Cultures & Traditions

Ancient Egyptian Beliefs

The ancient Egyptians were a polytheistic people who believed that gods and goddesses controlled the forces of the human, natural, and supernatural world. In traditional Egyptian belief, the fundamental governing principle was the abstract concept of maat (represented by the goddess Maat) which is often translated as truth, justice, and cosmic order. To maintain maat, the living had to constantly worship and make sacrifices to the gods to pacify the deities and spirits of the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that if a person were properly prepared for the afterlife, his/her soul was immortal. The soul, known as ka, accompanies an individual throughout life, and then after death it leaves the body to enter into the realm of the dead. An individual's ka could not exist without his or her body. Extensive rituals and preparation of the body for death, which included tomb building, mummification, and funerary ceremonies, was meant to protect the body and the soul for the afterlife.

The Egyptian pantheon was composed of many gods and goddesses often arranged in family groups of three consisting of a mother, father, and child. Each god or goddess was linked to one or more places where monumental temples were built to house their images. Gods and goddesses in Egypt took many different forms. Many were portrayed in Egyptian art with both human and animal features. Horus, god of the sky, war, and protection often appears with the body of a man and the head of a falcon. Others were portrayed as divine humans. For instance, Osiris, who judges the dead in the afterlife, was portrayed as a man with a face that is either black (referring to the rich Nile soil) or green (representing new life). Many Egyptian gods were also associated with attributes, or objects with which they perform their divine duties. Isis, goddess of magic and motherhood, for instance, was often shown holding an ankh or a lotus.

In Egyptian society, the highest position was occupied by the pharaoh who was believed to be semi-divine and who was credited with mediating between humans and the gods.

Adapted from

"Head and upper torso of Seti I," DMA Connect, 2012.

Related Multimedia

Dr. Bromberg, Anne R. discusses the concept of death and burials in Egypt and other cultures; in conjunction with King Tutankhamun exhibition; shown on DMA.tv
gallery talk; speaker is professor at Richland College