One of the most interesting aspects of ancient Egypt is its religion. The depth of Egyptian thinking and the rich imagination displayed in the creation of ideas and images of the gods and goddesses are beyond compare. In elaborating their beliefs, the Egyptians were working on the cosmic plane, searching for an understanding of the most basic laws of the universe.
They developed the first thought forms of the Godhead - the beginnings of a religion. Their beliefs evolved slowly over the centuries and gradually developed into a comprehensive world view shared by the people of the Nile.
Religion is the glue that binds local communities into nationhood and creates common understandings and shared values that are essential to the growth of a civilization. No religion is fully formed at its inception. By looking at ancient Egypt, one can see how belief systems evolved to become the driving force of cultural expressions. In the early stages of human thought, the concept of God did not exist. Our early ancestors were concerned about natural phenomena and the powers that controlled these phenomena; they did not worship a personalized form of God. This stage of religious development is referred to as "magical".
In Egypt, before the concept of God existed,
magical power was encapsulated in the
hieroglyph of a
sceptre (or rod
or staff). This is one of the most enduring symbols of divine power,
ever present in images of the pharaohs and the gods.
As human society evolved, people gradually gained a degree of personal identity. With a higher sense of individuality, humans began to conceive the gods in a personalized form. This stage in development is called "mythical". In Egypt, this process began during the late prehistoric period, when writing was being invented and myths were being formulated.
At that stage, every Egyptian town had its own particular deity, manifested in a material fetish or a god represented in the shape of an animal, such as a cat-goddess, cobra-goddess, ibis-god or jackal-god. As the pantheon grew in cohesiveness, these gods and goddesses were given human bodies and credited with human attributes and activities. The temples in the major cities throughout the land were constructed to venerate local gods. During the New Kingdom, these temples honoured a triad of gods based on the pattern established by the mythical family of Osiris, Isis and Horus.
Like all religions, that of ancient Egypt was complex. It evolved over the centuries from one that emphasized local deities into a national religion with a smaller number of principal deities. Some theologians think that Egypt was moving towards a monotheistic faith in a single creator, symbolized by the sun god. There was no single belief system, but the Egyptians shared a common understanding about the creation of the world and the possibility of reverting to chaos if the destructive forces of the universe were unleashed.
When the Greeks and the Romans conquered Egypt, their religion was influenced by that of Egypt. Ancient pagan beliefs gradually faded and were replaced by monotheistic religions. Today, the majority of the Egyptian population is Muslim, with a small minority of Jews and Christians.