Organized religion had its beginnings in ancient Mesopotamia (in what is now modern Iraq) and in Egypt more than five thousand years ago. The religious systems in these areas blended political with spiritual elements in a type of government known as a theocracy, or rule by divine guidance. In such a government, deities (gods and goddesses) are the supreme religious and civic leaders. Their will is carried out by a priestly class or by a divine king. Mesopotamian theocracies took the form of city-states ruled by patron gods or goddesses. The god’s desires and wishes were interpreted by political leaders called ensi and by a priestly class. In Egypt religion and the state were also bound together. The national leader, the pharaoh, was considered a living god and was the vital link between humanity and the rest of the gods.
A major difference in outlook, however, marked the two religions. In Mesopotamia the forces of nature were more chaotic, more likely to cause catastrophes, such as disastrous flooding. As a result, the gods were seen as unpredictable beings of extraordinary power who had to be kept content by priests. People were at the mercy of the gods, so the job of humanity was to carry out their wills and make them happy. In Egypt, where nature was less destructive, the gods were seen as kind and generous and generally well-disposed toward humanity. Egyptians believed that their gods had created Egypt as a sort of refuge of good and order in a world filled with chaos and disorder.
Both religions were polytheistic, meaning they recognized many gods. These gods had certain similarities in both traditions. Many gods and goddesses personified elements of nature. In the Mesopotamian pantheon, or collection of gods, the most important were the trio of the sky god, An (or Anu); the god of storm and the earth, Enlil; and the water god, Ea (or Enki). These were followed in importance by a second triad comprised of the moon god, Nanna (or Sin); the sun god, Utu (or Shamash); and the goddess of fertility and war, Inanna (also called Ishtar). In the later stages of Mesopotamian civilization the local god Marduk became head of the pantheon.
In Egyptian religion the primary god was Amen (Amon or Amun), king of the gods. Next in importance was Ra (or Re), the sun god. These two were eventually joined in the cult of Amen-Ra. A cult is a religion considered to be outside the mainstream. Then came Osiris, god of the Nile and also god of the kingdom of the dead. His wife, Isis, was the moon goddess and mother of the universe. Their child Horus was god of the sky; Set, their brother, was the god of chaos and of the desert; and Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge. In addition to these was a vast array of other gods and goddesses that sometimes duplicated each other’s functions. The current pharaoh, as a living god, worked with all of these deities to create maat, or divine order and justice.
WORDS TO KNOW
- Attributing human shape or form to nonhuman things, such as the gods.
- The study of the movement of the planets and stars in relation to one another in order to predict future events.
- Sumerian writing, so-called because of its wedge-shaped marks.
- A god or goddess.
- Divine order and justice; a central concept in the religion of ancient Egypt.
- Belief in one supreme being.
- A collection of deities.
- Belief in many gods.
- A stone tomb constructed to house a deceased pharaoh of Egypt.
- A form of government in which God or some supreme deity is the ruler. God’s laws are then interpreted by a divine king or by a priest class.
- A stepped foundation or structure that held a shrine or temple in the Mesopotamian religion.
These ancient religions affected every aspect of life in the ancient Near East, from spirituality to farming, from medicine to the rule of society. As such, they were not simply a part of a person’s life but ordered and shaped that person’s life every day. Membership was not a choice as it is in modern religions. Rather, religion was a fact of life for everyone. Each person had favorite gods or goddesses to whom they prayed and sacrificed.
History and development
Mesopotamia, a word made up from two Greek words meaning “between the rivers,” is an ancient name for an area encompassed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It stretches from the Persian Gulf in the south to the mountains of Armenia in the north and covers most of modern-day Iraq. Mesopotamia had a much different climate when it was first settled about eight to ten thousand years ago. At that time it was a land of marshes and grassland rather than desert as it is now. Humans began intensive farming in the area as early as 3,000 BCE. From the earliest times farming depended on irrigation, a way of watering crops that relied on bringing water to the fields through man-made ditches or canals. Anthropologists (scientists who study humans and their relations to various factors) believe that local tribes came together to dig the needed canals. The semi-nomadic (wandering) way of life the tribes followed was altered, and they settled in large communities near the canals. Eventually these communities became the first cities. City-states like Ur and Lagash had become powerful forces in the region by about the middle of the fourth millennium BCE.
Religion in Sumer
The first center of civilization was in the south, in what was called Sumer. There, farming villages became a series of a dozen powerful city-states, including Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Umma, Eridu, and Nippur. At times they were in competition with each other, and at other times they banded together to fight common enemies. The earliest written records of the first Sumerian societies also date from about this time (c. 4,000 BCE). It is significant that these records, written in the form of clay tablets, were about the operation of temples. Thus, already by the time of the first real towns and cities in human history, Mesopotamian religion had already become well organized. Various clay tablets have been found with details of the religion, as well as sacred vessels and architectural remains of temples. These all help to give an overview of the religion.
The environment of Mesopotamia largely shaped its religion. Unlike the Nile River in Egypt, which rises and falls slowly on a very predictable schedule, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could and often did rise quickly and violently, causing disastrous flooding. Because of this, the Mesopotamians felt that nature was dangerous and far beyond the control of mere humans. The earliest Mesopotamian deities thus represented different aspects of nature and were honored in hopes of winning their favor. For instance, Anu, the god of the sky, might have been worshipped to keep violent storms from damaging the crops. Hursag, the goddess of mountains and foothills, would be invoked by priests to stop an invasion of barbarian tribes. Deities were often represented as human beings and some symbolic natural object. Once given human form, a process called anthropomorphism, the gods were then grouped in families.
Mesopotamian gods were worshipped in temple complexes that formed the center of every city. Built of mud bricks, these tall, conical structures were stepped, or built in receding tiers on platforms of different shapes. These platforms were crowned at the top by a shrine or a temple. The whole complex was called a ziggurat, and averaged about 150 feet (45.7 meters) in height. Ziggurats stretched tower-like toward the sky, forming a bridge between Earth and heaven, like the mountains that were sacred to the Sumerians. Each Mesopotamian city had at least one temple complex, and each complex was dedicated to the worship of a single deity. The temple complex in Ur, for instance, honored the moon god Sin (also called Nanna by the Sumerians). The city of Uruk had both a temple to Inanna and a ziggurat dedicated to Anu. The complexes were managed by specialist priests, who were the only people allowed to worship the deities.
The development of religion in Mesopotamia followed the movement of peoples in the region. Historians say that the Sumerian civilization lasted from about 3500 to about 2000 BCE. Sargon the Great (reigned c. 2334–c. 2279 BCE), the king of Akkad, a territory to the north of Sumer, created the first great empire in Mesopotamia by conquering Sumer. Sargon brought many of his own Akkadian gods into Sumer with his armies. He did not, however, engineer the destruction of the Sumerian gods. Instead, a unique mixture of gods, part Sumerian and part Akkadian, formed a new pantheon.
The Akkadians did, however, make one important change in Sumer-ian culture. King Sargon and his successors took on tasks formerly divided between two different types of leaders: the en, a permanent religious and social administrator, and the lugal, a temporary leader in times of war. Strong rulers such as Sargon, however, merged these functions into one, taking power away from the priestly class. Naram-Sin, who ruled from about 2254 to 2218 BCE, took this trend to an extreme and proclaimed himself a living god.
In general the Akkadians incorporated elements of Sumerian religion. The original Sumerian pantheon of gods was never destroyed but instead was added to and further refined. Through successive rulers, including Hammurabi (1792–1769 BCE) and a host of others, the religious system continued. There may have been new rulers, but the gods were eternal.
The names of the gods changed, however, as did the emphasis of religion. For example, Nanna was the Sumerian god of the moon. In Akkadian, the language of Sargon and his people, Nanna was called Sin or Suen. Inanna, mistress of heaven, became Ishtar in Akkadian. The direction of religion also changed over time. The early Sumerians believed that humanity, after it was created, was given a divine spark by the god Enlil. This not only made people the servants of the gods during their lifetimes, but also assured them an afterlife. The coming to power of the Babylonians in the second millennium BCE changed the emphasis of religion.
The Babylonians carefully preserved the literary and religious heritage passed down from the Sumerians, but their major concern was to integrate their main god, Marduk, into the existing pantheon. For the Sumerians, Enlil had been the protector of kingship; for the Babylonians this was Marduk’s task. In order to make Marduk the most important god, the Babylonians devised a new creation myth, the Enuma Elish (“The Epic of Creation,” literally meaning “then up there”).
Ritual became more important after the arrival of the Babylonians. Priests increasingly relied on rituals to ward off evil spirits and to foretell future events to ensure the good will of the gods and to protect against demons. Astronomical (relating to the heavens) events took on major importance and astrology, the study of the influence of the stars and planets on human affairs, became nearly a science for the priests. Organized Mesopotamian religion collapsed after Cyrus of Persia, a Zoroastrian, conquered the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE.
History of ancient Egyptian religion
The official ancient Egyptian religion lasted from about 3110 BCE to 550 CE. The official beginning of the religion is the date that Menes (c. 2925 BCE), a king of Upper Egypt, is believed to have defeated a king of Lower Egypt and unified the nation. Menes set up a national religion in the process, worshipping the creator god Ptah at his new government center of Memphis. Historians believe that the story of the war between the god Horus and his uncle Set (the result of Set’s murder of Horus’s father Osiris) reflects the war between Upper and Lower Egypt, with Horus’s eventual victory reflecting the unification of the two countries by Menes during his sixty-two year reign.
About the Ancient Religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia
- Belief. Mesopotamian religion saw humans as the servants of the gods, who had to be appeased for protection. Egyptians believed that the gods created all humans but were also controlled by the principle of maat, or order. Unlike followers of Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians had a strong belief in the afterlife, which they expressed by building elaborate tombs such as the pyramids.
- Followers. Worshippers took their names from the numerous gods and the cults that honored the deities.
- Name of God. The major god for much of Mesopotamia was the sky god Enlil; later the worship of Enlil was replaced by the worship of the Babylonian god Marduk. For Egyptians, Amen-Ra was the most powerful deity, chief of the pantheon.
- Symbols. Statues of winged bulls were a protective symbol related to the god Sin Mesopotamia, while the ankh, a kind of cross with a loop at the top, was a prominent representation of life in ancient Egypt.
- Worship. Priests in both religions made daily offerings in the temples and held annual festivals open to the public. Personal gods were worshipped by people in their homes.
- Dress. Priests in both Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions wore no special costumes.
- Texts. The Enuma Elish tells the Mesopotamian story of creation and explains how Marduk became the chief of the gods. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was a guide for the dead, setting out magic spells and charms to be used to pass judgment in the afterlife.
- Sites. Ancient Nippur was the site of the chief temple to Enlil, while Babylon was the location of Marduk’s sanctuary. Thebes and the temple complex of Karnak were home to the worship of Amen-Ra. In the modern world the remains of these early religions can be seen in Egypt’s pyramids, tombs for the pharaohs, and in Mesopotamia’s ziggurats, temples to the gods.
- Observances. The New Year’s Festival was a major event in Mesopotamian religion, while Egypt’s most important festival was Opet.
Before this time, however, nature gods and animals had been worshipped for at least two millennia among the people who inhabited the Nile Valley. These animal deities later took human form, but their heads were still often depicted as that of an animal. Some gods even became associated with more than one animal. For example, Thoth, the god of the moon and of wisdom and protector of scribes, was depicted by the Egyptian ibis, a wading bird, by a baboon, and by a figure of the moon.
In prehistoric times (before written history) the deities were local. They were worshipped in reed shrines with the local leader or king acting as the intermediary between the gods and the people. A reed is a type of tall, slender grass. The gods were thought to be housed in statues; these statues were purified, fed, and clothed daily, and annual festivals were held. The afterlife was also important for Egyptians from the earliest times, and pharaohs and queens were buried with material to make their lives easier after death. Early gods included Ptah; Anubis, the protector of the tomb; and Nit, the goddess of war.
Different cities in the united nation of Egypt held different creation myths, each centered on its own local creator god. Heliopolis, for instance, was a center near present-day Cairo where Atum was worshipped. Here, it was thought that Atum created himself out of the void, and then either spit or sneezed out Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. These two in turn gave birth to Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. From them came two pairs of siblings: Osiris and Isis, and Set and Nephtys. Eventually Ra, the sun god, took the place of Atum in the pantheon; later pharaohs, for instance, called themselves “sons of Ra.” Another creation myth came from the city of Memphis, where Ptah was worshipped for creating the universe out of divine thought. Ultimately, however, the Ra-Atum creation story became the most popular and most widely accepted myth in ancient Egypt.
Religion during the Middle Kingdom
During the period of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE), Egyptian society built the great pyramids at Giza while working as a fully organized theocracy, a government with one god as the supreme leader. This theocracy reflected the role of the pharaoh, a living god whose word was divine law. During the Middle Kingdom (c. 2181–1786 BCE), however, the power of the pharaoh weakened and nobles (lesser royalty) began to take on more individual power. The priestly class also grew much larger. Though the sun god Ra was the official national god and was worshipped at Heliopolis, the cult of Osiris became stronger as the central government went into decline. Osiris was an early fertility god who, when killed by his brother Set and cut into pieces, was put back together again by his wife-sister Isis. He then became god of the underworld. Osiris became identified with the dead pharaoh. His son, Horus, became associated with the living pharaoh. Osiris eventually became a symbol of immortality and resurrection, or returning to life after death, and, as such, symbolized the annual renewal of fertility to the soil by the flooding of the Nile. A lengthy annual festival was held for him to celebrate this rebirth.
The Middle Kingdom came to an end with the Hyksos invasion of Lower Egypt, with the new invaders adapting Egyptian habits and gods. The New Kingdom (c. 1570–1085 BCE) began when Egyptian nobles drove the Hyksos out. During this period the god Amen came to prominence and was worshipped at Karnak, near Thebes. Amen incorporated aspects of earlier gods such as Ptah and Ra, becoming for a time the primary creator-god. The Amen priesthood grew impressively strong not only in religious power but also with political power. When Amen and Ra were combined into the godhead Amen-Ra, the temple at Karnak required the services of more than eighty thousand employees.
A short-lived experiment in state-sponsored monotheism (belief in only one god) occurred during the New Kingdom period. Amenhotep IV, who called himself Akhenaten (reigned 1379–62 BCE), declared that the only god was the one he himself worshipped: Aten, the god of the sun, and the solar disk, the Aten. Akhenaten’s experiment in monotheism had the effect of reducing the power of the priestly class and the nobility and reviving the power of the pharaoh. This experiment ended, however, with Akhenaten’s death in 1336 BCE as the old gods were quickly brought back. All traces of Akhenaten were destroyed, from the inscription of his name on temples to his mummy. With the restoration of the old gods, the priests of Karnak and at another holy site, Luxor, regained their power at the expense of the monarchy. At the city of Thebes, the high priest of Amen became the first of a ruling class of high priests, while the pharaoh continued to wield power from a new city center, Tanis, in the Nile Delta.
During the course of the second half of the first millennium BCE the power and prestige of Egypt was reduced. Foreign conquerors inhabited the land, and various cults gained favor and then went out of favor. But Amen and Amen-Ra remained the major cult. The local goddess Neith became more popular and was later incorporated into Greek and Roman pantheons in the figures of Athena and Diana. Even after the introduction of Christianity, the ancient gods continued to be worshipped until about the sixth century CE.
Sects and schisms
Both Egyptian and Mesopotamian deities had cults that were popular in different places and in different times. Of note were two later Meso-potamian deities, Marduk and Ashur. Marduk was the national god of Babylonia, and the Babylonians went to great pains to rewrite the creation myth so that he would be the king of gods, replacing the Mesopotamian god Enlil. Such a replacement lasted for about one thousand years until the Assyrian god Ashur replaced Marduk as the primary god in the pantheon. Ashur was a warlike god and took Ishtar, the goddess of war, as his wife or consort.
The most notable schism in ancient Egyptian religion was launched by Amenhotep IV (c. 1371–c. 1336 BCE), who proclaimed the worship of Aten, the god and disk of the sun. In the fourteenth century BCE Amen-hotep IV demanded that the worship of other gods be abandoned and that Aten be served by a cult in which he, himself, was the only priest. To show his dedication to Aten, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning “He Who Is of Service to Aten.” Atenism, as it is called, was not a natural evolution of ancient Egypt’s religious practices. Akhenaten forced it on the people. As a result he faced resistance to this change, especially from the powerful priests of Amen-Ra in the capital of Thebes.
Further undermining the power of the traditional priesthood, Akhenaten set up a new capital city, called Akhetaten (modern-day Tell el-Amarna), which he dedicated to the Aten. Artwork from this period shows Akhenaten and his wife Nefer-titi, or Neferneferuaten, worshipping the Aten, the sun disk. After Akhenaten’s death Atenism and Akhetaten were quickly abandoned and the old gods were revived. The new pharaoh, Tutankhamen (reigned 1333–25 BCE), moved the capital back to Thebes and placed the traditional priesthood back in power.
For early Mesopotamians the world was divided into heaven (an) and earth (ki). The earth was flat and floated in a freshwater sea, the abzu. By serving the gods and by living a moral (good and honest) life, humankind would be rewarded with long life and many offspring. As for the afterlife, it was believed that a kind of ghost or double survived physical death. When a person died and his or her body was buried, his or her ghost descended to the underworld to join those already departed. The underworld was ruled by the god Ereshkigal. Later Babylonian religion also assumed that resurrection, or physical life after death, was possible. Babylonians believed in the “waters of life” and called their chief deity, Marduk, the “one who brings the dead to life.” Mostly, however, it appears that Mesopotamians believed that earthly life was all there was, and that death led to disintegration of the body.
Hundreds of gods were involved in Mesopotamian religion. In addition to being connected with some aspect of nature, they also had a responsibility for different spheres of human activity. For example, Shamash, the god of the sun, was also in charge of justice. Successive waves of settlers and conquerors in the region all brought their own gods and goddesses. These were mixed with those already found in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians had their city gods and harvest gods, but nomads who invaded Mesopotamia from the north or the east brought with them water gods and sand gods. People who came from high mountain regions brought gods of thunder and lightning.
The three chief gods in the Sumerian pantheon were An, the sky god, Enlil, the god of weather and storms, and Enki, god of wisdom and the abzu. Other important deities included the mother goddess, Ninhursag; Nanna, god of the moon who helped travelers find their way; Utu, sun god and the watchful eye of justice; and Inanna, the goddess of love and war and the one who guaranteed the kingship. Inanna in particular had a strong and lasting influence on Mesopotamian culture. She was featured in many fertility rites, but was also called upon in time of war. Over the course of time, with movements of new people into the area, the names of the gods changed. For instance, the Sumerian goddess Innana received the Akkadian name of Ishtar, just as Nanna later became Sin and Enki became Ea.
Beliefs in ancient Egypt
Egyptians believed that the world was brought into being by Atum or Ra, whose descendants were Osiris, Set, and Isis. These, however, were just a fraction of the gods worshipped by Egyptians. Some estimates put the total number as high as one or two thousand different deities. What began as animal worship led to an immense pantheon. Amen or Amen-Ra became the most powerful of the gods, center of the national cult; the cult of Osiris was second most powerful. The worship of the sun god Ra led to the construction of immense pyramids for the pharaohs, sons of Ra. The pharaoh was considered a living god, appointed by Horus (son and avenger of Osiris).
For ancient Egyptians the gods were subject to the same sense of order and justice, maat, that mortals were. The universe had been created through maat as a replacement for the chaos that once existed. Interaction with the gods was intended to establish maat in society. It was the duty of the pharaoh to interpret the word of the gods in order to establish order and justice.
The ancient Egyptians also strongly believed in an afterlife. Much of their religon’s focus was centered on ensuring an afterlife, which contained all of the joys and pleasures of the living world. Egyptians believed in at least three different kinds of souls. When a person died one soul, the ba, left the body permanently, while a different kind of soul, the akh, remained with the body. The ka, a third type of soul, was a spiritual duplicate of the dead person, and left its body to journey to the underworld for judgment. The ka had to return to its body periodically during the time it was undergoing judgment. If the body was damaged or decayed during this period, the ka might lose its way and be lost, a kind of eternal damnation.
Mummification solved the problem of the ka by preserving the body after death, giving the spirit a familiar house to return to. The process of mummification, which could take up to two months to complete, was at first only used for royalty. Later the practice was opened up to include anyone who could afford the specialists and the expensive ingredients required for the process of preservation. By the Middle Kingdom the nobility and even some commoners (non-royalty) were being buried in elaborate tombs and having their bodies embalmed, or preserved.
Egyptians also worried about passing the tests they believed they would face in the afterlife. Elaborate manuals were written as guides to these tests. These included the Book of Amdurat, the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and for those commoners wealthy enough to have a scribe make a copy for them, the Book of the Dead, also called Spells for Going Forth by Day.
The most important trial the spirit faced before being allowed into the afterlife was the Judgment of the Dead. The deceased began by making confessions and acts of atonement, or apology, to the gods. Anubis, the god of embalming, then led the person by the hand to the Hall of Maat. The deceased’s heart was weighed on a scale against the feather of truth, a symbol of the goddess Maat. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the deceased was admitted into the afterlife. If the feather was lighter than the heart, however, the goddess Ammut, Devourer of the Dead, consumed the deceased, destroying the soul forever. If the deceased passed the judgment he or she was led off by Horus to meet with Osiris and enter the Underworld.
Throughout the ancient Near East there were common myths of fertility, or tales of death and rebirth that can be read as a metaphor (or symbol) of the death and rebirth of vegetation during the seasons of the year. In Mesopotamian religion there is the story of Ishtar’s hunt for her husband, Tammuz, the god of the seasons and fertility. She descends to the underworld in search of him and returns with him triumphantly to Earth. Tammuz, however, can only spend spring and summer on Earth; the rest of the year he must remain in the underworld. In some traditions, Tammuz is Ishtar’s son; in others, he is her lover rather than her husband.
A similar regeneration myth lies at the heart of Egyptian popular religion. Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was god of the Nile River and of resurrection and vegetation before he became god of the underworld. Killed by his evil brother Set, god of chaos, his body was chopped into pieces and scattered. His loyal wife, the sky goddess Isis, found the pieces and put his body back together. She made herself pregnant from Osiris’s body, and their son Horus revenged Osiris’s murder, defeating his uncle Set in epic combat. Horus became the god of a unified Egypt, identified throughout Egyptian history with the divine right of the pharaoh.
The primary sacred text for the Mesopotamian religion was the long epic poem dealing with creation, the Enuma Elish. The most complete copy that has survived dates from the end of the second millennium BCE and is thus a rather late addition to the Mesopotamian religion. It is, in effect, an effort by the Babylonians to assert the power of their national god, Marduk. As such, the poem not only relates how Earth was created but also how the gods came to be.
The gods, according to this text, came before the creation of the world. This epic describes the fight between the forces of order, as represented by Marduk and the young gods, and the forces of chaos, as represented by Tiamat, Kingu, and the old gods. According to Leonard William King’s translation The Seven Tables of Creation (London, UK: Luzac and Co., 1902), it begins:
When in the height heaven was not named, And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, And the primeval ApsÛ, who begat [gave birth to] them, And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,— Their waters were mingled together, And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; When of the gods none had been called into being, And none bore a name, and no destinies [were ordained]; Then were created the gods in the midst of [heaven] …
Other texts important to this early religion include The Epic of Gilgamesh. This text tells of the mythical exploits of Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, from about 2700 BCE and deals with the behavior of the gods towards him. Also important are myths such as the one told in the story “Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld.” In it, Ishtar, the goddess of war, travels down through the seven gates of the Underworld to find Tammuz, the god of the seasons and fertility.
Ancient Egypt’s main religious text seems to have been the Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is often referred to as the Papyrus of Ani, after the collection of documents in which it was found. Papyrus is an early form of paper made from reeds. The book is a collection of two hundred prayers, spells, and illustrations that provided a guide to the afterlife. The earliest Book of the Dead ever recovered dates from the mid-fifteenth century BCE.
The book was meant to ensure a happy afterlife. The spells included were meant to make the deceased pass various tests to prove his or her innocence of earthly sins, thus avoiding punishment by the gods and gaining access to a happy afterlife. It also included guidelines on how to navigate the dangers of the Underworld, such as being devoured by an angry god, to reach the afterlife. One of the most important of these trials occurred at the start of the Judgment of the Dead. In the declaration of innocence prior to the weighing of the heart on the scales of truth the deceased declares that he or she has lived a good life without sin (“The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” chapter 125, TourEgypt.net).
Hail to you, great God, Lord of Justice! I have come to you, my lord, that you may bring me so that I may see your beauty, for I know you and I know your name, and I know the names of the forty-two gods of those who are with you in this Hall of Justice, who live on those who cherish evil and who gulp down their blood on that day of the reckoning of characters in the presence of Wennefer. Behold the double son of the Songstresses; Lord of Truth is your name. Behold I have come to you, I have brought you truth, I have repelled falsehood for you.
I have not done falsehood against men, I have not impoverished my associates, I have done no wrong in the Place of Truth, I have not learnt that which is not, I have done no evil, I have not daily made labor in excess of what was to be done for me, my name has not reached the offices of those who control slaves, I have not deprived the orphan of his property, I have not done what the gods detest, I have not slandered a servant to his master, I have not caused pain, I have not made hungry, I have not made to weep, I have not killed, I have not turned anyone over to a killer, I have not caused anyone’s suffering …
The Book of the Dead was found in tombs for commoners as well as royalty. All levels of Egyptian society were concerned about their afterlife and wanted to be prepared to meet it successfully.
The winged bull, a blend of sky god and earth god powers, is a strong symbolic representation of the Mesopotamian religion. The winged bull has the head of a man bearing a cap with two (and sometimes three) horns, the body of a bull or lion, and wings like an eagle. The horns on the cap symbolize the bull’s godlike nature. Large sculptures of the creatures were found at three sites of ancient Mesopotamia, from a time when Assyria ruled the region (1350–612 BCE). These sites are Khorsabad, Nineveh, and Nimrod. They represent spiritual guardians that repel evil, and they always appear in pairs.
Assyrian kings often had pairs of winged bulls flanking the entrance to their palaces. The sculptures were sometimes accompanied by inscriptions that called upon the winged bulls to deter enemies and protect the king. The Mesopotamian moon god, Sin (also called Nanna), has a lapis lazuli beard and rides a winged bull. Lapis lazuli is a blue semiprecious stone.
A powerful and still popular symbol of ancient Egypt’s religion is the ankh. The ankh resembles a cross, but has an upside down teardrop shape at its top. In the ancient Egyptian written language of hieroglyphs, the ankh represents life. It is often present in tomb carvings and other artwork. It is associated with magical protection, or sa. Even those ancient Egyptians who could not read hierogylphs knew the ankh symbol.
The ankh may represent the sunrise or rebirth. Many ancient gods carried ankhs and often “blessed” pharaohs with an ankh, symbolizing the act of giving them the breath of life. Among the gods often seen with ankhs are Osiris, Isis, Ra, Hathor, and Anubis. As a result the ankh not only represented worldly life but the afterlife. In fact, the ancient Egyptian term for sarcophagus or coffin was neb-ankh, meaning “possessor of life.” The ankh’s popularity has reached beyond Egypt’s borders and around the world into the twenty-first century. Whether it is the appeal of an ancient symbol for life or an interest in ancient Egypt, the ankh remains a popular decoration.
The remains of civilization
The most obvious symbols of both Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian religions are their architectural remains. While these are the historical remnants of great civilizations, they have also come to represent all that those civilizations entailed. Many of these ancient artifacts are, in fact, religious in nature. The ziggurat, or stepped temple, of Mesopotamia is an impressive structure dedicated to the worship of the gods. Each level of the ziggurat is smaller than the last, creating multiple terraces that reach up into the heavens. A ziggurat could have as few as two or as many as seven levels. At the top was a temple that could be reached by stairs or ramps. Archaeologists believe that many ziggurats were painted in various colors.
Among the most identifiable symbols of ancient Egypt and its religion are the pyramids. The Great Pyramid and its two smaller neighbors at Giza are the most well-known. Pyramids are tombs built for pharaohs. The pyramid had tall, sloping sides that typically ended in a point. Archaeologists believe this structure was a symbolic representation of the dead pharaoh climbing to the sky to live forever. It also represented the sun. The pharaoh was buried inside the pyramid with all of the items he would need in the afterlife. The tomb was then sealed.
About eighty pyramids have survived to modern times. Not all of these are in the classic shape of the pyramids at Giza. Another well-known pyramid is the step pyramid at Saqqara. The pharaoh Djoser (reigned twenty-seventh century BCE) had this tomb built with several layers, or steps, in its design. The structure of the step pyramid is similar to that of Mesopotamia’s ziggurats in this respect.
Both Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt had a large class of professional priests to care for the gods. The priestly class was very powerful because each religion played a dominant role in its society. Priests and priestesses served as the intermediaries between the common man and the divine. They held the responsibility for keeping the gods happy. Commoners also gave personal worship to the gods. Religion was such a central part of Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian life that each day involved some devotion or other action to the gods.
Obedience to the gods was the primary job of humankind in Mesopotamian religion. The legion of gods all had to be cared for. That was the task of the priestly class. Statues to the gods were kept in temples, each of which was devoted to a different deity. The temples employed a vast staff of workers and priests. The temples were not simply religious centers, but also served as storehouses for the surplus harvest. In effect, they were banks of deposit for community wealth. Daily offerings to the deities were made in the temples, and cleaning and purification rituals took place. Offerings were made by royal and commoner alike, and these were taken by the temple personnel.
Each cult or worship of a deity had special festivals. For example, Inanna or Ishtar was, among other things, goddess of fertility and protector of the storehouses. Each year a ritual marriage took place between the goddess and the ruler at the time of harvest. Marduk was the deity at the center for the annual New Year’s Festival, held at the spring equinox. At these times, statues of the gods and goddesses were paraded through the streets for all to see. Normally, however, the sacred statues were kept in the temples.
Private individuals often had their own personal gods and had small shrines devoted to them in their homes. There, they would worship their favored god and ask for protection or relief. These private gods were often “fired” if the people felt they were not getting satisfaction and that their offerings were being wasted. They would adopt another personal god in the hopes of getting better results from their prayers.
Early on, the priests in Mesopotamian religion took charge of the temples and storehouses and also of the care of the gods. By the Babylonian period these priests had created elaborate rituals and ceremonies, including offerings and sacrifices. They were responsible for foretelling the future and created more elaborate rituals for such acts of divination, or reading of the signs of the gods. Wind, storms, rain, fire, eclipses of the sun or moon, the appearance of a lion, the shape of a sheep’s liver, and the movement of the stars all were signs from the gods according to Mesopotamian religion, and their priests could read such signs. They became experts in what is called extispicy, or the readings of organs of sacrificed animals. Marks on the liver or lungs could provide clues as to what would happen in the future.
Praise to the Gods
Like many modern religions, the religions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly organized. Certain classes of people were set apart to worship and care for the gods. In ancient Egypt, for instance, there was a large class of priests and priestesses entrusted with caring for the temples. Mesopotamian religion was divided in a similar way. Part of the Mesopotamian priesthood’s job included praising the gods in hymns and prayers. The two excerpts here, “The Exaltation of Inana” and “Hymn to Ra,” show how differently Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians viewed their gods. The Mesopotamian goddess Innana (spelled Inana in this translation) is described by her priestess Enheduanna as fierce and capable of much destruction. The royal scribe Nekht associates the Egyptian sun god Ra (also spelled Re) with love and joy.
The Exaltation of Inana
Lady of all the divine powers, resplendent [dazzling] light, righteous woman clothed in radiance, beloved of An and Urac! Mistress of heaven, with the great pectoral jewels, who loves the good headdress befitting the office of en priestess, who has seized all seven of its divine powers! My lady, you are the guardian of the great divine powers!… Like a dragon you have deposited venom on the foreign lands. When like Ickur [god of storms] you roar at the earth, no vegetation can stand up to you. As a flood descending upon (?) those foreign lands, powerful one of heaven and earth, you are their Inana.
Raining blazing fire down upon the Land, endowed with divine powers by An, lady who rides upon a beast, whose words are spoken at the holy command of An! The great rites are yours: who can fathom them? Destroyer of foreign lands, you confer strength on the storm. Beloved of Enlil, you have made awesome terror weight upon the Land. You stand at the service of An’s commands….
“The Exaltation of Inana (Inana B): Translation.” In Black, J. A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., and Zolyomi, G. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford, England, 1998–.
Hymn to Ra
Homage to thee, O thou glorious Being, thou who art dowered [with all sovereignty (power)]. O Tem-Heru-Khuti (Tem-Haramkhis), when thou risest in the horizon of heaven a cry of joy goeth forth to thee from all people. O thou beautiful Being, thou dost renew thyself in thy season in the form of the Disk, within thy mother Hathor. Therefore in every place every heart swelleth with joy at thy rising for ever. The regions of the South and the North come to thee with homage [respect, worship], and send forth acclamations [praise] at thy rising on the horizon of heaven, and thou illuminest the Two Lands with rays of turquoise-[coloured] light…. O thou god of life, thou lord of love, all men live when thou shinest; thou art crowned king of the gods. The goddess Nut embraceth thee, the goddess Mut enfoldeth thee at all seasons. Those who are in thy following sing unto thee with joy, and they bow down their foreheads to the earth when they meet thee, the lord of heaven, the lord of the earth, the King of Truth, the lord of eternity, the prince of everlasting-ness, thou sovereign [ruler] of all the gods, thou god of life, thou creator of eternity, thou maker of heaven wherein thou art firmly established.
“Hymn to Ra.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/ra-ani.html.
Astrology, or predicting the future from the movement of the stars, also became a central practice of Babylonian religion. The Babylonians were the first to divide the sky into the twelve zones of the zodiac. They followed the movements of planets and stars with great care in an effort to foretell the will of the gods. Priests also made a good living in the sale of magic charms and formulas to drive away evil spirits.
Egyptians also had cults that worshipped their own particular god or goddess. The priests made daily offerings to their gods through the statues kept in their temples. The gods and goddesses were charged with maintaining justice and order in the world, and were considered too important to be bothered with the everyday problems of common people. Priests made offerings to ensure that the gods fulfilled that function. Commoners had no contact with these gods except when the statues were paraded through the streets on special festivals.
There was no central text to tell people how to live a good life or to explain the doctrines or rules of the religion. Instead, the cult rituals surrounding each god made up Egyptian religion. Temples, called hwt-ntr (literally, “houses of god”), were supported by huge estates to help supply offerings for the gods. Strictly speaking, only the pharaoh, himself a god, could talk with the gods. But in practical terms, he appointed priests as his representatives to serve at the various temples. Initially, this priestly class was voluntary and was divided into four groups who served for one month and then returned to private life for three months. There were different levels of priests as well, from high priests down to the lowest class who carried water for drinking and for purification ceremonies.
As the rituals of national cults became more centralized, the priestly class became professional and a powerful force in the country. The image or statue of the god or goddess was the center of cult activity. Once made, the statue acquired a ka and a ba through a ritual called “opening the mouth.” The ka of the god lived in the statue in the same way that the ka of a person lived in that person’s body. Possessing these components, the statue came to be possessed with the spirit of the gods.
Daily rituals included clothing and cleaning the statues and offering food to the gods. Other rituals took place periodically to protect the statues. Hymns were sung and prayers spoken. Festivals were held throughout the year, at which times the public could approach the gods. During the rest of the year the common people could go to a small chapel built at the rear of temples, the “chapel of the hearing ear,” to ask for advice and to pray to the gods.
Obser vances and pilgrimages
Religious celebrations in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt combined public displays with private rituals. Many occasions had components of both. All displays were meant to affirm the greatness of the gods and usually the legitimacy of the ruler as well. In both cultures the ruler was closely associated with the gods. This was intended to justify the ruler’s leadership and discourage others from seeking power. Festivals and pilgrimages also offered the public a chance to seek favor from the gods and celebrate their devotion.
Major festivals in Mesopotamian religion included the New Year’s Festival and the Sacred Marriage. The New Year’s Festival was held at the spring equinox, or the start of spring. This festival celebrated the rebirth of the year. In later religious practice, this holiday was associated with the god Marduk’s main festival, called Aktiu. It lasted for eleven days and involved ceremonies of purification and a ceremonial reenactment of the battle between Marduk and the forces of chaos. Prayers and offerings of food and wine were made to the gods during the first three days. The fourth day was a high point of the festivities. Then the Enuma Elish, “The Epic of Creation,” was read or performed as a play for the public. This work celebrates the god Marduk. The next day, the people purified themselves, by bathing their sins away in water.
The king also participated in these festivities, but he did so in the temples. There, to show his loyalty to Marduk, the king was slapped in the face by the priests and made to promise to the statue of Marduk that he had committed no sins in the previous year. A priest would then slap the king’s face again, hard enough to bring tears. Tears showed that Marduk was pleased with the king. A bull was sacrificed, or killed, that evening. Not all the rituals have been recorded, but it seems there was also a parade through the streets of the city with the king holding the hand of the statue of Marduk.
Some historians suggest that the New Year’s celebration and the Sacred Marriage were combined. The Sacred Marriage brought together the king and the goddess Innana, likely represented by a priestess. The ritual recognized the divine authority of the king to rule by “marrying” him to Innana. It also promoted the king’s fertility through the symbolic consummation of marriage with the goddess.
Pilgrimage sites for Mesopotamians are not recorded. Historians suspect that the Nanna Ziggurat, a great temple complex at Ur to the moon god, was a major center for travelers who devoted that god. Similarly, the Inanna or Ishtar Ziggurat at Uruk made have been a pilgrimage site for that important goddess.
One of the most important festivals in ancient Egypt was Opet. It took place yearly at the temple of Luxor in Thebes. The festival brought together the human and divine aspects of the pharaoh. In the earliest days of its celebrations, the festival lasted for eleven days. Many years later, however, it had grown to twenty-seven days. During the festival thousands of loaves of bread, cakes, and jars of beer were distributed to the public. Images of the royal family and gods were paraded, at first by foot and later by barge (boat), from the temple at Karnak to Luxor. Along the way, people asked favors of the gods through the statues. The pharaoh would merge his ka with the divine behind closed doors at the temple in Luxor. He would then emerge into public to cheers from the crowd, for whom it was now reaffirmed that the pharaoh was a living god. The rituals of Opet were quite different from the Sacred Marriage of Mesopotamia, but the purpose behind them was the same: to confirm the authority of the ruler.
Eight months after the Feast of Opet came the second major Egyptian festival, the Feast of the Valley. This was an opportunity for Egyptians to reconnect with those who had died. The image of Amen was brought out of the temple at Karnak into public view and was taken by barge across the Nile to visit temples in the west. Even though this was a serious occasion, music and dancing accompanied the procession of Amen on the royal barge. Amen would be taken into the major temples and also to a necropolis, a large graveyard to honor the dead. The Egyptians ate and drank large amounts during the Feast of the Valley, believing this brought them closer to their dead relatives and loved ones. Visits to important temples, such as those at Luxor and Karnak, were also important pilgrimages.
Preserving the Dead
The process called mummification helped preserve the bodies of ancient Egyptians, making them suitable for the afterlife. Moisture is needed for the decay of a human or animal body. In ancient Egypt, a very arid or dry land, the mummification process was accomplished by making the dead body very dry. The first mummies found date from about 2900 BCE, and the process improved slowly over time.
The basic technique of mummification involves taking all the organs out of the body and then treating the inside cavity or space with a mixture of drying chemicals. This mixture, natron, is made up of four salts: sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate. Sodium carbonate works as a drying agent, drawing the water out of the body. At the same time the bicarbonate creates a hostile environment for bacteria, the tiny organisms that cause decay.
After seventy days of being preserved in this large salty mixture (modern researchers think that up to six hundred pounds of natron might have been necessary to cover a body), the body would be completely dried out, losing about two-thirds of its weight. The natron was then cleaned out, and the empty cavity was rubbed with palm wine and packed with spices and packets of wood shavings. The outside of the body was also rubbed with a mixture of five oils, and then wrapped in bandages. Many of the organs were stored in jars and were buried with the mummy.
Mummies were buried in tombs or pyramids. At first, mummification was so expensive that only the kings and their families could afford it. Later in the history of ancient Egypt, more commoners were mummified as well. Even favored household or symbolic animals, such as cats or ibises, were mummified, so that the dead person would have companionship in the afterlife.
Abydos is an ancient holy place in Egypt. It was believed that the god Osiris’s head was sent to Abydos after he was assassinated and dismembered by his brother Set. Pilgrims began to come to Abydos to pay tribute to Osiris. Parts of the story of his death at the hands of his brother, his wife Isis’s search for his remains, and his return to life were played out in public during the Festival of Osiris. Others were replayed by priests behind the closed doors of the temple. Common pilgrims made small offerings of statuettes or chapels. Pharaohs, such as Seti I (reigned 1318–04 BCE), built temples.
Religion affected every aspect of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. All important activities and occasions were presented to the priests to see if the time was right and if the gods were in favor of their happening. People in both cultures often engaged in some form of daily prayer and marked important stages in life, including birth, marriage, and death, with rituals of passage. Religion even affected the legal system.
Daily life in Mesopotamia
In ancient Mesopotamia the growth of the first cities was directly related to the development of Mesopotamian religion. The temple complex serving a specific deity was located at the center of the urban area. The ziggurats became not only religious centers but also warehouses, where the year’s grain crop was stored. Because they were visible for miles around, they were a continual reminder to the ancient Mesopotamians of the power of the gods.
The city wall protected the temple, the royal buildings, and the houses of the common citizens from invasion by enemies. Outside the walls lay the houses and farms of those who worked the land and who kept the city running. There was also usually a wharf, or waterfront. Most of the large Mesopotamian cities were built along the great rivers of the region, the Tigris or the Euphrates.
Ancient Mesopotamia was basically a two-class society, consisting of the property owners and the vast majority of the population, who did not own property. Life was hard for most people, who survived on a subsistence (basic survival) income and had few luxuries to enjoy. The homes of poor farmers and laborers were very simple by comparison to those of wealthy property owners. These were simple one-story buildings with one or two rooms. Mud brick was the usual building material. Little is known about what kind of furniture homes might have, but in the homes of rich and poor alike were shrines to their favored deities. The people said daily prayers to these deities, asking for assistance in their lives, for a good crop or good health.
The many festivals and feast days of the religious calendar provided these people with release from their daily routine. The Mesopotamian calendar was based on the phases of the Moon, or the lunar month, and had twenty-nine or thirty days. Of these, six were regular holidays. There were also annual festivals. Other times of feasting and celebration came when the king led a victorious military campaign against enemy armies, and booty, or property taken from the conquered people, was shared with the citizens. At times such as these, the usual diet (barley, made into bread and beer) was enlivened with the addition of meats such as beef and mutton.
Recreation and sport also figured into these festival times, with celebrations of boxing, wrestling, dancing, and music. Hunting was also considered a religious matter, especially for the royalty and the wealthy. For them the hunt became a symbol of the battle of good over evil. When the king killed a lion, for example, he was not only showing his skill and bravery, but also his closeness to the gods who protected him in the hunt.
Mesopotamian rites of passage
The major rites of passage for ancient Mesopotamians were the same as those for people in many other cultures: birth, marriage, and death. Families were nuclear, that is, they consisted of a father, mother, and children. The father was accepted as head of the household. Birth was an occasion for much religious care. Women giving birth wore special ornaments to scare off the female demon Lamashtu, who was said to kill or kidnap children. The moon god, Nanna, was called upon to help the woman in labor. The earliest lullabies, or soothing songs sung to babies, were adapted from incantations, or sung prayers, to protect the infant.
The next major rite of passage, marriage, was both a religious and a legal matter. Law codes that survive show that marriage was celebrated in a ceremony that had five parts:
- the engagement, in which parents agreed to the future marriage;
- payments by both families of a dowry to the bride and a payment to the groom (the bride-price);
- the wedding ceremony itself, which could last several days with feasting;
- the arrival of the bride in her father-in-law’s house, where the couple would at first live; and
- the consummation of the marriage (sexual intercourse).
There were hundreds of gods in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian pantheons. The gods controlled all aspects of life, especially nature, which could often be cruel. Particular gods protected various city-states in Mesopotamia, and large temples were built in their honor at the city center. Sin’s main temple, for instance, was in the city of Ur. Smaller temples were available throughout city-states for people to make personal offerings to the gods.
Egypt also favored different gods. Worship of Amen-Ra was primarily centered around Thebes. Isis was popular at Philae. Individuals, too, chose personal gods from among the many hundreds to worship. Even pharaohs would differ about which god they preferred.
Gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon
Anu: The sky god. He is sometimes called the King of the Gods. At the beginning of time, Earth was separated from heaven, and heaven became Anu’s home. He can be sent to Earth to avenge the gods.
Ea: The fun-loving god of fresh waters, wisdom, and magic. Ea is also named Enki. In a Babylonian myth similar to that of the Judeo-Christian story of Noah’s Ark, Ea reveals to Utnapishtim that Enlil intends to destroy mankind in a flood.
Enlil: The god of air, wind, and storms. Enlil is one of the most important Mesopotamian gods. He guards the Tablets of Destiny, on which the fate of everything on Earth is written.
Ishtar: The goddess of love and war. She is also known as Inanna. Ishtar journeyed to the Underworld to retrieve her love, Tammuz. She is often described as very violent and is depicted holding several weapons and standing on a lion.
Marduk: The god of Babylon who later came to be the supreme god. Marduk fought an army of demons led by the goddess Tiamat. The New Year’s festival celebrates the king’s fitness to rule through a ceremony in which he bows to a statue of Marduk.
Sin: The moon god. He is also known as Nanna. He is lord of the calendar and oversees the seasons. Sin wears a beard of the blue stone lapis lazuli and rides a winged bull.
Gods of the Egyptian pantheon
Amen: Called the King of Gods. Amen, also spelled Amon or Amun, was often combined with Ra, or Re. Amen-Ra was an even more powerful god.
Anubis: The god of embalming, or of preserving the bodies of the dead. Anubis is depicted as a jackal or as a man with the head of a jackal.
Horus: The god of the sky. Horus is the child of Osiris and Isis. After Set killed Osiris, Horus fought Set for the rule of Egypt. He is represented by the image of a hawk or as a man with a hawk’s head. The pharaoh was considered to be the living Horus.
Isis: A protective goddess. Isis was important to Egyptians as the mother of the living Horus.
Maat: The goddess of truth and justice. She oversees harmony and justice. Her symbol is the feather, which she is often shown wearing on her head.
Osiris: The god of the dead and of resurrection, he is also the ruler of the Underworld. Osiris is married to Isis and is the father of Horus. He is shown as a mummified man, all in white
Ra: The sun god. Ra, or Re, is one of the most important Egyptian gods. He is shown as a man with a hawk’s head, wearing a headdress with a sun disk.
Divorce was allowed, but usually only when requested by the man. In this case the woman’s property had to be returned to the bride’s family. Little is known about the actual ceremony of the wedding, but some archaeologists assume there was a strong religious component to it, with Inanna, goddess of fertility, the primary deity worshipped.
Death was the final rite of passage for ancient Mesopotamians, who believed that the gods had decreed the end to a person’s life. After death, the corpse was washed and perfumed, then placed in a coffin. For poorer families, these coffins would be of simple wood or the body would be wrapped in a reed mat. More wealthy family used elaborate stone coffins. Personal items such as jewelry and weapons were buried with the dead. Wealthy families had tombs with household furnishings placed in them. The rich also had professional mourners, or those who cried and recited sad songs, or laments, at the burial.
After the funeral, the eldest son was responsible for giving regular funeral offerings to the deceased relative. During the month of August there was an extended period of celebration for the dead. At such occasions, food and drink was put at the place of burial for the ghosts of those dead people. Several times each year it was believed that the ghosts of the dead could leave the underworld and return to the land of the living above ground. Life in the underworld resembled life among the living, especially in its complex organization. A king, Nergal, and a queen, Ereshkigal, ruled there, and many smaller nobles were part of the power structure.
Daily life in ancient Egypt
In Egyptian civilization, religion encompassed the full range of human activity. Law, ethics, medicine, philosophy, science, and the state were all combined in religion. In ancient Egypt it was virtually impossible to live a nonreligious, or secular, life, for religion was the very foundation of all ancient Egyptian ideas and actions. The everyday life of ancient Egyptians resembled that of the Mesopotamians. There was a strong two-class system of wealthy people, who owned property, and poor people, who did not.
But Egypt also had the beginnings of what in modern times is called a middle class. This is a class of society that is not wealthy, but also is not poor. This class in Egypt developed around people who held particular jobs. An artisan, or skilled worker, class helped to build and decorate the pyramids and royal or noble tombs. These workers were considered middle class.
Egyptian rites of passage
Home life was important for the Egyptians. Children were seen as a blessing from the gods. Thus the first rite of pas-sage, birth, was very important to the ancient Egyptians. If a couple did not have children, they made offerings of food and wine to their special deity, asking for the gift of fertility. After birth, the same deity was invoked to protect the infant from evil spirits. Young boys learned their father’s trade or skill, and young girls were trained for household duties by their mothers. If a family could afford it, the son was sent to school at about age seven, where he would become a scribe, learning religion, reading, and writing.
Marriage, the second major rite of passage, happened at an early age for peasant (poor farming) girls. They were usually married at about age twelve. Girls from wealthier families would marry in their mid-teens, as would most boys, both wealthy and poor. The engagement, bride-price (a gift presented to the family of the bride), and dowry (another gift, given to the bride herself, usually by her father or another member of her family) were also important in Egyptian society. The wedding ceremony could last several days, with feasting and prayers offered to various deities for a long and fruitful marriage. Divorce was possible, but not common. Barley was the staple in Egypt, as it was in Mesopotamia, and bread and beer were both common. Religion played a major part in the agricultural year, with the pharaoh himself, the embodiment of Amen, going to the fields at the time of planting to ensure a good harvest of grain.
Death was an immensely important religious event for the Egyptians. Mummification was, for the royalty and the wealthy (and later for the artisan class as well), the first stage in the funeral rites. Mummies were placed in tombs or pyramids with numerous personal items the deceased would need in the afterlife. These included everything from jewelry to weapons, furniture, and even (for the wealthy) their slaves.
The daily routine of work for the majority of ancient Egyptians was broken up throughout the year by a variety of religious observances. For some workers almost one-third of the year was set aside for religious observances and celebrations. The tomb makers’ eight-day work week, for example, had a two-or three-day weekend. Put together, these weekend days of rest accounted for about sixty days a year.
There were another sixty-five days of religious festivals, from full moon days to the celebration of the flooding of the Nile River, to such major festivals as the Feast of Opet. These occasions were opportunities not just for prayer at one’s home shrine or at the temple, but also for the enjoyment of games such as boxing and chariot races. Other games that may have had a religious significance include a form of hockey and another resembling handball. Festivals were also times for dramatic public readings of legends and prayers, as well as for dancing and singing.
Influences of the ancient religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia
Both ancient Mesopotamia’s and ancient Egypt’s religions had influences that have long outlasted the worship of their gods. Religion played a role in the rise of the Mesopotamian city-state, and the religion’s reliance on the stars to foretell events led to important developments in mathematics. From ancient Egypt, knowledge of anatomy and medicine greatly expanded thanks to the practice of mummification and the use of herbs to treat illnesses. These contributions have greatly aided later societies.
Mesopotamian religion was one of the earliest organized religious systems. It had a formal structure, hierarchy (chain of command), and rituals for worship. It influenced all later religious tradition, not only with its gods (some of whom, such as Inanna, were adapted into later religious traditions), but also with its central myths. During the Babylonian period the state cult of Marduk was an important early step toward the nationalistic monotheism later developed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although Marduk was only the foremost among a pantheon of other gods, his elevation to national god was a beginning in a gradual process toward modern national religions.
Other influences to come from Mesopotamian religions include advances in mathematics. Mathematics was often at the service of religion, in part because it was used to keep track of items stored at temples. The first written representation of numbers occurs in ancient Mesopotamia. Before about 3,000 BCE numbers were recorded using tokens that symbolized the items counted. But after 3,000 BCE these tokens were replaced by marks representing quantities. By 2,000 BCE the Sumerians had developed a complete system of mathematics. Similar wedge-shaped marks, called cuneiform by archaeologists and historians, formed the basis of the Sumerian system of writing, which remained in use for thousands of years.
Thousands of mathematical and economic tablets have been recovered from this time period. There are multiplication tables, tables of squares, square roots, and other mathematical figurings. There are also lists of problems for teachers to set and solutions given by students. The Mesopotamians used algebraic equations to solve quadratic problems, or those involving two unknown quantities. These problems usually involved finding lengths, widths, or diagonals of rectangles.
In Babylonian times, astrology, or the study of how the planets affect human lives, became an important part of religion. The movements of the planets had to be charted, and for this mathematical calculations were a vital tool. The observation of the stars and planets likewise led to the modern science of astronomy.
Ancient Egyptian influences
Egyptian religion passed on many of its deities to other religions. For example, Isis, in her aspect as the mother of Horus, also influenced the later Christian cult of the Virgin Mary. Like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians also passed on additional products of their religion in the form of mathematics and medicine. For example, their numbering system was based on the number ten, as in the modern decimal system. The Egyptian calendar, based on the appearance of the star Sirius, held 365 days and was divided into twelve months of thirty days each. The remaining five days were given to festivals.
Herbs were in common usage for illness, as were magic potions and prayers. The Egyptians had a large number of recipes of herbs and other materials for different kinds of illness. Yeast, for example, was recognized for its healing qualities and was applied to leg ulcers (inflammations) and swellings. Yeast was also taken internally for stomach disorders and was believed to be an effective cure for ulcers.
The Egyptians were the first to use and record advanced medical practices. The Egyptians gathered their knowledge into large volumes, which were later adopted by the Greeks. An ancient medical text written by an Egyptian of Greek ancestry, named Hermes, survives in six books. The first of these six books was directly related to anatomy. The rest served as a book of herb and mineral recipes for various ailments or illnesses.
Egyptian architecture and building techniques have also been very influential. The pyramidal shape has been adopted by modern architects, including the Egyptian-inspired entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Egyptians, like Mesopotamians, made use of canals for irrigation and became dam builders in order to control some of the unwanted flooding of the Nile River. Both of these influenced modern engineering. Art was also influenced through colorful and often realistic tomb decorations. This was especially true during the rule of Akhenaten when a style called Amarna Art was popular. The art during this period was surprisingly modern; it had a very natural look instead of the stiff poses usually found in royal paintings.
For More Information
Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
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