The religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were the dominating influence in the development of their culture. The Egyptian faith was based on a collection of ancient myths, nature worship, and innumerable deities. In the most influential and famous of these myths a divine hierarchy is developed and the creation of the earth is explained.
According to the Egyptian account of creation, only the premordial waters existed at first. Then Ra, the sun, came out of an egg (a flower, in some versions) that appeared on the surface of the water. Ra brought forth four children, the gods Shu and Geb and the goddesses Tefnut and Nut. Shu and Tefnut became the atmosphere. They stood on Geb, who became the earth, and raised up Nut, who became the sky. Ra ruled over all. Geb and Nut later had two sons, Set and Osiris, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris succeeded Ra as king of the earth, helped by Isis, his sister-wife. Set, however, hated his brother and killed him. Isis then embalmed her husband's body with the help of the god Anubis, who thus became the god of embalming. The powerful charms of Isis resurrected Osiris, who became king of the netherworld, the land of the dead. Horus, who was the son of Osiris and Isis, later defeated Set in a great battle and became king of the earth.
From this belief of creation came the conception of the ennead, a group of nine divinities, and the triad, consisting of a divine father, mother, and son. Every local temple in Egypt possessed its own ennead and triad. The greatest ennead, however, was that of Ra and his children and grandchildren. This group was worshiped at Heliopolis, the center of sun worship. The origin of the local deities is obscure; some of them were taken over from foreign religions, and some were originally the animal gods of prehistoric Africa. Gradually, they were all fused into a complicated religious structure, although comparatively few local divinities became important throughout Egypt. In addition to those already named, the important divinities included the gods Amon, Thoth, Ptah, Khnemu, and Hapi, and the goddesses Hathor, Mut, Neit, and Sekhet. Their importance increased with the political ascendancy of the localities where they were worshiped. For example, the ennead of Memphis was headed by a triad composed of the father Ptah, the mother Sekhet, and the son Imhotep. Therefore, during the Memphite dynasties, Ptah became one of the greatest gods in Egypt. Similarly, when the Theban dynasties ruled Egypt, the ennead of Thebes was given the most importance, headed by the father Amon, the mother Mut, and the son Khonsu. As the religion became more involved, true deities were sometimes infused with human beings who had been glorified after death. Thus, Imhotep, who was originally the chief minister of the 3rd Dynasty ruler Djoser, was later regarded as a demigod. During the 5th Dynasty the pharaohs began to claim divine ancestry and from that time on were worshiped as sons of Ra. Minor gods, some merely demons, were also given places in local divine hierarchies.
The Egyptian gods were represented with human torsos and human or animal heads. Sometimes the animal or bird expressed the characteristics of the god. Ra, for example, had the head of a hawk, and the hawk was sacred to him because of its swift flight across the sky; Hathor, the goddess of love and laughter, was given the head of a cow, which was sacred to her; Anubis was given the head of a jackal because these animals ravaged the desert graves in ancient times; Mut was vulture headed and Thoth was ibis headed; and Ptah was given a human head, although he was occasionally represented as a bull, called Apis. Because of the gods to which they were attached, the sacred animals were venerated, but they were never worshiped until the decadent 26th Dynasty. The gods were also represented by symbols, such as the sun disk and hawk wings that were worn on the headdress of the pharaoh.
The only important god who was worshiped with consistency was Ra, chief of cosmic deities, from whom early Egyptian kings claimed descent. Beginning with the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BC), Ra worship acquired the status of a state religion, and the god was gradually fused with Amon during the Theban dynasties, becoming the supreme god Amon-Ra. During the 18th Dynasty the pharaoh Amenhotep III renamed the sun god Aton, an ancient term for the physical solar force. Amenhotep's son and successor, Amenhotep IV, instituted a revolution in Egyptian religion by proclaiming Aton the true and only god. He changed his own name to Akhenaton, meaning ìHe who is devoted to Aton.î This first great monotheist was so iconoclastic that he had the plural word gods deleted from monuments, and he relentlessly persecuted the priests of Amon. Akhenaton's sun religion failed to survive, although it exerted a great influence on the art and thinking of his time, and Egypt returned to the ancient, labyrinthine religion of polytheism after Akhenaton's death.
Burying the dead was of religious concern in Egypt, and Egyptian funerary rituals and equipment eventually became the most elaborate the world has ever known. The Egyptians believed that the vital life-force was composed of several psychical elements, of which the most important was the ka. The ka, a duplicate of the body, accompanied the body throughout life and, after death, departed from the body to take its place in the kingdom of the dead. The ka, however, could not exist without the body; every effort had to be made, therefore, to preserve the corpse. Bodies were embalmed and mummified according to a traditional method begun by Isis, who mummified her husband Osiris. In addition, wood or stone replicas of the body were put into the tomb in the event that the mummy was destroyed. The greater the number of statue-duplicates in his or her tomb, the more chances the dead person had of resurrection. As a final protection, exceedingly elaborate tombs were erected to protect the corpse and its equipment.
After leaving the tomb, the souls of the dead may be beset by innumerable dangers, and the tombs were therefore furnished with a copy of the Book of the Dead. Part of this book, a guide to the world of the dead, consists of charms designed to overcome these dangers. After arriving in the kingdom of the dead, the ka was judged by Osiris, the king of the dead, and 42 assistants. The Book of the Dead also contains instructions for proper conduct before these judges. If the judges decided the deceased had been a sinner, the ka was condemned to hunger and thirst or to be torn to pieces by horrible executioners. If the decision was favorable, the ka went to the heavenly realm of the fields of Yaru, where grain grew 3.7 m (12 ft) high and existence was a glorified version of life on earth. All the necessities for this paradisiacal existence, from furniture to reading matter, were, therefore, put into the tombs. As a payment for the afterlife and his benevolent protection, Osiris required the dead to perform tasks for him, such as working in the grain fields. Even this duty could, however, be obviated by placing small statuettes, called ushabtis, into the tomb to serve as substitutes for the deceased.
The mummy and coffin of Meresamun are excellent examples of the skill of the ancient embalmer and coffin maker of Dynasty 22, about the year 950 B.C. Where Meresamun lived and died is unknown, although the style of the coffin suggests that she was originally from the Theban (modern Luxor) area. Meresamun's form-fitting sheath-like coffin is made of cartonnage, a type of papiÈr-m’chÈ, composed of layers of fabric, glue and plaster. It is 63 inches (1.6m) long. Cartonnage coffins were formed over a temporary inner core made of mud and straw. After the coffin shell was completed, the wrapped mummy was inserted into the case through the back, and the back seam was then laced up. The separate footboard was laced on, the entire case covered with another layer of thin white plaster and then painted. The colored areas of the coffin were painted with a final layer of protective varnish which has turned slightly yellow with age. This type of mummy case was normally part of a more complex set of coffins. It would probably have been placed within a wooden anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin, or even in a series of two or three nested coffins, all of which would have been painted with religious scenes.
The coffin is painted with scenes which allude to life after death. They were intended to ensure Meresamun's successful rebirth. The head of the coffin is decorated with a headband of flower petals with wings of a protective vulture by each cheek, and a small vulture head on the forehead. This type of headgear is worn by queens, priestesses and goddesses. Over the chest are layers of wide floral necklaces. Not only were flowers beautiful and sweet smelling, but they were considered to symbolize regeneration. Below the floral collars, right and left, are two pairs of gods who were entrusted with the protection of the internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. These gods also appear on the lids of canopic jars, the containers in which the embalmed viscera were stored. Here the gods appear as wrapped mummies. To the right are the hawk-headed god, Quebehsenuef, who guarded the intestines, and the jackal-headed Duamutef, who guarded the stomach. To the left is the human-form Imseti, who guarded the liver, and the ape-headed Hapy, who guarded the lungs. Between and slightly below these gods is a large representation of the falcon god Horus (or, perhaps, Re), with the sun's disk on his head, clasping a round shen ("eternity") sign in each talon. A feather fan, a symbol of divinity emerges from each shen sign. The solar Horus, as a symbol of the eternally reborn sun, signified rebirth.
On either side of the central band on the leg area of the coffin are wedjat eyes, also called the "Eye of Horus," which symbolized health and regeneration. Behind the eyes are winged serpents with sun disks on their heads. They symbolized protection. The serpent to the right hovers above the hieroglyphs for eternity, life and dominion. Below the serpents are rams which functioned on several different levels. They may be a pun for the word "soul" (both the word "soul" and "ram" sounded the same in the ancient Egyptian language). The ram may also be the god Khnum, one of the primary creator gods, or Banebdjed, who was associated with the soul of Osiris, one of the deities of the Afterlife. Larger scale hieroglyphs cover the lower leg area. To the far right is the symbol for the west, the area of the setting-or dying-sun, which was associated with the land of the deceased. Between that sign and the central band of hieroglyphs is the djed pillar, which symbolized the backbone of the god Osiris, the main deity of the Afterlife. The djed indicates the deceased's association with Osiris in the Afterlife. On the opposite side of the central band of hieroglyphs is the tiet (so-called "Isis knot"), a symbol with broad meaning, generally associated with health and well-being. To the left of the tiet is the symbol for the east, the realm of the reborn sun, hence the land of the living. It is paired with the djed, the symbol of the god Osiris, the husband/brother of Isis, to create a balanced composition.
Two images of the jackal god Wepwawet, protector of the necropolis, decorate the upper surface of the feet. The footboard of the coffin is decorated with a leaping bull, a symbol of fertility. The inscription down the front of the coffin is a prayer which calls upon gods to give Meresamun offerings in the Afterlife: "A gift which the king gives to Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and Heliopolis [and to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of Shechet, and Wennefer (a form of Osiris), Lord of the Sacred Land (ie: the Necropolis), the Great God, Lord of Heaven that he [the king] may give funerary offerings to the Osiris, the Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, Meresamun, the One Beneficial to Amun, justified."
Both the inscription and the style of coffin indicate that it was made for a woman named Meresamun ("She Lives for Amun"). According to the inscription, she held the title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun." Women who held this title were the elite in a complex bureaucracy of many other women who held the title "Singer in the Temple of Amun." We assume that these other women performed music during certain temple rituals on a part-time basis. In contrast, many of the women like Meresamun, who held the more exalted title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple," were known to come from the finest families of Thebes. Some of them served as valets or stewards to members of the ruling family. It is not known exactly when Meresamun lived, and so we do not know which royal administration she may have served. The coffin has never been opened and the mummy has never been unwrapped. In 1989, a preliminary study of the mummy within the coffin was done with x-rays. Three years later, the mummy of Meresamun was examined at the University of Chicago hospitals by CT scans (computed tomography or "CAT"). During that study, the radiologist suggested that, on the basis of her teeth and bones, Meresamun may have been about 30 years old at the time of her death. This was not considered to be an old age for an upper class woman of the period; however we do not know the cause of Meresamun's premature death. Radiologists could also determine that she had, at some point in her life, been injured, for her left jaw and left arm had been fractured. However, those injuries were completely healed at the time of her death. A swelling on her neck may be a goiter or tumor, however this cannot with any certainty be associated with her death. A preliminary study of the CT scans suggest that Meresamun never bore children. This finding is not necessarily associated with her role in the temple bureaucracy, for other Singers in the Interior of the Temple of Amun were known to have born children. Meresamun was slightly under five feet tall.
During the CT examination, researchers learned much more about the way that Meresamun was mummified. As was normal for mummification during most of Egypt's history, the brain was removed by breaking through the ethmoid sinus behind the nose. No material was introduced into the cranium. CT scans show that small objects, perhaps oval stones or pieces of faience, were placed under each eyelid to restore a fuller, lifelike appearance. Meresamun was mummified with her arms extended, her hands crossed over her pubic area. The embalming incision was made on her left abdomen to remove her internal organs. A considerable amount of fabric was stuffed into the embalming incision, and packets of some unidentified material were inserted directly into the abdomen. Her fingers and arms were encircled with linen bandages before they were wrapped close to her body. This extra effort and lavish use of wrappings is a sign of a superior mummification process, suggesting that Meresamun came from a family that could devote considerable resources to her funeral arrangements. The heart, which was often left in the chest during mummification because it was considered to be the seat of thought, is not visible on the CT scans. No amulets or jewelry were left within the wrappings.
Mummy masks were a traditional part of the funerary equipment with which ancient Egyptians supplied their burials for the life they believed would continue after death. This example is a stylized portrait of the deceased, evidently a woman. It originally covered the head and shoulders of her mummified body. The medium is cartonnage, a kind of ancient Egyptian papier- mache made from used linen and papyrus. The cartonnage was coated with gesso before the paint and gilding were applied. The deceased is shown wearing a necklace at the throat with a heart amulet as a pendant. Below is a broad collar necklace fringed with drop pendants. A representation of funerary shrines with double doors appears on each shoulder. The god Osiris sits on top of each shrine. These divine figures were intended to represent the deceased after death, for it was believed that all were reborn as Osiris. The feather which the god holds is an allusion to the deceased successfully being reborn after passing a judgement before the tribunal of the gods.
The need to preserve the body from decay was probably the most important part of the Egyptian belief in a life after death because the spirit was thought to inhabit it at times. In the Predynastic period before 3,000 B.C. and the beginning of the Pharonic Age, the body was placed in a grave in the sand with some simple offerings. The natural heat and dryness preserved it with little need for embalming or other preparation. As society developed in Egypt and tombs became much more elaborate, it was necessary to treat the body to protect it from decay. Mummies could be elaborately wrapped in decorative patterns, as on the examples of the Roman Period. The face was usually covered with a mask of plaster or precious metal fashioned as a likeness of the deceased.