Study Guide

The Red Pyramid Religion

By Rick Riordan


The first twenty feet or so, the magical scenes cast a golden light across the hall. A blazing sun rose above an ocean. A mountain emerged from the water, and I had the feeling I was watching the beginning of the world. Giants strode across the Nile Valley: a man with black skin and the head of the jackal, a lioness with bloody fangs, a beautiful woman with wings of light. (14.8)

In this image in the Hall of Ages, we see the creation of the world, Egyptian style. It is grand and epic and generally awesome… would you expect anything less from the ancient Egyptians, whose civilization spanned thousands of years?

"Carter," Amos said. "The Egyptians would not have been stupid enough to believe in imaginary gods. The beings they described in their myths are very, very real. In the old days, the priests of Egypt would call upon these gods to channel their power and perform great feats. That is the origin of what we now call magic." (6.105)

According to Amos, the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs are based on fact: the old gods do exist. This makes us wonder: what if other religious beliefs are also true? What about the ones that contradict each other?

"The Duat is the world of spirits and magic. It exists beneath the waking world like a vast ocean, with many layers and regions. We submerged just under its surface last night to reach New York, because travel through the Duat is much faster… But the deeper you go into the Duat, the more horrible things you encounter, and the more difficult it is to return." (6.196)

Most religions differentiate between the land of the living and, well, other places. The Duat is one of those other places. A dangerous one, too. How is the Duat like the world as we know it? How is it different?

"The Egyptians made models out of wax or clay—servants to do every kind of job they could imagine in the afterlife. They were supposed to come to life when their master called, so the deceased person could, like, kick back and relax and let the shabti do all his work for eternity." (7.116)

Egyptian religion is pretty concerned with its afterlife plan. It's kind of like having insurance: make the right plans and follow the rules, and you'll spend eternity in comfort.

"When you died in ancient Egypt, you had to take a journey to the Land of the Dead…A really dangerous journey. Finally, you made it to the Hall of Judgment, where your life was weighed on the Scales of Anubis: your heart on one side, the feather of truth on the other. If you passed the test, you were blessed with eternal happiness. If you failed, a monster ate your heart and you ceased to exist." (25.68)

On second thought, the Egyptian concept of the afterlife doesn't sound like it's all puppies and sunshine. The take-home message is to make sure you live a good life, so that you don't risk a run-in with the devourer of souls.

"But how do we even get to the Land of the Dead?" I asked. "I mean… without dying." Thoth gazed down the western horizon, where the sunset was turning blood-red. "Down the river at night, I should think. That's how most people pass into the Land of the Dead." (25.72-73)

Religions often have their own geography: here's where the mortal world is in relationship to the afterlife world, for instance. Since rivers were so important to living Egyptians—because, hello, desert—it makes sense that rivers would figure prominently in their afterlife.

"The pharaoh himself was called a living god, you know. Egyptologists believe this was just a lot of propaganda, but in fact it was often literally true. The greatest of the pharaohs became hosts for gods, usually Horus. He gave them power and wisdom, and let them build Egypt into a mighty empire." (15.101)

Ah, we reach the intersection of politics and religion—and it isn't always pretty. As Iskandar points out later in that same conversation, some pharaohs who tried to host the gods died young because of the strain. And with Horus in charge of most of the rulers, well, that can make things tough because... he's the god of war. Think about it. Would it be better if a different kind of god were in charge?

"You're telling me our parents secretly worshipped animal-headed gods?" I asked. "Not worshiped," Amos corrected. "By the end of the ancient times, Egyptians had learned that their gods were not to be worshipped." (6.115-116)

And here we see some of the different ways magicians think about Egyptian religion: it's not to be taken at face value. Like: don't worship the gods just because they're gods. Do you think the magicians have their own religion? Something like a religion of magic? What makes them think differently about Egyptian religion? Why do they dislike the gods so much?

"Legend says the world will end when Ra gets too tired to continue living in his weakened state. Apophis will swallow the sun. Darkness will reign. Chaos will overcome Ma'at, and the Serpent will reign forever." (27.37)

Well, Egyptian religion wouldn't be Egyptian religion if it didn't have some sort of doomsday or apocalypse scenario. This one is not particularly cheery, but we're not talking locusts or rivers of blood either, so that's a plus. This quote also reveals that Egyptian religion is all about order and harmony: it's about overcoming chaos. How does that relate to the overall theme of the book?

I began the spell, speaking the Divine Words, and my body rose into the air, hovering a few centimeters above the pyramid. I chanted the story of creation: the first mountain rising above the waters of chaos, the birth of the gods Ra, Geb, and Nut, the rise of Ma'at, and the first great empire of men, Egypt. (40.28)

The spell to defeat Set brings together a lot of the religious and magical ideas of ancient Egypt: it shows how important the creation myth and the gods are to the working of magic, and it shows how words and language are integral to both magic and religion. Too bad Sadie mucks up the spell.