Ancient Egyptian deities
|Part of |
|Ancient Egypt portal|
Ancient Egyptian deities are the
The gods' complex characteristics were expressed in myths and in intricate relationships between deities: family ties, loose groups and hierarchies, and combinations of separate gods into one. Deities' diverse appearances in art—as animals, humans, objects, and combinations of different forms—also alluded, through symbolism, to their essential features.
In different eras, various gods were said to hold the highest position in divine society, including the
Gods were assumed to be present throughout the world, capable of influencing natural events and the course of human lives. People interacted with them in temples and unofficial shrines, for personal reasons as well as for larger goals of state rites. Egyptians prayed for divine help, used rituals to compel deities to act, and called upon them for advice. Humans' relations with their gods were a fundamental part of Egyptian society.
|"Deity" in hieroglyphs|
The beings in
The Egyptians distinguished nṯrw, "gods", from rmṯ, "people", but the meanings of the Egyptian and the English terms do not match perfectly. The term nṯr may have applied to any being that was in some way outside the sphere of everyday life. Deceased humans were called nṯr because they were considered to be like the gods, whereas the term was rarely applied to many of Egypt's lesser supernatural beings, which modern scholars often call "demons". Egyptian religious art also depicts places, objects, and concepts in human form. These personified ideas range from deities that were important in myth and ritual to obscure beings, only mentioned once or twice, that may be little more than metaphors.
Confronting these blurred distinctions between gods and other beings, scholars have proposed various definitions of a "deity". One widely accepted definition,
The first written evidence of deities in Egypt comes from the
Many Egyptologists and anthropologists have suggested theories about how the gods developed in these early times. Gustave Jéquier, for instance, thought the Egyptians first revered primitive fetishes, then deities in animal form, and finally deities in human form, whereas Henri Frankfort argued that the gods must have been envisioned in human form from the beginning. Some of these theories are now regarded as too simplistic, and more current ones, such as Siegfried Morenz' hypothesis that deities emerged as humans began to distinguish themselves from their environment, and to 'personify' ideas relating to deities. Such theories are difficult to prove.
Predynastic Egypt originally consisted of small, independent villages. Because many deities in later times were strongly tied to particular towns and regions, many scholars have suggested that the pantheon formed as disparate communities coalesced into larger states, spreading and intermingling the worship of the old local deities. Others have argued that the most important predynastic gods were, like other elements of Egyptian culture, present all across the country despite its political divisions.
The final step in the formation of Egyptian religion was the unification of Egypt, in which rulers from Upper Egypt made themselves pharaohs of the entire country. These sacred kings and their subordinates assumed the right to interact with the gods, and kingship became the unifying focus of the religion.
New deities continued to emerge after this transformation. Some important deities such as
Through contact with neighboring civilizations, the Egyptians also
Modern knowledge of Egyptian beliefs about the gods is mostly drawn from religious writings produced by the nation's scribes and priests. These people were the elite of Egyptian society and were very distinct from the general populace, most of whom were illiterate. Little is known about how well this broader population knew or understood the sophisticated ideas that the elite developed. Commoners' perceptions of the divine may have differed from those of the priests. The populace may, for example, have treated the religion's symbolic statements about the gods and their actions as literal truth. But overall, what little is known about popular religious belief is consistent with the elite tradition. The two traditions form a largely cohesive vision of the gods and their nature.
Most Egyptian deities represent
Not all aspects of existence were seen as deities. Although many deities were connected with the Nile, no god personified it in the way that Ra personified the sun. Short-lived phenomena, such as rainbows or eclipses, were not represented by gods; neither were fire, water, or many other components of the world.
The roles of each deity were fluid, and each god could expand its nature to take on new characteristics. As a result, gods' roles are difficult to categorize or define. Despite this flexibility, the gods had limited abilities and spheres of influence. Not even the creator god could reach beyond the boundaries of the cosmos that he created, and even Isis, though she was said to be the cleverest of the gods, was not omniscient. Richard H. Wilkinson, however, argues that some texts from the late New Kingdom suggest that as beliefs about the god Amun evolved he was thought to approach omniscience and omnipresence, and to transcend the limits of the world in a way that other deities did not.
The deities with the most limited and specialized domains are often called "minor divinities" or "demons" in modern writing, although there is no firm definition for these terms. Some demons were guardians of particular places, especially in the Duat, the realm of the dead. Others wandered through the human world and the Duat, either as servants and messengers of the greater gods or as roving spirits that caused illness or other misfortunes among humans. Demons' position in the divine hierarchy was not fixed. The protective deities Bes and Taweret originally had minor, demon-like roles, but over time they came to be credited with great influence. The most feared beings in the Duat were regarded as both disgusting and dangerous to humans. Over the course of Egyptian history, they came to be regarded as fundamentally inferior members of divine society and to represent the opposite of the beneficial, life-giving major gods. Yet even the most revered deities could sometimes exact vengeance on humans or each other, displaying a demon-like side to their character and blurring the boundaries between demons and gods.
Divine behavior was believed to govern all of nature.
The gods' actions in the present are described and praised in hymns and funerary texts. In contrast, mythology mainly concerns the gods' actions during a vaguely imagined past in which the gods were present on earth and interacted directly with humans. The events of this past time set the pattern for the events of the present. Periodic occurrences were tied to events in the mythic past; the succession of each new pharaoh, for instance, reenacted Horus's accession to the throne of his father Osiris.
Myths are metaphors for the gods' actions, which humans cannot fully understand. They contain seemingly contradictory ideas, each expressing a particular perspective on divine events. The contradictions in myth are part of the Egyptians' many-faceted approach to religious belief—what Henri Frankfort called a "multiplicity of approaches" to understanding the gods. In myth, the gods behave much like humans. They feel emotion; they can eat, drink, fight, weep, sicken, and die. Some have unique character traits. Set is aggressive and impulsive, and Thoth, patron of writing and knowledge, is prone to long-winded speeches. Yet overall, the gods are more like archetypes than well drawn characters. Different versions of a myth could portray different deities playing the same archetypal role, as in the myths of the Eye of Ra, a feminine aspect of the sun god who was represented by many goddesses. Deities' mythic behavior is inconsistent, and their thoughts and motivations are rarely stated. Most myths lack highly developed characters and plots, because their symbolic meaning was more important than elaborate storytelling.
The first divine act is the creation of the cosmos, described in several creation myths. They focus on different gods, each of which may act as creator deities. The eight gods of the Ogdoad, who represent the chaos that precedes creation, give birth to the sun god, who establishes order in the newly formed world; Ptah, who embodies thought and creativity, gives form to all things by envisioning and naming them; Atum produces all things as emanations of himself; and Amun, according to the theology promoted by his priesthood, preceded and created the other creator gods. These and other versions of the events of creation were not seen as contradictory. Each gives a different perspective on the complex process by which the organized universe and its many deities emerged from undifferentiated chaos. The period following creation, in which a series of gods rule as kings over the divine society, is the setting for most myths. The gods struggle against the forces of chaos and among each other before withdrawing from the human world and installing the historical kings of Egypt to rule in their place.
A recurring theme in these myths is the effort of the gods to maintain maat against the forces of disorder. They fight vicious battles with the forces of chaos at the start of creation. Ra and Apep, battling each other each night, continue this struggle into the present.
Gods were linked to specific regions of the universe. In Egyptian tradition, the world includes the earth, the sky, and the underworld. Surrounding them is the dark formlessness that existed before creation. The gods in general were said to dwell in the sky, although gods whose roles were linked with other parts of the universe were said to live in those places instead. Most events of mythology, set in a time before the gods' withdrawal from the human realm, take place in an earthly setting. The deities there sometimes interact with those in the sky. The underworld, in contrast, is treated as a remote and inaccessible place, and the gods who dwell there have difficulties in communicating with those in the world of the living. The space outside the cosmos is also said to be very distant. It too is inhabited by deities, some hostile and some beneficial to the other gods and their orderly world.
In the time after myth, most gods were said to be either in the sky or invisibly present within the world. Temples were their main means of contact with humanity. Each day, it was believed, the gods moved from the divine realm to their temples, their homes in the human world. There they inhabited the
Names and epithets
In Egyptian belief, names express the fundamental nature of the things to which they refer. In keeping with this belief, the names of deities often relate to their roles or origins. The name of the predatory goddess
The Egyptians also devised false
The gods were believed to have many names. Among them were secret names that conveyed their true natures more profoundly than others. To know the true name of a deity was to have power over it. The importance of names is demonstrated by a myth in which Isis poisons the superior god Ra and refuses to cure him unless he reveals his secret name to her. Upon learning the name, she tells it to her son, Horus, and by learning it they gain greater knowledge and power.
In addition to their names, gods were given epithets, like "possessor of splendor", "ruler of Abydos", or "lord of the sky", that describe some aspect of their roles or their worship. Because of the gods' multiple and overlapping roles, deities can have many epithets—with more important gods accumulating more titles—and the same epithet can apply to many deities. Some epithets eventually became separate deities, as with Werethekau, an epithet applied to several goddesses meaning "great enchantress", which came to be treated as an independent goddess. The host of divine names and titles expresses the gods' multifarious nature.
Gender and sexuality
The Egyptians regarded the division between male and female as fundamental to all beings, including deities. Male gods tended to have a higher status than goddesses and were more closely connected with creation and with kingship, while goddesses were more often thought of as helping and providing for humans. Some deities were androgynous, but most examples are found in the context of creation myths, in which the androgynous deity represents the undifferentiated state that existed before the world was created. The Ogdoad, a group of eight primordial gods all had a female form and consort. Atum was primarily male but had a feminine aspect within himself, who was sometimes seen as a goddess, known as Iusaaset or Nebethetepet. Creation began when Atum produced a sexually differentiated pair of deities: Shu and his consort Tefnut. Similarly, Neith, who was sometimes regarded as a creator goddess, was said to possess masculine traits but was mainly seen as female.
Sex and gender were closely tied to creation and thus rebirth. Male gods were believed to have the active role in conceiving children. Female deities were often relegated to a supporting role, stimulating their male consorts' virility and nurturing their children, although goddesses were given a larger role in procreation late in Egyptian history. Goddesses acted as mythological mothers and wives of kings and thus as prototypes of human queenship. Hathor, who was the mother or consort of Horus and the most important goddess for much of Egyptian history, exemplified this relationship between divinity and the king.
Female deities also had a violent aspect that could be seen either positively, as with the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet who protected the king, or negatively. The myth of the Eye of Ra contrasts feminine aggression with sexuality and nurturing, as the goddess rampages in the form of Sekhmet or another dangerous deity until the other gods appease her, at which point she becomes a benign goddess such as Hathor who, in some versions, then becomes the consort of a male god.
The Egyptian conception of sexuality was heavily focused on heterosexual reproduction, and homosexual acts were usually viewed with disapproval. Some texts nevertheless refer to homosexual behavior between male deities. In some cases, most notably when Set sexually assaulted Horus, these acts served to assert the dominance of the active partner and humiliate the submissive one. Other couplings between male deities could be viewed positively and even produce offspring, as in one text in which Khnum is born from the union of Ra and Shu.
Egyptian deities are connected in a complex and shifting array of relationships. A god's connections and interactions with other deities helped define its character. Thus Isis, as the mother and protector of Horus, was a great healer as well as the patroness of kings. Such relationships were in fact more important than myths in expressing Egyptians' religious worldview, although they were also the base material from which myths were formed.
Family relationships are a common type of connection between gods. Deities often form male and female pairs. Families of three deities, with a father, mother, and child, represent the creation of new life and the succession of the father by the child, a pattern that connects divine families with royal succession.
Other divine groups were composed of deities with interrelated roles, or who together represented a region of the Egyptian mythological cosmos. There were sets of gods for the hours of the day and night and for each
Nine, the product of three and three, represents a multitude, so the Egyptians called several large groups "
This divine assemblage had a vague and changeable hierarchy. Gods with broad influence in the cosmos or who were mythologically older than others had higher positions in divine society. At the apex of this society was the king of the gods, who was usually identified with the creator deity. In different periods of Egyptian history, different gods were most frequently said to hold this exalted position. Horus was the most important god in the Early Dynastic Period, Ra rose to preeminence in the Old Kingdom, Amun was supreme in the New, and in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, Isis was the divine queen and creator goddess. Newly prominent gods tended to adopt characteristics from their predecessors. Isis absorbed the traits of many other goddesses during her rise, and when Amun became the ruler of the pantheon, he was conjoined with Ra to become a solar deity.
Manifestations and combinations
The gods were believed to manifest in many forms.
Nationally important deities gave rise to local manifestations, which sometimes absorbed the characteristics of older regional gods. Horus had many forms tied to particular places, including Horus of Nekhen, Horus of Buhen, and Horus of Edfu. Such local manifestations could be treated almost as separate beings. During the New Kingdom, one man was accused of stealing clothes by an oracle supposed to communicate messages from Amun of Pe-Khenty. He consulted two other local oracles of Amun hoping for a different judgment. Gods' manifestations also differed according to their roles. Horus could be a powerful sky god or vulnerable child, and these forms were sometimes counted as independent deities.
Gods were combined with each other as easily as they were divided. A god could be called the ba of another, or two or more deities could be joined into one god with a combined name and iconography. Local gods were linked with greater ones, and deities with similar functions were combined. Ra was connected with the local deity Sobek to form Sobek-Ra; with his fellow ruling god, Amun, to form Amun-Ra; with the solar form of Horus to form Ra-Horakhty; and with several solar deities as Horemakhet-Khepri-Ra-Atum. On rare occasion, deities of different sexes could be joined in this way, producing combinations such as Osiris-Neith. This linking of deities is called syncretism. Unlike other situations for which this term is used, the Egyptian practice was not meant to fuse competing belief systems, although foreign deities could be syncretized with native ones. Instead, syncretism acknowledged the overlap between deities' roles and extended the sphere of influence for each of them. Syncretic combinations were not permanent; a god who was involved in one combination continued to appear separately and to form new combinations with other deities. Closely connected deities did sometimes merge. Horus absorbed several falcon gods from various regions, such as Khenti-irty and Khenti-kheti, who became little more than local manifestations of him; Hathor subsumed a similar cow goddess, Bat; and an early funerary god, Khenti-Amentiu, was supplanted by Osiris and Anubis.
Aten and possible monotheism
In the reign of
Unity of the divine in traditional religion
Scholars have long debated whether traditional Egyptian religion ever asserted that the multiple gods were, on a deeper level, unified. Reasons for this debate include the practice of syncretism, which might suggest that all the separate gods could ultimately merge into one, and the tendency of Egyptian texts to credit a particular god with power that surpasses all other deities. Another point of contention is the appearance of the word "god" in
In 1971, Erik Hornung published a study[Note 3] rebutting such views. He points out that in any given period many deities, even minor ones, were described as superior to all others. He also argues that the unspecified "god" in the wisdom texts is a generic term for whichever deity is relevant to the reader in the situation at hand. Although the combinations, manifestations, and iconographies of each god were constantly shifting, they were always restricted to a finite number of forms, never becoming fully interchangeable in a monotheistic or pantheistic way. Henotheism, Hornung says, describes Egyptian religion better than other labels. An Egyptian could worship any deity at a particular time and credit it with supreme power in that moment, without denying the other gods or merging them all with the god that he or she focused on. Hornung concludes that the gods were fully unified only in myth, at the time before creation, after which the multitude of deities emerged from a uniform nonexistence.
Hornung's arguments have greatly influenced other scholars of Egyptian religion, but some still believe that at times the gods were more unified than he allows. Jan Assmann maintains that the notion of a single deity developed slowly through the New Kingdom, beginning with a focus on Amun-Ra as the all-important sun god. In his view, Atenism was an extreme outgrowth of this trend. It equated the single deity with the sun and dismissed all other gods. Then, in the backlash against Atenism, priestly theologians described the universal god in a different way, one that coexisted with traditional polytheism. The one god was believed to transcend the world and all the other deities, while at the same time, the multiple gods were aspects of the one. According to Assmann, this one god was especially equated with Amun, the dominant god in the late New Kingdom, whereas for the rest of Egyptian history the universal deity could be identified with many other gods. James P. Allen says that coexisting notions of one god and many gods would fit well with the "multiplicity of approaches" in Egyptian thought, as well as with the henotheistic practice of ordinary worshippers. He says that the Egyptians may have recognized the unity of the divine by "identifying their uniform notion of 'god' with a particular god, depending on the particular situation."
Descriptions and depictions
Egyptian writings describe the gods' bodies in detail. They are made of precious materials; their flesh is gold, their bones are silver, and their hair is lapis lazuli. They give off a scent that the Egyptians likened to the incense used in rituals. Some texts give precise descriptions of particular deities, including their height and eye color. Yet these characteristics are not fixed; in myths, gods change their appearances to suit their own purposes. Egyptian texts often refer to deities' true, underlying forms as "mysterious". The Egyptians' visual representations of their gods are therefore not literal. They symbolize specific aspects of each deity's character, functioning much like the ideograms in hieroglyphic writing. For this reason, the funerary god Anubis is commonly shown in Egyptian art as a dog or jackal, a creature whose scavenging habits threaten the preservation of buried mummies, in an effort to counter this threat and employ it for protection. His black coloring alludes to the color of mummified flesh and to the fertile black soil that Egyptians saw as a symbol of resurrection.
Most deities were depicted in several ways. Hathor could be a cow, cobra, lioness, or a woman with bovine horns or ears. By depicting a given god in different ways, the Egyptians expressed different aspects of its essential nature.
Certain features of divine images are more useful than others in determining a god's identity. The head of a given divine image is particularly significant.
The forms in which the gods are shown, although diverse, are limited in many ways. Many creatures that are widespread in Egypt were never used in divine iconography. Others could represent many deities, often because these deities had major characteristics in common. Bulls and rams were associated with virility, cows and falcons with the sky, hippopotami with maternal protection, felines with the sun god, and serpents with both danger and renewal. Animals that were absent from Egypt in the early stages of its history were not used as divine images. For instance, the horse, which was only introduced in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650–1550 BC), never represented a god. Similarly, the clothes worn by anthropomorphic deities in most periods changed little from the styles used in the Old Kingdom: a kilt, false beard, and often a shirt for male gods and a long, tight-fitting dress for goddesses.[Note 4]
The basic anthropomorphic form varies. Child gods are depicted nude, as are some adult gods when their procreative powers are emphasized. Certain male deities are given heavy bellies and breasts, signifying either androgyny or prosperity and abundance. Whereas most male gods have red skin and most goddesses are yellow—the same colors used to depict Egyptian men and women—some are given unusual, symbolic skin colors. Thus, the blue skin and paunchy figure of the god Hapi alludes to the Nile flood he represents and the nourishing fertility it brought. A few deities, such as Osiris, Ptah, and Min, have a "mummiform" appearance, with their limbs tightly swathed in cloth. Although these gods resemble mummies, the earliest examples predate the cloth-wrapped style of mummification, and this form may instead hark back to the earliest, limbless depictions of deities.
Some inanimate objects that represent deities are drawn from nature, such as trees or the disk-like emblems for the sun and the moon. Some objects associated with a specific god, like the crossed bows representing Neith (𓋋) or the emblem of Min (𓋉) symbolized the cults of those deities in Predynastic times. In many of these cases, the nature of the original object is mysterious. In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, gods were often represented by divine standards: poles topped by emblems of deities, including both animal forms and inanimate objects.
Deities with varying animal heads, a vignette from the Papyrus Cairo JE 95658 scroll.
A pair of figures ofHapy symbolically tying together Upper and Lower Egypt
Mummiform deities with varying heads, from the Litany of Re. Eleventh century BC.
Divine standards depicted inKom Ombo Temple. Second or first century BC.
Interactions with humans
Relationship with the pharaoh
In official writings, pharaohs are said to be divine, and they are constantly depicted in the company of the deities of the pantheon. Each pharaoh and his predecessors were considered the successors of the gods who had ruled Egypt in mythic prehistory. Living kings were equated with Horus and called the "son" of many male deities, particularly Osiris and Ra; deceased kings were equated with these elder gods. Kings' wives and mothers were likened to many goddesses. The few women who made themselves pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, connected themselves with these same goddesses while adopting much of the masculine imagery of kingship. Pharaohs had their own mortuary temples where rituals were performed for them during their lives and after their deaths. But few pharaohs were worshipped as gods long after their lifetimes, and non-official texts portray kings in a human light. For these reasons, scholars disagree about how genuinely most Egyptians believed the king to be a god. He may only have been considered divine when he was performing ceremonies.
However much it was believed, the king's divine status was the rationale for his role as Egypt's representative to the gods, as he formed a link between the divine and human realms. The Egyptians believed the gods needed temples to dwell in, as well as the periodic performance of rituals and presentation of offerings to nourish them. These things were provided by the cults that the king oversaw, with their priests and laborers. Yet, according to royal ideology, temple-building was exclusively the pharaoh's work, as were the rituals that priests usually performed in his stead. These acts were a part of the king's fundamental role: maintaining maat. The king and the nation he represented provided the gods with maat so they could continue to perform their functions, which maintained maat in the cosmos so humans could continue to live.
Presence in the human world
Although the Egyptians believed their gods to be present in the world around them, contact between the human and divine realms was mostly limited to specific circumstances. In literature, gods may appear to humans in a physical form, but in real life, the Egyptians were limited to more indirect means of communication.
The ba of a god was said to periodically leave the divine realm to dwell in the images of that god.