Ancient Egyptian Rites


Rites. Various divine cults were maintained in the principal towns of each nome or district and, as with their controlling deities, some of these remained local while others attained national status. All, however, followed a daily ritual which had become fairly stand- ardised by the end of the Old Kingdom. This ritual, based on the Heliopolitan Cycle, was the basis of all religious practices throughout the country. In each of the main temples the king was regarded as the high-priest, but in his absence his place was taken by the usual incumbent. The service was the same whether it was performed by the king or his priestly deputy. _ Beginning at dawn with the purification of the priest by water from the sacred lake or well, he was then clothed in special ritual garments, given certain ritual objects and approached the shrine, broke the seals with due care, took the figure of the god out of the naos, washed and reclothed it in fresh linen, lit the fire for the incense offerings, and presented the god with food and drink. All the offerings had to be without blemish. After everything had been purified the attendant withdrew, carefully brushing away his footsteps on the floor of the shrine which was then resealed. At midday further purification rites were performed and natron (native sodas) were sprinkled, and in the evening the doors were again unsealed and another meal and drink proffered after the earlier one had been removed to be consumed by the priests.

The Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the idea that the world was created out of chaos and an ordered way of life had only been established with immense difficulty. For them the obscure forces of chaos still existed and would overwhelm their world if the correct rites and rituals were not performed daily in the temples. Equilibrium was maintained with a great struggle and only the gods by their ceaseless efforts preserved the existence of the universe.

The temple was the house of the gods; the function of the building and the priestly personnel was to protect the gods from attacks by hostile forces, and to keep them in a state in which they could carry out their cosmic tasks successfully. The temple was built of stone because it was the hardest material known to them. Ceilings were decorated with the goddess Nut and stars and deccans representing the sky. From the floor the columns sprang like the marsh plants and vegetation from which they had once been created, while the walls were decorated with reference to the creation myths, and the endless struggle between good and evil.

The daily rituals carried out in the temple were linked with the ritual to the dead. All offerings were termed the greatest offering of all: ‘the Eye of Horus’. Evil forces were strongest at night when the greatest precautions had to be taken. Only the rising of the new sun symbolised the triumph of the sun god ReCover the chaos of darkness. The sky itself was insecure and supported on four pillars, therefore a special festival of ‘the Raising of the Sky’ had to be held annually, as at Esna and elsewhere.

The ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony animated statues, reliefs of gods, animals and men, as well as restoring life to the dead. It was performed on statues in the ‘Rooms of Gold’, the sculptors’ work- shops, and on mummies in ‘the Tent of Purification, the embalming tent. Additionally, this ceremony was carried out in the temples, to reanimate the statues of the gods and the images upon the walls after the building of the temple, and annually after its spring clean and redecoration. If this were not done the gods would not be able to receive the offerings made to them, nor act defensively on the people’s behalf. The ritual entailed touching the face with a flint instrument, which was forked at one end, and with an adze, a magic rite that must have originated with instruments used in the prehistoric period. In addition, an ox was killed, and the right foreleg, where the physical force was thought to reside, was raised towards the figure to be reanimated.


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