The Ancient Egyptians had a vast number of gods and goddesses. Some of them are well known to us, others are merely names mentioned perhaps only once in all the ancient writings that survive. Of those we know many have the heads of animals, reflecting their origin as simple animal fetishes, while others are human in form and only distinguishable from each other by their unique and often highly symbolic head-dresses. Each deity had his or her own position within the cults of Egypt.
As with all religions, beliefs changed over the years and from place to place. Originally in the predynastic period, each tribe had its own simple gods and beliefs. As time passed these became more complex and from interaction with other tribes and the introduction of new concepts, they took on new forms. When the tribes eventually settled in one place, one might for a time dominate the others, and the beliefs of the dominant chief would be promoted at the expense of the lesser tribes. This practice continued into dynastic times. The king would raise his own local god to that of main deity in the state religion, moving previous holders of that position to one side. Eventually there were a number of major gods whose cults were known throughout the whole of Egypt, and who were subject to the chief state god of the king.
In each of the main cult centres such as Thebes, Hermopolis, Heliopolis and Memphis, the priests sought to further their interests by vigorously promoting their own gods. This usually took the form of one group claiming that their chief god was the father of one or more of the other chief gods. At other times it was announced that two apparently individual gods were in fact the same deity worshipped under different names. It was in this way Ra became associated with Atum, eventually becoming Atum-Ra.
At first sight there appears to be many paradoxes in the religion of the Ancient Egyptians, of which two examples might be mentioned. Firstly as time progressed each of the major cult centres claimed that its chief god was solely responsible for the creation of the universe, giving rise to several independent creation myths. Secondly the priests throughout various parts of Egypt all pronounced that the dismembered head of Osiris was buried in their temple. But the mind of the Ancient Egyptian was such that these contradictions and many more were accepted without conflict. The king was happy to call himself the son of Ra, Atum and Horus, as he personified the sun and all were solar gods. As new concepts arose the old beliefs were never cast aside.
As the myths and attributes of the gods developed, their roles and relationships changed. For example, the agricultural deity Osiris, whose birth and death corresponded with the sowing and gathering of the harvest, came to be considered to be the supreme god of the dead. This in turn led Anubis, who had previously held that rank, to be demoted and made the son and assistant of Osiris.
As some gods rose to become official gods of the state others remained the gods of the people. This gave rise to the two distinct levels of religion within Egyptian society: that of the king or state and that of the individual. The two existed side by side in harmony, as the various minor deities worshipped by the people were believed to be local manifestations of either the overall state god or a god of one of the major cults.
Worship in the temples was reserved for the pharaoh (who was considered to be a god himself), and the priests who acted as his deputies. Within the temple the priests performed their religious rituals throughout the year, ceremonially en acting the god's life. The priests of Ra, for example, held three main services each day. At dawn they would celebrate the birth of the sun, at midday they rejoiced at his great strength, whilst with the fall of dusk they lamented his death.
At the great festivals of the major deities the image of the god would be carried out of the temple. It might be paraded around the local fields to confer prosperity upon the land, or alternatively taken to visit the temple of another god.
The ordinary people, although they might take part in ceremonial processions or enter the outer areas of the temple, were not admitted to the inner sanctum. However they did worship their own god at personal shrines that they often built themselves.
The gods of Egypt thus played a fundamental and crucial part in the lives of all its people. From pharaoh to peasant, each had a god corresponding to his place in society.