Religion is a system of beliefs and opinions concerning the nature, existence and worship of a divine being, a deity who is involved in the universe and human life. The belief system of any society is always central to their existence. World over, the way a people’s society has turned out over the years has been attributed to their religious inclinations and leanings as a people. Religion has been used as both sword and shield at different points in history with some dastardly acts of inhumanity perpetrated and some indescribably compassionate acts of human kindness done in the name of religion. Religion continues to be a blessing to some societies, a bane to some others.
Essentially, most societies in the world have a substance of religiousity and even the self proclaimed secular ones still possess subtle religious undertones. The Egyptian society was not an exemption. The Egyptians were a very religious people without setting out to be religious. Religion in Egypt started as a response to the challenges they faced, the things they saw and could not explain. They resorted to a set of beliefs about these phenomena, attributing them to a supreme being.
Egyptians started from contemplation, believing a non human power was at work either for their good (when good befell them) or for their evil (when evil befell them). They sought the supernatural assistance to help them out of their hardships. They sought the favour and blessings of the gods.
MONOTHEISM AND POLYTHEISM IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Monotheism is the belief and worship in one god while polytheism refers to a multiplicity of deities in terms of a society’s beliefs and worship. Just like every other traditional society, monotheism and polytheism thrived at different points in Egyptian history. Egypt believed in a prime mover. The only important god who was worshipped with consistency was Ra, the chief of the cosmic deities from whom early Egyptian kings claimed descent. They also had other gods such as Horus and Anubis, Osiris and Isis. Egyptians tried to understand their environment and the complicated interactions with their universe via the worship of these gods.
During the 18th Dynasty, the Pharaoh Amenhotep III renamed the sun god Aton, an ancient term for the physical solar force. His son Amenhotep IV instituted monotheism and the fusion of the state and religion. He proclaimed Aton the true and only god and changed his name to Akhenaton meaning ‘he who is devoted to Aton’. He killed the idol priests and imposed one god on the state. This was however short lived as his successors quickly restored the traditional beliefs. Moreover, the gods of the successive invaders subsequently became part of the Egyptian deities.
DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT OF RELIGION IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Development refers to a change in a situation or; progress. The process of changing and becoming larger, stronger or more impressive, successful or advanced. The contributions of religion to the development of Egypt can never be over emphasized. Spurred into religiousity by the challenges they faced, they manipulated religion as an effective tool for achieving a highly developed and the earliest civilization in the world. Some of these contributions are examined below:
The Egyptians believed in afterlife. They viewed life as a continuum. To achieve eternal life after death, an individual had to do many things while he or she existed in this world. One of which was to live a just and moral life and some practical preparations such as making and finishing a tomb, providing appropriate tomb decorations and texts, establishing a mortuary cult to guarantee perpetual care and offerings. This belief gave purpose to their life, the purpose of living right not only for the now but for the hereafter. After death, the individual had to be carefully preserved as a mummy.
The Egyptians believed that life has no end and that a person could prepare his body for existence in the afterlife. They strove to preserve the body in such a way that when the soul may want to come back to visit the body from time to time, it will still be able to recognize the body.
At first they buried the body in hot desert sand to drain all the water. After which it was exhumed for further preservation. This wasn’t perfect. They then used a hook to remove the brain through the nose. Then they wrapped the body in clothes. This also was not perfect hence they progressed to the use of Natric acid and Resin.
They also learnt to remove the cranium neatly, remove the brain and replace it just as in a calabash and its cover. These are the fundamentals of NEUROLOGY. Thus religion in Egypt bequeathed unto the modern world the elemental knowledge of neurology.
Embalmment led the Egyptians to the science of studying the brain. Egyptians began to study the anatomy of the human body. They found out that when the brain was left in the skull and the intestines and lungs in the body; decaying activities took place in the mummy.
So they studied the skull structure and learnt to remove and replace the cranium like a calabash, while having carefully removed the brain. After embalmment, the bodies were then laid in tombs together with grave goods and offerings which they believed would be useful to the dead in the afterlife.
Egyptian tombs were rectangular at first. In the Old Kingdom, they evolved into pyramids which were however reserved for royalty and were accompanied by large mortuary temples sitting at their base.
In constructing pyramids, the Egyptians displayed great mastery of art, architecture and social organization. Their engineering skills also came to the fore as they dug a network of canals off the Nile to transport stone for the pyramids and food for the workers. Even the construction of the pyramid is the application of basic geometry. And the pyramid was built to last. The contributions of these construction skills to mathematics and engineering remain unrivaled.
Egyptian writing was influenced by the Phoenicians who moved in and out of Egypt. The Egyptian art of writing is called Hieroglyphics. They carved hieroglyphs on the walls of the burial chamber designed to safeguard the dead’s passage into the afterlife. These hieroglyphic writings included hymns, magical spells, and instructions on how to act before the gods, all known as pyramid texts. Today, the hieroglyphs are referred to as the earliest form of writing.
The River Nile overflowed its banks every year, flooding Egypt and carrying away their homesteads. The Nile killed the Egyptians and destroyed their farm lands. The Nile ensured they planted all year round. The Nile also made sure they spent a better part of the year rebuilding the ruins from the inundation. For Egypt, necessity became the mother of invention. They moved their homestead backwards after the inundation; the created a calendar from observing the sun and the stars. They studied the movement of the heavenly bodies to determine the time of Nile’s flood. A day was divided into 24 hours.
From the foregoing, it is evident that the Egyptians used religion to develop their society and bequeath abiding legacies to their world even without setting out to be religious. How wonderful would it be if modern day states and countries would take a cue from Egypt and make the most of religion for the betterment of their societies?
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