How Did the Ancient Egyptian Religion Change Through the Centuries?

Even though it is often presented as static, the ancient Egyptian religion kept changing and evolving through the five millennia of ancient Egyptian history.

Feb 12, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

ancient egyptian religion evolution


The names of almost 2,000 ancient Egyptian gods are known today. It is difficult to imagine how one culture could have worshipped so many deities and that is exactly the issue. Ancient Egyptian culture and religion were far from unified, as every local community had its own gods and beliefs. After the unification of Egypt into a single kingdom, the pharaohs attempted to bring the country’s gods into some kind of alignment. This meant that religious decisions were often more political than theological. The supreme gods depended on which city was currently politically dominant. Let’s learn a little more about the evolution of ancient Egyptian religion from pre-historic to Christian times.


Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

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Bone figurine with inlaid eyes of lapis lazuli, photograph by Jon Bodsworth, Naqada I Period. Source: British Museum


It is believed that religion in predynastic Egypt was animistic. The important natural phenomena that affected the lives of the Egyptians were animated as gods and represented by totems (sacred objects). To win the favor of these animated deities for prosperity or protection, temples were constructed in the local area. Priests were charged with seeing to the needs of the gods. Hundreds of deities emerged throughout Egypt during this period.


Hapi was the god of the inundation of the Nile, bringing fertility and property each year. His main cult center was at Elephantine Island, near Aswan. As an important fertility deity, Hapi gained a national profile. He was sometimes called the father of the gods and linked with creation.


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Relief of the god Sobek from Kom Ombo Temple, c. 4th Century BCE. Source: American Research Center in Egypt, University of California, United States.


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The crocodiles of the Nile were animated as the god Sobek. While he was a threatening god, he was also invoked for protection against the dangers associated with the Nile. In the Old Kingdom, Sobek’s cult was mainly in the Fayum, a region about 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo. Sobek’s popularity grew over the centuries. In the 4th century BCE, a major temple that still stands today was built for him at Kom Ombo near Aswan.


In around 3150 BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under new dynastic rulers known as Pharaohs. This changed religion. The power of the Pharaoh was boosted by casting him as an important intermediary between the mortal and the divine worlds.


This gave the Pharaoh semi-divine status through his special relationship with the gods.


Ancestor worship and the cult of the dead also gained importance as the Pharaohs justified their position through their bloodline.


Inlay of the squatting god Anhur, c. 4th Century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.


One of the first capital cities of the newly united Egypt was Thinis. This was believed to be the resting place of Anhur, a human warrior who was posthumously deified as a god of war. His name means “sky bearer” or “bringer of encirclement” and he was also associated with the sun. He was considered a defender of the Pharaoh and Egypt.


Old Kingdom Egypt: Ra and the Pyramids

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Ra-Horakhty Stella, c. 8th-4th centuries BCE. Source: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.


The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) is also the time when the pyramids were built. This reflected the increased focus on the Pharaoh and the cult of the dead in ancient Egyptian religion. The pyramids were commemorative monuments and mortuary temples that ensured the passage of the Pharaoh into the afterlife.


Pyramids were also closely associated with the cult of the sun god Ra (or Re). His original cult center was Heliopolis, close to the location of the pyramids. By the 25th century, he had emerged as the most important national deity.


Ra took many forms. He was most often represented as a falcon-headed man wearing a sun disk on his head, later called Ra-Horakhty. But he was also represented in human form as Atum-Ra and as a beetle that pushed the sun across the sky called Kephri.


Ra was considered a creator deity and the king of the gods. During the day, Ra ruled the sky and the earth, leading to a close association with the ruling Pharaoh. At night, he carried the sun through the underworld on his barge. Each night he was attacked by the divine serpent Apophis. But Ra defeated the demon to arise again the following day.


The shape of the pyramids was believed to represent rays of sunlight descending to Earth. The east-west orientation of the pyramids was also meant to align with the important cycle of the rising and the setting of the sun.


Inscriptions within the pyramids suggest that the Pharaoh became one with the god Ra after death and joined him on his nightly journey through the underworld.


Middle Kingdom Egypt: The Great Ennead of Heliopolis

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Shu supports Nut with Geb reclining below, Coffin of Newpawershefty, c. New Kingdom. Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Ra was not the only god who had his main cult center at Heliopolis. During the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE), the cult of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis rose to prominence.


Ra was part of this Ennead in his form as the god Atum. He was a creator deity who came into existence independently by emerging from Nun, the primordial waters. He created Shu and Tefnut, personifications of air and moisture, via autoeroticism. Shu and Tefnut, in their turn, gave birth to Geb, the earth, and Nut, the night sky.


Geb and Nut had four children: Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Osiris and Isis represented fertility and order and were given dominion over the world. Seth and Nephthys represented the chaos necessary for balance.


The famous legend goes that Seth became jealous of his brother Osiris and killed him. He cut up the body and distributed the pieces around Egypt. Seth then took his brother’s throne. Isis, with the help of her sister Nephthys, was able to gather the pieces and reanimate Osiris. Isis impregnated herself with Osiris’ seed.


But Osiris was not fully resurrected. He had more of a half-life.  This is why he was represented with green skin. Isis and Nephthys, therefore, used their powerful magic to create an underworld called the Duat for Osiris to rule over. This became the origin myth of the underworld and changed perspectives on life after death.


book of the dead metmuseum
Weighing of the heart ceremony from, Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun Nauny, c. 1050 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.


In the pyramid texts, only the Pharaoh can enjoy eternal life. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, access to the afterlife is democratized. The mythology of the weighing of a person’s heart against the feather of truth, Maat, emerged.


Isis gave birth to the falcon-headed god Horus. He reclaimed his father’s throne from Seth and restored the natural order.


This Ennead of gods became politically prominent. The Pharaoh became assimilated with Horus during life and Osiris after death. The wife and mother of the Pharaoh become closely associated with Isis.


Competing Cult Centers: Memphis

statue ptah metmuseum
Statue of the god Ptah, c. 1070–712. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.


While the importance of the Ennead of Heliopolis is apparent in surviving texts and iconography from the Middle Kingdom onwards, they were not universally accepted as the supreme deities.


Memphis was also an important religious and political center throughout Egyptian history, and its gods often rose to prominence.


The principal god of Memphis was Ptah, the patron of craftsmen, metalworkers, artisans, and architects. Not unlike Osiris, he was depicted as a mummified man. His cult was closely associated with the cult of the Apis Bull, considered a manifestation of Ptah.


He was considered a self-formed creator deity who created everything through his thoughts and spoken word. At times, when the priests of Memphis wanted to place their gods above those of Heliopolis, they stated that Atum was brought into existence by the lips and teeth of Ptah.


Ptah was often worshipped in a triad with the gods Sekhmet and Nefertem. Sekhmet was a lioness with destructive and protective aspects and the wife of Ptah. Nefertem was their son, represented by a lotus blossom and associated with healing and beauty.


Competing Cult Centers: Thebes

statue amun walters art museum
Statue of Amun-Re, c. 747-664 BCE. Source: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, United States.


Thebes, near modern-day Luxor, is another city that often rose to political importance. Amun, or Amon, was recognized as the main deity there. A solar deity also called Amun-Ra, he was part of a Theban triad alongside his wife Mut, a mother goddess, and their son Khonsu, a moon god that balanced his father as the sun god.


Amun was the most dominant god in ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) and the priesthood of Amun was one of the richest and most influential bodies in ancient Egypt. The famous temple of Karnak, built under the famous Ramesses Pharaohs (1292-1077 BCE) was dedicated to Amun, Mut, and Khonsu.


The Valley of the Kings is the necropolis of the city of Thebes. Many of the tombs there were heavily influenced by the Theban religion.


Competing Cult Centers: Armana

house altar akhenaten egypt museum
House Altar of Akhenaten, c. 1340 BCE. Source: Egyptian Museum, Berlin, Germany.


The infamous Amarna period (1353-1336 BCE) occurred during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) and is considered an experiment with monotheism.


The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV decided to turn away from the major cults and priesthoods prominent at the time and focus his religious devotions on the Aten. The Aten is the divine sun disk. While it was worshipped previously, it was mainly considered an aspect of Ra.


The Pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten to honor the god and built a new religious capital dedicated to the god at Armana. This was an important political move because he moved the royal family and court to Armana, removing them from the influence of the powerful priesthood of Amun. This seems to have been deliberate as Akhenaten pursued international diplomatic relations without the usual support of the priests.


This was a highly unusual period. Art changed, and the royal family was no longer represented as idyllic but rather in a natural and relaxed style. The family was also portrayed in a more accessible way, doing day-to-day tasks such as fishing and farming rather than waging wars and consorting with the gods.


While the priesthoods were already concerned about their loss of power, the new Aten religion became a serious problem when Akhenaten forbade the worship of other gods and the use of idols.


Akhenaten’s successor, the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, quickly oversaw a return to traditional religious practices, probably under the influence of his advisors. He was succeeded in power by his vizier Ay and then the military general Horemheb.


Ptolemaic Egypt: Greco-Egyptian Religion

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Head of the god Serapis, c . 75-150 CE. Source: Brooklyn Museum, United States.


In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. One of his generals, Ptolemy, set himself up as the new Pharaoh following the death of Alexander. This was the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, a period when Greek religious ideas were imported into the country.


Ptolemy created a new syncretic religion that he actively intended to garner support both from his Macedonian followers and the people of Egypt. He focused his new religion on the god Serapis, whose mythology combined elements of Ptah and Osiris, and elements of the Greek gods Zeus, Hades, Asclepios, Dionysus, and Helios. He was associated with fertility, the sun, funerary rights, and medicine.


Making this new god the focus of religion was important for transferring power. It moved focus away from Memphis to Ptolemy’s new capital of Alexandria. However, Ptolemy was careful to maintain respect for the powerful priesthoods and not alienate the Egyptian elite.


Interestingly, many of the women of the Ptolemaic dynasty styled themselves after Aphrodite but in Egyptian garb. Cleopatra IV stood out because she styled herself after Isis. This was probably to set herself apart from her sister Arsinoe who was also her political rival and appeal to the local elite.


Roman Era: Rise of Christianity

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Figure of Isis-Aphrodite from Roman Egypt, c. 2nd Century CE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.


When Egypt came under Roman control in 31 BCE, Alexandria continued to be the main political center of the country, with the representatives of the Roman emperor ruling from there.


Local religion was largely able to continue as usual, and the cults of Serapis and Isis also became popular throughout the Roman world. There is evidence of temples of Isis as far away as Britain.


The Egyptians were accustomed to associating their Pharaohs with the gods and worshipping them as semi-divine figures. The Roman emperor was now slotted into this position, satisfying Roman politicians.


Christianity made a foothold in Alexandria while it was still considered a rogue religion in the Roman world. The Patriarchate of Alexandria was founded by the Apostle Mark in 33 CE and functioned continuously in the centuries that followed, despite the persecution of Christians throughout the Roman empire.


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Decorated Christian niche from the Monastery of Apollo in Bawit, c. 6th-7th Centuries CE. Source: Cairo Coptic Museum, Egypt.


Roman religion was in fact very open and accepting and would often incorporate local gods from the regions that they conquered into their religion to make it easier to adapt. For example, in his description of the Germanic world, the Roman author Tacitus suggested that Odin was the equivalent of Mercury, Thor of Hercules, and Tyr of Mars.


But Christianity was outlawed in the Roman world at points in the first and second centuries CE because it denied the existence of gods other than the Christian god and forbade the worship of false deities such as Jupiter.


Making sacrifices to Jupiter Optimus Maximums, the principal god of the Roman state, and to the defied Roman emperors was considered essential for maintaining Rome’s favor among the gods and to show loyalty to the Roman order.


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Funerary stela belonging to Nakhtmontu, c. 3rd Century BCE. Source: Royal Collection, London, United Kingdom.


Therefore, Christians weren’t persecuted because they believed in the word of Jesus Christ. They were persecuted because they refused to participate in the socially and politically expected practice of sacrificing to the Roman gods.


When Christianity took hold in the Roman world, it was alive and well in Alexandria, where several important Christian thinkers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. When the Roman Empire officially converted to Christianity in 313 CE, Alexandria was one of the new religion’s leading centers.


Evolving Egyptian Religion

One thing that is clear about ancient Egyptian religion is that it was dynamic and responded to how people and society changed over millennia.


Some modern neopagans suggest that ancient Egyptian religion was based on Neterism. This suggests that there is an underlying supernatural force that exists within the universe. The gods are manufactured concepts created to understand and connect with that force in a way that is accessible to humankind.


Therefore, there is no limit on the number of gods that can exist and no “right or wrong” when it comes to understanding the gods.


We don’t know if this philosophy existed in the ancient Egyptian world, but modern Neterism, or Kemetism, emerged in the 20th century.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica hold a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.