Ancient Egyptian Gods & Goddesses

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Egyptian cosmology was full of interrelated deities with a shared purpose of maintaining balance. In this lesson, we'll examine a few of the major figures and see what role they had in Egyptian life and religion.

Ancient Egyptian Religion

Quick- say the first word that comes to mind when you think of ancient Egypt. Now, I don't know you, but I'm guessing that the word you just blurted out in the classroom or coffee shop where you're reading this was something to do with pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, or the Nile. Why do I know this? Because for the roughly 3,000 years that Egyptian society dominated the ancient world, they put a lot of effort into maintaining things that were central to their religion. In fact, pretty much everything we commonly associate with the ancient Egyptians was connected to their religious practices, even the Nile. Actually, especially the Nile.

The central theme in Egyptian cosmology was the struggle between order and chaos. Religious practices maintained order and balance, while a failure to perform religious rituals and worship practices resulted in chaos being unleashed upon the world. Where does this focus come from? The Nile River was absolutely central to Egyptian life, and their very existence depended on the extremely consistent cycles of flooding that fertilized the soil. So, maintaining this consistency, this order, was critical. If chaos entered the world, the Nile would fail to flood, the sun would fail to rise, and Egyptian society would be destroyed. Luckily, the Egyptians weren't alone. To fight on their behalf were powerful gods and goddesses whose entire purpose was to keep chaos out of the land of the Nile.

Role of the Gods

In every cosmology, the deities have a specific purpose. For the Egyptians, it was to protect humanity from the forces of chaos and to maintain order and stability. This general concept of order encompassed not only the seasonal flooding of the Nile and the journey of the sun, but also the order and stability of human society. To them, all of these concepts were essentially one and the same. So, the gods and goddesses were extremely important. Now, in order to protect humans, these deities did require offerings and worship. They had to be clothed, fed, attended to and actively worshipped both in their temples and through elaborate processionals. In one sense, this made the gods very much a part of society, but it's important to remember that they were not simple humanoid figures with superpowers. The gods were essentially embodiments of ideas, which meant they could change form, conjoin together or even split themselves apart into several independent pieces.

The King of the Gods

So, let's get to know a few of the Egyptian deities. At the top of the pantheon, the king of the gods, was Amun, a powerful force generally associated with the wind. For much of Egyptian history, Amun was seen as the most powerful god, but over time, his role changed slightly. Around 1500 BCE, Egyptian pharaohs managed to defeat an invading people, called the Hyksos, who had been ruling Egypt for about a century. As they reunited Egypt under Egyptian rule, Amun (who was traditionally most worshipped in the Upper Egyptian capital of Thebes) was melded with the Lower Egyptian sun god Ra. The merger created the god Amun-Ra, who was both Amun and Ra simultaneously, and who became the national deity of all the ancient Egyptian people. But, his role wasn't secured just yet. For a brief time under the pharaoh Akhenaten, Amun-Ra was demoted and the sun god and disc form of Ra, Aten, was worshipped as the chief deity. This didn't last and, after the pharaoh's death, Amun-Ra regained his dominance over Egyptian society.

Amun-Ra was generally shown with a crown representing two ram horns

The Pharaoh and the Gods

One of the notable attributes of the Egyptian religion was the fact that the pharaohs themselves were actually part of the pantheon. This stemmed from the belief that they were incarnations of the god Horus, the falcon god. According to Egyptian traditions, the first king was actually the god Osiris, who was killed and then avenged by his son Horus who ruled after him. In one of the many systems of perpetual cycles that embodied the balance of the world, each pharaoh was seen as an incarnation of Horus during his life, but then became an incarnation of Osiris in death. This meant, however, that the body of the pharaoh was sacred, which is why his mummification rituals were the most elaborate. After death, the pharaoh received temples for the worship of him as a deity who could protect the people from chaos.

Horus was closely associated with the pharaohs

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