Ancient Egypt

Start Free Trial

What was the religious significance of the Nile in Ancient Egypt?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Nile influenced religion indirectly, in that it shaped the conditions in which ancient Egyptians developed their religious ideas. For example, people living along the Nile encountered hippopotamuses, and one of their goddesses (Taweret) took hippopotamus form. More broadly, some  have argued that the regularity of the Nile's flooding contributed...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

to the religious idea of Ma'at, the regular order of things.

But the Nile -- essential for agriculture, and therefore for life itself -- also played an explicit role in certain aspects of Egyptian religious beliefs. Here are some examples.

1. Associations with Osiris. People relied on the floods to grow crops, and this gift of the Nile was linked with Osiris. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the god Osiris was drowned in the Nile. The annual inundation was portrayed as life-giving water emanating from from Osiris's body. This point is discussed at length by Terje Oestigaard:

"The Nile water was supposed to have special life-giving virtues (Aldred 1984: 59). The vitality emerging from earth, either in plant or the water of the Nile, was seen as a manifestation of Osiris. Moreover, the different types of waters had specific qualities, and in particular the inundation: ‘The water of inundation which carried the silt was called the “pure water” or the “young water”, and it is this water that was thought to be brought by Osiris or to emanate from him or to take its power from him’ (Frankfort 1948: 190). This embodiment of the Nile was believed to be real and intimately connected to death, and in fact, the waters were the divine blood and life-juices from which everything and all life arose. The inundation was seen as the liquids running from Osiris’ decaying corpse."

2. Divine power of the kings. The ancient Egyptian pharaohs were worshiped as gods, and one of their divine powers was the ability to control the annual inundation of the Nile. Original texts portray pharaohs using their divine influence to maintain Ma'at, the cosmic order, and ensure that the Nile flooded each year. In some cases, there are original records stating that the god-kings were the direct cause of the inundations. For instance, in the pyramid texts of the Pharaoh Unas, it says:

"Unas is he who has caused the land to be under water [Nile flood], after he came out of the Lake…"

3. Hapi, god of the flooding of the Nile. The ancient Egyptian pantheon included Hapi, god of the annual inundation of the Nile. He was often depicted with a large belly and pendulous breasts, symbols of the fertile soil and nourishment that the flooding gives rise to.

------------

References

In addition to the links below, see:

Oestigaard, T. 2010. Osiris and the Egyptian Civilization of Inundation; The Pyramids, the Pharaohs and their Water World. In Tvedt, T, & Coopey, R. (eds.). A History of Water, Series 2, Vol. 2: From Early Civilizations to Moderen Times: 72-99. I.B. Tauris. London.

Pyramid texts of Unas.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Although the ancient Egyptians did not worship the Nile River, it was extremely important to their religious beliefs.  Modern scholars believe that the Nile figured so prominently in Egyptian religion because it was so important to their lives on Earth. 

Historians believe that the way that the Nile behaved did much to shape the religious beliefs of the Egyptians.  The Nile was very predictable.  Every year, it would flood at about the same time.  The floods were not typically destructive.  Instead, they actually brought life to the land.  Historians argue that this influenced the Egyptians and led them to believe that the cosmic world was orderly and relatively benign as well.  The Egyptians believed in the idea of Ma’at, a fixed, eternal order for the universe.  They believed that Ma’at was under attack and needed to be sustained by their offerings and rituals.  In other words, they had a world view that emphasized order and routine, just as the Nile acted in orderly ways.  Their religion was meant mainly as a way to keep that orderly system working.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why was the Nile important to ancient Egyptians?

The Nile River was essential to the people of ancient Egypt. It helped provide fertile soil for Egyptian farmers. The Nile River flooded every year, leaving very rich silt behind. This silt enriched the soil and allowed farmers to grow many crops. Some of these crops, such as papyrus and wheat, could then be used for trade. Papyrus was made into paper, which allowed the ancient Egyptians to keep records of various things. Papyrus also was used to build things such as rafts.

The Nile River also was used for trade, transportation, and food. People could send products by boat along the Nile River, allowing the ancient Egyptians to trade with other people and with other countries. The Nile made it easier for people to get from place to place. The fish in the river were a source of food.

It would have been very difficult for the ancient Egyptians to have been as successful as they were without the Nile River.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why was the Nile important to ancient Egyptians?

The Nile was very important to the people of Ancient Egypt because it essentially made their economy possible.  It allowed them to do agriculture and to engage in trade.

Like all ancient people, the Ancient Egyptians relied on agriculture for most of their economy.  The Nile made agriculture possible in Egypt.  Every year, the river flooded.  When the floods receded, they left layers of silt on the areas that had been flooded.  This silt helped make the land fertile, allowing the Egyptians to grow enough crops near the Nile to feed everyone.  In other parts of Egypt not flooded by the Nile, the land was not fertile enough for agriculture.  The Nile, then, was necessary for Egyptian agriculture.

The Egyptians also used the Nile for other things.  It was a source of papyrus that they used to make paper, boats, and other things.  It was a source for fish and for waterfowl.  It also made it easier for them to trade both within Egypt and with other countries.  The Egyptians could ship goods up and down the Nile, allowing them to be moved easily from place to place.  This made trade easier and helped the Egyptian economy.  In these ways, the Nile made the Ancient Egyptian economy possible.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the importance of the Nile River to Ancient Egypt?

The Nile River was very important to Egyptian history. Much of Egypt was desert with the exception of the area around the Nile River. Irrigation allowed the Egyptians to grow ample crops of grain in order to feed a growing and prosperous civilization. Other crops grown included papyrus and flax. The Nile also flooded seasonally, thus spreading valuable silt that fertilized the soil. The Nile also provided recreational opportunities as the Egyptians had many rowing sports. The Nile also allowed the Egyptians to trade with other groups up and down the river.

In addition to economic benefits, the river also featured prominently in Egyptian religion. The river was associated with the gods Isis and Osiris. The river was considered the manifestation of the god Hapi who ensured that the river flooded and provided all who lived beside it with life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was the importance of the Nile River to Ancient Egypt?

The Nile River essentially made Ancient Egyptian civilization possible.  In fact, the Greek historian Herodotus went so far as to call Egypt “the gift of the Nile.”  Without the Nile, there could have been no civilization in Egypt.

Essentially all of Egypt was desert.  Desert is not a good place for civilization to arise.  In modern times, it is possible to irrigate deserts and make them agriculturally useful, but this was not possible in ancient times.  However, the Nile runs from south to north through Egypt.  This meant that there was a relatively small strip of land that could support agriculture, thus making civilization possible.

The ancient Egyptians differentiated between two types of land in their area.  They talked about the “red land,” which was the unusable desert and about the “black land,” which was the land near the Nile.  The Nile would carry huge amounts of silt.  Every year, the Nile would flood its banks.  When it did, it would drop the silt on the land along the river.  This made the land extremely fertile. 

The Nile also made trade and communications much easier.  It allowed Egypt to expand its territory.  In these ways, the Nile was vitally important to Ancient Egypt. 

Last Updated on