For over 3000 years, the polytheistic Ancient Egyptians worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Ancient Egyptians were known to worship around 2000 deities from Egypt’s unification in 3100 BC to its absorption into the Roman Empire in 30 BC.
In today’s post, we first attempt to understand what religion was like in one of the oldest civilizations in existence. Then, we look at a list of some of the most significant deities worshipped in Ancient Egypt. We discuss why they were worshipped, what their roles were and how they were depicted. Additionally, some of the myths surrounding some of the deities are retold to emphasize their importance.
Religion in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, religion was an integral part of everyday life. It made up a significant portion of the culture. Unlike today, however, the concept of religion was more complex than the way we understand it. In Ancient Egypt, religion was more than the belief in gods and goddesses. It combined the concepts, practices and knowledge that we know today as science, medicine, spirituality, magic and myths.
The Ancient Egyptians, much like many cultures today, believed that divine power created and controlled nature, human beings and the metaphysical. This belief helped them make sense of their reality and of the things they could not explain.
Today, we are able to explain most natural occurrences. Such as the creation of the world, the change in seasons, or the transition from day to night, changes in climate, natural disasters, etc. Thousands of years ago, however, humans did not have this knowledge, so these phenomena seemed mysterious and even frightening.
The flooding of the River Nile was an annual event that served as a boon to the farmers. The floods deposited silt on the banks of the river, making the soil more fertile. This provided the ideal conditions for crops to grow and ultimately sustain life in the middle of the desert. At the time, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t know what caused it. They didn’t know that the river was carrying excess water from melting snow and heavy rain in the Ethiopian Highlands. Hence, they believed the gods were responsible and honoured them accordingly.
Like many ancient cultures, the Ancient Egyptians believed powerful deities manifested themselves in nature. And so, they found ways to explain the mysteries of nature with these beliefs. Some were unique to Egypt, while others may have been influenced by other ancient cultures.
The Concept of Ma’at
The Ancient Egyptians also believed in the concept of Ma’at, referring to truth, justice and cosmic harmony. This was the core concept of the Ancient Egyptian religion. The people understood the fact that their actions influenced those around them, further reinstating the need to maintain harmony. Maintaining Ma’at meant keeping peace with the gods and souls in the afterlife. This was achieved by properly performing rites, making sacrifices and worshipping the gods and goddesses. This concept was even personified in the form of the goddess Ma’at. She is identified by the white feather she wears on her head.
Religious Practice in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, everyone, regardless of class or occupation, was involved in religious activities. This made religion a key part of Ancient Egyptian culture. The Ancient Egyptians would mostly pray and ask the gods for favours in the form of magic. In return, they would perform rituals, ceremonies and provide offerings to the deities.
The responsibility of keeping peace with the gods was primarily of the pharaoh. Pharaohs, who could be either male or female, were the political leaders of Egypt. They were also the medium between the deities and humans as they were believed to have divine heritage.
Pharaohs were believed to be the direct descendants of the gods. This was also why they were allowed to rule the land. Due to their ancestry, they were highly respected and were viewed as almost equal to the gods. To fulfil their responsibility, they would have official temples built in their state. The temples were considered the houses of the deities, where their idols were placed. Then, the pharaoh would appoint a high priest or priestess to perform the necessary rituals.
These temples were usually only reserved for the pharaoh, priest or priestess. The general public worshipped away from the official temples, either privately or in separate shrines.
Lastly, the pharaohs were also responsible for inaugurating any religious ceremonies.
How do we know about the Ancient Egyptian Gods?
Information about such an ancient civilization is available thanks to ancient texts and documents, not only from Egypt but also from the accounts of foreign visitors. Additionally, inscriptions, artwork, artefacts and monuments also provide valuable information. Fortunately, the Ancient Egyptian civilization, its culture and society, mythology and life have been adequately documented and vastly studied by researchers around the world. It is thanks to these sources that we know about their religious beliefs.
Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
The Ancient Egyptian pantheon was complex in nature. As mentioned earlier, there were around 2,000 gods and goddesses worshipped between the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt in 3100 BC and the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in 30 BC. There may have been more deities worshipped in Predynastic Egypt, which was the time before 3100 BC.
In Ancient Egypt, the gods were at the top of the social hierarchy. They were in control of the universe and the forces of nature. The Egyptian gods and goddesses took many forms, but they most often represented the forces of nature and the supernatural.
They were honoured and shown gratitude to maintain Ma’at, ensuring cosmic balance. Maintaining this balance would assure them a prosperous and peaceful life. It also ensured no shortage of food and no unnatural circumstances like drought, famine or natural disasters, for instance.
The gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt were also believed to have resided among the people. This allowed humans and the gods to interact frequently and maintain an informal relationship, not one usually driven by fear. This is proven by some of the nicknames given to certain deities.
General Depiction of the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
Generally, the gods and goddesses were believed to be generous, kind, helpful and protective. Ancient Egyptians worshipped and honoured the deities to show gratitude for these qualities as well.
Of course, not all gods and goddesses possessed positive characteristics. Some manifested contrasting qualities, representing the opposing forces in the cosmos, like chaos, destruction and darkness.
In the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, some deities were portrayed as entirely human. While others had both human and animal features. Most commonly, their images show them having the body of a human and the head of an animal. Some gods and goddesses were even associated with more than one type of animal. Animals were used to portray their nature, mood and behaviour in their various forms. Other deities were shown to have rather uncommon physical features. For instance, some deities did not have any human features at all. They were depicted as a combination of two animals.
Over millennia, the Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses evolved. Not just in physical appearance but in their roles and responsibilities as well. Some were worshipped in their ancient forms even in the later periods, while others evolved completely. Some were absorbed into the form of other deities to become composite deities, possessing many powers and roles.
In Ancient Egypt, there was no singular god or goddess who was considered supreme throughout the different time periods. Instead, different gods were considered supreme in different locations at different time periods. The deities had dedicated cults in different places, where they were believed to be most powerful. There, they served as the patron god or goddess. In these places, they may have had different versions of myths surrounding them and may have been portrayed differently.
In terms of worship, the Egyptian gods and goddesses were usually venerated in groups. Either in groups of three or nine. The triad represented a family comprising a father, mother and child. A group of nine deities were known as an ennead. The most significant one was The Great Ennead, comprising the nine most powerful and revered deities in Ancient Egypt.
Below is a list of some of the major and popular Egyptian gods and goddesses. Their various forms, roles and responsibilities are detailed and some of the myths surrounding them have been narrated.
List of Important Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
Ra is a complex figure in the Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. To put it simply, Ra was the primary sun deity in Ancient Egypt. The divine figure manifested itself as a man with the heads of different animals. This is because he presents himself in different ways. He is most frequently portrayed as a man with the head of a falcon wearing a headdress with a large solar disc outlined by a cobra. Falcons were a symbol of royalty and are able to fly very high into the sky, where the sun is present. Solar deities in Ancient Egypt were traditionally represented by the head of a falcon.
Ra and his incarnations were considered most significant in Ancient Egypt and were often referred to as the father of the gods. He was believed to have created the universe, most other deities and all life forms. As such, all other gods and goddesses descending from him represent some of his aspects. Similarly, being the creator, he projects the characteristics of the deities he created. He is also able to merge himself with other deities and even his incarnations to form composite gods. By doing so, he possesses both his powers and the other deity’s powers. Over the centuries, he had many composite forms, some of which are mentioned in this post.
Roles and Responsibilities
Ra was primarily responsible for bringing light to the world. To do so, he would travel across the sky in his wooden solar boat, in the form of the sun. At night, he journeys to the underworld to battle chaos. When he enters the underworld, Ra’s appearance changes. His falcon head changes into the head of a ram. He defeats chaos and remerges again in the sky at dawn. His travels across the sky and underworld are usually accompanied by other deities and spirits in the afterlife. Each incarnation of Ra represented his cyclic journey from the sky to the underworld and back.
In the later periods of the Ancient Egyptian civilization, Ra was believed to have invented kingship, as per some myths. This made him the first king of Egypt, where he ruled till old age. He then retired from the world of living to rule the heavens. This is why he was also the patron of the pharaohs.
Ra has been worshipped since the Early Dynastic Period and by the middle of the Old Kingdom (2686 BC to 2181 BC), his popularity skyrocketed. Ra and his forms had many cults all over Egypt throughout millennia and many solar temples were dedicated to him.
Khepri is a solar god and one of the forms of Ra. The god is depicted as a man with the face of a scarab beetle. Hence, he has often been termed the scarab-faced god. Scarab beetles are undoubtedly a popular symbol of Ancient Egypt. These dung beetles were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt due to their association with Khepri. Khepri was the god of the rising sun. He was responsible for rolling the solar disc into the sky from the underworld at dawn. Just as scarab beetles push dung to roll into balls for laying their eggs. Khepri pushing the sun, a round object, into the sky is similar to beetles rolling dung.
The Importance of the Sun Gods
The solar deities were the most important in Ancient Egyptian culture. The sun is a source of light and warmth. Many of the daily activities were done based on the amount of daylight available to them. The Ancient Egyptians also associated it with life. They saw that the sun rose from the direction of the River Nile, another life-sustaining resource. And, they saw it set in the barren Saharan desert, an uninhabitable place incapable of supporting life. The east was therefore a symbol of life, while the west was a symbol of death. This is also why the dead were buried in the west as well.
The Great Ennead
The Great Ennead, refers to the group of nine gods and goddesses extensively worshipped in Heliopolis. This group of deities were some of the most ancient, powerful and popular gods and goddesses. The myths featuring The Great Ennead explain how the Ancient Egyptians believed the universe, world and society were created.
Atum is one of the forms of Ra. He is a solar deity, depicted as a man wearing the crown of unified Egypt, holding an ankh and a sceptre.
He was the most prominent deity worshipped in Heliopolis, where his cult centre was. Heliopolis is presently located in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
According to the Heliopolitan myth, Atum was the creator god who emerged from the primaeval waters of chaos called Nun. In this tradition, he was considered the first god of the Egyptian pantheon. Atum was believed to have created the world, the other gods and goddesses, humans and other living beings.
Shu and Tefnut
Shu and Tefnut are the children of Atum. Shu is the god of dry air, wind and the atmosphere. He is depicted as a man, wearing a headdress with a feather on it. He is also seen holding an ankh and a sceptre. His sister-wife, Teftnut, was the goddess of moisture, humidity, rain and fertility. She is shown as a woman with the head of a lioness. She wears a headdress with a snake lined solar disk. Together, the twins had two children – Geb and Nut.
Geb and Nut
Geb and Nut are the children of Shu and Tefnut. They gave birth to them to create a space for mankind to live in. Geb is the god of Earth. Contrary to other cultures, the Egyptians viewed the Earth as a male deity. He is depicted as a man with the head of a goose. He is also the god of snakes, geese and vegetation. According to legend, his tears are what filled the oceans and his laughs cause earthquakes.
Nut is the goddess of the sky, universe, stars and astronomy. She is depicted as a woman wearing a headdress with a pot of water. This is used to represent fertility.
The Ancient Egyptians believed the earth lay flat and the sky arched over it. This is why Nut is more commonly shown naked with her body covered in stars, arching over Geb.
Geb and Nut are also married to each other and have four children together. They are Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.
The Creation Myth
Atum, Tefnut, Shu, Geb and Nut were the deities involved in the creation myth believed in Ancient Egypt. Now that we’re familiar with them, let’s look at how the Ancient Egyptians believed the universe and life in it were created.
At the beginning of time, there was nothing except a dark, vast and chaotic primordial ocean known as Nun. One day, a big mound called ben-ben emerged from Nun and on top of it stood Atum. Atum, the creator god, saw how empty and lonely it was and so, he created Shu and Tefnut. Atum gave birth to the twins by spitting them out.
One day, the twins went out to explore the dark primordial ocean, leaving behind their father. They did, however, reassure him that they would come back. Some time had passed but the children didn’t return. He started to worry they were lost in the never-ending darkness. So, he took out one of his eyes and sent it to look for them. This eye acted as a source of light. While that eye was away, it was dark around him, so he used his other eye to create another source of light.
Eventually, the twins returned along with their father’s eye. Atum was so happy to see them that he shed tears of joy. From these tears, mankind emerged. In his joy, he also rewarded the light that brought his children back. He made it the ultimate source of light, one that would eternally shine brighter than anything. This became the sun. Meanwhile, he made the other source of light, the moon.
Creation of the World
Mankind had now been created but, there was no place for them to live and survive. So, Shu and Tefnut gave birth to the world, Geb, and the sky, Nut.
Geb and Nut were madly in love with each other. So much so, that it was difficult to keep them apart. This resulted in the lack of space to accommodate humans and other life forms on Earth. To solve this problem, their father, Shu, decided to keep them apart. He did this by holding the weight of Nut with his hands. This is why Shu is seen supporting the arched body of Nut, while Geb is seen lying down. Sometimes, other gods and goddesses are seen helping Shu support the weight of his daughter.
This is how Nut became the goddess of the sky, Shu became the god of dry air, acting as space, atmosphere and wind between earth and heaven. Meanwhile, Geb, lying flat, became the earth god.
In this way, Geb and Nut could still see each other without touching each other. Before they were separated, however, Nut had already conceived their four children.
Osiris is the god of the dead, the underworld, and the afterlife. Initially, however, he was a god of fertility and vegetation. Osiris is depicted as a man with green skin. He has a beard and wears a special crown on his head. The crown is the traditional white crown of the Old Kingdom with two curled ostrich feathers at the sides. It is known as an atef. Osiris is also shown to be partially mummified. After all, he was the first figure to be mummified.
According to some myths, he was the first king of Egypt, ruling during his time in the world of the living. He ruled along with his sister and wife, Isis.
Osiris was a powerful, well-respected and popular god in Ancient Egypt. His association with the afterlife made him especially popular. It was an idea the Egyptians were immensely interested in.
The Egyptian Idea of the Afterlife
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to conceptualize the idea of the afterlife. This provided answers about what happened to a person after death. They did not believe that life ended after death. To them, a person’s time on earth was a part of their life cycle. After death, their spirit would continue into the afterlife.
Entry into the afterlife, however, was extremely challenging. In the worst-case scenario, the soul would simply cease to exist, a phenomenon the Egyptians feared gravely. To improve their chances of entry, they would honour the gods, maintain Ma’at and live a life free of malice and sin during their time on Earth. If they were granted entry into the afterlife, their souls would live in the field of reeds, or paradise. Alternatively, they could accompany Ra on his journey through the sky. Either way, the soul would become one with the light.
The Importance of Mummification
To ensure life continued into the afterlife, the Ancient Egyptians mummified the dead body, preserving it. Preserving the body following precise procedures and rites was crucial. It was believed that after death, the soul of the deceased was divided into ‘ka’ and ‘ba’. Ka was the life force and ba one’s individuality and personality. After death, ka remained in the body, unable to free itself, so, rites were performed to help liberate it. Ka, being the life force, would also need to be nourished, just like the living. As such, food and drinks were offered to the dead.
Ba, on the other hand, could leave the body and move between the world of the living and the afterlife. However, it would return to the body at night, which is why it was important to preserve it. Without a body, the soul ceases to exist forever.
The ultimate goal is for the ka and ba to reunite in the afterlife. This was only possible if the spirits were granted entry. When ka and ba reunited, they formed akh, the transfigured soul of the dead. Akh allowed life to continue in the afterlife.
If, for example, a body wasn’t mummified and was allowed to decompose, ka and ba could not reunite. It would second death and the eventual cessation of one’s existence.
Isis was one of the most important goddesses, if not the most important. She was the goddess of healing, marriage, life, nature, protection and magic. She is depicted as a woman with cow horns on her head. In between the cow’s horns, rests a solar disk.
She was well-liked among the Ancient Egyptians because she used her magic to protect the kingdom from enemies. She even ruled Egypt for some time alongside her husband, Osiris. With Osiris, she had one child, who later became the pharaoh of Egypt. As such, she was also known as the divine mother and the protector of pharaohs.
Additionally, she would also heal and help the general populace. She was surely a favourite.
She is portrayed as beautiful, intelligent and powerful. These characteristics gained her the reputation of the supreme female deity in some parts of Ancient Egypt. Her powers were, in fact, so strong that she even managed to challenge the almighty Ra.
Learning Ra’s Secret Name
According to one of the myths, Ra was ageing and was becoming too old to rule as the pharaoh of Egypt. He needed to let younger deities rule in his stead and he needed to do so soon. His age was causing him to lose his intellect and strength. In order to rule, however, potential deities had to access Ra’s powers. It wasn’t something he would give away so easily because that would mean his retirement to the heavens. Fortunately for him, no one could acquire it because his power was in his secret name. A name only Ra knew.
Isis, the protector of the kingdom, was worried about the fate of Egypt. She knew the kingdom needed a new ruler. When Isis learnt that Ra’s powers lied in his secret name, she plotted to get it out of him. Without Ra finding out, she collected the saliva of the sun god and made the first cobra. She placed the snake in Ra’s usual path and, naturally, the cobra bit him. Since it was a snake made with a part of him, he couldn’t subdue the pain. The pain kept growing and he was in agony. It was a pain he had never experienced before. He gathered all the gods with healing powers to heal him but they all failed.
Lastly, Isis appeared, pretending she wasn’t responsible for the snake bite. She showed concern for him, examined him and said she could only heal him if he shared his secret name. He tried his best not to disclose it, but in the end, he budged. She was, after all, the only one who could ease his immense pain. He revealed his secret name to Isis, but not before making her swear to secrecy. She was only allowed to reveal it to her future son, Horus.
Learning his name, at last, she healed him and shortly after, he retired to the heavens and ruled there.
Isis was also a very popular goddess. Interestingly, her popularity wasn’t limited to Egypt. During the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 BC – 30 BC), for example, she had cults in Greece and Rome as well.
Seth is the brother of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys. He is the god of chaos, destruction, storms and deserts. He is depicted as a man with the head of an animal that doesn’t match any known creature. Some believe it resembles an African wild dog or a hyena or a type of hybrid animal. It is simply called the Seth animal.
Seth personified anger, violence and chaos. He was even nicknamed ‘The Red One’ because of his personality. He was viewed as an evil and violent deity who would express himself by causing disease, conflicts, crime, invasions, etc. Seth was the balancing force of chaos among the order. For this reason, some saw him as a rebel.
His qualities also balanced out the more positive characteristics of his brother Osiris. Osiris was associated with fertility and vegetation, while Seth was linked to the desert and infertile lands.
Due to his association with infertility, in some myths, he didn’t even father any children. He was married to his sister Nephthys.
Seth, despite his negative role in mythology, was worshipped. He was a powerful deity capable of causing destruction and, therefore, feared by humans. They found it wise not to enrage him.
Nephthys was the sister of Osiris, Isis and Seth. She was the goddess of night, death, mourning and funerals. She is portrayed as a woman wearing a basket as a headdress. The goddess is usually seen alongside her sister Isis.
Her qualities contrasted those of her sister. While Isis was associated with life, Nephthys was associated with death. Together, they represented balance.
Nephthys mostly played the role of a protective goddess. She protected and cared for the souls as they made their way into the afterlife. She is also shown to have the wings of a falcon on her arms, symbolizing her protective nature. The goddess would sometimes accompany Ra on his journey through the sky.
The Children of Osiris
Osiris had two children who were also powerful and highly revered gods. They are Horus and Anubis. They play a major part in the most important myth of Ancient Egypt – The myth of Osiris. These two deities are not part of The Great Ennead.
Horus and Ra-Horakhty
Horus was the offspring of Osiris and Isis. He is a male deity depicted as a human with the head of a falcon. On his head, he wears the pschent, a red and white crown. It is also known as the Double Crown, representing the union of Upper and Lower Egypt. Being an avian deity, he is also represented as a hawk.
Horus is the god of the sky, war and kingship. He was the first pharaoh of Egypt as he represented Ra as the ruler in human form. It was believed that all pharaohs were the descendants of Horus.
Horus took on many forms, but the most significant and powerful form is Ra-Horakhty. In this form, he is combined with Ra, the primary sun god.
As a combination of Ra and Horus, Ra-Horakhty was depicted as a man with the head of a falcon wearing a cobra-lined sun disc. Sounds familiar? Well, this is because Ra-Horakhty was the most common way Ra was pictured. Ra-Horakhty, meaning ‘Horus of the Horizons’, represented the morning sun. Horus ruled Egypt in this form, which made the future pharaohs of Egypt the descendants of both Ra and Horus. It is because of this reason, pharaohs called themselves the sons of Ra.
Anubis was the child of Osiris and Nephthys. One time, Nephthys took the form of Isis and seduced Osiris. This union resulted in the birth of Anubis.
Anubis was and still is a very popular figure in the Egyptian pantheon. He is represented as a man with the head of a jackal. Some believe he actually has the head of a dog or wolf.
Anubis was the god of the dead, embalming, mummification and lost souls. He was also the protector of tombs and cemeteries. Anubis was believed to protect tombs from thieves and punish those who disrespected the dead. Anubis also supervised the mummification process, ensuring the body was preserved properly after death. Additionally, he guided souls through the underworld so they could make their way into the afterlife.
The Mummification Process
As we discussed earlier, the Ancient Egyptians worried about their fate after death. They all wished for their lives to continue in the afterlife. Above all, they feared the concept of second-death, which is the permanent cessation of existence. As such, they built elaborate tombs for those who could afford them. The tombs of pharaohs were especially extravagant. They also had complex funerary traditions, which included the preservation of the body after death.
In the preservation process, vital organs like the liver, stomach, intestines, brain and lungs were removed. Out of these, the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs were preserved in canopic jars. Each of these organs represented the four sons of Horus. These canopic jars were initially shaped and designed in the form of Anubis. Over the centuries, however, they took the form of the four sons of Horus. The body was then covered in natron, a type of salt, and allowed to dry. Once the body dried out, the salt would be removed and the body was slathered in oil, wine and spices. Next, it was covered in resin so it acted like glue for the pieces of linen used to wrap the body. Finally, the body was kept in a special coffin.
This was an elaborate and expensive process, so not everyone could afford to get it done. It was mainly the wealthy who were mummified in this manner. The middle-class Egyptians were poorly mummified, while the very poor were simply buried underneath the sand in the desert. The arid climate and heat would naturally dry out the body, mummifying them.
The embalming process was usually done by a priest. During this ritual, they would wear a mask of Anubis representing the divine embalmer’s presence.
The Myth of Osiris
We have now become familiar with the deities featured in the Myth of Osiris. The Myth of Osiris was perhaps the most important myth believed in Ancient Egypt. It tells the story of how Osiris became the king of the underworld, how Horus became the first pharaoh and explains some of the natural phenomena occurring at the time.
There are many versions of this story. The following narrates one of these versions.
Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, were the four children of the Earth and Sky. Osiris married Isis and together they ruled Egypt. During their reign, Egypt was a prosperous and peaceful place. Their brother Seth was jealous of his brother and wanted the throne for himself. One day, he found the perfect excuse to make that happen.
Nephthys, Seth’s wife, had seduced Osiris in the form of Isis and conceived a child. Seth, already green with envy, was now enraged when he learnt about this illegitimate child. He felt betrayed by his wife and brother. He was now prepared to take revenge as well as the throne of Egypt. Seth devised the perfect plan to murder his brother.
Seth arranged a banquet and invited many guests, including his brother, to the gathering. Before the banquet, he had made a coffin in the exact shape and size of Osiris. During the party, Seth made sure his guests were drunk, then, challenged them to get in the coffin to see if they fit. As a ‘fun’ party game. Many tried and obviously failed. Then came Osiris and fit perfectly. But, as soon as he was inside, Seth locked the box and sealed it with molten lead. Then. He then threw the coffin in the River Nile. Osiris was clearly dead.
Osiris’ absence led to chaos. Isis, his wife, also noticed his absence and searched for him. She searched all the land but couldn’t find him. She asked the other deities but that led her nowhere. Finally, she found a coffin drifting in the sea in Byblos. She opened it and saw her deceased husband. In her grief, she wept. She wept so much that it flooded the River Nile. This is how the Ancient Egyptians explained the flooding of the Nile.
Isis carried the coffin back to Egypt and hid it from Seth. Unfortunately, he found it and tore his body apart into fourteen pieces. He then scattered his remains throughout Egypt.
The First Mummy
When Nephthys learnt about what Seth had done, she was disgusted and decided to help her sister. Together, Isis and Nephthys searched for Osiris’ body parts and collected them. They could only find thirteen of the fourteen pieces because a fish had eaten the last piece. With the help of Thoth, the scholar god and Anubis, Isis reassembled the pieces she found. Then, she performed the first-ever embalming ritual, resurrecting Osiris. She created the first mummy. The couple reunited and soon, Isis conceived a child.
While Osiris was alive again, he was too weak to survive in the world of living with the missing body part. He couldn’t stay in the mortal world for too long, nor could he rule Egypt again. So he travelled to the land of the dead, also known as Duat. There, he lived forever as king of the underworld. A king, he’d guide the dead through a challenging journey through the underworld. He was also the final judge to decide whether souls could enter the afterlife after death.
Meanwhile, Seth usurped the throne of Egypt. With Seth in power, Isis had to stay hidden. She escaped and gave birth to Horus, in hiding. She raised Horus till adulthood. While he grew up, he learnt about his father. He vowed to avenge him and take back the throne. Horus then went and challenged his uncle Seth. He demanded the throne back as he was the rightful heir. Seth refused and they fought violently for 80 days. This battle represents the fight between good and evil.
The conflict finally ended when the matter was taken to trial. There, Neith, the goddess of the universe and wisdom, was the judge. She ruled in favour of Horus and so he became the pharaoh of Egypt.
Seth, on the other hand, was told to accompany Ra in his boat as his protector. Every night, when Ra and his boat descended into the underworld, they’d encounter Ra’s eternal enemy. Seth was responsible for protecting Ra and helping him defeat his nemesis. Their victory would begin the ascent back to the sky.
Daughters of Ra
The daughters of Ra were a group of powerful and fierce goddesses. They either manifested themselves as integral forces of the cosmos or as the Eye of Ra.
The Eye of Ra is a ferocious force that looks out for Ra, aids him in his endeavours and fights for him. They were seen as both separate entities or as aspects of this force. Not all his daughters were considered the Eyes of Ra. Neither were all associated with violence. The following section introduces a few of Ra’s daughters.
According to one of the myths from Ancient Egypt, when Ra was becoming too old to rule, humans plotted to take his throne. When he learnt about their plan, he was furious and wanted to punish humanity. So, he sent out his most ferocious daughter, Sekhmet. She is a lioness deity associated with war, destruction and healing. In the form of a lioness, Sekhmet began massacring humans and satisfied her bloodlust. Her wrath was so strong that she nearly wiped out all of humanity. Seeing all that bloodshed, Ra pitied mankind, who was, after all, his creation. To stop Sekhmet in her frenzy, Ra dyed a drum full of beer red, tricking her to believe it was blood. When she drank it, she fell asleep and humanity was spared. Shortly after that incident, Ra decided to retire to the heavens, as he was still disappointed in humankind.
Bastet is another Eye of Ra. In some versions, Bastet is Sekhmet’s twin sister, while in others, she is another aspect of the Eye of Ra. Like Sekhmet, she was also a lioness goddess but, over time, she tamed herself to become a cat. She is therefore known as the cat goddess. Bastet is portrayed as a woman with the head of a cat. Alternatively, she was depicted as a cat.
The goddess was associated with fertility, women, cats, childbirth and protecting the household from back luck and evil.
In the form of a cat, she would sometimes accompany her father in his solar boat and travel with him to the underworld. There she would help him defeat his mortal enemy.
She was a popular deity in ancient Egypt. Especially in her patron city, Bubastis. There, cats were considered sacred and were even mummified.
When Sekhmet woke up from her sleep, she became a calmer and kinder goddess named Hathor. She is depicted as a woman with the horns of a cow and a sun disc between the horns. Hathor is married to Horus.
Hathor was the Egyptian goddess of love, music, beauty, motherhood, feminine sexuality and fertility. She also protected pregnant women and nursed pharaohs.
Unlike Sekhmet and Bastet, Hathor was a cow goddess. In Ancient Egypt, cows were considered very important. The animal nourished them by providing meat and milk. Additionally, its hides could be used to make leather. The animal truly generously provided for the people. Since Hathor also possessed these nurturing characteristics, she was associated with the cow.
Egyptians also lovingly called her the Lady of the Sycamore. This is because, in some places, she was a tree goddess associated with the Sycamore tree. The tree is native to Egypt and one of the few native trees to have any utility. It provided shelter, food and it could be used for making furniture and coffins.
Like Sekhmet, Bastet and Hathor, Mut is another form of the Eye of Ra. Mut was a mother goddess. She was highly venerated in Thebes, during the New Kingdom (1570 BC to 1070 BC). There she was considered the queen of the Egyptian pantheon.
Mut was also linked with vultures as they were a symbol of motherhood and protection in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that every single vulture was female and that they were born without a male creator. That is why they were associated with motherhood.
She is depicted as a woman wearing a pschent or Double Crown on her head. Sometimes she has the wings of a vulture.
Mut protected the living, saved souls in the afterlife, protected pharaohs and their kingdoms. She also punished those who betrayed their leaders. It was then that she transformed into a lioness deity.
Ma’at, as we discussed earlier, is the personification of the truth, justice and universal harmony. It was believed that without the concept of Ma’at, the world wouldn’t function and there would be total chaos. She manifested the core concept of the Ancient Egyptian religion.
Ancient Egyptians were thus expected to work and do their part to maintain peace and harmony. And, they did their best to uphold this principle, especially if they wanted to successfully enter the afterlife.
The concept of Ma’at was believed to have been present when Ra or Atum rose from the primordial waters. However, it only took shape after Ra created the universe and life in it. This is why Ma’at was considered a daughter of Ra. Her spirit filled the universe and her laws brought order even in times of chaos.
Ma’at was honoured in everything that the Ancient Egyptians did and owned. She was represented in most temples and other places of worship. However, the number of temples built in her honour were limited.
She is usually depicted as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head. This feather is also known as the feather of truth. It plays an important role in determining a soul’s entrance to the afterlife.
The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony
In Egyptian mythology, once the soul entered the underworld after death, it had to face many challenges. This involved overcoming physical obstacles and even dodging monsters. This continued until the soul reached the Hall of Ma’at. There, the soul appeared before 42 judges to prove their innocence to various sins they may have committed. Then, the heart of the person would be weighed against the white feather of truth. This is why the heart was left inside the body during the embalmment process. Weighing the heart on the scales of justice would be Anubis.
If the heart weighed as much as or less than the feather, the soul was worthy of entering the afterlife. It meant that the person lived a decent life and did good deeds during their time in the world. If the heart weighed heavier than the feather, it meant their heart was full of impurities, negativity and sin. They weren’t worthy of a life in the field of reeds. Hence, their hearts would be eaten by Ammit, the devourer of souls, a beast taking the form of a terrifying crocodile. This way, the soul would cease to exist forever.
Those worthy of entering the afterlife would go through a final judgement before Osiris himself. His judgement was the final word. Once he allowed them to enter, the soul continued to live forever in the afterlife.
Triad Patrons of Memphis in the Old Kingdom
During the period of the Old Kingdom, Memphis was the capital of Egypt. It was in fact the first capital of unified Egypt. Memphis was located in Lower Egypt, which refers to the northern part of the land. This may bring some confusion, but it was called Lower Egypt based on the flow of the River Nile. The Nile is a north-flowing river, meaning, the river waters flow south to north. The water thus drained into the Mediterranean Sea in the north, after flowing from the highlands in the south.
In Memphis, Ptah, his wife Sekhmet, who we learnt about earlier, and their son Nefertem were the patron gods. Together, they formed the Memphis triad.
The people of Memphis believed the king of the gods and the creator of the universe was a god named Ptah.
Ptah was depicted as a man with green skin, mummified to his shoulders. Only his hands and head are visible. He also kept a beard and wore a skullcap on his head. It was believed his green skin symbolized growth, rebirth, fertility and vegetation.
In his patron city, Memphis, the people believed he was self-created. Once he emerged, he created the universe and the other deities in his thoughts. He then brought them to life through the power of speech. As a creator god, he projected the aspects of the other gods and goddesses he created.
In addition to being the creator of the world, he was associated with creativity, the arts and craftsmanship. Ptah was the inventor of the arts such as architecture, masonry, weaving, painting, etc. He was the one who taught those skills to mankind.
Ptah the God of the Arts
While Memphis was his patron city, he was revered across Egypt. Especially in Lower Egypt, where complex structures and iconic architectural marvels like the pyramids are located. This suggests why the creator god was so relevant there.
According to legend, Imhotep, the supposed architect behind the Step Pyramid of Djoser, was the son of Ptah. The Step Pyramid of Djoser is the oldest pyramid surviving from the Ancient Egyptian civilization. It was built in the 27th century BC.
His worship peaked during the Old Kingdom and continued throughout future periods as well. Ptah was such an important god that the word ‘Egypt’ is actually derived from his name.
In his cult centre, Memphis, the biggest and most important temple was dedicated to Ptah. It was known as the Hout-ka-Ptah or the Great Temple of Ptah. The temple no longer exists and its ruins are yet to be found. Ptah was usually worshipped alongside his wife Sekhmet and son, Nefertem, forming the Memphis triad.
Nefertem was the son of Ptah and Sekhmet and a part of the Memphis triad. He is depicted as an attractive young man wearing a headdress with a blooming lotus. Occasionally, he would be portrayed with the head of a lion because of his connection to Sekhmet. Nefertem was the god of perfume, lotus flowers, ointments and healing.
He was considered an important deity in Ancient Egypt because of his association with the lotus flower, perfumes and aromatherapy. The Ancient Egyptians believed fragrances were connected to the spiritual world and that they had therapeutic properties. Various flowers, fragrances and oils were used during the performance of rites and rituals. This made Nefertem a key divine figure in Ancient Egypt.
Moreover, the Egyptians, like many other cultures in the world, valued the lotus flower. They attributed the lotus to the cycle of life, rebirth and death, revival and healing. This is due to the way it grows. The plant is rooted in mud and it spends much of its life within murky waters. When its buds surface and receive the sun’s rays, it blooms into a vibrant and beautiful flower. At night, it submerges itself in the muddy waters. The next day, it once again blossoms into a clean and beautiful flower.
Nefertem the God of Healing
According to myth, when Ra was suffering from the perils of old age, Nefertem brought him a bunch of lotuses. The fragrance of the flower acted like an anaesthetic and eased the sun god’s pains.
Ancient Egyptian imagery often shows gods holding a lotus flower to their nose as if to smell. Additionally, the flower was even used in funerary rites. During the embalming process, lotus oil was massaged onto the corpse, believing it would mend broken limb joints and heal the body physically. Nefertem himself was believed to oversee this process.
Nefertem’s healing abilities were something he inherited from his mother, Sekhmet. While the lioness goddess is usually portrayed as a ferocious warrior, she does have another side. She is also associated with healing. Legend has it that she used light and warmth, the power of the sun, to heal others. Her son, on the other hand, used aromatherapy. Much like today, aromatherapy was used in Egypt to heal a person emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Lastly, Egypt has been a key centre of perfume production for the past 5,000 years. Many even credit the Ancient Egyptians for inventing perfumes using herbs, flowers, resins and oils. Egyptian perfume was popular all around the ancient world, making it a key trade product.
Triad Patrons of Thebes in the New Kingdom
During the New Kingdom, Thebes was established as the religious and administrative capital of Egypt. Thebes was located in Upper Egypt, which is geographically positioned in the southern part of Egypt.
In Thebes, Amun, his wife Mut, who we learned about earlier, and their child, Khonsu, were the patron gods of the city. Together they formed the Theban triad.
In Thebes, Amun was the creator deity. He was depicted as a man wearing a tall crown with twin plumes. If he isn’t portrayed as a man, he’s shown as a ram or goose. Amun was the patron of Thebes.
Amun was a complex deity in the Egyptian pantheon. The name Amun translates to ‘the hidden one’. This was in reference to the fact that he was believed to be the hidden force that manifested itself as the air and wind.
As he was an invisible force, he could easily merge with the other deities and take on composite forms. This way, he absorbed their powers and roles, in addition to retaining his own. His merger with the sun god Ra was the most important merger in the history of Ancient Egypt. Their combined form was known as Amun-Ra. He was undoubtedly the most significant deity in Thebes and in all of Egypt, during the New Kingdom.
As Amun-Ra, his depiction remained similar to his image as Amun. The only difference was that Amun-Ra had a solar disk at the base of his twin-plumed crown. He was associated with life, fertility and the mid-day sun. Additionally, he was the patron of pharaohs.
According to myth, Amun-Ra did not have any creator, he created himself. Once he came into existence, he created the universe and everything in it. In this form, the deity was considered the king of the gods and the creator of the universe. At one point, he was so powerful and popular that he was considered the national god of Egypt. All other gods and goddesses were thought of as reflections of his power. His following wasn’t limited to Egypt, there were cults of Amun-Ra in neighbouring kingdoms and even Greece. His Greek counterpart was the almighty Zeus.
The god was heavily venerated and many temples were built in his honour. The temple at Karnak in Thebes, present-day Luxor, was dedicated to Amun-Ra. Then, the Deir el-Medina, located close to the Valley of Kings, is a temple that was built in honour of the Theban triad.
If Amun-Ra was the king of the gods, his wife Mut, was the Divine Mother Goddess and the queen of the gods. Together, they were believed to rule the heavens.
Khonsu is the son of Amun and Mut. He is a deity that has many aspects and is therefore depicted in several forms. He is most frequently seen as a man with the head of a falcon. On his head, he wears a lunar disk, at the base of which lies a crescent. This is because he is the god of the moon. Or, as a young mummified man, with a beard and shaved head. He did, however, have a long braided side lock. This sidelock was how we know he was a young man. This hairstyle was a symbol of youth.
In addition to being the god of the moon, he was also the god of time, fertility, love, and healing. The Egyptians believed that simply viewing his image had the ability to instantly heal them.
His role as a god of love and fertility rose to prominence only in the New Kingdom. The Egyptians believed he was associated with fertility because the moon was believed to influence women’s menstrual cycles.
Khonsu also had a protective role to play. He was a powerful god when it came to banish evil spirits. It was believed, that during the new moon, he transformed into a bull. In this form, he warded off evil spirits that caused disease, death, chaos, etc.
Other Important Deities
Here is a list of other powerful Egyptian gods and goddesses that were worshipped during the different periods.
Aten, believed to be an incarnation of Ra, represented the rays of the sun. The deity was depicted as a large solar disk projecting out long rays of light. The tips of the rays had the symbol of hands.
Aten was the key god associated with the Amarna period, or the reign of Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten.
Ancient Egyptians always believed in many gods and goddesses. They were polytheists. However, when Akhenaten was pharaoh, in the mid-14th century BC, he made drastic changes to religion in Egypt. He rejected the way Ancient Egyptian religion worked and disagreed with its fundamental values. He also rejected the worship of multiple deities.
Instead, he believed Aten was the supreme god and the only god worth worshipping. Aten was worshipped long before Akhenaten’s reign, but during his reign, only he would be worshipped. Akhenaten favoured the worship of Aten above all, encouraging the monotheistic religion called Atenism during his reign. This was a big shift from tradition for the Ancient Egyptians.
Promotion of Atenism
Akhenaten was perhaps the first political leader to tell people which god to worship. Before this, they were free to worship the gods and goddesses they wished to worship. Akhenaten, in an attempt to promote Atenism, tried to remove all traces of the old gods. He ordered his subjects to destroy temples and remove their images and names from buildings and monuments. In Ancient Egypt, erasing one’s image and name would eventually result in the loss of their power. If the name and image were removed, people would forget them. This would result in the old gods losing power, meaning they would finally cease to exist. That is exactly what Akhenaten hoped would happen.
He revolutionized religion in Ancient Egypt and the public was not pleased. Akhenaten imposed the new religion until his death 20 years later. His successor, who many believe was his wife Nefertiti, continued encouraging Atenism. After her reign, the famous Tutankhamun became pharaoh and he restored the old religion.
Thoth was a deity who was depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. He was the god of knowledge, science, maths, text, magic, writing and learning. Thoth was also the inventor of language, the calendar and writing, becoming the scribe of Ra. Ancient Egyptians believed Thoth had designed the universe. Thoth was known to be worshipped before the first dynasty or the Predynastic period.
In some myths, Thoth is believed to have emerged from an egg without a creator. Other stories say he was born from Ra’s lips. In another myth, he was born out of Seth’s forehead after Horus accidentally dropped semen on him during their fight.
Thoth is responsible for bookkeeping at the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony in the underworld. He is also the patron of libraries and scribes. Additionally, he was also believed to help and guide humans and other deities whenever they faced trouble. For instance, he accompanies Ra on his sun boat through the sky; he helped Isis when she was secretly raising Horus and he taught humanity how to write.
Like Khonsu, Thoth was another lunar deity. He was associated with the moon because he was the god of recording time. He tracked the moon cycle to create the 365-day calendar.
Heka, meaning ‘he who actives ka’ was the embodiment of magic. It was the powerful force that allowed the cosmos to function and powered the Egyptian gods to fulfil their duties. Heka was also the force that allowed humans and the gods to interact with each other.
Initially, Heka was an invisible force, but eventually, he was personified as a man. In this form, he is seen wearing royal garb and a headdress with two joined arms facing upwards. He is also seen carrying a staff with a pair of twisted snakes. Much like a caduceus.
In his cult centre, Latopolis, he was believed to be the son of the goddess Neith and her husband Khnum. In other places, however, he was believed to be created by Atum, or that he already existed during the creation of the universe. It was believed that the primordial hill ben-ben emerged because of Heka’s presence. And that Atum was able to create using Heka.
Heka was also associated with healing and medicine. In Ancient Egypt, magic was a part of medicine. Healers and physicians would invoke Heka to use magic to heal their patients. This is why he became linked to medicine.
Apep or Apophis
Apep, also known as Apophis, is a serpent demon who attacks Ra every night on his journey to the underworld. This beast was Ra’s mortal enemy. Apophis represented the opposite attributes of Ma’at. He was the embodiment of chaos and evil. He resided in the underworld, threatening the lost souls and the deities visiting the realm.
At the end of the day, when Ra entered the underworld, he would have to fight the serpent. Apophis’ goal was to prevent sunrise and light from entering the mortal world. Defeating it marked the victory of light and the beginning of the new day. The gods accompanying Ra in his sun boat would often help him defeat this beast. Seth was an especially powerful deity when it came to defeating Apophis. Apophis had the ability to hypnotize all the gods, giving them the advantage in battle. Even Ra wasn’t immune to it. Only Seth could resist the hypnosis. So, he would manage to prevent the reptile from attacking by stabbing it with his spear. Bastet, in the form of a cat, was another deity who was effective against the snake.
Neith was an ancient deity worshipped since the Predynastic period. She was a powerful creator goddess who played a maternal role in Egyptian mythology. Neith was the goddess of war, weaving, archery, hunting, wisdom, mothers, childbirth and funerary rites. She was believed to be the inventor of birth and was associated with all things living. Neith is depicted as a woman wearing a shield and crossed arrows on her head.
She was believed to be a self-created goddess who existed during the creation of the universe. As per some myths, she was the mother of Atum, earning her nicknames like ‘The Great Goddess’ or ‘The Grandmother of the Gods’.
In some versions of the Myth of Osiris, Neith is the one who settles the feud between Seth and Horus.
Sobek was the son of Neith. He is commonly known as the crocodile god because he is depicted as a crocodile. Or, as a man with the head of a crocodile wearing a tall plumed crown. He had been worshipped since the Old Kingdom, but it wasn’t before the Middle Kingdom (2030 -1650 BC), that he gained prominence.
Sobek was a powerful god of the River Nile, the wetlands and fertility. In some myths, Sobek was even believed to create the life-giving river. In this version of the story, the Nile was created from Sobek’s sweat. As the river fertilized the land around it, Sobek was also linked to fertility and vegetation.
Sobek was a feared god. The Ancient Egyptians found his appearance intimidating and his personality unpredictable. Nevertheless, they were kept as pets in homes as feeding them was believed to provide blessings and protection from evil.
There were many temples dedicated to Sobek. The most prominent one was the Temple of Kom Ombo in present-day Aswan.
In these temples, Sobek’s priests were known to domesticate and feed crocodiles. The reptiles were even mummified after death.
Bes was a fertility and protector god. He is depicted as a dwarf with large animated eyes, a large head with the mane of a lion, and a tail. He is seen sticking his tongue out and wearing a crown made of feathers. The god is also frequently seen sitting in a squatting position. He is the only god in the Egyptian pantheon who isn’t portrayed sideways. He is portrayed facing frontwards.
Bes was an important god associated with protection. Particularly, related to the protection of the household, women, childbirth and children. He was believed to scare away demons and evil spirits. Childbirth was risky at the time, which is why there were so many gods associated with the process. The presence of these gods assured the safe delivery of an infant. Due to his connection with pregnant women, he was imagined to have man-breasts and a chubby belly.
Bes had no temples dedicated to him like other major gods and goddesses, but he was everyone’s favourite god. He had a great sense of humour, entertained humans and was also believed to be the god of dancing, music and having a good time.
Hapi was another unique deity in the Egyptian pantheon. He was a deity associated with the yearly flooding of the Nile. Hapi was depicted as a man with large breasts and a potbelly. On his head, he wore a headdress made of aquatic plants. He also had dark blue skin, a symbol of the river, and green hair, a symbol of fertility and vegetation. As the annual inundation of the Nile deposited nutrient-rich silt on the river banks, it made the land more fertile. This is why Hapi was a fertility god. Additionally, he was the god associated with keeping Lower and Upper Egypt tied together.
So far, no temple specifically built in honour of the god has been found. It is, however, known that there were priests dedicated to Hapi. They were involved in predicting the arrival of the annual floods using a nilometer. This was an Ancient Egyptian device used to measure and monitor the level of floodwaters.
Influence of the Ancient Egyptian Religion
The Ancient Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest civilizations to have ever existed. Its culture, which included their religion and mythology, had an immense influence on ancient cultures. We find these influences, especially in ancient Greco-Roman culture. Some believe that several aspects of the Greek religion were borrowed from the Ancient Egyptian religion. Including the identities, qualities and characteristics of certain gods. For instance, the supreme Greek god, Zeus, can be identified with Amun-Ra. Similarly, Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, could be identified with Neith. Both cultures even shared similarities in their mythological stories.
Within Egypt, religion was part of Ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptians dedicated a portion of their day to honouring the deities. Stories surrounding the gods and goddesses were the basis for many rites and rituals. Belief in these deities allowed the Ancient Egyptians to understand their surroundings and their reality. Moreover, it even encouraged several inventions that we still have Ancient Egypt to thank for. Some of them are things like medicine, the measurement of time, perfumes, makeup, paper made from papyrus, and a developed irrigation system.
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