Special Thanks to the members of www.blue-semiramis.de! Pictures: A. Napp, if not noted otherwise.)
According to the religious beliefs of Ancient Egypt, only the Pharao is authorized to fulfill the duties of the divine services, because he is a divine-human unity and son of Amun-Re. Because of that divine paternity for the prince, Amun became the principal god during the New Kingdom. In reality, the king delegated his duties to the priests, except for special occasions. The continuity of the cult was regarded as fundamental for the wellbeing and order in the life of the country and its inhabitants. Besides this state-securing worship, private expressions of piety are known, too.
King Amenemhat III. as priest (Fayoum, heute Ägyptisches Museum Kairo, Image taken from: Berühmte Museen: Ägyptisches Museum Kairo, 1969, P. 68)
Daily Rituals in the Temples
The daily ritual in the temples evolved around the statue of the god, in which the god/goddess manifested him/herself for the time of the ritual. The creator of the first idols was thought to be the god Ptah, also the creator of men.
With its presence, the temple became practically the house of the god, and like a high ranking person, the god was served food and drink, he was washed and clothed in the morning- and evening rituals. Mostly, the statue was enclosed in a shrine in the sanctuary, only in some cases it stood in open niches because the whole area was regarded as a sanctuary (for instance in the temple of Osiris, Abydos).
Shrine of Isis, ptolemaic period, 2nd cent. B. C., today: London, British Museum (Photo: F. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Collection, Plate I)
The floor in the sanctuary was covered with sand. The tools necessary for the cult were stored next to the sanctuary in their own chapels or crypts. The single episodes of the daily ritual are known since the New Kingdom (Bas-reliefs in Karnak, in Abydos, Dendera, and Edfu; in addition to papyri). They stayed the same more or less until the end of Ancient Egyptian religion in the 4th century A.C. All statues of the gods were dressed in changeable clothing and adornments - similar as we still can see it happen with statues of Saint Mary or other Saints today in Catholic pilgrimage centers. Only the pharaoh is represented in the depictions and bas-reliefs in the sanctuaries, not the priests working there in reality, because they were only representatives of the king!
The basic texts used during the liturgy were mostly very old and had been meticulously precise transmitted throughout the centuries. It was not allowed to change anything, add or delete singular parts or even words. That meant a rupture between the language of the cult and spoken language took place, just like in the European early Middle Ages concerning Latin as the language of the church. In Ancient Egypt, that rupture had supposedly taken place already before the Amarna period. The priests had not only to learn the different types of scripture but the ancient language as well. (Assmann, Ägyptische Geheimnisse 2004, p. 162)
Adoration (Bronze figure, 26th Dyn., Athens, National Museum of Archeology, Photo: Mendoza, B.: Bronze Priests of Ancient Egypt from the Middle Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman Period, 2008, p. 258) Adoration (Bronze figure, 18th Dyn., Paris, Louvre, Photo: Mendoza, B.: Bronze Priests of Ancient Egypt from the Middle Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman Period, 2008, p. 221) Kneeling Priest (Saite era, about 550 B.C. Rom, Vatican. Image: J. H. Breasted, Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe Leipzig 1936, Abb. 172.) Kneeling Priest (26th Dyn., about 550 B.C. Paris, Louvre. Image: J. H. Breasted, Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe Leipzig 1936, Abb. 17
1. Morning ritual, at sunrise:
- Filling of the libation vases at the temple's well, consecration of the prepared offers, purification of the sanctuary with incense
- Opening of the seals at the shrine and opening of the doors
- "Revelation" of the god = awakening of the god; the priest throws himself at the feet of the god in order to demonstrate his humility and faith
- Praise of the god with hymns and the offering of incense and perfume oils, and with a little figure simbolizing the Ma'at, the truth and right order (maybe this representation is only a metaphore)
The presentation of the Goddess Ma'at (Karnak, Temple of Amun, Hypostylehall) Priest during offering ritual (London, British Museum)
- The statue is taken out of the shrine, and the shrine is cleaned
- The statue is embraced and then cleaned from the oils and cremes of yesterday; the old clothing is taken away and then the statue is cleaned with water
- The statue gets new clothing (stripes of linen of different color) and the adorments (bracelets, pendants) and finally the crown, which looks different for every god
- Anointing of the statue with 10 different oils and enrobing with a ceremonial dress
- In the end, purification with incense, natron and water and replacing of the statue in the shrine
Priest with Incensor, 7./6. cent. B.C. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Anointment of the statue (Pharao Seti I. before Amun, Osiris-Temple, Abydos)
Clothing of the statue (Pharao Seti I. before Amun, Osiris-Temple, Abydos)
- Taking place in the offering-hall. Purification of the oblations (flowers, wine, food) with water, incense and myrrh
- Ceremonial naming of the single offers and placing on the altar = the meal of the god and the regeneration of his life force
Procession with Offerings (Berlin, Neues Museum)
Procession with funerary goods, with a priest carrying an incense arm and a cult vessel in front; Middle Kingdom, ca. 2010 - 1961 B.C., from the tombof Nomarch Djehutinakht (Photo: The Secrets of Tomb 10A (Ausstellungskatalog Boston Museum of Fine Arts), Boston 2009, p. 153)
Procession of priests, Tomb in Elephantine
Offering table of the Thoth priest Tjaenhesret, Ptolemäerzeit (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Priest at the offering table with musicians taking part at the ceremonies (Tomb of Patenemhab, 8th Dyn., about 1350 B.C.. Leiden, Rijksmuseum. Image: J. H. Breasted, Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe, Leipzig 1936, Abb. 227.
Opfertisch mit plastischen Opfergaben, Mittleres Reich (Hamburg, Museum für Völkerkunde)
Offering table with symbolic oblations (Medinet Habu, chapel of Amenirdis, 8th cent. B.C.)
Offering table of Mentuemhat with symbolic offerings, time of Pharaoh Taharqa, 7th cent. B. C. (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Offering plate of Nesmin, Ptolemaic era, about 300 BC (Hamburg, Museum für Völkerkunde)
Fragments of a cult vessel, right: Reconstruction, Ancient Kingdom, 5th Dyn., ~ 2490
Isis priest carrying a vessel containing Nile water, essential for the cult of Isis in the Roman Empire (Naples, Archeological Museum, Source: E. A. Arslan, Iside. Il mito, il mistero, la magia, Mailand 1997)
Votive bowl or bowl for presenting offerings, 25th dyn., about 670-650 B. C. (London, British Museum)
3. Evening ritual:
- Adoration of the god's statue, purificationwith incense
- Closing of the shrine, placing of the seals and obliterating of the foot prints in the sand on the floor.
Priest with incense burner, Book of the dead(London, British Museum) Incense burner, tweezer and incense crumbs (London, British Museum)
From the temple of Edfu we know rituals for every one of the 12 hours of the night and the 12 hours of the day.
The ritual after the bas-reliefs on the eastern wall of the hypostyle hall in Karnak (Video by UCLA)
Purification of the altar (Tomb of Nefer-Ronpet, Valley of the Nobles, 13th cent. B.C.)
Offering of flowers, bred and pigeons (Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum)
Prayer to Osiris that he may accept the offers of lotusflowers and wine (Tomb of Ptahemheb, Valley of the Nobles)
Offering incense befor God Ptah (Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Sacrifice of animal oblations (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) Offering of an animal, of water and incense. (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) Sacrifice of animal oblations (Temple of Hatshepsut, 15th cent. B.C.) Sacrifice of animal oblations (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
Incense is put on the offerings (Late New Kingdom, Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim)
In the village of the craftsmen at Deir-el-Medina near the Valley of the Kings, in Ancient Egypt's times called "the Place of Truth", the inhabitants honored the founder of the village, Pharaoh Amenhotep I. and his wife, as local saints and patrons; dedicated them chapels and festivities. This particular devotion for Amenhotep I. can be traced on numerous stela and statues found in the village.
During the funerary ritual, the offering formulas inscribed at the funerary stela were recited, libations and offerings were made. The family gathered regularly in the little funerary chapel or the garden belonging to it. They prayed to their ancestors, but also informed them about their needs and expected help in certain situations. Archeologists even have found letters to the dead, in which the survivors complain, the deceased should do more for them and avert evil from someone. Some people sound very sad and ask why the deceased, now so close to the Gods, had forgotten them on earth.
Prayer to Amenhotep I., founder and protector of Deir-el-Medina (found at Deir-el-Medina, today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
A family, among them some priests, during offerings for their deceased parents, sitting on a throne, tomb of Maja (today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Sacrifices in front of a statue of Amenhotep I. and his wife 12th / 11th cent. B.C. (today: Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Stela of Djedbasted, Wab-priest of Amun (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Libation and incensing in front of a deceased person (Book of the Dead, Turin, EgyptianMuseum)
- Assmann, Jan: Ägyptische Geheimnisse, München 2004
- "Letters to the Dead", in: Manley, B.: The seventy great mysteries of Ancient Egypt, 2003.
Offerings for God Sobek
Greek geographer Strabo(63 B. C. - 23 A. D.) tells how pilgrims feed a tame crocodile, representation of God Sobek:
Sailing along to the distance of 100 stadia, we come to the city Arsinoë, formerly called Crocodilopolis; for the inhabitants of this nome worship the crocodile. The animal is accounted sacred, and kept apart by himself in a lake; it is tame, and gentle to the priests, and is called Suchus. It is fed with bread, flesh, and wine, which strangers who come to see it always present. Our host, a distinguished person, who was our guide in examining what was curious, accompanied us to the lake, and brought from the supper table a small cake, dressed meat, and a small vessel containing a mixture of honey and milk. We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake. The priests went up to it; some of them opened its mouth, another put the cake into it, then the meat, and afterwards poured down the honey and milk. The animal then leaped into the lake, and crossed to the other side. When another stranger arrived with his offering, the priests took it, and running round the lake, caught the crocodile, and gave him what was brought, in the same manner as before.
The Geography of Strabo. Literally translated, with notes, in three volumes. London. George Bell & Sons. 1903. online-ressource
Incensing the king as a sign of festivity and deification (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) During the Min-festivity, pigeons were released (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) Symbolic harvest by the king (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) Carrying flower bouquets (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
Processions were a part of the daily ritual as well as of the festivities. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) recalls a procession in an Egyptian temple of his time:
For first advances the Singer, bearing some one of the symbols of music. For they say that he must learn two of the books of Hermes, the one of which contains the hymns of the gods, the second the regulations for the king's life. And after the Singer advances the Astrologer, with a horologe in his hand, and a palm, the symbols of astrology. He must have the astrological books of Hermes, which are four in number, always in his mouth. Of these, one is about the order of the fixed stars that are visible, and another about the conjunctions and luminous appearances of the sun and moon; and the rest respecting their risings. Next in order advances the sacred Scribe, with wings on his head, and in his hand a book and rule, in which were writing ink and the reed, with which they write. And he must be acquainted with what are called hieroglyphics, and know about cosmography and geography, the position of the sun and moon, and about the five planets; also the description of Egypt, and the chart of the Nile; and the description of the equipment of the priests and of the places consecrated to them, and about the measures and the things in use in the sacred rites. Then the Stole-keeper follows those previously mentioned, with the cubit of justice and the cup for libations. He is acquainted with all points called Paedeutic (relating to training) and Moschophatic (sacrificial). There are also ten books which relate to the honour paid by them to their gods, and containing the Egyptian worship; as that relating to sacrifices, first-fruits, hymns, prayers, processions, festivals, and the like. And behind all walks the Prophet, with the water-vase carried openly in his arms; who is followed by those who carry the issue of loaves.
(Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Book VI, chapter IV, quoted after: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book6.html)
Some festivities, like the ones in honor of Osiris, were celebrated in the whole country, others had only local importance. The celebrations lasted for days or even weeks. During the New Kingdom the calendar of Thebes included approximately 60 festivities. During the New-Year-Ceremonies the statues of the gods were transported to the roof of the temples, where little chapels awaited them. There the gods could 'see' and 'great' the sunrise. There were also processions to the so-called Birth-houses of the temples, in which the birth of the god was celebrated. These ceremonies should ensure the fertility of the land. This ritual is known for instance from the Horus-temple of Edfu.
New-Year-procession to the temple's roof (Temple of Horus, Edfu, Ptolemaic time).
Prozession mit Blumengestecken und Sistren (Fresken-Faksimile, New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Also, every god/temple had its special festivities celebrated with processions. Mostly, the gods of other temples were visited. The statues traveled in ceremonial barques on the shoulders of their priests, or they were placed on real ships to go by the river. Dancers, musicians and singers accompanied the holy barques, and oblations were prepared under way. Under Ramesses III., one festival-boat which should carry the holy barque of Amun was 67 meters long!
A barque in its shrine, with offerings in front of it (Temple of Seti I., West Thebes)
Zu einer Festbarke des Amun gehörige Verzierungen, 26. Dyn. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
The"Heb-Nefer", the "Beautiful Festival of the Valley"
The festivity can probably retraced back to the Middle Kingdom. It was celebrated in the second month of the harvesting season, and was directed to the western shore of the Nile, to the funeral temples, where the barques were set up.
The Opet-festivity connected the main temple of Amun at Karnak with the temple of Luxor, situated approx. 1, 2 km southwards. It was celebrated in the second month of inundation. At the time of Queen Hatshepsut, the barques of Amun and the king's barque were carried from the sanctuary of Karnak through the 8th pylon towards the temple of Mut, where they rested in the barque shrine. Then the procession went on to the holy lake of the temple and then overland to Luxor, with a stop in a barque shrine underway. The journey back from Luxor to Karnak was made on the river. At Karnak, the barque of Amun made a short stop in the shrine of Amenhotep I.; then returned to the original place in the main temple. In the Ramesside era not only the barque of Amun traveled in procession, but also the barques of Mut, Chons, a king's and a queen's barque. The barque of Amun was placed in front of the procession. They passed the great hypostyle hall and then went directly to the Nile, or they passed the 7th to the 10th pylon and the alley of the Sphinges up to the holy lake of the temple of Mut. After this, the procession went by ship on the river to Luxor. All the barques rested in the barque shrines at Luxor first and were then transported into the inner part of the temple, the barque of Amun up to the sanctuary. The return journey was made on the river. The whole festivities lasted about a month in the Ramesside era. It is probable, that a 'Sacred Wedding', which should confirm the divine descent of the king, was part of the ceremonies. The king's crowning was renewed during the Opet-festival, too.
- Wilkinson, R. H.: The complete temples of Ancient Egypt, 2000.
Priests with fans made from ostrich feather (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
Procession with shrines (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
(Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.)
Barque procession (Temple of Medinet Habu, 13th cent. B.C.) Barque shrine with reconstructed barque (Horus-Temple, Edfu) Priests carrying the barque of Amun (Ramesseum)
Mysteryplays were a part of the cult for Osiris, at least since the Middle Kingdom. They showed - reenacted by the priests - the principal points of the Osiris myth: his reign, his assassination by his brother Seth, the search for his body, his resurrection performed by Isis, and finally the defeat of Osiris' enemies.
- Schäfer, H.: Die Mysterien des Osiris in Abydos, 1904.
Lactantius testifies that still at his time, about 300 A.D., there are mystery plays connected to the myth of Osiris. However, the ardent Christian has obviously only a vague understanding of Egyptian religion, as he calls Osiris the son of Isis:
The sacred rites of Isis show nothing else than the manner in which she lost and found her little son, who is called Osiris. For first her priests and attendants, having shaved all their limbs, and beating their breasts, howl, lament, and search, imitating the manner ill which his mother was affected; afterwards the boy is found by Cynocephalus. Thus the mournfuI rites are ended with gladness.
(Lactantius, Epitome divinarum institutionum (About the Divine Institutions) Chapter XXIII, quoted after: http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0293/_PJ.HTM)
Funeral Procession of a High Priest of Memphis (18th Dyn., um 1350 v. Chr. Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum. Image: J. H. Breasted: Geschichte Ägyptens, Phaidon-Ausgabe Leipzig 1936, Abb. 230.)
Priests on a funeral boat, top left: sacrifices in front of the deceased, from the tomb of Meketre, 12. Dyn. (New York, Metropolitan Museum)
Right to left: a lector priest, the blessing of the sacrifices with incense, libation of the mummy. (Book of the Dead, Turin, Egyptian Museum) Transport of the grave furniture (Book of the Dead, Turin, Egyptian Museum) Right to left: Offer and prayer before Osiris, Isis and Nephtys. Offer and prayer before Thot in symbol of a baboon, offer before the shrine of Apis (Book of the Dead, Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Offering incense for the mummy (Tomb of Nakhtamun, 13th cent. B.C.) Funeral procession with the mummy on a sled (Tomb of Nefer-Ronpet, Valley of the Nobles, 13th cent. B.C.)
A Sem-priest during libations for the deceased (Tomb of Nefer-Ronpet, Valley of the Nobles, 13th cent. B.C.)
Libation and offering of incense in front of the deceased (Book of the Dead, Turin, Egyptian Museum)
Funeral cortege in front of the temple of Ptah in Memphis, 19th Dyn.~ 1280 B. C. (Memphis, today: Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
A lazy temple servant is reprimanded? Funeral cortege in front of the temple of Ptah in Memphis, 19th Dyn.~ 1280 B. C. (Memphis, today: Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)
Lector priest Idy (6th dyn., about 2300 B. C.) was entombed with miniature tools he needed for his service in his life time. (London, British Museum)
Many of today's well-known practices of magic, such as Voodoo-like maledictions, can also be found in Ancient Egypt. In Egyptian myth, magic (heka) was one of the forces used in the creation of the world, and all deities possessed this force. What we call 'magic' today, in most cases in opposition to high-religion, was part of the daily rituals in Ancient Egypt's temples to guarantee the wellbeing of the Pharaoh and his family, the country, and the whole order of the world. Into this category fall the nightly rituals that should beat Apepi the eternal enemy of the sun and thus make sure a new day could begin. The lector priests had the greatest importance because many of the rituals involved reading from specific holy texts, incantations, or spells, and a lot of magicians seemed to have been lector priests.
For so-called sympathetic magic, wax or clay figures were used, inscribed with the name of the asset. Especially wax was considered to be a "magical material". Images sketched into the sand or onto shards were used in other magic rituals, as can be learned from the 144th chapter of the Book of the Dead. After the ritual, those magic images had to be destroyed.
In popular stories, priests were credited with the power to bring wax animals to life, or roll back the waters of a lake (The world-famous story about Moses leading his people through the Red Sea, has its roots here). Healing magic was a specialty of the priests who served Sekhmet, the fearsome goddess of plague. Magic was not so much an alternative to medical treatment as a complementary therapy. Therefore, surviving medical-magical papyri contain spells, too. Just like in the journey of the dead into the Afterlife to join Re (filled with magical rites and spells), the knowledge of the name of the demons or gods gave the performer of magic power over them. The name and its correct spelling were of utmost importance. Some "tool-boxes" of magicians have been excavated; and magic wands decorated with animals - the symbols of protective gods - or in the form of a snake.
In most cases, magic was to secure the well-being and health of a person or to restore it. Negative magic was used in dynastic times to curse enemies of the public order, meaning the country or the king. Names of enemies written on clay tablets or similar items, or figurative representations of them (made of wax, clay...), were destroyed by force while reciting the respective damnation spells. Magical figurines have been thought to be more effective if they incorporated something from the intended victim, such as hair. Execration figures from early as the end of the Old Kingdom have been found, and still in Graeco-Roman times (and far into the Middle Ages) the Egyptian pharao Nectanebos II. was considered a formidable magician who destroyed fleets of enemies using wax models in a basin. Magical spells that seek to destroy or kill become more common and more democratic in the Graeco-Roman era. Now not only the pharao or the high priests used them against enemies of the state, but every common man against other people he or she considered a foe. In the 3rd century A.D., we find the first traces of the use of parts of mummies for negative magic, a practice that reached its climax in Coptic times.
- Assmann, Jan: Ägyptische Geheimnisse, München 2004, p 115-117.
- Pinch, Geraldine: Magic in Ancient Egypt, (British Museum Press/University of Texas Press), 1994 (Excerpt online)
- Teeter, Emily: Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, Cambridge 2011.
In the Amarna-time
During the reign of Echnaton there were no statues, shrines and closed sanctuaries. The rituals were performed on altars under the open sky.
Offerings for Aton, Amarna-Period (Source: E.Prisse d'Avennes: Atlas de l'art Egyptien, 1878)
Stela of the priest Ptahmai with prayers to Aton and Re-Horakhty, 18th dyn. (London, British Museum)
Priests offering flower bouquets to Aton, Amarna period. (Picture: Nofretete. Echnaton. Ausstellungskatalog des Ägyptischen Museums Berlin 1976. Provenience of the fragment: Cairo, Egyptian Museum JE 47203, has been found at Amarna).
Offering scene (London, Petrie Museum)
A few important Gods and Goddesses in hieroglyphic writing: