Like settlers all over Egypt since the beginning of history, its inhabitants were superstitious. They lived much as they do today in many isolated rural areas, in villages composed of sun-dried mud brick houses separated by narrow lanes. Their lives were largely governed by the cycle of the Nile flood which they had learned to channel and to exploit. Because its benefits and its hazards came with untiring regularity, the lives of the people were similarly rhythmic, following an unchanging social pattern.
This enigmatic universe awakened speculation in the minds of the Egyptians long before dynastic times. The primitive dwellers of the Nile Valley, in Waset as elsewhere, devised explanations, at once naive and delightfully imaginative, of the alternation of night and day, of the glittering heavenly bodies and of all good things on earth. The world as they saw it was created by supernatural beings who revealed themselves in the heavenly bodies. Atum, who created himself out of himself on the top of a hill that emerged from the eternal ocean, brought forth four children: Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut. Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky, were one. They were locked in a lovers’ embrace, Geb beneath Nut , representing the atmosphere, emerged from the primaeval waters and forcibly separated the two by slipping between them and raising Nut aloft in his outstretched arms to her new abode. Geb and Nut were father and mother of four divinities: Osiris, who became with the Nile and the fertile lands bordering it, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
The greatest phenomenon of nature, the sun, naturally made the most Powerful impression on the Nile dwellers. Though universally recognized as the principal heavenly body, it was interpreted differently in different areas. The centre of the cult was On (Heliopolis) where the Sun-god was known as Ra (the solar orb) or Atum (the setting sun). Under one priesthood he was Kheper (the beetle), under another Harakhte. It was believed that he sailed across the heavenly ocean in a boat each day, from the pink-speckled dawn to the blood-red sunset. With the last rays of the day he transferred to a barge that continued the voyage through the netherworld, temporarily illuminating its darkness.
In these prehistoric times each town or village had a tribal emblem which was displayed on boats and flagpoles. The people probably believed them to be imbued with magical power, since they came later to be regarded as local deities. Their names bore no resemblance from one area to another. In the little village of Waset, Wast was the local goddess; Montu was the local god of Armant some ten kilometres south of Waset; and Amon, who was later to become the national god, was at this time either one of the eight local deities of Ashmounein, a district of Middle Egypt, or aspects of the fertility god Min of Coptos.
As time passed, commercial and administrative intercourse developed and largely incompatible beliefs no longer remained local. As a town or district grew, so the local deity extended its jurisdiction. The people consequently adopted a new deity and erected new shrines to him whilst maintaining the worship of their original local god. Sometimes a stronger deity managed completely to overshadow a weaker. This is what happened in Waset. The tiny local goddess was almost swept aside by the strong war-god of Armant, the hawk-headed Montu.
It is not surprising that the various settlements of Egypt should have tended towards political unity. They slowly merged until two powerful states came into existence: a northern kingdom which largely included the Delta, and a southern kingdom which extended south to Aswan. The rulers of the northern kingdom had as their insignia the red crown, and their capital was Buto in the northwestern section of the Delta. The southern capital was Nekhen, north of the modern town of Edfu on the left bank of the Nile, and the rulers had as their insignia the white crown. Each state also had its own national emblem: the papyrus in the north and the lotus in the south.