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Ancient Egyptian Mythology › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

Egyptian Mythology was the belief structure and underlying form of ancient Egyptian culture from at least c. 4000 BCE (as evidenced by burial practices and tomb paintings) to 30 CE with the death of Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Every aspect of life in ancient Egypt was informed by the stories which related the creation of the world and the sustaining of that world by the gods.
Egyptian religious beliefs influenced other cultures through transmission via trade and became especially wide-spread after the opening of the Silk Road in 130 BCE as the Egyptian port city of Alexandria was an important commercial centre. The significance of Egyptian mythology to other cultures was in its development of the concept of an eternal life after death, benevolent deities, and reincarnation. Both Pythagoras and Plato of Greece were said to have been influenced by Egyptian beliefs in reincarnation and Roman religious culture borrowed as extensively from Egypt as it did from other civilizations.
Human existence was understood by the Egyptians as only a small segment of an eternal journey presided over and orchestrated by supernatural forces in the forms of the many deities which comprised the Egyptian pantheon. According to the historian Bunson,
Heh, called Huh in some eras, was one of the original gods of the Ogdoad [the eight deities worshipped during the Old Kingdom, 2575-2134 BCE] at Hermopolis and represented eternity – the goal and destiny of all human life in Egyptian religious beliefs, a stage of existence in which mortals could attain everlasting bliss (86).
One's earthly life was not, however, simply a prologue to something greater but was a part of the entire journey. The Egyptian concept of an afterlife was a mirror-world of one's life on earth (specifically, one's life in Egypt) and one needed to live that life well if one hoped to enjoy the rest of one's eternal journey.


To the Egyptians, the journey began with the creation of the world and the universe out of darkness and swirling chaos. Once there was nothing but endless dark water without form or purpose. Existing within this void was Heka (god of magic) who awaited the moment of creation. Out of this watery silence (`Nu') rose the primordial hill, known as the Ben-Ben, upon which stood the great god Atum (or, in some versions of the myth, Ptah). Atum looked upon the nothingness and recognized his aloneness and so, through the agency of magic, he mated with his own shadow to give birth to two children, Shu (god of air, whom Atum spat out) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture, whom Atum vomited out). Shu gave to the early world the principles of life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order.
Leaving their father on the Ben-Ben, they set out to establish the world. In time, Atum became concerned because his children were gone so long and so removed his eye and sent it in search of them. While his eye was gone, Atum sat alone on the hill in the midst of chaos and contemplated eternity. Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye of Atum (later associated with the Udjat eye, the Eye of Ra, or the All-Seeing Eye) and their father, grateful for their safe return, shed tears of joy. These tears, dropping onto the dark, fertile earth of the Ben-Ben, gave birth to men and women.


These early creatures had nowhere to live, however, and so Shu and Tefnut mated and gave birth to Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky). Geb and Nut, though brother and sister, fell deeply in love and were inseparable. Atum found their behaviour unacceptable and pushed Nut away from Geb, high up into the heavens. The two lovers were forever able to see each other but were no longer able to touch. Nut was already pregnant by Geb, however, and eventually gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus – the five Egyptian gods most often recognized as the earliest or, at least, the most familiar representations of older god-figures. Osiris showed himself a thoughtful and judicious god and was given rule of the world by Atum who then went off to attend to his own affairs.


Osiris administrated the world efficiently, co-ruling with his sister-wife Isis, and decided where the trees would best grow and the water flow most sweetly. He created the land of Egypt in perfection with the Nile River providing for the needs of the people.

Egyptian Hunting in the Marshes

In all things, he acted in accordance with the principle of Ma'at (harmony) and honoured his father and siblings by keeping all things in harmonious balance. His brother Set became envious of the creation, however, and also of Osiris' power and glory.He had his brother's exact measurements taken in secret and then ordered an elaborate chest created precisely to those specifications. When the chest was completed, Set threw a great banquet to which he invited Osiris and seventy-two others. At the end of the party he offered the great chest as a gift to the one who could best fit inside it. Osiris, of course, fit perfectly and, once he was inside the coffin, Set slammed the lid on tight and threw it into the Nile River. He then told everyone that Osiris was dead and assumed the rule of the world.
Isis refused to believe that her husband was dead and went searching for him, finally finding the coffin inside a tree at Byblos.The people of the land were glad to help her retrieve the coffin from the tree and, for this, Isis blessed them (as they later became the principal exporters of papyrus in Egypt, it is thought this detail was added by a scribe to honour the city which was so important to the writer's trade). She brought the body back to Egypt and set about gathering the herbs and making the potions which would bring Osiris back to life; leaving her sister Nephthys to guard over the place where she had hidden the body.
During this time, Set began to worry that Isis might locate Osiris' body and find a way to bring him back to life, as she was very powerful and knowledgeable in these matters. Upon finding her gone, he asked Nephthys where she was and, when the goddess answered, he knew she was lying. He was able to get from her where Osiris' body was hidden and went there, tearing the coffin open, and cutting the body into forty-two pieces (though some sources claim only fourteen). He then flung the fragments of Osiris all over the land of Egypt so that Isis would never be able to find them and, this accomplished, returned to his palace to rule.
When Isis returned and found the coffin destroyed and the body gone, she fell to her knees in despair and wept. Nephthys, feeling guilty for having betrayed her secret, told Isis what had happened and offered to help her find the parts of Osiris. The two sisters then began searching the land for Osiris' parts. Wherever they found a body part, they would bury it on the spot and build a shrine to protect it from Set. In this way the forty-two provinces of Egypt were established by the two goddesses.
They finally assembled all of the body except for the penis, which had been eaten by a fish. Isis then created a replacement part for the phallus and mated with her husband, becoming pregnant with her son Horus. Osiris had been brought back to life successfully by Isis but, because he was incomplete, could not rule the world as he had before. He instead descended to the underworld to become the righteous judge and ruler of the land of the dead.


Horus (sometimes known as Horus the Younger to differentiate from Horus the brother of Osiris) was raised in secret to protect him from Set and, having grown to manhood, challenged his uncle for the rule of his father's former kingdom. The battle raged for eighty years until Horus defeated Set and banished him from Egypt to dwell in the arid deserts (though there are many variants of this story and, in some, Horus and Set agree to divide the kingdom and, in others, Set is destroyed). Horus then ruled with his mother Isis and aunt Nephthys as his counselors and harmony was again restored to the land.


Although there are many different versions of this myth, the one element which remains standard in all of them is the concept of harmony which is disrupted and must be restored. The principle of Ma'at was at the heart of all of Egyptian mythology and every myth, in some form or another relies upon this value to inform it. The historian Jill Kamil writes: “Storytelling played an important part in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. The deeds of the gods and kings were not written in early times and only found their way through oral tradition into the literature of a later date” (Nardo, 52). It is interesting to note that, no matter what era the tales were first composed in, the principle of harmonious balance, of ma'at, is at the heart of them all.
The repulsing of Apep [ Apophis ], the evil dragon-like creature that lurked on the horizon, was [a] popular tale.Each evening, at sunset, it tried to stop the passage of the setting sun through the underworld. If the sky was clear, it indicated an easy passage; a blood-red sunset showed a desperate battle between the forces of good and evil; but the sun was the victor and there was always a new dawn. [The Egyptians] told tales of how the vegetation that died with the harvest was reborn when the grain sprouted, just as the sun-god `died' each evening and was reborn the next morning (Nardo, 53-54).
Everything in the universe was thought to be maintained in a constant balance without a terminus and, as human beings were a part of that universe, they too participated in this eternal balance. Ma'at was made possible by the underlying force which existed before creation and made all aspects of life possible: heka. Heka was the magical power which enabled the gods to perform their duties and sustained all life and was personified in the god Heka who also allowed for the soul to pass from earthly existence to the afterlife.

Shabti Dolls

When the soul left the body at death, it was thought to appear in the Hall of Truth to stand before Osiris for judgement. The heart of the deceased was weighed on a golden scale against the white feather of Ma'at. If the heart was found to be lighter than the feather, the soul was allowed to move on to the Field of Reeds, the place of purification and eternal bliss. If the heart was heavier than the feather, it was dropped on to the floor where it was eaten by the monster Ammut (the gobbler) and the soul would then cease to exist.
Although there existed a concept of the underworld, there was no `hell' as understood by modern-day monotheistic religions.As Bunson writes, “The Egyptians feared eternal darkness and unconsciousness in the afterlife because both conditions belied the orderly transmission of light and movement evident in the universe” (86). Existence, being a part of the universal journey which began with Atum and the Ben-Ben, was the natural state of a soul and the thought of being eternally separated from that journey, of non-existence, was more terrifying to an ancient Egyptian than any underworld of torment could ever be; even in a land of eternal pain, one still existed.
A concept of an underworld similar to the Christian hell did develop in Egypt but was by no means universally accepted.Bunson writes, “Eternity was the common destination of each man, woman, and child in Egypt. Such a belief infused the vision of the people…and gave them a certain exuberance for life unmatched anywhere in the ancient world” (87). The mythology of the ancient Egyptians reflected that joy in living and inspired the great temples and monuments which are such a part of Egypt's legacy today. The enduring admiration for Egyptian mythology, and the culture it informed, is a testimony to the power of the life-affirming message inherent in these ancient tales.

Ancient Egyptian Religion › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

Egyptian religion was a combination of beliefs and practices which, in the modern day, would include magic, mythology, science, medicine, psychiatry, spiritualism, herbology, as well as the modern understanding of ' religion ' as belief in a higher power and a life after death. Religion played a part in every aspect of the lives of the ancient Egyptians because life on earth was seen as only one part of an eternal journey, and in order to continue that journey after death, one needed to live a life worthy of continuance.
During one's life on earth, one was expected to uphold the principle of ma'at (harmony) with an understanding that one's actions in life affected not only one's self but others' lives as well, and the operation of the universe. People were expected to depend on each other to keep balance as this was the will of the gods to produce the greatest amount of pleasure and happiness for humans through a harmonious existence which also enabled the gods to better perform their tasks.
By honoring the principle of ma'at (personified as a goddess of the same name holding the white feather of truth) and living one's life in accordance with its precepts, one was aligned with the gods and the forces of light against the forces of darkness and chaos, and assured one's self of a welcome reception in the Hall of Truth after death and a gentle judgment by Osiris, the Lord of the Dead.


The underlying principle of Egyptian religion was known as heka (magic) personified in the god Heka. Heka had always existed and was present in the act of creation. He was the god of magic and medicine but was also the power which enabled the gods to perform their functions and allowed human beings to commune with their gods. He was all-pervasive and all-encompassing, imbuing the daily lives of the Egyptians with magic and meaning and sustaining the principle of ma'at upon which life depended.
Possibly the best way to understand Heka is in terms of money: one is able to purchase a particular item with a certain denomination of currency because that item's value is considered the same, or less, than that denomination. The bill in one's hand has an invisible value given it by a standard of worth (once upon a time the gold standard) which promises a merchant it will compensate for what one is buying. This is exactly the relationship of Heka to the gods and human existence: he was the standard, the foundation of power, on which everything else depended. A god or goddess was invoked for a specific purpose, was worshipped for what they had given, but it was Heka who enabled this relationship between the people and their deities.
The gods of ancient Egypt were seen as the lords of creation and custodians of order but also as familiar friends who were interested in helping and guiding the people of the land. The gods had created order out of chaos and given the people the most beautiful land on earth. Egyptians were so deeply attached to their homeland that they shunned prolonged military campaigns beyond their borders for fear they would die on foreign soil and would not be given the proper rites for their continued journey after life. Egyptian monarchs refused to give their daughters in marriage to foreign rulers for the same reason. The gods of Egypt had blessed the land with their special favor, and the people were expected to honor them as great and kindly benefactors.
Long ago, they believed, there had been nothing but the dark swirling waters of chaos stretching into eternity. Out of this chaos ( Nu ) rose the primordial hill, known as the Ben-Ben, upon which stood the great god Atum (some versions say the god was Ptah) in the presence of Heka. Atum looked upon the nothingness and recognized his aloneness, and so he mated with his own shadow to give birth to two children, Shu (god of air, whom Atum spat out) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture, whom Atum vomited out). Shu gave to the early world the principles of life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order. Leaving their father on the Ben-Ben, they set out to establish the world.
In time, Atum became concerned because his children were gone so long, and so he removed his eye and sent it in search of them. While his eye was gone, Atum sat alone on the hill in the midst of chaos and contemplated eternity. Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye of Atum (later associated with the Udjat eye, the Eye of Ra, or the All-Seeing Eye) and their father, grateful for their safe return, shed tears of joy. These tears, dropping onto the dark, fertile earth of the Ben-Ben, gave birth to men and women.
These humans had nowhere to live, however, and so Shu and Tefnut mated and gave birth to Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky). Geb and Nut, though brother and sister, fell deeply in love and were inseparable. Atum found their behaviour unacceptable and pushed Nut away from Geb, high up into the heavens. The two lovers were forever able to see each other but were no longer able to touch. Nut was already pregnant by Geb, however, and eventually gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus – the five Egyptian gods most often recognized as the earliest (although Hathor is now considered to be older than Isis). These gods then gave birth to all the other gods in one form or another.


The gods each had their own area of speciality. Bastet, for example, was the goddess of the hearth, homelife, women's health and secrets, and of cats. Hathor was the goddess of kindness and love, associated with gratitude and generosity, motherhood, and compassion. According to one early story surrounding her, however, she was originally the goddess Sekhmet who became drunk on blood and almost destroyed the world until she was pacified and put to sleep by beer which the gods had dyed red to fool her. When she awoke from her sleep, she was transformed into a gentler deity. Although she was associated with beer, Tenenet was the principle goddess of beer and also presided over childbirth. Beer was considered essential for one's health in ancient Egypt and a gift from the gods, and there were many deities associated with the drink which was said to have been first brewed by Osiris.
An early myth tells of how Osiris was tricked and killed by his brother Set and how Isis brought him back to life. He was incomplete, however, as a fish had eaten a part of him, and so he could no longer rule harmoniously on earth and was made Lord of the Dead in the underworld. His son, Horus the Younger, battled Set for eighty years and finally defeated him to restore harmony to the land. Horus and Isis then ruled together, and all the other gods found their places and areas of expertise to help and encourage the people of Egypt.
Among the most important of these gods were the three who made up the Theban Triad: Amun, Mut, and Knons (also known as Khonsu). Amun was a local fertility god of Thebes until the Theban noble Menuhotep II (2061-2010 BCE) defeated his rivals and united Egypt, elevating Thebes to the position of capital and its gods to supremacy. Amun, Mut, and Khons of Upper Egypt (where Thebes was located) took on the attributes of Ptah, Sekhment, and Khonsu of Lower Egypt who were much older deities. Amun became the supreme creator god, symbolized by the sun; Mut was his wife, symbolized by the sun's rays and the all-seeing eye; and Khons was their son, the god of healing and destroyer of evil spirits.
These three gods were associated with Ogdoad of Hermopolis, a group of eight primordial deities who "embodied the qualities of primeval matter, such as darkness, moistness, and lack of boundaries or visible powers. It usually consisted of four deities doubled to eight by including female counterparts" (Pinch, 175-176). The Ogdoad (pronounced OG-doh-ahd) represented the state of the cosmos before land rose from the waters of chaos and light broke through the primordial darkness and were also referred to as the Hehu (`the infinities'). They were Amun and Amaunet, Heh and Hauhet, Kek and Kauket, and Nun and Naunet each representing a different aspect of the formless and unknowable time before creation: Hiddenness (Amun/Amaunet), Infinity (Heh/Hauhet), Darkness (Kek/Kauket), and the Abyss (Nut/Naunet). The Ogdoad are the best example of the Egyptian's insistence on symmetry and balance in all things embodied in their male/female aspect which was thought to have engendered the principle of harmony in the cosmos before the birth of the world.


The Egyptians believed that the earth (specifically Egypt) reflected the cosmos. The stars in the night sky and the constellations they formed were thought to have a direct bearing on one's personality and future fortunes. The gods informed the night sky, even traveled through it, but were not distant deities in the heavens; the gods lived alongside the people of Egypt and interacted with them daily. Trees were considered the homes of the gods and one of the most popular of the Egyptian deities, Hathor, was sometimes known as "Mistress of the Date Palm" or "The Lady of the Sycamore" because she was thought to favor these particular trees to rest in or beneath. Scholars Oakes and Gahlin note that
"Presumably because of the shade and the fruit provided by them, goddesses associated with protection, mothering, and nurturing were closely associated with [trees]. Hathor, Nut, and Isis appear frequently in the religious imagery and literature [in relation to trees]" (332).
Plants and flowers were also associated with the gods, and the flowers of the ished tree were known as "flowers of life" for their life-giving properties. Eternity, then, was not an ethereal, nebulous concept of some 'heaven' far from the earth but a daily encounter with the gods and goddesses one would continue to have contact with forever, in life and after death.


In order for one to experience this kind of bliss, however, one needed to be aware of the importance of harmony in one's life and how a lack of such harmony affected others as well as one's self. The 'gateway sin' for the ancient Egyptians was ingratitude because it threw one off balance and allowed for every other sin to take root in a person's soul. Once one lost sight of what there was to be grateful for, one's thoughts and energies were drawn toward the forces of darkness and chaos.
This belief gave rise to rituals such as The Five Gifts of Hathor in which one would consider the fingers of one's hand and name the five things in life one was most grateful for. One was encouraged to be specific in this, naming anything one held dear such as a spouse, one's children, one's dog or cat, or the tree by the stream in the yard. As one's hand was readily available at all times, it would serve as a reminder that there were always five things one should be grateful for, and this would help one to maintain a light heart in keeping with harmonious balance. This was important throughout one's life and remained equally significant after one's death since, in order to progress on toward an eternal life of bliss, one's heart needed to be lighter than a feather when one stood in judgment before Osiris.


According to the scholar Margaret Bunson:
The Egyptians feared eternal darkness and unconsciousness in the afterlife because both conditions belied the orderly transmission of light and movement evident in the universe. They understood that death was the gateway to eternity. The Egyptians thus esteemed the act of dying and venerated the structures and the rituals involved in such a human adventure (86).
The structures of the dead can still be seen throughout Egypt in the modern day in the tombs and pyramids which still rise from the landscape. There were structures and rituals after life, however, which were just as important.
The soul was thought to consist of nine separate parts: the Khat was the physical body; the Ka one's double-form; the Ba a human-headed bird aspect which could speed between earth and the heavens; Shuyet was the shadow self; Akh the immortal, transformed self, Sahu and Sechem aspects of the Akh ; Ab was the heart, the source of good and evil; Ren was one's secret name. All nine of these aspects were part of one's earthly existence and, at death, the Akh (with the Sahu and Sechem ) appeared before the great god Osiris in the Hall of Truth and in the presence of the Forty-Two Judges to have one's heart ( Ab) weighed in the balance on a golden scale against the white feather of truth.
One would need to recite the Negative Confession (a list of those sins one could honestly claim one had not committed in life) and then one's heart was placed on the scale. If one's heart was lighter than the feather, one waited while Osiris conferred with the Forty-Two Judges and the god of wisdom, Thoth, and, if considered worthy, was allowed to pass on through the hall and continue one's existence in paradise; if one's heart was heavier than the feather it was thrown to the floor where it was devoured by the monster Ammut (the gobbler), and one then ceased to exist.

Book of the Dead

Once through the Hall of Truth, one was then guided to the boat of Hraf-haf ("He Who Looks Behind Him"), an unpleasant creature, always cranky and offensive, whom one had to find some way to be kind and courteous to. By showing kindness to the unkind Hraf-haf, one showed one was worthy to be ferried across the waters of Lily Lake (also known as The Lake of Flowers) to the Field of Reeds which was a mirror image of one's life on earth except there was no disease, no disappointment, and no death. One would then continue one's existence just as before, awaiting those one loved in life to pass over themselves or meeting those who had gone on before.


Although the Greek historian Herodotus claims that only men could be priests in ancient Egypt, the Egyptian record argues otherwise. Women could be priests of the cult of their goddess from the Old Kingdom onward and were accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Usually a member of the clergy had to be of the same sex as the deity they served. The cult of Hathor, most notably, was routinely attended to by female clergy (it should be noted that 'cult' did not have the same meaning in ancient Egypt that it does today. Cults were simply sects of one religion). Priests and Priestesses could marry, have children, own land and homes and lived as anyone else except for certain ritual practices and observances regarding purification before officiating. Bunson writes:
In most periods, the priests of Egypt were members of a family long connected to a particular cult or temple.Priests recruited new members from among their own clans, generation after generation. This meant that they did not live apart from their own people and thus maintained an awareness of the state of affairs in their communities (209).
Priests, like scribes, went through a prolonged training period before beginning service and, once ordained, took care of the temple or temple complex, performed rituals and observances (such as marriages, blessings on a home or project, funerals), performed the duties of doctors, healers, astrologers, scientists, and psychologists, and also interpreted dreams. They blessed amulets to ward off demons or increase fertility, and also performed exorcisms and purification rites to rid a home of ghosts.Their chief duty was to the god they served and the people of the community, and an important part of that duty was their care of the temple and the statue of the god within. Priests were also doctors in the service of Heka, no matter what other deity they served directly. An example of this is how all the priests and priestesses of the goddess Serket ( Selket ) were doctors but their ability to heal and invoke Serket was enabled through the power of Heka.
The temples of ancient Egypt were thought to be the literal homes of the deities they honored. Every morning the head priest or priestess, after purifying themselves with a bath and dressing in clean white linen and clean sandals, would enter the temple and attend to the statue of the god as they would to a person they were charged to care for. The doors of the sanctuary were opened to let in the morning light, and the statue, which always resided in the innermost sanctuary, was cleaned, dressed, and anointed with oil; afterwards, the sanctuary doors were closed and locked. No one but the head priest was allowed such close contact with the god. Those who came to the temple to worship only were allowed in the outer areas where they were met by lesser clergy who addressed their needs and accepted their offerings.

Egyptian Temple

There were no official `scriptures' used by the clergy but the concepts conveyed at the temple are thought to have been similar to those found in works such as the Pyramid Texts, the later Coffin Texts, and the spells found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead . Although the Book of the Dead is often referred to as `The Ancient Egyptian Bible ' it was no such thing. The Book of the Dead is a collection of spells for the soul in the afterlife. The Pyramid Texts are the oldest religious texts in ancient Egypt dating from c. 2400-2300 BCE. The Coffin Texts were developed later from the Pyramid Texts c. 2134-2040 BCE while the Book of the Dead (actually known as the Book on Coming Forth by Day ) was set down sometime c. 1550-1070 BCE.
All three of these works deal with how the soul is to navigate the afterlife. Their titles (given by European scholars) and the number of grand tombs and statuary throughout Egypt, not to mention the elaborate burial rituals and mummies, have led many people to conclude that Egypt was a culture obsessed with death when, actually, the Egyptians were wholly concerned with life. The Book on Coming Forth by Day, as well as the earlier texts, present spiritual truths one would have heard while in life and remind the soul of how one should now act in the next phase of one's existence without a physical body or a material world. The soul of any Egyptian was expected to recall these truths from life, even if they never set foot inside a temple compound, because of the many religious festivals the Egyptians enjoyed throughout the year.


Religious festivals in Egypt integrated the sacred aspect of the gods seamlessly with the daily lives of the people. Egyptian scholar Lynn Meskell notes that "religious festivals actualized belief; they were not simply social celebrations. They acted in a multiplicity of related spheres" (Nardo, 99). There were grand festivals such as The Beautiful Festival of the Wadi in honor of the god Amun and lesser festivals for other gods or to celebrate events in the life of the community.
Bunson writes, "On certain days, in some eras several times a month, the god was carried on arks or ships into the streets or set sail on the Nile. There the oracles took place and the priests answered petitions" (209). The statue of the god would be removed from the inner sanctuary to visit the members of the community and take part in the celebration; a custom which may have developed independently in Egypt or come from Mesopotamia where this practice had a long history.
The Beautiful Festival of the Wadi was a celebration of life, wholeness, and community, and, as Meskell notes, people attended this festival and visited the shrine to "pray for bodily integrity and physical vitality" while leaving offerings to the god or goddess as a sign of gratitude for their lives and health. Meskell writes:
One may envisage a priest or priestess coming and collecting the offerings and then replacing the baskets, some of which have been detected archaeologically. The fact that these items of jewelry were personal objects suggests a powerful and intimate link with the goddess. Moreover, at the shrine site of Timna in the Sinai, votives were ritually smashed to signify the handing over from human to deity, attesting to the range of ritual practices occurring at the time. There was a high proportion of female donors in the New Kingdom, although generally tomb paintings tend not to show the religous practices of women but rather focus on male activities (101).
The smashing of the votives signified one's surrender to the benevolent will of the gods. A votive was anything offered in fulfillment of a vow or in the hopes of attaining some wish. While votives were often left intact, they were sometimes ritually destroyed to signify the devotion one had to the gods; one was surrendering to them something precious which one could not take back.
There was no distinction at these festivals between those acts considered 'holy' and those which a modern sensibility would label 'profane'. The whole of one's life was open for exploration during a festival, and this included sexual activity, drunkenness, prayer, blessings for one's sex life, for one's family, for one's health, and offerings made both in gratitude and thanksgiving and in supplication.
Families attended the festivals together as did teenagers and young couples and those hoping to find a mate. Elder members of the community, the wealthy, the poor, the ruling class, and the slaves were all a part of the religious life of the community because their religion and their daily lives were completely intertwined and, through that faith, they recognized their individual lives were all an interwoven tapestry with every other.

The Horse-rider Theory in Ancient Japan › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

The 'horse-rider theory' is a controversial proposal that Japan was conquered around the 4th or 5th century CE by a culture from northern Asia to whom the horse was especially important. Although archaeological evidence and genetics point to a close relationship between Japan and East Asia, especially Korea, during that period, the idea that a full military takeover ever occurred is deemed unlikely by most historians. The exact relations between the young states of the region remain unclear, and the issue is further clouded by nationalist agendas and a persistent projection of modern concepts of statehood and nationality on geographical areas which at that time would not have existed.

Silla Ceramic Warrior


The 'horse-rider theory' ( kiba minzoku setsu ) was proposed by the historian Egami Namio in 1948 CE to explain the cultural and political development of Japan in the 4th and 5th century CE. Namio suggested that 'horse-riders', or more accurately, members of a culture originally from North Asia and then present in mainland Asia and the Korean peninsula for whom the horse was especially important, had travelled to Japan and spread their ideas and culture. The resulting conquest of the indigenous tribes in Japan led to a more unified country and what would become known as the Yamato state. Namio pointed to the archaeological evidence of large numbers of horse trappings discovered within Japanese tombs of the later Kofun Period(c. 250-538 CE) and their absence in the earlier part of the period as support for his theory.


A significant Korean influence on Japanese culture is attested by both archaeological and genetic evidence, which points to a migration of both people and ideas in the period in question. The Japanese Imperial family did mix with a Korean bloodline prior to the 7th century CE and the presence of an influential clan with Korean heritage, the Soga, is noted in the historical record. In addition, from the 4th century CE, friendly relations were established with the Korean state of Baekje ( Paekche ), which was firmly established by the late 3rd century CE and lasted until the conquest by its neighbour the Silla Kingdom in the mid-7th century CE. Baekje culture was exported abroad, especially via teachers, scholars, and artists travelling to Japan, and with them went Chinese culture such as classic Confucian texts but also elements of Korean-wide culture, for example, the court titles which closely resembled the bone rank system of the Silla kingdom or the wooden buildings constructed there by Korean architects and the large burial mounds of the period which are similar to those in Korea.
The Japanese state, then known as Wa, also sent a 30,000-man army to aid the deposed Baekje rulers, but this was wiped out by a joint Silla- Tang naval force on the Paekchon (modern Kum) River c. 660 CE. In addition to these activities, the 4th and 5th century CE saw diplomatic missions and trading between Japan and China, further highlighting that the presence of continental cultural practices and goods in Japan does not necessarily mean they came via conquering invaders.


That a Korean force actually invaded and conquered Japan so that it became no more than a vassal state is quite a different matter, then, from a cultural interaction between neighbouring states. It seems unlikely a conquest did actually occur, and some sources, including the Japanese c. 720 CE Nihon Shoki ( Chronicle of Japan ), controversially suggest the reverse and that Japan had established a colony in southern Korea in part of the Gaya ( Kaya ) confederation. This is now largely considered a tall tale by the Yamato court in order to increase its prestige as the reality is it lacked both the political and military where-with-all to carry out such a conquest.

East Asia in 400 CE

There was certainly an influx of Korean manufactured goods, weapons, and raw materials such as iron from Gaya but there is a notable absence of any new and distinct culture which one might expect to see following a military conquest. The historian MJ Seth offers this plausible alternative explanation to a military invasion:
More likely, the peoples on both sides of the Korean Straits were related and interacted with each other.Evidence suggests that between 300 BCE and 300 CE large numbers of people migrated from the Korean peninsula to the Japanese archipelago, where they introduced rice culture, bronze and iron working, and other technologies. Thus rather than the existence of Korean and Japanese peoples there was a continuum of peoples and cultures. The Wa of western Japan, for example, may have lived on both sides of the Korean Straits, and they appeared to have close links with Kaya. It is even possible that the Wa and Kaya were the same ethnic group. The fact that Japanese and Korean political evolution followed similar patterns is too striking to be coincidental. (31-32)
Japanese historians have traditionally sought to counter the 'horse-rider theory', and it has never been widely accepted in that country. Indeed, when Japan invaded Korea at the end of the 19th century CE, the government claimed that it was merely retaking possession of its former colony mentioned in the Nihon Shoki. More serious arguments against Namio's theory have since developed and these include problems with and manipulation of the chronology to match an invasion with the dating of tombs and relevant artefacts, an incomplete consideration of all the archaeological evidence, the false assumption that tombs show a clear and distinct break between the period with or without horse paraphernalia and other continental goods in them, and an assumption that an agricultural society and/or ruling elite would not adopt the cultural practices and luxury goods of foreign peoples without military conquest.

Haniwa Horse

Korean historians and others have countered these arguments, insisting that a sudden cultural change is possible to identify in the archaeological and historical records and that the gradual nature of the change in tomb finds, tomb architecture, and political elites is greatly exaggerated. Some argue that linguistics and mythology both point to a mixing of the two cultures of Korea and Japan. Still others point to significant climate change which eventually resulted in a period of extended droughts around 400 CE and which motivated peoples to seek conditions more favourable to agriculture in the Japanese archipelago.No one, though, has as yet been able to provide direct evidence of how this transferral of culture occurred if not by peaceful means.


In conclusion, the merits and weaknesses of the theory are well summarised here by the historian K. Henshall:
Like most theories, it has some plausible elements and some weaknesses. It is not impossible that horse-riders from Korea or Manchuria or northern China did establish a presence in early Japan - possibly even a ruling presence, and possibly by force - but if so they would surely have realized there was nowhere further to go and either settled in Japan or returned whence they came. (158)
The controversial 'horse-rider theory' not only lacks concrete and persuasive evidence to support it but even its very emphasis on one dramatic moment of history being responsible for significant cultural and political changes in Japan seems rather dated and simplistic in terms of modern studies in history where the complexities, subtleties, and multidirectional nature of cultural exchange over long periods of time are now much more appreciated by historians, archaeologists, and the public alike.
This article was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.


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