Rather than just give you some boring list of the gods and their attributes, I find it much more engaging to pass along some of the stories of how the gods were perceived, and their purported actions. Over this chapter and, to a certain extent, the rest of the book, we will be taking a look at particular myths and how they may have impacted the lives of the ancient Egyptians. While much still has yet to be learned about the gods and goddesses of the ancient Egyptian religion, there is still much that we can glean, even from those we know less about than others.
Some of the gods have already been mentioned in detail, but are of such importance that they bear further investigation, but I will also endeavor to give as full a view as possible of the other gods (as space allows) their actions, and the myriad myths surrounding them. In a book like this, one can take any number of approaches, but I’ve found that what really sticks is the story.
One thing that is important to note is that in the Egyptian pantheon, gods oftentimes merged with one another as, to the Egyptians, there wasn’t only one plane of reality or existence. These conjoined gods were often used in order to depict a specific principle that the two individually shared, and thus, by their combination, the association would become even stronger. A quick example of this is Amun-Ra, a combination of Amun and Ra. Therefore, at times, you will see one or more god’s name in the same word, signifying this sort of union. Sometimes the myths overlap and seem to be quite contradictory to one another, but to the ancient Egyptian, these were all simply the complex dealings and natures of the gods themselves.
It is again important to note that at different times and different locales, different mythos surrounded the gods, nature and the Egyptian belief; therefore, I will simply be passing along some of the more popular myths. Let’s begin with Hathor.
Hathor, in the earliest times of the Egyptian pantheon, was actually said to be the mother of Horus. This station would, of course, be taken by Isis for the longer period of the Egyptian religion, but Hathor was still of great importance to the Egyptians.
Hathor was the goddess of love and happiness, music and dance, and she was also the protector of women. Hathor is depicted as having the head of a horned cow, and was both wife and mother to the god Ra (also sometimes, his daughter.) It was believed that every morning, she birthed Ra, thus allowing the sun to rise; in this case, she would be the obvious mother. During the day, the two would copulate, and this is how she would become impregnated for the following day.
With the founding of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1560 B.C.) it was said that it was Hathor who made the victory of Mentuhotep II, then pharaoh of Upper Egypt, possible. This victory would unite Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time since the First Intermediate Period.
The way this was believed to have happened was that Ra, the sun-god and her consort (also in this case, represented by Mentuhotep II, or the pharaoh of Upper Egypt in general) informed Hathor that the people of Lower Egypt were planning to kill him. Hathor went into a rage and transformed herself into the goddess of war of upper Egypt, Sekhmet.
Historically, the war lasted nearly thirty years, but in this particular myth, it was Hathor in the personage of Sekhmet who laid the bloody destruction upon Lower Egypt. She had become literally bloodthirsty. When Ra beheld the extent of the carnage and the extent to which Hathor had lost control, he collected a large amount of the blood that she had spilled and mixed it with beer (yes, Egyptians loved their beer,) this he laid before her. Thinking the dark-red fluid was blood and only blood, Hathor/Sekhmet gorged herself upon it. She imbibed so much of the alcohol that she began to lose steam. Eventually, she became so drunk that she lost her bloodlust and was thus returned to her original form, thus ending the war and, somewhat unwittingly reunifying Upper and Lower Egypt under the rule of one pharaoh.
Next, we will take a look at Tahuti, also called Thoth. As god of wisdom and magick, he was often called upon to be an intermediary between the forces of good and evil. He was a scribe and was, in fact, said to have given hieroglyphics to the Egyptians. This Ibis-headed god was originally associated with the moon but, like most of the other gods in the Egyptian pantheon; he would gain a number of other associations such as those mentioned above.
Thoth is of the utmost importance throughout the mythology of Egypt as he was often the only one left who kept the balance between the forces of order and chaos. He was the husband of Ma’at, and the two stood on either side of the boat of Ra, which carried the sun through its course. He was self-begotten and, the Egyptians believed, not only extrapolated the necessities regarding the construction of all heavenly bodies and, indeed, all of existence, he also directed their motion.
In battles between gods, such as that of Ra and Apep, he would ensure that the natural order of things was maintained and that balance was kept. If one foe gained the upper hand by injuring his opponent, Thoth would heal him, so that things would remain in their balance, although the sun-god was always allowed to complete his travels.
The concept of Thoth in regard to the Egyptian mind and, indeed, that of the modern world is that of the necessity of good and evil, as one could not exist without the other. Thoth can be seen as the ultimate intellect; the one that not only understands all things, whether apparent or hidden, but actually causes change within them. For this reason, he is still studied and conceptually admired by many modern-day philosophers and others who seek to create change in their environment in accordance with their design. As the god of magic (sometimes spelled magick,) his name adorns books and tarot cards relating to some of the hidden knowledge with which it is believed he is associated.
And what book on ancient Egyptian mythology would be complete without a closer look at the god Ra. In earlier chapters, we’ve discussed Ra at the birth of the universe and his role in some traditions as its progenitor, but the daily travels of the sun-god are of particular importance here, as they were to the ancient Egyptians themselves; that being so, I’ll take you on a journey of one day and night with Ra.
The morning begins with Ra being birthed from Nut, the sky goddess and swallowing up all of the stars (and in some traditions, all of the gods) as he does. In this earliest stage, he is often represented by the scarab Khephra, a symbol of rebirth to the Egyptians. In this stage, he is often called Ra-Horakhty, a union of the gods Ra and Horus. With the beginning of his travels, the world becomes revitalized and life again rises on the face of the earth. He begins to make his way through the sky, becoming stronger as he approaches the midpoint of the sun (noon,) but along the way, he is often beset by many challenges. One of the harshest trials that Ra endures as he makes his way through the sky is undergoing assault by Apep, the god of disorder and destruction. As he is beset by his daily foe, he is aided in his battles by those who travel with him (usually Thoth and Ma’at,) and he overcomes the chaos and is able to continue his journey.
By midday, he has reached the height of his power and strength. For a moment, he is the perfect idea of the virile god, whose creative force and life-giving energy refreshes and revitalizes the world, but from this point on, he begins to age. As he continues his travels, he grows older and older until, at sunset, he becomes the god Atum, the oldest god and their creator. When this happens, he enters into the mouth of Nut and spits out all of the stars (and gods,) but his journey is hardly over.
As he travels through the body of Nut, he is also travelling through the duat, the Egyptian underworld. As he comes across the souls of the dead, those whose hearts were devoured are burned in pits of fire and tormented; while those who passed the test of Ma’at are invigorated and renewed. As he reaches the midpoint of his passage through the body of Nut (midnight) he comes upon Osiris, the god of the dead. The two join, forming the constancy (Osiris) and progression (Ra) of time, life and, indeed, all things. As you may remember, Osiris is known for his ability to resurrect and rejuvenate and thus, upon their meeting, Ra becomes invigorated again, and is able to resume his journey.
He moves onward and through the remainder of the body of Nut, finally being reborn through her, and a new day rises as he again swallows the stars.
This conception of the travels of Ra informs us greatly on the Egyptian’s ideas concerning astronomical events, specifically solar motion and where the stars come from at night and where they go during the day. Without the travels of Ra, life would not be able to exist. Thus, as a solar god, Ra is another example of a deity who “dies” and is “reborn” in order to bring life to the world. This can be seen in many different traditions, including Greek and Roman mythologies.
The pantheon certainly doesn’t end with our next goddess, but it wouldn’t be complete without Nephthys. We’ve discussed the role of Nephthys as the consort of Set and the sister of Isis who helped with the finding of Osiris’s remains, however, there is more to this goddess than just those simple attributions.
Nephthys was the goddess of death and lamentation, but also, at times, seen as a celebratory figure. In the Egyptian conception of death, the deceased would be granted the strength to proceed through their trials through the combined influence of Isis and Nephthys. She was a protector of the dead and often described as “the nursing mother.” In many myths, she takes a particularly intimate role in the rearing of the young Horus before he grew to adulthood and his seat of power.
Nephthys could usually be seen (generally along with her sister, Isis) in Egyptian depictions of death-scenes, or representations of the underworld. She may have been a figure of death to the Egyptians, but she was generally revered among them.
It’s difficult to know where to begin or end a chapter on the specific gods and goddesses of Egypt. For instance, in the mythology, without the god Khnemu, a drought of seven years wouldn’t have been ended. Without Heh, there would be no infinity. Without Amun-Ra, the Theban patron god (Amun) may never have nearly taken over the entire pantheon of the Egyptian belief system. Okay, Amun had a little help from the pharaohs, but the fact remains that it is impossible to overstate the importance to each of the gods and goddesses, however minor they may appear throughout the entirety of the Egyptian system.
Not only were there so many individual gods, there were so many combinations thereof that had importance to the Egyptians that only delving deeper into a few is–while necessary–unfortunate. Different gods would rise and fall in power and influence as the power and the influence of their patron cities rose and fell.
There are countless numbers of primary sources in the forms of scrolls, etchings, statuary and burial items from which we gain more information about the gods and their duties and attributions; in many cases, these differ from one another, sometimes vastly. I encourage you to delve deeper into these, should you have the time and interest, and see the treasures which can be found within.