In the second lecture of the Ancient Egyptian Religion course, Dr Ken Griffin led us into the complex pantheon of the Egyptian gods. The ancient Egyptian gods were neither omniscient nor omnipresent. They had specific roles and qualities and sometimes their powers were only regional. Ancient Egypt was an agricultural society heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile. The semi-divine pharaoh, as the chief priest of all religious cults, was responsible for the continued protection of the country. The correct worship of the gods ensured the prosperity and protection of the country (maat). Life was too precarious for the ancient Egyptians to put their eggs in one basket. The goddess Maat represented order while her opposite, Isfet (disorder), needed to be constantly challenged.
|Fig. 1: Copper alloy statue of Amun (AB106)|
There were roughly 1,500 gods in the Egyptian pantheon, but over 100,000 if one includes their epithets (Leitz et al 2002–2003). For example, the goddess Hathor might be called the Mistress of Turquoise, or the Golden One. Each epithet referred to a specific quality or area of protection. The sun-god Re was known by seventy-five different names. The Egyptians could join the qualities of two gods to increase their strength (syncretism), as in the case of Amun-Re or Amun-Min (fig. 1). They could also transform into different shapes. In the tale of the Destruction of Mankind, Hathor turned into the lion goddess Sekhmet. Contrary to popular misconceptions based on the zoomorphic (animal form) and therianthropic (mix of human and animal) depictions of the gods, the ancient Egyptians did not worship animals. Instead, they worshipped the animal-like qualities of the god. The goddess Hathor was the protector of women and children. She was often depicted as a woman with cow ears, sometimes with the head of a cow, and sometimes as a complete cow in order to represent the motherly qualities of a cow. The gods lived in the sky and their real forms were unknown. However, their presence could be felt. They resided in their statues and temples.
To make things more complicated, the gods were commonly incorporated into groups.
- Dyad (two)
- Triad (three), e.g., Amun, Mut, Khonsu
- Tetrad (four), e.g., the four sons of Horus
- Pentad (five)
- Hebdomad (seven), e.g., the seven Hathors
- Ogdoad (eight)
- Ennead (nine)
At his coronation, the pharaoh achieved semi-divine status. He became Horus and was imbued with the attributes of the god. He was the “Son of Re”, the “Good God”. He was depicted in temples and tombs the same size as the god, while the divine birth cycle identified him as the offspring of the gods. Two pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, had themselves depicted offering to their deified selves in some Nubian temples (fig. 2). Deified human beings also joined the ranks of the gods. Among them were Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu.
Other groups of deities included.
- Cavern deities
- Gate deities
- Judgement deities
- Hour deities
- Nome deities (one for each of Ancient Egypt's 42 nomes)
- Star deities
- The souls of Nekhen and Pe (perhaps representing the deceased ancestors of the king)
Ken then discussed some very well-known gods, many of whom were first attested in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom. I will attempt a short summary of some of them.
Osiris made his first appearance in the Fifth Dynasty. He was a fertility god, usually anthropomorphic in form, wrapped as a mummy, and holding a crook and flail. He was the husband of Isis and the father of Horus. Isis also made her first appearance in the Fifth Dynasty. Her epithets include “Great of Magic” and the “Eye of Re”. She is the mother of the king (Horus) and the mourner of her husband, Osiris. She can be depicted as a tree goddess (fig. 3), a kite, or a cobra. She was revered throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean. Horus was one of the earliest and most important gods in the pantheon. He was the falcon-headed god of the sky, usually depicted wearing the Double Crown. Horus had many forms, some of whom were discussed in the class. He was Harakhty (Horus of the two horizons), Horus-Behdety (the winged disc protecting temples), Horus the Elder (worshipped at Kom Ombo), Harsiese (Horus son of Isis), Harsomptus (Horus the uniter of the two lands), Horus the Red (Mars), and Horus Bull of the Heavens (Saturn).
|Fig. 3: Cartonnage fragment depicting a tree goddess (W490)|
Amun was first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts (Fifth Dynasty), but from the Eleventh Dynasty he became the main Theban god (fig. 4). These changes underline significant religious and political changes. He was commonly referred to as the King of the Gods. He formed part of the Theban Triad with his wife Mut and his son, the moon god, Khonsu. His wife Mut first occurs during the Middle Kingdom. A mother goddess, she could also be depicted with the head of a lioness. Her main temple was to the south of Karnak (Isheru). Their son Khonsu first appeared in the so-called Cannibal Hymn (Eyre 2002). He was usually depicted as anthropomorphic (complete human) figure wearing the side lock of youth and a headdress with a crescent moon. He could also be falcon headed.
|Fig. 4: Copper alloy statue of Osiris (W85)|
Ptah was a Memphite god who first appeared in the early First Dynasty. He was mainly depicted in human form, mummiform in appearance, and standing on a plinth (Maat). He had a straight beard, wore a skullcap and a heavy necklace with a counterpoise at the back. Ptah was associated with the Apis Bull and was the patron deity of craftsmen. Sekhmet, another Memphite deity, was the daughter of Re, the wife of Ptah, and the mother of Nefertum. She was a powerful goddess who appears mainly leonine in form. Sekhmet was the goddess of pestilence, who appears in the tale of the Destruction of Mankind. Nefertum is first attested in the Pyramid Texts. Depicted in human form as a child, he is commonly shown with a lotus blossom on top of his head or his head emerging from a lotus flower. He is the god of perfume (fig. 5).
|Fig. 5: Faience dyad statue of Sekhmet and Nefertum (W1163)|
Khnum, an early creator god, is said to have created human beings on the potter’s wheel. Often depicted as ram-headed, he wears the Atef-crown (fig. 6). His other cult centres were at Elephantine and Esna. Khnum was associated with Anuqet and Satet. Anuqet was another daughter of Re and first appears in the Old Kingdom. She controlled the cataracts. Satet first appeared during the Third Dynasty and she was identified as the Mistress of Elephantine. She was commonly represented mainly in human form wearing a white crown with antelope horns.
|Fig. 6: Amulet of Khnum|
Re was a creator god who is first attested during the Second Dynasty. He was the supreme solar deity of the Egyptian pantheon. As mentioned above, he has seventy-five different forms and was often fused with other gods to make them stronger. Many temples were consecrated to him, although his main cult centre was at Heliopolis. The Aten first occurs in the Middle Kingdom. As a deity, he was closely linked to the sun-god Re. He is symbolised by the sun disc. The Aten was the main deity during the short-lived Amarna Period. Since his name is commonly attested enclosed within two cartouches, some Egyptologists think he might have been the deceased Amenhotep III.
|Fig. 7: Figure of Bes (EC257)|
Hathor one of Egypt’s great goddesses, who is often identified as the daughter of Re. She had more temples than any other goddess. She was associated with motherhood, music, dance, etc. She could transform from the docile cow to the raging lioness Sekhmet. Atum was an ancient god, the self-created. As the father of Shu and Tefnut, he was the father of the gods. He was mainly depicted in human form and, sometimes, as an aged ram. His main cult centre was at Heliopolis. Bes first appears during the Old Kingdom (fig. 7). He was a very popular household god and the protector of pregnant women and children. He was also the god of partying. Bes was depicted as a male lion standing on his hind legs, with a long beard (mane), protruding tongue, and wearing a plumed headdress. Hapi is the personification of the Nile. He was a creator god who is almost always depicted in human form. He has a big belly, pendulous breasts, and wears either a papyrus or a lotus on his head. Hapi is often depicted carrying tribute to the pharaoh and the gods (fig. 8).
|Fig. 8: Relief depicting Hapi (W348)|
The gods of ancient Egypt had different forms and functions. Their powers were often limited, hence the merging of more than one god to create a stronger deity. They were born and could also die, but if you knew their names they could live again!
Eyre, Christopher 2002. The Cannibal Hymn: a cultural and literary study. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Leitz, Christian (ed.) 2002–2003. Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 8 vols. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 110–116; 129. Leuven: Peeters.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.