Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX



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Religion, death and burial

4.2 Personal religion: magic and personal piety

See also Nicole Pal.'s presentation for this topic

(This article is from: Women and Religion in Ancient Egypt. Barbara S. Lesko. Brown University. 2002.)

Private Cults and Personal Religion


The Egyptians felt they could turn to their gods and goddesses for help and support through the vicissitudes of life. For instance, because she was the chief patroness of sexuality and fertility, the goddess Hathor was appealed to by both men and women for help with finding a mate or starting a family, As may be seen from the exhaustive study by G. Pinch (1993), the environs of Hathor temples reveal a wide range of votive materials--ranging from pottery figurines of mothers suckling babes to wooden phalli. Pinch has found a large percentage of votive textiles dedicated by women worshipers of Hathor, while men dedicated small stelae (Pinch, 1993, 96 and 93). Obviously the handicrafts and buying power were influenced by the sex of the devout. Love songs of the New Kingdom feature youths crediting Hathor with their romances; and a statue addressed the women of Thebes thus:
"Tell your requests to the Cow of Gold, to the Lady of Happiness...may she give us excellent children, happiness, and a good husbands...If cakes are placed before her, she will not be angry" (B. Lesko, 1999, 114).

Within private households, the mother of the family maintained the cult of the household gods (usually those who, like the pregnant hippo Taweret and the grotesque dancing dwarf Bes, were beneficial to her fertility and children). She is also depicted as the one who sacrificed before the image of the family's ancestor or ancestress on the household's altar. Deceased relatives were not deemed gone forever or disinterested in their living family members, but were looked upon as possible saviours, possible intercessors with deities. Some simple busts, of indistinct gender, have survived from settlement sites, and one drawing exists showing a housewife burning incense and pouring an oblation before an ancestor bust within her home (Friedman, 1994,109). Letters left at the tomb of deceased relatives by persons troubled with crises in their lives show that the Egyptians believed the dead could either be responsible for afflicting the living or might effectively solve their problems. Again, the collection of letters published by Wente (1990) referred to previously contains examples of widows appealing to dead husbands to look after the welfare of their children in inheritance disputes and the like, but husbands also appealed to their deceased wives to use their influence in the Beyond on their family's behalf.

The concern for fertility, the protection of women in child birth, and the health of the newborn are all reflected by wall paintings and furniture decorations depicting the supernatural beings considered as protective and helpful on the domestic scene. Of course amulets were worn by people of both sexes and all ages to ward off malevolent forces. Oracular decrees issued by temples were worn by women for their "guarantees" of safe delivery and healthy babies. A female purification ritual accompanied by celebrations seems to have followed a period of fourteen days following giving birth.

In a society where oral tradition handed down the complicated myths for which virtually no early manuscripts have been found, women must have helped preserve and pass along to the younger generation religious teachings and lore. One didactic text from Deir el-Medina mentions passing on from a father to both sons and daughters the wisdom of experience and the advice on how to conduct oneself in order to live a successful life. Thus young women were believed capable of learning and capable of participating in the life outside the home. Indeed, such has been the message of numerous wall scenes as well as written documents depicting women in labor and commercial settings (Fischer, 2000,19-32; Lesko, 1996, 30-35).

Female entertainers are often depicted in the tomb paintings, and, in an age as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as the New Kingdom, female divines were active in village life (Borghouts, 1982, 24-27). At the very least, the special powers that these women exhibited, whether clarvoyant or not, were sought out and respected by their fellow citizens. Such women were no doubt at work in much earlier times as well, awing their neighbors with their abilities to heal and cure, to find missing objects, to predict the future course of events. Such "wise women" still exist in the Middle East and elsewhere. In Lebanon's hill country, people in recent times came from miles around, by donkey and by Mercedes, to beg the help of a wise woman who charged them nothing but did receive gifts if her advice and prophecies turned out to be on the mark (personal communication, Prof. Wm. A. Ward of the American University of Beirut) The ancient village's wise women who may have played the role of a shaman--interpreting phenomena, finding lost articles, explaining and solving problems-- were seen as practicing "white magic" and were not viewed as malignant witches by the community, but as helpers in coping with the challenges of life. However, the fact that such women are not specifically named in contemporary source may indicate that they were held in some awe or fear.

The cult temple at Thebes of the goddess Mut, consort of Amun-Re, had an oracle, and it is likely that any voiced proclamations would have come from a female voice. The same can be imagined for the oracle of the deified queen Nefertari (Wente, 1990, #211) who, in one record we have, was approached by a woman for an explanation of a puzzling dream. Unfortunately no more details that can allow us to identify oracles at this time.

Lastly, the late New Kingdom produced a new genre of painting, the small wooden votive stela on which are depicted an individual standing directly before a great deity in adoration. These were made for tombs and many of these stelae portray women worshippers, indeed I have seen more representing women than men in the extant examples in museums around the world. Possibly women were the more consistently devout members of society, which is not unusual. They also, of course, had their own female ushebtis (mummiform figurines of servant helpers placed with a burial) when it came time to be buried. The immediacy between worshiper and deity is commonly seen in the art of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. Many stone stelae portray couples and often entire families of three generations in the company of the greatest gods and this is seen on decorated tomb walls of the period as well no matter the social status of the deceased. These reflect what has been observed in texts surviving from this post-Amarna period: a heightening of piety among the common people and a strong belief that the gods watched over humanity and could punish as well as forgive "sins." While the living were thus portrayed as supplicants before the gods, once mummified (a process that was expensive and not affordable by all, by any means) the deceased was viewed as divine, having undergone methodical magical rituals (Kitchen, 2000, 270). This divinity was shared by both women and men.