<Standard 7.14 ..............................................................................................................................................Standard 7.16>

Describe the polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt, with respect to beliefs about death, the afterlife, mummification and the roles of different deities.

Focus Question: What were ancient Egypt's beliefs about death, the afterlife, mummification, and the roles of different deities?

Topics on the Page
  • Women in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Society
Concept of Maat
Beliefs about Death
Beliefs about the Underworld
Beliefs about the Afterlife
  • How to Make a Mummy
Role of Deities
Ancient Artifacts

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 2.30.48 PM.pngFor more on religion, see AP World History Key Concept 2.1

  • AP Key Concept 2.1 has information about the emergence of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a Timeline of Egypt starting from 4500 B.C. to 2009. This will help to visualize the events in order

Priest Renpetmaa praying.  ca. 900 BCE.
Priest Renpetmaa praying. ca. 900 BCE.

Click here for an extensive overview of Religion in the Lives of Ancient Egyptians.

Rotating_globe-small.gifClick here for a fascinating interview with Egyptologist Salima Ikram about the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Includes wonderful pictures of mummies and a wealth of further resources like interactive tours of Ancient Egypt and videos.

For an overview of recent archaeological discoveries, visit the website of the prominent archaeologist, Zahi Hawass.


Polytheism: the worship of more than one god. Egyptian gods include Amun Ra, Anubis, Seth, Osiris, Isis, and Horus.

Click here for an explanation of the differences between polytheism and monotheism.

book.png For more information on the structure of polytheism, see Jan Assmann's The Search for God in Ancient Egypt

Multimedia.png Click here for a video on Gods Isis and Osiris

Female_Rose.pngWomen in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Society

Click here to read about Important Women who helped changed the History of Ancient Egypt
  • Hatshepsut: first female pharoah in Ancient Egypt
  • Cleopatra: ruled Egypt for nearly 3 decades
  • Nefertari: given various roles as Queen
  • Nefertiti: brought religious revolution to Egypt by worshiping only one God

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngBust of Queen Nefertiti

The Goddess Maat with feather in headband.

The Concept of Maat

The Pharaoh, or king of Egypt, was viewed as both human and divine, and thus acted as intermediary between Egypt's people and the gods. He was given the challenging task of maintaining "Maat" within his kingdom.

The concept of maat is central to Egyptian religion and thought and is the embodiment of truth and the balance of the universe. The Pharaoh's role in maintaining Maat involved defending the country from enemies, appointing fair officials, managing the food supply, and appeasing the gods with temples and offerings.

Female_Rose.pngThe concept of Maat was personified by a goddess of the same name representing the ideals of law, order, and truth.

For information on Maat's commandments and its links to Christianity, click here

The pharaoh was responsible for maintaining Maat as he was expected to control all actions of his people. Maat included the ideas of truth, moderation, and justice and if it was lost, Isfet would occur. Years of civil unrest were blamed on the presence of Islet, while peaceful years resulted from Maat.

Go to Egypt's Golden Empire from PBS to learn more about Maat and read another an overall explanation of ancient Egyptian religion (25).


external image Egypt.KV43.01.jpgEgyptian beliefs:
    1. Death is not the end; it's a natural step in the life cycle.
    2. Death is really a "rebirth."
    3. After death, you enter a new world like the current one, so you are buried with everything you will need.
    4. Belief that the human soul were comprised of five elements:
      1. Ka is the vital spark
      2. Ba is the personality of the individual
      3. Akh refers to the individual's immortality
      4. Sheut is the shadow
      5. Ren is the individual's name
    5. The Ba could leave the deceased's tomb during the day and do as it pleased, but had to remain in the tomb when the deceased wanted it to.

Egyptian Book of the Dead


    1. Before the dead could could reach the Afterlife, they first had to pass judgement in the Underworld.
    2. Anubis, the guardian of the Underworld, would greet the dead in the Hall of Maat where their soul would be judged.
    3. Anubis would then weigh the dead's heart against the feather on the scales of Maat to see if they are worthy of crossing over into the Afterlife.
    4. If the dead's heart proved unworthy, it would be fed to the demon dog, Ammut, and the dead's body and soul would be left vulnerable to the demons of the Underworld.
Anubis, guardian of the Underworld

Rotating_globe-small.gifClick here for a more detailed look at the journey through the Underworld

Click here to learn more about tombs of Ancient Egypt.
Multimedia.pngWatch this three minute video clip from National Geographic, "Tombs of Ancient Egypt", to gain more knowledge about the origin of the Egyptians belief in rejuvenation and the afterlife, the purpose of tombs, their construction, and what contents would be place within them.


    1. Life is a preliminary stage to get to the afterlife.
    2. Afterlife is ensured through a three step process:
      1. Mummification of the body
      2. Placing the mummified body in a tomb with the deceased's name on it
      3. Having a funeral.
    3. Food or drink was then offered to those who were not able to attend the funeral.
    4. To make sure the dead had material comfort in their afterlife, ancient Egyptians would place jewelry, furniture, and clothes, etc., in the tombs.
Egyptian mummies.  Photo by Bram Souffreau
Egyptian mummies. Photo by Bram Souffreau

lessonplan.jpgFor a lesson plan on the Afterlife, click here

The Ancient Egyptians believed in immortality and saw death as a temporary interruption of their lives. The journey to the underworld was dangerous and mummies needed to pass through the underworld. The gods participated in a "Weighing of the Heart" ceremony to determine whether they would survive in the afterlife based on their past. Click here to learn more about the Egyptians' ideas on the afterlife and immortality (23).
Multimedia.pngClick here for a video from the History Channel, "Journey to the Afterlife."


    1. Mummification was originally reserved for kings, but throughout time became a common practice for everyone.
    2. It was believed that the physical body must be preserved by mummification in order for the soul to remain there in the afterlife.
    3. Bodies were mummified so the soul could get food and water in the afterlife.
    4. First, the internal organs would be removed, stored in jars, and placed at the burial site. The brain had no importance to the Egyptians, so they removed and disposed of it.
    5. The second step was letting the body dry in the sun for 40-50 days after being wrapped in cloth and soaked in natron (drying mixture of salt).
    6. Next, the body was stuffed with material, such as resin and linen, and formed into the person's original size and shape.
    7. The last stage consisted of wrapping the body in linen while priests said prayers. Jewelry was often placed within the linens.

  • The Getty Museum uses 3D animations to show the detailed steps Egyptians took in order during Mummification. In this video it is The Mummification Process for Herakleides.
    • A selection from a National Geographic special called King Tut's Final Secrets: Inside the Tomb
      • . In this special scientists use that latest technology available to uncover the mystery as to why the Pharaoh Tutankhamen died at such a young age.
  • A great video from the British Museum that has scientists using CT scans to look inside mummies and unlocking ancient secrets. Take a look inside.

game_icon.svg.pngSee also The Mummy Maker, an interactive game that features an embalmer's workshop, where you have to prepare the body of Ramose, officer to the king, for burial, from the BBC.

The Egyptians used mummification as an act of purification and used palm wine to clean the bodies and kill decomposing bacteria.
  • This website explains the various steps of mummification and how bodies were prepared for the afterlife, including how they were dressed and the ceremonial ritual that lasted for 70 days before the body could be lowered into a coffin (24).
Ra, the egyptian god was the god of sun and kings
Ra, the egyptian god was the god of sun and kings

For a good, albeit brief, introduction to mummies in other cultures, such as the Incas, the Chinese, as well as many others, Click here
  • This episode of the BBC documentary series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, called "People of the Clouds" is a look at the Chachapoya people, who were mummifying their dead long before the Egyptians. A close examination of one of the mummies begins at about 24:00, where the link starts. BBC's Lost Kingdoms of South America, Ep. 1 "People of the Clouds"

  • Watch this video the Mummy Process as it depicts the mummification process, and explains how and why this process was upheld.

Roles of Deities

    1. The main deities were Atum, Ra, Chnum, Amun, Ptah. Each ruled over specific regions at specific times.
    2. Atum was the god of sun, ruler of gods. Atum is illustrated as a black bull or golden crown. He was considered the father of gods/pharaohs.
    3. Ra was the god of heaven/power/light. Ra was illustrated with a sun disk on his head. He is too old to rule from Earth, so he watches over from the heavens.
    4. Chnum was the "ram god" who made the Nile fertile for agriculture. Chnum was the creator of humans by making babies out of clay and putting them in women's wombs.
    5. Amun was the god of wind/sun,and later the head deity. Amun was illustrated as a man with beard and feathered crown/sun disk. Amun joined with Ra to become main deity.
    6. Ptah was the god of creation/artisans. He was shown as man with beard, wrapped like a mummy except for his hands.

Click here for a website that includes information about demons, who were more powerful than humans but less than gods and had supernatural powers. Ammut was a famous demon, known as the Devourer of the Dead, devoured the hearts of those too immoral for the afterlife. Apepi was another demon and enemy of the sun god. This website also explores the roles of more gods and goddesses. (22)

Egyptian artifacts on Display in Torino, Italy
Egyptian artifacts on Display in Torino, Italy

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.55.03 PM.png Conduct a class discussion/debate on who has the rights of ownership to ancient artifacts such as Egyptian mummies and Greek statues.
  • Linking the Egyptians’ belief in an afterlife with the ways that Western archaeologists have removed and studied mummies leads to an interesting discussion.
    • As one of our 180 Days in Springfield interns noted: "I have found that my classes were very divided on the matter, with some being vehemently opposed to tampering of tombs and bodies."

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngClick Here for a greater understanding of the purpose of Egyptian Art. Khan Academy explains the original purpose of this art, the function of the art, what we actually see in museums, and the meaning behind certain art techniques.

For more background on the issue of illegally excavated and exported artifacts, see:

Great Pyramid.  Image by Alex lbh
Great Pyramid. Image by Alex lbh

The Pyramids

As discussed earlier, the Egyptians believed in immortality after death. In order for the spirit to become immortal, the spirit of the deceased had to reanimate its body and then make the perilous journey to the afterworld.

In order to ensure this, not only did the body have to be preserved well in mummification, but they had to be provided with items to take with them to use in the afterlife.

Thus, the final resting place of the Egyptians were of great importance. Not only did the body have to remain mummified, but the items that were buried with them had to be protected from grave robbers. (26)

In the oldest of days, Egyptians could be expected to be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert in the ground, with a few items wrapped with them, where the natural aridity of the environment could mummify the body.
  • Eventually wealthier citizens opted to build mud-brick tombs called "mastabas" (related to the modern Arabic term for "bench"), but inside the mastaba, a body rotted away. Thus the need for mummification techniques was born.
    • Eventually, the wealthiest of citizens, the Pharaoh opted for a huge pyramid as their resting place. (27)

The pyramids were a monument to the Pharaoh, and they were also a physical object that had to have allocated resources, including materials, labor, location, and the creature comforts themselves. The amount of resources that were put into the building of these tombs say much about the social importance death and the afterlife in Ancient Egyptian society.

external image a9cc3f76fad57480efe3953a59868b35d27a3106.jpg

Link to The Great Pyramids of Giza for more information on the three primary pyramids on the Giza Plateau

game_icon.svg.pngHere is a BBC interactive game that allows a student (or a teacher) to experience the great challenge of designing and building the pyramid, taking into a count the social, economic, and religious implications of such a monumental endeavor!

Pyramid Texts
Some pyramids from the Old Kingdom also featured hieroglyphics that make up the Pyramid Texts, a collection of spells, or utterances that are meant to guide the Pharaoh's soul to the afterworld, providing comfort, advice, and information, as well as calling on the gods and goddesses for favor and intervention on behalf of the deceased spirit. In addition, since they are dated to have been written 3100-3000 BCE, they are the oldest sacred text in the world. (28)

Screen Shot 2016-10-29 at 12.06.19 PM.pngFor an interactive look at the Pyramid texts, click here to journey to the Pyramid of Unas, the oldest of the pyramids with the Pyramid Texts on the wall!
  • The website allows the visitor to navigate through the pyramid and read the inscriptions by clicking on the areas inside the tomb where the text was originally located, or alternatively, the visitor can just view English text and view the originally hieroglyphic version.


  1. http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777190168/
  2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/afterlife-ancient-egypt.html
  3. http://www.drhawass.com/about-zahi-hawass
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/gods_gallery.shtml
  5. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women1.htm
  6. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women2.htm
  7. http://www.egyptartsite.com/judgement.html#top
  8. http://www.king-tut.org.uk/egyptian-tombs/index.htm
  9. http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/places/countries-places/egypt/tombs-of-ancient-egypt.html
  10. http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/mummies.htm
  11. http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/mummies/home.html
  12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/launch_gms_mummy_maker.shtml
  13. http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/ED/mummy.html
  14. http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/should_ancient_artifacts_return_home
  15. http://www.china.org.cn/english/culture/54158.htm
  16. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1883142_1883129_1929080,00.html
  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/19/arts/design/19bowl.html
  18. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vaCflRWL9c
  19. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/a-night-of-exploration/videos/king-tuts-final-secrets/
  20. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MQ5dL9cQX0
  21. http://www.childrensuniversity.manchester.ac.uk/interactives/history/egypt/makeamummy/
  22. http://discoveringegypt.com/ancient-egyptian-gods-and-goddesses/
  23. http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcr04e.shtml
  24. http://legacy.mos.org/quest/mummy.php
  25. http://www.pbs.org/empires/egypt/newkingdom/religion.htm
  26. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman/articles/ancient-egyptian-tombs-and-death-rituals/
  27. http://www.egyptianmuseum.org/burialpracticesgallery
  28. http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/pyramidtext.html