The Egyptians gods were central to the lives of Ancient Egyptians, so they interpreted every event through the lenses of these Egyptian deities. They regarded their deities as forces of nature and accorded them religious rituals.
Read on to find out the list of Egyptian gods and their roles and relevance to the Egyptian Kingdoms.
A Brief Background of Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
The gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt can be traced to the years before 3100 BC and were numerous. According to some ancient Egyptian texts, Egyptian mythological gods were about 1,400 in number, but this could be more.
This is because not all the gods were named in surviving texts from ancient Egypt, as we would soon discover. The ancient Egyptian word for a male deity was “ntr,” and a female deity was called “ntrt.”
The Evolution of Prehistoric Egyptian Gods and Their Roles
The Egyptians who lived during prehistoric times carved images of both humans and animals. Some scholars believe that these images represented some deities of the prehistoric period.
Later, the images of animals became the symbols of ancient Egyptian gods, and as time went on, the prehistoric Egyptians began erecting temples in honor of their gods.
The prehistoric period saw the Egyptians using the head of a falcon to symbolize Horus. The symbol of crossed arrows represented the god Neith and the Set animal symbolized Set. At first, the Egyptians worshiped fetishes. The worship of these fetishes then evolved into gods in animal form and finally evolved into deities in human forms.
During the predynastic period, independent Egyptian villages scattered throughout the land had their own gods. These gods embodied the people of the villages and as the people spread they carried the gods with them. Soon, some of these gods assumed some level of importance due to the influence of their followers. When ancient Egypt was finally unified, these gods then became national gods.
After the unification of Egypt, the kings from Upper Egypt declared themselves kings of the entire land. They made themselves Pharaohs and took on important religious roles. At first, they became the medium between the Egyptians and the gods, but later, they became gods themselves and ruled alongside the gods of the Egyptian pantheon.
The Gods of the Predynastic Era Who Later Became Gods of Unified Egypt
One of the most prominent Egyptian gods of the Predynastic Era is Set of Tukh, who was the god of the desert and had temples in Upper Egypt. Just like Set, the people of Upper Egypt worshipped another popular god, Horus, who was the god of the sky.
The deity Ptah was a god of creation and was revered in Memphis. He was the chief god of Lower Egypt and had many temples dedicated to him.
Another major god in Upper Egypt was Ammun, who was worshiped in the city of Thebes. He was the god of the air who later became King of the gods.
Ra was the god of the city of Heliopolis located in Lower Egypt, who was also worshiped as the sun god. Then there was Osiris, the deity of death and resurrection, whose worship was popular in Abydos, a town in Upper Egypt.
Another prominent god was Min, a god of the people of Gebtu in Upper Egypt. Min was a fertility and harvest god whose followers also worshiped him as Lord of the Eastern Desert.
Hathor was an Egyptian goddess whose worship was prominent in Dendra, a city in Upper Egypt. Hathor was the goddess of fertility and love.
The Era of the Pharaohs and the Gods That Came After
After the unification of Egypt and the formation of the Old Kingdom, other gods began to emerge. This was due to the formation of new societies and concepts. People who had a peculiar way of life would create a god to embody their culture. During this time, the Old Kingdom also saw the creation of female gods to serve as wives, mothers and daughters of their male counterparts.
The Egyptians made a few of their Pharaohs gods after their death, but this worship of pharaohs was short-lived. Later, some non-royals were also worshipped as gods after they had passed. Typical examples included the famous artists Imhotep and Amenhotep.
The Egyptians Borrowed Gods from Other Cultures
As time progressed, the Egyptians came in contact with other civilizations and adopted their gods. During the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians adopted the worship of Dedun, who was from Nubia and whose symbol was a lion. When the Egyptians encountered the Canaanites, they adopted their gods too.
Gods like Astarte, Anat and Baal were prominent gods of Canaan worshiped by the Egyptians. Baal was a storm god whose other name was Haddad, while Anat was the goddess of war and was called upon during times of war. Astarte was another war and sexuality goddess whose worship permeated the New Kingdom of Egypt.
During the time of the Roman and Greek empires, Egyptians added more foreign gods to the pantheon. However, they maintained the veneration of their indigenous gods.
The Roles of The Gods of Egypt
All Egyptian gods had specific roles they played in harmony with the culture of the people. These gods also symbolized natural phenomena and social values. The Egyptians believed the presence, characteristics and power of their gods were visible through these phenomena. Therefore, the Egyptians interpreted such phenomena as roles of the gods.
For example, the god Shu embodied air and was responsible for cooling the land and calming hot temperatures.
Gods could also symbolize geographical locations, such as the goddess Meretseger, who embodied the people of Theban Necropolis and whose role was to protect them. The Egyptians also had several gods playing the same role: Horus and Atum were sun gods, together with Khepri and Ra. The sun god symbolized the beginning of life, thus the Egyptians thought of them as creators.
Another god that represented a physical location was Khnum, who was the god of Elephantine, an island in the middle of the Nile River. His role was to set into motion events that would cause the Nile to flood. Since the Egyptians depended on the flooding of the Nile, his role was essential to them.
Other Roles of the Egyptian gods
The role of all Egyptian gods was to ensure that the principle of Maat was maintained. Maat was the moral and ethical values that governed the lives of Ancient Egyptians. The concept of Maat itself was eventually made a goddess, and her role was to ensure that moral and ethical values were maintained. Interestingly, not all Egyptian gods and goddesses helped to maintain Maat.
Some had roles that disrupted the moral and ethical values of the Egyptians. One notable example was the god Set, who was responsible for chaos and disorder. Set also oversaw violent storms and conflicts and was even a murderer who killed Osiris.
However, not all natural phenomena were symbolized by gods. Occurrences like rainbows and eclipses did not have any god embodying them. The Egyptians also did not have deities for fire, water and other natural elements. Interestingly, no god embodied the Nile, which was the main source of livelihood for the Ancient Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptian Gods Had Fluid Roles
Gods of ancient Egypt did not have rigid roles, so they could easily adopt new characteristics. However, they were limited in their capacity. The Egyptians limited the creator god to the world that he created, which meant that he couldn’t step outside his own creation.
Another example is Isis, who was the wisest and most knowledgeable god. Despite this, her knowledge and wisdom had its limits. The only god who was almost limitless was the god Amun.
The Role of Demons in Egyptian Mythology
Some gods reigned over certain domains. The ancient Egyptians referred to them as minor gods, but modern scholars call them demons. These gods were servants to other gods and they freely roamed both the seen and unseen world. Some of these demons were also responsible for inflicting people with illnesses and diseases.
Demons in Egyptian Mythology
One of these demons was Ammit, the goddess whose role was to swallow up condemned souls. Some minor gods evolved to become major gods and their roles evolved as well.
Bes was a minor god whose role in the Middle Kingdom was to defend mothers and children. Later in the New Kingdom, his role expanded to defender of all good things.
The same can be said of the god Taweret, whose minor role as protector of childbirth evolved to become a funerary deity. Some minor gods also dominated the realm of the dead known in the Egyptian language as Duat. Gods who inhabited the Duat were fearsome and depicted in scary images. These gods could cause harm to humans just as the major gods.
Resheph was a minor deity that caused plagues. He was an adopted god from Canaan during the era of the New Kingdom, and his companions were Seth and Montu, all of whom were gods of war and plagues.
The Actions and Behavior of the Egyptian Gods
The behavior of the gods was geared towards maintaining Maat, which was the moral and ethical values of the Egyptians. The gods achieved this through the power of Heka, which means magic.
By using Heka, the god of creation was able to create the world and all its inhabitants, including other deities. To describe the action and behavior of the gods, the Egyptians used hymns, funerary texts and mythology.
Funerary Texts and Hymns
Hymns and funerary texts depicted the actions and behavior of the gods as if they were happening presently. For instance, during burial, the Egyptians placed a book called The Book of the Dead in the coffin of the deceased.
This book contained various spells, including the actions and behavior of the gods. In the Papyrus of the scribe Hunefer, the god Anubis is seen weighing the heart of Hunefer to determine whether he qualifies for the afterlife.
In the Great Hymn to Aten, Pharaoh Akhenaten describes the actions of the god Aten in the present. The hymn describes Aten as the creator of the world and tells of his majesty and splendor in colorful words. He is described as a good deity who cares for even the smallest of his creation. The hymn sought to establish Aten as the only god and to stop the revering of other deities.
The Mythology of the Gods of Egypt
Mythology, on the other hand, described the past actions and behavior of the gods which could not be understood. According to Egyptian myth, the gods’ actions in the past set in motion the events of the present.
The ancient Egyptians used these myths to explain events, although they were sometimes contradictory. Myths portrayed the gods as humans with emotions, who also eat, drink, fight and die.
Some deities had behaviors that were unique to them. For instance, among the gods, Set was unique for his aggressive and rash behavior. The god Thoth was also known for his lengthy speeches. Generally, the gods had a specific model in which they all fit, such as the Eye of Ra being an archetype of the female version of Ra.
That is why the Eye of Ra was symbolized by many goddesses like Hathor, Mut, Bastet and Sekhmet. The main goal of myths was not to tell the stories of the gods, but to explain events, which is why many gods could play the same or a similar role. To explain the creation of the cosmos, the Egyptians had several mythologies, each with its own creator god.
An Ancient Egyptian Creation Myth Explaining the Origins of the Universe
One creation myth that explained the origins of the cosmos told the story of how the Ogdoad birthed the sun god. The Ogdoad were eight Egyptian deities that existed before creation and who symbolized what the Egyptians called chaos before creation. The sun god then brought about order in the universe.
Later, Ptah, the god of creativity, put his creativity to use by bringing form to creation. Next was Atum, who brought all things to life and was the embodiment of creation. Then came Amun, who made all the other creator deities. The creation myths featured constant struggles between the gods and chaos.
Sometimes, the gods fought among themselves too. These constant conflicts ushered in the era of the Pharaohs, after which the gods retreated and allowed the Kings to rule in their stead. Though this may seem confusing, don’t forget that the idea behind myths was to explain the origin of the cosmos and not to tell a logical story.
The Myths Containing the Death and Resurrection of Egyptian Gods
The Egyptian gods were not immortal. They could die and be resurrected, as typified by the death and resurrection of Osiris. There was the story of the sun god who grew old as he traveled through the sky. In the night, the Duat (the realm of the Dead) swallowed up the sun god.
The sun god then came into contact with the watery abyss of the god Nun. This water rejuvenated the sun god, who was then reborn the following morning.
Characteristics and Illustrations of Egyptian Gods
Surviving Egyptian texts and paintings give a vivid description of the physical appearance of their gods. The physical appearance of the gods was a mixture of precious stones and minerals.
They had a skin made of gold and their bones were made of silver. Precious deep blue lapis lazuli stones adorned their hair.
Note that these were just visual appearances, not the true form of the gods. Each physical aspect of the gods was indicative of their character and purpose. For instance, the god Anubis had the head of a jackal because it had a vicious character that protected the mummies.
Descriptions of Other Gods
Anubis had black flesh, which both symbolized the fertile land of Egypt and the resurrection of the dead. Some gods had a specific visual appearance but generally, gods can change how they look depending on their purpose. For instance, the goddess Hathor could be represented by a lioness, cobra, cow or a woman with ears and the horns of a cow.
Gods were commonly given animal heads and human structures. Horus had the head of a falcon with a human body while Sekhment’s head was a lion. The goddess of birth and fertility, Heket, had the head of a frog whilst Ra’s head was also that of a falcon. Some deities, like Isis and Hathor, had the same heads, thus they were only differentiated through inscriptions.
How The Egyptian Gods Interacted With Their Subjects
As already mentioned, the Egyptian pantheon consisted of about 2,000 deities. The most popular ones were Osiris, Horus, Aten, Isis, Bastet, Anubis, Ra, Hathor, Amun, Set and Maat. Each of these gods had a way by which they interacted with humans. In Egyptian mythology, these gods appeared to their worshippers in human flesh.
The Relationship Between the Egyptian Deities and the Pharaohs
Ancient Egyptians regarded their Pharaohs as gods. Several existing tomb carvings depict the Pharaohs in the company of the gods. This is because, in the Egyptian creation myths, the gods handed creation to the Pharaohs to rule. The living Pharaoh had a special relationship with the god Horus, while the dead Pharaohs related to Ra and Osiris.
The wives and mothers of the current king were also related to goddesses. According to Egyptian myth, Hathor was the wife of Ra, therefore, the wives of the Pharaohs were equated to her. This also made Hathor the mother of the king. Female Pharaohs, however, did not relate with the male gods but symbolized a goddess like Hathor.
The Egyptians built temples for their Pharaohs and worshipped them there. According to Egyptologists, the Egyptians did not worship all the Pharaohs, in fact, the few Pharaohs that were worshipped happened long after their deaths. However, one role was evident; the Pharaoh was the link between the gods and the citizens.
The Role of the Pharaoh
The Pharaoh’s role was to build temples for the gods and to lead the people in worship. That was the king’s contribution to maintaining Maat. Without Maat, the gods of Egypt could not perform their duties well. The role of leading temple worship was later handed over to priests.
How the Egyptian Gods Interacted with the Rest of the Citizenry
The Egyptians believed their gods were always with them and occasionally interacted with them. To interact with humans, the gods inhabited the images and sculptures that represented them. Sometimes the gods made themselves visible to their subjects through dreams and trances. They passed on messages through these media to the Egyptians.
The Egyptians believed that after death, they would exist in the same sphere as their gods. This was because, according to their beliefs, the deceased passed on to the realm of the deities. In this divine realm, they could communicate with the gods and understand them.
Temples for Worship
The Egyptians built temples and filled them with the images of their gods. The temples had an inner sanctuary where the Egyptians placed their main god or object of worship. This deity was made of precious minerals, and the Egyptians could interact with their gods through prayer made in these temples.
Access to the sanctuaries was not open at all times. This is because the Egyptians wanted to protect the temples from outside impurities. Minor deities never received their own temples but were included in the sanctuaries of the major gods. Some Egyptians also built shrines at home through which they communicated with their gods.
So far, we’ve discovered the gods of Egypt, their roles and how they interacted with their subjects. Here’s a recap of what we’ve discussed:
- The gods were a major part of the lives of the Egyptians.
- They helped the Egyptians to explain events that they could not understand.
- The Egyptian pantheon had over 2,000 gods, and these gods had their own roles.
- In paintings and sculptures, the Egyptians symbolized their gods with heads of animals.
- Egyptian gods had several roles, but each role was essential in maintaining Maat.
- The Pharaohs were a link between the deities and the people.
- The gods of Egypt interacted with their subjects through dreams and trances.
- Temples had many gods, but the main deity of the people was in the inner sanctuary.
The gods of Egypt were involved in the lives of the citizenry, helped in maintaining harmony, and were also believed to be in control of the human lifespan, so the Egyptians offered prayers to these gods for longer life. However, the worship of these deities declined as different religious bodies started to invade Egypt.