Personal Piety: Religion and the People

The ancient Egyptians did not have a word for religion; their religion was so deeply ingrained into everyday society that it was more an intrinsic way of life than a formalised set of beliefs. However, decorum during the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt dictated that only royalty could be depicted interacting with the gods. Therefore, our evidence for ancient Egyptian religion and worship is drawn almost entirely from royal tombs and the burials of elite individuals. This gives us a very narrow view of the everyday Egyptian’s experiences with the divine.

One of the few known examples of a god involved in the personal sphere is Bes, the protective dwarf god. His short, squat stature, leonine features and gurning face were believed to have scared away evil spirits. Unusually Bes was always depicted from the front, rather than the traditional profile seen in Egyptian art. Representations of the god are found on so-called ‘Bes Jars’; these were often found in the home and are thought to have protected women and children. Images of Bes (along with numerous other protective demons) are also found on ivory ‘wands’.

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‘Bes Jars’ represent the grotesque features of the household god, Bes. (E. 6807)

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Ivory ‘wands’ often included images of protective demons with surreal forms. (E. 7007)

It was during the Ramesside Period that changes in belief meant that the gods could be shown interacting with anyone. Increased evidence of ‘personal’ piety during this period gives us a greater understanding of the way the gods were conceptualised in the ‘everyday’. The gods were now represented in almost every aspect of Egyptian life. For example, Egyptian magical medicine rituals used statues of the young god Horus, known as cippi statues, in healing and protective rituals.

In non-royal tombs, it became more acceptable for the tomb owner to show personal interaction with the gods. This personal connection is visible through divine patronage, which could be used by Egyptians to justify their decisions in life and further their status in death. In his tomb, Zimut-Kiki claimed to have left his entire fortune to Mut, emphasising his personal connection with the goddess. Funerary stelae from this time also show the gods having a direct impact on their non-royal worshippers; the stela of Amennakht claims that Amennakht was struck blind by the goddess Meretseger as testament to her power.

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This Graeco-Roman stele depicts the deceased being led to the afterlife with the support of the gods. (E. 89)

During the Ramesside period Egyptians seemed to have more direct access to their gods. Statues of deities were still sequestered away in their temples, and only the very highest order of priests, and the king, were allowed contact with them. However, at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the addition of a ‘Temple of the Hearing Ear’ suggests that Egyptian people could pray directly to the gods, and possibly receive answers to their questions. Similarly, numerous stelae exist that depict the gods alongside iconography of ears, implying that the gods took a personal interest in hearing the prayers of their followers.

It is hard to understand such a complex religion, which has been extinct for thousands of years, but by looking at the material culture of everyday religion in ancient Egypt we can achieve a broader comprehension of the way that non-royal Egyptians made sense of their world. This enables us to move beyond the historic fixation on the elite of Egyptian society and better understand the lived experience of ancient Egyptian people.

Louise O’Brien, Chris Bebbington

 

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3 thoughts on “Personal Piety: Religion and the People

  1. This description to me seems soaked in modern monotheism and its practices. As an example, it is not at all clear whether prayer as we know it today was practiced or even understood by ancient cultures like the Egyptians.

    • Thanks very much for your comment! You’re absolutely correct that it’s one of the most difficult (and important) things to do as a scholar to distance oneself from pervading notions of modernity that interfere with our understanding of past cultures.
      Egyptian religious beliefs were certainly not monotheistic (although they are also very different from what we might understand as polytheism in modernity – particularly with regards to the syncretism of deities in Egypt). Furthermore, the modern trappings of organised religion cannot be applied to Egyptian religion – the idea of going to church to worship, or having organised prayer led by a specific individual is not something that bears out in the surviving evidence from Egypt. However, there is evidence from ancient Egypt (some of which is highlighted in the post above) for people having a deeply personal relationship with the divine.
      The debate regarding personal piety in an Egyptological context is an interesting and often fiery one! What we have presented here tries to stay as close to the evidence as possible. It is certain that there was something akin to ‘worship’ of the divine, and a concept that spiritual beings could be affected by the words of the living – take, for example, the ubiquitous stelae including offering formulae that could be ‘read out’ and magically affect the deceased in the afterlife. Similarly, literary evidence found on ostraca from Deir el-Medina indicates that people did actively seek assistance from the divine (for example, UC 39609 from the Petrie museum is an ostracon on which the writer is pleading to Amun for help). While this may not necessarily reflect ‘prayer’ in the modern, ‘western’ context in which we understand it, the basic concept is similar – a request made by a person who hopes that the divine will intercede on their behalf. Thus, as Egyptologists, we are confident to use terminology such as ‘prayer’, admittedly with the understanding that what the Egyptians did does not completely mesh with the modern connotations of that word.
      For further reading on the surrounding debate we can recommend a few titles which may be of interest.
      • Assman, J. (2001), The Search for God in ancient Egypt. London: Cornell University Press.
      • Luiselli, M. M. (2008), ‘Personal Piety’ in Dieleman, J. & W. Wendrich (eds), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles: UCL. Available online:
      • Shafer, B. E., Baines, J. Lesko, L. H. & D. Silverman (1991), Religion in ancient Egypt: gods, myths and personal practice. London: Cornell University Press.
      Chris Bebbington.

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