Ancient Egypt is a never ending source of inspiration for many of us – their myths, their history, and their art are so wonderful and enigmatic, that
Ancient Egypt is a never ending source of inspiration for many of us – their myths, their history, and their art are so wonderful and enigmatic, that they have intrigued researchers for decades. But perhaps the most astonishing part of the ancient Egyptians is their religion. Their pantheon has numerous gods that are associated with many parts of everyday life in ancient Egypt and exploring it is a very enthralling task.
That’s why today we will get deep into the rich and mythical world of the Egyptian gods and goddesses – bringing you closer to the most important deities in this vast and endless pantheon. Reading and learning about them is an absolute thrill and gives us an important glimpse into the minds and the beliefs of one of the world’s greatest civilizations.
A Short Introduction to the Gods of Egypt
Ancient Egyptian society placed great emphasis on the polytheistic, highly complex belief in many deities and the myths associated with them. Many of these gods and goddesses had an animal form, as these animals played a crucial role in the everyday lives of Egyptians.
In fact, this pantheon was so complex that it contained more than 1400 deities, with some scholars claiming that this number is even greater. This fact means that we couldn’t possibly name them all, but we will try to get you closer to some of the most important deities that were present throughout the timeline of ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians believed that these deities were present in every part of their life and would influence both nature and the lives of humans. Worship of these gods was an integral part of everyday life and would be carried out both in temples and at home shrines.
Complex rituals and invocations survived in hieroglyphic writing and give us an insight into the very fluid beliefs Egyptians regarding almost every aspect of the world around them. Animals were often mummified as a way of sacrifice and worship, and great emphasis was placed on death, the afterlife, and rebirth.
Animals had a complex role in the religion of Egyptians. Ibises, baboons, crocodiles, scarabs, fish, shrews, and cats were all considered sacred, but sacrificed, nonetheless. Cats especially were considered divine but still strangulated en-masse for mummification. Hundreds of thousands cat mummies were excavated in many tombs.
Cat mummies at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Zubro / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Baboons were sacred, but still bred in captivity for the purpose of sacrifice. Many suffered from malnutrition, fractures, vitamin deficiency, and osteomyelitis. Still, this provides an important insight into the religion and the bestial form of the gods of Egypt.
As mentioned, the Egyptian pantheon consisted of more than 1400 attested deities, and some of them were related to seemingly minor or unimportant things. Examples are many, like Ảmi-kar the singing ape god, Ảri-em-ăua – god of the sixth hour of night, Maa-en-Rā – an ape doorkeeper god, Neb ảrit-tcheṭflu – goddess who created reptiles, Esna the divine perch, Shentayet the goddess of widows, etc. There are numerous examples they provide an important insight into the minds of ancient Egyptians.
But there were also those minor, but still important deities, such as Ta-Bitjet, Wepwawet, Babi, Bes, Khnum, Apophis, Nut, Isis, Hathor, Nefertem, and many more. In the following list are just some of the most important deities and their amazing attributes and stories.
Amun – Father of the Gods
Amun was one of the most important gods of the Egyptian pantheon – “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”. Translated as “Hidden One”, Amun was one of the Ogdoad – the eight primeval deities of the Hermopolis, and at a time the chief Theban god.
Relief of the god Amun-Min, Luxor Museum, Egypt. (Elias Rovielo / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
As the importance of Amun grew and his cult spread, he gained the form of Amun-Ra, in the New Kingdom. This combined him with Ra, the sun god, and he became the chief deity, the king of the gods and the creator of the world and its inhabitants. At one period during the New Kingdom, Amun became so emphasized he overshadowed the other gods. His usual depiction is in human form.
Anubis – Lord of the Sacred Land
Another highly important Egyptian god, Anubis was considered a canine deity, “The God of Embalming, God of Death, God of Afterlife, and God of Cemeteries”. He is famously depicted in his canine form – a human body with a head of a desert dog with a long snout and tall, pricked ears. It was believed that Anubis was the protector of tombs and would punish those who desecrated them.
His canine form is most likely related to the jackals of the desert who were mostly carrion eaters – a clear reference to the process of mummification and death. He was known as the “Neb-ta-Djeser or the Lord of the Sacred Land, or the Dog Who Swallows Millions”. Jackal statues were often used as tomb guardians, most famously in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Bastet – the Cat Goddess
She is attributed with many feminine roles, and as a “Goddess of Pregnancy, Goddess of Motherhood, Goddess of the Household, Goddess of Sex and Fertility, Goddess of Cosmetics, and Goddess of Women”. Her name translates to “She of the Ointment Jar”, and she is also called the “Ruler of the Divine Field”. Mummified cats were sacred to Bastet.
Horus – God of Kingship
One of the oldest and most important Egyptian gods, Horus is considered the tutelary, “Patron Deity of all of Egypt, and the God of the Sky and Kingship”. He shared the characteristics with Ra, the sun deity, and is presented in the form of a human with the head of a falcon, wearing the pschent – the crown that symbolizes kingship over the whole of Egypt.
God Horus as a falcon supporting the solar disk in the name of Tutankhamun. (Siren-Com / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
His name is often translated as “The One up High” or “The Distant One”. The symbol of the Eye of Horus was the symbol of protection and royal power, and the rulers were known as Shemsu-Hor, the followers of Horus.
Osiris – the God of Rebirth
One of the most prominent of the deities, Osiris is the “God of Fertility, God of Rebirth and Afterlife, God of Life and Vegetation”. He is associated with the underworld and eternal life, and his power allowed for vegetation to grow and the dead to be reborn.
The ancient Egyptians connected seeds with Osiris, dead, and as the seeds sprout so does Osiris come back to life. Corn seeds were mixed with clay and mummified in the form of Osiris. Such mummies were numerous, and even excavated to reveal barley and wheat seeds that survived to the present day.
Ptah – The Creator of the World
The “God of Artisans, God of Architects, and God of Craftsmen, and the Creator God of Memphis and All Things”, Ptah was a very important deity. He was considered the one who thought the world into existence, and the one who existed before all other gods.
Ptah, the god who existed before all other gods. (Rawpixel Ltd / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
He was the “Lord of Eternity”, the “Master of Justice”, and the “One Who Listens to Prayers”. He was considered as creator of the city Memphis, an important city which the Egyptian knew as Hikuptah, the word which evolved into the modern word for Egypt.
Ptah was presented as a partially mummified man, with green skin and a smooth head, holding the combined scepter of ankh-djed-was. His temples were present all over Egypt.
Set – Lord of Storms
The “God of fire, God of Chaos, God of Violence, God of the Desert, and God of Trickery”, Set was also known as Seth or Setesh. He is presented in the form of the mysterious Set animal – a canine-like beast that resembles a jackal or a fox.
He was the “Lord of Storms” and “The Red Desert”. In the extensive Egyptian mythology Set played important roles – he repelled the serpent Apep, the embodiment of Chaos, and also killed his own brother Osiris, who would be avenged by Horus. “Powerful is His Arm” as a popular epithet associated with Set.
The Warrior Goddess Sekhmet
Fierce, ferocious, yet sensual, Sekhmet was the “Warrior Goddess of Healing”. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness, one of the fiercest animals the Egyptians knew. Sekhmet was known as “Lady of the Messengers of Death” and “Smiter of Nubians”, “The One Who Was Before the Gods Were” and “The Lady of the Place of the Beginning of Time”.
Closeup of seated figure of the goddess Sekhmet. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
She is one of the oldest most important deities, and although feminine and beautiful, she was a wrathful and fierce deity. Her attributes were seemingly contradictory, but in fact two complementary aspects – death and destruction, and protection and healing.
The Crocodile God Sobek
Another very important deity, Sobek, the “Lord of the Dark Water”, played a great role in the everyday lives of ancient Egyptians. With the Nile being the living heart of the entire kingdom, and also filled with deadly crocodiles, Sobek formed as a crocodile deity, a way to appease the beasts of the Nile and ensure a safe passage.
He was invoked for protection on the river, but his nature was also related to war, masculinity, and military prowess. He was presented as a man with a crocodile’s head, and he was widely attested through the history of Egypt. Crocodiles were mummified in his honor.
Taweret – Goddess of Fertility and Childbirth
This goddess is widely attested as one of the more important deities and was important for over 2000 years. Taweret, whose name means “She Who is Great”, had the form of a female hippopotamus – a fearsome depiction of an enormous beast with elements of a hippo, a lion, and a Nile crocodile.
Taweret was a beneficent “Goddess of Fertility and Childbirth”, as well as a protector from the evil forces. Her form was believed to protect the women in labor. Small hippopotamus statuettes were often placed into tombs of the deceased – to help with the successful rebirth after death.
Statuette of the Goddess Taweret. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Taweret charms were also widely popular and worn by pregnant women. She was very popular among the common folk and was also known as “Mistress of the Horizon”, “Mistress of Pure Water”, and “Lady of the Birth House”.
Thoth – God of Knowledge
Djehuty, more popularly known as Thoth, was the Ibis-headed god, the “Keeper of Time” and “The Lord of Writing”. His usual form is that of a man with the head of an ibis or the head of a baboon. Both animals were sacred to the Egyptians.
He had many associations through history but was mostly the “Deity of Knowledge, the Scribe of the Gods, the Author of all Science and Philosophy, the God of Wisdom”. His form in the underworld was Aani, the baboon god of the equilibrium.
Baboons and ibises were mummified as offerings to Thoth. There are an estimated 500,000 mummified ibises in the Saqqara burial grounds alone. And in the catacombs of Tune el-Gebel, roughly four million ibis burials were uncovered.
Heqet – Goddess of Childbirth
The frog-headed “Goddess of Fertility and Childbirth”, Heqet was the female counterpart of Khnum, the creator god. It was believed that Heqet gave life to the body and the soul of a royal infant, which was shaped out of clay on the Khnum’s potter’s wheel.
Anthropomorphic depiction of goddess Heqet in the temple relief of Ramesses II in Abydos. (Oltau / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
She was the deity associated with the last moments of birth, as well as the yearly flooding of the Nile, and the frogs that were left in the fertile soil after the water receded. Heqet was depicted as either a frog-headed woman, or a frog seated on a lotus, and frog amulets were worn by women in childbirth. She was known as “She Who Hastens the Birth”.
Egyptian Gods – In Unison With Nature
From this glimpse in to the very colorful and highly imaginative religion of the Egyptians, we can realize that they lived in unison with the nature around them. They depended on the river Nile which gave them life and crops and water, but also death and danger. The gods of Egypt are largely the faces of nature, and the Egyptians sought to appease them and master the nature around them.
And moreover, they believed in an afterlife and rebirth, placing a lot of emphasis on fertility and protection at birth. All of these beliefs are attested in archaeological and written data and show a complex relationship between life and death in the ancient Egyptian society. And you will have to agree – descending into this wondrous world of gods and goddesses is an inspiring and captivating journey!
Top image: Egyptian gods and goddess. From left to right, Sekhmet, Isis, Ra, Horus, Wadjet, and Set. Source: Hotaru Ito / Public Domain .
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