You Gotta Know These Egyptian Deities
Perhaps the most prominent Egyptian creation myth begins with the emergence of Ra (or Re), the sun god, from the ocean in the form of an egg (or, alternately, a flower). Ra brought forth four children: Geb, Shu, Nut, and Tefnut. Shu and Tefnut became manifestations of air and moisture. From Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky, were spawned four other gods: Osiris, Isis, Set (or Seth), and Nepthys.
These nine gods became known as the ennead (“group of nine”). The center of their worship was Heliopolis, as all were tied to Ra, the sun god. The Heliopolitan ennead was one of several in Egyptian theology, and at times this grouping was superseded by other sets. Two notable alternatives were the ennead of the city of Memphis, led by the god Ptah, and the ennead of Thebes, with Amon at its head. Not surprisingly, the pre-eminence of these variations coincided with their corresponding cities’ prominence within Egypt.
There are, for most practical purposes, only three major episodes in Egyptian mythology:
- The family quarrel of Osiris and Set: Osiris took Isis, his sister, for his wife, and ruled over the earth. Set grew jealous of his brother and killed him, afterwards cutting his body into 14 pieces and hiding them in various places around Egypt. He then claimed kingship over the land. Isis searched the breadth of the land until she had recovered all of the pieces and, with the help of Anubis, embalmed the body. She conceived a son, Horus, by the (still dead) Osiris, then resurrected him. Horus defeated Set to regain the kingship, and all subsequent pharaohs were said to be aspects of him.
- Afterlife: The Egyptians believed that the soul had three primary components, the ba, ka, and akh, each of which had different roles after death. The ka remained near or within the body (which is why mummification was required). The ba went to the underworld where it merged with aspects of Osiris, but was allowed to periodically return (which is why Egyptian tombs often contained narrow doors). The akh could temporarily assume different physical forms and wander the world as a ghost of sorts. In the underworld, the ba was subjected to the Judgment of Osiris in the Hall of Double Justice, where the heart of the deceased was weighed against Ma’at, commonly represented as an ostrich feather.
- Worship of Aton: This is actually a historical episode: during the reign of Amenhotep III (1390–1353 BC), worship of the god Aton (or Aten) — a representation of the disk of the sun — was resurrected. This process was carried to its extreme conclusion by his successor, Amenhotep IV, who eventually declared Aton to be the only god, thereby creating one of the earliest known monotheistic religions. The pharaoh even changed his name to Akhenaton, meaning “Aton is satisfied.” The worship of Aton was centered on the capital city Tell-al-Amarna, and was largely confined to upper classes and the pharaonic court; it did not survive Amenhotep. Under his successor, Tutankhamen (King Tut), traditional religious practices were restored.
- Osiris: Husband of Isis, father of Horus, and brother of Set, Osiris served as god of the underworld and protector of the dead. In addition to his role as the chief and judge of the underworld (as a result of the above-mentioned murder by Set), Osiris also served as a god of vegetation and renewal; festivals honoring his death occurred around the time of the Nile flood’s retreat. Statues representing him were made of clay and grain, which would then germinate. Osiris was represented either as a green mummy, or wearing the Atef, a plumed crown.
- Set: Created in opposition to the forces of Ma’at, Set (termed Typhon by Plutarch) fought the demon Apopis each day, emerging victorious, symbolic of the struggle of forces that brought harmony. In later times, this struggle led Set to be associated with the serpent itself, and Set became the personification of violence and disorder, and the cause of all disasters. Having killed his brother Osiris, Set did battle with Osiris’ son Horus, being emasculated in the fight. His cult was diminished over time, due to reaction against violence, and many of his effigies were destroyed.
- Isis: Isis, daughter of Geb and Nut, protected love, motherhood, and fate in the Egyptian mythos. Many of her roles are similar to those of the goddess Hathor, but she is often equated with the Greek Demeter. Her powers were gained through tricking the god Ra. By placing a snake in his path, which poisoned him, she forced him to give some power to her before she would cure him.
- Horus: The god of the sky and light and the son of Isis and Osiris. In some myths, he was the brother of Set, and son of Ra. His mother impregnated herself by the dead Osiris, then hid Horus. When he was grown, he avenged his father’s death, driving away Set. In the battle, he lost his eye, but regained it thanks to the god Thoth. Thus Horus came to rule over the earth. He was known to have two faces, that of the falcon and that of a child, Harpocrates.
- Ra: Personification of the midday sun, he was also venerated as Atum (setting sun) and Khepri (rising sun), which were later combined with him. He traveled across the sky each day and then each night, the monster Apep would attempt to prevent his return. Other myths held that Ra spent the night in the underworld consoling the dead. Ra was the god of the pharaohs, so from the fourth dynasty onward all pharaohs termed themselves “sons of Ra,” and after death they joined his entourage. He was portrayed with the head of a falcon, and crowned with the sun disk.
- Amon: Amon began as a local god of Thebes, governing the air, fertility, and reproduction. His wife was Mut, and his son was Khon. Later, Amon became linked with the sun god Ra, and the two combined as Amon-Ra. In this form, he became worshipped beyond Egypt, and identified with Zeus and Jupiter. His appearance in art was as a man in a loincloth, with a headdress topped by feathers, but other appearances show him with the head of a ram. The temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak was the largest ever built.
- Thoth: Serving the gods as the supreme scribe, the ibis-headed Thoth was known as the “tongue of Ptah” for his knowledge of hieroglyphics, and as the “Heart of Re” for his creative powers. His knowledge of science and calculation made him the creator of the calendar, and his symbol was the moon due to his knowledge of how to calculate its path. His knowledge of magic led to his association with the Greek Hermes. Thoth was consulted by Isis when attempting to resurrect Osiris, and was again consulted when the young Horus was stung by a scorpion.
- Ptah: Principal god of the city of Memphis, he was portrayed as a mummy, or wearing the beard of the gods on his chin. His godhood was achieved by himself, much like his creation power, done merely by act of will. A patron of craftsmen, he also was seen as a healer, in the form of a dwarf. He was seen as the god of embalming. His wife was the cat-headed Sekhmet, and his son was the lotus god Nefertem.
- Anubis: Son of Osiris and Nepthys, and god of embalming to the Egyptians, he was typically pictured with the head of a jackal. He also served as the god of the desert and the watcher of the tombs. He also served to introduce the dead to the afterlife, and as their judge. To decide the fate of the dead, Anubis would weigh the heart of the dead against the feather of truth. Anubis is sometimes identified with Hermes or Mercury.
- Ma’at: The daughter of Ra, she predated the universe and served over the creation of it, ensuring balance between everything. Primarily seen as the keeper of order, Ma’at was responsible for seasons, day and night, rainfall, and star movements. A symbolic offering of Ma’at, in the form a statuette was given to the gods, as Ma’at encompassed all other offerings. Ma’at’s aspect as god of justice also showed through her role in death ritual, where her ostrich feather was weighed against the hearts of the dead in the underworld. Judges wore effigies of Ma’at, and the supreme head of courts was said to be the priest of Ma’at.
- Hathor: Hathor (or Athor or Athyr) was the patron of women. Hathor was the daughter of Ra and the wife of Horus. She fulfilled many functions as goddess of the sky, goddess of fertility, protector of marriage, and goddess of love and beauty. In that final role she became equated with Aphrodite and Venus. Pictures of Hathor often show the goddess with the head of a cow.
- Nephthys: Termed the “lady of the castle,” for her role as guardian of tombs, she sided against her own husband, Set, in his battle against Osiris, but when Set was destroyed, she collected the bits of his body and brought him back to life, much as Isis had done for Osiris. In addition to being Isis’ sister, she was also said to be Osiris’ mistress, leading to much complaint from Isis. Due to her close ties to all the other gods, she was rarely associated with a cult of her own.