CULTS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

HERODOTUS ON THE “MYSTERIES”


cultic Aegis and Menat with a goddess head

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “There is also at Saïs the burial-place of one whose name I think it impious to mention in speaking of such a matter; it is in the temple of Athena, behind and close to the length of the wall of the shrine. Moreover, great stone obelisks stand in the precinct; and there is a lake nearby, adorned with a stone margin and made in a complete circle; it is, as it seemed to me, the size of the lake at Delos which they call the Round Pond. 171. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“On this lake they enact by night the story of the god's sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call the Mysteries. I could say more about this, for I know the truth, but let me preserve a discreet silence. Let me preserve a discreet silence, too, concerning that rite of Demeter which the Greeks call Thesmophoria70 , except as much of it as I am not forbidden to mention. The daughters of Danaus were those who brought this rite out of Egypt and taught it to the Pelasgian women; afterwards, when the people of the Peloponnese were driven out by the Dorians, it was lost, except in so far as it was preserved by the Arcadians, the Peloponnesian people which was not driven out but left in its home. 172.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Kom el-Nana Cult Complex at Amerna

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “The ruins at Kom el-Nana are the best preserved and studied of the peripheral cult complexes, excavated by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Located southeast of the Main City, the site comprises a large enclosure some 228 x 213 m, divided into a northern and southern court. The latter was dominated by a podium (the “central platform”) accessed by ramps on at least its north and south sides, and supporting rooms including a columned hall with stepped dais, possibly the location of one or more Windows of Appearance. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“South of the central platform was a long narrow processional building (the “southern pavilion”) containing columned spaces and two open courts with sunken gardens, and to its north the so-called South Shrine, which seems to have included a set of chambers on the east and a columned portico to the west. Badly demolished at the end of the Amarna Period, thousands of pieces of s mashed up limestone and sandstone blocks were found here. Inscriptions on some of these identify the site as the location of a Sunshade of Ra, probably dedicated to Nefertiti, whose image also appears prominently in reliefs; other inscriptions give the nam e rwd anxw jtn , an institution mentioned in the tomb of the official Aye in connection with the provision of mortuary offerings. The southern court also contained a series of tripartite houses and garden plots. <>

“The northern court housed a second stone shrine, the North Shrine, of which only a small part has been uncovered, along with a bakery and brewery complex. Part of the northern enclosure was overbuilt by a monastery in around the fifth and sixth centuries CE that included a s mall church decorated with wall paintings. The excavations of the monastery are published only as preliminary reports, but studies of its ceramics and glassware and archaeobotany have appeared.” <>

Animal Cults in Ancient Egypt


seated lion used by the Bastet cult

Two kinds of cult animal existed in ancient Egypt: 1) animals associated with a given deity that lived in a temple and were ceremonially interred; 2) creatures killed and mummified to act as votive offerings. The former existed in the earliest times, while the latter date from the Late Period (712–332 B.C.) and later. Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “While there continues to be debate over precise definitions, it seems broadly agreed that cult animals in Egypt fall into two distinct groups. The first are specific specimens of a given species that were held to be an earthly incarnation of a particular deity, or at least in whom the deity could become incarnate. Resident in the god’s temple, they would be the subject of a suite of rituals, and would often receive elaborate treatment at death. These will be referred to as “Sacred Animals.” The other group are representatives of a species whose embalmed remains could be offered by pilgrims coming to seek the favor of a deity (“Votive Animals”). There would normally only be one example of the first kind at a time; deposits of the second kind could run into the hundreds or even thousands within a short period of time. Animals were also, of course, employed in temples as sacrificial victims. [Source: Aidan Dodson, University of Bristol, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Many of the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt had animal forms. Obvious examples are the cat of Bastet, the ram of Khnum, the cow of Hathor, and the falcon of Horus, which reflected the deities’ iconic theriomorphic forms. However, Amun could also appear in the form of a goose, while a considerable number of deities had a bovine form. It is from the latter that our best evidence for the ritual that might surround a sacred animal comes. On the other hand, while it seems that bulls were allowed to live out their natural lives (although cf. below), other creatures were more ephemeral, for example a new falcon of Horus was installed each year at Edfu. <>

“A multiple burial-place...has been uncovered for the rams of Khnum on Elephantine, and remains deriving from such an installation have been found for the rams of Banebdjed at Mendes. It is likely that the baboons buried in niches in the walls of the catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel represent a succession of sacred animals of Thoth. However, the latter also contain very large numbers of embalmed ibises, which are clearly representatives of the other variety of cult-animal, the votive creature. <>

“Judging by the uniformity of their age at death and standardized treatment, it seems clear that votive animals were bred specifically for the purpose on an industrial scale, killed when they reached a given size, and then mummified for sale to pilgrims at a number of sacred places around Egypt. The range of treatments and elaboration of wrappings suggests the production of something for every pocket. It seems that they were deposited in a temple by pilgrims – perhaps with a prayer to the god whispered in its ear – and when the temple became cluttered, they were taken to an appropriate burial place. At Abydos, ibis mummies were buried within the confines of the 2nd Dynasty Shunet el-Zebib enclosure, but subterranean arrangements are found at Tuna, Western Thebes, Tell Basta, and various other locations. Most important of all, however, are the series of catacombs at Saqqara. <>


statue of Taweret

“As elsewhere, the catacombs of the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara seem to have been begun during the Late Period, and adjoin the aforementioned burial of the Mothers of Apis. They form part of a complex of temples and shrines located some 700 meters northeast of the Serapeum, together with major enclosures on the desert edge, and an as-yet little known set of chapels north and south of the Serapeum. Separate catacombs exist of ibises, baboons, falcons, and dogs, while cats were interred in extensions of New Kingdom tomb chapels on the edge of the Saqqara escarpment. In addition to literally millions of mummified animals and birds, a number of deposits of bronze divine figures were also made in the Sacred Animal Necropolis, clearly also votives brought by pilgrims. <>

Did the Ancient Egyptians Worship Animals

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “Some of the most interesting and misunderstood information about the Ancient Egyptians concerns their calendarical and astrological system. Of the greatest fallacy about Ancient Egypt and it's belief in astrology concerns the supposed worship of animals. The Egyptians did not worship animals, rather the Egyptians according to an animals astrological significance, behaved in certain ritualistic ways toward certain animals on certain days. For example, as is evidenced by the papyrus Cairo Calendar, during the season of Emergence, it was the advisement of the Seers (within the priestly caste), and the omens of certain animals they saw, which devised whether a specific date would be favorable or unfavorable. \+\ [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com \+\]

“The basis for deciding whether a date was favorable or unfavorable was based upon a belief in possession of good or evil spirits, and upon a mythological ascription to the gods. Simply, an animal was not ritually revered because it was an animal, but rather because it had the ability to become possessed, and therefore could cause harm or help to any individual near them. It was also conceived of that certain gods could on specific days take the form of specific animals. Hence on certain days, it was more likely for a specific type of animal to become possessed by a spirit or god than on other days. The rituals that the Egyptians partook of to keep away evil spirits from possessing an animal consisted of sacrifice to magic, however, it was the seers and the astrologers who guided many of the Egyptians and their daily routines. Hence, the origin of Egyptians worshipping animals, has more to do with the rituals to displace evil spirits, and their astrological system, more so than it does to actually worshipping animals.” \+\

Cult and Worship of Thoth


Thoth

Martin A Stadler of the University of Wuerzburg wrote: “The competing and contradicting traditions of Thoth’s mythological origins as well as his actions at a very early stage of the world’s creation may suggest that the god’s historical roots go very deep. As pointed out above, there are depictions of ibis-deities on Pre- and Early Dynastic objects, but it is not clear whether they actually represent Thoth, although it is highly likely. The search for his original cult center does not yield results that are beyond doubt and based on unequivocal sources. From the Old Kingdom onward there are two principle cult centers, Hermopolis Magna (anciently 2mnw) in the 15th Upper Egyptian nome (Wnw, the hare- nome), and Hermopolis Parva (anciently Pr- 9Hwtj-Wpj-RHwj, “House of Thoth Who Has Divided the Two Companions,” at least in the first millennium B.C.) in the 15th Lower Egyptian nome. This parallelism may indicate an intentional systematization by the Egyptians. Passages in the Coffin Texts (later incorporated in the Book of the Dead) suggest that the ibis-god Thoth may have usurped Hermopolis Magna from a baboon-god, Hedj-Wer, by adopting the baboon as another of his manifestations, yet the reconstruction of such an etiology remains highly speculative. Still, the 15th Lower Egyptian nome has the ibis as its standard, which might point to this area being the true home of the ibis-god. [Source: Martin A Stadler , University o Wuerzburg, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“Of the Thoth-temples at Hermopolis Magna and Parva not much has survived. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic expedition saw at Hermopolis Magna the remains of a pronaos that disappeared thereafter. Horemheb built a pylon there that was three-fourths of the height of his Ninth Pylon at Karnak—an impressive monument for a presumably provincial town . Merenptah erected a temple of Amun in the sacred precinct, but, surprisingly, according to the dedicatory inscription it is Thoth who gracefully accepts this offering and thus dominates over Amun. Ramesses III built several monuments and an enclosure wall there and also “multiplied the divine offerings”. Nectanebo I subsequently commissioned the restoration of the temple of the goddess Useret-Nehemtawy, Thoth’s consort, as well as a 110-meter-long, 55-meter-wide extension of the Thoth temple. Perhaps this work could not be finished during Nectanebo’s reign and was accomplished in the late fourth century B.C.. <>

“Lacking religious texts from the site, little in specific can be said regarding any cult of Thoth that might have been celebrated there: the tomb inscriptions of the fourth-century B.C. high priest of Thoth, Petosiris, are not very informative on that point. Despite such a dearth of information from Hermopolis Magna, the city was anciently considered one of the chief intellectual centers, possibly because of Thoth’s image as god of writing and wisdom. Yet, a closer examination of the available religious texts does not support the view that Thoth’s cult center dominates other Egyptian cities as a place where holy texts were found . <>

“In almost any Egyptian sanctuary a “Thoth- area” can be identified, but just two additional temples dedicated to Thoth are selected for discussion here, because they show how their Thoth-mythology is oriented towards their environs. At Qasr el-Aguz an early Ptolemaic temple of Thoth is preserved. His particular form there is that of Thoth “the face of the ibis has said” and of Thoth-setem (9Hwtj-stm). The former designation refers to the deceased sacred ibis at Hermopolis Magna and has both oracular and funerary connotations; the latter is not as easily translated. It might refer to Thoth as the libationer (sTj mw > stm) or Thoth as se(te)m- priest and thus presents Thoth as a ritual performer, especially in his function of libationer. Both epithets point to nearby Medinet Habu, where the Hermopolitan ogdoad was believed to be buried and where regular libation rites were performed. In the Nubian temple of Dakke, Thoth’s role in the Myth of the Solar Eye is prominent. Therefore, in this temple he is associated with Shu and Arensnuphis, the brother gods of the Dangerous Goddess, who is the Solar Eye. Both deities are equally involved in appeasing and bringing back the leonine goddess.” <>

Cult Centers Helped Bring Diverse People Together in Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: ““The importance of the cult of Hathor was, in fact, crucial to promoting trust and facilitating the coexistence of people from diverse origins working together at special sites, such as mines and harbors . The mining site of Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai reveals, for instance, that Egyptians, Canaanites, peoples from the eastern margins of the Delta, and Bedouin participated together in the exploitation and transport of the mineral ores. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]


Roman depiction of the Isis water ceremony


“Hathor’s sanctuary there has preserved abundant epigraphic, iconographic, and cult evidence of the interaction of these populations and thus helps balance the typical image of foreigners as a menace to Egypt or as poor, wandering nomads seeking to enter the Nile Valley. To the contrary, this small cosmopolitan micro-cosmos reveals that Canaanite warriors helped maintain the security of the site and that “marginal” populations were crucial in the organization of logistics (including caravans of donkeys); indeed a foreign leader is depicted with the paraphernalia proper to his rank, sitting on a donkey. Not surprisingly, it was at this cultural crossroad that a new form of writing, Proto-Sinaitic, flourished. Ultimately, the site of Serabit el-Khadim helps us understand how other specialized communities operated within Egypt, examples of which include Elephantine, Tell el-Dab aa, the Nubian fortresses of the Middle Kingdom, and other trading communities where peoples from diverse origins (Nubians, Asiatics, Libyans, Egyptians, desert dwellers) coexisted and worked together. Their cultural practices (burials) and markers (pottery, body ornaments, even cloth) attest their presence there and defy stereotypical interpretations of their roles. Not every Nubian living in Egypt was necessarily a mercenary, nor an Asiatic, slave, or trader. <>

“Other sorts of specialized communities provide evidence of their role and social composition with more administrative accuracy. The verso of papyrus British Museum 10068 lists people living in a “village” in the area of the Qurna temple of Sety I, the Ramesseum, and the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Given the location of this settlement, it is likely that many (if not all) of the personnel recorded were at the service of these cult centers. Thus the document includes 25 wab-priests and seven god’s fathers, as well as several high officials (like Pwer ‛ o, the mayor of Western Thebes who played an important role in the tomb robbery affairs), craftsmen and laborers, herdsmen, cultivators, and “middle rank” citizens. In other words, officials with important duties at Thebes, members of the clergy, and crafts men and workers involved in the activities and supply of the temples occupied this area.” <>

Isis Mystery Cults

Kiki Karoglou of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Isis was another Eastern goddess whose cult spread all over the Mediterranean. Similar to Demeter, Isis was considered a law giver and protector of the crops, while ritual purification and secret rites were performed in her honor. In pharaonic Egypt, Isis was sister and wife of Osiris (god of the afterlife) and mother of Horus, whom she appears suckling. In the Greek world, the earliest temple dedicated to Isis was founded in Athens in the fourth century B.C. The cult spread rapidly during the third century B.C. and was linked closely to the political and military activities of the Ptolemies. By this time the consort of Isis was Sarapis or Serapis, a syncretic god created in Egypt, who represented the boundary between life and death and was identified with Hades and Asklepios. Harpokrates, their son, is often portrayed with his finger touching the lips in a gesture intended to ensure secrecy. Numerous miniature bronzes and terracotta statuettes of Harpokrates survive and they probably derive from a Hellenistic prototype made in Alexandria. [Source: Kiki Karoglou, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2013, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The cult of Isis arrived at Rome at the end of the second century B.C. and reached its height during the second century A.D. The two most informative texts are Plutarch's essay On Isis and Osiris and Apuleius' Metamorphoses, especially book eleven. Both works combine features of other mysteries and contain rather generic descriptions of initiation rites. Inscriptions, on the other hand, provide some evidence for the organization of the cult, which seems to have been modeled on the Egyptian priesthood. Initially, only males served as priests for both Isis and Sarapis. In time, as the cult of Isis predominated, women were allowed to become priestesses. There were two notable departures from earlier mystery cults: the term mystes does not appear in Isiac inscriptions and continued service to the goddess and close relationships with the sanctuary were required. \^/


19th century European depiction of the cult of Isia


“Not simply an end in itself, initiation belonged to a series of steps leading to higher service. Initiates of Isis shaved off their hair, wore linen garments, and carried the sistrum, the characteristic percussion instrument for the cult, also of Egyptian origin. Like the cymbals of Kybele, the rattling noise it produced was imbued with magical and protective qualities. Over time, the hierarchy grew more complex, yet no central authority seems to have existed and the various temples were quite independent. Isis remained a distinctively Egyptian goddess and her cult maintained a clear Egyptian identity, even after the conquests of Alexander and the Romans.” \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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