This week the Em Hotep Digest will look at ancient Egyptian mythology. We will be turning to three of the standards of the field: Richard Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt; Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin’s Ancient Egypt; and Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson’s Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. As usual, there will be plenty of unique photography from the Em Hotep BBS group on Facebook, so sit back and enjoy!
Contributors: Claudia Ali, Géraldine Ashby, Gwyn Ashworth-Pratt, Yvonne Buskens, Ia Georgia, Anki Hagberg, Gemma Isis Johnson, Heidi Kontkanen, Mark Lauria, Manuela Le Chler, Vicky Metafora, Richie O’Neill, Jean Smith, François Tonic, and all of the many kind people who participated in the various conversations and discussions. Special thanks to The Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities/ La Société pour l’Étude de l’Égypte for providing some valuable links. Very special thanks are also due to Jon Bodsworth for providing his amazing photography for public use, and to Jeff Dahl, whose colorful vector images of Egyptian gods and goddess adorn this article, which are likewise available to the public for our use and enjoyment.
A Note Regarding Copyright
This article quotes a great deal from three books—Richard Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt; Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin’s Ancient Egypt; and Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson’s Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. In order to stay within the bounds of the Fair Use doctrine of copyright law I have stuck to the following standards.
First, with a very few exceptions I do not quote the entire section of any particular book on any single entry, but instead use sections from each book to compliment the overall entry. Where I have quoted an entire section it was only because the section from the book is only a paragraph or two. I have taken this measure to be sure that this article does not compete with the writers’ ability to sell their books. In other words, this article does not quote enough for any given book to invalidate anyone’s desire to purchase said book, to the contrary, this article should stimulate your desire to go out and purchase these works for yourself.
Second, and related to the first, I actually take great measures to promote the works created herein in hopes that you will go and purchase the books. To facilitate this, each quote has a link where you can learn more about the book and even purchase it should you so desire. For ease and universality, I am linking to the Amazon entries for these books. I receive no commission or other compensation from the writers, publishers, or Amazon for doing this, it is simply my way of showing appreciation for the works and justifying my quoting them here.
Normally I do not go through this length to explain how I am adhering to the Fair Use doctrine, but I feel this is a special case as there is a great deal of quoted material here. Em Hotep is not a for-profit venture, nobody is making money from this article except, hopefully, the writers quoted herein, and these quotes are for the sole purpose of educating and generating discussion of the topics and the works themselves. If you hold the copyright to any of the quoted material here and feel that I have overstepped my bounds, please contact me via email at email@example.com and I will take whatever actions are necessary to satisfy your concerns. But it is hoped that you will also find this article of value as free advertising for your wonderful book(s).
“One of the things that makes a discussion of Egyptian religion so confusing is not so much the number of gods, but the fact that they refuse to stay in the neat little slots we construct for them.” So says Barbara Mertz in her wonderfully readable “Red Land, Black Land,” a book about everyday life in ancient Egypt which should be on your shelves. But it raises a good question: how do we go about organizing the Egyptian pantheon for this week’s digest?
In his equally readable (and also worthy of space on your bookshelves), “The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt,” Richard Wilkinson goes into detail regarding the difficulties of classifying the gods of ancient Egypt. He observes, for example, that the most obvious method—alphabetical order—falls short in two major ways. First, it is hampered by the fact that the names of Egyptian deities can be spelled differently from source to source, making looking them up a real pain. Second, it ignores that some deities by their nature should be grouped together, such as the familial triads of father-mother-child, and creates a false isolation.
Wilkinson also observes that attempts to group deities together according to their natures—creators, cosmic, underworld, etc.—can be hampered by the fluidity of Egyptian religion. Amun, for example, was one of a group of creator gods at Hermopolis Magna, but by the New Kingdom had risen to the status of Father of the Gods and nationalistic deity par excellence. Mertz also raises the point of syncretism, where one deity assumes the name and attributes of one or more other gods. Again to summon Amun for example, that god becomes Amun-Re to absorb the role of the ancient sun god of Heliopolis.
Wilkinson himself mounts this problem by grouping deities according to their appearance—male and female anthropomorphic deities, mammalian deities, avian deities, and so forth. But even this has its problems, as some deities have multiple guises, such as Amun who could be a human male or a ram. In this case Wilkinson goes with the oldest or most frequent form, but the point persists—there is no real single satisfactory way of organizing the Egyptian pantheon, it resists such attempts by its very nature.
For our digest we need not be exhaustive, we will be pointing you in the direction of some wonderful books and websites which take up that task. But we do want to talk about the main deities you will encounter in your readings. To do this we will be casting a series of nets in hopes of scooping up as many gods as possible with each one. We will begin with the rather large net of the Heliopolis Creation Cycle, which accounts for many of the names with which you will be familiar. From there we will look at some of the smaller creation myths, which are usually simple triads. But even then we will not have caught all the gods we wish to visit, so we will look at some of the gods independently, although all Egyptian gods should be considered in terms of their relations to people, places, and other gods.
In this manner we will not necessarily create a neat and reliable system of pigeon holes, but we should be able to address the main deities of the Egyptian pantheon in a mostly organized manner hopefully without trying to enforce a system the gods themselves will resent. It is also important to keep in mind that although some gods are said to be “begotten” of others, their veneration may in fact predate the deities said to have spawned them. In other words, the familial relationships may have been a later imposition on particular deities, and they are organized here according to familial relations for purposes of simplicity, not necessarily in chronological order. Each god must be considered both individually and in its relation to other gods, which may sometimes conflict. Such is the nature of Egyptian mythology.
For each god we will have a selection of paragraphs from two or three of the following books, which you may already have on your shelves: The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson; Ancient Egypt by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin; and The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (these links are provide for your convenience, I am not compensated in any way by the writers, publishers, or Amazon).
While there are certainly books on Egyptian mythology that are more detailed and technical, we have chosen these three because of their both their readability and availability to the average visitor to Em Hotep. We endeavor to appeal to the curious layperson and the budding scholar, and in that tradition these three books are worthy of your ownership without veering too much into graduate-level terminology and theory. To get us started, I have begun with our entry on the god Re to familiarize you with the format to which we will be adhering.
Wilkinson: “The sun-god Re was arguably Egypt’s most important deity. Though possibly not as old as the falcon god Horus, Re was an ancient deity who coalesced with many other solar and cosmic gods through time while retaining his own position. At an early date he seems to have merged with the falcon god becoming Re-Horakhty as the morning sun, and with Atum as the evening sun. In the Book of the Dead we actually find Re fused with these and other deities as Re-Horakhty-Atum-Horus-Khepri. Even when the god Amun rose to national supremacy in the Middle and New Kingdoms, Re was not suppressed and the two deities were brought together as Amun-Re in a process of syncretism which led to the association of most of Egypt’s major gods with the powerful solar deity. Re was a universal deity who acted within the heavens, earth, and the underworld. In addition, the god was a prime element in most Egyptian creation myths and also acted as divine father and protector of the king” (pp. 205-6).
Oakes and Gahlin: “With good reason, the ancient Egyptians considered the sun to be a potent life force; together with the annual inundation of the Nile, it was responsible for their successful harvests. Re was the pre-eminent solar deity.
“His cult center was Heliopolis (called Iunu by the ancient Egyptians and now a suburb of Modern Cairo) where an extremely powerful priesthood officiated. From the Fourth Dynasty reign of Djedefre onwards, one of the king’s five names was introduced with the epithet ‘Son of Re’, emphasizing the association of the king with the god. The focal point of Re’s cult was the obelisk, or benben stone (deriving from the verb weben, ‘to shine forth’).
“In the myth of the Destruction of Humankind, Re is described as having the bones, flesh and hair of an old man, but his divinity was evident because they are of silver, gold, and lapis lazuli. This description may be that of a cult statue, such as would be found in the naos or shrine of each temple, housing the very essence or potency of the deity in question. The myth also states that he was self-created, coning into being in Nun, the primordial waters” (p. 293).
Shaw and Nicholson: “The sun-god was usually represented as a hawk-headed human figure wearing a sun disk headdress, but in the underworld, through which he sailed in the solar barque, he was portrayed as ram-headed. Re exerted such a strong influence on the rest of the Egyptian pantheon that virtually all of the most significant deities were eventually subsumed into the universalist sun-cult by a process of syncretism; thus, Amun became Amun-Re, Montu became Montu-Re, and Horus became Re-Horakhty. In his manifestation as creator god, the sun-god himself took the name of Atum-Re, combining with another Heliopolitan sun-god, Atum, whose name means ‘perfection’ (p. 239).
The Ennead (and Extended Family) of Heliopolis
From Ancient Egypt by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin
“Before anything else existed or creation had taken place, there was darkness and endless, lifeless water, divinely personified as Nun. A mound of fertile silt emerged from this watery chaos. The self-engendered solar-creator god Atum (‘the All’ or ‘the Complete One’) appeared upon the mound. By masturbating (or sneezing, according to other versions of the myth) he was able to spit out the deities Shu (the divine personification of air) and Tefnut (moisture). Now that a male and female pair existed, they were able to procreate more conventionally. The results of their sexual union were Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky). These two were forcibly separated by their father Shu, who lifted Nut up to her place above the earth.
“The so-called Ennead (Greek for group of nine; in Egyptian pesedjet) of Heliopolis includes these deities: Atum (‘the Bull of the Ennead’), Shu, Tefnut, Geb and Nut are completed by the offspring of the later two gods—Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys” (p. 301).
Nun Which Was Before All Else
Wilkinson: “Nun personified the primeval waters which existed at the time of creation and from which the creator sun god arose. He was thus called the ‘father’ of the gods, but this was mainly a temporal distinction as he bore no genealogical relationship to them. Kike the other members of the Ogdoad [Naunet, Heh, Hauet, Kek, Kauket, Amun and Amaunet] he was essentially an element of the unformed cosmos and thus persisted as a feature of Egyptian religion but without any developed mythology. Nun, however, was considered to continue to exist outside the bounds of the created universe even after the world ceased to be. In this sense Nun was the hidden abyss and is referred to in this manner throughout the Pyramid Texts and in later literature more as a location than as a deity” (p. 117).
Oakes and Gahlin: “Nun was the divine personification of the primordial waters of chaos, which preceded creation. He was described as the ‘eldest father’ and ‘maker of humankind’. After creation had taken place, chaos was believed to continue to exist beyond the edges of the universe, and in the netherworld, and was the place of social outcasts and demons…Nun could be represented as a baboon, or with a frog’s head, or in an entirely human form, with a beard” (p. 290).
Shaw and Nicholson: “God who personified the original formless ocean of chaos from which the primeval mound of the sun-god Atum arose. The mass of negative forces represented by Nun was considered to have continued to exist at the edges of the universe, even after the first act of creation had taken place. Nun was therefore the dwelling place of all that lay outside the bounds of the universe, such as stillborn babies or condemned souls” (pp. 206-7).
Atum Whose Mound Arose from Nun
Wilkinson: “Atum was the great primeval deity of Heliopolis. His cult was a very ancient one and by the Old Kingdom he had arisen to a very high level of importance in Heliopolitan theology. Atum is one of the eight or nine most frequently mentioned gods in the Pyramid Texts and thus we have a good deal of early information regarding the god’s mythological roles and characteristics. His most essential nature is that of the ‘self-engendered one’ who arose at the beginning of time and who created the first gods through his semen—or, according to another story, through his saliva. Atum had many other facets, however. The word tem on which the name of the god is founded means ‘complete’ or ‘finish’ in both constructive and destructive senses, and this range of meanings fits well with a number of aspects of the god’s nature” (pp. 98-9).
Oakes and Gahlin: “Atum (‘the All’) was the self-engendered creator god who arose from the primordial waters of chaos, Nun, in order to form the primeval mound and to bring the elements of the cosmos into being. As the head of the so-called Ennead (or nine gods), he held the title ‘Lord to the Limits of the Sky’. His cult center was at Heliopolis, and he was regarded very much as a solar deity (at some stage he was syncretized with the preeminent sun god, Re, in order to form the combined deity Re-Atum).
“Atum was very much associated with kingship, and was believed to lift the dead king from his pyramid to the stars. Later, as a result of the gradual democratization of funerary religion, he came to be regarded as the protector not only of the dead king but of all dead people on their way into the afterlife” (p. 282).
Shaw and Nicholson: “He is usually depicted as an anthropomorphic deity often wearing the double crown. The animals particularly sacred to him were the lion, the bull, the ichneumon and the lizard, while he was also believed to be manifested in the scarab, which emerged from its ball of dung just as Atum appeared from the primeval mound. Sometimes he was portrayed in the essentially primordial form of a snake, which was the appearance he was expected to adopt when the cosmos finally collapsed, returning everything to its original primeval state” (pp. 45-6).
Shu and Tefnut, Begotten of Atum
Wilkinson: “Shu, whose name may mean ‘emptiness’ or ‘he who rises up’, was the god of the air and also of sunlight. In the Ennead of primary deities organized by the priests of Heliopolis, he was created by the demiurge Atum, either from his semen or mucus. Shu was the husband of Tefnut, the goddess usually said to represent moisture, and the pair in turn produced Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. According to Egyptian myth, She separated these two after Nut swallowed the constellations, and Geb became angry with her for ‘eating’ their children. Shu is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts where the deceased king is purified in the ‘lakes of Shu’ which may represent mists and is said to climb up to heaven on the ‘bones of Shu’ which are probably clouds. The god was also associated with light—perhaps perceived as an aspect of the air—from Old Kingdom times and even the arch iconoclast Akhenaten honored the god who was said to dwell in the sun’s disk. For reasons which remain unclear Shu was associated with the lunar deities Thoth and Khonsu, perhaps in terms of the light of the lunar disk, or because Tefnut was often associated with the moon” (p. 129).
Shaw and Nicholson: “He was not a solar deity (indeed he was often linked with the lunar deities Khonsu and Thoth), but his role in providing sunlight led to an obvious connection with the sun-god Re, and it was believed that he brought the sun to life each morning. Similarly, in the underworld, it was thought that he protected the sun from the snake god Apophis, although at the same time he was portrayed at the head of a group of torturers threatening the deceased” (p. 270).
Oakes and Gahlin: “He was represented in human for with a feather on his head, and was often depicted standing between his offspring, Geb and Nut, supporting the latter. He could also be visualized with the head of a lion, and it was in this guise that he was referred to as an ‘Eye of Re’, and was worshipped at Leontopolis in the Delta” (p. 295).
Wilkinson: “According to Heliopolitan theology, Tefnut was the daughter of Atum and the sister-wide of Shu, but she is a somewhat enigmatic deity. Her role in the cosmic scheme is usually said to be that of goddess of moisture and Tefnut certainly is associated with moisture in certain ways—she created ‘pure water’ for the deceased king from her vagina, for example (PT 2065), but her central identity may lie elsewhere. The goddess’ name has no certain etymology, though it has been suggested to be an onomatopoeic representation of the sound of spitting as this is myth logically one of the ways in which the divine pair Shu and Tefnut were said to be created by Atum, and her name was represented by a pair of lips, spitting, in late texts. But the earliest evidence for Tefnut’s original nature is found in the Pyramid Texts where James Allen has shown that it is perhaps possible that she represents the atmosphere of the lower world just as Shu represents the atmosphere of the upper—as it is said that ‘the earth (Geb) is held up under Nut (the sky) by your arms, Tefnut’ (PT 1405)” (p. 183).
Oakes and Gahlin: “As one of the cosmic deities of the Ennead, Tefnut was the divine personification of moisture. To tie in with the imagery of symmetrical pairs, when her brother-consort Shu was associated with sunlight, Tefnut was associated with the moon.
“Like Shu, Tefnut could be regarded as an ‘Eye of Re’, and as such was represented with a lioness head (and was worshipped at Leontopolis). She also appeared in the form of a rearing cobra, in which case she was identified with the uraeus on the front of the royal headdress. When depicted in human form, she wore a sun disk encircled by a cobra on her head” (p. 296).
Shaw and Nicholson: “In the same way that the myths and attributes of Atum gradually merged with those of Re, so Tefnut and Shu became ‘Eyes of Re’…Tefnut was also identified with the uraeus, thus establishing an association with the kingship, and it was in this connection that she appeared in the Pyramid Texts in the form of a serpent rearing from a scepter” (p. 284).
From Shu and Tefnut came Geb and Nut
Wilkinson: “A third-generation deity, the son of Shu and Tefnut, Geb was the god who personified the earth and was one of the most important of Egypt’s primeval gods. His stature since early times is seen in the fact that he is one of the most frequently mentioned deities found in the Pyramid Texts, where he is often juxtaposed with Re or other gods who were of great importance in Egyptian afterlife beliefs. The god’s power was sometimes inimical. Earthquakes came of his laughter and he could withhold his blessings in dry times or in barren areas. More importantly, as the god of the earth par excellence, Geb could also represent the grave and it is stated in the Pyramid Texts, for example, that the deceased king ‘will not enter into Geb’ or ‘sleep within his house’ (PT 308). As god of the earth, grain was said to sprout from his ribs and vegetation from his back. He was also the source of fresh waters and ultimately all that the earth produced so that Geb was directly associated with the fertility of both the earth and livestock; and Hapy, bountiful god of the Nile inundation, was said to be the ‘friend of Geb’” (p. 105).
Oakes and Gahlin: “As the divine personification of the earth, Geb was a god of fertility. For this reason he was sometimes colored green and was visualized with plants growing out of him. He was often depicted reclining beneath the arched body of his sister-consort, the sky goddess Nut. In the Creation Myth of Heliopolis, Geb and Nut were the two children of Shu and Tefnut. They were lovers, but were forcibly separated by their father Shu, the god of air” (p. 283).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Geb is usually depicted as reclining on his side with one arm bent…He was also sometimes shown with the white-fronted goose, his emblem, on his head, although in other instances he wore the Lower Egyptian crown. Isis, as his daughter, might be described as the ‘egg of the goose’. In funerary contexts he was a malevolent force, imprisoning the buried dead with his body, and it was in this context that he was often mentioned in the Pyramid Texts” (p. 109).
Wilkinson: “The goddess Nut was primarily the personification of the vault of the heavens, though her character included many different aspects within this role. As a member of the great Ennead of Heliopolis she was the daughter of Shu and Tefnut…and she herself represented the firmament which separated the earth from the encircling waters of chaos out of which the world had been created. Nut thus fulfilled an important cosmogonic role—she was not only the great sky whose ‘laughter’ was the thunder, and whose ‘tears’ were the rain, but she was also the ‘mother’ of the heavenly bodies who were believed to enter her mouth and emerge again from her womb each day. The sun was thus said to travel through the body of the goddess during the night hours and the stars traveled through her body during the day. This cosmic imagery was the basis of the assertion that the goddess was ‘the female pig who eats her piglets’. Nut was nevertheless viewed in a positive manner, and the myth of the birth of her children was recorded by Plutarch who states that, fearing the usurpation of his own position, the sun god placed a curse on the sky goddess stopper her giving birth on any day of the 360-day year. The god Hermes (Thoth) came to Nut’s aid, however, and won five extra days for the year enabling the goddess to bear her children” (pp. 160-1).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The darkness at night was explained by the belief that Nut swallowed the sun [Re] in the evening and gave birth to it at dawn, so it spent the night hours traveling through her body. This image was often depicted on the ceilings of tombs and on the undersides of sarcophagus lids, expressing the belief that Nut divinely personified the coffin and burial chamber. Because the sun was said to be born from her each morning, the deceased might be reborn from her into the Afterlife” (p. 291).
Shaw and Nicholson: “As the renewer of the sun each day, she was clearly regarded as a suitable funerary deity, and several of the utterances in the Pyramid Texts speak of her ‘enfolding the body of the king’. Another utterance asks: ‘O my mother, Nut, spread yourself over me, so that I may be placed among the imperishable stars and never die’, and a version of this prayer was inscribed on one of the golden shrines of Tutankhamun. Such imagery gave rise to her identification with the lid of the coffin, and texts during the Old Kingdom refer to the chest of the sarcophagus as mwt (‘mother’). From the New Kingdom onwards, she was regularly depicted on the underside of the lid of many coffins and sarcophagi, arching her body over that of the deceased. The deceased person was thus both back inside the body of the mother, ready for rebirth, and re-enacting the journey of the sun-god between heaven and earth” (pp. 207-8).
Geb and Nut Begat Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys
Oakes and Gahlin: “God of the dead and the afterlife (as well as of rebirth and fertility), Osiris was represented in a mummified anthropomorphic form, often holding a crook and flail, and with the atef-crown (described as ‘sky piercing’) on his head. His skin could be green or black (signifying fertility or the thick black Nile silt), or white (the color of the linen mummy bandages). One of his emblems was the djed-pillar, a symbol of stability, which was equated with his backbone and was particularly revered at his cult center of Busiris (ancient Djedu) in the Delta.
“The chief cult center of Osiris was his legendary burial place (and consequently an important pilgrims’ destination) Abydos (ancient Abdjw), where he was worshipped together with his sister-consort Isis and their son Horus, and where an annual festival was held in his honor…The deceased king was identified with Osiris from at least the Fifth Dynasty. By about 2000 BC a democratization of funerary religion had begun to take place, and dead people other than the king were identified with Osiris” (pp. 291-2)
Wilkinson: It seems likely that Osiris was originally a fertility god with chthonic connotations based in his identification with the earth, and that he was also associated at some point with the Nile’s inundation, perhaps through its resultant alluvium and fertility. Yet the direct association of Osiris with agriculture seems to have occurred later. As time progressed and the cult of Osiris spread throughout Egypt, the god assimilated many other deities and rapidly took on their attributes and characteristics. It seems probable, for example, that the god took over the story of an earthly ruler who was resurrected after his death from the ancient god Andjety of Busiris whose insignia were also the same as those used by Osiris. Many of the epithets accorded Osiris may also be seen to have been taken over from other deities. From the ancient jackal god Khenty-imentiu of Abydos Osiris took the title of ‘foremost of the westerners’, and from Anubis he took the title ‘he who is the god’s tent’, relating to the temporary booth of embalming, etc. Many of the titles and epithets applied to him also reflect the god’s nature as a funerary deity, which if not original to Osiris certainly became central to his identity” (pp. 118-9).
Shaw and Nicholson: “As early as the Old Kingdom, many of the main elements of the Osiris myth were in existence, including his death by drowning, and the discovery of his body by Isis. That Seth was his murderer was explicit by the Middle Kingdom, although there is no mention that Osiris was dismembered by him. By the New Kingdom, however, many of the funerary texts connected the deceased much more closely with Osiris, and the descriptions of the fate of the deceased effectively illustrate parts of the story of Osiris. The themes of Osiris’ impregnation of Isis and the conception of his son Horus (‘avenger of his father’) had already developed in Pharaonic times and certain aspects of the myths were illustrated on the walls of the chapel of Sokar in the temple of Sety I at Abydos” (p. 214).
Wilkinson: “The origins of Isis, who in the later periods of history was to become Egypt’s most important goddess, are shrouded in obscurity. Unlike the situation with so many deities, no town in Egypt claimed to be her place of origin or the location of her burial and there are actually no certain attestations of her before the Fifth Dynasty. Yet she is clearly of great importance in the Pyramid Texts where she appears over 80 times assisting the deceased king. In the funerary texts of the later periods her protective and sustaining roles were extended to nobles and commoners and her power and appeal grew to the point that she literally eclipsed Osiris himself and was venerated by virtually every Egyptian. As time passed and her importance grew, Isis merged with many other goddesses including Astarte, Bastet, Nut, Renenutet, and Sothis, but her most important native syncretism was with Hathor from whom she took many of her iconographic attributes and mythological characteristics. Compared with some of Egypt’s early cosmic goddesses, the mythological roles played by Isis are relatively restricted, yet they are immensely important roles which together personified her as a goddess of great power whose relationship with her followers was a personal one extending from this life into the afterlife itself.
Oakes and Gahlin: “Like Hathor, Isis was a mother goddess and was identified more specifically as the mother of Horus, and thus of the king. The image of her suckling Horus (especially found in the form of numerous bronze figurines dating to the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods) is reminiscent of the Christian mother-and-child icon” (p. 286).
Shaw and Nicholson: “She is best known mythologically as the devoted wife of Osiris, whose body she sought after his murder by Seth. She is said to have made the first mummy from the dismembered limbs of Osiris, using her wings to breathe life into him and magically conceiving her son Horus in the process…In reference to this role, she is often depicted in the form of a woman with long elegant wings, often embracing the pharaoh or, in private funerary scenes, the deceased. According to the myths, Osiris became ruler of the underworld, while Isis gave birth to her son at Khemmis in the Delta. Numerous bronzes and reliefs show her suckling Horus in the form of the young king seated in her lap” (p. 142).
Oakes and Gahlin: “Seth was Osiris’ ‘wicked’ brother and, as such, was a member of the Heliopolitan family of god and goddesses. He was associated with chaos, infertility and the desert, but in certain geographical areas (such as the north-eastern Delta) and at certain times in Egyptian history, he was highly honored. There were kings of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, for example, whose names derived from his, such as Sety and Sethnakhte. His worship recognized that chaos had to be acknowledged before order could be seen to exist, and though the desert was an arid and dangerous place it was also of enormous value to the Egyptians (particularly for its natural resources such as gold, amethyst, and turquoise). The god had an important cult center at Naqada in Upper Egypt. Tradition maintained this had been the place of his violent birth from the sky goddess Nut” (p. 294).
Wilkinson: Seth seems to have originally been a desert deity who early came to represent the forces of disturbance and confusion in the world. He is attested from the earliest periods and survived until late in the dynastic age, but the history of the god appears as tumultuous as his character. An ivory artifact carved in his distinctive form is known from the Naqada I Period, and the god appears on standards carved on the macehead of the Protodynastic ruler Scorpion, indicating that he was certainly well established by this time. In the Second Dynasty the figure of Seth appears on the serekh of Peribsen and together with Horus on the serekh of Khasekhemwy, indicating an equality at this time with the great falcon god. Yet after this the god seems to have lost some prominence, though in the Old Kingdom his importance is seen in his many appearances in the Pyramid Texts. By the Middle Kingdom Seth was assimilated into solar theology as the god who stood in the bow of the sun god’s barque to repel the cosmic serpent Apophis, and was already incorporated into the Heliopolitan Ennead as the son of the sky goddess Nut and broth of Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys” (p. 197).
Shaw and Nicholson: “God of chaos and confusion, who was generally depicted with a human body but with the head of a mysterious animal often described as ‘Typhonian’ (because of his later identification with the Greek god Typhon). With its long nose and squared ears, the ;Seth animal’ has sometimes been compared with an anteater, but was probably a completely mythological beast. The full animal form of the god was depicted with an erect forked tail and a canine body, but he was also occasionally represented in the guise of other abhorred animals, such as the hippopotamus, pig and donkey” (p. 264).
Wilkinson: “Nephthys was a funerary goddess who usually played a subordinate role to her sister Isis. She appears only in the myths of Heliopolis and nothing is known about her before her appearance there. The goddess’ Egyptian name, nebet-hut, means ‘mistress of the mansion’ but gives us no real clue to her original identity. As the daughter of Geb and Nut, she was one of the four deities at the core of the Osiris myth, characterized as the nominal partner of the god Seth just as Isis was the wife of Osiris. According to one late story Nephthys also had a sexual liaison with Osiris resulting in the birth of her son Anubis. Her role in the Osiris myth is always supportive of Isis and Osiris and the goddess does not seem to ever take her husband’s side in any mythical struggles. When Osiris is murdered, Nephthys mourns greatly and joins her sister in searching for the god and reassembling and guarding him when he is found. In the Pyramid Texts the goddess appears alongside Isis many times, usually with assertions that the two sisters assist, protect and support Osiris. Their roles were naturally applied to the king who is said to be ‘reassembled’ by them as well as being ‘conceived’ and ‘nursed’ by the two goddesses, along with various other metaphors stressing their part in the king’s resurrection or afterlife rebirth” (pp. 159-60).
Oakes and Gahlin: “She appears to have been an aid to her better-known sister Isis. Like her, Nephthys was usually depicted in human form, but could also be represented as a kite. Her name means ‘Lady of the Mansion’, and her headdress consisted of the hieroglyphs for this epithet (a basket on top of the enclosure wall of a grand house)…Nephthys was associated with the head of the deceased or the coffin (in collaboration with Isis at the foot)” (p. 289).
Shaw and Nicholson: “She was represented alongside Isis, and the two could both take the form of kites at either end of the bier of the deceased. She was a protector of the dead, and on New Kingdom royal sarcophagi was depicted on the external northern wall (next to the head of the deceased), while Isis was portrayed at the southern end, by the feet. Although Nephthys continued to be associated with the head of the coffin throughout the Pharaonic period, there are a few private coffins on which she and Isis were both portrayed as the ‘head’. The two goddesses often appeared in judgment scenes illustrating copies of the Book of the Dead” (pp. 201-2).
The Extended Family Beyond the Heliopolitan Ennead
Horus, Begotten of Osiris and Isis
Wilkinson: “Horus was one of the earliest of Egyptian deities. His name is attested from the beginning of the Dynastic Period and it is probable that early falcon deities such as that shown restraining the ‘marsh dwellers’ on the Narmer Palette represent this same god. The Turin Canon, which provides some of our most important information on Egypt’s earliest history, specifically describes the predynastic rulers of Egypt as ‘Followers of Horus’. But Horus appears in many forms and his mythology is one of the most extensive of all Egypt’s deities…
“Horus was directly linked with the kingship of Egypt in both his falconiform aspect and as son of Isis. From the earliest dynastic period the king’s name was written in the rectangular device known as the serekh which depicted the Horus falcon perched on a stylized palace enclosure and which seems to indicate the king as mediator between the heavenly and earthly realms, if not the god manifest within the palace as the king himself. To this ‘Horus name’ of the monarch other titles were later added, including the ‘Golden Horus’ name…As the son of Isis and Osiris Horus was also the mythical heir to the kingship of Egypt, and many stories surrounding his struggle to gain and hold the kingship from the usurper Seth detail this aspect of the god’s role” (pp. 200-1).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The king of Egypt was closely identified with Horus from the beginning of Dynastic history. The god was represented as a falcon, or with the head of a falcon, and one of his most ubiquitous symbols was the ‘Eye of Horus’ (the udjat- or wadjat-eye). In one version of the myth of The Contendings of Horus and Seth, Horus had both his eyes gouged out. In other versions he lost (and then regained) only his left eye. As the weaker of the two, it came to be associated with the moon while the right eye was associated with the sun. Because in both instances his eyesight was eventually cured, his eye came to symbolize healing. It was used as a protective amulet, symbolizing strength and perfection, and also represented the waxing and waning moon” (p. 285).
Shaw and Nicholson: “The mythology of the Osirian Horus (rather than any of the other aspects of Horus) was principally concerned with his struggles to avenge the murder of his father Osiris and to claim his rightful inheritance, the throne of Egypt, by defeating the evil god Seth. The latest narratives of the myth tend to combine several different traditions. In the first version, Seth was Horus’ uncle, whereas in the second version he was his brother. There are also differing accounts of their struggles, or ‘contendings’, which were associated with the myth of Horus even before the contendings became linked with the Osiris myth…It is possible that these mythological contendings..may reflect a distant memory of the struggles of the ‘two lands’ before unification…” (p. 133).
Anubis, Begotten of Osiris and Nephthys
Wilkinson: “Before the rise of Osiris, Anubis was the most important Egyptian funerary god. Originally he seems to have been primarily concerned with the burial and afterlife of the king, though eventually this role was extended to incorporate all of the dead. One Egyptian text derives the name of Anubis from a verb meaning ‘putrefy’, and his name was also linked to a word for ‘king’s son’, perhaps in relation to Osiris, but these are probably later, contrived etymologies, and the original meaning of the name is unsure…During the Old Kingdom the prayers carved on funerary stelae and on the walls of the mastaba tombs were addressed directly to him, and in the Pyramid Texts he is mentioned dozens of times in connection with the king’s burial. Eventually the cult of Anubis was assimilated to that of Osiris who was said to be the father of Anubis who was in turn said to have wrapped the body of the underworld god, thus tying his role in mummification to the worship of Osiris” (p. 187).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The god of embalming and cemeteries, Anubis was an ancient deity to whom prayers for the survival of the deceased in the Afterlife were addressed during the early Old Kingdom before Osiris rose to prominence as the god of the dead. Anubis continued to assist in the judgement of the dead and accompanied the deceased to the throne of Osiris for the ritual of the Weighing of the Heart. He was also the patron of embalmers. Anubis had several epithets including ‘foremost of the westerners (i.e. the dead buried on the west bank of the Nile); ‘he who is upon his mountain’ (i.e. the desert cliffs overlooking the cemeteries); ‘Lord of the Sacred Land’ (i.e. the desert in which the burials were located); ‘the one presiding over the god’s pavilion’ (i.e. the place where embalming took place, or the burial chamber); and ‘he who is in the place of embalming’” (p. 281).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Canine god of the dead, closely associated with embalming and mummification. He is usually represented in the form of a seated black dog or man with a dog’s head, but it is not clear if the dog in question—often identified by the Egyptian word sab—was a jackal. The connection between jackals and the god of mummification probably derived from the desire to ward off the possibility of corpses being dismembered and consumed by such dogs. The black coloring of Anubis, however, is not characteristic of jackals; it relates instead to the color of putrefying corpses and the fertile black soil of the Nile valley (which was closely associated with the concept of rebirth)” (p. 34).
Hathor, Consort (and sometimes Mother) of Horus
Wilkinson: “One of Egypt’s greatest goddesses, Hathor may possibly have originated in predynastic or early dynastic times, though most of the evidence for her dates to later periods. While she appears infrequently in the Pyramid Texts, she is of great importance in the Coffin Texts and later religious literature and is eventually found in so many contexts that only the most important can be considered here.
“Mother or wife of Horus: The name Hathor was written as a composite hieroglyph showing a falcon within the hieroglyphic sign representing a walled building or courtyard and literally means ‘the house of Horus’, relating to the goddess’ mythological role as mother of the ancient falcon god. Though this may not have been her original name, it clearly became one of the most important aspects of her identity and it is as the mother of the god or as his consort that Hathor was worshiped in her main cult center at Dendera and elsewhere. Hathor was also protective and healing in this role, with her healing aspect probably a result of the myth in which the goddess restored the sight of Horus after his eye had been injured by Seth” (pp. 139-40).
Oakes and Gahlin: “A mother goddess, Hathor was associated with love, fertility, sexuality, music, dance and alcohol. She was sometimes represented entirely anthropomorphically, in the form of a cow, or as a woman with cow’s ears. When in human form her headdress could be one of cow’s horns with a solar disk, or a falcon on a perch. She was also a sky goddess, and was regarded as a vast cow who straddled the heavens, with her four legs marking the four cardinal points…
“Like Isis, Hathor was considered to be the mother of the falcon deity Horus, and thus of the king (who was closely identified with Horus…From the Old Kingdom Hathor’s chief cult center was at Dendera. Her festivities appear to have been suitably debauched. An emblem of her cult was the sistrum, which would have been shaken as part of the ritual proceedings” (283-4).
Shaw and Nicholson: “In her funerary aspect, most notably at western Thebes, she was known as ‘lady of the West’ or ‘lady of the Western mountain.’ Each evening she was considered to receive the setting sun, which she then protected until morning. The dying therefore desired to be ‘in the following of Hathor’ so that they would enjoy similar protection in the netherworld. Hathor was also one of the deities who was thought to be able to determine the destinies of newborn children” (p. 119).
Neith who was Consort to Seth
Oakes and Gahlin: A particular ancient goddess whose main cult center was Sais in the Delta, Neith rose to particular prominence during the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, when Sais was the home of the ruling family and the capital of Egypt. Her emblem was a shield with crossed arrows, emphasizing her association with warfare. This symbol has been found on objects dating all the way back to the First Dynasty. She is usually depicted wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Neith formed a triad with her consort Seth and their child Sobek, the crocodile god. As a mother goddess she was given the epithet ‘Great Cow’. She was also considered a creation goddess and as such was equated with the primordial waters of chaos, Nun” (p. 289).
Wilkinson: “While [the warrior goddess] aspect of her personality was probably overstated in some older studies of Egypt’s deities, it is undeniable that Neith was associated with weaponry—either in a context of hunting or warfare or possibly both—from very early times. Her earliest emblems consisted of crossed arrows and bows and she was called ‘mistress of the bow’ and ‘ruler of arrows’. Early Egyptian theophoric names such as ‘Neith fights’ and ‘Neith is victorious’ underscore this bellicose aspect of the god’s character, from the Old Kingdom times Neith could appear as one of the manifestations of the fierce ‘Eye of Re’. In the Ramessid story known as the ‘Contendings of Horus and Seth’, Neith is a wise counselor to whom Re himself appeals for help, though her aggressive nature is seen in her threat that she will grow angry and make the sky fall to the earth if her advice is not followed” (p. 157).
Shaw and Nicholson: “She was usually shown wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, the region with which she was most closely associated. By the time of the Old Kingdom, however, she had also come to be regarded as the consort of the god Seth and the mother of the crocodile god Sobek. This association with crocodiles may have stemmed from her connections with the Delta region. The maternal aspect of her cult led to a link with the sky, under the epithet ‘Great Cow’, thus leading to confusion with the sky goddesses Nut and Hathor” (p. 200).
Sobek, begotten of Seth and Neith
Wilkinson: “Sobek was venerated from at least Old Kingdom times, and while the name of the god simply means ‘crocodile’, he was regarded as a powerful deity with several important associations. In the Pyramid Texts he is said to be the son of Neith and called the ‘raging one’ who ‘takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes according to his desire’ but who also makes green the herbage of the fields and river banks (PT 507-10)—tying him to both procreative and vegetative fertility. He was, quite naturally, a god of water (it was said the Nile issued from his sweat) and of areas such as marshes and riverbanks, wherever crocodiles were commonly found. Sobek was also said to be ‘Lord of Bakhu’, the mythological mountain of the horizon where it was asserted he had a temple made of carnelian. He was linked with the cults of certain other gods, such as Amun, Osiris, and especially that of the sun-god in the form of Sobek-Re. This association with the sun god led to his being identified by the Greeks with their own god Helios. Sobek was also associated with the Egyptian king and could act as a symbol of pharaonic potency and might” (pp. 218-9).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The crocodile god could be represented either as the reptile itself or as a man with the head of a crocodile. Sobek was worshipped in the Faiyum and at the temple of Kom Ombo. Sobek was associated with the might of the pharaoh, and in the form of Sobek-Re he was worshipped as a manifestation of the Solar deity” (p. 295).
Shaw and Nicholson: “During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties the cult of Sobek was given particular prominence, as the names of such rulers as Sobekhotep and Sobekneferu indicate. From the Middle Kingdom onward like many other deities, he gradually became assimilated into the cult of the pre-eminent ‘state’ god Amun, and in the form of Sobek-Re was worshipped as another omnipotent manifestation of the sun-god. By the Ptolemaic Period his association with the sun-god was sufficiently close that he was identified with the Greek god Helios” (p. 273).
The Memphite Triad
From Ancient Egypt by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin
“Ptah was the self-engendered creator god who was referred to as the ‘father of the gods from whom all life emerged’. He brought the universe into being by conceiving all aspects of it in his heart, then speaking his thoughts out loud. First he created the other deities, and then towns and shrines in which to house them. He provided wood, clay and stone statues to act as bodies for the spirits or divine power (ka) of the deities, and offerings to be made to them forever. All things, including all people and and animals, were brought into being by Ptah declaring their names” (p. 300).
Wilkinson: “Ptah appears to be one of the oldest of Egypt’s gods and is attested representationally from the First Dynasty onward. Nevertheless, the great god of Memphis was [perhaps originally only a locally important deity whose influence developed and spread slowly over time. Even in the Pyramid Texts Ptah is mentioned only indirectly a very few times, though it is difficult to ascertain if this is due to an early relative lack of importance, a lack of function in the mortuary sphere, or the desire on the part of the Heliopolitan theologians to minimize the position of the Memphite deity. Mythologically the consort of Ptah was the lion-goddess Sekhmet, and her son Nefertem completed the major divine triad of the Memphite region” (pp. 123-4).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Although he was clearly already regarded as a creator deity as early as the Old Kingdom, the references to him in the Pyramid Texts are minimal. It has been suggested that this virtual omission from the royal funerary cult may have resulted from the reluctance of the Old Kingdom priesthood of Re at Heliopolis to allow a Memphite deity to rival the sun-god. Ptah was, however, credited with devising the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, and it was perhaps in a similar spirit of theological rivalry that the priests of Ptah themselves devised a creation myth (the Memphite Theology) in which Ptah gave birth to Re and his Ennead.
“During the Old Kingdom the cult of Ptah gradually impinged on that of another Memphite deity, the hawk-god Sokar, resulting in the emergence of a funerary deity known as Ptah-Sokar. By the Late Period this combined deity had also taken on the attributes of Osiris, the god of the dead, resulting in the appearance of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. Wooden images of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris were regularly included among the funerary equipment of private individuals during the Late Period, usually taking the form of a standing mummiform human-headed figure…sometimes with miniature falcons on the base” (p. 230).
Oakes and Gahlin: “At a later stage, Imhotep, the deified architect of Djoser’s Step Pyramid, was regarded as a son of Ptah. As chief creator god, Ptah was regarded as the patron deity of craftsmen, and so was an important figure at Deir el-Medina, the village of craftsmen who were responsible for the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. At Memphis the High Priest of his cult held the title ‘Great Over-seer of Craftsmen (wer kherep hemw).
“Ptah was represented in human, semi-mummified form, wearing a skullcap and holding a staff which combined the was-scepter of power, the djed-pillar of stability and the ankh-sign for life. From the Middle Kingdom onwards he was depicted with a straight beard” (p. 292).
Sekhmet, Consort of Ptah and Daughter of Re
Wilkinson: “Sekhmet was the most important of Egypt’s leonine deities. As with many Egyptian goddesses, she had two distinct aspects to her personality—on the one hand a dangerous and destructive aspect, and on the other a protective and healing aspect. Her name means ‘powerful’ or ‘the female powerful one’ and well suits the nature of the goddess as expressed in destructiveness, though it had equal implications for her other aspects. From early times Sekhmet was regarded as the daughter of Re and she became one of the most important manifestations of the ‘Eye’ of the sun god. In the version of the ‘Eye’ myth applying to Sekhmet (and also to Hathor), when Re became old and his human subjects began to plot against him he sent the fearsome goddess to punish them—leading to the near destruction of all humanity. Because Sekhmet was said to breath fire against her enemies she was adopted by many Egyptian kings as a military patroness and symbol of their own power in battle, and bore martial titles such as ‘smiter of the Nubians’. Even the hot desert winds were said to be the ‘breath of Sekhmet’…The goddess also had the power to ward off pestilence and she could function as a healing deity, even being called ‘Sekhmet, mistress of life’” (p. 181).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The goddess Sekhmet was the ferocious aspect of female divinity, whether of Hathor, Bastet or the mother goddess Mut whose temple at Karnak was filled with statues of Sekhmet…It is thought there was one for each day of the year. She was associated with war and battle, and helped the king to vanquish his enemies. Her name literally means ‘the Powerful One’, and she was visualized, appropriately, as a lioness, or at least as a woman with the head of a lioness. She wore a sun disk identifying her as the daughter of Re” (p. 294).
Nefertem, begotten of Ptah and Sekhmet
Wilkinson: “Nefertem is often thought of as being the god of perfumes, but this association is a secondary one and he was primarily the youthful god of the lotus blossom which rose from the primordial waters according to Egyptian myth. Nefertem was thus not only associated with the blue lotus (Nymphaea cerulean) but also with the sun-god who emerged from it, and his association with Re is common. In the Pyramid Texts he is called ‘the lotus blossom which is before the nose of Re’ (PT 266), showing that his association with perfume was an early and natural one. In later times Nefertem was also associated with Horus the son of Re and the two deities were sometimes merged. At Memphis, Nefertem came to be grouped with the pre-eminent god Ptah and his consort Sekhmet in a particularly important triad in which he was commonly viewed as their child. Other Egyptian cities also claimed Nefertem, however. At Buto he was the son of the cobra goddess Wadjet and he was also sometimes viewed as the son of the feline goddess Bastet” (p. 133).
Oakes and Gahlin: “This deity was associated with the lotus blossom and was represented in male human form with the blue lotus on his head. His headdress also sometimes incorporated two plumes and two necklace counterpoises.
“The Creation Myth of Hermopolis Magna states that the sun rose from the primeval lotus flower, and Nefertem was closely linked with the sun-god…His universal importance is expressed in his title ‘Protector of the Two Lands’ (khener tawy), referring to Upper and Lower Egypt” (pp. 288-9).
The Theban Triad
Wilkinson: “One of the most important gods of ancient Egypt, Amun is first mentioned, along with his [original] consort Amaunet, in the Pyramid Texts (PT 446). He appears as a local god of the Theban region from at least the Eleventh Dynasty when four rulers took the name Amenemhet or ‘Amun is pre-eminent’. Within a century and a half Amun gradually displaced the old god of that region, Montu, and the ascendency of the Theban kings in Middle and New Kingdom times eventually propelled him (as the combined Amun-Re) to the position of supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. He was associated with two other deities who together made up the local divine triad of Thebes: his consort, the goddess Mut—who largely replaced Amaunet in this role—and the lunar god Khonsu who was worshipped as their son. His character developed over the millennia into that of a rich and varied personality. The Egyptians themselves called him Amun asha renu or ‘Amun rich in names’…” (p. 92).
Oakes and Gahlin: “By the New Kingdom Amun had achieved the position of head of the state pantheon. His national significance was due to the emergence of local Theban rulers who were successful in reuniting and ruling the whole of Egypt after a period of disruption. An early Twelfth Dynasty inscription in the Jubilee Chapel of King Senusret I at Karnak describes Amun as ‘king of the gods’. His pre-eminence also had much to do with his amalgamation with Re, the ancient sun-god of Heliopolis, to create the deity Amun-Re. He was also combined with the fertility god Min, to form the god Amun-Min, or Amun Kamutef (‘Bull of his Mother’)” (p. 280).
Shaw and Nicholson: “His name means ‘the hidden one’ (although it may also be connected with the ancient Libyan word for water, aman) and he was usually represented as a human figure wearing a double-plumed crown, sometimes with a ram’s head. It is implied, through such epithets as ‘mysterious of form’, that Amun’s true identity and appearance could never be revealed. As well as being part of a divine triad at Thebes, he was also Amun Kamatef [sic], a member of the Ogdoad, a group of eight primeval deities who were worshipped in the region of Hermopolis Magna. Amun Kamatef (meaning ‘he who has completed his moment’) was a creator-god able to resurrect himself by taking the form of a snake shedding his skin. Another aspect of Amun was an ithyphallic form, closely related to the fertility god Min and described as Amun Kamutef (literally ‘bull of his mother’)” (pp. 31-2).
Wilkinson: “Mut was the great mother and queen of the gods who ruled in Thebes. Her origins are somewhat uncertain and while she is not known in textual or representational sources before the end of the Middle Kingdom, she may have been established in the Theban region or elsewhere at an earlier date. Some Egyptologists believe that Mut was virtually ‘invented’ as a wife for Amun while others feel that she was more likely a minor or little known deity who rose to prominence alongside the god. At some point, however, Mut displaced Amaunet, the original consort of Amun, to become the god’s chief wife and the adopted mother of Khonsu in the great Theban triad. The goddess’s name, which was written with the hieroglyphic depiction of the griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus), may possibly represent her earliest form, but this is doubtful as the word mut and the vulture used to write it mean ‘mother’ and this deity was regarded both generally as a mother goddess and as the mother of the king in particular. She was also identified with the Egyptian queen, and in the New Kingdom queens usually wore the headdress made in the form of the vulture which were also symbolic of divine motherhood.
“…Unlike most of Egypt’s other major goddesses Mut played relatively little part in funerary beliefs, and her mythological sphere of influence was mainly centered on the world of the living. Nevertheless, she is described in some versions of Chapter 164 of the Book of the Dead as a goddess who delivers souls and bodies from ‘the abode of the demons which are in the evil chamber’, showing her power could also extend to the netherworld” (153-4).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Vulture goddess who usurped the role of Amaunet in the Theban triad as consort of Amun and mother of Khonsu. She was usually depicted as a woman wearing a long brightly colored (sometimes feather-patterned) dress and a vulture headdress surmounted by the ‘white crown’ or ‘double crown’. She usually also held a long papyrus scepter symbolizing Upper Egypt. Like Isis and Hathor she essentially played the role of divine mother to the reigning king; therefore many amulets representing Mut show her as a seated woman suckling a child, often only distinguishable as Mut rather than Isis because of the presence of a crown or an inscription naming the figure…She also, however, had a more aggressive aspect as a feline goddess closely associated with Sekhmet, and many of the statues in her temple at Karnak represent her in this lioness-headed form. Sekhmet, Mut, and Tefnut were all daughters of the sun-god, or ‘Eyes of Re’ sent to terrorize the peoples of the earth” (p. 193).
Wilkinson: “The god Khonsu was a moon-god whose earliest attested character is considerably different from his later manifestation in New Kingdom Thebes where he appears as the benign son of Amun and Mut. In the Pyramid Texts he appears in the famous “Cannibal Hymn’ as a bloodthirsty deity who assists the deceased king in catching and slaying those gods that the king ‘feeds upon’ in order to absorb their strength (PT 402). Later the god appears to have been associated with childbirth, but it is in his role as an integral member of the all-powerful Theban triad that Khonsu is best known.
Oakes and Gahlin: “The son of Amun and Mut, Khonsu’s name means ‘wanderer’, which probably refers to the passage of the moon across the sky, as he was a lunar deity. In the late period, he was also considered an important god of healing. His chief cult center was Thebes” (p. 288).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Moon-god, whose name means ‘wanderer’, typically represented as a mummiform human figure (occasionally hawk-headed) holding scepter and flail and wearing the sidelock of youth with a headdress consisting of a horizontal crescent moon surmounted by a full moon. Like Thoth, he was also portrayed as a cynocephalus baboon. He appears to have originally been associated with childbirth, and in the Theban region he was considered to be the son of Amun and Mut. In the Twentieth Dynasty a temple of Khonsu was built within the precincts of the temple of Amun at Karnak. At Kom Ombo, however, he was regarded as the son of the deities Sobek and Hathor” (p. 151).
Other Major Gods of the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon
Wilkinson: “The name Bes (perhaps from the word besa, ‘to protect’) is a relatively late term used to describe what are really a number of deities and demons of Egypt, perhaps not all originally related, although all of similar form. Perhaps ten separate gods—Aha, Amam, Bes, Hayet, Ihty, Mefdjet, Menew, Segeb, Sopdu and Tetetenu—share similar, if not identical, characteristics making ‘Bes’ a complex and not always clearly understood figure. Although the developed deity came to be one of the most popular and widespread of Egyptian gods, little can be said with certainty of his beginnings. In the past different scholars have assigned him both African and Near Eastern roots, but this is unnecessary and the god is attested in Egypt—if somewhat indirectly—since Old Kingdom times. He (or related deities such as Aha: ‘fighter’) appears on scores of artifacts of Middle Kingdom date, but it is not until the New Kingdom and later that Bes figures and images become truly widespread and reflect popular acceptance of the developed deity” (p. 102).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Dwarf god with grotesque mask-like facial features and a protruding tongue. He is often shown with the ears and mane of a lion, although some scholars have suggested that he is simply wearing a lion-skin cape rather than possessing these physical characteristics. He is commonly portrayed with a plumed headdress and carrying musical instruments, knives or the sa hieroglyph representing protection…
“Despite his apparent ferocity, he was a beneficent deity, much favored as a protector of the family, and associated with sexuality and childbirth. His image is therefore found on all of the mammisi (birth-houses) associated with Late Period temples, as well as being carved on such everyday objects as cosmetic items. Along with Taweret he was one of the most popular deities represented in amulets. His image was painted on a frieze in a room of Amenhotep III’s palace at Malkata, as well as on some of the walls of the workmen’s villages at el-Amarna and Deir el-Medina, perhaps indicating rooms connected with women and childbirth” (p. 54).
Wilkinson: “Khnum was one of Egypt’s most important ram gods and was associated with the Nile and with the creation of life. Particularly linked to the first cataract, Khnum was said to control the inundation of the Nile from the caverns of that region, and as a result of this power as well as the inherent procreative power of the ram, the god was viewed as a personification of creative force. His association with the Nile and of its fertile soil perhaps contributed to his portrayal as a potter who was said to have shaped all living things upon his wheel. As a result of his creative ability and because the onomatopoeic word for ram—ba—was similar to the spiritual aspect or ba of living things Khnum was held to be the ba of Re. In a similar manner Khnum was also held to be the ba of Geb and Osiris. At Esna Khnum was associated not only with the lion goddess Menhyt, but also with the goddess Neith. Khnum’s association with the Nile made him ‘lord of the crocodiles’, probably suggesting his link to Neith who was mother of the chief crocodile god, Sobek. At Elephantine he was the head of a triad including the goddesses Satis and Anukis who were also associated with the same geographical area” (p. 194).
Oakes and Gahlin: “Khnum was an ancient deity represented as a man with the head of a ram, or in entirely ram form. The type of ram used to portray him was the earliest one to be domesticated in Egypt—the Ovis longipes—which had curly horns extending horizontally from the head. The ancient Egyptian for ‘ram’ was ba, which was also the word for a concept akin to our ‘personality’ (possibly those non-physical attributes that make any one human being unique, or perhaps the moral essence of a person’s motivation and movement). It may well then have been thanks to the Egyptian love of puns that Khnum came to be regarded as the ba of the sun-god Re, and so this deity was represented with a ram’s head while passing through the Netherworld in his solar barque. Certainly the ba of the dead appeared more mobile than their ka (‘spirit)” (p. 287).
Wilkinson: “Min was one of Egypt’s most ancient and enduring deities, functioning as the supreme god of male sexual procreativity and as a deity of the eastern desert regions throughout dynastic history. The origin of his name, Menu, is unknown and gives us no clue to his nature, though the Greek writer Plutarch claimed it meant ‘that which is seen’, doubtless based on a similarity with a form of the verb to see. That he was already worshipped in Predynastic times is seen in the early presence of his emblem and in the three apparently predynastic colossal statues of the god discovered by Petrie at Coptos in 1893 and now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Although not mentioned by name in the Pyramid Texts, Min may be the god referred to as the deity ‘who raises his arm in the east’, and a reference to the ‘procession of Min’ occurs in a Fifth Dynasty tomb at Giza, showing that his cult was already established” (p. 115).
Oakes and Gahlin: “As a god of fertility, Min was represented in semi-mummified human form, his left hand holding his erect phallus and his right arm raised. The key feature of his headdress was two tall plumes. The emblems of his cult were the lettuce and an unidentified shape which could possibly be a door-bolt, a barbed arrow, a lightning bolt or a pair of fossil shells. He was a particularly ancient deity, and was also regarded as a protector of the mining regions in the Eastern Desert” (p. 288).
Shaw and Nicholson: “By the New Kingdom, Min had effectively become the primeval creator-god manifestation of Amun. The ceremonies surrounding the coronations and jubilees of Egyptian kings therefore usually incorporated a festival of Min designed to ensure the potency of the pharaoh” (p. 187).
Wilkinson: “Seshat (literally, ‘the female scribe’) was the goddess of all forms of writing and notation, including record-keeping, accounting and census taking as well as being ‘she who is foremost in the house of books’: the patroness of temple libraries and other collections of texts. The goddess is known from as early as the Second Dynasty when she is attested assisting King Khasekhemwy in the ritual ‘stretching the cord’ ceremony, as Seshat was also the ‘mistress of builders’ and it was she who established the ground plan on the founding or expansion of every sacred structure. Beginning in the Old Kingdom Seshat is also found recording herds of different types of animals seized as booty, and from the Middle Kingdom she records the names of captives in addition to their tribute, and in New Kingdom temple scenes she records the king’s regnal years and jubilees on the leaves of the sacred ished or persea tree. Along with Nephthys, Seshat was said to restore the members of the deceased in the afterlife. The goddess was also associated with some few other deities, mainly the god Thoth, whose sister, consort or daughter she was variously said to be” (p. 166).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Goddess of writing and measurement, usually represented as a woman clad in a long panther-skin dress and wearing a headdress consisting of a band surmounted by a seven-pointed star and a bow…In the New Kingdom she became much more associated with the Sed Festival; she is therefore often depicted with the notched palm rib that traditionally represented the passing of time, and, like her male equivalent Thoth, she sometimes was shown writing the names of the king on the leaves of the persea tree” (p. 264).
Wilkinson: “The god Thoth, or Djehuty as he was called by the Egyptians, was originally a moon god who came to be associated with writing and knowledge and to preside over scribes and scholars of all types. The god appeared in two distinct manifestations, as an ibis and as a baboon, and though both were lunar related, that of the ibis was primary. His standard, or that of the ibis that later represented him, appears on slate palettes of the Predynastic Period, and Thoth was clearly already an important deity in Old Kingdom times when he is mentioned frequently in the Pyramid Texts. There, along with the sun-god Re, he is one of the ‘two companions’ which cross the sky (PT 128) and the gods are said to travel on the ‘wing’ of Thoth across the ‘winding waterway’ or ‘river’ of the heavens (PT 594-96). During the Old Kingdom Thoth was also incorporated into the prevailing solar theology along with Osiris whom he is said to protect and serve—both directly and in the person of the deceased king who became one with Osiris. Although he is called the son of Re, the legends related to Thoth repeatedly reflect this linkage with the myths of Osiris and his associated gods” (p. 215).
Oakes and Gahlin: “The god of wisdom and the scribal profession. Thoth manifested himself as a baboon, an ibis, or a man with the head of an ibis. He was frequently represented recording important proceedings, such as at the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony which was believed to take place after death. He was also closely associated with the moon, so was often depicted wearing a lunar disk and crescent on his head.
“His chief cult center was that of Hermopolis Magna in Middle Egypt, where all that remains today are two huge statues of baboons erected by the Eighteenth Dynasty king Amenhotep III. These statues are extremely impressive; they are sculpted from great blocks of quartzite, are about 4.5 m (15 ft) tall and weigh about 35 tons each” (p. 297).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Thoth was closely associate with the moon (the second ‘Eye of Re’) and was regularly shown with a headdress consisting of a disk and a crescent symbolizing the lunar phases. It is possible that the long curved beak of the ibis was identified both with the crescent moon and the reed pen. An association with the passing of time is reflected in those depictions that show him recording the kings’ names on the leaves of the persea tree. In vignettes of the ‘judgment of the dead’, regularly included in the Book of the Dead papyri in the New Kingdom, Thoth was often shown in both his anthropomorphic, ibis-headed manifestation, recording the results of the weighing of the heart of the deceased, and, less frequently, as a baboon. Sometimes, in addition, he is also shown as a baboon perched on top of the scales” (p. 289).
Wilkinson: “Taweret (Egyptian ‘the great [female] one’), along with her counterparts, is attested since Old Kingdom times. She is the most commonly encountered form of the Egyptian hippopotamus goddesses and had a number of mythological associations. Sometimes the hippopotamus goddess was equated with Isis—for example, in some of the Late Period cippi—though the connection between the two deities is not always clear. More frequently Taweret is equated with Hathor whose headdress she often shares…Because the male hippopotamus was associated with Seth in Egyptian religion, Taweret was called the ‘concubine of Seth’, who, according to Plutarch, had become one of the ‘followers of Horus’. However, Taweret was also said to be the consort of the god Bes” (p. 185).
Shaw and Nicholson: “Household deity in the form of a female hippopotamus, who was particularly associated with the protection of women in childbirth. She was usually portrayed with the arms and legs of a lion and the back and tail of a crocodile (or even a complete crocodile perched on her back) while her pendulous breasts and full belly clearly conveyed the idea of pregnancy. Her headdress comprised a low modius surmounted by two plumes, sometimes with horns and a disk, and she often held a large sa amulet (‘protection’) and sometimes and ankh symbol (‘life’)” (p. 283).
Links and Online Reading
Gemma Isis Johnson shared the link to Ancient Egypt Online’s pages on Religion in Ancient Egypt.
Géraldine Ashby provided the link to Manchester’s Short Online Courses in Egyptology where there is a course on Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Egypt.
Richie O’Neill offered this link to the Egypt Art Site’s Mythology Gallery Directory.
Gwyn Ashworth-Pratt dropped by and suggested this link: Petrie Museum Object Analysis e-Learning Resource.
Claudia Ali recommended this Dictionary of Gods, Ancient Books and Terms (in German).
A friend from the SSEA/SEEA provided this link to Foy Scalf’s useful bibliography of Egyptian creation myths.
The same friend from SSEA/SEEA suggested this online copy of Creation Stories of the Middle East by Ewa Wasilewska.
Also from the SSEA/SEEA is their Recommended Reading in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Mythology.
François Tonic provided this link to Pharon Magazine no. 12.
In the News and On the Blogs
Archaeology: “Excavations in Luxor Uncover Treasures from Djehuty’s Tomb” (Mark Lauria)
iMalqata: “Palace Paintings” (Yvonne Buskens and Anki Hagberg)
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2013. All rights reserved.
Photography by Yvonne Buskens, Heidi Kontkanen, Manuela Le Chler, Richie O’Neill and Keith Payne are copyrighted by their respective creators, all rights reserved. Said photography is used with the kind permission of the copyright holders, who retain all rights. All other photography and images are either in the public domain, or are shared in accordance with the Creative Commons license. Text from Richard Wilkinson, Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin are used in accordance with the Fair Use provision of copyright law, are copyrighted by the original producers who retain all rights, and are used here for the purpose of education and discussion, and hopefully to help the authors sell more books.