the symbol of evil)

Isis, Egyptian Goddess of Magic and Giver of Life

Isis, Egyptian Goddess

of  Magic and Giver of Life

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of rebirth remains one of the most familiar images of empowered and utter femininity. The goddess Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky. Isis was born on the first day between the first years of creation, and was adored by her human followers.

Unlike the other Egyptian goddesses, the goddess Isis spent time among her people, teaching women how to grind corn and make bread, spin flax and weave cloth, and how to tame men enough to live with them (an art form on which many of us would welcome a refresher course!)

Isis taught her people the skills of reading and agriculture and was worshipped as the goddess of medicine and wisdom.

Isis

More than any other of the ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis embodied the characteristics of all the lesser goddesses that preceded her. Isis became the model on which future generations of female deities in other cultures were to be based.

As the personification of the “complete female”, Isis was called “The One Who Is All”, Isis Panthea (“Isis the All Goddess”), and the “Lady of Ten Thousand Names”.

The goddess Isis, a moon goddess, gave birth to Horus, the god of the sun. Together, Isis and Horus created and sustained all life and were the saviors of their people.

Isis

Isis became the most powerful of the gods and goddesses in the ancient world. Ra, the God of the Sun, originally had the greatest power. But Ra was uncaring, and the people of the world suffered greatly during his reign.

The goddess Isis tricked him by mixing some of his saliva with mud to create a poisonous snake that bit him, causing him great suffering which she then offered to cure. He eventually agreed.

Isis informed Ra that, for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name (which was the source of his power over life and death). Reluctantly, he whispered it to her.

When Isis uttered his secret name while performing her magic, Ra was healed. But the goddess Isis then possessed his powers of life and death, and quickly became the most powerful of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, using her great powers to the benefit of the people.

Isis


Isis was called the Mother of Life, but she was also known as the Crone of Death. Her immense powers earned her the titles of “The Giver of Life” and “Goddess of Magic”. Her best known story illustrates why she is simultaneously known as a creation goddess and a goddess of destruction.

Isis was the Goddess of the Earth in ancient Egypt and loved her brother Osiris. When they married, Osiris became the first King of Earth. Their brother Set, immensely jealous of their powers, murdered Osiris so he could usurp the throne.

Set did this by tricking Osiris into stepping into a beautiful box made of cedar, ebony and ivory that he had ordered built to fit only Osiris. Set then sealed it up to become a coffin and threw it into the river. The river carried the box out to sea; it washed up in another country, resting in the upper boughs of a tamarisk tree when the waters receded.

As time passed, the branches covered the box, encapsulating the god in his coffin in the trunk of the tree.

In a state of inconsolable grief, Isis tore her robes to shreds and cut off her beautiful black hair. When she finally regained her emotional balance, Isis set out to search for the body of her beloved Osiris so that she might bury him properly.


Isis

The search took Isis to Phoenicia where she met Queen Astarte. Astarte didn’t recognize the goddess and hired her as a nursemaid to the infant prince.

Fond of the young boy, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him. As she was holding the royal infant over the fire as part of the ritual, the Queen entered the room. Seeing her son smoldering in the middle of the fire, Astarte instinctively (but naively) grabbed the child out of the flames, undoing the magic of Isis that would have made her son a god.

When the Queen demanded an explanation, Isis revealed her identity and told Astarte of her quest to recover her husband’s body. As she listened to the story, Astarte realized that the body was hidden in the fragrant tree in the center of the palace and told Isis where to find it.

Sheltering his broken body in her arms, the goddess Isis carried the body of Osiris back to Egypt for proper burial. There she hid it in the swamps on the delta of the Nile river.

Isis

Unfortunately, Set came across the box one night when he was out hunting. Infuriated by this turn of events and determined not to be outdone, he murdered Osiris once again . . . this time hacking his body into 14 pieces and throwing them in different directions knowing that they would be eaten by the crocodiles.

The goddess Isis searched and searched, accompanied by seven scorpions who assisted and protected her. Each time she found new pieces she rejoined them to re-form his body.

But Isis could only recover thirteen of the pieces. The fourteenth, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so she fashioned one from gold and wax. Then inventing the rites of embalming, and speaking some words of magic, Isis brought her husband back to life.

Magically, Isis then conceived a child with Osiris, and gave birth to Horus, who later became the Sun God. Assured that having the infant would now relieve Isis’ grief, Osiris was free to descend to become the King of the Underworld, ruling over the dead and the sleeping.

His spirit, however, frequently returned to be with Isis and the young Horus who both remained under his watchful and loving eye.

Isis

There are many other variations of this myth . . . in some Isis found the body of Osiris in Byblos, fashioned his penis out of clay. In others the goddess consumed the dismembered parts she found and brought Osiris back to life, reincarnating him as her son Horus.

In one of the most beautiful renditions, Isis turns into a sparrowhawk and hovers over the body of Osiris, fanning life back into him with her long wings.

Regardless of the differences, each version speaks of the power over life and death that the goddess Isis symbolizes. . . the deep mysteries of the feminine ability to create and to bring life from that which is lifeless.

To this day the celebration of the flooding of the Nile each year is called “The Night of the Drop” by Muslims. . . for it used to be named “The Night of the Tear-Drop” a remembrance of the extent of the Isis’ lamentation of the death of Osiris, her tears so plentiful they caused the Nile to overflow.

Isis


The Egyptian goddess Isis played an important role in the development of modern religions, although her influence has been largely forgotten.

She was worshipped throughout the Greco-Roman world. During the fourth century when Christianity was making its foothold in the Roman Empire, her worshippers founded the first Madonna cults in order to keep her influence alive.

Some early Christians even called themselves Pastophori, meaning the shepherds or servants of Isis. . . which may be where the word “pastors” originated. The influence of Isis is still seen in the Christian ikons of the faithful wife and loving mother.

Indeed, the ancient images of Isis nursing the infant Horus inspired the style of portraits of mother and child for centuries, including those of the “Madonna and Child” found in religious art.

The power of the goddess Isis in the “public arena” was also profound. Her role as a guide to the Underworld, was often portrayed with winged arms outstretched in a protective position. The image of the wings of Isis was incorporated into the Egyptian throne on which the pharaohs would sit, the wings of Isis protecting them.

Isis

The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis has many gifts to share with modern women. Isis embodies the strengths of the feminine, the capacity to feel deeply about relationships, the act of creation, and the source of sustenance and protection.

At times Isis could be a clever trickster empowered by her feminine wiles rather than her logic or brute strength, but it is also the goddess Isis who shows us how we can use our personal gifts to create the life we desire rather than simply opposing that which we do not like.

The myths of Isis and Osiris caution us about the need for occasional renewal and reconnection in our relationships. Isis also reminds us to acknowledge and accept the depths of our emotions.