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Oskar Kaelin

The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive. The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion. The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country. The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.


Korshi Dosoo

While ancient Egyptians had no conception of religion as a distinct sphere of life, modern scholars have identified a wide range of Egyptian beliefs and practices relating to the divine. Egyptian religion can be traced back to predynastic times, and it developed continuously until the decline of temple religion in the Roman Period. Three mythic cycles are key to its understanding: the creation of the world, and the related solar cycle, which describe the origin and maintenance of the world, and the Osiris cycle, which provides a justification for the human institutions of kingship and funerary rites. Egyptian religion may be seen as being centered on its temples, which functioned both as sites for the worship of the resident gods and the elaboration of their theologies and as important economic and political centers. In addition to gods, three other categories of divine beings played important roles in Egyptian religious practice: kings, sacred and divine animals, and the dead. The king was intimately involved in the temple religion, as the mediator between the divine and human spheres, the patron of the temples, and the beneficiary of his own rituals, while divine and sacred animals seem to have been likewise understood as living embodiments of divine power. Death was understood through a range of metaphors, to which the ritual response was to link the deceased to one or more of the cosmic cycles through practices aimed at translating them into the divine sphere and thus ensuring their continued existence. As with all aspects of the religion, these rituals changed over time but show remarkable consistency throughout recorded history. Alongside these rituals centered on temple, royal, and funerary cults, a number of personal religious practices have been reconstructed as well as one major break in continuity, the “Amarna Revolution,” in which the ruling king seems to have briefly instituted a form of monotheism.


Joachim Friedrich Quack

The five visible planets are certainly attested to in Egyptian sources from about 2000 bce. The three outer ones are religiously connected with the falcon-headed god Horus, Venus with his father Osiris, and Mercury with Seth, the brother and murderer of Osiris. Clear attestations of the planets are largely limited to decoration programs covering the whole night sky. There are a number of passages in religious texts where planets may be mentioned, but many of them are uncertain because the names given to the planets are for most of them not specific enough to exclude other interpretations. There may have been a few treatises giving a more detailed religious interpretation of the planets and their behavior, but they are badly preserved and hardly understandable in the details. In the Late Period, probably under Mesopotamian influence, the sequence of the planets as well as their religious associations could change; at least one source links Saturn with the Sun god, Mars with Miysis, Mercury with Thot, Venus with Horus, son of Isis, and Jupiter with Amun, arranging the planets with those considered negative in astrology first, separated from the positive ones by the vacillating Mercury. Late monuments depicting the zodiac place the planets in positions which are considered important in astrology, especially the houses or the place of maximum power (hypsoma; i.e., “exaltation”). Probably under Babylonian influence, in the Greco-Roman Period mathematical models for calculating the positions and phases of the planets arose. These were used for calculating horoscopes, of which a number in demotic Egyptian are attested. There are also astrological treatises (most still unpublished) in the Egyptian language which indicate the relevance of planets for forecasts, especially for the fate of individuals born under a certain constellation, but also for events important for the king and the country in general; they could be relevant also for enterprises begun at a certain date. There is some reception of supposedly or actually specific Egyptian planet sequences, names and religious associations in Greek sources.


Corinna Rossi

Ancient Egyptian pyramids were funerary monuments. Besides the three world-famous pyramids at Giza, Egypt contains the remains of over eighty other large royal pyramids that were built during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and of hundreds of smaller pyramids that adorned the New Kingdom tombs of private individuals; large groups of small royal pyramids were later built in Nubia, modern Sudan. Symbols of the connection between earth and sky, pyramids were built along the Nile for nearly three thousand years, displaying a range of shapes, dimensions, and construction techniques.

Our knowledge of these monuments is extensive yet uneven: a linear evolution of shape and layout appears to proceed alongside the periodic appearance of unique elements; the few extant mathematical sources from ancient Egypt provide information on how the slope of these monuments was measured and calculated, but not on how it was chosen; the precision of the orientation of the sides towards the four cardinal points indicates a stellar alignment, but the identification of the stars involved in the process is still doubtful; the archaeological evidence suggests that ramps where used in the construction, but their structure and shape can only be guessed. Therefore, the main challenge in the ongoing study of pyramids is that of combining various sources and reckoning with the simultaneous presence of recurring elements and unique circumstances.


Many forms of coercion to labor and restriction of individual freedom existed throughout Egyptian history. Literary texts present figures of slaves, called ḥm (“laborer”) or bȝk (“servant”). The documentary evidence is historically multifaceted: during the Old Kingdom (c.2700–2200 bce), very large segments of the population were drawn to compulsory work, exemptions being reserved for religious service, while foreign prisoners of war were explicitly enslaved (sqr-ᶜnḫ). Together with the emergence of new social elites, the Middle Kingdom (c.2100–1700 bce) displays a more distinct consciousness of the difference between free people at a lower social level (nḏs), servants (ḥm, bȝk), conscripts (ḥsb), and fugitives (tšj), whereas true slavery continued to be limited to foreign prisoners. In the New Kingdom (c.1550–1050 bce), large-scale foreign slavery derived from military campaigns, while a locally owned or rented servitude became economically indispensable. During this period, the adoption of a slave was a common practice, leading to “free” status (nmḥj). During the 1st millennium bce, references to slavery become rare and are superseded by various forms of voluntary servitude caused by economic dearth or religious self-commitment. Slavery in the legal, hereditary sense of the term unfolded during the Hellenistic and Roman Period (332 bce–395 ce) and derived from military campaigns, purchase in the slave market, or the enslavement of debtors.