Life in Ancient Egypt

An online resource for students

by Leigh T. Denault

"Think of it, soldiers; from the summit of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you."
Napoleon I 1769-1821: speech, 21 July 1798, before the Battle of the Pyramids

Table of Contents:

An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian History

Life in ancient Egypt was centered largely on agriculture. The majority of the people were involved in farming, and the growing season lasted eight-nine months. Wheat, fruits and vegetables were the principal crops, although there was some pastoral farming of cattle, sheep, or goats. Farmers in ancient Egypt worked to reach a level of subsistence so that they could feed themselves and pay their taxes. During the annual flooding of the Nile, which typically lasted from July through November, farming was impossible. But when the waters receded, a thick layer of fertile silt over the farmlands remained to insure rich soil for their crops and thick grasses for their grazing animals.

The country of Egypt consisted of two narrow strips of arable land lining either bank of the river Nile, from Aswan to the northern Delta. Just beyond the farmlands lay enormous deserts. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt. Its cycle of flooding -- growth, death, and rebirth to new growth -- became the cycle of everyday life, and also of Egyptian religion and understanding of an afterlife. The people of Egypt were dependent on the river for more than their food. It insured a line of communication and transportation among the provinces of the kingdom. The pharaohs took advantage of the Nile as a means to transport their armies, thus maintaining a strong, unified nation.

By 3100 BC, Egypt had a centralized government controlled by a line of hereditary rulers. These kings, called pharaohs, kept a royal court of advisors and nobility, and oversaw the governors of the provinces of the kingdom. They were also commanders of the Egyptian army. Even the priests and priestesses who officiated at the complex religious ceremonies and attended on the gods served the pharaohs. The rule of the pharaohs is considered dynastic; it can also be considered absolute in the truest sense of the word. The pharaohs came to be considered as the representatives of the gods on earth and even as gods themselves.

Egyptian Gods, Goddesses and Mythology

Ancient Egyptian society treated men and women equally. Women participated in the political, economic, and judicial world of ancient Egypt on the same terms as men. This social system reflects Egyptian mythology, where Goddesses played an equal, if not chief, role. The primeval mother-figures in the earliest prehistoric Egyptian myths are female. Female deities were kept separate from the males, with their own temples and followers. Egyptian goddesses are also creator deities, and the protectors of the pharaohs in the form of the cobra, vulture, or linoness.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, Egypt was created from the Watery Waste of Nun, a chaos god from whose body all things were born. The continuous mission of the daily temple services and strictly followed religious codes was to keep ordered Egyptian society from returning to the state of chaos in which it was born. Ma'at, the goddess in charge of law, balance and order, was one of the principal deities. The two "protectors of the realm" of Egypt were originally Nekhbet, vulture goddess of Northern Egypt, and Wadjet, cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. The cobra and the vulture were chosen by the Egyptians as the royal symbols because they were thought to be self-producing and therefore creators, or divine.

Egyptian mythology is a complex collection of often competing stories, traditions, and practices. This is partly because the culture is so ancient, and partly because each city had its own set of deities, whose unique personalities are lost as their cults age. Just as each city vied for supreme power before Egypt was a unified kingdom, the cities each tried to establish their gods as the supreme gods. Even after unification, each time the capital moved, the supreme god of the new city rose to be the supreme god of the kingdom.

Below, a table listing some of the many gods and goddesses of Egyptian mythology. The deities are listed as closely as possible to the order of their appearance in the myths, from oldest to newest.

Nekhbet vulture goddess of Upper Egypt
Wadjet cobra goddess of Lower Egypt
Meskhenet childbirth goddess, represented by a tile
Taweret hippopotamus goddess, also childbirth goddess and protectoress
Bet childbirth god and protector of children
Atum Heliopolis (ancient On) sun god, self-created from the Watery Waste of Nun
Shu god of air, created by Atum
Tefnut goddess of moisture, created by Atum, sometimes a lion goddess
Geb earth god, created by Shu and Tefnut
Nut sky goddess, also goddess of death and burial, created by Shu and Tefnut
Osiris fertility god, later king of the dead, child of Geb and Nut
Isis Mistress of Magic and Speaker of Spells, also goddess of the dead, sister-wife of Osiris, child of Geb and Nut, mother of young Horus and therefore symbolic Mother of the Egyptian King
Seth rival of young Horus, destroyer of Osiris's body, child of Geb and Nut
Nephthys one of the goddesses of the dead, sister-wife of Seth and child of Geb and Nut
Horus the Elder often shown in man's form, or as a hawk, child of Geb and Nut
young Horus son of Isis
Hathor powerful sky and cow goddess, fertility figure, consort of young Horus but kept a separate temple, associated with tirual music
Thoth Hermopolis god, moon god and reckoner of time, depicted in human form with an ibis mask
Neith national goddess of Lower Egypt, huntress with crossed bow and arrows as her symbol, also goddess of the dead, sometimes supreme creator
Serkhet a goddess of death and burial
Re sun god, in the creation myth with Neith as supreme god, wept men and women from his eyes
Ptah Memphis god, considered primeval being first created to take precendence over Atum
Sekhmet represents the rays of the sun at midday, consort of Ptah and daughter of Re, the sun god, lion goddess of Middle Egypt
Aton Aye at el-Armana tomb chapel, also claimed to take precedence over Atum
Khnum First Cataract deity, ram-headed supreme creator god
Satet and Anuket represent the Nile in flood, helpers to Khnum
Nun and Nunet Ogdoad of Khemenu gods (City of Eight), represent the primeval abyss
Heh and Hauket Ogdoad of Khemenu gods, represent infinity
Kek and Kauket Ogdoad of Khemenu gods, represent darkness
Amun and Amunet Ogdoad of Khemenu gods, represent the unknown gods, also male and female principles in the cosmic system, Amun later a chief god
Mut both lion and warrior goddess, consort of Amun at Thebes, replacing Amunet
Bastet cat goddess, important in the last 1000 years B, originally a lion goddess
Meretseger cobra goddess of the peak overlooking the Valley of the Kings, name means "she who loves silence"
Renenutet snake goddess and protector of the king and the harvest

About Hieroglyphics

The Egyptians began to form a pictographic written language about 5000 years ago, which they continued to use for more than 3500 years, until about 400 AD. Eventually, the pictures they used to represent words came to represent sounds. These symbols, hieroglyphs, or "sacred inscriptions" were adapted for use in everyday life, in addition to their important religious/mystical identity.

After 400 AD, the Egyptian language was written in the Greek alphabet, with the addition of several extra letters to represent Egyptian sounds that didn't exist in Greek. This form of Egyptian is called Coptic, and was in turn eventually replaced by Arabic, the language spoken in Egypt today. The ancient Egyptian tongue died out -- only the hieroglyphics remain to remind us that it ever existed.

For more than 1000 years, the hieroglyphics were little more than mysterious symbols carved on ancient monuments. All kinds of theories abounded: some thought that they recorded magic spells, others secret religious ceremonies. Then, in 1799, Napolean's army uncovered the key. The Rosetta Stone was discovered when Lieutenant Bouchard's men were remodeling the Fortress at Rosetta. The slab of basalt is inscribed with three texts, each in a different script: one in Demotic, one in hieroglyphics, and one in Coptic. Scholars hoped to use the Greek text to translate the others. Twenty-three years later, the young Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion became the first person in thousands of years to read hieroglyphics.

The Hieroglyphic Phonetic Alphabet

The following table explains the significance of the hieroglyphs and gives the phonetic equivalent of each in English.

Symbol Meaning English Sound
vulture short A, as in cat
forearm long A, as in table
leg hard B, as in big
basket,hillside hard C (K), as in call
hobble rope CH, as in children
hand hard D, as in dog
two reed leaves long E, as in lead
vulture short E, as in met
horned viper F, as in flower
pot stand hard G, as in gap
cobra soft G, as in generous
shelter, rope H, as in he, who
reed leaf short & long I, as in him, I'm
cobra J, as in jelly
basket, hillside hard C or K, as in kind, Christmas, lack
mouth L, as in lisp, linger
owl M, as in milk, dumb
water N, as in none
quail chick long O, as in lose, moon
vulture short O, as in brought, got
stool P, as in pretty
horned viper PH, as in pharaoh
+ basket + quail Q, as in queen
mouth R, as in red
folded linen S, (soft C), as in silly, peace
lake SH, as in shilling
loaf of bread T, as in talk
cow belly soft TH, as in moth
(not known) hard TH, as in there
quail chick short U, as in lull
+ reed + quail long U, as in rule
horned viper V, as in villain
quail chick W, as in will, where, when
+ basket + linen X, as in fox
reed leaf short Y, as in yes
two reed leaves long Y, as in tarry
door fastening Z sound, as in xylophone, zany

Online Resources for Ancient Egyptian History

Bibliography of Sources for Further Study

Adams, William. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, 1977.

Allen, J.P. et al, ed. Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt . Yale Egyptological Studies, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989.

Blackman, A. M. The Story of King Kheops and the Magicians . J. V. Books, 1988.

Bonfante, L., et al. Reading the Past, Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. British Museum Publication, 1990.

Clarke and Engelbach. Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture . Dover, 1930.

De Buck, A. An Egyptian Reading Book. Nederland Institute for the Near East.

Dersin, Denise, ed. What Life was Like on the Banks of the Nile: Egypt 3050-30 BC. Time Life Books, 1996.

Englund, G. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction. Uppsala University, 1988.

Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press, 1993.

Gardiner, Sir A.H. Egypt of the Pharaos. Oxford, 1961.

Gardiner, Sir A.H. Egyptian Grammar, Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. Griffith Institute.

Hornung, E. Conception of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many. London, 1993.

Kemp, B.J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge, London, 1989.

Lichteim, M. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Loprieno, Antonio. Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction . Cambridge University Press,1995.

Martin, G.T. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. Thames & Hudson, London.

Parkinson, R.B. Voices from Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press, 1991.

Säve-Söderbergh, Torgny. Temples and Tombs of Ancient Nubia. Thames & Hudson, 1987.

Silverman, David, gen. ed. Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Taylor, John. Egypt and Nubia. The British Museum, 1991.

Uphill, E.P. Egyptian Towns and Cities. Shire Egyptology, 1988.

Wenig, Steffen, ed. Africa in Antiquity. 2 vols. The Brooklyn Museum, 1978.

Contents Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault