A Brief Introduction to the Egyptian Gods
With their numbers reaching into the thousands, the Egyptian gods played a significant role in the lives of ancient Egyptians. The Pharaohs of Egypt were believed to serve as a link between humans and the gods and were said to become divine upon their death.
While there were many Egyptian gods, there are some whose legends have endured better than others, and this week Mythos takes a look at some of the more well-known gods of Ancient Egypt.
Aset is the Egyptian name of one of the most important goddesses in Ancient Egypt. She was so well known that her myth spread to Greece and Rome, and nowadays she is most popularly known by the Greek version of her name: Isis.
Aset was said to be the divine mother of the Pharaohs, legitimising their rule as the will of the gods. Her attributes revolved around healing and guiding the dead, which are both key themes in one of her most prominent myths.
When her husband (and brother) Osiris was murdered and dismembered, Aset transformed into a bird, searching across Egypt with her sister Nephthys to find her husband’s scattered pieces. Once recovered, Aset carefully sewed them together, embalming her husband’s body and turning him into the first mummy. Using magic, Aset was able to resurrect her husband, and their godly son Horus was conceived.
Originally the king of the Egyptian gods, Osiris ceded his title to his son upon his death, retreating to the world of the dead and becoming it’s ruler. Though Osiris had been temporarily resurrected by his wife, Aset, he could no longer remain in the world of the living. A fertility god, Osiris represented life after death, and the promise of being reborn in the afterlife. In particular, Osiris was associated with the fertility of the Nile and its ‘resurrection,’ with its annual flooding essential to Egypt’s agriculture.
Like his wife, Osiris was associated with Egypt’s Pharaohs, though he was more associated with those that had died and moved on to his kingdom.
Most famous for his murder of Osiris, Set was a trickster god associated with disorder, chaos, and war. The reason that Set decided to kill his brother is unknown, as different legends say different things. It may have been that Set was angry with Osiris for belittling and kicking him. It may have been that Set was jealous that Osiris had slept with Set’s own wife, Nephthys. Nephthys then betrayed Set further by helping their sister, Aset, resurrect Osiris. Other versions simply say that Set was jealous of Osiris’ position and wished to steal if for himself.
If it was the last one, Set certainly succeeded for some years before being ousted from the throne by his nephew Horus. While he may have been defeated by Horus, Set was not left entirely without a kingdom, and Egypt was said to have been divided between him and Horus. While Horus laid claim to the fertile lands of the Nile, Set claimed the desert.
The son of Osiris and Aset, Horus was a god of the sky – his right eye holding the sun and his left eye holding the moon. Much of his childhood was spent in hiding from Set – his uncle, and his father’s murderer. During one confrontation between the two, Horus’ left eye was damaged and had to be healed by Djehuty. This is thought to explain the waxing and waning of the moon.
There are many different variation on how precisely Horus challenged Set, but in one he took his claim of kingship to the other gods and requested that they oust his uncle from his stolen throne. The gods declared a competition between the two to decide on kingship and instructed the two to compete in a boat race with a twist. They would be racing in boats made of stone. Determined to win, Horus made his boat out of wood, and disguised it a rock. During the race his boat was fine, thought Set’s sank instantly.
Despite originally asking for a competition, this did not end up being how the gods decided on their next ruler. The gods instead requested Osiris make the final decision on whether Set or Horus should be ruler. Osiris declared that Horus was his rightful heir – Set had gained his position through murder and therefore had no right to the throne.
Named Toth by the Greeks, Djehuty was usually depicted with the head of an ibis bird or a baboon as both animals were sacred to him. He was a god of wisdom, and also associated with writing and learning. He was said to be the creator of language, and served as a representative of the sun god, Ra.
Djehuty was said to have been born without a mother, though his father changes. In some legends he was born from Ra’s lips, in others he was born from Set or Horus. In other legends however, he had no father either, and created himself at the beginning of time. After his birth, he then took the form of an ibis and laid an egg which held all of creation.
Ra, also called Re was the Egyptian god of the sun. Each day he would travel through the sky, and each night he would travel through the underworld. His ship would collect the souls of the dead, and he would transport them to Aaru, the Field of Reeds, a heavenly paradise that Osiris watched over.
In order to be reborn every morning he would need to defeat an evil serpent that stood in his way – Apopis. Other gods may accompany Ra to the underworld in order to help battle the serpent and, despite his quarrels with Horus and Osiris, Set often served as one of Ra’s fiercest and most powerful defenders.
Sekhmet is a daughter of Ra, and often conflated with another goddess, Bastet, as both are commonly represented with lion, or cat features. Sekhmet was a goddess of war and healing, as well as the patron of doctors and physicians.
Ra once sent Sekhmet to earth to punish humanity for their crimes. Sekhmet created carnage, not satisfied with just the humans who deserved punishment and continuing her rampage until the sands ran red with blood. Upon seeing the devastation, Ra felt for the humans, but Sekhmet would not be stopped. Ra dyed galleons of beer red and poured them across Sekhmet’s path. Believing it to be blood, Sekhmet drank, eventually growing drunk enough to fall into a deep sleep. When she woke, her rage had calmed.
A facet of the god Ra, Khepri was the god of the morning sun. He was usually represented as a man with the head of a scarab beetle. Amulets in the shape of scarab beetles were believed to invite the god’s protection, and were buried with the dead to ensure their rebirth into the next life. There have even been rare discoveries of mummified scarab beetles uncovered in tombs.
The association between the sun and scarab beetles comes from the way that the beetle would gather a ball of dung and roll it along – Khepri was thought to move the sun across the sky in a similar way.
Depicted with the head of a jackal and called Anubis by the Ancient Greeks, Anpu was a god of the dead. In particular, he was responsible for the care of the dead, and protected burial sites and graves. He association with jackals is thought to come from incidents of jackals and wild dogs digging up graves and desecrating corpses. The Egyptians invoked Anpu as a protector against these animals.
In early myths, Anpu is said to be the son of Ra, however later myths refer to him as the son of Osiris and Nephthys, and many of Anpu’s attributes were instead passed over to Osiris. Regardless, Anpu remained a very important deity. He is said to have invented the embalming process used for mummification – first used on Osiris. He was also said to weigh the hearts of the dead, determining who would enter the afterlife and who would be eaten by the crocodile-headed goddess Ammit.
With the head of a crocodile, the legs of a lion and the haunches of a hippopotamus, Ammit is sometimes considered one of the gods of Egyptian myth, and other times interpreted as a terrible demon. She was one the greatest fears of the Egyptian people as she stood between them and their rebirth in the afterlife.
When Egyptians died, they believed that their soul was judged. Their heart would be weighed against a feather. The feather was provided by Maat, goddess of truth and wisdom. If the heart weighed less than the feather, the soul could move on to the afterlife. If the heart was heavier, however, it would be devoured by Ammit, the unlucky individual destined to never find rest. This was seen as a second death.