The Goddess in Egypt
The Goddess in EgyptThe people of ancient Egypt were indigenous to the area, from the advent of humanity. Around 10,000 BCE, climatic changes forced their tribal societies to congregate around the banks of the Nile river. By about 6000 BCE, the usual transition to an agrarian, urbanized society was well underway.
Egyptian religion had a rather different beginning than our western belief systems. Our best understanding of it is that it originally focused on the forces of nature... things such as the Nile river, the Earth, the sky, and even the very air itself seem to have been thought of as deities. Over time, these concepts evolved into a pantheon of more sentient and human-like deities, believed to control the various natural and metaphysical forces.
With the invention of hieroglyphics around 3200 BCE, more information about Egytian history and religion begins to become available. At that time, the northern and southern sections of the country each had a special patron deity, who appears to have been a Mother Goddess archetype.
In southern Egypt the Goddess was originally known as Nekhbet and was often represented as a white vulture. This of course reminds us of the paintings found at Catal Hoyuk, and the very early association of the vulture with the process of recycling the body of the deceased back into nature. Interestingly, in the hieroglyphic writing system the symbol of the vulture represents both "mother" and "ruler".
In the northern areas of pre-dynastic Egypt, near the Nile river delta, the Goddess was originally called Wadjet and was usually represented as a cobra.
Both of these primordial Mother Goddess archetypes were accompanied by a lion-headed war-goddess. Wadjet's lion was known as Bast , and Nehkbet's lion was called Sekhmet.
In addition, both Wadjet and Nehkbet had oracles, although they didn't operate in quite the same way as our western oracles did. Rather than receiving a direct communication from the Goddess, the Priests or Priestesses simply gave an answer based on their own opinion.
Wadjet's Oracle was located in Per-Wadjet (now Buto), and Nehkbet's Oracle was located in Nekheb (now El Kab).
Around 3150 BCE northern Egypt was conquered by southern Egypt, and the country became unified, with it's capital at Memphis. At that time, Wadjet and Nehkbet became co-protectors and patrons of the kingdom, and were commonly referred to as the "Two Ladies". No attemp was made to replace Wadjet by Nehkbet, although Sekhmet did replace Bast as Egypt's official war-goddess. (Bast was reduced from a lion to a housecat, and her name was changed to Bastet, which is a diminutive form of Bast.)
Being a very large country, some major cities within Egypt had unique pantheons of their own, which would later be merged into the overall cosmology. For example, as early as 2700 BCE the inhabitants of Hermopolis were known to worship a Mother Goddess called Hathor , who was often depicted in the form of a cow. Her spouse was a deity called Ra , who was a sun-god.
Hathor may have evolved from an even older fertility goddess known as Bat , who was also frequently depicted in the form of a cow. Both Bat and Hathor were associated with joyful music and dancing, and their clergy often played an instrument called a Sistrum, which can be seen in numerous sculptures and artworks. Hathor was probably the most popular deity of her time, and was attended by both Priests and Priestesses.
With the coming of the Middle Kingdom, circa 2050 BCE, the center of political power shifted to the city of Thebes , where another Mother Goddess archetype called Mut was worshipped. Mut soon began to replace Wadjet and Nehkbet, and along with her spouse, the sun-god Amun , eventually came to dominate the national pantheon.
Mut was yet another very ancient deity, who began as a personification of the cosmos, and evolved into a creator and mother. She was perhaps the first goddess to be portrayed in human form. The Queen acted as her High-Priestess, and her temples were administered exclusively by women.
Around 1800 BCE various middle-eastern peoples began to enter northern Egypt. This culminated in a full-blown military invasion in 1650, when the entire northern part of the country was seized by a group that the Egyptians referred to as the Hyksos , or "foreign rulers".
The Hyksos leaders were Canaanite, and initially followed Canaanite war-gods such as Baal. However they soon adopted the Egyptian deity Set as their patron. Set was a god of chaos and violence, and the Hyksos greatly enhanced that reputation, often by conducting human sacrifices of captured enemy peoples.
The Hyksos ruled the Nile delta for about a century, and introduced such things as the horse, the chariot, and the composite recurve bow. Once these advanced military devices became available to the southern Egyptians, they used them to attack and drive out the Hyksos, around 1550 BCE.
Although the Hyksos period was brief, it had profound consequences... including a significantly increased focus on warfare, standing armies, and male deities.
There was another interesting event around 1340 BCE, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten attemped to force Egypt to convert to the monotheistic worship of the sun-god Aten... but the attemp was a dismal failure, and shortly after his death Egypt returned to their traditional deities.
Around 1250 BCE the Pharaoh Ramesses II moved the capitol from Thebes to Pi-Ramesses in the Nile delta. Thebes then entered into a period of decline, and since the Hermopolis pantheon was more popular in the northern part of the country, it began to become dominant. By about 1100 BCE Mut was replaced by Hathor (now depicted as a woman)... and later, Amun was merged with Ra, becoming Amun-Ra.
Some time during the first millennium BCE, the goddess Isis began to rise in prominence. Isis was yet another Mother Goddess archetype from northern Egypt, dating to at least 2500 BCE. She was initially regarded as a daughter of Hathor and Amun-Ra, but as time passed she began to take on the qualities of Hathor and replace her. At about the same time Osiris replaced Anubis as the god of the underworld, and Horus replaced Amun-Ra as the god of the sky. These three deities... Isis, Osiris and Horus... were to become the central entities in the last Egyptian pantheon.
Isis came to be known as a goddess of fertility, children, nature, magic, and the primary creation deity. She was depicted as a beautiful woman, at various times with a child, the horns and solar disk of Hathor, the sistrum, or the Ankh. She was served by both Priests and Priestesses, including some who were transgender.
Isis, holding a sistrum
Roman marble statue, circa 150 CE
Unfortunately, the story of Egyptian religion and the Mother Goddess in Egypt ended in much the same way as it did throughout the Roman Empire... beginning in the 4th century CE, the Christians looted and burned their temples, and murdered their Priests and Priestesses.