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Ancient Egyptian Beliefs
by Julie Richer
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Scholars have learned about the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians in a variety of
ways. Much of our understanding comes from texts such as the Book of the Dead. The
Egyptians wrote on scrolls made from a reed (hollow plant) called papyrus. The papyri
known today as the Book of the Dead contain magic spells which were supposed to
protect the dead on their way to the afterlife. The Book of the Dead reveals that after a
person dies, he is supposed to appear before the god, Osiris, and confess any sins he
committed on earth in the form of 400 statements of things he did not do. The person
names the demi-gods and the ancient Egyptian cities those gods represent. Here is an
example from Spell 125:
• Bone-Breaker who comes from Heracleopolis, I have not told lies.
• Green Flame who comes from Memphis, I have not stolen food.
• Nefertem who comes from Memphis, I have not done any wrong, I have
witnessed no crime.
There is not just one Book of the Dead, but several. For example, The Book of What is
in the Underworld shows what route a king must take when he goes to the land of the
dead with the sun-god, Ra (also known as Re) in his solar boat, and the Book of the
Gates and the Book of the Caverns show how to get past monsters that guard the gates
of the 12 hours of the night.
We can also learn from the hieroglyphs (Egyptian symbols) found on temple walls, such
as the famous temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. For a long time, no one could
interpret the temple inscriptions, until the Rosetta Stone was discovered. The Rosetta
Stone was a round stone found near the Rosetta branch of the Nile. The stone
contained words in three types of writing: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic, which is a
shorthand version of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, and Greek. By translating the Greek
section, scholars were able to learn what the hieroglyphs meant. This enabled them to
translate inscriptions inside the Egyptian temples. One of the first men to interpret the
hieroglyphs, Champollion, was able to prove his theory by translating the name
"Ramessess" which had been copied from inscriptions on the walls of the temple of
Ramesses II. Years later, when the Aswan Dam on the Nile River was planned, this
temple and others were painstakingly moved, block by block, to high ground to preserve
their beauty and historical value.
Many inscriptions were also found on the walls inside the burial chambers of the ancient
pharaohs. One of the most important discoveries was the tomb of Tutankhamen
(popularly referred to as "King Tut"). His tomb was one of many found in the
archeological site known as "Valley of the Kings" where many pharaohs were buried.
What made Tutankhamen's tomb special was that, unlike many of the other tombs in
the area which had been emptied of their treasures by robbers, most of the treasures in
King Tut's tomb remained. In fact, it appeared that robbers had been caught while
stealing from the tomb, and the priests or guards had resealed the tomb after piling the
treasures back inside.
Some of the gods depicted in Egyptian legends had animal heads and human bodies,
such as Amen-Re, the hawk-headed god. The Egyptians also worshipped their kings as
gods. The legend of Isis and Osiris is an example of a legend about Egyptian royalty.
The details of this story were revealed by inscriptions on temple walls.
The Legend of Isis and Osiris
Osiris was once a living king of Egypt. He was married to his sister, Isis, whose name
means "Great of Magic." Their evil brother, Seth, was married to their sister, Nephthys.
Seth wanted to be king, so he made a plan to kill Osiris. One day Seth tricked Osiris into
stepping into a golden coffin. When Osiris was inside the coffin, Seth slammed the lid
shut and threw the coffin into the Nile River.
While Seth took the throne, Isis went to get the body of her husband, which had been
washed downriver. When she returned to Egypt with the body of Osiris, Seth seized the
body and ripped it asunder. He threw the 14 pieces of the body into the Nile. Wherever
a piece of the body was found, Isis built a temple to Osiris. Once she had collected all of
the pieces of Osiris' body, Isis turned into a kite (a kite is a bird also known as a
"hawk"). Isis flapped her wings until the breeze from her wings breathed life back into
Osiris' body. Because of this legend, many Egyptian coffins show the wings of Isis
wrapped around the coffin, so that Isis' wings may breathe life into the souls of the
After Osiris was resurrected, Isis gave birth to their son, Horus. Osiris was ruler over the
land of the dead, while Isis raised Horus to avenge his father's murder. After years of
fighting against Seth, Horus finally won and became king of Egypt. Many temples were
built in his honor.