Spirituality does not have to involve the beings that we call gods, but Egypt left the world a rich legacy of as many as two thousands netjeru to contemplate and with whom we might enjoy relationships. So the gods are a good next step to take when building an Egyptian spiritual practice.
Because there are roughly four thousand years of time and people and history and local deities mushed together under the label “Egyptian,” you can take years and years yourself to study the netjeru, their various manifestations, stories and names. Most of what we know today is about the gods who were once venerated by the ruling dynasties. But with the exception of Akhenaten, the Egyptians never felt the need to eliminate or even denigrate a netjer that they did not follow. In fact, they often, over time, brought together two or more deities in a new combined form which acknowledged the commonalities of the individual gods while recognizing and preserving their distinct identities. Hence emerged Ra-Horakhty, Amun-Ra, Ptah-Sokar, Sekhmet-Bast, etc.
At the risk of vastly oversimplifying, here is a run-down of the primary divine groups. Each has a claim to its antiquity, so I will make no claims about who came first.
Sailing up the Nile, just past the Delta, one first encounters Heliopolis, center of the powerful cult of the sun-god Ra. No one knows when humans began to venerate Ra, but he is vital to and interwoven with the mythology of most other well-known netjeru.
Not far from Heliopolis is Memphis, the cult center of Ptah, creator god associated with the arts, craftsmanship, mining, his consort Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem. Ptah creates with “the heart and the tongue,” rather than with the phallus. We find him mentioned during the 1st Dynasty in the Pyramid Texts. Ptah is much later aligned with the gods Ra and Amun by the 25th Dynasty Nubian ruler Shabaka, who codified what is called the Memphite Theology. At Osireion we connect Ptah with the earth, and with patiently creating the world we wish to live in. Sekhmet is a fiery goddess whose very name means power.
Moving further south along the Nile we pass by the site that would for only a few years be the center of a short-lived cult called Atenism. While Akhenaten tried his best to wipe out the old gods during his reign over Egypt, he became much-hated for it. Ironically, his efforts to establish a cult to an abstract disc which only the pharaoh could touch were replaced after his death by a period of increased personal devotion and piety by rulers. The Egyptians tried to forget Akhenaten and his sterile god; when they did remember, they called him the “Great Heretic.”
Continuing south we reach the ancient city of Abydos, center of the cult of Osiris. Archaeologists continue to find important graves of unknown rulers at this traditional royal necropolis. The temple building called the Osireion is attached to the Temple of Sety at Abydos. Osiris is part of a group of nine netjeru: the primordial Atum who masturbated to produce creation; Shu, god of air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture; their children, the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut; and their children, Isis, Osiris, Set and Nephthys. We know Osiris as the god of birth, death and rebirth, of fertility and transformation. His sister-wife Isis is one of the world’s great beloved mother goddesses, a skilled magician and consummate mother and wife.
Around the bend in the river still further to the south is Thebes, another ancient capital and the cult home of Amun, the hidden one, and basis for the word “Amen.” Amun created a set of four gods in the form of frogs and snakes (potent symbols of birth and regeneration), plus four more deities, including Djehuti (Thoth) and the all-important Maat. Amun’s consort is the lion-headed Mut, a goddess of death whose name is the word for “mother.” Their son is Khonsu, a lunar god.
Scholars have argued for centuries about whether the Egyptians were monotheistic, seeing one god as many, or polytheistic, seeing the many gods as essentially one, or simply pantheistic (everything is a god). We do know that they were henotheistic, meaning that their worship of Osiris was not threatened by knowing the next village over venerated Khenty-imentiu.
Early European Egyptologists also held a superior attitude to the civilization which, after all, worshiped gods with animal heads! But the visible form of the gods was merely a reflection of their personality and role in the cosmos, not a literal form.
Once you open your life to the possibility of a relationship with the netjeru, they will most likely show themselves to you. More on that in the next Ankh Life post.