The nascent stages of ancient Egyptian mythology were presumably influenced by the natural surroundings and events affecting Egypt itself. For example, the cyclic pattern of the sun and seasonal pattern of Nile floods (that enriched the soil) played their crucial roles in establishing the water and the sun as symbols of life. The very geographical core of the ancient Egyptian civilization – the fertile Nile Delta, was surrounded by arid lands and deserts (populated by fringe groups of raiders and nomads). Inspired by these real-time scenarios, the ancient Egyptians regarded their land as the haven for tranquil stability, which in turn was ringed by swathes of lawless realms – thus essentially creating the trichotomy of order, chaos, and renewal; themes that are integral to the Egyptian gods and goddesses.
On the other hand, historical events also played their part in ‘shaping’ the Egyptian gods and goddesses by the end of the Predynastic Period, circa 3100 BC. This was the epoch when Egyptian pharaohs united both the Upper and Lower realms, which in turn made such kings the focus of adulation in the religious context. Furthermore, the progression of history is not linear, and as such many of the Egyptian deities evolved (and merged) into variant entities and aspects, mirroring the preference of the ruling classes of the said period. Taking these multifarious factors into consideration, let us take a gander at the fifteen ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses you should know about.
1) Nun – The Primeval God
Every mythology tends to start with the primordial origins, and in ancient Egyptian mythology, that scope is covered by the primeval Egyptian gods Nun and Naunet (the feminine form). In essence, the ancient Egyptians perceived Nun as the watery abyss that basically held the universe by which the sphere of life was borne. This watery mass was endowed with enigmatic characteristics by the Egyptians – with its depth epitomizing both nothingness and infinity, while also serving as the source of all aspects of divine and earthly existence.
So in many ways, Nun, like Tiamat – the Mesopotamian primordial goddess of the oceans, was associated, albeit neutrally, with the forces of chaos. And in terms of his physical attribute, Nun was often represented as a bearded man with blue or green skin (thus suggesting his connection with the watery mass of Nile and fertility). On occasions, he was also depicted as a frog or a frog-headed man (as part of the Ogdoad system practiced at Khmunu or Hermopolis) or even a hermaphrodite with discernable breasts.
2) Amun, Ra, and Amun-Ra – The Deities of Sun and Wind
Often considered among one of the most important ancient Egyptian gods, Amun was the divine entity who represented the air and the sun. Sometimes portrayed as the king of gods, Amun was also the patron deity of Thebes, the royal capital during the impressive New Kingdom era of Egypt, circa 16th century BC to 11th century BC. In fact, in the earlier centuries, Amun was a minor god, and as such played second fiddle to ‘war gods’ like Montu. However, the New Kingdom period brought forth the ascendancy of the diety, who was venerated as the ‘Self-Created One’.
Ra, on the other hand, was considered as one of the powerful Egyptian gods who was associated with the Pharoah – so much so, that by Fifth Dynasty, almost every ruler was symbolically hailed as the son of Ra. He was also associated with the earlier sun god Atum of Heliopolis. And over time, especially during the New Kingdom, the thriving Amun cult merged the two entities Amun and Ra into a composite god known as Amun-Ra, who was hailed as the “Lord of truth, father of the gods, maker of men, creator of all animals, Lord of things that are, creator of the staff of life.” According to many scholars, Amun-Ra sort of symbolized the combination of the invisible force (of wind) with the visible majesty (of the life-giving sun), thus establishing an all-encompassing deity who covered most aspects of creation.
3) Hathor – The Cow Goddess
The ancient Egyptian goddess of joy, feminine love, and motherhood; Hathor (meaning – ‘Domain of Horus’) was closely associated (or was the successor) to Mehet-Weret, the primeval divine cow entity/goddess who was perceived as being responsible for bringing the floods to the Nile, thus in the process fertilizing the land. Continuing with this possibly pre-dynastic concept, Hathor was also regarded as the mother of the sun god Ra.
As for her name referring to the ‘Domain of Horus’, Hathor possibly comes from the Egyptian myth of Horus – one of the prominent Egyptian gods (discussed later in the article), and how he entered her mouth to rest and then again come back at dawn. Considering these aspects, suffice it to say, Hathor was regarded as a protective and benevolent deity who often personified kindness. She was also closely associated with matters of womanly love and health, so much so that many women beheld her as the counterpart to Osiris in the afterlife.
And as for her physical attributes, Hathor was often depicted as a woman with the head of a cow or having an entire cow form. Later on, the bovine features were relegated in favor of a woman’s face (but still with cow’s ears or horns). She was also represented with the sistrum rattle-like musical instrument that was used to drive evil from the land – a facet that was later applied to the goddess Isis.
4) Bastet/Sekhmet – The Feline Goddess
The ancient Egyptians certainly shared a proclivity for domesticating cats, and this cultural affinity was mirrored by the native Egyptian mythology and religion that popularized the worship of Bastet (or Bast), at least since the Second Dynasty period (post 29th century BC). A goddess of the home, love, fertility, joy, dance, women and secrets, Bastet with her cat-like head and woman’s body was considered as a benevolent deity.
Given such propensity for feline symbolization, cats were uniquely sacred in Egypt – so much so that the punishment for killing a cat was death by stabbing. According to Herodotus, Egyptians was so fond of their cats that they preferred to save their cats instead of themselves when trapped inside a burning building. Some cats were also known to be mummified in a ceremonious manner with jewelry – as was the case with many noble people.
Interestingly enough, according to a legend, the Persians took advantage of this seemingly unhealthy feline fascination of the Egyptians by positioning many such animals and Bastet images (painted on their shields) in the front-lines at the Battle of Pelusium in circa 525 BC. The adorable critters ranging from cats, dogs to even sheep, dissuaded the animal-loving Egyptians from firing their arrows – thus allowing the Persians to take the initiative and win the battle.
And with all the talk about battles, it should be noted that Egyptians also venerated Bastet in the form of her ‘alter-ego’ Sekhmet – the warrior lioness. She was often given the epithet of ‘Sekhmet the Powerful’ and represented as the fiercest hunter in all of Egypt whose very breath formed the desert (while her pedigree was also associated with the Solar deity). Given such regal characteristics, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that many Pharaohs regarded her as their protector in battles.
5) Maat – The Goddess of Order
The ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, and, the cosmic order (alluding to the Egyptian concept of ma’at), Maat (or ma-yet) was responsible for regulating both the stars and the seasons. Venerated as an important deity during the Old Kingdom period (circa 27th century – 22nd century BC), she was considered as the daughter of Atum (or Ra), and as such implied the superiority of order, justice, and even harmony.
Pertaining to these aspects, the ma’at was envisaged as a guideline for human behavior that would conform to the will of the gods, thus in the process establishing a universal order. This cosmic balance was also reflected in the studies of the ancient Egyptian astronomers who charted the Earth’s orbit with the celestial paths of the stars and other planets. Simply put, this ambit of balance was perceived as a principle that was to be adopted by Egyptians in their daily lives, which in turn established the virtues of truth, family life, and the belief system centered around the various deities.
And when it comes to her physical appearance, Maat was often depicted as a winged woman with an ostrich feather on her head. The latter apparel had symbolic significance since the feather of Maat was the instrumental object in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony in the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that after their death, the heart of their soul was to be weighed against the feather in a ‘scale of justice’, which would allow the sections of their spirits (or life force) to be ultimately released to Akh (the composite soul).
6) Ptah – The Creator God
One of the Egyptian gods who formed the triad of Memphis (along with his spouse Sekhmet and daughter Nefertum), Ptah was the personification of creation. In essence, Ptah was perceived as the ultimate creator who not only fashioned the universe but also ‘breathed life’ into the entities populating the world. Suffice it to say, Ptah was a widely popular god in ancient Egypt – so much so that the very name Egypt derived from Greek Aigyptos, was originally borrowed from Amarna Hikuptah, corresponding to Egyptian Ha(t)-ka-ptah or ‘temple of the soul of Ptah’, the god’s religious sanctuary in Memphis.
Ptah was also hailed as the ‘self-created one’, thus suggesting that his role in specific creation as opposed to the all-encompassing nature of the aforementioned Amun-Ra. To that end, Ptah was regarded as the patron deity of sculptors, painters, builders, and other artisans. This allusion to his ‘master architect’ status possibly also played a part in inspiring a few aspects of Christian theology and Masonic elements.
As for his physical nature, Ptah was often depicted as a mummified bearded man with green skin. His arms were kept free to hold a scepter, and his overall profile contained the three powerful symbols of ancient Egyptian religion: the Was scepter, the sign of life, Ankh, and the Djed pillar. These motifs suggested the combined essence of his creative prowess, – the power, life-giving ability, and stability.
7) Isis – The Magic Goddess
Probably the most famous of all Egyptian goddesses, Isis was initially associated with Hathor, thus being heralded as the personification of many of the ‘motherly’ qualities. However, she further rose in significance during the Old Kingdom period, as one of the prominent characters of the Osiris myth, in which she not only resurrects her murdered husband, the divine king Osiris but also successfully gives birth and protects his heir, Horus.
This narrative was symbolically mirrored in the affairs of the ancient Egyptian state, with the very name Isis being derived from Egyptian Eset, (‘the seat’), which refers to the throne. In essence, the goddess was perceived as the divine mother of the kings, while Horus (discussed later in the article) was associated with the Pharaohs themselves. This analogy of the throne was also prevalent in the very depiction of Isis, with her original headdress carrying an empty throne that signified the seat of her slain husband.
Over time, Isis was given various epithets like Weret-Kekau (‘the Great Magic’) and even Mut-Netjer (‘the Mother of the Gods’). Judging by these titles, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Isis overtook all the previous Egyptian goddesses in popularity, so much so that later on some of them were relegated to mere aspects of Isis. Moreover, the adoration of the goddess also reached beyond the traditional boundaries of ancient Egypt, to account for a persistent cult that was spread across the later Greco-Roman world.
8) Osiris – The Dead God
One of the major Egyptian gods during and after the Old Kingdom period, Osiris – the husband of Isis, the father of Horus, and the brother of Set, was often perceived as the king of the underworld. A part of the later-formed Abydos Triad (comprising him, his wife, and his son), Osiris was possibly the only Egyptian deity who was directly referred to simply as a ‘god’, thus alluding to his immense prominence among the ancient Egyptian worshippers (many of whom considered Osiris as the first king of Egypt).
In addition to his role as the lord of the underworld – a title that was passed to him after his murder by his brother Set, Osiris was also regarded as the god of transition (since a death in itself was not seen as an absolute condition) and even regeneration. Furthermore, Osiris also fulfilled his duty as the Judge of the Dead, as he was the central figure who decided the deceased’s fate after the aforementioned Weighing of the Heart ceremony (see the Maat entry). Interestingly enough, in such cases, we can comprehend the pragmatic nature of ancient Egyptian gods and religion – since as opposed to advocating puritan morality, the deceased was only expected to live a ‘balanced’ former life.
Finally, coming to the physical attributes of Osiris, the god was often depicted as a mummified bearded king with a green or black skin – to represent both death and resurrection. And as a living god, Osiris was represented rather ostentatiously as a handsome man in the royal attire wearing the crown of Upper Egypt (a headdress known as the atef), while carrying the crook and flail, both symbols of kingship.
9) Horus – The Falcon God
The most well-known of all ‘avian’ Egyptian gods, Horus was also possibly one of the first known national Egyptian gods, who was worshipped in various forms and aspects from the Predynastic period to the Roman Egypt epoch. However, there are at least six known Horus entities that are mentioned in Egyptian mythology – and we will only talk about the deity otherwise hailed as Horus the Younger, the son of Osiris and Isis, and the rival of Set, his father’s murderer.
Completing the Abydos Triad, Horus was regarded as a powerful sky god who was designated as the divine protector of the pharaohs. His legacy is also fueled by his epic mythical battle against the adversary Set, from which Horus emerged victorious, thereby uniting the two lands of Egypt, albeit after losing one of his eyes. In essence, the avenging Egyptian deity was also perceived as a god of war whose name was frequently invoked before actual battles by the rulers and commanders.
As for his physical attributes, Horus, especially when combined with the sun god Ra to form Ra-Harahkhte, was usually depicted as a falcon-headed man wearing the pschent, the symbol of kingship over unified Egypt. On the other hand, his restored eye, personified as the Eye of Horus, was the ancient Egyptian symbol for protection and sacrifice. Quite intriguingly, the Ptolemaic dynasty favored another form of Horus known as Harpocrates (or ‘Horus the Child’), who was depicted as a winged-child with a finger on his lips – suggesting the virtue of silence and keeping secrets.
10) Set – The Antagonist God
In the Osiris myth, Set was portrayed as the antagonist among the Egyptian gods responsible for murdering his brother Osiris. However, if we consider the historical evidence, Set was the perceived as a divine entity since the Predynastic period (before 3rd millennium BC), with his center of worship possibly originating from the town of Nubt, which is one of the oldest settlements in Upper Egypt. And interestingly enough, Nubt served as the gateway to the eastern desert and its gold deposits, which possibly explains the association of Set with the deserts of Egypt.
In any case, Set was originally regarded as a more-or-less benevolent and esteemed entity who sometimes served as an ally of Ra, and was tasked with the protection of oases in the deserts. But over time, he was also associated with peculiar and frightening phenomena like eclipses, storms, and thunders – thus suggesting a dark side to his personification. Once again, reverting to history, some part of this scope possibly had to do with the foreign Hyksos, who adopted Set as one of their gods – which could have fueled a reactionary measure from the future native Egyptians who saw Set as an agent of evil. Other historians have hypothesized that the battle between Set and Horus, as opposed to a confrontation between good and evil, was rather a symbolic representation of the struggle to unite Egypt under one ruler.
Lastly, the ‘strange’ nature of Set as one of the dualistic Egyptian gods is also manifested by his depictions. They often showcase a creature which is simply known as the Set animal, which could be a composite of an aardvark, a donkey, and a jackal (or a fennec fox). A few scholars have argued that the Set animal possibly represents a giraffe, though ancient Egyptians seem to have differentiated between giraffes and the enigmatic hybrid creature. And the Late Egyptian period (post 664 BC) artists tended to depict Set exclusively with a donkey head.
11) Anubis – The Jackal God
Possibly of the most visually recognizable of the ancient Egyptian gods, Anubis (or rather Anpu or Inpu in Egyptian language) was represented as a jackal-headed entity associated with the rites of embalming the deceased and the related afterlife. And like many contemporary Egyptian gods, Anubis did have other aspects, but his core attributes were seemingly always related to the matters of death. For example, even during the 1st Dynasty period (circa 3100 BC), Anubis was perceived as a protector of graves – possibly to endow a positive aspect to the propensity of jackals who tended to dig up shallow graves.
To that end, Anubis pertained to one of the rare Egyptian gods, who in spite of his ancient legacy, was not venerated in dedicated precincts and temples (at least according to archaeological evidence or lack thereof). On the contrary, the tombs and mastabas of the dead were seen as his ‘places of worship’, including a particular shrine at Anubeion which contained the mummified remains of dogs and jackals. Suffice it to say, Anubis was often intrinsically related to the rites associated with death, and thus he played the role of the deity who ushered souls into the afterlife. Over time, he might have even overtaken Osiris as the main ‘judge’ in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony – as depicted in the scenes from the Book of the Dead.
Now in spite of his visually striking features and frequent ancient artistic depictions – that as we mentioned before, consisted of a black jackal’s head, Anubis played almost no part in the actual Egyptian mythology. And while the color black itself symbolized both desolation and rebirth, Anubis was possibly also associated with the god Upuaut (or Wepwawet), another deity with canine (or dog) features but with grey fur.
12) Thoth – The Ibis God
Another one of the Egyptian gods who was worshipped from the Predynastic period to the Greco-Roman times, Thoth was an important deity of writing, magic, wisdom, and the moon. He was also closely associated with the principles of balance and equilibrium, which was often symbolized by his title ‘Lord of Ma’at’ – and as such, Thoth was also portrayed as the husband of the goddess Maat, the deity of truth, justice, and the cosmic order.
Quite interestingly, Thoth had many origin stories in the Egyptian mythology, with the older lore mentioning how Thoth was either born from the lip of Ra or was ‘self-born’, as an ibis, which lays the cosmic egg that holds all of the creation. Later origin myths established Thoth as one of the characters of the Osiris saga, wherein the deity was oddly born when Set accidentally swallowed Horus‘ seed. In any case, given his stature as one of the major Egyptian gods of balance, Thoth equally healed and aided both the parties Horus and Set in their epic battle.
As for his physical attributes, Thoth was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or sometimes even a seated baboon (in his A’an aspect). And considering his academic qualities, Thoth was widely perceived as the patron deity of scribes, astronomers, priests and some rulers (like Thutmose meaning ‘Born of Thoth’). He was also credited as the inventor of the alphabet, mathematics, surveying, geometry and even botany.
13) Taweret – The Hippo Goddess
The ancient Egyptian patron deity of childbirth, Taweret (meaning ‘she who is great’) was regarded as the divine protector of women and children. And interestingly enough, her veneration by the ancient Egyptians was possibly inspired by the ecological scope of the realm before the Early Dynastic Period (pre 3000 BC), when the locals observed how the female hippopotami staunchly defended their young offspring from harm.
Over time, Taweret was also worshipped as an apotropaic god who had the power to ward off evil influences. To that end, it is known that Egyptian mothers carried amulets that were carved with the symbols or images of Taweret to invoke her protection. By the time of the New Kingdom, her likeness was also designed on objects related to feminity, like cosmetic applicators, jewelry, headrests, and vessels.
With her veneration possibly stemming from the observance of hippopotamus behavior in Egypt, the physical attributes of Taweret also followed suit, with the Egyptian goddess often portrayed as a bipedal pregnant hippopotamus who carried the protective sa sign. However, her limbs were strikingly feline in nature, while her rear end resembled a Nile crocodile.
14) Aten – The ‘Controversial’ God
Originally considered as an aspect of other Egyptian gods, namely Ra, Aten personified the disc of the sun as visible from the earth. And like other aspects following the likeness of the main deities, Aten was usually worshipped as a falcon-headed god, thus mirroring the image of Ra. On occasions, Aten was also hailed as the silver disc, thus suggesting its aspect of the moon.
However, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV – who was later known as Akhenaten, the Pharaoh proclaimed that Aten was to venerated above the other Egyptian gods. In essence, Akhenaten declared a monotheistic (or possibly henotheistic) mode of religious affiliation across all of Egypt, with the worship centered around Aten. Such a radical promulgation had deep-reaching effects on the Egyptian society and culture.
Pertaining to the latter, the royal city of Amarna boasted revolutionary architecture centered around the worship of Aten. For example, most of the temples were constructed without any roofing, thus symbolically allowing the unobstructed passage of the effulgent rays of the solar deity on the worshipers inside. But such measures ultimately resulted in counter-implementations of the traditional pantheon system – with the legacy of Akhenaten and Aten being intentionally wiped out by his successors after the defiant pharaoh’s death. Even the city of Amarna was razed by the later ‘traditionalists’, though some structural segments did survive to provide a historical glimpse into the royal city (watch the reconstruction here).
15) Honorable Mention – Khepri, The Beetle God
Intrinsically connected to the scarab beetle, Khepri was one of the rare Egyptian gods who was usually depicted as a man with a beetle head in Ancient Egyptian funerary papyri. There was a symbolic side to the whole affair of Khepri worship – with the entity epitomizing the forces that moved the sun across the vast expanse of the sky. This connection was derived from the action of scarab beetles when they rolled balls of dung across the rigorous desert surface – while the young beetles emerged from inside the dung, from the eggs laid by the parent. This is in fact related to the Egyptian word ‘kheper‘, which roughly translates to – to change, or to create.
In any case, Khepri was also considered as being subordinate to the more exalted sun god Ra, which on occasions also translated to Khepri being one of the aspects of Ra. For example, Khepri was perceived as the personification of the morning sun, while Ra was seen as the more effulgent midday sun. The people also regarded Khepri as one of the Egyptian gods of rebirth, possibly since the Egyptians believed beetles appeared out of nowhere and yet were able to procreate.
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