Egyptian gods and priests: from 3000 BC

In prehistory each community of people in the Nile valley has developed its own god or gods, many of them connected with animals. As Egypt becomes unified, under pharaohs who are themselves seen as divine, the entire pantheon settles down into a relatively easy working relationship.

The pharaoh is the chief priest of the entire nation. In each temple the local priests stand in for him. Their task, as in every early religion, is to tend to the needs of the gods. These are locked away in the innermost reaches of the temple, inaccessible to ordinary people. The priests regularly visit them, undress them, wash and anoint them, and then clothe them in new garments.

The two main tasks, for priests and gods alike, are to guard against encroaching chaos (in particular to ensure that the sun gets up each morning) and to help the dead into the Next world, which the Egyptians confidently believe will be just as pleasant as this one and remarkably similar. Just as on earth, a distinguished man or woman will need their household servants and domestic goods to be sure of a comfortable existence. Models of these are placed with them in their tombs.

Appearance in tomb paintings has made some gods more familiar than others: Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who conducts the dead through their trials; ibis-headed Thoth, the scribe to the gods; falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky and light; Seth, a rival to Horus, recognizable by his mysterious pointed snout; and Osiris, wearing a tall white headdress, who represents the idea of resurrection in the Next world.

Re and Amen

The central divinity of Egyptian religion is the sun, and from early times the most important sun god is Re. He is believed to sail his boat under the world each night. Every time, during the journey, he has to defeat an evil spirit, Apophis, before he can reappear.

At Thebes, which becomes the capital in about 2000 BC, another god, Amen, is of great importance. In about 1500 BC Amen combines with Re to become Amen-Re, who from then on is effectively the state god of Egypt, identified with the pharaoh. The two greatest temples at Karnak and Luxor are dedicated to Amen-Re.

The challenge from Aten: c.1353-c.1336 BC

For one brief period Amen is shifted from his central position in the Egyptian pantheon. Soon after Amenhotep IV comes to the throne, in about 1353 BC, he changes his name from Amenhotep ('Amen is satisfied') to Akhenaten ('beneficial to Aten'), signifying that the new state deity is to be Aten, the disk of the sun. Six years later Akhenaten moves the court from Thebes to an entirely new capital city, some 300 miles down the Nile at a site now known as Tell el Amarna. A great temple to Aten is its central feature.

At the same time Akhenaten attempts to have the name of Amen erased from all inscriptions. Aten is to be the only god.

The insistence that there is no other god but Aten represents a first step towards Monotheism, and for this reason much attention has been paid to Akhenaten by western historians. In the Egyptian perspective he seems less significant. Within a few years of his death, in about 1336 BC, the old religion is restored, the court moves back to Thebes, and Tell el Amarna is destroyed.

Again the change is symbolized in a change of name. Akhenaten is succeeded by two boys, each married to one of his daughters to give them legitimacy. The second of the two is called Tutankhaten. In the resurgence of the cult of Amen, the new pharaoh's name is changed to Tutankhamen.

Tutankhamen, famous in modern times for the remarkable contents of his tomb (see Tomb of Tutankhamen), inherits the throne in about 1333 BC at the age of nine and lives only another nine years. He would not feature largely in history on his own account.

With no heir to the throne on Tutankhamen's death, his elderly vizier (a man by the name of Ay, whose wife was nurse to Queen Nefertiti) becomes pharaoh. But Ay dies within four years, again without an heir. This time the throne is taken by a more forceful character - Horemheb, commander of the army. He rules for a quarter of a century, energetically removing all traces of the heretical Aten. Then, having no heir, he bequeaths the throne to Ramses - his vizier and army commander, and now founder of the 19th dynasty

The return of Amen: from c.1336 BC

Aten's brief blaze of glory is over. Amen, or Amen-Re, is back as the main Egyptian deity - a position which he will retain as long as Thebes survives.

The destruction of Thebes by the Assyrians in the 7th century BC reduces Amen's status. But in the 4th century, when Alexander the great wants to acquire an aura of Egyptian divinity, he makes a pilgrimage to a shrine of Amen. Not until the establishment of Christianity in Egypt does his cult, and that of his fellow gods and goddesses, come to a final end.