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Ancient Egyptian Beliefs

by Julie Richer, Cyberkids founder

Read this article before trying the Pyramid Crossword Puzzle.

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 dead.

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.

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