This is an abstract from my Final Thesis (PWS). The title of the thesis was: “How do the landscape and climate affect the people that live in it?”. In the thesis I, together with two classmates (Bruno Hoevenaars, Kaziwa Nedjabat), explored in what ways landscape and climate had an effect on three different cultures: Bruno focussed on the Vikings, Kaziwa on the Inuit, and I focussed on the Egyptians. The article below is an abstract from chapter 2: How the environment affects religion.
Religion has always played a major role in cultures, like today. The central role of a religion is very important for finding out how the cultures were influenced by their surroundings. If this is the case in any culture, then the whole society would be under a major influence of the climate and landscape. In this chapter, the religion and myths of the cultures will be explained, together with their relation to the landscape and/or climate.
Egyptian religion was heavily influenced by their surroundings. This is shown in the way of how they organized their religion. Some of their most important gods are representations of the Nile, and the myths that are centered around more commonly known gods (such as Osiris and Isis) all play out either on the Nile itself or on its banks. The way they structured their religion shows that the Egyptians viewed the Nile as the center of their world, the bringer of all life. Not only the Egyptians did, as the Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt “a gift of the river”. You can see how important the Egyptians believed the Nile to be if you look at their representations of the Nile in their religion.
To fully understand the way the Egyptians saw the Nile and how the Nile shaped their religion, it is important to understand how their religion functioned – for it is very different from other polytheistic religions that are more commonly known – such as the Hellenistic religions of the Romans and the Greeks. The gods that the Egyptians worshipped are different from the Greek gods, or the Christian god, in the fact that they are personifications of what they represent. A very clear example of this are the three gods Geb, Nut and Shu. Shu is the god of the air and Geb (god of the earth) and Nut (goddess of the sky) are his children. They do not control the sky, earth and air, they are the sky, earth and the air. In the picture on this page, the three gods are depicted. Geb is depicted as laying down, with his knee up. This represents the mountains on the land and his other body parts are the valleys. His skin colour is usually green or brown, representing the fertility of the earth. His coughs caused droughts and his laughter caused earthquakes. Nut is shown as standing bend over Geb, touching him at his feet and arms – representing the skies (or heavens) that are above the earth. Nut and Geb are separated from each other by Shu, who is their father. His name translates to “Emptiness” and he is depicted as a man who stands on Geb and holds Nut up. So is his duty, for the Egyptians thought that if he let go, the world would end. He was the air that separated the heavens and the earth. These personifications make it very clear what a huge influence the environment had on the Egyptian religion. However, the Nile had an ever greater influence.
The Nile became known to the Egyptians as “Father of Life” and “Mother of All Men”. This is also why the first two gods that were associated with the Nile were a god (Hapi) and a goddess (Ma’at). Hapi (sometimes Hapy)– the root of his name, the Egyptian word “hep” is probably an ancient name for the Nile – was sometimes called “the father of the gods” and as Richard H. Wilkinson states in his book ‘The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt’: “Without Hapy, the land would have been desolate and uninhabitable, and uncommonly severe fluctuations in the level of the Nile floods were thought to be due to Hapy’s absence.” Hapi was depicted as a man with the breasts of a woman, signifying his fertility. Egyptians did not understand why the Nile flooded, but they thought it had something to do with Hapi coming down the river – thus they called it “the arrival of Hapi” As explained before, it is important to keep in mind that the Egyptian gods were personifications of the things they represented. If without Hapi the Egyptians believed that there was no life, then this was also true for the Nile itself. From this it is easily deductible that the Egyptians (rightfully) believed that the Nile was the only thing that had given them their life. A goddess that also found her origin in the Nile was Ma’at. Ma’at was the personification of law, truth and order. She played an extremely big role in how the Egyptians saw the world and how they tried to survive in it. The concept of Ma’at will be discussed in a later chapter.
The Nile influenced even gods whom, at first sight, have nothing to do with it, namely the sun god Re. Re (sometimes referred to as Ra), as the sun god, was a very prominent figure in Egyptian mythology – if not the single most important deity. In many creation myths of the Egyptians (the Egyptians had a large amount of different creation myths) Re was the creator god. He traveled in his boat across the Heavens. He was born every morning as Khepera, the rising sun, and died every night as Atum, the setting sun. At night he fought his way through the underworld. If he was successful, he would be reborn in the morning. The Nile influenced Re in a somewhat less direct way than Hapi and Ma’at, but nonetheless Re was influenced by the river. The Egyptians saw the cosmos, through which Re travelled each day, as a celestial mirror of the Nile. This is the reason Re travels in a boat – the Egyptians viewed the sun as a fire that would go out if it touched the waters of the celestial form of the Nile.
The Nile was very important to Egyptian mythology, visible due to the fact that two mayor gods were associated with it. But the river did not only give the Egyptians one of their many creator gods (Hapi) and the core concept of Ma’at, but also another important aspect of the Egyptian religion and mythology – the concept of birth, death and re-birth. The idea is an often recurring theme in the myths of the Egyptians and is also present in one of the most important and most widely known myth – the myth of Osiris and Isis. Osiris was the king of all the lands and his reign was seen as a golden age, which earned him the favor of every god, except that of his brother Seth. Seth tricked Osiris into stepping into a sarcophagus that Seth slammed shut once Osiris was inside. Osiris died in the sarcophagus and was tossed into the Nile by Seth. Osiris’ wife Isis went looking for Osiris, for without a proper burial Osiris would never be allowed into Amenti, the realm of the dead. She found him but Seth stole the body of his dead brother from Isis and tore it into fourteen pieces and spread them across Egypt. Isis collected them all and with magic sewed them together, so Osiris was whole again and could enter Amenti. Osiris would from thereon be King of the Dead. The Myth of Osiris is one of the most central myths to the Egyptian mythology and it all occurred on the banks of the Nile. Also, as stated before, the Nile provided the Egyptians with the idea of birth, death and re-birth – a concept central to the myth of Osiris. Osiris is born and rules as pharaoh over Egypt. He is then killed by Seth, and is reborn in the hands of Isis. The concept is inspired by the cycle of the Nile: the inundation is seen as birth, then the river “dies” and a year after that it is reborn as it floods again.
The Nile was also the stage for another important myth in Egyptian mythology: the battle between Horus and Seth. Horus was the son of Osiris and swore to avenge his father after his murder by Seth. According to some myths, he declared war on Seth and the final confrontation of this war was fought on the river itself. In this battle, Horus defeated Seth and won the war. Some myths say that after several battles Horus and Seth fought on the Nile, Osiris demanded that his son should be king or he would withhold the fertility of the earth and send the dead to wage war on the gods. The gods then gave in to the demands of Osiris and Horus became king. Being the stage of these important myths shows on what scale the Nile influenced Egyptian mythology.