Proposal: Religion and Society

One thing that continues to hold my attention when it comes to Ancient Egypt, is how heavily influenced they were by their belief system. Their elaborate myths, stories, and legends continue to intrigue me, as it does with many others, and I would like to explore more into their ideological practices. Specifically, I would like to examine the direct effect that those religious ideological practices played on Ancient Egyptian society.

Throughout the course of the semester, I have come across several instances where the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, played a direct role in societal development. One of the most well known circumstances from class is how the dead were buried.

With this assignment, I will explore how burial practices of Ancient Egypt differed from other ancient civilizations. I will explore the items that were buried with the dead, the architectural structures of those buried in actual structured graves and if there is any indication that the structures are linked to ideological beliefs, and as mentioned: ritual practices and its religious and/or spiritual importance to the ancient Egyptian people when dealing with death and the afterlife; examining places such as Abydos and the Duat.

In addition to burial practices, I will explore, in depth, the ceremonial practices that took place, mainly to examine the direct role mythologies had on societal structure. To further explain, in one of my blog posts, I read about a festival dedicated to the god of Osiris, and the surrounding remains of where the festival would occur, revealed that only the wealthy were able to attend, and those who were poor had to watch the festival from afar. This difference in social rank, is evident by the surrounding makeshift houses outlying the city’s parameters.

By looking at ceremonial practices dedicated to the gods, I would also be examining the architecture of significant monuments – tombs of pharaohs and other necropolis areas – briefly explaining the significance of its locations in relation to their mythology etc.

Finally, I will also be examining the “pop culture” aspect of Ancient Egypt – looking at art, fashion, ceramic/pottery pieces that serve as offerings to the gods or were inspired by the gods and goddesses; perhaps even musical instruments that were created as well, if informational data permits.

Sources I hope will be of help, include a book by W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt: Revised Edition. I will be looking at the Early Dynastic, Old Kingdom, and New Kingdom, hoping to compare the results of the art found in various sites, noting the differences that occur throughout time. Another book I found highlights Ancient Egypt traditions, primarily their religious beliefs, in Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch. Another source I intend to use focuses on the temples of Ancient Egypt and its religious role within the Egyptian society – Temples of Ancient Egypt by Dieter Arnold and Byron Esely Shafer. This book looks at the temples, priests, mortuary practices, and other rituals pertaining to the afterlife.

Festival of Osiris

What intrigued me the most, this week, are the religious practices surrounding Abydos. The mythology story is very fascinating – the entry to the underworld, the home of Osiris, the weighing of the heart – all fascinating things. I decided to look more into it. In my findings, I learned that there is an annual festival procession in the name of Osiris, beginning at the god’s temple, ending at the royal tombs of Umm el-Qa’ab. It has been said that the ‘god’ temple is actually the tomb of one of the first pharaoh’s, Djer, whom we talked about in class. This procession is actually depicted in many funeral art.

Not only is this ceremony/pilgrimage depicted in funerary art, but it is reflected in the surrounding area. Along the outlying areas of the ancient city that held the temple of Osiris, there is evidence of mud-bricked chapels. These chapels were built for individuals who were not able to physically take part in the ritual, but could be parts of it from a distance – watching the procession pass through as they made their way to the royal tombs. The purpose of the chapels gives insight into the society at the time because it seems that those who watched from the chapels were of lower statuses than those actually allowed to view the procession up close. Apparently, what happened during these rituals was that priests carried the statue of Osiris to the final destination at Umm el-Qa’ab, and consisted of two parts. The first part was public, which I assume was what these chapel people witness, and the second was a private and secret section, taking place in the desert, performing the divine rites. Religiously, people took part in this festival to pray to be a part of it in the afterlife. In religious texts, most people desire to witness the event in order to benefit from it somehow spiritually.


In this week’s reading by Kohler, I found it really interesting – the part about the craft industry of Egypt. It is cool how it corresponded heavily with the elites, the social organization, political economy etc. Their established trade routes were extremely impressive. Trading all along the Nile and other outside regions – hitting Mesopotamia, Levant, Africa, and Anatolia. As they traded among these places, the craft industries were able to “set up shop” along these routes, making it easier to acquire raw materials.

The elites took it another step further, seeing that these trades of foreign goods were beneficial to the economy, they started to regulate it more by putting more emphasis on foreign trade. It is even mentioned in the reading that there is evidence to suggest that ships were sent to the Mediterranean to acquire goods. These acquired goods were later found distributed amongst the royal court. Whatever was distributed can often be found in the tombs of royals, however sometimes they can also be found in the tombs of the lower class as well. The foreign trade and importing of goods was such a successful means of networking, that it became a big part of centralized government, where taxes were collected regularly and the income was distributed back to the state officials.

I am aware that Egypt is not the first to have an established trade system during ancient times, however, I continue to find their system fascinating at how strategic and well thought out their system was. There is even evidence that some of their commodities were packaged, stored, and labeled with hieroglyphic symbols separate from the traditional hieroglyphic alphabet. This elaborate system of networking and trade, reflect the elites of this time and also gives testament to the fact that there was an established social pyramid – making this period (Dynasty 1) a complex yet skilled society with a strong sense of international relations.

Predynastic Burials

Browsing through the British Museum website, I stumbled across an article/highlight of a predynastic Egyptian body. In my opinion, it is equally strange and interesting. The body, first of all, is placed in a sort of fetal position, with the knees and elbows tucked under. However, the preservation of it is highly impressive. It does not follow the normal mummification process that we all are familiar with. Since this is a predynastic body, bodies were put into graves out in the desert. The graves were usually shallow but having a close proximity to the sun’s heat. The sand that surrounded the body acted as some kind of protective layer. The hot sand kept moisture out and away from affecting the body. The lack of moisture coming in contact with the body made it impossible for bacteria to grow and spread. Also, the sand absorbed the water out of the body as well. As a result, the body is well preserved; the article states that there is still hair and fingernails in tact.

Looking further into the burial customs, it is interesting to read up on. They usually would face the head pointing toward the west. The westward facing position was to steer whatever part of the soul that remained, to go in that direction. The fetal position that they are laid in is to resemble the likes of sleeping. Inside of their circular/oval shaped grave pits, the bodies are buried with belongings held in various forms of pottery. However, their pottery often told more about the upper class than it did about those who were actually in the grave. Another interesting thing about the graves, is that there are not any double burials. Meaning: women were not buried with children etc. Also, the lack of children burials in this style of grave pit, further heightens the fact that children who died, were buried much closer to settlements.

King Tut’s mysterious death

I was very interested in learning more about Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s time excavating together and decided to look more into it. In my search for an article about those two, I stumbled on a really recent article about the cause of King Tut’s death. Over time it has been an ongoing debate about how and why he died, hitting all parts of the spectrum from murder to sickle cell anemia.

Very recently, a new theory has emerged that the King died of epilepsy, according to a surgeon from London, Hutan Ashrafian. He theorized that the King had to have died from some sort of hereditary illness because it is evident in those who preceded him in their physical traits. When looking at various paintings and sculptures of the kings, it is a commonality that they all attribute very feminine-like features. Ashrafian argues that, if it is epilepsy, the temporal lobe is affected and in addition to seizures, it also releases sex hormones that would cause very feminine features to develop. Another thing that points to epilepsy, is that each King exhibited similar symptoms and died of mysterious causes, but experienced them at different times – each pharaoh experiencing it sooner in life than the last.

One of the main indicators, however, is the evidence of seizures. Many believed that the pharaohs received religious visions, however, seizures affect the temporal lobe, which in turn causes hallucinations. Theses hallucinations can be provoked, especially when exposed to a lot of sunlight – which Egypt gets a lot of. Subsequently, as a result of these “religious visions”, it could explain how Egypt became one of the first to practice a monotheistic religion. One of the pharaohs had a “religious vision” that told him to worship a minor deity, which caused the rest of Egypt to abandon polytheism.


Lights, Camera, Egypt

In reading the article by Hassan, an interesting point was brought up. He points out that Ancient Egypt has become more of a Hollywood thing, rather than a historical thing. It is quite depressing when thought about because it is true. How often is there a conversation about Ancient Egypt had, without someone eventually bringing up some pop culture reference such as The Mummy Returns or Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? With today’s generation, it does not happen very much. What makes it even more depressing is the idea that robbers have already looted a lot of ancient Egyptian tombs, and now the entire history of Ancient Egypt in general is being “robbed” by the entertainment business.

The history surrounding Egypt is remarkably rich; everything from biblical references, mythologies, to historic wars etc. happened in Egypt. However, most of that gets pushed on the back burner because everyone who visits would much rather see Karnack because a Hollywood film featured it, instead of going to see the Festival Hall of Thutmose III. A lot of these amazing, historic landmarks are getting pushed out of the way by the entertainment industry. Even the Rosetta Stone got caught in the mix! If I were to mention the Rosetta Stone to my cousin, ten years my junior, she would automatically think of the language learning program. She is only ten years younger than I am, but at this rate, I can only imagine that ancient Egyptian history will get lost within the media realm and be an extremely confusing topic for future generations. People will think of the Luxor hotel in Vegas instead of the pyramid in Egypt; their knowledge of Ramses will come from what they have seen in The Prince of Egypt; the culture of ancient Egypt will be reduced to a dance move etc. This sort of rise in pop culture creates a more difficult task for Egyptologists and other professors when teaching students.

The Nile as a supermarket

From the readings and lecture, seeing that the Nile played such an essential role and learning all about its contributions, prompted me to look at the Nile as a business. I toyed with the idea and essentially settled on hypothetically seeing the Nile as a “supermarket”. A supermarket provides for people; it has a lot of things that we need on a daily basis. It generally provides a wide range, everything from jobs to food to miscellaneous household items. A supermarket is one big center for trade centralized in an area in which people from various areas can go to, to get what they need. People rely on it. All characteristics of which can be mirrored in the Nile.

The Nile plays a large role in providing for its people. Ancient Egyptians relied on it as a source of travel, a source of agriculture, a source of mineral resources to build things etc. All along the Nile there were all sorts of trade. To further explain, for example, the eastern side of the Nile in the Eastern Desert, there was a richness in desirable stones and often gold. Also, in general, the cereal cultivation along the Nile made it possible for bread and beer production.

So all along the Nile there are people working these mini “businesses” of food production, pottery, clothing etc., which goes back to my idea of the Nile being a supermarket. It supplies the people with resources to the point that it is heavily relied on. They rely on the Nile in the same way we rely on supermarkets. If a supermarket has a shortage, we are negatively affected; if it has a surplus, the supermarket is negatively affected. It’s just like the annual inundation that the Nile has. If there is not enough flooding, the people are impacting – almost like having a shortage. If there is too much flooding, there is definite negative impact.