Ancient Egyptian Gods
The ancient Egyptians worshipped so many gods and goddesses that it would certainly be hard to count all of them! You’ll be counting for ages, trying to figure out who they all are.
To help make it easier for you, we’ve put together an introduction to the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses so you know who some of the most famous gods and goddesses were.
Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
Ancient Egyptians worshipped a huge number of ancient Egyptian gods and Egyptian goddesses.
Some of them looked very much like humans; however others were part human and part animal, where some of them looked like crocodiles, jackals, cats, rams and even falcons.
The bodies of these ancient gods were always human but their heads looked like birds and animals.
Many religions only worship one god, whereas the ancient Egyptians worshipped many.
Some Famous Gods and Goddesses
There were some really well-known and pretty famous gods and goddesses that you might have heard of. But here are just some of them to give you an idea of who they were.
• Osiris was one of the major ancient gods and he ruled the underworld and was the judge of the dead. Wow that sounds pretty scary. Set, or Seth was a big villain amongst the gods and he murdered his very own brother, Osiris! That’s certainly not cool. He was all about evil and darkness. It wouldn’t be fun bumping into him on a dark night.
• The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, the mother goddess, was the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus one of the heroes of the ancient Egyptian gods who helped to bring Osiris back to life. Now that’s awesome!
• One of the most famous animal headed gods was the ibis-headed Thoth, the patron of scribes, writing and science and the inventor of the hieroglyphics. He must have been a pretty smart god don’t you think?
• You’ve probably heard about Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who is maybe one of the most famous gods. He was the god of the dead, tombs and embalming. Wonder if he enjoyed his job?
• Another famous animal headed Egyptian god was Sobek the ancient crocodile god of strength and power. Obviously he was seriously strong!• Often gods were shown as cats too and Bastet was one of the famous cat goddesses of ancient Egypt.
• Magic surrounded the Egyptian gods and Heka was the god of Magic and Medicine. Heka was the son of Khnum, the ram-headed creator god of fertility.
•The scarab was an important symbol in ancient Egypt and one of the gods, Khepri, was shown with the head of a scarab beetle.
Symbols of Egyptian Gods
Many ancient Egyptian gods had symbols which meant different things. As an example there was the Ankh symbol which meant eternal life.
There was a pillar-like symbol which was called a Djed and it was seen in hieroglyphics and meant stability. You’ll see these in many pictures of Egyptian gods.
There was also a long staff called a sceptre and it was believed that it had magical powers, which symbolised divine power and authority. They certainly weren’t gods to mess with.
Other symbols associated with deities included the Ankh symbol that represented eternal life.
There were some strange pictures of a human head on a bird which symbolised the part of the soul called the Ka and Ba and these were shown in scenes from papyrus such as the Book of the Dead, which set humans apart from the gods of the Underworld.
The famous Scarab Beetle, seen on so many charms, amulets and the jewellery of the Egyptian gods of ancient Egypt, was a sacred symbol of revival and creation of the Egyptian gods suggesting ideas of transformation and bringing back to life.
The Tree of Life was an important myth relating to the gods which symbolised ‘Knowledge of the Divine Plan’ and was the same as a map of destiny, or where you were meant to be in life.
So there is some background on the ancient Egyptian gods for you. We’ll cover different gods too, so look out for those to learn even more.
Amun was the ancient Egyptian god of the air, sun and the sky. Amun was originally a local god, and then he became a member of the eight gods collectively called the Ogdoad of Hermopolis. He then became a member of the three gods referred to as the Triad of Thebes. During the New Kingdom, Amun became the national god of Egypt and head of the state pantheon merged with Ra, the sun god as Amun-Ra.
He was so important that he was also merged with the fertility god, Min, to form the god Amun-Min. He is shown in a number of ways, as a ram-headed man, a frog-headed man and most commonly as a man with a double-plumed crown.
Amun, god with Blue Skin
Now that would be weird…having blue skin. Can you imagine what you would look like? Well, Amun who as we know was the Egyptian god of the air, sun and the sky was originally shown with red-brown skin. However, there was a religious revolution involving the god Aten, and Amun’s cult came back to life and he was painted with blue skin, symbolising his association with air and creation.
Atum in Ancient Egyptian History and Religion
As the religious beliefs and culture of the Egyptians developed some of their ancient gods were absorbed into each other to form new gods. The practice of creating new gods by combining them with old gods was called 'syncretism', which meant the blending of religious beliefs and practices to form a new system. Atum was first worshipped as a minor, local god. He then became a member of the eight gods collectively called the Ogdoad of Hermopolis.
Amun and the Ogdoad of Hermopolis
Religious cults were the basis of Egyptian religion. The names of the cults represented the number of major gods worshipped in the cult and the location of the cult centre. The Ogdoad of Hermopolis (Khmunu) had 4 female-male pairs of water gods, the goddesses in the form of snakes or cobras and the gods as frogs.
• The word 'Ogdoad' means eight
• The eight gods, the Ogdoad, were worshipped in Hermopolis, during what is called the Old Kingdom, between 2686 to 2134 BC.
• The names of the gods and goddesses came from the same names
• Each pair represented the female and male aspect of one of four concepts of creation
o Amaunet and Amun represented air
o Hehet and Heh represented eternity
o Keket and Kek represented darkness
o Naunet and Nun represented the primordial waters
Aten in Ancient Egyptian History
During the period known as the New Kingdom (1570 BC - 1070 BC), Amun became the national god of Egypt and head of the state pantheon and merged with Ra, the sun god as Amun-Ra. The status of Amun drastically changed during a religious revolution when the Pharaoh Akhenaten established the sun god Aten as the only god of Egypt.
The people of ancient Egypt were forced to change from a religion where they worshipped many gods, to a religion where they worshipped only one god. The Pharaoh Akhenaten used the might and power of the Egyptian military to destroy the old religion, its gods and the powerful priesthood.
They particularly wanted to get rid of people worshipping Amun as the national god. That’s not cool! The Temple of Karnak which was in Thebes and was dedicated to Amun was closed and the priests were thrown out and Akhenaten ordered the statues of the old gods to be destroyed.
Aten was worshipped for 16 years from 1349 to 1333 BC until the death of Akhenaten. The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamen.
The boy king became the Pharaoh and was forced by the powerful priests of Amun to leave his home in Armana where they tried to get rid of all traces of Atenism and Akhenaten.
The new, young pharaoh changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun and returned to Thebes and the old religion with Amun as the chief god. By the end of the period of the New Kingdom Thebes became known as ‘Niwt-imn’ meaning ‘The City of Amun.’
Symbols of Amun - The Amun Crown
The symbols of Amun were the Amun crown and the ram headed sphinx. The Amun crown had a flat-topped cylindrical crown base that was topped by tall, double ostrich feathers. The ostrich was a symbol of creation and light.
Symbols of Amun - The Ram Headed Sphinx
The ram headed sphinx is a strong symbol of fertility and Amun is sometimes referred to as ‘lord of the two horns’. The road to the Temple of Amun in ancient Thebes (now Luxor) was lined with ram headed lion sphinxes, each one guarding between its front legs a statue of the pharaoh. There were 900 statues of the ram headed sphinx at Thebes.
The ram heads represented Amun and were shown with the body of a lion (never winged), the hooves of a ram or a goat and the head of a ram. The ram headed sphinx is called a criosphinx whereas the human-headed sphinx is called the androsphinx. Now those are some words to try and wrap your head around! Bet you learnt something new.
So now you know all about Amun, the powerful Egyptian god! Have we left anything out that you know? Share it with us.
Have you ever heard of Anubis? Well you might of, as he was a very famous god in ancient Egypt. He was linked to the mummification process, where bodies were preserved, as well as the journey to the afterlife.
Interesting Facts about Anubis
• Anubis was the Greek name for ‘man with a jackal head’.
• Anubis was shown as having the head of a jackal, the tail of a lion and the body of a human. Sometimes drawings showed him as a full jackal. He was often seen with a golden tie or necklace.
• The skin of Anubis is often seen as very dark black or with a tinge of red. His flesh is a representation of the earthy energies with which he is connected. The colour of his flesh is similar to that of the dark soil along the Nile. This rich, fertile soil was highly prized and gave the ancient kingdom the name Khem, which means ‘The Black Land’. The colour of Anubis could link him to Osiris, whose green flesh represents the fertile fields.
• Now this is pretty gross. In ‘The Book of the Dead’ Anubis is shown to be weighing a heart, during a ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony. What a strange ceremony to have!
• The heart was measured against the feather of truth and justice, which belonged to Maat. If the heart was heavier than the feather, they were guilty and bad. These people were sent to Ammit, who was a lady demon with a body that was part lion, part crocodile and part hippopotamus. She would then eat them. She must have looked rather strange!
• He was the one who apparently invented the process of embalming, which is how bodies were preserved.
• When Egyptians were being mummified, the head embalmer, who took care of the dead, would often wear an Anubis costume.
• No one is quite sure who Anubis was the son of. In early ancient Egyptian myths he was said to be the son of Ra, but in later myths he was the son of Set and Nephthys. There are other myths too, which say that he was the son of Osiris. Wonder which one is true…that’s quite confusing.
• Imagine receiving a gift of someone’s organs? That would just be weird. Apparently when Osiris was killed by Set, Anubis received his organs as a gift. Wonder what he did with them.
• His wife was called Anput and his daughter, the goddess Kebechet, was associated with purification and washing away of dirt and decay.
• Anubis’s jackal head was often shown to be black. The reason for this was to show his link to death.
• There was another ancient Egyptian god called Wepawet. Strangely enough he also had the head of a jackal. He was originally a god of war and was often confused with Anubis. Apparently they got to know each other over time. In some myths people believe that Wepawet was the son of Anubis.
• There were many symbols that were associated with Anubis, including flags, jackal, ox-hide hanging from a pole and also embalming equipment.
• The reason that Anubis was given a jackal head was because jackals would often be found around tombs and graves.
• Prayers to the god Anubis are found carved on the most ancient tombs in Egypt.
• Apparently his mother, Nephthys, left her son exposed to the elements. Instead of dying, he was found by Isis, who then raised him. He became a faithful helper to Isis.
• After Set had killed Osiris and scattered his remains, Anubis helped Isis and Nephthys to rebuild his body.
What was Mummification?
Mummification was very skilled work…you had to be really good at what you did. It took weeks to complete. This is a bit gross, but it’s what happened. First the organs were removed, except for the heart. The body was then covered in salt and left to dry for about 40 days. After being washed, the dried body was stuffed to keep its shape. Finally it was oiled and wrapped in layers of linen bandages. Not sure how cool a job this would be!
Anubis was a strange looking god, but a powerful one too. It was best to live a good life and be honest otherwise he would send you to be eaten. How scary!
Do you know any other facts about Anubis? We’d love to hear them.
Horus was the Egyptian god of the Sky. That must have been a cool job to have! He was the son of Isis and Osiris. After fighting his uncle Seth, he became the king of Egypt. During this fight, he lost his eye. That must have been one mighty fight! The Eye of Horus became one of the most important symbols in ancient Egypt.
What was The Eye of Horus?
The Eye of Horus was a powerful amulet, which is an ornament or small piece of jewellery that was thought to fight off evil, danger and disease. It was a sign of protection. It was also called the Wadjet Eye. The ancient Egyptians worshiped Horus partly because he had the Eye of Horus. When he lost his eye, it was said that it grew back to become the Eye of Horus. Can you imagine losing an eye and then it growing back? Whoa, that must have been weird.
What did Horus Look Like?
Horus was considered to be very handsome. He was normally shown as a falcon or a falcon headed man, although sometimes he appeared as a falcon headed crocodile. That’s a weird combination! Sometimes he would take the form of a heavenly falcon with his left eye being the moon and his right eye being the sun, his speckled breast feathers were the stars and the down sweep of his wings created winds. He was also sometimes shown with a copper knife. Wonder what he used that for. He also normally wore the double crown to show that he ruled all of Egypt and to show that he was related with the Pharaoh.
How was Horus Worshipped?
Horus was worshiped all over Egypt, especially in Pe, Bendet and Khem, ancient Egyptian towns. There were heaps of falcon gods before Horus, but eventually Horus symbolised all of them. In Upper Egypt, which was the south, in the town of Edfu, there was a temple in Ptolemaic, which was just for Horus. In Kom Ombo, there was another temple for Horus called the Kom Ombo temple. Horus was a good friend of Sobek. He was also worshipped as a guide to the pharaohs. He sure seemed important with all those temples for people to worship him.
What was Horus’ Purpose?
As we said, Horus was the god of the sky. The pharaoh ruling at any given time of Egypt was always the living image of Horus. When he died, that pharaoh became Osiris, the god of the dead and the father of Horus. The new pharaoh became Horus. He was there to protect the pharaoh. He was a protector god, who was a god who fought evil. He was all about justice and honesty. He fought with Seth. He did this to even the score for his father, Osiris, who was killed by Seth. When Horus beat Seth, he conquered his father, Osiris', throne, and became protector.
Interesting Facts about Horus
• Horus was certainly one important god as he was worshipped right from the very beginning of the ancient Egyptian period, right through to the end. As time went by, his jobs often changed over time.
• It’s a popular belief that he was the son of Isis and Osiris, but one ancient Egyptian myth says that Hathor was his mother. Other myths say that he was the son of Nut and Get, and that Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys were his brothers and sisters. Wonder which myth is true?
• For most of the ancient Egyptian period, the Egyptian Pharaohs believed that they were Horus in a human form. Wow, he sure was popular.
• The symbol of the Eye of Horus was often painted on boats to protect them from shipwrecks and storms too.
• His name means ‘he who is the sky’ or ‘the distant one’.
Hope you’ve found these facts about Horus helpful. Maybe you can use them for a school project or just wow your friends and family with all this knowledge.
Discover the legends and myths and religious beliefs that surrounded Ra, the very important Egyptian sun god. There were lots of other Egyptian gods that were often linked to him, such as Atum and Horus.
Ra was usually shown in human form with a falcon head, crowned with the sun disk encircled by the Uraeus, the sacred cobra. The sun itself was taken to be either his body or his eye. Ra was believed to traverse the sky each day in a solar barque and pass through the realms of the underworld each night on another solar barge to reappear in the east every morning. Ra was also considered to be an underworld god, closely associated with Osiris as Ra resurrected Osiris to rule over the dead. In this capacity he was depicted as a ram-headed figure.
Ra in Ancient Egyptian Mythology - The Sun Gods
Ra, the Egyptian sun god, was a very old god but there were even more ancient sun gods than him. As the culture of the Egyptians changed, so some of the gods were absorbed into new gods. Now that’s rather strange. However, this way of creating new gods by combining them with old gods was called ‘syncretism’. Do you think you can pronounce that? Syncretism meant that religious beliefs and practices were literally fused together to create a brand new system.
Ra was associated with previous sun gods. Just to add to the confusion he was also referred to as 'Re'! As the ‘father of the gods,’ it was natural to the ancient Egyptians that every god should symbolise some form of him, and that he should represent every god. All the symbols and the myths as well as the looks of all the older gods were all mushed up together to form the new god Ra! How cool is that? Because of this Ra was closely linked with the gods Atum, Horus and other sun gods.
Ra in Egyptian Mythology
Ra starred in many stories, myths and legends in Egyptian Mythology. His main cult centre was at Heliopolis, also called ‘sun city’, which is near modern day Cairo. Ra was said to have created himself out of the mound that emerged from the ancient waters. He then created Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), who then created the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. From Nut and Geb the gods Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Seth were born. Wow, that’s pretty cool.
Ra and the Pharaohs
The first ever mentions of Ra date all the way back to 2686 BC - 2181 BC. That was a seriously long time ago! Ra became so important that the Pharaohs took to calling themselves the ‘sons of Ra’. He certainly was important for that to happen. He was worshipped far and wide. The Egyptian kings and pharaohs had special pyramids, obelisks, and sun temples built in his honour. After his death, the Pharaoh was said to rise into the sky to join the people who followed Ra. During the period 2040 BC - 1782 BC, Ra was linked to more and more gods and combined with them. By 1570 BC - 1070 BC, the worship of Ra had become more complicated and people believed that Ra aged with the sun. The walls of tombs showed Ra's journey through the underworld carrying the prayers and blessings of the living with the souls of the dead on the sun boat.
What did Ra look like?
The pictures of Ra in ancient Egyptian art are found in tombs, temples, manuscripts and hieroglyphics, artefacts and relics of ancient Egypt. This is how he was shown in the ancient drawings.
• He was often shown holding the Ankh, the key of life, which represented eternal life and the 'Was Scepter' a symbol of great power and authority.
• His crown, or headdress, of the sun disk symbolised the sun and was usually encircled by the Uraeus, the sacred cobra, a very strong emblem of royalty and authority. He sure was very, very important.
• He is sometimes also shown with the head of a ram that always had the sun disk on top of it, and this showed his role as a god of the Underworld
The Eye of Ra
Ra was also part of the myth that related to the all-seeing Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus. The right eye of Ra represented the sun, and the left eye represented the moon.
Ra, or Re as he’s sometimes called, was one mighty powerful god, that’s for sure. Do you know any other cool facts to share with us about him?
Thoth was the God of knowledge, wisdom and hieroglyphs. Weirdly enough he created himself, who knows how, so he had no parents! Wonder how he did that.
Thoth’s wife was Ma’at, the Goddess of truth and they had no children.
Being the God of knowledge and wisdom, Thoth gave advice to the Gods who battled in one of the 3 most important battles in Ancient Egyptian history. The first battle was between Ra, the God of the Son and Apophis, the God of Chaos. The second battle was Heru-Bekhutet against Set, the God of evil. Finally, the last battle was Horus against Set.
The Egyptian god Thoth is thought of as one of the most important of the ancient Egyptian gods. He did many jobs in Egyptian mythology including maintaining the universe, settling of arguments among the other Egyptian gods, and he judged those who would die. Bet you had to be really well behaved around him.
The ancient Egyptians linked this powerful deity, or God, with many things which included the mind, science, logic, intelligence, knowledge, writing, and reason. Here are a list of facts that will help you understand more about this important God.
How did the Ancient Egyptians show Thoth
• Thoth is usually shown as human with the head of an ibis. An ibis is a long and slim bird with a curved beak. The curved beak apparently symbolises the curve of the moon. That’s pretty awesome.
• He is sometimes shown as half baboon and half human or as a dog-headed baboon because the baboon was seen as a night animal just as Thoth was God of the Moon.
• He is often shown wearing a crown; often this is the Atef crown which was a tall hat with ostrich feathers and a gold disk on top. He is also often shown wearing the United Crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt (also called the Pschent crown).
Interesting Facts about the Egyptian God Thoth
• It is believed that he was responsible for the creation of the heavens and Earth and all that are in them. He sure was powerful.
• Thoth was originally regarded as a moon god but as time went by the Egyptians made him even more important.
• His main temple was in the city of Khmun. The Greeks later named this city Hermopolis Magna. What weird names!
• According to Egyptian mythology he apparently wrote a lot, and all his writing was eventually put into a book called the Book of Troth. It apparently had all the secrets of the universe in it. Now that would be a cool book to read. Apparently if you read it you would get awesome magical powers, but you would also be troubled by a life filled with disaster. Hmmm, maybe it wasn’t so cool to read after all.
• Thoth was said to be the inventor of hieroglyphic writing and the Egyptians believed he gave this to them as a gift.
• The ancient Egyptians believed Thoth was the secretary and counsellor of the most powerful god, Ra.
• In Egyptian mythology Thoth stood next to Ra, on Ra's boat, on Ra's nightly trip across the sky.
• The name Thoth is actually a Greek version that comes from the letters dhwty. He had heaps of names throughout the centuries in which ancient Egypt flourished. Have you ever heard of someone with so many names? Wow! Here are all of his names:
o Lord of the Khemenu
• Pharaoh Djehuty who ruled Upper Egypt around 1650 BC was named after Thoth.
• Many ancient Greeks noticed that Thoth had several things in common with their god Hermes; both gods were involved with writing and magic. This led some ancient Greeks to combine the two gods into one god that they called Hermes Trismegistus. Do you think you can pronounce that? It’s quite a tongue twister.
He was definitely a well-respected and cool god and everyone thought he was awesome. Do you have any other facts to share with us about this mighty powerful god? We’d love to hear from you.
Osiris was the Egyptian god of death, the Underworld and Rebirth. He was murdered by his jealous brother Seth and became the lord of the Underworld. He was well-known for his green coloured skin, the symbol of rebirth and regeneration. He also had white clothing which was a sign of mummification. He also had a tall white, conical headdress called the Atef crown. He was very closely linked to the Pharaohs of Egypt and carried the flail and the crook which were the symbols of power and kingship. He sure was very important.
Who was Osiris?
Besides being the Egyptian god of death, the Underworld and Rebirth, Osiris was also Isis’ helper, who was his sister. His famous sons were Horus by Isis and Anubis by his other sister, Nephthys. Osiris is one of the most famous and easily recognised of all the ancient Egyptian gods. He was shown as a 'human' god without the head of an animal. He also had a false plaited beard that was tightly knotted, plaited and hooked behind the ears. Can you imagine yourself with a beard like this? Sounds rather strange.
The Heavenly Osiris
Throughout their history the ancient Egyptians all believed that Osiris was heavenly. The ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris died by the powers of evil, Apep, who was the eater up of souls. Wow that sounds scary. After their great struggle he rose again and became the king of the underworld and the judge of the dead. Osiris was placed in a very high position amongst the gods and was equal to and, even sometime more superior than the sun god Ra. He certainly was an important God indeed.
Myths about Osiris
The most famous legend about Osiris is about his death by his brother Seth. Osiris was the oldest son of Geb and Nut who were the first king and queen of Egypt. Osiris became pharaoh after Geb and married his sister Isis. Seth was always jealous of Osiris and his super important role as king of Egypt.
The evil Seth tricked Osiris making him lie in a magnificent coffin as part of a game and then murdered him. Seth cut his body to pieces, and threw the coffin into the Nile. That was incredibly cruel! His body travelled down the Nile and across the sea to the Phoenician coast, where it eventually rested at the foot of a tamarisk tree. As the tree grew it surrounded Osiris and the coffin in its trunk.
Later, the tree was cut down by the king of Byblos and was used as a pillar in his palace. Isis got the pillar back and moved it to Egypt. Anubis, the son of Osiris, helped Isis and her sister Nephthys to rebuild his body and Anubis was in charge of the first mummification. This ancient Egyptian myth explains why Osiris was the god of the dead and ruler of the Egyptian underworld. The 'Raising the Djed Pillar' ceremony was a sign of the rebirth of Osiris.
Interesting Facts about Osiris
• When he was captured by Seth and imprisoned in a tree, this symbolised the ‘Tree of Life’ which was connected to abundance and looked after the grain to make sure it carried on producing fruit.
• He was also associated with both the growth and the decay of vegetation.
• The ancient Egyptians believed that he disappeared in the winter taking the crops into the Underworld with him.
• His green face was connected to the life he brought to the ancient Egyptian people.
Osiris was one mighty god of Egypt and was loved by most. He was special and was worshipped widely. Are there any other facts that you know about Osiris that we may have missed out? Tell us all about it, we would love to hear from you.
One of the most famous gods of ancient Egypt was Isis. She was one of ancient Egyptians most important gods. If you lived in that time, you would definitely have to respect her, that’s for sure! The ancient Egyptians built lots and lots of temples to honour her.
Did you know that lots of ancient gods in Egypt changed roles throughout the centuries? Well they did and Isis changed roles many times indeed. Here are some super awesome facts about this goddess who was certainly rather famous!
Interesting Facts about the Egyptian Goddess Isis
• Isis was linked to many different things. She was mostly related to protection, healing, motherhood, children and nature. Sounds like she was a great goddess don’t you think?
• Now this is seriously interesting. The name Isis is actually the Greek version of her name! Wow, who would have thought that? Her actual ancient Egyptian name was either ‘Aset’ or ‘Iset’.
• We already said she was super important, and she certainly was. She was seen by the Egyptians as both a protector and mother of the Pharaohs.
• It is believed that she changed her role as early as 3,100BC. Now that was a long time ago. This period in time was called ‘Predynastic Egypt’.
• Isis was a member of a group of gods and goddesses called the Ennead. This group, which was worshipped at Heliopolis, an ancient Egyptian city, was made up of the nine original gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. They were considered to be the most important gods and goddesses of this ancient civilisation.
• Apparently Isis was the daughter of Geb, the Earth god and Nut, the goddess of the Sky.
• According to legend she had a sister named Nephthys and two brothers Osiris and Set.
• Now this is a bit weird! Isis was said to have married her brother Osiris and together they had a son named Horus. Would you like to marry a brother or sister? We don’t think so…
• Like most of the gods that the ancient people of Egypt worshipped, Isis was believed to have supernatural powers. They believed she had the power to heal. There is one myth that says that the healed her son Horus from a nasty scorpion sting.
• One of the most famous legends of all time was where Isis’ husband, and of course brother, was killed by their other brother Set. He was apparently very jealous of them. There are quite a few myths about this, but the one that most people believe is that Isis brought Osiris back to life. How cool is that? She obviously loved him very much.
• The ancient Romans became a part of ancient Egypt, but Isis was still worshipped across the land by the Roman Empire.
• There has been evidence uncovered that shows that she was worshipped throughout the ancient world. This evidence was temples and engravings. She was worshipped far and wide, including Italy, Spain, Pannonia, Britain, Germany, Asia Minor, and Portugal. Wow, that is far and wide. She was one popular goddess.
How was the Egyptian Goddess Isis Portrayed?
Most ancient gods and goddesses were shown in different ways in drawings and carvings that were discovered. Read on to find out what Isis apparently looked like.
• Early art of Isis shows her wearing a long dress and wearing a crown which had the hieroglyphic symbol for a throne.
• She is often shown holding a symbol called the Ankh. It looks like a key and supposedly symbolises the idea of eternal life, just like being immortal. Imagine being immortal? It would be cool, you could have fun forever!
• Isis is also closely linked with a symbol called the Tyet. This symbol was linked to ‘welfare’, meaning health, or ‘life’ to the ancient Egyptians. The Tyet is also called the Buckle of Isis, Blood of Isis, and Girdle of Isis. It is sometimes spelled tiet, tet, and set. This symbol looks like the knot that was used to fasten the Egyptian gods clothing.
• Together with her sister Nephthys; Isis is shown on many ancient coffins. It was believed that these pictures of her on their coffin would help protect the dead against evil.
She was a powerful and respected goddess across many lands. Do you know any other facts about Isis that you want to share with us?
The Egyptian God Seth was also known as the god of chaos. According to popular Egyptian mythology it would certainly seem that he created plenty of mayhem and havoc. Apparently Seth's cult was one of the oldest in Egypt. Some pharaohs honoured him and used his name as part of theirs during certain periods.
Who was the God Seth?
• How the Egyptians saw Seth over time changed quite a bit. At first, they saw him as a valuable god. They believed he lived in the kingdom of the dead. Egyptians prayed to him so that he could help their dead family members.
• After some time, the priests of Horus fought with Seth’s supporters. Some people believe that Horus’ followers conquered Seth’s followers. After that his role changed completely and he became the complete opposite of Horus. Guess he wasn’t loved as much anymore.
• The Egyptians saw Seth as the god of darkness, chaos and the desert. He became very unpopular and was an enemy to quite a few gods.
• He represented drought and as lord of the desert and drought, he was the enemy to everything that gave life. The Egyptians also saw him as a storm and war god.
• The Egyptians often related him with the colour red. They hated people with red skin and, sometimes, killed animals with red fur. Wow, he certainly was hated then!
What forms did the Egyptian god Seth take?
• The Egyptians usually showed Seth as a man with the head of a fantastic animal that they called the Seth animal. It had a pointed snout, tall, rectangular ears and a thin body like a dog with a long forked tail.
• Often pictures of Seth show him holding an ankh in one hand and a ‘was’ staff in the other. The ankh was seen as ‘the breath of life’ while the ‘was’ staff was a long staff with a forked bottom and the head of the Seth animal on top.
• He was certainly linked to many different animals and was sometimes shown as just one of them. These animals were the boar, the antelope, the crocodile and a donkey. Some even saw linked him to poisonous creatures like snakes and scorpions. In some myths, Seth took the form of a hippopotamus.
• Horus was seen as being completely different to Seth, but in different forms he was actually Seth’s brother and nephew. Now that’s pretty weird. Some legends said that Seth was the father of Anubis, but others say that Osiris was Anubis’ father.
Seth helped Ra the sun god
In some myths, Seth fought against Ra, but this wasn’t true in all myths. Some stories said that Seth helped Ra. In these tales, he was a warrior on Ra’s sun boat who protected the boat against Apophis, the chaos serpent. Wonder which myth is actually true. Guess we’ll never know for sure.
Worship of Seth
• The pharaohs really respected Seth and his power. Seth was one of the Two Lords (Horus was the other) who gave the king power and authority. Some pharaohs, like Seti I, were named after Seth. Other pharaohs used the Seth animal as part of their emblem.
• There were two rather large festivals that were associated with Seth. One was one of the five Intercalary days, which were the days right before the New Year began. These were the days when Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis and Nephthys were born. The Egyptians honoured each of them on their birthday.
• The other festival was rather strange indeed. It was like a ritual where a pharaoh or a priest would spear a model of a hippopotamus. Then the people all cut up and ate a cake shaped like a hippopotamus. Do you think you can make a cake shaped like a hippopotamus? This festival was in honour of Horus’ defeat of Seth.
Interesting facts about The God Seth
• Seth was the God of chaos, darkness, the desert and drought.
• The Egyptians had a religion of contrasts, where gods were the opposite of other gods. Seth was the opposite of three other major gods, which were Osiris, Horus and Ra.
• There were two centres were Seth was worshipped, which were at Ombos and Avaris.
• He murdered Osiris, whose son, Horus, later beat him.
• The Egyptians associated the colour red with Seth.
• Two of his main emblems were a mythical beast (the Seth animal) and the ‘was’ staff.
Seth sure sounded like an interesting god, bringing chaos with him wherever he went! He was worshipped and he was also not all that popular at times too. Do you have any interesting facts to share with us about Seth?
Ptah’s wife, the Sekhmet Goddess, was called the “Great Lady, beloved of Ptah, holy one, powerful one.” She was both Ptah’s sister and wife too. This was very common in Egyptian mythology. She is one of the oldest Egyptian Goddesses around, and one of the most powerful. Her son was Nefertum, who was the God of Sunrise.
Her name comes from the Egyptian word ‘Sekhem’, which means power or might. This is often translated as the ‘Powerful One’ or ‘She who is Powerful’. It was probably best to stay away from this powerful goddess.
How was Sekhmet Shown?
• Sekhmet was normally shown with the body of a woman and the head of a lioness.
• Her headpiece had a sun disk on it, which linked her with the Ra, the Sun God. Her headpiece also had a uraeus, which means cobra, and she was often dressed in red.
• How she looked, as well as her name, which meant “to be strong, mighty, violent” definitely showed her character. She was very well-known for her violence and her power. This was one Goddess to keep away from, that’s for sure.
Interesting Facts about Sekhmet
• The Book of the Dead believed recognised her power with the use of the harmful forces of the sun’s heat. She was often called ‘Nesert’ which means the flame. She was also connected with the hot winds of heaven. Others believed that she was linked to the hot winds of the desert with her breath.
• Sekhmet was a goddess of war and always went with the king into battle. She used weapons like arrows, swift darts, and the fiery heat of her own body, which apparently came from the heat of the sun.
• She got the title ‘The Scarlet Lady’ as she loved blood so much. Gross! In fact there were often celebrations and sacrifices offered to her to keep her happy after the war and the end of the destruction.
• It was thought that her power was great enough not only to help Osiris, but at times to rule over him.
• Apparently the Book of the Dead says that during times of storms and great floods she even had power over the great god of the underworld. Wow, she certainly was very powerful.
• Sekhmet’s father was apparently Ra himself. She had many aspects to her that connected her with the sun god.
• In early Egyptian writing she was often called the Eye of Ra, which was supposed to have represented the god when he was forced to take action against his enemies and was spiteful and fierce, the traditional evil eye.
• Looking at the hieroglyph for this eye, people think that its power came from the fighting spirit of the uraeus (cobra) and the heat of the sun.
• When Ra sent Hathor out to get revenge for human beings mistreating him, he sent her in the form of Sekhmet, the lioness. Because these two goddesses were connected, it kind of makes sense that Sekhmet was linked to loads of other goddesses including Hathor, Nut, and Bastet. Bastet was a cat and apparently this showed the gentler side of Sekhmet. So she could be gentle then…who would have known!
• Amenhotep III placed several hundred statues of Sekhmet in his temple.
• There were two small things about Sekhmet which didn’t really show her as being the violent goddess that she was. Firstly, she was often shown with an ankh when she was sitting, which is the sign of life, and secondly she was also very well-known as a healer as she knew so much about magic and sorcery. Maybe she wasn’t that bad after all.
• If you were friends with her, and you would be lucky if you were, she would heal you. It would have been important to stay on her good side!
• She was often called the ‘lady of terror’ and the ‘lady of life’. How weird is that?
Maybe you can use some of these facts for a school project or just use them for fun and impress your friends. Have we missed out any important facts that you know?
Ptah was the God of Creation and Craftsmen.
In the Book of the Dead he was a master architect, and responsible for building the structure of the universe. It was said that Ptah created the great metal plate that was the floor of heaven and the roof of the sky. He also built the supports that held it up. Some creation legends say that by speaking the names of all things, Ptah caused them to be.
What did Ptah look like?
He was one of the most unique looking gods.
He was shown as a bald-headed man, wearing a beard and tight-fitting clothing that looked like a mummy’s wrappings. From the back of his neck a flower-shaped menat, which is a symbol of happiness, hung. His hands came through the front to his clothing and he held a sceptre. It had 3 symbols on it which were the long pole sceptre, which meant strength, the ankh, which meant life and the djed pillar which meant stability. It sounds like he looked rather strange indeed!
He was also often shown on the platform that was linked to Maat, who was all about truth and justice. Ptah was called “Lord of Maat, king of the two lands, the god of the Beautiful Face in Thebes, who created his own image, who fashioned his own body, who has established Maat throughout the two lands.” Wow, that certainly is a mouthful, he clearly did a lot!
He was the son of Nun and Naunet, husband of Sekhmet and the father of Nefertum, and later Imhotep.
What was Ptah’s most Important Role?
He was mostly linked to being a creator, someone who makes things. He was described as the god “who has made all gods, men, and animals- he who has created all lands and shores and the ocean in his name ‘fashioner of the earth.’ ” He was the founder of intelligence and had ways to communicate his intelligence. He was the god who spoke the words and the craftsman who built part of the creation. Because of this Ptah was the patron of everyone who created handicrafts and worked with metal or stone.
Egyptian creation stories say that Ptah made the other gods by first imagining them in his heart and then using his voice to breathe life into them. He went on to create other creatures from metal, stone, and wood. He also created towns and religious shrines, as well as ceremonies for worship.
Who Else was Ptah associated with?
As time went on Ptah was linked with many other gods, especially Sokaris and Osiris. Both of these gods were connected with death. His mummy like dress made his role even clearer that he was responsible for the souls in the underworld. He was also thought of as Lord of the Year measurer of time, but timeless himself. This means that he was eternal and born again and again, always resurrecting himself. He was responsible for using an iron knife in the underworld to open the mouths of people who had recently died. This was done in the belief that it would restore the senses of the dead. Wow, that just seems crazy!
Worship of Ptah
Like most gods, he was also seen as the protector of people who worshipped him. Ptah was worshipped right throughout Egypt. He was often worshipped under the name of Ptah-Seker-Osiris. This showed his link to the gods Seker and Osiris. He was worshipped in a temple called the ‘Mansion of the soul of Ptah’ in Memphis, which was an ancient Egyptian town.
In Memphis, Ptah's temple had a sacred bull known as Apis. Considered an incarnation or soul of the god in human form, the bull was Ptah's oracle. An oracle is a priest or priestess.
Ptah certainly was an interesting god, and looked rather strange. Do you have any other facts to share about Ptah? We’d love to hear from you.
In ancient Egyptian religion and mythology, Hathor (also spelled Athor) was the goddess of love, fertility, beauty, music, and laughter and fun. She must have been awesome to be around! Or was she? Besides being really important she was very complicated too. Read on for more.
How was Hathor Shown?
She was shown either as a cow or as a woman with cow's horns with the solar disk nested between them.
The ancient worship of cows was probably the reason that the figure of Hathor was born. She is one of the oldest known gods of Egypt.
Interesting Facts about Hathor
• Hathor's name means ‘House of Horus’. But why is this? There is an ancient myth in which Hathor stood on the Earth as a cow, so that her four legs became pillars holding up the sky, while her belly formed part of the sky. Horus, the sky god, would enter her mouth every evening in the form of a hawk and appear again each morning. How weird is that?
• Because of this myth, people often thought of Hathor as Horus’ mother.
• Later on, Hathor was thought to be the wife of Horus.
• They had a son named Harsomtus, also called Ihy or Ahy. He was worshiped as a god of music.
• Hathor and her son were often seen holding a sistrum, which was a rattle-like instrument that was believed to send evil spirits away! Now that was probably a cool thing to have.
• In the underworld, known as Duat, Hathor looked after the souls of the dead providing them with food. Now that was nice of her! Anyone who carried her clothing would be safe in the underworld, the place of the dead.
• She was very nice and nurturing looking after people all the time. As she had this kindness in her, people often linked her to Isis, the mother goddess, but Hathor was also all about destruction. Wow, she must have had a split personality don’t you think?
• According to one myth, the sun god Ra, in his old age, decided to punish humans for disobeying him. He sent Hathor out to sort it out and terrorise all the people.
• She was pretty wicked then and she killed so many people that Ra decided this wasn’t all that cool, and believed that not all humans needed to be punished. The other gods flooded the fields with a very strong drink that was dyed with red ochre. Hathor drank the beer, thinking it was blood, and became so drunk that she stopped what she was doing! Oh dear, at least she stopped terrorising everyone around her!
• She had plenty of shrines in her honour, and was one of the gods worshipped at Heliopolis, and ancient Egyptian town. She was obviously very important.
• She was also very popular at one point, and loads of children were named after her. How would you like to be called Hathor?
• Her main temple was at Dandarah (Dendera). One of the most important festivals was to honour her birth, which was full of dancing and happiness!
• She became very closely linked to Isis, who eventually became far more popular then Hathor.
• Hathor was also closely linked to turquoise, malachite, gold and copper. She was known as the ‘Mistress of Turquoise’ and the ‘Lady of Malachite’. She also looked after all the miners to keep them safe.
• The Egyptians used eye makeup made from ground malachite. It not only made them look good, but it also was believed to fight eye infections. Wow. This was also closely linked to Hathor. She sure had many roles didn’t she?
Hathor was a goddess that seemed to have very many personalities and was linked to many things. She was popular, but at the same time she was rather vicious too. No wonder she was complicated!
Do you have any other facts on Hathor? Please share them with us.
Nephthys was the goddess of mourning in the Ancient Egyptian religion. She was also the goddess of night, rivers, sleep and nature too. Wow, she sure had a few jobs on her hands.
She was a friend and protector of the dead. Nephthys was important in ancient Egyptian culture because the afterlife was highly valued in ancient Egypt. She always stood at the head of the coffin that would take the dead to the underworld with outspread wings.
Her Egyptian name was Nebt-het, which means ‘Mistress of the House’. The house that we’re talking about is the sky where Horus lived. Some people got this name confused and thought that she was a housewife, but that wasn’t so. Her name actually means ‘Mistress of the Enclosure’. This means she was like a priestess.
What did Nephthys Look Like?
She was always shown as a woman with the symbols for ‘basket’ and ‘house’ on her head. Sounds strange putting those two things together don’t you think?
Her symbols are a kite, a crow as well as bones and skulls. She was sometimes given wings in the form of a bird, making her a solar god as well as a god of the dead.
She was also often shown riding in a funeral boat that took the dead to the Blessed Land. She doesn’t look exactly like you would expect the picture of death to be, but she was definitely the closest to it in Egyptian belief.
Interesting Facts about Nephthys
• Nephthys was very popular and was worshipped right throughout Egypt. But what’s different about her is that she had no formal temples like a lot of the other gods did. Some myths say there were temples, but it is mostly believed that she had no temples.
• She was the sister of Osiris and Isis, and the wife of Seth, who was also her brother. They sure liked to do things differently in those days.
• She was one ancient Goddess as she was written about in the Old Kingdom writings.
• She was also the mother of Anubis and her mother and father were Seb and Nut.
• She was also known as the ‘Useful Goddess’. That’s a strange name; she must have been good at helping out!
• Even though she was quite popular, strangely enough she was often ignored or pushed into the background. That’s not too cool.
• Now this is interesting. She is normally shown as being good, loyal and caring, but in some myths she was shown as ferocious and dangerous, able to kill people with her fiery breath.
• Nephthys is always shown as a loyal friend to her sister Isis, after Seth killed Osiris. Seth killed Osiris as Nephthys had a son from him. She helped her sister find Osiris’ body and rebuilt him to come back to life.
• This is how she became associated with the dead, and being a friend to them. She guided them and comforted their families. Now that was nice of her!
• She also comforted women in childbirth while standing at the head of their beds.
• Nephthys and her sister Isis were often together and you could only tell them apart by the hieroglyph on their heads. Also, like her sister, Nephthys was thought to have great magical powers - she was the ‘Mighty One of Words of Power’.
• Nephthys and Isis were opposites of each other, where Nephthys was associated with death and Isis was associated with rebirth.
• We’ve already seen that Nephthys had lots of names, but there are more…there sure were a lot
o Lady of the Body (of the Gods)
o Dweller within Senu
o Lady of Heaven
o Mistress of the Gods
o Great Goddess, Lady of Life
We hope you found this article interesting. Maybe it can help you with a school project. Do you know anything else about Nephthys that we might have missed out? Tell us about it.
Childrensuniversity - Find out about Egyptian Gods and try our challenge
British Museum - The Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt
Egyptian Museum Berlin - Home to one of the world's most important collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts
date: 14 March 2018
Gods in Ancient Egypt
Summary and Keywords
The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive.
The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion.
The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country.
The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.
Keywords: ancient Egypt, religion, polytheism, henotheism, monotheism, divine kingship, rituals, Burials, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age
From the Neolithic era and Early Dynastic period, Egypt was part of a network connecting Africa, the Levant, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia. In Egypt and the Nile Valley, extant written sources begin in the late Predynastic period (c. 3100 bce). The foundation of the Egyptian state in the Early Dynastic period (c. 3100 bce) marks the beginning of more than 500 kings, belonging to around thirty dynasties, and ending with the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors. These dynasties are grouped into periods called the Early Dynastic (c. 31st–27th centuries bce), Old Kingdom (c. 27th–22nd centuries bce), Middle Kingdom (c. 21st–17th centuries bce), and New Kingdom (c. 16th–11th centuries bce), as well as three Intermediate periods, and the late Greco-Roman period (4th century bce–4th century ce).1
During these almost 3,500 years, the ancient Egyptians remained polytheistic. Most gods had many identities and aspects, and, therefore, many names and manifestations. About 1,500 deities are known; the Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen (LGG), in its more than 5,500 pages, lists about 56,500 names and expressions designating deities from the Old Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period. The same god could have many names, various gods could represent the same entity, and the same designation could be given to many deities.2
The ancient Egyptians felt surrounded by manifestations of their deities. Nature divided the country into a variety of ecological and political subregions,3 some of which were represented by deities. Ancient Egypt was defined by the Nile, though it also included the oases in the western desert and places along the Red Sea.4
From south to north, the Nile connected these regions from Sudan to the Mediterranean. The Nile flowed in an almost straight course through “Upper Egypt”; near Memphis it fanned out, forming the delta of Lower Egypt with its many channels. The delta comprised most of Egypt’s agricultural land, as well as vast areas of marshland. The Egyptians believed that the Nile—which they simply called jtrw, perhaps “the seasonal one”—had its origins in the underworld and emerged at Elephantine. Its annual floods brought and created the fertile (t3) kmt (“black [land]”), in contrast to the flanking deserts, which were called dšrt (“red land”). The Nile was never venerated as a deity in its own right, though it was sometimes referred to as the “great efflux of Osiris,” or the tears of Isis. Yet its inundations provided fecundity, and this aspect was personified as the god Hapy as well as other Nile deities.5
From east to west, the sun god ran his course. He remained the most important divine entity throughout ancient Egyptian history, venerated as Re, Re-Horakhty, or Amun-Re.6 With other gods and deceased kings in his following, the sun god fended off the forces of eternal darkness and enabled life for the living and the dead. The deceased were predominantly buried on the western side of the Nile, close to the setting of the sun, between “black” and “red” lands. Here the sun god entered the Duat (d3t, dw3t), the realm of the deceased and of Osiris, god of the afterlife.7
Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt, the “Two Lands.” Their unification was a central aspect of kingship ideology, reflected in the royal and divine title nb t3wj (“Lord of the Two Lands”). The red crown and the white crown, which stood for Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively, were also connected to the tutelary deities of kingship Wadjet and Nekhbet, respectively. Though originally separate crowns, since the Early Dynastic period the two crowns were often united in the Double Crown.8 Each of the Two Lands comprised about twenty sep3wt (“provinces, nomes”), each of which had its own provincial capital with an associated main deity, and in many cases further temples for additional gods and cults, as well as a standard with divine symbols.9
Despite the separation between the realms of the gods, the deceased, and the living, the boundaries were always permeable. All three beings essentially shared, interdependently, the same world that had emerged from eternal darkness. To maintain the status quo and avoid descending back into darkness, constant cooperation was necessary. Ancient Egypt was fundamentally a theocracy: the gods had created life and the universe, and a divine king controlled its organization. The gods lived or manifested themselves in many and various places, for instance, in buildings, images, texts, and events, and were thus essentially omnipresent. The Egyptians were one of the most visually oriented people of the ancient world, and their lavish use of images and image-like scripts allows multifaceted insights into their conceptions of the gods.10 But natural factors and human care and destruction, as well as political and personal interests of the Egyptian kings, determined what survives in our archaeological record.11
Many ideas and concepts were central to all periods of Egyptian history; despite the semblance of rigidity, there was also innovation and change. Akhenaten’s experiment in monotheism, for instance, was highly innovative yet unsuccessful. During the decade of his “Amarna revolution,” the divine sun-disc Aten was transformed from being a god among many to being the subject of a henotheistic cult, especially in the capital Akhet-aten (modern Tell el-Amarna), and ultimately was elevated to being an exclusive, unique, and universal deity. The experiment ended with Akhenaten’s death; his successor, Tutankhamun, reversed most of the changes and reestablished the old order.12 Many studies have been dedicated to this phenomenon; the first recorded monotheism in world history has fascinated many scholars and writers even beyond the field of Egyptology, especially in regard to its connections with biblical monotheism.13 But its impact was greater on modern scholarship than on the ancient Egyptians. In the over 3,000 years of Egyptian history, the brief experiment with monotheism had almost no religious consequences, though it may have triggered a polytheistic response. 14
Genesis of the Egyptian Gods
Neolithic burials of animals, mostly bovids, but also gazelles, dogs, jackals, cows, rams (e.g., in Maadi and Heliopolis) are early evidence of the veneration of divine powers in or though animals. The bodies of animals were ritually treated, and their graves, sometimes furnished with matting, lay close to human burial grounds. Animal shapes are found as cosmetic palettes (connecting them to the preservation of the body), on pottery, and on standards, suggesting a special status accorded to these animals.15
With the emergence of writing and the more frequent use of iconography in the Early Dynastic period, we get a better grasp of the Egyptian gods. Their development is closely connected to the formation of the Egyptian state and its kingship, whose power was represented by images of animals founding cities or vanquishing enemies (e.g., lion, bull, scorpion). This practice was accompanied by the phenomenon of some Egyptian kings having animal names. By the First Dynasty, divine powers were also represented in anthropomorphic shape (e.g., Geb, Min with flagellum, ithyphallic forms). By the end of the Second Dynasty, the first deities in hybrid or bimorphic forms had appeared. These deities were usually composed of a human head and an animal body or vice-versa, with the head being the essential element; the coiffure masked any disjointedness between these body parts.16 Contemporaneous regional sanctuaries and shrines, which had probably developed from reed huts set up in sacred spaces, were usually built of mud brick, unless the king decided to invest in a specific deity and to have its temple built in or decorated with stone. A number of Egyptian gods, shrines, and cults are attested as far back as the Early Dynastic period.17
The earliest hieroglyphs designating a deity were a cloth wound on a pole, the falcon on a standard, and an anthropomorphic sitting god (with divine beard). Though there were many variations in execution and detail, these remained the main hieroglyphs for deities throughout history.18
By the end of Old Kingdom, the information we have on Egyptian gods improves drastically, mostly thanks to the Pyramid Texts. Important icons had been created, such as hawk-headed anthropomorphic deities (Third Dynasty) and the Sphinx (showing the divine king with a human head and lion’s body). Many of the ideas created in this period remained essential until the Roman period, such as the divinity of the king, the dominance of the sun god, and Osiris as the god of the deceased.19
Genesis of the Universe and the Gods according to the Ancient Egyptians
Many narratives reveal how the Egyptian gods came into being and how the universe was created. These narratives were usually created as parts of larger compositions for specific use, such as mortuary or temple cults. All-explaining, dogmatic versions of texts did not emerge until the late periods of ancient Egypt. Occasionally these texts share commonalities, or they may differ significantly, depending on their period, their region, or the importance of the deities involved. Even so, they allow us to glimpse ancient Egyptian conceptions of creation and the gods, and they provide philosophic and scientific views of how the universe works, describing its dynamics in terms of divine forces in action. The long tradition of differing cosmogonies testifies to the ancient Egyptians’ openness in approaching ultimately unknowable matters.20
In ancient Egypt, creation was seen as a process of separation and continuing differentiation, often formulated as sequences of generations of gods.21 One fundamental idea was that out of Nun, the personified primeval waters, a mound rose whence creation was set in motion; the idea mirrored the yearly experience of the emergence of land after the Nile flood. The waters of Nun were believed to immerse the world and surrounding the world; they were at the same time life-giving and a threat to creation, for the universe could tumble back into them and end.22
In the Heliopolitan tradition (known since the Old Kingdom), nine gods of the psḏt (“Ennead”), the sun god, and eight of his descendants, were responsible for creation. Atum (or Re-Atum) self-generated and emerged from the primordial waters, and produced out of himself (by spitting, sneezing, or masturbating) the next generation with Shu (“Air”) and Tefnut (“Moisture”), which then produced Geb (“Earth”) and Nut (“Sky”). Out of these first generations of “universal” elements were born the gods of social concepts: Osiris, god of the underworld; Seth, god of chaos, always endangering order; Isis, the throne deity; and Nephtys, a parallel to Isis. Finally, Osiris and Isis produced Horus, the god of kingship, thereby making kingship part of the natural divine order.23
In the Hermopolitan traditions (known since the Old Kingdom), following upon the primordial mound, the “Ogdoad” came into being. This group of deities was formed of four pairs of male and female deities representing sempiternal concepts of the original universe (Nun/Naunet, “Water”; Heh/Hauhet, “Infinity”; Kek/Kauket, “Darkness”; Amun/Amaunet, “Hiddenness”).24
The Memphite Theology (documented on the Shabaka Stone, Twenty-fifth Dynasty; the original age of the text is debated) features the god of crafts, Ptah Tatenen (“Ptah of the Primeval Mound”). He created Atum “through his heart and through his tongue,” by plan and word, and founded Maat and kingship. The gods of the Ennead were his manifestations.25
Further texts describe other gods as being involved in the beginning of the universe: the world emerged from a cosmic egg; the sun god Re emerged (as child or scarab) from a lotus; the sun god or Amun-Re created the world; an All-lord created deities from his sweat and humans from his tears (Middle Kingdom); Aten, the only god, is the sole creator (Amarna period); Khnum fashioned men on the potter’s wheel; a bird, the “great cackler/honker,” alighted on the primeval hill and tore apart the silence, allowing creation to start.26 In the “Myth of the Heavenly Cow,” the sun god Ra, who lives with humans on earth, retired to heaven after man’s rebellion and began his daily journeys.27
There were different conceptions of the cosmos; in one of them, Nut, the goddess of the sky, is depicted as a naked woman with her body arching over Geb, the earth god, with Shu, personification of empty space, separating the two of them. Another conception shows the heavenly cow (a manifestation of Nut) supported by Shu and other deities, while the boats of the sun god traverse her star-spangled belly.
Heaven was the oldest known and the preferred abode of the gods (since the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods). Regions in the frontiers of earth and heaven were called “God’s land.” On earth lived the humans and the manifestations of the gods (e.g., animals, statues, symbols). The Duat, ruled by Osiris, was the realm where the dead ancestor gods and the deceased lived. During the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom it was located in heaven, but sometimes also in the earth; from the New Kingdom onward, it was a netherworld. In the Duat, the gods and the dead could regenerate, but they were also surrounded by dangers; the Pyramid, Coffin, or New Kingdom underworld texts give lavish descriptions of the Duat’s features; they also provided information and spells for a safe sojourn of the deceased (Figure 1). Some main gods, such as the sun god and his following, had a transitional stay in the Duat, during which their Ba and body united in order to regenerate before facing another day.28
The Egyptian universe of man and gods was surrounded by endless and unknown darkness; this darkness was a danger to all creation, and always on the verge of repossessing the known world, but it was also filled with creative and regenerative force. It had to be kept at bay by a collective effort of all beings, by preserving Maat (“order”), and by supporting the fight of the gods against the representatives of darkness and jsft (“chaos”). Every night, Apophis, a giant serpent in the primeval ocean, endangered the course of the sun god and had to be fought back into the darkness. Only rarely the “end of days” is mentioned, when Atum, god of all the universe, and in some versions also Osiris, god of all that is in the underworld, remain alone and everything else returns to the primordial ocean. 29
Two further forces and concepts, personified by deities, were pivotal for the existence and smooth running of the universe. The goddess Maat (with a feather on her head) represented the correct order. The gods had created Maat and lived by it. The kings, ideologically responsible to keep order, regularly offered Maat to the gods, or integrated Maat as a constitutive part of their royal names. In the underworld, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat.30
Heka (“Magic”) was created by the creator god and used for further creation. It also kept the universe running. Magic was an integral part of the Egyptian religious system. Heka was a source of power for healing and protection, a weapon to ward off potential dangers and to repel inimical powers that threatened individuals (such as illness, nightmares, snake or scorpion bites, snatching by a crocodile, dangers to children) or the state (fended off, for instance, by execration texts and figurines). The gods used magic and so did humans, even against gods, going so far as to threaten them with the “end of days.”31
General Traits and Features of Egyptian Gods
Information on Egyptian gods must be gathered from numerous texts and images. These materials come from different regions and periods and were sometimes created for very specific contexts.32 Here, some of the more general aspects are presented.
Nṯrw (“gods”) and other entities
The Egyptian word encompassing the concept of „god“ is nṯr (pl. nṯrw, fem. nṯrt/nṯrwt).33 Its etymology and original meaning are debated.34 The singular nṯr is usually used when the deity intended is obvious (at least to the Egyptians), or when the deity is left intentionally unspecified, meaning “any random god,” for instance in teachings for officials, who during their work would have to deal with a variety of deities. When a divine emanation was detected, almost everything, except a living human, could be tagged as nṯr “divine,” though the various nṯrw were approached discriminately.
There were other supernatural entities as well. The ba (pl. baw), usually translated “soul,” was a manifestation of power and part of the personality of gods, kings, and humans, living or deceased. In the case of Amun, this omnipresence was described as his Ba (“Ba-soul”) being in the sky, his corpse in the netherworld, and his image on earth. Whenever a god became manifest, his ba was detected—for example, the sun for Re, the Apis bull for Osiris, or the Old Kingdom pyramids for the king. Sometimes a deity was seen as the ba of another deity. Finally, the baw of the cities of Buto, Hierakonpolis, and Heliopolis were the divinized deceased kings. The baw of the deceased (since the New Kingdom, depicted as a human-headed bird) lived in the following of the gods, and were nourished by offerings. 35
Several other forces were involved in interactions with the various entities. The akh (pl. akhw) was the spirit of the deceased that had managed an ideal and effective transformation into the afterlife. It was a personal life force, activated and manifested after death. It kept the appearance of the individual and lived in the realm of the gods and the deceased. For the living, the akhw liaised with the gods, especially Osiris.36 The ka was part of human individuality, its “life force,” “character,” “nature,” or “double”; it also received offerings. Images of individuals were their ka. Another force was sḫm (“power,” sometimes symbolized by the sḫm-scepter), an expression of the radiation and charisma of deities and the deceased.37
Main Traits of the Gods
The Egyptian gods were powerful but not almighty, nor even all-knowing (for instance, nobody, except at a certain point Isis, knew the “hidden” name of the creator god). No god was able to see beyond the defined universe; even the creator god is merely nb-r-ḏr (“master-to-the-end” of the known world); the eternal darkness remained impenetrable. The gods were not eternal beings; they had a beginning within the genesis of the universe. The first god came into being by himself; the next generations were created, conceived, and born. The gods had a period of youth (e.g., Horus, Chons, sun god), they aged, they died (sun god), and they were even killed (Osiris), though they usually did not remain dead but instead regenerated. Osiris had a tomb on earth that was visited by humans (e.g., the tomb of king Djer, or the Osireion at Abydos). In the Amduat (lit. “that which is in the underworld”), tombs of the gods are depicted, and in Late Period Egypt, some tombs of gods were located on earth, whether inside temples or in a necropolis. In the „Cannibal Hymn“ of Old Kingdom Pyramid texts, eating other gods strengthens the Egyptian king. Osiris is slain but becomes the chief god of the underworld. The sun god (Re in the sky) dies at sunset (as Atum), only to be regenerated in the underworld and rise anew each morning as Khepri, the scarab crawling out of the ground. The deceased human who had lived righteously was regenerated eternally; those who had not were condemned and annihilated. In the New Kingdom, Thoth knows the exact lifespan of humans and gods.38
The gods were imagined as having skin of gold, hair of lapis lazuli, and a body made of other luxurious materials. Their hearing and seeing were amplified. They had a certain fragrance and radiance. Their presence could be sensed through smell, sight, intuition, natural phenomena (e.g., earthquakes), or through illness or misfortune. Their effect on humans was to induce snḏt (“fear”) and šfšft (“respect, awe”). Even so, the Egyptian gods were generally generous and benevolent to humans.
Some gods’ spheres of action concentrated on their cities; as such, city gods were locally close and incorporated many aspects useful to humans.39 A god’s influence could be extended by portable images (e.g., for travel protection). The gods had definite human behaviors—they ate, drank, worked, fought, cried, laughed, became angry or sulky—and their characters were ambivalent. Some deities were usually helpful to humans (e.g., Thoth, Horus, Isis), others potentially threatening (e.g., Sakhmet, Seth). The gods could get angry with the humans and seek to destroy them (e.g., Ra in the Myth of the Heavenly Cow), and they had many needs, which were met by offerings and rituals. 40
Many Names and Many Aspects
The Egyptians characterized their deities as “hidden,” “mysterious” or “unknown,” “rich in names,” having numerous, even secret names (e.g., the sun god) and epithets.41 As each god was unique, Egyptians had no problem addressing them with superlatives such as “the greatest,” though exclusivity was not intended. The gods were rarely reduced to the mere meaning of their names; rather, they had elaborate histories, characters, and competences beyond those. They had primary functions, but were versatile and responsible for many things. Ra, for instance, was a deity of kingship and creation, regenerator of the living and the dead. Osiris was chief of the realm of the dead, but also associated with kingship and fertility; he also became a savior god who helped to overcome death. Hathor is a goddess connected with childbirth and maternity, with festival joy and drunkenness, but she can also be a necropolis goddess and even a ferocious lioness guarding a desert wadi; in Ptolemaic Edfu, she had as many forms as there are days in the year. Sometimes a god was regarded as a manifestation, a ba or an image of another one. The many names and images of a deity were considered to be merely selected aspects of a much vaster personality. They allowed worshipers to distinguish, to characterize, and to make them approachable for cultic purposes (though not every deity had a cult).42
A good example for this multitude of forms and aspects is the sun god. He was imagined to be the scarab Khepri, “The One Who Becomes,” at dawn; virile Ra during the day; old Atum at dusk; and for a brief moment connected to Osiris in the underworld. The “Litany of Ra” (New Kingdom) lists seventy-four forms of the sun god.43 The sun god is sometimes shown as a cat with a knife fighting the serpent Apophis. In the Amarna period, the sun disc Aten was venerated without an anthropomorphic shape, but as a disc with arms.44
The etymologies of some names of the greater gods are debated (e.g., Osiris, Re, Min, Ptah, Seth). Some are identical with the spheres and regions they personify (e.g., Nun “eternal water,” Shu “empty space, air”), while others are not (e.g., “earth” t3 vs. Geb; “moon” j‘ḥ vs. Thoth and Khonsu; „heaven“ pt vs. Nut). The four elements were never personified but still connected to various deities: several deities used fire; crocodile-shaped deities protected waters (e.g., Sobek); various gods were connected to earth (e.g., Geb, Tatenen, Aker); air was represented by Shu “empty space,” Amun as enlivening air and breeze, or Seth as destructive storm. Some divine names were personifications of concepts (e.g., Maat “Order,” Heka “Magic,” Sia „Perception,“ Hu “Authoritative Utterance”) or functions (e.g., the demon Ammut “female devourer”). Some female deities were named as a counterpart to their male partner (e.g., Amun/Amaunet, Ra/Rat, Inpu/Input). And though animals were important manifestations of the gods, deities rarely have animal names.45
Among the heavenly bodies, the sun clearly dominates. Sun and moon were both represented by various deities. Other heavenly bodies were seen as manifestations of deities as well: Sirius, the brightest fixed star, was connected with the Nile inundations, as a manifestation of Isis; the constellation Orion was a manifestation of Osiris, and most planets were thought to be manifestations of Horus. Though the pole star was an important goal in the kings’ ascent to heaven, it was not a deity. Other stars were seen as manifestations of various deities or of deceased kings.46
Syncretisms and Conjunctions of Gods
The character of a deity was regularly expanded by syncretism. Deities were combined, creating a new, extended, more powerful, more complete deity.47 Regional deities were combined with more important, supraregional ones, thereby increasing their power (e.g., Sobek-Re, Chnum-Re). Others were combined to create a more complete manifestation of a concept. These combined deities did not replace their various components, but extended them. By adding several manifestations that represented only smaller aspects, a new and more comprehensive approximation to a concept was created: for example, Re-Atum (day/evening sun), Atum-Khepri (evening/morning sun), Re-Horakhty (two solar deities), and Amun-Re (the invisible/visible powers on earth). More than two deities could be combined as well, as in Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Amun-Re-Harakhte-Atum, and Harmachis-Khepri-Re-Atum, all major solar deities. Even Egyptian and foreign deities were united, for example, Anat-Hathor (Asiatic/Egyptian), or Ptolemaic Serapis (combining Osiris, Apis, Zeus, and Helios).
Egyptian Gods and Their Animals
Many gods were pictured with the heads or other parts of animals. Many animals were seen as manifestations of a deity or served as intermediaries between humans and the gods. Some species were seen as the baw of the gods (e.g., baboon for Thoth, crocodile for Sobek, cat for Bastet and/or Sekhmet, mongoose for Re, ram for Amun). In other cases, only one living animal at a time was presumed to be the representative of a god (e.g., the Apis bull). Some votive animal figurines—often cats, dogs, snakes, or falcons—are clearly related to certain gods. From the late New Kingdom onward, the idea of animals as intermediaries led to a huge industry of animal mummification. Animals were raised, killed, mummified, and sold to pilgrims and devotees, who had them interred at places connected to their patron deities. The animal mummies were placed in catacombs: the falcon catacomb of North Saqqara contained about 4 million birds, and at Tuna el Gebel the interred ibis mummies are estimated to be in the millions.48
The Egyptian King
The impressive size and number of monuments created for and by the Egyptian king are unparalleled in the ancient or modern world. Constant building activities and fabrication of images and texts created a memorial landscape that was a permanent reminder of the longevity of kingship, gods, and their institutions. It was perpetuated by a state that staged and treated its ruler as a god.
The Egyptian king was subordinate to the gods, but, ex officio (by the New Kingdom, with his coronation) he was a god on earth, universal ruler, and linchpin of earthly order. He controlled all resources, decided where they were directed, provided for the gods and their cults, built their temples, performed the rituals as the main actor, and was principally responsible for keeping Maat. The king was regularly addressed as nṯr (“god”). He was described as having superhuman powers (e.g., smiting groups of enemies at once in battle), or presented—like the gods—as a hybrid, such as sphinx or griffin. All dead and even some living kings had cults and temples.49
In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, Egypt adopted ancient Near Eastern ideas in iconography, writing, and architecture and amalgamated them with its own concepts into a system of representing and staging its king. Using foreign elements certainly consolidated the perception of the king as someone extraordinary and extramundane.50 With the unification of Egypt by the Early Dynastic period, the king became the central authority, obliged to mediate between his people and the gods and responsible for their care. Many essential elements of the representation of Egyptian kingship were created in this period, such as the king as Horus, the dual monarchy of Upper and Lower Egypt, the distinction of the elite from the common people, many of the regalia (e.g., scepters, uraeus, white, red, and double crowns), iconography (e.g., the king smiting his enemies, or being represented as a falcon), titles, rituals and festivals (e.g., Sed festival).51 The kings’ mud-brick tombs with storerooms and mortuary buildings are located in Abydos and Saqqara; further buildings were erected in other regions.52
In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian king was seen and treated as a deity: in life he was a nṯr, a son of Ra, a Horus (son of Osiris) on earth, thus being the son of the gods responsible for the realms of the living and the deceased. He was image and son of various gods, as well as likened to gods by names and titles. The king was regularly shown in the company of gods, worshiping, offering, but also being nurtured or embraced. In death, the king became an Osiris; he lived his afterlife with many other gods and dead kings in the company of the sun god. Each king was buried in a pyramid that symbolized the primeval hills or the ladder to heaven; each pyramid had its own temples and personnel to supply the mortuary cult of the dead king, theoretically for eternity, and in actual practice at least for generations.53
From the Middle Kingdom on, the king was chosen by the gods and followed their commands, his success depending on their support; still, pyramids were built for him, though of mud brick, not stone. By the New Kingdom, the afterlife had shifted to an underworld sphere, and the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built into a hill that was seen as a gigantic pyramid; the kings’ graves were decorated with images of the netherworld and showed the king in constant company with the gods.54 In their mortuary temples, the so-called Mansions of Millions of Years, but also in the regular temples of the gods, images and texts record the king performing his political acts (e.g., campaigns against foreign countries) and his ritual duties to the gods; in such images the king is regularly shown in the company of the gods.55
Though the king was subordinate to the gods, the buildings with the highest labor costs were usually the mortuary installations for his afterlife.56 There seems to have been a decrease of investment in the staging of the king, as its main building became more modest—from the pyramids of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, to the tombs and mortuary temples of the New Kingdom, to smaller tombs in the Late Period. One reason for this development may have been the increasing cultural and political interaction with Near Eastern states and kingdoms, where the kings were usually seen as human and large buildings were built only for the people’s major, actual deities.
The concept of kingship was projected into the realm of the gods by imagining a “king of gods” (e.g., Amun, Amun-Re, Aten), fully endowed with insignia, crowns, thrones; sometimes their names were written in a cartouche, as was usual for the human king. In the New Kingdom, it was imagined that the gods had once ruled on earth (e.g., Ptah, Horus, Osiris). Ra was king of gods and men until he retired from earth and became ruler only of the gods. On earth, Horus succeeded his father Osiris, and was finally embodied and represented by the reigning Egyptian king.57
Organizing the Multitudes of Gods
Through the ages, the status of some deities changed and fluctuated, which sometimes led to new hierarchies, connections, family relations, and cultic approaches. Some deities kept great importance through all periods, especially Re, Osiris, Horus, Isis. Others lost their status, as when Montu was superseded by Amun; the latter rose during the Middle Kingdom from being a regional god to being the central god of the Egyptian pantheon of the New Kingdom and later. In the Amarna period, Aten became the only god, though only for a decade, and most of the time his influence was restricted to the new capital city Akhetaten. The importance of Seth fluctuated through time.58
Some gods were grouped as dyads (e.g., Isis and Nephtys, Horus and Seth, the pairs of male and female principles that again were grouped as the Ogdoad); triads (tripling was the simplest way to express a plural: Amun/Re/Ptah, Amun/Mut/Khonsu, Osiris/Isis/Horus); tetrads (e.g., the sons of Horus); pentads (e.g., gods of the epagomenal days); hebdomads (the sum of three and four, such as the souls of the sun god, or the manifestations of Hathor); ogdoads (e.g., the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, or the eight Heh deities supporting the legs of the cow goddess Nut being the sky), and enneads (as the plural of plural, such as the Enneads of Heliopolis, but sometimes with only seven, or up to fifteen members), dodecads (e.g., goddesses of the night).59
Other groups are defined by regions, such as the cavern deities known from the “Book of Caverns,” the gate deities from the “Book of Gates,” twelve hour deities of the day or the night, the forty-two judgment deities, the nome deities of Upper and Lower Egypt, the numberless Souls of Nekhen and Pe (associated with the king), or the many star deities.60
The Egyptians also differentiated “greater” and “smaller” gods. They also had a “king of gods” (since the Old Kingdom), with other gods in various court functions. There were also many divine mothers (e.g., Isis, Nut, Neith, Mut), as well as divine fathers (e.g., Amun, Ptah); in the Amarna age, Aten was considered to be mother and father of all creation.61
Imaging Egyptian Gods
The ancient Egyptians exploited many creative options to depict their gods, their kings, the dead, spirits, and souls, and they used almost the whole spectrum of visual representations for all their divine entities. These ranged from realistic, fully anthropomorphic or theriomorphic representations to hybrid combinations of body parts from various creatures, and to symbols and objects that sometimes were animated by arms and legs.62 This playfulness made the ancient Egyptians by far the most productive creators of divine images among the ancient Near Eastern cultures. Their openness to hybrid constructions of gods was unique. In the contemporaneous Near East, where the main gods were often associated with certain animals, the gods were, however, never shown as hybrid creatures. Their images were anthropomorphic, whereas hybrid beings were lesser supernaturals that were often labeled “demons,” “genies,” or “monsters.” Showing their gods in fully human form mirrored the fact that the Near Eastern gods were part of the human social order.63
In ancient Egypt, in contrast, the ways of imaging divine entities were as manifold and fluid as their characters. Images did not only represent them but were also considered to manifest their actual presence. In the Early Dynastic period, deities were already represented as theriomorphic (e.g., Anubis), anthropomorphic (Min, Ptah), or hybrid (Bat), and by their symbols; the Second Dynasty, the basic repertoire of representations was completed by bimorphic deities with a human body and animal head.64 After that period, Egyptian deities were imaged in anthropomorphic (male, female, children) and zoomorphic (numerous animals) forms, as well as in composite or hybrid forms. They could be further characterized by rather uniform costumes, varied symbols, emblems, and crowns which could be held and carried by many deities, emphasizing their status in the context represented.65
Egyptian gods were venerated via various animals or symbols, which were seen as their possible manifestations. Not all deities are known in images. Many images and elements were not limited to one specific deity. The many interchangeable attributes were used to create complex visual representations of deities, for example as syncretic fusions. They could also accentuate a deity’s mood in certain contexts (e.g., by switching between representation as a gentle cat or a ferocious lion, in the case of some female deities).
Purely anthropomorphic forms of male deities were used to depict gods who represented the cosmic or geographic spheres, as creator gods (e.g., Amun/Amun-Re, Atum, Ptah), moon (Khonsu), earth (Geb), air (Shu), heaven (Nut), waters (Hapy as the Nile flood, or Nun as the primeval waters), mountains, cities, estates, fertility (Min), deified humans (such as Imhotep), deceased kings and notables, or imported Levantine deities (Baal, Hauron, Reshep). Furthermore, the grotesque-looking Bes has an anthropomorphic but dwarfish appearance. Osiris, as god of the dead, was usually shown with a mummiform body or as the fecundity-bringing “Corn Osiris” with plants sprouting out of his body. There were also various gods venerated as child deities (e.g., Horus).66 Female deities with mainly anthropomorphic forms are Hathor, Isis, Maat, Mut, Neith, Nephtys, Nut, and Seshat, and also imported Levantine goddesses such as Anat, Astarte, Baalat, and Qadesh.67
Theriomorphic forms cover almost the whole fauna known in Egypt—mammalian, avian, reptilian, and amphibian species, fish, invertebrates, and insects. Male deities were associated with bulls (Apis), dogs and jackals (Anubis), rams (Khnum), falcons (Horus, Re, Sokar), ibises (Thoth), lions (the king), crocodiles (Sobek), serpents (Apophis, or Yam, the Levantine god of the sea), scarabs (Khepri), or the unknown animal representing Seth; female deities were associated with cows (Bat), cats (Bastet), vultures (Nekhbet, Mut), serpents (Meretseger, Wadjet), frogs (Heket), lionesses (Sekhmet), or hippopotamuses (Taweret).68
Hybrid or bimorphic deities combine human and (usually) animal parts, the head representing the essence of the entity. Composite deities combine different deities or characteristics. As many as a dozen different gods may be combined. Deities were created in the shape of baboon-hawks and hippopotamus-serpents, some of them multiple-headed and -armed. Hippopotamus, crocodile, and lioness were combined for the goddesses Ammut and Taweret. In an illustration to the Litany of Re, the seventy-four shapes of the sun god vary from purely anthropomorphic to purely animal, with many hybrid combinations (e.g., a human body with a scarab or ropes as a head).69
In rare occasions (at least before the Late Period), some of these creations might look monstrous, though they usually did not behave like that; among them were the gods Bes and Thoeris, helpful in childbirth, and the ambivalent Seth-animal, but also creatures of the netherworld that could end the eternal life of the dead.70
Inanimate objects could also represent deities. Thus, the Amarna-period god Aten was exclusively represented by the sun disc.71
The same deity could have more than one image or representation: Thoth (baboon, ibis, moon), Amun (ram, goose), Re (falcon, human with falcon head), Hathor (human, cow, woman with cow head, woman with bovine features, pillar with female head and cow ears), or Bastet (a cat when placid, a lioness when angry). Moreover, the same image could represent a variety of deities: the sun (Re, Atum, Khepro, Horakhty, and many others), the cow (Hathor, Nut), or lion/cat (Bastet, Hathor, Sakhmet). All the images were understood not as depictions of a deity but rather as one of many manifestations, an “ideogram,” showing only a part of their essence and nature appropriate to the given context. But there were certain limitations to the possible manifestations; thus, Amun never appeared as a moon, tree, or water. The true form of a deity was not representable, not knowable to a living human, and it could only and barely be seen in the beyond, in dreams, or in visions.72
Interactions between Humans and the Gods
The socio-economic system of ancient Egypt was based on an ideology founded on cooperation among the gods, the dead, and the living, all interested in preserving Maat (“order”) and keeping away eternal darkness. The construction and upkeep of temples and tombs was an important economic engine; many resources were invested in maintaining the monuments of the gods, the kings, and the dead. This made Egypt one of the greatest consumers of luxury goods from Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean world. The king was the main provider and mediator between gods and humans. In theory, it was he himself who performed all the cultic services; images and texts show him as the main actor in rituals and services all through the country. But in reality—though rarely depicted—priests with various titles and functions did the daily work in his place instead.73
Gods as well as humans could initiate communication. The results tended to be positive when initiated by man (as through ritual or prayer), but negative when initiated by the supernatural entity (in the form of omens, illness, misfortune, dreams, haunting, or guilty conscience). The Egyptian gods were approached through official cults and festivals, but also through personal prayers and requests. Offerings and rituals were conducted to care for the gods, to acknowledge what they had created, and to put them in a positive mood.74
From the Early Dynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, temples of gods were usually small and regional; the predominant religious installations were the mortuary temples of the Egyptian kings. Of some importance was the temple of Osiris in Abydos (from the Early Dynastic period on), and the temple of Ra (mainly Fifth Dynasty). This changed by the New Kingdom. The temple of Amun in Thebes, by then the main god in Egypt, was rebuilt in stone and gradually enlarged by succeeding kings. Temples for many other gods were built all over the land.75
The temples of the Egyptian gods were sacred spaces, “heavens on earth,” intersections between the human and divine spheres, and focal points of the presence of deities on earth. Their architecture, images, and texts embedded them in the world and the cosmos. During the flood season, the temples were inundated, and when the water receded, the building with its columns shaped as lotus and papyrus plants emerged like the hill from the primeval ocean. Thus, the temples were regarded as being built on the primeval hills; their surrounding wavy walls symbolized the primeval waters and kept people and chaos at bay. A “sacred lake” in the temple provided water and was a reminder of various aspects of cosmogony.76
The economic system serving the gods, their temples, priests, employees, and worshippers pervaded many areas of the country. The temples were provisional residences and households of the gods, as well as the administrative centers of the Egyptian state, the main nodes of its economic network. They were the main consumers, administrators, employers, producers, and redistributors of a variety of goods needed by the gods and the people working for them. The temples had various landholdings and employees; for instance, the temple of Amun at Karnak had more than 60,000 employees in its estates in Northern Egypt alone. Bread and beer were basic components of salaries, so granaries were an important feature of a temple; the Ramesseum’s granary could store 226, 328 sacks of grain, enough to feed 3,400 families for one year. Names, titles, and biographies of thousands of persons show that being a priest was not exclusive to a chosen few, but part of the life of many Egyptians, as they did priestly service in rotating shifts, interrupting their usual work for some months. From the New Kingdom on, priestly offices became more professional and even hereditary. 77