The Royal Cults of the Kings of Ancient Egypt

The Royal Cults of the Kings of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet

Cult Statue of Tuthmosis III

Ancient Egyptian cults can be divided into several categories, including Divine Cults, which worshipped actual existing gods, Royal Cults for the worship of the king, Private Cults, animal cults and what might be referred to as other Funerary Cults for the worship of deceased private individuals. Of these, perhaps the second most important, after Divine Cults, were the Royal Cults.

The cult of the king was one of the most prominent features of ancient Egyptian religion. The Egyptian ruler, because of his status as a ntr, or god, received both a cult during his life and after his death. He (or she) acquired and maintained his divinity as a result of specific kingship rituals, of which, the coronation was clearly the most important. In this ceremony, the king was transformed into a god by means of his union with the royal ka, or soul. All previous kings of Egypt had possessed the royal ka, and at his or her coronation, the king became divine as "one with the royal ka when his human form was overtaken by his immortal element, which flows through his whole being and dwells in it".

As a god, the King became the son of Re, the sun god, and he was a manifestation of Horus, the falcon god, as well as the son of Osiris. Also, from the Middle Kingdom, there was increasing emphasis placed on his relationship with Amun-Re, and he was described as the son of Amun, the king of the gods.

Thus, the king became an intermediary between mankind and the divine, responsible for sustaining the balance of the universe through maintaining ma'at, or divine order. Upon his death, the ancient Egyptians believed that he became fully divine and assimilated with Osiris and Re.

Karnak, and the Temple of Amun

The kings status as a god depended on his or her union with the royal ka, and therefore various rituals were intended to reinforce this relationship during the king's reign. An obvious example was the Opet festival that was held each year at the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak during the fourth month of the inundation. There, the king had his union with the royal ka renewed and therefore his right to rule reconfirmed. After (almost always) thirty years, the king also celebrated his first sed-festival, which served to reconfirm his relationship to the royal ka as well as to restore his vitality.

The practice of the king receiving a royal cult during his lifetime became especially prominent during the New Kingdom, beginning with the reign of Amenhotep III. This cult followed very closely the pattern of the daily temple rituals of other gods, and kings erected for themselves statues, sometimes colossal, so that offerings could be received. There are depictions of the king making offerings to his deified self. These statue represented the royal ka of the living king, and when he or she worships their own statue, they are actually worshipping the concept of deified kingship as represented in the royal ka, which the king embodies.

Cults associated with the living pharaoh were more significant during certain periods, and may have been linked with various political, economic and religious trends. For example, this type of cult may have been emphasized during periods of coregency. Evidence suggests that, during the Middle and New Kingdoms, some successors could have been coronated prior to the death of the elder king. In these cases, the elder ruler may have been projected into a fully divine role, perhaps conceptualized as a living Osiris.

However, clearly the most important development in the cult of the living king occurred during the New Kingdom, focusing on his or her divine birth. The key here is that the pharaoh was engendered not by the seed of his actual paternal father, but rather by that of Amun himself. Cults focused on the divinity of the ruling monarch could have been linked to a need to legitimize the king's claim to the throne by rulers such as Hatshepsut, the Early 18th Dynasty female ruler.

Akhenaten and his family worshipping the Aten

Yet, the expanded role of the cult of the living pharaoh persisted through the New Kingdom. It's strength perhaps may be seen as a means of contributing to royal power and legitimacy over an increasingly complex governmental and religious system. The cult of the living king probably had it's greatest emphasis during the Amarna period, when Akhenaten focused the state religion on the supreme power of the sun disk known as Aten. His religious program emphasized the indispensable role of the king as the sole intermediary between mankind and the life giving force of the sun disk. Direct worship of the Aten was actually limited to Akhenaten himself, while the king and his royal family were intended to be the object of worship by the population at large. There have been unearthed offering stelae depicting the royal family belonging to private households, and such veneration of the king within domestic spheres represents an emphasis on kingly divinity not seen in other periods. However, after the Amarna period, royal cult buildings continued to be erected, such as that of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, that presented the royal cult as an inseparable part of the divine order.

The Temple of Luxor may be seen as the greatest surviving monument relating to the divine, living king. Though the building was begun during the Middle Kingdom, it underwent major additions and restorations during the reign of Amenhotep III and later during the Ramessid period. This building can best be understood as a cult place of the living king and his divine association with the Theban triad. It was the focal point of the great Opet festival, when the image of Amun journeyed from his sanctuary at Karnak and the living king celebrated his divine origins.

Of course, the worship of the divine king continued after his or her death, and from the very beginning of Egyptian history, the royal burials included a place where the dead ruler's spirit could receive offerings of food and drink. Early evidence for the development of the royal funerary cult occurs in the mortuary structures built by the Early Dynastic kings at Abydos. The burial places of the 1st and 2nd Dynasty kings have associated "valley enclosures" and there is evidence for long term presentation of offerings in a few of these.

The Famous Step Pyramid

The famous Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara is the first known fully articulated funerary monument. It includes various architectural elements that were designed to perpetuate the role of the king in the afterlife, including symbolic components of the royal palace, both above ground as well as below the pyramid where the king could rule for eternity. An integrated element of this architecture was a full offering cult, which was housed in a mortuary temple positioned on the north side of the pyramid.

As early as the 4th Dynasty, kings erected for themselves a mortuary temple complex situated on the east side of their larger pyramids for their funerary cult. The colossal size and investment that went into these pyramid complexes of the 4th Dynasty attests to the central importance of the pharaoh and his cult during this period of very early Egyptian history. In fact, considering the resources that went into these structures, much of the central government during the Old Kingdom must have been focused on the construction of these funerary complexes, and so the royal cult became a driving force in the political and economic of the Old Kingdom state.

Royal pyramid complexes from the 4th, 5th and 6th dynasties typically had two main cult buildings, including the mortuary temple on the pyramid's east side, and a valley temple at the edge of the Nile River floodplain. Like normal divine cults, the mortuary temples were manned by rotating teams of priests in order to receive offerings and carry on the cult rituals. The valley temple, on the other hand, was adorned with scenes and statuary expressing the king's association with a wide variety of deities. Specifically, the valley temples seems to have been a structure used particularly to link the royal cult with other temples through periodic festivals and processions.

The Pyramid Complex of Userkaf at Saqqara

Beginning with the pyramid of King Userkaf, the first king of Egypt's 5th Dynasty, there was a false door in the mortuary temple that became the focal point for offerings to the king's spirit. However, beginning with the pyramid of Unas, the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty, a major source of information on royal funerary cults is the Pyramid Texts, where were inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers. These texts provide a complex series of magical spells and religious statements intended to aid the king during the afterlife. They record embalming and burial rituals, as well as written versions of he offering formulae and of the offering ritual itself.

During the Middle Kingdom, the construction of pyramid complexes continued, but there were some basic theological shifts. For example, the first royal mortuary complex build during the eleventh dynasty, belonging to Montuhotep, represents a departure from the complexes of the Old Kingdom in its emphasis on venerating the newly important state god of Thebes, Amun-Re. Now, the king's legitimacy is provided through his or her association with that deity. Hence, the complex of Montuhotep focuses on the Thebian triad, consisting of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, but integrates a cult statue for the king.

Depiction of the Beautiful Feast of the Valley

The association between the the deified king and other gods was emphasized during this period, and later with the ritual known as the "Beautiful Festival of the Valley", which was held annually. During this ceremony, the image (statue) of Amun was carried on his sacred bark to the west where he visited the king's funerary temple.

Later, during the Middle Kingdom, there were at times efforts to return to Old Kingdom cult practices, but there were nevertheless significant changes in conceptions of kingship that effectively restructured ideas on the nature of the king's role. Changes reflected in the design and decoration of royal cult buildings of the later Middle Kingdom and afterwards emphasis the veneration of the gods, with the king's cult appended and legitimized through his association with important gods. By late in the 12th Dynasty, the term "mansion of millions of years" appears in some records referencing the funerary temple of Amenemhet III at Hawara. This term can be understood to apply to royal cult complexes where the king's cult was important, but nevertheless subordinate to the cult of major deities.

The Ramesseum on the West Bank at Thebes (Modern Luxor)

This late 12th Dynasty practice ushered in the New Kingdom, when the mansion of millions of years became the standard type of royal cult building. They were built on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes, and the best remaining examples are the Ramesseum of Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty and Medinet Habu built by Ramesses III. who ruled during the 20th Dynasty. These temple complexes were built some distance from the actual tombs of these rulers, who were buried further in on the West Bank in the Valley of the Kings.

Now, rather being independent, these temples were considered a part of the domain of Amun and so were connected administratively with the great temple of Amun at Karnak. They were surrounded by various precincts that included storerooms and housing for priests and officials who ran the economic foundations that sustained their cults.

These complexes, usually referred to as mortuary temples, were actually built and dedicated to Amun-Re. The cult of the king was mediated by his or her divine association with that deity. The "Beautiful Festival of the Valley" survived the Middle Kingdom and continued as one of the most important ritual links during the New Kingdom between the royal funerary temples and the temple of Amun at Karnak.

The mortuary temple of Seti I at Abydos

However, there were mansions of millions of years built elsewhere. One important example is that of Seti I at Abydos, where the royal cult was linked to one of Egypt's other principal gods, Osiris. The ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was a deceased king of Egypt who was reborn to rule in the netherworld. Thus, Seti I's temple was also a monument dedicated to the institution of kingship itself as embodied in Osiris.

Seti I's temple also illustrates another type of cult, which venerates the royal ancestors through cult activity mandated by the living king. Known as the Cult of the Royal Ancestors to modern Egyptologists, this type of worship is known from as early as the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but became particularly visible during the New Kingdom. This type of cult activity could be established through patronage of existing temples, such as at Karnak, or the dedications of Senusret III within the mortuary temple of Montuhotep. However, it could also be articulated within a newly founded building such as that of Seti I at Abydos.

There was also a place for the royal cult within the temples of more normal gods.Kings from the earliest dynasties expressed their association with the gods by dedicating statuary and other religious objects, and in many of the large state temples, the cults of the gods and king became well linked. We find in the temples such as those of Horus at Heirakonpolis and Montu at Medamud considerable remains of royal dedicatory material, and there is no doubt that such temples also maintained a substantial royal cult.

Those in such divine state temples, the king's cult may have been represented by his statue that received a portion of the daily offerings, in other instances and particularly in large state temples, entire ancillary buildings were built to link the royal cult with the divine god's cult.There are often referred to as ka-chapels, and can be found in such locations as Bubastis, Dendera, Heirakonpolis, Abydos and Tell el-Dab'a.

Other structures within the gods' temples were intended to emphasize overtly the king's connection with the divine. A fine example of these structures is the birth houses known as mammisi, which are decorated with scenes of the divine birth of the pharaoh and can be found at locations such as the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

On a popular level, the king might receive a cult following in a more spontaneous fashion outside the framework of mortuary and normal state temples. In this regard, the royal cult displays many of the characteristics found in the worship of local gods. A good example of such a cult is that of Amenhotep I at the community of the royal tomb builders at Deir el-Medina. From the 18th through the 20th dynasty, Amenhotep I was venerated for his role in establishing the workers village, where he became the patron deity. There, his cult was celebrated at a popular level during periodic festivals and processions. There were similar royal cults found at other locals, such as the Sinai, where during the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian miners carried out a cult for Sneferu. In the Second Cataract (rapids) region well south of modern Aswan, Senusret III was also venerated as a local god.

Pyramid Text

Just as in the case of divine cults, the most important element of royal cult ritual was the daily offering. Basically, this entailed interaction between priests and the statue of the king which allowed it to be a suitable abode for the ka of the king. There are elements of the offering cult present as early as the Pyramid Texts. However, the daily rituals are best documented in the 19th Dynasty temple of Seti I at Abydos, and in the Ptolemaic period temple of Horus at Edfu. The daily routine involved a series of ritual acts accompanied by magical spells and offering formulae uttered by the priests, and included the statue's awakening, cleansing, anointing and dressing. Some parts of the the more involved morning ritual would be repeated several more times during the day, and in large royal cult temples, it was enacted for multiple images (statues) and subsidiary cults within the temple. Of course, as explained earlier, there were also periodic festivals and processions in which a royal cult statue was taken to nearby gods' temples, providing for interaction between the surrounding community and the royal cult.

See also:






Reference Number

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Thames & Hudson, LTD

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Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011